This story is by Gayle Woodson and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The old terrazzo floors gleamed, scrubbed and polished to a patent leather shine. Freshly painted walls resonated once more with clanging locker doors and chattering students. Lydia provided a red-carpet commentary on arriving students. “Look, there’s Steph. Hey Steph, great new haircut!”
If Steph heard, she didn’t let on, just ambled by with eyes glued to her iPhone.
“Hmph,” Lydia snorted. “What a snob.”
Trevor wished that Lydia would shut up and stop following him around. She stuck to him like glue. Why couldn’t she leave him alone? OK, she was grateful. He stopped to help her when she fell. Now he wished he hadn’t. She wasn’t his girlfriend, or anything like that.
He was in love with Mary–had been in love from the moment she crept into English class last September, three minutes after the bell. She hunched over her books and scurried to a desk in the back corner of the room, the one furthest from the door. When she brushed her long brown hair from her face, he nearly gasped out loud. She was that lovely.
It was impossible to concentrate on what the teacher was saying. He scribbled on a piece of paper, “Hi, I’m Trevor.” Passing a note risked the penalty of detention. He added the words, “Sitting in the other back corner.” Such a lame note. What if the teacher read it out loud? He crumpled the paper into a wad, toyed with the thought of lobbing a hook shot onto her desk. Cowardice prevailed over bad judgment. When the lunch bell rang he tossed the wad into the trash.
He followed Mary to the cafeteria, keeping back about twenty paces. After she sat down, he found a seat where he could watch his dream girl. This became his daily noontime routine. Every now and then, she seemed to catch him staring. He would look down at his food or pretend to stare at something on the far side of the room. One day, he couldn’t find her. His eyes scoured the lunchroom, but she was nowhere to be seen. He sat down with a sigh at an empty table. Then a tray plunked down next to his and he looked up into her smiling face.
Mary silenced the alarm on her smartphone and ducked back under the covers, trying to slip back into a lovely dream. She was walking hand in hand with Trevor. Where were they? On the beach? But there were flowers. And a gentle breeze. She clung to fragments of the dream: his face, the sound of his voice…she wanted him to hold her. But it was like grasping at smoke. The vision dissipated like early morning fog.
“Time to get up, honey.” The bed jiggled as her mother sat down beside her. “But if you don’t feel up to going today—”
“No.” Mary sat up, rubbed her eyes. “No…I need to go. I have to be there.”
She had laid out her clothes the night before. Black skinny jeans and a burgundy T-shirt with Bradley Strong in bold white letters. She pulled her hair into a ponytail, but then pulled off the elastic, brushed it out loose, the way Trevor liked it.
In the kitchen the morning news blared from the TV. Her little brother spoke through a mouthful of pancake. “They’re talking about your school. Again.”
A reporter said, “I’m Cecily Green, in front of Bradley High School, where students are returning to—”
Their mother switched off the TV. “We don’t need to be watching that.” She put a plate of blueberry pancakes in front of Mary. “I made your favorite breakfast.”
“I’m not that hungry.”
“You need to eat something.”
“Orange juice, I guess. Maybe some toast.”
Trevor tried to ignore Lydia’s constant stream of consciousness rambling. “There ought‘a be a law. That’s what my mother says.”
He couldn’t let that comment slip by. “There are lots of laws. Laws don’t stop people from doing crazy stuff.”
“He should never have had access to a gun. He was a monster.”
“He wasn’t a monster.” Monsters are the creepy ugly things that hide under your bed at night. Or in the closet. Hideous purple creatures in horror movies. Scary. But they can never hurt you. “Jarret was messed up. A bad dude. Back in sixth grade, I saw him drown a cat.”
“I was there the day he tried to beat up Mr. Alvarez.” Lydia’s voice cracked. “Right in the middle of Spanish class.”
“It was kind of funny, in a sad way. He didn’t know Senor Alvarez had a black belt. Poor Spanish teacher lost his job, while Jarret got, what—suspended for three days? And I guess some therapy or some shit like that.”
“He had a crush on me.”
“Yuck. Poor you.”
“I know. He was always following me around, texting me. So creepy. After a while, the messages got mean. My mother told me to tell the vice principal, but he didn’t do anything about it. His last text was, ‘You should die, bitch.’”
Trevor didn’t know what to say to that. He just wished Lydia would leave. He tried to think of ways to ditch her. His best idea was ducking into the men’s room. But she would probably follow him in there. And he didn’t want to leave the hallway. He wanted to be there when Mary arrived. It was going to be a hard day for her. He hovered near her locker. Where was she? They always met here, long before the bell.
The schoolyard was awash in flowers and posters and stuffed animals. Eight white crosses flanked the sidewalk. And five news trucks lay in wait.
Mary’s mother stopped the car and gave her daughter a hug. “You don’t have to go back yet. If it’s too soon, if it hurts too much, everyone will understand.”
How could anyone really understand? Unless they had been there, heard the screams, seen the red spatters of blood everywhere, smelled the fear. At the vigil, in the light of all the candles, the pain somehow seemed almost bearable because they were all suffering the same horrible memories and believed there was something that they could do to change the world if they could just all pull together.
Mary took a deep breath and got out of the car. Cecily Green from Channel 2 shoved a microphone in front of her face. “How does it feel to be getting back to classes?”
She didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer. Her mouth was dry, and her throat was in a knot, as she struggled to sum up enough courage to walk through the door. The reporter patted her on the shoulder. “Everyone’s thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Her feet were leaden as she climbed the steps. She stopped, might have turned around, but someone opened the door for her. She could hardly breathe when she entered the foyer. The blood stains were gone, but the horrible day replayed itself, seizing control of her mind as it had so many times, over and over again, whether she was awake or dreaming. It sounded like fireworks at first. For a nanosecond that felt like eternity, everything was still. She peered around her locker door and saw Jarrett in the middle of the hall. Jarrett the awkward geek. But he didn’t look like Jarrett. Mary would never forget his face on that day. Oval, like a football, with tiny eyes, and lips pulled back into an eerie, evil grin. His ears stuck out, like Curious George, the chimpanzee. Perhaps her mind had embellished the image, because she seemed to recall pointy teeth. But his picture in the school yearbook showed a normal smile. Nothing in that photo suggested he could be a mass murder.
Then everyone was running. The popping sound continued, along with the thundering roar of stampeding students. Lydia screamed and fell down, and Trevor stopped to help her. He told Mary to keep going. “Run, Mary, run!”
She could almost hear him now, calling her name.
Trevor spied Mary as she walked down the hall, chestnut hair flowing over her shoulders. He called out her name, but she did not look up, did not answer. She plodded slowly to her locker and opened the door. He put his hand on her shoulder, but she would not turn around.
Mary shivered as an icy wave swept through her body. She reached out to touch the picture hanging in her locker. “Trevor,” she whispered. “I miss you. I’ll always love you.”
Lydia’s voice was urgent. “It’s time for us to go, Trevor. You can’t do anything more for her. She has a life to live.”
Trevor and Lydia floated up, gazing down at Mary, as she slid down the wall of lockers to sit on the floor, weeping. The school grew smaller beneath them until the students streaming into the building looked like ants and everything faded into a soft, white glow.