A gunman is stalking the wards of a local hospital. He’s unidentified and dangerous, and has to be located. Urgently.
To psychologist Imogen, hospital should be a place of healing and safety – both for her, and her young niece who’s been recently admitted. She’s heard about the gunman, but he has little to do with her. Or has he? As time ticks down, no one knows who the gunman’s next target will be. But he’s there. Hiding in plain sight. Far closer than anyone thinks…
Charlie: Sunday 31 August, 10.33 a.m.
I can smell the blood. It is all that I can smell. It coats my nostrils, my lungs, it stains the inside of my throat. It is on me. It covers my hands, has turned my white blouse crimson, and I do not know how much of it is mine, how much comes from the dead.
The bodies litter the hospital lobby like autumn leaves blown inside on a gusty day. There are so many of them, the floor has vanished beneath them. Now, everywhere I look I see the casualties lying at uneven angles. The coffee shop, the one that was so busy just moments ago, before the world ended, now stands empty. Round metal tables have tumbled to their sides, tubular chairs overturned and scattered. Those who could run, did. A bullet has pierced the sandwich display, sending finger-cracks racing along the glass. From somewhere beyond sight comes the smell of burning bread, a toasting sandwich abandoned in the exodus. Beyond that, the automatic main doors to the hospital stand open, bringing inside a gust of warm wind. I look at the doors, study them without seeing, obliquely wonder why it is that they do not close. They should have closed, shouldn’t they?
That is when I see the security guard. Ernie is stretched out on his back, a plastic coffee cup still clutched in his hand, the coffee seeping out to form a pool that mingles with the blood. His head is pressed against the right-hand door, and it would seem that he slept, but for the hole where his face should be. His cowlick, the one that he laughed at, the one that he complained his wife hated, is stained a red so dark that it is almost black.
I look away, trying to breathe, trying not to panic. Look down at Aden. He is lying on the ground beside me, has curled inwards around me, so that his chin brushes against my knee. I am holding Aden’s hand, so tight that it seems it must be hurting him, although he never murmurs. He has not opened his eyes, his lips are slack. Blood leaches through the dark of his uniform, puddling on the floor, into my skirt. I press my other hand against the hole in his shoulder, feeling warm blood ooze between my fingers. And I pray. I don’t remember the last time I prayed, but today I pray. Please God, let him live.
My hearing is beginning to repair. The yawning silence ebbing away, sounds beginning to creep back in. Of course, as soon as they do, I wish they would go away again. Because now I can hear the whimpers. I don’t know where they are coming from. I had thought I was the only one left alive in this hell. I’m not sure, but then I think the whimpers are coming from me. Behind that, carried in on the breeze, I hear what I first think is screaming. I wonder distantly what it is that is making the outside world tear itself apart, when the worst that can happen is here, where we are. But then the sound solidifies and I realise I am hearing sirens and that the cavalry are coming.
I look up, think to shout for help. And that is when I see her. Imogen looks different. The way she is wearing her hair, I haven’t seen it like that before. But then, what does it matter how her hair looks, now that she is dead?
Imogen lies spreadeagled at the edge of the lobby. Looks as if she is making snow angels in the heart of winter. But instead of snow she is surrounded by blood that was once hers. She has tumbled backwards, blown there by the gunshot to her chest. Copper-red hair falls across her eyes, a single strand snaking its way across her chin, trapping itself in the gloss pink of her Cupid’s-bow lips. Her mobile phone lies in her wide-open hand. For a moment it seems that she can see me, her gaze fixed on me, pleading. But there is nothing there. Her overlarge green eyes are vacant.
I stare at Imogen, and stare, and my brain seems to be standing on quaking ground, because now I recognise her, now I don’t. And then I think that it must be the sheen of death on her. This is why she looks so alien to me. So other.
A feeling is rising through me, and I think it must be panic. I fight against it, push it down. There is only me. There is only me amongst them all. I cannot let go.
Okay, Charlie. Take it slowly. My father always said that the only way to climb a mountain is one step at a time. So I focus on my breathing again, slowing it. I know that my lungs are pumping, my heart is beating like a drum, and I am absurdly angry with them both, willing them to calm the hell down. I cling to Aden’s hand, so tightly that it seems his skin has become a part of mine, and I breathe in, holding a blood-stained breath in my lungs, and think that I am at the bottom of the pool, and there is nothing more to it than that. Just an easy dive, down into the piercing blue deep. And any second now I will skim the bottom, then I will turn, arching my body up towards the light. And then I will break the surface. And this time the air will be clean. Bloodless.
I remember the doors, swooshing open onto the still August air. The sun on the linoleum. The barrel of the gun. The shape it made as it faced me. The endless darkness hidden inside. The certain knowledge that I was going to die. Then Aden. That look, from me to him and back again. Then the gun, swinging around, finding him.
Then a voice, low-sounding of whisky and darkness, breaks into my reverie. ‘You okay?’
I start and release a sound, one that I have never heard from myself before, a kind of a cross between a yelp and a sob. Aden’s face is creased in pain. Eyes open, so slowly. He lies there for a minute, as if he cannot believe that he is alive.
I wait for him to look at me. At least I give him that, before I throw myself at him. I can feel his breath on my cheek, hear his heart beating on mine. I’m dimly aware this is unlikely to help his wounds, but I cannot seem to stop myself, and after a second, as he presumably works at convincing himself that he isn’t dead, I feel his arm wrapping itself around me, pulling me in tighter.
‘You’re alive.’ His voice is rough, low.
‘You too.’ He smells of soap and gunpowder.
I know what he’s asking. I know what he wants me to do. But I stay, cradled against him, until I absolutely, completely have to move. Then, with my one good arm, I push myself up. His shoulder is bleeding. The wound looks ragged, terrifying even, and I have no idea what will come next.
‘You’ll live,’ I lie.
He grins, a fleeting smile so out of place in this setting, yet as welcome as a long drink of water on a burningly hot day. I know that he knows I’m lying. ‘Such a bedside manner. I meant the others.’ He gestures with one hand around the lobby, wincing, trying to look past me, but I don’t move. Ridiculous as it may sound, what with who he is and what he does, but I don’t want him to see. But I know that he won’t settle, not until he knows.
I don’t have to look up. I see them anyway. I will see them every time I close my eyes for the rest of my life.
There’s the elderly lady with the navy-blue raincoat, taupe slip-on shoes, yards away from us. Her head is rested on her arm, and it seems that she is merely sleeping. Just got tired and fancied a nap. The blood pools around her, turning her blue coat black. There’s a man, about my age, perhaps late twenties. He is slumped against the opposite wall, one partner in a pair of bookends. Only his chin, with the carefully trimmed goatee, is tilted forward onto his chest, his hands resting, palms up on his lap, as if to say: look at me, I won’t hurt you. His brains splattered across the wall that supports him.
And him, the one who did this. He is lying amongst the casualties. As if he is one of them.
‘It’s bad, Ade. It’s really bad.’
The Shooter: Sunday 31 August, 10.25 a.m.
Day of the shooting
They don’t see me. No one ever sees me. Their eyes skit across me and away, like I’ve been greased and their gazes just can’t get any traction. I am, to all intents and purposes, invisible.
They cluster around the hospital doors. The smokers who just need one last fix. An achingly thin man sucks on a cigarette, the red glow creeping its way down towards yellowing fingers. He doesn’t look at me, even though I am right in front of him. He has a far-off gaze, and all that exists for him is that cigarette, the metal strut that supports his IV bag. He’s leaning on it, a hobo against a flimsy lamp-post.
I have parked in the car park today, for the first time. I have been here before, and the times that I have been here before I have come through the woods that back onto the hospital, have left my car on the other side of it, on Mullins Road. But not today. Because today it doesn’t matter where the car is. I will not be returning to it.
I step into the hanging cloud of cigarette smoke, standing stark in the stagnant air. The gym bag is on my shoulder. The weight of the gun makes it heavy, pulls me off-centre, so that I’m leaning into it. I hold on tight to the strap. Cigarette smoke catches in my throat, makes me cough, and I glance at the man, so old that he looks like he has lived a thousand lifetimes already, and I think about killing him. He is wearing a hospital gown, white with blue checks. It hangs just above his knees, his legs jutting out beneath it, two lollipop sticks, his back warped into a question mark. Still he has not noticed me. I would laugh if it wasn’t so damned pathetic. My step slows. I feel the weight of the bag. I could do it. Could turn, pull the gun free, level it at his blank, empty face and pull the trigger. It wouldn’t be the first time. My hands twitch, aching for the feel of the roughened grip, cold metal, the kickback as it hits the palm of my hand. The swell of relief that follows.
But, with one final look at the man as he sucks on his cigarette so hard that his cheeks plunge inwards, I turn, keep walking. Because there is a plan. I must stick to the plan.
The hospital doors swoosh open, stale thick air, a plunge into a stagnant pool. There is a burst of sound in the lobby, voices. Somewhere a radio is playing. The Beatles. She loves you. The irony hits me along with the heat, and I step onto the slick linoleum. Breathe. The coffee shop is busy, people lining up at a metal-strut counter. The security guard, his grey hair sticking up at odd angles, belly hanging low over his trousers, holds a paper cup, curls of steam climbing from it. He looks up, and for a moment I think that he has seen me. But then his gaze trickles away, back towards the clear-domed stand where the muffins are kept, and his tongue snakes out, wetting his lips. He reaches down, a movement that looks fluid and practised, adjusts his utility belt, mouth curling like he thinks he’s Batman.
I wait in the sun-dappled lobby, the doors hanging open in my presence. I’m not sure what it is that I am waiting for. Is it for the security guard? Am I thinking he will stop me? I study him, his back turned to me now, can see the awkwardness of his movements, that arthritis is setting in, that in truth he isn’t stopping anyone. I stand there, a boulder in a stream of people, and I look for a feeling – any feeling. I’m not sure why. After all, lately my life has revolved around running from them. Yet now, here at the end, it seems to me that they have vanished. That the sea of emotions, always raging, always yanking at me, threatening to pull me under, has suddenly stilled, like it has frozen in an instant. I prod at it, a tongue into a cavity, but I can find nothing. Just the relief of the coming silence.
I turn, feet squeaking against the linoleum floor. Look to the signs. I don’t know why. I have, after all, been here before. I know my way to Ward 12.
I pull the gym bag higher up onto my shoulder. Or, at least, my hands do, although they feel like someone else’s hands. My feet begin to move, someone else’s feet. It occurs to me that nothing is yet set. I could always change my mind. But I won’t, I know I won’t. Because beneath the frozen sea the waves are still raging, and I know that I cannot survive them again.
I glance back, out into the car park, through the pall of smoke, my last glimpse of sunshine. I think it is because I want to say goodbye. But instead I see a figure, hurrying towards me. And she is not like the others. She sees me. Is looking straight at me.
Charlie pushes her way through the crowded smokers. And I hang there, like I am frozen. She knows. I don’t know how it is possible that she could know. But she knows. I see it in her face, eyes wide, frightened, jaw set, even in the movement of her hands, like she is reaching for me, like if she can just get to me in time, then she can stop me.
I turn, breaking into a run. I don’t know why. I could just shoot her. But for some reason the thought never occurs to me, and so instead I run, because there are things that I must do before the end.
They are all looking at me now. They stare at this crazy man running through the hospital. Suddenly they all see me, give me a wide berth, which suits me fine. I make for the stairs. Can hear Charlie’s voice at my back, calling me. Wonder what the hell she is thinking. That she thinks she is capable of stopping me on her own.
I am almost there, am reaching for the stair doors, when they swing open.
Imogen steps into my path. She doesn’t see me. Is looking down at a phone in her hand, is texting, sunlight catching on her red hair. I sway. Because she looks so much like the other one. The image of her dances in front of me, shifting like a hologram, so that now I see her, now I don’t. Then, all of a sudden, she stops shifting, the figure coalescing so that my brain can make sense of what my eyes are seeing, and I feel a breathtaking sense of familiarity. I realise then what it is that I have done.
Now everything I thought I knew is gone. Because I’ve already killed her once today.
My fingers move. They move without me, travel to the bag that is slung across my shoulder, reach in for the gun. Pull it free.
Time has stopped now.
I hear a voice behind me shout a warning, dimly recognise it as Charlie. Hear, from everywhere else it seems, a scream, an intake of breath that sucks all of the air from the room. And now the woman before me looks up, pulls her gaze from her phone. Sees me. Sees the gun. And I can see it – the moment of her death – reflected right there in her eyes, as she realises what I am about to do. She opens her mouth, like she thinks that it can make a difference.
‘I . . . your text. I didn’t see—’
But I have stopped listening. I know that I do not want to hear what she has to say.
I pull the trigger.