Steven got as far as the chain-link fence, heart beating in his ears. The morning was gray as the school buildings. Ice-topped puddles crackled under foot, rainbow-ringed from motor oil. Despite the chill he was sweating.
Noisy teens, coat-bundled, breaths erupting into crystalline clouds, elbowed each other while crowding through security gates under the rheumy eyes of an elderly uniformed guard. He stopped a few, asked questions, then let them rejoin friends.
Steven watched the three bigger kids who’d tormented him for months get past the guard without being stopped. They'd humiliated him with taunts and fists.
Instead of going home this time, and doing his best not to draw attention, Steven slipped into the queue. Once past the guard, he edged away from the main group on their way to morning classes. For a moment he lost sight of his three tormentors, but they saw him.
“Yo, butthead!” the oldest called out, standing between sneering buddies.
“Too cold for your skinny ass?”
Steven back-stepped toward a granite wall, but didn’t answer.
“I need a cap ... like yours. Give it to me, asshole.”
“Don’t. Please. My mom made it … .”
“Your momma?” Eyes narrowed, the kid spit on Steven. “Get her to make you another one, you little shit! Hand it over or we’ll beat the crap out-a you.”
“Please ... .” Steven held his books between him and the three, “let me go. You don’t need my cap.”
“Screw you,” said the oldest, eyes threatening, closing in and shoving him against the wall. “I think you’re queer ... isn’t that right, guys? He’s a girlie-boy.”
Another boy stepped closer, hands clenched into fists, and punched Steven in the chest, then in his shoulder so hard that he dropped his books. One kid’s kick sent them skittering across frozen pavement. The oldest, with a sweep of his foot, toppled Steven, who fell, hitting his head against the wall.
The kid who hit him took off his belt and wrapped it around his fist. The older one reached down, snatched the hat from Steven’s head, then slapped him so hard that sweat flew. Blond hair lay mated across Steven’s forehead, a trickle of blood ran from his ear.
“Let’s do it,” said the one who’d spit on Steven, an open pocket-knife in his hand, “you know … make girlie-boy get on his knees.”
The sound was so loud that the kid jumped back and covered his ears. The older kid, still holding the cap, looked down at the carmine stain leaking out of the front of his yellow letterman’s sweater ... his expression, one of disbelief as he crumpled.
His buddies, hands out defensively, mouths open as though about to speak, didn’t, as two shots followed the first. Both kids folded like wet newspaper; terrible noises came from their throats. Frozen air filled with the smell of gunpowder.
Steven sat against the wall, a gun held with both hands. “Please. I said, please leave me alone! I didn’t do anything to you. Give me back my cap.”
Students were running and screaming. The white-haired security guard, now a few yards away, revolver drawn and shaking, yelled, “Drop your weapon or I’ll shoot!”
Steven looked up. “Wha -- ?”
“Drop your weapon!”
Steven looked back at the two kids, writhing, crying and clutching their bellies. Tears ran down his cheek.
“I said please. No one listened ... no one believed me. I said please.”
The security guard, holding a cell phone, kept him in his sights. “We got us a crazy,” he yelled. “A kid’s gone nuts! He’s shooting kids all over. God damn!”
Steven tried to get to his feet, but slipped back against the wall.
“Drop it, kid! Now!”
Jaw set, the guard fired.
The bullet’s impact spun Steven onto his right side. His mother’s gun slipped from his hands. A small ruby red hole blossomed just forward of his left ear. He quivered once … then lay still.
* * *