Chapter Seven: Harsh Realities

The sound of distant explosions awoke me from my daze, and I found myself in the passenger seat of Alan's Range Rover. He hit the gas, running over a concrete divider and peeling out of the parking lot like a bat out of hell. I was too confused then to think of my own vehicle as I sped off down the street in direction of downtown.

He turned his radio on to 96.7, and I listened as an announcer gave grave instructions to the city.

"Citizens, I repeat. STAY IN YOUR HOMES! Lock your doors, and keep the radio turned on for further announcements. Parvadine News Network is down, so just keep your radios tuned in. If a station goes out, switch to another one, for we will be broadcasting on all available stations. If you are not close to home, seek a nearby rescue mission, fortified structure, or whatever cover may be available to you. Please do not panic! The National Guard and the local police department are working together to provide safety to anyone unable to get home, so please do not leave shelter to seek loved ones."

I thought of Daniel then, and imagined her hiding under the same computer desk where she first introduced me to the school's computer system in the library, and alongside her Amber. The image was so real, I felt like I was really viewing it in my mind's eye. I imagined Daniel and Amber shaking like train tracks seconds before the train would run across them. It was a frightening image indeed.

I remembered how Daniel never said the Oath of Allegiance or prayed, or did anything that would show respect for something bigger than her. And now she was experiencing mayhem at the hands of an oppressor who bore the name Renegade. They owed nothing to anyone, but gave plenty of death and destruction. Perhaps she understood now.

But despite the anger I felt for her stupidity, I feared a million times more for her safety. I'd fallen for her. I longed that I could have missed that play, and been there beside her, to hold her in my arms. To lie, and say everything would be okay, much like the radio announcer. To try to keep her calm and make her feel safe. No lies could do that for anyone in such a situation, but I wished I was there to try.

But would they bomb the school? Surely they wouldn't hit such a building. They'd been dropping bombs like the clouds dropped snowflakes, but they'd never hit a school! I'd spotted several buildings they'd hit as Alan headed downtown: banks, a few casinos in the distance, some random businesses, and then I saw a small home split down the center by a large bomb blast that was erupting in flames. I felt an ugly, burning feeling in my gut. They just might bomb anything…they are trying to send everyone into panic…

An attack plane or jet that flew too fast for me to see cracked the air as it sped through the sky above, dropping a few fresh bombs upon the streets of Parvadine's Main Street. As Alan swerved to avoid several massive potholes, I flew around inside the car, and hit my head against the dashboard and nearly cracked the window with my elbow. I decided to put my seat belt on. It was almost funny in a disturbing way: bombs falling upon the city streets and buildings, panic everywhere, and here I was putting my seatbelt on. Some old commercial with the tagline "Safety First!" went through my mind, and I cracked a dark chuckle, than decided to ask Alan where we were going.

"Alan, where are we going?" I asked, suddenly feeling embarrassed to even talk to him after he saved my ass in there when I went cold like an idiot.

He paused for a long time. I figured he either hadn't heard me, or had too much going through his head to answer. Then he responded.

"My parent's house, I wanna make sure they're okay."

I just nodded, and listened to the radio in hopes the announcer could find something uplifting to say. I waited a long time without hearing anything that could possibly save anyone some grief. The station went out in a blast of static, and I quickly switched to another station. The Smooth Jazz station was the nearest one that still wasn't out, and I was surprised to hear not the announcer's voice, but the voice of a saxophone playing beautifully the tunes of Paul Taylor's 'Exotica'. It puzzled me for a minute, before an image I'd remembered from the movie Titanic seemed to explain it. As the ship was sinking and everyone was panicking, the musicians did not run and hide, or attempt to get aboard a lifeboat. They simply played their music. People ran past them screaming, and they kept playing. They kept playing until the ship tilted and they could play no more. Maybe that's what the radio announcers at the station hoped to achieve as they played their music like it was any other day. 'Exotica'….what a beautiful song… it made the smoke and flame licked night sky seem tranquil, even if it was only for an instant.

Exotica… shit, was she okay?

I felt guilty for having not thought of her before. I'd forgotten my damsel in distress in a flimsy excuse for a castle, seeking only to protect herself from the hell raining down on places so random, no one could feel safe. I was her knight in shining armor, and she was the last person I'd even thought of. How could I have forgotten her? Maybe Daniel had something to do with it. In any case, I would make sure we stopped by there after seeing if his parents were okay. Though they'd probably keep Alan from taking me back there, I'd walk if necessary. I had to make sure she was okay. Than I'd head for the school, which wasn't much further past that place between the park and her balcony, where we always met. I had hoped I'd finally get to see her beautiful body under more ideal circumstances, but I guess life can't be perfect. The least I could do was make sure she was okay though.

Alan swerved around another corner where a small casino lay in ruin, and several looters who'd once been bums on the street were carrying out slot machines and poker chips, as if those things even mattered now. As he made it down the block, I could've sworn I heard a gunshot echoing down the street, probably from a police officer who'd tried to stop the looters. Around another corner, a street gang was fighting over a large cash register. Parvadine had gone to hell under the strike of Renegade, and we were fighting each other like dogs.

I began shedding the costume off that I'd worn for the play, revealing a black t-shirt and sweat pants I'd worn underneath. What a shame, I thought as I threw the clothes over the back of my seat.

The memory came back, bringing with it that stabbing emotion that I'd come to know too well. It didn't seem like I'd even lived the memory, almost like it played before me like a movie, or a song on the radio, but without the entertainment factor. I saw myself standing there, before a burning stage. Sean wasn't shouting insults at me. Mr. Hanes wasn't showing his disappointment. The audience wasn't charging the stage. It didn't even seem like the bomb was the true attack. Rather, myself trying to self destruct. Some part of me wanting to die there. The bomb was simply a sign that I deserved no happiness. I deserved no respect for being able to perform in such a role. Death and destruction was all I deserved for what I'd done before. It was almost a relief to finally have the truth revealed: I wasn't meant to be happy. I was only as good as long as I was needed, and that didn't seem to be too much longer. It would have all ended there if Alan hadn't saved my life. So perhaps I was needed. Alan needed me. Amber needed me. Exotica might need me too. But right now, all I could think about was Daniel. Daniel must need me now. And I had a chance to be there for her because Alan had been there for me.

"Thanks, man," I said. I think the way I said it spoke louder than the two words I'd used so many times before to thank him from little things like buying me a soda, or lunch, to backing me up when Sean went ape shit. It was bizarre to use those words for something as serious and selfless as risking you life to save you friend's.

"No problem, man," he said, his eyes still on the street.

I realized then that perhaps dying wouldn't have been so bad. It didn't exactly feel good to be alive right now. But than again, I guess you live as long as your needed. Maybe not, but I tried to think of it that way. There was a fight in store against Renegade for sure, and I would definitely be in on it, even if it meant giving my life. I had to make sure those I cared about were okay first though. I didn't have many people in my life, so my friends meant so much.

Uncle Bob's safety crossed my mind than, but it quickly passed away like it was nothing. It came back again, and seeing as I could feel little care for his safety, I felt guilty as though the fact that him buying me a tux, thus resulting in me being in Daniel's arms, meant he was forgiven for a lifetime of neglect, drunkenness, and general hatred of my guts. But Daniel meant so much to me, and I decided I'd check up on him too, at least to say thank you. That much I owed him for sure.

Alan turned another corner near an apartment complex, and slid his car at an angle into a space and onto the concrete sidewalk littered with rubble and quarters from a smashed parking meter. It was another instance of dark humor: Alan told me once that he barely passed his driver's exam because he didn't know how to parallel park. The two cars to the sides of his had been abandoned, and a few windows in each one had been smashed out, a passenger side door left open on the one to the right. It was likely that another looter had decided to raid the glove compartments.

Across the street a loud bang erupted as the large sign holding the flashing red bulb letters 'Ace Of Clubs Casino' exploded in flames from another bomb, and came crashing down to the street, smashing a car and nearly crushing a pedestrian, becoming a mangled piece of metal erupting thousands of sparks onto the street. I turned to Alan, but he didn't seem to have noticed.

He was staring up at the Apartment complex just across the street where a large gaping hole had replaced the seventh to ninth story windows, exposing the destroyed insides of about five apartments.

Alan just looked up at it with a dead cold look in his eyes.

Oh no, don't tell me his parents live here…

"Let's go," I barely heard him say as he rushed through the entrance halfway through the sentence.

I followed as fast as I could behind him. We took the dimly lit red staircase up, and I struggled to keep up with him as he flew up the stairs faster than an elevator could. He knocked an old lady down on the way.

"Alan my boy!" she cried through sobs with a heavy accent, "don't go up there! There can't be anything up there worth riskin'…"

It was all I could catch before her voice was drowned out by our heavy footsteps and the explosions of more bombs, intermixed with the roaring lightning that had begun raging outside just as we reached the seventh floor.

He turned out of the staircase without warning and sped down a long, dirty white hallway. He stopped at a door marked 709, and from it I felt a heavy breeze pouring in from underneath the door. He searched his pockets for his car keys, but realized then that he had laughed them in the car.

"Aw…DAMMIT!" he shouted as he began banging on the door. "Mom!? Dad!?"

He kicked door hard, causing the cheap wood to make a low cracking noise. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to say something to make the pain go away. But like radio announcer, there was nothing I could. I've never felt so helpless.

He smashed the door again with his arm after a short charge at it. He seemed to feel no pain in his fear for his parents, and continued kicking and punching at the door, until a well placed kick finally sent the door flying open.

A gust of wind hit us hard with flying chunks of ice, but the image of the apartment, or what was left of it, hit us harder. The back third of it had completely been blown off, part of the cause of the rubble below. About half of the floor that was left was cracked, and sloping downward towards the gap. A smashed television set was just about to fall to the ground below before the cord stopped it. The stand was tipped over, several pictures were smashed on the ground, leaving puzzle pieces of glass below the frames. A long couch had left skid marks in the wood floor as it slid down the slope, coming to a halt when half of it had come over the edge.

Alan walked slowly into the apartment. The floor creaked and crackled as he stepped closer and closer to the edge, and as I entered inside, I almost told him to be careful, but decided he was going to do what he was going to do.

He stopped a foot before the drop, and took a long moment to look out the opening, his left arm extended to hold the wall limply, making me nervous that he could hardly hold himself up. He turned around, an empty look on his face the product of a strained attempt to smile while the true emotion shined through just the same.

They might not have fallen, I thought. They might have sought shelter after the bomb had hit. Hell, if it were my parents, my real ones that is, I'd even check the rest of the rooms in the house, no matter how miniscule if even existent the chance they would still be there. But I think Alan knew the truth then, as he gazed out over the living room floor that lay waste, where he once sat and watched television, perhaps his only escape from the reality of the world.

Perhaps in all actuality, he really couldn't avoid reality at anytime. He was always a realist, though he was always capable of being optimistic at the same time, something I could never understand. But nothing in the world could hide the truth now. The missing chunk of a place he called home said it all. The blood I spotted in faint speckles on the floor could explain it just as well, but he hadn't seemed to notice them and I didn't point them out.

The blowing wind was all that filled the silence, much like the several moments I'd waited expectantly for a word from the darling Exotica, or attempted to find something to say to an angel so capable of humbling me before her beauty I could never see. The wind broke the silence much the same way, though before an image not so beautiful and capable of being seen by eyes with no desire for it.

The long moment passed, and the wind finally carried with it Alan's voice, as he slowly turned around, the wind moving about his familiar red piped jacket like a cape around his body.

"Let's go," was all he said.

Alan drove the vehicle for a long time, the smooth jazz tunes the only sound to be heard. I wanted to say something, but I knew there was nothing I could say. Well, I tried to believe that anyway.

People always liked to come to me for advice. Friends, acquaintances, even my enemies sometimes. They always expected me to have some kind of solution to their problems. They told me all they wanted me to do was listen, but they contradicted themselves by asking me for advice so many times that I went dizzy with trying to solve problems that were not my own. That's when I went cold, I think, and began to hide away from people, and their problems. I think it was the beginning of my downfall. Then one day, I lost control. I always feared losing it again. Until that one night with Daniel…

But I still feared what I could not have: control not of myself, but of the lives and problems of other people. Alan needed someone to say something to him. Something to make the pain go away, or at least dull it like getting drunk might do, for lack of a better metaphor. Friendship and kind words meant more than that of course. But I could think of nothing to say to him. My best friend was in his greatest moment of need, and I couldn't say a damn thing. I couldn't change a damn thing. I was helpless. Worthless. As worthless as a teddy bear to a boy who's grown too old to require one to cuddle on lonely nights.

"They weren't the greatest parent's in the world…" he began.

I remembered then all the times Alan had told me about the problems he'd had with his parents. Their close-mindedness, their inability to let him grow as a person, their lack of pride in their only son. But they were still his parents.

"…but I loved em'" he said, wiping a tear away as we sped down a street crowded with wrecked vehicles and rioters.

I waited for more on the subject, but that was that.

"So," he started, a final sniffle the last sign he'd ever been sad. "What do we do now?"

I waited a long moment before answering. I wanted to head for the school right away, but I wasn't sure if the students had been evacuated yet or not. The radio announcements were soon to come on again, and perhaps they would announce who had been evacuated. Schools were likely to be at the top of the list.

As I'd thought earlier, I needed to check on Uncle Bob. He may have been at work at the time when the bombs started hitting, who knows with his bizarre schedule, but I still believed I owed it to him to take a quick visit over to his apartment…my apartment too I guess, to see if he was there.

I could easily stop by Exotica's balcony then as well. Two less people I'd have to worry about.

"Let's go to my place," I said. "The school may already be evacuated. There are a lot of bombs going off everywhere, and maybe it'd be safer to head somewhere safe until we find out what's going on."

"Alright," he said. "Where do you live?"

"The apartments down the street from the school," I answered. "My uncle might be home."

He nodded. I told him my uncle would be home to serve as a warning to him. One of the things I came to trust him with was the truth about what happened to my parents, and what my life at home was like with Bob.

I didn't feel like introducing Alan to him, as I'd likely have to do. But I also didn't want my performance to go up in flames. I didn't want to have to fear a war hitting a place I came to call home so soon. I didn't want Daniel's life to ever be put in danger. But it seemed now I had less control of all that then I ever had before.

Alan pulled up in the driveway near my humble apartment ten minutes later. I reached for my keys, then hesitated as I looked off towards another destroyed apartment. An old man and his wife were dousing some smoldering ashes, him with a fire extinguisher, and his wife with a bucket of water. They didn't seem to notice me as I headed up the walkway towards my apartment door.

I was about to use the key when I discovered the door was left ajar. I cautiously walked inside, followed by Alan who seemed to mimic my movements. I stalked into the kitchen, looking off towards the master bedroom door which was shut tightly. A fresh cigar spat little flames into the sky from a dirty glass ashtray. It reminded me of the fact that I hadn't smoked in a while.

I then spotted a bottle of beer sitting next to it, half drunk. Bob was home alright.

I got back to my normal standing position, and sensing the safety of the situation, Alan did so as well.

I looked off towards the refrigerator, and remembered that sandwich again. That damn week old turned several month old sandwich. Even in such a serious situation, I needed to indulge in my curiosity.

I opened up the refrigerator, and smiled. Holding the limp remnants of a sandwich time had been so cruel to, I waved it at Alan. It seemed to make him smile a little, though he didn't completely understand. Then I heard a gun cock.

Alan and I shot our glances towards the bedroom door which had now opened. Bob stood proudly in a military uniform, an assault rifle held tightly in his arm, pulling the belt that looped over his arm and was strapped to his gun tight. The gun almost failed to frighten me, as my interest was directed towards the green and gold uniform he'd worn so proudly. His boots were shined, his pants ironed and held up with a brown belt that carried bulging satchels at both hips. He wore a green, gold piped vest and jacket, which proudly displayed more gold metals than I had time to count. He wore his hat tilted up, and he seemed to almost be proudly watched us from under the hat's rim. He'd shaven for once in a very long time, and looked more honorable then I'd ever seen him before or could even imagine him to be.

Then my eyes locked on the gun again, and for an instant, I was sure he'd blow us both straight to hell.

"Paul… good to see your alive," he said as though it was nothing, but still managed a respectful tone worthy of a solider as he said it. "Who's your friend?"

I understood the question, but it took a second to sink in.


"Alan…I knew a soldier named Alan once…" his eyes looked to the side, and I could almost see a memory in his head.

"Uncle, I…"

"I'll be leaving soon. News reports say they're dropping those Nazi bastards all over the state…"

"Bomb's, I know," I tried. "But you can't…"

"No, soldiers! The bombs were just a way of frightening everybody and sending them into panic before they dropped their asses all over us!"

I imagined the school again, being overrun by Nazi soldiers. I imagined Daniel and Amber trying to hide from some Godless warrior with no rules or morals, just looking for someone to torture.

"When?!" I cried. "When did this begin?"

"Just heard about it on the radio," he said, and I then noticed the faint sounds coming from the bedroom.

"Damn, what about the school?" I cried, feeling guilty for not heading there earlier. "We have to…"

"Too late for that," he spoke emotionlessly. "Those bastards are holding students hostage there!"

I winced, and I could see Alan's struggle again to hide emotion between fingers as I rubbed my hands across my eyes.

"They've just began to take over several random places, not just here, but all over New Providence! They say there's thousands of em'. God knows how many! They've taken over schools, banks, casinos, public transportation, anything they can to frighten the hell out of everyone. They're breaking into people's homes in some places!"

"Fuck!" Alan finally let out.

"Dammit!" I added.

There was a short pause before Bob pushed between us and headed for the door.

"Where the hell are you going?" I shouted.

He turned, and gave me a long hard stare.

"Son, I haven't been a good man for many years. I killed people during the war. But that made me a good man. I got all these metals for killing people, one way or another. I came to love it. I came to relish it."

He took a short pause, then took a few steps closer.

"That joy never went away. That excitement, that rush, that desire stayed long after they disbanded me and a few other of my men. They said we were loose cannons. No longer fit for the job, they said," his tone changed then to one of amusement. "Hell, they taught us to kill for years! They taught us to leave no trace of our existence working as spies, checking up on Renegade, carrying classified information. Our very existence was enough to spark a war, so we killed everyone who saw our face, but we did it for our country. Then one day, the country changed."

He took a few more steps forward, and his tone became more solemn.

"We weren't needed anymore. And that was that. But they never debriefed us, boy. Not the debriefing your thinking of. I mean, making us prepared to come home."

The memory began to hurt, and he held his forehead hard with his hand, as though ready to salute.

"We were still killers. Few of us got by. Tom, he went in and out of jail. Francis went psychotic, and killed his wife and two kids. He got the death penalty a few weeks ago."

I thought I spotted a tear roll down his face, the first sign of true emotion I'd seen other than anger. It was shocking. Almost frightening.

"Baxter was admitted to an insane asylum down at Century Island, John shot himself, and Dave is awaiting trial for a homicide," he continued, the tears now streaming down his face.

"And you already know boy, I'm no success story either," he spoke throw a hand wiping away the tears. "I bet you still wonder what I do for a living? Well I kill people!"

My heart skipped a beat and all the hairs on my body raised, more from the way he said it then what he had said, though both were pretty bad.

"To quench the thirst for blood, I murder people!" he cried. "I take people lives for a living! I still get paid to murder people, but there's no honor! No honor in murdering a woman because her husband is paranoid and thinks she may be cheating on him! No honor in making an old man's death look like an accident so the son can collect his inheritance! No honor in killing a kid about your age, Paul! I once had an age limit, but one week there weren't enough contracts coming in, and my desire to kill took over, and I killed a seventeen year old kid! And then I killed the guy who hired me to do it!"

He broke down again, and sobbed for a long while. I watched in horror as the man I'd once known as simply a hick if good enough to acquire that title, became a weak and broken man before my feet. He'd changed from a hick, to a proud soldier, then to this broken man in less then five minutes in my mind, and it was shocking. He was still holding that gun in his hand.

I finally stood up, and the tears all went away at once. A soldier he was, and a soldier he decided to act like. The emotion all went away again. It was concealed this time better than Alan could even attempt to hide his emotions. There was no sign the last minute had even passed. And he was a soldier again.

"And so I go," he said, turning to the door once more.

I let him go a few steps before realizing I couldn't let him leave. I had too many questions, and I couldn't wait till later. For all I knew, he'd be dead later.

"Where are you going?" I asked, though I knew well what he planned to do.

"I'm going to regain my honor!" he spoke.

At that line, he was a true soldier. No longer Uncle Bob. No longer a hick. No longer a murderer even, as I'd just learned. He was a proud man.

He opened the door, and as the wind blew in, he gave us a proud salute, which Alan and I both returned. I think we both understood somehow what he'd gone through. My perception of Uncle Bob had changed so much then it seemed an insult to call him Uncle Bob ever again.

I'd have asked him more questions then, such as the tuxedo that mysteriously appeared in my closet, and what changed him so much. But such questions were for Uncle Bob, not the soldier heading off to war.

He closed the door halfway, then hesitated. He poked his head back in, and spoke to me.

"What are you going to do, Paul?" he asked.

I shrugged my shoulders. "What Alan and I have to do."

He just looked at us for a minute, then finally let the truth sink in. He opened the door fully again, and let the gun hang loose on it's belt around his arm. He removed something from his pocket, and tossed it to me to my alarm. I caught it anyway, seeing it was a set of keys. I still felt a little vulnerable, and for a split second, I had thought what he was throwing was a grenade.

"If you're going there, you'll need what's in the toolbox in my closet," he cautioned.

I remembered that toolbox well. That large, rusted, red craftsman toolbox I'd come all too close to once as a child, and Uncle Bob beat me for it. I never went near it again, but always wondered what was in the "mystery box." All these years, and I would soon find out. I'd already found out so much in the passing minutes, that the thought of another revealed mystery made my head spin.

As he began to close the door, I spoke again.

"Bob…" I said, and he began opening the door again. "I mean, Sir. I… thank you…I did have a nice night…"

He just looked at me for a moment, then the faintest of sign of a smile began to show.

"Don't thank me. I owed to you," he spoke proudly, and for once in my lifetime, I felt like I was actually related to the guy. "Take care, son."

He shut the door behind him, but the image of him standing there remained long after, and for a period of time that probably made Alan wonder what was up, I simply stared at the door, pondering Bob's last words.

Take care, son.

He's said it earlier when he was talking to me, but the meaning sunk in just before he shut the door after the final word rolled out of his mouth.

You don't know who your parents were…

It couldn't be…but it was. All these years, we were related. For whatever reason, I was raised by a family that was not my own. Perhaps Uncle Bob had given me up for adoption when he realized he was unfit to be a parent from the "shell-shock" as they say. Yeah, that made sense. Perhaps all the hatred he'd shown me over the years was directed towards some reflection he saw of himself in me. We mirrored each other in some ways, I found out then. Both of us knew what pride was, even if we showed it in different ways. Both of us had lost friends we held dear. And most importantly, both of us knew what it was like to lose control.

Bob was my father. The revelation would come all too late for me to run up to him and hug him, and make things change between us. And that was all it would really take. A hug. An understanding. And a promise to change things. My whole life would've been entirely different. And I knew then that I'd never see my father again, but that didn't diminish the flame that could only be lit by truth that burned bright within me. Suddenly I wasn't afraid anymore, and I felt I could regain my honor much like my father was going to.

"Paul, are you alright?" Alan voice came from behind me.

I stood staring at the door for another few moments, then turned.

"Yeah," I said, then clutching the keys, spoke "Guess we better see what's in the toolbox…"

I led him into the closet where the toolbox sat leaving large grooves in the carpet under it's weight. The key lock was located at level with my elbows, so I could comfortably unlock it. But I did so slowly, as though the opening of it was the trigger of a bomb. And when it opened, I found myself surprised that it all made so much sense, at least after the last ten minutes had past.

Two silver, high caliber pistols lay shining under the dim glow of the bulb hanging overhead. Shiny weapons of destruction, they were capable of being both beautiful and ugly at the same time.

There were two clips next to each gun, angled as the guns were, barrels towards each other. But each gun was already loaded.

Finally I decided to see what was in the other drawers. I slid a second drawer open underneath, and inside were several gun straps of different sizes, holster placements, and colors.

We both looked at each other, the reality once blinded by the light cast off of the shiny pistols rearing it's ugly head.

"Are we going to do this, man?" I asked, trying to drive the truth into him that was already there.

"…Yeah," he said. I think he thought of his parents then.

We both grabbed a set from the large pile. My leather straps looped around the front and back, and felt like binding ropes. There were two holsters: one on the right hip and one in the back for an additional side arm. Alan's brownish set held two holsters slightly crossed over his chest on opposite sides of each other, just underneath his shoulders.

Another drawer down we found empty; likely where my father's assault rifle had been placed. The next drawer down slid open less easily, as though it hadn't been opened in awhile. Indeed, there wasn't much inside compared to what was in the top drawer. Two .22's lay loaded inside. No additional ammunition was inside.

"A backup?" I asked Alan, removing one of the pistols and observing it's rather cheap quality.

"Yeah," he spoke solemnly.

After holstering those two weapons, I hunkered down close to the ground to open the final drawer, and largest.

Sliding it open, Alan and I gasped, and I hesitated to open it any further, as though the drawer opening would set off a trap. But I overcame it, and as I continued to open it, I observed what lay inside with wide eyes.

"Holy…shit…" Alan spoke in a deep, broken voice.

Inside lay a large collection of drab green, rusted metal grenades held upright by several circular plastic cylinders placed at the bottom of the drawer. The grenades were surrounding a large box in the center like a picture frame, and I opened it slowly.

Inside lay a larger marvel: a grenade launcher surrounded by spiked foam, primed, ready to go. Four launch-able grenades were held in place next to it by the foam.

"Fuck man, your uncle is LOADED!" he exclaimed.

My voice cracking a bit and sounding strangely deeper under amazement, I responded, "Yeah," without correcting him, and telling him my uncle was really my father. Such things could wait for later, much later.

As for the heavy launcher, we just looked at it for a minute, marveling at the beauty of a killing machine.



"I think we should leave this one here…"

"Yeah," he chuckled slightly.

I shut the box, and then began to ponder whether or not it would be necessary to bring the grenades.

"These things don't look very new," I remarked at the rust on the metal and the fading coloration of the grenade in general.

"Yeah… I doubt we can use those anyway."

Good point, but they seemed light enough to carry one or two on our belt straps, where two pouches were located for carrying such things. I always liked having a backup plan, usually for such things as avoiding trouble at school, or lying to get out of it. But now a backup plan was much more important than it had ever been before.

Then again, they didn't look safe. Funny, I was looking at grenades, and remarking about how unsafe they were, as though they were ever meant to be life savers. But time could do strange things to anything: homes, cars, books, and certainly people. There was no reason in my mind that could eliminate the possibility I'd thought of that perhaps time had done something to these weapons as well, making them unusable or perhaps dangerous to those who would throw them or carry them. I imagined one blowing one up, killing us both before we could even reach the door to leave this shitty apartment.

But then I noticed that two grenades were already missing. I remembered how when my father had appeared in the doorway, the satchels on his belt were bulging, as though something large was in them. They just might have been grenades. And if a trained soldier would carry them without fear, there was no reason we couldn't bring them along as well.

"My fath… uncle," I corrected, not wanting to waste time explaining it, "… was a trained soldier. He took a couple with him, so they should be fine. We'll only use them if we absolutely have to."

"Yeah… sounds good," he spoke, slowly coming to an agreement.

Hell, they made me nervous too. But there was no reason to avoid any extra preparation. Alan and I still had no idea what we would face when we reached our destination, even if we could make it that far.

To be completely honest, it really was a ridiculous idea to bring them along to a place where students were likely being held hostage. But Alan and I took everything we could to be prepared for anything. And if there was anything we'd think long and hard about using, it was those deadly explosives. I feared we'd hesitate too much to use the guns as well, and Alan seemed to share the same suspicions.

"You ever shot a gun before?" he asked.

I paused for a minute, a memory I thought I'd suppressed coming back with a bang.

"…Yeah," I said, still managing to stay in control.

I then took a grenade from the large drawer and put it in a satchel on my belt. I then took a second and handed it up to Alan.

As he put it in a satchel of his own, I shut the drawer, stood up, and locked the toolbox at the top. I checked all the drawers to make sure the lock at the top had secured them all.

I turned, and faced Alan. We both had gone completely cold then, no joke in the world capable of making us laugh. The seriousness of the situation surrounded us in an aura of darkness capable of hiding any smile that may still be somewhere. The world seemed it could never smell again of roses and perfume, but only the heavy stench of war and sorrow. All was not lost, but it could be in a matter of hours, minutes, even seconds. And Daniel might not have much time.

"Let's go," I said, in place of asking if he was ready, but I knew he was.

I felt guilty of thinking almost only of Daniel when Amber's life was endangered as well, but I shoved it away. I could feel guilty later, and hopefully that would be overshadowed by praise and happiness for having saved my friends' lives. Daniel and Amber both meant so much to me, but in the last moments before leaving the shelter of the apartment, I could think only of Daniel.

The sounds of bombers whizzing through the air, explosions, and the new sound of shouting and gunfire broke me away from my thoughts. We surveyed the scene, from the dark clouds rising from burning flames to the street Alan's vehicle had crossed just minutes ago, which had become a series of crisscrossing cracks and holes in the short amount of time it took us to lock and load.

"Maybe we should stay on foot," I said. "The roads seem to be getting hit more than anything else. I don't know if we can even make it down that street."

He thought for a minute. "It's not much further, is it?"

"No," I said. "I walk home everyday, remember?"

"Yeah," he said.

How great it would be to have those days back again. I'd give anything to have them back.

Alan followed me as I led him across the street, both of us almost tripping over the cracks and rubble. The sidewalk had been cracked too, and we made our way down it quickly but carefully. It wasn't long before we'd made it down a second street, where the sidewalk wrapped around the nearby homes and along the park I'd come to love so dearly.

"The smoke was in the sky, death was in the air,

Things couldn't be much worse, it was more than we could bear,

Bomb's were falling to the ground,

Explosions were their trademark sound,

But Hell doesn't wait for those who tire,

Of screaming jets, voices, and gunfire,

But all was not doomed for the patriots of that night,

For the snow was still falling, hope was still bright."

That's how I remember that night, and how I remember the snow. Some see it as being cold and somehow related to death. But the snow somehow became a symbol in my mind that there was still hope. The snow seemed to be the last thing keeping the town from burning down. The snow seemed to be the last string holding hope above the flames. That's what it became for me, anyway. Even before the war had began, the snow had been a symbol of peace to me. I think it all began that day I met Daniel, and the snow blew around her like a diamond dress, and suddenly the world didn't seem so dark anymore. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that Daniel would be safe, and we could live on to share the same moment in all it's different ways and forms. I could hold her in my arms again, and that'd be all the hope I'd ever need again. We could face this war together. We could face struggle together. We could face death together. But we couldn't do it alone.

After we had crossed half of the distance across the sidewalk, I stopped abruptly to Alan's bewilderment, and that guilty feeling returned. I'd completely forgotten about Exotica.

I turned to face the balcony where she had graced me with her voice and tormented me with the concealment of her entire body for so long. And now I was tormented inside for having forgotten so easily about her.

"Exotica!" I called. "I need to see you! I need to make sure you're okay!"

"Who are you calling to?" Alan asked.

"Exotica," I answered, turning to him. "She's a girl who lives there, and we used to talk all the time."

Turning back to the balcony, I called again as loud as I could, "Exotica! Are you there?"

"Who are ya callin' for?" an old man's voice called.

I turned slightly then to the porch where an old man stood, sheltering himself behind a door, peaking only a head devoid of all but a few gray hairs.

"Exotica," I answered.

"Eh?" he asked, indicating a hearing problem.

"Exotica!" I shouted.

"I must not be hearin' ya right, boy. Who are you looking for?"

"The girl who lives in this house!" I said, pointing to the balcony more than to the general building.

He glanced over at it, a questioning look in his eyes as though he wasn't sure that was it. I pointed to it again to make sure he understood.

"My boy, no one lives there," he answered.

"What?" I asked.

"I said," he began, raising his voice much like I had, "No one lives there!"

Could he be senile?

"She lives there, I'm sure of it!" I shouted.

"Well she doesn't live there now!" he shouted back.

He probably was senile, but in any case it didn't appear Exotica was home. It didn't do anything to help me feel better about her safety, but I tried to be hopeful that she'd found safe shelter.

I turned back to the home, gave it I final glance, then decided to continue towards the school. Alan had just began to follow as well when the old man shouted a question to us, which we ignored as we hurried down the snowy pathway, alongside the park I'd used to marvel at for so long, so many times before, but was too busy now to notice. The old man's voice seemed to echo along time, longer then the gunshots, shouting, and explosions which were still occurring throughout the city.

"Where are you going?" he asked, panicked either by the recognition of the guns we'd carried with us or by the fact that we were heading straight for where the war sounds were coming from.

And by the time we'd ran several more feet down the path, we heard the faint echo of his voice calling in a terrified voice? "What are those guns for?"

Alan and I decided to avoid the streets for as long as possible, and took an awkward route through several neighborhoods and along many dirt paths. We had strayed a little further from the street then I'd desired after taking several turns and detours to avoid coming too close to the sound of men shouting in both English and Renegade German. The German voices frightened us, and sounded quite ugly at the time coming from men we knew to be the enemy. If we were seen, especially with weapons, we'd likely be shot onsite. We both had decided to keep our guns holstered anyway till we got there, as if we got spotted before reaching the school, the guns would likely do us no good to ensure our safety against an entire army. And panicking over something such as a man-shaped shrub could cause one of us to fire a round or two, therefore wasting valuable ammunition or drawing attention to ourselves with the sound, though there were many sounds of rounds being fired and bombs being dropped in the air.

We finally found a land structure I recognized a little better than Alan. It was a large hill that led upwards at a steep slope, ominously overlooking Parvadine Augustinian High School at the top.

"Up this way," I called to Alan as I began the ascent. He hesitated, then followed me up.

It took a while, but I finally made it to the top, and Alan appeared just behind me soon after. He caught me in a state of pure shock as I gazed down on the school and the area surrounding it.

The gunfire had indeed come from near the school; in the approaching midnight hour of a very uneventful day, I could just barely make out the cold faces of several dozen soldiers under the moonlight and the orange glowing street lights. The men marched up and down the street, and around the perimeter of the school, large caliber rifles in their arms. Their gray coats blowing in the wind were quite a site for those used to the New Providence uniform of green, and their buttoned up uniforms looked so stately, but functional, keeping them warm, or perhaps they were just so used to the cold.

They walked so proudly, I almost came to admire them in all their conquering glory they alone reveled in. In their gray uniforms, they walked like gods. Like an unstoppable force. Their boots stomped into the ground, leaving heavy footprints and nearly damaging the earth and even the street and sidewalk it seemed. Their coats fluttered in the wind like capes on superheroes. Underneath the captain's hat of one man a pair of eyes seemed to gaze about the area like he was somehow above it all. But I held back all respect for them including the very realization that they were even human. That's what people do with their enemies I suppose, especially in times of war.

I heard the death rattle of a tank rolling it's way down the street towards six trucks barricading the street, on which several men were armed with gun turrets attached to the vehicles. The opposite street was barricaded with the same number of trucks, all defending the school like it was a fort. Apparently a few people had tried to get past the barricade already, and we're taken down with heavy gunfire. They looked like worried parents, or so I imagined, and feared. There were no police nearby, nor army, nor national guard. They were likely protecting their own families.

Guards everywhere, or as far as I could see. Guns, tanks, trucks. The school itself was probably on lockdown. But there had to be some way in…

I turned to Alan then, who'd just removed a pair of binoculars from a satchel on his belt.

"Where'd you get those?" I asked.

"Found em' in here," he shrugged.

He handed them over immediately, as though he didn't want to see it for himself. I didn't either, but Alan had seen enough shit happen that night.

They were a nice pair indeed; they had buttons on them to switch on night vision, thermal vision, and regular distance scanning. Easy enough to use as well.

I began scanning the area, checking everywhere for some kind of way in, but there were fucking guards everywhere.

From the street entrance to the parking lot, to the football field in the back. From the post office nearby, to the church on the opposite side. It was surrounded on all four sides: impenetrable. I tried not to think that, but the truth finally hit me when I spotted a soldier comfortably smoking a cigarette while leaning against the same wall.

From my crouched position, I slowly turned about. I fell into somewhat of a comfortable position, torso up only to reach for a cigarette and light it.

"What's it look like?" Alan asked.

"See for yourself…" I answered after tossing the binoculars over to him were they landed softly in the ice forming a little imprint around them. As he picked them up, I was just beginning to light the cigarette with some difficulty as the wind struggled to blow it from my hand and the ice to put out the flame.

I sat there for a while after lighting the cigarette, not really puffing. Just sitting there, letting it hang out of my mouth as I stared at the frozen ground.

There was no hope…it was over. I really didn't have control. I couldn't do anything. I just got to sit there, and waste countless minutes trying to find a way that wasn't there. It was over. I'd officially proven myself useless. I couldn't save my classmates. I couldn't save Amber. I couldn't save Daniel. Fuck, I couldn't save Daniel…

It didn't take long before Alan came to much the same conclusion that I had, and put the binoculars down as well. We both just sat there, thinking. Fifteen minutes later, we were still thinking. A half hour later, still thinking. Soon we'd spent an hour of useless thinking. Sometime around then, we both dozed off.

It was the crack of dawn when we awoke to the sounds of gunfire, our bodies camouflaged with the earth by the large number of snowflakes that had landed and become a blanket over us. I shivered as I awoke, shaking uncontrollably for a few moments. But after hearing a large number of voices coming from so near, I immediately got the shaking under control and remained still like the ice block I'd become. I heard Alan stir awake, and I prayed that he wouldn't make too much sound.

"Okay men, on my order," a soldier commanded sternly. "Steady…"

It was an American voice, which was quite a relief, but Alan and I decided to stay hidden anyway.

"Sir! We must go now, sir!" a worried soldier cried. "They're getting slaughtered!"

"Hold your position, dammit!" he replied with an angry growl. "We have to wait until they've adjusted their position westward towards the other team!"

From what I heard and could surmise, the gunfire was coming from the street in front of the school, where an army was marching from the west to call the Renegade soldier's attention to that direction. When the time was right, the men on the hill would ambush the enemy.

"Sir! I've brought some men, sir!" a familiar voice cried.

"Now who the hell are you?" the captain asked.

"Sir, John McClintock, sir!" he answered. "I've brought men ready to fight under your command, sir!"

Professor McClintock? What was he doing there, I wondered. Then I remembered the times in his Trigonometry class when he'd related his days in the military.

"What reason have you to be here?" the captain questioned angrily.

"Sir, I'm a teacher at the school sir! I was able to escape with my students shortly after it was held hostage, sir! I also am a former military captain, sir!"

There was a brief silence from the men as the captain thought it over.

"Sir, they're getting slaughtered, sir!" the worried soldier gasped.

"Shut up Edwards or I'll have you shot!" the captain roared.

Another moment passed, then he continued.

"Fine!" he answered as though the pressing of time was all that made him say yes. "But don't get in our way! And follow my orders!"

"Sir, yes, sir!"

"How many men do you have?"

"Just over twenty."

"Let's hope their effective…" he sighed, then his growl returned, and he became loud.

"Alright men! CHARGE!!!"

Alan and I just listened as the men stampeded down the hill, their footsteps echoing up and down the hillside. When I was sure it was safe, I rolled over, shaking some of the snow off of me. Alan had rolled over as well at roughly the same time, and both of us peaked over the hillside to the warring soldiers below.

The men ambushing from the hill were only noticed when they had just reached the street, to which several soldiers shouted to their comrades that the enemy was coming in from the north hill. Alan and I could do nothing but watch as the small armies clashed and men fell dead on the school grounds and the cracked street. Bullets whizzed through the air in all directions, adding to loud noise of shouting and destruction. Large numbers of men fell on both sides as grenades were lobbed about like footballs and large mounted machine guns took fire. Most of the mounted guns were on the trucks, facing the street, and several Renegade soldiers were taken out while attempting to man the guns and turning them on the enemy. But there were some on the campus grounds as well, defending the entrances, as I now noticed under the dim glow of the morning sun behind heavy clouds.

Then I saw the tank again, rolling towards the front from around the back, surrounded on both sides by soldiers. My heart skipped a beat in realization that our men could be taken out with one blast from that tank.

Then I spotted McClintock, charging towards the tank like a man possessed. Bullets flew by him from all directions, and several men behind them fell for the last time. I grabbed the binoculars that still lay wet at Alan's feet and zoomed in.

In his hand, he held a grenade, and as he approached closer, I watched him slowly pull the pin. Moments later he lobbed it with all his might. He had thrown it so hard that the force of his own throw had sent him to the ground as the grenade flew through the air. I almost thought he'd been shot, but he had not stopped moving, and I watched in shock as he rolled about the frozen ground, seeking cover somewhere. Bullets flew by over his head as he moved about; the fall he'd just made likely had saved his life.

Just as he tumbled around the corner of the solid brick wall that surrounded the drama department inside, the grenade exploded, destroying the turning wheels of the tank, and immobilizing it, and for the first time on the battlefield, our men were heard cheering.

"Dr. McClintock just took out that fucking tank!" I cried to Alan, putting the binoculars down and turning to him.

Alan just smiled, and said, "I knew Trigonometry wasn't his thing!"

It was enough to assure me that Alan was okay again, back to his old self, or something like it anyway.

I looked back to the battlefield with the binoculars, and spotted several Renegade soldiers retreating through the front entrance of the school as a soldier behind a gun turret gave them cover.

Then I heard several men shouting indistinguishably, and for a while I couldn't understand. After a moment, I understood the calls as, "the East! Their coming from the East!"

I immediately shifted my attention down the street towards the East with the binoculars, and spotted another small army of Renegade reinforcements heading towards the battlefield.

"Dammit!" I shouted.

"Shit," Alan responded. "Let me get a better look."

I handed him the binoculars, and for a moment he just looked out speechlessly at the approaching army.

"Damn, how many of those bastards are there?" he spoke handing back the binoculars.

He watched the street for a moment, then turned back to me. We both just looked at each other for a minute before I turned my attention back to the battlefield with the binoculars. After a few passing moments of seeing the hell breaking out down there and thinking to myself, I made a difficult decision.

"Alan…" I began, setting the binoculars to my side. "I'm going down there."

"Paul, what the hell are you thinking?" he shouted immediately. "You'll get killed!"

I expected that reaction, and wasn't really bothered by it. He was right, but sometimes right or wrong, there are things you just have to do.

"They aren't going to get inside in time," I spoke, trying to make sense. "Or they… they might not. In any case I can't just stand here and wait, thinking about Daniel in there."

"Paul, I have friends in there too. Amber and Daniel are my best friends, but they wouldn't want us wasting our lives to try and save them."

I was about to respond when he interrupted.

"And it would be a waste. There's no way you'd make it in there alive."

He was right, but I had my reasons, and I couldn't explain them. There weren't any words to explain it. It was just something I had to do. There wasn't enough time to explain why, and even if there was, I probably still couldn't explain it.

"Alan… I just have to do this. I can't explain it," I paused. "I… I couldn't explain it if I tried."

"Paul…" he tried one last time, "Don't be stupid. Don't go."

I just looked at him for a minute, then answered him as best as I could.

"Alan, coming here was the best thing that's ever happened to me," I began. "My whole perception of life, of family, of friends, of… love… it's all changed. I'm feeling so many things I've never known before."

I turned back to the battlefield, and suddenly it became before me the very image of my tortured soul.

"And I want to keep that feeling. I don't want to lose it, no matter what. I don't care if it means death, I'd rather die to keep that feeling, then live without it. I won't live that way. Not again."

I turned back to him. His eyes pleaded with me, but I think he knew then that my mind was made up.

"You have so much Alan. So much I never had. You've never had to fight for happiness. But you're a better person then me, and you deserve it. As for me, I have to fight for what I want. I always have, and always will. And I have to fight now. If I want to keep what I have, I must fight."

I turned back to the battlefield, incapable of saying goodbye to his face.

"Goodbye, Alan," was all I said, and a moment later I was charging down the hill.

As I charged down that hill, it seemed I was charging down the very tunnel of death. All sound seemed to fade away, all the fighting seemed to cease, time seemed to stop, and my very existence seemed to fade. I felt like I was dying then, as though I'd been shot before I'd even began my descent of the hill. And I had good reason to believe it was already over. My life began to flash before my eyes.

The very beginning. My first memory of who I once thought were my parents. The moments we shared playing with toys. The model trains. An expensive wooden set they'd probably skipped a few meals to scrap the money together for.

The day came all too quickly when the former days of innocence were over. The last day I played with my trains, and really all my toys. The following day when I learned that the only people in my life had died. Then the several years under "Uncle" Bob's excuse for care. Those flashbacks played out in a seemingly redundant stream of images of the same arguments, the same negligence, and the same hate rearing it's ugly head throughout the years. The day I lost control, played out with the same fuzzy, transient images it always played out with in my nightmares, but with the same familiar bang, and sounds of horror that never seemed to ring out less clear.

Then the image of me standing in the very location I was likely headed for in my blind rush; that stone solace where I spent my first day after school smoking a cigarette and throwing together a poem.

"Solitude is bliss...

I don't believe in loneliness... myself...the only way to be...

Give me a cigarette, I'll philosophize for you my friend,

Tell you what's on my mind, the truth of your end,

Fear death and it will only hurt more,

Do you want to know what is in store?

You've been to many places in your time,

Near and far, some surreal and sublime,

Darkness and death are always on my mind,

And I know of the pain you thought you left behind."

The poem came together in my mind so perfectly, as though I'd made a great effort to memorize it. It appeared the clearest in fleeting images of the past, but then I saw Daniel, and she became so real, I could have sworn she was really there, and I was running towards her.

The wind was blowing so heavily. She appeared with the wind really. Her presence was so stunning then, and seemed to be enough to turn the falling drops of rain to pearls. And in a way they did, and as she came into view, the heavy rain began to turn to snow. She was like an angel, bringing with her millions of pieces of heaven. She was everything, and I was only something because she would spend even the fewest of moments getting to know me.

Her blonde hair held back in place with those familiar wooden sticks, free locks of hair blowing in the wind about her areas and following the details of her beautiful face. She was a shorter girl, but I felt like I peasant before her as I gazed into those eyes. Eyes of the deepest oceans. Eyes of the bluest sky. Eyes like twin moons in the sky. Eyes that made me not so worthless simply because they gazed on me.

But running as fast as I could, I could not reach her. I was running in a kind of time carousel, around and around, moving but not going anywhere.

Then I found myself appearing running down an empty hallway, running and running, for what I didn't know. When I passed Daniel's locker, suddenly she appeared sitting there next to Amber. A sound came from down the hallway, and Alan proudly walked in. An instant later we were all together in a small circle, sharing a silence that somehow represented something much bigger we were all a part of.

Daniel stood up after the moment had passed, and walked away from the scene, beckoning me to follow her. Without moving, I was somehow transported somewhere else. I looked around, and saw that I was standing outside, in the middle of a huge snowstorm. Though I was standing still, I felt like I was still running. Daniel stood before me, looking more beautiful then ever. I looked into her eyes, expecting to drown once again in them. Instead I saw myself in them. I saw my pathetic, useless self.

Then the scene changed, and suddenly Daniel and I were standing in the middle the battlefield that had become of Parvadine Augustinian High School.

I looked again into her eyes, and like balls of glass, they shattered.

The wind howled like a demon, and I was thrown into a tornado of flames, spinning and spinning around till the dizziness was a welcome distraction to the hell fire. I fell hard on the ground, and my pant legs became wet from the snow.

I already knew where I was. I turned about to face the balcony Exotica Taylor had called her home. I saw merely a shadow cast against the wall behind the balcony. It was as though that was all that had ever been of Exotica Taylor.

"Exotica!" I found myself calling, my legs becoming sore as though they were still running, "where am I? What is happening?"

The shadow moved across the balcony in the graceful way I'd imagined Exotica would walk, then spoke, "Paul, when will you learn that your poetic mind is both a blessing and a curse? You can't have the blessing without the curse."

"Maybe I don't want the blessing any more. I just want Da…"

"Yes, I know what you want," she spoke sadly. "I just wish you could have wanted me."

I almost spoke, but the words couldn't come out. What would they mean anyway? I was talking to a figment of my imagination. But wait, how did I even know…

"You don't even exist, do you?" I asked, shocked at a revelation that could very well be true.

"Not in the way that you think," she began. "When did you start writing poetry?"

Why does it matter?

"About a year ago," I answered. "Why does it…"

"When did the incident happen?" she asked.

I became horrified once again with my own memory, but was able to answer her.

"A… year ago…"

"And would you like to know what happened to me a year ago?" she asked.

I just looked up at the shadow, which had begun to seem more ominous as the questions rolled out.

"Life can be so cruel," her shadow moving to the opposite end of the balcony. "I had a gift, Paul. I was beautiful, and I could write poetry. I know that sounds immodest, but it's true. I came to accept it. But I never used it to take advantage of anyone."

I just listened as her shadow began to pace the balcony up and down, her voice becoming softer and softer as she spoke.

"But my gift was also a curse. I saw the way they looked at me. The three tough guys at that public high school."

I thought of that guy I had to subdue by putting a cigarette out in his eye back when I first went to the school. It was a rough school alright. I didn't start fights, and yet I got in one the very first day, and had to use extreme measure to keep a guy who was likely high on crack from killing me. He had eyes like Sean's that one night, now that I remembered it…

"One day after school, they followed me. I was almost home, standing where you are now, about to go through that gate and around to the front door, when they…"

She began to cry again, and I winced as I imagined what had happened. She didn't even need to say it. Her tone and tears had said it all.


"Paul, I hated myself after that!"she cried, "I hated being beautiful! No one could help me! My parents were completely useless! My psychiatrist told me to take up a hobby. It was poetry. The writing helped, but the pain still slashed at me. It slashed so hard, Paul."

So many emotions… too many emotions. Confusion, depression, anger, and frustration.

"They never did anything to those guys either. Their father was a police officer, and he got em' off. They blamed some other guys who were already going to juvenile hall for another crime. When I found that out, I gave up trying. I went into the bathroom, grabbed a razor blade, and wrote my final poem in… blood."

"You could only exist in the world of a dream,

A world not like mine, or so it would seem,

I searched for love, and found only hate,

But in my dream of love, I found it at the gate,

Amidst flakes of snow and the glow of moonlight,

I found you my darling, the bright star of the night,

I held you in my arms, and we shared a tender kiss,

For one night alone, I felt unsurpassable bliss,

But suddenly I opened my eyes, and the night had faded away,

I awoke in a bed of rags just before the break of day,

I spent the rest of my life searching for you, desiring to find,

The one who meant so much, and I lost my mind

My last message to you was my dying plea,

Written in blood for all to see,

The crimson message I read with my final breath,"

She paused, and I continued with her, quietly reading the final line from memory.

"I couldn't find you in life, so I'll find you in death."

And so the pieces came together, forming the most horrific image possible. It was so horrifying and miserable that it seemed it could only happen to me. And the pieces fitted together so well, I felt a fool for never understanding it all. Why I couldn't see Exotica. Why she always talked of poetry. Why she recited that poem, and cried in the middle of it.

"Will I ever see you, Exotica?" I asked. It was all I could struggle to ask.

"You've seen me in you soul," she said. "I'm a part of you, you know. I saw you in my dreams. You were what kept me alive for as long as I was. I hoped I'd find you one day, out of the confines of a dream. But you never came to me. And one day, I just couldn't wait any longer."

I felt more pathetic and useless then, then ever before. It seemed I was only the cause of people's problems, and never part of the solution. I couldn't save Exotica. And I sure as Hell couldn't save Daniel.

"Why do you do this to me!" I shouted. "You told me once you would wait for me. You told me you'd wait for me forever. Don't you remember that?"

The wind blew by as the familiar pause took place once again.

"Paul, I learned all too late of patience," she spoke. "It's too late for me now, but it's not too late for you."

"Not too late for me?" I laughed madly. "Exotica, do you know what I've done?"

"Yes. It's the very reason I found you. We tortured souls always find each other."

What was she saying? Was this all my own madness?

"Tortured?" I began, falling to my knees in the snow. "You don't know how big of an understatement that is."

"Paul, you need to stop blaming yourself. Your nightmares, your miseries in life, you failures. They've all been there so you could pay your debt. It's paid now. You don't have to hate yourself anymore."

"But I can't save Daniel!" I cried. "I'm probably laying out there on the battlefield, dead already."

She sighed, "You do love her, don't you?" she paused, and I could almost sense jealousy. "Your nightmares, they went away when she appeared. And so did I…"

"Exotica, I…"

"No!" she harshly interrupted. "Don't say it. I don't need to hear it. If you're trying to make me feel better, don't. It won't work. Even if it did, I wouldn't deserve it. God, how can you even feel for me as you do when I was the one who caused you those nightmares?"

"What?!" I cried more than questioned.

"After I found you, I wanted to be with you so bad, I clung to you. I hung onto your soul. It was my pillow at night. My one true refuge. But the dead still dream, and I dreamt nightmares, no longer the ones I dreamt of peace and love, like the one's I had when you were in them." she sobbed. "But I could get through them a little easier, because you were there with me. You could guide me through it. You were always so strong in spirit, Paul."

I felt like I should be angry, but I couldn't be. Exotica was just another sad person trying to get me to help her. The same way people used to tell me their problems, expecting I could help them, when I never could. But now, I'd finally helped someone. And that was enough to make it all worth it.

"Look, Exotica," I began, trying to find the right words. "I'm glad I helped you. And I'm not mad. But right now, I need to save Daniel. She needs my help. She could die. And…" I struggled. "And…I love her. I love her, and she needs me now."

Exotica went silent again, and for a long time she didn't speak. I was beginning to worry I'd made her sad again, undoing what good I may have done.

"I left you when you fell for her," she began. "I didn't want to let go, but I had to. I had to let your soul be free. And I saw how much happier you were…"

A few moments passed, then she continued.

"But I still have my dream…"

Suddenly my imaginary world changed again; the cold wind died away, the snow melted into nothing, and all the buildings disappeared. The sky went black, the ground went black, all went black. It was like I was floating in space. I almost became afraid of the darkness, but then suddenly a reality emerged.

I was in that park, that icy wonderland I'd looked upon so many times before, but never entered. I was suddenly standing next to a park bench, under the glow of a full moon. My old clothes and gun straps faded to a tux, and soon I found myself completely dressed up like I was about to go to something bigger then prom was to seniors.

The wind blew, but ever so gently. The park was only lit by a few street lamps, but glowed like another world under the moon which had shown down brighter and bigger then ever before. A star fell from the sky, and I followed it with my eyes till it disappeared behind a figure in the dark.

I could've been frightened, but I wasn't. I knew what it was. I knew who it was.

The wind picked up ever so slightly as she stepped out of the darkness into the glow of the moonlight, her high heels clicking on the sidewalk as she slowly appeared before me, the angel of the night.

The satin angel she was again, the red goddess hot as fire, but suddenly hot wasn't even the word to use. Beautiful wasn't even close to describing what I saw. If there was a Heaven for souls like ours, Exotica Taylor would surely have been the angel to lead me through the gates.

The tops of her tanned feet were shown off like works of art behind the red straps of her shoes, her legs were like beautifully sculpted marble, leading up to the seductive thighs she had described so well so long ago. She turned slightly side to side as she walked towards me ever so slowly, allowing me to see a few curves of a tempting backside. Her hands were clasped being her back, to my disappointment at missing any site of her her beautiful body. My eyes slowly climbed up her toned arms lightly tanned, then centered on her bosom, rounded so artistically; plump enough to be entrance, but not too much to distract from the most beautiful site of all: a face that looked incapable of being sculpted by all the forces or gods of the heavens. Her chestnut eyes gazed upon me, her eye lids lowering the slightest not in seduction, but in admiration, as though she somehow saw in me what I saw in her. The light wind blew her hair to her right, lightly caressing a strong shoulder.

She was standing right before me, and I felt so vulnerable near her. So weak and helpless. But I felt like I didn't need to be strong anymore. Something like what I felt with Daniel.

As she wrapped her arms around me, and I felt so warm and secure, I began to feel guilty as well. Wrapping my arms around her as well, and holding her so tightly to me, I was tempted to let go of Daniel forever.

"We can dream this dream every night forever, Paul," she spoke so softly into my ear. "You don't have to fight anymore. Just dream with me."

As I held her in my arms, I stared out into the night, past the park bench, and suddenly I saw myself in Daniel's arms. We were apparitions dancing in the night.

Exotic suddenly became aware something was wrong, and slight pulling away from me, she turned her head to see where my eyes had gazed upon, and she saw what I was seeing.

"But maybe you have a dream of your own," she sighed. "One I can't be a part of."

I looked into her eyes, now becoming wet with light tears she was trying so hard to restrain.

"I'm sorry, Paul," she said. "I shouldn't interfere. You do what you have to do."

She hesitantly let go of me, and began stepping back. My eyes were fixed on her the whole time, trying to find something to say in her eyes.

As she stepped back into the night, I grasped her hand, and held it for the first and the last time.

"I don't know what the future will hold for Daniel and I," I began. "But if you think I've really helped you, then you need to let me help her now. She's still alive, and she needs me now."

A tear rolled down her face and she managed a nod.

I reached my arm over to her chin, and tilted it up to gaze into her eyes one last time before the dream would fade away.

"Don't stop dreaming," I said. "All we really have are our dreams. Never let go of them. And I'll always be there to dream with you."

I leaned in and gave her a light kiss. Her eyes were still shut hard after I'd turned and began heading towards the dream of my own.

Perhaps I loved them both, I thought. At that moment, it would have been easy for most to forever dream with a beauty like Exotica. But she was with the dead now. Daniel still had a chance.

As Exotica's dream faded away and I became a part of the past, dancing alongside Daniel, I began to fear she had though I'd chosen someone else over her. Funny, how I always thought of one while I was with the other. It wasn't a dirty feeling at all. Just a confusing one. But I'd made my decision. I thought it was for love. But love is such a hard thing to understand, it's hard to say. They say you find out what love is only after you've felt it, but really you still don't quite understand it then. There are so many different forms of love, and I felt them one way or the other for both Daniel and Exotica.

The one conclusion I can rest on is that I made the right decision. Daniel's life was in danger, and for that reason, I had to go to her first. I only hoped Exotica had understood. But then again, having been a part of my soul, she probably did. She still was a part of me. Too strong a part of me to ever deny.

Just as I'd begun to feel warm in Daniel's arms, awaiting the dream to pass, a hot light burned down on us, and we both looked up into the blinding stage light lit above us. I looked out into where the audience would be, but saw only Mr. Hanes.

"Paul, you've got to act!"

Oh no…

Once again the beams above my head exploded in flames, and the loud bang rang out it's deafening sound. Suddenly Daniel was gone, and I was in a very different place from the stage. I was standing in the middle of a massive battlefield. I was standing right in the thick of it all, acting dumbfounded as though I didn't realize bullets were whizzing past my head and men were dying around me.

"Paul, get down!" Alan shouted, tackling me to the ground just as something exploded only a few meters from us.

Burning chunks of ground and embers landed around us, and I finally began to realize what the hell was going on.

"Shit!" I yelled. "Alan, what the hell are you doing out here?"

"I got to watch out for my friend," he spoke.

I smiled, but I felt like a total ass for inadvertently putting my friend in danger.

We looked on up ahead at the front entrance of the school where a lone soldier stood behind a gun turret defending the entrance. The massive gun shield obstructed most of his body, making it near impossible to hit him with mere gunfire.

"We got to get by that guy," I began, stating the obvious. "Any ideas?"

Alan thought for a minute.

"Well, you're the one who suggested bringing the grenades," he suggested.

"Good idea," I spoke, removing one from my satchel.

As I prepared to pull the pin, a few thoughts rushed through my mind. One was the fact that this old grenade could very well explode in my face after I pulled the pin. The other was a little more heartfelt; the fact that I was going to kill a human being. A few moments passed before I could throw all my cares away and throw the damn thing.

I had missed my target a bit, and I feared it wouldn't be close enough to take him out. The mere seconds that passed felt like hours at the time. We began to think it may have been a dud.

Then a loud bang erupted, and shrapnel and light flames whipped through the surrounding area, killing the soldier immediately. It was a horrifying site to gaze upon for anyone, much less teenagers not used to killing people like soldiers were.

After a few moments of open mouthed shock, I beckoned Alan.

We quickly crawled several meters, then wound up into a crouch, and by the time we reached the glass doors, we were almost completely standing.

I was surprised that the doors were still intact. The school must have gone on lockdown, and there was no reason why the guards wouldn't have just blown down any barriers or obstacles in their way. I was even more surprised when I tried the door handle, and it opened easily. Perhaps they'd come in a different way, and turned the system off themselves.

But no matter how they'd gotten in, this was how we were getting in. I stepped through the doorway inside the eerily silent school, for once not letting the person behind me walk in first. Common courtesy was somewhat reversed in situations like these when you didn't want to be the first person to walk inside.

Parvadine Augustinian High School became a silent tomb as the door shut behind me. The fortified structure prevented much sound from coming in from the outside, despite the proximity of the war raging outside. Every so often you could hear the low roar of a bomb exploding, but it was so muffled it could have been a banging air conditioner.

Only half the lights were lit inside, and only half as bright. The hallways were dimly lit with sections of darkness in-between. There was no way to tell what lay in those shadows where the dim lights did not shine, and we'd only have to hope that nothing lay waiting for us there. Our only choices were to go down the hallway left or right.

"Amber and Daniel should be in the library, right?" I asked, whispering.

"Yeah, I think so."



"What the hell are we supposed to do when we find them?" I spoke as it dawned on me. "Where can we possibly take them?"

"Well we can't take them outside, at least not now," he began, taking a slight pause to think, then continued. "Let's just start by finding them first. We'll try to secure the library, and after we do, we can stay there I guess, and just wait for… hope for… Dr. McClintock and that army outside to get there. That's all we really can do."

We both looked down the left side of the hallway, the library just in the distance. I remembered again the first time I'd met Daniel and she showed me for the first time the grand, two story library.

"Alright, let's go then," I said, slowly heading off towards our destination.

Just as we began moving, the entrance doors behind us made a loud clicking sound as they all locked in unison. I walked up to the doors anyway, and tried to push them open till it was impossible to deny what I knew was true.

"Damn… it's locked," I said hesitantly.

"No turning back now," Alan spoke, turning to the side to face his inevitable destiny. I felt a sudden anguish within myself for dragging him into this, but it was a choice I had to make, and it was his choice to stick by my side. But I still felt guilty.

"They must have reinstated the lockdown system."

"Then those guards who ran inside…"

"…they're locking themselves in," I finished. "Probably going to use hostages as a last resort…have their last stand here…"

"… and they could be anywhere… everywhere…" he spoke deliberately.

I leaned on the door for a minute, looking for some comfort from it almost. Suddenly I threw myself back from the door in disgrace with my weakness, and tried to focus on my original plan.

"It's of no consequence," I said. "When we find them, we can't take them out of here anyway. And I have no plans of turning back."

"Me neither," he said, and that was that. We continued on our way.

I always liked silence. The peace, the tranquility, the mental stability of it. But after going inside that school at that time, and hearing not the sounds of footsteps moving from class to class, buzzers announcing the ending or beginning of class, nor the sounds of students talking about homework assignments, friends, or homework, I began to seriously hate the sound of silence. It became the sound of death, of loss, of nothingness. It became the sound of what I felt like in that time where I'd though I could do absolutely nothing to save the girl I cared so much for. It began to creep up on me again, as we slowly made our way down that long, quiet hallway. I tried to choke it off with encouragement to myself that saving her still was possible, and Alan and I would prove it very soon.

When we'd reached halfway down the hallway, we came near the large, now ominous looking cross hung on the red brick wall opposite the chapel. We took quick glances into the chapel through the glass panes imbedded in the shut, double oak wood doors, where all the lights were off and the sounds of gunfire came through louder through the thinner walls. No one seemed to be inside, so we continued towards the library, now becoming larger in the distance.

We both drew our weapons, wondering why we hadn't drawn them sooner. We passed through the opening at the end of the hallway into the large area where the library was displayed. We moved more cautiously then ever before towards the closed doors, taking occasional glances up the double staircases winding around it and up to the lofty ceiling. When we reached the double doors, Alan and I both peeked inside through opposite doors. I could just see the prone figure of Amber in the distance, her arms wrapped around a computer chair, completely still, her face covered by mess strands of hair. Alan saw her too.

We both turned to each other, and slowly reached for the door handles in unison. After finding that they were locked, I whispered to him.

"Will a student ID card open this door now?" I asked.

He reached inside his pocket removing his wallet, and from it he handed me his ID card, assuming I didn't have mine.

"Only one way to find out."

I took the card, and slowly slid it down the card slide. The beeping activation code seemed to echo down the cave-like halls, making us wince as though it's sound were a loud alarm. The door clicked open, and Alan and I slowly opened the doors together, and walked inside.

We didn't do the familiar room check we'd known too well from the movies, as we were both too concentrated on Amber. But when we'd made it within a couple yards of her, we did a quick scan, then knelt by her side.

"Amber?" I spoke, lightly nudging her shoulder. "Amber, are you okay."

She didn't move. I looked up at Alan, who had a terrified and concerned look on his face. I thought that was it for a moment.

Finally she began trembling, and panting as the tears rolled out beneath a mess of hair. I was overcome with relief, than filled with terror all over again as I looked about the room for Daniel as well. I spotted a few students I'd seen before but didn't know personally hiding under tables taking unsure glances at us from across the room. In between nearby bookshelves, a business man lay passed out, a silent, traumatized mom sitting at his side. Behind the check out desk, Michelle Robinson was peeking out at me, tears and sweat rolling down her face. I heard Alan speak, and I turned back to Amber.

"Amber are you okay?" he asked.

"I…" she began raising her head. "I don't…"

"Where's Daniel?" I asked.

"Paul, please," Alan stopped me.


"Is it safe?!" Michelle interrupted loudly. "Can I get out of here?!"

"Be quiet!" Alan tried to hush her.

"I'm getting out of here!" she cried, running for the door.

"Hey stop!" Alan spoke a little too loudly in panic as he ran towards her.

"Let me out of here!" she screamed, banging on the door madly which would not open to her. "Let me out of this place."

Alan grabbed her and drug her behind the desk.

"Let me go, let me go, let me go!" she screamed.

I heard a loud smack as Alan slapped her across the face in some effort to quiet her which seemed to work.

"I'm scared!" she let out softer.

"Shh," Alan hushed her softly, taking her in his arms behind the desk. She wrapped her arms around him, and he slowly slid down the wall behind the desk, doing his best to comfort her.

"I wanna go home!" a chubby male student cried from underneath one of the desks.

"Just relax, and stay quiet for a minute," I whispered loudly.

Then for a moment, I lost my own ability to even relax to a level of some functionality. I stared upon the nearby corpse of Mr. Peterson, lying with a few bullet holes in his chest alongside a computer chair that had tipped over next to him. My heart skipped a beat, and for a while, I couldn't breathe. But what truly disturbed me was the realization that he died before the very desk where Daniel had once showed me how the computers at Parvadine worked, both of which had been shot out by a spread of bullets likely coming from one of their machine guns. It was a coincidence somehow more hideous then the fact that my school principal lay dead only a couple meters away from me.

It also made me realize how exposed we all were. I looked up to the second floor balcony of the library and scanned it for a long time. It didn't seem like anyone was up there. The elevator was on the first floor with us, and likely the guards had moved them all to one floor to watch them better. Feeling a little safer, I turned back to Amber.

"Where's Daniel?" I asked urgently without the sensitivity Alan was conveying to Michelle.


"Daniel… where is she?"

"Paul, be patient, you aren't getting any answers that way!" Alan called.

"Was ist los innen hier?" a foreign voice came from outside the library.

I looked up at Alan, who stared at me with a horrified look in his eyes. He tried to reach for his gun which he'd holstered when he grabbed Michelle, but her arms were wrapped too tight around him. It was all on me. I put the gun behind my back, and half hid myself behind the desk.

The door beeped and unlocked. A soldier walked in, proud and menacing in a uniform both respectable and fear inspiring.

"Gibt es eine Störung?"

He strolled forth, arms behind his back, showing off a pistol on his belt. He stopped after covering about half the distance between myself and the door. He began to glance about the room. He didn't seem to find Alan suspicious, but he couldn't quite see him behind Michelle's body which covered up him and his gun holsters alongside the wall. He scanned the room for a while, and when he was almost satisfied, his eyes lay on me.

"Ah, Junge, who are you?" he asked in a dark tone of voice.

He looked me up and down again, then his eyes fixed on where my gun was holstered. I thought it was hidden behind the desk, but when his eyes became fixed there, I knew it wasn't, and prepared to pull the gun out from behind my back.

"You little bastard!" he shouted, reaching for his pistol.

I drew my gun and fired. For some reason, there was no hesitation. But there wasn't much aim either. I thought I'd missed him for a minute and almost fired again.

"Ah!" he yelled behind a gurgle as he slowly fell to the floor. I spotted the relatively small hole in his large chest gushing blood down his uniform and onto the floor of the library, turning the carpet fibers to the crimson color of death. I felt almost a feeling of power and security for a minute, what I guess you feel when you kill someone for an instant or so. Then the reality of a life ended settled in, and it didn't feel so warm. Self defense or not, it felt cold. As reality came back, so did my sense which had all seemed to focus only on the killing, as my ears had not heard the shrieking of Amber on the floor, nor the screams of Michelle, nor the gasps from the students underneath the desks. The only conscious individual who didn't show some reaction was the woman lying next to the unconscious businessmen. She was so traumatized she could show no emotion.

I slowly lowered my gun, and immediately turned back to Amber. Wherever Daniel was, she wasn't here and she wasn't safe. I wasn't waiting for a response.

"Amber, we're running out of time. Everyone's life is in danger, I know that. I'm selfish, I know. But Daniel isn't just my friend, she's yours too. And Alan's. I can't save everyone, I'll sure try, but I can't. Right now I just want to know where Daniel is. Do you know?"

She struggled to speak between gasps, and tears, but finally it came out.

"Daniel…she snuck out about… about a half hour ago… she said, said she'd be back with some help. I think I saw her run down the main hallway, that's all I saw."

"Okay, thank you Amber," I said, standing up. "Just keep it together, okay? We'll get out of this alive, I promise you."

I turned to Alan, who had just gotten out of the entanglements of Michelle's arms, and was standing next to her balled up body as she cried.

"We got to head back the other way," I said. "I doubt Daniel got out. She's probably in one of the other classrooms, or maybe the gym."

He nodded.

I headed towards the door, then stopped abruptly, remembering something very important.

"Look you guys," I began, speaking mostly to the students. "We can't take you with us. It's safer here than anywhere else, and we can't leave, because there's a huge fight going on outside. You've probably heard some of the gunfire…" I paused, imagining the hell raging outside and wondering if our forces could ever prevail. "So you need to stay here. Now I need to know if any of you can fire a weapon."

A long silence. It probably wasn't the best way to ask the question, but there really wasn't a good way to ask it anyway.

One of the students underneath the tables raised his hand hesitantly in the air.

"Come on over here," I said, and I watched as he slowly crawled out from underneath the desk. I realized then who it was: Vincent Vassallo. I had a brief flashback of the moment in class when he'd attacked Jonathon for joking about helping out the enemy. I remembered how strongly he'd boasted that he would fight back if the Renegade forces attacked. He'd been hiding under a desk next to his girlfriend the entire time, but now he had his chance to prove himself.

I stooped down next to the fallen soldier, and removed the pistol from his cold hand. I stood up and held it out to Vincent.

"I don't know how many more soldiers are in here, but if any more come in here… you know what to do."

"Yeah…" he spoke hesitantly as he removed the pistol from my hand, and slowly lowered it to his side.

I walked back over to Amber, who was still trembling, and knelt by her side again.

"Remember what I promised, okay? We'll get out of here alive. All of us."

"Okay," she whimpered. "I'll hold you to it."

Standing up, I asked, "Do any of you know how many more students and teachers are here?"

The girl underneath the desk who I now recognized as Vincent's girlfriend responded, "There's two other teachers: McClintock and Martin. There's about ten other students with them. And Marcus Shapiro should be around somewhere…"

"McClintock got out," I said.

"What?" she asked, and all the students turned their heads to us, including Amber, who seemed to be regaining some composure.

"Dr. McClintock got his class out ," Alan answered. "He got em' out somehow."

I noticed he left out the detail about McClintock leading an attack force of his own outside, but it was probably for the best. The less complicated things were, the better.

"Well, then there's just Martin and Shapiro. I think Martin had about four other students with him."

"Do you know where they are?" I asked her.

"We were all in here when the attack started," her voice began to break. "I have no idea… Then Peterson put the school on lockdown with one of the computers, but a few soldiers had already gotten inside the building." she began sobbing. "The library was already locked down, but they got in somehow, and shot him because he wouldn't tell them how to deactivate it!"

I gave her a moment, then tried to continue.

"Jill, how did they get inside the library? You need an ID card for that."

"I don't know! They must have found one!"

I walked over to the soldier's corpse, and began searching his pockets for the card he'd used to get in. I felt something in one of them that felt like a card, and removed it.

ID: #2007-667 Name: Sean Emerson

"Son of a bitch…" I spoke under my breath.

"What is it?" Jill asked.

I allowed Alan to see it, but put it away in my pocket when Jill walked over.

"It doesn't matter," I said. "As long as we have this, no one else should be getting inside."

"Who's card is it?" Vincent asked.

"Alan, let's get going. Vassallo, you do what you have to do. I suggest moving everybody behind the check out counter, our of range of that balcony up there. Probably no more Renegade soldiers will come through here, but if any of them do, you know what to do."

He hesitated, but managed a nod, and as I headed out, he began moving everyone behind the counter near Michelle. I slid the key through the slot, and rushed out of the library. Alan struggled to keep up behind me.

"Paul, slow down!" he whispered loudly. "Take it easy man!"

"That idiot, I know he let them in on purpose. That jackass. That coke head. That traitorous fuck!"

"Quiet down, man! You don't even know that, and let's take it easy."

"He put Daniel's life in danger. And shit, he got the principal killed! Did you fucking see that?"

"Paul!" he spoke, grabbing my shoulder hard. "I know you're mad," he quietly assured, "but you're putting yourself in danger now! Let's take it easy, we have no idea where they are and how many more guards are in here. If we're going to save Daniel or anyone else in here, we're gonna need to stay focused."

He was right. I was losing it. I imagined for a moment what I would feel like when I'd saved Daniel, and it helped me to feel a little better.

"You're right man," I spoke quietly. "I'm sorry. I just want to save her, and get out of here."

"Me too, but let's just take it slow, okay?"


And so we did. We headed down the main hallway more slowly and cautiously than ever before. It took a long time before we'd reached the entrance of the school, and could continue passed the counselor's office.

That's when we heard a loud smacking sound coming from inside the office. I moved slightly ahead of Alan, and leaned against the wall, gun ready, and slowly slid down the wall towards the doorway. The sound became increasingly louder. Just as I'd reached the doorway, I spotted drops of blood on the carpet, with fresh splatters flying out from the doorway onto the carpet.

I looked back at Alan, and nodded, to which he returned the nod. I spun around the corner with my gun pointed, and found myself gazing upon the most disturbing site.

Marcus Shapiro was knelt next to the body of a dead Renegade soldier, in a pool of the soldiers blood springing from severe bashes and openings in the head. Marcus Shapiro was repeatedly smacking his heavy silver metal Bible down on the soldiers head barbarically, sending blood all over the door, carpet, and himself. I almost puked right there on the floor, and Alan himself became revolted and turned away.

"God condemns you heathen!" Shapiro cried, delivering a fresh blow to the remains of the mans face. He leered up to deliver another when I cried out to him.


He stopped, in mid air, and looked up at me, unsurprised, but acting as though he hadn't known I was there.

"Oh Paul," he began, setting his bloody Bible down to lean against the spattered wall. "Paul, Alan, you're safe! God's children don't fear the wicked, do they?"

"No, they don't," I went along with it. He didn't seem to notice the guns we held in our hands or wore on our belts.

"Well, we got to go Mr. Shapiro, you take care, alright?" I spoke, my voice shuddering with fear.

"Sure boys. Keep the faith!" he spoke as joyously as he once had in one of his sermons.

Alan and I had only walked a few steps or so away from the doorway when we heard the familiar blows commence again. I just glanced over at Alan, who showed the same horrified expression that I showed.

We soon found ourselves within ear shot of a the sounds of rapid typing on a keyboard and quiet voices in a nearby room. We turned down a small hallway, and slowly preceded towards the light coming from another open doorway. We leaned against the walls near the doorway, much like before, and listened intently.

"Ich wünsche Zugang zu den Kameras. Bitten Sie ihn, sie zugänglich zu machen!"

"He wants to access the cameras. Can you do that?" another German voice asked in near perfect English.

"Yeah sure, I can get them."

Was that Sean? I turned to Alan, and mouthed his name, and he nodded. I turned away from him for a minute, then paused as the sounds of the keyboard started up again.

I turned back to Alan, held my gun up, and asked if he was ready with a nod of the head. He nodded back and, we both spun around the corner. I fired immediately at the soldier on the left, and Alan didn't hesitate at all to shoot the one on the right. Both of them didn't put up much of a fight, as their backs were to us. They fell down dramatically; my kill sliding down the desk and carrying the keyboard with him, and Alan's shot sent the one on the right into one of the computer monitors, nearly taking it off the desk too, and falling on top of another chair, sending it to the ground. Sean had turned around immediately, and stared us down for a while, wondering if we'd shoot his pathetic ass as well.

"What the fuck are you guys doing here?!" he shouted.

"I think the better question is what the fuck are YOU doing here? Not only did you give them your card to get into the library and shoot the principal, but you were helping them to hack into the school's surveillance system. I bet you even had the doors unlocked for them when they came in and locked just a while ago, right after we came in."

"What did you expect? Did you want me to just get shot by these assholes?"

"You've put way more people in danger, you fucking traitor. Mr. Peterson is dead, you helped those bastards get some hostages, and God knows where Daniel is!"

"Daniel isn't yours to worry about," he snapped, looking at the gun in my hand slightly pointing at him, though he didn't seem intimidated.

Alan was usually the mediator, but he had no idea what to do. Probably because he was so pissed off at Sean himself. I tried to take care of it myself.

"This is getting no where," I spoke frustrated. "Sean, do you know where Daniel and the other students are?"

"I have no fucking idea. But Daniel and I… earlier, we talked a bit…"

"I don't give a shit about that. You were pulling up the surveillance cameras for those soldiers, weren't you?"


"Then pull them up, and we'll find her with them."

He just stared at me for a minute with half a glare and half a look of confusion before he finally turned around in the swivel chair to face the monitor. I was surprised he cooperated so easily, but then again he still had feelings for her.

The room soon echoed again with the sounds of quick keystrokes and mouse clicks. In no time at all, the whole school's surveillance videos came up in small blocks of six on the small screen. Alan stepped in closer to view them.

We watched the first six screens, three of which were different cameras in the gym. The other three included footage of various hallways of the school, including the one where Alan, Daniel, Amber, and I had all met. No luck.

Sean hit a key on the keyboard, and suddenly the screen changed to a second set of cameras. We searched a couple more hallways, and four different classrooms, including the drama room. She was nowhere to be found, but inside the drama room were the four other students and Mr. Martin, all huddled behind desks.

"There they are," Alan spoke.

"Doesn't look like there are any more soldiers around," I spoke.

Sean hit that key again, and another set of camera footage appeared, this time covering only various classrooms. Still no luck.

"Maybe she really did get out," Alan said.

Sean hit the key one more time for the final set of cameras. We scanned each one slowly, this time more thoroughly then was even necessary, desperately hoping to find her. She could not be seen in the final cameras of the classrooms and the chapel.

"That's it," Sean said. "Maybe she's in a bathroom or something, but I don't…"

"Wait a minute," I said.

"What?" Sean asked irritated. You'd swear it wasn't the girl he once said he loved we were searching for.

"There," I said, pointing to the chapel.

"What? Where?" Alan asked.

It took awhile before they both saw it. Daniel was lying behind the front row pew in the chapel, at an angle from the camera pointed towards the front that made it almost impossible to spot her. But in the footage, you could just see her foot sticking out a bit, and a lock of her hair.

"I see her," Alan said.

"Okay, I'm going there," I spoke, turning around and heading for the door.

"Paul, wait!" Alan called.

"What?!" I cried, unable to wait any longer to see her.

"What about Mr. Martin and his class?"

"You take care of them. You saw the surveillance footage, there's no other soldiers around. Just get them and take them to the library. I'll meet you there."

"I'm coming with you," Sean spoke.

"What?" I asked angrily. "Like Hell you will!"

"I love that girl!" he spoke. "I always have and always will."

"That's bullshit and you know it, Sean! You treated her like shit."

"She loves me."

"She doesn't love you. Not anymore."

"I think your wrong about that," he spoke proudly.

"What do you mean? It's over, you ended it when you showed up stoned at that dance!"

"I'm coming with you."

"Do you know what kind of shit storm you will be in when the Parvadine forces get here? You don't think we'll let this thing go, do you? I wonder what would happen to a traitor like you…"

"I'm a minor, they can't do shit to me!"

"Hell yes they can," Alan interrupted. "Because of your actions, the principal was gunned down, the students were taken hostage, and the school surveillance and lockdown system was compromised for the Renegade army."

"That's bull…"

"You know it's true, Sean. It's over for you. But if you really love Daniel, then come with me to go get her. You'll get in all that trouble with the Parvadine government, but you'll have proven your love."

He was silent for a minute, then began to toy with the idea.

"And if I don't go with you?"

"Then you can leave here, and no one will ever know."

He thought about it for a minute.

"How do I know you'll keep your word?"

I somehow managed a smile and answered, "Because all I care about now is Daniel. She's everything I could ever want and need. I don't care about you or your problems, I just care about Daniel. So just leave me with her alone, and I'll let you go."

It only took a moment for him to decide.

"Okay," he said.

Walking over to Alan, I asked, "Alan, you'll be alright?" as I handed him the ID card.

"Yeah, I got it covered," he answered confidently as he took the card.

I turned back around and walked out of the room. When I'd entered the hallway, I picked up the speed and ran.

It was almost over, I thought, and I wanted it to be finished as soon as possible. I wanted to hold Daniel in my arms again, and tell her all the things I felt for her, and how much she meant to me. The more I realized how close she was to my reach, the faster I ran

I got to the chapel in no time. Then my heart sunk as I realized the doors to the chapel were shut. There was no keycard slot on these doors like the one on the library doors. If the lockdown system had shut it, it would be shut till the lockdown system was turned off. That was likely the case, but I slowly moved over to the doors and tried the handles anyway.

But the handle turned, and the door opened slightly. I paused, and just looked at the door, unable to comprehend the miracle that it actually opened.

And so I smiled, and continued to turn the handle and pull the door open. I stepped forth into the chapel, and felt a sense of lost reality, as though I'd never known it to be possible to save Daniel, but now I was.

I slowly headed for the front of the chapel, coming closer and closer to the front row. As I passed the fourth one back, Daniel slowly came into view. First her blonde hair, than her beautiful face, and those eyes! The rest of her figure came into view, curled up in a ball before the front pew.

Her eyes met mine, and she didn't seem afraid. At the front of the chapel, I just looked into those eyes for the longest time. I knelt by her side, and embraced her in my arms. She held me tightly, and time and space seemed to vanish much like time we had danced. The gunfire outside subsided, the world we knew became less than a blur, and gravity itself seemed to become nothing at all.

"Dying here, dying now,

I'd die too happily, but don't end it now."

Did I say that, or just think that? Was there still a poem in my heart? Had Exotica spoken through me, or was I able to think of that myself?

No matter. All that matter was her. Daniel, the angel in my arms, was all that would ever matter. I'd hold her forever, and never let her go.

"My nightmares had all subsided and my dreams had all come true,

Because the angel in my arms would start my life anew,

The darkness would all subside, and reality would become a blur,

War could never pull us apart, I'm too in love with her."

Poetry is merely love into words. I'd never run out of words if I never ran out of love. And I'd never run out of love if I never ran out of Daniel.

"Paul, I'm so scared," her heavenly voice spoke to my shoulder.

"Don't be scared. I'm here, and I always will be."

"But where's…"

"Amber's in the library. She's safe. Trust me. We got to go there too, and wait for someone to come here for us. We shouldn't have to wait long…"

"Yeah," she sighed, wiping away a tear, and pulling away from me slightly to look into my eyes.

"But what about…"

"Everyone's in there Daniel, don't worry," I assured her, spotting Alan and several students running by the chapel doors.

"Paul, I need to…"

"Daniel, we got to get out of here. It's not safe, and…"


A deafening explosion boomed just outside, dangerously close to the chapel.

"Oh shit, Daniel, we got to get out of here!" I panicked, rising her to her feet. I'd lost her once. I began dragging her roughly past the rows of pews lining the chapel. There was no time to waste, and I wasn't going to risk losing her again.

As soon as we cleared the chapel doorway, I turned left, swinging Daniel around with me, and looked up ahead to Alan and his group, which was already in the library, where the doors had just slammed shut.

The sound of the explosions roared again, urging me to move faster. I tugged Daniel's arm, pulling her like a rag doll. I would protect her now, and feel guilty about hurting her arm later, or so I promised myself.

Alan swung the library door open as we drew near. Another loud bang shot down the hallway from somewhere close to the library, and for a moment I feared the walls of the library were falling down.

"You guys come on!" he urged, then shouted, "Oh shit!" as he looked down the hall to his right.

I continued charging towards him, but just as we reached the end of the hallway, I spotted the soldiers on my left coming in though the destroyed South doors, several meters away from us.

"Halt!" one of the three commanded, raising a machine gun to point in our direction. I thought about running for the door, but there was no way I could get both myself and Daniel through the door before shots were fired.

Alan drew his pistol, and began to fire, taking out the soldier with three shots. I pulled my gun out and began aiming for the other two as Alan took cover behind the library door. I was able to take out the two, and once again almost ran for it before four more came charging in through the doors.

Alan and I both fired on them, taking another two out before another four charged in, and I could spot several more approaching.

"Shit," I yelled, taking cover. Daniel was curled up against the wall, screaming between heavy tears.

"Alan!" I shouted as he took cover again.


"Just shut the doors! Protect everyone inside!"

"What about you guys?"

Shit, what about us? We were fucked. No way around it.

"I'll figure something out, just close the fucking door!"

He hesitated, then slowly began shutting the door as bullets pounded into the bullet proof glass.

"Daniel, come on!" I yelled.

"I can't!"

"Daniel, we still have a chance. Just stick by me, I won't let anything happen to you!"

She had just started getting up when I grabbed her, and forced her up. I practically dragged her down the hallway with one arm, taking occasional glances back down the hallway, expecting the soldiers to appear at any moment, firing at us. When they did, I fired a few shots, causing some of them to disperse, but not hitting any.

When I turned back forward, I spotted four more rushing through the front entrance doors, likely on the run from the prevailing Parvadine forces outside. We were surrounded.

But I looked quickly to the chapel we had just reached, and pulled her inside as bullets whizzed by. The doors could not be locked, so I decided to simply hide between the front two pews, and wait. It was a hopeless strategy, but it still was one. We'd just have to hope the Parvadine forces made it in time.

I through her down on the floor, and as I fell to it, I almost landed on her. She was screaming and crying madly, but I covered her mouth in some attempt to silence her. She finally quieted down some, just as the men reached the doors.

"In hier! Wir benutzen sie als Geiseln!" I heard one of them shout.

I held my breath as their footsteps became evident on the cold hard chapel floor. The sound of their boots seemed to be our very death sentence, and all hope seemed to be lost.

I looked underneath several rows of pews, and watched as those boots approached, coming closer and closer. They had reached the fourth pew when another explosion erupted outside, shattering two panes of glass, and sending some brick and rubble to the floor near there.

"Der Feind! Nehmenabdeckung!"

The sound of gunfire echoed off the brick walls of the chapel as the Parvadine soldiers charged in through the window openings. I heard death cries from both sides of the chapel as our men and theirs died from the bullets flying just over our heads, busting through the wood pews and bouncing off the solid ground. I was already holding Daniel down on the floor, trying to shell her body from the flying bullets as much as I could.

Finally the gunfire stopped, and for a long time there was complete silence, filled only by the sounds of falling shells. I thought for several moments that felt like hours, and tried to decide whether I should stand up and see who was still standing with me, if anyone, or if I should keep waiting.

"That all of them?" I thought I heard McClintock say.

"John…sir, you've been hit!"

"I'm fine! It went in and out…"

"Sir, are you sure, sir?"

"I'm fine!"

I slowly began to sit up, and peeked over the chapel pew at the front left of the chapel where a soldier and Dr. McClintock were standing. I spotted the gunshot wound on the far left side of my former teacher's chest. I almost said something before he noticed me and spoke first.

"Paul, what the hell are you doing here?"

"I… I came here with a friend to get some of the students to safety."

"Are you insane?" the soldier next to him asked.

"Are you okay?" McClintock asked.

"I'm fine. And so are the other students," I continued, as I pulled Daniel up to her feet, where she immediately fell into my arms.

"Where are they?" he asked.

"In the library. They're all safe," I spoke, holding Daniel closer to comfort her.

"Well, at least everyone's safe… hey, are there any more Renegade bastards in here?"

"I don't think so… I took a look at the surveillance cameras, and everyplace was clear."

"Good. I guess you better go get the students, and bring them over here, so David and I can get you out of here."

"Where's the rest of your men?" I asked.

"They're all dead."

"What?!" I asked, horrified.

"They sent a lot of reinforcements," David answered. "We're still waiting for ours."

Another shot was fired off somewhere outside the chapel, startling us to attention. McClintock and David immediately took cover on opposite sides of the window opening.

"Paul, get you and your friend out of here!" McClintock shouted as he began firing around the corner. "We got a few more!"

I almost thought I should stay and help out, but somewhere I felt that they'd be okay. I felt secure for a moment despite the circumstances, and getting Daniel to a safe place was all that mattered.

I carried her in my arms out of the chapel. She seemed light somehow, perhaps because she was short, and thin. I'd never carried her in my arms before, I reasoned. The closest I ever came to that was the night I danced with her.

But something was wrong. She didn't just feel light. Her body felt limp, and unresponsive.

"Daniel?" I spoke to her as I knelt down on the floor outside the chapel before the cross hanging on the wall. "Daniel, are you okay?"



As I laid her down on the floor, back outstretched over my knees, I found the large blood stain growing ever larger, invading the whiteness of her school shirt.

"Daniel, no! Oh shit, Daniel!"

She tried to speak, but her voice only came out in a hoarse gasp. The beautiful blue of her eyes seemed to be growing dimmer as she coughed and gasped, her life pouring out of me onto the floor as she lay dying in my arms.

"Daniel, you'll be alright! Just hold on, you'll be fine!"

"Where's… where's…"

"Daniel, I'm here! I'm here for you! I always have been, and always will be!"


"Where's who?" I cried. "Daniel, I'm here for you! Where's who?!"

She panted some more, and struggled harder and harder to get out her final words.

"Where's… where's Sean?" she gasped, and then fell too limp to be alive.

"Sean!? Daniel, I'm here! Daniel? Daniel! Daniel, speak to me?"

But she would speak no more. I called her name madly several more times, but would receive no answer. The girl I desired more than life itself had died in my arms. But I just kept calling her name, and calling her name, and calling her name, as the tears built up inside me. It was as though I thought if I called enough, she might answer. But she never did.

Finally I broke down, and just cried. What misery. What destruction. What horror and woe. What was life now then a parade of suffering? Where was the God in this world if the most beautiful thing about it didn't deserve to live?

It was worse then a tragedy. In a tragedy, something prevails. Some concept about the power of something, some vision of hope beyond the grim details. Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy. But it illustrated the power of love. And Daniel didn't love me. She loved Sean. And I was simply worthless. I'd given up death once to try and save Daniel, and I proved to be the very cause of her death. Perhaps I was all that caused her to die.

I almost shot myself then. I almost drew my gun and ended it forever. And what a relief it would've been. After all, could Hell be any worse then this? Exotica offered me Heaven, and I'd turned it down. And there weren't going to be any second chances.

I would've done it if Daniel had loved me. Maybe then I'd have deserved a death, and eternity with her. Suicide surely wouldn't get you into hell. Not if you killed yourself for love. Romeo and Juliet killed themselves for love. But Daniel didn't love me, and perhaps this was all I sign that I deserved nothing more then misery and death in this world. I still hadn't paid back the debt I owed for the pain I'd caused before. My very existence could only mean the pain of anyone who came near me in some effort to punish me. But I still didn't deserve death. My punishment wasn't over here. All I could do was get away from everyone as soon as possible.

I slowly got up, lightly letting her body down on the bloody floor. I gazed for the last time into her eyes, which had lost all their luster, and shut them forever.

I found myself walking down the hallway, as though it was the journey of my life: slow and miserable. All my senses seemed to have failed, and I could hear no sound nor feel anything inside, and all that I could see was a dying image of myself. It was total emptiness, like I had no existence. I felt like the static sound on a television that's there, but no one ever hears it unless they're on a blank channel. It's a feeling of complete separation from everything, but not in a good way. It's like the whole world has half faded away, and you are merely a shadow.

Soon I found myself before the doors of the library. Alan saw me, and charged for the doors. He opened them, but I didn't hear the beep. He looked up and down me, and said nothing for a while. I'd find out later that I was covered in blood. He finally said something, but I didn't hear it. I looked at him for a minute, then just turned and walked away, out through the blown through South doors of the school.

The first sound I heard was heavy rain. Blood rain, I thought. Soaking up the corpse laying about the school property. It was a hot rain that fell so heavily, melting away the snow so fast that it seemed to hiss. The first thing I felt was that hot rain, and looking up into the clouds, I cursed whatever force it was that decided life needed to end and the world deserved misery.

Then I began walking away into the rain. Parvadine reinforcements had arrived, and began charging into the school. None of them seemed to notice me, but I felt I was merely a ghost.

But soon I'd become less of a ghost, walking out there that rainy day. Soon I'd fade into something like the rain itself; constantly falling, bringing with it sorrow and pain. And like the leaves of fall and the tears in my eyes, it would never stop falling.

The rain won't forget that day. Neither will I.

The End.