By Rebecca Waller
Fire ripped through her right kneecap as she slammed herself onto the hard floor, pulling the boy to her left down with her. The linoleum was slippery, warm, wet. The blood was coming from everywhere, deep pools of it swallowing and suffocating. The boy was choking and screaming, trying to crawl away from her tightly balled fist that held desperately to the leg of his black jeans.
“Stop. Stop. Stay here. Stay under here,” she said firmly, calm somehow in the eye of the storm.
He was writhing, howling like a wounded animal, trying to heave himself away from the pain. She felt in her grasp that his pants were soaked. Blood. Urine. Feces. The smells were everywhere. The screaming was everywhere. Everything was everywhere.
She heard the angry POP-POP-POP again then more screaming. Get out! Oh God! Run! Get out of here! Were those commands coming from her or someone else? She covered her head desperately with her wildly loose left hand, held fast to the boy’s pant leg with the right. Keep him here. It’s safer here.
Laurie Spencer arrived at school early to begin grading the narrative essays she had collected the day before. It was early December, the morning sun still hanging just below the frozen shelf of mountains fifty miles to the east. She parked her Honda in the staff parking lot behind the gym, pulled on her black gloves, cinched the collar of her coat tightly around her exposed neck, and prepared herself mentally for her impending exit from the close warmth of her car.
She threw open the door and the icy cold crashed in around her as she plunged into the polar air. The temperatures had been below normal for about a week, with highs in the mid-teens. She worried about the homeless and neglected animals during Arctic stretches like this one, imagined their shivering and sleepless nights while she lay warmly tucked into her bed, her partner Julia sleeping still as stone beside her. The immense suffering of others was on her mind on most days, and she felt limp when she allowed her thoughts to linger in these sad places. She did what she could to help with her spare weekends and dollars, knowing that it would never be enough to save even one person, one stray dog from suffering.
Her hurried steps brought her through the heavy double doors and into the merciful warmth of the building. The long empty hallway that ran alongside the gym was busy with fluorescent light and the smell of fresh oil and wax. The sharp click of her boots against the floor announced her presence to the emptiness, warned the building that the first bodies were on their way for another school day.
Laurie turned left at the end of the hallway, crossed the cavernous vault of the commons decorated for the Winter Wonderland Dance, and climbed the stairs that led toward her classroom. There were no signs of human life at this hour. The building seemed to live on its own, its years of routine teaching it to turn the lights on at the correct times like clockwork.
After entering her classroom and closing the door behind her, she felt the closeness of the air settle around her, the echo of the hallways shut out. Each sound – the sound of the heavy wooden door shutting, her steps across the industrial carpet beneath her boots, the click of the lamp on her desk as she switched it on – was compact and hard and finite. This rectangle of space welcomed her with its solitude and its solid edges, its reality.
She set her things down on her desk, organizing herself and her belongings before she began the task of grading essays. She dumped the old coffee grounds from her Mr. Coffee into the wastebasket, dropped in a new filter, and filled the coffeemaker with fresh grounds from her canister and water from the sink at the back of the room. Once the coffeemaker began to brew, jittering and sputtering through its comforting cycle, she grabbed the folder of narrative essays from her 1st period sophomore English class and began stapling rubrics to the back of each. By the time she finished this task, the coffee was done and she was ready to work. The first essay was Marshall’s, one of her stronger students this year.
There I was, standing in the middle of the commons, the front of my shirt covered in blood.
Laurie’s interest was piqued. She assumed that this was likely going to be a story about one of Marshall’s nosebleeds, something that happened about once a week in her class alone. It was yet another thing that separated him from the others. But she was excited about the essay. Every year, she wasted so much time lecturing her students on the importance of composing a catchy opening sentence that immediately drops the reader into the action – not the stock, cliche, boring, fill-in-the-blank formulaic sentences they had been taught to write in the past (last year she had three students in the same class open their essays with Lots of people have experienced a storm at some point in their life, and I am no different.). But generally she found that she was just blowing air, watching the kids nod their heads like automatons, and when the essays came in they were back to their old tired, disinterested habits.
Great opening sentence! she scrawled in the margin of Marshall’s essay. She set her pen down and leaned back in her chair, turning over the idea that she was going to begin with one of the best essays, and then suffer through 25 hastily-written first drafts afterward. The climax should never come at the beginning. She debated with herself for a few beats, because she found herself genuinely wanting to read Marshall’s essay now, but she knew it could be savored if she waited until later.
Delayed gratification always won Laurie’s internal wrestling matches, so she moved the paper to the bottom of the stack, preparing herself mentally to read Nicole Franklin’s, the girl who was far more interested in painting her nails during class than in reading Annie Dillard or George Orwell.
Lots of people have something that they are passionate about, and for me, that passion is dance.
Laurie took a sip of her coffee and began making the necessary marks that would go unread by Nicole when she handed the essays back in approximately 90 minutes.
The warning bell rang, letting the students and teachers at Roosevelt High School know that 1st period would begin in five minutes. Laurie had every intention of grading all of the essays before class started, but a series of interruptions – a phone call from one of the counselors asking about James Merchant’s behavior in class, the custodian coming in to drop off extra garbage bags and talking with Laurie about the mess her students left the day before, a ten-minute phone conversation with her mother about their plans to visit her father at the retirement center where they were keeping him to monitor the progress of his dementia – had made it impossible for her to accomplish her goal. She still had four papers to go when class began, so she decided to hand back the essays that had been graded and apologize to the remaining students, promising to finish them before the end of the day.
Laurie stood near the door of the classroom, and as the students walked in, she thumbed through the stack of graded essays and handed them back. Nicole walked in chattering with Hanna Lopez, and stared blankly at Laurie when she handed her essay to her.
“What’s this?” she asked, not even bothering to look at the essay in order to answer the question for herself.
“It’s your narrative, dumbass,” returned Hanna, thumping Nicole in the forehead with her middle finger.
The girls laughed and moved into the hum of the room, finding their seats and continuing the conversation that Laurie had briefly disturbed with the paper reminder that this was school.
She returned the essays to their authors – Deion, Brittany, Marie, Anna, Blake – most of them reading through her purple comments, a few of them putting them immediately into their back-packs without even bothering to glance at the rubric that announced their grade.
Marshall walked in, grew into the room, occupied the thin spaces around him with his heaviness. His largeness was who he was. He was well over six feet tall – probably six foot five – and he weighed about three hundred pounds. He was kind and quiet, and early in the year, when Laurie first recognized his ability to put remarkably well-written sentences together, she suggested after class one morning that he switch into Mr. Beaman’s Honors English class. But Marshall had only shrugged, standing over her desk like a slope heavy with snow, and told her that he had some things going on at home and he couldn’t keep up with the extra homework. She had agreed that he knew what was best for his own circumstances, and he had walked out of the room, slow and sad as a glacier. There was something inside of him that she wanted to coax out, some bright brilliance, but he was reluctant, shy, wary of her compliments. So she was careful with him, patient. She would show him what a brilliant writer he could be, but in his time, not hers.
Marshall waited near the door, clad in his black zip-up hoodie and stained gray sweatpants, and watched Laurie silently as she handed essays to his classmates. She felt icy regret rush swiftly through her. She should have read his first. She felt awful now knowing that she would have to tell him that it wasn’t finished. He might take it wrong, perhaps as a reminder that he wasn’t as important as the students who were now flipping through their graded essays, reading both her words of encouragement and her suggestions for improvement.
“Marshall, I’m so sorry,” Laurie began, looking at his downcast eyes that wouldn’t meet hers yet. “I started with yours, but to be honest,” she leaned in and lowered her voice conspiratorially, “I wanted to save it to read last because it started out so well.”
“Oh,” he said, rotating like a planet away from her and heading toward his desk at the back of the room near the sink.
Laurie felt squeezed, packed in too tightly to the situation. She should have read his first. She intuited that he didn’t believe her, that he thought she was making an excuse. But it was too late, and she couldn’t follow him to his desk, because now here were Jason Spurring and Max Lawrence, and their essays were graded and ready to be handed back. Laurie felt clumsy and cold, her best intentions once again met with awkward misunderstanding and defeat.
When the bell rang for class to start, she made her way back to her desk and quickly put in attendance before Mr. Showman’s crinkly and silver voice came on over the intercom to ask the students to please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Miraculously, no one was absent or tardy, so she simply clicked SAVE at the top of the online attendance chart and waited for the pledge while students chatted away, while she tried to move on from her fumble, while Marshall sat heavily at his seat speaking to no one, looking at nothing, the presence of his sadness taking up too much room around him.
The intercom beeped once, and Mr. Showman’s voice came to life in classrooms and hallways across the school. “Please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Most of them did. Five or six remained seated, including Marshall. Some put their hands over their hearts, some let their arms hang at their sides. Laurie stood and stared at the flag that hung from the wall at the front of her room, her body still infected with her mistake.
When the pledge was over and Mr. Showman’s voice evaporated once again into the ether, she turned toward the students in her room.
“So I got most of your essays graded this morning, but I ran out of time before I could get to the last few. If you were one of those, I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll get them graded during lunch today, so if you want to stop by sometime after lunch before school is out, I’ll have yours ready.” She made eye contact specifically with the students she was speaking to – Marshall, who never looked up at her, Nick Althaus, Savannah Heathrow, and Josiah James. All but Marshall nodded their heads with understanding, satisfied with the compromise.
Laurie launched into the day’s lesson, the introduction of the short story. Her goal was to have them carry over the techniques they had practiced in narrative writing, but this time they would create their own fictional stories and try their hands at third-person storytelling. As usual, she began this unit by reading them The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, a story that never failed to take them by surprise – although she normally had two or three students in each class who had already read it, so she always asked them to remain quiet until the end. This time when she asked if anyone had read the story already, Hanna’s hand shot up as she said excitedly, “Ooh! We read this in my 8th grade honors English class!” Laurie also noticed Marshall raising his index finger to indicate that he had read it as well.
“Anyway, if you’ve already read it, please don’t make any predictions aloud.” Hanna nodded, containing her excitement at being in on the secret, and Marshall looked far beyond the chilled glass of the window toward the mountains, his breath low and quiet and rhythmic, steady as the tide.
When her 4th period students dispersed and her lunch began, Laurie resumed her grading of 1st period’s essays as she had promised. She told herself that she would hurry through the first three so that she could take some time with Marshall’s, giving him extra feedback and comments as an apology. Nick Althaus’s essay was next in line. She read the first couple of sentences, stunned.
The fickle spring wind danced elegantly among the flowering branches of the cherry trees that dotted our campus. I sat with a girl, Patricia, whom I had met recently in our 20th Century British Writers seminar.
It was clearly a plagiarism, perhaps the most idiotic one she had come across in her career. Laurie was accustomed to students plagiarizing occasionally, but not only had Nick lifted this from someone else, apparently he hadn’t even bothered to read it, because the entire narrative took place on a college campus. An older sibling perhaps? Laurie knew that Nick had a sister who had graduated and perhaps gone on to college.
Angry at not only the plagiarism itself, but also at the laziness with which it had been executed, Laurie grabbed her classroom keys and the essay, locked up her classroom, and headed down to the commons to find Nick.
She reached the end of the hallway that dove left down a wide set stairs into the commons. When she got to the bottom of the steps, she surveyed the 600 knitting and bobbing heads until she found the one that matched the back of Nick’s. She began moving through the obstacle course of the commons, dodging wildly flailing bodies, smears of ketchup and other condiments on the floor, empty styrofoam lunch trays. She miraculously found herself at Nick’s table in the mess of noise and smells and students. She stood behind him, arms crossed, until his friends indicated wordlessly that he had someone waiting to speak to him.
“Oh hey Ms. Spencer,” he said, swiveling on the bench and smiling up at her. His eyes dropped a little and he saw the essay in her hand. His smile and body deflated subtly.
“Do you have a minute to come talk with me?” she asked, trying not to give away her anger.
“Sure,” he said, not meeting her eyes. He was a dog who knew the beating was imminent.
He stood from the table, grabbing his backpack like a shield, and began to follow her through the crowd.
It began as a low rumble. The voices of the students on the far side of the commons thickened for a moment and then quieted, and within seconds, the shrieking.
“He’s got a gun!” screamed a girl.
Laurie turned toward the commotion and saw students running, falling, scattering and rippling outward and down, and then the first shot echoed off of the high ceiling.
Blood roared in her skull and she stopped thinking. She froze, fear paralyzing her legs, her thoughts clogged and too ballooned to fit inside of her head.
It was John Bishop, a boy she knew from her 3rd period sophomore English class the year before. His face was green, diseased, his body jerking and thrusting maniacally. He swung his weapon around, a handgun, aiming at students then laughing at them, yelling, Pow! Pow! Every once in awhile, he would actually pull the trigger, and the running bodies would all drop to the floor in a wild attempt to shelter themselves from the unseen bullet. Laurie didn’t know where the bullets were going, couldn’t tell if anyone was being hit by them.
He stopped for a few moments to quickly reload. Why wasn’t anyone stopping him? When he finished, he aimed his gaze at Laurie, raising the gun, and she could do nothing. Her body would not respond, all of the nerves that zipped through the complex pathways to her muscles blocked and misfiring. He pulled the trigger, twice, and a bullet tore through her knee. She didn’t feel it physically; she was somewhere else, somewhere outside of her mind. She reached over and grabbed Nick, pulling him under a table with her. He was screaming and choking, calling out for his mom, trying to crawl away. The shots continued every few seconds, mixing with the sound of blood rushing through Laurie’s head, the blood boiling on the floor beneath her, the blood com-ng from everywhere without ceasing, without relenting.
From where she was lying on the floor, small as she could become, through blurred vision Laurie saw Marshall rush out of the bathroom, his bulky mass moving up quickly behind John Bishop. The noise was everywhere. People were still tripping over themselves, over each other, falling over all of the shit they left behind when they began to flee.
Marshall grabbed a fork from a nearby table and plunged it into John Bishop’s right arm, the one he was waving his gun around with. John howled, pivoted once, and then fell backward, swinging his gun at Marshall. He pulled the trigger and another ferocious POP stung the wounded and bleeding air. Marshall swayed heavily, rocking in place on two liquid legs, then tumbled forward like an avalanche onto the cold floor.
John fumbled with his gun, switching it to his left hand. From his seated position, he lifted it underneath his chin, pointing it upward at his jaw and toward his brain. He pulled the trigger and it clicked limply, uselessly. A boy who had taken cover underneath the table from which Marshall had grabbed the fork sprang at John, tackling him and knocking the gun from his hand. The boy was crying, his face distorted with tears and rage and horrible fright, his fists pounding wildly at John’s face, his belly, his chest.
Laurie looked over at Nick and saw that the blood was coming from his throat. It gushed out so that she couldn’t see precisely where it sprang from. She tore at her cardigan, shaking, and managed somehow to get it off both of her arms. She held her cardigan over Nick’s throat, trying to strike the futile balance between pressing hard enough to stop the bleeding but not so hard that she would render him unable to breathe. But his breath was already slowing, the air being strangled out by the muscular strength of the blood.
After the floors had been bleached of the scene, after the flood of headlines reading, “Another School Shooting” slowed to a trickle, after the deaths and the damage had been tallied, the numbers settled on the six students who had been wounded, and the four who had been killed. Three died at the site of the shooting, including Nick, and one – a girl named Samantha Wells – passed away at the hospital two days later, surrounded by her family and a team of medical professionals who could do nothing to stop death from leading her away from her life.
Laurie was in a hospital bed where she was awaiting surgery to have the bullet removed from her knee when she heard that Marshall was in stable condition down the hallway from her, and that the bullet had only grazed the right side of his skull. One of the nurses wheeled her to Marshall’s room the afternoon that she heard the news so that she could see him and thank him for stopping John Bishop from killing anyone else.
When they arrived at his room, the dimmed lights outlining the mountain of his silhouette, creating a halo around his hospital bed, he was asleep. Laurie quietly motioned with her hand for the nurse to push her closer so that she could see him.
“Okay, but we shouldn’t wake him,” whispered the nurse.
“Of course not,” she said, smiling up at the woman.
When she reached his bedside, she touched his hand gently and mouthed the words, Thank you, noticing in the dim, golden light the dried blood from a nosebleed on his upper lip, the red drops on his white hospital gown over his heart.
Copyright Waller 2015