Pizza Friday – New Short Fiction by Elias J. Hurst

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Short Fiction
Features Gun Violence

The children, they wept. The sterile white collection room and stern uniforms of the phlebotomists always elicited this reaction. Mr. Brenner frowned. They only needed a few drops of blood and a scan of their hand for biometric matching. It didn’t need to be frightening and he didn’t understand why Starslinger refused to update the process. This was a day to celebrate, after all. From now on, the children would be safe.

The spicy-sweet scent of pepperoni pizza wafted in from the next room. Beneath his oxford blue shirt and tactical vest, Mr. Brenner’s stomach rumbled. He folded his arms over his body to compress the sound while the last few students shuffled through the collection line to receive their bio-matched firearms for the school year.

Last in line was Anthony, seven years old but already showing facial features that would morph into the visage of an Italian mafioso in a few decades. He had the New York City accent to match. As soon as the quartermaster gave Anthony his pistol, he came running toward Mr. Brenner. His chest heaved as he skidded to a stop a pace away and raised his aim. Red patches around his eyes marked where tears were only moments earlier. 

Mr. Brenner looked down a barrel pointed straight at his forehead. He feigned surprise and then drew his own pistol and aimed it at Anthony in a blur. The boy grimaced as he squeezed the trigger. The pistol clicked harmlessly and emitted three sharp beeps.

Anthony’s face scrunched into a puzzled expression. “You’re not a bad guy, are you Mr. Brenner?” he asked.

Mr. Brenner laughed as he holstered his weapon and squatted down to Anthony’s eye level. “No, I’m not. If I was, though, I would be dead, and all of your classmates would be safe. Great work, Anthony.”

Anthony lowered his aim, cupping the pistol in his palms while he surveyed it in wonder. The Starslinger logo—a ring of stars that recalled a colonial American flag— glowed in neon green on the side of the matte-black weapon.  “How does it know?” he asked.

Mr. Brenner laid a hand on Anthony’s shoulder. “It’s connected to a big computer, like a brain, and that brain knows everything about us—even our intentions. Now that brain knows that you, Anthony, are not afraid to protect your classmates from a bad guy.”

“I’ll bet it’s proud of you,” Mr. Brenner added with a smile, but Anthony was still looking down at the pistol and did not seem to register the comment.

“What if it’s wrong?” Anthony asked, looking up through a furrowed brow.

Mr. Brenner’s skin flushed as his heart doubled its beat. He swooped an arm around Anthony like a mother swan’s wing and pulled him in close. “We don’t ask those kind of questions. Ever. We trust the gun. Do you understand me?” he whispered to Anthony.

Anthony bobbed his head in silent agreement, but his perplexed expression remained. “But what if it’s wrong about who’s a bad guy?” he asked again.

“Anthony!” Mr. Brenner growled under his breath as his eyes darted around the room. “Anthony, I want you to look at me.” He lifted Anthony’s chin with his forefinger until Anthony’s brown doe eyes met his. “Trust. The. Gun.”

“Trust the gun,” Anthony repeated.


Mr. Benner let out a heavy breath as he stood and straightened out his shirt. “Come on, let’s go join the others.” He patted Anthony on the back to guide him out of the collection room and into the hallway.

Mr. Brenner’s classroom door opened to a large square room with a forest of evergreen trees painted on the back wall by his desk and a row of rainbow-colored cubbies filled with little backpacks by the door. The rest of his class was sitting at their desks with plates of greasy pizza and tall cups of lime soda in front of them. They happily swung their legs in their chairs while they stuffed their faces and practiced their aim on each other. Pew, pew, they mouthed under squinted eyes. It was the same game Mr. Brenner played as a child, but now instead of stick-guns and pointer-finger guns, they had actual protection.

“Alright, class, ten more minutes, and then I want your desktops clean and your guns in their holsters at the side of your desk. Remember, if you don’t follow the rules, then your gun can be taken away, and you don’t want to be left unable to protect yourself, right?”

“Yes, Mr. Brenner,” the class droned back.

He waited until the room settled before turning his attention to the yet-unfinished addition and subtraction problems on the whiteboard. They were only five minutes into the math lesson when the speakers overhead crackled. Everyone froze.

“Code orange. Attention all, action status code orange,” a robotic voice declared.

The students looked to each other, exchanging alarmed and excited glances.

“Class, that means we have an active shooter in the building,” Mr. Brenner said.

The classroom erupted into cheers and students bounced in their desks.

“Settle down, settle down,” Mr. Brenner said before pressing a finger to his lips. “I want you to take your pistols and stand with your back against the wall beside the door. Remember, if the shooter enters the room, we want to be out of their line of fire so that we can shoot first.”

They collected their firearms and crept to the front wall of the room, forming a shoulder-to-shoulder line. Mr. Brenner took the spot nearest the door and motioned for the students to hold their pistols at the ready.

A violent banging echoed down the hallway as something struck a classroom door in another part of the building. Some of the students whimpered. The midnight-black mop of hair on Jennifer’s head trembled beside Mr. Brenner and the charms on her bracelet jingled in the eerie silence as she fought to keep her pistol aloft.

Banging sounded again, this time on a door much closer. Mr. Brenner glanced over at his class. Tears flowed silently down Jonathon’s freckled cheeks and Anthony patted him on the back to reassure him. Jonathon wiped a sleeve across his snotty nose and then raised his pistol at the ready like the others. Mr. Brenner gave Anthony an approving nod and Anthony beamed in response.

A crack of gunfire erupted, only feet away. Mr. Brenner’s ears rang, and his heart raced. Students yelped. He could not pull his eyes from the entryway to see who, nor could he figure how many from the sounds alone, but it was more than five of them who broke their silence.

“Shh,” Mr. Brenner hissed.

The door to their classroom burst open. Everyone screamed. A man in black tactical gear with an oversized head rushed in. He turned the barrel of a heavy automatic rifle to the class, his finger curling over the trigger as his barrel swept toward them. 

The students already had their guns raised. Pistols clicked and dozens of shrill beeps sounded as they all fired. The man clasped his hands over his heart and let out a wail as he fell to his knees. Then he slumped onto his back and gurgled and twitched before going completely still.

Laughter and cheering filled the room. The students dog-piled on the man’s body. Dozens of tiny hands grabbed and pulled at his head. The big felt mascot helmet slipped free and revealed Mr. Jenson, the P.E. teacher. Sweat matted his hair to his forehead, and he wore a grin that nearly stretched ear to ear beneath his bushy mustache.

The kids shrieked with delight and the scene devolved into a hybrid wrestling and tickling match as more and more of the class piled on Mr. Jenson. He playfully fended off wild hands while a bellowing laugh shook his body.

“Alright, everyone. That’s enough,” Mr. Brenner called over the rumpus. 

The excitement of the room swallowed the command. He paced over to the bank of light switches above the rainbow cubbies and flicked the lights on and off three times. The children froze and the laughter withered.

“Class, that’s enough. Back to your seats. Pistols in their holsters, please,” Mr. Brenner said.

The children still vibrated with energy from the drill, but relented under Mr. Brenner’s focused stare, moping to their desks and slumping into plastic bucket seats.

“Not bad, not bad at all,” Mr. Jenson said as he pressed a hand to the floor and hefted his paunchy form to its feet. 

“Thank you, Adam. I’ll take it from here,” Mr. Brenner said, stepping between the class and Mr. Jenson. 

Adam slung his rifle over one shoulder and gripped the strap with one hand while he dragged the big felt head with the other. Mr. Brenner waited for the costume head—a scowling brow and red eyes beneath a cartoonish black ski mask—disappeared into the hallway before sitting at his desk. 

“Alright, class, we succeeded in neutralizing the shooter, but we need to do much better in the future. Who can tell me what we did wrong?” Mr. Brenner asked.

The students shared nervous glances. Any fun from the moment before was a distant memory.

“Anyone?” Mr. Brenner asked again.

Jonathon raised a tenuous hand, his palm barely higher than his shoulder.

“Yes, Jonathon.”

“I was crying,” the boy admitted. He hung his head in defeat as the words slipped out and quivered like he was fighting back another round of tears. 

“Cry baby,” someone muttered.

A round of giggles infected the room and Jonathon went even paler than he naturally was. Anthony glowered at his classmates. He already had that hardened glare that could intimidate the worst criminals and the most seasoned cops alike.

“Enough. We will not tolerate name-calling in this classroom,” Mr. Brenner said with a raised voice. He stood from his desk and planted his hands on his hips and any smiles remaining in the room died. “Jonathon, we all need to be brave and hold back our tears—but I’m talking about a mistake that was made by many, not just you. Any guesses what that was?”

Jonathon shook his head. Mr. Brenner looked to the rest of the class, opening the question to everyone. Empty faces searched for answers. Mr. Brenner waited to see if any might find it, but the black hands of the clock above the cubbies were approaching noon.

“We made far too much noise. Many of you made noise when you were startled, which is dangerous,” Mr. Brenner said.

Heads bobbed over bright, primary-colored desks and mouths formed silent O’s

“We lost the element of surprise, one of the greatest tactical advantages we can have. It’s natural to want to cry out or shout when we are scared, but that is precisely what the shooter is counting on. When we are the most scared, that’s when we need to be the most brave—and the most quiet.”

More sober nods of agreement followed.

“Trust the gun,” Mr. Brenner recited.

“Trust the gun,” the class parroted back in unison.

Mr. Brenner clapped his hands together, and the crack evaporated the tension in the room.

“It’s time for a bathroom break. I want two lines, boys on the left, girls on the right, please. Line leaders will guide their lines through the hallways. Everyone will return in ten minutes. Understood?”

“Yes, Mr. Brenner,” the students answered.

Chairs screeched against linoleum as the students stood and shuffled into their respective spots, lining up on a rug with two sets of train tracks and a railroad tie where each student should stand. The students marched into the hallway. Mr. Brenner let out a deep sigh and sank into his chair again. How could the administration expect them to keep up with firearms training when they also gave them such a lengthy math curriculum? 

Students began to filter back into the room as the clock crawled forward. It was nearly noon when Mr. Brenner pulled his eyes from his lesson plan and counted the empty desks. He motioned for the other students in the room to wait before he moved into the hallway to usher back the stragglers. 

He spotted Anthony sauntering down the hall first. Anthony looked up and they shared a devilish grin as they caught each other’s gaze. Mr. Brenner squared to him. His hand hovered over his holster. Anthony mirrored the posture. 

They waited for the toll of high noon like two cowboys in a frontier town. Anthony drew, much faster than Mr. Brenner anticipated. His pistol clicked and three beeps sounded just as Mr. Brenner was squeezing the trigger on his own. 

His eyes stretched wide with horror as the trigger squeezed fully back into a fire position and a bullet zipped out of the barrel. It tore through the air and sunk into Anthony’s chest. It happened in less than a millisecond, but the moment stretched into eternity as his little body collapsed and blood began seeping through the T-Rex graphic on the front of his t-shirt. Mr. Brenner sprinted over to him. Anthony’s eyes were already foggy. He coughed once, and then the light vanished from them and his body went limp. 

Mr. Brenner clutched the boy against his chest and began shrieking for help.

An officer appeared at the end of the hallway. His gear jingled and rattled as he jogged over at an agonizingly slow pace. He wore a black uniform and his badge bore the emblem of the Starslinger Corporation rather than the school’s seal. He had sandy blonde hair, quaffed perfectly, and a square jaw that projected strength.

“Help him!” Mr. Brenner screamed as the man rolled to a stop over them.

The officer ran his fingers through his hair to smooth an errant strand before he spoke, “I can’t. He’s dead.”

“No! It’s not too late!” Mr. Brenner wailed as he squeezed the body tighter against his.

“Mr. Brenner, please calm down and release the body,” the officer said, dropping to one knee. 

Mr. Brenner reluctantly relinquished Anthony’s body, laying him gently back on the blood-stained carpet. “How could this happen?”

“The system profiled him as a future threat,” the officer explained while he tapped information into a tablet.

“He’s only a kid! He was just confused! He wasn’t an actual threat!” Mr. Brenner shouted, his voice hoarse and shaking.

“The gun is never wrong, Mr. Brenner. You’ll do well to remember that right now,” the officer reprimanded.

“It was this time!” Mr. Brenner yelled back, baring his teeth. Salt from the tears running down his face slipped in through his open lips and prickled his tongue.

Teachers, faculty, and even some students were circling them. They watched intently.

“No, it wasn’t,” the officer said. “Trust the gun.”

Mr. Brenner’s vision faded to white and his thoughts became a static roar.

Elias J. Hurst Bio: I am a chemist and Sci-Fi author who focuses on dystopian scenarios. I released my debut Sci-Fi novel, Europa, in 2019 and have short stories in the Neo Cyberpunk and Deadly Enhancements anthologies.