In one moment, a stranger saved Eric Crowe’s life. The same moment would destroy Julia Crowe’s more than a decade later.
Eric needed new t-shirts. The five-year-old outgrew his clothes at a rate Julia, his mother, found startling. Her husband, Steve, couldn’t help but be proud.
“Our boy’s gonna be a football player someday!” he’d brag. Julia loved how invested in their son’s future Steve was, but she wasn’t as invested in the football idea as he was. As far as she was concerned, Eric could be a football player, or he could be a ballet dancer, a politician, or a mechanic. Eric could do whatever he wanted and Julia would be proud, just so long as he was kind.
“Mom, I’m bored,” the boy said, literally dragging his feet as he walked beside Julia through the children’s section of Target. “I don’t like this,” he said about one shirt. “I don’t want to wear that one!” to another. “I want a snack! What’s that? I want to look at this!” And so on, and so forth.
Julia was able to control Eric long enough to pick out three shirts before giving up. Keeping him under control long enough to pay was no mean feat, either. He wanted to play, and he wanted to play now.
“Eric, please, Mommy needs to pay,” Julia said, wrestling with her wallet with one hand while holding her son’s hand with the other. The child squirmed.
“Let me go! Let me go!” he shouted with a yank. Julia bobbled her credit card as she struggled to maintain a grip on her child. Only the child stayed in place. The contents of her wallet scattered on the floor.
“Eric, please!” Julia shouted, a little louder than she intended. Her cheeks burned under the gazes of the store employees and other customers. She didn’t even want the sympathetic looks from other parents. They should know how embarrassed and frazzled she was.
“Here, let me help you,” came a soft, shaky voice from behind. Julia turned from her son to see a small man with sandy brown hair and an owlish face, wearing thick glasses and a slightly wrinkled business suit, crouching next to the spilled contents of her wallet. He pushed Julia’s property into a neat pile, his hands open wide and his fingers splayed to show her and everyone else that he had no intention of taking anything.
“Thank you,” Julia exhaled, maneuvering the pile back into her wallet with a one-handed dexterity that only five years of motherhood could have cultivated.
“You’re, um, you’re welcome,” the man said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and flashing a brief, awkward smile. Julia smiled back and finished paying. She put Eric’s shirts in the cart and, afraid it would spill in the parking lot, placed her purse in the seat. She never once lost her firm grip on her son’s arm. Struggling to get child and cart out of the store, never more grateful for automatic sliding doors, she almost didn’t notice the soft voice calling from behind her for the second time that day. It was the owlish man, but his nervous smile had been replaced with pure concern. Something about him seemed off, and a slight shiver went up her spine.
“Miss? Miss? Just one moment, miss. I’m sorry, this is going to sound weird,” the man said, immediately putting her on alert. “Sometimes I see things, things that haven’t happened yet, but they always do if I don’t try to prevent them, and well, if you don’t put the boy in your cart, tragedy will strike.”
A dozen questions and even more statements battled for supremacy in Julia’s mind. Before any one of them could emerge victorious, however, the little man hustled away, never once looking back.
“Mom? Mom? Who was that, Mom? Mom?” Eric demanded, his mother’s silence only making him louder. “Mom!”
“A… I don’t know,” she finally said. She looked left and right as she prepared to step from the sidewalk.
And then Julia registered something her subconscious had picked up right away. The man hadn’t purchased anything. There was no reason for him to be in the checkout line except to talk to her.
A light chill sent a shiver up her spine.
“Put me down! I’m not a baby. Let me walk!” Eric protested as Julia hoisted him into the shopping cart and crossed the blacktop at a brisk pace.
Julia’s racing pulse slowed down once she reached her Ford Focus. She unlocked the trunk, dimly aware that she could hear an approaching car. She turned back toward her cart, and that’s when she saw the beat-up Camry heading straight towards them. The teenage girl behind the wheel was sending a text message, oblivious to both her speed and direction.
“Look out!” Julia screamed, pulling the cart, and her son, towards the gap between her Focus and the minivan next to it. Julia didn’t know if it was because of her shout or the driver finally paying attention, but the girl finally noticed Julia and Eric and yanked the steering wheel hard to the left, the tires making a short squeal on the pavement. Julia could only imagine the shock on her face matched the teenager’s, who never once slowed down. The driver was terrified she almost hit two people, yes, but Julia was more horrified by what only she could see.
The girl’s car left tire marks on the pavement in the exact spot Eric had sat a mere moment before.
“Yo, Jules, I’m home!” Steve called. “Where are you and the little man?”
“In here!” Julia called from the kitchen. While she made dinner, Eric sat at the table, smashing Hot Wheels cars into each other. It was difficult to ignore the sound of crashing cars.
Steve kissed his wife on the cheek, then lifted his son to screeches of delight.
“How was your day, buddy?” Steve asked as the boy continued to smack the cars into each other.
“Eric, please stop,” Julia said for the third time.
“He’s just letting off a little steam,” Steve said, as he put his son back in his seat. “Ain’t no harm in smacking a few cars together. It’s what boys do.”
“I’m sorry. We had a little scare at the store,” Julia said before recounting their near-miss.
“Was it a black kid?” Steve asked.
“I didn’t notice,” Julia said, employing her go-to answer for Steve’s go-to question whenever he heard of someone doing something wrong.
“Probably a girl either way,” Steve said. “Damn girls can’t keep their noses out of their phones for two seconds.”
Julia sighed quietly as Steve picked up Eric again. She understood Steve was old-fashioned. She just wished he wouldn’t talk like that around Eric.
“Come on, little man. Let’s go toss the football while your mom finishes dinner.”
Father and son ran outside, leaving Julia alone with her breaded chicken.
Eric Crowe was destined for greatness. Of that, his mother was certain. What the greatness would be, she didn’t know. Maybe he would be a cancer surgeon and discover a cure for that vicious disease. Or perhaps a policeman who saves the life of some great politician. He may even be a politician himself, ushering in a peace that lasted generations. She wondered what the owlish man knew, or if he saw anything other than the need to save Eric’s life that day. Either way, she knew deep down he wasn’t simply an eccentric stranger who had a lucky guess.
“Our little man’s gonna be a champ, that’s what he’s gonna be!” Steve never contributed more than the prediction he’d always made: Eric would be a gridiron hero, or maybe the baseball diamond, if he couldn’t bulk up enough.
Julia never spoke to Steve about the owlish man. At best, he would’ve laughed at her gullibility. More than likely, he would’ve been angry with her for letting some pervert near his boy. And so, as the years passed, she continued her speculations privately.
“How was school today?”
“Eh,” Eric replied to his mother’s query.
Julia sighed inwardly and looked to Steve. She didn’t expect their son to communicate in grunts when he was only eleven. Finally, Steve caught her eye.
“What? The boy don’t want to talk, he don’t have to talk.”
Maybe he was right. A lot of brilliant people were introverts. If only Eric’s grades supported the theory.
“Hurry up and finish eating,” Steve said to Eric. “We gotta get in a few passes while it’s still light.” The boy shrugged but obeyed Steve, and father and son adjourned to the backyard.
At least Eric was growing. Julia couldn’t deny her son certainly had the potential to be the football star Steve dreamed about, though she wouldn’t deny being a little disappointed that his future seemed to rest in athletics. She thought he was saved so he could do so much more.
“Stop it, Julia,” she said to herself. Eric didn't need to fulfill some destiny to justify that day at Target. He was her little boy. All he needed to be was alive.
The age of twelve was turmoil.
“He needs to do his homework!” Julia said.
“He needs practice!” Steve shouted back.
“If he doesn’t do his homework, they won’t let him practice!”
Even though he knew his wife was right, Steve still fumed. He had made his opinions about academic eligibility well known in both the Crowe house and Eric’s school.
“Time to go in, son,” Steve said, stuffing the football under his arm and storming for the garage.
“Come on, Eric,” Julia said, her voice straining with false enthusiasm. Let’s tackle your math, and maybe you can tackle some players tomorrow.”
“Whatever,” Eric said, stomping every step of the way.
Julia rubbed at the bags under her eyes as her husband returned. “You need to support me when I tell him it’s time for schoolwork. We need to be united on this.”
“What I need is for people to stop telling me how to raise my kid,” Steve said. “Those teachers need to mind their own damn business and quit acting like they know what my boy needs more than I do.”
Julia wondered how long it would take before Steve stopped pretending it was Eric's teachers he was mad at. Then, a loud bass line emanating from Eric’s upstairs bedroom barred any further discussion.
“It’s not like he’s learning anything with that shitty music playing anyway,” Steve said before he, too, trudged sullenly into their home.
Julia sighed for what felt like the hundredth time. She didn’t want to think about Eric as a teenager.
In some ways, life was easier when Eric was fourteen. Yes, his grades remained abysmal, a dark cloud followed him everywhere he went, and he quit playing football. And yes, Steve went ballistic when he heard, but the tension was short-lived when Eric started caring about girls and weightlifting.
“You hear that?” Steve said, gesturing with his head toward the muffled clinks of barbells emanating from the basement. “We’re still raising a man.”
“I still wouldn’t mind him coming upstairs once in a while,” Julia said, sipping a lemonade while her husband focused on a beer.
“I don’t see what the point of all those muscles is if he never shows them off to anyone.”
“You say that now,” Steve said with a wolfish grin. “Once the girls start banging down our door, you’re gonna wish he stayed inside all day.”
Julia lifted her drink to try and cover her smile. Eric certainly was becoming a handsome young man. She thought the pinups of swimsuit models were a little crass, but Steve said every healthy boy had them. He certainly did at that age. Still, Julia was glad she had set up the parental filters on Eric’s computer. She didn’t want to think about her son watching pornography. He didn’t like talking to people under the best of circumstances and didn’t need any more excuses to avoid real people.
The Crowe family was at Target so they could purchase Eric some more t-shirts and jeans. Julia hoped her sixteen-year-old would pick something that wasn’t solid black. She would even have settled for dark gray.
Muffled whispers caught Julia’s attention. She turned to see a woman in her forties talking to a blond girl her son’s age. Chloe was the girl’s name, Julia thought. Was she a cheerleader? She was pretty enough to be one. Abruptly, the girl and her mother turned and walked towards housewares. Julia watched her son follow the girl with his eyes, his face showing a mixture of longing and hurt.
“Is that her?” Steve asked. Eric mumbled something. “She still saying no? Well, you keep at it. Chicks like that are just playing hard to get.”
It was certainly how Steve had won Julia’s heart. Or at least her hand. Would she ever have said yes if he hadn’t kept asking? She never knew. It was certainly easier to go out with him than to keep saying no. And, really, he hadn’t been too bad once she got to know him. A bit rough around the edges, sure, but nobody was perfect. Many people appreciated someone who wasn’t afraid to speak their mind, even if she would have preferred a little diplomacy once in a while.
Not for the first time, Julia told herself she needed to lighten up.
“Eric, honey, are you in there?”
Julia couldn’t hear her son over the bass line thumping through the basement door, but she knew her son was there. He rarely went anywhere else.
“We’re having pizza tonight,” Julia said through the door. “Pepperoni and meatball. Your favorite.”
Most of their meals were Eric’s favorite. She was doing her best to make him feel better since the video. Eric hadn’t told her about it, naturally. He never told her anything. But she couldn’t help but hear about it.
“You got another package today,” Julia said, not expecting a response and not receiving one. “It’s next to the TV.”
Julia didn’t like that he received so many packages. They weren’t from Amazon or Walmart or any retailer with their own packaging. She suspected he was buying things from his friends on those message boards. She certainly didn’t like those sites he spent so much time on, but she didn’t want to cut him off from the few friends he had, especially now.
Chloe had turned him down. Again. Specifically, she had shouted, “Leave me alone, you creepy-ass weirdo stalker!” Julia knew this because Chloe had done so at school and someone had recorded it on their phone. It went viral in three hours.
Julia sympathized with Chloe, but Eric was still her son. She wished she could comfort him somehow. Steve was always so good when it came to talking about girls. Talking to girls, too. Good enough to convince a twenty-year-old to run off to Reno with him. Right then, for her son’s sake, she wished he were still in town. And not only for advice about girls. Eric had been so angry and hurt since his father left.
In lieu of his father, Eric took advice and sympathy from other boys who had trouble with girls. Julia had sneaked a look at his computer when he was at school. They were such angry young men, so full of anger towards girls and women. They used such hateful language. She was shocked to see Eric say some of the same things, but she was sure he was just doing so to fit in. Eric was a good boy. He didn’t really believe any of what he said. She knew it.
She knew it.
The last good day Julia would ever know ended at 8:42 a.m.
According to the final police reports, that was the time Eric entered his high school carrying a duffel bag containing an AR-15, two Glock-19s, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, all of which he purchased from Dark Web merchants. First period had ended and the students swarmed the hallways. One boy happened to see Eric reach into the bag, but by the time he saw what Eric had and shouted a warning, the gunfire had already started.
Thirty-three people were shot. Seventeen students died. Eleven of them were girls. Chloe was his fourth victim. Eric turned one of the pistols on himself when the SWAT team stormed the building. He was dead before they found him.
Parents grieved. The media swarmed the town. Pundits made their usual condemnations. Eric’s favorite web sites lauded him as a victim of any number of liberal conspiracies and a martyr for their cause.
The police interviewed Julia for twelve hours before her sister – who Julia hadn’t spoken to in years – took her to her own home. Julia stayed for a month. She never once turned on the television. She never once heard from Steve.
Julia never set foot in her house again. She signed the deeds over to her sister, changed her name to Jennifer Cameron, and moved to the other side of the country. She found a job as a secretary, where she worked just hard enough to keep her job without drawing attention to herself.
Years passed. Eric became a footnote in history as similar crimes occurred with increasing and tragic regularity. But Julia’s wounds were always as fresh and raw as the day she got that terrible phone call. She didn’t want the grief to ease. She deserved every second of it. And so, her life proceeded, time passing in a gray haze, until the day her past returned as unexpectedly as a lightning bolt on a clear day.
“Hello, Mrs. Crowe.”
Julia didn’t acknowledge the carton of milk explode on the supermarket floor as it slipped from her hand, nor did she realize it happened. It was an eternity before she turned to face the speaker.
“I knew it was you,” the man said. His hair was thinner and grayer, and he had put on the extra weight that came with late middle age, but the thick glasses and owlish face remained unchanged. He didn’t look surprised to see her.
“Eric was your son, wasn’t he?” the man asked, tapping his chin as if in thought. “Yes, that was his name.”
Julia thought she would throw up.
“He turned out to be quite the angry young man, didn’t he? Seventeen dead because girls thought he was creepy? My, my, my.”
It wasn’t bile surging through her body, Julia realized. It was the rage and despair and self-loathing and fury she had bottled away since Eric was five. Every line she should have drawn and every ultimatum she should have made with her husband and son exploded out of her, manifesting as a verbal torrent at the man whose intervention had indirectly destroyed more than thirty lives.
“Damn you!” Julia screamed. “Damn you, you son of a bitch! You could have prevented this! All of it! You’re a psychic! How did you not see any of it coming?”
For the second time in her life, Julia saw the man smile. But this wasn’t the nervous, awkward smile of so many years before. It was hollow, the corners pointing to vacant, dark eyes. Julia didn’t think she could feel sicker until she saw that grin.
“I’m a psychic,” he said. “Why do you assume I didn’t?”