Ryerson McKenna listened to his wife’s death on the telephone.
He fed another quarter into the slot. The radio was playing his favorite song. No one in the roadside diner said a word. They all stared at him.
He pressed the phone against his ear.
“Rye? Rye? Can you hear me?”
“I’m still here,” he said, then cupped his hand over the mouthpiece to yell at the waitress behind the counter, “I need coins. Quickly. Please.”
On the screen above her head the words ACTIVE SHOOTER scrolled across the aerial shot of the black smoke and Sheridan Meadows shopping mall where less than five minutes ago the shooter had rammed a truck through the plate glass windows of the anchor store and kept on driving right into the heart of the perfume department. The smoke was more than just the settling of debris; the truck, with a beer company logo on the side, had been carrying a crude fertilizer bomb that had detonated less than sixty seconds after the engine died, barely giving the driver time to get free of the vehicle and start shooting his way clear.
Ryerson was down to three bucks in change, enough to keep the line alive for less than two minutes at the rate the pay phone was eating through the coins.
He pushed it all into the slot.
He couldn’t afford to let the connection die. The cell phone networks were overloaded. No other calls were getting through. If the line dropped, he lost contact with Hannah. It was as simple as that.
Three gunshots in rapid succession punctuated his next words. “I’m going to get you out of there, Hannah, I promise.” It was a stupid thing to promise, but he needed her to believe him. This was what he did for other people; he could do it for her. “Just stay with me, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, unaware that the clock on their call was running out fast.
The world narrowed to vivid snapshots, brittle too-bright images of a life that had, in a couple of seconds, become incredibly fragile: the foam crescent of his lips slowly sliding down the side of the glass as his coffee went cold in the booth; the yolk of his sunny-side up eggs congealing on the greasy plate; the short-order cook with grease on the front of his apron and bacon sizzling on the hot plate; the candy-stripe straws in the glass jar on the countertop; the yellow sunflowers on the tables, petals wilting in the too-warm interior; the trucker leaning against the bar with a piece of green from his burger stuck between his teeth as he hit on the waitress; the coffeepot burning dry with nothing but dregs in the bottom.
The trucker emptied out his pockets, pushing another three bucks in quarters toward Rye, who fumbled them up and fed them into the phone, buying another two minutes on the open line.
The cash drawer chimed as the waitress opened it, scooping out another handful of silver. It still wasn’t enough. No one paid by cash anymore. Not even tips. She pushed the tip jar across the counter. There was maybe another seven or eight minutes in there at best.
“More. I need more,” he said, his gaze sweeping across the diners. Not including the two waitstaff, there were seven people in there with him, and two of those were kids. One of the diners, an art student type with plastic flowers in her hair, pushed back her chair and went around the table with her hat, collecting every last quarter the diners had between them, and brought it over to him.
He could only pray it was going to be enough to stay with Hannah until she was out of there.
The problem was he didn’t have a religious bone in his body.
He stared at the screen, trying to think.
He needed to do this like it was a complete stranger in there, not the woman who was his world: keep her moving, keep her away from the crowds, find a place to either hide out or get out.
“Han, I need you to look for the mirrors,” he said, thinking on his feet. “You should be able to see rows of them between the storefronts?”
“I see some,” she said.
“Good. That’s great. Okay. You need to find the one that opens into the service corridors. It’s probably in the middle. Don’t panic if it doesn’t immediately open, some are false fronts. You need to find the one that opens, and go through it, before that main aisle becomes a shooting gallery.”
He regretted the choice of words as soon as they were out of his mouth.
She breathed heavily in his ear. Running. It was hard to hear anything over the screams and panic on the open line. It was midafternoon. Not peak hours, but there must have been a thousand-plus people in the mall. More, probably, counting employees.
He was forty miles away, helpless, and his money was running out. It was one of the modern pay phones, with a little LCD display counting down the cents.
He fed the coins from the tip jar into the phone. “I need more,” he shouted at the girl with the hat. She nodded, but they both knew she couldn’t just magic up money from nowhere. Thinking on her feet, she ran outside to the parking lot.
“I can see them,” Hannah repeated, but this time she wasn’t talking about the mirrored doors. Another burst of gunfire underlined exactly what she could see.
“Get out of there, Han. Don’t look at anyone. Just focus on the mirrors. Get through the mirrors.”
“Oh god, oh god … oh god … Rye … Oh god … They just … oh god.”
“Hannah, listen to me. Hannah, you can’t help anyone. I need you to concentrate on my voice. You’re coming home to me. Okay?” She didn’t answer him. “Go through the mirrored doors. Hannah, can you hear me? You need to get out of there.”
The girl with the hat came back into the diner and offered up more coins. Her hands were shaking as she held out the hat. There was a felt flower pinned to the front, and maybe six bucks in coins and a pearl button inside it. It wasn’t going to buy him enough time.
He needed more.
Rye grabbed a handful of silver and fumbled the coins into the slot, each one adding precious seconds to the call.
The message on the television screen changed, the ticker adding more detail to underscore the horror: EXPLOSION AT SHOPPING MALL. EYEWITNESS REPORTS OF MULTIPLE SHOOTERS. CASUALTIES.
He’d been concentrating on getting her away from a single point of danger, but before he could think about how that changed things she was back with him. “I’m through. I’m in some sort of passageway. It’s all concrete and pipes.” As the mirrored doors closed behind her they muted the sounds of dying. “I can see signs for Bay One and Bay Two.”
“Follow the one that’s heading away from the shooting,” he said. “Every time you get a choice, head away from the shooting. Eventually you’ll see signs for the fire exits.”
“I can see an arrow,” she said breathlessly.
He heard her hustling down the service corridor. The countdown on the phone said he had less than ninety seconds with her. She was on her way out now, away from the worst of it. He looked up at the television screen, thinking: god help those other people.… There was a distance to it now.
He’d made good on his promise.
She was on her way out.
“I can see light up ahead,” Hannah told him.
“Great,” he said, “head toward it. You’re coming home, love. Just get out of there. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Just run and keep on running until you’re behind the wheel.”
For the next dollar, the only sounds he heard were Hannah’s heavy breathing and the slap of her footsteps echoing in the industrial passage.
And then they stopped.
Again, he cupped his hand over the mouthpiece. “I need more money.” He saw the poker machine beside the door and pointed. The waitress understood. She grabbed the key for the coin box and emptied it out, spreading the coins out across the counter. She sorted through them quickly.
He looked up at the television screen.
The message hadn’t changed.
“Rye,” Hannah said in his ear, only that, but it was the way that she’d suddenly stopped, like there was nothing else to say, the way that last footstep had dragged as she faltered, the way her breathing had changed in that last second, that told him she was in trouble.
He’d led her away from one straight into the path of another.
There were no last I love yous.
With eleven seconds left on the display, the gunshots rang out. Seven of them in less than a second. There was no more brutal sound in the world. With nine seconds left on the display he heard the phone fall from her hand. Eight, silence. Seven, silence. Six and the only sound was the slow measured approach of heavy booted feet. Five, and it was the scratch of the cell phone’s case on the concrete floor as the gunman picked it up. Three, a man’s voice told him, “She can’t come to the phone right now.”
The one thing he didn’t hear in any one of those last eleven seconds was Hannah breathing.
One final shot killed any remaining hope.
The waitress had more money for him.
He didn’t take it.
Copyright © 2019 by Steven Savile