The following is excerpted from Donna Decker’s new novel, Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You, available now from Inanna Publications. The book is based on the mass shooting that took place in Montreal, Canada on December 6, 1989 at L’Ecole Polytechnique, also known as the Montreal Massacre.
Jenean had been at home on Rue Verde when her friend Charlie Genevese, from CN Radio, called at six p.m. the night before
“Have you heard?” he had asked, his voice tight.
Jenean had felt a freezing chill to the bone. Typically lilting,
Charlie’s voice was ominous. He had bad news.
“It looks like they are shooting women,” he had said to her.
A fog had descended. Before Charlie had given her the least of the details, she turned on the television. She had remained there catatonic, in front of the horror playing out, until the dark of early morning.
“All the dead are female,” a CNTV “Nightly News” reporter announced from her post in front of CanTech. Anchor Ben Nault had reported that twelve injured students have been taken to hospital. Of the twelve, eight were women and four, men. The killer, who remains unidentified, took aim first at women, and then only at men who interfered. Fourteen were dead. All women.
The gunman had hunted women, targeted them, shouted, “I want the women.” Why? Why? One man, a student present during the killings at CanTech, was asked, “So there was no resistance to the killer? The men left without protest?” The student had shaken his head no. Jenean had not been able to move. Jenean had pulled the pearly blue and yellow afghan her grandmother had made for her when she was baptized around her shoulders. She had become numb, deadened against what was playing out in front of her on the screen. She should have been writing. She should have been responding to this atrocity, but how could she? Her column would wait. Mot du Jour would cope. It had felt like the world was stopping and she had to remain as still as possible for a while.
When Clara called, Bart spoke softly into the phone from the kitchen, then peeked in to see if Jenean was awake. She had never been more awake.
“What time is it?” she asked Bart, who was dressed for work already.
“It’s six a.m. You fell asleep on the sofa. I need to leave for work. Will you be okay?”
“Will you speak to Clara, Jenean?” He gestured to the phone.
She dislodged her hand from the afghan and reached for the phone. She felt her body moving in slow motion. She was not sure she could speak. There was too much to say. How to say anything at all?
“Jenean.” She heard Clara’s voice. She was crying. “Jenean….”
“I’m here, Clara. I’m here.”
“How can it be? Is it true? Has it really happened? Fourteen women….” She stopped speaking, sobbed into the phone.
Jenean was quiet and crying, willing herself to respond to her dearest friend with some comforting words, but there were no words. They abided, two friends, together in the silence for a time. Finally, Clara blew her nose, whispered, “There is a vigil tonight. I will go. Will you come with me? I don’t know what else to do.”
Thoughts came at Jenean in staccato: Outside. Night. Vigil. Women. Dead. All the dead are women. Shot in cold blood. It hurt to breathe. She dug as deeply as she could for strength.
“I will come with you,” she whispered. Had she said it aloud?
Had she meant it? “I will come with you,” she said again in case Clara did not hear.
“I will pick you up at five,” she said, quietly, weakly. “Jenean?”
“I love you.” She was crying again.
Jenean was too. “I love you, too.”
Lowering the volume on the television, Jenean pulled the afghan around her tightly. The white mug of tea Bart had made for her before he left was still steaming on the coffee table. Bart had locked the door behind him, something he had never done before. Last night, Bart made pots of tea and answered the phone that rang constantly. He had come into the living room, sat on the other end of the sofa, asked Jenean how she was doing, but he did not attempt to hold her. He did not hold her hand. When he left this morning, he swept her hair from her face and kissed the top of her head.
On the television, there was a constant montage of ambulances and stretchers and iv poles and police lights flashing. When a police commissioner stepped to a podium to speak to the gathered press and public, Jenean turned the volume up again, though she had heard much of it before.
What we know is this: a gunman confronted 60 engineering students during their class inside CanTech here in Montreal. He separated the men from the women and told the men to exit the classroom. He held up a .223-calibre rifle. Before opening fire in the engineering class, he called the women “une gang de féministes” and said “J’haïs les féministes [I hate feminists].” One person said that they are not feminists, just students taking engineering classes. The gunman didn’t listen. He shot the women. The enraged man then launched a shooting rampage that spread to three floors, several classrooms, and the school cafeteria. He is reported to have jumped on top of desks while female students cowered below. He roamed the halls yelling, “I want women.”
Jenean stared at the television without really seeing it, her mind free associating examples into a category box, brimming over—Holocaust, Killing Fields. There was no coming back from something like this. It was pure hatred. Hate could pick up a weapon and hack its enemy to death when and where it wanted. How could hate have such power? How had hate come to their island?
She must have dozed because the thud of the newspaper againsther front door startled Jenean. A boy on a bicycle maneuvered
through hardened rivulets of ice, tossing the Montreal Messenger onto neighborhood porches. His arc was perfect even with the thick woolen mittens he wore. One paper rose two stories and then landed on the porch of Madame Serelle. The next fell with a thud on Jenean’s doorstep and a third on the welcome mat of Monsieur and Madame Tremont. Reluctantly, Jenean got up, opened the front door, felt a draft of cold wash over her, and bent for the paper. Closing the door against the winter air, Jenean took the paper to the sofa, wrapped herself once again in the warm blanket, and unfolded the chilled newspaper onto the table.
She was agape for a minute then spun away. When she looked again, it was as she knew it would be: a photo of a woman shot dead in her cafeteria chair, long hair dangling, arms outspread. Behind her a plainclothes policeman, gun in holster, was removing holiday decorations that had been hanging from the ceiling of CanTech’s cafeteria. The headline read: “Campus Massacre” in full one-inch print. Beneath the photo, the caption read: “CanTech Victim Slumps in Cafeteria Chair.”
Who was this woman? So young, her cafeteria tray arranged in front of her on the table. Her uneaten dinner. She was unsuspecting, presuming a world where death did not stride into your school to take out your kind. Jenean was heaving before she realized it. That poor child. She was a child really. Why? The weeping bent her in half, her knees to her chest, her face awash.
Something seized in her. Like a car engine without oil. The machinery stopped, could not re-start. The Messenger photo caught her eye again. What of this young woman’s family who saw her body on this front page only hours after losing her? Though her face was obscured, her loved ones would know her. Surely such a photo would re-traumatize the families. And yet, that one photo captured the truth: the bestiality of the act of killing women who were simply living their God-given lives. In the one other photograph laid out on the front page, two women left the university in shock, their faces stricken. Sub-headlines read: “Gunman kills 14 women before killing himself”; “‘You are all feminists!’ he shouts as he fires”; and, “Killer told men to leave.” Jenean could not read the details quickly enough. Horror gripped her through article after article. Words floated into her brain, but would not settle down there. They were dynamic, speeding words that refused orderly filing in her mind. “I want the women,” the killer had said, aiming for women. He had killed 14 women and wounded 13 other people, nine women and four men. These people were in three different hospitals. The dead had been strewn about on three different floors of CanTech. The scene was “indescribable,” said police.
Jenean could not look away. Police were sending the gunman’s fingerprints to Ottawa for identification. He had no identification papers on him, but he did leave a three-page handwritten letter in which he blamed women for the failures in his life. Agonized, Jenean read on. Some sentences stopped her cold. “One student, 20 years old, underwent plastic surgery after having part of her face blown off, reported Dr. Yves Perseaux of the Jewish General Hospital.” Jenean stopped, closed the paper, folded it back up. She had read only to page A-2. She picked up her mug, her tea cold by now, and clutched it with both hands. Staring straight ahead at the photo of herself and Bart on the beach in Maine, she tried to calm her burning brain. Jenean rose from the sofa, turned off the television, and perked up as she heard the radio in the kitchen playing at low volume. She listened and heard Nicole Beaudette, a Montreal writer, tell the CN Radio’s Sunrise audience, “One reason. One reason alone. Fourteen women are dead for one reason: they are women. Their male classmates are still alive for one reason: they are men.”