In quaint Haddonfield, New Jersey, Tess is about to marry Gabe in her childhood home. Her mother, Helen, is panicked about the guest list—which promises warring exes, racial tensions, and way too many psychiatrists. But the most challenging guest is an uninvited one: a woman who shows up in a wedding dress, wearing a gas mask and toting a sawed-off shotgun, with a bomb trigger strapped to her arm.
The bride did not wear white. But the terrorist did.
The bride wore a fitted dark blue cocktail dress, shimmering and shiny, the color of a duck caught in an oil spill. The terrorist, however, wore the most conventional gown of white satin and lace, complete with veil.
The guests had already crowded into the great room to await the bride. Until this moment, the biggest anticipated setback had been the threat of bad weather that had forced the ceremony indoors. The bride and groom, who had been discouraged from an outdoor summer wedding for this very reason, seemed not only stoical about the approaching storm but jauntily pleased; and when, just as suddenly, the thunder skittered away and the sun broke through, guests who believed in a higher power could note that said Being had just offered a wink and a nod, or blessed the proceedings.
Those who needed to sit had sat. Instead of the familiar strains of Pachelbel’s Canon, the assembled guests heard a series of whirs outside the door from what sounded like a power drill. While they turned to face the noise, the terrorist, not Tess, made an entrance from the opposite side of the room, from the French doors that led to the backyard. She did one runway strut down what passed for an aisle. Then she just spun around to face the crowd and allowed everyone, including the wedding photographer, to get a long look.
With her wedding dress, the terrorist wore what looked like an old World War II gas mask, bulky as a scuba diver’s. You couldn’t see her eyes through the plastic portholes, because over the gas mask she wore wraparound mirrored sunglasses. Her veil was far too heavy for bridal purposes—more like a burqa. Threaded from the gas mask to her arm was some kind of small black box, attached with what many of the guests immediately recognized as an iPod armband. On the box, a small button flashed.
Since her gown was strapless and her arms bare, you could see the box quite well. The arm wearing it was clearly a woman’s arm. A very fit woman’s arm. This woman had put in some serious time on the Nautilus machines, or with free weights, the younger men would later agree, when her arms became a central question: How could anyone who knew her fail to recognize those arms, those hands? Granted, it was possible she had been fat before, in training for this, her big day of mayhem, grunting through chin-ups deep into the night. Still. Shouldn’t the person in question—the person she wanted to hurt, the person responsible for endangering the lives of sixty-odd innocent bystanders—recognize the tone of her skin, her elbows?
The black box was practically the only dark item on her body and thus meant to be seen, as were the boots. The wedding dress had been intentionally hemmed too short, so it wasn’t just the toes of her shoes that protruded but the entire clunky things. The terrorist wore steel-reinforced-toe work boots identical to those of any road construction crew or cable installation dude, except that the boots had been spray-painted white over stencils, so they actually looked like white-and-cream lace. The shoelaces had been spray-painted white, too.
It would have been easy enough—easier, in fact—to buy white shoelaces. The caked paint on the laces was disconcerting, and gave the shoes the look of something that would be in a museum, in a big Plexiglas case, posturing as art.
The veil was so long that it hid part of her waist, so only as she walked, at certain angles, could you see that she wore a belt that appeared to be made entirely from rounds of ammo, on the side of which was somehow balanced or clipped—as if it were a cell phone—a sawed-off shotgun? Not a Soldier of Fortune crowd, but it appeared to be a sawed-off shotgun.
Despite the artillery, no one took the terrorist seriously at first. Almost everyone assumed that she was part of an artsy ceremony. Both Tess and Gabriel had been very secretive about the details of the wedding, revealing only that it would be “intimate.” The older guests—who believed in the importance of ritual at a time like this, who resolutely understood that your own wedding was the worst possible time to try to get creative—attempted to smile indulgently. But many of the bride and groom’s friends looked genuinely delighted.
Not that most of the guests required an armed bride in a gas mask to be alert, amused, and grateful to be there. The groom’s sister, Miranda Mobley, was an actress, and as her date she’d brought her current boyfriend, a better-known actor: Trevor Hunter, star of action-adventure movies with comic overtones and a long-running TV cop show. After the bride and groom shoved cake into their mouths, Miranda’s car—the actors had arrived in a town car, with a driver—would whisk her back to Manhattan, in preparation for late-night talk shows. The celebrities sat quietly on their plastic chairs. But as people twisted backwards to look for the bride and groom, their eyes kept snagging on the movie stars. In fact, most people’s first thought was that Art Bride was Miranda, harnessed into a supporting role as ironic maid of honor.
Once Miranda was located in the crowd, they figured the terrorist was Tess herself. Though Tess had greeted people as they arrived at the house, she could have changed clothes in her childhood home. One or two of the guests, grinning, began to look around for the groom, whom they assumed would also be in costume. Gabriel, in his wedding suit, looked as mystified as they did. But they assumed his shock was just part of the performance, even when he craned his neck to find his bride-to-be.
Tess was crammed into the back of the room in her blue dress, just another spectator. Therefore not Art Bride. And the wide-eyed bride looked even more puzzled than Gabriel.
She stood in a clump by the door with the entire catering staff—not only the head chefs, a husband-and-wife duo in the regulation tall white hats and white Nehru jackets, their names stitched in cursive on the pockets, but all five of their young penguin-dressed food service underlings.
When the terrorist, voice muffled by the gas mask, boomed, in a kind of parodic broadcaster’s voice, “Everyone standing, find a chair,” everyone began to smile, laugh, and clap, or almost everyone.
Helen Burns, the mother of the bride whose house this was, quickly located Tess in the clump of guests, then Gabriel. Then her son, Simon, and her three grandchildren. Then her tremulous mother in her wheelchair, who wore her usual expression, half happy-go-lucky, half defeated.
The Africans also did not appear to be at all amused. The four friends of the bride and groom’s from Chad and Mali, three men and one’s wife—Helen had been introduced to them but could not remember their long, foreign names—who had traveled here for the festivities, may not have been totally versed in American wedding customs, but they knew a real shotgun from a prop. So, presumably, did the groom’s grandfather, who might be old now but had fought in actual wars. Helen noticed that Delbert Billips Sr. seemed to be trying to calculate all of the egresses in the room without moving his head too much. She also noticed that the woman did not pay any attention to him, which meant that whoever she was, she was not connected to the groom’s side of the family, because if you were planning a hostage event, you would make special arrangements for the man with combat experience.
Also highly unamused: the mental health service providers. Helen Burns, the bride’s mother, was a therapist with a mere Ph.D. But the father of the bride, the maternal grandfather of the groom, and a handful of the wedding guests were psychiatrists who could call in a script for Thorazine or process a committal right on the spot. They did not think this woman was fetchingly creative. They would think she was schizophrenic. They would think she was schizophrenic just on the basis of the outfit. The outfit alone screamed inpatient.
There were not enough chairs for everyone. The room that Helen thought of as the not-so-great room could not comfortably hold this many people. Panic-stricken as the rain threatened, they’d called in an S.O.S. to the bride’s brother Simon, and with the help of the caterers’ staff, they’d rearranged everything into some kind of ad hoc performance space with the conviction that the rain was going to pass so that the food could still be served outside, under the tent. Helen was very upset. It was ridiculous. Who wants a backyard wedding! Even if it doesn’t rain, who needs mosquitoes, ants, the heat and humidity! But then the threat of rain had passed, and Helen realized that her daughter liked just the improvised quality of the wedding, as if it inoculated her against the fear that she was demanding too much attention.
Now, instead of bad weather, they had an armed interloper in a gas mask.
“Okay,” the terrorist said, “the rest of you can line up behind and around the chairs. First—” But she was interrupted by a ringing phone. People no longer turn off their cell phones, even for a wedding. “Ooooh, that’s areally stupid ring tone,” she noted. Many laughed while the offender set her phone to vibrate. “Let’s turn off our phones. Not vibrate, just flat off. Try to be without your phones for a while. Let’s do it together. On the count of three,” and the guests complied, laughing more as the clashes of the various phones’ powering-down songs cycled through.
“Now,” she said, “I’m passing a hat,” the word hat muffled, so it sounded as if she were announcing she planned to pass gas. Where the hat came from was unclear—somewhere under the magician’s veil, or, considering what would happen soon, it had been planted in the room beforehand. “If you could all just send your phones forward to the aisle and place them in the top hat. Just pass them down the rows. That’s it. Thank you. If you want to help carry it, honey”—to the flower girl, who could not look more pleased at the prospect of what was clearly a party game—“you need to put down the flowers. Yeah, it is heavy. It’s a special magician’s hat, gets deeper.”
Some guests resisted being separated from their phones. One guest, a psychiatrist friend of the bride’s father, pointed out that all the phones looked alike. He said he’d be screwed if he lost his address book.
“Don’t worry about that, sir; I’m sure we can sort them all out later.”
“I’m not really comfortable with this,” the psychiatrist said, very loudly and slowly, as only a very poor psychiatrist would speak to an insane person. Helen knew that he was not necessarily this poor a psychiatrist, but he was under stress. “Could you please tell me—”
The woman approached, stood over him, and swooped her hand to the shotgun on her belt. If the psychiatrist noticed the incongruity between the dull metal of the gun and her French manicure, it would have been further diagnostic evidence.
He surrendered the phone, as did the others who had hoped to quietly decline participation in this part of the event.
The terrorist looked around sternly. “Who’s holding out?”
No one responded. Later, they would marvel that no one had the presence of mind to keep a phone; it’s not as if their captor counted them.
She insinuated herself among the guests, paying particular attention to the middle-aged men. She looked deep into their eyes as she passed. They could see themselves reflected in her sunglasses. She stopped in front of Richard Silver, an old friend of the bride’s father, a gastroenterologist whom Jake Nathanson had known since medical school, and glared. Or what was probably a glare; it’s always hard to tell when you can’t see someone’s eyes, which is why many banks now post signs that say sunglasses and hats are not allowed. Despite 9/11 and “Let’s roll,” all the legendary bravery of the men on the doomed, hijacked plane headed for the Capitol, most bank robberies happen without anyone even brandishing a gun. These days, a mere note will do.
“But I’m on call,” Dr. Silver said.
She made the universal hand gesture that means Fork it over.
“No,” the gastroenterologist said.
The woman’s shoulders tensed in irritation. She marched to the mammoth console that held Helen’s television and DVD player, practically the only piece of furniture, other than the couch, that hadn’t been crammed into the garage to accommodate the chairs. From the space between the back of the console and the wall—the piece never managed to be flush enough against the wall because of the irritating tangle of cords and big, boxy plugs—she removed a rifle and a plastic garbage bag. She tucked the plastic bag into the belt that held the shotgun. She marched back to the gastroenterologist and pointed the rifle at his forehead.
He surrendered his iPhone.
The event so far had taken maybe four minutes. The rifle marked a decisive turning point. The tone changed as decisively as the weather. Those who thought this was theater immediately relinquished that idea. Even those who held out for guerrilla theater—the rifle unloaded, the woman an actor friend of the groom’s from film school, the whole event some kind of commentary on the comforts of the West versus the hardships the bride and groom had witnessed with Doctors Without Borders in Mali, where they met—allowed themselves to be genuinely scared.
As disconcerting as the rifle itself was the fact that it had been planted in the house. Which meant that this person had access to the house. To Helen, who lived here, that fact alone was not surprising. Like almost everyone in their quaint, prosperous New Jersey hamlet, she rarely bothered to lock her doors. Anyone—her lawn care professional, a bunch of high school kids in need of a party venue—could gain access to her house. Her geriatric golden retriever would not be much of a deterrent. Whoever entered her house would have access to her computer files, her credit card numbers on her bills, her prescription drugs, her sad lingerie. Helen didn’t dwell much in those seconds on the predictable feelings of violation. In truth, there wasn’t that much to violate. Her life was an open book that, frankly, no one was much interested in reading. The more puzzling, and urgent, question was why.
That the woman had a beef with someone was obvious. Helen was pretty sure that it wasn’t her. She would also bet that it had nothing to do with the bride and groom, though a person of limited imagination would go there first.
With the hand not holding the rifle, the terrorist removed the plastic bag from her bullet belt and shook it out.
“Next,” she said, “I’d like the ladies to pass forward their purses. Over here, into the bag.”
The women reluctantly surrendered the tiny handbags with their lipsticks, their Stim-U-Dents. Their metal nail files and, perhaps, their tiny cans of Mace spray. Their cute sewing kits from past hotel stays containing needles and safety pins for emergency wardrobe malfunctions and also, if necessary, for poking out eyes. The terrorist held the bag open as the guests dutifully passed their purses.
“Excuse me, miss,” an older man said. “One thing I want to tell you.”
Helen didn’t even have to look at the speaker to tell he was one of the psychiatrists. He was using his therapist’s voice: soft, slow, soothing, syrupy. Helen had met him for the first time at the rehearsal dinner the night before: Dr. Ira Needleman from Los Angeles, the groom’s grandfather.
“My wife is diabetic,” Dr. Needleman said. “Her insulin is in her purse.”
“I’m sure you don’t want to hurt anyone.”
The terrorist laughed, showily.
“Well, she’s obviously not going to let you keep your insulin needle,” someone else said. Facing the terrorist: “Right?”
This was Dr. Jacob “Jake” Nathanson, father of the bride and Helen’s ex-husband, who thought that Dr. Needleman, semiretired therapist to the stars, was a pretentious quack.
The terrorist said, roughly, “Bingo.”
“Look,” Jake said. He was using his own straightforward, I-won’t-condescend-to-you, I’m-not-a-typical-therapist therapist’s voice. His children and ex-wife knew it well.
“Perhaps if you just told us what you want…”
“We’re getting to that,” the terrorist said.
“Excuse me?” Jake said. “I couldn’t quite understand you. Maybe if you took off the mask…”
She ignored him. All of the purses were now in the trash bag. She dragged the bag to the French doors at the back of the room, opened the door, and thrust it out onto the lawn, along with the cell phones. Closed the door.
“And now if you would all kindly put your hands behind your backs. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here today—”
“Again,” Jake interrupted, louder now, “I really want to hear what you have to say, but I could understand you so much better if you just took off the mask.”
“Jake,” Helen said, urgently. “Just let her talk.”
“Thank you,” the terrorist said.
“I agree with Jake,” another of the psychiatrists said.
“Shut up!” the terrorist said.
The purse collection part of the event had taken another couple of minutes. This part also happened very quickly, so quickly that it was impressive that the three African men organized a coup without any rehearsal at all.
Ngarta Adoulaye from Chad failed to put his hands behind his back. He stood, ready to act. The faux bride immediately swooped over to him and pointed the rifle at his shoulder. Once he sat back down she removed, from her belt, some kind of plastic restraint, in the style of a hospital wrist ID band but much wider and stronger, which she used to grab his arms and secure them behind the chair. In order to do this, even quickly, she had to very briefly prop the rifle in her armpit, where it rather dramatically changed the look of her cleavage.
Good old-fashioned sexism: it is difficult to be terrified of someone in a strapless push-up bra. She had a rifle, but it was hard to believe that she knew how to use it. It was probably not even loaded. It was impossible to believe that some man in the gathering could not approach her from behind and wrest it from her hands, while she instinctively yelped and protected the strapless dress from being dislocated.
And that is what happened. While she was tying up Ngarta, another African, Souleymane Samake from Mali, tried to wrest the rifle from her. Failed. The woman executed a fast, practiced move to regain control of the weapon: a kick to Souleymane’s groin and a two-handed, twisting motion on the rifle. As Souleymane doubled over howling, the rifle fired. In the back of the room, the bride squealed because one of the waitpersons had stomped on her foot in an attempt to get out the doors. The female half of the husband-and-wife chef team wailed and fell to the floor, her wedding cake of a hat tumbling from her head.
Nothing had hit her. The bullet had actually ricocheted and knocked a vase off a shelf of the fireplace, like in an old Western. Either the terrorist was an excellent marksman, or Cyndi, the girl chef, was lucky to be alive to plate canapés another day. She had probably never heard rifle fire that close before. Probably few of the guests had. It was exceptionally loud, so loud that it was impossible to believe someone on the block had not already called the police.
“You can see that was a VERY BAD IDEA,” the terrorist said, cupping the black box on her arm as if to protect it. “Listen—”
Several, in this interlude, had tried or were trying to run. How hard could it be to escape the great room of a suburban house on a crisp Saturday in summer? It’s true that many people would be at the beach. But it was hardly a ghost town. All over Haddonfield, people were washing cars, unloading groceries, lobbing gentle practice pitches to their Little Leaguers. Even without gunfire, neighbors would be alert to the presence of so many interlopers’ cars on the street and the weird photographic ritual guests had needed to undergo before entering the house, not to mention a caterer’s van and a town car with a driver on a day that was not a prom night. They would know there was a wedding. The Haddonfield police would have been informed that there was a wedding. They would not expect screaming at a wedding.
The two Africans who were not tied up headed toward the doors. They made for an odd couple: Souleymane in a traditional, wildly colorful, tentlike grand boubou; Idris Deby in a trim Western suit. The African woman with the weird headdress, the other guests could tell, must have belonged to the restrained man, because she stayed behind, yipping in a strange register. Several of the groom’s friends headed toward the doors, as did the Doctors Without Borders cohort. So did a mother and a baby.
This was a suburban family room, not a ballroom. People standing in the available floor space—basically none—behind the inadequate number of folding chairs for a short ceremony was already more than the room was good for. Within a second the room was full of writhing and screaming: full-throated from the men, shrieks from the women and the babes-in-arms, and, in its own special robotic munchkin register, the wails of Theodore, the bride’s eighteen-year-old half brother, who had Asperger’s syndrome.
But those who tried the door leading from the room to the house’s hallway found it forcibly barricaded from outside. So that was what the drill had accomplished. Those who headed for the French doors found the terrorist was already blocking those doors triumphantly with her rifle, which was now pointed at the approaching guests. Curled around one of her fingers, another item fetched from beneath the mother of all bridal veils: a big, nasty, serious-looking padlock. A padlock not for a gym locker but for a car impoundment lot. She nudged the rifle into the chest of the most aggressive young man. He froze and raised his hands. So did his compatriot in jailbreak.
Helen Burns, who had stayed as still as possible amid the chaos and was trying very hard to figure out what this woman wanted, did something strange then. From her seat in the front row, she gave the terrorist a friendly, unobtrusive little wave. She did not look directly at her while she waved. She turned her head to look a little bit to the side and down. If this woman was seriously mentally ill, Helen knew it was a bad idea to engage in direct eye contact with her. Direct eye contact would be too stimulating. She would need to connect periodically, but not too intensely.
Given her oblique view, and the gas mask, it was impossible to tell if the terrorist was smiling. But her shoulders lilted a bit as she waved back—just the smallest flutter of acknowledgment of the fingers on the rifle.
LISA ZEIDNER has published five novels, including Love Bomb and the critically acclaimed Layover, and two books of poems. Her stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Slate, GQ, Tin House, and elsewhere. She directs the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.