Flex ties, plastic, two bags. Eye bolts. Nails, tubes, clamps. These are the things he bought, right before he shot up the school and killed all those girls.
Katie Zook knew who he was: the milkman. Thin wispy hair the color of hay, ordinary wire-framed glasses. A tall and lean man, with a bit of a befuddled barn owl look about him.
She rang up his things on the cash register, 9:14 a.m. and again at 9:16, when he remembered something that he forgot. Eye bolts. He needed eye bolts, eye bolts, the strongest kind, where are they? His eyes were crazy, wild, like an animal that knows it is set for slaughter.
Katie tucked the receipt in the paper bag with his purchase, and she came from behind the counter. She wondered later why she didn’t just stay where she was.
“Second aisle,” she said. “On the left, just above your head.”
She led the way, past the Radio Flyer wagon, the sleds, the tools. Past the plumbing fixtures and garden supplies and bird seed and kerosene lanterns, the farm toys and the carbide lamps.
He walked too close. His boots pounded, hammering hard on the warped wooden floorboards.
Katie stopped, pointed at the pegboard. A board creaked beneath her feet, a warning of something underneath not quite strong. The store dog – a rangy German Shepherd named Jake – growled from under the counter. He knew.
The milkman’s breath was heavy, and there was the stale smell of coffee, of breakfast.
Katie saw that his hand shook as he took a bag of eye bolts from a hook.
The best kind, $5.99. Katie sold these to people who wanted to hang paintings, big heavy paintings, so that they would not sway or fall. A sturdy string attached to an eye bolt attached to a nail on the wall. That made sense.
Katie was 18, and she still lived on the farm with her parents. Not married, not yet, she wanted to be a school teacher but ended up working here for now: a clerk at Nickel Mines Hardware. The store, built long before Katie was born, nestled snug into the corner of Vintage and Valley, just down the road from home.
Katie worked here at the store since July, a long time. Corn had turned from tall leafy stalks hanging with green and gold to stubby brown, flowers died or went underground, and the view from the wavy-pane window of the hardware store was sparser now. More beige, more dry, spare and orderly beneath a bright cornflower sky. The skies of October always seemed to hold more blue. Maybe they knew that winter was coming, too. The autumn skies were stocking up, as Mother did with her jars of canned peaches and beans, trying to preserve and keep just a little taste of summer.
On that day of the beginning of the fall, Katie watched through the window as the milkman got in his truck, his dirt-brown pickup truck filled with weapons and boards and two bags from Nickel Mines Hardware, and he drove away. The milkman just drove away, down the road, past Katie’s home. He drove to the school, and then it began.