He’s only about fifteen yards away from us, this madman with a gun and two children standing in front of him like pawns on a chess board. The pavement is new beneath his feet and the painted lines, the pavement markers, they’re crisp and bright. There’s ten of us and only one of him and only two children. I can feel my heart beat in my throat, each pulse gagging me, punching on my uvula. I can barely hear my sergeant yelling commands like, “Drop the gun,” and, “Nobody has to get hurt,” and other things that I can’t hear over the throbbing of my pulse in my ears. A throbbing so intense that I can feel it in my feet through my sweat-soaked socks.
You train for this stuff in the academy. Disaster Preparedness Training, that’s what they call it. Better known as Hell Day. You split up into teams of four and you’re armed with fake guns that have paint bullets in them that sting like pissed off hornets. You have a bulletproof vest on and a helmet with a plastic guard to protect your face in case you get shot. And you have plastic handcuffs in a shiny, leather cuff case on your hip. The sergeants and first sergeants and the corporals and anybody else who wants to join, they’re all armed with the same plastic guns with paint bullets in them, and they pretend to be in the middle of school shootings or domestic violence calls or some madman with a gun.
You clear the rooms with your squad, one with a fake gun aimed at the front, one on each side with a fake gun, and one facing the rear armed with a fake gun, all full of pissed off hornets. You walk forward through the dark halls of the barracks, lights flashing and alarms going off and dozens of actors screaming around you. You stop at each door, each member doing their part to clear the rooms and come back to the formation. Sometimes there are people hiding behind the doors waiting to ambush you. Maybe they punch you in the head or try to take your weapon. But in the end you have to subdue them to make it back to your team.
Slowly you make your way through the building, over the fake dead bodies, the innocent bystanders running by you in hysteria screaming about the gunman. You direct them to the exit calmly. As calm as anybody can be in a dark barrack with the fire alarm going off and a dozen people screaming and yelling, shots being fired just down the hall in a room you can’t see yet.
All this while you’re heartbeat is clogging your eyes, and your hands are shaking so badly you can barely hold the gun straight. Your knees knock together as you try to walk through the chaos into the screams.
The madman, the one with the two kids in front of him like hostages, he’s waiving the gun around, a black rifle that could rip us to shreds in just a few seconds’ pull of the trigger. He’s yelling something about how the kids are spies sent to gather intel on the United States and he’s just trying to protect us. Something about how they’re cyborgs and how we’re giving them exactly what they want.
Police lights are bouncing around the houses that line the small suburban street so loudly that the little kids have to cover their eyes so they don’t hear them. The cars on the street aren’t a day older than 2019 models. Faces peer through the windows, more interested in the drama than the children. As if the drama were in danger.
Each second feels like an eternity. Sweat is built up on my brow and my upper lip and my armpits. I’m behind the open passenger door with the barrel of my Glock aimed at the madman in the middle of the street. There’s a small blue station wagon with rusted tire wells and a cracked windshield behind him, the two front doors swung open and the engine still running with exhaust clouds puffing into the cool air. The motor is scratchy, like it has a bad belt in it.
They teach you in the academy, and in the training manuals when you get sworn in, to never shoot at a person with hostages. Or at moving vehicles. In the movies and shows there’s always some hero that can shoot the bad guy in the head and rescue the hostages. The hero, he’s always shooting at moving vehicles or a bad guy because they’re always in some sort of danger. The movies and the shows, they don’t show the blood and skull fragments and brain matter that explode from the back of the head from a .45 or a rifle. It doesn’t work that way. They show you a body that isn’t breathing, but it isn’t a corpse. It isn’t the body splayed open on the coroner’s table with its soft, pink brain exposed. You can’t smell a corpse through a screen, or the thick scent of iron.
In the academy they teach you about the CSI-effect and how it makes everybody an expert in hostile situations and investigations. Those shows and movies, the ones with the heroes, they’re all action and drama and heroics. They don’t show the hours dedicated to paperwork and transcribing interviews and preparing for court hearings. Or losing sleep over screams. They don’t show how much people hate heroes.
The madman at the end of the street, he has all ten guns aimed at him now, handguns, rifles, and shotguns, and he’s saying something about how the children are robots sent from Germany to insert us with chips to track us and take over the United States. The people in the windows, they’re all watching with enthusiasm, waiting on the hero to take out the bad guy; all victims of the CSI-effect. They’re foaming at the mouth to watch a man die today, even if he is mad. People love that shit. They love death like dogs to a milk bone. And me, I’ve got my left eye closed hard, my right eye fixed down the sights of my Glock, loaded with hollow point bullets at this madman. And all I want is to be a hero.
Some neighborhoods are stained with police lights, the reds and the whites and the blues, like graffiti. Like the police are really Banksy. But this one is blank. Like a virgin to criminality. These people don’t know crime, they only know True Crime. The houses are younger than the doctors and the tech engineers and the CEOs that live in them. The wind is thick and the trees in the front yards are shivering in the wind and for a moment, the briefest moment, it’s all I can hear.
He’s white, this madman. He’s older, probably about fifty. The car probably isn’t his. And his teeth are rotted out of his filthy skull. He probably stole the rifle, too. He’s probably high on meth or some other upper, maybe bath salts. His eyes are sunk into his head and the bags under his eyes scream of sleep deprivation. Even from fifteen yards away I can see his pinpoint pupils and his glossy eyes and the way his fingers and face twitch. Probably he’s been up for a week. Probably he just got done smoking a bowl ten minutes ago. Probably he doesn’t know where he is and if he wakes up tomorrow he’ll ask himself, “What the hell did I do?”
These are things you learn in the academy. How to tell when somebody’s high. Pupil size, equal tracking, jitters, scent, paraphernalia. It all plays a part. How to relay descriptions of a person that you’ve only seen for a second. Normal people, they don’t get descriptions right. They’ll say blond hair and really it was black. They’ll say a blue hat or glasses or jeans, and really none of that will be right. They’ll say a silver Chevy truck, when really it was a blue Prius. But officers, deputies, troopers, they all have to know these things. If they don’t, they can’t testify in court, and even if it is the man that did it, even if it is the man that beat the guy to death or raped that girl, their description would be wrong and you can’t change your testimony. They don’t allow that, the judges. So they always go free. Justice isn’t what you think it is.
My arms are heavy and my index finger hovering over the trigger is light. They teach you in the academy to keep your trigger finger flush with the slide just outside of the trigger guard until you intend to shoot. And when you shoot, when you finally put your finger on the trigger and squeeze, not pull always squeeze, you shoot to kill, not injure. If you injure somebody you get sued. If you kill somebody, you’re a hero. We’re trained to be heroes.
We found out later that the children the man had in front of him, the ones we were all pointing our guns at, they were his children. A girl that was ten and a boy that was six. He was just a lost man that lost custody of them a year prior. His wife had left him and took the kids, he lost his job, and he spiraled. That’s how quick it is, really. I’ve seen it. It doesn’t take much to go mad. Really, we’re all already there, just waiting on the wrong thing to fall into place. Like a puzzle that’s missing a piece here or there.
The blue station wagon, he stole. The gun, he bought at a gun show. Madmen are all normal at some point. Paperwork proves it. This once-normal man that once loved his children and his wife, this has-been accountant, he’s waiving a gun at them and believes, truly believes, that they’re now cyborg spies from Germany sent to destroy the entire United States.
They don’t teach you to handle that in the academy.
They teach you to march, left foot then right foot then left foot and so on, your left face and right face and about face, all while singing cadence. Something like, “High ho, lock and load!” They teach you to run and to do push ups and pull ups and sit ups. They teach you to profile without profiling. How to shoot a suspect from one yard, five yards, fifteen yards, and twenty yards away. They say, “Two to the chest, one to the head!” And you follow along, focusing on your breath, your natural respiratory pause, sight picture and sight alignment, squeezing, aiming, reloading, and making sure your groupings are as small as possible in the target’s chest and head. That’s what makes you a hero. That’s the difference between life and death. Life is hero, death is a loser.
But a madman high on meth, with apparent psychiatric problems and depression, holding his children hostage, their eyes staring through you clear to the other side of the universe and paralyzed with fear, they don’t teach you what that’s like. They don’t teach you that feeling in the academy. Or what to do with it.
I’ve been here behind my open car door for about eight seconds, and the madman, he shoves his children to the ground and charges the array of police cars yelling something like, “You’re all going to die!” His kids scream, and that’s the last thing I hear before he starts to shoot his gun at us. The chain of shots, one after the other after the other, is quickly met with an explosion of fire of our own. Nothing is louder than the shrieks of his children. I’m not sure which one was the boy’s or the girl’s.
It took all of two seconds for the man to fall to the ground in a growing pool of his own blood. His jaw is hanging open, and his eyes are still wide with a bullet directly through one of them. They don’t show you dead eyes, not true dead eyes in the movies or television shows. They show you an actor. This man, the dead one, he isn’t mad anymore. Only dead.
This is usually where the movies and television shows, the ones with those bullshit heroes, this is where they usually end. The children run to the hero and hero embraces them and the party is over.
But they don’t show you the trauma the kids face down the road. Or the way you end up arresting one ten years later for some shoplifting offense, or the other one for beating on their significant other. Or worse, when you find one dead by a drug overdose or the other by suicide. Darkness ends in the movies. It only spreads in real life. There are no heroes. We’re all just letdowns waiting to die. And the people, those ones in the windows, they’re foaming at the mouth waiting to watch how we do it.