It had started as the type of news alert one got on their phone screen and which most people disregard: “Three shot in downtown Atlanta’s Woodruff Park. Shooter killed by police.” Downtown wasn’t a crime-free zone; most viewed it as, if not dangerous, certainly a place where danger could easily sprout up. And, after all, it was just three people. Probably a drug deal gone bad. Three people? It seemed every day there were mass shootings that had at least double that number of victims somewhere in the country.
After all, people had to have their guns, right? And there really was no way to know if the people buying guns were mentally ill or would prove to be dangerous. . .
But a murmur had begun going through the enormous crowd at Piedmont Park that day, all there to participate in a mammoth art festival. White booths had been erected all over the park’s grounds—plein air painters over by Lake Clara Meer, pottery artists over by the soccer fields, oil painters near Tenth Street, and so on—clusters of artists all gathered to sell their creations, each cluster a medium-centered destination in its own right.
Between, little stages for musicians to play and before the stages, lawn space for picnics. And between everything, still so much lovely green space for children to run and play and giggle and fall, only to get up again as the ground there was so soft. And another notification had come across phones:
“Atlanta police reporting active shooters in Sweet Auburn.”
“What the Hell is going on?” Levi had thought as he read his phone.
“What is it?” Kyle had asked.
“Well. . .the police just took down some shooter in Woodruff Park and—”
“Yeah. But now there’s several shooters—that’s what it says, ‘active shooters’—plural, in Sweet Auburn.”
“That’s weird,” their friend Leslie intoned.
“I wonder if they’re connected,” Kyle said, almost to himself. “Sweet Auburn’s pretty much a few blocks over from Woodruff Park and—Maybe a gang fight?”
“Active shooters at Ponce deLeon and Peachtree?” Levi cried, reading his phone. “Holy fuck.” His neighbors. His neighborhood. Mrs. Marsh, that gentle little old lady who walked oh so slowly but oh so religiously up and down Ponce de Leon, always cheerfully joking at her snail’s pace by remarking, “Just getting ready for the marathon!” Dear God–don’t let her have been outside.
Just ten blocks south. He hated that the next thing he thought in the absurd craziness of it all was that he hoped no one shot out his windows after he had just painted and decorated his condo but took solace in that he then immediately worried about the people who would be there. Drivers, vulnerable at traffic stops. The tourists staying at the Georgian Terrace. The homeless people who walked the neighborhood. And there was a Broadway play playing at the Fox Theater. What if there had been people waiting outside for the matinee. . .
He shut his eyes against the image of panicked people banging on the doors of the Fox Theater, begging to be let in as a crazed gunman aimed a pistol or rifle at them.
“Ponce and Peachtree? I think we need to get out of here,” Kyle said, nervousness heavy on his tongue.
“Yeah, that’s too close,” Levi agreed—only to feel his phone vibrate.
He read aloud: “ALERT: Active shooters reported on I-85 and I-75 shooting into cars.”
“Seriously. Let’s go,” Kyle demanded.
He wasn’t the only one. All about them, people who were reading their phone’s notifications were murmuring or gathering children while others looked about, wondering what the dawning confusion was about. Several artist obviously wondered what to do; their tents had to be closed up if they left but, was there really any reason to leave? These festivals were their livelihood and was there really any threat to their life? It was all surreal. Strange. There but not here. Ten blocks away south, a few blocks west . .Maybe it would blow away, not their way. It didn’t feel as if danger was coming their way; more like bad weather. The idea was too hard to process and accept. But something was off and it might be better to just be at home instead of—
“ALERT: Explosion reported at underground MARTA train station, near Tenth Street. Details to come.”
Just a few blocks west of the park. . .
They had heard sirens a while ago but Atlanta was always full of sirens, particularly for Levi. He had to learn how to sleep through nights of sirens once he moved into that condo at Ponce de Leon and Peachtree. The sirens were almost regular sentries to indicate no more than fifteen minutes had past since the last police car or firetruck charged by. To him, sirens were background noise. Usually.
“Let’s go,” Levi said.
“Where to?” Leslie asked.
“Anywhere,” Kyle told them. “Anywhere but here.”
“Uh—” Levi racked his brain. Where was there a place they could go? A place not all that open, not like the highway or the street. All he could think of was a nearby restaurant on Piedmont.
“Uh—this way” and he began guiding them through a rising crowd toward Piedmont and away from Tenth Street, deeper into the park but only to get them out on a quieter side with lots of homes and low-rise apartment buildings to either shelter them or behind which they could hide should a shooter start—
“ALERT: Georgia Tech Campus on lockdown. Reports of numerous active shooters.”
This was followed immediately, before it could even be digested, by, “NEWS ALERT: Active shooters firing in Little Five Points shopping area.” Further away, Levi thought. But of little solace. The world was upside down. Something horrible was happening to Atlanta. To people he loved without knowing them. And he had to get Kyle and Leslie to some safe spot, someplace they could hide until the police did whatever they had to do to make the city safe again.
But then, before Levi could even read the alert aloud to Kyle and Leslie that shooters had been reported on Piedmont Avenue. . . he heard the screams that preceded, just by a second, gunfire.