“Would you like me to fetch that out of the cup, ma’am?” Everett asked innocently, hand high in the air.
Miss Karkie slowly drew her gaze to meet us, dark eyes glinting like a calico threatened by a Golden Retriever. “You are awfully good at fetching things, aren’t you, Mr. Quarterback? I bet you think you’re funny, interrupting my class.”
Everett lowered his hand, photoshoot-ready smile fading in bewilderment.
Connor raised his hand next, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose on the way. “Umm, excuse me, Miss Karkie, but I don’t think Everett meant to, like, tick you off. It’s not like he rigged the cow or anything.”
“Of course not,” the stern woman said, bringing the mug— emblazoned with “Best teacher ever,” surely a gift from a suck-up in years past—- up close to her face. Sucking in a deep breath, like she was extracting her own toe, she pulled the bone from her mug and laid it silently on her desk, gazing at it like a precious relic.
“I am going to the teacher’s lounge to refresh my coffee,” she announced, patting her perfect bob that, for the record, looked way too much like Velma Van Tussel’s hairstyle day after day to not be a wig. “You are all almost adults, so you should be able to handle yourselves while I am away. Someone take it upon themselves to wake Mr. Jeffries in my absence.”
She took her mug and tromped out of the room, her clunky platforms heels clomping against the tile every step she took. I was convinced: before she decided be a science teacher, that woman’s life dream was to be a go-go dancer.
“What a day,” Everett declared the moment the door clicked shut, kicking his pristine Nikes up onto our table. I rolled my eyes, determined that I wouldn’t let his homecoming king aura irritate me.
Josiah’s head perked up at the sound of the latch, big seaglass eyes alert. “Thank God for Bessie,” he said, folding his hands and bowing towards the cow. “May she lose more of her hooves at the most opportune times.”
I shook my head, surprised that Josiah had somehow noticed the whole toe-in-coffee event. Then again, he looked like he slept through all of our classes, and yet he kept a solid G.P.A. in all his AP classes, so maybe he just was freaky good at listening and was punking us all by looking like a bum.
“This was so not an opportune time,” Melanie sniffed. “We have a test over this material in two days!”
“Jeez, shut up, Mel.” Connor shook his head at the future valedictorian as he removed his trombone from the case underneath the table and screwed on the mouthpiece. “No one cares except for you.”
“Oh, really? Then why are you taking this class?”
“I’m here for the cow. It’s my spirit animal,” Josiah said automatically, pulling the strings of his sweatshirt hood tighter, so that just his big eyes and a tuft of shaggy black hair peaked out. I didn’t understand him; it would be 80 degrees and humid as hell, but he would still be wearing a sweatshirt.
“I didn’t really have any choice. Transfer probs, I guess,” I offered, telling the honest truth. I wouldn’t have signed up for a class with such a cooky teacher and the class weirdo, jock, know-it-all, and whatever sort of average Connor is if regular old Chemistry class was available. But there I was.
“My parents expect me to take every dang honors class, period.” Connor declared this matter-of-factly before blowing a long breath into his instrument. “If I fail this, I fail them. And Connor the Great is not a failure.” He proceeded to play a dramatic, drawn out rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I shifted in my seat; if Miss Karkie came back now, she would give us a hundred pages of homework. And I had ballet on Tuesdays, so no-can-do, lady.
“I’m here for the gorgeous views, duh,” Everett smirked, tossing a wink at me and Melanie. Good thing Connor was reaching a climax of his song, or else Melanie would have started shrieking at the cocky athlete.
Connor finished not a moment too soon and took a bow, miming dusting off the shoulders of his Superman t-shirt. Josiah indulged him with a modest golf-clap, interrupted as the PA system suddenly crackled to life.
“Students, faculty, we are now moving into lockdown position until further notice. Again, immediately move into lockdown position.”
Everett busted out into a high-pitched cackle. “Perfect timing! Miss Karkie’s gonna get locked out of her own classroom!”
I knew drills like this happened all the time, but I still couldn’t keep my heartbeat at normal-person speed or stop my breath from catching in my throat. Not since last spring.
Melanie jumped to her Ugg boots and started barking orders. “Connor, drop the tuba. Everett, hold the snark. Get your feet off the table and moving. Josiah, perk up for once.” She clapped her hands, a mix between a kindergarten teacher and a drill sergeant, before turning her icy gaze to me. “Angelina, since there’s just a few of us, we go to the supply closet for lockdowns.”
Josiah flipped the lights and checked that the door was locked before shuffling behind us into the cramped closet at the back of the room. It was pitch black for a few moments before someone— Everett, probably, the tallest of us all— reached up and clicked on a single bulb, illuminating the tiny room stuffed with dusty textbooks and broken lab equipment. The air was stuffy like a Florida afternoon and carried a vague hint of formaldehyde.
After restacking some books, we somehow managed to find enough space on the dingy tile for all of us to sit down and wait for the announcement releasing us. I figured that we would only be there for a few minutes, tops, but the silence made the minutes stretch like years. I focused on chipping off my nail polish, adding little flakes of purple glitter to the dust bunnies on the ground.
Melanie smoothed her meticulously flat-ironed hair back into a perfect ponytail at the base of her neck, elbowing Everett in the process. She left it tied for a whole two seconds before undoing the elastic, shaking her hair loose, and then smoothing it into another ponytail.
Next to her, Connor finagled a roll of Hubba Bubba out of his cargo shorts, ripped off a long piece, and shoved it into his mouth. His jaw worked furiously, each chew and occasional bubble pop echoing in the dank air.
Giving up on ponytail number four, Melanie let out a loud sigh and released her now-mussed blonde locks to hang loose. She started to tug at the loose strings of her cashmere sweater instead.
“Will you quit that?” Melanie scooted as best she could to face the bubble-blowing boy, gaze shooting daggers at him.
“What? Me?” Connor blinked innocently before popping another giant pink orb.
“Quit what?” Smack. Snap. Pop. Smack. Snap. Pop.
“The chewing! The chewing, of course!” Melanie threw her hands up before crossing them tightly across her chest. “It’s absolutely disgusting.”
“Cool your jets, woman,” Connor replied, leaning back against a stack of books. “Gum, like, has to be chewed. That’s why it’s called chewing gum.”
“Well, you’re not supposed to have that somehow-edible rubber in school, anyway. Figures, the second we’re left alone, you decide to break the rules. And they call you an honors student.”
“And they call you a killjoy, Miss Valedictorian. That’s no joke.”
“Well, I don’t much care what they call me, whoever they are,” Melanie said. “I’m not here for them. I’m here to get a good education so that I can get into a good college so that I can get into a good med school so that I can be a good doctor and actually help people.”
I kept on picking at my nails until my cuticles started to bleed. My ballet instructor would probably freak, but Connor and Melanie’s fighting were making my nerves skyrocket.
Connor snorted at her long-winded answer and chewed his gum with an extra loud smack. “You’re gonna have the bedside manner of a cactus.”
“Thanks for those kind words. You are seriously the worst.”
“Then why do you sit by me every day?” He leaned in, mere inches from her face. “You could have picked literally any other seat, and yet you chose to be my lab partner.”
Josiah, sitting across from me, met my eyes and smirked. Melanie and Connor’s slightly flirtatious bickering always provided a much needed source of entertainment to contrast Miss Karkie’s drudging lectures.
Melanie stiffened. “Well, as much as I hate to admit it, you’re the next smartest person in the class. Who knows how Everett got in here, and Angelina and Josiah are just kinda there.” I tried not to act hurt— I was no kid president, but I had won the spelling bee in 5th grade. Everett clutched his football jersey, like he had just received a mortal wound. Josiah had his phone out and completely missed the diss.
“Well, as much as I hate to admit it, for being a teacher’s pet and all, you’re actually a pretty cool girl, Mel.”
Everett and Josiah both rolled their eyes. Could the lockdown be over, already?
“Pretty cool?” Melanie’s voice was a whisper, her cheeks a flushed Hubba-Bubba pink in the dim light.
“Yeah. Pretty cool,” he elbowed her in the ribs lightly, breaking out into a dimpled grin. “Pretty. And Cool. Cool and pretty.”
“Then why didn’t you ask me to the fall formal? I waited and waited for you to ask, and then you never did.” Her voice rose to a high-pitched squeak. “But I still went, with this stupid, stupid dream that you would ask me to dance, but you still never did. So, there I was, standing in the shadows like a sad, forgotten spinster watching you dance with countless other girls that must be much prettier and cooler than I’ll ever be.”
Melanie finished with a gasp and immediately dropped her gaze to her sweater, pulled over her hands like mittens. Connor slumped against the books, hard, and sent three of them crashing down onto my hand. I swore under my breath and nursed my crushed fingers. This was seriously not my day.
“Well, this has been great to overhear,” Everett quipped, clapping his hands together. “I wish you guys the best of luck in diffusing whatever sexual tension just came to the surface. But is it hot in here, or is it just me? Josiah, aren’t you dying?”
Josiah shook his head, sweatshirt hood still up and shaggy hair covering his eyes. He was scrolling through his iPhone, probably trying to distract himself from the awkward lover’s quarrel.
“Hotter than usual, but pretty normal for me,” I shrugged. The Ohio fall felt like the North Pole. I still wasn’t sure if I’d ever adjust. Job relocations were stupid.
“Well, my pits are soaked like I just deadlifted for half an hour.” The football captain waved his arms as best as he could, adding a whole new smell to the sensory experience of the closet. Melanie wrinkled her nose. “When do you think this drill will get over with, anyway?”
“I don’t think it’s a drill,” Josiah said softy, his face eerily illuminated by his iPhone screen like a kid telling a joke at a campfire.
“Wait, what?” My thumping heart killed my chill.
“I don’t think it’s a drill. Check Instagram.” Josiah handed his phone to Everett, who passed it in on silence.
I took the phone gingerly and peeked at the screen. Someone— a freshman I didn’t know, probably— had taken a photo of a bathroom stall spray-painted with the message, “I’m coming for you all” and today’s date. The picture, posted just an hour ago, had over 200 comments.
“That has to be a joke, right,” Connor said, still chewing his gum furiously. “I mean, right?”
Josiah shrugged. “Maybe. Other people seem to think so. Did you see those comments?” He scrolled through and read a few off. Some people thought that whoever wrote the message was a class clown and thanked him for getting them out of taking tests. (Melanie rolled her eyes at those.) Other people were complaining that “this is why we can’t have nice things.”
Connor was satisfied. “See? This is just some guy’s sick idea of a joke. School shootings happen in other places, like big cities and stuff, but not here, in our tiny town.”
“I’m sure that’s what all of those other schools thought too,” Everett piped in, voice loud and echoey. He looked the way I felt; sweat soaked through his jersey and his green eyes were wide and wild, glinting in the little light. “No one expects to be the next school on the news, with, like, a body count, and videos of parents bawling their eyes out.”
Hot tears pricked my eyes and I opened my mouth, but words didn’t come. My head was spinning: I was picturing the guy that sat next to me in PreCalc, but he was holding a pistol instead of a calculator. I mentally fled out to the hallway, but policemen and news reporters and scared kids suffocated me. So many scared kids, their eyes big and faces blank.
“I don’t know, dude.” Josiah continued to scroll on his phone, completely fixated. We fell into heavy silence for a few moments, my mental photo real continuing to spin, before Everett piped in again.
“Are you guys sure you’re not super hot? I feel like I’m dying.” All of our eyes swiveled to him. He was sweating like crazy and his breaths were starting to come out as shallow pants. He closed his eyes and leaned back against the door, moments before he started to tremble uncontrollably, making the door rattle.
“Oh my gosh, Everett, are you okay?” Melanie squealed, looking at all of us, wide-eyed. “Guys, what’s happening?”
My lifeguard instinct kicked in, pushing the images of body counts and crying neighbors out of my head, but Josiah already beat me to Everett’s side.
“Everett, can you look at me?” Flipping down his hood, he took the shaking boy’s hand in his own and squeezed lightly. Everett’s eyes cracked open, his breaths still coming in shallow pants. “Okay, breathe like me. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Okay? In, two, three, four, then out, two, three, four. In, two three, out two, three, four. Focus on the door you’re leaning against. Focus on how stable the ground you’re sitting on is.”
Josiah repeated the breathing rhythm a few more times, until Everett stopped shaking so much and his breaths came regularly, though he still held tight to Josiah like a lifeline. I found myself breathing in and out with them, calming my own racing heartbeat.
“You feeling okay, dude?” Connor asked. His green eyes were wide with panic.
“Yeah, I think so. I don’t know, I just started to get really hot, and we’re in a really small space, and I got really stressed thinking about all those school shootings, and then—”
“You started to have an anxiety attack,” Josiah finished simply. “It happens.”
“How did you learn that breathing thing?” Melanie asked. She had her knees tucked up close to her chest. A few lone tears tricked paths down her cheeks, blurring her once-pristine mascara.
“I learned how to deal with my own panic attacks.” Josiah rolled up a sweatshirt sleeve, displaying a network of bright white criss-crosses on his wrist. “Not always in the best of ways, at first. And even now, some nights the anxiety just won’t go away.”
I swallowed a lump in my throat, feeling guilty for every time I thought Josiah was lazy for sleeping in class. I thought of the hours and hours I spent in front of the full-length mirrors in the ballet studio long after class ended, practicing that double pirouette over and over again. We all have our own demons to battle, I guess.
“I’m such a failure,” Melanie wailed, all of a sudden. “Here I am, a future doctor, and I can’t even help someone when they need it. I just freeze.”
“I guess that’s why we do stuff with other people, Mel.” Connor took her hand and squeezed. He didn’t let go.
“You know, you guys are a lot different than I ever would’ve thought,” Everett said, cracking an eye open. “I’ve felt super shaky before, like before big games and tests and stuff, but I always could talk myself out of it. If I had an anxiety attack or whatever with the football guys, I think they would call me a pansy or something. But you guys didn’t. I wish whoever wrote that message could see this, could see that not everyone is self-absorbed.”
“What if they just needed someone to say hi to them or something.” I felt the words spill from my lips like soda from a machine: words that’d been building since February and rolling through my mind on countless sleepless nights. “Maybe, that person just felt invisible. And the only way they feel like they can be somebody is by making a statement, doing something with their life by trying to take it from other people.” I felt everyone’s eyes on me, four blinding spotlights. “I never told you guys this, but the big school shooting down in Florida this year was just a town over from me. I knew some of the kids that were shot. We weren’t super close, but I still knew them. Here one day, gone the next.”
Melanie blinked hard. I imagined she was feeling guilty for all the times she indirectly insulted me in my month at Pleasant view. Connor’s eyebrows pinched together in a single V, his face a mashup of sorrow and anger. Everett had his eyes closed, steadily clenching and unclenching his fists. Josiah pulled out his phone again and started to text furiously.
I felt like a textbook-stuffed backpack was off my shoulders for the first time in nine months, even though nobody said anything. After all, what words can you say when you realize that kids can kill other kids? What can you say when that same thing might be happening in the downstairs hallway, in the cafeteria, in the classroom next door?
A second later, I felt my pocket vibrate and took out my phone to check the notification. @thatoneguyyouknow99— Josiah— had tagged each of us in an Instagram replying to the bathroom photo. It said simply, “THERE IS HOPE.”
“I know it’s cliché.” Josiah ran his hands through his hair and shrugged, avoiding eye contact. “And I’m not so good with words. But I want to say something.”
“I think that’s perfect,” Melanie responded. Conner bobbed his head in agreement. “That’s such a good idea.”
“What good will a single comment do?” Everett crossed his arms, voice resigned. “I mean, if there’s a kid with a gun in our school, one stupid social media message isn’t gonna do squat.”
“Hey, you said yourself that you wish you would have known people like Josiah exist,” Connor broke in. “That some people actually care.”
“My ballet instructor always hammered it into my head how important it is to train with other people, and to go and watch other performances. She said that people need other people and that we need to know that we can get better,” I found myself saying. My voice was steady and clear. “Obviously, that doesn’t mean that all pain goes away. I leave practice with bloody feet too many days to count. But, back in February with the whole shooting thing, it was cool to see our communities come together, and it was so important to try and work for schools to improve and be safer. Maybe I’m being stupid and idealistic, but change can’t happen if there’s no hope.”
“I’m scared,” Melanie admitted, lips trembling. “But I don’t want that to hold me back from even making a tiny difference. I’m going to write a message, too.”
“I guess I will too,” Everett grumbled before flashing a grin. Leave it to him to remain lighthearted in such a serious situation. “After all, I do have over two-thousand Insta followers.”
Josiah groaned, vocalizing what we all felt.
We sat in silence punctuated with the faint clicking of fingers flying as we each added a message of hope and healing to the thread of tweets:
@melanie.marie.01: Life has so much to offer, even if you cannot always see it. Choose light. Choose life.
@tromboneplaya101: Even the worst days have 2 end @ some point. Eat some ice cream and talk w a buddy. Stuff’ll get better.
@balletandbeaches: It’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let your fear keep you from reaching out. Give yourself permission to dream and don’t ever lose sight of what that dream is.
@thebeastman: people are cooler than u ever think so give em a chance
Seconds after we each posted, we started getting replies; students from all over the school were adding their own positive messages, telling the person behind the spray paint that they are wanted, that there is a place for them. I could just picture hundreds of other kids around the school, huddled in closets and under tables, extending help. I didn’t even know if the message writer was serious about the threat, or if he would ever see our replies. But I at least, felt more at peace than I had in months.
Suddenly, we heard the PA system crackling again. We stumbled over each other to get into the classroom, blinking our eyes in the bright sunlight, as we heard our principal announce that the lockdown was over.
A lump rose to my throat as the doorknob started rattling, but Miss Karkie burst in seconds later. Her wig/hair was thoroughly mussed and her frumpy sweater was covered in coffee. “I trust you all followed the procedure well,” she panted, leaning on the doorframe heavily. “Thankfully, the threat I’m sure you all saw on your pesky devices ended up being a hoax. I recognized the handwriting from my freshman biology class, but in my haste to get to the principal’s office, I spilled coffee all down my front. Thankfully, the nurse was able to treat my mild burns while Principal McGregor found and detained the student. So, fear not, dear students. I am here at last, and we can get back to business as usual.”
“Wow, Miss Karkie,” Josiah quipped as we took our seats. “That’s really cool, you, like, saving the school and all.”
Miss Karkie waved off the comment, but a smug smile told me she was pleased. I couldn’t help but think that we could never really get back to “business as usual,” though. Not when my classmates knew my past, and I knew a little more about them, too. We’ll probably not all be BFFs, but I know that I can reach out to them if I’m having a rough day. When they saw a need, they didn’t stay silent. They met heaviness with hope.
I tried to focus on the PowerPoint, but my mind kept wandering back to all those comments. The cow kept catching my eye, too. Bessie swayed ever so slightly, a macabre reminder that life was fleeting.
But we still have today, I reminded myself. Today, we were alive, and that was enough.