TW for school shooting and death
They knocked down the oldest house in the neighborhood a couple weeks ago. It was white with grey stone layering and an orangey-red Spanish roof. It had a jumbled and unstructured design, with some portions being far too big, like the garage, and others being far too small, like the windows. It was the last of thirteen houses that were knocked down in the neighborhood. In front of the house, there was a beautiful garden of sunflowers. She used to admire them on her walk to the corner of the block where the bus arrives. They were nothing more than an innocent spectacle that made her spectate. She’d sometimes sneak over onto the lawn and pluck one. She’d wedge the stem between the top part of her ear then scurry away as if she’d robbed a bank; chuckling the entire way back. The way the sunflower gracefully rested against her temple was a testament to her beauty. A supplement to her perpetual glamor. She liked that house. She liked those sunflowers too. A new house was going to be built in its place. The neighborhood has become more lonesome over the last few weeks. It usually felt that way at the brink of Spring. Not blooming quite yet. But it wasn’t that lonesome March ambiance. It was that alone lonesome. Like no one else lived in the neighborhood anymore lonesome. I walked by houses and knew the homeowners’ names and character by heart. She used to find benevolence and buoyancy in even the most pessimistic of people. I only see them pragmatically now. I saw Susan, the woman with the white picket fence who messes around while her husband works sixty hour work weeks. I see Wendy the widow across the street, who leases a new leather-seated sedan every twelve months as what I assume to be a coping mechanism of her late beloved Hank. I return a waive to Mark at the corner of my street, the man who makes haphazard attempts at hiding the fact that his daughter isn’t addicted to heroin.
She had more verve than I do; she’d even find it on days like today. Days like now. I walked toward the bus stop, past the white fence, the cheater, the widow, and the fraud. I wondered if her benevolence would ever find me. I wondered if it were even looking for me at all.
She used to love my red hair. I hate the sight of it. She always reminded me that it would turn every head in every room I walked in. She’d joke that even the other redheads in the room would turn. My seasonal freckles felt like a seamless blemish that prevented my socializing with the opposite sex. She had poise. It was an unwavering oath that she abided by with integrity. Her self-acceptance was my trauma. Her figure was still in the process of developing womanliness; unsure if we’re ready to late-bloom or remain in harvest a while longer. The “they sayers” claim girls sprout into women when they turn thirteen. And yet I exist. Past the alleged threshold and into my inaugural teenaged year. I exist. Slowly budding into a thirteen-year-old girl. A girl uncomfortable in her own skin who’d wish she’d find a zipper by her neck; one she could undo and have another version of herself climb out.
People wondered if I would finally return to school today. After what happened. They wondered if I was ready. But I let them wonder. I’m not sure if she would have. I’m not sure if she would have been ready today either. I stood at the bus stop with nothing more than my cell phone, a lukewarm water bottle, and what I had in my pocket. I kept dipping my fingers inside and wiggled them around to make sure they were still in there, at the bottom. They were. I didn’t carry a backpack or noteworthy materials. It wasn’t time for that yet. It was time to heal. I wrapped my head around the anticipation of what comes next. I thought about it while I sent my mother a text. I asked her if I was making the right decision in going back. As I awaited her reply, I glanced across the street at where the last house on the block used to stand. It was reduced to rubble and remains. It probably didn’t take long to knock down. Minutes, most likely. Even though it took far longer to build. The bus cut the corner at a moderate pace and came toward my stop. I became nervous and unsure. My apprehension and reluctance intensified as the bus got closer. I placed my cell phone into my back pocket and squeezed the water bottle tight enough to bend the plastic in the middle.
It was February twenty-seventh. It was a Tuesday. It was warm. Warm for February. The bus dropped us off two minutes early at 8:08. Principal Delaney said hello to us with a stable smile of kindness as we walked into the main entrance. He was wearing a light blue shirt with an orange tie. She unpacked at her locker and gossiped about boys. She worried about her complexion and kept stressing over if her Nirvana T-shirt was violating the dress code because it was too inappropriate. She wondered if her denim pants were cut too short and revealing. Hayden Sims mustered enough courage to engage in flirtatious banter with her before English Composition. He talked about a funny video he watched about a cat and a trampoline and if she studied for the Algebra test. She stood in unison with her classmates with her hand on her chest and faced the flag. Half the class was already starting to sit down before reciting with liberty and justice for all. She raised her hand when Mrs. Gerald called out “Juliette Reese”. It was like every other day before it. But not like every other day after it. She learned about parallelism after they read “Another Country” by Hemingway. She found herself staring at the jawline of Adam Dresden, who found himself catching her in the act. She folded her yellow composition notebook and stacked it neatly on her red Algebra notebook. She was ready early as always and thought about reading her book while she waited for the bell to sound. Everyone gossiped and chatted about first kisses, acne, and high school. The volume of the several conversations at once became loud enough to warrant Mrs. Gerald to raise her own voice. However, before she was able to do so, the class already went silent. There was a commotion of sorts in the hallway. People were running in a panic. Then we heard the first sound. It was a deafening pop that completely absorbed the sounds of panic and heavy breathing in the hallway. Then we heard the second sound. A scream. The scream that sent a pulsing tingle up my forearms to the back of my neck. Our class rushed to the corner of the classroom while Mrs. Gerald shut and locked the door in a panic. The blend of silent mouths and frantic footsteps stampeding throughout the room made my feet stick to the ground in a frozen shock. I looked at Ms. Gerald rush past me to close the windows and blinds. I thought about helping her. But my intentions negated my actions as I rushed to the corner against the wall and sat still with my knees against my chest. Everyone covered their mouths. Apprehension grew like a fungus as it started to best define our class of seven girls and seven boys. Then when we heard the third sound; an ominous mix between a gunshot and yell of terror. The scream’s echo outlived the actual sound. Reality had a firm grip on us when we heard the fourth, fifth, sixth and twenty-ninth sound. Abbie Hask grabbed my hand and squeezed. She began to cry. I didn’t look at her. We never said any more than two words to each other. But I squeezed her hand too. We contemplated escape. We allowed the shock to compromise our judgment as we stood still in the corner with our knees at our chests. Shock was running its course like a fever. We waited for it to be us. We were so sure it would be us. Her confidence and inner potency dwindled slowly. Like leaves falling off a tree. Then the branches. Then the rest. No matter how hard she closed her eyes, the atrocity remained when she opened them. They sat; the English Composition class of seven girls and seven boys who waited to become just another sickening statistic. Ms. Gerald began to cry. So did Adam Dresden. We all cried. When the sounds stopped, we remained still. After an hour of waiting, we realized we were what was left. The excess and the spared.
She, Juliette, used to think about life. Not everyday life of routines, commutes, or caffeinated refills. She’d ponder its delicateness. Of the people who helped guide her. She’d think about identity and alternate destinies. She once wondered that if her mom and dad didn’t marry and have her, if she’d still be her in someone else’ body. Her character, her mind, her spirit. All of her inner attributes in a different shell. She’d wonder about alternate dimensions too. She’d make jokes about feeling her phone vibrate in her pocket and how there wouldn’t be a message when she’d check it. She’d say that her other self from another dimension must have gotten a text but she felt the vibration by mistake.
The bus came to a halt in front of me. The door hissed open and the driver waited for me to walk in. I felt a vibration in my back pocket so I quickly reached back for my phone to check the message. However, there was no message to be read. That’s when I wondered about the alternate dimension. I wondered if the alternate dimension “me” got a text. I wondered if what happened here also happened there too.
I see it differently now. My life is comprised of the people I’ve lost. My grandparents, my uncle, my cousin, nine fellow classmates, two close friends, and two former teachers. With each passing funeral and every pair of flooded eyes that have rested on my collarbone, I realize how scientific I truly am. My innate feelings of invincibility have been placed on the back burner because I’m not exceptional. I was just in the right place at a very wrong time. I’ve reached an inflection point in my still unripe life. People who depart or “go” were typically filled with all life’s most rigorous trials and tribulations. All its miracle and tragedy. They say you don’t get your ticket punched until you’ve had those experiences. I feel as if I’ve taken all of life’s brutal tests too early. Gained so much and lost much more. I’m fearful that I’ve had all life’s tests thrown at me already. Passed them and failed them too early. I wondered if that meant my days were numbered.
Her name was Juliette. She departed that day along with those thirteen victims. Not in the way they did, but close enough. On that day, when she finally mustered up the courage and strength to take the police officer’s hand to leave the room, she was led outside and fell subject to the sight of a herd of police cars, ambulances, EMT’s, classmates, students, friends, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, aunts, uncles, fathers, and mothers. Things were different after. Things changed. It could never have happened to our school, our town. It couldn’t have happened to us. I wasn’t her anymore when I walked outside. Her name was Juliette. She liked that old house that they knocked down. The last one on the block. I still have her name, her hair, her face, her seasonal freckles, and her awkward body. I’m just not as much of her as I used to be. A different soul in the same shell.
The bus waited for me to walk on. I stood still and asked myself if she’d get on. If she’d be ready. My mother hadn’t texted me back and I convinced myself it was the right decision. I reached my hand into my pocket again and touched what I had at the bottom with my index finger. Then, I found myself walking toward the bus. I looked at the windows at the sad faces. There were no greetings infused with excitement. No signs of flirtatious banter or talks about funny cat videos either. It looked lonesome inside. That familiar lonesome. The one they said would be gone by now. The one I wanted to distance myself from. Moments passed as I stood uneasily. Finally, the bus doors closed and it drove away. I didn’t look at it drive past me as I stood at the stop. I just looked across the street where the oldest house in the neighborhood used to stand before it was reduced to the rubble and remains I now walked toward. I looked around on the ground and took a minute or two to find what I was looking for. Then, to my delight, there it was. I kicked some debris and stones away from it. I looked down upon it and reached my hand into my pocket. I held what I had in my pockets in my palm as I knelt down. I began to dig my nails into the soil. I dug and scraped until my fingernails were ridden with dirt. Finally, when I had a deep enough hole, I opened my hand and threw the thirteen sunflower seeds into the soil of where the garden once blossomed. I uncapped the water bottle and drained it onto the dirt. Then, I waited. I waited a long time. I waited a long time that day, the day after, and the days that came and went. I walked to the garden of that old white house with grey stone layering and an orangey-red Spanish roof on those days that came and went. New sunflowers rested gracefully against my temple. Each day, I’d walk past Susan’s white fence, Wendy’s new car, and Mark’s friendly wave. Each day, the new house and flowers grew a little taller. Each day, more and more, her benevolence began to find me again.
James Gianetti’s short fiction and work have appeared in Cold Creek Review, Millennial Pink, and Hobart. His debut novel, The Town of Jasper [Elevation Book Publishing] was released in May 2017.