The campus of Elkridge High was quiet in the early morning hours… and that was just the way that Hugh Vander liked it. Eyes closed, hands folded in prayer, he whispered an, “Amen,” then opened his eyes and stared across the campus from his seat on the damp aluminum lunch table.
A Tuesday. Just another day of 11th grade. Another day to be a witness to others, Hugh mused
He looked down at the list of names in his hand. Fifty seven names to be exact. He’d begun praying for his classmates after he’d felt the call during last summer’s church camp. That had been – he reflected on the memory – three months ago? Yeah. Time sure flew. Now, as students began to arrive, some by car, some by bus, some on foot, Hugh thought of the changes inside of him. Yeah, he still had a ton of trouble with English class, and with History. And science. Especially Mr. Uchinson’s Science class. His laborious speeches were absolute boredom.
But still, as he thought more, he realized that something had undeniably changed within him. He no longer saw things in the same way. Why, he no longer even saw himself as just a ‘student’. No, God was showing him something bigger. He was seeing himself placed here for a purpose. He wasn’t just here to learn at school, but to be —
The school bell rang out. Five minutes to get to first period.
“Hey, Spew!” He felt his hair ruffled as large fingers ran over his head. Next, a hand rushed past his ear, over his shoulder and snatched the list of names he was holding.
Hugh turned to see Mike Ackerman, large burgundy “E” on his lettered jacket, studying his list closely. Football was Mike’s place in life. That and belittling people.
“Spew, what’s with the names? Am I on here?” His eyes searched down the list. “Ya got my lousy sister on here… What the…?”
“That’s the eleventh grade… my classmates,” Hugh offered.
Mike’s eyes shot up. “What? No seniors? What is this?” He shook it in Hugh’s face.
Several feelings went through Hugh then, but at the same time a peace came over him. He was free to tell the truth here, though he wasn’t sure how Mike would take it. But, that didn’t even matter, did it?
Hugh felt a sudden confidence. “It’s a prayer list. I was just…”
“Pray-er List?” Mike barked. He thrust one end of the list to Hugh, but when Hugh took hold, Mike pulled back, the paper tearing in half. “There,” Mike said flinging his piece of the list on the ground, “you got two lists now. Double time prayers now, Spew.”
Hugh could only stare. He asked God inwardly for words, something to say. Do I say something to him, God? There was no clear answer.
“Speechless, Spew?” Then Mike laughed at his new nickname, turned and hurriedly walked toward building 102.
A cold November breeze swept through the lunch area then. Several napkins fluttered to flight looking like haphazard birds startled to take wing. Hugh retrieved the second half of the list from the ground then stuffed both pieces into his top shirt pocket.
Jesus, show Mike Your truth. Show him that there’s more to life than… football…and terrorizing people…Show him Your love…
“Hey, Hugh!” This cheery voice brought an instant smile to his face. He grabbed his books and rose to face fellow classmate, Heather Adams. Her smile: infectious. Her company: delightful. More than once Hugh had wondered if Heather would one day be his wife. Though neither of them had dated, they had known each other since 8th grade. And they both went to Lakeside Chapel. He desired a Christian woman to share his life with. Heather was that and more. She was also alphabetically, the second name on the prayer list in his shirt pocket, one name after, ironically, Sarah Ackerman, Football Mike’s sister.
“You talking with Mike?” she asked, tossing her strawberry blonde hair over one shoulder. He loved it when she did that. There was something about her cheerful countenance that could brighten any kind of day. He found himself grinning.
“Interrogation is more like it.”
She looked at Mike, and then began to walk toward building 102. “I heard that Mike’s Dad left his family…”
Hugh fell into step beside her. “How do you know that?” he said, interrupting.
“My Dad’s a deacon, remember? I overheard him talking to Mike’s Mom on the phone.”
“Wow.” Hugh wasn’t sure how such an experience would affect him, but it sounded painful. His Mom and Dad had been together, and in love, for as long as he could remember. How would he handle it if they suddenly spoke of separation or divorce? He had no idea. Inwardly he thanked God for his parent’s strong, godly marriage.
They reached the glass door of Building 102, and Hugh stepped up and held it open for Heather. He continued to hold the door as three giggling girls scurried in from the cold wind.
The hallway, painted a utilitarian tan, was filled with students at burgundy lockers. Metal doors slammed in a cacophony of rhythm, a wadded piece of paper flew by, and someone was spinning like a top to some hip-hop music down near the science room, a crowd clapping and cheering him on. All so typical for a Tuesday, Hugh thought.
Heather turned toward the stairwell, jumped up two stairs then stopped on the third. She turned, and Hugh watched as students flowed around her like a rock in a stream. A lovely rock too. “See you at science,” she called.
Hugh smiled up at her. “Got your chlorophyll all figured out for the test?”
“Those plants don’t stand a chance!” she laughed. She skipped up three more steps before calling out, “I’ll have my revenge – I’m having salad for lunch!”
Hugh laughed, watching as she gave him one last smile before disappearing around the corner.
He wondered if lettuce even had chlorophyll.
* * * * * * * * *
Hugh was seated in the second row, near the wall of windows along the far side of the classroom. He watched as Heather appeared in the doorway just as the late bell rang. Hugh watched as Mr. Uchinson raised an eyebrow and followed her as she hustled through the desks, planting herself quickly next to him. For a moment, Hugh wondered if Uchinson would begin to lecture her on tardiness, but instead, he turned to the blackboard, squared his shoulders, then circled a drawing on the board and began a brief synopsis of a leaf’s cross section.
“Stop off for flowers?” Hugh kidded.
Heather smirked back, eyes sparkling.
And that’s when it happened.
Hugh’s heart skipped a beat and he jumped clear off his seat as a sharp concussive wave of sound roared through the room. Had someone set off a firecracker? An M-80? Then another BOOM rang out followed by yet another. They were too close together to sound like firecrackers. No, someone was shooting a gun in the hallway. A real gun!
From behind their classroom door he heard screams. Some in terror, another in pain. Another shot rang out and the pained cry ceased. What did that mean?
Hugh stood, scanning across the room. Confused eyes stared back at him. Should he go outside in the hallway? Heather started to say something, when the classroom door flew inward crashing against the far wall. Rushing through the door, arm extended straight out, a soldier rushed the room in dark green fatigues. A soldier? No, two soldiers! Paintball masks hid their faces. But that was NOT a paintball gun!
“LECTURES OVER, professor!” the first soldier yelled.
Hugh recognized the voice; this wasn’t a soldier – but a student… a classmate!
Mr. Uchinson only managed to say two words. They would be his last: “Do you…”
The sound of the gunshots made Hugh’s teeth rattle. The class screamed as Mr. Uchinson’s body collapsed behind his desk. The chalk that he’d been holding left a long white line across the chalkboard. Spattered blood dotted the wall. Mr. Uchinson did not get back up.
The gunmen swung their guns toward the class and Hugh’s stomach turned and flipped with an unspeakable dread. He sat down hard into his chair. Without even thinking he reached over and put his hand on top of Heather’s. Her hand was trembling. He squeezed it gently.
The shooter, and seemingly the more dominant of the two, addressed the class. “Any HEROS?” He scanned the room. “Stay in your SEATS!”
Soldier #2 spoke to the first. “Steve? What’s next?” he said hesitantly.
Hugh made the instant connection. The one who’d just shot Mr. Uchinson was a camouflaged Steve Hanson. 11th grader. A name – a person – he’d been praying for! That meant that the most likely person Steve would be partnering with was Mark Binning. The two were always hanging out together.
Gunman Steve jerked his helmet from side to side, the overhead fluorescents gleamed off his visor, obscuring his eyes. Why were they even wearing masks? Hugh wondered.
Steve barked out orders. “Propane, Mark! Get it going!”
Well, that clinched it, Hugh reasoned. He’d called him Mark. Steve and Mark, two of his very own classmates were responsible for this rampage. Were there more? God, help us… we so need Your help right now. Stop Steve and Mark. Stop them, Lord.
Obeying his orders, Mark moved through the desks, to the back of the room. Now Hugh could see their weapons. Each had some sort of hunting knife strapped to their legs. And each held some sort of revolver. As Mark made it to the back of the room, Steve flipped open his gun and began reloading. Hugh counted them as they went in. Six bullets. Had Mark fired any?
There was another loud BANG from the hallway. More screams were heard.
“Ha!” Mark laughed from the back. “I betcha that was my locker bomb. Sounded like it. Yeah, my locker bomb worked. Didja hear that, Steve? That was definitely my locker bomb.”
Steve swiped at the fog on his visor, swore loudly, then flipped the mask backward where it crashed to the floor. Hugh looked into the sweaty face of Steve Hanson, a boy that he’d only recently tried to befriend. These two gunmen knew weapons. He’d heard stories of the two, how they hunted for deer and turkey… and now people.
Steve’s eyes were wild, darting across the room, the revolver following his stare. No one spoke. No one even seemed to be breathing. Steve seemed to be running on adrenalin, his breathing was loud and obvious. In the back of the room, Mark had succeeded in turning on all the Bunsen burner spigots. A soft hissing sound floated from the science stations. Were they planning on igniting the propane? Blow the room up? What were they planning?
“It’s not enough!” Steve barked again. “See if you can find the main gas feed!” then, he ran to the classroom door. He opened it and peered up and down the hallway, then ran back across the room to the windows and looked out on the lunch pavilion. Students were running, and Hugh could see books and backpacks scattered around the sidewalks. Steve grunted and managed to get one of the old, aluminum framed windows open. He pointed the pistol outside and fired two shots into the running crowd. Hugh felt Heather’s hand jump both times, and he looked over at her. Her lips were slightly parted and her eyes held none of the sparkle he so loved to see. He looked past her at some of the other students. One girl had her hands over her ears, as did two other boys. From the back row a girl, he wasn’t sure who, was softly crying, her head on the desk. Next to her, football player Mike Ackerman gripped the edges of his desk, his teeth clenched, terror written across his face.
Mark’s boots clomped on the terrazzo floor as he ran up next to the window where Steve stood.
“Didja get any?” then he too removed his mask. It was Mark Binning alright.
Steve said nothing, only spun the cylinder on his gun.
“What’s next?” Mark asked.
“Line ’em up.”
A wicked grin crossed Mark’s face. He turned and addressed the third period Science class, waving the gun. “You heard the man…. LINE UP!”
Half the room jumped to their feet. Hugh stood next to Heather, still holding her hand.
Father, I trust You as my God. Deliver us from this. Deliver these students, these people, from harm.
No one knew where to go. Mark, grinning, seemed to find satisfaction with their confusion. Steve still scanned outside through the window, then fired another shot at something in the distance. All those still seated stood quickly to their feet and looked for more orders. Mark clomped over to the door. “Against the windows!” he shouted.
Hugh told himself that he should be more afraid. But strangely, he wasn’t. God was watching, wasn’t He? God would protect, wouldn’t He? Protect us, God.
No one wanted to be close to Steve, so most headed toward the windows near the rear part of the room, next to the hissing science stations.
“Spread out!” Mark shouted above the sound of scraping desk chairs. “Spread out along the windows!”
Hugh moved till his back was against the windows, Heather squeezed next to him on his right. A trembling girl hurried close to him on his left, her chin down. Hugh recognized her as Sarah Ackerman. She was crying without making any sound, her shoulders lurched up and down. Silent tears flowed on freckled cheeks. Hugh felt a deep sympathy for her. Did this scared girl know Jesus? If this were the end, would she find herself in His beautiful, heavenly arms?
The months of bringing her name to the Throne of Grace resulted in an inward prayer that flowed freely – naturally – from Hugh’s heart. Father, save this young girl. Save Sarah. Save Sarah Ackerman.
Gunman Mark looked up and down the line of students. “What’s next, Steve?”
“Let’s give ’em the God question.”
Mark’s face split in a wicked grin.
Steve scanned the line of faces along the window. “Let’s make it like Columbine.”
Mark’s boots clomped along the line of students. “Ye-ah!” he said, waving the pistol. “Who here believes in God?” he called out in a sing song voice. “Any Gawd lovers?”
No one spoke.
Hugh swallowed. Then swallowed again. Was it really coming down to this? These two were going to gun down the Christians in the room? God lovers? Was that him?
Yes! His soul cried. God’s Spirit stirred within Hugh, giving rise to courage and faith. It was not unlike the sensation when singing his favorite worship songs.
In the back, unlit burners hissed. The tension built in the room. There was more screaming from outside. Hugh thought he heard a siren. Father, hurry help to this room!
The silence was broken by Football Mike Ackerman’s voice. “Spew… Hugh. Over there,” he said pointing. “He’s a Christian. He believes in God.”
No one else said anything. The accusation hung suspended in the air.
Though the accusing finger of his frequent tormentor pointed straight at him, Hugh felt no fear. Heather, on his right, squeezed his hand this time. Surprisingly, Sarah suddenly grabbed his left. He felt her small, bony hand in his. Somehow, the simple human touch comforted him even beyond the peace he was feeling within.
Football Mike was talking again, “He’s got a list in his pocket. Says he prays for his class. He’s gotta be a Christian, right?”
Steve moved then, walking straight to Hugh where he held the barrel of the gun at Hugh’s right eye. “That true?”
Hugh felt both of his hands suddenly squeezed, vice-like, from both girls on either side of him. He heard Sarah, on his left, stifle a sob. Heather seemed to whisper, “Please, Jesus…” or did he imagine that? For her to say such a thing would certainly tag her as a Christian. Protect her, God.
“I said,” Steve repeated, gun unwavering, “Is that true?”
“Which question?” Hugh asked with confidence. “That I’m a Christian? Or that I’m praying for my class?”
Where did such words come from? he thought. How could he be looking down the barrel – literally looking down the barrel of a gun – and not feel fear? God, I feel Your strength… Is this Your courage? Will I die today? Will I be with You today?
“Where’s this list?” Steve demanded.
Sarah’s bony hand continued to squeeze hard. Hugh nudged his chin down. “It’s in my shirt pocket.”
Steve used the barrel of the gun to pull open his pocket. Then he reached in and pulled out the two folded pieces of paper. Mark came over and peered at the names, his gun pointed down the line of quivering students.
A murderous grin morphed Steve’s expression. “I think we have our killing list, Mark.”
An evil smirk lit Mark’s face again. “Really? Who’s first?”
Everyone shifted in line. Hugh glanced over and saw Football Mike’s face drain of color. Did he know who was first on the list?
Steve held the list aloft. “Looks alphabetical,” he said, matter of fact.
“Ha!” Mark smirked. “Ellison’s English class did teach you something!”
They both laughed mirthlessly. It would have been funny had there not been loaded guns.
In the back, propane continued to hiss.
“Lets see… First name, would be….” Steve mockingly looked around the room before jerking the pistol to Hugh’s left. “YOU!” His gun moved over to Sarah’s chest. She didn’t look up. “Sarah. Sarah Acker-man.”
Football Mike started to talk, “That’s my sis…” Mark extended his arm and lined up the sights on Mike’s forehead. “Wanna be a hero, senior?”
Mike’s mouth froze open.
Hugh heard Sarah make a small squeaking sound and he realized the terrified girl had lost control of her bladder.
God, please stop this! Please save Sarah!
“You believe in God, Sarah?”
Sarah squeaked again and let go of Hugh’s hand. She brought both hands up in front of her, holding her palms out toward the weapon. Steve stepped once backward, the gun aimed higher now, at her neck.
Hugh had to do something. Try to distract them. “Why’d you have to kill Mr. Uchinson?”
Mark answered first. “Flunked us both… on that chemical quiz–“
Steve interrupted with a stream of profanity, “…AND biology exam, AND the planets test, AND the earth project…” he pulled back the trigger. It was a sickening sound. “Tell me, Sarah,” he said it slowly, with malice, “Do you bee-lieve in God?”
“I… I… don’t know,” she said, in a voice barely a whisper.
Hugh saw Steve’s finger tighten on the trigger.
“Then say, ‘Hi’ when you see Him…”
The time for talking was over. Hugh reacted instantly. He shook off Heather’s hand on his right, and then stepped to his left in front of Sarah, shielding her. An explosion and flash of orange erupted before him and his chest exploded backward in shock. At the same moment he heard Sarah scream behind him. As his vision swam there was the sound of glass breaking and more shots ringing out close and near. Before him, he saw Steve and Mark both fall to the ground, bloody areas of flesh showed across their faces, pools of their own blood began to spread near the desks.
Hugh’s world tilted and it was suddenly very hard to breathe. How was he even still standing? Then, though he didn’t want to, his legs gave out and he fell backwards against Sarah. Other hands kept him from hitting the floor hard. Now he lay on his back with his eyes straight up at the fluorescent lights. Someone was yelling, “POLICE! Everyone stay where you are!” There were more screams and crying, but no more gunshots. Footsteps shuffled and squeaked.
“You got ’em, man!” someone yelled. “Those were the guys with the guns!”
The light above Hugh blurred… and a face came into view. Such a lovely face.
“Hugh!” It was Heather. He tried to get his vision to focus, but it was hard. He eventually found her eyes. Eyes filled with grief.
“Hugh! Someone please get HELP… get someone… a doctor. PLEASE!” Heather choked, tears wet her face, dark under her eyes where her mascara was running. He realized she had both of her hands compressed on his chest, pressing down, though it was hard to feel anything. She swiped at her nose, and a bloody mark stained her cheek. His blood he realized with sudden clarity. He must be bleeding. Bad.
He tried to speak, but it came out low as though he was far away. “How’s… Sarah?”
Sarah’s face now blocked the lights above. She was holding a bleeding shoulder, and her blouse was stained crimson, but the wound didn’t look too terrible. So, the bullet had still hit her. It had gone through him, and hit her.
But not enough to kill her.
Yeah, he agreed with the Voice that had just entered his mind. She was wounded, but it was not enough to kill her.
“Why would you do that?” Sarah was crying. “WHY did you do that?”
One of her tears fell on his face, and he felt it. A large warmth spread over his body.
God, are You here?
I am here.
He tried to speak again, his voice quieter still. Sarah leaned her ear closer, as did Heather. He marshaled his failing breath. “It’s what… Jesus… would have done.”
Sarah’s mouth froze open, and more tears fell. She continued to press down on his chest.
Hugh heard a boy’s voice nearby say, “Oh, man. He’s a goner.”
Hugh smiled, a far away feeling coming over him. He was floating. There was no pain. Shouldn’t there be more pain?
Her ear was to his face in a flash. “Yes?”
“I will… see you again…”
Heather forced a smile, and one of her tears hit his lips.
Sarah pushed into his field of vision. “You listen here, Hugh. She doesn’t have to tell me about Jesus. I’ve seen Him today. I saw Him in YOU!” She put a balled up fist to her mouth and bit into her hand. “I saw JESUS step in front of a gun…. for me!”
Hugh’s eyes looked around, darting from side to side. A wide grin spread slowly across his pale face.
Heather began to weep openly, then, realizing she wasn’t helping Hugh, she fought for control. A new maturity rose within her, a new insight. She suddenly saw her relationship to this gentle, dying boy… No, this wasn’t a boy. This was a gentle man of God and she was his sister. A sister in Christ. God was allowing her to be here for this moment. To be present, to comfort. With words that she suddenly was surprised to hear herself say, she asked, “Hugh, do you see Him?” At that, her throat constricted and she swallowed back the hard lump that threatened to choke her. Hugh didn’t respond, so she asked, “Is God here?”
Hugh smiled again, his face brightening. He looked past her, almost through her. He saw something – Someone – that her earthly eyes could not. And the look of excitement, oh! She was reminded of someone who was seeing toys around a tree on Christmas morning. What does he see, God? Oh, give me eyes to see what he sees, Father!
Hugh coughed lightly. “God.. is here, He’s…” Hugh took a deep breath. Then, with his final air, his chest fell slowly. His whispered words were strong, true. “He’s…holding… my……… hand.”
His chest did not rise again.
Someone said, “That guy really loved God.”
A chorus of scattered, “yeahs” could be heard around the room.
Heather looked up at the faces around her. There were two police officers over near Mr. Uchinson’s body, another came through the door, weapon raised. She started to speak, found no words, then choked back more sobs that threatened to overwhelm her again. Her eyes looked to Sarah. Everyone seemed frozen.
The realization hit. Hugh was with God. God was holding his hand.
“Heather?” Sarah queried, her arm still pressed to her shoulder.
Heather doubted her ability to speak. The moment was hushed, unlike anything she’d ever experienced. After a moment, she whispered back. “Y…yeah?”
A single tear slid slowly down Sarah’s already wet face. “Tell me about Hugh’s Jesus.”
The room leaned in closer, to hear.
To really hear.
Out in the hallway the bell rang.
©2007 Ron Masters