Remember that time we were running in the marsh behind my house, and I got stuck? Right in that spot between the tide river and the tall grass? Remember? I stepped right where my dad always told us to go around. “Careful over there,” he said. “Like a sinkhole. It’ll suck you up.” He should have known we weren’t listening. We were ten.
We were running and laughing. We were always laughing. Always running. This time, you were doing your silly high-knees walk through the grass like a weird ostrich, cheering me up because that jerk Duncan made fun of me at school again. I was still sad about it, and I didn’t have to tell you. You knew.
We’d had that thing in class where we were sharing our family stories. Remember? Classic fourth grade. You told everyone how your parents met at Disney World. Love at first sight and then you were born. You made it up. Better than the truth, you’d said. People clapped. Then it was my turn.
“I came into my family on a plane.” I explained how my parents had to travel to Korea to get me, how it cost lots of money, and how I felt special because they picked me. I needed a family, and I got one.
I went back to my seat while people clapped. You patted me on the shoulder.
During free time, Duncan and his crowd circled around me.
“Why would anyone pay money to have you? No way.” He laughed and pointed to the door. “Send it back. It’s too ugly.”
The circle laughed, their mouths full of Goldfish and graham crackers.
“Her real mom had it right.” He motioned like he was kicking something into the nearby trash bin.
“Leave her alone,” you said.
I remember standing behind you, watching his face turn red.
“What’re you going to do about it, Faggy Finn?”
When you put your arm around me and turned us the other way, he laughed and took off with his buddies. I could feel the tears welling up.
Then you did what I’ll never forget. You put your arms up like wings and strained your neck and did the ostrich walk right across the playground and then back at me. You pecked at my head and shoulders, and I smiled and laughed out loud, forgetting everything else. You were doing it again later in the marsh, and it was working. I forgot about my bad day.
I giggled and imitated you and before I realized, I was right where Dad said not to go. I heard the sloop of the muck as it filled my boots.
“Finn!” I screamed.
You turned and ran back.
“Give me your hand,” you said.
I reached up, and you grabbed my hands with both of yours, and you pulled as hard as you could.
“Ow!” I yelled.
You let go and I started to cry. Of course, it wasn’t dangerous. I wasn’t going to die, but at that age everything is magnified. Every emotion. Every incident. It was life or death to us. When you’re ten, life is big. Bigger than us. The marsh was vast. The ocean beyond it even more so. Sure, we saw ourselves as big kids. But we were not immune to getting scared. Not immune to sinkholes.
We could see my house, just barely, across the marsh, and through the trees.
“I’m going to find your dad.”
“Someone has to save you, and I can’t get you out.”
I remember how defeated you looked. I took a deep breath and stopped crying. I was going to be brave for you.
“Here,” you said and reached into your pocket. You took out one of the two silver dollars you always had on you. The one with the handsome, dead president on it. The one you let me hold when we watched Finding Nemo during the part when the shark smells the blood and chases them. I’m still scared of sharks, you know. Your gran gave them to you for luck, so of course, they were sacred. Magical.
I held the coin in my hand; it was warm from living in your jeans.
“Hold on to this and don’t let go until I come back.”
You squeezed my hand and ran. It felt like you were gone forever, but you and Dad came back and you helped him pull me out. I lost those boots, but I still have the coin. It’s here. On my desk. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.
Now, I’m staring at it, thinking about you, about what happened. It’s all I can think about since Friday. Since we saw it on the news. Since we found out.
I keep catching my dad standing still at the kitchen window, looking out over the tall grass to the tide river like he’s trying to find something. I think he’s wondering what happened to that boy, that best friend of his little girl.
I’m looking, too.
Where did you go?
The Washington Post—21 Dead In a Mass School Shooting
It began with a few shots and escalated to one of the most horrific school shootings this country has seen. After only nine minutes, 21 people were dead.
That’s a lot of people. It’s not hundreds or thousands like in explosions or wars or even other shootings, but it’s a lot for one person, one gun.
I didn’t sleep at all that night, after I heard about the shooting, after I heard about you. Then, this morning, I was greeted by the paper and its headline on the kitchen table. I stared at the yellow tape, the bodies, the police cars, the crying friends, the teachers, the families, the bodies. Then, I turned the paper over, and there it was, your face. A picture of you from your high school’s yearbook under the fold. You’re so much older than I remember. Of course. It’s been five years. Six? Almost. Your hair is darker. It’s not the light brown with tints of blonde I remember from when we were little. Your jaw is tightly set, lips straight and serious. I barely recognized you.
I threw the paper across the kitchen and ran to the bathroom. Mom tried to follow, but I slammed the door in her face. I got in the tub and pulled the curtain closed. It reminded me of my grandpa’s funeral. Remember? I spent that morning in the tub. Black dress, black tights, black hair in a braid, black Mary Janes. When you got to the house, Mom let you come in to get me.
“Why are you crying?” you asked.
“He’s going to be on display. Like at a museum. Like a stuffed lion.”
“He’s not stuffed,” you said.
“The guy in the coffin isn’t him. He’s gone from here. He’s up there.”
I followed your eyes to the ceiling.
“You believe in heaven?” I asked you.
You thought for a minute, then answered, “I think so. Something’s better than nothing.”
“Much better than nothing,” I agreed.
“Then let’s believe it.”
I nodded and looked up, picturing Grandpa in a fluffy world where old people, any people, can’t fall and hurt themselves. I saw him sitting in his favorite chair, smoking as many of those cigarettes from the yellow box as he wanted, drinking his favorite whiskey, and watching me, smiling.
You held out your hand, and I took it. You pulled something out of your coat pocket.
“From Gran,” you said. “She’s sorry she can’t come, but she has to work.”
It was a travel checkerboard with magnetic pieces, so you can play it in the car without them sliding all over. We played checkers in the lobby of the funeral home during the whole service. You made it an epic match, so I’d forget Grandpa’s cold, not-alive body was in the other room. I’d just won my third or fourth game when Mom and Dad came out to get me.
“It’s time to say goodbye,” Dad said, pulling me up from my place on the carpet.
“Let’s go,” Mom said, taking my hand.
I pulled you along with us.
We entered the room, and I could see Grandpa lying there in his suit. I stopped. Mom let go of my hand, and she and Dad kept walking.
You leaned over and whispered, “Just look down. Follow my feet.”
People moved out of the way for us. You stepped in front of me, eyes up, focused ahead. I followed, watching your neon ReeZigs lead the way. I wished I had those on instead of my tight, clicky Mary Janes. You stopped. I looked up. Your head was straight forward, looking at Grandpa, blocking my view of his face. All I could see was his bottom half. Gray pants, brown shoes. A glimpse of his socks, the ones with the anchors. We stood for a few seconds and then Mom ushered me out from behind you.
“Say goodbye, Haley.”
I wished I was back in the bathtub, hiding. I looked up at the ceiling and then closed my eyes. I saw him, surrounded by soft fluffiness, cigarette and whiskey in hand. A smile on his face.
“Bye, Grandpa,” I whispered.
You took my hand, and we walked back out to the lobby.
I’m back in the tub, staring up at the ceiling, now. I close my eyes. I can’t see you.
The New York Times—The Troubled Path of the Country’s Most Recent School Shooter
In the years leading up to the mass shooting at Coleman High School, the shooter came into his own with no real family to guide him. He had an unstable home life, raised mostly by a grandmother who died when he was 12. After her death, he shifted between family members until a second cousin took him into her home before 9th grade. The last three years have been riddled with police interventions, depressive online statements, and social isolation.
Remember in the fourth grade when we were obsessed with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe? One time, you pulled everything out of that gigantic wardrobe in your gran’s bedroom, and we pretended to walk through it, into Narnia. You had created the best Narnia in your backyard. You must have been building and molding snow with your hands at dawn. You said it wasn’t a big deal, but there were shoveled-out paths, leading from snow hut to snow hut, winding around the yard right up to the snow castle in the back corner. It had a spire and inside, a snow bench big enough for both of us. I wish your dad hadn’t gotten so mad and kicked them all down.
I remember the look on his face when the back door slammed, and he stomped out into the yard. We hid in the castle, peering out from one of the little windows you’d made. His boots crunched in the snow as he weaved along the paths towards us, kicking holes in the huts, and calling your name.
We crouched down lower. His voice made me shake.
You didn’t answer. You’d figured out a long time before that talking never got you anywhere. Silence was better.
“What the hell did you do to your grandmother’s bedroom?”
Again, no answer.
I got up on my knees and peeked out. I saw him shrug and shiver. He didn’t have a coat on. Just a t-shirt.
“Finn,” he said again.
He turned and kicked down the rest of the snow buildings on his way back to the house.
Gran came a little while later with hot chocolate and brownies. They were warm and wrapped in foil. The next day, she came out in her snow pants and warmest coat. She helped us rebuild and then she played the White Witch. She had the best cackle.
You know in the news they’re saying you had no one. No one in your family wanted you, you felt abandoned and rejected. That’s not true, not completely. Gran wanted you. Gran loved you, but she died, and you had to move, and no one could do anything about that.
If only I hadn’t stopped emailing you, hadn’t been distracted by new friends, if only I’d tried harder to find you on social media, if only I’d put in the work to keep you in my life, if only I’d made you hear me when I said, “You’re special to me.” If only I’d given back your lucky coin, if only we’d played more with other kids, if only I’d picked up my cell phone last year when that number called, area code of Your New State, if only ….
Maybe none of this would have happened.
Then again, maybe it would have.
USA TODAY—After a School Shooting, Who’s to Blame?
Last week, 17-year-old Finn Albert walked into his high school with an AR-556 assault weapon and killed 21 people before taking his own life. This week, the nation is embroiled in a debate about who’s to blame.
I’m going to college for acting, you know? Maybe I’ll become famous like you always said I would. I used to have this dream where I’m an actress on a big time TV show and you’re a cool computer game developer. In it, we’re older and way beyond our awkward phases. We’re good looking. Hot even. We’re happy and in our twenties, and we meet up, and you realize you love me. “I’ve always loved you,” you say, and we kiss. It’s one of those amazing kisses where lips know what to do, and the two people fall into each other like they’d been meant to do that their whole lives.
It’s stupid. I know. I used to think about it a lot, but now, I wish I’d never had that dream. Thinking about it hurts. There’s a pain inside my chest, past the heart, inside the walls of my body, and I don’t think it will ever go away.
We never could have loved each other. We never could have been best friends again. Because how could I love someone like you?
The Wall Street Journal—Coleman Shooting Victims Remembered at Church Service
Members of the First Baptist Church, located two blocks from Coleman High School, gathered Sunday to pray for the victims, including the deceased shooter. Pastor Darrell Clifton says the focus of the service is healing. A vigil will be held on Tuesday night on the front steps of the school. The healing will continue there as over 500 are expected to gather.
I can’t sleep. You know me; if something’s on my mind, sleep will never come. Not to mention I’m on a bus, and you know how I feel about buses. I’ve been on this bus for five hours, and I’m only halfway there. I know what you’re thinking. What could be so important for me to ride a bus for so long?
The bus drops me at the gas station on Main Street. I walk the half mile to the school. Did you skateboard along this sidewalk with its cracks and uneven concrete? Did you loiter in front of that convenience store? Buy sneakers at that sports shop? Did you get ice cream at that diner? A milkshake maybe? Did you ever kiss a girl on one of these side streets or go to a dance in this town? I hear Mom’s voice, “No more questions, Haley. No more.”
I don’t want to push through the crowds outside the school. It’s not my place. I stand to the side. I’m here to pay my respects, quietly. I’m here to see it for myself, get a sense of this place. It’s a normal, little town, but I can see the sadness oozing from every sidewalk crack, every street lamp, every person I pass.
The Boston Globe—Hundreds Hold Vigil for Victims of Coleman Shooting
Nearly 700 people came to the steps of Coleman High School to attend a candlelight vigil for the 21 people killed in the mass school shooting one week ago. The names were read aloud as a large candle was lit for each victim. Friends, family, and community members cried together, remembering their loved ones.
I stood at the back of the crowd.
Twenty-one names were read. Candles were lit for each loved one lost. People who were loved by family and friends, loved by someone at some time. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … 21 names. It was beautiful and sad.
I said your name. I whispered it to myself. I lit the candle I held. Not for the killer, not for you, the boy who did all of this damage, the boy who took twenty-two lives. I lit the candle for the boy I lost, the Finn I knew, the boy in the snow castle. The ostrich in the marsh.
I watched the flame flicker and wave back and forth in the light breeze.
I said your name one more time. “Finn.”
I brought the candle closer, let out one breath, and it went dark.
From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.
Art by Ian Lynam, curated by Dana Lyons.
Beth Little spent twelve years working as an English teacher in New Hampshire. She has two degrees in writing—a MLitt (fiction) from the University of St Andrews in Scotland and a MFA (Writing for Young People) from the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College where she now works as Assistant Director of the program. Beth’s work has been published in the anthology SOMEBODY’S CHILD: STORIES ABOUT ADOPTION, Eastown Fiction, and the YA Review Network. She was awarded a SCBWI Magazine Merit Honor in 2016.