On the Way to the Killing Spree the Shooter Stops for Pizza
With some time to kill, the shooter parks his car outside One Brother’s Pizza and he thinks: It’s just a slice, a slice won’t slow me down. He thinks: A slice may even be good for me. He thinks: This is a choice I’m making a choice and nobody in the world has any say over whether or not I make this choice.
Last night, he forgot to eat. Even after a full month of planning, there were loose ends to tie up, there were final considerations. He hadn’t wanted to leave a note but while he lay in bed not sleeping there were so many words in his mind desperate to escape and he could feel them crawling like cockroaches out of his mouth and so he decided to record them in his notebook. Later they will find his notebook and call it a manifesto. The media will try to analyze it and explain it to their audiences, but they are uncreative and they cannot be trusted to understand.
Next door to One Brother’s is a small insurance agency with an oversized window, in which a pretty, middle-aged woman sits as if on display. Her desk faces away from the street, but her body is turned so that he can see her profile, the cold curve of her cheekbones, the skin beneath her jaw sagging just a bit, like an ill-fitting mask. He stands only three feet away from her, separated by the glass like a prisoner at visitation. Her blonde hair is cut in a bob and swept stylishly across her forehead and she wears a fashionable blouse and skirt like something a mannequin at a high-end department store would wear. Her legs are crossed with her cell phone resting in the valley between her thighs, and she stares down intently at her crotch, occasionally laughing and swiping fingers across the screen. She looks like a well-adjusted version of his mother. Like his mother if she’d had better parents and gone to a good high school and been able to earn an associate’s degree in something. If she would just look up from her phone she would see him and they could make eye contact and have something like a human connection, they could hold hands and have a picnic and dance in a field to an Elton John song and smoke cigarettes together under the moon, but she is playing a game with bright colors and cute cartoon birds, and in those brief moments when she looks away from the screen she seems to be thinking about something unpleasant, a fight with her ex-husband or concerns about her son’s college applications, or maybe trying to convince herself that the weird mole on her neck is nothing and she’s going to be fine.
The phone on her desk rings and she pivots to answer it, turns her back to him.
She will see him on the news later and not even know how close he’d been to her, how she could have saved everyone if only she’d taken the time.
Across the street, there is a gas station flanked by a ten-foot-tall brontosaurus statue, the dinosaur smiling grimly, as if he’s just become aware of the extinction of his species, of the incurable loneliness that will plague him until he dies. It’s a pretty dark joke by the proprietors, he thinks, a reminder that the fuel pumping into patrons’ cars is the liquefied remains of millennia of once-living things, some long extinct. Every car is full of dead things, churning and grinding and conveying people from one place to another and eventually the people are dead too and replaced by other people. The monetization of large-scale death: the silver lining of extinction.
He enters One Brother’s, where the pizza is laid out like jewelry in a glass case. He points at a slice with pepperoni and the man behind the counter slides the slice into the oven to heat it up, then turns his attention back to the TV in the corner of the room, which is tuned to a talk show that seems targeted at children and adults who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. The panel of hosts is debating the proper etiquette for farting in a restaurant; the audience laughs like a roomful of dope fiends who have just gotten their fix.
It is eleven o’clock. By noon, he will have killed nineteen people, wounded forty-five. He is armed extensively enough to take out more than that but his gun will jam and one of his homemade bombs will not detonate.
The pizza scalds the roof of his mouth and he feels the skin peeling off with the bubbling cheese and he drops the slice back onto the plate, sauce slopping out of his burning mouth and searing his chin and he thinks: Fucking pizza pizza fucking fuck all the fucks. Then he thinks: I could just do it here. Then he thinks: If that guy looks at me again. Then he thinks: Play it cool. You made a plan for a reason.
Later, the pundits will speculate. They will look for reasons. They will want to know why. They will call him a loner and they will quote former teachers saying he was bright but shy and they never thought he’d be capable of something like this. They will say nobody every suspected it could happen here.
The pepperoni is unctuous and too round too obviously manufactured too hot too crispy too indifferent. Pepperoni is made from dead animals, he reminds himself. They died for you. Like Christ except at least pepperoni serves a function. There are two jobs in the slaughterhouse, the slaughtered and the slaughterer. There is a grate on the floor to let the blood drain out. Most of them don’t even know until it’s too late.
There will be a hero teacher who tackles him, and that hero teacher will be the last one to die.
He bites into the pizza again and now it’s not too hot, it’s so-called just right and as he grinds it with his teeth and feels it sliding down his throat, it goes to that place in him that craves unhealthy foods, that is insatiable in its pursuit of grease and sugar and fat, that place in him he would cut out if he could because then someone else could be the fat kid at school, the slob, the punch line. He feels the grease cooling inside him, congealing, and he feels at the same time satisfied and helpless and angry, and then he takes another bite.
Everyone eats a last meal, even if most don’t realize it at the time. You have a bowl of grain-based flakes and skim milk before heading to work and having a stroke at your desk. The meal turns into your last meaningful act before your last act. His father’s last meal was a hot roast beef sandwich and a bag of chips, washed down with between eight and twelve beers. He didn’t come home from the bar but that wasn’t unusual; they didn’t even think anything was wrong until the police called and said they’d found his car and someone ought to come in and identify the body.
Rasputin’s last meal was sturgeon in champagne sauce and poisoned honeyed cakes. Eichmann had half a bottle of red wine. Timothy McVeigh had two pints of mint chocolate chip ice cream. John Wayne Gacy ate deep-fried shrimp with fried chicken and strawberries. Gerald Lee Mitchell—a bag of Jolly Ranchers. Patrick Rogers—a single glass of Coke. Stacey Lawton—a jar of pickles. James Edward Smith—a clump of dirt. Dozens of condemned men ate pizza before they faced the firing squad or the chair or the injection. Everyone in the pizza shop is condemned, he thinks, they just don’t have the luxury of knowing how or when the end is going to come.
The door behind him swings open, bells ringing, a cop jangling fat and sloppy to the counter, too dumb to know what’s going to happen. Too dumb to even suspect. He is jovial and everyone here knows him. He carries himself like the world is a good and fine place and like there is meaning in being an overweight small-town policeman who spends his days in a pizza parlor watching terrible TV.
The officer will be one of hundreds pursuing the shooter through the woods near the school, and he will be maimed by one of the traps laid there in advance. The officer will lose his left hand and sustain severe burns on the left side of his face and he will never work active duty again. After nine months of rehab he will try to reclaim his life but will never again feel like the world is a good or fine place.
The shooter is finished, except for the crust—eating the crust is unnatural, it’s like eating the bones—and he wants to make a grand gesture when he leaves, give everyone in that room a story, so that years from now they can tell people that the day the shooting happened, they saw him. So they can say: I can’t believe it could have been me. So they can say: I could tell something wasn’t right with that kid but I didn’t think he’d do that. So they can say: If I could just go back and do it over again I would have stopped him. But you can’t do things over again. That’s the point. He wants them to understand the randomness of Fate, to understand that he himself is Fate personified, and he chose not to kill them, not because they’re special or more important or better prepared or more faithful or more likable, but because there is no reason but unreason. He rises and goose-steps toward the exit, his heavy boots pounding a warning into the floor. At the door, he pivots on his heels and salutes the room. He holds this pose for a moment, whistling “Taps,” and then lowers his hand deliberately, like the soldier standing before him and his mother at his father’s funeral. He turns sharply on his heels and leaves the pizza shop.
He will not survive the shooting. Has no intention of surviving the shooting. There is no escape; anywhere he goes will be the same. He will run only so that they chase him.
His mother, drunk and alone at home, is watching TV and may not even know he has left the house. Next week, she will have a last meal of Canadian Club and onion rings and a hundred aspirin. Her boyfriend Don will be investigated for murder when they find the bruises on her but he will have an airtight alibi. He will try to wring the most out of the low-level celebrity he gains from his association with the whole ugly mess but in the end he will still be the same sad man he always was. In seventeen years Don will have a final meal of three saltines and some broth spoon-fed to him by the hospice nurse.
He pulls into the school parking lot. It is fourth period. Soon hundreds of his classmates will be herded into the cafeteria and they will fill themselves with fried food and they will be so loud. They think they have unlimited time and they think the things they care about matter but those things do not matter. The first shots will be fired in the cafeteria during lunchtime, and there will be explosives planted at the doors so anyone trying to escape will be exploded. He will stalk through the halls, firing randomly through barricaded doors and catching the stragglers who are stuck without a hiding place. He will pull the fire alarm to make them think he set fire to the place and he will pick them off as they flee. The hero teacher will be shot through the lungs because this is not a world for heroes. This is a world for villains; this is a world for grand statements over subtlety.
After the shooting, they will investigate his journals and his music and his web-browsing history and they will try to paint a portrait that makes sense of it; they will shape a narrative around him that suggests the possibility of solutions. During the autopsy, they will find the pizza in his stomach, and they will find the residue of Adderall and Ritalin in his blood, and they will cut his brain open hoping to find some clue about what makes people like him exist, but they will find nothing besides what they always find. His brain is just another brain. It’s connected to someone with a bad soul, but you can’t bottle that or study that. The slivers of his brain placed on slides under a microscope will not show the memories, won’t allow them to read the rejection and the emptiness and the abuse and the fear. The slides will not show the ways people can be ruined just by existing in the world. Shell-shocked acquaintances will unironically say he had so much to live for, ignorant to the fact that the prospect of having to live like this for another fifty years is not a solution to anything but rather the cause of his hopelessness.
He leaves his car running and doesn’t bother closing the door. The walk to the school is short, only a few hundred feet, and he feels himself gliding across that distance. He feels suddenly deprived of his senses, blind and deaf and numb. There is no heaven and there is no hell and there is no afterlife there is only now. There will be no white light for him to walk toward. He himself is the light toward which others will walk. He enters the school and then feels his material form disintegrating in the heat as he turns into a red giant star and then goes supernova and collapses on himself and becomes a neutron star, impossibly dense and powerful, and everyone nearby is drawn toward him by the immense gravitational force and then he’s a black hole and then he is nothing at all just cosmic dust that used to be something important.
TOM McALLISTER is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight podcast. His memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey, was published by Villard in 2010 and his shorter stories and essays have been in a bunch of places, including Black Warrior Review, FiveChapters, and Unstuck.