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"The Hot Zone"

by Kelle Grace Gaddis

 

 

 

 

 

          Only one student has made it out of The Clinical Services Building. A petite coed that is crying so hard we can barely understand her. We learn that Professor Mann has multiple gun shot wounds. The girl tells us that three students were also shot in the head at close range. This is what we know but nobody knows why this is happening, except me.

 

          Dr. Gregory Mann, my son’s psychology professor, and I went to dinner a few times. I planned to stop seeing him because my son didn’t approve of my dating. It had felt good to have someone to talk to, to touch. We’d met the first day of the quarter in a coffee shop after I’d taken Johnny to campus.

 

          The young woman has big brown eyes and a dark blonde ponytail. The horrors she’s describing don’t feel like they belong to her. It’s as if she’s half out of her body or mind. Her eyes are beginning to droop as she says, “All of the students were shot in the face. I didn’t recognize any of them.”

 

          She does, however, recognize the shooter, “He’s in my biology class. His name is Johnny Fowler.”

 

          The man next to me realizes that the young woman has an expanding circle of blood on the back of her t-shirt. The softer red of her Houston University top has a hole in it, at its center, like a bulls-eye. The man is calling for a medic, asking her name. She tells us her name is “Jennifer.”

 

          The adrenaline that enabled her to burst out of the main entrance, her human gift of fight or flight, has left her. She begins to hyperventilate as she sinks to the ground. Her body shakes as though submerged in ice. All of us, her audience, her hopeful worshipers, realize that she’s no longer a mysterious angel of information just a woman, around twenty years of age, with a bullet in her arm.

 

          Things are accelerating. The police run left and right as they erect a barricade to keep back the crowd that’s forming. A medic that arrived moments ago takes Jennifer away. A ripple of gunshots can be heard from inside. The crowd gasps in response and blackness forms at the periphery of my vision. I wobble as the dark closes in but manage to grab ahold of a lamppost and steady myself.

 

            A stout man with a reddish beard and a Channel Four News shirt rushes past me and hands a note to the first reporter to arrive. After reading it, the blue-eyed reporter dabs his brow with a handkerchief, and addresses the camera, “The suspect, John Michael Fowler is believed to be responsible for the tragedy that is still unfolding on the Houston University campus.”

 

          I turn and begin to walk as fast as I can toward the parking lot. My sudden movement catches the eye of a policeman. He’s next to me in seconds. When he grabs my arm I turn to see myself in his mirrored glasses, blue, distorted. He says, “Come with me Mrs. Fowler.”

 

          He takes my arm and moves me inside the yellow tape. I don’t correct him but think Miss Fowler, not Mrs. Now I feel like I’m on display, separate.

 

          From my new vantage point I can see HU Hospital, where Johnny was born. It looks more like a prison than a hospital but I’m glad it’s close by. My uniformed escort asks, “Is your husband here?”

 

          I say, “He died in Afghanistan four years ago. We were divorced before that.”

 

          The policeman puts this information down on his notepad and says, “Stay close Miss Fowler.” He then walks toward the beckoning arm of another officer that’s been trying to get his attention.

 

          The sprinklers that were watering the lawn when I first arrived have stopped. I can feel my pumps sinking into the wet grass. I’m grateful that law enforcement trusts me enough to leave me alone, even though my next thought is to run back to my car.

 

          After a quick look around I know that the policeman hadn’t trusted me at all. The number of people beyond the line is growing exponentially. I couldn’t venture back across, no matter what I’m feeling. The news teams are confirming my identity. They’ve posted my picture. Word is spreading. There is nowhere for me to go.

 

          The crowd that’s forming beyond the barrier exudes a mixture of fear and outrage. I stumble backwards a few feet as the mob surges toward the building but the police hold the line. One of the lead officers threatens to clear the area. The crowd steps back on his command.

 

          One man seems interested in me. He’s standing further forward than the rest. His shoulder is nearly up to his eyes, his arm juts out from there. His finger is pointing, it’s like he’s staring down the barrel of a rifle shouting, “You! You!” I put my right hand up as though to shield myself from the sun. I pretend I don’t see him and turn to face the Clinical Services Building and wait.

 

          I regret wearing a flowered dress. It’s too bright. My mother used to say, “An average girl can’t go out in average clothes.” I didn’t want Gregory to see me in sweats. I was here to meet him, no one else. I wasn’t prepared for any this.

 

          Gregory’s text was urgent and cryptic, “Carolyn come to campus. Hurry. Police.” Of course I knew something was wrong but I didn’t think of what it might mean for me.

 

          I cross my arms and bend my knees a couple of times to get my circulation flowing. There are men and women with pit-stained shirts for as far as I can see but I’m cold, light-headed. I bend over and hold my knees until my breathing regulates.

 

          When I stand upright a different news crew is going live behind me. After supplying the same details as the last reporter, the Channel Seven man adds, “The gunman’s motive is unknown” and, “The suspects mother appears to be cooperating with the police.”

 

          This irritates me. What else would I be doing? I’ve never fired a weapon. My husband was the one that liked to shoot. I dig my painted thumbnail into my index finger until it’s nearly as red as my polish.

 

          People are holding one another, crying. Lots are talking on the phone instead of texting, it’s like 1991 except for information is moving faster. Too many people are watching me.

 

          Maybe it is my fault. I’m the one that’s always been attracted to warriors, tough guys like Johnny’s father. Except for Gregory. He is different, honest and thoughtful, dangerously so. People that are used to kindness don’t know that it can burn you like an oven coil.

 

          It hits me all at once he’s probably dead. It’s been nearly thirty minutes since Jennifer fled the building. Mascara is running down my face and my tears have dripped onto my chest, leaving black marks on my breasts. I wipe my face and now black is on my hands too.

I’d let myself hope that things would be different.

 

          Two policemen are advancing toward the main entrance of the building. The sun makes it difficult to look at. It’s made of reflective glass. Johnny must have seen them coming. The door swings wide for a few seconds. A dark shape of a man throws an object out of the front door before he quickly disappears back into the building. A sharp shooter on the lawn fires a single shot but he’s missed his chance. The explosion sounds like a clap of thunder, a storm moving across the Gulf, a grenade detonated in midair.

 

          The mob behind me is now screaming, running away from the barrier. I don’t recall falling to my knees but while I’m down I pray please stop him. My ears are ringing. The crowd is a sea of confusion. One of the officers closest to the building isn’t moving. The other is alive but writhing until a team with shields reaches him and carries him back to safety.

 

          In the middle of our last date Gregory had put on his professional cap and said, “Think of me as Professor Mann for a minute, Dr. Mann. I don’t want to alarm you but I’m worried.”

 

          “How so?” I’d asked.

 

          He said, “Have you ever considered counseling for Johnny? My face had turned red. Even though I was relieved that he could feel my son’s intensity. To me being with Johnny was like standing under the power lines, you hope that you’ll be okay but there’s a vibrating danger that can’t be ignored.

 

          I said, “Yes when he was younger I met the school counselor but Johnny wouldn’t open up to him and his father didn’t approve.”

 

          Professor Mann, Gregory, had reached out for my hand but, because talking about Johnny puts me on edge, I’d pulled back and blurted out “I did the best I could!”

 

          Earlier today, around 7am, I called Johnny. I was going to tell him that Professor Mann and I weren’t seeing each other anymore. I hadn’t talked to Gregory about it. First I wanted to see how Johnny would react, but he answered the phone too fast, after only half a ring, and said “What?” His tone threw me out of my head. I ended up asking him what he thought his major might be. He laughed and said, “Psychology” and hung-up.

 

          Johnny had wanted to join the army but I’d discouraged him. He had rolled his eyes when I said, “I don’t want to lose another man to war.” I suppose he knew I didn’t mean it. I wanted to.

 

          The fact was I didn’t want Johnny to kill anyone. I saw what combat had done to his father. I couldn’t deal with that again.

 

          My ex-husband had felt differently about war than I did. He once told me that he thought the soldiers that took the torture pictures at Abu Ghraib back in 2004 had gotten a raw deal.

 

          He had his own trophies, pictures of men and women dead and lying in the dust. Most of his pictures capture the moment just after life has given way to death. The eyes of the deceased transfixed, hopeless and afraid.

 

          I don’t think I would have had the courage to come to campus if the news had reached me before Gregory. It’s not that I don’t care. If I could do something I would. I’m Johnny’s mother. A mother hopes that her son will be a good man but it’s like he’s wired wrong. His fits of rage have always terrified me. Now this. There’s nothing I can do.

 

          When Johnny found his father’s war pictures he wasn’t repelled like me. They fascinated them. I tried to take them away but, at ten, he was too strong for me. It’s hard to explain but having a son like Johnny is like trying to contain a fire with your bare hands. And, being his mother has meant a thousand burns but I didn’t give up on him as a child, only recently when he turned nineteen. I had done my time. I thought I could ease away. It’s not like he shows me any affection. I don’t know if he can.

 

          I think I can smell blood. I cut my leg shaving before I got Gregory’s text. It’s ridiculous now but I’d been disappointed that he’d texted instead of called. I’d waited a minute to read the message. I let myself wipe away a long red line of blood that was running from my knee to the floor. The razor had lifted my skin away like a skin graph. My nylon is stuck to it now. I know it’s going to bleed again the moment I detach it.

 

          A slight wind blows a piece of hair across my eyes. I wipe my gloved hand across my face. I’m going numb in eighty-degree weather. I wonder if I’m in shock but then I think how could I be.

 

          People are whispering Johnny’s name, and the tension is getting as thick as the humidity. There is death expectation all around me like static electricity. It reminds me of Bible stories, of lions and Christians, and the nightly news. My gut is gnawing at me, reaching for my heart.

 

          I suddenly realize I’ve stood here before. There were flowers hanging in baskets, bright carnations of red and white, the university colors, enough for a dozen funerals. But that day, the day I dropped Johnny at college, was a good day. The flowers were welcoming blooms and the banners behind them said “Homecoming.” It was a celebration of new beginnings for everyone that was ready to make a new start.

 

          A couple of days before the school year began I’d packed Johnny’s things and drove him to his dormitory. The black fighting fish he’d bought had died en route. I said, “I’m sorry” but he just shrugged. When he got out of the car he’d flipped the fish out of its bowl onto the grass and smashed it with his boot, gave it’s remain a little kick. He hoisted his military pack onto his narrow shoulders and walked off. There was no goodbye hug. He’s his father’s son.

 

          Now the number of reporters on the scene practically parallels the police response. They talk in short bursts all around me. Everyone is too close. There is palpable hostility of a type I hadn’t felt directed at me since the last time Johnny’s father was home. But, even as I think this thought, I know it’s a lie. I know this feeling well. Johnny hates me just like his father did. The crowd is just an expansion of the constant.

 

          Dear God, I tried but I couldn’t win him over. Now what am I supposed to do? I actually wish his father were here.

 

          Before our divorce Johnny’s dad had reached the point where he no longer wanted to take leave. He said it took him too long to get back into the groove of the mission. He also claimed to feel guilty for leaving his buddies in the hot zone.

 

          When I asked him what it was like in Afghanistan he said, “If you haven’t been in combat you can’t understand what it’s like over there.” I could have said the same thing about living alone with Johnny.

 

          The more time we spent apart the more foreign my husband had become to me. I let him rant. He’d break glasses, lamps, pictures and chairs. He tore the old GE phone off the wall after a dozen drinks and damned me for having paid for a landline.

 

          My mother always said to give a man room, so that’s what I did. When he hit Johnny and me I didn’t stop him. I told Johnny, “Your father has been through a lot.” My allowances didn’t keep him from leaving us and now I don’t know why I wanted him to stay. Of course, Johnny blamed me.

 

          A few weeks ago Johnny asked me to quit calling him “Johnny.” He wants to be called John, like his father. At first I’d called him John Junior but Johnny said, “I don’t have anyone to be junior to.”

 

          That same man in the crowd that had yelled at me before is now shouting, “Stop this! You have to stop this!”

 

          His fury forces me back to the present. I face him and whisper, “I can’t” but there is at least thirty feet between us and he can’t hear me.

 

          He yells, “That’s the killer’s mother!”

 

          I pretend I don’t feel hundreds of eyes on me as I walk a few feet to stand in front of another police car that is parked on the lawn. On the side of the building five young men in red HU lettermen’s jackets tumble out of a window onto the grass, like spent shell casings hitting the ground. I realize one of them is shot, critically injured, thrown from the window by his friends who are still trying to save him.

 

          My mind wanders to other places that have hosted shootings. Hosted? That’s not right. My focus is coming and going, between the past and present. I desperately want to get away.

 

          Two days ago I found a plastic figure, one of Johnny’s toys, lost for thirteen years. A remnant from when my son watched his father leave for war for the first time. Johnny was so angry that he’d repeatedly kicked me in the shins. I couldn’t get away from him even though he was only six at the time. Afterward he hid his green soldiers in crevices all over the house and garden. I’ve been finding their bodies ever since.

 

          A coroner pulls into the hectic lot and the crowd moans in recognition. A man jumps out of the driver’s seat and pushes a green waste disposal container out of his way. This action reveals the empty flower baskets from homecoming week. They are stacked like caskets behind the garbage bin.

 

          Too much confusion and adrenaline has built up for the police to contain. Random screams erupt from within the crowd as they push the barricade again. This time the policeman on the megaphone is ignored and the line is breeched.

 

          The law is struggling to get the crowd back in order. So much so that many officers break from watching the building to help hold people back. The crowd has become a broken power line, flailing, struggling against itself, crackling and contorting with unpredictability.

 

          Nearly everyone is facing away when my son appears in the main entrance. He’s in body armor, standing tall, on the top stair looking down. Time feels suspended. I watch Johnny’s eyes widen as he spots me and smiles. I reflexively smile back even though his intention is clear. I know that I’ll remember this moment forever. Everyone is silent, except for the police shouting, “Put down your weapon!” Johnny begins to raise his rifle but he never gets a shot off.

 

          When my son was little he asked his dad if he had killed many people in the war. My husband, a military sniper, replied “Of course.” Johnny looked up at his hero and gleefully asked, “Every day?”

 

          My husband said, “I didn’t kill people every day but people die everyday. You can count on that.”

 

 

 

 

Kelle Grace Gaddis graduated at the top of her Creative Writing & Poetics MFA from the University of Washington in June of 2014.  She has been published by numerous literary arts journals and won the Poetry.org poetry prize in 2004.

 

In 2014, Gaddis published in Clamor Literary Journal, Dove Tales Literary Journal and in Blackmail Presses Edition 37. Her first book, Polishing A Gem On The Surface of The Sea, was published by ProQuest and is currently a finalist in Omni's Fabulist Fiction contest. Gaddis is also pleased to be a part of 4 Culture's 2014-2015 public arts project called "Poetry on Buses" in Seattle Washington.