— Chapter 11 —
Z STOPPED PACING and walked back to the window to look down at the ground three stories below.
He’d come in through the field-house entrance. No teachers were around. He’d passed only a couple of freshman football players who acted like they were too cool to notice him stroll by.
Only nothing about this place was new. They could paint and clean all they wanted, but as long as it was standing, the same old crap would be underneath it all.
Maybe he was playing with fire, being here now—watching the kids who walked through the front door thinking that everything would be okay if they just tried their hardest. He shouldn’t blame them for buying the idea that everyone would get a fair shake. But all they had to do was look around and they’d see what was really what. They’d get that there were no fair shakes. No second chances. You were judged as having potential or being worthless before you ever came through the front doors.
Blond Homecoming Queen who had come up the steps earlier with her pink shirt and her perfectly brushed hair didn’t want to think about that. Because life was working just fine for her.
Z spotted Mr. Casey walking from the faculty parking lot toward the school, and he gripped the edge of the window frame. How many times had he replayed Mr. Casey’s words in his head? Hundreds.
Had he cut classes?
Had he blown off homework?
Mr. Casey knew he didn’t give a crap. But he called on him for every single question. What character did what? What place did they go to for something? What did some colored light symbolize?
Finally, “Think you’re too good to do the assigned reading, Mr. Vega? Did you have something better to do?”
“Yeah,” Z had said, clenching his fists under his desk as everyone in the room had looked at their hands or out the window—anywhere but at him. He’d looked right at Mr. Casey. He wasn’t going to let Mr. Casey get to him. “Something like that.”
“Well, you can stay after the bell so you can explain why you’re above doing the work that everyone else seems to find the time to do.”
He hated everyone for jumping up and clearing out as fast as they could the minute the bell rang, and he hated Mr. Casey more for the way he’d looked at him—as if he was worthless—and for what he’d said and for the fact that he could say it and think he would never have to pay a price.
“I told you not to do this.”
Z spun toward the door. Kaitlin stood in the entryway. Her straight brown hair framed the frown on her face. “What are you doing here?” he said.
She crossed her arms over her chest and stepped into the room. “I’m trying to keep you from doing anything stupid.”
“You have to go home.” He hurried across the room toward her. “Get out of here, Kaitlin.”
“Not until you tell me what you’re doing in Mr. Casey’s room.” She lifted her chin. The look she gave him was a lot like one that his mother used to give. “You didn’t return my messages.”
“Maybe because I wasn’t interested in talking to you.”
Hurt swam in Kaitlin’s blue eyes. He hated it, but he wasn’t going to back down. He couldn’t.
Kaitlin bit her lip and straightened her shoulders. “Look. I know how hurt you are and how angry you felt when you got that letter—”
“Stop!” he yelled. “I just want you to stop. I didn’t answer your message because I didn’t want you telling me what to do and what not to do like I’m some kind of charity case not able to take care of my own life.”
Her eyes swam with tears. “That’s not what I was doing.”
No. It wasn’t. But that wasn’t the point. “Then prove it.” He reached out and dug his fingers into her arm, and he saw her fear. He hated it. He hated himself. But he had no choice if he wanted to keep Kaitlin clear of what was about to happen. “Get out of here, Kaitlin. Now.”
He pulled her toward the door, but Kaitlin yanked her arm away and stumbled back.
“Are you deaf?” he yelled. “What do you think you’re doing?”
She rubbed at her arm and lifted her chin to look him dead in the eyes with the stubbornness that she’d shown that first day he’d driven her home. “I’m not going anywhere.”
— Chapter 12 —
“I SEE EVERYONE ELSE has already left.” Mrs. Kennedy walked into the yearbook room and looked around. “I’m glad you moved the meeting up and that everyone got here on time. I have some gardening I want to get done.”
Diana smiled at Mrs. Kennedy, pretending not to hear the impatience in her voice or notice the way she tapped her gold-sandaled foot. Mrs. Kennedy had been working in her classroom down the hall. Now that the yearbook committee heads were gone, it was clear Mrs. Kennedy wanted to leave.
Diana did too. She glanced at her watch. Time had gotten away from her, but she was still ahead of her schedule for the day. “I can finish the rest on Tuesday if you want.” Diana started to rise, but Mrs. Kennedy waved her back into her seat with a laugh and a shake of her head.
“It’s okay, Diana. I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty. Finish whatever you need to. I love that you take your responsibilities so seriously. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, considering who your father is.”
Trapped by the compliment, Diana settled back into her seat. “It’ll only take me five minutes. I promise,” Diana said. “And I’ll make sure to let my father know that you’re a fan.”
Mrs. Kennedy tilted her head. “I’m a fan of hard work in all forms,” she said. “But I have to admit that the senator’s new education safety plan isn’t something I’m all that fond of. It’s McCarthyism all over again. I still can’t believe these are the kinds of laws we’re seeing proposed these days.”
Diana forced a smile. “My father knows the bill isn’t perfect, and I’m sure he’d love to hear your ideas. With so much going on in the world, he thinks something has to be done to stop the growth of violence.”
“I’m all for the law and order he and the president talk about.” Mrs. Kennedy sighed. “I just don’t think authorizing schools to violate students’ privacy is the way to do it. And when you ask students to police other students, you give them license to use learned biases against one another.” She pursed her lips and shivered. Then she shook her head. “Let’s just say I hope the bill gets voted down and leave it at that.”
Diana nodded, even though she knew her father’s career hung on getting the bill passed. He needed a win, as did the country.
Mrs. Kennedy cleared her throat to break the silence. “Since we both want to get out of here, how about I make the copies while you get the sign-up sheet ready? Divide and conquer.”
“Sure thing.” Diana handed Mrs. Kennedy the schedule with a practiced smile, then looked back at the computer screen as Mrs. Kennedy left for the copier. Thank goodness. Now Diana could finish in peace and quiet. She glanced at her watch again. Yes, it was way past time for her to leave.
She printed the sign-up sheet and picked up the backpack resting near her feet. She then turned off the computer and headed out in search of Mrs. Kennedy to tell her she was finished. Only Mrs. Kennedy was nowhere to be found.
This was just perfect. Diana should have insisted on printing the agendas. Then they would be done by now, and Diana would be on her way down to the media center. Once she made that stop, she’d be able to get out of this place.
She looked at the clock on her phone as she went back to the yearbook room, trying to decide what to do. She had to get going. Maybe she could leave a note . . .
“Here you go,” Mrs. Kennedy said as she strode into the room with her purse slung over her arm. At last.
“Thanks.” Diana took the copies and placed them on the back table in a neat stack under the sign that said TAKE ONE. “And with that, I’m done,” she announced. “Sorry I kept you here so long.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mrs. Kennedy said with a smile. “Now we can both get on with our day. I don’t know about you, but—”
The desks throughout the room suddenly rattled, and there was a deep rumbling somewhere. Mrs. Kennedy’s eyes narrowed, then widened, and she bolted toward the door.
What was—? Diana grabbed the closest desk as everything in the room started to shake.
Fire alarms shrieked.
A ceiling tile crashed next to her as she rushed past the desks with her backpack clutched against her chest.
That’s when everything came apart.
The door frame cracked.
The floor shuddered again.
Wood splinters and tiles rained down.
Books fell off shelves.
The computer she’d been working on crashed to the ground.
Metal and brick smashed together in one deafening roar. Something slammed against the back of her head, and Diana dropped to her knees. Desks slid toward her. She screamed for help as the floor shuddered yet again and tilted.
Everything creaked and groaned. Terror clawed at her throat, even as she fought for calm and crawled toward the exit. No one would be able to hear her screams; still she yelled as she fumbled to find the pocket where she’d put her phone. She had to have her phone.
A file cabinet crashed into the desks, sending them flying toward her. She pulled the bag close and screamed one more time. The floor tilted and every—
We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.
— Chapter 13 —
WHY DID EVERYTHING HURT?
Smoke. She smelled smoke.
Diana struggled to lift her head and open her eyes. Small bursts of light danced in front of her. The lights faded, and all she could see were dark and hazy shadows.
Where was she?
Then she remembered the scraping of metal and falling bricks, and her heart slammed hard in her chest.
The explosion. She’d been in the yearbook office on the third floor. And then there was an explosion, and she was still in the school. No. This wasn’t happening. She had to get out of here. She had to find her bag and get out of here now.
Diana pushed herself up, got a foot off the floor, and smacked into something hard and cold above her. Oh, God.
She raised herself up again and used her back to lift whatever it was with as much force as she could. Move. Please, God. Whatever it was above her had to move. Her heart pounded harder as she pushed against it over and over again. Only it wasn’t budging. Why couldn’t she push it out of the way?
Move! She shoved one more time, but it didn’t give. Not at all. Not even an inch. She was trapped.
— Chapter 14 —
TAD DUCKED HIS HEAD back under the table that he’d dived under the minute the building had begun to shake and the sprinklers had started pouring water. The table had shuddered as pieces of ceiling crashed on top of it, but it was still standing. He was intact. Unlike parts of the room he could see that had been wrecked by the explosion.
An explosion. Something that should exist only in movies and on the news. And here he was in the middle of it. Frankie was probably in the building somewhere trying to get out, if he hadn’t done so already. Or maybe he wasn’t as lucky as Tad had been, and the ceiling or something else had fallen on top of him.
Tad closed his eyes and took a deep breath as his heart pounded hard and fast and loud and . . . No panicking. Panicking was how the people in the movies ended up getting themselves killed. He wasn’t going to go down in this building while cowering under a science table. No way, no how. He just had to stop freaking out and figure out what to do next.
— Chapter 15 —
The sound pounded in her temples. Bwoop. Bwoop. Everything was ringing.
That was wrong.
Cas shouldn’t be hearing anything anymore. This was all supposed to be over. But her shoulder and cheek hurt. Something hard was digging into her side. Something heavy was pushing down onto her back, and the fire alarm was screaming.
And she smelled smoke.
Dust. There was lots of dust in her eyes and burning her throat. Fear punched through the confusion, making it harder to think. She couldn’t think, because nothing made sense. Everything was wrong.
She closed her eyes, then snapped them open again.
The gun. Where was the gun?
— Chapter 16 —
DIANA LOWERED HERSELF back to the ground and took a deep breath to calm herself but coughed instead. Dust and smoke filled her mouth. She coughed harder as she rolled onto her right side so she could see if there was a way out in that direction.
Nothing. She was blocked by twisted metal. The left was almost as bad. Light shone through some of the debris, but none of the openings was big enough for her to shove herself through. If she tried moving anything, it would probably shift other wreckage. The metal thing wedged above her could come crashing down and . . .
No. She wasn’t going to think about that. Thinking about that wasn’t going to help her out of this. She felt around for the backpack she’d had with her. Nothing. It was gone.
She couldn’t go up. She couldn’t roll to either side. That meant she had to move forward or back.
Coughing, she squinted into the dimness in front of her, then looked behind. It was brighter that way. Light was good, right? Light meant a way out.
— Chapter 17 —
THE SOUND HIT HIM FIRST. The wailing, high-pitched beeping.
Z’s heart raced.
His mouth went dry.
A denial sprang to his lips as he jerked his head up and opened his eyes.
Where was he?
He’d expected to see nurses rushing in to answer the alarm. But he wasn’t in the hospital. His mother was gone. The siren wasn’t for her.
He squinted and pushed himself up to his knees. A chunk of something fell off his back as he looked up into the bright blue sky. He was at the school, and he shouldn’t be able to see the sky.
That’s when he remembered.
“Kaitlin!” He scrambled to his feet and shoved aside a desk. Where was she? “Kaitlin?”
Maybe she ran out. Maybe . . .
He saw Kaitlin’s hair first. Then he saw the massive gray-and-black steel air conditioner that had crashed through the roof and onto her.
— Chapter 18 —
THE SPACE WAS too tight for Diana to get on her hands and knees. The best she could do was raise herself up onto her elbows and wiggle backwards inch by annoyingly and terrifyingly small inch.
Something hard jabbed into her elbow. She yelped and forced herself to keep going, because staying here wasn’t an option. Not unless she wanted to die.
“I’m not going to die,” she said, coughing as she scooted backwards again. She bit back a whimper as something tore through her jeans and into her flesh. Don’t think about it. Just keep going and get out of this.
Her head spun as she tried to decide how far she’d come. A foot. Maybe a bit more, and that had taken forever. Or maybe it just felt that way. Her heart raced as she gulped in air and coughed from the dust and smoke. She shouldn’t have been here. She should have said Screw it when Mrs. Kennedy told her to finish up what she was doing.
Diana looked over her shoulder. The light was brighter. She was going to get out of here.
She moved faster, pushing with her arms and wiggling back with her hips. The ground beneath her slanted a bit. That made it easier. Come on. A little farther. The light was closer. Just a few more shifts, and she’d be free.
She shoved herself back again, and something cracked. Loud. The ground beneath her shuddered and tilted, and then she started to slide.
Tile and debris and shards of metal scraped her arms as she desperately reached for something to grab on to. Anything. There had to be something to grab. She wasn’t going to—
Her hand cracked against something hard. Pain shot up her arm. She screamed. Then she couldn’t breathe, because suddenly, there was nothing beneath her legs. She was going to fall. Oh, God.
“Help!” she yelled as her searching fingers wrapped around something cold and hard—a desk leg. She jolted to a stop and struggled to keep her hold. The weight of her legs pulled at her, threatening to make her lose her grip, which was slick with sweat and probably blood. This was bad.
Diana struggled to hold on while moving her other arm to grab hold as well. Got it. She felt a surge of triumph that faded as she tried to pull herself up and barely moved an inch. Come on, Diana. You can do it.
Metal groaned again.
The desk leg she was holding moved. Everything around her was moving, and now there was enough light that she could see the large metal filing cabinet looming above her head.
The desk leg trembled. She kept her grip, barely, as it jolted to a stop, but other desks around it were moving, and the cabinet above started to tilt.
The cabinet was going to come down. She was going to be crushed.
Everything creaked and moaned and shuddered, and she did the only thing she could do to keep from dying as the metal cabinet started to fall. Diana closed her eyes, and, feeling the scream build in her throat, she let go.
— Chapter 19 —
“HELLO?” TAD YELLED, hoping there was someone around to hear him. “I’m stuck in here!” He listened hard for a response. Any response. The smell of smoke was growing stronger. Holy hell.
“Hello?” he yelled again. “Anyone out there?”
No one yelled back. All he could hear was that idiotic fire alarm. As if everyone trapped in this hole didn’t know they were in trouble.
The fire alarm stopped screaming.
That should be a good sign, right? He tried to tell himself that someone who knew what they were doing had shut it off.
Only the quiet made it all worse. Now he could hear his breathing coming fast and shallow and the dripping of water from above. The water was no longer pouring out. Just drip, drip, dripping. The sound of each drop made him clench his teeth.
And the smell of smoke was getting stronger.
He listened harder for the sound of voices. Nothing. Just water and a creaking sound of something metal swaying somewhere. The same kind of creaking noise his swing set used to make.
Creak. Creak. Drip. Drip. Creak. Creak. Drip. Drip. This was all like something out of a slasher flick. And in those movies, the guy in the Goodwill dress shoes and screwed-up fancy tux always died.
“Be calm. Be cool,” Tad said aloud, because it was better hearing his own voice than the dripping and creaking and the creepy silence. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Something smashed on top of the table he was crouched beneath, and Tad scrambled out from under it. Time to get out of here.
Tad pushed himself to his feet and wiped his wet, dirty hands on his legs. The crisp crease of the rented tux pants seemed stranger than the broken room.
He looked toward the window. Maybe he could see if the Mustang was out there and if Frankie was trapped in this mess with him. If so . . .
The floor groaned. A section near the window cracked. Yeah—looking for the Mustang would have to wait. He had to get out of this room first.
He spun and looked around for the exit. There were broken tables and tiles and random stuff piled in front of the closed door.
Tad held his breath with the first few steps, waiting to fall through the floor at any minute. But it held. By the time he reached the area near the door and started climbing over the broken tables and chairs, he was feeling more confident. He was getting out of this mess.
Damn. Something must be blocking it.
Well, if football taught him anything, it was how to hit something hard. He set his feet, took a deep breath, rammed the door with his shoulder, and fell face first into the door frame when the door moved.
— Chapter 20 —
OW. CAS CRACKED HER ANKLE on something buried in the rubble as she looked for whatever had made the sound she had just heard.
“Hello?” Was it just a falling piece of tile, or was someone there?
The school had been mostly empty when she had climbed the stairs to the third floor that morning. There had been three or four people on the second floor. A guy had been arguing with someone in a room near the stairs on this floor. Maybe it was one of them she was hearing.
She went still. There was the sound again. A chirping ring that was almost impossible to hear under the screaming of the fire alarm.
It was her phone.
She spotted her bag peeking out from under an overturned chair and scrambled to get to it.
She smacked her knee and bit back a yelp as she stumbled over the debris and reached for her bag. Got it. She yanked it toward her and almost lost her balance again when it snagged on a bent desk leg.
Cas tugged the strap and pushed at the desk. It was stuck. Really? Cas pulled harder on the desk, lost her grip, and fell backwards.
She shrieked as she crashed into the broken tile and boards, pulling the desk she’d been trying to move with her.
Gulping back tears, she picked up the bag and spotted the glint of metal beneath it. Heart racing, she squatted down and grabbed the gun. The one that had been in her hands when the world blacked out. Shoving it into her bag, she heard the chirping sound again. Cas dug into the side pocket and was relieved to find her phone. She hadn’t lost it or the gun. And her mother was calling.
“Mom?” she yelled as the fire alarm continued to shriek.
“Cas? Where are you? Are you outside the school?”
“I’m in the art room.” Or what was left of it. She looked at the desks and broken ceiling boards that she would have to move in order to get out.
“Where is the art room?” her mother asked. When Cas didn’t answer right away, her mother shouted, “Cassandra? Are you there? Where is the art room?”
“The third floor.”
“Oh, my God. Oh, Cas. There was a bomb. They said on the news someone put bombs in the school and is setting them off.”
A bomb. A bomb exploded.
“It’s going to be all right, honey,” her mother sobbed. “Honest. I’m coming. I’m coming and I’m going to get you out of there and it’s going to be all right.”
All right? This was about as far from all right as she could get. And it wasn’t going to be all right. When was her mother going to understand that? Cas shoved a piece of tile out of her path to the door with her free hand but couldn’t budge the next board. She needed both hands.
“I’ll call your father. He’ll know what to do. Your father always knows what to do.”
“The firefighters are on their way. The news said first responders are coming from all over. It sounds like there is some sort of issue about whether they can enter the building, but they train for this—”
“Don’t panic and be careful. You’ll get out. Look for a door or a window or—”
“Mom!” she yelled. Finally her mother went silent. “Listen to me. I have to use both hands to move the stuff that’s blocking the door so I can get out. So I have to hang up now.”
“No. Cas. No. Just put the phone down so I can hear what’s happening. Please. I have to hear that you’re okay. You can’t hang up on me, because I have to know. I don’t think I could handle not knowing.”
Horns honked on her mother’s side of the call. Her mother yelled at some other driver to stay in their lane. Oh, God. Her mother was going to crash her car if she stayed on the line, and Cas was going to go nuts if she had to keep listening to her mother tell her it was going to be okay. It wasn’t going to be okay!
Her mother’s panic was making all of this worse. Cas looked down at the gun in her hand as her mother yammered about firefighters and police officers and some friend of Dad’s who worked in the mayor’s office. And Cas started to giggle through her tears. Nothing about this was funny, but it was. Because there was smoke and her ankle throbbed and she was trapped on the third floor of a bombed building and whatever phone call Dad made to the mayor’s office wasn’t going to help.
“Mom. I have to save my battery, and you have to drive home. Tell everyone . . .” she took a deep breath as the fire alarm suddenly stopped screaming. The smell of smoke was stronger. Sweat was dripping down her leg. So was blood. She pictured her little sister and the kitten she made Cas admire a dozen times, and the bubble of amusement popped. “Tell everyone I love them. Okay?”
Before her mother could respond, Cas hung up.
— Chapter 21 —
TAD’S FOOT CONNECTED with something soft. He looked down, choked back a scream, and stumbled back against the lockers.
He’d been slamming the door against a person. One who wasn’t moving.
Bile burned the back of his throat. He gagged as he made himself kneel.
“Hey.” He shook the guy’s shoulder. When the man didn’t move, Tad took a deep breath and rolled him over.
Eyes stared blankly. Blood coated the floor. Mr. Rizzo, the biology teacher. He had a piece of splintered wood sticking out of his stomach and blood leaking all over the place.
Nausea bubbled and pushed upward as Tad forced himself to take the teacher’s pulse. Nothing. Tad’s skin crawled, and he scrambled backwards. His stomach cramped. Tad doubled over and threw up. He shook as his stomach emptied and emptied again, until there was nothing more to come out.
Slowly, he pushed himself up to his feet, his legs shaking. Sweat dripped down his forehead. Goddamn, he wanted out of here. He started to take a step away, then looked back down at Mr. Rizzo. He knew he couldn’t hear him, but still Tad said, “I’m sorry, man. Someone will come back and find you. I promise.” For a second, Tad stared at the dead teacher he’d hit with the door. Then he turned to look down the hall.
Everything was trashed. The ceiling was collapsed in places to his right. There were art desks and paint cabinets and crap that must have fallen from the floor above that were blocking the staircase entrance to his left, and water was dripping everywhere. Lockers were opened and debris lined the hallway to the left, but from this end, it looked in better shape down there than here. Time to move.
Racing down the hall, Tad slipped on the wet tile and almost crashed to the floor. Slow and steady wins the race, he told himself as he spotted the entrance to the stairwell. It wasn’t blocked.
Tad kicked something that went flying into the wall with an echoing crash as he ran toward the stairs. He had to get down to the first floor. The front atrium entrance was mostly glass and was probably completely demolished. But there were other exits and a ton of windows to escape from if he could just get down—
Tad stopped and held his breath. There was dripping and the sound of something buzzing and—
“Is someone there? Can you please help me?”
He stilled at the sound of a voice. When the guy called out again, Tad let out the breath he had been holding. It wasn’t Frankie.
Tad looked over his shoulder at the stairwell. If he got out of the school, he could tell the firefighters that there was someone trapped on this floor. They had the training to deal with this crap. He’d probably make things worse if he tried to move something he shouldn’t and maybe bring the whole building down.
But if Frankie was still in here somewhere and heard someone yelling for help, he wouldn’t run for the exit. Frankie would be the hero everyone assumed he was. He’d say it was his job as captain to tell Tad to beat a path to safety and let him handle saving the day.
Well, screw that.
Tad turned and headed back down the hall as fast as he could without looking at Mr. Rizzo’s lifeless body. As he navigated the debris, he listened for the guy to yell again.
Come on, man. Give me another signal.
“Hey, is someone here?” Tad hollered as he got closer to the cave-in of desks and two-by-fours and tons of other junk that must have once been on the floor above this one. This sucks. “Hello! Anyone there?”
Come on. Yell again. “Hey. Is anyone there?”
“Hello?” the voice came again, and it sounded as if it was just on the other side of that mess.
Everything in Tad screamed to get out while he could.
He pictured Mr. Rizzo’s lifeless eyes.
God, he hated this.
“Hang tight. I’m coming.” Tad grabbed a two-by-four, yanked it out of the rubble, and threw it behind him. Then he tugged another free. All he needed was just enough space to tunnel through, find the guy, and bring him out.
Another board. Some tile. Good enough. He climbed over a desk and around a bunch of beams. “Hey, man, can you hear me? Tell me where you are.”
“In the bathroom.”
Which was currently blocked by a piece of the ceiling that had fallen in. Awesome. Just freakin’ awesome.
Tad studied the wreckage, pulled hard at another board, and stumbled back as it came free. He threw it to the side, and as he reached for another, he was pitched forward as the school rocked with another explosion.
Dust and bits of tile fell from the ceiling. The boards and desks shook. Metal groaned somewhere behind him.
He looked through the dust and yelled “No!” just as the stairs he’d almost fled down and the area around it collapsed.
— Chapter 22 —
“HELLO? IS SOMEONE THERE?” a guy called from somewhere beyond the door. The shaking had stopped—again.
“Hello?” the voice shouted. This time louder. “Hey. Anyone there? Are you okay?”
“I’m in here.” She spun toward the guy’s voice and yelled back, “I’m in here and there’s something blocking the door! I’m trying to move it and need some help!” She waited for him to respond. When he didn’t, she shouted, “Hey! Are you still out there?”
“Yeah. Sorry. There are a bunch of things I have to get around to get to you. This might take a couple minutes. Hang tight and relax.”
Not in this lifetime. The smell of smoke was getting stronger. She might have come to the school to die, but she hadn’t wanted it to happen like this. That made no sense, even to her, but it’s the way things were. At least for now.
Cas turned from the door and plowed through the rubble to the only window she could see. The room used to have two, but the one near the front of the room was buried behind . . . God only knew what.
“You okay in there?” the guy yelled as something thudded on the other side of the door.
“I’m still here.” Which was far from okay. “I’m going to the window. Maybe I can see what’s happening.” Or find a way out. When she’d picked this room today, she hadn’t considered ever needing to leave it. For some reason, that struck her as horrifically amusing.
“Keep me posted. I’m Frankie Ochoa, by the way.”
Cas froze. Sirens from outside grew louder. The firefighters had arrived. And so had Frankie.
She thought about earlier in the practice room. The way the words they exchanged almost made her change her mind. How if he had returned then, she might not be here now. “I’m Cassandra Armon.”
“Cassandra,” he called over something scraping, “it’s nice to meet you.” He grunted, and she heard something hit the floor on his side. “I should have that door open in no time. Just hang in there.”
“Okay.” Telling herself it was stupid to be disappointed that he didn’t automatically recognize her full name, she pushed a chair out of the way and pulled herself up onto an overturned cabinet.
The smoke was getting thicker. She squinted toward the front of the room. It was coming in through the vent near the ceiling, not far from where a clock used to be.
Waking up in what looked like a war zone was scary. The idea of being burned to a crisp was paralyzing.
As quickly as she could, Cas lowered herself down from the cabinet, limped around a broken desk, and got close enough to see out the window. The view looked nothing like it had when she’d stood here earlier, gathering her courage.
The sun was still shining through the cracked glass. The sky was still blue. But now, instead of seeing the white brick and windows across the way and to her left, there were gaping holes where classrooms should be. And a body . . . Oh, God, there was a crumpled body down below, sprawled on top of a picnic table. A woman? Cas thought so, but she couldn’t see who, and whoever it was wasn’t moving. Not at all.
Cas jerked her attention back up to the third floor and saw flames. Fire licked the bricks and roof above one of the windows of a room facing the back of the courtyard, scorching the walls black.
How long until it spread? She could see water gushing from the hole in the side of the building to her left, which would help keep the fire contained on that side, but if it came this way, where the sprinklers weren’t working . . .
Cas climbed back toward the door. She couldn’t count on Frankie to get her out of here. Counting on people just led to disappointment.
“Ow!” she yelped as she caught her foot on something buried under the rubble, and crashed into the broken tiles and tables in front of her. Pain punched through her arm. She sucked in her breath and went still, hoping it would stop.
Agony flooded her. She shifted to take the pressure off her arm. Her vision swam. The world spun, and as it did, she saw blood. Lots of it, oozing from a jagged tear in her forearm. Somewhere in the distance, she heard Frankie yell over the pounding of her heart, “I can’t open the door!”
She was going to get her wish, she thought as she grabbed for a splintered desk. She really was going to die.
— Chapter 23 —
RASHID PUT HIS HANDS on wet tile, pushed himself to his feet, and felt around for the hallway door that he’d let go of when the shaking had started for the second time, plunging the bathroom into blackness.
He gagged at the taste of blood and squinted into the blackness. His heart thundered in his ears, louder and louder blocking out everything else. There was only darkness and terror.
Wait. Where was his phone?
He’d had it before the second explosion. Where did it go?
Rashid felt around for it on the floor, trying not to get cut by broken glass. It had to be there. Please let it be here.
Rashid’s hand closed over the phone, and he let out a sigh of relief when he hit the button and the screen glowed. The glass was cracked, but when he swiped the screen, it still worked.
Using the flashlight on the phone to cut through the darkness, Rashid found his bag under the counter, along with everything that had fallen out of it when it had dropped off the sink. He quickly grabbed everything, wiping off the Koran as best he could before shoving it all in his bag. Then, glass crunching beneath his shoes, Rashid crossed to the door and pulled it open.
There was a wall of debris blocking the opening. There was no way he could get out of this room on his own. He was stuck here. He might die here.
“Hello?” he yelled. “Are you still there?” Are you still alive? Please still be alive.
“Damn it!” the voice exploded. “We’re trapped.”
“Who’s trapped?” Was there more than one person out in the hallway?
“I’m sorry,” Rashid said. “There will be another way out.” There had to be. Rashid had to have faith. “Once I get out of this bathroom, the two of us will find it. And I can call for help. I have a phone.”
“Did you call 911?”
“I made a call,” he said, careful not to lie. His father always told him lies were a sin against oneself, and he was certain that dozens of people had already reported the explosions at the school. Help would be coming with or without his call. He looked at the debris blocking his exit.
“I’m going to try to push whatever this is out of the way!” the other guy shouted. “Move back. I don’t want something to fall and hit you when I do this.”
Rashid stepped back into the darkness and shifted his weight from side to side as he waited for something—anything—to move so he could get out of here. Squatting, Rashid peered at a small gap that was letting in light and saw black shoes on the other side. Rashid heard a grunt as the guy tried to move things out of the doorway.
The guy swore. “This isn’t working.”
Rashid went cold. He was never getting out.
“It’s all too heavy to move, but I might be able to shift this beam to the side and keep it there long enough for you to crawl through. Wanna try it?”
Of course he did. “Give me one second.” He shoved his phone into the bag, then crouched down. “Okay. I am ready whenever you are.” He hoped.
After a couple of seconds of watching the black shoes shuffle and get into position, he heard, “Get ready to move your ass.”
Rashid held his breath and watched the opening. “Okay,” he called. Each second felt like minutes as he waited for something to happen. Then, finally, there was a scraping sound as the thick beam blocking the opening moved a bit to the side. The gap was an inch bigger. Two. A couple more, and he might be able to fit.
“I’m not sure how long I’m going to be able to hold this.”
Rashid could hear the strain in the other boy’s voice and prayed his new friend could hang on just a little longer.
Another inch. The gap was almost big enough. Almost . . .
Now. Rashid gave the bag a shove and sent it through the opening, then launched himself through. All summer he had heard from his aunts and cousins and grandmother how he was too skinny. He was glad for that now.
“Move,” the black-shoed guy said. “Not . . . much longer. Hurry.”
He did. Rashid rolled onto his back and pulled his legs and feet through the opening just as the slab of debris slammed back down.
— Chapter 24 —
“ARE YOU OKAY?” Frankie called.
“If a vampire wandered by, I’d make his day. No effort required.”
Frankie would have laughed at the joke had he not heard the pain and the tears. The girl still had a sense of humor, but if she was gushing blood, she wasn’t going to be joking around for much longer.
He looked around for a board or something he could jam into the door to break it open. “Hang in there, Cassandra. I’m going to get to you.” He never lost, and he wasn’t going to start now. “While I’m doing this, you need to find a way to stop the bleeding.”
“Hang on,” Frankie urged as he wedged a metal bar into the space between the frame and the door and pushed hard.
Funny. The girl was bleeding and stuck in hell, and still she managed to crack jokes.
“Elevate the injury if you can,” he said to her as he wiped his hands on his pants to get a better grip on the bar. “They always tell us that in football practice. It slows down the flow of the blood, especially if you can raise it higher than your heart.” Or something like that.
When she didn’t reply, he yelled, “Cassandra?” Still nothing. His heart sank, and he pressed his ear to the door. He couldn’t have lost her. He didn’t lose. “Cassandra? Are you still there?”
He heard a muffled “Mhhhuh.”
“What? Are you okay?”
“I’m trying to tie a bandage, and I only have one hand. So I can’t talk right now.”
He let out a sigh of relief and shook his head at his freaking out. “Sorry.” Panicking wasn’t going to help. Cassandra needed him to be the guy everyone saw on the field.
Come on, Frankie, he could almost hear his father say. Time to show them what you’re made of.
Frankie positioned the bar a bit higher and pushed on it again.
Another explosion rocked the building.
Damn! The building around him groaned and began to shake again. Lockers flew open. Pieces of ceiling snapped and cracked and rained from above.
“Frankie!” Cas screamed.
“Take cover!” Frankie yelled as he got clocked on the forehead by a metal bracket. He grabbed hold of an open locker to keep from falling on his ass. He thought he heard other voices calling out. Other shouts for help. Faint. But there.
More people must have been in the school than he’d thought—and one of them was Tad. Only he didn’t have time to think about that now.
Coughing at the smoke that was getting thicker and warmer with every passing second, Frankie pulled on the metal bar, urging the door to break free. Wires above him hissed. Water dripped. Finally, something in the door snapped and gave way. He repositioned the bar again and pressed down with one hand while he tugged on the knob with the other.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” he shouted. Cassandra wasn’t the only one who could make jokes in the middle of this hell.
And “hell” was the right way to describe the room she’d gotten trapped in. The back corner was gone. Where there should have been a wall, he saw hints of sky and lots of black, billowing smoke. The parts of the wall Frankie could see were buckled and streaked with soot. This part of the school was going up in flames.
Where was Cassandra? They had to get out of here. “Where are you?” Could she have found another way out without telling him?
“What took you so long?”
At least that’s what Frankie thought she said. It was hard to tell in the middle of the snapping, crackling, and popping from all sides. He turned toward the sound of Cassandra’s voice, which was thankfully on the side of the room away from the fire and the missing wall and floor. The girl had been lucky, although he still couldn’t see her.
“Sorry, I must have misplaced my key,” he said as a hand came out of the rubble and grabbed the top of one of the art-table desks. Cassandra.
He leaped over an upended chair and raced around the wreckage as the top of her head appeared—dark hair that looked as if it had been sprayed by gray and white paint. And he recognized her. The clarinet girl from earlier today.
“Funny meeting you again.”
“Or not so funny,” she quipped back.
He flashed a smile as he knelt down next to her. Then the smiled faltered. Cas’s olive skin looked like paste, and there was blood everywhere.
Her hands. All over her shirt. A streak on her forehead and neck. And dark stains were starting to bleed through the binding on her arm. She’d said the cut was bad, but the way she’d joked had made it seem less terrible than what he was looking at now. This was really, really bad.
“You okay?” he asked, even though he knew she needed a doctor and stitches and a real bandage, and she needed them as soon as possible.
“I’ve been better.” She coughed. “I’ll be great as soon as we get out of here.”
“Sounds like a plan.” He held out his hand to help her up. She wrapped her bloodstained fingers around his—they were cold. Everything around them was scorching hot, and her hands were cold.
He shook off the thought. “Okay, let’s get you up and moving.” And we’d better do it fast.
— Chapter 25 —
“I THOUGHT YOU WERE NEVER getting out of there!” Black Shoes shouted.
Rashid had too.
For a second, Rashid couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. He just stayed flat on his back, staring up at the wires dangling from the ceiling as his heart thudded.
Finally, he choked out, “Thank you.”
“You’re more than welcome, man.” Black Shoes extended his hand to Rashid. “I’m Tad. Now, what do you say we get the hell out of here?”
Rashid stared at the guy’s face, then looked down at the hand offered to him. Tad Hunter—who for some reason was wearing dress pants and a tux shirt—had just saved him. Football player. Track, too. And he hung with the guys who lived for hurling insults at Rashid whenever he was nearby.
He waited for Tad to recognize him and for his hand to drop away. But Tad just stood there waiting. That’s when Rashid remembered. His beard was gone, and without it, Tad didn’t recognize him.
Slowly Rashid clasped the outstretched hand and let Tad pull him to his feet. Then he leaned down and picked his bag up off the floor, sending bits of dust and wood and tile flying. “Thank you,” he said again. “I wouldn’t have been able to get out of there without your help.”
“Well, let’s help each other get the rest of the way out,” Tad said. “Dying at school isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.”
“I can agree with that.” Rashid adjusted the bag on his shoulder and turned to look at what they were facing. There were cracks in the hallway walls, wet floors, and twisted lockers. Wisps of black smoke snaked around a pile of debris at the end of the hall.
The school was badly damaged but it was still standing. For now.
Rashid swallowed hard as he spotted a man lying near a partially opened door at the other end of the hallway. There was blood on the floor, and the man wasn’t moving. “Look!” Rashid took a step toward him, and Tad put a hand on his arm and held him back.
“I did.” Tad shook his head and turned so he wasn’t looking in that direction. “I checked for a pulse just before I heard you yell. We can’t help him. The only thing we can do is look for a way out of here and save ourselves. When we get out, we can let someone know he’s up here. Okay? Where’s your phone? We should call 911 again and tell them where we are in the building.”
Rashid pulled his eyes away from the dead man and dug his phone out of his bag. Carefully, he swiped the cracked screen, dialed the number, then put the phone on speaker so Tad could hear.
“Due to the high volume of calls, our operators are busy and working to get to your call as quickly as possible. If this is not a true emergency, please dial 311.”
“Are you kidding me?” Tad grabbed the phone.
Rashid backed away from him. “Everyone in the area must be calling 911.” His father would be the minute he heard about the explosions.
Tad stared at the phone, then let out a loud breath and nodded. “Okay. Well, then I guess we have to find a way out of this mess ourselves.” Tad stepped over a fallen beam and headed to the left. Rashid considered his options, then followed Tad as the message from the emergency line repeated, accompanied by the sound of running water and the buzz of broken electrical lines overhead.
After a minute of silence, the message played again.
“Maybe we should call someone else,” Rashid said.
“Like who?” Tad kicked at a board and ran a hand over his buzzed hair.
“Actually,” Rashid said, “I was thinking we could call someone near a television.” Tad looked at Rashid as if he had lost his mind, and Rashid quickly explained, “There will be television cameras outside. No one at my house will be watching television, but if we can call someone who is watching the news, they can tell us what parts of the school have been damaged and what looks to be the safest way out.”
Tad flashed a grin. “That’s smart. My mom was home when I left. I can call her.” Tad’s finger hovered over the screen.
“I’m trying to remember the number.”
Rashid stared at him. “You don’t know your mother’s phone number?”
“It’s stored in my phone, so I don’t normally have to think about it. Just give me a second.” Tad took a deep breath, and Rashid clenched his fists and waited. Finally Tad nodded. “Okay, I think I remember it.” He punched in a number, then hit the speaker button.
“Hello?” a woman demanded on the other end. “Who is this?”
“Mom?” Tad yelled.
“Tad? Oh, thank God.”
“Mom, I need you to—”
“Sam.” Tad’s mother’s voice was muffled. “Your brother’s on the phone. He’s fine. Just like I told you he would be.” Her voice got louder as she asked, “Tad, where are you? Did you hear about the school?”
“So far two bombs have gone off, and when you didn’t answer your phone, Sam thought—”
“Mom. Mom. Stop.” In a slow, very clear voice, Tad said, “A friend and I are trapped on the second floor of the school.”
Tad’s mother gasped and made a choked noise.
Tad’s jaw clenched. “We tried to call 911, but the line is busy, so I need you to look at the TV and tell me where the fire is or where the damage is the worst so we don’t try to get out that way.”
“Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Okay. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay, Mom. We’re both okay.” Tad looked up and shrugged. Which Rashid understood. No, they weren’t really okay, but there was no point telling her that. Tad’s mother started talking again, but Tad interrupted. “Mom, listen, we’re fine, but we need you to tell us what’s happening here so we can get out. Can you turn on the news and tell us what you see?”
“Okay. Okay. Just give me a minute to get to the television. Okay.”
Rashid could almost imagine her bumping into things as she hurried to do as Tad asked. His family didn’t have a television. His father said they were a distraction from the true purpose of life—although Rashid and his sister had noticed that whenever the Nationals were playing a big game, Father always wanted to take the family out to eat in a restaurant with a television. Without a television or radio, Rashid wondered if his family knew what was happening here at the school or if his message had been listened to.
“Mom?” Tad asked. “Are you there?”
Water dripped. Something creaked and groaned overhead. Rashid could hear Tad’s mother breathing hard and saying “Oh, my God,” over and over again. Suddenly, a loud but mostly garbled voice floated through the receiver.
“What’s going on, Mom?” Tad asked.
“It’s a commercial. I’ll find another channel. Wait, here it is. They’re talking to a teacher who was in the parking lot when the first bomb went off. Tad, they aren’t showing the building. Why aren’t they showing the building? There’s a fire. They said before that there was a fire. They think a terrorist set off the bombs. You have to get out of there.”
“Just keep watching, Mom.” Tad looked at Rashid, who nodded. “It’ll be okay. Right now, we’re okay and you’re going to help keep us that way.”
Tad kept talking to keep his mother focused. When Tad’s mother began to panic again, Rashid turned and studied the long hallway. It was in shambles, but he’d seen worse this summer on the sightseeing trips his cousins had taken him on. Gaza was filled with buildings that had been bombed.
“They’re showing the school now!” Tad’s mom shouted. “A lot of fire trucks are in the parking lot. And it looks like the fire is on the back side of the school, or maybe on the side? I can’t tell. But I see smoke on the screen. Wait. The front entry doesn’t look like it’s on fire. Go out that way. Go now, Tad. You have to get out.”
Fire on the back side of the school and maybe on the first floor in the hallway to their right. He and Tad were in the hallway nearest to the front of the school right now, but both sets of stairs leading down were blocked.
Tad ran a hand over his head and cut off his mother’s panicked words. “We can’t get out the front, Mom. If you can’t tell where exactly the fire is, maybe we should just wait for the firefighters and—”
“No. Don’t wait. There’s something wrong. The reporters are saying that the police think the bomber is still inside the school. Oh, Lord. You have to get out of there.”
“Mom?” Tad yelled. “Where is the worst damage? Can you see?”
“Oh, God. The woman is saying that the police got a message from the bomber. He says there are other bombs that are going to go off. If anyone tries to enter the school, he’s going to set them off. You have to get out right now, Tad. The terrorist is still—”
Her voice disappeared. Tad looked at Rashid with wide eyes, then back down at the phone display. Tad yelled, “Mom?”
Still nothing. “The call must have been dropped.”
“I’m calling her back,” Tad said as he hit REDIAL. Nothing. Tad tried again and looked as if he was going to throw the phone when the call still didn’t go through. “What the hell, man? No service.”
Rashid grabbed the phone and looked at the cracked display.
Rashid hurried down the hall, looking for a zone where they could get a signal. But there wasn’t one. The cell-phone signal in the school was never reliable. Everyone was always complaining about it, but he had a feeling this was due to something else. “The police must have jammed the cell-phone signal for the school. They must want to cut off any contact the bomber would have with the bombs or anyone outside who might be helping him.”
“So they think the person behind the bombings has more bombs and is trapped in here with us?” Tad kicked a bent piece of metal, and it skittered down the hall and slammed into the door of an open locker. “What kind of terrorist takes out a school when school isn’t even in session? It’s not like we’re some kind of major military target or a church or—” Tad went completely still. “Hold on a sec.” His eyes narrowed as he turned his head and looked at Rashid. “I know who you are.”
Rashid stepped back and balled his hands into fists at his side. Everything inside him tensed. Heat built inside him. He replayed all the insults in his mind as distrust twist Tad’s face. Distrust that had become more and more a part of Rashid’s life from people who thought they understood him. They thought they knew what he was. Was it any wonder he did what he did today? It was because of Tad. Because of Tad’s friends and all the people like them.
Normally at school he turned away when the distrust surfaced. This time he lifted his head to look Tad straight in the eyes. Rage and humiliation burned hot as the floor shuddered beneath him. “No. You don’t. You don’t know me at all.”
Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
— Chapter 26 —
THE BEARD WAS GONE. That’s why Tad hadn’t recognized Rashid. Without the beard, the guy actually looked normal. Kind of like he had when they were in English freshman year. Rashid hadn’t had the beard then, but he had always been tall and skinny and quiet. Different. He looked the way Tad always felt—like someone on the outside, looking in. Tad used to think about trying to talk to Rashid, but that seemed like a good way to make people look sideways at him—something he had no interest in. He had just wanted to be as normal as possible in this place.
And that’s when Tad realized something. “You never called 911.”
Rashid stared at him with dark, unblinking eyes. “What?”
“I never said I did.”
Of course you did, Tad thought. Rashid had shaved. He must have done that to make sure people wouldn’t recognize him, and now he was lying. Mom said the bomber had given a “message” to the cops. Rashid must have known the emergency line would be jammed and had reached them some other way. How else would Rashid have had an explanation handy for why cell-phone signals were blocked?
The smell of smoke was getting stronger. The fire had to be getting closer. He had to get out of the building. And the guy standing in front of him was looking seriously pissed, which made this even worse. Rashid had been timid in class, but this didn’t seem to be the same guy.
“Look, man.” Tad took a step back. “I don’t care why you’re doing what you’re doing. I just want to get out of here before something else blows up.”
Rashid stared at him then took a step forward. “You think I’m the one who did this? Why?”
Tad automatically stepped back. “How the hell should I know why crazy people do things like this?”
“Crazy people?” Rashid repeated. Anger simmered under the measured words. “What’s that supposed to mean, Tad?”
“You think I woke up today and decided to blow up the school because I’m a Muslim? Unbelievable.” Rashid shook his head, turned on his heel, and walked several steps down the hall. Tad reached for a board sticking out of the pile of debris. He yanked it free as Rashid spun around and let out a bitter laugh. “And now you’re going to beat me up? This keeps getting better. My family is Muslim, so to you, that makes me a crazy person. Well, maybe I should call the cops and tell them you’re the one who robbed the house at the end of my street a few weeks back. After all, you’re black. Aren’t all black people gang members and criminals who belong in jail?”
“That’s not the same thing,” Tad shot back, even though it was. A splinter dug into his hand as he tightened his grip on the board.
“I’m sure you can figure it out. You’ve got everything else figured out, don’t you, Tad? I’m a Muslim, so I must hate you. Fine. I do hate you, but it’s because you’re an idiot.” Rashid jabbed his finger at Tad. “I didn’t blow up this stupid school. I’m not a person who would do that, and you can believe me or not. I don’t care.” His shoulders slumped as he shook his head. “I just don’t care.”
“You’re just walking away?” Tad shifted his feet and cocked the board back a bit in case Rashid was trying to get him to lower his guard. That’s the kind of thing his brother would do to gain the upper hand.
Rashid lifted his eyes and met Tad’s. “If you want to believe I’m a bad person, I can’t stop you. But I for one do not wish to die in this building, and I especially do not want to spend my last minutes with you.”
Tad stood tense—heart pounding and ready to fight. But Rashid didn’t rush him or reach for his bag or anything threatening. He just looked at Tad with a sadness that made Tad think of the way his brother had looked at him last year when their dog had died. Then Rashid walked backwards and slowly eased down the hall, never turning his back on Tad. Twice Rashid glanced over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t going to run into something, but he didn’t reach for his phone or do anything else threatening. He just moved farther and farther away.
Tad looked down at the board in his hand. His stomach turned. If Rashid had taken just one step toward him, Tad would have clocked him with the splintered wood. He would have beaten him until Rashid was no longer a threat. He’d never gotten into a fight at school or pummeled anyone. How many times had he walked away or ignored things the team was doing because he didn’t want them to turn on him?
But he’d stood here, ready to fight Rashid. A guy who rarely spoke. When he did, it was never more than one sentence at a time in that quiet way he had. The dude never yelled or flipped out. Not even when Nicco and J.R. tripped him last year in the cafeteria or when the others called him names and bumped him into lockers as they passed in the halls. He just put his head down and kept walking. Rashid never showed that he was upset. He never struck back, even though he had to be pissed. Tad would have been.
So maybe the guy had a good reason to want to make people at this school pay. Maybe that’s why he had blown the crap out of this place. To get even for all the names he was called and the slights he’d suffered. Maybe that’s why he was acting so strange now and was lying about calling 911.
Or maybe—just maybe—he was trapped in this hell, scared and confused, just like Tad, and wasn’t telling the truth because Tad had never given him a reason to trust him.
His chest tightened as Rashid continued down the long hallway. Rashid’s words pricked at him like the splinters in the board he held in his hands. Because they felt like the truth. And if they were, what did that make Tad?
“Hey,” Tad called as Rashid tried the handle of one of the classroom doors. Still holding the board, Tad stalked toward him. “I’m not a racist.”
“Hey!” Tad yelled as Rashid tugged on the door. “Did you hear me? I’m not a racist. Bombs have been set off, and you look different now and lied about calling 911. What do you expect me to think?”
“What I expect is for you to think and say exactly what you did,” Rashid said, leaning against the door, which wouldn’t budge. His bag slid off his shoulder and caught Tad’s eye. The guy had brought that bag out of the bathroom with him. What was in the bag that was so important?
Tad didn’t move as Rashid said, “I don’t expect you to be any different from your friends.”
The bag slipped lower on Rashid’s arm, and Tad lunged forward. He grabbed the strap as Rashid yanked himself and the bag backwards. “What are you doing?”
“Who did you call?” Tad shouted as he pulled Rashid off balance. “Show me!” he yelled. “If you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t have any problem letting me see what’s in your bag.”
Tad tightened his grip on the black backpack. Rashid was pulling hard, but Tad had at least thirty pounds on Rashid and a lot of football training. This time when Tad tugged on the bag, he leaned his whole body back. The strap snapped. Tad stumbled back, tripped over a broken tile, and crashed into an open locker. Tad yelped and scrambled for the bag, which had landed not far from him. He reached for the zipper as Rashid charged forward and yelled, “Give it back!”
“No way in hell.” He was going to prove Rashid was hiding something important. He was lying, and Tad was going to prove that he wasn’t wrong for feeling threatened. He wasn’t like the guys on the team who lashed out just because someone wasn’t like them.
Tad juggled the bag and tugged the zipper down as Rashid grabbed the side and pulled. The backpack gaped open. Tad lost his grip, and everything inside fell out.
Tad dived to the side, covered his head, and held his breath in case anything in the bag exploded when it hit the ground.
Tad opened his eyes. Rashid was staring down at the floor with an expression Tad couldn’t read. Then slowly Rashid squatted down and reached for the bag that had fallen at his feet.
“Foolish,” Rashid said in a flat voice. “It was foolish to come here today. I should have known better.”
Tad looked at the items that had spilled out of the bag and to the ground.
A bottle of hair gel.
Rashid grabbed a can of shaving cream and something else that had rolled under a piece of broken board and shoved both back into the bag, along with clothes and a bottle of water and a bunch of comic books.
Then Rashid reached for the phone.
“Let me have that,” Tad demanded.
Rashid looked at the phone, then back to Tad. “Fine. You want it? Here.”
The screen had been cracked before. This fall to the floor had shattered it.
“Who did you call?” Tad asked again.
“What does it matter?” Rashid replied. “You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.”
Rashid picked up a T-shirt, and Tad spotted a book on the ground. Tad reached for it.
“Give me that,” Rashid said, snatching the Koran from Tad’s hands.
Rashid looked at him long. Hard. As if someone had hit the PAUSE button on a video. Smoke was still snaking down the hallway. Things snapped and popped and groaned around them. Tad flinched as, under it all, he could suddenly hear someone—a girl—scream. Rashid’s eyes widened. He heard it too.
Still they stood there, looking at each other. Tad waiting for Rashid to explain the call or explain away the book. But Rashid just shook his head, shoved the book into the bag, and grabbed the rest of his stuff. “Someone might need our help,” Rashid said, heading in the direction of the girl’s voice. “Hello?” he called. “Where are you?”
No one called back. There was just the dripping and the sound of Rashid kicking bits of debris as he made his way down the hall.
Tad knew he should be trying to find a way out, but there was someone in trouble, so he followed Rashid. “Hey. If you aren’t involved in any of this, why aren’t you denying it?”
“Because someone needs my help, but even if there wasn’t someone else here, there wouldn’t be any point.” Rashid stopped and called again. “Hello? Are you there?”
“You can’t ignore me. I know what you’re doing,” Tad insisted. “If you were innocent, you’d be pissed as hell. You’d be taking a swing at me, instead of pretending I’m not here. You’d—”
Rashid spun, and Tad could see the guy was well and truly angry as he yelled, “You should know better! You of all people.”
“Me of all people. What does that mean?”
“You know what it’s like to be different, but instead of thinking about that, you stand there while your friends hurl insults and believe everything they hear on television. You should know better, but you don’t, so do you actually think my telling you that you’re wrong would change any of that?”
When Tad didn’t answer right away, Rashid nodded. “That’s exactly what I thought.” He turned again and jogged toward the other collapsed stairwell that Tad already knew was a no-go as far as an escape route. If the guy was really looking for a way out, he wasn’t going to find one there. But if he was looking to set off a bomb he’d already planted . . .
You of all people.
Tad looked at Rashid, then back at the blocked stairs and the hallway near it, which was hazier than it had been before. That couldn’t be a good sign. Rashid moved toward an unopened classroom and pressed his ear to the door. Then he tried the handle. When the door didn’t open, Rashid went to the door next to it and listened.
“What are you doing?” Tad asked. He needed to be searching for an exit. Instead, he yelled, “I asked you a question! What are you—”
“Quiet.” Rashid pressed his ear against the door and frowned.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Shut up.” Rashid help up a hand and waited. “I thought I heard something.”
“I think the scream came from here.” Rashid turned the handle. This door opened. Rashid pushed it open as far as it would go and peered inside. “Hello?” Rashid shoved harder, shifting a bunch of boards and debris that were in the way. “Hello? Is anyone in there?”
“What do you see?” he asked.
“Hello?” Rashid asked again as he shoved the door all the way open. “Is anyone there?”
— Chapter 27 —
DIANA KNELT UNDER the tall chemistry tables and tried to get her bearings. Fear. She could still taste it. Still feel it pulsing inside her.
Don’t panic. As long as she didn’t panic, everything would turn out okay. Her father always said that true leaders kept their cool in situations in which everyone else would lose their heads. She and Tim had talked about that a lot during the last few months. Success required the ability to do what had to be done without letting anything—like fear—get in the way. Her father and Tim never panicked. She wouldn’t do it now.
She took out her phone and dialed Tim, while everything around her creaked and wires hung from the ceiling like a scene out of a bad movie.
She frowned and crawled out from under the table with her cell phone in hand, then surveyed everything around her. Where was the backpack? She’d had it when she’d been dangling from the desk leg, hanging on for dear life. Then she’d let go, with nothing beneath her, and had hit the floor below feet first, sending a jolt of pain up her legs and spine. More pain when she’d crashed forward to her knees, almost smashing her face into one of the desks.
She had to get out of this room.
Her thoughts tumbled over one another. She couldn’t see the doorway to the hall. But there was another door on the side of the room that led to a pass-through closet, which opened to the hallway. The chemistry teachers used it for storage and as a break room, equipped with a coffeepot, a microwave, and enough microwave popcorn to feed the entire school.
Diana glanced at her phone, then back at the door. Could she get to the closet? If she did reach it, would she be able to get the door open? Maybe she’d find the bag on the way. If so, she’d—
“Hello?” a voice called.
Diana looked up, trying to decide where the sound was coming from. Must be from the part of the third floor that hadn’t relocated to this level.
Diana checked the time, then slid the phone back in her pocket as the voice yelled again from above. “We need help!”
She looked around and spotted a couple of desks that looked like they were wedged firmly in place enough to climb.
“Hey!” she yelled as she squeezed sideways though a narrow gap in the broken chemistry tables and reached the desks. “Hello? Are you there? I’m on the second floor. Are you guys okay?”
“Do you think anyone in this place is okay?” the boy yelled. The voice was vaguely familiar. “Kaitlin is trapped and hurt, and I can’t get her out on my own. She needs help.”
Diana could use that too.
No, she told herself. She wasn’t the one who needed help, because she was the one in control. But if she wanted to help someone else, she needed to get back up to the third floor. Diana studied the pile of desks, looking for something stable to climb.
She reached up for a board and tugged on it to make sure it would hold her weight. Then she put a foot on a chunk of ceiling and began to climb. “I’m coming.”
She had to try several times before she found a secure place to put her foot, then pulled herself up.
Ouch. A splinter dug deep into her finger, and she gulped back tears. Compared to the cuts and scrapes on the rest of her, it wasn’t a big deal. She grabbed the beam tight and kept climbing, looking for the next desk leg or metal beam or cabinet that didn’t shift when she took hold.
Looking up, she saw patches of blue. The sky and the sunshine and the bird that flew by seemed unreal. She could also hear the boy’s voice from above floating down. It sounded fainter than before. He must have moved down the hall—Great. Thanks for the support and help.
Diana started climbing again, this time faster as she focused on the sound of the sirens that grew louder the higher she climbed through the gaping hole in the ceiling. More first responders must be coming—probably from other towns.
Diana shoved aside a chunk of ceiling tile and sent it thudding below. She was almost to the top of the chemistry room’s ceiling when she spotted her red backpack in the wreckage beneath her.
She jolted at the loud voice and pitched forward. She grabbed tightly on to a metal bar and yelped as it cut into the palm of her hand.
“Not really.” She automatically checked the angry words she wanted to hurl at him. Not ladylike. Not acceptable. Still they churned and pounded inside her head, fighting to break free. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath—two—three, then said, “But I’ll live, as long as you don’t scare the hell out of me again.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I thought you could see me, since I can see you.”
Diana glanced around as much as she dared. She was high enough to see the third floor, or the part of it that hadn’t collapsed to the classroom below. But what caught her attention was the smoke beyond the windows and the licks of fire.
She yanked her eyes away from the flames and craned her neck to look behind her at where the exit had to be. A shadow shifted beyond the doorway.
“Do you need help?” he yelled.
“Give me a minute.” She looked down one more time, then stepped onto a metal beam that at one point must have been a part of the second-floor ceiling, gasping when it shimmied under her feet. Her stomach dropped, but the beam held. Most of the floor between here and the door was cracked or had crashed down into the classroom below.
“I can see the doorway,” she called. “But most of the floor is missing. I am going to try to walk along this beam, only it doesn’t go all the way to the door. I might need a little help when I get closer.”
Diana inched forward on the beam, using another piece of metal dangling from the ceiling to help her keep her balance. She held her breath and judged the distance between the doorway and where she stood. More than two feet. Probably less than three.
If she could get a running jump, she’d be able to get a whole lot farther than that. But on this beam, she doubted she could get much power behind a leap. If she didn’t make it or the floor didn’t hold, she would be in trouble. But as her father said, sometimes you had to take a calculated risk in order to earn the payoff. And she was going to need someone to grab her in case she totally screwed this up.
Diana saw long, dark hair appear in the doorway. The guy stumbled and grabbed the door frame tightly as the floor beneath his feet began to give way. He jumped back just before a small chunk fell below, leaving Diana with several additional inches to jump. But now she could see the guy’s face.
She stared at him, trying to decide why he was here. In school. Today.
She’d never talked to him, but she knew the kind of trouble people said he was always getting into. He was the last person who should have been in this building the week before the semester started, and certainly not the person she wanted to count on for help. All the piercings and tattoos didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
“I need you to catch me on the other side, since the floor is falling apart.” As he had just demonstrated. Oh, God.
Z looked down the hallway, then back at Diana. “Just tell me what you need me to do.”
“Stand back one step,” she directed. “I’m going to jump as far as I can. If the floor gives way beneath me, I’m going to need to grab on to you, and you can’t let go.” Please don’t let go. “Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it,” Z said as he took a step back and transferred his weight to the front of his feet like athletes did when they needed to be ready to move fast. Good. If his reflexes were faster than his intellect, she might have a chance. He glanced down the hall, then back at Diana. “I’m ready when you are.”
“Great. Give me a second.” She could do this. She wasn’t the type to fail. It wasn’t allowed.
Taking a deep breath, she slowly inched back so she would have a little room to get some momentum before jumping. Then, before she could think too hard about how stupid this was or why she was doing it at all, she looked down at the beam to make sure she was putting her feet in the right place, then hurled herself forward.
She locked eyes with the angry but solid-looking Z. Everything inside her tensed as she flew over the space between the beam and the doorway. She let out a whoosh of air as her right foot hit the floor on the other side just as her left shoulder collided with the door frame.
“No. Oh, God.” Diana stumbled. The floor cracked beneath her feet. Frantic, she reached out for the door frame and screamed as she pitched backwards. A hand clamped around her wrist like a vise and yanked her through the doorway with such force that she lost her balance. She collided with Z, sending them both tumbling to the ground. Z on the floor. Diana sprawled on top of him—all the air knocked out of her.
Diana wheezed in a painful breath, trying not to panic at how hard it was to fill her lungs.
“Can you get off of me?” he groaned. “You’re heavy.”
Heavy? She’d just risked her life because the idiot asked her to, and he was calling her heavy? Seriously?
Taking in a slightly less strained breath, Diana put her hands on Z’s black T-shirt. He grunted as she pushed hard against him and climbed to her feet. While he struggled to get upright, Diana checked the urge to kick him and instead felt her side pocket for her phone. There was no service. She had no way to reach beyond the walls for advice on what to do next.
She shut the screen down and said, “I want to call for help, but there’s no signal.”
“There might be one down here. Come on.” He grabbed her arm and yanked her down the hall, almost pulling her off her feet.
— Chapter 28 —
COME ON. COME ON.
Z ducked low to get under a fallen beam and hurried down the hall, glancing over his shoulder to make sure the homecoming queen was following. Of all the people he could have found, it just figured it was her. People like Homecoming Girl, who thought they were better than he was, were the reason he had come to school today.
“Kaitlin, I found help!” he called, hurrying toward the caved-in section of the room where she’d been standing when the first bomb went off. Now her legs were pinned under a gray-and-black steel air-conditioning unit that had fallen through the ceiling.
Because of him.
He shook off the churning panic as he knelt down next to Kaitlin and took her hand in his. It was small. Cold. Weak. So like his mother’s.
“I told you to leave,” Kaitlin said tightly. “You have to get out.”
“You told me to find help.” Z looked back at Diana with a look that he hoped would make her understand that she might think it was okay to kick him around, but she couldn’t do that to Kaitlin. She needed help.
Homecoming Princess stepped forward. The floor creaked beneath her feet, and she came to a dead stop.
“The floor held my weight. You’ll be fine.” If not, he didn’t care. The only person who mattered was Kaitlin.
To prove his point, he stood up and walked toward the side of the air conditioner that had smashed onto a desk. The broken wood beneath held that side a foot or two off the ground. The floor around it was cracked—but it still held his weight. “See. It’s fine. I’m going to wedge a board under here and lift the air conditioner enough for you to pull Kaitlin out.”
Homecoming Girl didn’t move.
“Don’t be stupid, Z,” Kaitlin said quietly. “It’s not going to work. You need to get out of here.”
Her eyes were glassy. The freckles on her face looked darker than ever against her pale skin. For someone so small, she had a huge voice and a stubborn streak a mile wide. She believed anything was possible. For her to say this wasn’t . . .
He wasn’t going to accept that.
“We can do this, Kaitlin,” he said, yanking a two-by-four out of a pile of debris. “Right?”
He looked over at Miss Princess, waiting for her to agree. But she was just standing there staring at Kaitlin. Her eyes wide. Her mouth slightly open.
Slowly, the blonde shook her head and took a step back. “No. Listen to Kaitlin. You can’t move her.”
“We have to,” he insisted. She had to be okay. She just had to be.
“I get that you want to, but if we move her right now, she’ll die.”
The words slapped his heart.
“Look,” the girl said. “At best, her bones are simply broken, but if it’s more than that . . .” She took a deep breath and once again glanced down at Kaitlin before quickly looking away. “If she has other injuries, she could lose a lot of blood the minute we move her. We don’t have anything to stop the bleeding. This is bad, but that would be far worse. And she’s probably in shock.” There had to be other options other than having her legs crushed or bleeding out. There had to.
“Z,” Kaitlin whispered.
He squelched the panic and forced himself to give an encouraging smile as he walked back and knelt at her side. “I’m here. And I’m going to get you out of this. You’re going to be okay.”
How many times had he told his mother it would all be okay?
“I know you want to help, Z.” Kaitlin closed her eyes tight. Her voice sounded thin. The pain was wearing her down. “But you have to listen to her.”
“I’m not going to give up,” he said. “You can’t either. You have to keep fighting.”
“Z . . .”
“Promise me you’ll keep fighting, and so will I.”
He smoothed her hair, stood up, and stalked over the cracked floor toward the shattered windows, wanting to smash something. To smash it all. But that would scare Kaitlin. He had to—
“Z?” Homecoming Chick’s voice made him jump. He hadn’t heard her sneak up behind him. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
People liked saying that crap. As if they really thought someone would believe them.
“My name’s Diana, by the way. Diana Sanford.”
Of course it was. He should have known that’s who she was. Senator Sanford’s sainted daughter. No wonder she thought she was the authority on all things. “I’m getting Kaitlin out of here.”
“Kaitlin needs paramedics or the fire department or people more skilled than we are if she’s going to get through this.”
“Well, where the hell are they?” he yelled while Diana looked down at the phone in her hand as if it were magically going to give her the answer. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not seeing any firefighters bursting through the doors.” He grabbed an overturned chair by the legs and swung it toward the window.
The chair and the glass shattered. Z leaned his head out and yelled, “Hey! We’re up here. There’s a girl who needs help right now!”
Dozens of emergency vehicles were in the parking lots, as were people in uniform. They were all looking in the direction of the school.
No one was rushing toward the building. A couple of firefighters took a step or two toward the edge of the asphalt, but no one came any farther.
“Hello?” he screamed. “What the hell are you waiting for? You need to move! A girl is going to die!”
“Z, you’re not helping,” Diana said as he pulled his head back into the room.
“Like you are?”
“I’m trying to. There’s a reason no one is coming in.”
“Like what?” he yelled.
“Like they think there’s another bomb!”
Quietly, Diana said, “Fire responders must have been ordered to stay out of the building until the bomb squad or robots or whatever determine if there’s another bomb. If there is, they won’t come in. They can’t; otherwise they’ll put us in even greater danger than we are now.”
Which meant they were on their own.