QEA: Like A Fire Drill Times A Hundred (Short Fiction)

Originally uploaded by Jacob Clifton

Then everything gets weird because Tasha has to change schools, because her family has convictions. The school board finally decides that they have to teach all the kids in the district about the horrors of what happened in Chicago, and the way they do this is really stupid, but highly enjoyable. It’s nice to get out of class, it’s nice to scream and yell, it’s nice to be noticed, it’s nice to have all the people in one place for once: teenagers and elementary school kids and even some of the parents. Sophie and Alexis are the bosses, and they coordinate the whole activity, according to governmental guidelines given them by the school board, and this is how it goes. You get your assignment, just like being in a play, or playing pretend with Tasha: they tell you who you’re supposed to be.

Some of the people you know are passersby, that have to be rescued or comforted — those are the screamers, like Trilby Taylor and Brian’s high school friends Corey Rogers and Lisa Baron. The screamers get ushered out of the building and pretend to be in shock; they whimper. Corey Rogers even falls down, in the parking lot, and actually hurts himself. Lisa can’t stop laughing the entire time because she is very high. Corey keeps making a big deal about everything because some of the policemen are really policemen, and they are sexy grown men, which causes him to act like an idiot. Sophie tries to explain to him about good attention versus bad attention but it’s nothing he hasn’t heard before.

The whole point is that you have to play your part, and play it right, because we’re all working together here to prove a point: that fear can keep you safe. No coloring outside the lines, because if the day came and you were acting like that, you could get your best friend killed. You could get yourself killed, if you acted like that. You have to pretend it is real now, when it isn’t, so you know how to act when it is. You have to put yourself in the shoes of Chicago, and learn to walk in them, for when you have to run.

Some of the people you know are firemen and policemen and emergency care providers. That’s Maya and Karen, telling the screamers to lay down, not get up, here’s a blanket, please stop screaming, you’re giving me a headache. Ashley and Heath stand at the top of a hill, looking down, remembering fun stuff that happened during fire drills last year, when their teacher was not very much in control because she was new; because she was still a teenager in the way she looked and in the way she was afraid of every single thing. They smile watching Corey and Lisa cutting up, and the people like Martin taking it very seriously — he’s an EMT, with a bright yellow apron — and getting peeved because people don’t really care about safety. Ashley and Heath are the SWAT team snipers; Tasha’s jealous.

The whole point is that it has to be as realistic as possible. It has to be scary or else you won’t get it because you’re a kid. But the fact is, this could happen at any time, with anybody you know, so you can’t ever touch a parcel or a bag that’s been left alone, or trust people, or ignore what they say on the internet, because it could all stop being pretend and start being real any time. They need you to understand that at any time, somebody you know could be completely faking you out, and turn out to be evil, and kill you, so you’re better off not trusting anybody. Because when that time comes, you’re either prepared or else you’re dead. It’s like a fire drill but times a hundred.

Some of the people you know are the victims, covered in fake blood, rushed to the hospital in real ambulances. Trilby Taylor gives an impassioned speech before dropping to the floor with her hand at her throat; this takes place in the Music room. Donnie McNeely was supposed to be one of the firemen and he was really, really proud of that, but once he heard his sister was going to be a victim, he knew he had to change positions, to be with her. It was going to be scary enough, with all the noise and smoke they were planning, without her being alone in the middle of it. Donnie dies covering his sister’s body with his own. He doesn’t take pride in his performance but everyone else is impressed. He has such dignity, even in death. You can’t fake that. Ashley is sad, later, to hear that she missed it. Some of the people you know are the shooters. Jeremy, of course, whose hand goes into the air before Alexis is even done reading about it from her clipboard, and Brian soon after, just because the rest sounds so boring. And once Weird Josh hears his brother is doing it, he asks politely if he can be a shooter too. Some of the grownups wonder if the rest of the kids will be able to take it seriously, with Josh as one of the gunmen, but once they get a load of Josh, they calm down.

The whole point is that everything bad turns into a story, and stops being scary. Kind of like what Ashley was thinking, about bedtimes, about how things have a time before you adjust to them and they start to be okay. So to put the kids in the story, she guesses, is a good way to make it real. But maybe they’re just doing it so it will be a story after all, like how in the comics a superhero always wins, so you’re always happy. Every month, Jeremy says, they take the genie out of the bottle, and then the superhero puts it back again, and nothing ever changes. Maybe that’s why they’re doing it: so they can get the whole town together, teenagers and kids and parents, and put the genie back in the bottle together. Martin says that’s magic, too.

Some of the grownups you know are there, and Ashley is amused to find that some of them are the loudest actors of all. Mrs. Tyson’s eyes bug out when she sees Jeremy with his gun, and her pamphlet shakes a little in her hand, but she doesn’t shout, even when the police fire their guns on him and he throws his arms out, and falls to his knees, with Brian standing behind. The Blaus are there because Sophie sold them on the idea that this was going to count for Drama extra credit; she doesn’t herself really know why she invited them, beyond the fact that it’s funny, beyond the fact that neither Truman or Eddie are going to be there, and she needs an audience, and everybody else is in the play. Corey Rogers and Martin Donnelly’s parents are there, and as usual they are kind and quiet with each other, unable to look at the things they have in common but feeling comforted in their presence nonetheless. Mrs. Oliver is there, silently cheering Heath on, waving at him up on the hill, screaming buckets when it’s time. Needing to be herded into the safe area, when it’s time, because she’s started sobbing so realistically; earning looks from the other parents. But not Ashley’s Mom. Ashley’s Mom barely looks at her at all. Mrs. Gidley, Maya’s stepmother, stays on her cell phone the whole time, rolling her eyes and drinking diet soda. Ms. Grossman quickly locates the power position and goes to stand over by Sophie and Alexis, but she doesn’t bother them or make suggestions.

Sophie let Ashley help choose the victims; she hopes they’re doing a good job.

The whole point is that all the kids and teenagers know what the grownups are trying to do this time, and nobody wants to explain to them why it’s stupid, and why it won’t work, and why it’s condescending, and for this reason: It’s nice to get out of class, it’s nice to scream and yell, it’s nice to be noticed, it’s nice to have all the people in one place for once. They’re used to grownups making them do things just to make a point, ordering them to their rooms for forgetting to take out the garbage or just because they’re having a bad day. They’re used to playing along with grownups because it’s part of being a kid. Heath agrees with Ashley, but says it’s a really pretty day, and the grownups already seem happier.

The next morning their class finds out Tasha’s gone. Just like that, she’s changing schools, because she went home and told her parents that her education was being compromised. She always says her education’s being compromised whenever there’s any kind of assembly, because she hates sitting in the bleachers with the whole school, because it’s loud and stupid and somebody always gets to come down and get some award or something. And it’s never her. But this time, her parents agree, and apparently the vice-principal gets an earful, she hears later from Maya, who works PE period in the office because of her asthma. The words “ghoulish” and “American paranoia” and “fascist playacting” were the only words she caught, and once they told Alexis this she laughed and laughed, before telling them that, sadly, Tasha’s parents were kind of right.

Almost everybody expressed some kind of regret about Tasha leaving, even though nobody could really explain why. Ashley wonders if somebody’s going to turn into a bully now that Tasha’s gone; like Tasha says, “There’s always got to be a witch.” But maybe it’s just Tasha thinking that which made it true; maybe with Tasha gone they’ll all realize they’re pretty fun just being nice. Maybe Tasha will take whatever it was, Antarctica, that scared feeling, maybe she’ll take it with her. Maybe she’ll take it to her new school, and they’ll learn about Antarctica there, and the Maguires too.

When the guns start firing, when the screaming and running starts, she looks around for Eddie or Truman, who said they might be able to come watch, but the only person that doesn’t belong there is a lady Ashley doesn’t know, over by the tennis courts. She’s wearing a white suit and her hair is lighter blonde even than Mom’s, falling in fat waves down to her back. She is wearing dark sunglasses and carrying the tiniest purse Ashley’s ever seen, clutching it in her red nails and relaxing against her shiny little sports car, like she watches massacres every day. She seems unimpressed, but doesn’t take her eyes off them. She makes Ashley wish she were wearing a dress, instead of her PE shorts; she’s that kind of lady, the magazine kind that fits together perfectly. Ashley feels a little cold but then forgets about it as Heath nudges her, as they take aim at the children below.


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