Tears Under the Willow
I shiver in a cold morning drizzle under low-hanging gray skies. Rainwater drips steadily from a willow tree to a headstone at my feet. I pull a wool scarf tight to my neck and wipe tears dangling from my chin. It’s quiet. So so quiet. Only the drip drip drip and soft the splattering onto on the cold gray stone.
Then I hear it. Whispering. I swear I do. But only one word. “Why?” Again and again. “Why?”
"I did what I had to.That's all anyone would have done. Right?"
A dog walker strolling by stops, taken in by the one-way conversation. "Are you okay?"
I sniff into a wad of tissue. "I don't know how to answer that."
"Care to talk about it?"
I stare at the dewy grass over the grave and ask the stranger, "Do you have a family?"
"Yes, I do."
"Everyone in your life doing okay? Happy? Content?"
"We're not perfect. But yeah, we're doing fine."
I wipe tears with the back of my hand and sigh. "I don't know where to begin."
“I have time,” says the stranger.
“Well” I start. "Seems like it was only just yesterday. So hard to explain."
"So, try. I’ll listen."
I wonder if I can get it out. I sniff back a runny nose and start the story. "The day was dreary, like today."
The office is always cold when late September finally gives way to early Autumn. From my desk I can see the local Department Store, Dandy’s, across the street. They have a nice little sandwich bar there where I can get a bite to eat and pick out a sweater at the same time.
I cross the street under yellow leaves fluttering down from swaying branches nipped by the chilly wind. Cold rainy sprinkles are turning to heavy wet snow. I push through the glass doors and stop long enough to brush my shoulders. A redheaded young man with rosy cheeks wearing a backpack follows me in, brushing icy flakes from his bushy hair. We nod, share smiles, and go our separate ways.
I head to a display of sweaters on sale. A blue cable-knit cardigan catches my eye. The clerk, a short, middle-aged, fleshy woman, greets me in a floral pastel dress.
I mutter to her, "Something for the chilly office." I press it to my neck for a glance in the mirror.
"Stylish," says the clerk. "The color suits you. Brings out the blue in your eyes."
I'm about to agree with her when a deafening blast shatters the senses. Then another. Three, maybe four, can't say for sure. It all happens so fast. So loud.
The peaceful scene breaks out into running, yelling, screaming, drowning out everything, even Barry Manilow on Muzak. I drop the sweater and shout—"Gunshots." Confusion everywhere. What to do? Run? But where?
Another blast close by.
Christ! I drop to the floor for cover, next to the clerk already on her hands and knees blubbering, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God." Two more blasts thunder through the displays. Glass shatters. Where are they coming from? Fragrance from the cosmetics department fills the air.
I think of…of my kids. Toby and Rachel. Oh, Jesus Lord. Fuck. You can't die here.
I inch along the floor next to the base of the escalator and crouch behind a counter of jewelry. The clerk follows, mumbling on all fours, "Oh God, oh God." She bunches up like a peanut against the cabinet, her hands pressed to the side of her face, tears flowing. "Oh, God. Please…please…let…"
I shush her with a finger to her lips. "Quiet." She can't help herself with a high-pitched squeal like a baby pig. I pull her to me and slap a hand over her mouth. "Shut up. Please, please just…" I place a finger to my lips. "Shush. We'll be okay if we just stay calm."
From bedlam it turns to silence, except for a fussy baby crying somewhere in the distance. We wait. We listen to whispering, impossible to understand, coming from voices close by.
Then nothing but a feeling of dark seclusion. Except for Barry Manilow's crooning on Muzak.
Then footsteps. Running our way. We crouch lower behind the display and hold our breaths. They scamper by. I sigh in a bit relief. Did whoever that was get away? Then the blanket of silence returns. Except for Barry…
All of a sudden Muzak quits, overhead lights go out, emergency lights come on. The atmosphere changes. We sweat out the wait, huddled in gloominess. My legs are cramping, stomach growling, my back is tight and stiff. What's next? Run? Should you even try? Faint voices down the aisle. Then crash, a shriek, and someone running. And a blast, a single gunshot, followed by a thump. Seconds pass, followed by moaning, guttural and throaty. I almost lose it. Oh, God. I’m about to retch, but I hold back sour nausea gathering for an escape. The clerk inches closer into me, whimpering, "I've got to get out of here."
I see the clerk thinking about standing. I hold her down. "Listen to me. What's your name?"
"Okay, Jan. Tell me about your family. Husband? Kids?”
“Brian. My husband.” That brought on more sobbing from her. “He’s on dialysis. He needs me.”
“Children?” I asked, rubbing her shoulder.
“One daughter in Florida. We’re not close.”
“I pat her back. Well, Jan, for now it's just you and me. We need each other. So, let's stay put and be quiet. Okay?"
I pull her head gently to my chest and stroke her hair. " Shush. Shuush. We'll be fine if we just stay calm."
Jan's fingers dig into my arm. "I have to get out of here,” she whispers.
I pat her back. "Let's be smart about this. Be patient."
She pushes back, looks deep into my face and nods with glistening eyes. "What's your name?"
"I’m Emma. Emma Edwards."
There’s sounds of sirens and yelling outside. We roll our eyes. Jan straightens up and admits matter-of-factly, "I have to pee, Emma."
Oh no. "Can you hold it, honey?"
She looks at me, alert, foreboding. "For how long?"
I can only shrug. "Don't know."
We wait. Minutes pass. Panic builds in her eyes. What's she going to do?
A bullhorn blasts from outside. "Hello inside the store. Can you hear me in there?"
The deep authoritative police voice tries to establish a relationship with the shooter with carefully chosen words. Suggestions for how the shooter can end this to his benefit. How he'll be treated fairly. But it's a one-sided conversation. Nothing from the shooter. No response at all.
Jan glances around like she’s considering the unthinkable. Relieving herself somewhere nearby.
The bullhorn continues from the cops—options, warnings, pleadings. How the shooter will be treated fairly. When no response comes back, the voice grows more commanding with demands to come out with hands in the air. "You're surrounded. Don't be stupid."
Jan squirms and repositions to stand any second. "I really gotta pee."
I hold back nausea from the heavy essence of cosmetics in the air. "I know, hon." I stroke her arm. Then I do something foolish. I get to my knees and peek over the counter and yell, "Hey, whoever you are, with the gun." The high-pitched tone of my shaking voice scares me. I look back at Jan bouncing a leg. I call out again. "Wwwe don't want any trouble. But we…" I got stuck on how to put my thoughts into words. "We…"
A deep voice comes calls out. "We what?" It’s the shooter from somewhere around men's or boys wear.
"What?" I shout back.
The voice irritable now. "You said you didn't want any trouble, but…but what? And who's with you? How many of you are there?"
Jan is gritting her teeth now and bouncing around in a pee-pee squirm.
I call out, "Two of us. Just two women. And we have to…we have to go to the bathroom."
Again the bullhorn—"Hey, in there. What's your name? Can we talk?"
I call out to the shooter, "Please, mister. Just let us go pee. We won't cause any trouble."
Jan shrugs loose, stands up, and starts a sluggish waddle down the aisle. A slow, easy target. Before she's a dozen steps away…boom. She spins, drops into a scarf display, rolls to the floor, and lies without moving.
I shriek, "Oh shit. Oh, God. Oh, oh. No." I crouch down again and whisper, "Jan? Jan?"
"Jan," I whisper louder. "Can you hear me?"
"Were you shot?"
I swallow hard, then belly crawl to her. Her eyes are big. Blood on her hand pressed to her side. Spreading into a wide circle on the dress. Her bladder has released.
"You've been hit,” I tell her.
She doesn't speak. But nods furiously.
She lifts her hand to see the spreading blood and goes into a whimpering mess.
"Can you move?" I ask.
Glassy eyes roll over to me with a weak nod. "Think so."
I manage to help her crawl back to our little hideaway behind the counter and check the wound. I tear the dress enough to see where the bullet has passed through side flab and out her backside. I reach up, grab a t-shirt off a shelf and press it against the hemorrhaging. Jan is a meek, fragile woman turning pale and beginning to sweat profusely. Her fear turns into a look of confusion. Is she going into shock? If so and untreated…OhChrist.
After long minutes of listening to the bullhorn drone on, I wonder how long she will last without medical attention. I think of my children. My sister who’s an RN and how she would handle her. All I can do is press the shirt against the wound and try to think.
"Emma." She says, flat on her back, holding her side calling out. "I'm thirsty."
Clearly she's going into shock. I must do something. Something stupid.
I stick my head up to peek around. No movement, no sight of the shooter. Very slowly I stand, hands in the air. "Mister Shooter?" I call out.
A voice with an indifferent attitude calls back, "What?"
"Listen to me. I'm not going to run. All I ask is just hear me out."
I inch out from behind the counter into the aisle, hands over my head, and expect the worst any second. "Mister shooter, what's your name?"
"This lady with me,” I say. “The one you shot. She needs medical attention."
Nothing from the voice.
"Hey, I'm talking to you."
"I'm going to take her out through those doors over there."
"Are you stupid, lady?"
"I've been called worse.”
No comeback from him on that remark. But I decide against it. Trying to get her out now is too dangerous. Instead I take a very slow and deliberate step forward, hands still in the air.
"What's your name, mister shooter?"
"Why do you want to know my name?"
"Because I want to tell your mother how I met you. And why you did this. I need your name."
My voice more assertive. "What do you call yourself?"
"Jerm." His voice is calm, disconsolate.
"Jerm? Did I hear right? You call yourself Jerm."
"That's what they call me."
"Who calls you that? Your friends?"
"I don't have no friends."
I take two tentative steps. "Is Jerm short for Jeremy?"
"Yeah. It's a stupid name, Jeremy Don’t ’cha think?"
With another step I say, "I've heard worse." Another slow stop. "Want to know my name?"
"I could care less, lady."
"Well good for you, Emma.
The bullhorn blasts more demands.
"You hear that, Emma? How stupid do they think I am?"
"I don't think that."
"They've got the SWAT team assembling out there. And that moron on the bullhorn is probably some psychologist from the negotiation team trying to talk me out. Ha."
I take another step. I hear him tell someone, other than me, to shut up.
He’s taken hostages? "Who's with you, Jeremy?"
"Who? Let's see." He counts—“Uno, dos, tres, cuatro.” A pause. "Five, six, seven. That's who's on the floor at my feet. So with you and your friend, that makes eight and nine. And with me, that'll be an even ten. Ten people gonna die in here today when they storm the place."
Someone yells, "Please don't upset him, lady."
"Did you hear that, Emma? Don't do something to upset me."
"Christ, Jeremy." I inch another two steps forward. Out of the corner of my eye is movement. A young guy lying on the floor behind a leather-belt display. Has to be the one I heard getting shot earlier. A belt tourniquet is wrapped around his thigh. He raises his head and puts a finger to his lips so not to give him away.
I'm now in line with a set of exit doors. Can you make it? I think about it. Nope. No, don’t even try.
"What kind of name is Emma, anyway?" the shooter calmly asks.
"Short for Emily." Then I change the subject. "Jeremy. I need to get that woman some medical attention."
"Why? She ain't gonna need no medical attention soon. None of us is."
"She's hurt, Jeremy. Don't be mean. You're not a mean person, are you?"
"No. No, of course not. I'm not mean. Why would anyone think I'm mean? Just cuz I shoot a couple people? Mean would be firing someone who didn't do nothin' wrong. Mean would be starving a dog. Or kickin' a guy outta his house when he ain't got the money for rent for his family. Mean would be forced to give up a kid you love more than anything."
"Well,” I say. “What would you call shooting someone who didn't have it coming to them?"
"It's a statement, Emma."
I chance three more steps. Pushing my luck. "What kind of statement, Jeremy?"
"That us folk gettin' kicked around ain't gonna take it no more. Talkin' bout it don't do no good. People only listen when a few people get kilt. I'm saying, rise up, get out, and do what I'm doin'. Get some attention. Cuz the government don't care nothing ’bout us."
"Who told you the government doesn't care about us?"
"Harold, for one"
"A friend. Sort of."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I must be confused. I thought I heard you say you had no friends."
"Harold. Doctor Harold Nairn. The VA doc."
"You're a vet then?"
"You take one more step, I'm gonna shoot someone, Emma. Probably you."
I lick my lips. Nothing to lose. One step. I hold my breath.
"You're not thinking clearly, Emma. Did you not hear me?"
Another cautious step. Now I see him vaguely in the shadows. The gun stretched out directly at me.
"You're overreacting, Jeremy. Calm down."
"Calm down.” He chuckles. “Is that what you think I need?"
Just then I see a toddler in diapers waddling alone down the center aisle, his father in crouching pursuit.
"You think I'm overreacting, Emma? Well, watch this."
He’s looking down the aisle at the toddler.
"Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy…listen to me. Listen.” Before I can say another word the father goes down. The gun blast still ringing in my ears, I start to run toward the kid but hesitate when I hear Jeremy yelling stop.”
I freeze. Think Emma. But start to go for the little kid anyway.
"Emma," Jeremy shouts. "Stop. I'm not kiddin'."
I hold up mid-stride and yell, "What did they do to you, Jeremy? What did any of these people do to you to deserve this?"
"What, Jeremy? Why are you doing this?"
"Nobody will listen, Emma. Nobody. Not until people die. That's what this is. Somebody needs to make a big splash. Get God's attention."
"You know you sound crazy. Right, Jeremy?"
"You think I'm crazy? That’s what you think.”
"I didn't say…"
"Who are you, Emma? Where do you come from? Have kids? A nice job? A loving husband? A nice nest egg in the bank?"
"I'm a widow, Jeremy. A secretary, a single mother of two. My boy is a wonderful, lovable kid. A special-needs boy. My daughter works at a fast-food restaurant to help me make ends meet. Never knew my parents or where I was born. That's who I am. So who are you? You, the one with the big gun?"
"Shut up, Emma."
"Who are you, Jeremy? You said you've been treated in a VA hospital. So you're a vet."
He blurts out, "Oorah."
“Does this have something to do with what you did in the service?"
"It's what all of us vets do for our country. Then we come home to what? Nothing. Fucking nothing. We're just forgotten. Have to beg for food. Sleep on the streets, diseased and dying.”
"Who told you that? Thousands, thousands of men and women come home and make it just fine. This country is forever grateful for our men and women for their service."
"Listen. I'm coming over there, Jeremy. I want to meet you?"
"You want to get shot, woman?"
I take one step. Very slowly. Then another. "Jeremy, I don't think you're going to shoot me."
"Why do you think that, Emma?"
I'm close now. What I saw before, that I thought was him, wasn't him. It was just a mannequin dressed in sports gear. But now I see him better. He moves in shadows. I see the gun. I speak with fake courage. Phony authority. "Because you know I care about you. You sense it, don't you? Well, I sure do."
"How do you know what I'm thinkin'?"
"Because I'm a widow, Jeremy. Desert Storm. Grief joins us every night at our dinner table."
"Yeah? Well, sorry for you and your kids."
"We, Jeremy. You and me…we both face injustice, soldier. But we can't take it out on innocent people."
He looks through space, seeing someone invisible to me. His voice is shallow when he says, "She was innocent."
"Who? Who was innocent?"
"She died under a park bench."
"Caroline. My kid's mother." He slowly lowers the gun.
I approach, closer now. His face mottled in pain. The hostages huddled on the floor look up at me in fear. The toddler's wounded father urges his infant son to come back to him. Jan and the redheaded kid, they need help badly.
This must end now.
"Come on, everyone," I say. “Let's go. Get out of here."
The scared people watching from the floor switch looking from him to me, me to him, gauging a chance for an escape. Jeremy sits down on a display platform, looking fatigued, and lays the gun on a shelf. He stares at the floor. "No," he whispers. “No one's going anywhere." He reaches into his backpack.
I inch over while he rummages around in the pack, mumbling to himself. As he pulls something from the pack I grab the gun. He doesn't notice.
"Jeremy," I say. The gun aimed at him. "Look at me."
His watery eyes look up, not surprised.
"Jeremy. For God's sake. What have you got?"
He studies the olive green thing in his hand. Turns it over and hefts its weight. "It's an M26.”
I can’t believe what I’m seeing. "An M26. Shit. You're not…not going to…"
"You know what this is, Emma?"
"Yeah. Yes I do."
"How do you know?"
“My husband was a security contractor in Afghanistan. He talked about how lethal they were."
"Tell me what you know about it."
"It’s a grenade."
"Right." He slips a finger into the safety ring. "Know what happens when I pull this?" He acts like he's about to pull.
"No! No! No! Don't!" I push the barrel at him for emphasis. My hand shaking. "Don't. Don't do it."
His eyes are big. "You're afraid, aren't you, Emma?"
The gun shakes uncontrollably. The people on the floor cower, hands over their heads.
He smirks. "When I pull this," he sticks his finger through the ring, "the kill radius is five meters, the casualty radius is fifteen meters. You're about four meters, Emma." He nods at the hostages. "Them, me, and you is goners the second I pull this pin."
"Who told you that?"
"What d’you mean?"
"Like I said. Who told you we'll all die the instant you pull the pin."
"I just know."
"You ever handled one before, Jeremy?"
"Yeah. In war."
"What war?" I relax and lower the gun.
"You used that type of grenade in Afghanistan?"
"Yeah. Me and my brother."
"Where's your brother now?"
He falls into thought, tossing the grenade hand-to-hand like a softball. "My brother Kevin got a bronze star."
"Your brother was a war hero?"
"How'd he die, Jeremy?"
He lowers his head. "Dad always liked him better."
"Where 'd you serve?"
"You served in Dunkirk? You sure?"
His eyes start shifting around; the smirk melting away. "I was in combat for two years."
"Two? What happened? Why only two?"
Even in the dim light I see his eyes water up. His face goes red and twists, veins bulge. In a second his face changes to bland, chalky white.
"You lost your brother to combat, didn't you? And you feel guilty because you survived something horrible."
He stares at the grenade.
"PTSD. That what you're being treated for, right?"
A crashing noise comes from one of the store doors. Then another.
"They're coming now, Emma."
"Jeremy. Listen to m…”
"Sorry, Emma." He lifts the grenade at chest level and closes his eyes. “Goodbye, Emma."
The blast is ferocious, the kick up my arm powerful.
The dog walker is spellbound as I conclude the story. "It just rolled across the floor. A dummy. A practice grenade. No explosive charge whatsoever."
"So you…" The stranger starts to ask.
"Yes. I had to. The grenade could have been live."
"Suicide? Suicide by cop. So, that's what he was going for?"
"I found out later neither Jeremy nor his brother ever served in the Marines or any of the other services. His brother was killed in a Detroit back-alley fight. Jeremy was there when it happened. He was only twelve years old when he saw his brother stabbed to death. Jeremy received a serious head wound in the brawl. That traumatic event set the course for the rest of his life. Never could hold down a job. His wife died from a drug overdose. Lost his boy to the State. He was being treated for psychopathy.”
I sniff, wipe my nose.
"So, the hostages he held at gunpoint…They all got out safe?"
I stare at the headstone. "All safe.”
"The toddler and father?"
“Yeah,” I nod. “Home and safe.”
"What about the clerk and the redheaded kid?"
I point my chin across the vast landscape of white stone markers. "Probably out there somewhere." Thickness builds in my throat, and tears begin to puddle.
The stranger with his dog turns and walks away whispering, “Senseless, just senseless.”
I kneel down, kiss a finger and touch it to the name on the stone.
Loving Husband and Father