By: Camiren Mehlenbacher
Jared slams his door shut, wincing at the noise it makes as it does. He’s never been a good judge of his own strength and is concerned that he’ll one day break something because of this. For now his car is fine and he hustles to the entrance of the building in the predawn darkness. Some of his colleagues are pulling into the parking lot as he fumbles with his keys at the entrance doors. He quietly curses the cold air of autumn as he finds the key labeled ‘Entrance’ and unlocks the doors with it.
The lights turn on automatically as he enters the foyer of the building. It’s much more peaceful here in the early mornings and late nights than during the day. In a few hours the building will be filled with people, much too crowded for his tastes. Jared prefers the quiet hours where he can clean and think without the input and noise of others crowding his mind.
It takes less than a minute to walk to the elevator. He presses the arrow pointing to his feet and the elevator arrives quickly. Jared ducks inside and reaches his hand for the ‘B’ button and watches as it lights up under the pressure of his fingers. The doors begin to close before he hears someone call out to him. “Hold up!” Despite enjoying his alone time, Jared complies, sticking his hand between the closing doors, causing them to reopen.
“Thanks,” Janine says breathlessly as she glides into the elevator next to him.
“Is anyone else coming?” Jared asks her.
She shakes her head, smiling at him. “No, the others have started some fitness thing. They’re taking the stairs down.” Jared nods his head once in recognition. He removes his hand from between the doors and they shut soundlessly.
While the elevator jerks downward Janine starts a conversation, picking up where she left off. “I would have joined the others, you know, but it’s so hard to climb up or down anything with this attached to me.” She looks down at her rounded belly, the fabric of her shirt straining to cover what it was not designed to cover. There’s stress in her voice when she says this, but Jared can see nothing but joy in her eyes. He remembers that it’s her first. Memories of his first proceed to flood his mind. He certainly remembers that feeling; it’s something he still feels every day.
It is his turn to speak. “Hey, don’t knock the pregnancy. That one will be forcing you to run after them before you know it, you’ll have all the exercise you need.” This elicits a small burst of laughter from Janine, fading as the elevator doors open. Jared allows her to exit before him, watching as she takes wide, awkward steps to compensate for the large mass on her front.
As they enter the basement they can hear the door from the stairwell open to their right. Abena, Sebastian, and Dyler enter the room.
“Yo! How’s it hanging?” Sebastian calls to Janine, causing the other two with him to laugh and shake their heads.
“Fuck off, Sebs.” Janine responds humorously. “I get it; I have a huge stomach, would you just shut up and do your job?”
“I thought annoying you was my job.”
“C’mon, drop it, Sebastian. We have work to do” Abena says, gently taking hold of his elbow and guiding him towards the back right corner of the room. Sebastian complies, grabbing
Abena’s hand as they go. Young love, lucky enough to be hired in the same place and share their days together. A smile forms on Jared’s face.
Morning pleasantries are exchanged between the five individuals before they head to different parts of the building for the day. Jared is the only one who stays in the basement. Today it’s his job to organize and take inventory before continuing to clean this level.
For a few hours, he organizes and does inventory. They are surprisingly well stocked for this time of year. He was expecting them to be in short supply on carpet cleaner, but apparently kids hadn’t thrown up as much this cold season as they usually do. Nevertheless there are plenty of supplies that need to be restocked such as light bulbs and toilet paper.
He makes sure to take his medication at eight, popping it into his mouth without water. It has been years since he injured his knee working a construction job in the summer between sophomore and junior year of college. Unfortunately, the ache from his injury is consistent. Chronic pain was the prognosis from his doctor, nothing to do but medicate until he needs a knee replacement in old age or dies. After a while, Jared had given up taking medicine the conventional way. It was a hassle to find the nearest place he could get water, or to carry a bottle with him everywhere he went. More efficient – he thinks, as the bitter taste of pill he has become accustomed to envelops his taste buds – to eat them.
The ache slowly resides and he carries on with his duties. He sweeps the floor first, making a beat out of the sound of broom on concrete. It is like the underlying beat in a song, something he likes very much. Most people he talks to about music are only interested in the louder instrumentals that are easily noticeable, such as a guitar or the sound of cymbals on a drum set. Jared prefers to find the note or rhythm that is able to evade people’s awareness but remains steady and consistent. He contemplates creating lyrics to go with the beat, but he’s never been a good lyricist.
When he finishes sweeping, he continues on to mop the floor. He feels a longing to be home. His wife should be dropping their children off at school and daycare soon. Ryker, their oldest, is in middle school now. Jared feels his heart lift as he remembers Ryker’s first day of kindergarten. He had been little more than a giant backpack with feet, arms, and a puff of red hair when he got on the bus that day. Now, his backpack doesn’t even cover his entire back. His legs are long and lanky, and his hair has taken on an auburn hue.
Tyler is the middle child. He started second grade this year. It seems he comes home with a new word every day, full of pride at his ability to spell something new. He is much more involved with Charlene than Ryker is. Charlene is his youngest, only three-years-old. She is the wonder-child with nothing in the world that doesn’t interest her. She had once jabbered on about dandelions for an entire hour. It was fascinating to her that a yellow plant could turn into a white ball of fuzz. Never before had Jared thought so much about such trivial things. The world, he had come to recognize through her, is a wondrous place.
It had been a long time since Jared felt the consistent wonder he does when Charlene observes these subtle beauties. Of course he has moments of overwhelming mystification with life, but they have been rather sporadic and inconsistent. The most awe inspiring moments he can remember are milestones in his life rather than arbitrary ones. The smile he had seen on his wife’s face right before he kissed her for the first time as husband and wife, how the sunset had caused her face to appear rosy and bright, just as he imagined his future with her. His wife revealing each pregnancy to him in more elaborate ways; a shirt that said ‘I’m a dad’; a cake that had a caricature of Ryker and another face that was blank with a question mark; a scavenger hunt for clues that led him to a positive pregnancy test.
Jared smiles as he replays these moments of his life. It’s all he cares to focus on. He doesn’t hear anyone enter the room. He misses the faint sound of the elevator doors sliding open. He doesn’t hear the light sound of footsteps on concrete. It comes as a shock when he feels a cold, hard object press into his back. At first he thinks that it’s a joke. Perhaps Sebastian came back for supplies and couldn’t resist playing a little prank. He begins to turn before a stranger’s voice echoes around the room. “Don’t turn around,” is all it says. The tone is serious, and harsh. Jared feels a primal sense of danger overwhelm him. His muscles tense, he stops mopping, his hair stands on end. He swallows hard and closes his eyes. All he can see are his children. All he can hear is his wife’s voice.
“Where are your keys?” A high pitched male voice asks him. Jared says nothing; he’s too shocked to respond. The hard object presses further into his back. Jared feels his eyes fill with involuntary tears. “I said,” the voice is more agitated this time, “where are your fucking keys?”
Words return to Jared. “Here,” he says, cautiously and slowly moving his hand from the handle of the mop to point at his front right pocket. At the first sign of movement, the hard object presses into him again, but nothing more happens.
“You have a master key, right? You need it in order to clean the building.” Jared nods. “Give it to me.” Jared hesitates. What will happen if he doesn’t comply? Surely he’ll be killed. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the object pressed against him is the barrel of a gun. If he complies, will he be shot anyway? Yes, if he complies he will still be shot. Whoever this is has a plan, and the police stopping it so soon is certainly not a part of it.
So Jared will die. He will die. This realization hits him with extreme force. Tears begin to flow from his eyes, but he makes no noise. He thinks desperately about how to prevent this. A hundred scenarios race through his mind in mere seconds. No matter how many he thinks of, in each of them he’s slower than a bullet.
Too much time has passed. The man behind him yells for the keys. Jared moves his hand to his pocket. His kids, his wife, his favorite place to vacation, the color of the sun as it sets behind the woods in his backyard, the last time he kissed his kids to bed, the last time he told his wife he loved her, what he had done with his life. How his life is ending, how this isn’t what he pictured, how he can’t die like this and the overwhelming fact that this is exactly how it is going to happen. Something in him resolves. He won’t die without seeing his face.
He takes the keys out of his pocket. “Drop them on the ground next to you.” That’s it, the end game. Swiftly, he turns his body to face the gunman, and he hears the roar of the gun as the trigger is pulled. There’s an intense, indescribable pain that rips through his abdomen and explodes throughout every inch of him. It overwhelms him as his body continues to turn. His arms change their trajectory. His right arm darts toward the blood staining the front of his shirt while his left arm stretches in front of him as he falls to the floor. He struggles to breathe, shock spreading through his body. His eyes fix onto the gunman’s face.
The only thing Jared can think about is how young he is. There’s no scruff on the boy’s face, he’s too young to grow any. The boy’s face is cool and expressionless, but there’s fear in his eyes. This is the end for him too, in a way, and he knows it. With that one shot he’s set his fate. Jared watches as fear turns to determination and thinks of nothing but dandelions before darkness and the sound of gunfire envelops him.
In the hours that follow, after the sound of gunshots have faded into the sound of police sirens and news reporters, it is revealed that Jared is one victim out of one hundred and three. Over twenty others were injured. The use of the master key had been effective. Students and staff had thought they were being retrieved by administrators in order to be escorted to a safe location. They had only been following protocol.
Protocol is followed in the event of Jared’s death as well. His name appears on lists of the dead. His death fades into hundreds of others, a drop in an ever growing ocean. He is just a victim of a mass shooting. Is there really anything special about that? No. Nothing special at all.