Relative Innocence Excerpt

Chapter 1

 There are two types of people in this fucked up world. Those who know what gunfire sounds like, and those who wonder what else it might be. A car engine backfiring. Fireworks. A large object dropping. A balloon popping. Construction. Thunder. A ghostly cannon from the Civil War.

The latter type were at Waldenbrook Academy one overcast June morning. The private school was in the northern section of Woodbury, a small, well-to-do suburb adjacent to St. James. Both towns were located a half hour west of Chicago.

Paper mill owner Vernon Walden and wife Elaine established Waldenbrook in 1948 to educate their three children. The original school was housed in a rustic stone cottage that sat next to the St. James River.

When it first opened Waldenbrook was popular with the area’s wealthiest citizens, but in the ‘70s the Walden heirs, sometimes called hippies or worse, took the school in a different direction. A glass and steel building was erected next to a large parking lot. More classrooms, a gymnasium, theater, and cafeteria were added. Eschewing the elitism the founders perhaps unintentionally espoused, the new leaders envisioned a school that would open its doors to all. “Every child is a unique individual and deserves respect. Waldenbrook offers an environment which allows for the natural unfolding of the student. The curriculum is designed to nurture the child’s absorbent mind and enrich his total development. We hope to foster independence, self-confidence, self-learning and respect. Waldenbrook is committed to working as a partner with parents in an atmosphere of respect and concern to ensure a meaningful experience.” So said the plaque outside the ‘new’ building. Ironic statement considering two things. One, it became the scene of Woodbury’s worst mass murder. Two, a parent, Dr. Douglas Milbank, a university professor with three children attending the school, committed the act.

The old stone cottage was now a storage facility and Robert McCoy’s home. He was the school’s handyman, maintenance guru, and security guard. Many conjectured that if he’d been there that day the tragedy would have taken a different path. He’d served in the Gulf War and Afghanistan and knew what gunfire sounded like. McCoy, some liked to think, would have been out of his cottage, armed, and ready to stop the perpetrator within seconds. Alas, it was a Friday morning, and McCoy, a creature of habit like many of us, was in town at the Jewel picking up groceries.

The school year had ended a week earlier, and McCoy was on ‘vacation.’ Since he lived at Waldenbrook year-round this meant little in the scheme of things but resulted in his staying in town longer than usual because he combined his grocery run with a trip to the King County Fairgrounds where a flea market was held once a month. McCoy often found furniture, linens, and knickknacks for the cottage. He was partial to patriotic sheet music from World War I which he used to paper the cottage’s walls. Of course, there was no reason to believe that McCoy could have stopped the tragedy, but the fact that he wasn’t there was something that tormented him for years to come.

Sadly, when news first filtered out about the shooting, some immediately jumped to the conclusion that McCoy was the shooter. “He’s not quite right,” some whispered. Known as a ‘gun nut,’ many believed he owned an arsenal. In truth, he owned a 22 caliber handgun, a Glock, and a World War I German boot knife. The last item was purchased at the flea market years ago for a good price. It was one of his best finds.

The Glock was similar to the one that belonged to Dr. Milbank. Several people smiled and nodded when the bearded professor walked into the Waldenbrook lobby. There was no reason not to. He was known to just about everyone. Most would have said that they liked him. Later some described him as odd, arrogant, and a narcissist, but that was after the murders.

Milbank parked the black Range Rover under an old sycamore tree in the far left corner of the parking lot. No one paid attention, but if they had they would have noticed three people remained inside the vehicle after he got out. Eighteen-year-old Jackson sat in front listening to his MP3 player. Ten-year-old twins, Ella and Blake, sprawled in the back seat indulging in their favorite activity—tormenting each other. They also had MP3 players, but instead of listening to them they’d devised a game that involved pulling out the other’s earpiece. If one did it just right, it caused pain. Even when it wasn’t painful, it was fucking annoying. They alternately giggled and bellowed. Jackson turned up the volume on his player which was a good or bad thing depending on how you looked at it.

Administrative assistant Mrs. Violet Swanson liked to be important, one of those souls who made up for a lack of attractiveness by being ever-so-helpful. Dressed in a yellow floral dress that she would have called pretty but others said was hideous, the round, red-faced widow gave Milbank a knowing smile. “She’s in the break room,” Mrs. Swanson said, pointing toward the hall. ‘She’ was Donna Hanks. President of the Waldenbrook’s Parents Association. Chairperson of the fundraising committee. Assistant Professor of Economics at St. James Community College. Mother of Jackson, Ella, and Blake. Dr. Milbank’s second wife.

The break room was behind the third door on the left side of the hall. Waldenbrook teachers made phone calls, ate snacks, and occasionally napped here. It was also used for meetings. On this day the fundraising committee had gathered.

Milbank strolled down the white tiled hallway. Student art work was displayed on the walls. Some pieces were quite good. If Milbank had been less focused on his mission, he would have noticed an acrylic landscape painted by Jackson.

The painting depicted St. James. The brown windmill near the river bank was in the foreground. In the background one could see St. James’ small but charming skyline. Jackson’s painting won second prize in the annual art contest for senior students. Donna mentioned it to Milbank several months ago, but he’d forgotten because he had many things on his mind including end of the quarter details, an upcoming performance review, a bad patch in his relationship with his mistress, and a growing suspicion that his wife was having an affair with Kent Cook, a much younger man. Maybe it would have changed Milbank’s mind had he seen it. It would have been maudlin, but Jackson later contemplated his father catching sight of the painting, staring at it contemplatively, and walking out of the building. Even if Milbank had seen it, the scenario was unlikely. The murder was something he’d planned. Not exactly like this, but the image of shooting his pretty wife in the face had persisted for months.

The break room’s oak door was open. Milbank filled the doorway. Donna smiled when she saw him. She actually looked fucking happy to see him. It almost made Milbank hesitate. You see, if Donna’s inherent warmth and decency couldn’t stop Milbank, it was unlikely Jackson’s painting, which Milbank would have seen as “technically good but derivative,” could have changed his mind.

Milbank took the Glock 19 out of his jacket. He shot Donna first. One bullet in the middle of her chest. He’d always imagined firing into her face. Maybe it was the smile that made him aim lower. Donna’s hand went to the wound. She stopped smiling. It was like he’d said something she didn’t understand.

Milbank often visited the shooting range near the university. In the last month he’d been there at least twice a week. He was good. He’d nailed Donna’s heart. Part of him regretted the shot, wishing he’d caused her more pain. She was, he guessed, already dead.

He didn’t wait for Donna to hit the floor before firing again. The gun held a standard fifteen bullet magazine. There was plenty of ammunition. This time he shot Mrs. Edith Francis. She made the mistake of coming toward him, reaching for the gun. Odd behavior. He would have left her alone if she’d remained seated. For some strange reason she thought she could stop him. Mrs. Francis was the oldest person in the room. Had to be in her late seventies. She was Mrs. Claus in the malls during Christmas. She’d held Milbank’s hand when he was a kid. He’d known her for decades. One winter when he was ten he’d shoveled her driveway. She paid him more than he asked for and insisted he take a stuffed baggie of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. They were warm to the touch. Her children and grandchildren attended Waldenbrook, and she served on its committees even after they graduated. Why in the world did she choose this moment to be a hero? He shot her in the face. Stricken, her hands went to her cheeks. Out of guilt and perverse sympathy he fired a bullet into her forehead. It was at that moment Milbank realized how surreal this had become. This isn’t happening. It can’t be. I can’t possibly be doing this. It must be a fantasy. A daydream.

“Doug, no.”

These were the first words spoken since Milbank entered the room. So far there’d just been gasps and moans.

Kent Cook’s hands covered his face. He’d get it next. He should have gotten it right after Donna. Maybe Milbank should have shot him first so Donna could see it. It occurred to him that he should have killed her last. That way she could see what she’d caused. Too late. Kent foolishly stood. Bam. Bam. Bam. The first bullet slammed into his crotch. He shrieked. The next two hit his shoulder and stomach as he fell. Milbank walked over and fired another shot in the back of his head. Why not? There were plenty of bullets.

Seven shots. Loud as hell. Milbank glanced at the door. No one came to check.

He shot Ben Crouch to complete things. The poor sap knew he was going to get it. The dope was still seated with a stunned look on his big, bearded face. Donna rolled her eyes when she talked about Ben. His appliance repair business closed last winter. His wife left him for a woman, the nanny who took care of his two kids. Crouch’s house was in foreclosure. Milbank was doing him a favor. Pow. Pow. Two shots to the forehead. Nine shots fired. Six left. Milbank put the gun back in his blazer jacket. He wore crisp jeans, a blue work shirt, and a tweed blazer as though he were on his way to teach a class. Milbank stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.

People murmured in the lobby. They were like an insect colony that sensed something was happening. There was buzzing, a cacophony of human puzzlement. Concerned faces. Wan smiles. He shrugged at Mrs. Swanson. She wasn’t focused, flitting around, trying to do something, anything. She reminded him of a crippled bumblebee. He hesitated for a second. Maybe he should kill her too. Keep walking.

No one stopped him. Milbank easily made it outside to the parking lot. June in Illinois is no guarantee of a warm day. It was cool, almost chilly. Rain had fallen earlier. The air felt heavy and wet. The sun wanted to peek through a bruised cloud.

Milbank took sunglasses out of the other pocket in his blazer and put them on. His hands were shaking. Damn. Fuck. He wanted no emotion. He thought he could do it without any feeling. Those who saw him that morning reported that he had no expression on his face. None. Zilch. Nada. As though he weren’t feeling anything. They described him as robotic. Judging by his twitching hands, he was feeling quite a lot.

Still no sirens. He opened the Range Rover door. How long would it be before someone checked on the people in Room 111? Jackson didn’t look at him. Milbank slid into the seat next to him. The sullen adolescent stared straight ahead listening to his player. What was he into now? Not metal. That came and went. Rap? Obviously a disaffected upper-middle class white boy had tons in common with inner city black thugs.

Ella and Blake assaulted Milbank with accusations against the other. Normally he would have snapped at them, told them to knock it off. Not today. They were going to have a bad day.

Ella and Blake were brutal to each other. Always had been. Donna complained it felt like WrestleMania when they were in the womb. Still, the worst punishment you could dole out was to separate them. They were like an abusive married couple. Couldn’t live with each other. Couldn’t live without each other. Maybe they’d bond over this.

“Dad, what was that noise?” Blake asked. “We heard something when you were inside.”

Jackson glanced at Milbank, waiting for an answer. He’d taken out one ear bud.

“Dad, what was that noise?” Ella echoed.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Milbank said. His ears rung from the gunshots. He started the SUV and pulled away. Maybe it didn’t happen. For the first time, but certainly not the last, Milbank wished he hadn’t done it.


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