Anyone watching from the outside would probably have noticed Paul Horton’s attraction to Dallas.
Dallas Hopper was easily the most popular guy at Clarkson High with his perfect face and lifeguard’s tan and clothes from the best stores in town. Cashmere sweater, normally a light blue cotton button down to match his eyes poking out of both the v-neck and the band at the bottom. It looked like someone had tailored his jeans. There was just a slight but beguiling tightness to the fabric, the legs long enough to cover his socks but not so long that there was fray at the back of the hem.
He was thin enough to need the belt that held up his pants. The buckle was ironic. How many truly cool guys wore anything Looney Tunes. Tweety Bird. That takes some real confidence.
His Chucks were beat up in the way everyone envied. He’d worn them long enough that anyone could see he wasn’t posing. The laces even had a knot to hold them together where they had torn apart from age. He could afford new laces. It was such a touching repair. Paul got a little pang in his heart when he noticed Dallas’s shoelaces.
Paul tried not to stare at him but Dallas was everywhere. In the lunchroom the crowd would actually part when he came through the doors. Everyone had seen the cafeteria lady give him the freshest burger, the one that didn’t have the cheese thrown on as if from across the room. Dallas’s lunch tray, by the time he got to the end of the line, didn’t look like anyone else’s. He got the macaroni and cheese with the crispy brown on the top, the banana without the bruises, the chocolate chip cookies that actually had chips.
At Clarkson High Paul Horton could have been anonymous except that he was openly gay and there were a few people who knew he did magic. Magic is one of those skills that looks great on television talent shows once the magician has perfected their act but when you are a high school student pulling out a deck of cards can make you look like an idiot. Paul carried a backpack full of tricks and he loved showing his classmates what he was working on before the homeroom teacher showed up to take roll.
Dallas Hopper, Paul Horton, Diana Hunt, Daniel Hyeong, Jack Jasper, Frances Jenner, Vince Julian.
Seven desks in a row, seven sixteen year old souls in alphabetical order. Here Paul got to stare at Dallas’s back, his hair, his shoulders. Sometimes Dallas might turn around, holding onto the side of his desk, whipping his head to get his bangs back in order and he might smile at Paul briefly while his eyes searched for someone else.
“Hey man,” he might say.
Paul might say it back. Or,
Paul wasn’t shy but his desire for Paul made him a lesser being.
Sometimes Paul was afraid he might say the wrong thing like the time in kindergarten when he called his teacher Mommy.
“I’m like totally in love with you Dallas.”
That wouldn’t help at all.
The home room teacher, Mr. Wyler, came into the room late and harried, his tie flung over one shoulder and one of his New Balance running shoes untied.
“Good morning. I’m running late today. Let’s get roll underway.”
As soon as he finished calling out names and checking them in his roll book there were popping sounds coming from someplace in the school building. Everyone knew it wasn’t firecrackers. Everyone held out hope it was firecrackers. Mr. Wyler instantly paled and seemed to be going through his head for the approved actions when there was an active shooter when the student closest to the door got up and tried to lock it.
“Mr. Wyler! It won’t lock!”
Then a few kids started screaming and everyone moved to the back of the room in an exposed huddle except Paul, Dallas and Daniel, who moved to hide behind Mr. Wyler’s heavy metal desk. Paul scrambled back to his desk briefly to grab his backpack and lost one of his shoes in the process.
More screaming and gunshots came from the corridor and two of the kids in the class moved a couple of desks in front of the door, precariously stacking one on top of the other. Tiny squares of safety glass from the window in the door flew into the room as another shot was fired and Mr. Wyler fell to the ground. He was hit in the chest and a red stain began growing there. His tie was still over his shoulder and the white buttons of his shirt stood out against the horrifying field of dark maroon. Soon a puddle formed under his back and he quit moving, his chest no longer rising and falling and no more moans of pain.
Everyone held their breath, certain the shooter was about to break through the desk barricade but they heard running feet proceeding down the hallway and more screaming, more gunshots. Now the shooting seemed to be coming from more than one direction. The windows on the outside wall of the room were shot out too.
There was a shooter outside too.
Kids started whispering about how many there might be.
“Maybe Wyler has a gun in his desk drawer.”
“The closet. Everyone move to the closet.”
The closet was locked but nobody wanted to search Mr. Wyler’s bloody pocket to find it. Someone got up and climbed up on the top desk in front of the door and tried to look out of the blown out narrow window. They couldn’t see anything and cut their face in the process. And the shooting continued, first here, then there and now some were sobbing and praying.
Dallas Hopper was crying and holding on to Paul’s arm.
“We’ve got to do something. We can’t just sit here and wait for the shooter to come back.”
Paul pulled a magic wand and a hand mirror out of his backpack and reached up, searching blindly from his hiding place to find the tape dispenser Mr. Wyler kept on top of his desk.
Someone from the back of the room snorted and asked if Paul was going to make the shooter disappear. Paul ignored him and set to wrapping the tape around the mirror’s handle to affix it to the length of the magic wand. Silently he approached the door and quickly boosted himself up to the top of the stacked desks and used the wand/mirror to look up and down the corridor.
“I don’t see anyone…”
As soon as he climbed back down the kids in the huddle at the back of the room rushed to move the desks and ran out of the classroom. Paul could hear their feet pounding hard towards the stairwell when another volley of shots rang out, more screaming, sounds of bodies hitting the floor and then terrible pleading. He heard cursing and commands from several men. They sounded too old to be students.
More shots brought silence. Paul’s ears rang with harsh sounds even after there was nothing more going on.
“What is all of this?”
Dallas grabbed Paul’s arm harder, enough to bruise him, as he asked the question nobody had an answer for.
“Just stay down. It’s bad, there’s more than one and I don’t think they’re students. Stay here, I’m going to check outside.”
Paul moved slowly and in a crouch towards the windows that looked over the school’s side yard. He used the mirror to see if there were shooters close by. With the mirror angled towards the parking lot he saw streams of kids and teachers running and then there was the sound of shooting again. Paul watched as three people fell and then two more who seemed wounded fell as two additional shots were fired. Paul reasoned that at least one of the shooters was in the building. He couldn’t tell if they were on the second floor where he and Daniel and Dallas were hiding or if they were on the first floor but it seemed sure they had a good vantage point and were easily picking people off with their shots.
When he looked back to where Daniel and Dallas were ducked behind Mr. Wyler’s desk he was surprised that Daniel was comforting Dallas and that Dallas was falling apart.
“We gotta get out of here. What do we do? I don’t want to die. Look at Wyler. He’s dead. One shot, man and he’s just freaking dead.”
Daniel stroked Dallas’s back and then removed Dallas’s grip from his arm. He seemed to be preparing to move. Daniel looked at Paul and then at his phone.
“I just got a text from Julia. She’s saying there are definitely multiple shooters and that we need to protect ourselves for now. They called 911, but the cops aren’t even here yet. She’s hiding in the gym. She wants me to try to get to her.”
Daniel was referring to his girlfriend Julia Park. The two of them were THE couple at the school. Everyone knew they were in love with each other and both were planning on going to the same university. Daniel ran to the door and opened it. After looking both ways down the hall he bolted away.
Paul and Dallas were alone.
Paul spoke in a low tone close to Dallas’s ear.
“We’ve got to find someplace where we can hide. The art room down at the bottom of the north stairwell has a kiln room. If nobody else is in there we could hide behind the kiln. It’s pretty big and maybe we could even fit inside. Stay with me. We’re going to start moving on the count of three.”
“I can’t. I can’t even feel my legs, man. Don’t leave me please. PLEASE.”
Dallas was trembling and sobbing and wiping his nose on his sweater sleeve.
“It’s OK. We’ve got to get out of here. If they come back we’re dead. When I went to the door I could see the top of your head even though you were crouching.”
Paul grabbed Dallas under his armpit and pulled. Dallas sat down firmly, his chin now quivering.
“Come on. You’ve got to move Dallas.”
“I can’t. You go though. You should try to save yourself.”
Paul opened his backpack and pulled out a pair of handcuffs. They were props for a trick he was working on. They were real handcuffs though, not fakes meant to fool his audience. He slipped one side onto his own wrist and before Dallas could protest he cuffed him with the other side.
“I like you way too much to let you die.”
Dallas didn’t blink at Paul’s declaration of affection. He did vomit though but Paul got the sense that it was due to the situation not his words. Then Paul rose and pulled. Dallas pulled back but Paul pulled harder.
Paul was surprised to find how much stronger he was than Dallas and when he pulled the third time Dallas slid across the floor on his knees.
Dallas stood then as if Paul’s command hit his autopilot button and Paul pulled him towards the door where he used the mirror on the magic wand once more to check the hallway. He pulled again and both were then in the hallway and running towards the stairs. There were bodies and smears of blood everywhere. Paul opened the door to the stairwell and listened.
“I don’t hear anything.”
As they moved through the threshold, they heard shots from the other end of the corridor. Paul pulled hard and Dallas complied and they both flew down the stairs, pausing at the half way landing briefly and then continued down the rest of the stairs to the doorway, propped open by two bodies stacked tragically, one on top of the other.
Out of breath, Paul pulled Dallas again and they ran across the hallway to the art room. There were no students there. The teacher, Mrs. Aspen, didn’t have a home room and Paul guessed she was in the teacher’s lounge when the shooting started. Paul pulled one last time and got them to the kiln room’s door, opened it and they went inside. They continued to hear shots, the sounds sickeningly familiar, being fired one at a time but now over the sound of sirens and the screeching of brakes.
Dallas exhaled through clenched teeth.
“Jesus. It took the cops forever.”
Paul checked his phone.
“Hate to tell you but it’s only been three minutes since this started, give or take a few seconds. I looked at my phone right before they shot Mr. Wyler. Let’s get behind the kiln.”
Once behind the round kiln Paul opened up his backpack and pulled out a bottle of water. He took a long drink, wiped the top and handed it to Dallas.
“Thanks. My mouth is gross with hork. You sure you want to share?”
Dallas half laughed and Paul could feel his arm relax where they were still joined together with the handcuffs.
“Sick. Keep it.”
Paul held his free hand out to ward off the bottle exchange but smiled at Dallas. He didn’t want him to feel bad.
There was someone on a loudspeaker outside of the school calling out directions to students left behind. They were told to stay hidden. There were still shooters in the building. Several shooters they said.
Paul fished around in the backpack again and pulled out a small flashlight. He turned it on to look around the dark closet-sized room. He quickly turned it off when they heard more shooting and the sounds of two or three people running down the hall. He wished they had closed the door to the room. It wasn’t like most of the other doors in the school that closed automatically. Maybe though, he reasoned, an open door would make their hiding place less obvious.
There were cardboard boxes in one corner and Paul got Dallas to help him stack them strategically both on top of the kiln and to the side so they had more cover. He even took the paper wrappings and packing peanuts that were inside the boxes and strew the debris around to make their hiding place seem less of a fortress and more of a storage room.
They sat with their backs to the kiln, their knees drawn up to their chests and Paul could feel Dallas still trembling now and then. He patted Dallas’s knee but did it with his fist instead of his open hand. That way it seemed less familiar. He was surprised when Dallas rested his head against his shoulder.
Poor guy, he thought, he’s just exhausted.
He checked his phone. Another ten minutes had passed since they last heard shooting. And then there was chaos.
They heard screaming and shouted commands, girls shrieking, what had to have been a teacher shouting for everyone to stay down, more shooting as if from semi-automatic weapons. Silence followed by more screaming. Stomping feet up the stairwell. More shooting and Paul and Dallas could feel the thuds of bodies hitting the floor above them.
They could smell gunpowder in the air. Paul could smell Dallas’s shampoo, the smell of Woolite on his cashmere, a faint smell of vomit and he was aware that both of them had developed a hearty case of stress induced body odor. Paul sniffed at his own armpits and swore.
“Damn, I’m ripe. OMG. Whatever.”
Dallas checked his own pits then.
“What the hell did I even put deodorant on for?”
“I know, right?”
There was a growing feeling of ease, even in this difficult circumstance, between the two of them. Paul wondered if maybe he should say something about his feelings. Maybe he could say something.
The sat together for the longest time. When Paul checked his phone an hour had passed.
Sounds of a mass of feet traveling down the hallway were evident and then there were people entering the room. Paul and Dallas grabbed onto each other as the door to the kiln room opened.
“Police. Anybody in here? Walk out with your hands up.”
The two, still joined at the wrists, scrambled to their feet with their arms raised. Two policemen in riot gear pointed guns at their heads and told them to step away from each other.
“We can’t. We’re handcuffed,” Paul offered.
One of the officers stepped towards them and patted down Dallas first and then Paul and then half shoved them towards the doorway.
“Keep your hands up. We’re going outside. Walk slow.”
They were escorted to the parking lot where there were a few teachers standing behind a panel van, helping the police get everything sorted out.
“Those are both students. Paul Horton, Dallas Hopper is the blond.”
“How did you two get like this?”
One cop tried his own handcuff key in the lock with no success.
“Did the shooters do this?”
Dallas finally found his voice.
“Nah. Paul does magic. These are his. He had ‘em in his backpack.”
It was hours before the school was finally secured. There was confusion for weeks about whether or not all of the shooters had been killed or if possibly some of them got away. 57 students were dead, 16 teachers, six cafeteria workers, 12 office employees and six bad guys. Besides the 91 who died at the hands of the shooters there were another 94 people wounded by gunfire, including a single mother and all three of her children. She was on her way out of the parking lot after picking up her high school aged son so she could take him and his siblings to their dentist appointments. Her youngest was only 11 years old.
Dallas and Paul stayed cuffed together for another two hours until one of the officers finally asked where to find the backpack with the handcuff key and they were separated.
It was generally assumed that Dallas was the one who was responsible for Paul’s safety. There was a rumor going around that Paul had something sexual in mind when he cuffed Dallas but that Dallas had punched him in the face. It was also being said that Paul had hidden the key so that he could stay cuffed to Dallas.
For the longest time Dallas called Paul every night and they would rehash their experience. Each would be alone in their respective bedrooms, lights out, trying to find a way to sleep when flashbacks of their trauma would come to the surface. Generally, Paul comforted Dallas but there were times when Dallas soothed Paul who still had trouble getting the sounds of screaming and guns blasting out of his head. Dallas was more disturbed by the memories of their home room teacher dying in front of them.
They would talk until one would declare himself sleepy. They told each other goodnight then. Dallas was the one who began to say it first.
“Goodnight. Love you man.”
“Me too. Goodnight.”