The most horrible kinds of things change your life. That's a hard-learned lesson in the world. Happiness doesn't teach good lessons, neither does contentment or joy.
No. Pain and sorrow teach you lessons. Fear teaches you lessons. Loss teaches you lessons. I learned those the hard way, as most good lessons are taught.
It was such a normal day. That's what I keep coming back to. The total regularness of my day. With that one, huge exception.
I woke up and made a bagel with cream cheese, put some coffee in my mug, and dressed in my favorite pair of ripped jeans and a cute blouse I bought this summer. I had on some grey Nikes and I had braided my hair into two french braids. I drove myself to school like I do every day, stopping for a second cup of coffee on the way. I did my makeup in the front parking lot, spraying some of that vanilla perfume that I love.
It was a normal day. I had a geometry quiz that day and we hiked in my conditioning class. Andy Nicholas, a cute boy in my second period, gave me his phone number. I'd liked him for a while and I was so happy for the rest of my day that my friends said I was practically glowing. I skipped my fifth period to run down for a third cup of coffee with my girls. Usually, I only had two, so I was extra hyper for the rest of the day.
I got back in my car when school got out and picked up my little brother and sister from school. Calypso was in the sixth grade, and Ian was in third. My plan was to drop them off at home and then go to a party at Andy's. A mutual friend invited me, but I was just going to see Andy. I bet that my friends knew it too.
Mom texted me on the way home and asked me to stop at the grocery store really fast and grab some steaks and asparagus for dinner. She thought I was spending the night at Nicole's. I sighed because I wanted time to get ready, but I did what she wanted.
There had been so much that I wanted to do that night. I knew what dress I was going to wear, how I was going to wear my hair and do my makeup. Isn't it so weird how clearly everything is in my memory after the fact?
We pulled into the Sack and Serve parking lot and I started to get out. I told the kids to stay in the car. Something weird was ticking in the back of my mind, and I really didn't want them coming with me. But right as I was getting out, the kids got in a fight, so I dragged them out of the car and made them stand on both sides of me so that they would be separated and I could keep an eye on them.
Nothing was wrong when we walked into the store. Nothing was wrong when we walked down the Protein aisle and I let the kids help me choose some good cuts of steak. Nor was anything wrong when we walked over to the Produce and grabbed some asparagus. Something became wrong while we were looking at ice cream sandwiches, which they had dragged me towards.
At first, I thought someone's car engine had backfired. It was such a sharp noise, and so sudden, that I think I felt the store draw in a collective breath and hold it. It took me a moment to register the screams and the fact that the noise was still going.
It was gunshots.
My first instinct was to run. It sounds bad, but it was a physical response to danger. My second instinct was to protect the kids. I did. I grabbed Ian and cradled him to my chest, although I knew he was far big enough to walk, it didn't matter. I needed to protect them, and I could run farther and faster than he could, even with him in my arms. I think I grabbed Calypso's arm. I couldn't carry them both, but they were my first priority. I needed to get them away from the guns.
The gunshots were coming from the front of the store. There was only one entrance and a peek around the corner of the aisle told me exactly what I needed to know.
There were four of them. Only four. For some reason, it is still so shocking to me that four people were able to do such damage in such little time.
They had guns, big ones. The kind of automatic rifles that bad guys have in superhero movies. They had about six or seven of the nearby shoppers kneeling on the ground with their hands on their heads. There were a couple people I recognized. A parent of a friend of a friend, a community leader, an elementary-school substitute teacher. They were shouting something and it was scaring the kids. One of the people was dead. There was a gunshot wound in the back of his skull and blood spreading in a pool around his face. I didn't know him, but it didn't matter. These people were not only armed but killing people. This wasn't a joke, and it wasn't a prank.
I remember being scared, but more importantly, being frozen. I think what finally got me moving was the kids. Calypso was crying and I remembered that I had someone to protect.
I remember the guy in the middle, the leader I think, yelling at the others to split up and find everyone else. I knew I had to move, and find somewhere for the kids to hide. I sprinted away as quickly as I could, ducking back into the supply room. There was a back loading dock for the food trucks, but it was locked and shut. I saw a staircase and sprinted up it. There would be somewhere up there to hide the kids while I found help. I left my phone in the car or I would have called the police.
Halfway up the stairs, Calypso tripped and her ankle got stuck under one of the stairs. She tripped over it and screamed. I froze again. She was crying and sobbing and gasping and the gunshots were still happening. I don't think that they heard her over their guns. I'm still not sure if they were actually shooting people at that point or if they were just trying to scare them. It didn't matter. They hadn't heard Calypso scream, but she was still out in the open. If they walked through the back door, they would see her and shoot her.
I sprinted up the stairs the rest of the way and found a small supply closet with office supplies. I shoved Ian in there and told him to be absolutely quiet, and then I lept back down the stairs to my sister. I was in Cross Country for school since freshman year. I was fast and quiet.
I softly removed her foot from the step and when she cried out, I shoved my hand in her mouth. I picked her up and carried her bridal style up the stairs, to where Ian was. I scooted him over as far as I could and laid her gently beside him. She was looking up at me with her big brown eyes and I remember the fear in them. It was so plain and terrifying that it almost shocked me back into the reality of our situation.
I remember being in this opaque state of moving without thinking. It hadn't settled in quite yet, that there were people with guns in my grocery store, that they were killing people. I was moving, figuring things out, and working to save my family, and I did it all like I had done it a million times. I felt like I'd been training to do this my whole life.
I moved some boxes of paper and some empty ones so that they blocked my siblings from view if anyone opened the door. It looked exactly as it had before I had put them there, just the slightest shift in placement. I think I told them to look me in my eyes. I said that I loved them very much and that there were very dangerous people here. I told them that no matter how scary it got, or how many gunshots they heard, or whatever anyone said or did, they were not allowed to come out unless I told them they could. Unless I was there, they were to stay put and stay quiet. They said yes and I closed the door carefully.
I thought for a minute about breaking off the door handle so it would be impossible to open the door without removing it completely, but I thought that would draw too much attention. I was still scared. My heart was beating too fast and my breaths were coming too quick and my adrenaline was spiking. But I kept breathing, and I thought about my kids in the closet and my Mom's face. And I kept going.
Anyways, after I put the kids in the closet, my next step was to find a safe way to get them out of here. It's not that I was suicidal or I didn't want to live, I had just accepted the fact that my first priority was the kids. And quite possibly, the only way that they were getting out of here alive was if I didn't. It wasn't reckless, it was conclusive.
I've never been a super affectionate person, and we've never been that kind of family. The always together, lovey-dovey, mushy kind. I'm not best friends with my siblings or my mother. I know that they love me and that I love them, but we don't have to be constantly saying it in order to get the point across. Ever since Dad died, Mom hasn't been the same and the kids and I don't spend as much time together. I drive them home and I eat with them, but we don't talk about our lives, or our parents, or even simple things like our frustrations.
I made a mental note to spend more time with the kids if we all got out of this in one piece.
I was methodical, mechanical. I checked the lock on the garage door in the back and saw that there was a padlock with a code. I didn't know the code and wherever the manager was, he was in no shape to give it to me, based on the cries and screams still echoing out from the storefront. I wondered how many people were in there. How many other families, how many other Calypsos and Ians? How many mothers were in danger right now? How many kids wouldn't be getting their parents home for dinner?
I walked slowly to the door from the supply room and opened it, trying so hard to be careful. Oh, how I tried. Despite my efforts, the hinges of the door gave loud protest to my escape plan and there were no gunshots to mask my noise. I heard shouting from the front of the store.
My mind was working millions of miles an hour. I couldn't be caught here. They would search for others, and they would find my kids. They would kill them, or in the very least, hurt them, and I couldn't have that. I didn't have very long to think, and I heard heavy footsteps pounding towards me. Quickly, I spun around and turned so that my body was facing the door and my head was turned away from the footsteps. I pulled open the door halfway and then froze there as if caught in the act.
I heard the minute he spotted me. And I felt it a moment later when he pressed the cool muzzle of his gun against my temple.
"And where exactly do you think that you're going? You can't hide. We would've found you anyways." The man had a deep, raspy voice that made my skin crawl.
He wrapped his hand around my forearm and bent my arm behind my back. He didn't take his gun away from my head. I cried out with pain from his harsh treatment of my limb, and then again when he repeated the action with my other arm and held them behind my back. He shoved me forward and marched me down the aisle towards the front of the store.
When I saw the situation, all my hope dropped out of my chest and shattered on the ground. There were at least thirty, maybe forty people on the ground with hands on their heads. Some were fit and young, others were old and clearly slow. It was obvious just by looking who had fought back and who had come quietly. The older folks looked to be untouched save by their own fear, but the younger people were marred by fresh bruises and scrapes. And then there were the bodies. There had to be at least ten of them. Brains and blood and bits of skulls sprayed all over the floor. I didn't throw up, though the sight made me wish to do so. The smell suggested that some of the others hadn't been so lucky.
The one in charge looked at me appraisingly. "Where'd you find this one?" His voice was snotty and nasal. I instantly named him Weasel in my mind.
"She was trying to hide in the back room. There was no one with her and I caught her right as she was trying to get in."
Weasel smiled at me menacingly through his black ski mask. My plan had worked. They suspected nothing about the kids. I sighed in relief, and I suppose they thought it was a muffled sob because they started laughing. The one who grabbed me, who I instinctively named Bob because he just seemed like a boring guy, dropped my arms and told me to put them over my head. I did so and he kicked me once in the chest, hard enough to knock all the breath out of my lungs. I doubled over and he barked to keep my hands above my head. I did so, with some effort.
I didn't really know why he kicked me, but I suppose he didn't need a reason.
One of the two others shot some bullets into the ceiling. All sobbing ceased and we all looked at them in wide-eyed terror. Weasel started yelling for all of us to empty our pockets. No one moved.
He shot a man closer to him, an older guy I recognized from my church. The bullet went through his upper thigh and he screamed shrilly, clutching the wound. Blood flowed down his leg but they kept screaming for us to empty our pockets, so we did. I had nothing but some lint and a few dusty pennies. I keep my cash in my bra, but I wasn't about to tell them that.
The other guy, a heavy-set dude with broad shoulders, came around and ripped open people's wallets. They took credit cards and cash and then threw whatever was left in the owner's face. When he got to me, he grunted unhappily at my few possessions and kicked me in the chest again. Again, tears came to my eyes and I doubled over, but I said nothing. I would show no weakness. For the kids.
The thick man went to move on to the next unfortunate soul, but Weasel held up his hand. His eyes were still on me and I hated it. I tensed in preparation for a kick that never came.
Weasel walked up to me. He looked me up and down and then stepped forward so he was uncomfortably close.
"No one comes to the grocery store without money to buy groceries with. You've got some stored somewhere. But don't worry, sweetheart. We'll find it."
He gestured to Bob and Bob grabbed the waistline of my pants. I cringed and closed my eyes in shame and embarrassment. He struggled to pull them off, and eventually had to unbutton and unzip them instead of just pulling them off. It may have just been me, but I think he was faltering a little. Like this was embarrassing him.
He pulled them down around my ankles, and I'd never been gladder to be wearing my more conservative underwear. I didn't want to flash my thong at a bunch of people my grandparent's age. I think that I laughed a little bit then. Weasel didn't like that, so he clocked me in the mouth.
I bit my tongue and choked on my blood. However, the pain did serve a good purpose, when I gathered all the blood and saliva in the front of my mouth and spit it right into Weasel's face. He didn't like that either and backhanded me so hard that I flew backward into Bob's chest. He shoved me off of him as if my skin was suddenly red-hot and, stunned but functioning, I pulled my pants back up quickly.
Throughout the whole thing, I never cried or groveled. I think maybe that's what pissed him off the most.
Weasel narrowed his eyes at me and then he barked at the others to go check the supply room. Looking back on it, I realize that he was going off of a hunch alone, nothing else. He was watching my reaction, and that's what gave me away. The second he said that my eyes widened and my jaw tensed. He smiled in triumph. The others headed back to the supply room.
I have never been a big believer in church or God or Allah or Buddha or anything else. I've always believed that our lives are what we make of them, and there are no divine beings out there trying to help us.
That being said, I have never prayed for anything so hard in my entire life. Every diety that I knew, every god, every myth. I was praying so hard that it was like a scream in my head, a never-ending loop of hope and fear and helplessness. Don't find them, don't let them find the kids, don't let them find my kids.
They found my kids. I heard Calypso's pain from across the store. I sat upright and screamed so loudly that everyone nearby flinched. I launched myself at Weasel, fingernails aimed for his eyes when he yelled out to his comrades who had just turned the corner with Ian and a limping and bleeding Calypso.
"If this bitch touches a single hair on my head, kill everyone in this building. Including the kids. Actually, kill the kids in front of her. Rub her slimy face in their brains."
I stopped in what felt like mid-air but probably wasn't. I dropped my hands away from his slimy face and backed up. His look said that he had won, but I knew better. The second that these people and my kids were safe, I would tear that fucker open with my bare hands. I was going to paint the windows with his bloody guts.
Fuck God. I'll do it myself.
Calypso was limping on her twisted ankle and bleeding from a cut on her forehead. I could see the imprint of the butt of a gun. Those pieces of shit. Ian was okay, but he was terrified. His eyes were round as dinner plates and he was shaking in horror. I tried to send him some sort of message with my eyes that he would be okay, that everything would be fine, but he deserved better than lies. And I didn't have telepathy anyways.
Bob and the thick guy, who I'm naming Bear, threw my kids down on the ground next to me. Calypso cried out as she landed on her ankle, but Ian was still silent.
I think she started to cry, and I know that he did. I think maybe I did too.
Weasel and the tall, lanky one, Bean, ransacked the cash registers while Bob and Bear kept an eye on us. A couple of the other people started to cry as well, even some of the old couples. There was absolutely no way that they were letting me out of here alive. I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for my kids to be out here with no defense and for me to die. Those two things could no coincide. If I was dead, my kids were not safe. So I couldn't die until they were.
Where were the police? I saw a couple phones in the hands of the dead people on the floor and figured out pretty quick that calling someone wasn't an option. That's why they were killed, no doubt about it. And my kids needed me.
Weasel finished looting the cash registers and started to make his way back with a huge black duffel bag stuffed with cash. I wanted to glare at him, but I knew that wasn't an option. He had something to hold against me now, and my safety was their safety. Anything I did now would be taken out on them.
So I held my tongue and held my breath and waited for it to be over. The Sack and Serve stood alone, there were no other stores nearby. We weren't near any busy highway and besides, nothing looked wrong from the outside of the building. It would be a while before any of our family called the police. Mom would call soon, but it would be too late. They would be gone and we would be dead.
I heard Bob and Bear go over to Weasel and Bean, but not before they yelled at us that the first person to move would be killed. We were all very still. Which was the hardest possible thing to do. You don't understand what it's like, to have freedom and safety literally within grasp and not be able to get to it. Especially in a situation like that, when all you want is just to be safe and happy.
I was working overtime in my head, running through every single possible way to get my kids out. The robbers were distracted. And I could hear snippets of their conversations. They were discussing what was going to be done about us. We were all very problematic. They had the money, and yes, they'd be chased, but not as much as they would be if they killed fifty people before making their exit. That would count as a massacre, goddamn it! Bear and Bob were against killing us all.
Bean made a strong opposing argument. We had seen them. Maybe not their faces, but their body types and their mannerisms and their eyes and skin and mouth. We'd heard their voices and seen the relationship that they had as a group. There were problems upon problems with this, and if they left us alive, they were surely going to be caught.
It was Weasel's choice. The others knew it and I knew it too.
He whispered something to the others and then turned to face us, arms spread wide as if he were the Savior, and us, the receivers of his glorious word.
"Congratulations! I have decided not to kill you all!" He lowered his gun and fired three shots. They struck a younger Asian man and an elderly couple. The three slumped down instantly, dead.
"Those were warnings. I can kill you, and I will if I have to. No one will know what happened here today. As far as the police will know, some robbers came in, shot some people and left with the money. They will know nothing about us, not about our faces, our voices, or our group. You will tell them nothing, except that you were scared and that you don't remember much. If anything more than that gets out, I will find whoever told, I will kill your entire family in front of you, and then I will break every bone in your body before I kill you."
He fired another shot, and another body fell.
Everyone stood up and ran for the door. So did I, pushing the kids in front of me to get out first, and also to shield them from Weasel. We would have been the last ones out. Would have.
Bear stopped me, and Bean grabbed both of the kids, one on each arm.
"Nuh-uh, miss thing. We need some sort of collateral. Or else the police will be onto us in no time. You're staying here, and so are they."
We were so close. It was frustrating, how close we were to getting out without an issue. But we didn't.
Bear and Bean slammed us back down onto the floor amid the blood and the bodies, and I silently cursed whatever forces had me come to Sack and Serve today.
Calypso had stopped crying and was staring at Weasel with a kind of dull, subdued hatred that made me shiver. It was so raw, her hate for him. I kind of admired her for it. Ian was still staring with those big eyes. They were no longer wet, but they were puffy in the evidence of tears.
I still don't know or understand why I did it. There was no logic in it, no calm and clear rationality or reasoning. There was just a teenager with two kids that she had to keep safe, and a vendetta against the man who ruined her afternoon. At the end of the day, I think I knew that all three of us were not getting out of here alive.
"Let my kids go. I'll go with you peacefully. If you let them go. If not, I will fight you. And if you kill them, I will fight you even harder. Because then I'll have a real reason to. And even if you kill me, I'll fight you. I'll be in your every nightmare. Every waking breath will be a shadow of me. Right now I'm fighting you because I hate you and because you're endangering my kids. If you kill them, I no longer have a reason to live, nor a reason to care. Let them go."
Weasel looked at me with a look of contempt, but just under it, I think I saw something waver in his gaze. Like, just a tiny hint of humanity under all that evil. The basic human instinct in him recognized the basic maternal instinct in me, and he faltered. It was the smallest second, but I used it. I grabbed Calypso's arm and told her to wait for me in the car. In the backseat, with their heads down. And then I shoved them up. She limped but she was strong, and she still went fast. That moment of hesitation was gone the second they left, and what little human piece of him that I had recognized, disappeared.
He shot me in the shoulder. The pain was like being hit by a baseball bat, except the baseball bat is a sword too. It was fire and light and the pain blinded me for a moment. But he did not go after them. He didn't send one of the henchmen out after them. So, through the blinding haze of my pain, I think I might have smiled. I had won, even as I lost.
Once I recovered, I smiled. They really shouldn't have sent the kids out. They were the one bargaining chip that these bitches had left. And now they had nothing. Just a few guns and a very angry girl. I stood shakily, bleeding from my shoulder.
And then I started to laugh. First a chuckle, then a real laugh, the kind where your chest hurts and you start to cry. I rolled up my sleeves as I left and looked with no fear into the eyes of my enemy.
My eyes were fire and my smile was steel.
"Who's first, boys?"
They looked at me and I thought it was shock on their faces as they looked at me. Now I know better.
I think it was fear.
An hour and a half later, the police arrived on the scene. They found three survivors. A little girl and boy, hiding in the back of a silver car in the parking lot. Neither of them could speak through their fear, and they simply pointed towards the grocery store with shaking hands.
Deputy Marshall Lynch walked into the building with two of his officers to find quite the scene. There were eighteen dead bodies in total. Fourteen of them were gunshot wounds, inflicted by weapons that lay nearby.
Four of them had been torn open. Their guts and insides were sprayed across the shiny linoleum floor of the Sack and Serve, and their faces had been brutally mutilated antemortem. They were alive when she had torn their eyes out, alive when their noses were smashed into unrecognizable bits, alive when their cheeks had been carved into wide smiles.
And then there had been the girl. Bloody hands and clothes and face and hair, smiling like a maniac and laughing like one, too. She had gone insane and yet she was still just sane enough to be able to write words in blood on the floor.
The words were Weasel, Bean, Bear, and Bob.
The girl was saying things too when they picked her up to take her to the police station. Later, the cops would swear she'd been possessed. Later, when fifty people came to protest her arrest, they'd swear it was a cult.
But as she sat there, rocking back and forth in the carnage of her vengeance, she was only saying one thing.
"It was for my kids."