In childhood nightmares, monsters pop out of closets. Zachary Taylor hides in one to get away from the gunman, his first-grade teacher’s hot coffee breath stifling the air. “We kept hearing the POP sounds outside. . . . It sounded a lot like the sounds from the Star Wars game I sometimes play on the Xbox.” In the aftermath, police herd Zach and his bewildered classmates to the hollow sanctuary of a nearby church. Preoccupied with the loss of his backpack, Zach doesn’t think about his ten-year-old brother, Andy, until his mother, Melissa, finally arrives and jolts him back to the shattered facts of their new reality.
Andy is dead, one of 20 victims of the shooting carried out by the son of McKinley elementary’s beloved security guard, Charlie. Zach blends naiveté with heartbreakingly astute observation; at Andy’s funeral, he notes, “Andy’s casket was in front . . . there wasn’t a Jesus hanging on a cross, so that was good. I didn’t want to sit there again and look at Jesus with the nails in his hands and feet like when I was at the church by McKinley.”
Initially Zach feels relieved by the death; he is now an only child. (Andy dealt with “oppositional defiant disorder” and often bullied Zach.) Later on, he wrestles with how to sympathize with his brother’s neglected pain. Zach struggles to cope with the complexity of this grief and its cruel transformation of his parents into strangers. His mother’s all-consuming rage seeks to extract vengeance from Charlie’s family. His father, Jim, isolates himself in work and blunders through an affair with the mom of another victim.
Zach’s perspective hedges exploration of the intricacies of gun policy and legal responsibility after such tragedies. Still, using the voice of a child strikes at the heart of these events; the normalcy of his life is indelibly fractured beyond all previous understanding.
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