The next book in my current favorite series was coming out today.
The fact that it was being released today wasn’t news, the release date had been announced several months ago. But the fact that I’d finally get my chance to find out how the protagonist would solve the problem he’d faced at the end of the last book meant I wanted to pick up a copy as soon as I could.
An ebook? Don’t make me laugh. I’m one of those old knuckle-draggers who has to hold an honest-to-gods book in their hands for a story to be worth reading.
Order online? That would mean I couldn’t walk past all the other books, possibly missing a new story because my eye hadn’t been caught by the cover art, or the intriguing title. That’s how I got hooked on this series, after all.
So I was happy to drive half an hour to the local chain bookstore to buy my copy. What I hadn’t planned on were the aftereffects of the questionable burrito I’d gotten delivered the night before. So here I was, occupying one of the two stalls in the store’s men’s room, wondering if my insides were about to come squirting out of my backsides.
That’s when I heard the first pop. It wasn’t terribly loud, and I wasn’t sure what it was until I heard two more quick pops, followed by screams, that I understood it was someone shooting a gun. I’ve heard people say they were ‘scared shitless’, but until that moment, I’d never believed it was real. As my insides clenched up, I found out it was.
I started cleaning myself, hoping that perhaps I could find a way to sneak out of both the restroom and the store.
Then I heard the door open.
It didn’t slam open. No, the only clue that it had opened as the hinges creaking ever so slightly. In that moment, I feared I’d die in a toilet stall with my jeans around my ankles, and that the stink of my own shit would be the last thing I’d smell.
A kid’s high-pitched whimper, followed by a slightly deeper shush, let me know there wasn’t an armed madman waiting outside the stall to shoot me. I finished wiping and cautiously peeked out.
A boy clutching a colorfully illustrated copy of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” crouched with a tiny girl who shivered like she had an electrical current running through her body behind a woman. All of them had their eyes fixed on the door into the bathroom.
I cleared my throat, and as all three scramble around to face me, I raise my hands to show I’m not armed or dangerous. It works, they don’t scream or rush towards the door, but the tension that had kept them frozen and staring at the door doesn’t go away. I take a step towards them, then drop to a knee to get closer to their height. I look towards the door, then back at them. I do what I can to keep my voice calm as I whisper. “Can you tell me what’s going on? Is someone robbing the store?”
The boy and girl say nothing, they just stare fixedly at me. As the moment of silence stretches on, I fear the woman will remain silent too. Then she starts talking, a low but urgent stream of words pouring out of her mouth.
“No, it wasn’t a robbery. We were waiting for a chance to pay for his book when this guy in one of those hunting jackets, you know, the ones with all the different colors, slams open the door. I didn’t think much of it, just some self-important guy making an entrance. Then I heard him say something about making us all pay. I heard the first shot, I don’t know who he shot, because I grabbed my kids and ran for this bathroom.”
Maybe it was hearing his mother speak that broke the spell of silence over the boy. He pointed at me “Are you gonna go get him Mister Soldier?”
It took me a moment to understand what the kid was suggesting. I’d never been in the military, but a few months ago, I’d picked up a dark green tee shirt on sale. Over the course of a few washings, it had faded to something approaching the color of an Army uniform. I opened my mouth to tell him I was no soldier, and found I couldn’t. I couldn’t say those words and kill the hope I saw beginning to grow in those young eyes.
“Sure will, kid. I need you to do something for me. Can you stay here with your mom and sister and make sure they stay safe?” At his nod, I looked towards his mother. I could see her doubts in me as clearly as if she’d been wearing them on a sign. I could understand why. I’m not fat, but the only place I might look like a real soldier would be in the imagination of a scared kid. “Miss, I’m going to go out there and see what I can do. I might find other folks trying to hide and send them over to hide with you.” I pointed towards the garbage can beside the sink. “I think that if you put that thing under the door handle, it will stop it from swinging down and keep the door closed. I’ll tell anyone I send over here to knock three times, okay? If you hear that, could you move the can and let them in?”
She gives me a slow nod, like she can’t believe what she’s hearing. I don’t blame her, because I can hardly believe I’m saying it. I know I’ll die if I try to confront an armed attacker, but I stand up anyway and head towards the door. I hear the woman following behind me, the scraping of the garbage can giving her movements away.
Part of me wishes there were a lock on the inside face of the door, but there isn’t. I ease the latch open and bless the architect who put both bathroom door at the end of small alcoves. All there is to see as I look out is the closed door to the woman’s bathroom opposite me, and the end of the bookshelves beyond the broad opening that leads to the rest of the store. I close the door as quietly as I can, and the last thing I see as it does are the scared eyes of the woman I’m protecting without knowing her name.
Three quick pops, now easily recognizable as gunshots, ring out. I move to the opening to the store and ease my head around the corner. There’s an old man with white hair crouching beside two teenagers crouching behind a bookshelf not ten feet from me. They’re all facing away from me, looking towards the main part of the store.
“Quit hidin’ you fuckin’ libs! Show your fuckin’ faces so I can shoot you in them!”
It isn’t quite a shout, but the voice is more than loud enough to carry through the whole store in the still air following those shots. That silence also makes it easy to tell where the voice is coming from. My head turns towards the sound, and I see a guy standing near where I know the information desk is. All I can see is the shoulders of his camo jacket and the top of his bald head. He’s looking away from me, and as I watch I see his body jerks. Another shot rings out, followed by a scream.
“Fuckin’ dyke bitch! Did you think dressin’ up like you was a man would make you one? And givin’ me a snotty goddamn answer when you should be showin’ me respect! I’m gonna plant a lot of your kind today, oh yes I will.”
He’s not looking my way, so I grab a book from the rack beside the entrance to the bathrooms. Part of registers the title, “The Black Socks: A Case History of Corruption in Professional Sports” as I slide it across the carpeting past the people hiding in front of me.
They all jerk away from the passing book like its on fire, the old man nearly falling against the bookshelves they’re hiding behind. The muffled shifting doesn’t seem to be enough to draw the attention of the gunman, but it does get them to turn towards me. I drop to my hands and knees, crawl to them, and motion for them to bring their heads close to mine.
“There’s a woman and her two kids hiding in the men’s room. She’s got the door blocked, but if you rap three times on the quietly, she’ll let you in. If you crawl over there, he shouldn’t be able to see you. Get in with her and help her keep that door closed if this guy tries to get in. Okay?”
All three of them nod and begin making their way to the bathroom and, hopefully, safety. I watch them go wondering how I managed to sound so calm. Like a voice whispered it in my ear, I know the answer. You know you’re going to die, and you don’t want your death to be as miserable a failure as your life has been. The realization brings something to me I hadn’t had since that first shot: clarity. I have to do whatever it takes to stop this man from killing or hurting more people. But how do I do that?
I hear another voice, one that even choked with pain I recognize. It’s Marsha, the manager of the store. She always wears her hair short, and its a different color of the rainbow every time I see her. “Why are you doing this? I never did anything to you.”
“Shut the hell up, you damned dyke bitch. You and the rest of these damned libs. Always lookin’ down on me, sneerin’ at me for the books I buy. Bill O’Reilly’s a damn good writer, an you people act me like I’m buying a kid’s colorin’ book when I buy one of his novels. You’re gonna be my bird dog before I kill you. I want them to hear you scream, to flush them out and try to run like the cowards they are. So come on, bitch, scream some more for me.”
The gun bangs, and I hear Marsha scream again. I need to stop this. I know that, but I don’t know how. I don’t have anything to fight back with.
I don’t even know enough about boxing or self-defense to try overpowering this guy.
My eyes dart around, hoping to find something, anything I can use against this shooter. I see nothing. As I begin to despair, my eyes cross the book I’d used to get the attention of the three who’d been hiding where I now am. My hands remember the mass of my own hardback books, and I know I have weapons nearby.
A quick scan of the shelf in front of me and beside me yields nothing big enough to be dangerous to a good-sized cat, let alone a human. So I make my way around the end of the bookshelf and sweep my eyes over its contents. Nothing shows any promise until I’m scanning the bottom row of books and see a truly massive hard-backed tome. I haul it out, and the weight of it strains my arm. Easily ten pounds, it’s going to have to do.
Marsha’s crying now, just a weak whimpering noise like some child too frightened to actually cry out loud. I slip off my shoes, hoping that in stocking feet I’ll be silent enough to get close to the gunman before he notices me. Then I rise up and do my best to rush down upon him.
His back is towards me as I approach, and I begin to hope I will surprise him.
I’m five steps away, and he’s still not paying attention to anything but tormenting Marsha.
Then I’m four steps away.
I raise the book above my head, and as I do, his head swings towards me.
I’m two steps from him, and he begins to turn towards me.
One more step, but the gun rises to point towards me. I see the shooter face for the first time, and remember seeing him here before. I also remember how he always seemed angry about something.
My arm swings downward, all the mass of the book driving it down fast. But not fast enough. I see a flash from the barrel of the gun. I feel something hitting my chest, and at almost the same instant, the impact of the book with the shooter’s head.
Then, there is a moment of nothingness. Not blackness. Not me passing out. Just….nothingness. I don’t feel any pain. I don’t hear anything. For a moment, it’s like I’m alone in a void. Then I hear something.
“Hey, buddy, you okay?”
The voice sounds like a stereotypical New York accent, but it’s not put on. None of the struggling to replace one accent with another. I try opening my eyes, and find I that while I can see, but what I see makes no sense. A slender young man with coal black hair is standing over me, offering me a his hand. He himself isn’t amazing, but what he’s dressed in is: a complete set of Marine dress blues, but not modern blues. No, I recognize these from my reading of history books. These are the dress blues a Marine would have worn during World War Two.
“Hey, you hear me Mack?”
What is going on? Am I hallucinating? I need to get up, so I take the offered hand. That’s when I notice my own hand. It isn’t the flabby hand of the shut-in bookworm I am now. No, it’s a hand like what mine looked like when I was a teenager. The Marine grabs my hand, and with a surprisingly strong grip, drag me to my feet. He gives me what can only be described as a rakish smile before letting go of my hand to slap me on the back.
“Good to have you on board, kid. You ready for the Big Party?”
He emphasizes those last two words, like I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about. I don’t. But as I shift my gaze from him, I see I’m standing in the bookstore, and that the gunman is lying before me atop the information desk. His head is twisted at an angle I know it shouldn’t be at, and more to the point, his eyes are open, but already glazing over. He’s dead, I know that, and that I’m the one who killed him.
That’s when I notice the other still form.
The front of my shirt isn’t a faded green anymore. No, it dark. Dark with blood from the hole in the center of my chest. And like the gunman, my eyes are also open and glazed over already.
“Kind of spooky, ain’t it?”
That voice breaks my concentration, and my amazement, at seeing my own dead body before. But the voice keeps talking.
“You’re kinda lucky. Now when that old dough boy came to collect me, hell, there weren’t hardly enough of me left to know what was left had been a person. I guess that’s what I get for grabbing three Jap hand grenades and wrapping myself around them.”
I look towards the Marine. “You died too?”
“Hell yeah I did, kid! And who’d a thought a Dago like me from Hoboken would end up dyin’ a hero saving the folks who always called me a ‘dirt whop’? The world sure is a strange place, ain’t it kid?”
“Iwo, kid. I was in a slit trench, waiting with my squad for the order to attack a Jap pillbox when they got the drop on us and started lobbing grenades. Next thing I know, I’m standing with this guy who told me he bought it in the Meuse Argonne taking out a Kraut machine gun nest by himself, looking down at something that looked like a bad batch of hamburger.”
I look at my hands again, then at the Marine, and realize if we were both still alive, I’d be older than he appears to be. Whether he can read minds, or that he’s been asked the question before, he answers the question I was framing.
“You look the way you do for the same reason I look like this: it’s how we looked in the photo somebody’ll put with our obituary. Some of the older guys, well, they look kinda strange cause they don’t have a picture like we do. But you’ll get used to it after a while at the Big Party.”
There was that term again, and this time, I got the question out before he could answer it. “What’s this ‘Big Party’ you keep talking about?”
The Marine smiled. “It’s the Big Party, kid! The one all the folks who died savin’ someone else are asked to attend. And before you ask, yeah, you can refuse to attend. But I got to tell you, if you do, you’re gonna miss one wild shindig! All the food you can eat, more booze than you could ever drink, and it’ll never stop until we get The Call.”
He said the last words with a seriousness unlike everything before them. A possibility occurred to me. “You mean, your party is something like Valhalla? And you’re part of the hero band that will face Ragnarok?”
The Marine cocked his head and stared at me for a long moment. “Rag-nor-what? Kid, you and me have been offered the chance to ride beside the Heavenly Host in the battle at the end of the world. At least that’s how the dough boy explained it to me. Whether it’s what he said, or what you said, the only alternative is you go to whatever’s waitin’ for you in the afterlife. So, which would you rather do? Go face the music? Or would you rather party to the music until we have to fight?”
It wasn’t a hard choice to make. I held out my hand to my new brother-in-arms. “Let’s go check out this Big Party, shall we?”