Helen Fields was the first to admit she was a selfish girl; knew it and didn’t care enough to change it. People were essentially selfish beings anyways, and teenagers were some of the worst offenders. But Helen took real pride in the fact that she didn’t pretend to be something other than she was. First in line, last chip in the bag, last cookie on the plate – without apology, because fake humility was a waste of everyone’s time and an insult to anyone’s intelligence.
Teenagers, however, amused her. She was one, which helped, but – even better – everyone knew exactly what she was like and still hung out anyways. She didn’t necessarily like many of her friends, but there comes a point where loving yourself isn’t enough to fill all the hours on the weekend. Lucy was the only person she truly liked, and that was because she loved Helen nearly as much as Helen did. It boggled her mind, every time she thought about what that said about Lucy’s character. She was a brilliantly exotic rarity.
And, Helen knew, an idiot. Lu was the kind of person who loved nearly everyone.
Still, both were dependable girls. Lucy because you could count on her to go out of her way to help everyone, Helen because you could count on her to help herself.
And in the end, she shocked everyone but herself.
“Look at me,” the man snapped, carefully leveling his gun at each of her classmates in turn, “And tell me you didn’t know.”
Helen sat with the rest of her class, knees drawn to her chest and trying to put together the impossible visual in front of her with any sort of reality that could make sense of this. You heard about people snapping like this, some postal worker who went nuts and mowed down his kids at their school because his wife was sleeping with the milkman, but it always happened to someone else. This was not something that was supposed to happen to anyone you knew.
Her long hair fell forward into her eyes as she bowed over her drawn knees, feeling Mel’s warm shoulder quiver against her’s, Lu a small, tight ball of knobby knees to her right. She didn’t dare brush the strands out of her eyes, afraid that the first mouse that moved was getting blown away.
These things always ended in suicide, right? She hoped he’d get to that part of it soon.
The man looked as though he’d been crying, which frightened her more than if he’d been spitting saliva, his hair greasy and wild around his head. Instead, his dark, almost graying hair was combed, and he looked like a normal guy on his way to work, save for the gun and the penchant for asking people questions they had no context for. Would it be better if they did know, or didn’t? She was assuming no one here knew…whatever he clearly thought they did, but that seemed like the wrong answer and now Helen realized she really was panicking if this was the pointlessly useless thought she was getting stuck on. She watched him pace the room like he needed the time to think, eyes darting to the group sitting along the wall of the classroom as though readying himself to call the next person who didn’t answer a liar.
“What are we going to do?” Mel breathed into her ear, voice tight with fear. It erased some of her words even while she was saying them, so that the question came out like “What…a…going t…do?” but the intent came across loud and clear.
Automatically, Helen’s eyes found Lucy.
She was so still she was almost thrumming with the energy of her immobility, as though her small bones couldn’t entirely contain their need to move. But her eyes above her knees, set below bangs cut too short over her forehead, were tight and small, followed the man’s movements. They looked like they needed to do something, but were too afraid to.
Helen watched her jaw clench and came to several conclusions in the space of one muscle along Lu’s jaw relaxing and another picking up the slack: 1. That Lucy was going to do something stupid; 2. That Lucy was going to be the hero; and 3. That she was going to have to watch Lucy die.
She was standing before she realized she’d made the decision to. It was only with the sudden coolness along both shoulders that Helen truly became aware of the fact that she had gone insane and left the safety of both sources of heat along her sides. They were left gaping up at her with the rest of the crowd.
The man looked like he didn’t know what to do, which was as dangerous as if he’d looked like he did know. She had a moment where she could’ve sat back down – pretended, unconvincingly, that she had needed to stretch her legs – and then lived for another fifty years, but Helen knew, in that moment, that it was always best to trust the person you love most.
She lifted her chin, expression superior. “You’d better shoot me first.”
There were no gasps, but she could feel the ripple of stopped breaths from the classmates behind her. She felt Lucy grab the back of her jeans.
She shook her off with an impatient jerk of her foot. “I said you had better shoot me first,” she demanded of the man. “You’re going to kill us all anyways, and I want to be first. I’ve always liked being first.”
The man’s eyebrows furrowed. “You’re making fun of me.”
“Yes,” she snapped, and this time Lucy grabbed her pant cuff in warning, clenching too tight to be shaken off. “But I don’t want to have to watch the rest of them die. You know the best part? This kind of makes me look like a hero.
She looked down at Lucy suddenly, taking in her white face, ignoring the rest of the bewildered stares and horrified expressions around her. “It’s always selfish. You know me, Lu.”
Lucy’s hand clutched at her knee, her other white hand knuckled on Helen’s jeans. “Helen—”
Helen turned back suddenly to the man.
“Shoot me,” she said, and smiled.