You wrestle with the blueberry pie as you floss through traffic on the freeway. The lop-sided bundle of pie looks like a monkey got ahold of an aluminum foil roll and tried to wrap a banana. You chuckle; you’ll tell Berry that one.
You’ll tell Berry your other joke too. “Blueberry pie, huh, bro? You’re so grumpy all the time… Get it?” You’ll dissolve into laughter.
“Hilarious,” Berry will say, fingering his ring with a metal kangaroo on the front. He’ll get serious. “I’m not that grumpy, dude. Why all you jackasses think that?”
“Stop touching that kangaroo like it’s fun. Weird, bro.” You’ll laugh harder at him, and he’ll join in. Berry is your best friend. Sure, Ben and Korah are cool—they’re your friends too, but not like Berry. Berry is… well… the best.
You serve up an ice-cold roost of slush onto the vaguely flickering Bullrush High School sign and roar into the parking lot. Slamming the Chrysler Neon into park, you rush in, book bag flopping on your shoulders, blueberry pie hinged in one hand. You bust into class like Bullrush’s bull mascot, ignoring the glances from your narcissistic classmates. You dump the blueberry pie on a table overflowing with M&Ms, finger-imprinted King Soopers pastries, an open box of assorted Krispy Kreme doughnuts, air-dried lasagna, and some brown things wrapped in bacon. You gag.
“Good morning,” says Mr. Cole’s grubby voice. You look up into Mr. Cole’s fusty old face, haystack mustache grinning. A blow-by-blow sketch of a philosophical ethics teacher, you’ve always thought. You nod, make your way to the back, and slump into a chair that squeaks so loud you might as well be sitting on a hairless, oversized mouse with its head cut off.
“Happy Halloween, Basic Batch,” says Korah from behind you.
“You get that pie from the dump?” laughs Ben. “It’s blacker than I am.”
“Shut up,” You shoot back, grinning. “It was instant pie, ok? How’s I to know you didn’t have to actually cook it?”
Korah sniggers. “More like instant kill pie.”
“Yo,” you interject, “where’s Berry?”
“Haven’t seen him today,” says Ben.
“Me neither,” says Korah.
“Probably off hiding in the playground… again.” Ben drops the corners of his mouth and protrudes his bottom lip outward. “You know, moping… again.”
“Yeah,” snickers Korah, “the grumpy jackass strikes again.”
You stare at Korah for a second, trying to decide if you should tell her your joke—the blueberry joke—but somehow it just doesn’t feel right. Instead, you force a small laugh and repeat Korah’s words. “Yeah, the grumpy jackass…”
Mr. Cole’s voice rises above the others. “Gather round! Gather round! For the cutting of the Cake of Spook!”
With synchronized eye-rolls and sighs, everyone gathers around the table.
“Quit sighing like you’re dying!” quips Mr. Cole—one of his favorites. He holds up a long knife. Polished, the blade reflects the trembling incandescent light. “It’s y’all who make this here school a good place. We talk about good and evil and right and wrong, and it’s true, but, in the end, it’s something y’all got to decide,” Mr. Cole pauses. “Who’ll y’all be? Who’ll y’all choose to become?”
You stare at Mr. Cole. A passion of undying flame burns in his eyes. A door slams. You look and see a guy wearing a ski-mask, holding an AR 15, a pistol, and a machete. Then it all happens so fast you can’t rightly tell one moment from the next.
You see Mr. Cole’s head jerk to one side, the smile still clinging to his face as a slow-motion firework of red pops out from one side of his head, pockmarking the table with thousands of red dots that look like flecked strawberry jam on the Krispy Cream doughnuts. Another bullet hits the knife with a spark and ting! The blade pirouettes like a dancer in a slow arc, the bullet hole in the stainless-steel winking at you as it twirls.
Kids are dropping to the ground. You follow them, diving under the desks and army crawling away from the pop! pop! pop! The sulfuric air is bludgeoned with screams, heat, and light. Your ears ring. Someone has flipped a table and you crawl behind it, covering your ears. Particle-board woodchips blast in your face; you choke on the taste of metal and wood-dust and M&Ms. Your hand comes away bloody from your face.
Someone’s leg flops down beside you like an uncooked lamb chop. Absent-mindedly, you notice that the white silk stocking is quickly turning ruby red. Lines of trickling blood flow down the pink flesh of the leg and explode into the fabric, veining outwards. You follow the curve of the body, sagging between a chair and a table, up to where Korah’s mouth hangs limp, open to the ceiling.
Your stomach churns: nausea and fear and pain and blood-curdling anger. Before you know it, you’re on your feet. You’re running towards the front of the classroom, realizing as you go that your own chunky vomit is dribbling down your chin, riddled with that morning’s Cinnamon Toast Crunch. You’re gagging again—retching on your already empty stomach—the vomit’s spicy-sweet tang tugging you forward. You see the flashes of the AR, and make for it. The guy sees you and begins to turn, but it’s too late. You’re on him, wrestling for the gun.
Pop! Searing pain in your shoulder. You slap the pistol away and grab the machete, aiming for the guy’s head, but he dodges, and you drive the blade into the fifteen-year-old dark red carpet. He tries to hit you with the butt of the AR, but you grab it and fling it over your shoulder.
You hear sirens, shouts. The guy tries to run, but you catch hold of his jacket. He whirls, his fist coming around. You hear a crack inside your head, taste blood. Stars twinkle in your vision. You see the kangaroo ring pulling away, dripping with your blood.
Your eyes refocus on the guy’s face. The ski-mask is gone; absentmindedly, you realize that it’s Berry. His wide bloodshot eyes are enlivened with an insane inner fire, pupils dilated to three times their normal size, and the whitish-red skin of his cheeks is enflamed like week-old lasagna abandoned indefinitely on the kitchen counter. Streaks of dirty-brown sweat line his face, intermingled with gleaming speckles of blood. Suddenly, you want to tell him your joke. Blueberry, man! Get it? You try, but your lips won’t move. He’s smiling. He raises the machete to his throat.
“Who’s grumpy now?” he giggles. “Who’s the grumpy jackass now?”
You watch as he pulls the blade stiffly to the side, smile brightening. He chokes. His teeth drown in blood, and he sinks down next to a pile of blueberry pie.
For months afterwards, you don’t talk much. Reporters buzz around you like flies for a little while, but you ignore them, and the gunshot wound in your shoulder heals after the first month. Even though you know it was there, it’s hard for you to remember the pain. Pain, you come to understand, is distant, paradoxically existing at once inside and outside your body, your mind. You want to tell somebody about that—the weirdness of being at the same time one with and entirely separate from yourself—but you don’t.
New high-school; no friends. People look at you like you’re an alien. Maybe you are. Your parents make you see some dude who sits you down and tries to get you to talk about it all, but you don’t.
One day Ben visits. His family has moved. “To get away from it all,” he says. “Just passing through.” You don’t want him there; you want to scream at him to leave, but you don’t.
They say it wasn’t your fault; everyone says it—the never-ending refrain. “No one could have known; you couldn’t have done anything more than you did.” But you’re not so sure; the feeling nags at your insides, telling you to drag it forth, to explain it, to tell someone. But you don’t.
The way you see it, it’s not worth it to talk. You see things instead: bloody blueberry pie slopped on the carpet; scarlet silk; Mr. Cole’s head jerking to one side—playfully, frivolously—as the light goes out in his eyes. You see the metal kangaroo enshrined in a delicate trimming of your blood. “National tragedy,” the news said the day afterwards. “The face of evil.” But it’s just Berry’s face you see—from before that blood-choked day: the gloomy smile, the forced laugh, the deep-set eyes—pleading silently.