Pops raced toward the high school; all he could imagine was the worst. Even before he pulled out of the driveway, he saw the smoke waffling up like a looming gray monster. Darryl had left the house for school before he’d gotten up and his gut told him that the boy was among whatever he would find there when he arrived. The news was a part of his daily routine; destruction and possible tragedy was not. So, now here he was terrified at what he would see and hear in a few short minutes.
Pops had tried Hondo’s number, but it went straight to voicemail which meant he was already on the scene with no time to entertain an old man’s paranoia. Darryl was Pop’s second chance to right the wrongs of his past and it was his living, real-time apology to Hondo and Winnie for all of his mistakes that seemed to haunt him whenever he looked into his children’s eyes.
McGregor High School –
Parents had already begun to arrive, and it was nearly impossible for the officers to keep them away from what was left of the building. Hondo ran past the dozens of first responders and into the auditorium. He could hear the moans and whimpers. Carefully he made his way down the corridor toward the sounds, heart beating out of control and fearing the worst. One by one he dialed the cell phones of Deacon, Luca, Chris, Street and Tan and finally Darryl. Each phone rang without being picked up which sent Hondo’s anxiety level through the roof.
Darryl struggled to make sense of what was happening around him. He’d seen the man dressed in black run past him backstage just before the boom, boom, boom, boom brought the roof and walls down around him. He’d heard the gunshots too, before the man who looked not much older than him breezed past close enough to have seen Darryl had he moved from the shadows. Now, Darryl and the stranger lay motionless beneath piles of AV equipment and props from productions past.
Then he heard the moans; slowly he tried to move but it was impossible and the mere motion of lifting his head sent a shock wave of pain through his small frame. The other moans sounded again, this time the agony was evident, and Darryl knew that they needed help and fast.
“Hang on, okay? Help is coming…just hold on.” Darryl assured.
Darryl closed his eyes and prayed that his words were more than wishful thinking.
Deacon and Street worked together to dig body after body from the rubble. First responders had arrived moments before and for that they were grateful. Tan was the first to notice that he had missed a call from Hondo.
Hondo felt his cell vibrating against his side and quickly pulled it from his waist.
“Hondo! There’s been an explosion…”
“I know, I’m here! Where are you guys?”
“Where in the middle of hell!”
“Is everybody okay?” Hondo asked.
“Yeah, a little banged up but we’re good.”
Hondo breathed a sigh of relief while picking up his speed as he waded through the remains of the old building.
“Tan, I need to find Darryl, have you seen him?”
“No, I didn’t know he was here.”
“He was supposed to work backstage with the AV and sound team.”
Tan glanced toward the stage it had been the hardest hit; there was nothing left that resembled a stage or anything else for that matter.
Hondo waited for Tan to respond; he didn’t.
Chris almost missed her; the young girl’s body was completely covered except for her dark curls that had been held on the top of her head with a bright yellow ribbon. She was so still and even before she dropped to her knees to look closer, she knew that the petite young girl was gone. Tears sprung from her eyes as she checked for a pulse hoping beyond hope that her first assessment was wrong. She was no older than sixteen and her life had just begun. There would be no prom, no graduation and no future for her. Who would do this? Who could justify such a dastardly act of violence against the innocent?
Chris wiped away her tears and stood on shaky legs; this wasn’t how her day was supposed to end. What was happening to a world where it was just okay to kill and destroy futures before they ever began.
Darryl tried to move again but like before, the pain in his chest stilled him. It was getting hard to breathe, hard to stay awake and he knew that if someone didn’t find him soon it would be too late.
The other voice sounded weaker and somehow, Darryl felt responsible for the person who’d found himself trapped backstage with him.
“You gotta hold on. Help is coming…”
“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”
“I was supposed to be out of the building…before…I was supposed to…”
“Wait!” Darryl began to cough uncontrollably. “You did this? You shot all those students and Mr. Spurnwell?”
“He deserved it!” Chester wheezed trying to gather more air. “He expelled me just before graduation! He got what he deserved!”
“What about the others, they didn’t do anything to you!”
“I…I was supposed to out of the building before…they promised.”
Chester wheezed and then grew silent closing his eyes. Darryl had to get free, he had to make sure that Chester paid for what he had done.
“…before what? Who promised you?”
Hondo looked up to see Deacon running toward him. It didn’t matter that his friend was covered from head to toe in black soot, Hondo pulled him into a quick embrace.
“What the hell happened? This looks like a warzone!”
“Well brace yourself, it’s ten times worse inside.” Deacon said.
“I need to find Darryl, he’s got to be here, Deac…”
“Calm down, we’ll find him, but it may take a minute.”
“Banged up but she’s on her feet, doing her job; we all are.”
Hondo and Deacon waded through the room checking for survivors along with the dozens of other first responders. He kept thinking of the promise he had made Leroy, that he would take care of his son; he failed. Darryl was family and he loved him. How would he explain to his friend? How would he live with himself if he wasn’t able to bring him home alive?
After what felt like hours, Hondo had made his way toward the place that was once the stage. He’d ordered Deacon to continue looking for survivors while he continued on alone. He wasn’t prepared for what he might see. Darryl had gone through more than anyone his age should ever have to go through…he had to be okay…he had to.
His eyes opened slowly; he thought he’d heard his name, but it was hard to breathe, and his head hurt. Surely, he was hearing things, but Hondo said he was coming and as long as he’d been in his life, Hondo had never lied to him.
Chester heard it too; the stranger laying mere feet away had assured him that help was coming. He was in bad shape as pain ran through every inch of his body, but he couldn’t go to jail. Maurice had warned him not to get caught; bad things happened to people who failed and got caught. His left hand was free, and he felt around the area near his body for his gun.
“Darryl, where are you?”
It took all of his strength to respond. He felt hopeful as he could hear steps rushing toward him.
Chester felt frantic, he wasn’t going to let Maurice and Herman down. He’d fight with his last breath to prove he was the man for the job. They were his family, the only family he knew.
“Over here, Hondo!”
Chester felt his hand land on the extra gun that had been strapped to his waist. Breathing a haggard sigh of relief, he pulled it close ready to use it.
Hondo saw Darryl’s head peeking beneath a pile of debris. He rushed toward him nearly giddy and dropped to his knees. Immediately he began to dig the young man out.
“Shh…take it easy, I’m here, I’m here.”
“I have to tell you!” Darryl tried again.
Chester saw the uniform and he knew that he needed to act now before it was too late.
“No, I need to tell you…”
“It’s okay, I got you, I got you…” Hondo assured him.
Darryl felt his hand break free from the rubble as Hondo continued to dig. Behind Hondo, Darryl saw the stranger who had been the cause of this nightmare…then he saw the gun.
“People like to say that the conflict is between good and evil. The real conflict is between truth and lies.” – Don Miguel Ruiz