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FICTION
Mr. False Alarm Man
Evan McMurry

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To Libby, Barrick swore it started with a gunshot.

This was different from his initial story to the cops. He told them he had heard someone shout “gun!” He’d turned to the woman behind him, who only a moment ago had asked where in the mall the women’s shoe store was, as if that were something a guy like him would know. “Gun,” he hissed to her, afraid his voice would alert the shooter. Then panic: “Gun!”

But in the later tellings of what he alone called the Galleria Mall Shooting he definitely heard the shot as he was shopping for new headphones. A blast that’d make you taste foil.

“Oh my god!” a first date would cry as he narrated the incident. “Were you shot? Did people die? How many were wounded?”

“Seventeen injured,” Barrick would tell his date. (He’d learned from a friend the difference between wounded and injured: a wound broke the skin. “A twisted ankle is not a wound!” the appalled off-duty ER doctor declared before the bartender cut him off.) “Most—mostly trampling injuries.”

“What’s a trampling injury?”

“Twisted ankles. Broken wrists. People trip and get stepped on. A high heel when someone’s running can crack right through the plate of your hand—”

So much for dates. They’d find out anyway, when they searched him later, if they hadn’t already. (Did they really do that? “Of course they do!” his doctor friend told him, aghast. “Do you not? How do you know you’re not out with a serial killer?”) Search Barrick’s name, the first several dozen results were about the incident. Only on the sixth or seventh page would one find the post announcing his marriage in the local paper, a bit of celebration he hadn’t thought to cancel in the stormcloud weeks after his fiancée left him.

“You say you heard someone shout ‘gun?’” the detective plied him.

This was two days after the cops had evacuated the mall on his report, Barrick’s vision of a medal for heroism dissolving in the meantime. The detective was muted, understanding, as if they were skidding down this slope together.

“She was scared,” Barrick answered. “She said ‘gun.’ It sounded like ‘gun.’”

“It sounded like ‘gun,’ or it was ‘gun?’”

“I don’t—” Barrick was near an anxiety attack in the interrogation room. “I don’t—I don’t—”

“It’s okay,” the detective said. “It’s just, we got seventeen people injured, mostly trampling injuries, and not a single gunshot wound. Or a single gunshot. I tell you, we’ve combed that mall up and down and can’t find a shell or a bullet hole—”

“Of course they can sue you!” Ramona, his then-fiancée, shouted after he recounted the interrogation, in which he was made out to be some sort of villain! All for saving who knew how many lives! “Every person who was wounded could make you responsible for all of their medical bills—”

For months afterward Barrick was recognized around town thanks to his photo’s sad run on the local news. At a dive, staring dead-eyed at a Dodgers game, trying to steady his mind from the spiral his life had bec—BANG. The pop would erupt just behind him. He’d lift himself from the floor to find some barfly brandishing a breached paper bag. “MR. FALSE ALARM MAN!” the prankster would holler as he helped Barrick up. “You should buy us all drinks.”

“It sounded like ‘gun,’ or it was ‘gun?’” the detective asked him a second time.

“It…sounded like ‘gun.’ She was scared! What else could she have been saying?”

“One,” the detective suggested. “Done. Fun.”

“Who shouts ‘fun’ when they’re scared?”

“Who shouts ‘gun’ when there isn’t one?” The detective’s laugh sounded genuine, which annoyed Barrick. “Am I right? Doesn’t seem like a rational thing a rational person does.”

The more Barrick picked over the scene the more he questioned what he’d heard, and the more he questioned the more he insisted he’d been correct. Absolutely the woman had said “gun.” In fact, hadn’t he heard the shot just before? He recalled it now with a jolt: not like a dumpster lid slamming or a firecracker popping, a BANG like a gunshot, the type that reverberates beneath your lungs, that secretes aluminum in your back palette. Gun! Those injured-not-wounded people should be thanking him, along with everyone else who scampered out alive.

“They’ve gotta sweep that mall again!” Barrick pestered an exasperated Ramona. “They’ll find a bullet hole, and nobody’s going to sue, because I saved them—”

“Stop stop stop stop stop.” Ramona was sobbing, as she always was by mid-argument, the one over how he moved them to a Los Angeles suburb for a job he now hated, the one in which Barrick accused her of cheating with her coworker (why were they always going to happy hour just the two of them!!!!) and she told him just because he’d double-parked himself in misery didn’t mean the rest of the planet was obliged to join. How quickly the fight over the Galleria Mall Shooting joined the repertoire, Barrick pounding his forehead against the wall, Ramona’s tears a slick curtain. The routine of it all left him stunned when she moved out a week later.

“What about the wedding?” he cried as Ramona boxed up her summit of shoes.

“Have it.” Her voice was frostily practical. “You haven’t needed me to ruin anything else.”

Barrick ate several thousand dollars—several thousand—THOU. SAND.—in non-refundable venue and caterer deposits. “She says the wounded could sue,” he grumbled to his doctor friend, who’d offered to spot him the equivalent in booze of what he’d have guzzled at their nuptials.

“They’re not wounded!” The doctor gaveled the bartop. “Wounds break the skin. Those people twisted an ankle. Boo the goddamnfuck hoo.”

“They could still sue.”

“Boo the fuck hoo. Sorry, I rhyme when I’m drunk.”

The doctor set Barrick up on a date with a nurse. He swore to her he’d heard a gunshot, the first time he claimed so aloud. “Oh my god!” the nurse startled. “They said on the news it was a false alarm.”

In the morning, the nurse dozing against his shoulder, doubt tortured him. Had he in fact heard a gunshot? Had he even heard the woman who said “gun?” After the nurse departed, saying she hoped they found the bullet hole that proved him right, Barrick checked his mail. He’d forgotten all about the wedding announcement until opening the copy Ramona mailed to him. Sharpied across the top: “GUN.”

He got other mail: postmarked from bumfuck Idaho, informing him there was 100% a gunman, and 100% shell casings scooped by the shadows to obscure the event. “They feast on our fear,” warned crunched script. Barrick torched the letter, terrified it could implicate him in conspiracy. But that night he sprawled his limbs across the king-size bed formerly shared, basking in being believed.

A bevy of beers gone, Barrick phoned Ramona, who’d kept her 214 area code even after ten months west, proof proof proof she’d bet the move wasn’t for keeps. “You never believed in me before this,” he slurred.

“Oh for fuck’s sake.”

She changed her number, unnecessarily in his opinion. But then his phone chimed with UNKNOWN that turned out to be his ex-fiancée, rosé-sunk. “What kills me was how you blamed some random woman,” Ramona said. “Of course it was a woman’s fault. Adam had to have Eve, you had to have some woman. Just like you always blamed me—”

“She said ‘gun.’”

“Fuck you.”

“I was there!”

“There was no woman,” Ramona said. “You fucked up. Just. Ad. Mit. It.”

Barrick went out again with the nurse, who by now had clearly searched his name. “Are they going to charge you? One of the articles said it could be involuntary—”

“Prosecutor doesn’t think there’s a case for intent,” Barrack hurried, his lawyer’s latest invoice taunting his vision. “That’s because my intent was to help.”

“Do you feel bad?”

Yes. In addition to the letter from the conspiracy theorist, the bills from his lawyer, the clipping from Ramona, he received emails from one of the injured. A photo of the eighteen-year-old would-be valedictorian grinning in her hospital bed, leg in a cask, an update on her condition (improving!) and future (still planning to head to college in the fall, though she’s paying more attention to the handicapped provisions, tell you what). Concluding the email: I forgive you. There were nights when those three words dropped like a rope to the bottom of the well he’d fallen down. Other nights they enraged him. Who the fuck asked her for forgiveness?

Barrick told zero of this to the nurse. Instead she received the line he’d practiced against counsel’s advice: “I did what I thought was the right thing. It turned out to be the wrong thing. I believe that’s better than the opposite.”

“Hmmm.”

“Libby said you’re an upstanding person,” the doctor massaged the following week. “Wishes you the best. I can vouch for her sincerity. No need to be hitting your head on the bar like that. Really, they will throw us out of—”

BANG. Barrick landed on the floor. The prankster raised the demolished paper bag like a captured flag. “Ha ha ha! False alaaaaaaaarm man! Now you have to buy us drinks.”

“What rules are these?”

Home, plastered. I forgive you, read the email still on his screen. WHAT WERE YOU DOING IN A MALL YOURE A VALEDICTORIAN, Barrick typed. WHY WERENT YOU AT HOME STUDYIMG>. This was deleted. Ramona’s new number was dialed. “I don’t need a woman to blame.”

“Everything! Always my fault! You blamed me for being unhappy back home—”

“You said we were in a rut! You said it, not me!”

“—you dragged us out to LA—”

“You said. You were. In a rut. I did it for you.”

“For little old me?!??!?!”

“Us! For us!”

“I left my job, my family—”

“Kept your fucking area code, though, didn’t you—”

The old arguments. They comforted him like a pillow. Lonely on his floor, head reeling, Barrick restrained a sniffle, which Ramona heard with her supersonic ears. “Wait, you’re crying?”

“I have prayed for forgiveness—”

“Oh shit, you found find God now? You’re guilty for a split second, so suddenly there has to be some big forgiving machine sky thing to make you feel better? Unbelievable. Hey, when it doesn’t work, are you going to blame a she-God?”

Barrick masturbated to the valedictorian and passed out. In the morning he researched plane tickets out of the country, after his attorney assured him he hadn’t been charged and could vacate the jurisdiction. (“Can I recommend Madrid?” his lawyer offered; Barrick, account balance rotting in the next browser tab, replied he could not.)

“Is it possible you heard something else?” the detective had asked Barrick, still in that collaborative tone, as though the two of them were teaming up on a crossword puzzle. “Or—I’m just spitballing here—my ten-year-old? Loves to get, like, toy guns, that plastic crap. Possible the woman was—and again, only guessing—some mom saying how she was going to buy a gun—”

“I thought I was going to get a medal,” Barrick muttered into his chest.

“Ha. On my gravestone, buddy.” The detective’s easy laugh timbered. “Have you—it might not be the worst idea—” He ahemed. “You should look into legal representation.”

Barrick couldn’t afford a bird out of the country, Madrid or otherwise, settled for a discount bus to some cheap Mexican beach town where none knew him from tourist Adam. The sun punished his skin and the water abluted it. At night, with commendable effort, he resisted the draw of the bars that vowed to drink him to delirium for coins.

Instead Barrick lay on the unmoonlit sand and replayed the moment. Not the moment of the maybe-shot, or his whisper-yell warning, but when he and the woman who’d asked him about the shoe store both turned and, clasping each other’s hands, ran. He saw the crowd swiveling toward him, their faces contorting, from preening at some shouting doofus to a cringe of concern as they placed the word gun to finally the we’re-gonna-die lifeslap that scatters all souls. Barrick and the shoe-store woman (he never discovered her name) used their outer arms to push people from their path, not in a selfish way, but to clear a route so all could escape. “Gun!” Barrick cried as he led the charge. “Run! Gun! Run!” Screaming bodies piled ahead, beating him to his own exit, the stampede he’d started rendering him the prime target for the assassin about to use them as a shooting gallery.

Then shoe-store woman yelped and fell. This next part was never told on the news, no matter how often he demanded the affiliates feature it in any segment bearing his image. Barrick, in the direct line of fire—in the direct line of fire—scooped her up, and, unable to toss her over his shoulder, clasped her to his chest like an immense infant and hustled them both through the door to safety. The “False Alarm at Galleria Mall” chyrons may never have acknowledged this. But goddamn if it wasn’t heroism. And however Barrick turned the scene around he couldn’t figure how the non-existence of the gunman changed that.

But here’s the thing! he scribbled to Ramona upon the lunarless beachhead. That second he stopped to help shoe-store woman he felt no fear of any bullet about to tear through his arm or chest or thigh or head. He was only scared he’d never see Ramona again. This was all his fault, his being so petrified that his life was dead-ending in their Dallas one-bedroom that at her tossed-off comment about being in a rut he’d hauled them to the cliff-edge of the continent, where lunatics stalked shopping malls for target practice. (Had he even wanted the joyless job he took, or was it the only eject button he could find to press?) Ramona was right, he’d done this to them. As he lifted the woman from the tile floor it was in terror that he’d be slaughtered before he could tell her he was sorry.

Outside, arms and legs intact, he set the woman down on the sidewalk. No blood presented itself on her beige top or white pants. Then she was walking on her own unshot legs, too shocked to even say thank you. Fine. Barrick bolted with the crowd through the parking lot, found his car, fumbled his keys, pealed from the space, and hopped a curb to speed home to his fiancée.

By the time she returned from happy hour the incident was all over the news, and Barrick had forgotten his confession in the adrenaline of the tale. “None were shot,” announced the 6 p.m. news anchor. Because he’d cleared the mall just in time, he proclaimed, mass casualty incident bravely averted. “I’m getting a medal,” he told Ramona, and again with conviction: “I’m going to get a medal for this!” Barrick slung his arms around her shoulders, grasping the familiar solid curvature of her breastplate for a few blissful seconds until hearing the term false alarm for the first of so many times.

I did what I thought was the right thing at the mall, he wrote now to Ramona. Just like I did with us. But I was wrong. Please forgive me. For everything.

Following brief slapstick with the hotel desk over postage he mailed the letter to her new address (she hadn’t moved back to Dallas! (yet)), and then hopped the bus home. On the ride back he enjoyed the sandscape for the first time, peering beneath the freeway overpasses that clovered his commute, beyond the factories and distribution centers surrounding his office. He began to imagine a new life with Ramona, following a small ceremony with a couple friends at City Hall, hiking up the San Andreas on the weekends, perhaps volunteering on weeknights, maybe even finding a church, as he’d meant to every Sunday morning since moving there.

A few days after he arrived home—days he spent cleaning the literal mess his life had become, just enough time for his missive to reach Ramona—he heard a faint rap at his door, Ramona’s delicate fingers always having belied the insistence of her purpose. Barrick answered awash in relief.

The nurse was on his doorstep, holding inches from his face a printout of his wedding announcement. “You’re married?”

Barrick hadn’t seen her in weeks and took a moment to place her face. “Of course not,” he said, but what explanation he then stammered out didn’t sound nearly as redemptive as he’d figured.

“Oh, so, you fucked me, what, three weeks after being engaged?”

“No! Yes—but—”

She backed him into his living room. “No yes but what?”

“I don’t—I don’t—”

“I take back what I said,” Libby seethed. “You’re not upstanding. I don’t wish you the best. How many people got hurt in that idiot panic you caused, anyway?”

“Injured,” Barrick corrected before he could stop himself.

Libby took hold of his hand. He felt the caress of her fingertips over his sunburnt skin. Then she snared a piece of flesh between her two nails and twisted. He hollered as he fell to the floor, in surprise as much as pain; blood trickled across his palm, queasying him at its sight. “What did I—”

But Libby the nurse was door-slam gone. She’d registered so little to Barrick he had never conceived she would be someone who could abandon him. The thought smacked him to the ground. So far as the wounded know he’s still there.


Evan McMurry's fiction has appeared in more than one-dozen journals, including Post Road, Euphony, Arcturus, Oddville Press, Palaver, Mulberry Fork Review and more. His story "Nothing Kinky" won the New Millennium Fiction Prize, and his story "The Fall of Rabbi Gold" was selected as a finalist for the Al-Simāk Award for Fiction from the Chicago Review of Books. He is a graduate of Reed College and received his MFA from Texas State University-San Marcos.