She’s walked backwards ten weeks now, over grass, over sidewalk, over wide, bending pathways that crisscross the campus, the red brick resilient despite the bleak winters, but now it is August, the dampness, the din of cicadas, a sound that she’s deemed as possessive of wetness, near-liquid or fluid and tidal in movement, meek and then massive, a din that’s like surf, and all day she leads the groups of prospectives, the stragglers who don’t get it done in July or in June: father and daughter and mother and daughter and son without parents and both son and daughter with both of the parents and sometimes just parents, which she can’t understand—where is the student, what accident stole them, did the child go to jail, did the child get the flu?
Her bright eyes are big, her lips full and pouty. She’s shorter than average and has a wide nose. They told her in training to try and look pretty without looking sexy; there’d been two-hour meetings at the start of the summer, an urn on a table, boxes of doughnuts, brown metal chairs arranged in tight rows. She’d worn a skirt without tights, black canvas high-tops, a plaid blouse from a thrift store, an item she’d bought when she’d gone home to Missouri, five hours south. Her dad sold ammunition to big retail outlets, her mother substitute taught in the schools. They owned a black Lab that the neighborhood hated: it got out and tipped over cans filled with garbage, it killed grass with its urine, the tan circles on lawns, and she’s thinking of these shapes for some unknown reason when the woman named Buffy—is she really named Buffy?—moves to stand on the stage at the front of the room, where she thanks them for coming to this instructional meeting: your job is important, your role here is vital, and in taking this job, you are the school.
She thinks about this as the lights dim and there’s shifting—your role here is vital, you are the school—and why it was that when light left, people moved, that a change in one’s vision might force the body to seek new ways of sitting. Did the light’s leaving somehow increase one’s awareness of situation, of the self and its place in the world? She’ll think about this months after the shooter enters her classroom in ski mask and jumpsuit and heavy black boots, turning the lights off before his gun fires, before there’s just shrieking and darkness and doom.
You are the school, she thinks, and finds her legs crossing, and wants to uncross them but then decides not to, her skirt inching up toward the jut of her hip, as a screen descends slowly from up near the ceiling, behind the podium and Buffy herself, and now down her tight row of brown folding chairs comes a stack of black glossy folders, the school seal in blue, informational packets that say almost exactly what Buffy will say over the course of this hour, and then the next hour, her boss backlit by a map of the school that’s on the projector: buildings with numbers inside of white circles, the campus in aerial view. This very same map will be used by news outlets in between all of their shots of live coverage, which won’t show the bodies in sheets and on stretchers and instead show the salvaged, the people like her. The ballroom is huge, its high walls wood-paneled, the meeting too minor for the size of the chamber. The plush carpet is cobalt. The doorframes are gilded. Above her head hangs a huge chandelier. On the map, a single green line rings the core of the campus, and along this green line are red circles or “stops,” points where she will cease walking backwards and tell the prospectives about the buildings, their stories, tall tales of ghosts glimpsed in windows lit by the full moon. Over the summer, from this walking backwards, her black canvas high-tops will wear in new places. She looks at the map and then looks at her shoes. Buffy is talking, her words like fan blades, the pitch automated, a switch leading to wires that turn the machine: you start out at Admin and here you field questions and then go down Main Street as we want them to see both the town and the school; you take the group east here, after this first leg, so show off the boundary, provide orientation, point toward the campus, then point toward downtown.
Buffy proceeds to the route’s other details: the hill east, by Admin, up toward Science Circle, past the bronze statue of the screaming gold eagle, one claw extended, its mouth in mid-roar; and then Engineering, its walls of sandstone, the school’s flag flying five stories up, a place where just two weeks before finals news crews will gather behind rows of cop cars and talk at the cameras between shots of her crying, her story now epic, her face so important, her pant pockets filling with cards of reporters, their hands on her shoulder—when you’re ready to talk, do give us a call. He’ll stop inches from her. He’ll cough once while reloading. The last thing she sees before closing her eyes is the ridge on the sole of his boot, and she’ll remember forever its precise striations, the rise and the fall of its pattern, how the cuff of the jumpsuit covered up the boot’s eyelets, the tip of the tine of one shoelace just peeking past the jumpsuit’s low hemline before the shooter jams the barrel of his gun into the side of her nose.
The tour information is on hue-coded paper she pulls from her glossy black folder, an item that sits on her desk through the summer, through the ebb and the flow of the din of cicadas, through parties on weekends where beer bottles are placed on the folder and leave little rings, like moons upon moons. Her room’s corners are dressed with clothes that need washing: shirts in bright patterns from decades extinguished, bright orange skirts with big yellow flowers, their stamens a patchwork of bright red and blue, and blouses with sleeves and blouses without them, in cotton and poly and something near silk—black blouses from outlet stores just off of the freeway, as both of her housemates must shop every weekend and aren’t into thrift stores, and so then the mall—and her outfits, like her, are a mixture of retro and modern, and these outfits reflect the friends she keeps, too, and there are the mall friends and the friends she deems thrift store, and she does what she can to blend these two groups, all the time walking backwards over brick paths and sidewalks, projecting her voice, her arms held out while talking, the parents with cameras, the students with heads down, texting on smartphones, as clouds push in from the desert and then over train tracks and corn crops and towns that stand crumb-like on the farmland’s thick carpet, towns comprised of a stoplight, a general store, towns that held still in the big sky of summer, its blue like an ocean, the clouds like great ships, vessels far from the coast and slow in their journey, cumulus frigates waiting for wind, for the slow push to Nebraska, its State Fair and hog pens, over houses with gun vaults in unfinished basements, past fake cemeteries maintained by pro-lifers, their acres of neatly trimmed grass and white crosses rising up like oasis, like prairie mirage—past South Sioux City, past Walnut and Stuart and I-80’s speed traps, where state troopers sit tucked up against overpasses, past Des Moines’s tawdry skyline, past the Quad Cities and the slow Mississippi, its worth long diminished, its tugs and its steamers drifting like corpses down toward the Gulf—so many clouds as August grows thinner, and which student, she thinks, won’t make it through Rush Week, and which one will go on to pass bills in Congress, and which one will smash atoms in some silent lab, and which ones will they marry and what about after, when they live in a duplex in some other city and fight in low tones while a baby lies cooing, and when will adultery ply their existence, and after it dies will they love each other, love each other again and maybe more fully, and grow old together, and sit on a patio somewhere in their eighties, drinking iced tea on a floral-print porch swing while watching grandchildren romp about in their yard, kids who in turn will grow up and get into college and take campus tours where someone else leads them—Who Will Be What, she wonders at nights now, who will be what and what cars will they own and what states will they move to and who will do well and who will do better and will others care if they did better or worse and how will they judge this: Who Will Be What?
The teacher dies first, before the lights are extinguished. The shooter will open the door and stand in its threshold, like he’s waiting for something or asking a question, and the teacher, past sixty, in khakis and sport coat and wide patterned tie, will hear the door open and turn toward the shooter and take two steps toward him before the boy fires, the teacher having the time to say one word: no. It’s not said as surprise but instead declaration: I know what you’re thinking, what you’re planning on doing, and the answer is no. The gun is a Browning, converted to auto, the teacher no more than ten feet from the shooter when the rifle is fired, the slugs slamming in, the shots looking like they leapt from inside of the teacher as opposed to beginning outside him—like they were there always, waiting to exit, and offer up to the air of the classroom a brief crimson mist. There’s a moment of silence after the two shots are fired when it’s only the teacher, now dead, falling forward and hitting his head on the edge of the classroom’s wide graphite counter, his neck turned from the impact as his body keeps falling down past the lab’s island, like he’s trying at hiding even though he’s now dead, as the eyes of the students move in split seconds from their professor to the thing that’s just shot him, to the person who’s just lost his title of human, and is now only creature, now Thing That Means Doom. Later, she’ll try to explain to reporters, It’s like Time broke in that moment, it’s like Time got lost, and everything happened way out of order, the silence like people mourning before they were dead, but because her explanation is not finite or concrete, and verging on nonsense, this statement is left out of the edited broadcast, relegated to some type of digital limbo where it exists but doesn’t, was said but not heard, and as if to confirm that Time no longer matters—its patterns alembic, refined, or transformed—the shooter flicks off the lights as the air fills with bullets, the sound of the rifle renaming Time’s seconds as her classmates jump for and fall to the floor.
But before this her high-tops, the tread lost walking backwards while pointing, rubber ground down on trips to Buffy’s clean office to hear weekly reports of her tour evaluations—you did well with eye contact but try to slow down a little, which she won’t—tread lost on walks to hear her friends’ bands play, tread lost to the waxed floors of the mall, her group holding bags, let’s go in this store then that one then that one, tread lost on trips to the bookstore by the river, the smell of the paper, a smell that aroused her as no other smell could, and tread lost on excursions that took place past midnight, some boy that she knew calling her cell phone, we’re all downtown, why don’t you come down here, the motive unstated but also well known, and those trips in the nighttimes, the town cooling in silence, the cobblestone side streets ballooning with elms while houses stood dark, beer cans on their porch steps, cars columned in driveways, loose gravel in gutters alongside rusting beer caps and popped husks of Black Cats and charred plastic twigs of long-dead Roman candles, and here was a shoe slung over a phone line, its laces backlit by the big and full moon, her footsteps like those of some oafish giant, and to her intrusive, impossibly loud; and then the last turn, past the bank, past the deli and onto the main street, well lit by streetlights, people smoking alone and in pairs and in groups, and one of the moments among her true favorites was that moment of placing her hand on the door—before she pulled the door open and fell into the bar noise, its whoops and its laughing, the clinking of glasses, the pool balls finding pockets, the cursing and shouting, the moment before that, its serene transition from private to public, from silence to madness, that gateway or segue that she thought of so fondly, like some sort of wormhole, her hand on the door.
And there were the hours after the beer dabbed with napkins while pitchers were called for, while they purchased courage and volume and whimsy, while someone fell down and stood up and curtsied and the whole place applauded and went back to drinking, and people in bathrooms did cocaine in stalls, after last call and the rise from the booths and the struts off of the small parquet dance floor to collect on the brick square where vendors with food carts sold things wrapped in pitas or long Polish sausage and grilled cheese and ice cream, as people pooled money for a run to the corner gas station to lift out paper cases of beer and wait among others with cases just like theirs, then arrive at some house with their newly bought trophies, its lights on, its porch busy, three people competing to be ad hoc DJ on the five-disc CD player, the speakers spread out on a mantle or table as the volume grew louder until the cops came and the party was over and she left with her friends, or left with the boy who had called her, and went back to his place, the town in the summer like some sort of birdcage, its brass door left open, the trapped given freedom and flitting and chirping and perching before lighting again, and yet always returning to that gilded prison they professed that they hated but in truth dearly loved, and would, in some way, both now and always, call home.
She flings herself to the floor as the room swings to darkness, her breasts pushed to her chest, one shin on her backpack, the shots from the rifle arriving in bursts. There’s screaming and groaning and small sounds of motion, attempts at surviving, the injured pulling and dragging and pushing their bodies or curling, protecting, the loudest dying fastest and first. The shooter’s a freshman, Caucasian and friendless, pock-marked and past crazy from the weight of depression, his lithe body pacing on the tape of himself that he made five hours before, a tape that she watches over and over, months and years later, his words like a sermon, cryptic, prophetic, its faith trumping logic: I just want to keep shooting, he’ll say to no one. I just want to keep shooting so you know what I feel like, keep shooting then feel all your blood.
She’s closest to him, in the first row of combos, the desk’s plastic seats concave, grainy, but smooth, and after the first few bursts from the Browning he walks down the lab’s wide middle aisle toward the back of the room. There are footsteps, a gunshot, another peer’s pleading, the process repeating three times and then four, and through all of this, and the shooter’s own silence, she stares at the base of the classroom lab’s island, the shades on the windows not pulled down completely so thin slats of light fall onto the floor. The island’s foundation is wrapped in a black rubber casing, the wide wooden body that runs up to the counter sticking out over the base of the island by an inch and no more, and what she sees there, tucked under and hiding, is a sight so unlikely, so odd and beguiling, she forgets for a second that she’s near to dying and thinks only of the small paper bird feet away from her body on the floor. She wonders who made it, and just how it got here, and when it was that its maker learned origami, and why the crane was the first shape that everyone learned—why a bird? The paper’s blue stripes crease where the wings start, the crane’s beak is long and points outward and down, and she wants in this moment to touch at its body, to feel at its smoothness, the edge of its neckline, the jut of its tail, to touch it just once before leaving forever—to hold in her hand, for the first time, a bird.
There’s a trio of pops and then the room’s quiet, and then the most important person of her existence steps down the wide stairs very slowly, the dull thud of each shoe like thunder approaching, the booms getting louder as their pace picks up. She closes her eyes and waits for the future, her lids clamping down just as the boy’s boot arrives in her vision, the ridge of its sole her very last image as the gun barrel, still warm, presses into the side of her nose. She doesn’t know if she’s shaking, if he sees her breathing. She can feel her heart beating—beating so fully—inside of her chest. The barrel’s still there, its darkness, its blackness, its vastness, the key and the lock and the door to the world of all worlds. The boy shifts his feet and she waits for the big sound, the last sound. She thinks of her family, her friends, her black Lab. Out in the hallway, she hears squeaks over flooring, her peers now running for the building’s front doors. No one will save her, and for the first time she sinks into her pity, her body falling away from her body and under the surface of some deep and dark moat, and while her mouth won’t say so, her mind now screams it, just do it, just do it, you fucking bastard, why won’t you do it, just do it now.
But he won’t. He’ll stand there for seconds that seem closer to minutes, the gun barrel lifted, then pressed back, then lifted, the motion a piston in his faulty engine, its rising and falling a series of odd broken chugs. He coughs once, very wetly, then ejects the clip’s cartridge. Her eyes are still closed. Time is still bending. From the hall comes more squeaking, then someone shouting, go, go, keep going. The boy shifts his feet and slaps in more ammunition; she can picture the clip hanging down between forestock and trigger, a thick and black comma before the phrase containing the action that will make her be done speaking forever—no more words uttered, no more sounds taking flight from the nest of her throat. She senses him moving then he’s inches from her, some part of the rifle meeting the floor. There are hints of gunpowder attached to his person, small notes of sulfur that remind her of her father, of being a child. The boy leans in closer. She hears his quick panting—fast shallow breaths that sound like they’re failing at working, and then his clothes rustle and his lips are touching the lobe of one of her ears.
He says it four times, the one word, not asking but demanding, like she’s a toy that he’s bought that won’t work: fly, fly, fly, fly—one verb repeated to make her kite go skyward, to turn her propeller and push her frame forward and make it rise up. It’s all that he says before bending to standing, the rifle tapped once on the floor before he walks out of the classroom, and there’s more shooting and bullets and screaming and running and she opens her eyes and lays there in silence, as exhausted as she will be years and years later, after her water breaking and five hours of labor, as tired as she will be from the process of birth.
And after what seems like forever and ever, she gathers her strength and crawls to one side of the island, the side facing away from the classroom’s big door, sitting with her back against the wood structure and pulling her knees up close to her chest. There’s one inch of space between the blinds and the frame of the window, and she looks through it in silence, at the stripe of clear sky overhead. The sirens in the distance are like tinny crickets: high-pitched and omniscient, too many to count. She stares at the blue as she sits there shaking. Her urine is warm on the crotch of her pants. The sirens draw closer. There’s a man on a bullhorn, though she can’t make out what’s being said. Some minutes later, she hears glass breaking and assumes once again that she will be dead. Soon after she realizes these noises are her protectors—they’re saving the students, they’re coming in through the windows. They’re smashing the glass.
One phrase of her thoughts—the students—sticks with her, and for the first time she considers the other survivors and takes a deep breath and peeks past the corner of the island, looking up the lab’s stairs and its risers, up one row, then the next, then the next. At the back of the classroom she finally sees them, a half-dozen people huddled together, one of the two boys waving at her. In the space in between are the bodies, waiting to be named and waiting to be famous, six or eight or ten bodies, nobody moving and blood like paint splatters and blood that looks fake and has pooled shallow and in circles and ovals on the hard white floor. The boy won’t say words but is waving with all of his fury, the group bunched, she thinks, like birds in a storm, and she looks toward the door and then starts to crawl toward them and then remembers the paper crane on the floor, its image making her stop completely and out in the open and turn back in the direction she’d come from before. There are more voices on bullhorns, more windows breaking. There is, her mind thinks, too much going on. Half turned around, her backside toward the students, she forgets why it is that she’s turned back at all. The men in black masks and thick vests and blue jumpsuits enter the classroom just as she remembers and her peers start screaming, which forces her to start screaming, too. She doesn’t remember their words to her, doesn’t remember being led down the building’s long hall; she’s on the floor and then there is sunlight, and then there’s a camera, a news anchor in pantsuit, the woman asking her all sorts of her questions, her own mouth making itself somehow talk.
But after her summer, her summer before this, only months prior to that day in the classroom, when the shooter tells her to grow wings and go skyward and is shot dead by policemen some ten minutes later on the building’s front steps; after a summer of walking and speaking, of pointing and leading and laughing and drinking, there’s the third week of August, her job now over, the white minivans and gold Chevy Tahoes arriving in convoys from off of the freeway with their collective cache of possessions—futons and dressers and bins full of clothing and pallets of Ramen and shrink-wrapped colorblock area rugs—the influx confirming the season as over, it was time to keep learning, it was time for the fall, and Saturday comes and she gets her books Sunday and on her way back buys new shoes downtown: black canvas high-tops just like those she wore through the spring, then the summer, the tread on her old shoes ground down to nothing from her walking backward then forward again, over red brick, through the hot and wet daytimes, the cicadas insane as they mate and life leaves them, falling shocked from their branches with September’s first cold spell, as amazed to be dying as they were to be living at all.
–Charles McLeod (from Blue Mesa Review)