Chelsea Laine Wells
My child runs away from me. Her backpack is too big for her small shoulders but she bounds across the lawn to the school entrance like an astronaut on the surface of the moon. It’s the way she does everything. Her boots are different colors – one pink, one brown. Ever since an Apple store employee told her she was a trendsetter, she will wear nothing else. In the beginning of this school year, I taught her that if someone comes into her classroom and starts shooting, she should fall onto the floor and play dead. She should scoop up the blood of a classmate if she can and smear it on herself while the shooter isn’t looking. Relax her eyelids as much as possible and pretend to sleep so that her eyelashes don’t tremble and give her away. Nest down among the bodies and stay there, waiting. Even if someone says they are police, do not move. Make them check your vitals, let the fact that you’re still alive be a surprise. That’s what we learned from Uvalde.
No: actually, this isn’t true. I didn’t have the heart to tell her this. Her age had only been a double digit for a matter of months. I told my stepson – just freshly a teenager, barely thirteen – in the days following Uvalde. My husband and I told him. We were at a restaurant after my daughter’s school play, end of the school year, all of us exhausted and shocky. I was sick with something vicious, aching everywhere, as I told him that he needed to save himself with the blood of another. I watched his delicate fingers holding the grilled cheese, his painted nails. His face was open and disarmed. He nodded. I will never forget the way he looked. The younger children, my daughter glowing and buzzed from the adrenaline of her play and an Arizona iced tea, were at an adjacent table babbling about nothing. She and her stepsister were the exact age of the children in Uvalde.
I need to tell her about playing dead. About the blood. I think she could do it. She’s a theater kid, after all. Last summer when we filled out the application for a theater summer camp and I let her type in her own answers, she said she loved acting because it gave her the chance to understand things that she would never know about otherwise, like other people’s lives, and even death. She asked me if it was okay to say that and I said of course, they were her answers and she could say what she felt. I remember thinking how easily this moment could become a tragic media soundbyte down the road.
In the crawl of the dropoff line, after she clears the steps to the entrance two at a time, I watch other parents kiss their kids goodbye, bundling them off with lunchboxes and bulky coats and half-unzipped backpacks. I wonder about the ones who have had a bad morning, the way my daughter and I often do. Everyone is quick to frustration and impatience in the pressure of that chaotic time before a school day, where is your coat, please hurry up we are so late, did you brush your teeth, but did you REALLY brush your teeth – the small detonations we touch off so easily. And then you send them into the building, no one quite healed, and what if that’s it? What if that’s it and later they need your DNA to lay claim?
My classroom is at the end of a hallway, on a corner that leads to a stairwell. From my place at the podium or my desk, a thousand times a day I glance across the heads of my students to the open doorway and picture it. Over and over, a tic, as though I can guard against it by thinking about it enough, by factoring it into the rest of my anxiety and making it about me so that the reality becomes less real. All of these sons and daughters, these children someone hurriedly kissed goodbye or snapped at or ignored, all of them my responsibility – some of them sit right by the door. These are the most vulnerable. How do you create a seating chart that protects everyone?
When I imagine it happening, it’s always in slow motion. Sound blocked out and dragged down to a low reverb, like feedback, as the world comes apart cell by cell in a centrifuge of disaster. The shooter rounding the corner. The arm coming up. I see myself understanding it instantly, standing, moving towards him with my hands out so that I become his focus. My kids would also immediately know. They are teenagers, they are steeped in this world and what it has become, they would know. I imagine them ducking in unison like a flock of birds wheeling all at once in the sky, aiming for the spot behind my desk, and amassing there. In my imagination they all fit. In reality, it would be only a handful. One time in a safety training the school district told us to play baseball once a year with our students so that we could justify keeping a bat in the classroom in case we needed it to defend against a shooter. After they said that, I kept thinking about how the crack of a baseball bat sounded like a gunshot.
The shooter kills me. That is how it always plays out in my head. If he kills me, maybe that is enough and he moves on. Maybe it’s the teachers he wants. Maybe he’s one of the kids who wasn’t caught and saved by a sharp-eyed educator, one of the ones we let slip through. You can’t catch them all. I can’t. No one can.
I wonder who he is, who he will be, this imaginary shooter. He is faceless in my mind. Just a series of impressions. I see the trench coat we were all taught to picture after Columbine, black winging out like a comic book villain as he rounds the corner. Columbine stunned me – I was barely two years graduated – and sank indelibly into my consciousness. I carried it for decades and ultimately into my life as a teacher, a position I began exactly three days after Sandy Hook. Those children and teachers died on Friday. I became a teacher the next Monday. The building felt haunted, in more ways than one. The ghosts of these unsaved boys walk the halls of every school. Dylan, Eric, Dimitrios, Jeffrey, Jaylen, Nikolas, Adam, more. Was it that no one cared when they needed help, or that they did care and it made no difference? It’s impossible to truly know the inner workings of every student, impossible to reach them all. But I would take the bullet for every single one of them. We all would. The meta doubling back of knowing that the teachers killed by these boys would have died to protect them is numbing to process.
Every day when I drop my daughter off, I think about it. I watch her for as long as I can as she runs to the door. Every day when I teach, I think about it. Walking towards the shooter with my hands up. I think about her teachers and what they would do. Where they would hide them. Some of the Sandy Hook children were rushed into cupboards. Elementary gets more cabinet space than we do. My one cupboard is full and my teenagers are too big. It is all just mitigating disaster. I need to angle my desk differently so more of them will fit behind it. I need to tell my daughter about the blood. I don’t know if she could do it. I think it would be her expansive and impulsive heart that gave her away, not her eyelashes. She would cry at the sight of her classmates, her teachers, she would cry as they fell. Her first sleepover ever with her best friend is one week to the day from the moment I write this and she is counting it down on a dry erase board posted next to her bed. She would be hysterical, she wouldn’t be able to help it. But I will tell her anyway and try to make her understand. Try to scare her so my DNA is never needed to lay claim, so that we are never taken down to the elements of who we are, the blood and bone, the cells, to be connected again in the aftermath.
Chelsea Laine Wells is a high school English and Creative Writing teacher and managing and fiction editor of Hypertext Magazine and Studios who lives in Dallas, TX with her husband and their blended family. Her short stories have been published in PANK, Gravel, Split Lip, Paper Darts, Little Fiction, Hobart, Litro, Third Point Press, Evergreen Review, wigleaf, and many others. A handmade limited edition book containing her work was released by Lark Sparrow Press in 2016. Eleven of her stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net awards, with “The Contents of Her Stomach” winning Best of the Net in 2015. She has also completed three as-yet unpublished novels, all of which were written, edited, and taken through several drafts under the guidance of her former agent. You can find out more about her at her website, www.chelsealainewells.com.