It was hot, hellishly so, but he was beginning to get used to that. Somehow, every time he’d traveled this time around, it wound up feeling hotter than Hades. Dan blinked the bright sun out of his eyes, and tried to get his bearings.
He was in a side yard outside of a tan brick building. A large banner tied to the chain-link fence read Welcome to Fairview High School, home of the Panthers. Dan looked over his shoulder. All he could see was through the fence was the cracked concrete of the street spreading down the hill, and a couple stubborn, scraggly trees casting shadows over the ground. The nearest blocky shape of a house was easily a quarter-mile away, down that winding road.
It certainly didn’t live up to its name. It also seemed like a strangely desolate place to have a school. Dan scanned the rest of the perimeter, noting the cars in the parking lot, the dingy bus parked to the side. School was in session then, for all it felt like July. Listless breeze scuffed dirt and leaf rubble over the sidewalk when he stepped onto it, licking up his bandaged legs and ruffling through his hair.
The school was a rambling building, spread out like a strip mall. Dan followed the sidewalk towards the front, still feeling a strange chill prowling up his spine. He paused at the front doors, one hand on the door handle. The clock he could see through the plate glass said 10:50.
Back in the present, Jack had found him everything he could dig up on the shooting, grumbling all the while about journalists who refused to do the research. According to the documents, Jeremy Kaplan had come to school at the same time as every morning, gone to his first two classes like everything was normal, and snapped around his lunch period –
In about ten minutes, if this was the right day.
The door opened easily when he tugged on it experimentally. He shook his head, instantly reminded of the sign-in procedures he had to go through every time he went to pick up Zach- procedures in place mostly thanks to incidents like the one he was hoping to stop today. He was about to slip in when a voice broke the stifling stillness.
Dan turned to look down the sidewalk, still holding the door open. Livia hurried toward him, rapidly stripping off what looked like a snow parka. Dan frowned. “Whoa, what-”
“Don’t,” Livia said, and the look she gave him was not exactly happy, “Don’t even ask.”
Dan, remembering the wedding dress fiasco, let it go with a whistle as he pulled the door the rest of the way open.
“What’s going on?” Livia demanded, discarding the parka behind the trash can. She looked down at herself and growled, peeling off the thick sweater as well.
Dan shrugged, watching her drop the sweater on top of the parka. There were still snowflakes on her bangs. He reached out to touch them, and they melted away on his fingertips. “You remember Hannah, right?”
“Kaplan’s little girl? ’Course I do,” Livia said, far more brightly now that she’d shed several layers. “We’re still working on that?”
Jack’s voice floated back to him. One of the people he killed was his own sister.
“Yeah.” Dan stepped into the school, Livia on his heels. “We’re here to keep her from getting murdered.”
There seemed to be an air of tension in the school as they walked through the halls. Dan could hear the distant murmuring of student voices, the scrape of chairs on linoleum, the slamming of locker doors - all very normal noises for a school, but the knowledge of what was about to happen gave the whole scene an eerie feeling.
“Where are we even supposed to look?” Livia asked, pausing at a trophy case outside the principal’s office. Her fingers squeaked against the glass as she brushed away an imaginary smudge. Dan shrugged at her reflection in the glass.
“Jack said that she was shot in the cafeteria…”
Livia took one more look at the trophies in the case. The most recent, most brightly shining cup said May 1990 engraved on it. Dan could see the cogs turning in her head with that look, and she didn’t disappoint him.
“Why’s she even at a high school?” She asked, following him down the hall. “She’ll be…what, twenty this year?”
“Twenty-one, actually.” He turned the corner, passing the gym and rows of lockers, feet loud in the halls as they followed the signs towards the office. “I think…we’re pretty sure she came looking for Jeremy.”
“Her little brother Jeremy, I assume,” Livia clarified, “Not her dad.”
“Right.” Dan drew in a breath, letting it out in a sigh when it made the scabbing cuts on his chest burn. “The secretary said Hannah asked the principal to let her talk to him and…well.” He could still see the headlines on the articles Jack found: Principal Dixon and fifteen students dead. “I figure, as long as we’re between the office and the cafeteria…”
“We’ll run into them.” Livia finished his thought. He nodded, peering down one of the side halls. “Does that,” she said, nudging his arm, “look like Hannah?”
Coming down the hall towards them was a rapidly balding man in a polo shirt and a young woman with a tousled mop of light brown hair. She was listening to the man – probably the principal – earnestly, nodding every now and again. Dan started to draw back around the corner when she looked up, recognition flaring bright and startled in her blue eyes.
Well. No need to play it subtle now. Hannah and the principal stopped, the principal eyeing Dan from head to toe.
“Who are you?”
Dan opened his mouth to answer, but Hannah spoke first.
“Um, excuse me, Mr. Dixon, but these are Dan and Livia, they’re…they were my foster parents.” Hannah clasped her hands in front of her as Livia gave Dan a look. Dan couldn’t help the small smile that tugged at his lips. Hannah continued, “I just thought… well, they helped me so much, maybe they’d be able to help Jeremy too.” She ducked her head, caught Livia’s hand and gave it a small squeeze. “I’m sorry, I just… I’m worried.”
It was a good act. Principal Dixon turned his suspicious eye to Livia instead now. Livia reached out her free hand to shake, smiling almost sweetly.
“Mr. Dixon, it’s a pleasure to meet you, I’m Doctor Vassar.”
Livia had played the right card. Dixon’s eyebrows went up. “Doctor Vassar?” He said, forgetting that Dan existed entirely, “Doctor of…?”
“I’m a practicing child psychologist,” Liva adlibbed as Hannah freed her hand, falling back to walk beside Dan. “I specialize in adolescents, which is why Hannah called me.”
“Smooth,” Dan commented sotto voce as Hannah caught hold of his arm. Her fingers were cold and shaking, and when they pressed a little too tightly to the bandages he couldn’t bite back the hiss of pain. Hannah let go immediately, eyes wide.
“Have you ever been convinced something didn’t happen, when on some level you know it did?” She muttered back, voice strained. “You just proved I’m not crazy.”
“You doubted?” Dan asked, looking at her. She met his eyes, challenge flickering in her stare for a second, but she looked away first.
“Eleven year olds have wild imaginations. That was a weird, weird night.”
“I won’t argue with you there.”
“But everything’s exactly the same….” Her fingertips tapped against the bandages. “How long has it been…?”
“For me? About…” He tried to think, tried to add up all those hazy hours in the hospital, in the house on the couch, tried not to let the thoughts of the table, -of hands around his, of blades in his skin- take over. He only moderately succeeded. “…six days.”
“Wow.” Hannah frowned as, up ahead of them, Livia laughed musically at something Dixon had said. “I…well, I’d say I’d forgotten how bad Dad cut you up, but…” Her laugh was almost bitter in counterpoint to Livia’s voice. “Didn’t really have that luxury.”
“Hey.” Dan nudged her, slightly. “It’s alright. The doctors…everyone says I’ll be alright.” If I survive trying to save you. Or your brother. Whichever of you I’m supposed to be saving. “Why are you here, anyways?”
The whole story slipped out as they walked towards the cafeteria, following Livia and the principal. Hannah talked about exchanging letters for years as their foster parents allowed; about seeing Jeremy at holidays – and about how, with his most recent move, the letters had changed.
“I don’t know how the kids found out, but they did, and…you know how kids can be.” Hannah’s voice sounded a bit smaller at those words. Dan thought back to high school – for him, it hadn’t been that bad; having a hot-tempered older brother heading for the police academy had helped, but for a lot of kids it had been bad – and nodded, reluctantly.
“I’m just…afraid he’ll do something dumb, so…” She raised her hands in a clear helpless gesture. “Here I am.”
“And I think that’s great – but I also think you should leave.”
“Wait, what?” Hannah stopped in her tracks; Dan almost ran into her. Up ahead, Dixon and Livia had disappeared into the cafeteria. The wave of noise coming through the doors was almost tangible, though it cut off when the door swung closed.
“You…you said it yourself.” Dan licked his lips, barreled on. “You’re worried. You don’t know what he’s up to, or what he’ll do. I think you should stay out here. Let us talk to him.”
Hannah gave him a look. “You don’t know what he’s gone through,” she argued. “I mean, yes, Dad did….pretty messed up things to you, let Jeremy pretty messed up too, but it’s not the same. He knows me, and he trusts me, and he…he sure doesn’t trust Dixon.” She started walking again; her face set stubbornly as she pushed the cafeteria door open. “I have to see him too.”
“Hannah, you don’t know what’s going on.” The noise from the cafeteria stopped; the hallway remained silent even as Hannah opened through the door. Dan cursed under his breath and lunged after her. “Hannah, sto-”
Hannah had stopped, right inside the cafeteria door. Every student and teacher in the room had also frozen, stock still, all eyes on to the table in the nearest corner. Dan turned; hand still on Hannah’s elbow. Jeremy Kaplan Junior had grown up to be a big kid: tall and sturdy, his sandy-blond hair thick and shaggy, almost covering his eyes. He stood at the table, his hands clenched in fists, chest heaving, his tray and its contents strewn over the floor at Dixon’s feet.
“Jeremy!” Hannah called out, and the boy turned to look at her. For a moment his face showed relief – but then his grey eyes passed over Dan’s face, and the relief evaporated in a wave of panicked recognition. He turned towards Livia, and the recognition just grew.
“Oh my god, it’s you!”
Dan might have been more tempted to follow that statement and see what Jeremy meant if the boy hadn’t punctuated the sentence by pulling a gun out of the back waistband of his jeans.
Both shouted simultaneously, nearly drowned out by the echoing bang of a gunshot. Livia dropped to the floor at the same time as Dan and Hannah and half the kids in the cafeteria.
The bullet missed her entirely.
The principal was not so lucky. It hit – where, exactly, Dan couldn’t say, there was too much chaos – and he went down hard, yelling.
In the wake of the myriad school shootings of the 90s and the 00s, most people claimed to know what they would do, that they knew how to best defuse a situation like this. But all the planning in the world couldn’t really prepare someone for the actuality of the event.
Dan – body screaming from the last time he’d been abused at the hand of a Kaplan – started to rise. Another shot rang out, and the other half of the kids that hadn’t dove for cover yet did so, Dan right on their heels. Jeremy tipped his table over with a crash that resounded through the cafeteria and drowned out the whimpers of the bleeding principal, efficiently propping his gun-hand on the edge, holding it steady.
“What,” Livia hissed in Dan’s ear a second later, so sudden that he nearly banged his head on the table above him, “do we do now?”
“Sit tight until he runs out of bullets?” Dan offered, and Livia gave him a dirty look. “Right, that’s not an option, I know, but-”
A sudden, ear-splitting sound rang through the cafeteria, and this time he did jump, the table smacking the back of his skull. The pain sent stars behind his eyes, but he blinked them away in time to see the kids charging en masse for the exit doors.
Hannah had pulled the fire alarm, and fire-drill instinct had taken over.
Dan started to crawl out from under the table to follow the students towards safety, but Livia grabbed his arm, dragged him back under their makeshift shelter as a bullet slammed into the floor, right where his hand would have been. “He’s watching us,” she hissed. “Not them. Not anymore.”
The sudden stillness in the wake of the fleeing kids was unnerving. Dan strained his ears, but no sound reached them other than the wail of the fire alarm and the sound of Livia’s breathing.
“Jeremy?” Hannah called out from somewhere on the other side of the cafeteria, voice quavering over the strident ring of the siren. “Jeremy, can you hear me?”
Jack had said the girl was shot in the cafeteria – but fifteen students had been killed, too, and now only Hannah, the time travelers and the injured principal were here. Things had already changed, at least somewhat. Hopefully for the better.
There was no response, regardless. Dan held his breath, reaching up to clamp his hand around the furthest edge of the table. He shoved, hissing back another gasp, but the table didn’t move until Livia caught on to what he was doing. She helped him tip it over, turning it into a wall between them and Jeremy.
“I don’t think it would be a very good idea to run for it,” Dan murmured, and Livia snorted inelegantly.
“In your condition? No. You wouldn’t even make it halfway to the door.”
“…yeah, that was kind of the point.”
There was a scuffle of movement from further down the row of tables, and Hannah came crawling to join them, face pinched with worry. She paused next to Dan, peering around the edge of their wall carefully. Dan tapped her on the shoulder, and she looked up at him, slightly lost.
“You said we don’t know what he’s going through,” Dan said, “So why don’t you tell us?”
Hannah pulled back behind the table. “He, ah,” she had to half-shout to be heard. “He said it started back in September, some kid found out who Dad was; started calling him a killer, just…constantly commenting on it, and…it just spread. I mean, I think the elementary school kids made up a jump-rope rhyme and everything…” Hannah said the last just as the fire alarm stopped blaring its distress through the school. The words echoed off the walls in its wake.
“It doesn’t even rhyme.” Jeremy’s answering snarl was loud in the silence. “You’d think that if they’re going to make up stupid poems about me, they might as well rhyme.”
“Look, Jeremy,” Dan spoke, and even his voice sounded strange through the ringing in his ears, “I don’t know what they’ve said to you or called you, but I do know that it doesn’t have to be you.” There was red on the cafeteria’s linoleum, spreading out from underneath the principal, just in sight around the edge of the table. He swallowed, fighting the urge to rub his arm.
“How do you know?” Jeremy’s voice was stress-tight and gravely; it cracked halfway through the sentence. “They could be right. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I could be just…I could be just like him!”
“You don’t believe that!” Hannah called over the table, “Unless you’ve been lying to me for years…”
“I wasn’t lying!” Jeremy insisted, “I just…I know more now that I did then.”
“We all do. Which is why I know this isn’t you.” Hannah rubbed her hand over her eyes. “Jeremy…kiddo…” Jeremy made a sound like one Dan would expect from a wounded animal, still holed up behind his table. Hannah winced.
“Jeremy,” she continued her voice soft and soothing, reminding Dan of every time when he was little and he’d skinned his knees and Jack had come running to help, or of any time Katie patched up Zack’s skinned knees, iced his bumps and bruises. “This doesn’t have to be you. It doesn’t ever have to be you. You can’t let them choose who you are for you. You can choose to be someone else.”
The answering bark of laughter wasn’t reassuring. “…yeah, sure. Did your time-traveling angel out there tell you that?”
Dan sighed, despite the fact that yes, actually, he had told her that – sixteen years ago.
“I already told you, I’m not an angel!”
“Then how come you always show up every time my life goes to hell?” Jeremy paused, and when he spoke again there was speculation and suspicion in his tone. “...maybe you’re right. That’s not exactly angelic behavior, is it? Maybe you’re a demon...”
Livia went still next to him, making a soft huffing noise low in her throat. Her expression – when Dan dared to look at her – was torn between amusement, disbelief and worry.
“Maybe Dad was right. Maybe it is our job to kill you. Maybe that’s why you keep coming back to us…” Something scraped past their table barrier, and Dan found himself staring into Livia’s eyes again before he looked wildly at Hannah.
“How far away’s the police department?”
“Close enough,” the girl said, “I mean, they should have been on their way after the fire alarms…” As if her words alone had summoned them, the sound of fire and police sirens echoed through the school. Dan breathed a sigh of relief.
Gunfire tore through the table, chasing Dan out into the open when he dove. Pain ripped through his shoulder, and he couldn’t tell for the life of him if it was from his older wounds or if he’d been hit again. He sprawled in an ungainly heap in the middle of the cafeteria, dimly aware of the pool of blood he’d skidded through, that there were people outside the still-open emergency exit doors, that Livia was climbing to her feet – dimly aware of all of this beyond the sight of Jeremy Kaplan taking aim at his face…
And Hannah, lunging for him from the side.
She tackled the gangling teen just as he fired. The shot went wild, ricocheting into the florescent lights with a shower of sparks. The gun skittered out of Jeremy’s hand as he hit the floor, and the sound of it pierced through both sides of Dan’s aching head…
“He’s down, he’s down, don’t shoot!” someone yelled – Livia or Hannah or someone else, he couldn’t really focus to figure out as a pair of police officers burst through the door. Dan almost collapsed again with relief, right in the middle of the floor, but the sharp ache in his shoulder and arm, the fact that his pants were now damp with someone else’s blood kept him upright. He started to crawl towards the principal, but the room spun rather unhelpfully and he fell to his back behind the table barrier.
“Dan!” Livia yelled.
This time he managed to howl back “I’m okay!” just as the light took him.