CHAPTER 13

Seeing as how it was the school, the town fire department went whole hog. The fire chief came first, gunning into the big semicircular school driveway in his blue bubble-topped Ford Pinto. Behind him was a hook-and-ladder trailing firemen like battle banners. There were two pumpers behind that.

“You going to let them in?” Jack Goldman asked.

“The fire’s out there,” I said. “Not in here.”

“Did you shut ya locka door?” Sylvia Ragan asked. She was a big blond girl with great soft cardiganed breasts and gently rotting teeth.

“Yes.”

“Prolly out already, then.”

Mike Gavin looked at the scurrying firemen and snickered. “Two of ’em just ran into each other,” he said. “Holy moly.”

The two downed firemen untangled themselves, and the whole group was preparing to charge into the inferno when two suit-coated figures ran over to them. One was Mr. Johnson, the Human Submarine, and the other was Mr. Grace. They were talking hard and fast to the fire chief.

Great rolls of hose with shiny nozzles were being unreeled from the pumpers and dragged toward the front doors. The fire chief turned around and yelled, “Hold it!” They stood irresolutely on the lawn, their nozzles gripped and held out before them like comic brass phalluses.

The fire chief was still in conference with Mr. Johnson and Mr. Grace. Mr. Johnson pointed at Room 16. Thomas Denver, the Principal with the Amazing Overshaved Neck, ran over and joined the discussion. It was starting to look like a pitcher’s mound conference in the last half of the ninth.

“I want to go home!” Irma Bates said wildly.

“Blow it out,” I said.

The fire chief had started to gesture toward his knights again, and Mr. Grace shook his head angrily and put a hand on his shoulder. He turned to Denver and said something to him. Denver nodded and ran toward the main doors.

The chief was nodding reluctantly. He went back to his car, rummaged in the back seat, and came up with a really nice Radio Shack battery-powered bullhorn. I bet they had some real tussles back at the fire station about who got to use that. Today the chief was obviously pulling rank. He pointed it at the milling students.

“Please move away from the building. I repeat. Will you please move away from the building. Move up to the shoulder of the highway. Move up to the shoulder of the highway. We will have buses here to pick you up shortly. School is canceled for-”

Short, bewildered whoop.

“… for the remainder of the day. Now, please move away from the building.”

A bunch of teachers-both men and women this time-started herding them up toward the road. They were craning and babbling. I looked for Joe McKennedy but didn’t see him anywhere.

“Is it all right to do homework?” Melvin Thomas asked tremblingly. There was a general laugh. They seemed surprised to hear it.

“Go ahead.” I thought for a moment and added: “If you want to smoke, go ahead and do it.”

A couple of them grabbed for their pockets. Sylvia Ragan, doing her lady-of-the-manor bit, fished a battered pack of Camels delicately out of her purse and lit up with leisurely elegance. She blew out a plume of smoke and dropped her match on the floor. She stretched out her legs, not bothering overmuch with the nuisance of her skirt. She looked comfy.

There had to be more, though. I was getting along pretty well, but there had to be a thousand things I wasn’t thinking of. Not that it mattered.

“If you’ve got a friend you want to sit next to, go ahead and change around. But don’t try to rush at me or run out the door, please.”

A couple of kids changed next to their buddies, walking quickly and softly, but most of them just sat quiet. Melvin Thomas had opened his algebra book but couldn’t seem to concentrate on it. He was staring at me glassily.

There was a faint metallic chink! from the upper corner of the room. Somebody had just opened the intercom system.

“Hello,” Denver said. “Hello, Room 16.”

“Hello,” I said.

“Who’s that?”

“Charlie Decker.”

Long pause. Finally: “What’s going on down there, Decker?”

I thought it over. “I guess I’m going berserk,” I said.

An even longer pause. Then, almost rhetorically: “What have you done?”

I motioned at Ted Jones. He nodded back at me politely. “Mr. Denver?”

“Who’s that?”

“Ted Jones, Mr. Denver. Charlie has a gun. He’s holding us hostage. He’s killed Mrs. Underwood. And I think he killed Mr. Vance, too.”

“I’m pretty sure I did,” I said.

“Oh,” Mr. Denver said.

Sarah Pasterne giggled again.

“Ted Jones?”

“I’m here,” Ted told him. He sounded very competent, Ted did, but at the same time distant. Like a first lieutenant who has been to college. You had to admire him.

“Who is in the classroom besides you and Decker?”

“Just a sec,” I said. “I’ll call the roll. Hold on.”

I got Mrs. Underwood’s green attendance book and opened it up. “Period two, right?”

“Yeah,” Corky said.

“Okay. Here we go. Irma Bates?”

“I want to go home!” Irma screamed defiantly.

“She’s here,” I said. “Susan Brooks?”

“Here.”

“Nancy Caskin?”

“Here.”

I went through the rest of the roll. There were twenty-five names, and the only absentee was Peter Franklin.

“Has Peter Franklin been shot?” Mr. Denver asked quietly.

“He’s got the measles,” Don Lordi said. This brought on another attack of the giggles. Ted Jones frowned deeply.

“Decker?”

“Yes.”

“Will you let them go?”

“Not right now,” I said.

“Why?” There was dreadful concern, a dreadful heaviness in his voice, and for a second I almost caught myself feeling sorry for him. I crushed that quickly. It’s like being in a big poker game. Here is this guy who has been winning big all night, he’s got a pile of chips that’s a mile-high, and all at once he starts to lose. Not a little bit, but a lot, and you want to feel bad for him and his falling empire. But you cram that back and bust him, or you take it in the eye.

So I said, “We haven’t finished getting it on down here yet.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means stick it,” I said. Carol Granger’s eyes got round.

“Decker-”

“Call me Charlie. All my friends call me Charlie.”

“Decker-”

I held my hand up in front of the class and crossed the fingers in pairs. “If you don’t call me Charlie, I’m going to shoot somebody.”

Pause.

“Charlie?”

“That’s better.” In the back row, Mike Gavin and Dick Keene were covering grins. Some of the others weren’t bothering to cover them. “You call me Charlie, and I’ll call you Tom. That okay, Tom?”

Long, long pause.

“When will you let them go, Charlie? They haven’t hurt you.”

Outside, one of the town’s three black-and-whites and a blue state-police cruiser had arrived. They parked across the road from the high school, and Jerry Kesserling, the chief since Warren Talbot had retired into the local Methodist cemetery in 1975, began directing traffic onto the Oak Hill Pond road.

“Did you hear me, Charlie?”

“Yes. But I can’t tell you. I don’t know. There are more cops coming, I guess.”

“Mr. Wolfe called them,” Mr. Denver said. “I imagine there will be a great deal more when they fully appreciate what’s going on. They’ll have tear gas and Mace, Dec… Charlie. Why make it hard on yourself and your classmates?”

“Tom?”

Grudgingly: “What?”

“You get your skinny cracked ass out there and tell them that the minute anyone shoots tear gas or anything else in here, I am going to make them sorry. You tell them to remember who’s driving.”

“Why? Why are you doing this?” He sounded angry and impotent and frightened. He sounded like a man who has just discovered there is no place left to pass the buck.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but it sure beats panty raids, Tom. And I don’t think it actually concerns you. All I want you to do is trot back out there and tell them what I said. Will you do that, Tom?”

“I have no choice, do I?”

“No, that’s right. You don’t. And there’s something else, Tom.”

“What?” He asked it very hesitantly.

“I don’t like you very much, Tom, as you have probably realized, but up to now you haven’t had to give much of a rip how I felt. But I’m out of your filing cabinet now, Tom. Have you got it? I’m not just a record you can lock up at three in the afternoon. Have you got it?” My voice was rising into a scream. “HAVE YOU GOT THAT, TOM? HAVE YOU INTERNALIZED THAT PARTICULAR FACT OF LIFE?”

“Yes, Charlie,” he said in a deadly voice. “I have it.”

“No you don’t, Tom. But you will. Before the day’s over, we are going to understand all about the difference between people and pieces of paper in a file, and the difference between doing your job and getting jobbed. What do you think of that, Tommy, my man?”

“I think you’re a sick boy, Decker.”

“No, you think I’m a sick boy, Charlie. Isn’t that what you meant to say, Tom?”

“Yes…”

“Say it.”

“I think you’re a sick boy, Charlie.” The mechanical, embarrassed rote of a seven-year-old.

“You’ve got some getting it on to do yourself, Tom. Now, get out there and tell them what I said.”

Denver cleared his throat as if he had something else to say, and then the intercom clicked off. A little murmur went through the class. I looked them over very carefully. Their eyes were so cool and somehow detached (shock can do that: you’re ejected like a fighter pilot from a humdrum dream of life to a grinding, overloaded slice of the real meat, and your brain refuses to make the adjustment; you can only free-fall and hope that sooner or later your chute will open), and a ghost of grammar school came back to me: Teacher, teacher, ring the bell, My lessons all to you I’ll tell, And when my day at school is through, I’ll know more than aught I knew.

I wondered what they were learning today; what I was learning. The yellow school buses had begun to appear, and our classmates were going home to enjoy the festivities on living-room TVs and pocket transistor radios; but in Room 16, education went on.

I rapped the butt of the pistol sharply on the desk. The murmur died. They were watching me as closely as I was watching them. Judge and jury, or jury and defendant? I wanted to cackle.

“Well,” I said, “the shit has surely hit the fan. I think we need to talk a little.”

“Private?” George Yannick asked. “Just you and us?” He had an intelligent, perky face, and he didn’t look frightened.

“Yes.”

“You better turn off that intercom, then.”

“You big-mouth son of a bitch,” Ted Jones said distinctly. George looked at him, wounded.

There was an uncomfortable silence while I got up and pushed the little lever below the speaker from TALK-LISTEN to LISTEN.

I went back and sat down again. I nodded at Ted. “I was thinking of it anyway,” I lied. “You shouldn’t take on so.”

Ted didn’t say anything, but he offered me a strange little grin that made me think he might have been wondering about how I might taste.

“Okay,” I said to the class at large. “I may be crazy, but I’m not going to shoot anyone for discussing this thing with me. Believe it. Don’t be afraid to shoot off your mouths. As long as we don’t all talk at once.” That didn’t look as if it was going to be a problem. “To take the bull by the horns, is there anyone here who really thinks I’m going to just up and murder them?”

A few of them looked uneasy, but nobody said anything.

“Okay. Because I’m not. We’re just going to sit around and bug the hell out of everybody.”

“Yeah, you sure bugged the hell out of Mrs. Underwood,” Ted said. He was still smiling his strange smile.

“I had to. I know that’s hard to understand, but… I had to. It came down to that. And Mr. Vance. But I want everyone here to take it easy. No one is going to shoot the place up, so you don’t have to worry.”

Carol Granger raised her hand timidly. I nodded at her. She was smart, smart as a whip. Class president, and a cinch to speak a piece as valedictorian in June “Our Responsibilities to the Black Race” or maybe “Hopes for the Future.” She was already signed up for one of those big-league women’s colleges where people always wonder how many virgins there are. But I didn’t hold it against her.

“When can we go, Charlie?”

I sighed and shrugged my shoulders. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

“But my mother will be worried to death!”

“Why?” Sylvia Ragan asked. “She knows where you are, doesn’t she?”

General laugh. Except for Ted Jones. He wasn’t laughing, and I was going to have to watch that boy. He was still smiling his small, savage smile. He wanted badly to blow everything out of the water-obvious enough. But why? Insanity Prevention Merit Badge? Not enough. Adulation of the community in general-the boy who stood on the burning deck with his finger in the dike? It didn’t seem his style. Handsome low profile was Ted’s style. He was the only guy I knew who had quit the football team after three Saturdays of glory in his junior year. The guy who wrote sports for the local rag had called him the best running back Placerville High School had ever produced. But he had quit, suddenly and with no explanation. Amazing enough. What was more amazing was the fact that his popularity quotient hadn’t lost a point. If anything, Ted became more the local BMOC than ever. Joe McKennedy, who had suffered through four years and one broken nose at left tackle, told me that the only thing Ted would say when the agonized coach demanded an explanation was that football seemed to be a pretty stupid game, and he (Ted) thought that he could find a better way to spend his time. You can see why I respected him, but I was damned if I knew why he wanted me in such a personal way. A little thought on the matter might have helped, but things were going awful fast.

“Are you nuts?” Harmon Jackson asked suddenly.

“I think I must be,” I said. “Anyone who kills anyone else is nuts, in my book.”

“Well, maybe you ought to give yourself up,” Hannon said. “Get some help. A doctor. You know.”

“You mean like that Grace?” Sylvia asked. “My God, that creepster. I had to go see him after I threw an inkwell at old lady Green. All he did was look up my dress and try to get me to talk about my sex life.”

“Not that you’ve had any,” Pat Fitzgerald said, and there was another laugh.

“And not that it’s any business of his or yours,” she said haughtily, dropped her cigarette on the floor, and mashed it.

“So what are we going to do?” Jack Goldman asked.

“Just get it on,” I said. “That’s all.”

Out on the lawn, a second town police car had arrived. I guessed that the third one was probably down at Junior’s Diner, taking on vital shipments of coffee and doughnuts. Denver was talking with a state trooper in blue pants and one of those almost-Stetsons they wear. Up on the road, Jerry Kesserling was letting a few cars through the roadblock to pick up kids who didn’t ride the bus. The cars picked up and then drove hastily away. Mr. Grace was talking to a guy in a business suit that I didn’t know. The firemen were standing around and smoking cigarettes and waiting for someone to tell them to put out a fire or go home.

“Has this got anything to do with you beating up Carlson?” Corky asked.

“How should I know what it has to do with?” I asked him irritably. “If I knew what was making me do it, I probably wouldn’t have to.”

“It’s your parents.” Susan Brooks spoke up suddenly. “It must be your parents.

Ted Jones made a rude noise.

I looked over at her, surprised. Susan Brooks was one of those girls who never say anything unless called upon, the ones that teachers always have to ask to speak up, please. A very studious, very serious girl. A rather pretty but not terribly bright girl-the kind who isn’t allowed to give up and take the general or the commercial courses, because she had a terribly bright older brother or older sister, and teachers expect comparable things from her. In fine, one of those girls who are holding the dirty end of the stick with as much good grace and manners as they can muster. Usually they marry truck drivers and move to the West Coast, where they have kitchen nooks with Formica counters-and they write letters to the Folks Back East as seldom as they can get away with. They make quiet, successful lives for themselves and grow prettier as the shadow of the bright older brother or sister falls away from them.

“My parents,” I said, tasting it. I thought about telling them I had been hunting with my dad when I was nine. “My Hunting Trip,” by Charles Decker. Subtitle: “Or, How I Overheard My Dad Explain the Cherokee Nose Job.” Too revolting.

I snatched a look at Ted Jones, and the rich, coppery aroma of paydirt filled my nostrils. His face was set in a furious, jeering expression, as if someone had just forced a whole lemon into his mouth and then jammed his jaws together. As if someone had dropped a depth charge into his brains and sent some old, sunken hulk into long and ominous psychic vibrations.

“That’s what it says in all the psychology books,” Susan was going on, all blithely unaware. “In fact…” She suddenly became aware of the fact that she was speaking (and in a normal tone of voice, and in class) and clammed up. She was wearing a pale-jade-colored blouse, and her bra straps showed through like ghostly, half-erased chalk marks.

“My parents,” I said again, and stopped again. I remembered the hunting trip again, but this time I remembered waking up, seeing the moving branches on the tight canvas of the tent (was the canvas tight? you bet it was-my dad put that tent up, and everything he did was tight, no loose screws there), looking at the moving branches, needing to whiz, feeling like a little kid again… and remembering something that had happened long ago. I didn’t want to talk about that. I hadn’t talked about it with Mr. Grace. This was getting it on for real-and besides, there was Ted. Ted didn’t care for this at all. Perhaps it was all very important to him. Perhaps Ted could still be… helped. I suspected it was much too late for me, but even on that level, don’t they say that learning is a good and elegant thing for its own sake? Sure.

Outside, nothing much seemed to be going on. The last town police car had arrived, and, just as I had expected, they were handing out coffee-and. Story time chilluns.

“My parents,” I said:

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