Friday, April 23, 2021

Another Short Story For Our Times

 This is the second of two of my short stories I'm posting in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Indianapolis last week. This story was published in the Speed City Chapter Sisters in Crime anthology MURDER 20/20, which is still available.


In The Deepest Darkness

by Stephen Terrell

  

Whoever curses his father or mother,

his lamp will be extinguished in the deepest darkness.

– Proverbs 20:20

Six Weeks After the Darkness

            The priest’s words echoed off the high ceilings and cavernous emptiness of the church. The first sunlight streaming through stained glass images of the Stations of the Cross dimly lit pale statues of the saints. A dozen worshipers for morning mass were scattered in the first few pews, but Hanna Carmichael sat in the back row, an observer rather than a participant.

Without moving his head, the priest subtly slid a small scrap of paper resting on the pulpit to where he could see it. He recited the words familiar to the faithful, which he had long ago memorized. “Remember our brother . . . ”  The priest looked at the slip of paper.  “David Edward Carmichael, who has fallen asleep in the peace of your Christ, and all the dead, whose faith you alone have known. Admit them to rejoice in the light of your face.” 

A few moments later, as Hanna unlocked her car, she heard footsteps hurrying behind her. She turned to see the priest scurrying toward her. “Wait please,” he said, through quick breaths that showed exertion. 

Hanna stood, keys still in hand, but did not say anything.

The priest, his graying black hair and paunch showing the onset of middle age, stopped just beyond an arm’s length away. “I need to get more exercise,” he said breathlessly. After a few seconds he continued. “I’m Father Glenn. I saw you in the back of the sanctuary. Did you know the person we remembered in the service?” 

“He was my son,” Hanna said in a matter-of-fact tone. “My cousin Ellen attends your church and requested you say the mass for David.”

“Ellen McQueen?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, I know Ellen well. She’s such a wonderful woman.”

“She is. She made the request. Today would have been David’s seventeenth birthday.”

Father Glen dropped his eyes and shook his head somberly. “I am truly sorry for your loss. A loss at such a tender age is always an unspeakable tragedy. I hope the service today provided you with some comfort.”

“I know you mean well, Father. I know it helped Ellen. She’s very strong in her faith.  She believed she was doing something for David . . . something for me. I’m grateful for that. But when you lose a son, it’s all pretty hollow.”

“The loss of a young person is always a challenge to our faith. But we must find comfort in the Lord’s promises of comfort and life everlasting. What happened to your son, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“David was killed in a school shooting.”

Father Glenn’s hand covered his mouth which was open in shock. “That’s just, well, just horrific. When did this happen?” 

Hanna’s eyes shifted and stared off into the distance. After a long silence, she said, “Six weeks ago.”

***

Three Years Before The Darkness

            Alan Carmichael slammed his cup on the breakfast nook, coffee sloshing over the edge of his cup. “You coddle that boy too much. He needs a firm hand.” 

Hanna’s eyes flashed with rage. “Taking your belt to him is not being firm. Why don’t you take out your handcuffs and put them on David like one of the thugs you’re arresting?”

I’ve never hit that boy with a belt,” Alan said, ratcheting his voice down several decibels. “I know I said I’d take a belt to him. That’s what my mom did to me. But I’ve never done it.”

“You just can’t yell and threaten him. He’s your son.” Hanna walked to the toaster and put two slices of bread in the slot. She turned back toward her husband, taking a deep breath. “I know he’s difficult. But he’s a good kid at heart. You just have to be patient.”

“I try, but it’s frustrating. I spend time with him. I take him out to the shooting range with me. He likes that well enough, but I think only because it’s like those damned video games he’s always playing. He just spends so damned much time up in his room playing those video games. I tried to take him bowling or to a football game, but he’s not interested. He doesn’t have any friends. I just don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

***

Three Weeks Before The Darkness

              David banged hard into his school locker, then lost his balance. As he fell, his books and papers flew from his hands and scattered across the hallway. 

“Better watch where you’re going, David,” the tallest boy said, his voice in a sing-song taunt. “You have trouble walking?”

The three boys who crashed into him laughed uncontrollably as they walked on down the hall. 

David clenched his jaw tight, grinding his teeth to fight back tears and rage. He leaned to begin gathering his things.

“Assholes.” It was a soft voice behind him. David turned and saw Constance Griffith standing behind him. Even with a look of disgust on her face, Constance was gorgeous. She kneeled next to David and picked up his scattered papers as David retrieved his books. “Those guys are such immature dicks,” she said. Constance handed the papers to David. “Hope you’re not late to your next class.” With that, she headed down the hallway in the same direction the boys had gone.

***

Eight Days Before The Darkness

              David sat by himself at a table for four in the school cafeteria. His daily routine of two sloppy joes, fries, and a Snickers Bar he brought from home were nearly gone. Sounds and laughter of lunchtime conversations reverberated around the room, but David was oblivious. He had been planning this moment for the past two weeks.  He kept his eyes fixed across the room where Constance Griffith sat with three other girls.  They were carrying on an animated conversation punctuated by fits of laughter.

David looked at the scrawled note he had pulled from his pocket. “Do this now!” David took a deep breath, then stood. In tentative steps he walked across the room to where Constance and her friends were sitting. 

“Hi Constance,” he said, his voice barely croaking out the words. No one turned to notice him.  He tried again. This time the words boomed out as if he were yelling across the entire cafeteria.

Constance jumped a bit, then turned. Her faced showed puzzlement and perhaps a little concern. But she recognized David and gave a polite smile. “Why hi, David. I didn’t see you there. Can I do something for you?”

David had rehearsed his lines for hours in his bedroom with the door closed. He had tried different words – cute, clever, romantic. They all worked perfectly. But now as he stood here, he couldn’t recall any of them. And his courage deserted him. 

Looking down at his hands that were folded in front of him, David talked in a voice barely above a whisper.  “I, uh, well, I, uh, just wanted to thank you for the other day. When those guys knocked me into the locker and you helped pick up my books, that was very nice.”

Constance smiled broadly. Her cheeks flushed with a hint of pink and puffed out so that her smile covered not just her mouth, but her entire face. “There’s no need to thank me. Lots of people would have helped. I just happened to be there.”

Constance started to turn back around, but David started speaking again.

“I’d like to do something to thank you. If you’re not doing anything Saturday, maybe I could take you to a movie.”

The smile dropped off Constance’s face, her mouth forming an open “O.” In an instant, David knew he made a horrible miscalculation.

“I, uh, don’t think so, David. I already have plans for the weekend.”

David knew that it didn’t matter whether she had plans or not. He hung his head even further and turned to walk away.

 “But thank you for asking,” Constance said.

As he walked away, David heard the words behind him.

 “Did that perv just ask you for a date? Oh my God. He really did, didn’t he.”

“Be nice,” Constance said.

“Did he really think you’d go out with someone like him.  Oh my God. Can you imagine kissing him?” 

Then he heard a sucking sound, followed by all of the girls laughing.

***

Seven Days Before The Darkness

            The morning after being turned down by Constance, David walked through the school in a fog. Somehow, he made it from one class to the next, but at the end of each class, he could not recall a single thing that happened the previous hour. Through the edges of the fog, it seemed that everyone was looking at him, pointing, laughing. He knew it was his imagination, that no one in the entire school even knew he existed. Not even his teachers. So often he wished he could just disappear. And if by some miracle it happened, no one in the school would even notice.

Lunch period came. As always, David went through the line by himself, ordered the same food he did every day, then carried his tray to a table against the wall where he sat eating by himself. As he ate, he sensed eyes on him. He looked up and saw several people quickly look the other way. At one table, a girl looked at him, then laughed and shared what was on her phone with the girl sitting next to her. At another table, two boys were laughing and one pointed directly at him.

It wasn’t David’s imagination.

David lowered his head and concentrated on his sloppy joes. When his tray was empty, he reached into his backpack for his Snickers bar.

Curt Marcum, a boy who had been in David’s classes since elementary school, took a seat across the table from David. Freckle-faced and lacking social graces, Curt was an outsider, too. But his easy-going nature and willingness to help those who didn’t have his unfathomable ability in math and science left him free from being the target of taunts and bullying.

“Hey, David.”

David looked up surprised. No one had sat with him at lunch since he started high school. “Hi, Curt. What’s up?”

Curt leaned in and lowered his voice. “David, I just don’t think it’s right what’s going on. I want you to know I have nothing to do with it.”

David’s mind was blank. “What do you mean? What’s going on?”

“The stuff Angie Blankenship started about you on social media. There’s just no excuse for it. And I told her so.”

“What stuff?”

“You haven’t seen it?”

“No. What are you talking about.”

“Oh, Jesus, David. I don’t want to be the one to tell you.”

David’s voice rose. “Tell me what?”

Curt looked away, his mouth tight. After a long moment, he turned back to face David and pulled out his phone. “You sure you want to see this?”

“Show it to me,” David demanded.

Curt punched his phone to life and scrolled until he found what he was looking for.  He handed his phone to David.  The social media post showed more than 200 “Likes” and “Laughing” responses, and a long list of replies.

David glared at the screen, then read:

“That perv David Carmichael asked Constance Griffith for a date. Can U imagine. Can you imagine kissing that pimple faced freak? Ewwwwwwwwwww!”

The first reply was even worse:

“Deformed David Carbuncle?”  Attached to the post was a photo showing David’s school yearbook photo superimposed on a boil oozing puss. There were so many laughing face emojis that David couldn’t count them all.

Post after post followed.  “I wouldn’t kiss Carbuncle with your mouth.”  “Hey Constance, I’ll give you $20 if you stick your tongue in Carbuncle’s mouth.”  “I’ve seen his pecker in gym. Maybe it should be TW Carbuncle – for Teeny Weeny.”

David fought the urge to throw the phone. He slid it back across the table to Curt. He looked across the cafeteria and it seemed that every eye was on him.

David swiped his tray, sending it flying across the room. He stood without saying anything and walked out of the cafeteria and out of the school.

***

Two Hours Before The Darkness

            Alan Carmichael sat at his desk in the detective squad reviewing incident reports from the previous night. As he sipped on his third cup of coffee of the morning, he made notes about the follow-up investigation, and filled out the assignment sheet on which detective would handle the matter. He always kept the most interesting cases for himself.  

The phone on Alan’s desk buzzed. “Detectives. Carmichael speaking.”

“Alan, we’ve got a shooting on the west side.” It was the familiar voice of Assistant Chief Ben Truman. “One of our young patrolmen, Gary Storey, answered a call to a domestic. When he got there, he found a woman dead on the front porch, her husband still standing over her, swearing at her.”

“Is the guy in custody.” 

“Yeah. Pretty open and shut. But I think this is Storey’s first murder scene. He seems pretty shook up. Can you take it?”

“I’m on my way. Be there in 15.”

***

Thirty Minutes Before The Darkness

            “Get up, David,” Hanna shouted as she pounded three times on the door to David’s room.  “You haven’t gone to school all week. You have to go today. Otherwise they’re going to kick you out.”

There was no sound. Hanna tried the door, but it was locked. She cursed under her breath about allowing David to have a lock on his door.   She hit the door again. “Get up!”

This time there was a response, but only the series of F-bombs were understandable, then something hit the door from the inside.

“I’m not going to tolerate this. You can’t say those things in this house.”

“Whatcha gonna do, mommy?” The sarcasm dripped from each word. “You going to call daddy at work and tell him to bring the handcuffs home and arrest me?”

“Just stop it. I don’t know what’s wrong, but you have to go to school.”

Hannah heard moving and thrashing around inside David’s room.  The commotion lasted for minutes without a single word being spoken. Finally, the door flew open. David, wearing a wrinkled t-shirt and the same jeans he had worn all week, barged out of the room. “

“Get out of my way, bitch,” he yelled. As he passed, David’s backpack crashed into Hanna, knocking her into the wall.

Hanna stood in the upstairs hall, rubbing the place where her shoulder banged into the wall. She could hear the sounds from downstairs as David thrashed around. The refrigerator opened and closed with a slam. So, too, did the cabinet doors. There was a rattling of dishes and silverware. 

Hanna’s heart pounded in her throat and her breathing was hurried and short. She walked into her bedroom and sat down hard on the edge of the bed, trying to remember the techniques Dr. Oz had taught on his show to reduce stress.

From below, Hanna heard the sounds of David rooting around like an angry bear. Doors opened and shut, furniture scraping across the floor, muttered curses.

“Bye, bitch!” she heard, and the front door slammed.  

Dreading what she would find, Hanna got up and walked downstairs. She looked out the window in the door and saw David getting into her car, her spare car keys in his hand. She started to open the door, then paused. She just could not face the confrontation.

The engine started up and the tires squealed. 

Hanna opened the door and looked out. David had backed out of the drive. As she watched, he accelerated away toward the school. In the morning sunlight shining through the car windows, she saw a glint off black metal leaning against the passenger window.  As her car disappeared around the corner, a shiver ran down Hanna’s back.  “Oh God, no.”

***

Eight Minutes Before The Darkness

            Alan Carmichael took one last look at the blood-splattered front porch and the lifeless body of Mary Henderson, then slipped his notebook into his shirt pocket and walked toward where Gary Storey was standing under a small maple tree smoking a cigarette.

“You know you’re not supposed to smoke in uniform.”

The patrolman turned sharply. He pulled the cigarette from his mouth.  “Sorry, Lieutenant.”

“Your first murder scene?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve not seen anything like that before. Her face was just gone.” The young patrolman started to drop the cigarette.

“Finish your cigarette,” Alan said. “The first one is always tough. At least you didn’t lose your breakfast. That’s what I did on my first death scene.”

Storey nodded and gave a sheepish smile.

“I’m done here,” Alan said. “Crime scene boys will be working here for the next couple of hours. Stick around for crowd control until they’re done. That will give you a chance to catch your breath. If your commander says anything, tell him I didn’t want any nosey neighbor screwing with the scene until the techs are done.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t care if you sneak a cigarette. You probably need it. But don’t let anybody see you.” 

The radio on Storey’s shoulder crackled.

“All units. All units. 911 call reports possible school shooting underway at St. Benedict High School. Repeat, possible school shooting underway at St. Benedict’s. All nearby units respond. SWAT is being called.”

“That’s my son’s school.” Alan said. “We’re five minutes away. Tell them we’re responding. And don’t forget your vest.”

Alan ran to his unmarked car. He grabbed his Kevlar vest from the back seat and threw it on over his dress shirt.  Sliding in behind the wheel, he started the car, put it in drive, and pushed the accelerator to the floor.

***

Deepest Darkness

            David pulled his mom’s sedan into the St. Benedict High School parking lot. There were a few spaces open in the back row, but David saw that handicap spaces closest to school entrance were open.  “Screw it,” he said aloud, and whipped the Toyota around the aisle and into the handicap spot.

David stepped out of the car and grabbed for his dad’s 9 mm Glock that he had taken from the cabinet where he knew it was kept. The gun slipped through his sweat-drenched fingers and nearly fell to the pavement, but David finally got it in his grasp.  He wiped his hands on his jeans, racked a round into the chamber, and slid the gun behind his back into his belt. Then he pulled the shotgun from where it was propped against the passenger seat. He took a deep breath and walked toward the school entrance.

David heard the first sirens in the distance. There were two from different directions. Then more. It became a wailing symphony growing louder with each second.

Pulling the shotgun to his shoulder, David hastened his pace to the glass double-door entrance.  Inside, a woman was locking the door. It was Mrs. Smithson, the principal. As the first police cars squealed to a stop, David took aim and let go with a blast.

One glass door shattered, sending shards and fragments exploding like crystal snow into the morning light. Mrs. Smithson was blown to the floor by the blast. As she scrambled to get away, David took aim and fired again. The second shot blew out the bottom half of the door, but Mrs. Smithson was now on her feet, running around a corner and out of view.

David heard more cars stopping. The sound of the sirens was all around. Then came an amplified voice.  “Stop! Put your gun down and get on the ground!”

David stood still but did not turn or lower his gun. Everything went still. Then David heard his dad yelling behind him.

“It’s my son. It’s my son. I’ll handle this.”

David turned to see his dad standing on the sidewalk about 50 feet away. Behind him was an array of police and emergency vehicles. More than 20 armed officers wearing bullet-proof vests pointed their weapons directly at David.

Alan and David stood unmoving, frozen like statutes. Slowly Alan holstered his service handgun and held open palms toward his son. Cautiously Alan moved his hands to his jacket and undid the straps on his Kevlar vest, then dropped it to the sidewalk. With deliberate motions, Alan began walking forward.

“David, let’s all take a deep breath and calm down.” Alan’s voice was calm but firm. “All you’ve done so far is a little bit of vandalism. That’s no big deal. We can handle that. You don’t want to do something that can’t be undone. Come on, son, put the gun down and let’s talk this out.”

David hesitated, then dipped the barrel of the shotgun ever so slightly.  Alan continued to walk. When he was only two steps away, he reached his hand out for the shotgun. David moved the weapon a few inches, paused, then held out the gun. In a single, sharp movement, Alan grabbed the barrel. David shook his head. “No,” he shouted and snatched the Glock from its resting place in his belt. David fired three fast shots into Alan’s chest.

A barrage of gunfire exploded from the officers perched behind their cars. David staggered backwards, then fell into the blanket of glass shards covering the sidewalk, blood pouring from every part of his body.

***

Six Weeks After The Darkness

            Realization dawned on Father Glenn’s face. “That was your son? The one at St. Benedict’s? I heard about that. Your son was the shooter?”

“Don’t worry, Father. The only person he killed was his dad.”

“He shot his dad?”

“He was a detective; one of the first cops at the scene. He tried to talk David down, but David shot him.”

The priest stood motionless. Silent.

“You want to take back your prayers?”

Father Glenn placed a hand on Hanna’s shoulder. “Of course not. Those who are troubled, who are tormented, deserve our prayers, too. Only God is to judge.”

“That’s not the way most people think. That’s why Ellen requested the mass for him here. None of the churches in our area would say anything for David. She thought maybe people around here wouldn’t know his name. I’m sorry if she caused you any trouble.”

“He’s your son. No matter what he did, that doesn’t change. I will keep him and your husband in my prayers.”

Hanna’s stoic expression remained unchanged, but a solitary tear rolled down one cheek. “I appreciate your prayers for my son. My husband, too. But if there is a god, if he is so good, then why didn’t he help my boy before he died? David was deeply troubled. We tried everything, but there was no help for him when he was alive. If there is a god, why didn’t he give David a chance to find peace in his life?”

“We can’t know God’s plans. All we can do is have faith and pray for His mercy and love. I’ll pray for you, too.”

 “Mercy? What mercy? There was no mercy for David. As for your prayers, you can save them. I’m past that.” 

“No one is past the reach of prayer. If we open ourselves to Him, God will grant forgiveness and peace, even to those who suffer more than they think they can tolerate.” 

Anger flashed in Hanna’s eyes. “You know the Bible, don’t you?”

Father Glenn nodded. “Of course.”

“You know Proverbs 20:20?  A son that curses his parents will be extinguished in the darkest pit. Something like that. That’s what the priest at our local church told me when I asked about a service for David.”

Father Glenn shook his head. “That is awful. He should not have done that. I believe in a loving, forgiving and merciful God, not a vengeful God who turns his back on those in need.”

“There are some things beyond prayer, beyond forgiveness.” Hanna wiped away her tears and her face hardened.  “You see, I made the calls.”

Father Glenn looked at her, not understanding. “Calls?”

“When David drove away, I saw the shotgun in the car. I was afraid of what he might do, so I called the school. Then I called 911.”

They stood motionless, looking at each other. In a nearby chokeberry bush, a mockingbird trilled its vibrant morning songs, changing cadence every few seconds. The song went on undisturbed for minutes, with no other sound. In a world of such momentary beauty, it was difficult to imagine the horror of that morning at St. Benedict’s.

Finally, Father Glenn spoke, his voice so soft it could barely be heard above the songbird. “But if you hadn’t called, so many other children may have died. It took someone brave, someone who cared about others, to make that call.”

“It took someone scared. I was so damned scared that I couldn’t think straight. You think I would have sacrificed my son for any of them?”

The priest lowered his eyes as if in prayer. “My child, that is exactly what God did.”

“I’m not God!” Hanna shouted. “My son and my husband are dead, and I’m responsible. So, go say your prayers for someone who wants them, and leave me in my own darkness.”

Hanna got in her car and sped away, leaving the silent priest in her wake.

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