"When in doubt, choose to live."
― Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time
She could hear the gunman’s heavy footsteps echoing between the school corridor walls as he ran towards her.
“In here. Hurry!” Kat opened the gym equipment storage and shoved the children inside. Why were there so many of them? Darn politicians cramming thirty kids in a middle school class! She would never have time to hide them all.
“Hurry!” she hissed again. The children were giggling and pushing each other, not understanding this was real , that this was not a fire drill or a game. Perhaps it was for the better, had they known who was coming for them they would panic.
How could this happen here , in her safe little town? It was like the Utøya Massacre or the Trollhättan School Attack all over again, only this time the casualties would not be numbers on the news, this time she was inside the nightmare and might be counted among the victims.
The last child was finally through the door, Ali of course, even now lagging behind. She had never met a kid who could dawdle like Ali.
She moved to follow the children inside but an angry voice made her freeze in terror. “Stop, or I’ll shoot!”
No! She had been too late! But she must save the children at least. Kat quickly slammed the door on them and locked it behind her, gripping the key with fingers like claws.
The man slowly walked closer. What an ugly thing guns were. Especially when you found yourself in the wrong end of one.
The man was dressed in green camouflage clothes, but his black Harley Davidsson cap looked a bit out of place. He had not bothered to mask himself, and with a pang of dismay she recognized him. She had been his teacher not that long ago.
Kat remembered they had argued about that cap every other lesson. ‘No caps indoors’, she would say, and he would take it off, only to put it on again ten minutes later.
“Johan… Please, put the gun down.” If only it were the cap she had wanted him to remove this time too instead of a heavy automatic army rifle.
“Open the door. Give me those filthy monkeys and I’ll let you live, despite your inferior race.”
“You don’t want to do this, Johan. This is not who you are.”
“You don’t know shit about who I am. This is necessary, I do this for our country! Not that you muslim-loving traitors would understand. Now open up.”
“They are not muslims, most of them! Not all brown people are, you know. Like me. I’m not a muslim, and Ana’s an Orthodox Christian and Gamon is Buddhist and I don’t even know all their religions but it’s beside the point!” She instinctively knew she had to keep talking, keep delaying things until the police came.
“Open the bloody door or I’ll bloody shoot your arse off and I don’t care what’s your religion you bloody ni–”
“Not that language in my school, Johan. Behave!” She had used her sternest teacher voice, and some impact it must still have on him, because he actually shut his mouth. However, when he cocked the rifle and pointed it directly at her head she wished he would have talked instead.
If he shot her, he would get the key to the storage and kill the children as well. She must run for it, hoping for the best.
Turning on the spot, Kat bolted, running like her life depended on it. It did depend on it. The thundering explosions of Johan’s weapon firing after her made that absolutely clear.
But he was following her, so at least the children were safe for now.
Another bang, she could even hear the bullet as it zinged past and embedded itself in the far wall. She tried to run in slalom moves, hoping to be harder to hit that way, surely he could not be that good a shot? But with unlimited ammunition and a powerful weapon a man did not need to be a good shot.
She had reached the end of the corridor and turned the corner. The cafeteria was deserted, thank God. She headed towards the stairs down to the main entrance.
Bang! Bang! Bang! A plate of cinnamon buns exploded in a cloud of bread and nib sugar and the coffee machine sprayed its contents all over the place. Such a shame! Kat would not exactly call the liquid the machine served coffee , but it was black and hot and got her through the day.
She flew down the stairs, three steps at a time. The hurried gait of teachers everywhere was really coming in handy now, she was gaining on the gunman. The exit was right before her and she saw flashes of blue outside. The police! If she could just reach them she would be safe and Johan would be caught.
Another series of loud gunshots splintered a painting of a lopsided bunny, made by a class of fourth graders of the distant past. That was all right, it was frankly very ugly and had never deserved the prominent spot right inside the entrance.
Kat had reached the heavy doors and pushed them open, stumbling through. Behind her they scattered in a rain of glass fragments.
Outside an armada of neon-and-blue police cars charged over the schoolyard’s asphalt and came to a stop with screeching brakes, discoloring the white hopscotch lines with black tire burns.
She had made it! She was out! She…
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Darn. So close.
( * ᆽ * )
As Kat’s body sank to the ground she felt herself leave it, hovering a little above the… corpse? Was it a corpse now?
The police had caught Johan, she noticed. For some reason he had dropped the gun after shooting her. The young man actually looked remorseful as he was handcuffed and led into a waiting car. Perhaps he was not all rotten, then.
Meanwhile, a police officer was working on Kat’s body, trying to keep her alive. It seemed futile – I mean, there was a big hole in her head, for crying out loud. Yet, people survived such things sometimes, she knew that.
She turned her incorporeal head towards the sound. A vaguely humanoid shape stood beside her.
“Follow me. There are some choices for you to make.”
She shrugged her insubstantial shoulder. Why not? It was not like she had other appointments at the moment, and the officer giving her body first aid would probably manage just fine without her looking on.
The shape led Kat upwards, but before they could crash into an airplane or enter outer space or something stupid like that, the surroundings changed. The brick building of her school, the police cars, the street, the city – all faded, and she found herself and the shape floating in a void.
It was a strangely warm void, and prettier than one might expect. It was made up of all the colors of the rainbow, like she imagined the inside of a disco ball would look. The not-air smelled of strawberries for some reason.
“Come. This way.” The shape went ahead and Kat tagged along.
She could not say how long her passing through the void lasted, it could have been thousands of years or one second, all she knew was that it was a pleasant journey.
Then the void filled with shapes again, other shapes unlike anything Kat had seen back home. She was standing in a building, but also in a lush forest, all at the same time which of course did not make sense, but here it did.
Around her flowers blossomed and clear water trickled from golden fontains. Other people mingled around, beautiful men and women mostly, but there were a few children too. They were singing, a complex, polyphonic piece that filled her heart with unusual joy, and everybody was dressed in white. It smelled amazingly good of fresh, home-baked bread.
Was this Heaven?
She turned to ask the shape but it was gone. Instead a tall, male being in a fine silver robe strode towards her.
“Welcome to the Halls of Mandos, Katharina.” His voice was dark and exceedingly pleasant. She could have listened to it all day.
“I love your voice. It’s even nicer than Henry Cavill’s!”
“I thank thee.” He smiled in a way that would have made Cat’s stomach feel funny and her knees weaken, had she still had a body. “I have received tidings of thy brave sacrifice. Thou hast saved the lives of thirty children today.”
“Oh, that was nothing. Anyone would have done the same, really.” She tried to look modest like a good Swede. Never to self-praise was a deep rooted unwritten law in her country.
“In acknowledgement of thy deed, I offer thee three choices.”
“I’m intrigued. Shoot!”
“Thy first choice is to stay in my Halls. ’Tis a restful dwelling where souls come and go, some to stay, others to be reborn. Time doth not pass here, and thus thou wilt never feel bored or lonely.”
“Hm. I don’t have much of a singing voice, though… Not sure the other souls will appreciate the addition of me to the choir.”
“Thy second choice is to return to thy old body, which is kept alive by the healers of thy world. Thou wouldst be aware, but not able to see, speak, move or even breathe on thy own. Many would visit thee, however, for thou art held in high regard amongst them. Thou art a hero.”
“Really? I always dreamt of being famous, actually. But I had sort of imagined being able to enjoy the lifestyle that comes with it...”
“Thy third choice is to be reborn into another body, in another world, where a Fellowship hath set out on an important quest. Thou wouldst join them with the mission to change the course of history, saving that world from impending evil. As a reward, shouldst thou succeed, thou wouldst be gifted with life – real, conscious life, in either thine old world or that other world. However, shouldst thou fail, thou wouldst die and travel beyond my Halls to a destination even I know not.”
Kat pondered her options. Staying here would mean she could listen more to this person's amazing voice, a fine perk for sure, but singing all day was not her favorite pastime. No matter what he claimed, she felt certain it would be boring after a while.
Going home would work wonders for her ego, she had never been hero worshipped before. However, being in a vegetable state did not really appease her. That left her with going on that quest. It sounded intriguing, saving the world would beat saving a school class by far. Maybe she could get both hero worshipping and her life back that way. Win-win!
Of course, she might fail and die – but then, that would be an adventure too! Always look on the bright side of life. Or death, in this case.
“I choose the quest.”
“Thou hast chosen well, Katharina. Now, here be thy task: Thou shalt join the Fellowship and follow them until the time hath come for thee to take thy own path, seeking to save the life of one who in the foreseen turn of events wilt die. If he indeed perisheth, an entire land wilt be cast into oblivion and the line of Elendil be no more, whereas if he liveth, this disaster shalt not come to be.”
“Sure, I’ll try. Who is it?”
“The one who climbeth into the king’s vessel by night.”
“Umm… could you be a bit more specific? Like, what’s his na–”
“Even the wise cannot see all ends. Fare thee well!” And with that, the beautiful garden/building disappeared, the enchanting song silenced and the aroma of home-baked bread ceased.
Kat was standing in a cold, unfamiliar forest, looking at a row of odd people of various heights coming her way.
Gosh, were they tall!
Of course, that was when she realized they were not big, it was she who was small.
“Miaow!” she cried in dismay. This was not the kind of body she had expected to be reborn into.