My Best Friend Is a Murderer
Jesse didn’t die right away. I guess that’s what’s so horrible about it. He didn’t die from the bullet wound in his abdomen. I watched him take a breath before choking out my name. Blood sputtered from his mouth instead, dripping down his chin. He looked like a fish out of water, his chest heaving, blood gurgling in his throat. The bullet had gone straight through his body, a trail of blood spatters marking where it had flown. Blood started to pool on the tile around his body, the back of his tie-dye shirt soaked and stained red. I wish I could say that it was the most blood I’d ever seen, but it wasn’t. Chad had me pinned against the lockers, his arm pressing roughly against my chest. “Now you know how I feel, don’t ya, Brad?”
I don’t recommend watching someone’s head get blown off. It’s not like it is in the movies. There’s not a single bullet hole that travels through their skull.
Chad’s youngest sister, Lenora, didn’t have a head when she died last October.
How did my life end up like this—pinned to a locker by my best friend so I could watch my youngest brother die? Jesse was only five. I opened my mouth to protest, to beg to be let go. Maybe I could save him. Maybe Chad would let me try. He didn’t need to get back at me like this. Lenora shouldn’t have had to die. Back then he had aimed for my head, and I had ducked without thinking. This was payback.
My brain was so scrambled that the words of my plea failed to reach my tongue. I know middle school is supposed to suck, but nobody had warned me that my best friend would turn into a murderer. I strained my eyes to the side, peering down the adjacent hallway. Olga was unconscious on the tile, a large bruise forming above her left eye. Chad had clipped her with the butt of his gun shortly after he lunged at me. Other than her motionless body lying to my right and Jesse’s whimpering body in front of me, the hallways were empty, the school eerily silent. Following Chad’s warning shot into the ceiling, the entire school had immediately gone on lockdown.
“J-J-J-Jesse?” A feeble cry came from another hallway, and I froze, holding my breath. The voice sounded like it belonged to a little girl. In a matter of seconds, my theory proved correct as one of Jesse’s classmates appeared, her feet shuffling forward before planting her body in plain sight. She must have come from the bathroom. I struggled against Chad’s weight, trying to shout at her to run. Chad curled his fingers around my neck, but I was able to let out a strangled cry before he tightened his grip. With his other hand, he shot blindly in her direction, missing her by an inch.
She screamed, running back down the hallway she had come from. There wouldn’t be anywhere for her to hide. All the doors were locked. I tried to convince myself that Chad was only after me, that he was only trying to hurt me, but Chad was the most unpredictable person on the planet. Chad was like an IED. He could explode at any given moment.
Sirens blared from the streets as emergency vehicles made their way to the school. Jesse’s eyes were closed. I couldn’t tell from this distance if he was breathing or not. Chad smiled, knowing his time with me was ending. As soon as the cops saw his gun, they were authorized to shoot, and he knew it. He wanted out. I could see it in his eyes. Pulling away from me, his hands in the air, gun pointed toward the ceiling, he laughed. He laughed and he laughed as I gasped for air. I could feel the oxygen returning to my body as I slid to the ground.
“He destroys everything he touches!” Chad shouted between fits of laughter. “It’s almost comical.” He cocked his head to the side, crouching so that he could be within spitting distance of my face. I coughed, blood dripping from my lips. I could feel the cold metal of the gun on my temple. Grabbing a clump of my hair, he yanked my head up against the lockers, holding me there. The gun stayed trained on my face. I could feel my body tremble, despite knowing my fear would egg him on. Chad fed on fear.
“I give him a knife? He uses it. A smoke? He uses two. A gun?” He licked his lips. “Maybe you’ll be his third.” I cringed, closing my eyes, waiting for my end. But it didn’t come. I dared to squint open one of my eyes and he laughed, stepping away and rising to his full height. “You’re too easy.”
Olga groaned, her green eyes fluttering open. Her hand flew to the bruise already forming on her forehead. “Ugh, my head.” Chad fired a shot at the ground near her body and she jumped, barely missing the ricocheted bullet. He clearly had something against aiming a bullet directly at Olga. Her body rolled up against the lockers. Holding her head, she tried to sit up but collapsed on the ground at every attempt. Chad walked steadily toward her, his gun held behind his back. He seemed amused, humming to himself as he watched her struggle.
“Tanner,” she said to him, and I flinched at the mention of an unfamiliar name. Great. Chad had hit her a little too hard. I wondered what she’d call me when she had the chance. She moaned through the pain, still struggling to sit. Squinting at our destructive friend, she forced her words out of her mouth. “Let me talk to Chad.”
Chad smiled, almost blissfully. “Chad? You want to talk to Chad?” He leaned against the lockers, dangling his gun over her body. “Today is Chad’s last day on Earth.” A red dot appeared on the back of his black shirt, and I turned to see several members of SWAT blocking my view of Jesse. I hadn’t even heard them coming. I was too busy watching Chad and Olga, my heart pounding violently in my ears. This was it. My best friend was about to die.
I didn’t have the muscle that Chad had, but the surprise was enough to knock him off his feet. A bullet flew over our bodies, grazing my leg, before lodging itself into a locker door. We tumbled to the ground, and I rolled over his arm, loosening the gun from his grip. I jabbed my elbow into his forearm. The pain caused him to yelp, and he let go of the gun. Knocking it across the floor, I watched it spin and slide over the tile. SWAT had their guns trained on us, the barrels a foot away from our bodies. Chad’s expression turned into terror and then pain. He wanted to die, and I had ruined his plan. Tears rolled down his cheeks as his chin trembled. “You should’ve let me die.”
“That was stupid!” Officer Joey shoved my shoulder as I sat in the back of an ambulance not too long afterward. The paramedic cleaning the wound on my leg urged me to keep still.
I glared at the cop, my fists clenched. “Nobody had to die today.”
Suddenly I was pinned against one of the back doors to the truck, my legs at an awkward angle due to the step. The paramedic had to dodge to keep from being hit. Tufts of my green shirt were balled up in Officer Joey’s fists, his face up close and personal with mine. “You listen to me, punk,” he spat. Literally spat. Saliva landed on my cheek. “That bullet could have done a lot more than graze you—do you understand me?” He jostled me by my shirt until I nodded in agreement. Letting me go, he hocked a loogie onto the concrete before looking me up and down. “What are you doing trying to save that punk, anyway?” He didn’t wait for an answer, shaking his head as he walked away.
A firefighter slammed the palm of their hand against the back of the ambulance holding Chad, shouting to the driver that he was good to go. I kicked the tire of the ambulance intended for me. The paramedic held out a fresh swab and some ointment, wondering if I was ready to cooperate. Plopping back down on the tail end of the vehicle, I pondered Officer Joey’s question. I didn’t know what made me tackle Chad to the ground. It wasn’t a logical decision. Chad was always bigger and stronger than me. He had just made an attempt on my brother’s life, hoping he’d die right there in the school hallway so I could watch him take his final breath. He put Olga in the hospital with a serious concussion. She couldn’t even see straight when the paramedics were checking her. Five months ago, I watched him shoot his sister in cold blood and get away with it. I should have been pissed. I should have wanted him to die. But instead, I jumped in front of a bullet to save his life. It didn’t make sense. I was protecting a murderer. I was always protecting him.
“It wasn’t Chad,” Olga repeated as the paramedics checked her out. He had seriously done a number on her, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. I hoped she would be able to see and think straight after this.
Olga was one of those girls who loved the thrill of danger but always regretted the chase midway through any sort of crisis. She and I were always dragging each other out of ill-fated situations, most of them involving Chad. We had both been enthralled by his eclipsed views of the world, allowing him to drag us into his increasingly disorganized chaos. Chad was engrossing, a natural-born leader, but his circle was small. Only Olga and I could usually stand to be around him. We understood him and bonded over that mutual perception. We were friends, and it wasn’t until Chad started to grow increasingly unwell when I thought maybe Olga and I could be more than that. But I couldn’t convince her to leave him. She had to stay. She had to fix Chad.
“Bradley, Bradley, Bradley!” My sister’s worried voice traveled with her as she ran across the school parking lot. Tears streamed from her brown eyes and spilled onto her cheeks. She was shaking so bad I was worried her legs would give out on her before reaching me. Is it horrible to say that I had completely forgotten about her during all this? Paige could have easily been the more obvious choice for Chad to kill. She was a whole lot closer to Lenora’s age. Why he had waited until science fair day so he could shoot a kindergartner, I wasn’t sure.
Paige rammed her body into mine, wrapping her arms around my neck. “I was so scared.” Her voice was muffled, her arm blocking her mouth. Sobbing, she mumbled through her wails. “I heard you were shot.”
“Your brother’s a hero,” the paramedic said, tossing the used swabs into a bag.
“Don’t let Officer Joey hear you say that,” I said through crushed lungs. Paige had tightened her grip on me, boa constrictor style.
“At least all the kindergartners were safe inside the gym,” she said, murmuring. I stiffened. She hadn’t heard.
Apparently, news didn’t travel as fast as I thought it did in a middle school. Parents were starting to line up around the building to pick up their kids. I watched a few of them leave. Several students were visibly shaken, some were crying, and one guy started loudly running his mouth about how he had nearly been shot.
I could feel my anger coming back, igniting in my gut as I listened to his tale, Paige’s arms still around me. The hallways were nearly empty when Chad fired his warning shot. Everybody who wasn’t already in class or presenting at the science fair was quick to scatter. Chad wasn’t after them. Chad was after me. Chad had his gun trained on me. Who did Chad not have his gun trained on? This random seventh grader shooting off his mouth.
Paige could feel my rage grow. Apparently, my body had started to shake. When she let go, I tried to control my breathing. It was a trick I learned in anger management class, which is how I met Officer Joey. Since then, he’s been tailing my every move. He thought he could fix me, but it’s been two years, and nothing’s changed. I’m still the same broken, messed up person.
Paige tugged on the paramedic’s sleeve, asking if he had checked my blood sugar levels. “He’s diabetic, you know.”
I hated when she told people that. I know she means well, but it was just another thing that I hated about myself. It’s not like I asked for any of this to happen to me. It wasn’t long after the discovery of my defective pancreas when everything started to go south for me.
“We need to go see Jesse,” I said with a growl, watching the kid with the tall tale to tell climb into his mother’s vehicle.
Paige scanned the sea of vehicles before spotting a school bus leaving the parking lot. “I think he’s already on the bus back to his school.”
“No,” I said, grumbling. The paramedic wanted to test my blood sugar, but I refused to let him do it. Paige needed to know. I looked down at the ground. One of the legs to my jeans had been cut open, and the denim was flapping with the breeze. I watched it for a second before forcing the words out of my mouth. “He was alive when the ambulance took him.” I stole a glance at Paige’s face and wished I had worded it differently. I made it sound like our brother was dead. For all I knew, he could be. It’s not like I’d received an update on his condition. But it had sounded like he was gonna make it. The paramedics seemed hopeful—stressed, but hopeful. Did she really think I would suggest visiting a dead person?
“They probably have him in surgery right now,” the paramedic said, checking his watch.
Without asking, Paige pushed past us and climbed into the back of the ambulance. “Take me to him.”