Seventh grade, age twelve. There’s a swastika duct taped—really, not spray painted, duct taped—on the ground on the basketball courts, and so PE is moved to the soccer field. We also could’ve moved to the indoor basketball court, or the pool room, or the gym room, or the track, or the tennis courts, or—God, this school is a lot.
The swastika concerns a lot of my classmates more than it does me. They are both easily impressed by threats at a school swarmed with security guards and features, safe from the outside world, sheltered, and also acutely aware many of them are worth nine digits, sometimes more, in ransom. Serious security as a school feature is new to me, the outcast public school transfer, and I feel relatively safe even though I know security is not going to be focused on protecting me, because I also know that no one’s coming here for me.
B jogs up to my side as we run warmup laps, looking up at me with wide eyed concern. She’s nearly a foot shorter than I am. “What do you think? How did they get in?”
“Hopped the fence last night?” I guess.
V jogs up on my other side. Her last name is a brand plastered over nearly half the stock of every grocery store in America, and she flies planes with her dad on the weekends; when I go over to her house, I try to keep out of the way of the staff, hanging out on the nearby golf course or in her “bedroom” instead, the entire second floor, probably more than 1500 square feet. Her dad has an at home high tech weather station he showed me around and gives me his meteorology magazines when he’s done with them. I’m an aspiring meteorologist at the time, but only as a day job so I can write, which is what I bonded with his daughter over. I can’t imagine what she’s worth in ransom, but having read her fiction, which has gore to match and surpass my own, I wouldn’t want to piss her off. “Yeah, the back fence is way easier than getting around anything in the front,” she says with a frown, “and it’d get you close to here.”
The three of us, in Hunger Games fandom fashion, call our friendship an alliance that includes one other friend, a boy who’s over in the other PE class right now. Allies are more important than mere friends in a questionable world.
“THIS IS A SHELTER IN PLACE.”
Eighth grade, age fourteen. The rest of the pre-recorded message blares over the intercom in the middle of third period geography. I once told my school counselor I would rather carve my own eyes out with a rusty spoon than attend this geography class, but if anything can make the class worse, it’s a shelter in place. The classroom is in a free standing portable, not a nice one; there is one door; we are cornered, trapped here, if it’s ever real. I almost miss my last school.
A few of my classmates groan; we all slip under our desks—in this class, shared tables, three rectangles pushed together, one horizontal and two backing up to it vertically, not desks. I look over at a boy we’ll call S, who sits next to me in every class except PE. He slides under our table with his knees tucked to his chest and we exchange a tired look as I curl in next to him, our legs brushing. On my other side, the girl who sits around the corner of the cumulative table from me looks like she’s going to cry, again. She always cries when there are drills, and they keep doing them in third period when I’m there to see it. She cries when we watch a sad documentary in class. She’s very sweet and tries desperately to make small talk with me every day before class starts, but God, I swear there’s nothing going on in her head.
I look back at S. After one of the last third period drills, we’d talked in a later period—sixth, the last, when we were both student aides in the front office, running errands or doing homework, or something that looked like it, and chatting. I’d said, “God, we’d be better off running. Why would the shooter come for the portable first? We’re in the back. We’d have time. Just run off to the Smith’s. No fence. Have better odds on the move than trapped in that portable.”
“I’ll come with you,” he’d said dryly.
But neither of us thought it was more than a drill today, as evidenced by us obediently climbing under our useless table instead of running for our lives. In a few minutes, there’s pounding on the door, loud and fast. The principal—I recognize her voice; we both do, as office aids—shouts, “Let me in!” and similar phrases.
“Ignore it,” our teacher stage whispers from under his desk. “It’s part of the drill.”
Still, S and I share a concerned glance. The girl on my other side finally cries. I offer some kind of shushing sound. We know to ignore the shouting—the principal could have a gun at her head, the teacher explains later, and is being used to lure us out. Same for the fire alarm.
It’s just a drill—another drill—this time. Still, when S and I part ways for lunch and PE, before we’ll see each other again in fifth period English, I can’t help but worry, as I always do after drills, that there’ll come a day that class transition is the last time we’ll ever see each other.
We don’t get any talking in as we settle into English, because our teacher is already lecturing the class again about the fight that broke out in the bathroom during lunch yesterday. The door locked by one of the students from the inside, it took a long time for staff and emergency responders to get in and take more than one student to the hospital, one with a knife in his stomach. No one in the class was involved, but I understand the teacher’s need to say something. Still, I got the lecture from my second period algebra teacher and tune half of it out.
S and I walk to the front office for sixth period in silence; the hallway is a roar around us, and we don’t try to talk over it, walking quickly to make the bell. S and I share a single digit class rank and he’s the state’s junior soccer star; he’s boyishly handsome, puppy dog brown eyes and golden hair, physique toned by soccer practice routinely running until after 10 PM on school nights. Every girl in the school wants him; they tell me this in the same breath they tell me, “But he only looks at you. You go everywhere together.”
As we do now, swift strides down the hallway to the office. We settle in. He pulls out algebra homework. I tap my mechanical pencil against my composition book and frown at the Hunger Games fan fiction chapter I’m writing, a sword fight I can’t get to work. “You look tired,” I tell him, when he’s staring at the numbers on his page more than he’s solving anything. I tell him this maybe once a week. “You always look tired,” I add dryly, which is because R, another student aide who usually adds that bit, is preoccupied, and because it’s true.
“You always look tired, too,” he tells me, with a smile that’s fond or tired or amused, as he does about once a week. I think we started that game after I started having the panic attacks that landed me in the nurse’s office nearly blacking out from lack of air, being offered water in a paper cup by EMTs.
“THIS IS A SHELTER IN PLACE.”
“Jesus,” he mutters, rubbing at his neck. “No wonder we’re so tired.”
R looks up. We climb under the one round table we all share, the three of us and three more student aides. We’re not really all meant to fit under here, even pushing our chairs and backpacks and messenger bags into a protective ring behind us as if they’d do anything. There’s a Swiss army knife in my bag that I pretend might help one day.
The message over the intercom abruptly cuts off.
“What if it’s real?” R whispers, wide brown eyes even wider, glasses magnifying the effect. “They wouldn’t do two in a day, would they?”
“And it cut off…” another girl adds.
“This is how we die,” a boy on the other side of S mutters into his knees. “They always come for the front office.”
“It’s not real,” I whisper back.
“It’ll be fine,” S echoes, though we share another glance. We’re kind of the parent-friends of the student aides, and the glance is a prayer that our entirely empty reassurance to the others is true.
“—False alarm!” the principal trills over the PA system. “Ignore! Hit the button by accident.”
For some reason, we’re allowed to take heed of this over the PA system but not when she’s pounding on the door, so we hesitantly climb out from under the table, though we’re a bit skittish. S patiently explains the math homework to R in even simpler terms for the thousandth time as the final bell rings. I gave up on her last semester. He’s kinder than I am. I envy the trait and also think his compassion is only making him more tired.
The next day, we sort out a pile of detention slips to run to students in different classrooms, while the other student aides get in two more minutes of homework. Done, we sigh and take first the piles that the others are unwilling to run—portables, a hassle, or teachers who don’t take kindly to the interruption. I’m not looking closely enough and pick up the pile for the boys’ PE class. They’re out of the locker room by now; I can find them in the gym or outside; but I always got half a dozen or so rape threats shouted at me—oh, the things they want to do after school—and now S always takes that pile. If I insist, sometimes he’ll trade, give me the girls’—they shout similar things at him—or he’ll insist on taking both. We both get fewer, but some, threats from our own gender.
He notices the paper clipped stack in my hand and slips it out of my grasp, adds it to his own pile. I take the girls’ stack from his and he shakes his head but lets me. An adult office aide, aware of the whole situation, cautions us on the way out that the girls’ and boys’ PE classes are both using the outside field today, something S and I had both forgotten since fourth period. S holds out his hand for the girls’ stack. I sigh and give it to him. We can play this game all day. “Thanks.”
Tenth grade, age fifteen. “C is gonna kill us all one day,” M mutters as we settle back at our pair of lab tables in environmental science. It’s our program class, our high school major. She sits across the two back to back tables from me. J, next to me, half laughs, sounds off.
“Five bucks says you’re wrong,” says E, always ready to disagree, rounding out the four of us to the table pair, slapping it on the table a little loudly considering C is still across the room, where he recently went off in one of his twitchy shouting fits after giving a presentation in the lab next door.
“If I’m right, I’ll be dead. He’s always looking at me weird,” says M, shoving the money back at E. “Who’s your bet on?”
“Oh, we all know it’ll be Hannah.”
I, Hannah, laugh. J does again, too, still sounding off, leaning on my shoulder. “I’ll keep it to the writing. Guns are too loud. I’ll just stab you in your sleep on camp weekend. Quieter.”
E laughs. “You’re right. You’d be the dumbass charging in here with a knife instead.”
We all kind of wander away from each other as we’re given time to work on the assignment or do other homework. The Aurora shooting last year still has a lot of people on edge, and Sandy Hook over last winter break solidified it. We make dumb bets, or don’t, and we say that your real friends are who you jump on top of in a shooting.
“Hey,” E murmurs to me from behind later, making me jump; “J is freaking out again. She wants you.”
I kind of laugh. E, knowing, offers a shrug to rescind that last statement. J doesn’t want me; I’ve wanted her since near the end of freshman year and every time there’s another shooting somewhere else, or another drill or scare, I think that she’s the one I’d be lying on the ground over. I have nightmares that it would be too late, that I’d be watching the life drain from the angelic blue eyes I spend half of my classes staring at. But still, I’m the mom friend at a new school now, and when J is “freaking out again” I am the one people come to seek. She cries into my shoulder when our tight knit class fights and when there’s a Holocaust survivor speaker and holds my hand while we, the environmental science students, circulate the school to collect recycling bins on sunny Friday afternoons, and while we hide under our desks while school district employees pace the room. If we make eye contact with them, our school fails the drill. They circulate the school for an hour and a half while our legs cramp under more tiny shared tables.
I sit with J on the floor in the walk in supply closet off the lab and listen while she talks about her worries that one of these days one of us, dead or hurt or traumatized at least, will win our dumb bets. “It won’t be us,” I tell her.
“How do you know?”
Well, it won’t be you, I think, heroic, romantic, realistically hopeless and deadly plans flashing through my mind. It’s an open campus; greenhouses and acres of empty desert land for the environmental sciences students to play in; perhaps here, too, we could run. “I just know.”
2016, aged eighteen. “I hate thinking that we’d be fish in a barrel here,” says K. “I hate that I should think that.”
We’re in the local LGBTQ center, crowded, as K put it, like fish in a barrel. The Pulse shooting happened the night before, and our group of friends—writers, queer—crowds in near the back. Near the door. It feels cowardly to stay home. I tucked myself into the backseat of K’s husband’s car with Hamilton blasting on the radio singing and talking and rapping of change and change I have yet to see.
“But we can get married now,” says another friend, T, dryly, “so really, what the hell are we complaining about? What else could we possibly want? To not get shot at?”
It’s a touching memorial, except for the part where the mayor gets on stage and says that if only people were aware of where the exits were, tragedies like this wouldn’t happen.
We know where the exits are. There are double doors, open, behind me, a few people deep, leading to another room with a set of two glass sliding doors that go out.
She is escorted out the other nearest exit, a single security door behind the stage, as the room gets close to a riot.
2017, aged nineteen, having a go at college. I don’t understand what my friends are on about. I’m bleary eyed and half awake doing a morning message check, not sure why all of my group chats are blowing up. Shooting? Festival? Country music?
I open Facebook. Oh. Oh, no. Oh, shit.
I am safely in Boston, Cambridge, college, but there are dozens of people lying dead in the Vegas streets. Or they wouldn’t be, by now. Maybe. I hope not, imagining the October heat of home.
I am out the door of my dorm, in the hallway with only a vague memory of shoving something like clothes on and grabbing my bag, before it occurs to me that it’s useless.
No one here can do anything. No one here knows anything.
I am sending texts frantically. I am typing and deleting several times to make enough words be spelled right for the question to make sense. I am calling. I am not getting answered. My texts are delivered and unread.
He is my first, terrifying thought. The day before, he had sent me a selfie of himself in a little spotlight basket high up in the air over the very festival that now has dozens dead. Hundreds of feet in the air, him and a spotlight, trapped. Off to work shooting that light and another kind of shooting altogether and never home again. I am sure of it. You can all but see the shooter’s vantage point mentioned in the articles in the background of his innocent selfie.
I am in the school’s little security office. I am a familiar sight to the few employees there; I bring them chocolate chip muffins I bake from scratch in the awful shared dorm kitchen upstairs; they let me in the technically forbidden elevator when my grocery bags can’t make it up the six flights of stairs. I am panicking, crying; I am being told to sit down, to breathe, to drink some water out of a little paper cup.
He is not answering. I call my grandmother. She lives next door, with Mom, who is already off to work. Off to work in a school building with few exits and no windows and no chance. I had spent so many worried thoughts on her or Dad simply falling from his station in an accident, I had underestimated the danger of the public events he worked altogether.
Grandma is bleary from sleep, three hours behind in time zones, and sleeping medications. “His car’s there,” she yawns. “So’s his girlfriend’s.” She kind of trails off eventually and hangs up. I am not communicating well, either.
The car means nothing to me. Dad frequently had trouble with it and carpooled to work. His girlfriend could’ve spent the night there without him, waiting for him to come back from the late shift he would never return from. She could’ve gotten worried and gone looking for him in an empty house. I don’t know.
I am in the counseling center. I am not a stranger here, either, again the muffin girl, and a patient. My usual counselor is friendly, but there is nothing he can really say. He doesn’t see a lot of hope, either.
I am somehow in my first class of the day, anthropology. I am staring at my phone. I am refreshing tabs. After Dad, I realize that everyone I’ve ever known save a few are in that city. Enough music lovers and festival goers. Did I really know where all my friends were? The ones who were always off to concerts? I have vivid flashbacks to T, who asked what we, “the gays”, could want other than the right to marriage at the Pulse memorial, blaring country song after country song in her car with the windows down on hot summer nights. I think of how many people I am out of touch with, would never know if they were going. People are marking themselves safe on Facebook. Kids I have not seen since elementary school. Middle school. High school. My cousins. My sister. My friends.
But not my dad.
I apologize to the professor briefly at the end of class for staring at my phone, telling her I am waiting on news; she knows I’m from Vegas and knows about the shooting—not everyone does, yet, safely in New England. I am one of two students in the entire school from Nevada, and the other, I’m told—we’ve never met; it’s a big enough school—is from Reno.
I run into the longtime Internet friend who brought my attention to this college in the shuttle heading towards the other campus for my next class. I am listing names she has never heard at her, who is safe, who is not. She asks what I’m on about. “There was a shooting,” I get out.
“Oh. Oh, no.”
The words being screamed in my head are just that. There was a shooting. This isn’t a drill. This isn’t a drill.
My professor and TA in my next class all but shoo me out of the room, already aware of the situation. I am in the counseling center again when Dad texts me that he impulsively took the night off to spend time with his girlfriend.
I am still checking names and lists for days.
2019, aged twenty-one. When my dad does pass, years later, in his sleep, at home, I am looking around for a weapon that isn’t there. I am being offered a paper cup of lukewarm water on his front lawn by a fireman. Kate holds my hand.
I left Cambridge after a psych ward stay the counseling center talked me into. I met Kate eight days later, like fate. I remember the hospital, turning in a borrowed tablet to the nurses that had a browsing history of how do you kill yourself in a psych ward basically over and over; I remember staying out of swinging range of violent patients; I remember watching a man bolt for the elevator room in a failed escape attempt and wondering how to do it better. In the ER there, too, they offered me water in a paper cup.
Contrary to procedure, paper cups of water don’t solve years of worry.