Novel Excerpt: Bleed Through
I’m extremely pleased to share Bleed Through with you. When I started writing Bleed Through, I thought it was a short story. It shares a lot of features with the shorter mysteries I write. They’re often crime fiction, not cozies or straight noir. To my surprise, Bleed Through became what’s known of as women’s fiction (but don’t let that scare you men). I finished it, then I would get ready to market it, and a tragedy would happen that made me feel like I was being exploitive. So I didn’t send the book out for the longest time. In fact, Dean is the one who told WMG Publishing about it.
I discussed my reservations with the staff at WMG Publishing, and they suggested what’s called a slow release, one that has no marketing, but lets word of mouth build about the book. If readers want it, they can find it. And since we made that decision, two more tragedies have happened. I’m a lot happier with the slow release than I was with tons of publicity and marketing on this particular work.
That said, I’m very proud of this book. It does what I wanted it to and more. I hope you all agree.
You’ll find ordering information for Bleed Through at the end of this post.
Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:
Former journalist turned journalism teacher Larissa Johanssen moved back to her hometown to escape the violence she once covered on a national stage. Until that violence strikes her high school, her students. Now, she must help her students deal with the type of coverage that drove her to the breaking point. And she must revisit parts of her past she thought long buried—and separate truth from fiction to finally begin to heal.
“A well-conceived, well-executed novel.” —The New York Times Book Review on Alien Influences
“[Rusch’s] writing style is simple but elegant, and her characterization excellent.” —Mark Morris, Beyond
“[Rusch] is one of those very few writers whose style takes me right into the story—the words and pages disappear as the characters and their story swallows me whole….Rusch has style.” —Charles de Lint
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
We tell ourselves stories in order to live…. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. —Joan Didion, The White Album
She came back to paint the school as a penance. Larissa Johanssen had been in Maui during the shooting. She’d taken that Monday—Presidents Day—off so that she could have one extra day in the sunshine before returning the haze of a Minnesota winter.
She’d flown back on Wednesday, trying to stifle tears, simultaneously wishing she had been in her classroom with her students and relieved that she had been nowhere near Manatowa High School when Leif Soderstrom—a student she’d been trying to draw out of his moody shell—had brought three assault rifles, six automated pistols, and a homemade grenade into third-period lunch, and proceeded to pick off his fellow students.
Leif had killed sixteen kids, wounded ten others, and murdered the guard at the front door—a friendly man who monitored the metal detector and x-rayed every briefcase and backpack. Leif had also killed the lunchroom supervisor, a rather austere woman with the apt name of Iris Winter, and the assistant principal, Walter Haigen.
The school had been closed for nearly a week, first while the crime scene analysts mapped Leif’s murderous path, and then while the crime scene cleaners tried to return everything to normal.
But the school board knew that normal wasn’t possible, not anymore, and they ordered a secondary clean-up—an expenditure of funds unprecedented in the school’s history. Some of the funds would go to on-site psychiatric counseling for the rest of the school year, and the rest would go toward new tables and chairs for the cafeteria, a new security system, and locks for every single classroom door.
The board also called for a completely new paint job on the interior of the building—new colors, new trim and even, in the areas coated by blood, new vinyl on the floors.
The board wanted to hire a painting firm, but at that emotional board meeting—which Larissa had missed due to a delayed flight, but saw later on Community Access Channel Five—the parents and the teachers volunteered to do that part of the job.
It makes us feel like we’re doing something, said Ronald Phelps, the algebra teacher, and Larissa could hear the guilt in his voice. She recognized it because she had felt the same guilt the entire way home.
Maybe if she had talked to Leif more, drawn him out, seen how very distressed he was, not just by his father’s death last summer, but by the way the kids teased him. Maybe she might have noticed that glimmer of insanity in his eyes, the edge that he balanced precariously on.
She, of all people, should have seen how close he was to falling off.
But she hadn’t. And not only had she failed to see the signs of Leif’s mental break, but she had been in Hawaii when it happened—ten days in the sunshine, courtesy of her flamboyant sister Nadia who wanted Larissa to stand up for her at her fifth wedding. This marriage probably wouldn’t last either, but Nadia wanted to milk her newly minted husband for every single dime. The man could afford it—he was worth more than forty million dollars thanks to some patents that had something to do with genetics.
The wedding had been a spare-no-expense event at one of Hawaii’s most exclusive resorts. Famous musicians provided music every single night. Each meal was catered, and the ever-flowing drinks were on the house.
Larissa hadn’t even spent any of her own money getting there. Nor did she spend any money while she was there. Nadia had given Larissa an allowance—which was almost half her annual salary—and told her to have fun.
Larissa had had fun, and she had brought back nine-tenths of the money, along with a new wardrobe, and presents for the friends left behind.
Presents that now seemed frivolous, just like her tan in the middle of a Minnesota winter. She looked like a woman who had been partying while the world ended, and she felt like it too.
So she’d called the principal—Helen Meiers—and volunteered to be on the painting crew. Helen, bless her, had tried to talk Larissa out of it.
You don’t want to go in there until it’s fixed. Trust me on this, Larissa.
But Larissa did, and she would. It was the least she could do in this new world, where the least seemed like nothing at all, not really, not considering the bullets she’d dodged—probably literally—since she often went to third-period lunch to talk to her more recalcitrant students.
The school looked the same, looming out of the winter fog like the place she had left only two weeks before. She had been afraid it would look different, probably because it had on television.
The flat school, built in the 1970s of red prairie brick, looked both bigger and smaller when viewed from a helicopter and filtered through a television screen. She wasn’t used to the angle—seeing the design of the school, five wings floating out of the center ring like spokes of a rimless wheel.
She had known the school was designed like that, and she often lamented it—especially at the beginning of the year when the freshman always got lost—but apparently the design had inadvertently saved lives.
The cafeteria was in the ring, along with the auditorium and the administration offices. When the shooting started, Principal Meiers had had enough presence of mind to hit the button that unlocked all of the outside doors. Students ran down the spokes, away from the ring, heading outside as quickly as possible.
Only those students trapped in third-period lunch had died. In her weaker moments, as the extent of the tragedy became known, she thought of it as Death by Computerized Schedule, because no one liked third-period lunch since it started at 10 a.m.
She used to hate it, too, because students who had third-period lunch always did poorly in their eighth-period classes. By then, lunch had been five hours previous. Students were hungry and cranky and tired, and they didn’t want to learn. They wanted to snack or gossip or sleep—and a lot of them did, which was one of the many reasons she was usually in the cafeteria during third period, making sure her eighth-period students had finished their homework and were prepared for class.
Most teachers didn’t have that dedication, but she wasn’t most teachers. Even though she was in her late forties, she had only had her teaching degree for ten years. Other teachers often said Larissa hadn’t had the idealism beaten out of her yet.
Or maybe, Larissa used to counter, she’d seen the worth of idealism during her stint in the real world, and clung to hers like a shield.
She pulled her silver Acura into the parking lot, bumping across rutted tracks near the teachers’ parking spaces. There had been snow for two days after the shooting, and no one had plowed the driveway. The tracks had come from a series of visitors and the crime scene teams.
A barren stretch of unmarked white in the student lot accentuated the emptiness. By now, even on a Saturday in February, the lot would have had dozens of cars, most owned by the athletic students or their parents and the so-called deadbeats who got called in for Saturday detention.
But this morning, there were only five other cars and one panel van. A group of teachers huddled on the sidewalk near the front door. All of them held covered Starbucks cups, and two clutched cigarettes like lifelines.
Larissa glanced at the clock in her Acura. It was 7:57 a.m. She was three minutes early, yet the looks from her fellow volunteers made her feel like she had arrived late.
She parked in her usual spot, slung her purse over her shoulder, and got out of the car. Her boots slipped on the thin layer of ice beneath the snow. The winter had been relatively mild until mid-January. The six-foot-high mounds of snow that she remembered from her Minnesota childhood hadn’t formed during a single winter since she’d returned.
As a result, she always felt like she was in a winter twilight—the beginning of the end of a season she had once professed to love.
The air was damp and cold. The fog layer held, and if she squinted, she could see ice in the fog itself. Freezing fog was rare in New York, where she’d spent the last years of her journalism career, and it was something else in Atlanta, where she had gotten her start. There, freezing fog formed ice on the roads, but not in the air. Here, the fog itself was frozen, refracting the light and making the entire world a moist, shiny gray, a color she had never seen anywhere else.
She didn’t welcome the freezing fog. It made her feel sad and terrified. She wiped a gloved hand across her face and crunched her way through the ice layer on the snow to the haphazardly shoveled sidewalk.
The other volunteers watched her come. She wasn’t very popular with her colleagues. They saw her as an anomaly. She wasn’t married, and had no children—no obligations, someone had once said with a sneer—and she dressed up every day, because she felt it was important to look her best.
Her best outclassed the other teachers—not just in quality of clothing (she had ten times the salary as a journalist that she was making as a teacher)—but in her looks. She’d learned from years on the air how to maximize her traditional Scandinavian appearance. It wasn’t unusual here for a woman in her forties to be a natural blond with high cheekbones and ice-blue eyes. But it was unusual for that woman to still be as willow-thin as she had been as a teenager, and to have soft, radiant, unlined skin.
Larissa had stopped wearing makeup, but that only served to take ten years off her already youthful face. She was good-looking, she used to be famous, and she was smart.
She could have, with only a few more years of graduate school, taught at a good university. Instead, armed with a newly minted master’s, she had applied at public high schools all over the Midwest, and finally got hired at Manatowa because Principal Meiers had written enough grants to hang onto the arts program, which included the journalism department.
When most high schools no longer had a student paper and an actual yearbook staff, Manatowa had both, as well as an intern program that allowed the best students to work with the local newspaper.
Larissa had expanded that to local broadcast media, and had been writing her own grant for funding for a larger broadcast unit before the tragedy struck.
She stopped near the group, feeling oddly naked without her own Starbucks cup. Had they all met at the Starbucks half a block away before coming here? Or did they always carry their caffeine with them at this time of the day?
She didn’t know and she didn’t ask, even though Robyn Frye stood at the outside edge of the group. Robyn was ten years younger than Larissa, just as blond but not quite as willowy after two kids. Robyn wore a new coat—white with fake fur on the wrists and around the neck—clearly a Christmas present that Larissa hadn’t yet seen.
Robyn was one of Larissa’s few good friends here at Manatowa, and as their gazes met, Larissa felt her worry that everyone had gathered without her, fade.
Alan Deela, the football coach and shop teacher, tossed his cigarette in the snow. He rubbed his meaty hands together. They were red and chapped in the cold.
Larissa knew that in most school hierarchies, she wasn’t supposed to like a man whose job was essentially anti-intellectual, but he kept the marginal kids interested and helped girls learn how to build things. She thought his teaching skills impressive, although she had never told him that.
“Who’re we waiting for?” she asked, pulling up the cloth collar of her own coat. She should have worn a cap, but she hated having anything on her head, and she thought earmuffs looked ridiculous.
“Pete Petrovich,” said Oscar Verdiecke, a too-thin man with large ears and two strips of black hair on either side of his bald head, who taught chemistry. Even though he wasn’t a smoker, his fingertips were always stained yellow. Today they were covered with thick leather gloves whose fake fur lining stuck out of a crack on the back.
Larissa moved closer to the group. The fog made the air brittle and colder than it should have been without a wind.
“Petrovich,” she repeated. “Is he new?”
“He’s a civilian,” said Darren Rivell. Darren taught social studies, and was often here on Saturdays, drilling his debate, forensic, and Model U.N. teams. He looked, as Robyn once said, like an evil German intellectual from a bad World War II film—short, with reddish blond hair, a round face, and round glasses that could have passed for pince-nez in a previous life.
Larissa would have thought painting a wall beyond him.
“He doesn’t work here?” she repeated.
“The school board wanted a real house painter to supervise us,” said Oscar.
“Great,” Larissa said and shifted from foot to foot. “Can’t we just unlock without him and go in?”
Everyone looked at her as if she were crazy, and that was when she realized none of them had been inside since the shooting. She thought she was the only one who was returning for the first time this morning.
No wonder they huddled here, clutching their hot cardboard cups of coffee and staring at the ice-filled fog. They all had their backs to the building, and even now, after she had suggested going inside, no one turned to look at it.
She was the only one who faced it. The only one who looked at the windows, tinted in the 1990s so perverts couldn’t look in, and incongruously decorated with red hearts from last week’s celebration of Valentine’s Day.
“We have to go in sometime,” she said.
“Easy for you to say,” Darren snapped. “You weren’t here.”
“Darren.” Robyn’s voice held caution, as if with just a sound she could hold them all together.
“It’s all right. I wasn’t here. I was…” Larissa groped for a word, and doubted that any word would be right. “I was lucky, I guess.”
“You guess.” Darren shook his small head and his glasses slipped to the edge of his nose. “You were lucky. No one pointed a gun at you.”
Not then, she almost said, but didn’t.
“No one pointed a gun at me,” Larissa said quietly. “I didn’t hear the screams.”
“And I never saw what he did. Just those endless loops on television.” She shook her head. “That’s why I’m here today, I guess.”
“To share our pain?” Darren asked, pushing his glasses up with the knuckle of his right hand.
“To do what I can,” she said.
The entire group looked away then except Robyn, who gave her a tentative smile. They were all here to do what they could. They all felt as impotent as Larissa did, maybe more impotent since none of them stopped Leif from shooting all those students.
This group of teachers gathered everyone in their classrooms and ran to the nearest exit. The smart move, the police and the commentators and the authorities said. But as guilt-inducing as not being there at all. Maybe more guilt-inducing since they probably ran not to save their students’ lives, but to save their own.
A battered truck turned into the student parking lot, leaving tracks in the unbroken snow. The driver went twice as fast as he should have in the lot, just like teenage drivers did.
But as the truck pulled close, Larissa realized that the man driving was no teenager. He had blond hair that needed a trim, a silvery goatee that accented his long face, and skin that had tanned so often it had darkened over the decades. He got out almost before the truck stopped.
He didn’t have a coat, just a red checked flannel shirt shiny with a lot of washings and ripped jeans that looked stone-washed but were probably as old as Robyn.
He was in his forties, like Larissa, and had probably gone to Manatowa High thirty years before. Which explained why he pulled into the student lot with such authority instead of the visitor’s lot directly in front of the circle.
Or maybe no one was using that lot anymore.
“Hey, Pete,” said Alan. “Glad you could make it.”
He leaned forward and offered Petrovich his hand, as if he had invited the man personally.
Petrovich shook it once. “I got supplies in the truck. Let’s get them inside.”
His mention of inside didn’t seem to disturb the group the way Larissa’s had. Maybe because he wasn’t part of the school community. Or maybe because, with those last two sentences, he had just taken on the role as their boss.
Five-gallon drums of paint sat under a tarp in the truck’s bed, along with brushes, standard rollers, high-tech rollers, and some equipment Larissa had never seen before. She had painted her house when she moved to Manatowa, but she had done so slowly, with a single roller and a small brush, taking her time because she found the job healing.
This didn’t look healing. This looked like work.
In the center of the truck was a machine. As Alan and Oscar removed two paint drums each and carried them to the front door, Petrovich slid some of the smaller equipment to the front of the bed and dislodged the machine.
“What’s that?” Robyn asked.
“For big areas,” he said. “It’ll slop some paint on there, and then we’ll touch up.”
“Are we finishing today?” Darren asked.
“School’s opening Monday,” Petrovich said, sounding very knowledgeable for a civilian.
Monday. Larissa had known that, but she hadn’t processed it. Monday was only two days away. In less than forty-eight hours, she would have to figure out how to conduct her classes. English would be easy enough—they had a lesson plan to follow—but on Monday, the student newspaper staff met to discuss and plan Friday’s issue.
They would have to write about the shootings.
Petrovich shoved a pile of rolling trays and paint rags at her. “You gonna be okay?” he asked softly.
“I’m just cold,” she said.
He gave her a sad little smile. “Sure,” he said, and went back to his machine.
Sure. One simple word so full of confidence and denial. Sure, you’re fine. On the surface, anyway. Everyone is fine on the surface.
She took the trays, their thin metal cold, and piled the rags on top. Then she made her way to the front door, which someone had propped open with one of the five-gallon drums.
She stepped inside and the trays slid. She wrapped her arms around them, trying to keep her balance, her wet boots sliding on the tile floor.
She had been expecting the indoor-outdoor rug that lined the path through the airlock, but the rug was gone.
Someone had removed it. Because it had been covered with blood?
She caught the trays and her footing, but her heart was beating so hard she could hardly catch her breath. She felt foolish—how silly had she looked there?—and relieved she hadn’t dropped anything all at the same time. The sound of thin metal bouncing off tile would have echoed like a gunshot in the small space.
Everyone would have been terrified.
She turned around and used her back to push open the inner door. The hallway’s familiar smell of dry heat and chalk was overlaid with the chemical odor of disinfectants, so sharp that it made her eyes water.
The hair rose on the back of her neck. She could feel the terror still trapped inside the building. It was, as her producer at CNN used to say, one of her gifts—the ability to empathize not just with what was happening, but with what had happened before she even got to the scene.
She set the trays down on the right side of the large corridor, between the glass of the entry and the wall of the principal’s office. Then she turned, and felt her breath catch.
Because the trays and rags had blocked her view, she hadn’t noticed that the large metal detector and X-ray machines were gone. In their place was a gap on the floor and a thick black rectangle twice as long as she would have expected carved into the tile.
She had read the accounts: she knew what Leif had done. He had shot the security guard before approaching the machines, and then hurried down the corridor toward the cafeteria.
But she hadn’t understood the accounts. There were no bullet holes in the glass that partitioned the airlock from the school corridor. So somehow, Leif had opened the heavy glass doors that she had just pushed with her back, and then shot the guard.
The guard had been so friendly. Larissa had never known his name. She’d read it in the accounts, but even now she couldn’t recall it. Although she could see him sitting at his station, a heavyset former cop with a jowly face and red-rimmed eyes that suggested a bit too much familiarity with his local tavern. He’d smiled at her every day when she arrived, flirted a little as he put her briefcase and purse on the X-ray machine’s belt, then apologized as he made her walk through the detector.
The set-up was just like the ones the airlines used. The school had bought it at a discount after the Columbine massacre which, despite later misleading media coverage, wasn’t the first large school shooting. It was just the first large school shooting at an upper-class white high school. The previous shootings, in Kentucky and Oregon and Mississippi, had occurred in largely blue-collar neighborhoods, which hadn’t made her former colleagues in the media as afraid as Columbine had.
If it could happen in a high school like the ones they had gone to, one of the other reporters at The New York Times had said shortly before Larissa left, then it really could happen anywhere.
In Manatowa. Where every day, Larissa had walked in, flirted with a man who was going to die at a teenager’s hand, and thought herself safe as she walked through the wide corridors filled with the smells of bubblegum, cigarettes, and teenage lust.
For the first time in any of her jobs, she had thought she was safe.
And she had been—but only because her flighty sister had invited her to this decade’s wedding at just the right time.
“It looks bigger, doesn’t it?” Robyn said from beside her. Robyn had come in the door carrying drop cloths like they were costumes for the school play.
“Why’d they take out the machines?” Larissa asked.
“They say they’re getting new ones, and they’ll install them differently.”
Something in Robyn’s voice made Larissa look at her.
“What else?” Larissa asked softly.
Robyn blinked, the skin around her eyes suddenly red with strain from fighting back tears.
“He shot it up,” she said. “You could hear it all over the school. It sounded like target practice against cans, you know? You ever done that? It sounded….”
She stopped, then shook her head and left Larissa’s side, setting the drop cloths on top of the trays. Robyn had been far from the shootings: the language arts rooms were at the end of the fifth corridor, which opened onto the only square part of the building—the music wing, the old auditorium (now the library) and the gym complex, complete with Manatowa’s pride and joy, an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
For the shootings to echo all the way down there, they had to be excessively loud.
Robyn pushed the glass door open again, then held it for Darren and Petrovich, who carried the machine in together. Actually, it looked like Petrovich did most of the lifting. Darren just held an edge of the machine as if he could keep it balanced.
They crab-walked inside and set the machine beside the black rectangle. When Darren saw where they were, he started, took five involuntary steps back, and nearly tripped on a drop cloth.
Larissa put a hand on his back to steady him. He made a small sound of alarm, almost a squeak, then flushed a dark red.
If he had been anyone else, she would have commented on how unsettling it was. But he had already decided to direct his anger at her for not being there. She didn’t want to compound it.
She slipped her hand away from him, then went out through the doors. The airlock was chilly compared with the school and the outside was downright frigid. The fog seemed even thicker than before. She could barely see the truck in all the whitish grayness.
Petrovich was still inside the school, probably dealing with the machine. Alan and Oscar were taking down the remaining drums and setting them on the sidewalk. Robyn grabbed an armload of rollers.
Larissa took a drum with both hands, then realized that she had somehow thought a five-pound drum was heavier than the five-pound weights she used in her morning workout routine. She switched the drum to her left hand, grabbed another drum with her right, and headed for the door.
She moved slowly. The icy film over the snow broke under her increased weight, and she didn’t want to slip again. She wasn’t going to make the same mistake of expecting the rug in the airlock.
Instead, she made the transition from outside to inside with amazing ease, even though her feet had gone from the relatively stable snow holes to the wet, slush-covered tile.
The janitor, Mr. Haynes, would hate the mess they had made of his school. Mr. Haynes, who used to yell at her for tracking from the courtyard outside her classroom down the hallway, had had a mild heart attack the day of the shooting.
The police had found him inside the janitor’s closet, clutching his chest and breathing rapidly. They thought he’d been shot, but he hadn’t. The fear had nearly killed him.
The school district had already received word that he wouldn’t return.
She would miss him. She had liked his fussy precision, his almost religious devotion to his impossible job.
She was about to set the drums near the drop cloths when Petrovich waved a hand at her.
“Take them to the cafeteria,” he said.
Bile rose in her throat, and she swallowed it back. She had hoped to make it through this day without going near the cafeteria. She had figured it would take her a week, maybe more, to acclimatize herself to that room again.
But he wasn’t giving her any choice—which, come to think of it, was probably better.
The drums seemed heavier now that she was inside, or maybe just because she was walking down this part of the corridor alone. Her heartbeat was so loud, she thought the others could hear it.
The very idea made her face flush.
Leif had run down this hallway with guns slung over his shoulder like Rambo. He had had even more in his backpack, along with that lethal homemade grenade. He had never used that, which was just as well. Authorities estimate that it would have taken down the entire ring.
Even more students would have died.
She stopped, set the drums down, and wiped the sweat from her forehead. A few minutes ago, she had been too cold. Now she was sweating, her heart beating rapidly. Her hands were shaking, too—and she knew it was because Petrovich had asked her to go to the cafeteria.
She remembered this feeling from reporting: this leftover angst, as if the events that had transpired here days before were still happening, as if they got repeated over and over again, like some ghostly battle in a bad horror movie.
If she closed her eyes, she could picture it: Leif—a chubby boy with a football player’s body, a boy who had never used that innate athletic ability to go out for sports, but who had, instead, slumped over and hid whenever anyone called his name. He would pretend to sleep in her eighth-period English class, but his feet would move, constantly tapping, as if he had some sort of nervous twitch.
Unlike her colleagues, she wouldn’t call on him when he pretended to sleep, and over time, he would raise his head and listen, leaning back, arms crossed, studying her through half-closed eyes.
Just before Christmas, he had even started to do the reading. He still wouldn’t complete his homework—although when she verbally quizzed him in third-period lunch, it became clear that he paid attention and understood the materials—but she had thought they were making progress.
He had seemed disappointed when she announced she would be gone for two weeks. He had asked her if she had to leave. She had thought his concern was about his schoolwork and the hassle a sub would automatically put him through. She had told him to hold on—she would be back and they could work together—but he had seemed so skeptical, so needy, that she had patted him on the shoulder and walked away.
One thing she had learned in her few short years as a teacher was to stay as detached as possible.
The kids, another teacher had told her, will always break your heart.
Larissa opened her eyes and lifted the drums. Beside her, she heard the sound of tennis shoes scuffling against tile, faint screams mixed with some confused laughter. She turned.
Petrovich was watching her from the front door. Did he know how hard this was for her? Did he feel the ghosts in this corridor or was he as detached as he seemed? Was this just a job for him or had the horrors touched him, too?
She gave him a weak smile and continued toward the cafeteria.
This part of the ring opened into a true oval. This was where the spokes of the wheel met. Between classes, this part of the ring was always full of students, some lingering near the doors and the vending machines, others (usually boys hoping to see a flash of female flesh) lurking beneath the stairs, and the rest hurrying toward their classes.
Leif had never lurked nor had he lingered. He’d hurried through the halls, often to stay away from the so-called “cool kids” who called him names and made fun of his ill-fitting clothing or his acne-scarred face. He’d always walked with his head down and his shoulders hunched forward, like a linebacker who’d unexpectedly caught the ball and was anticipating a horrible tackle that would ruin his short moment of glory.
Had he run down the hall that afternoon with his head up? Or had he hunched, head down, terrified that someone would stop him?
She shook the thoughts away, and turned toward the cafeteria doors. They were made of glass—or they had been. Two were missing, and the remaining four doors had bullet holes that spiderwebbed, blocking any view of the interior. Someone, maybe the crime scene cleaners, maybe Principal Meiers, had taped a sign to the metal frame, warning caution near the doors and promising that they would be replaced later in the week by a local glass company.
“If the school’s going to open on Monday, we can’t have that,” said a voice behind her.
Larissa started. She made herself exhale before she turned, a calming maneuver that almost worked.
Petrovich stood a few steps behind her, arms crossed, head tilted. His blond hair brushed the frayed edges of his collar. “I’ve got a buddy who can bring us some plywood. We’ll cover that broken glass.”
“You’d think the school would have thought of that already.” Oscar had come up behind him. Oscar’s coat was gone, along with his gloves, and he wore a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt that was covered with paint stains. His jeans were as stained as the shirt.
He’d come prepared to work.
“I doubt anyone is thinking that clearly,” Petrovich said. “There are a lot of holes to plug here.”
Then his gaze met Larissa’s. She wondered if she looked as appalled as she felt.
“Metaphorically speaking,” he said.
But as she forced herself to step inside the cafeteria, she realized his words really weren’t metaphorical at all. Someone had slapped spackle across the bullet holes in the walls, but there were still holes in the tile. A few were covered with chunks of wood, but someone had clearly stopped that practice. The wood chunks were more dangerous than the holes. A student could trip on a woodblock, but nothing, except maybe the smallest of high heels, could get caught in a bullet hole.
Some of the tables were piled in the center of the room, and the chairs were stacked just inside the kitchen like they often were before a dance. The dances had always been held here, and unlike the gymnasium dances of Larissa’s own high school years, this cafeteria—with the right lighting and the proper decorations—could look almost romantic.
But not anymore. She wondered if anyone would want to hold a dance here, or if the athletic department would subject their precious gymnasium floor to high heels and expensive shoes.
The room still had a faint smell of cooking food. Beneath it, though, was something else, something slightly sharp. Not the scent of blood—the crime scene cleaners had obviously done their job—but the scent of fear, perhaps, or the persistent odor of trauma.
She resisted the urge to bring her hand to her mouth. Her whole body was shaking. She wasn’t sure how she could spend all day in here, but she had to try.
They had to repair this room before Monday, so that the students didn’t have this awful feeling that she had, this feeling of lingering disaster.
Robyn was already inside, with a drop cloth spread near the far wall. Two drums of paint held down the sides of the cloth, and she was busy laying out the rollers and brushes. Her coat was piled in a corner, and she had pulled her hair into a ponytail. That, and her ripped jeans and extra-large sweatshirt, made her look years younger.
Until she stood up. The care lines around her mouth and the deep circles under her eyes added decades—decades she didn’t actually have.
“You gonna use that machine first?” she asked Petrovich.
“On the big wall.” He had come up behind Larissa again. She stepped to the side. She didn’t want anyone behind her, especially someone she had just met.
He was looking at the long wall that extended the entire length of the cafeteria. The posters and bulletin boards that usually covered it were gone. Large splotches of white showed where the spackle had covered bullet holes.
How many rounds had Leif shot in here? Guns shot so rapidly now that she had no idea how anyone had gotten away.
Behind her, more footsteps. Obviously Oscar had come in and, she supposed, Alan and Darren. Larissa turned slightly so that she could see them out of the corner of her eye.
They stood silently, reverentially, hands folded before them, that discomfort you saw most often in funerals reflected on their faces.
None of them had been in here, either. This was the first time all of them were facing the loss and carnage that had occurred in a place they had dedicated their lives to.
“Well,” Petrovich said after a moment, “I guess we all start here, then. You want to help me carry the sprayer the rest of the way, Alan?”
Alan nodded, not taking his gaze off that badly repaired wall.
Petrovich tapped him on the arm. “Let’s go, then.”
Alan straightened, as if he were steeling himself, then turned and led the way out of the cafeteria.
“The rest of you,” Petrovich said, “get the remaining equipment in here. We have a lot to do before the afternoon crew arrives.”
The afternoon crew. Larissa hadn’t been entirely clear on the concept. Apparently people were going to work around the clock until this school was ready for students first thing Monday morning.
Students and counselors and panicked parents.
How would any of them recover from this?
Maybe the Amish had been right after that horrible school shooting in their one-room schoolhouse a few years ago. They’d torn that building down. They built a whole new school.
But it was one building—a small building at that—not a state-of-the-art high school, until last week the community’s pride and joy, built with grant money and the hopes this impoverished community had for the future.
“You want to help me lay out the drop cloths?” Robyn asked.
Larissa turned back, and realized that Robyn was talking to her. Everyone else had left the room.
Larissa walked to the far wall. Back here, in the corner farthest from the doors, Iris Winter had crumpled, food spilled all around her. She’d come out to talk to Leif, hoping that she could calm him and somehow stop him from shooting.
She’d stopped him momentarily—she’d surprised him, the papers said, although Larissa wasn’t entirely sure of that—and then he’d shot her so many times that her body skidded backwards until it hit the wall.
Larissa stared at the spot. Robyn shoved a heavy canvas drop cloth in her hands.
“Don’t think about it,” Robyn said softly.
Thinking about it used to be Larissa’s job. She used to, as a reporter, reimagine a tragedy so that she could communicate it to readers or viewers or both. When she spoke the report before a camera, she had to have the right tone in her voice—a mixture of professional detachment and regret or, in this case, sorrow, feelings that she often never had.
Here, though, here she had the regret, and the sorrow, and the remnants of fear.
Larissa didn’t answer Robyn. Instead, Larissa spread the drop cloth over the clean floor. Her fingers brushed the cool tiles, and she found herself hoping that Iris hadn’t felt much more than momentary shock.
Then Larissa rose and got another drop cloth. Robyn was holding masking tape and staring at the doorframe, apparently trying to decide if it needed to be taped off.
“How do you not think about it?” Larissa asked. “It’s why we’re here.”
Robyn swallowed, but didn’t look at Larissa. Instead, Robyn tapped a fingernail against the frame. “You think I need to cover the whole door?”
Apparently that was how you didn’t think about it. You focused on something small, something unimportant. You pretended it was the most important thing in the world.
Larissa remembered that. She had once lived her entire life like that.
“If you think the spray will get into the kitchen itself, yeah, you better cover the door.”
Robyn nodded and grabbed a square plastic package. She ripped it open with a violence that surprised Larissa, and pulled out even more plastic—the clear, see-through kind—and proceeded to unfold it.
Larissa went back to the drop cloths as Oscar and Alan entered, carrying the machine—the sprayer, Petrovich had called it. Darren followed, holding the drip pans stacked to his nose.
Petrovich remained in the hall, small containers of spackle around him, as he spoke on a cell phone.
Larissa was having trouble catching her breath. She recognized the feeling. When she had flown into West Paducah, Kentucky, all those years ago and gone to Heath High with her mike and her camera crew, she had had the same response. Then she’d thought she was having a heart attack. Her producer had called 9-1-1, and an ambulance had whisked her to the ER.
She’d had a normal EKG, but the harried ER doctor had given her a sympathetic smile. It’s a panic attack. We’ve had a lot of those in the past twenty-four hours.
She repeated those words to herself now, and reminded herself to breathe. She had expected at least one panic attack here, but she had thought she would be alone. She had pictured herself in a classroom or facing a half-painted wall, sweating and struggling to catch her breath.
She hadn’t expected to be in the cafeteria, so close to the others.
Exactly where the main part of the massacre had happened.
“You okay?” Alan took the drop cloth from her hands and folded it nervously over his own arm. “You’re gray.”
“I’m fine, physically,” she said.
“We’re all fine, physically,” Darren said, that anger still in his voice. “We’re lucky.”
“Darren, don’t start,” Oscar said with a sigh.
Darren set the drip pans down. “I’ll start if I want to. Miss Celebrity Girl Reporter is here either to get a story or to assuage a guilty conscience or both. I’m trying to repair my school.”
“Don’t,” Alan said. “Don’t compare pain.”
Petrovich was still on the phone, but he had turned toward the group. He was watching the interaction.
Larissa swallowed hard. Her chest hurt and her breath still came in gasps. She bit her lower lip, knowing that real pain sometimes stopped the attacks.
“We all love this place.” Robyn had just pried the top off one of the drums and held the wooden stir stick in her left hand like a weapon.
“Paint isn’t going to fix this,” Darren said. “Celebrity Girl Reporters writing angst-filled follow-ups are only going to keep this story alive so that our kids will have to deal with it day after day. I think Larissa should leave.”
“I’m not writing anything,” Larissa managed, but her face flushed all the same. She had three messages on her voice mail from unit producers—two at CNN and one at FOX, wanting her to do an exclusive, from the point of view of a former member of the club. They hadn’t said that, but she’d heard the confusion in their voices: Why had you gone back there, was the subtext, instead of staying here where you could ruminate on it all?
“She doesn’t know what we’ve been through,” Darren was saying. “She doesn’t belong anymore. She should go and leave us alone. She has no idea what it was like here. She—”
“She knows.” Petrovich had come into the room. He folded his cell phone shut and slipped it into his pocket. “She probably knows better than all of us.”
Everyone looked at her. Her flushed deepened, and the panic attack got worse. How did he know? No one knew, not even the reporters she’d worked with. No one had any idea at all.
“Oh, yeah?” Darren asked. “Because she covered Columbine?”
“I didn’t cover Columbine,” she whispered. It was West Paducah, and it had nearly destroyed her.
“Because she went through something similar,” Petrovich said, “when she was a little girl.”
“No,” she said, sounding breathless even to her own ears. “I didn’t go through anything similar.”
It hadn’t happened to her. It had happened around her, just like this one had.
“Sure you did,” Petrovich said. “You were there. I remember staring at your face.”
The next thing she knew, she was on the tile floor, her head cushioned by a drop cloth, and Robyn’s warm hand clutching her clammy one. Alan put another folded drop cloth beneath Larissa’s feet, and Oscar paced behind him. Darren leaned against the ruined wall, arms crossed.
When Petrovich saw that her eyes were open, he crouched beside her. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Larissa shook her head, felt a slight ache at the back of her skull and raised her other hand toward it. Robyn grabbed a dry paper towel and wiped off her face.
“What happened?” Larissa asked.
“You fainted,” Robyn said.
“I’d never seen anyone do that before.” Oscar stuck his hands in his pocket.
“My wife fainted all the time when she was pregnant. You’re not pregnant, are you?” Alan asked with real concern.
“No.” Larissa felt a flush build in her cheeks again. She’d never fainted before, either. She’d come close, though, with the panic attacks and the rapid breathing, but her producers had always forced her into the van so that she could put her head between her knees and breathe.
The dizzy spells, the panic attacks, the angry lashing—so reminiscent of what Darren had been doing just this morning—had ended her on-air reporting career, and had led her to print, which should have been more satisfying, but wasn’t.
“I’m sorry,” Larissa said, trying to sit up.
Petrovich put one hand on her shoulder, forcing her back. “I’m the one who needs to apologize. I shouldn’t have brought up New Lake National.”
Larissa blinked at him. New Lake National Bank. Her father’s bank. No one had mentioned that in a very, very long time.
“It’s all right,” she said, and pushed his hand away. “Now let me up, please.”
They all studied her with concern, even Darren. Petrovich had obviously told them about the shootings. But he had been wrong. She hadn’t been there. She had walked to the bus stop that morning, her hand in her father’s, and after the bus took her away, she hadn’t seen him again.
Robyn and Petrovich braced Larissa as she got to her feet. She felt weak and exhausted, but she wasn’t going to let them know.
“You really don’t remember?” Petrovich asked softly.
Larissa’s eyes filled with tears, but she blinked them away. “We have work to do. The students are counting on us.”
He squeezed her shoulder, and then nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “Let’s get on it.”
“You sure you’re going to be fine?” Oscar asked.
“Get her some water,” Robyn said, “and let her sit awhile. Then she’ll be fine.”
Alan smiled at Robyn. “You fainted, too, during your pregnancies. I remember that. You took a spectacular dive near the stairs about ten years ago. Who was that—Mike Something, the short basketball player who wanted to play center—wasn’t he the one who caught you?”
“And kept me from breaking my nose.” Robyn smiled. Then her smile faded and she looked at Oscar. “Let Larissa alone. Fainting is embarrassing enough without getting fussed over, so long as she’s all right. You are, aren’t you?”
She asked that last question of Larissa.
Larissa nodded, felt that ache in the back of her skull, and recognized it for what it was. No high school basketball player had caught her. She had fallen and hit her head against the tile.
“Good. Get her a chair, Darren,” Robyn said.
Darren started for the kitchen.
“No,” Larissa said. “I really am fine.”
“I’m making you sit for a minute,” Robyn said. “You’re going to see if the dizziness comes back. We should probably expect things like this all week, when the students return. They’ll have trouble.”
“I’m not that delicate,” Larissa said, although she felt delicate. She had never fainted before and yet, oddly, it didn’t frighten her.
Not as much as that intent look on Petrovich’s face when he’d told her he remembered staring at her. He knew all about her. And since she’d changed her name and never mentioned the bank shootings publicly—or even privately, except to her therapists—there were only two possible ways he had known.
He stalked her, did research no one else had done, and was trying to frighten her.
Or, more likely, he had been in New Lake when the shootings occurred.
Manatowa wasn’t that far from New Lake. She’d thought of that often when she decided to accept the job here. She’d worried about the proximity, then decided that it didn’t matter.
She had vowed never to return to New Lake, and so far, she had kept that vow.
Darren brought a chair to her. The wooden seat was shiny. The crime scene cleaners had done something to it, which meant that it had had blood on it.
Larissa’s stomach turned. She forced herself to swallow hard and then sit down. She wasn’t going to complain. Nor was she going home.
She had come here to clean up her school, and goddammit, she was going to do it.
But she did remember. Her sixteen-year-old sister Nadia had bounced out the front door without eating breakfast, just so she could flag down Chip Karsters and cage a ride to school. Her brother Ric (short for the name he hated: Ulrich) poured himself a second bowl of Lucky Charms and spilled the cereal all over the counter.
Her mother had shaken her head at him while she got the dishrag from its perch on the faucet and wiped the little marshmallow bits into the palm of her hand, tossing them away in the garbage under the sink. Larissa finished her own bowl of cereal and snuck the banana that her mother had placed beside her plate back into the fruit bowl at the center of the table.
Her father had seen that as he came in from the hall, his briefcase in his hand. Instead of scolding her, he had winked, grabbed the banana himself, and stuffed it in the pocket of his suit coat.
At that moment, her mother had turned. “Ach, Conrad,” she had said, removing the banana. “Let me pack you a proper lunch.”
“I don’t have time this morning, leibschen,” he’d said, and kissed her head. “I’ve got to walk Larissa to her stop, and then get to work. We have a morning meeting.”
“You don’t eat right,” her mother had said.
“I eat well.” He’d patted his rounding stomach and kissed her on the top of her blond head.
Then he turned to Larissa. “You ready, mein Tochter?”
And even though she hadn’t finished most of her bowl, even though the precious marshmallow stars still floated on top of the sugary milk, she’d grinned at him.
“Of course, Daddy,” she’d said as she stood up. “Let’s go.”
She still didn’t know what else Ric had done that morning. She thought about it again as she painted primer along the edge of the cafeteria kitchen’s door frame, some white spatter landing on the side of her hand. She’d only put on the latex gloves that Robyn had bought for her first few swipes with the brush. The gloves were one-size fit all, but they didn’t fit her. They were hot and uncomfortable, and they reminded her too much of what she was doing.
Larissa had always liked painting. She used to say it brought out her Zen side. She could paint and not think and, at the end of it all, be calmer than she had been when she began.
Which was probably why she had volunteered for this job, instead of several others that had come up at that self-same school board meeting, the one she had missed. Painting gave her a sense of control, even now, when she was still shaking from her faint.
Behind her, Petrovich and another man were putting plywood over the spiderwebbed windows. Darren used a small brush to fuss over the thin bits of drywall between the exterior doors. Oscar had taken the spackle and was repairing the holes in the floor with it, while Alan hovered not too far from Larissa in case she fainted again.
Robyn had gone to the principal’s office with one drum of primer. The walls were better there—at least according to Petrovich—but they still needed paint. Leif had shot Vice Principal Walter Haigen as he came to the door of the office, trying to see what the noise was – the noise Leif had caused by shooting dozens of holes into the X-ray machine.
Larissa was feeling better, but still not entirely like herself. She blamed that not on the faint, but on the fact that she was in the cafeteria. But the feeling was another she recognized, from those days when she’d had a series of high-paid therapists in an attempt to save her life’s work.
Sometimes the feeling came up when they asked her an oh-so-casual question: How did Ric get to school that morning?
She remembered everything else — Nadia bouncing out the front door, yelling her trademark bye-bye-bye as the door banged behind her; her father and the wink and the spilled Lucky Charms; even the film of sugar on top of the whole milk Larissa had poured over her cereal — but not Ric, not after he had sat at the table with his second bowl. Not even in the days following, through the parade of police and social workers and benumbed, frightened grandparents, did she remember anything Ric had done.
Ric didn’t factor into her consciousness again until he clutched her so hard that she had trouble catching her breath, and said to a social worker in a voice she’d never heard before: You can’t separate us. It’s not our fault.
It’s not our fault. That was why their grandparents had insisted on the name-change.
Because it wasn’t their fault.
Grandfather had said, You’re not Muellers anymore. We’re legally changing your last name to Johanssen. That way you won’t get the questions.
Or the looks, Ric had added.
Grandfather’s gaze had skittered away, and no one else said a word. No one even protested, as if changing children’s names when they were sixteen, thirteen, and ten was a normal, everyday thing to do.
For the rest of their lives, they pretended to be normal.
Sometimes, it even worked.