Where it struck the hard steel of Titus, the Helpful Padlock.
I held on to the pistol.
The impact of the slug knocked me straight backward against the blackboard, where the chalk ledge bit cruelly into my back. Both of my cordovan loafers flew off. I hit the floor on my fanny. I didn’t know what had happened. There was too much all at once. A huge auger of pain drilled my chest, followed by sudden numb-ness. The ability to breathe stopped. Spots flashed in front of my eyes.
Irma Bates was screaming. Her eyes were closed, her fists were clenched, and her face was a hectic,
patched red with effort. It was far away and dreamy, coming from a mountain or a tunnel.
Ted Jones was getting out of his seat again, floating really, in a slow and dreamy motion. This time he was going for the door. “They got the son of a bitch!” His voice sounded incredibly slow and draggy, like a 78-RPM record turned down to 33 1/3. “They got the crazy-‘
He didn’t hear me. I wasn’t surprised. I could hardly hear myself. I didn’t have any wind to talk with. He was reaching for the doorknob when I fired the pistol. The bullet slammed into the wood beside his head, and he shied away. When he turned around, his face was a stew of changing emotions: white astonishment, ag-onized unbelief, and twisted, murdering hate.
“You can’t . . . you’re . . . ”
“Sit down.” A little better. Perhaps six seconds had gone by since I had been knocked on my ass. “Stop yelling, Irma. ”
“You’re shot, Charlie,” Grace Stanner said calmly.
I looked outside. The cops were rushing the building. I fired twice and made myself breathe. The auger struck again, threatening to explode my chest with pain.
“Get back! I’ll shoot them!”
Frank Philbrick stopped and looked around wildly. He seemed to want a tele-phone call from Jesus. He looked confused enough to try and carry on with it, so I fired again, up in the air. It was his turn to go a hundred miles in his head during half a second. “Get back!” he yelled. “Get the Christ back!”
They retreated, getting back even quicker than they had gotten down.
Ted Jones was edging toward me. That boy was simply not part of the real uni-verse. “Do you want me to shoot your weenie off?” I asked.
He stopped, but that terrifying, twisted expression was still on his face. “You’re dead,” he hissed. “Lie down, God damn you.”
“Sit down, Ted.”
The pain in my chest was a live thing, horrible. The left side of my rib cage felt as if it had been struck by Maxwell’s silver hammer. They were staring at me, my captive class, with expressions of preoccupied horror. I didn’t dare look down at myself because of what I might see. The clock said 10:55.
“Sit down, Ted.”
He lifted his lip in an unconscious facial gesture that made him look like a slat-sided hound that I had seen lying mortally wounded beside a busy street when I was just a kid. He thought about it, and then he sat down. He had a good set of sweat circles started under his armpits.
“DECKER! MR. DENVER IS GOING UP TO THE OFFICE!”
It was Philbrick on the bullhorn, and not even the asexual sexuality of the amp-lification could hide how badly he was shaken up. An hour before, it would have pleased me-fulfilled me-in a savage way, but now I felt nothing.
“HE WANTS TO TALK TO YOU!”
Tom walked out from behind one of the police cars and started across the lawn, walking slowly, as if he expected to be shot at any second. Even at a distance, he looked ten years older. Not even that could please me. Not even that.
I got up a little at a time, fighting the pain, and stepped into my loafers. I almost fell, and had to clutch the desk with my free hand for support.
“Oh, Charlie,” Sylvia moaned.
I fully loaded the pistol again, this time keeping it pointed toward them (I don’t think even Ted knew it couldn’t be fired with the clip sprung), doing it slowly so I could put off looking down at myself for as long as possible. My chest throbbed and ached. Sandra Cross seemed lost again in whatever fuzzy dream it was that she contemplated.
The clip snapped back into place, and I looked down at myself almost casually. I was wearing a neat blue shirt (I’ve always been fond of solid colors), and I ex-pected to see it matted with my blood. But it wasn’t.
There was a large dark hole, dead center through my breast pocket, which was on the left. An uneven scattering of smaller holes radiated out from all around it, like one of those solar-system maps that show the planets going around the sun. I reached inside the pocket very carefully. That was when I remembered Titus, whom I had rescued from the wastebasket. I pulled him out very carefully. The class went “Aaahhh! ” as if I had just sawed a lady in half or pulled a hundred–dollar bill out of Pig Pen’s nose. None of them asked why I was carrying my com-bination lock in my pocket. I was glad. Ted was looking at Titus bitterly, and sud-denly I was very angry at Ted. And I wondered how he would like to eat poor old Titus for his lunch.
The bullet had smashed through the hard, high-density plastic dial, sending high-speed bits of shrapnel out through my shirt. Not one of them had touched my flesh. The steel behind the face had caught the slug, had turned it into a deadly lead blos-som with three bright petals. The whole lock was twisted, as if by fire. The semi-circular lock bar had been pulled like taffy. The back side of the lock had bulged but not broken through.
[It was a year and a half later when I saw that commercial on TV for the first time. The one where the guy with the rifle takes aim at the padlock nailed to the board. You even get a look through the telescopic sight at the padlock-a Yale, a Master, I don’t know which. The guy pulls the trigger. And you see that lock jump and dent and mash, and it looked in that commercial just the way old Titus looked when I took him out of my pocket. They show it happening in regular motion, and then they show it in slow motion, and the first and only time I saw it, I leaned down between my legs and puked between my ankles. They took me away. They took me back to my room. And the next day my pet shrink here looked at a note and said, “They tell me you had a setback yesterday, Charlie. Want to talk about it?”
But I couldn’t talk about it. I’ve never been able to talk about it. Until now.]
Chink!on the intercom.
“Just a minute, Tom. Don’t rush me.”
“Charlie, you have to-”
“Shut the fuck up.”‘
I unbuttoned my shirt and opened it. The class went “Aaahhh!” again. Titus was imprinted on my chest in angry purple, and the flesh had been mashed into an indentation that looked deep enough to hold water. I didn’t like to look at it, any more than I liked to look at the old drunk with the bag of flesh below his nose, the one that always hung around Gogan’s downtown. It made me feel nauseated. I closed my shirt.
“Tom, those bastards tried to shoot me.”
“They didn’t mean-”
“Don’t tell me what they didn’t mean to do!” I screamed at him. There was a crazy note in my voice that made me feel even sicker. “You get your old cracked ass out there and tell that mother-fucker Philbrick he almost had a bloodbath down here, have you got it?”
“Charlie . . . ” He was whining.
“Shut up, Tom. I’m through fooling with you. I’m in the driver’s seat. Not you, -not Philbrick, not the superintendent of schools, not God. Have you got it?”
“Charlie, let me explain.”
“HAVE YOU GOT IT?”
“All right. We’ve got that straight. So you go back and give him a message, Tom. Tell him that I don’t want to see him or anyone else out there make a move during the next hour. No one is going to come in and talk on this goddamn inter-com, and no one else is going to try and shoot me. At noon I want to talk to Phil-brick again. Can you remember all that, Tom?”
“Yes, Charlie. All right, Charlie.” He sounded relieved and foolish. “They just wanted me to tell you it was a mistake, Charlie. Somebody’s gun went off by accident and–