If someone had screamed something melodramatic at that precise moment, something like
But nobody said a word. They sat in utter stunned silence, looking at me attentively, as if I had just announced that I was going to tell them how they could all get passes to the Placerville Drive-In this Friday night.
I shut the classroom door, crossed the room, and sat behind the big desk. My legs weren’t so good. I was almost to the point of sit down or fall down. I had to push Mrs. Underwood’s feet out of the way to get my own feet into the kneehole. I put the pistol down on her green blotter, shut her algebra book, and put it with the others that were stacked neatly on the desk’s corner.
That was when Irma Bates broke the silence with a high, gobbling scream that sounded like a young tom turkey getting its neck wrung on the day before Thanksgiving. But it was too late; everyone had taken that endless moment to consider the facts of life and death. Nobody picked up on her scream, and she stopped, as if ashamed at screaming while school was in session, no matter how great the provocation. Somebody cleared his throat. Somebody in the back of the room said “Hum!” in a mildly judicial tone. And John “Pig Pen” Dano slithered quietly out of his seat and slumped to the floor in a dead faint.
They looked up at me from the trough of shock.
“This,” I said pleasantly, “is known as getting it on.”
Footsteps pounded down the hall, and somebody asked somebody else if something had exploded in the chemistry lab. While somebody else was saying he didn’t know, the fire alarm went off stridently. Half the kids in the class started to get up automatically.
“That’s all right,” I said. “It’s just my locker. On fire. I set it on fire, that is. Sit down.”
The ones that had started to get up sat down obediently. I looked for Sandra Cross. She was in the third row, fourth seat, and she did not seem afraid. She looked like what she was. An intensely exciting Good Girl.
Lines of students were filing out onto the grass; I could see them through the windows. The squirrel was gone, though. Squirrels make lousy innocent bystanders.
The door was snatched open, and I picked up the gun. Mr. Vance poked his head in. “Fire alarm,” he said. “Everybody… Where’s Mrs. Underwood?”
“Get out,” I said.
He stared at me. He was a very porky man, and his hair was neatly crew cut. It looked as if some landscape artist had trimmed it carefully with hedge clippers. “What? What did you say?”
“Out.” I shot at him and missed. The bullet whined off the upper edge of the door, chipping wood splinters.
“Jesus,” somebody in the front row said mildly.
Mr. Vance didn’t know what was happening. I don’t think any of them did. It all reminded me of an article I read about the last big earthquake in California. It was about a woman who was wandering from room to room while her house was being shaken to pieces all around her, yelling to her husband to please unplug the fan.
Mr. Vance decided to go back to the beginning. “There’s a fire in the building. Please-”
“Charlie’s got a gun, Mr. Vance,” Mike Gavin said in a discussing-the-weather tone. “I think you better-”
The second bullet caught him in the throat. His flesh spread liquidly like water spreads when you throw a rock in it. He walked backward into the hall, scratching at his throat, and fell over.
Irma Bates screamed again, but again she had no takers. If it had been Carol Granger, there would have been imitators galore, but who wanted to be in concert with poor old Irma Bates? She didn’t even have a boyfriend. Besides, everyone was too busy peeking at Mr. Vance, whose scratching motions were slowing down.
“Ted,” I said to Ted Jones, who sat closest to the door. “Shut that and lock it.-
“What do you think you’re doing?” Ted asked. He was looking at me with a kind of scared and scornful distaste.
“I don’t know all the details just yet,” I said. “But shut the door and lock it, okay?”
Down the hall someone was yelling: “It’s in a locker! It’s in a Vance’s had a heart attack! Get some water! Get…”
Ted Jones got up, shut the door, and locked it. He was a tall boy wearing wash-faded Levi’s and an army shirt with flap pockets. He looked very fine. I had always admired Ted, although he was never part of the circle I traveled in. He drove last year’s Mustang, which his father had given him, and didn’t get any parking tickets, either. He combed his hair in an out-of-fashion DA, and I bet his was the face that Irma Bates called up in her mind when she sneaked a cucumber out of the refrigerator in the wee hours of the night. With an all-American name like Ted Jones he couldn’t very well miss, either. His father was vice-president of the Placerville Bank and Trust.
“Now what?” Hannon Jackson asked. He sounded bewildered.
“Um.” I put the pistol down on the blotter again. “Well, somebody try and bring Pig Pen around. He’ll get his shirt dirty. Dirtier, I mean.”
Sarah Pasterne started to giggle hysterically and clapped her hand over her mouth. George Yannick, who sat close to Pig Pen, squatted down beside him and began to pat his cheeks. Pig Pen moaned, opened his eyes, rolled them, and said, “He shot Book Bags.”
There were several hysterical laughs this time. They went off around the room like popping corn. Mrs. Underwood had two plastic briefcases with tartan patterns on them, which she carried into each class. She had also been known as Two-Gun Sue.
Pig Pen settled shakily into his seat, rolled his eyes again, and began to cry.
Somebody pounded up to the door, rattled the knob, and yelled, “Hey! Hey in there!” It looked like Mr. Johnson, who had been talking about the Hessians. 1 picked up the pistol and put a bullet through the chicken-wired glass. It made a neat little hole beside Mr. Johnson’s head, and Mr. Johnson went out of sight like a crash-diving submarine. The class (with the possible exception of Ted) watched all the action with close interest, as if they had stumbled into a pretty good movie by accident.
“Somebody in there’s got a gun!” Mr. Johnson yelled. There was a faint bumping sound as he crawled away. The fire alarm buzzed hoarsely on and on.
“Now what?” Harmon Jackson asked again. He was a small boy, usually with a big cockeyed grin on his face, but now he looked helpless, all at sea.
I couldn’t think of an answer to that, so I let it pass. Outside, kids were milling restlessly around on the lawn, talking and pointing at Room 16 as the grapevine passed the word among them. After a little bit, some teachers-the men teachers-began shooing them back toward the gymnasium end of the building.
In town the fire whistle on the Municipal Building began to scream, rising and falling in hysterical cycles.
“It’s like the end of the world,” Sandra Cross said softly.
I had no answer for that, either.