I can feel the tension in the room. Suppressed waves of prolonged suspense are circulating, hitting all four walls, coating us in layers. It is dark, dark enough for me to only recognize the outline of each student tightly pressed to the white painted brick behind them. The only students I can truly recognize are those that are closest to me.
The lights have been turned off and the gloomy weather outside reassures us that no sunlight will make its way through the blinds. A black rectangular piece of felt has been placed over the small window in the middle of the classroom door, and binders along with pencils are hastily scattered across desks in a rush to find a secure position: our history lecture completely forgotten. The principles latest announcement over the intercom is freshly replaying in our minds, echoing, reminding us of our situation.
I feel a slight tug on my shirt sleeve and swiftly turn my head to the right. Anne, my best friend of four years, has her knees pulled firmly to her chest and her arms are safely wrapped around them. I can see tremors running through her entire body, and the terrified expression plastered on her plain face. She’s always been a worrier, especially now.
“We’re gonna be okay, right?” she shakily whispers.
A glint of hope shines for the tiniest part of a second in the emerald of her eyes. All I can think is, if I tell her no, she’ll be internally crushed. I can’t do that to her. So I do the one thing I’ve never dared to do in our entire friendship, I lie.
“We are going to be perfectly fine. I bet this is just a drill, you know? They’re just making it seem real so we’ll take it seriously.”
A sense of calm rushes down her face, washes her skin, cleanses her mind. I’ve memorized her expressions, the curves and contours of her face. I know her well enough to not need illumination to recognize the change in her demeanor. I can see a slight ease of pressure that she’s applying to her legs, and a small bit of air releases from her mouth. She believes me. Now, if only I could convince myself.
Loud, deep fits erupt from someone’s airways and I look over to see Billy Hawking coughing his lungs up. He often does this when he forgets his inhaler at home. I think we’ve all memorized this exact episode in our minds from past experiences. By now his face will have turned red, hand over his chest, and body heaving. And at this exact moment, between watching Billy have an asthma attack and following the dark figure of Mrs. Newman trying to help him, I also hear the slight sound of rubber hitting linoleum. Footsteps smacking against flooring, the pace is being increased by the second. I want to shout at Billy Hawking. I want to smack him so hard that his lung dislodges from his chest and springs from his throat. I want to scream at him for being so stupid. I want to yell many things, one of which is, how could you forget to breathe at a time like this?
But I don’t. It would only make things worse.
I try to ignore his coughing. I try to ignore the mysterious footsteps that resonate throughout my mind. I take the same position as Anne, my knees pulled tightly to my chest, trying to block out everything that’s happened in the past seven hours: waking up late, missing breakfast, not feeding the dog, and fighting with Mom over who put gas in the car last. I didn’t even tell her I loved her before I left the house, too lost in anger to realize how big those three little words are. All these thoughts are running through my head, along with the slight noise of someone tapping a pencil against the tile floor and Billy dying over in the corner.
My mind is plagued with a million and one different thoughts of how this day could’ve gone but is interrupted when the footsteps become louder, faster, closer. My head is racing, spinning, falling to the ground and I am rushing to catch it. And when Billy Hawking’s hacking abruptly stops, so does my world and everything within it.
Because the unknown person, intruder, gunman has just shot the lock on our classroom door, and we’re no longer safe, or as safe as we could possibly be.
He is dressed in coal black from head to toe. There is a baseball cap sitting atop his head, pulled over his eyes, hiding his reasoning. A gun as black as night rests in his clutched hand, a finger flirting with the trigger. He won’t look us in the eye. He will not speak. We do not speak. There is no sound, because in the few short seconds it took for him to break the lock, flip the light switch, and enter, all the oxygen was sucked out of the room, along with our train of thought.
Of all things racing through my skull and bouncing against my bones, I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Billy had remembered his inhaler this morning. We might’ve lived a couple hours longer.
I can feel Anne glaring daggers into the side of my face. Obviously, she knows I lied. I can’t bear to look at her. I don’t want my last moments to have her betrayed face plastered on the backs of my eyes. Mrs. Newman is standing in the corner cowering. Each glance at us is like a bucket of ice water thrown in our faces. She knows this will be the last time she ever sees us. Maybe she regrets giving us that pop quiz at the beginning of class.
The gunman takes a few steps forward. My heart drops a few inches.
He raises his arm. Thousands of hummingbirds take flight in my abdomen.
A shot is fired. Billy Hawking’s arm is painted in shades of red. My eyes have died a hundred times, revived themselves, and lost their memory. I don’t know what I’m seeing.
Cries escape, but they are not from Billy. Heather Adams sits in the far corner, her arms cradling her swelling stomach. Tenderly trying to fulfill her motherly intuition and protect what is almost hers. The tears are freely sliding down her cheeks, neck, and chest. Her fingers shake against the fabric of her shirt and her lip trembles with each second that passes.
Mrs. Newman turns her head, slowly reaches her arm out, slides her body to the side. She wants to help her. She wants to console Heather. She wants, wants, and wants. But we can’t always win.
Bang! Mrs. Newman’s gray pantsuit is drenched in maroon, stained with rushing life.
There is a part of me that feels numb. I can’t conjure any fear to the rest of my body. My brain, the control center to all things logical, is broken. Anne is continuously shaking my arm, softly tapping me in small movements as to not draw attention to herself.
My eyes follow the path of the shooters gun. It’s directed at Heather and her unborn baby. I want to scream. I want to shout. I want to uncontrollably bawl my eyes out at the situation at hand. Every emotion I have ever felt in my entire life has come together in this one moment. I feel everything, yet I feel nothing at all.
Call it an action from deep within. Call it a message from God sent directly to me. Call it a mentally insane choice driving me to do something I otherwise wouldn’t. Name my decisions anything you’d like, and call me what you will, but a voice buried deep in my soul drove me to do one thing that will forever hang over my head.
My hands brace the wall and push my body up, up, up into the unknown. My face is a canvas that has been painted on, messed up, and torn to pieces. My eyes are pits of ocean blue, void of any sea creatures. My long blonde hair is swaying back and forth like the pendulum of a clock; tick, tick, ticking away at my time left here on Earth.
I am so close, yet he doesn’t see me. He’s too focused on Heather. He’s going to shoot her, I’m sure of it. I can’t let that happen. I won’t be able to live with myself.
I am less than a foot away.
“Shoot me,” somehow escapes my lips.
And then he turns.
And then he aims.
I recognize his face.