Authors: Beck McDowell
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Copyright © 2012 by Beck McDowell. All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, Nancy Paulsen Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014. Nancy Paulsen Books, Reg. U.S. Pat. & Tm. Off. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Published simultaneously in Canada.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
This is not a drill / Rebecca McDowell. p. cm.
Summary: “Two teens must work together to protect a class of first-graders when a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder takes them hostage”—Provided by publisher.
[1. Post-traumatic stress disorder—Fiction. 2. Hostages—Fiction. 3. Survival—Fiction.
4. Schools—Fiction. 5. Family problems—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.M15835Thi 2012 [Fic]—dc23 2012011083
This book is dedicated to the memory of
the Rev. Dr. J. L. Brigman,
who read me countless books, sang me to sleep,
pressed fall leaves between waxed paper,
and loved us like crazy for as long as he could.
Night seeps through the hospital
blinds. I can’t stop shivering as I pull the blanket the nurse gave me around my shoulders. I’m so tired, but every time I close my eyes, I see that terrible image—the image of the first graders blinking in shock at the gun pointed at their teacher’s head.
It didn’t belong there, between the word wall and the vowel sounds chart. It was like that game in the Sunday cartoon section where you search for the tiny mistakes added to the picture. Only this mistake wasn’t tiny; it was a silent explosion that ate up the oxygen in the room and turned the warm yeasty air ice-cold.
We started class this morning with our lesson on French words for animals.
And by the afternoon, three people were dead.
The calendar on the wall in Intensive Care says Friday, November 5. A long day that taught me a lot. About life. And love. And myself.
The truth is, I’d never have signed up to teach French to elementary school kids three mornings a week if I’d known I’d get partnered with Jake Willoughby—after what he did to me. But Mrs. Campbell, the first grade teacher, was so cool, she made everything easier. When I told her I’d always wanted to teach, she took me under her wing. She told me and Jake, “I like the way you keep the children’s interest. It’s going to be a smooth semester for you two.” She was being nice, but still, it makes me nervous when people make predictions about good things without knocking on wood—because it’s kind of like asking for it, in a way.
But I can’t blame her. Mrs. Campbell couldn’t have stopped what was going to happen. No one could have. From the minute Brian Stutts stepped into the room, that train had left the station.
I keep going back to the beginning—looking for where we went wrong, what we could have done differently. I need to retrace our steps, because if I don’t know what to look for, it could happen again, couldn’t it? Death finding us on an ordinary day.
An ordinary day that started like this:
• • •
The kids lean forward in their chairs, jumping at each new flash card, everybody wanting to be the first to yell the animal’s French name and sound. It’s early in the day, but fall sweaters have already been shed in the November sun that pours through the windows.
The first graders love it that the sounds animals make are different in other languages. When I tell them that a French pig says
, DeQuan starts saying it over and over again until I make him stop. (I’m pretty sure no pig ever said
isn’t much better.)
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
I ask as Jake holds up the flash card cat I made from coloring book pages.
“C’est un chat,”
the first graders singsong, just like we taught them. Redheaded Alicia’s voice is louder than everyone else’s. They learn so fast—like an adorable bunch of little sponges.
Natalie waves her hand frantically.
“Miss Emery, my daddy got mad at my mommy and broked a lamp; it was a big one and he threw it at the wall and it broked into little pieces.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sweetie. Can we talk about it later?” I say. First graders tell everything—to everyone—all the time. And Natalie loves drama. With her long reddish-blond hair and freckles, she’s like a mini Lindsay Lohan, only with two front teeth missing.
I point to the picture of a dog Jake’s holding up.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est, classe?”
“That’s my sister,” yells Mason Mayfield III. I give him a look. I’m learning that it takes a lot of looks to keep Mason Mayfield III in line.
“C’est un chien,”
seventeen others call out. They dance in their seats, an arm-flapping, foot-tapping sea of energy.
I say to them with a smile, glancing at Mrs. Campbell at her desk in front. She always tells them they’re doing great, even on days when they aren’t. She says it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say they’re getting it, they really will. The kids love her. Even her perfume is kid-friendly; she smells like grass and sunlight. She has the Animal Kingdom eating out of her hand. Jake, too, I’ve noticed.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
I ask the kids as Jake holds up a picture of a cow.
Before they can answer, a loud knock on the door makes everyone jump.
“What the—?” Mason Mayfield III says. All heads turn to the little round window, now filled with a man’s face—all squinty eyes and angry frown.
Mrs. Campbell is barely out of her seat when the door swings open and the man walks in like he owns the place: big guy, late twentyish, dark hair buzzed close, square jaw. Black T-shirt stretched tight across puffed-out chest. Muscular legs in camouflage pants. Army boots planted wide.
His eyes scan the kids’ faces like he’s searching for a tasty meal. His focus stops on one.
“Can I help you?” Mrs. Campbell’s desk is on the wall opposite the door, but she crosses the room in a flash and stops him before he gets too far inside. He might be a soldier, but this is her territory.
“Yeah. I’m Brian Stutts. I came to get my son, Patrick.” All eyes turn to Patrick Stutts. In the back of the room, he shrinks in his seat, pinned by his father’s glare and his classmates’ curious stares. Patrick looks down, his head tucked in his usual pose, chin on chest. He speaks in whispers and often hums to himself, lost in his own world. I’ve tried hard to draw him out of his shell, but without much success.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Stutts, but checkouts are done through the front office.” Mrs. Campbell’s voice is polite, but stern. “You’re really not allowed to come to the classroom.”
“I want my kid. Patrick, come on. We’re going.” He jerks his head toward the door, exposing lizard talons that creep up his neck, tattooed claws reaching from his shirt for his jutting jaw and square head.
“Oooo-eee.” DeQuan reacts under his breath, his eyes round.
“Mr. Stutts, you’ll need to return to the front office and go through the proper channels to check out your son. Let me show you the way.” Mrs. Campbell somehow herds the big man into the hall and, miraculously, he allows himself to be ushered out. She closes the door behind her as she talks to him softly, her eyes locked on his. I swear the woman could have been a lion tamer. She actually looks a little like Reese Witherspoon in that circus movie.
I’m not aware that I’ve been holding my breath until I let it out when he leaves. His departure is a relief to the kids, too.
“Did you see that—” DeQuan says, but I cut him off with a frown and a head shake. “But Miss Emery, it was comin’ outta his shirt and it had claws—”
“DeQuan,” I say, stopping him.
Patrick’s daddy?” Alicia asks.
The kids stare at the top of Patrick’s drooping head. Rose, bless her heart, leans over and plops a handful of floppy fur in front of him—the worn-out stuffed animal she calls Lamby, who travels with her everywhere.
“So, guys,” Jake recovers for us, “we were on this one.” He holds up the cow and looks at me, running a hand through his dark hair nervously. He’s rarely ever rattled.
I take his cue to get things back on track. “Okay, pay attention, everyone.”
When Mrs. Campbell walks calmly back into the room, the class visibly relaxes. She sits down and reaches for a pen, then looks up at the kids with an all’s-right-with-the-world smile.
I wonder how many crazy parents she’s dealt with. There’s not much protection from anyone who wants to come into the building. The elementary school hired a security guard last year after a homeless guy was caught in the parking lot “displaying his wares,” as my mom called it. The guy who’s usually in the front hall looks more like a grocery store bag boy than a cop. He sits at a table, texting on his phone, and barely looks up when we pass.
I grew up with an unhealthy dose of “stranger danger.” My helicopter mom’s so overprotective, she used to read me kidnapping stories from the paper to scare me into staying close to her. It worked. I became glued to her side if anyone unfamiliar came near us. And I even planned out how I’d get away if I got captured like Elizabeth Smart.
I was so shy in elementary school that the other kids called me Whisper Girl. While they chased each other at recess, I leaned against the big tree at the edge of the playground, half hiding, and watched. In third grade, the teacher had to make a rule that no one could speak for me to stop my classmates from filling in my silence.
The panic attacks started in middle school—at least that’s what we called them then, the embarrassing episodes of dizziness and short breath that got worse as people started staring at me. I felt like a freak until I finally found a doctor last year who figured out how to help me. It turned out my problems went much deeper than shyness and anxiety. I’ve learned to control my symptoms now, but stress causes all my reflexes to go haywire. Mr. Stutts is not helping one little bit.
• • •
The kids smile back at Mrs. C., then they look blankly at us, their concentration broken. Lewis, the class roamer, is out of his seat, making googly eyes and bubble mouths at the fish in the tank.
“Lewis, will you join us, please?” I use Mrs. Campbell’s favorite line for anyone who’s drifting away—literally or mentally. I’m learning to speak authoritatively; Mrs. C. says I have to compensate for my soft voice (“tone, not volume”) if I want the kids to take me seriously. Lewis looks at me and slinks back to his seat.
qu’est-ce que c’est?
” I have just begun again when—
—the door swings open, this time with a force that sends it slamming into the wall. Everyone jumps, and all eyes are riveted on the angry giant in the doorway.
“I’m taking my kid, and you can’t stop me,” he sneers at Mrs. Campbell.
“Mr. Stutts, I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist—”
“I’m not going to the office. Those people just wanna keep my son from me. They’re on
“Mr. Stutts, please . . .” Mrs. Campbell stands up, but Stutts holds up a warning hand.
“Stand back, lady. Patrick, get your things. We’re going.”
“Mr. Stutts, if you don’t return to the front office, I’ll have to call security.” Mrs. Campbell starts toward the phone on the wall. The big man snorts—apparently as unimpressed with security as we were.
And then it happens. Just as Mrs. Campbell reaches for the phone, before anyone realizes what he’s doing, Stutts strides across the room, grabs the phone, and rips it off the wall. The plastic casing cracks, and we stare at the wires dangling from his huge hand. He turns and glares at Mrs. Campbell. My stomach flops with a sick twinge—the kind you have as a kid when your balloon flies out of your hands and you know you can’t get it back.
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Teacher,” he says. We all stare at him, holding the ruin of the phone with his shoulders reared back and a look of triumph on his face.
“Emery, will you walk down to the office,” Mrs. Campbell says without taking her eyes off him, “and ask Mrs. Bishop to—”
I take a step toward the door, but Stutts lunges forward and grabs my arm with his free hand—a hard, painful grip that makes me wince.
“Hey, don’t—” Jake moves toward us, but stops when Stutts wheels to face him, twisting my arm harder as a warning. I press my lips together to keep from crying out.
My brain registers the sweetish smell of alcohol on the man’s breath. It’s nine o’clock in the morning.
“Stay right where you are—both of you,” he orders.
I try to pull away. I don’t want this guy touching me.
“Emery.” Jake says my name quietly, and when I turn to him, his calm blue eyes hold mine for a second. I stop struggling and Stutts lets go. Jake steps closer to me and reaches out to pull me toward him. An odd thought surfaces from the rushing current of my brain—it’s the first time I’ve let Jake touch me in months.
“Patrick, get your things,” Stutts says again. Patrick reaches for the backpack hanging on his chair.
“Patrick, sit down,” Mrs. Campbell says in a surprisingly steady voice. “You’re not leaving without permission from the office.” Poor Patrick looks at her, hesitates, then sinks back in his seat and puts his head on his desk with his arms crossed above it, his face hidden.
“Don’t tell my boy what to do,” the man growls. “Nobody tells my boy what to do but me.”
“Mr. Stutts, I’ll be happy to walk with you down to the office,” Mrs. Campbell says as she moves toward the door. “We can—”
“Stop right there.” He drops the phone with a clatter and reaches into one of the pockets of his camo pants. My eyes follow the cordlike veins leading down from his bulging biceps. He raises his fist.
Gripping a handgun.
Aimed directly at the teacher.
The first graders freeze—almost as if they’re posing for some weird yearbook picture. No one moves.
Jake’s hand tightens on my arm.
This isn’t real.
It has to be a toy. Some kind of sick joke.
Things like this don’t happen in our sleepy little town. In Hensonville, a new traffic light is a big event. Things like this belong on CNN. My head feels light and the room tilts a little.
Mrs. Campbell inhales sharply. Her eyes move from the gun to Stutts’s face. She slowly holds up her hands like in the movies and says, “Mr. Stutts, please put that away so we can talk.” Her teacher-voice has gone trembly. “I’m sure we can resolve this without resorting to . . .” Her voice trails off, but the word
floats in the air with the specks of dust suspended in the slanting morning rays.
And then, for the life of me, I can’t tell you what makes me do it. In a move that’s totally uncharacteristic of me, I pull away from Jake and take a step toward Stutts.
“No,” I say without any thought besides making this go away. “Don’t do this. You can’t—”
“You want a piece of this?” Stutts yells—turning to point his weapon
straight at me
My stomach turns inside out as I stare down the barrel of the gun. All I can think is—
my mother was right. I’m going to die at the hands of a homicidal maniac. Her warnings about strangers have finally come true.