Terror at Noon
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman barricaded himself on the twenty-eighth-floor observation deck of the University of Texas’s Main Building and began shooting people below, ending eleven lives and altering countless others. An exclusive excerpt from Monday, Monday, Elizabeth Crook’s new novel about that terrible day’s events and their haunting aftermath.
Shelly stared at the graph of imaginary numbers on the chalkboard, confounding figures represented by the letter i and less relevant to her life than fairies from her childhood or the vanishing rabbit in the magic show at the Student Union last week. The professor had the face of a cherub and arms too long for his squattish body and was marking on the chalkboard as he spoke. “The square root of minus four,” he said, slashing the numbers onto the board, a ring of sweat under his arm, “is two i. Two i squared is negative four. That’s two times two is four—times i times i, which is negative one . . .”
Shelly began to think that the cramping in her stomach might be caused by her period about to start, and she calculated the weeks. She had been home to visit her parents in Lockhart during her last period. She remembered buying a box of tampons at the grocery store there, on the same day she had argued with her father about the Peace Corps. And yes, it was a month ago—two math exams back. Maybe when class was over, she would walk across the plaza to the Rexall on the Drag and buy another box of tampons and a bottle of Midol and have a Coke and a sandwich at the soda fountain. She had agreed to a blind date with an upperclassman in the International Club who intended to go to El Salvador with the Peace Corps, and she wasn’t about to miss the chance to hear about José Napoléon Duarte because of monthly cramping.
“Does everybody follow what I’m saying?” His cherubic face was tilted. He was young for a professor. “Does anybody follow? Marvin?”
“Raise your hand if you follow.” Half the students raised their hands. Shelly kept hers on her desk, drooping a pencil over the ugly construction of lines and numbers she had copied into her notebook from the drawing on the board.
She wondered what El Salvador might look like. What kind of trees, what kind of towns. They didn’t teach you anything about El Salvador in Lockhart, which was just as well, since she might end up going to Honduras or Venezuela or maybe Ecuador. Or Bolivia. She had heard there were herds of llamas in Bolivia, and maybe she could see them. Not that this decision about where she would go could be made anytime soon, since she had finished only one year here at UT. Even if she took classes every summer, as she was doing now, she would still have two or three more years before she could apply to the Peace Corps. And she would have to master Spanish.
The professor turned to the window and surveyed the Tower clock. “Imaginary numbers will be on the test,” he said. “We’ll call it a day at this point—for those of you who understand. For those who don’t, we’ll take fifteen minutes and go over it again. And I’ll be in my office from seven to eight tonight if anyone wants to come by.”
Most of the students were already closing their books and rising from their desks. He spoke his daily benediction of mathematical quotations as they filed out of the room, lifting his voice over the noise of their departure. “ ‘Go forth with great numbers to solve the world’s problems,’ ” he told them. “ ‘Keep in mind that you achieve perfection not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away.’ ”
Shelly closed her notebook and stood up—and hesitated, one of those small, seemingly inconsequential actions that she would recall for the rest of her life. She should stay, but fifteen minutes would hardly be enough to address her confusion about imaginary numbers. The room was oppressively hot, and her cramps were uncomfortable. And today was only Monday; she had the rest of the week to study. Still, she didn’t want the professor to think she was cavalier about the math. She had managed to make a perfect grade point average her freshman year and wasn’t about to spoil it in a summer math class.
“Are you going?” the girl seated behind her asked.
“I’m not sure. I guess I shouldn’t.”
Sitting back down indecisively, she noted dampness between her legs, the tacky feeling of blood. She rose and, turning as if to glance casually out the window, wiped a hand across the back of her skirt to see if blood had shown through. It hadn’t, for now, but she would have to take care of the matter.
“No, I think I’ll go,” she told the girl and stuffed her belongings into her bag. “I’ll come back tonight,” she told the professor. She was the last to exit and tried to walk quietly to the ladies’ room. Classes were still in session. Doors had been left open to ensnare improbable drafts of air. But her sandals were wooden-soled and impossible to silence. Clomping past the doorways, she saw envious glances from students still captive in classrooms.
The Tower bells were chiming a quarter to noon when she walked back down the hall and down the flights of stairs, the melodious notes overlaying the clop of her sandals. She recalled that the Spanish word for “tower” was torre and pictured the map of Central America, with tiny El Salvador pressed up against Honduras and Guatemala.
Outside, belligerent grackles greeted her with loud squawking. The August heat was thick. She started along the shaded path toward the Main Building and the Tower, squinting even before she left the shade of the trees. Crossing a narrow street, she walked under the statue of Woodrow Wilson and mounted the steps to the upper part of the plaza as a boy carrying a transistor radio, blaring “Monday, Monday,” passed her on his way down. Monday, Monday—Shelly hummed along with the Mamas and the Papas as she climbed the steps—can’t trust that day / Monday, Monday, sometimes it just turns out that way.
On the plaza, the sunlight was unnerving. It whitewashed the massive stone arches and the carved pillars of the Main Building before her, making the Tower look as flat against the sky as if it had been pasted on blue poster board. The song sounded tinny now, reduced to a mere ditty behind her: Every other day, every other day / Every other day of the week is fine, yeah / But whenever Monday comes, but whenever Monday comes / You can find me crying all of the time . . .
Perhaps she should have a Sego diet drink at the Rexall and skip the Coke and sandwich, she thought, starting across the plaza. She had put on five unwanted pounds during her freshman year, and the pencil skirt she wore felt tight. She was heading toward a grassy square around a flagpole, intending to cut across, when she noticed a boy from her biology class coming down the steps of the Main Building. He fumbled through the pages of a book as he walked, and she tried to remember his name in case he noticed her. Chad, she thought it was. Or Chet. When he started across the plaza, he lifted his eyes and saw her. He closed the book, tucked it under his arm, and raised his hand to wave. But something puzzled her: instead of a smile, a sudden grimace. The raised hand flung itself back at the wrist, and one leg cocked forward. It was a clownish gesture, and she wondered how to respond to it. In the same second she heard a sharp noise, like a car backfiring, or maybe it was the jostling of construction equipment on the Drag, where the theater was being renovated.
He fell facedown, the book tumbling open beside him and a splotch of red spreading on the back of his plaid shirt. An ungainly lurching movement seized his legs and then stopped.
She stood looking at him, trying to understand, and was taking a step toward him when something struck her, slinging one of her arms outward and spinning her toward the small hedge that bordered the grassy square. She tried to break the fall, but the side of her head struck the ground and she lay for a second, stunned and embarrassed to have fallen in public. She tried to get to her knees and get her balance so she wouldn’t topple over. But her arm was coming apart. It seemed almost detached. The bone above the elbow jutted jaggedly out of the flesh, and the lower part was weirdly twisted. Blood poured from her breast. She tried lifting her hands to stop the blood, but her arm wouldn’t comply. It hung at her side. The pain was electric. She pressed her other hand against her breast, but the blood ran between her fingers and spurted down her side, soaking the tattered bits of her bra and the pattern of yellow flowers on her blouse. She reached to get her book bag and gather what was scattered—her books, her math notes. But her arm hung like a puppet’s.
Clarity took hold slowly. The boy lay dead before her. She heard the sound again ring down from the sky, plunking itself into the clear heat of the day. Someone began, horribly, to scream, and a man yelled something about the Tower. A woman fell to the ground not far from Shelly. Birds flew from the trees and cement exploded upward. Shelly tried to stand again, but her legs wouldn’t support her, and she sat back on her knees. She had suffered dreams like this—her limbs refusing to move, the atmosphere as thick as water and weighting her down.
Crawl, she told herself. To the hedge.
She tried to look at the Tower, but the sun was too intense. She pawed at the ground, breathing hard and coughing with nausea, but her wounded arm just hung there. She heard herself wail. The hedge was only knee-high and wouldn’t protect her even if she could reach it, yet it was the only vertical shape the world offered. Everything else was flat ground. Things flew about her. There was the thud of impact on flesh and bone. Not hers, she thought. Not me this time. A whimper and cry. The hot concrete seared her palm when she tried to pull herself forward, dragging her mangled arm. Blood seeped into the porous stone beneath her. The frayed bra held her breast to her body and kept the lump of flesh from dropping like Jell-O. She whispered for someone to help her and methodically lifted her palm, then methodically set it down, pulling her knees forward, watching her blood bubble into the ground.
The sound instantly struck Wyatt Calvert as out of place, blasting over the stentorian voice of his professor and bouncing through the plaza outside. “Destruction of Kiev,” he was writing in his notebook, “—Mongols, 1240.” He looked up as the sound repeated. It reminded him of deer hunting and the concussion of rifle shots in a canyon. A student with a crew cut who was near the window stood up and looked out over the crown of an oak tree, and the professor paused from his lecture.
“There’s something happening on the mall,” the student said.
A girl got up and looked out. “I think it’s something to do with the drama department.”
Wyatt made his way through the rows of desks to the windows. The panes were dirty, the view partly cluttered by a tangle of branches. Fumbling with a lock, he tugged at a window, pulling hard at the frame until it jerked upward, creating an open rectangle of raw heat and admitting the buzz of insects and the sudden flutter of wings, and then the blast again, louder now, and its echo. The wide overhang a few feet above blocked the noon sun. Below, a dozen people in the bright square of the plaza had an odd disruption in their movements, a hesitation. Some had come to a standstill and were looking around. A boy with a laundry bag ran diagonally across, shouting over his shoulder. At the steps to the lower part of the mall a plump girl in red pedal pushers lay on her back, her hands clutching her stomach, her legs lifting and sinking at the knees in a languid gesture, as if to escape the scalding concrete. In the center of the plaza a guy in a plaid shirt and black trousers lay motionless, half on his side, his arm thrown out and a book on the ground beside him. Close to him a girl in a skirt dragged herself laboriously toward the hedgerow with the use of one arm, leaving a trail of gore and moving like a wounded beetle.
“Christ,” Wyatt said. “Somebody’s shooting people.”
He didn’t move for a second or two, his eyes fixed on the spectacle. A man climbing the steps from the lower part of the plaza toppled backward, followed by the blast of sound again. Thick in the shoulders and heavy, he lay faceup on the steps, as if tobogganing on his back, headfirst, down, the soles of his shoes pointing upward near the girl in the pedal pushers.
Wyatt swung his gaze to the Tower and searched the rows of windows up to the top. The gold hands of the Tower clock marked the time at 11:51. On the high, walled deck below it, a figure appeared and then eerily vanished. A second later the figure popped into view again, aiming a glinting rifle down at the East Mall. Smoke puffed out of the barrel as the sound blasted. From below came a muted noise and a muffled, lingering shout. The figure on the deck disappeared again and then reappeared a second later. Wyatt saw the white bloom but didn’t hear the blast this time. The window beside him exploded.
“Get down!” the professor yelled. “Away from the windows! Down!”
Only a few of the students complied at first, then everyone moved at once, crouching beside their desks and crowding against the wall.
“They’re shooting at you, Calvert!” someone yelled at Wyatt. “Get out of the way!”
For a second, he squatted under the windows in the shattered glass scattered over the floor. Then he started crawling.
“Stay down, Calvert!” the professor ordered, but Wyatt kept moving. When he reached the door, he stood up and ran through the hallway, shouting for students to stay in the building and away from the windows. “Someone’s shooting from the Tower!” he shouted. Students turned and stared at him, not believing. He knocked into an underclassman, who snapped, “Hey, watch it!” In a room at the end of the hall he found a group of students gathered around a map that hung from the chalkboard. “Has Jack Stone left already?” he asked them, breathing hard.
“I think he’s in Wood’s office,” a lanky girl in a brown jumper replied.
“Someone in the Tower’s shooting people on the plaza,” Wyatt called over his shoulder as he started for the professor’s office.
“Is this the experiment in psychology?” the girl called after him. “The one where they see if we’ll go help?”
“Don’t go outside!” he shouted back.
He passed the underclassman he had knocked into a moment ago, and the guy cleared out of his way now, backing against the wall and joking, “Shooter in the Tower! I bet! Everyone run, hide!” A scatter of laughter followed. But as Wyatt rounded the corner, word was spreading and a sense of alarm rising, voices escalating.
The office he was headed to was on the far side of the building. Rushing in, out of breath, he found his cousin Jack talking with the professor.
“Where’s Delia?” Wyatt said. “Where were you going to meet her?”
“On the plaza. Why?”
“There’s somebody in the Tower shooting people on the plaza. Where was she coming from?”
Jack was already on his feet. “She would have parked on the Drag.”
The professor picked up the phone. “What do I tell the police?”
“At least four people shot on the plaza, at least one guy with a rifle up in the Tower.”
Jack started down the hall, now crowded with students. Wyatt was close on his heels. “Go outside the other way or you’ll walk right into it!” Wyatt shouted over the noise.
“I’m going the way she would come,” Jack said.
But at that moment Delia appeared before them, wide-eyed, running up the stairs, her black hair clinging to her damp forehead. Jack swept her into his arms. “Thank God,” he said. “Go to Wood’s office. He’s calling the police. Stay in the office with him. And stay there if he leaves.”
“Where are you going? Jack?”
Jack had already started down. “Go to Wood’s office and wait for me.”
“And call Elaine at work at Sears,” Wyatt told her as he passed her. “Tell her not to come near campus.”
Two boys pushed by, heading down, yelling about a “shootout.” Wyatt warned them to go back up, but they shoved past him. Running a step behind Jack, almost on top of him, Wyatt thought of the bodies on the plaza—how easily the man had dropped backward on the stone steps without even trying to break his fall.
A group of new freshmen touring the campus had crowded into the lobby, and a woman was trying to corral them into a classroom. Wyatt and Jack pressed through and exited to a covered area that adjoined the plaza. Half a dozen underclassmen stood there guessing about how many gunmen were up in the Tower. One of the girls said this must be the start of a revolution or a student uprising. A stout boy in Bermuda shorts said that Cubans were attacking. A thinner one with limp blond hair peered up at the Tower from under an archway. “I think it’s only one guy, and he’s gone around to the other side of the Tower.”
“Move back from there,” Jack told him. “Whoever’s up there can see you. Have you heard more than one shot at a time?”
“Nope,” the limp-haired boy said.
“It’s hard to tell, because of the echoes,” one of the others said.
The sky, Wyatt saw, was clear blue. A low wall with stone balusters ran the length of the plaza, broken midway by the steps that led to the lower walkways. At the top of the steps the black shoes of the dead man jutted upward. A girl with a halo of blond curls bent over the girl in red pedal pushers, who was lying on her back. The blond girl called for help, her voice carrying the flat, repetitive tone of diminishing expectations. “Can somebody help us? She’s been shot. Can somebody help us?” A receptionist from the dean’s office hid behind an oak tree near the wall, her face against the trunk.
“I swear my dad could shoot that guy from right here,” the limp-haired boy announced. “He’s shot wild turkey that far.”
Wyatt had been in the Tower many times; he knew the view. It was open, clear to the horizon. Austin spread like a puddle. Pedestrians were the size of bugs. To the south, the Capitol dome looked small; to the west, storefronts lined the Drag. To the east and north were dormitories, classroom buildings. “What’s his range?” he asked.
“Five hundred yards with a high-powered rifle from up there,” Jack said, squatting to tighten the laces on his sneakers. His hair was cropped short; he had lost part of an ear in Vietnam, and the flesh that remained was flanked by a patch of bald scarring. “I’m going out there to get that girl off the steps.” He stood up.
“I’m going with you,” Wyatt said.
“Keep moving in a zigzag,” Jack told him. “Hug the wall. Don’t stop and think; just move. We’ll carry her down the steps. Be careful; those shoes won’t have traction.”
“There’s another girl,” Wyatt said. “In the center. You can’t see her from here; I saw her from the window. She was trying to crawl to the hedge.”
The Tower bells had begun to chime, and the limp-haired boy in the archway leaned out to look up. Wyatt saw him drop and thought he had slipped. But it wasn’t a usual way to fall—on his back, with his legs turned under. There was a hole in his forehead, just over his eye.
“God!” the boy in Bermuda shorts screamed, pressing his hands over his ears and staring down at the body. “Oh, God! Gary’s been shot!”
Jack and Wyatt gripped the lifeless body under the arms and dragged it toward the door. A lump of bloody skull and silky hair lay on the ground. The girl beside them tried to help; the boy in shorts bent over and vomited, then raised his head and screamed, “He shot Gary! He shot Gary!”
Looking at the plaza, Wyatt saw that the blond girl who’d been calling for help was gone. The girl in the pedal pushers still lay at the top of the steps, near the dead man tobogganing backward. A tall man wearing a coat and tie strolled into the open from the far side of the plaza, and Wyatt waved his arms at him and shouted, pointing toward the Tower. But the bells drowned out his voice. The man’s face splintered. Part of it flew away. His arms rose in the air.
Shelly heard the gunshot whistling through the melodic notes, followed instantly by a boom as loud as a cannon. A man in a black suit entered the edge of her vision, and she saw his face explode. Empty sky hung where his jaw had been. He stayed upright and teetered there. A guy climbed over the wall and pulled him to safety, shoving him over the balusters into someone’s reaching hands.
She lay still, breathing shallow wisps of air. The spectacle of her arm grilling on the hot cement was grotesque, so she tried to keep her eyes closed. Occasionally she opened them to a slit, admitting a view of a thin, bright, topsy-turvy rectangular world partly obscured by her shattered arm. She was lying in a puddle of blood. With the hand that was operable, she tried to hold her breast in place while still appearing lifeless. She was barely shy of the hedge and could force herself to crawl the last few feet, but the shooter in the Tower might be looking at her through his scope, searching for movement or breath. For the blink of an eye, even. She had forgotten what it was like to lie so still, but a fragment of a childhood memory came flapping haphazardly into the horror of the present. She had played dead with a neighbor boy in a field in back of his home, a trick to attract the buzzards so that the boy, lying flat on his back beside her with his BB gun pointed into the air, could shoot at them when they circled. “Don’t move,” he had told her. “They have good eyesight. Don’t blink. Close your eyes.”
The shots were coming now from a different side of the Tower and sounded slight and harmless. Shelly’s jaw was beginning to pump, rattling her teeth together. She remembered one of her high school teachers talking about the symptoms of shock but couldn’t remember what they were. Rapid breathing or slowed breathing—she had forgotten which. Rapid pulse or slow. The only obvious thing about her pulse was that it was pumping the blood out of her arm. She had stopped her frenzied panting. Afraid of passing out and bleeding to death without knowing, she thought she would stop playing dead if she felt any sense of darkness and would try, once more, to drag herself toward the hedge. She wouldn’t be able to wedge herself beneath it; she would need to get through the opening and crawl across the grassy square to the stone base of the flagpole to find protection.
If she had to, she would try to stand up and run.
The concrete baked her side and her ruined arm, and she wanted to cradle her face and protect her cheek from the heat, but she had locked her hand around her breast to stop the bleeding. From her awkward vantage she saw two men run toward the girl at the top of the steps; they leaned and scooped her up and carried her down, out of sight, her legs, in bright-red pedal pushers, dangling over their arms. They left behind her textbooks and her sandal. On the steps, the soles of a man’s shoes pointed up, like the ears of a curious rabbit.
Shelly summoned the voice of her childhood neighbor demanding that she close her eyes. She imagined the piercing, weightless gaze of buzzards circling and heard the popping of guns and realized some of the firing now was coming from ground level. Moving her head just slightly and peering from half-closed eyes, she saw someone shove a barrel out of a window of the history building and fire up at the Tower.
The smell of blood baking into the ground sickened her. She was aware of the dead boy lying behind her and heard moaning and cries. The Tower clock struck fifteen minutes after the hour. She wondered if she would live to the half hour. When the gunfire blasted down again, she felt it through the ground. Fragments flew over the wall. Thoughts arose in pieces: her mother spreading jelly over a slice of buttered toast, a dog in the distance barking, her father changing a flat tire, his shoulders moving as he pumped the jack.
Count the seconds, she thought. Count the seconds that I can stand this. She was waiting for the bells.
Wyatt knew the girl in the pedal pushers was dead the moment they lifted her from the ground, but there was no time to reconsider the effort to save her. They carried her down the steps, skirting the dead man. Wyatt lost his footing once and lost his grip on the girl’s legs but dragged them up again.
They laid her close to the wall. She was soaked in blood from her chest to her thighs and smelled of feces. A blue clip tacked her bobbed hair to her temple. She was stocky and muscular—stout through the middle and short-legged. Her pretty face stared blindly upward, past the face of Woodrow Wilson and through the limbs of an oak tree.
People had started firing up at the Tower; gunshots came from the English and history buildings and peppered the air from the football stadium. An ambulance from a funeral home backed hurriedly toward Wyatt and Jack on the narrow street that ran between the steps and the tree-covered parts of the mall. Then a bullet pierced the rear window, and the driver pulled forward again. Wyatt felt the girl’s wrist for a pulse. But he knew she was dead.
“The girl by the hedge,” Jack said. “Did you see if she was alive?”
“I only got a glimpse. She wasn’t moving. I saw somebody moving on the ground up closer to the Main Building, but he’d be hard to get to.” He wasn’t sure he could bring himself to go back out on the plaza but pulled his shoes off anyway.
A policeman with a shotgun came running from the direction of the fountain, darting through the trees and then across the street to where Wyatt and Jack crouched over the girl’s body. He positioned himself beside them and was surveying the plaza from between the balusters that topped the wall when a series of rapid shots chipped at the balusters and he pulled his head down and squatted between Jack and Wyatt, nearly stepping on the girl’s hand.
“Mother of God. That was a carbine. An M1,” he said.
“That’s the first I’ve heard it; it’s been bolt-action,” Jack told him.
“You think there’s more than one asshole up there?” Sweat streamed from under his cap.
“I think he’s got more than one gun. He’s pinned down by return fire and shooting from the rainspouts. What’s the plan?”
“My plan is to get up there and kill the son of a bitch.” He raised himself cautiously for another look and then, after a glance, lowered himself again and settled his back against the wall, his boots planted in bird droppings beside the dead girl’s head. Pulling his hat off, he wiped an arm across his face.
A volley of gunfire came from the business and economics building, and the bells chimed the half hour. The rapid, flat, cracking sound of the carbine moved to the west side of the Tower. The officer shoved his hat on and tugged at his sweaty uniform. Struggling up from his crouched position, he leaned to look cautiously up the steps, his gaze lingering only a second on the dead man. “You boys stay here,” he said, and mounted the steps at a run.
Wyatt raised his head high enough to look between the balusters and see the top of the Tower. Bullets fired from the ground had struck the clock face and freckled the stone. But the shooter up there was invisible. The officer moved rapidly across the bright plaza in a loping stride, bullets striking the ground around him and flinging up dust at his heels.
“At least now we have police here,” Wyatt said.
But how many policemen were there? He had seen only the one, who didn’t have much of a plan for storming the Tower and whose shotgun would be useless from the ground against a high-powered rifle and an automatic carbine.
“If the other police aren’t armed any better, they might as well throw rocks up at the fucker,” Jack said.
A bullet nicked the baluster. Ducking his head, Wyatt noticed a movement on the plaza. The corpse of the girl lying beside the hedge opened her mouth and lifted her head from the ground.
Shelly called to the policeman running past her, a spray of bullets nicking the ground at his heels. When he was gone, she pulled her legs in closer to make herself smaller and lay motionless, watching a fly move about in the blood on her arm. The arm was becoming numb. She was unbearably thirsty. She heard shouting, sirens in the distance, and continual gunfire, and thought she still heard the song playing—Every other day, every other day / Every other day of the week is fine, yeah—but then realized this was only in her mind. The ground started to rumble and her field of vision was invaded by a large vehicle—an armored car of the type she had seen transporting money on the highways—lumbering heavily across the plaza. She thought it was coming to rescue her, but then she began to fear it, it looked so sightless and enormous. It blocked her view. The sound of the motor drowned her thoughts, and the exhaust made her cough, jolting her injured body. She felt an eerie rising up of the ground and opened her eyes again and saw the monstrous creature leaving, making its way slowly across the terrace. The bells chimed again, sounding heavy and ominous in the upside-down world. A second policeman followed the path of the first, passing her by. She had stopped hoping for rescue. Her legs had started to shake and to jerk at the knees. She thought of the gap in the hedge. The gap would open to grass, and grass would offer—if not refuge—relief from the scalding heat.
She was thinking of trying to crawl again when two men came running rapidly up the steps in her direction. They were the same two guys who had carried away the girl in the pedal pushers. The shorter one was quick and athletic. His white shirt was smeared with blood. The other was tall and barefoot, with a colorful madras shirt that was coming untucked from his trousers. He wore glasses with black frames. They came to her quickly, and she braced herself for the pain. The shorter one took hold of her twisted arm and laid it over her chest. “Don’t!” she screamed, trying to kick him away.
But they did what they had come to do. “Take this, take her arm, take her arm, goddammit—”
“She’s bleeding from the chest—”
“Support her head—”
“We’re going to get you out of here. It’s okay, it’s okay.”
The pain was unimaginable. “It’s not okay!” She turned her head and vomited as the ground receded and she was lifted. She couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, and her screeching and squealing seemed to come from someone other than herself. The blue sky turned white. The guys steadied her arm. Her blood-soaked fingers grasped the madras shirt.
Concrete burst around her, and the deafening boom of the rifle emptied the world of air. “Ah, God, he’s shooting at us!” one of the guys was saying. “Don’t drop her—”
“We can’t make it to the steps—
“This way, this way, fuck—”
“Support her arm—”
“The flagpole’s closer—”
“It’s not enough—”
“Go to the flagpole.”
They pressed her arm so tightly she heard the bones grating. The tall boy’s eyeglasses were askew. The world jostled from red to blue; the faces blocked the light for parts of seconds. The slanted flagpole sliced the sky in two.
The last thing Wyatt saw before his glasses fell to the ground was a face in the center window on the third floor of the English building, just under the red-tile roof. It seemed to be looking at him. From a window next to it, someone fired up at the Tower and retreated.
But the face in the center window never moved, as if frozen in a sudden awareness that the sky could drop, life could stop, the world could instantly explode into pieces. It looked weirdly disembodied—pale and blanched—the clarity of the features, at such a distance, abnormal, as if the face were not exactly human but instead an artist’s rendering of how a human face reacts to horror. Like the primal face of fear. For half a second, an inexplicable wintry sharpness invaded the hot August air, and then the face dissolved with the rest of the world when Wyatt’s glasses fell. He reached out but couldn’t find them. He snagged a bare foot in the grass and stumbled. The girl sagged in his arms.
“Goddammit!” Jack cried.
They threw themselves to the ground behind the circular block of concrete that was the base of the flagpole. In the grass nearby, a boy in shorts and a surfer shirt lay writhing, bleeding from the neck. Wyatt folded the girl into his lap as Jack tried to move in closer. But the space couldn’t shield all three of them. A bullet hissed in the air; the grass kicked up. “He’s aiming at us!” Jack shouted. “The fucker’s aiming at us!”
Wyatt locked his knees around the girl to hold her steady, her back against his chest. Planting his feet on either side of her body, he placed her mangled arm against her stomach and tried to make more room for Jack, who pushed himself in sideways. “Pull your knees up,” Wyatt told him, inching back. “Get your back against her stomach.”
“I’m too far out,” Jack said. He paused to catch his breath. A bullet hit the ground beside his foot, another beside his knee. “Fuck, I’m getting out of here. There’s no room.” He got to his feet and ran. Wyatt held the girl more tightly.
Jack was running when the bullet hit him. Wyatt saw him fall. He saw it indistinctly without his glasses. Drawing his knees to his chest, Jack rolled from side to side, yelling to Wyatt, “Stay where you are! I can get up!” But he didn’t get up. He clutched his thighs. “Wyatt?” he yelled, more plaintively.
“Can you get up?”
“I’m coming to get you—”
“No . . . stay there.”
“Where are you hit?”
“Shit. Ah, God—”
“Where are you hit?’
“Can you walk?”
His knees were tucked to his chest.
“Is he up there?” Wyatt yelled. “Can you see him up there?”
“No. Don’t come for me. You hear me? Fuck you if you come for me!”
“I’m coming for you, Jack—”
He tried to think of a way to let go of the girl and still protect her. A bullet hit the flagpole over their heads, and the vicious vibration made him think he had been shot. He looked at the girl and saw that she was screaming, but he couldn’t hear her. “Can you stay upright on your own?” he shouted. But he couldn’t hear his words, and he wasn’t sure he had said them. He had no sense of what he needed to do.
Only gradually, as he held her, did the whimpering of the girl break through.
Shelly’s mouth was dry, her voice trapped by her clattering teeth. The blood still flowed out of her arm. She harbored herself between Wyatt’s knees, her back against his chest. His sweat had soaked her. He was holding her arm too tightly against her body. But if he let go, it would drop. He maneuvered himself slightly away; she felt his knuckles against her spine as he unbuttoned his shirt. She felt him peeling the shirt away. He swept it around the front of her and knotted the sleeves at her chest. “What’s your name? What’s your blood type?” he asked her.
“Your blood type?”
“A-positive. I think. I don’t know.”
“How does my cousin look? How bad is he? I can’t see without my glasses.”
“He’s on his side. I think he’s shot in the legs. The thighs.”
“The other guy—is he moving?”
“I can’t tell.” She tried to focus her eyes. The world was heaving from side to side. Every breath was painful. She noticed a man’s face staring down from the center window on the third floor of the English building and for an instant saw herself through those distant eyes: how small she looked, bundled into the arms of the stranger.
A small plane in the sky started to circle inward. “Could they shoot him from up there?” she whispered.
“From up where?”
“The airplane—is it coming to help us?”
“I don’t see a plane.”
She tried to nod in that direction to show him where it was. The airplane looked as flimsy and weightless as a bird. She watched it drop and thought it was falling, but then it bounced back up again, the canvas sides rippling in the wind. Gradually it started circling inward again. But after a rapid firing of gunshots from the Tower, it turned away and disappeared behind her line of vision.
Jack was getting up. Wyatt shouted to him over Shelly’s head. Jack yelled back, but Shelly couldn’t understand what it was he said. He pivoted onto a knee, as awkward as an inchworm. His hands clawed at the grass. Wyatt leaned out, trying to see the Tower. “Don’t,” Shelly murmured, her mouth so dry the word sounded inhuman, and then, in a whisper: “Don’t go.” She intended to mean it for his sake. But then she said, “Don’t leave me.” She said it several times and tightened her hold on his arm, sinking herself into the heat of his body.
Jack struggled toward the wall, hunched in the middle and dragging a leg. When he had nearly reached it, someone climbed over the balustrade from the other side and helped him over and out of view.
Wyatt rested his face against Shelly’s head. He seemed to be melting into her. But his weight stayed solid against her back. His knees on either side of her walled out the world. His naked arms, locked tightly around her, kept her from falling sideways. His shirt secured her arm; his bare feet were like the feet of stone pillars in the grass beside her. She felt he wouldn’t allow her to die, as if he breathed for them both. She allowed herself to drift, her mind to wander.
Her fear began to drain away. Closing her eyes to the bright light, she was aware she was whispering and he was whispering back. Vibrations of his voice rose and fell like the notes of a song, though she couldn’t make sense of his words. She felt he was trying to keep her awake and begged him not to stop talking.
But then she grew tired and after a while stopped listening. The clock was chiming the hour.
It chimed the quarter hour. She wondered if several hours had passed. The firing continued and seemed to grow more distant. Less consistent. A mere pattering of raindrops. Eventually, it stopped.
Excerpted from Monday, Monday: A Novel, by Elizabeth Crook. Published April 2014 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © Elizabeth Crook. All rights reserved.