I don’t know why I did it. On any other day, I would’ve gone straight to class rather than risk being late just to get a book out of my locker. When it comes to Mr. Hersh’s class, it’s better to be unprepared and on time than late for any reason. Even knowing all that, I don’t know what made me turn around and run to my locker as the final bell rang. I shake my head at my own stupidity as I try to open my locker.

I tear off the flyer someone taped up, announcing the Halloween dance set for tomorrow. Out of all the schools I’ve been to in the past 17 years, I’ve never once been to a dance.  I consider myself a little too mature for the whole Halloween celebration, but I definitely have the incentive to go to this one. I smile a little as I think about his dark, intense eyes on mine when he shyly asked me to go with him. My smile falters as the lock on my locker refuses to open for me. 

 Frustrated after the second attempt, I calm down and move slower on my third endeavor. No point in rushing now when I’m already late. In the words of Mr. Hersh, “If you’re one minute late you might as well be an hour late.” Lame. In my opinion, his theory just begs for the student population to ditch his class whenever they’re running late.

I’m finally able to get the lock open and I slam the door back in an act of rebellion against the inanimate object. The sound of the door clanging into other lockers echoes through the empty halls, reinforcing in the fact that everyone else has managed to make it to their homerooms on time. I rifle through my messy locker as quickly and methodically as I can, before I locate my English book on the top shelf, so high up that I can barely reach. I miss having a half size locker like at my last school. I almost feel like I need a stool just to reach the top and back of this full sized one. 

“Cutting class, Savvy?” a low voice rumbles from a few feet away. I squeal a bit in shock and smack my head on the door of the locker as I turn toward the owner of the voice. I hear Jesse Gainer chuckle and see his body quake as he laughs at my injury.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, a little too embarrassed to be polite. He raises his black eyebrows in surprise at my tone and leans his shoulder against the locker next to mine.

“I have an appointment with Mr. Roberts,” he responds as he folds his arms across the wide expanse of his chest.

“Mr. Roberts?” I ask in surprise.

After the initial scare, the sound of his voice has my heart skipping a beat and a pleased smile spreading across my face. I close and relock my locker before turning back to see him nod in response. The side of my head hurts where it hit the locker, but I refuse to acknowledge it while he’s watching me so intently. Those same dark eyes I had just been thinking about are laughing down at me and my clumsiness. 

“What for?” I ask, curious about why he, of all people, would need to talk to the vice principal. He gets perfect grades and has never, as far as I know, gotten in any trouble. He may look like an intimidating giant, but he’s the sweetest guy I’ve ever met. He’s helped me more times than I could ever repay him for, which is why I’m surprised that the vice principal would need to see him.

A muffled ‘bang’ surprises both of us as it echoes from behind me. Jesse straightens to his full height and looks down the hall as I turn around to see what’s going on. My first thought is that someone is setting off a firecracker in the girl’s room again. A few weeks ago Ryan Brickman, quarterback of the football team and all
arounddouche-bag, threw a small firecracker into the girl’s locker room, which resulted in twenty girls, in various stages of undress, running from the room, screaming. Which was what he was hoping for, I guess. And, since it didn’t involve me, I have to admit that it was kind of funny.  

Jesse and I peer down the now silent hallway, searching for the source of the noise.

“Think that was Ryan again?” I whisper to Jesse. I see him shake his head slowly as he continues to stare down the long hallway.

“I don’t think that was a firecracker,” he murmurs back quietly. I crane my head up and search his face in confusion.

Before I can ask him what he means
thereare three more ‘bang, bang, bang’ noises, in rapid succession. Only this time, they were louder and closer. It sounds like they’re coming from inside the office, which is through a door about a car length away from us. I hear Jesse swear quietly under his breath before he pushes me into the wall of lockers.

“Open your locker, Savannah,” he says in an undertone. His large body is covering my back as he presses my front into the locker next to mine. Any other time I would have given him grief for ordering me around, but I can hear the urgency in his voice. His body is a wall of tightly wound flesh behind me and I can feel his heart pounding against my back. I immediately grab the combination lock next to my hand, cursing the fact that I had already relocked it. My hands are shaking so badly I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop the dial on the right numbers.

We hear somebody scream and a closely followed lone ‘bang’. The scream stops and a sob escapes, unbidden, from my throat. In the back of my mind, I know what’s happening but I can’t acknowledge it. If I even think about it then it might be true and that kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life. That only happens on television or in New York where there’s a large population of supposedly angry people. It only happens to other people. This can’t be happening to me, here, in acity
I’ve only lived in for a few months.

“Hurry up, Sav,” I hear him whisper fervently in my ear as he pushes in closer from behind. I take a breath and, miraculously, my lock opens on the second attempt. Jesse reaches over and opens the door quickly but quietly. Using his left hand, he pushes me into my full-length locker. It would be easier if it hadn’t been so messy in the first place. Fortunately, I’m small and I can squeeze in if I duck my head. “I won’t put the lock on, but you need to stay inside. Be as quiet as you can. No matter what you see or hear, don’t make a sound.” I see his strained face as his dark eyes bore into mine. I nod my head, too afraid to speak, almost too afraid to breathe as he closes the door.

Through the
fiveslats of space in the middle, I see his chest rise as he takes a deep breath and straightens away from my locker. He moves to a random locker across the hall. With his back to me I see him mess around with a lock as if he knows he doesn’t have time to do anything else. A moment later I hear a loud noise as a door close to me opens and slams shut. Afraid that I might make an involuntary noise, I put both of my hands over my mouth. I see Jesse turn to the right and he nods, nonchalantly, to the person entering the hallway.

“Hey man,” I hear him greet someone out of my view, “what’s going on?”

“Not much,” the answering voice replies, “just taking care of some stuff.”

There’s a loud click, and I see Jesse hold his breath as his eyes widen. Reflexively his hands come up in front of him as he takes a step back. I feel my whole body start to shake and tears form in my eyes, making it difficult to see Jesse. I concentrate all of my effort on not making any noises. I want to run to Jesse and push him out of the way, but I’m too scared to move. I still can’t see the other person, but I know now, for sure, that the sounds we heard were from a gun. And I know that Jesse is facing that gun right now. I watch, helplessly, from my locker as my worst nightmare unfolds in front of me. 

I stare, unblinking, at Jesse as the other person in the hallway walks closer to him. When he’s finally in my line of sight my body tenses even more with the confirmation of who it is. Justin Anderson. The quiet boy from my photography class. The boy who gets picked on in the cafeteria while everyone watches. The boy who looks at everyone with hate and disinterest. The boy who lives across the street from me. The boy who’s holding a large black gun pointed right at Jesse’s heart.

An unbidden whimper escapes from my covered lips and I press my hands tighter to my mouth to hold in any more noise. Thankfully I don’t think either one of the guys on the other side of my locker heard me.

“What are you doing, Justin?” Jesse’s surprisingly calm voice echoes in the empty hallway.

“I told you; I’m taking care of some things,” his monotonous voice never changes. The gun in his hand never wavers, even though his arm must be getting tired from holding it up for so long. 

“You know,” Jesse continues in his perpetually serene voice, “the police are probably on their way now. I’m sure someone heard the noise and called them. If I were you, I would book it out the exit before it’s too late. We’re on the second floor and the only way out is downstairs.”

Jesse takes a small step backward, trying to put more distance between his body and the menacing weapon pointed at him. In reaction, Justin’s hand tightens around the handle fractionally and my heart stops as I wait for him to accidently pull the trigger. After a quiet second, there’s no deafening explosion indicating the end of Jesse’s life.

My heart starts pounding in my ears again. I can feel a cold drop of sweat make its way from my neck and roll down my back. The churning in my stomach makes me regret the granola bar and orange juice I had on the way to school this morning. Tears start leaking freely from my eyes, making it even more difficult to see what’s happening in front of me. 

“I know,” Justin answers Jesse after a thoughtful moment. His shoulders move slightly in an uninterested shrug.

More chills rock my body at the sound of his flat, indifferent voice. He sounds like nothing more than the shell of a person; someone with no soul. Walking around hurting people, unconcerned with the damage he’s reaping on everyone in his path.

I try to suck in a deep breath of much-needed air as quietly as I can when the sound of a door hitting the wall reverberates through the hallway. Justin swings his arm around to face the hallway behind him where, I assume, someone else is standing. I resist the urge to press my face against the cool locker to try and see who else is out there.

“Wha-what’s going on?” a timid, female voice asks from a few feet away.

Before anyone can answer her, a loud ringing comes through the intercom system lining the hallway. The blaring sound forces me to move my hands from my mouth to my ears as the earsplitting noise ricochets inside of my locker.

“What the hell?” I just barely hear Justin’s voice over the continuous ringing through the halls.

I look back through the slats of the locker in time to see Justin throw his own hands up to cover his ears from the piercing noise.

I look at Jesse and know, immediately, what he’s about to do. And, although the time between him making the decision and acting on it is only a second or two, it feels like minutes pass. He seems to suddenly notice that Justin’s gun is in one of the hands covering his ears and is no longer pointed at one of the two people in the hallway with him. Then his face hardens with his decision and he lowers his hands from his ears where they were clamped in an attempt to drown out the noise. Jesse leans forward slightly, reminding me of a linebacker about to sack the quarterback.

“No!” I yell from the safety of my hiding place, hoping to snap Jesse out of this dangerous plan to save us all.

Jesse either doesn’t hear me over the wailing of the intercom or chooses to ignore me as he runs full tilt toward Justin and his lethal gun. Regrettably, Justin does hear me
andhe’s startled enough to remember that he’s not alone in the hallway. He starts to lower the gun once more as he focuses his attention back on Jesse.

The impact of Jesse’s much larger body into Justin’s thinner one is merciless in its intensity. The two men fly through the air for a moment before landing with bone-crushing force on the tiled floor with Jesse on top of Justin. Unfortunately, Justin still keeps control of the gun from what I could see.

With the shrill sound of alarms ringing through the halls, I’m not able to hear what is said between the two boys as they start to wrestle with each other on the ground. And, because they flew so far backward, I can only see the tangle of legs flipping around from my vantage point in the locker. I don’t know if the girl who walked out into the hallway before the alarm bells started is still there or not, but I hope she was able to call the police in case nobody else has.

I move one of my hands to the door of the locker, trying to talk myself out of opening it because I know Jesse wouldn’t want me to when another deafening noise joins the alarm bells. What hearing I retained from the sound blaring over the intercom is reduced dramatically as the gun is fired mere feet in front of me. A second shot joins the first one only seconds later. 

For a long moment, I can’t hear anything.There’re
no more warning bells attacking my ears, just blessed silence. Then, as a counterpoint to the silence, a steady ringing builds in my ears until it’s all I can hear. I reach up to my right ear when I think I feel blood coming out of it. I wipe away at the droplet and hold my hand to my face, but the all-consuming shadows of the locker obscure my fingers. I know that firing off a gun near someone’s ear can have permanent damage on their hearing so I pray that doesn’t happen to me.

It takes me another moment before I realize that it was definitely gunshots that I heard a moment ago. I press my face up to the slats of the locker again and stare down at the tangled legs on the floor in front of me. My breath catches when I see that they’re completely motionless.

My world stands still. The only sound I can hear is the muffled ringing in my ears. I can feel my heart skipping beats as it dances wildly in my chest and flutters in my neck. I take shallow breaths as I wait for one second, and another and another, for one of Jesse’s legs to move, twitch, or tremble. Anything. But there’s nothing.

Without making the conscious decision to do so, my hands fumble with the inner mechanism of the locker. I manipulate the small device until there’s a click and the door swings open. I stay there for another couple of seconds. My body is tensed and waiting,
incase Justin jumps up and comes after me with his gun. When nothing happens, I cautiously step out of my dark coffin-like haven and into a nightmare. 

I look at the floor in front of me and see Jesse’s larger frame covering that of Justin’s much smaller one. Both people are lying completely still. A terrified sound of distress leaves my lips, even though I can’t hear it over the continued ringing in my ears when I spot the growing pool of blood surrounding the prone figures.

I desperately look around the junior hallway, but there’s nobody there to help me. The other person who was there managed to get out at some point. With fear and dread settling like a lead weight in my stomach, I walk quickly but cautiously over to the two figures on the floor. When I get to the side of them I can see the gun, covered in blood, lying by itself next to both of the boys. With an anger born of fear, I kick that devastating thing as far from my Jesse as I can.

Only then do I take a deep breath and focus on Jesse. That’s when I see a large red stain on the back of his shirt that’s still spreading. With a cry that I force back down, I try to pull Jesse back so I can see his face. As I’m attempting to turn his much larger body over, I catch a glimpse of Justin. Or, more like, I catch a glimpse of what’s left of Justin’s face. With a retching noise, I look away and focus all of my energy on Jesse. 

Finally, after struggling to move him without hurting him, I get him to turn over. That’s when I see a bullet hole through his t-shirt and rivers of blood oozing from the wound. I automatically put both of my hands on him to cover the hole and push down. The only thing I can remember from the many doctor shows I’ve watched onTV,
is that you have to apply pressure to get the bleeding to stop. But they don’t warn you about how much blood there’s going to be or how hard it is to press your hands down on an open wound. They definitely don’t explain how scared you’re going to be either. 

“Help!” I scream into the empty hallway. I still can’t hear anything, but I know I’m using every vocal cord I own to push this plea passed my lips as loud as I can. I scream and I scream and I scream until my throat feels like sandpaper. When I finally realize that no one can hear me over the alarm bells sounding through the intercoms, I know what I have to do.

I can’t get to my phone because it’s in my purse, inside my locker and I refuse to leave Jesse or lift up from his wound long enough to get it. I also know that Jesse keeps his phone in the front pocket of his jeans. Making sure I push down as hard as I can with my bottom hand, and attempting to ignore the stream of blood still coming from the wound, I lift up on my right hand and twist so I can reach his pocket. I pat down the outside of one pocket and realize it’s empty before switching to the other one. Success! I can feel the outline of his phone. Twisting my arm in a way it shouldn’t be twisted, I snake my hand into his pocket and pull out his cell phone.

Once I get it free it immediately slips from my hand and falls to the tiled floor next to Jesse. My hand is so completely coated in his blood that I can’t get a solid grip on the slippery phone in my hand. Once I’m able to finally hold on to it tightly in my grip, I enter in the passcode, thanking God that I’ve seen him use his phone often enough to know the combination. I immediately dial 911 and put the phone on speaker so I can put my second hand back on Jesse’s wound. That’s when I realize the big problem. The ringing in my ears hasn’t decreased and there’s no way I can hear if anyone has answered the phone.

Deciding to go for it anyway, unable to give up on the one chance to save Jesse, I lean forward and start yelling into the phone. Hoping against hope that they can hear me above the alarms from the intercom.

“My name is Savannah Baxter. I’m at Grandview High School in Chandler. My boyfriend, Jesse Gainer, has been shot in the stomach. I think there are others who are hurt too. The person with the gun is dead. I can’t hear anything so, please, just come quick. Please,” I yell into the phone as loud as I can. I know that my pleas are getting weak as my throat is becoming choked by tears. I try again in case they didn’t hear everything I said the first time.

“My name is Savanna Baxter. I’m at Grandview High School…”

I repeat this mantra over and over until the pain in my throat forces me to stop.

“Please, help. Please. He can’t die. I won’t let him die. Please, help me,” I cry at the phone. The tears are running freely down my face and the wrenching sobs that start to shake my body become uncontrollable.

I push both of my hands on Jesse, as hard as I can as I lean forward. My arms are getting tired from pushing so hard in one spot for so long, but I refuse to let up on the pressure. I refuse to give into my weak body when Jesse needs me to be strong right now. I know it’s only been a couple of minutes, but it feels like hours. When I push down on his body again to tighten my hold, I see his body twitch and my gaze immediately flies up to his face.

His dark eyes are merely slits and there’s a tortured expression on his face that tells me how much pain he’s in. My tears start falling faster and my choked sobs become more forceful when I realize that, at least for right now, he’s alive.

“It’s okay,” I choke out past the tears. “An ambulance is on its way. You’ll be okay,” I tell him as I pray that what I’m saying is the truth.

His tight mouth moves infinitesimally, but I can’t figure out what he’s saying.

“Don’t talk, Jesse. You need to save your strength. The ambulance will be here soon,” I tell him again as I look behind me to the entrance of the junior hallway. I don’t want to tell him that I can’t hear anything. Knowing
Jesse he’ll start to worry about me and he doesn’t need to focus on anything else right now.   

When I look back down at his face I see that he’s turning a sickly white and I watch as his eyes close again. I don’t know if I should let him go to sleep or not. Something else I’ve seen in those doctor dramas. But I think they’re only supposed to stay awake if they have head trauma which I don’t think he has. Besides, the best thing he can do right now is pass out so he doesn’t have to be in any more pain than necessary. I know that I would give anything to be unconscious right now, but I hang on and wait for help.

I don’t know how long it’s been before I can feel the tile beneath me vibrating, but I haven’t moved from Jesse’s side the entire time. The pressure I’ve been applying to his wound hasn’t lightened for even a moment in all that time. I look behind me and see dozens of cops and, thankfully, paramedics.

I can hear some muffled noises but nothing distinct so I don’t know what the cops are yelling at me from down the hallway. One of them puts their hand on either a gun or a Taser while he yells to me. I wait until I see his mouth stop moving before I respond.

“I can’t hear anything. My ears are ringing from the gunshots. You need to help him. He’s bleeding too much,” I yell to him with a nod to the dangerously still form of Jesse’s body below my hands.

The cops’ eyes widen in slight surprise before he motions toward the paramedics. He makes a motion with his hands, telling me to move away from the two bodies on the ground so the paramedics can come up to help them. Reluctantly I pull my hands away from Jesse and sigh a little when I notice that the blood isn’t flowing out of him as quickly as it was before. My hands are sticky and
coveredfrom my fingers to elbows in his blood.

I stand up carefully and walk to the lockers away from Jesse. I glance back at the officer closest to me and he pantomimes that he wants me to turn around with my hands up and walk backward to him. None of the paramedics have moved yet so I comply, hoping that this will get them moving to Jesse quicker.

I don’t hear him but he meets me about halfway and immediately pulls my hands behind me where he holds them. I can hear the muffled sounds of voices yelling all around me, but I can’t make any of the words out. I watch Jesse as the medics run to where he lays motionless on the floor. As soon as they converge I lose sight of him.

The cop holding my arms turns me to face him and I see him mouth the words ‘Are you hurt?’

“No. The blood is from Jesse,” I yell back with a shake of my head. He nods and turns me away from him again.

That’s when I feel the cold, heavy weight of handcuffs encircle my wrists. Suddenly it’s all too much for me to handle. The sound of gunshots, Jesse being hurt, all of that blood; it’s too much for my mind and body to handle.

I groan as my knees abruptly buckle and I fall to the floor as a swirl of darkness clouds my vision and I can finally join Jesse in oblivion.  

HOW TO BE A CHAMELEON EXCERPT


Michelle leigh author

CHAPTER ONE