USA Today reported that the gunman entered the Barnes and Noble at 10:20 a.m.
Two minutes prior–so I guess, 10:18–I was sitting where I often sat, a quiet section–Military History, usually light-trafficked. I did not particularly want to be seen. I was wearing my job search clothes, which–in that context–subtly made me appear insane. Baggy blue Dockers and black dress shoes, tuxedo-ish and onyx-shiny–and something my mother gave me that I call the Donald Trump shirt. Like something that person would wear. Blue with white pinstripes, grandly collared, and glossy, as though I had just passed through a fine mist. Atop the Donald Trump shirt I wore a sweater, one I kept in my car only to wear over that shirt.
That was five months ago, October tenth.
Everything was pleasant and normal. It was cold outside, but comfortable in the bookstore. If music was playing–maybe innocuous jazz, maybe Billie Holliday, maybe Chet Baker–it was very quiet, almost inaudible.
A man in a black t-shirt appeared at the end of the aisle. He walked past me. “Good morning,” he said.
He stopped where the section–categorized by conflict–transitioned into The Second World War. He studied the spines. Then took down a massive tome–900 pages, maybe 1000–titled Heinrich Himmler. Ostensibly, a biography. He stared at the dust jacket. I looked to the book open on my lap. John Berryman, The Dream Songs–or some other poetry thing. James Schuyler, maybe. I half-read another page, distracted by the Himmler book, thinking it strange that such a thing exists–like, what is the market for that? I looked up. The man had opened it and was reading. Who would buy–and consume–such a work–scholars, sure–but who else? Who would enjoy nine hundred pages–packed with nugget after nugget of relevant minutiae–on Heinrich Himmler? What would the ultimate effect–on the average reader–of that book be–
Someone yelled and I looked up.
Then I heard pop, pop–like a big firecracker.
The video is seven minutes and twelve seconds long.
Henry Gostowski is standing in front of a white wall. The image is pallid and softy drawn, like something viewed through steam or gauze. He is wearing black and staring into the camera. For a few seconds he says nothing. Then he says:
Hello internet. If you’re watching this I’m dead. If you’re watching this a lot of people are dead. By this hand . . .
Henry Gostowski raises his right hand. It is gloved in red–someone’s blood, streaking down his forearm.
But also by the hand on your keyboard. The hand of anyone watching. You are not innocent. My name is Henry Gostowski. I am twenty-six years old. Two months ago I was employed at a Barnes and Noble in Baltimore County, Maryland . . .
Henry Gostowski is fat. His hair is dark and greasy. His cheeks are florid and lumpy with acne–big clustered cysts, a problem he had had for a while. He looks the same in the video as when working at the service desk in Barnes and Noble–where I remember seeing him, once, maybe a year ago–and the same as in the high school portrait they show on the news.
In the seven months I worked at Barnes and Noble, I suffered continuous psychological abuse by a supervisor named Robert Lee Brown. An individual solely devoted to making my life a living hell . . .
Henry Gostowski speaks calmly in the video.
Consciously so, modulating his tone, restraining himself. Attempting to convey something like sober rationality, dispassionate judgment.
My supervisor was not the only catalyst. There are millions of individuals who torment me, and people like me. Individuals like Robert Lee Brown have ruined my life and the lives of many people like me. This is our only recourse . . .
Henry Gostowski continues in this manner—never seeming less than calm—for four and a half minutes.
I didn’t want to do this, but before this event there were other events. Thousands of tiny events, all of them lawful, that cumulatively made this day inevitable . . .
He reaches for the camera.
The image cuts to a close-up of a woman’s face, swollen and partially masked in blood. One eye half-open, drowsy-seeming. The remainder of the face betraying no emotion, only the neutrality and distance of death. A slow zoom-out, the woman–his mother–dead on the linoleum. There is no sound. Then another cut. The image again is of Henry Gostowski against the white wall.
This is not my mother’s fault. It is my father’s fault that my mother is dead. My mother accepted me and my father did not. I accepted my mother and my father did not. Now I am dead and my mother is dead and others are dead and my father is responsible. He will have to live in the world he made . . .
Henry Gostowski goes on about his father for a minute or so.
My father was responsible for some of the small events that resulted in this one large event. If you take away one insight from this video, it should be this: death by one thousand cuts is still murder, the same as if I shot you in the head. You are all murderers.
Then he says—speaking in the third person—that the life of Henry Gostowski, and the lives of people like Henry Gostowski, should represent a warning to all humanity.
He reaches toward the camera and the video ends.
He posted the video to the Internet the morning of the shooting. It was taken down nine hours later.
Within a week the video was reposted to a website called bestgore.com–where it has received 63,048 views (and counting) and can still be accessed, under the title Barnes and Noble Shooter Confession.
On bestgore.com—among uploads with names like Ten Best Horror Movie Kills—there is a video of Neo Nazis slitting the throats of two Muslim men. A video of a teenage girl, already dead, being mutilated. A video two Russian serial killers made with a cell phone in which they ambush a man on a bike and kill him with a screwdriver. There are videos of dogfights, of suicides, of cat torture. Of people falling and stiffly bouncing off concrete. Of car accidents, of a mishap on train tracks. And about twenty-five, thirty Al-Qaeda beheadings.
I knew Henry Gostowski.
Not well, but he went to my high school—I remember him in the cafeteria, a fat kid with acne, eating fries. He was two grades below me. And friends with John Grass, my stepbrother.
John Grass is my dad’s wife’s son. He’s twenty-five now, I think. He looks a little like Henry Gostowski–he’s similarly fat–but more effeminate, and more obviously impaired.
The picture I keep in my head of John Grass: a pale and puffy man in a Dragon Ball-Z shirt two sizes too small. The smooth ledge of belly hanging over the waist of his pants, nude to the world. (“John’s sub roll,” my dad and I called it, laughing.) His soft face, smiling wet and gummy and unshaven, his upper lip sheathed in mousy fur, his plump chin dark with patchy tangles.
John Grass is autistic. A diagnosis–technically not of autism, but Asperger’s syndrome–he received at a young age, four or five.
John Grass’ birthday was a month ago: February fourteenth, Valentine’s Day–the fact that it falls on a holiday is the only reason I remember it. On that date I usually, at least for a moment, contemplate calling him. This year I stood with my phone in my hand for two or three minutes, wondering what I would say.
I did not call him. I have not spoken to John Grass in four years.
My father met his second wife fifteen years ago.
Before the second wife, there was a first wife, my mother: my parents dated through high school, were married, and had me.
They separated when I was six. All I remember of the life they lived together was this. The smell of my father’s coffee, dripping darkly into the glass carafe. And that he watched Monday Night Football, and how miserable that was for me. Having to watch Monday Night Football and having to watch my father watch Monday Night Football, at one time I felt that nothing could ever be worse.
My mother had affairs. Or an affair. I’m not certain. I do remember that at the end of their marriage—or their co-habitation–my father confronted my mother with some evidence of the affair, of an affair. It was evening, and we were in front of the television, probably eating dinner, and my dad went upstairs, and when he came back down he was holding something, pinching it, letting it dangle from his fingers. A sock, or a rag, or a scrap of paper, or maybe a condom. I don’t know and I haven’t asked. What I do know is that the implications of that object–whatever it was–were very clear, even to me.
At some point my father hit my mother, an act relating to the affair, to an affair. It might have been then; he might have dropped the object and hit her. Now I feel like that’s what happened. But I don’t know. It was a long time ago.
There was a separation, and an eventual divorce. My mother dated an alcoholic tree surgeon, then a master locksmith. My father dated someone from his office, Lynn Grass–retaining the surname of her first marriage–the woman he eventually married.
Lynn Grass’ son was John Grass.
I lived with my mother, but on weekends, I spent a lot of time with John Grass, Lynn Grass, and my father. A year after my father married Lynn Grass–who was now Lynn Bierce–my father told me that John Grass prays nightly that his brother–that’s what he called me–will one day live with him. And that he tells everyone that I am his best friend.
John Grass had dozens of sketchbooks, and in them he kept drawings of characters from anime and video games. The subject matter repulsed me, even sometimes made me sad. But the illustrations were vivid and intricate and, in some way, oddly impressive.
John Grass would cut his favorites from the sketchbooks and tape them to the walls of his bedroom. When I was with him I pretended not to notice the drawings, but when he wasn’t around I would go in and look at them.
One I remember featured the characters from Final Fantasy VII against a grimy industrial backdrop, dense with information. The Final Fantasy VII logo had been perfectly reproduced—his lines were straight and flawless—inside of an ornate banner that reached across the top of the page.
In another–against an amazingly detailed backdrop of forests and mountains and minutely rendered characters from dozens of games–Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario stood together on a bridge, high-fiving, as little bubble hearts floated around their heads.
After high school, John Grass went to Delaware to attend art classes at a regional college. My father said that the fountain incident was part of what made him so keen on leaving. He left school and–last I’ve heard–works part-time at a GameStop in Wilmington.
Henry Gostowski and John Grass and the tall boy with red hair and that one amazingly small boy–as small or smaller than any girl his age, the oldest little boy–were seated on the edge of the shopping center fountain. It was summer, eleven or twelve years ago. I had just graduated high school. And one of them, I think the boy with red hair, reached into the water.
Things by then were different between John Grass and I.
This was after what my dad called his idolatry of me. For years I treated him coolly–but always politely, never being overtly mean–and eventually he accepted the situation. Or grew bored of thinking about me. And almost miraculously–at least to my father–he was accepted into a small group of friends. The lowest rung of the social hierarchy, or somewhere beneath the ladder. But still, now he had friends, and secretly I felt happy for him.
Two months prior, The Boulevard opened. One quarter-mile of open-air shopping excitement, the billboard boasted. It wasn’t exactly exciting–chain retailers and corporate restaurants facing a faux-cobblestone walkway, plus a few hedges and benches and a fountain and a big store directory that glowed like the moon–but it was near to our homes, and had a big multiplex, and we liked it.
I was with my friends, Adam and Paul and James. We were drinking rum at Paul’s house–Paul’s family was out of town–and were drunk and bored and too unpopular to throw a party, and so we walked to the movie theatre.
We tried to get into a horror movie–the only thing we were willing to pay money to see. But the girl wouldn’t sell us four tickets, only three–one of us didn’t have an ID, and so we required a guardian, someone twenty-one–and in our frustration, Paul said something to the ticket-girl, something like, “You should just sell us the tickets, or I’m going to shit in my hands, right here, right now.” The girl waved to a security guard, and we ran, laughing and yelling–I think Paul punched a plexiglass coming soon display–and pushing through doors. We were back outside.
In a crowd, a woman turned and looked at us, annoyed by our obvious drunkenness–drunkenness we used to exaggerate with willful boorishness. Up by the fountain, people were standing, facing the illuminated water. “That’s not yours,” one of them said.
I don’t remember which of them I saw first. I think the boy with the red hair. Then I saw the small boy. And the pile of wet coins between the red-haired boy and the small boy–fifteen pennies, a dime, maybe a quarter. Then I saw Henry Gostowski. I remember hoping that John Grass wasn’t with them. Then I saw him too.
“Put the money back,” one of the men said. Five or six of them, aging jocks, beer-drunk sports fans. In their late twenties, early thirties. They had formed a wall around the boys. Some of the men were laughing, the others tried to appear stern. One of them, it seemed, had seen one reaching in the water, taking money from the bottom. The pile of coins were hard to argue with. (But really, this wasn’t about forty-five cents–the money was a pretext: the men wanted to bully these boys, and this was the adult and socially acceptable way to do it.)
The boy with red hair smiled uncomfortably, straining so to not appear frightened. “It’s my money,” he said.
One of the men reached toward the coins, I guess to throw them back in. As his hand neared the money, the small boy’s face flared with rage–he grabbed the arm and dug his fingernails into the man’s skin. Like what a deranged child might do. The man yelled and yanked backward and punched the small boy, very quickly, but solidly. The small boy went limp, his head and eyes rolling–in the manner of someone in a bad movie, exaggeratedly affecting a dazed state–and he fell backwards, into the water.
The men ran off, screaming and laughing, and looking back, one of them yelling, “Why the fuck did you hit that kid?”
And the man saying, “He fucking pinched me!”
My friends and I stood there laughing. I was laughing. For a long time we were all laughing.
John Grass treated me differently after that.
Given what happened later–what Henry Gostowski did, what he said in the video–that is something I think about.
In the years since The Boulevard opened, everything around it–what had been yellow fallow fields, desolate scrubland–was developed into condos and shopping. A Best Buy was built, then a Target, then a Bed Bath and Beyond. And eventually a big bookstore, a 33,000 square foot Barnes and Noble.
Faded teddy bears still block the locked doors.
The building will be torn down before the end of the year.
I moved back in with my mother about a year ago–seven or so months before the shooting.
I’m twenty-nine now.
I go to sleep every night in the bedroom of my childhood–the baseball-themed wallpaper, the same cracked window. But it doesn’t feel like my old bedroom. Most everything is new, most everything old got thrown away–no more soccer trophies, the guinea pig is gone, deceased, the big desk was given to a neighbor, the bunk bed was driven to the dump, et cetera, et cetera.
All there is: a futon, a TV, some clothes in a laundry basket. And a bookshelf, with about two-dozen books—mostly poetry.
Kate turned me on to poetry. I didn’t read poetry before Kate. Kate was–or, I guess, is–a poet. A pretty good one, or I thought so then.
I met her in my first year at college. We were together for a year and a half. She was the first girl I dated, the first one I kissed, the first one I slept with–my first everything.
We were close. We were rarely apart. We were closer than I knew. Then I began to hate her.
Little things had started to bug me–like she used to smoke a lot of pot, like a lot. I used to smoke too, but not like her–so that started to bug me.
Also she would look at guys when we would go places. I would call her out on it, and she would be like, you’re just being jealous, or you’re being an asshole, or you’re this, or you’re that–but she was! She was looking at them, I mean if she had just been like, yes, I look at guys, I’m human, it would have been fine–but she lied! Like, over and over and over—
I don’t know. I was probably unreasonable, maybe–I don’t know.
I slept with this fat girl one night, because I was drunk, and because I was angry about something, something she had done or said–probably dumb, probably minor.
I confessed and she dumped me, and that was that. I tried to get her to take me back. I really tried, for a long time. She never wanted to. She was done. Good for her, I guess.
She called me on October seventeenth–seven days after the shooting. I was shocked. I hadn’t heard from her in seven or eight years.
“That was near your mom’s house,” she said. “Right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“They said the guy who did it went to Rosemont High. Isn’t that where you went?”
“Did you know him?”
I hesitated. “No,” I said.
“Do you know anyone who got hurt?”
“No,” I said. I couldn’t talk about it.
We spoke for a few more minutes. She said she’s in Portland and she’s engaged or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention, I couldn’t pay attention. My thoughts were all over the place. Those first months after, I was crazy. I had weird anxiety, weird feelings, weird thoughts. A lot of thoughts–thoughts, thoughts, thoughts. For three consecutive months, I didn’t leave my mother’s house once.
I would take three or four baths a day, and think about things–that’s all I did.
Just thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking—
During that period I remembered something about me, something I had forgotten:
When I was in ninth grade–and somewhat into tenth–I fantasized obsessively about something, every day, all the time:
I wanted to bring an assault rifle to my high school–in my fantasy, an AK-47.
And in that fantasy, with that AK-47–and sometimes also a hunting knife and sometimes a handgun and sometimes some small explosives–I would kill as many people as I could. Students. Teachers. Principals and vice principals. Then, when they arrived, the police. Then, when cornered, or mortally wounded, with no one left to kill, I would kill myself.
I remembered asking Jake Apple—whose dad was in the military—if he knew where I could buy an AK-47.
I remembered taking ridiculous, useless notes while watching the action movies I would rent.
I remembered making a crude map of the school in the back of a composition book.
I remembered running my finger over the page, imagining the route I would take, which entrance I would use, how I might flush people toward a room where they would be trapped.
The library, like in Columbine, I remembered thinking.
I thought about how those first years of high school were bad, really bad.
Then how things were better.
Then how things got bad again after Kate and I broke up–the DUI I got like a month afterward. The Kate thing happening–which took me about two years to get over–and that top of it, my life became impossible. I was apathetic. I drank a lot. I blacked out often. I frequently behaved in a psychotic manner–I’ve been told that, I really don’t remember.
I dropped out of college.
Then I lived with Paul and worked at this seafood restaurant, a vile place, completely rat-infested. Big black turds on the cookware. Old urine–a pungent yellow crust–all over the counter. I would take out the trash and dozens would scatter–at night I couldn’t see, I would just hear them, scrambling.
Then I was doing landscaping–which I liked, and stuck with a long time.
At some point I tried to stop drinking–or at least blacking out–which I realized was impossible so long as I was living with Paul. So I moved in with this guy from Germany who became–or already was–addicted to Percocet, and who started stealing from me.
I moved in with my mom.
I got in an accident in one of the work trucks, and the owner of the landscaping company fired me. He said he didn’t want to do it but he had to. Fuck that guy, whatever. He was a racist anyway–everything was spic this, nigger that. Seriously, fuck him. I’m glad I don’t work for him anymore.
I didn’t have any money coming in. I told my mom that she wasn’t going to keep getting rent from me. I had been giving her four hundred a month, which seemed like a lot to live at home, in a tiny room with a cracked window and baseball-themed wallpaper.
First she said that she was going to kick me out.
Then she decided that I could stay with her, but I would have to look for jobs, five days a week, Monday through Friday, nine to five–the same as if I was working.
So every day I put on the outfit she insisted I wear–my job search clothes: the idiotic shoes, the baggy pants, the Donald Trump shirt.
I never looked for jobs, not really.
Sometimes I went to the library, sometimes I went to the mall, sometimes I walked trails, sometimes I sat in this one big parking lot, and sometimes I went to Barnes and Noble.
That’s why I was where I was five months ago–October tenth, 10:20 a.m.
I heard pop, pop–like a big firecracker. Then a man’s voice, panicked or angry. Maybe Henry Gostowski, maybe the black guy who died. The man with the Heinrich Himmler biography turned. The Himmler book fell. I stood. The Berryman book fell. I heard two more gunshots, which I didn’t know were gunshots. Noises, frightening noises. The man dashed toward the sound. I went the other way. Toward these big tinted windows–an emergency exit. I heard three more shots. Then something awful, like a moan–this agonized groaning. Then another shot. Then someone yelled, “Oh fuck, oh holy fuck—” as I pushed the emergency door open, activating a shrill alarm that I heard, piercingly, for a moment, then mutedly after the door closed behind me. I had walked into the day. I was removed from the event. Outside everything seemed normal. I mostly only heard cars, driving past, oblivious. I turned and saw my reflection in the tinted glass. I felt safe. I started walking away. I sometimes glanced back, unsure as to what I was walking away from. I walked toward a road. Toward a Burger King on the other side of the road. I tripped a little as I crossed the road. I think someone honked at me. Behind Burger King there was a small forest. I walked into the forest. I sat down. I stared at things. I saw an old tire. I saw a pile of bricks. Henry Gostowski died.
My life continued.