I stood just outside the pristine glass doors, my bag loosely hung over my shoulder, my headphones clasped around my neck. People marched all around me, through those pristine doors and into the white walls and white tiled floors decorated with brightly colored accents. I stared ahead, seemingly staring at nothing, but actually watching the people that moved past me.
All teenagers, all dressing fashionably, and all moving in perfect unison. Thousands of pairs of headphones passed me by, hurriedly jammed into ears and phones stuffed into pockets as they curled fingers around the strap of their bags. There were kids in all-black, kids with jacket spikes, kids with beanies and guitars, kids with bright pink hair, and kids in pastels. There were goths, rednecks, preps, nerds, jocks, and the occasional floater.
Then there was me.
My outfit periodically changed - a closet full of clothes would do that sometimes - and today I kept it subtle, but not too subtle as to draw attention. I had faded black jeans with rips in the knees and frayed hems (I didn’t buy them like that, they were just old.) I had a pair of black combat boots that were treasured and well-cared for with barely-tied laces. One of the plastic caps (aglets, for anyone who is curious) had been torn off a few years ago, and the lace was now burned to prevent fraying. An asymmetrical graphic t-shirt bearing the logo of a band was underneath the leather jacket lazily draped over my shoulders. A white beanie capped my head, mostly hiding pastel pink hair, matching the silver and pink bracelets loosely hanging around my wrists.
Rule #1: Never stand out.
None of us would be considered your stereotypical “angsty teens” or “problem children”. The goths and punks got straight-As, while the nerds and preps passed a joint around in the parking lot at various times throughout the day. Smiles reached eyes, laughs filled the hallways, people greeted their friends with hugs and their girlfriend/boyfriend/datemates with kisses and ’I-love-you’s. To any adult watching us, we would’ve been a happy, normal place with happy, normal kids.
It is all a lie.
Our eyes crinkle because we have perfected the smile. Our laughs are loud because we emulate old times. Our ’I-love-you’s leave a silent “I can’t lose you” trailing after. I glance at the security guard holding a pristine door open, catching a glimpse at the holster carefully tucked out of sight, but still within reach, as he shifts. I see him looking at me. I shove my headphones in my ears, turning on Watch Your Back by Sam Tinnesz as I walk through the pristine glass doors into the pristine building.
Several teachers greet me as I walk to class, and I respond appropriately, my footsteps perfectly in sync with my peers. I kept my gaze fixed forward, trying not to notice the US History teacher locking a drawer in her desk, or the bulge at my AP Environmental Science teacher’s hip. I tried to ignore the fleeting glimpse of painted black metal being tucked into a purse. I tried to focus on keeping administrator eyes off of me.
Rule #2: Never be a problem child.
A month ago I heard my girlfriend Andrea die.
I had been texting with her about those pristine walls and pristine doors, when she suddenly called me. I answered to a dead voice, a slight quiver being the only indicator of life. We talked for two hours, me swallowing the fear and denying what I knew would happen next. We talked about everything - from our parents, to our lives, to our secrets, to our minds. She gives me an ‘I-love-you’ and blew a kiss into the phone. Tears flowed freely down my face - I didn’t try to mask the crack in my voice and the sob that shortly followed. She gently shushed me, and comforted me best I could. Ironic, considering I wasn’t about to die.
I asked her where she got it. She said her parents closet. I berated myself, Of course she did you idiot. I made the mistake of being silent. I had, in my self-punishment, stopped talking, and she took that as her queue. “I love you. I’m following Rule 5. Always remember Rule 5.” “Of course.”
That was all I got. One last ‘I-love-you’, one last ‘take-care-of-yourself’.
Three weeks ago, I watched my best friend Andrew die.
We were hanging out under the stairs in the fire escape, trying to figure out how to smoke without setting off the fire alarms. It was cold outside. There were automatic alarms if any of the doors were opened, now - apparently kids kept sneaking out. Lucky fuckers.
Upon admitting defeat, we quietly slipped back into the main halls and continued about our business. We debated going back to class, but a quick “oh hell, I have anatomy” quickly snuffed the idea. He had stuffed his hands in his pockets as we lazily strolled around the hallway, placing bets on how long it would take for a teacher or admin to demand we go back to class.
I don’t know how it started, nor do I entirely remember what happened. All I know is that Andrew and I heard a pop-pop... pop coming from upstairs. We bolted down the hallway, and a teacher came out, barrel in our direction, and fired two shots. The one aimed at me missed and buried itself in a locker.
The one that was aimed at Andrew didn’t hit a locker.
Rule #3: Never believe you are safe.
Two weeks ago, I felt the sting of a near-miss.
The day was spent hiding in closets and under desks, hoping like hell that the rapid bangs would stop getting closer. They came in waves, with several bangs tightly packed together, screams, and then nauseating silence. Each time, the sounds got closer. Each time, I gripped my friends tighter as we all crammed under a wooden desk, hoping it would keep us safe.
We heard the door open, and held our breaths, looking to each other with tears brimming in our eyes and a silent ‘Good-luck’ passed between us. One pop. I flinched away as the steel pellet easily cut a clean hole through the desk, narrowly missing my ear. Sarah and Ian quickly threw their hands over the mouths of those who were about to scream. My hand covered my own mouth to mask my rapid, stunned breathing.
One week ago, I smelled death.
I saw non-believers beg God to save them. I heard the devout curse God for abandoning them. I was running with Sarah down the hall, trying to find a place to hide before he came down this hall. We knew we were running out of time, and she grabbed my shoulder, cramming both of us into a tall locker. We clung to each other like lifelines, having survived a similar event together. I pulled her phone out of her pocket - knowing that she never had it on vibrate and quietly clicked it off.
I didn’t tell her about the panicked messages from her parents as they watched the news.
We locked eyes, and nodded, huddling closer. The tiny locker was restricting our breathing, and we struggled to keep ourselves silent. We heard footsteps - heavy boots, clinking metal, definitely the assailant - and I clutched her hand so hard that I may have worried about breaking it under different circumstances.
My phone chimed, and gunfire ripped through the hall. Sarah fell limp against me, the scent of blood tearing through the confined space and almost making me choke. Her blood pooling and dripping out the base of the locker made him go away.
When the locker was opened, I fell out and was greeted with the sight of Ian, Ryan, Sylvia, and Grant, scattered across the red-smeared floor. I vomited as Sarah’s body thumped beside me, her eyes glassy and her flower crown smeared with blood.
Today, I would taste blood.
I clutched my phone in my hand, typing out a desperate plea to my friends - what I thought would be the last “are you okay?” I would ever send. As I dove into a side room in the guidance office, I saw kids clutching their friends. Blood smeared their hands and faces as they wailed with reckless abandon, having forgotten that the attacker was still in the building. I pressed myself against the far wall as hard as I could, wrapping my arms around myself protectively.
This wasn’t like that time in the hallway, or in the closet, or the lockers. I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have anyone to hold and exchange silent prayers and fears. I could feel my pulse slamming in my throat, and I swallowed to try and silence my racing heart. I jammed my eyes shut.
I didn’t hear the wails silenced. I didn’t feel the footsteps vibrating through the floor. I didn’t see the barrel stick through a slit in the door. I didn’t feel the projectiles tear through me.
I only tasted blood.
Yeah, we’re fine. Are you safe?
In one week, I would be told that I didn’t matter.
The things that almost killed me - that did kill seven of my friends - would keep us safe. We only needed more of them.
In two weeks, I would be labeled a “problem child”.
I refuse to be complicit in my own murder.
In three weeks, I would join the rest of the kids I know.
Rule #4: Never be unarmed.
In one month, I would be dead.
Rule #5: If you can, get out.