This story is by Traci Keel and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sara doesn’t know how much more she can take from her mother. The divorce was bad enough, but moving them from Ohio to Tennessee so they could make a fresh start in her mother’s hometown was the line in the sand. And don’t mention the “carriage house” they live in which is really a finished attic with a bathroom and a kitchenette over the garage of Dr. Green. She’s always fighting with her mom; today’s argument includes a failed geometry quiz and an inappropriate dress, which her mother says is “not enough”- a felicitous statement since Sara is aware that she’s never been enough.
Sara,tall and sturdy with big feet and strong legs,is a notable volleyball player and a less-than-notable student. She doesn’t know much history, but she knows enough psychology to know she doesn’t fit with the petite blonde pack of broad smiles and long drawls.
Karen Landon,a put-together woman yet not quite attractive,teaches at Jackson High School and sponsors the cheerleaders. Her figure is enviable, her nails impeccably manicured,and her hair shiny,voluminous,and styled. Sara noticed all these things immediately. She also saw that Ms. Landon was single. Sara pities Ms. Landon’s gruff demeanor and decides that her terse responses and pinched face are effects of the bitterness resulting from her ringless finger.
Ms. Landon doesn’t dislike Sara so much as she is merely exhausted by her. She misses a lot of school, sends a lot of apologetic e-mails asking for extensions on assignments,and when she is at school, she is almost always in need of a restroom or a counselor.
Sara, when not arguing with her mother, is preoccupied with Grant. She likes the way he walks by her in the hall and gives her the “what’s up” nod. She likes that he is a straight-A student and that he is the youngest starter on the football team. She likes how his dark hair and dark eyes make him look like Clark Kent, and she likes that on Mondays he wears a Superman t-shirt under his collared one. Liking that feels dangerous and private. She wonders if Lauren notices these things about Grant and quickly decides that she doesn’t. Lauren gets noticed; she isn’t bothered with noticing.
Oakwood is a town of golf course subdivisions and country clubs. There are three country clubs, four private schools, and seven golf courses. The houses are big and uniformly hidden behind groves of Bradford Pear trees known for their quick growth and lack of stamina. Up the road,there are equestrian farms, and further up the road are the Baptist and Methodist churches. The Presbyterians remain dutifully in the historical area of town.
Sara’s mom is furiously texting demands that she burn the dress, remember to stop forgetting her geometry book, clean her room, and also not forget about tutoring. Sara is over it. Just ten more minutes and the bell will ring for lunch. Ten more minutes of Ms. Landon’s droning.
Jackson High School sits on top of a hill with a stately winding road running straight to the columned front doors. The sun usually shines on Jackson, and today is no exception- a light southerly breeze carries the hint of the first honeysuckle blooms and the day wears closer to lunch.
Grant, Sara overhears two girls say, is asking Lauren to prom. She can’t focus on what Ms. Landon is saying anymore,something about Daisy Buchanan and careless people. Aren’t all people careless? She feels the burn of the tears surfacing in her chest.
“Can I use the restroom, Ms. Landon?” she asks hoping Ms. Landon doesn’t notice the bell will ring in just minutes.
“Can’t you wait three minutes?”
“I can’t. My stomach is upset.” The tears are coming furiously. Sara figures they will help her cause.
Ms. Landon gives obligatory pushback, but then caves. “Fine. Go. Take your things with you. The bell is about to ring.”
And with that Sara makes her way to the restroom.
All this time that Sara is thinking about Grant, he doesn’t notice her much, or at all. He cruises the halls with his friends talking about defenses and trick plays. In study hall, he talks about ACT scores and scholarships. Sara listens from afar and randomly makes eye contact. He smiles and nods; sometimes even asks her about volleyball. She doesn’t exactly call it interest, but it’s something.
Already the hall is skittering with a few escapees finding excuses to get out of class so that they can make it to the front of the lunch line. Sara hopes to get to the restroom before someone sees her crying. She rounds the corner and makes it into the bathroom, the tears flowing freely as she shuts the stall door.
Out in the hall, two girls scream. Great, she thinks, another promposal.
But then there is another scream and some yelling. It sounds like maybe there is a fight. Then cracking noises. More screams, the kind you hear in horror movies, not ebullient screams- no, these are terror-filled. Something is wrong.
There’s running and more screaming. Someone runs to the bathroom crying. Sara is still crying.
More pops. More screaming. Then the intercom announcement. “Teachers. This is an intruder alert. Follow lock-down procedures. This is not a drill. Do not open your doors until you’re given an all-clear from an administrator.”
Oh, God. What does she do? Sara doesn’t know what to do if she’s unaccounted for. And, she’s unaccounted for. She texts her mom.
“Mom. Somebody’s shooting in the school, I think. I’m in the bathroom. I don’t know what to do.”
“Baby” her mom replies. “Can you get out? Is there a door you can get to?…Can you get out?”
“IDK. I hear screaming and shooting everywhere. What do I do?”
“Call me. Just listen. DON’T SAY ANYTHING.”
Sara calls and her mother picks up on the first ring. Sara is shaking. The relentless popping of the gun is deafening. So is the screaming.
“Sara, listen. Don’t say anything, just listen. If there is a way to get out, I want you to run. Look straight ahead. Run away from the shots. Don’t stop for anyone. Run to the closest door and get out. I love you-it’s going to be okay. I’m staying on the line. Run.”
Sara listens trying to determine the direction of the shots. It sounds like they’re close to the cafeteria. She thinks she can make it to the B hall, but she has to run through the commons to get there, and the cafeteria is in the commons. She tries to control her crying.
She creeps toward the door and listens, peeks out the door, and sees classmates on the floor. Many have blood weeping from them; others are heaving with terror. They aren’t trying to run which means he can see them. She hears her mom in her pocket, “Run Baby. Run!. Get out of the building. The police will be there soon. Just get out of the building.”
She takes another step forward. There’s more shooting. More screaming. And wailing. One more step and she’ll be in the commons and there’s no turning back. She takes off her wedges. Her mother is right; there’s no reason to wear heels to school.
Another step. She’s in the open. She looks into the plate glass walls of the cafeteria and sees the shooter as she suspects. His back is to her. He is shooting furiously. What she isn’t prepared for are the students, her classmates, littered across the commons, trails of blood snaking together to form a red river.
Run, she thinks. Run. Sara is running. People are screaming for her to get down, but she runs. She’s almost to the B hall. She’s practically safe. More popping in the background. Now she hears her heart beating in her ears. Two steps and she’s out of eyesight.
She runs through the threshold of the door and shuts them. She can run left, which is a longer run to the door, but with more turns, so she’ll stay out of sight. Or she can run to the right which is more direct but also in view of the commons. She turns to run left.
Then she notices the dark hair. The long legs. The Superman shirt. Grant is down. He’s bleeding. From his chest? His stomach? She can’t tell. But he’s breathing. His eyes are open.
“Sara. Help.” He tries to raise an arm.
She grabs it and tries to pull him. He screams in agony but doesn’t budge. She pulls again, this time using the full force of her legs. She hears her mom in her pocket. “Sara, RUN. Get out. Get out!”
Sara looks at Gabe and then the door. He is crying and shivering. “I’ll get you help. Close your eyes. Play dead.”
She runs. And she takes the broken way he looked out the door with her.