TEN MINUTES

By Michael Hansen

I work the graveyard shift on the docks, loading and unloading trucks all night, so Iím pretty beat when I get off at dawn. Still, Iíd never miss walking my son Sam to school every morning. Heís seven and pretty active, and sometimes these tired old legs of mine have a hard time keeping up, but thereís something about walking with him in that crisp early morning air, the low sun beaming on us like liquid gold - itís magic, man, the only magic I know of anymore. And when we get to his school and stop at the entrance, he always lets me squat down and give him a big hug and a kiss. I figure heís almost old enough heíll be too embarrassed soon to let his daddy kiss him in public, but I hope I have a little time left. Every day he gets older, every day he needs me a little less, and Iíll admit thatís a bit scary. Samís all I have left since his mom died. I love him. Heís my life.

Anyway, the morning it all happened Iíd just dropped Sam off and begun my slow walk home; I was still on school grounds, over at the main gate in the cyclone fence. I couldnít tell you what went through my mind when I first heard the sirens; like I say, I was pretty tired. Maybe I thought there was a fire somewhere, or some senior citizen was having a heart attack. Of course, if Iíd been watching TV Iíd have been seeing the live interrupt broadcast of what had just happened at our local downtown bank, of the failed robbery attempt and the murdered tellers and customers, and all the dead cops. But I wasnít watching TV, so I didnít know it was major trouble rolling up on me. I was just minding my business, stumbling home to bed.

I had to squint against the rising sun when that battered blue step-van lurched around the corner a few blocks down from me. It slalomed a bit from side to side, then accelerated right toward me. When I realized just how fast, I stopped to watch, suddenly disturbed at just how many sirens I could hear, all getting closer fast.

A black and white with siren skidded howling around the same corner, right on the vanís ass- the driver of the van couldnít seem to pull away. Then the cop in the front passenger seat leaned out his window and started shooting at the van, the noise of his pistol fire slapping through the quiet air like the cracking of a whip -- the spang of rounds hitting metal proved that at least some of the copís shots were on target.

My mouth dropped open and hung that way. As I watched, a grenade arced out the side door of the fleeing van to bounce a few times on the asphalt. It exploded with a flat, painful boom as the cop car rolled over it, shredding the front tire. The cop carís rear end fishtailed wildly as the front rim ground along the street, tatters of rubber flapping as sparks and chunks of asphalt flew. One tire jounced up over the curb, and that was it: the cop car flopped over onto its side and slid to rest along the playground fence with a skirling clash, its siren still wailing like a grieving widow. The cop that had been leaning out the passenger window was smeared in half beneath the car, but the driver was squirming groggily as he hung suspended in his seat belt.

Iíd hit the deck when the grenade exploded - old reflexes die hard, and it took me right back to the jungles of Nam, where a noise like that had always meant hot red blood dripping from the lush jungle growth afterwards as we bagged up the chunks of meat. I lay still as a statue in the tall grass by the schoolyard, watching the step-van lean forward slightly as it scuffed to a halt in the middle of the street.

A tall kid with big ears hopped out of the van with a revolver in one hand and a grenade in the other. He trotted back to the overturned black- and-white, staring in what I considered a hungry fashion at the crushed pulp of a cop extending from beneath the car. Then, as I watched in unwilling fascination, he aimed his pistol at the helpless driver, who was now straining to free himself from his seat belt. The cop stopped struggling and faced him. I could see the copís face through the windshield. He took it like a man - he looked his killer right in the eyes and didnít flinch at all as Big Ears grinned and fired three times, starring the safety glass into whiteness. The driver sagged bonelessly in his harness as the gunman yanked the pin from the grenade with his teeth and dropped it in the driverís open window.

Big Ears was loping back to the van as the grenade went off, shattering every window in the black-and-white with a terrible roar; the siren finally shut up. The gas tank went in a secondary explosion powerful enough to lift the back of the car and shift it several inches to the side. The burning gas roiled up to heaven in an orange pillar of smoky flame.

Several more men now clustered at the open van door, whooping and laughing as they leaned out of the dark interior to admire their friendís handiwork; they all had weapons in their hands. A little guy with brown hair high-fived Big Ears as he clambered back inside: "Way to go, Slash!"

Rage filled me to trembling, but I didnít move. I just lay there like a coward in the tall grass and did nothing. I know there was nothing I could have done for him, but the shame still welled up within me - something died in my breast like a slug dissolving in salt. The patch of grass I lay in was about twenty-five yards from them. Sam: the thought of him was all I clung to as I lay there hidden in helpless fury. I waited for them to drive their van anywhere but here, out of our lives.

The vanís engine got louder as the driver tried to take off, but the engine stuttered and started making a clattering sound as he wrenched the gearshift over into drive. The van's engine abruptly died with a prehistoric gargle, and all the other sirens were suddenly much closer now.

The occupants of the van had a short, loud argument, and then they all piled out to stand for a moment in the street. To my horror, all four gunmen ran through the schoolyard gate and went inside the main school building: toward the classrooms, the children, and my son Sam.

Every hair on my body stood on end like porcupine quills. My mind was a total blank as I bounded to my feet and huffed to the schoolyard gate, where I paused in a frenzy of indecision. I remember my empty hands kneading the air as they hung by my sides, like they were creatures separate from me.

They had uncontested access to the children right now, and they were proven killers who laughed as they did it. The cops were too far away. Somebody had to do something. Somebody had to something RIGHT NOW. And I was the only one there.

I heard menís voices inside, raised in anger, and followed by a single gunshot. Like I was fired from the same gun, I suddenly found myself trundling toward the school building, faster than I'd moved in years.

Out of training, heavier than I'd once been, my mind raced like a redlining hotrod engine as I ran. I prayed with all my heart: Please! I shouted soundlessly to the empty heavens above as I ran, Please, heís all I have!

The morning sun was bright, but the cold blue sky stared down like an uncaring eye, watching the foolish, balding little man scurry across the playground as fast as he could, just one more scrawny nonentity in stained work clothes. It seemed a nightmare eternity that I ran and planned and prayed, but finally I reached the exit door.

I stood next to the closed door, panting. The exit was at one end of the schoolís long central hall. All the classrooms opened off the hallway, but each classroom also had a separate exit to the outside. I could hear some commotion inside already; voices childish and adult were raised in reaction to the gunshot. But the babble of voices all sounded uncertain, as if no one were quite sure what was happening, or what to do.

I sucked in a deep breath and bellowed at the top of my lungs, "GET THE CHILDREN OUTSIDE NOW! THERE ARE MEN WITH GUNS IN THE HALL! GET THE CHILDREN OUTSIDE NOW! THERE ARE MEN WITH GUNS IN THE HALL! . . ." I continued sounding the alarm, even as (after a few endless seconds of delay) pandemonium erupted within the building in response to my warning. Classroom doors began slamming open around both corners of the building and I could hear the childrenís yelling become suddenly clear as they finally started streaming into the open air. Then I heard angry shouts from inside, getting nearer. I had succeeded in luring the gunmen away from Sam and the other children - toward myself.

Someone kicked the door open from inside, hard, and I shut right up, taking an involuntary step back as it whipped around and slammed against the wall, revealing two of the gunmen standing in the doorway, Slash and another man. Now I was point blank with the two, and they did not look happy at all. Slash was in front, brandishing his revolver. A big guy with a sawed-off shotgun stood slightly behind him and to my left, holding the exit door open. Slash's face was flushed, and his slitted eyes were dancing. I clenched my fists at my side so my killers wouldn't see them shake - if the cop could be brave about it, so could I. Slash pointed his .38 snub-nose right at my face, and squeezed the trigger.

That pistol shot crashed like thunder. The round passed through the outside edge of my face, blowing out my left eye and . . . other stuff, how much I couldnít tell at the time. My head snapped around at the impact, and I grunted. There was a roaring in my head as if a heavenly choir of warrior angels shouted all at once in a sustained bass howl of fury. The left half of my maimed field of vision was black, shot through with screaming red strands of agony as the angels howled. I looked at the wall with my blurred vision, and I could see red goo dripping down it; I could see little splinters of white bone sticking out of the stucco, and I thought numbly: those are my brains - those are pieces of my skull.

Then the roaring passed, and I swiveled my ruined head back around to glare at my murderers with my one remaining eye. They looked as surprised as I was that I was still alive. I have no idea what kind of expression was on my face, but they obviously didnít like it one bit. I saw the color bleach instantly out of their faces, and they both recoiled from me as if a pair of giant hands had grabbed them by the scruffs of their necks and jerked them backward hard.

I heard a horrible whoop of rage come from somewhere, and I had just enough time to realize I was the one making it as I dipped my shoulder and backhanded Slash in the side of his neck with all my strength. I heard something crunch in Slashís neck as he rocketed sideways to slam into the wall, his eyes twin stunned zeros. I reached out one hand as he bounced back to me, snagged his shirt, and reeled him in close to me like landing a fish.

The other gunman was just waking up enough to let go of the door. He was a tall, bigheaded dude with a buzz-cut and devilish eyebrows, and he leveled his sawed-off shotgun now to let go at me with both barrels. I dragged Slash in close and huddled behind him as the sawed-off roared. I could feel the buckshot thudding into and through my human shield. Slash's back splashed wet red instantly, and some of the shot continued through to embed themselves in me. My free hand clawed desperately for the dying man's weapon, and I stripped his pistol away. I straightened and flung my gory burden toward the guy with the now empty shotgun, then aimed my new .38 at him. Buzz-Cut staggered back into the hallway as his friendís corpse crashed wetly against him and slid to the floor, where it propped the exit door open.

Buzz-Cut's eyes were wide, and his wicked eyebrows crawled like frightened caterpillars. He looked down in disgust at himself, at the red welter Slash had left sliding down the front of his clothes. He started to waggle his useless weapon, then seemed to catch himself. "Don't shoot me, man! I'll put the gun down, okay? Just don't shoot, please!" He was preparing to set the shotgun down in front of me, his knees bent, when the little gunman with brown hair stuck his head out a doorway farther down the hall.

"Shit!" the little man said, and ducked back into the room. It was Sam's classroom.

The vision in my remaining eye suddenly blurred, and there was a buzzing in whatever was left of my head. The pain from my wound was peeking through the initial shock in a ripple of agony, a hint of things to come. My hand crept up to hover in front of my face in a rigid claw and my remaining eye screwed shut as my fingertips stroked the air - but I refused to touch the hole in my head, refused to explore its extent. I grunted as the pain welled up like an overflowing toilet, and Buzz-Cut continued babbling in terror, yapping like a kicked dog, as the pain rose to cloud my mind until I could take no more. My only eye opened with a snap and I raised the pistol whip-fast to aim at Buzz-Cutís face. Buzz-Cut flinched back from me, still gabbling away, his whole face twitching uncontrollably.

"Shut up!" I bellowed at him. "Shut up! How can I even think with you talking?" Buzz-Cut went prudently silent. He had seemed afraid before, but now he looked as if he could barely stand. He sort of sagged as he stood there in front of me, without quite falling down.

I stepped over Slash's body into the school building, and dragged Buzz-Cut to his feet. I snatched the guy's empty sawed-off away and flung it behind me over my shoulder. I heard it clash and clatter on the asphalt but did not turn.

I giggled, somewhat inappropriately I thought, as I reached out to clutch Buzz-Cutís shoulder. "Youíre my passport," I explained, my face stretched into a grin so tight it hurt, a grin I was powerless to turn off. Then I spun my hostage around. One hand knotted in the shoulder of the guy's shirt, the other hand jamming the pistol into his spine, I propelled Buzz-Cut ahead of me as we walked slowly down the hall to Sam's room.

I knew I was walking a tightrope here, and one miss-step would spell disaster for the children. Part of me wanted to charge at these bastards in trembling berserker fury, but I knew they'd just pop me in the face and the children would be at their mercy. Another part of me wanted to retreat, to huddle up in a fetal ball and let this evil circus act go on without me. But that would mean failure as well. I kept moving forward.

As we neared Samís classroom, Buzz-Cut suddenly awoke to the full extent of his predicament, being the only barrier between his trigger-happy friends and me. "Guys!" he blurted out suddenly, voice a little shrill. "Guys! It's me, Mark! Don't shoot! Guys!"

Mark/Buzz-Cut got his reply at once: a grenade came skittering out into the hall and banked off the wall to roll toward us, spinning and clinking. Apparently Markís friends didn't like him as much as he thought.

My heart skipped a beat in dread, and my single eye bulged. I let go of my hostage and leapt clumsily through an open doorway into an empty classroom; Mark remained behind, staring down in horrid fascination as the grenade bounced off his feet.

In the split second before the grenade went off, my gaze fell on the classroomís other door, the one leading to the exterior. I could see the empty playground out there, and the clear blue sky. It seemed I had never seen a sky so lovely, or a shade of blue quite so beautiful. It drew me toward it like a magnet: all I had to do was step out that door into the heavenly sunlight, and I'd be out of this. The hell with that, I thought, and began to turn my head back to look through the doorway into the hall, towards the children. Then the grenade exploded, rocking the floor under my feet and deafening me as a hot shock wave of air slapped my whole body. Almost simultaneously, the wall I was leaning against rippled askew from its foundation with the force of the blast, shoving me roughly to stagger away a step.

I was back in the now sagging doorway as soon as the blast was over, back on top of things again. The air in the hallway reeked of cordite, hot blood and shit. I looked all around at Markís remains: the explosion had splashed parts of him against the walls, floor and ceiling in that horribly familiar old Rorschach. Then I looked across the hall toward my sonís classroom as I braced my gun hand against the doorframe. The vision in my sole eye was foggy, and I was feeling none too steady by now, but I had no trouble seeing the other two gunmen crowd the open doorway. My first round smashed into the shoulder of the little brown-haired weasel carrying the .45 and the canvas bag. The weasel whirled like a top and lurched back into Sam's classroom.

The other gunman was a bearded skinhead -- he pointed his assault rifle at me and held the trigger back. As I ducked back to cover inside the doorway, the skinhead's M-16 rock-and-rolled on full auto, chewing up the doorframe and the hall walls with a riotous noise like a sewing machine on steroids. Chunks of paint and drywall peppered me as I cringed there, and a splinter of wood pierced my ear lobe to dangle from it like earring. Then the seemingly endless chattering burst of fire stopped with the clack of the bolt holding open on an empty chamber: the skinhead had run out of bullets. I swiveled back around the corner in time to see him dart back into the classroom.

The only things that existed to me now were the door to Sam's classroom and the sobbing of the children leaking out now to goad me into action. My skin crawled as I left the cover of the doorframe and started slowly across the open kill-zone of the hallway, the .38 extended in front of me. I knew that Sam was waiting for me.

Through the doorway, I could see the brown-haired little weasel leaning heavily against the teacherís desk. His right arm hung down limply from his smashed and bloody shoulder, shattered by the bullet from my .38. His pistol lay on the desk, but his other hand was out of sight. I kept my pistol pointed at him as I approached the doorway; several of the children were in view now, kneeling against the far wall.

I was feeling pretty punch drunk by now; my thought processes werenít as clear as they might have been, and I was just entering the classroom when it occurred to me to wonder where Skinhead was. That was the instant he made his move; he'd been plastered against the wall inside the doorway like a lizard, waiting. If Iíd still had both eyes I would have seen him out of the corner of my vision. As it was, I couldnít see, and the only warning I had was when I heard my son Samís voice screaming in terror: "LOOK OUT DAD!" Startled into alertness, I sensed the motion of the attack barely in time as Skinhead lunged in from the left, grabbing the wrist of my gun hand in a vise-like grip and stabbing a hunting knife up at my belly, a snarling grimace on his bearded face.

Time slowed to a crawl and a cry of dismay blurted out of me as I desperately swept my left arm down, redirecting the knife so that it stabbed into the front of my thigh and embedded itself marrow-deep in the bone. I hissed, then put my left hand up to the knifer's face, stuck my thumb in the guy's eye, and pressed with all my weight. The guy shrieked, and let go of my gun hand and the knife. Both of Skinhead's hands shot up to scrabble futilely at my wrist as I gouged my thumb deeper into the socket, all the way to the second knuckle. My gun hand now free, I stuck my .38 against the guy's leather-clad chest and fired twice, ending his squealing struggle. I almost fell as I lurched around to face the room, wondering why the last gunman hadn't blind-sided me while he had the chance.

The children were crowded against the far wall, sitting or on their knees -- Sam was there in their midst, unharmed. They were squirming and crying in terror, snot and tears streaking most of their faces. Hard as I squinted, I could see no blood or signs of injury on any of them. The school janitor, a small man with wavy brown hair, lay on the floor in front of them. His mop was still clutched in his outstretched hand as he sprawled there, shot dead.

Sam's teacher gasped as she saw my face, and several of the children whimpered even harder as they stared wide-eyed at me. I knew I must be an awful sight, with half my face a bloody red ruin and a knife stuck in my leg. I felt obscurely embarrassed, like in one of those dreams where youíre wearing underwear in public - but at least I was becoming numb now. I wrenched my gaze away from my son's staring eyes and turned to face the Weasel, still leaning on the teacher's desk. The Weasel was a barely contained bundle of nervous energy, bandy-muscled and intense. His previously hidden hand was now revealed, holding up a grenade as if for my inspection, the pin pulled -- only the pressure of his hand kept the spoon from flying off to ignite the fuse.

He glared wildly at me. "Think you're bad, motherfucker? You back off, right now, or all these kids go spl-ASH!" He looked on the edge of hysteria.

I could hear someone outside now, barking something into a megaphone. The cops, of course. But they were out there. It was a whole different world in here. I limped stiff-legged toward this last threat, aiming at Weasel's face. "STOP! STOP RIGHT THERE OR I'LL DO IT, MAN, I'LL DO IT!" the last gunman screamed, spittle flying from his mouth as he clutched the grenade like some sort of talisman.

I stopped, the muzzle of the .38 about a foot from Weasel's sweating face. I was wobbling on my feet now, and I knew I had to finish this before I fell down for good. I figured Weasel would drop the grenade or throw it any second now. Without turning I spoke to the teacher. "Have the children lie down, right now!" My croaking voice didn't sound human, even to myself. "Do as he says, children," I barely heard the teacher say through the growing roaring in my ears. I sensed rather than heard all the kids stirring around as they obeyed. I stole a quick glance over at Sam and saw him pressed bellydown to the floor. I returned my gaze to Weasel, though I had to squint just to see him now.

Weasel was staring at me in confusion. "What -- ?" he began to ask. Then I shot him, right between the eyes. Blood and brains squirted out the back of Weaselís head onto the floor, and he dropped like the sack of shit that he was. His grip loosened as he fell, and the spoon flew off the grenade with a tinkle. Then I was toppling forward on top of him, fumbling for the grenade as if it were a loose ball in the championship game, and then I grabbed it with my numb fingers and pulled it in tight to my stomach and landed heavily on my side, body curved to shape the blast away from the children. I lay there, and waited forever.

When the detonator cooked off with an explosive whooshing hiss, punching me in the stomach hard enough to knock the wind right out of me, I didnít realize at first that the grenade was a dud, that the main charge hadnít gone off at all. When realization came, I lay there with my shirt on fire and my hands and abdomen fried to the color and consistency of over-cooked bacon, stunned for the second time since the start of this thing by the mere fact of my survival. I rolled onto my back, eyes watering from the pain, and feebly patted my burnt hands at my burning work shirt. Then Sam was there, skidding on his knees to reach his dad. His small hands beat at the flames until they were out. Sam stared down at me, lying there in my burnt, smoking shirt, with my charred gut & hands and the knife in my leg; I looked back at him with my one eye. Then Sam sobbed and hugged me close.

I could hear the cops coming into the building now, baying at each other like hounds as they cleared each room by the numbers. I looked up at the darkening ceiling, then peered fuzzily down at Sam. I looked around at the children, all of them unharmed. Despite the pain, I felt a blissful smile creep onto my features. This was as close to heaven as I'd ever hoped to come.

I wondered if theyíd get an ambulance to me in time. I wondered what was going to happen next. But I guess if you watch TV, you already know what happened then.