I’ve heard it said that when a loved one is injured, your thoughts go right to them. Even when the loved one is maliciously injured. That all of your energy goes to your injured loved one to keep them hanging on. To protect them.
I know for a fact that this is true.
But for some of us, the energy shifts. Quickly. Especially when they’re maliciously injured.
Last week, during the coordinated attacks by al-Qaeda across the United States, two men with machine guns ambushed my 12-year-old daughter’s school bus. The bus was traveling in a quiet neighborhood when the men shot the driver, then boarded the bus and fired more than 120 rounds at the children. Seventeen of her classmates were blown to bits. Three children survived.
My wife died when my daughter was two. As a result, Audrey is my whole world.
When the news broke on Twitter that attacks were underway, my heart went to Audrey. It was 4:20. She’d be on the bus. I checked the location of her phone—it was stationary in a neighborhood between her school and our house. I jumped in my car and tore down the street. First responders were everywhere. Public sirens, usually reserved for encroaching tornadoes, were ringing in the crisp autumn air. Frantic DJs were urging radio listeners to stay indoors and away from windows as gunmen were reported walking streets randomly firing into homes. As I approached a busy intersection, there was an accident. Rapid gunfire rang out nearby. I jumped a curb, went around the wreck, and passed a street where I saw men in black firing weapons at homes.
I could barely breathe. With my free hand I tried rechecking the location of Audrey’s phone. But my hand was shaking so badly that I had to stop the car to hold it with both hands. Two blocks up and to the right.
A firetruck sped past in the oncoming lane, and then someone slammed into my rear end. The airbags deployed. More gunfire. I reached into the console, grabbed a screwdriver, stabbed the airbag, and hit the gas. Two blocks up I made a hard right, sideswiping a parked car. The bus was in the road. Police had the street blocked off. I got out of the car and started running.
“Sir! Stop!” an officer shouted as I approached.
He drew his weapon. “Sir! You cannot pass!”
I stopped directly in front of him craning to get a look. “My daughter.” I managed to say with what little breath I had. “My daughter. She’s on that bus.”
“Sir, the paramedics are here. They’re doing their job. Let them do their job.”
That’s when I spotted her blue flowered shirt, soaked in blood. She was being wheeled away to an ambulance with an oxygen mask over her nose. She was alive. I ducked under the police tape and ran to her.
“Sir. Freeze or I’ll fire.” the officer said. Someone must have stopped him, because he didn’t shoot.
“Audrey! Audrey Rose!” I yelled as I reached her.
“Sir. You can’t be here,” one of the paramedics said.
“Sir, please, let us do our jobs! We need to get her to the hospital,” said the other.
Before the ambulance doors shut, she opened her eyes and her eyes locked onto mine.
“Audrey! I’m here, baby! I’m here!”
Then they drove off. Her fate was out of my hands.
I stood next to the school bus for a few moments watching firemen remove bloody children with limp limbs. An officer grabbed my arm and escorted me to an area outside of the police tape where I sat on a freshly cut lawn with my head in my hands.
It was a beautiful autumn day. Squirrels ran circles around a nearby tree. Cardinals darted in the branches above.
“John?” came a voice on the street.
It was the mother of one of Audrey’s friends. The mother of a child who would have also been on that bus. “John what happened??” she said crying. I went to her. She was frantic. “Where’s Elizabeth? Where’s my daughter?”
“I don’t know,” I said as she collapsed against my shoulder crying. “And I don’t know what happened.”
“Gunman,” a nearby policeman said. “They’re everywhere.”
“Johnson, get those people indoors. Now!” came a voice from behind us. Officer Johnson then moved us into a nearby home where other policeman were questioning an older couple who saw the melee unfold.
“Two men. Both armed. Both wearing black. One had blond hair.” I heard the gentleman say. “They shot up all the houses on the street, then the bus, and then got into a red Mustang and drove away.”
Elizabeth’s mom collapsed. I laid her on the couch and left the house. I knew what I had to do.
Racing past policemen, I reached my car and drove home. The gunfire died down. The DJ said that many armed men were still on the loose, and for all residents to stay indoors. I arrived at my house, ran inside, and went to my safe. My hands were shaking. I fumbled with the combination. Once opened, I grabbed my Glock, a full clip, and set back out.
My phone rang.
“John this is Ben. I’m at the hospital. Audrey just arrived. She’s in intensive care.”
My heart sank. I began to cry as I drove.
“Yes, Ben. Thank you for being there.” I approached a roadblock. “Do me a favor and keep me posted, will you?”
“Of course, John,” Ben said. “Are you going to try to get over here? I’m sure the traffic will be hell. Be careful.”
I had no intention of going to the hospital. Yet. “Yeah, I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I said, and hung up.
I avoided the roadblock by taking side streets until I ended up back in the neighborhood where Audrey’s bus was attacked. Darkness was settling in. I parked my car, tucked the Glock into my belt, and set out on foot. I was looking for a red Mustang, but wouldn’t discriminate against anyone with malicious intent.
Avoiding streetlight, I found the shadow of a big oak and stopped to listen for anything above the howl of sirens. An owl silently swooped down in front of me, grabbed a rodent, and slipped into the darkness of trees to feast. Then, nearby gunfire. I ran it its direction. My phone rang. I didn’t stop. Up ahead, on a dead-end street, I spotted the Mustang tucked into a side yard. There were no police. More gunfire and flashes of light from the inside of a dark house. I ran along the front of nearby homes, drew my weapon, and ducked behind the thick shrubs at the front window of the home where shots were fired. Inside, a woman screamed. More gunfire. More screaming.
“Shut the fuck up, lady,” a man shouted.
I rose up and peeked in the window. There were three people on a couch, a man, woman, and girl. A child lay in a pool of blood near a hallway. A blonde man wearing black held a pistol in one hand and a phone in the other. And in the corner of the room, an Arabic man dressed in black was sitting a chair holding his chest. He was bleeding.
“Rendezvous point A?” The blonde man screamed into the phone. “Point A? What the fuck?”
I had a clean shot and raised my gun when the man in the corner spotted me.
“Window!” he shouted.
The blonde man turned and fired aimlessly. I ducked. More screams.
I thought about the school bus, the shredded children, and Audrey. I jumped up and fired a fatal shot into the head of the man in the corner. The blonde man fired back and disappeared into the hallway, past the bleeding child on the floor. I ran around to the back of the house. He emerged from the backdoor and I fired three times, hitting his legs. He tumbled to the ground and continued to shoot in my direction. I fired again, hitting his torso. He dropped his gun and grabbed his stomach. I ran over and kicked the gun away. Sirens raged. Dogs barked. And a few streets over an explosion turned night into day. I was standing over him. He looked up at me with clear eyes.
“Foolish infidel,” he said as blood emerged from the corners of his mouth.
“Alhamdulillah!” he shouted. More blood. I thought about Audrey opening her eyes in the ambulance. “Alhamdu-“
Then I fired a shot into his forehead and collapsed onto my knees. After a few moments, my phone rang. It was Ben.
I didn’t respond.
“John,” he paused. “I’m so sorry. She didn’t make it.”
I dropped the phone, took a deep breath, and looked up through the trees. Fireflies lit up the sky. I pressed the muzzle of the Glock into roof of my mouth, and pulled the trigger.