When the bookstore at the mall put up its help wanted posters, I jumped at the chance to put in my application. Between being an avid reader who had practically lived amongst the store’s shelves in high school and a broke community college student taking a semester off to save money, it seemed still customer service.
I got used to people coming in and asking for “That popular book, the one made into a movie” and the edgy teens who moved the Bible from the religion section to fiction. Finding half eaten pastries from our cafe hidden in all sorts of creative places that weren’t the conveniently placed garbage cans was an everyday activity and gently reminding parents that we weren’t babysitters was a frequent thing.
It was far from all bad, though.
A lot of our customers were quiet and pleasant, it was clean (for the most part), management was nice, my co-workers friendly, and I got a tidy little discount on my own purchases. After a few months of employment, I even had some regulars that I was on a first name basis with.
One of them was Eddie.
He was a polite kid, a few years younger than me, maybe sixteen, and he loved fantasy. It wasn’t unusual to go down to that section and find a tall, lanky guy all in black kneeling in the middle of the aisle with a book opened in front of him. The first few times I came across him, he’d look up with this guilty expression, like I’d found him doing something wrong, and quickly put the book he’d been reading away and get up to leave.
He was always alone and often had headphones on; I imagined they were blaring one of the bands whose t-shirts he frequently wore, Iron Maiden or Metallica or something hard and heavy like that. At first, he struck me as the intentional outsider type, rebelling against The Man, an embittered youth who thought of himself as a lone wolf who didn’t need anyone else.
When I finally spoke to him, though, I found that I’d been very wrong.
I found him in his usual spot one afternoon and, as usual, he started to pack up the minute I came around the corner. Instead of just letting him go, I decided to try reaching out with a smile and pointed to the book he was putting back.
“R.A. Salvatore’s a good author, huh?” I asked while I reorganized the shelf next to him.
He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye and answered with a tight lipped nod.
“I was a big fan of Drizzt when I was in high school,” I said.
“Yeah,” Eddie agreed. “I like Wulfgar.”
“He’s pretty cool, too.”
We chatted for a bit longer about the series and I was surprised by how he lit up; he had such enthusiasm for the books that it almost made me want to go out and re-read them. We traded names before Eddie had to go and I went back to work, amused at how wrong I’d been about him. Instead of being the angry, closed off guy I’d expected, he was a huge, but shy, geek.
Whenever I saw Eddie after that first conversation, we’d exchange pleasantries and talk about the new releases that had just come in. I wasn’t the fantasy buff that I’d once been so sometimes it could be hard to keep up, but Eddie just seemed to like having someone to talk to and he kept me company while I stocked and straightened shelves.
I didn’t comment on the fact that he was in almost every afternoon and often stayed until it was just about closing time. I figured he wasn’t causing trouble so it wasn’t my business.
One afternoon, after I’d just finished helping a nice older lady find her way to the recently popular 50 Shades, my co-worker, Janelle, came up to me.
“Hey, Danielle, you know that kid who follows you around? The goth one?” She asked, like I had more than one.
“I guess. He’s, like…over in the back corner crying. It’s weirding people out. Could you talk to him and get him to leave?”
I told her I’d check on him and hurried to find Eddie, who was sitting against the wall in the farthest corner of the store between the cooking and self-help aisles. When he saw me, he quickly wiped his eyes and sat up a bit.
“Hey,” I said softly. “You ok?”
He shrugged and clenched his jaw to keep any more tears from escaping. I noticed that his hair and clothes looked damp.
“Just dickheads,” he mumbled.
I frowned and crouched down. “Are people bullying you, Eddie?”
He let out a short laugh, sad and cynical. “It’s nothing. They were just having fun, right? It was just water balloons.”
“Do you want me to call someone? Your parents or-”
“No,” he said quickly, getting to his feet. “I’m leaving.”
“Wait, if you need to talk-”
“I just need to man up, right? Bye, Danielle.”
He walked away with his hands shoved in his pockets and his shoulders hunched and my heart broke a little for him. I shouldn’t have been surprised he was bullied, but I’d gotten so used to him that his dark appearance didn’t even phase me anymore. I doubted the other high schoolers were quite so blind to it.
Eddie stayed on my mind well after I’d finished working. From the defeat in his voice and the way he’d dismissed my concern, I knew this was far from the first brush he’d had with these bullies and that nothing had been done about them. I didn’t know if he’d tried to tell anyone and I doubted such a sweet kid would fight back, but I hoped he’d find a way to make them leave him alone. He deserved better.
My dreams that night were filled with screaming. With gunfire. With an image of Eddie in his black clothes, blood upon his hands.
I woke with a start. Sweat trickled down my forehead in chilly little beads and uneasiness slithered in my stomach and it took me a few long moments to tell myself it had just been a dream. A very vivid dream that had left the smell of iron in my nose. I shook it away and flopped over, determined to forget it and get back to sleep.
The water balloon incident seemed to be a turning point for Eddie, and not a good one. He’d started avoiding me, but I still saw him around the store, reading and minding his business as he always had, except now I couldn’t help but notice that he sometimes had tears in his clothes or that his belongings looked wet and abused. He trudged about like someone carrying a too-heavy load.
And every night, the same dream. Gunfire in the distance, somewhere in the mall. Screaming. Panicked footsteps stampeding towards exits. Eddie in the entrance to the bookstore with red hands and splatter across his face.
It was hard to tell myself that something I saw so clearly wasn’t real and it was even harder not to watch Eddie with a new, heightened sense of caution. Whenever I caught sight of him, I’d find myself unconsciously searching him for the blood that marked him in my dreams.
The only blood I saw was his own, when he came in at his usual time one afternoon with a black eye and one of his nostrils coated in crusty, dried red. He disappeared into the bathroom to clean up, I assumed, and, when he came out, I was waiting.
“Who did that?” I asked sternly and he looked surprised to see me.
“Nobody,” he grumbled, turning away.
“Eddie, if someone is hurting you, you should tell someone.”
“Why? I know what I need to do.”
“Man up,” he snorted to try and hide that his voice had cracked just slightly.
He’d said that once before, I remembered. “You need to get help, talk to someone.”
“Only pussies tattle.”
It was obvious he was repeating someone and I felt such a rush of anger towards them for putting that bull in his head. I followed him down the aisles to the fantasy section, where he pointedly tried to ignore me, but I was persistent.
“Eddie, come on. You can talk to me!”
After minutes of not responding, he finally sighed and looked at me. There was anger in his face, sharp and deep, but it was clouded heavily by the sadness I saw there, too.
“It doesn’t matter. I just have to get through two more years and then I’m out.”
“But you shouldn’t have to put up with this!”
Tears had welled in his eyes and he shrugged. “Nobody cares.”
“I’m sure that’s not true; I do. We’re friends.”
The phone in his pocket went off loudly and he scrambled to grab it. Before he’d had a chance to get it out, the call dropped and a man I’d not seen before came around the end of the aisle with a scowl.
“I should have known you’d be here looking at this bullshit. I’ve been waiting in the car,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I started to say at the same time Eddie said, ‘Sorry, Dad.”
Eddie’s dad took a step towards us without so much as a glance towards me. “Are you crying, Edward?”
“No!” Eddie said.
“God, when are you going to man the fuck up, huh? No wonder you get your ass kicked,” he shook his head in obvious disgust. “Get moving, Mom’s got dinner waiting.”
I was in too much shock to say anything as Eddie, head hung low, followed his father out of the store. I wished immediately that I’d said or done something, that I’d stuck up for poor Eddie, but I’d just stood there, gaping like an idiot, and then they were gone.
That night, I had the same dream again. Gunfire, screaming, running, panic, and Eddie. Bloody hands, blood splattered face, coming towards the store. All I could do was watch him get closer, until he was reaching for the handle so that he could pull it open and come inside. His dad’s rough voice, so withering and filled with contempt, rose around us.
“Man the fuck up!”
I shot upright in bed, grasping at my pounding chest and trying to calm my breathing.
“Eddie wouldn’t hurt anyone,” I whispered, “he’s a good kid.”
I wondered how many people thought the same thing about others right before they lashed out.
Usually by morning I’d managed to shake off most of the unpleasantness of the dream, but that day, it stayed with me, following me like some kind of terrible spectre. I’d never been one to put much stock into dreams, but I’d also never had one that had been so real or that recurred every night.
I went into work for my evening shift feeling shaky, but silly. I just had to get through six hours and then I’d realize how dumb I was being.
It was six o’clock, three hours into my shift when I heard the first loud pop from off in the distance. The screams that followed were exactly the same as they’d been in my dream. The store had gone very still all of the sudden, and all eyes had turned towards the glass front doors that led into the mall.
“Was that a-” someone started to ask, but another series of shots rang out. It was all the answer they needed.
Chaos erupted. People were diving between book shelves, overturning chairs to duck behind, a few even clamored behind the counter with me and a couple coworkers. There was screaming and crying, the occasional plea for others to be quiet, but nothing seemed so loud as the gunshots echoing throughout.
It was all too familiar.
Automatically, without thinking, I turned towards the doors.
There he was, dressed all in black, coming towards us, reaching for the handles with his red hand. There were drops of blood splashed across his face and one trickled down his cheek like a dark tear.
He stood in the doorway for a moment and our eyes met.
“Help me,” Eddie said.
I blinked stupidly.
“Danielle! Please!” He turned and waved a hand behind him, “This way, come on, we’ll hide in here! Hurry!”
A man half-carrying a woman came into view behind Eddie. Eddie held the door open with his foot and slipped one of the his arms around the woman’s waist. He pressed his other hand, already wet and red, over a bloody wound in her stomach. Together, he and the man dragged the woman into the store.
“There’s another out there. I saw him,” Eddie said as he passed the desk. “Can you hold the door, Danielle? I’m going to get him.”
I stammered at him, too terrified to form words.
“When you see me coming back, get the door. Please.”
I saw the same fear in him that I was feeling as he ran back out of the store and into the mall, where the gunfire continued.
I crouched behind the counter, barely able to breathe, shaking, half afraid that I wouldn’t be able to move when he came back, if he came back, but I stared at those doors and I waited like a rabbit waits for the wolf to pass. So still, but every inch of me burning with a tense electricity that screamed, “Run!”
Amidst the rush of people desperately trying to escape, a tall, lanky boy dressed all in black dragged a wounded elderly man away from the madness back into the book store.
I made sure I was there to open the door for them.
He would go out twice more when he saw others staggering towards us, in dire need of assistance.
When it sounded like the shooter was getting closer, we huddled together in the fantasy section with a few others and we listened to the rapid POP POP POP coming from just outside our doors.
We got lucky, though. The gunman never made it into the bookstore. With police starting to pour in, he turned his pistol on himself and put a bullet into his brain.
The all clear was given moments later.
I had to help Eddie to his feet; he was trembling and sobbing and staring down at his blood stained hands. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, the reality of what we’d been through, what he’d risked, were sinking in.
“I’m sorry,” he kept saying, trying unsuccessfully to stem his tears in shame. “I need to man up. I’m sorry.”
I wanted to tell him that that was stupid. That crying and being afraid didn’t make him less of a man. That “manning up” was a stupid, bullshit concept and his dad and his bullies were stupid, bullshit people for making him feel bad for being different, for feeling. I wanted to tell him that he was a hero.
And I would, eventually, but in that moment, all I could do was hug him.