From the author: Everyone sees high school as a metaphor: maybe it's a circus, or it's a ladder, or it's a dog eat dog world. For Aubrey, high school is a wild west shootout, only it's a bit more literal for her and the stakes couldn't be higher.
Yellow High’s halls smelled like dusty streets in a Texas sun, like mesquite and sand and cactus, and sometimes like a thunderstorm just below the horizon; and when the double doors at the ends of the main hall opened, a wind came off the plains, swirling a dust devil, catching paper scraps and hissing grit across the lockers, but only Aubrey noticed. She clutched books to her chest as she walked from third period English to fourth period Student Senate. Other students streamed in both directions, racing the tardy bell.
She spotted Sheriff Jane Tremble leaning on the wall next to the drinking fountain, hat pushed back on her head, left hand grazing a six shooter’s smooth handle. The sheriff wore two gun belts, heavy with bullets, the guns resting on her hips. Lines marked her face, like worn leather, and she perpetually squinted as she surveyed passing kids.
The sheriff caught Aubrey’s eye, and touched a finger to her hat’s wide brim.
Around the corner, down the hall, Wyoming Jim and Dry Gulch stepped into view. Wyoming sported an angry, red scar that started above the left ear, traversed across his face to the corner of his mouth, before ending at his chin. A revolver stuck from his belt at an easy angle.
Dry Gulch didn’t look much older than twenty, but he had an old man’s hitch in his walk. A shotgun hung from his hand like a club.
They stopped when they spotted the sheriff.
“You should’a git when we told you, Sheriff,” bellowed Wyoming.
No student reacted. A couple junior girls in lacrosse shirts, carrying their long sticks, walked around the two gunmen, not interrupting their animated conversation.
The sheriff pushed away from the wall. Aubrey stepped to the side, knowing what was coming next.
“You boys are breaking the law, and I’ve got’a duty here.” Her voice cut through student chatter, a controlled contralto. Resonate, resolute, confident.
Wyoming drew first, yanking a weapon from his belt, firing before he’d fully raised it. The ricochette wanged against the brick next to Aubrey’s head. She flinched down and tried to make herself small. Wyoming shot again and again, shattering the Pepsi machine, taking out a glass door in the trophy case.
The sheriff, unhurriedly, pulled a gun, aimed, and put a shot into Wyoming’s chest. He flew backwards, while his revolver spun away on the slick tile. Before she could shoot again, Dry Gulch brought the shotgun up and fired both barrels. The sheriff’s hat jumped from her head, and she staggered, her shirt a tattered, red mess.
She collapsed, the gun loose in her hand.
Now, smoke filled the hall. Two students were down. The Pepsi machine fizzled while a liquid gurgled from the bottom.
Three baseball players passed, heading toward Wyoming’s corpse. In the confusion, Aubrey lost Dry Gulch. A player said, “It’s too hot to take infield. Do you think coach will just put us in the batting cages this afternoon?”
The tardy bell rang. Aubrey looked down at the sheriff’s still form and shook her head. A student who’d fallen during the gunfire rose to her knees. Aubrey bent to help. There were no marks on the girl. The bullet had entered, exited, and the wound healed in a few seconds. Spilled blood evaporated, faded, leaving no stain. Even the torn blouse knitted itself whole. “I must have slipped,” she said.
Aubrey handed the girl her books. “That’s okay. As long as you’re not hurt.”
Mr. Courtright handed out the intent to run forms. “We need diverse candidates if we want productive discussion about school issues.” He wore a grey sweater vest over a long-sleeve flannel shirt, but he never seemed to sweat. Aubrey thought he had expressive eyebrows. He communicated an entire range of messages through his face. When he passed her the form, he flashed a we’re-both-in-on-the-joke look. She’d checked his picture in the yearbook from his first year at Yellow High, twenty-five years ago. He had the same expression then, though his hairline hadn’t receded yet.
Aubrey filled in the form. Next to “Office You Will Be Seeking” she wrote “junior class president,” but she didn’t know what to write in the space labeled “platform.”
What did she hope to do if she won?
Courtright said, “You need to shape a vision of how you see the school. I’m going to give you some exercises that will help you write your speeches. We’ll start with a metaphor to guide your message. Do you see school as a bucket to be filled? Is school a tug of war? Is it an ocean and the students are fish? Take a few minutes to finish this sentence, ‘School is a . . .’.”
The other students bent over their papers, some already writing. Aubrey despaired. She wanted to be involved. She wanted to make the school a better place, but she didn’t know why, and she certainly didn’t know how. The population overwhelmed her. A million kids, it seemed, with a million different concerns!
“Barclay,” said Mr. Courtland. “What’s your metaphor?”
Barclay, an athletic sophomore who Aubrey knew also planned on running for junior president, leaned back in his chair. “The school’s a flock of crows attracted to shiny things, and they’ll follow whatever glitters.” He smiled at the class, practically a jewel himself.
Courtland nodded in acknowledgement. “That’s a way to look at it. Billy, what’s your metaphor?”
Billy, who wore black silk shirts and black pants, and sometimes black eyeliner, didn’t glance from his paper, but kept writing instead. He’d been the junior class secretary and had announced a week ago he would run for senior vice president. “The school’s a cesspool. We need to clean it up. Or it’s a graveyard. The dead need raising.”
“The goth point of view, neatly articulated. And Emmet, how about you?”
Emmet, who never spoke in class unless called on, but served committees well, glanced toward the classroom door and the hallway beyond. “It’s a circus, a big parade. There’s elephants out there, and performing seals, and clowns. I smell greasepaint all the time.”
Aubrey, who hadn’t been paying attention, studied the boy. He oozed sincerity. She almost believed him. She wondered if she listened would she hear the calliope he heard. Would she taste popcorn and cotton candy?
“What’s your metaphor, Aubrey? How do you see the school?”
She hadn’t written anything. “I don’t have a metaphor, yet, Mr. Courtland. They’re just hallways.”
He smiled, not unkindly. “Tough to compose a speech without a vision. Keep thinking.” On the board, he wrote, POSTITIVES and NEGATIVES. “Now, list what you think Student Senate has done right over the year. These are areas you want to continue doing or improve. The other column should list tasks we haven’t done well or haven’t even tackled. Your lists are another way for you to define yourself as a candidate. Later, we’ll work on your personal strengths and weaknesses inventory.”
Aubrey tried to compose a list, but the problems seemed hard to define. Apathy? Helplessness? Directionless? Most kids she knew thought school sucked on some level, even the ones who liked school, but what, exactly sucked about it? And what would it matter what she did? Senate had no real power in the school to make change. They didn’t even aim at real issues.
In the desk in front of her, Connie Pace, who drove a BMW and spent lunches redoing her makeup, wrote a list is big letters: “Longer lunches. First period release for all seniors. Reduced graduation requirements. Preferred parking for Student Senate members.” Connie crossed the last one out, then added, “Senior class trip to Cabo in the spring.”
Good luck with those, thought Aubrey.
The administration scheduled the dances and made the rules. They controlled the budget. Senate debated balloon colors and what activity days they would promote during homecoming. They’d gone with pajama day, cross-dress day, superhero day, underwear on the outside day, and, of course, class colors on Friday. Only Student Senate members participated. For three days they’d argued about the DJ for the Wild West dance, before choosing based on the argument one kid made that he’d heard from a friend from another school that the DJ they ended up not choosing played too much techno. Real change defied them.
Her mother said Student Senate would look good on her resume for colleges, but surely, Aubrey thought, Senate is more than an activity. Student leadership must count for something.
HOW CAN I MAKE A DIFFERENCE? she wrote on her notebook. WHAT DO I BELIEVE?
Billy leaned across the space between their desks. “What happened to your binder?” He pointed at the blue, plastic cover. A ragged hole big enough to fit her pinky through showed the desk underneath. “It looks like you shot it.” He grinned darkly. “I want to kill my books too.”
The Reno boys stood inside the main entrance to the cafeteria in matching dusters that hung below their knees. Frank Reno held a revolver behind him, but Aubrey saw it when she came in. Frank’s brothers rested their hands on their belts, near their guns.
Aubrey watched them warily as she filled a bowl at the salad bar. The men didn’t move, even when their jacket tails swayed in the breeze from the open doors or when students passed too close. Wyoming Jim joined them, looking just as he had earlier, before the sheriff killed him.
After she picked up a milk, Aubrey chose a table as far away from the gunmen as she could, near an exit, in case things got exciting.
Kids lined up at the taco bar, empty lunch trays in hand. Others filled cups at the soup station or picked up sandwiches from the à la carte display before moving to the cash register. Students packed most tables, and chatter filled the room.
Aubrey opened a notebook. She still hadn’t written anything in the platform box, and she couldn’t think of a poster slogan. She tried several: “Aubrey: Your Voice in Student Senate.” “Give Aubrey Your Vote.” “Aubrey Will Make Yellow High Fly.”
They sounded stupid, but when she looked at the cafeteria crammed with students, she knew, really knew she wanted to be junior class president. Some kids ate quietly by themselves. Some ate in groups, laughing at each other's jokes. Some studied. Some read. Some were lost in whatever soundtrack their earbuds piped to them. None paid attention to her. She didn’t see any friends, but looking at classmates filled her with respect and awe. They have lives, she thought, and dreams and struggles, like me. For a moment, group empathy, an affectionate fog, surrounded her. If they knew how much I cared, they’d vote for me. If only they knew.
Barclay plopped next to her at the table. “You ought to run for secretary. Junior president is a sure thing for me.” He sounded matter of fact, almost friendly. “You’d be a good secretary.”
“Your funeral,” said Barclay. “Save some time and make your campaign speech a concession.”
Some boys on the other end of the cafeteria called him. He patted her shoulder as he left.
Before Aubrey could decide if she hated Barclay, or if he was right, Sheriff Jane Tremble filled the door next to Aubrey’s table. Aubrey froze. The Reno brothers straightened. Between the sheriff and the four men sat two hundred high school students.
Aubrey reached out, touched the sheriff’s hand. “There’s too many. You can’t win.”
The Sheriff didn’t look down. Her gaze locked like an eagle on the men across the room. “Darlin,’ you’re always outgunned.”
When the smoke cleared, and the half dozen students who’d been shot healed, picked themselves up, and headed to class. Two Reno brothers lay motionless on the cafeteria floor. A fluorescent light dangled from its fixtures, spitting sparks. And Sheriff Tremble sat, back to the blood-streaked cash register stand, eyes open, unfocused, unblinking and very, very dead.
Billy, late to lunch as usual, walked by Aubrey’s table, a square of chocolate cake balanced on a napkin. Many students had gone now, leaving behind paper wrappers, empty cups, unreturned trays, and the three bodies.
Billy, looking funereal in black, surveyed the remaining students. “Zombies. Can’t save them. Can’t bash their heads in.”
Aubrey, suddenly angry, said, “Why do you care then? Why do you want to even run for office?”
The boy stepped back, surprised. “Sheesh! It’s just a metaphor. I’m running for office because Lisa Autumn promised she’d be my campaign manager.”
“What does that matter?”
“Lisa Autumn is cute.”
Aubrey didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but after Billy left, along with the last students, she still sat at her table, looking at the Sheriff who hadn’t dropped her guns, who’d gone down shooting.
“It’s not fair,” said Aubrey.
If the janitor sweeping the floor by the dead Reno brothers heard, she didn’t react, but kept working, pushing paper, food scraps and empty brass shell casings.
Aubrey ditched 6th hour Algebra. She never ditched, but an hour with Mr. Ketchum and unsolved Xs filled her with dread. She slipped from a gymnasium exit, then walked across the brittle, brown grass until reaching the split-rail fence that marked the school’s boundary. Beyond, cactus covered hills undulated to the dry mountains, shimmering twenty miles away. The town of Yellow Sky, with its saloons and churches and ranching supply stores receded as she wound between mesquite and yucca. A whip-thin lizard, brown as the sand, skittered away, stopped after ten feet to eye her warily, then sprinted from sight.
A quarter mile from school, an arroyo cut across the desert, invisible until you almost fell over its edge. Aubrey slid down the sandy slope to the gravel bottom and followed its curves. When the angles allowed, the high walls shaded the sun, cutting the temperature by ten degrees. Finally, she came to the beach chairs kids had brought over the years. Nylon fabric hung in tatters from their aluminum frames, while several were almost new, their colors hardly faded. Cigarette butts littered the area, but it was quiet and calm and isolated. She knocked sand off a chair, shook it to make sure a scorpion wasn’t clinging to the underside, and sat down.
After a while, it seemed as if the wispy clouds crossing the strip of sky stood still, and the arroyo itself moved beneath them. Dry branches rattled against each other when the wind picked up. She shifted in the seat, making the metal creak. A calm settled upon her, so when she heard the rhythmic, rocky crunch of someone walking, she turned slowly, indifferently to see.
Sheriff Jane Tremble settled in a nearby chair, rolled a cigarette from a tobacco pouch she pulled from her shirt, but she didn’t light it.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school, butterfly?”
In the distance, a bell rang. Aubrey checked her watch.
The Sheriff looked at the sky. “So it is.”
For a long time, neither spoke. Aubrey heard a truck engine once, and then a coach’s whistle. The teams would be on the fields now. The parking lot would be empty except for the athletes’ cars and the teachers who stayed late. If she went into the school, there’d be no traffic. The janitors would have cleaned up. The lights would go off. The hallways would reach from end to end and cross each other like streets in the old west. She imagined the scene at night: the Sheriff at one end, walking toward the bad guys at the other, hands twitching near her guns. Their footsteps would echo. Tension-taut leather strings would vibrate between them. Over and over and over. Every night, a shootout, an epic battle with Jane Tremble on one side and uncountable black hats waiting.
Aubrey said, “You’re playing the losing hand.”
Tremble laughed, put the cigarette in her shirt pocket, then stood while adjusting her guns. “It’s always high noon, daisy. It’s always getting’ backshot or bushwacked or waylaid. That’s what you’re dealt.”
“So, why do you do it?”
Aubrey gripped the chair’s plastic arm rests until her knuckles turned white. School faded. No English essays or Honor Society meetings. No geology lessons or P.E. fitness tests. She lost memories of the bus ride every day, and the long nights where she moved methodically from one subject to the next. She didn’t think about Robert Parker who sometimes would stop at her locker just to chat, and who always seemed on the verge of asking a question he didn’t dare voice. Sometimes she would look at how he held his books, and wonder what it would feel like if they walked down the hall, hand in hand.
For this instant, only Sheriff Jane Tremble, and the eternal showdown mattered to Aubrey.
The Sheriff checked the sky again, as if she had an appointment the clouds recorded.
“It’s not about winning, kitten. It’s about not surrendering.”
Aubrey watched as the Sherriff climbed from the arroyo and headed back to the school, sure she’d never seen someone as brave and noble, sure that the universe must be as dark as Billy saw it with cemeteries and zombies and black wardrobe. Sheriff Jane Tremble lived in a world where the hero always died.
And this time, Aubrey did cry.
Night passed slowly. Out Aubrey’s bedroom window, stars crept up the clear desert sky. She watched them appear from behind the wooden frame, slide across the glass inexorably, and then vanish. The black gave way to grey, erasing the stars, and an angry sun rose.
Not now. Not before 1st hour, thought Aubrey. The three Reno brothers, whole again, Wyoming Jim, Dry Gulch and two shooters she didn’t recognize stood with their backs to her at the sophomore hall and the long main hallway junction. By their stance, she knew the Sheriff must be at the other end. Seven against one, she thought. Students filled the hall, making their way around the men, talking about their concerns, yawning, laughing, yelling.
Mr. Courtland passed. “Good morning, Aubrey. Posters today. Hope you have some slogans in mind.”
“Whatever,” said Aubrey, but she didn’t think he heard.
“We warned ya’,” shouted Wyoming Jim. He already had a hand on his gun.
“You boys need to clear out,” drawled the Sheriff. Aubrey could see her now, feet apart, arms relaxed, thirty feet down the hall.
Dry Gulch flicked back the triggers on the shotgun. “Fill your hand, lawdog, and we’ll see who’s coming and going.”
Aubrey put her books on the floor, next to the lockers. Four lacrosse girls stood in a group, discussing their afternoon game.
“Can I see your stick?” Aubrey asked.
“Sure. It’s a Nike. Do you play?”
Aubrey felt the stick’s heft. The netting on the basket bounced as she gauged its weight. “No, not really.”
She moved her grip down, holding the stick like a long baseball bat, then walked toward the Reno brothers and their gang. Staring down the Sheriff, Wyoming Jim drew his gun, but Aubrey ignored him. He was a terrible shot. She wound up and swung the stick with all her strength, slamming two nearest brothers across the shoulder blades.
“What . . .” cried the nearest as he turned toward Aubrey. The second stumbled into the other brother, knocking his gun hand aside just as it fired. All the men had their guns out. Something buzzed by Aubrey’s cheek, and something else tugged at her blouse as she brought the stick back again and swung, missing a Reno boy, who ducked, but catching Wyoming Jim full on the side of his head.
Dry Gulch’s shotgun exploded, although Aubrey couldn’t see what he fired at in the confusion. Wyoming Jim swirled to see what attacked him, when a bullet tore through his shirt, spinning him around, and he fell. The Reno brother who ducked, came up pointing his weapon at Aubrey just as his forearm jerked and spouted blood. A second shot took him out.
Gun smoke obscured the view while her ears rang painfully. She stepped forward, over a downed man to swing again when Dry Gulch planted the shotgun across her chest and pushed hard. She flew backwards, landed flat on her backside, banging her head against a locker. Dry Gulch’s eyes bulged, wide and wild. He cracked the gun open, dug into his pocket and came out holding two shells. Behind him, the remaining gunmen blasted at the Sheriff who aimed and fired methodically. Dry Gulch loaded the shells into the gun while casting his head about, like a dog searching for a scent.
“What is this place?” he yelled. High school students walked by, unaware. Two teachers, a few feet from the mayhem, studied a shared textbook. Stapled flyers clung to the announcements board. The warning tone sounded, letting everyone know class started in one minute. “Where in God’s cursed Hell am I?”
Aubrey realized he had been as unaware of the high school as it had been of him.
The gun snapped shut. Dry Gulch drew the weapon to his shoulder, aimed at Aubrey’s face, the two barrels as wide and deep and black as bottomless trashcans.
A last shot cut through the smoky air. Dry Gulch dropped the gun, grabbed at his throat, looking confused, lost and scared, then crumpled.
For a moment, Aubrey watched the passing feet. The intercom clicked on. The principal announced, “Remember, students, Friday we will be on assembly schedule for class officer speeches.”
A pair of worn boots stopped a foot from Aubrey. Sheriff Jane Tremble crouched. “This don’t wash,” she said, wonderment in her voice. “I’ve never been standing when the dance ended.” She surveyed the hall, a gunfighter’s move. Not all enemies showed themselves in a straight up fight. “That was bravery, girl. You got wolf in you.”
She helped Aubrey to her feet. The seven gunmen were down, but vanishing, dissolving into the floor. Kids walked through their translucent shapes. The Sheriff brushed Aubrey’s sleeves. “Can’t have you going to class looking like you been rolling in the dirt.”
The sheriff nodded, laugh lines crinkling around her eyes. “It’s a long fight.” She inspected Aubrey, pushed back a strand of hair from Aubrey’s forehead with a calloused finger. “Here, I think you earned this.” The Sheriff unbuckled a holster, dropped to a knee, and fastened it around Aubrey’s waist.
“I can’t take it,” said Aubrey, aghast. “It’s against school rules!”
“It’s a ghost gun, Aubrey. A spirit gun. Who knows what it will do if you use it. Maybe feed the hungry. Make the lame whole. Give hope to the lost. By my reckonin’, you’re the best person for it.”
The Sheriff gently removed Aubrey’s hands from the buckle. “It’s yours now.”
When Aubrey went to 4th hour and Student Senate, the gun had faded from sight, but its weight pressed on her hip; a steady, solid, iron reality hanging below her hand, ready to leap out.
Mr. Courtland greeted her at the door. “Nice badge, Aubrey.”
Aubrey glanced down. A six-pointed star on her blouse returned the ceiling lights’ glow with a silver shine. She didn’t remember the Sheriff pinning it to her.
“So what will your slogan be? Vote for Aubrey. There’s a new marshall in town?” He smiled. “I’ll bet you could pull that off.”
“Sheriff,” said Aubrey. “Not marshall.”
Barclay laughed from the back of the room where three students helped him create campaign posters. “Aubrey a marshall? Not a chance. My campaign speech is a killer.” His gang looked at her. She could almost see their dusters and weapons.
“The shootout’s Friday,” she said, “at noon.”
The class quieted. Barclay colored his poster with broad strokes. “Yep.”
“High noon.” There will be dust in the gym, she thought. When the doors open, the dust will swirl, outside the sun will beat down, and she and Barclay would go face to face with everyone watching.
I don’t have to win, she thought. A Sheriff doesn’t think about losing; she is elected to serve. I don’t fix the school—it can’t be fixed, not permanently. It’s about the fight. Her posters would be the Sheriff’s badge. Underneath she’d print, AUBREY’S COME TO YELLOW HIGH.
She would never surrender.
Her eyes narrowed, not blinking, meeting Barclay’s sardonic grin. For a handful of heartbeats, they locked stares until he looked away, just for a moment. It was enough.
“Take your best shot.” She rested her hand on the invisible gun’s polished grip, trigger finger itching.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.