by Matt Daniel

November 1, 1984

Pat looked out the kitchen window and saw the bloated cow lying in the pasture. The rotting corpse sat a good two hundred yards from the house, but the smell penetrated the walls. He raised a quart of milk to his lips and chugged down half the carton. The white liquid was on the edge of being sour.

"The knacker's coming later," his mom, Linda, said. "I don't want to be here when he does."

"What's killing them?" Pat asked.

"I don't know," she replied. "Sometimes you just can't figure it out."

Pat walked over to the refrigerator, opened it up, and was hit with a blast of cold air. He placed the milk carton next to a plate of leftover roast and walked back to the kitchen table. He looked down at his Chemistry homework. Smudged blue equations ran down one side of the paper and on the other side were his answers: Water, Carbon Dioxide, Cyanide.

Pat pointed at the last equation, CH2O. "Do you know this one?"

Linda glanced over his shoulder. "It's a mystery. Pack that up. We need to get going."

Mike, Pat's dad, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a red International Harvester cap off the counter, and snugged it onto his head. "Why are you two in such a hurry?"

"I already told you," Linda replied. "I'm chaperoning the eighth graders' trip to Antietam. We have to get to school early."

Mike pulled a pack of Red Man tobacco from his back pocket. He unrolled the crinkly package, grabbed two fingers worth of black plug, and tucked it into the side of his mouth.

Pat pretended to hold up a long rifle, aim, and shoot. "It's going to be cool. We're gonna see Bloody Lane!"

"There is nothing cool about Bloody Lane," Linda replied. "War is an abomination. If it were up to me you would be going to an art museum." She grabbed a set of keys off the kitchen counter and quickly kissed Mike on the cheek. Pat grabbed his books, tossed them in his bag, and followed her out to the family's Plymouth Duster. He jumped in, slouched down, and seethed in resentment. He couldn't understand why anyone would go and spoil the fun of war.

As usual, there had been no reason to rush; they arrived a good ten minutes early while the other chaperones arrived ten minutes late. Pat watched his classmates slowly herd into the school gymnasium. Almost all of them wore white sneakers emblazoned with the Nike swoosh. His mom had bought him Converse. She said they looked practically the same and no one noticed the difference. She was wrong, Pat thought, everyone noticed. He tried to stand a few feet back from her, but she kept moving in closer. Two boys, one white and one black, saw Pat and started to walk in his direction.

"There's Grant," Linda said. "Who's that other boy?"

"That's Saul," Pat muttered.

"Are you and him friends?"

"Mom. Don't."

"What do you mean? I mean I think it's great. Wait. I don't mean that. I don't mean that either. I'm just asking if you are."

Grant and Saul were a few steps away. Pat held his breath. All he had to do was pretend his mom didn't exist, keep his mouth shut, and not give her any reason to talk.

"HI GRANT!" Linda said, extra loud. Pat shrugged his shoulders so hard it hurt.

"Hey, Mrs. Kemmler. This is Saul. He's black. No one else is."

Linda looked confused and Pat prepared for the speech she was sure to give: Negroes were no different than anyone else. Racism was wrong. Being a Negro was perfectly okay. "Cool kicks," Linda said instead. She nodded at Saul's shoes. "Those Nikes?"

"Yeah!" Saul answered.

Pat looked at his mom in disbelief. If Negroes were no different than white people, Converse no different from Nikes, then why was she acting so different? His thoughts were quickly shattered by a flash of blonde hair. There, on the far side of the gym, was Celeste Castle, the hottest girl in school. To his absolute horror, his mom also saw her, and since she knew Celeste from church, she waved. Pat felt a strange bead of sweat trickle from his left armpit and trail down his ribs. His heart started to race.

Celeste walked over and the three boys looked off in different directions. Grant bounced a bit on his feet. Saul cleared his throat and studied the ceiling. Pat focused intensely on the gym's wooden floorboards.

"Hi, Mrs. Kemmler," Celeste said.

"Hi, Celeste," Linda replied. "Are you excited to see the battlefield?"

"Yes. Twenty-three thousand men died in one day. That means someone got killed every four seconds."

"Cool," Saul said. "Is that true, Mrs. Kemmler?"

"Well, I guess it must be."

Pat rolled his eyes. His mom had been complaining about the trip for a week, and now, war was cool? He didn't care. He let his eyes caress the image of Celeste for one delicious second. Her skin was the softest shade of pink. Her lips were extra shiny with chapstick. "It's really cool!" he practically shouted.

Linda shook her head and frowned. "War is horrible. We shouldn't forget that."

An older woman walked up behind Celeste, grabbed her by the arm, and shot the boys a dirty look. "Where have you been? This is not your group." She looked over at Saul. "Not at all."

Another boy, Adrian Wade, walked in to fill the space where Celeste had just been. He had oily black hair and wore dirty Wrangler jeans with a tattered pair of generic All-Stars. He was the least cool kid in school. Linda looked over at him. "You want to join us?"

Pat, Saul, and Grant groaned in unison. Mr. Green, the principal and trip leader, walked in and raised one hand high in the air. The bright gymnasium lights gleamed off his bald head. Kids immediately started to make ssshhhh sounds that hissed across the floor.

"Quiet!" Mr. Green bellowed. The air turned still and was tainted by one giggle. "I need everyone to cooperate or there will be no trip. Now I want everyone to line up against the wall. No talking, no horseplay, or everyone goes right back to class."

Sneakers squeaked across the wood floor and the children did as they were told. Mr. Green walked to the front of the line and regarded the children with half-squinted eyes. Pat held his breath as he got close to Mr. Green, walked quickly past him, and ran across the sidewalk. He climbed the steep steps of the bus, walked down the narrow aisle, and slid across a thick plastic seat. Saul slid in next to him. Linda walked by the two boys, pointed one finger, and winked. Pat had never once seen his mom make the gesture.

Fall was reaching the end of its peak and the bus drove off into a fading patchwork quilt. Outside, a strong wind pulled at brown branches, ripped off remnants of rainbows, and speckled the blue sky with flashes of orange, red, and yellow. Grant and Adrian sat together and played a game of trading punches to the other's shoulder. Pat sat quietly with Saul and did little more than stare out the window. The bus groaned up a winding mountain road and passed by a log cabin where a pile of brown leaves smoldered. A rich smell of smoke filled the air. The bus descended into a valley and rolled along a dark river before arriving in Sharpsburg, site of Antietam Battlefield.

"This is hallowed ground," Mr. Green announced.

Pat took note. The ground here was hollow.

The bus rolled into a large parking lot and Pat followed everyone else to a small museum. Inside, he saw long rifles, blue and gray uniforms, exploded cannon balls, and rectangular saws that had cut off arms. He saw pictures of dead men and dead horses. Pat and Saul agreed they felt extra bad for the horses. There were swords and bayonets, revolvers and muskets. A short movie played on repeat and a narrator with a deep voice explained the ins and outs of the killing. The movie finished with a long shot of Bloody Lane, a place where "blood flowed like a river."

"Was it really a river?" Pat asked.

No one answered.

Once outside, the class was split into two groups. Pat's group got corralled together by a man dressed like a Union soldier. The man wore a fuzzy blue suit, a leather strap across his chest, and whenever he moved, water in his canteen sloshed about. The man had a funny moustache. It was thin and curled at the tips.

"How did they draw the line?" Celeste asked. The four boys tittered. Grant elbowed Pat in the ribs.

"Which line might that be, young lady? Do yah mean by that the Mason-Dixon?"

"His accent's fake," Grant whispered. "What a choad."

Celeste raised her voice so everyone could hear. "Yes."

"That's there is a smaht question, young lady," the man answered. "I will tell you. Mason and Dixon were puhveyors and suhveyors. Men of science. They worked for the Royal Society and measured out the coordinates with plumbs and spirit levels. Some say the gravitee of these here mountains deesturbed the reading."

"What's a spirit level?" Celeste asked. Several of the children laughed.

The man coughed and cleared his throat; his accent dropped completely. "It's just a level."

The man went on to explain that war didn't make sense, but Pat became determined to figure it out. The ground must have been hollowed because there were lots of graves. The plums were used to feed the spirits and the ground would be level when the ground was filled back in again. Gravity was disturbing because it was a magnet that rose up and pulled down the dead.

The man pulled the rifle off his shoulder. He pulled a bayonet from his belt and attached it to the end of the barrel. He turned to the side and lunged the rifle like a spear. “Yaahh!”

The children were in eighth grade and far too old to be impressed.

Afterward, the whole class wandered over green hills tinged with a hint of yellow. The air smelled of fertilizer and the landscape was barren. Simple lines of trees rolled down empty fields. Crisscrossed fence stretched into the distance. Random cannons sat motionless.

The class wandered back by the bus and sat down at splintery picnic tables. Brown bags were pulled out because no one dared use a lunch box. Several packs of Oreos were passed around and Pat ate a dozen before his mom made him stop. He couldn't stop giggling and his whole body felt ajitter.

After lunch, the children were led over to a black cannon with big brown wheels.

"Class," Mr. Green announced, "you're in for a treat!"

"Dead bodies," Adrian said.

"Don't be stupid," Saul replied.

Adrian looked over at Saul and rubbed his hand across the skin of his own cheek. "You know what you are?"

"What does…"

"Hush!" Mr. Green snapped.

Pat looked over just in time to see Adrian mouth the word, "nigger."

Three men in gray uniforms stood around the cannon and one of the men wore a leather purse. Another held a big stick attached to a fuzzy ball. The man wearing the purse explained in tedious detail every step of loading the weapon. Things had to be done a certain way or everyone would get blown to pieces. The man holding the weird stick walked around the front of the cannon, pushed the fuzzy end into the barrel, and rubbed the long pole in and out.

"That's what Pat wants to do to Celeste," Adrian whispered, just loud enough for the boys to hear.

Pat's face turned hot and he felt horribly embarrassed. The three other boys started to titter, then stopped, and started to titter again. The more they tried to hold their laughter back, the more they couldn't. Pat's mom tried to shush them, but that only made it worse. Saul placed two hands over his mouth, scrunched down, and laughter burst from between his fingers. The other boys started to laugh hysterically. Mr. Green stormed over, pointed one finger an inch from Saul's face, and screamed, "These men died for your freedom! You understand that?"

Saul jumped back, crossed his arms, and lowered his head. Linda stepped boldly in front of Mr. Green. Pat had no idea what his mom thought she was doing.

"Actually," Linda replied, loud enough for everyone to hear, "these men are dressed like Confederates which means they most certainly did not."

The children who had been watching the costumed men now watched Mr. Green turn red. A wave of laughter burst forth from everyone and a large smile spread across Saul's lips. For a half second, Pat swore he saw Celeste smile in his direction.

"What's so funny over there?" one of the soldiers asked.

Mr. Green stood up extra straight and looked off in the distance, "Nothing, just kids getting excited."

The men were too busy playing pretend to take notice of much else. One of them stuck a pin attached to a long string into the barrel of the cannon. The other two men nodded to each other and stood at attention. The man holding the string looked over and yelled out, "Cover your ears!"

After making sure the students did as they were told the man yanked the string. BOOM! A blast of fire shot out. A huge cloud of white smoke billowed up. The air smelled like a pack of burnt matches. A ringing in Pat's ears was slowly replaced by the sound of clapping and cheering.

Afterward, the class broke into small groups. Linda decided that her group was going to finish the day by visiting Dunker Church.

"What about Bloody Lane?" Pat protested.

"Dunker Church is where the lane ends," Linda replied.


They took a long walk to a small white building and a very skinny woman in a light pink dress came out to greet them. Her sleeves were hitched up and her face was gaunt. Her black hair whisked about in the wind and she spoke with a priestly tone. She possessed a magic that made even the boys quiet.

The skeletal woman explained how the church had been turned into a crude hospital. Soldiers, young and old, had been brought in by the dozens. Pain medications had run out and many of them begged the nurses to kill them. The church had been filled with the constant sound of saw cutting through bone. Men's hearts burst, their lungs collapsed, and some of them drowned in their own vomit and spit.

The woman pointed to an open window and explained how the amputated limbs had been thrown out. She explained how some of the men lived only to find their wounds become yellow and swollen. These wounds oozed out something like curdled milk, with a smell strong enough to make a person sick, and this vile milk would be filled with tiny, squirming maggots.

The woman's voice lowered to a faint whisper as she talked. The boys were drawn in close. By the end of her speech, Pat was close enough to see her pores and feel her warm breath. He hung on her every word and now, commanding his full attention, she asked, "Do you want to know the worst part?"

Pat was dead silent.

"The worst part is that many of them were your age." Her thin arm slowly reached over and she thumped one finger on Pat's chest. He felt his breath stop and he heard the lub-dub of his own heart. She pulled her arm back, clapped her hands off, and said, "Boys have no idea what war really means."

Pat sat with Grant on the way back and tried to pretend it didn't hurt when they traded punches. He wished he had gotten to sit with Adrian, but Saul and Adrian had completely forgotten their earlier disagreement and buddied up. Pat could hear them laugh and he knew they were exchanging dirty jokes.

When Pat finally exited the bus, his shoulder ached from being punched, and his guts were in a knot. He couldn't push out the images of yellowed limbs and vile milk. When he finally got home, he walked slowly to the door, and jumped when he opened it. A loud banging sound came from somewhere. Only after he realized it was a hammer did he step forward. He walked to the living room and peeked through the door. There he found his dad holding a level atop a framed picture.

Linda walked by and glanced in. "I'm glad you're finally putting that up. She's beautiful."

The picture showed a very skinny woman lying in a field. She wore a pink dress and her back was turned to the viewer. She appeared to be gazing toward a farmhouse in the distance. A faded road cut through the field and disappeared into shadow. Pat walked over and could now read the title, Christina's World.

Mike put a hand on Pat's shoulder. "She wasn't exactly beautiful. At least not the way we might think. She was horribly crippled. The artist was able to see beyond that, he was able to find beauty in a life some might find hopeless. There's something about the colors in this painting that gets me. Everything's fading and this tiny black dress hanging out next to the house, it's such a small detail, but I can't help…well, Pat, we all get old and won't always be around. Somehow this picture sums that up. It's both horrible and beautiful."

"Like a battlefield."

Mike nodded his head thoughtfully. "That's insightful."

Pat ignored the comment, reached down, and picked up the level. "Dad, is this a spirit level?"

"What? What do you mean?"

"One of the costumed men talked about spirit levels today."

"He did? What else did he say?"

"Something about mountains being disturbed, the ground being hollow, and he kept talking about some imaginary line separating people. Mom said the line was more of a blurred squiggle."

"Hmm." Mike stepped back and gazed at the picture. He pointed to a very small detail in the top corner. "Look at this, I always thought this was a black dress hanging on a clothesline, but if you look really close, there's no clothesline. We think there is because it's outside a house and we interpret that black spot as a shirt or a dress, but for all we know it could be a mirage or a ghost, or some sort of hole, a door to the unknown. Isn't that cool?"

Pat stepped in for a closer look. His dad was right, there was no clothesline. There was just a black blob floating on the picture's horizon. The blob could have been anything. Pat felt chills shimmer up and down his back. "Whoa."

His dad gently grabbed the level from his hands. "Do you know how this works?"

Pat shook his head.

"That little bubble in the middle is just water and air. A lot like us. When it floats right in the middle, the surface is flat."

"It's the level's breath."

Mike tipped his head back and laughed. "That is a clever way of putting it. You should go to battlefields more often." He steadied the level and raised one end of it the tiniest bit. "See, right now, the bubble is floating right in the center. That means the surface is perfectly parallel to the earth."

"How does it know?"

"Gravity, of course."

Matt Daniel refers to his work as a critical care nurse at Transylvania Hospital as “a generous writing grant.” He believes language has the power to wrest the beautiful from the horrible.

About Ignorance – This excerpt is from Channel One, a novel about a school shooting with no known shooter.