I Didn't Eat the Sandwiches
The thing I remember most clearly on the day that Shane Halligan killed himself at school was Courtney Bagwell’s red thong hanging way out of her jeans. I had just left the library where I’d been reading Pride and Prejudice in a corner. I was walking towards the stairwell to get to my class on the first floor. A horde of students charged from the opposite direction, down the stairs in front of me and out the door at the bottom of the stairwell.
I didn't hear Shane firing shots at the ceiling. I didn’t look down the hallway. The students’ faces peeled back, like they were smiling. But they weren’t.
I froze at the top of the staircase amidst the commotion. Courtney, who was in 11th grade with Shane, tripped down the stairs. I watched her fall, unravel in slow motion. No one else saw.
When I got to the first floor, Mrs. Zehner told everyone in the hallway to get inside. A quarter of our US History class had arrived. Mrs. Zehner locked the door, put a piece of paper over the glass, and drew the blinds like it was a normal ritual. Like checking to see that the burners are off on the stove. Then we all sat in the back of the classroom. We talked and joked. My friend, Drew, sang a tune from West Side story. “When you're a Jet, you're a Jet from your first cigarette to the… day you die of lung cancer,” he ad-libbed. Mrs. Zehner glanced at the clock and at her computer on the other side of the room repeatedly. The quiet and stillness was all very inconvenient.
Earlier in the year, a recent transfer student from a “bad neighborhood” brought a gun to school. Someone reported it and the school went on lock-down. The administration referred to it as an “isolated incident.” Maybe this time someone flashed a knife, we postulated to kill time. Nothing like Columbine could ever happen in this tiny white-bread suburban school.
We had no idea that Shane was above us in the hallway. After what felt like a long while, we heard helicopters. They drowned out the rhythmic sound of cars whizzing by on the highway. The SWAT team swarmed the classroom. My hands rose above my head before I'd thought about it. They were dressed in black and they shouted instructions. They did not look like our saviors. They did not look human.
I’d never seen a gun before except for my grandfather’s old hunting rifles. And it was pointed at me. It wasn't sleek or steely like in the movies. There is nothing seductive about that kind of power when you are staring into the barrel. It looked efficient. That’s it. We were the ignorant victims.
Steve Demarest wrapped his long, dainty fingers around the handle of his little, red lunch box. I thought to say, “Leave it there, Steve. Just leave it there!” But I opened my mouth and couldn't speak. They marched us out of the classroom through the walking tunnel that cut under the highway and connected to the middle school.
They put us in the gym. The same gym where I'd played dodge ball. Where I'd shoved my fingers in my armpits to test my body odor after class. The same gym where we'd square danced and I'd worried about touching my male partner. It had seemed small then. But now it was filled with high school students. My breathing became short. I walked through the crowd. I looked for someone I knew. Passing conversations grazed my ears. People cried in groups, like a synchronized drama exercise. I heard someone else say, “I don’t know why he had to do it at school. He could have done it in his bathroom.” Their faces contorted as they described what they'd seen. It didn't take long to piece together what happened.
The sweaty but friendly hall monitor, Tony, had tried to talk Shane down from the other side of the door. “Don’t do it, Shane. So many people care about you. Shane…Please.” Shane Halligan shot himself anyway. Someone said he blew his brains out. There was not much left of his skull. They'd stepped around his covered body to get out of the classroom. Another person said he might still be alive. I watched someone run over to the other Shane in 11th grade. “I thought it was you for a second,” he said to his friend.
The middle school lunch ladies handed out sandwiches. They were those nasty crust-less pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly things. I didn't take one. My friend Drew said, “They're free. Just take one.”
“I'm not hungry and I don't eat white bread. Even if it’s free,” I answered. I just sat down on the bleachers. It smelled like the zoo. Like animal fear and pain and piss and sweat. I don't know how long they held us there in the chaos and noise. It was so loud. The wooden bleachers dug into my sit bones. I folded over my bent legs and wrapped my arms around them. Teachers told us to call our parents. We couldn’t leave unless someone came to pick us up.
When I realized I'd have to recount what had happened to my mother my mouth went dry. The crowd of students began to thin. I dialed on a borrowed cell phone. Nancy Dearden, my classmate’s mother, oversaw the release of students to parents. She sat at a table in front of me. The phone rang. “Mom. It’s me. I need you to pick me up or I can’t leave. A boy shot himself.”
“What? Are you alright? What happened?” She sucked in her breath. My throat tightened. Silence on both sides.
Nancy Dearden said, “Tell her you're OK, Molly. Tell her you're alright.”
I didn't know him personally. I hadn't seen Shane with the gun. I hadn't heard the final gun shot or heard the thump of his slack body on the specked institutional floor. I told myself, “Of course you're alright. You're fine.” I muttered something for my mother, “I’m fine. It’s OK, Mom. I’d walk home but they won't let me leave on my own. Sorry if you’re busy.” She picked me up and asked me what I wanted to do. “I don't know,” I said. We drove home. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread while I waited to feel something.
About the author:
Molly Ruddell is a bit of a recluse, but it's fine because she makes her own friends out of clay and fabric. She lives in Philadelphia. Her written work also appears in Apiary Magazine.