I was in my daughter’s room, draped across the uncomfortable hospital furniture, when she woke up.
“Hey,” I whispered, quickly scooping up her hand. “Hi…”
Lanie rolled her head across the pillow, her eyes carefully absorbing her surroundings.
“Do you know where you are?” I asked.
Her gaze drifted back towards me as she nodded hesitantly. “The…hospital?”
“Yes,” I answered.
Eyes darting around the room, she frowned slightly. “Why?”
Alex came into the room behind me, placing one hand on my shoulder and the other over Lanie’s hand. “What do you remember?” he asked gently.
She shook her head. “School? I went to school…I wanted coffee. Cassie was…No, I introduced Cassie to Rich in the cafeteria. She made me skip class, she didn’t want to talk to him by herself.”
I bit down quickly on the inside of my mouth to stop myself from crying. “You didn’t like my coffee,” I whispered.
“I didn’t like your coffee,” she confirmed solemnly. “It was gross.”
Alex walked around to the other side of the bed and grabbed the chair, dragging it so that he could sit down next to me.
Lanie looked from me, to Alex, and then back again. “Mom? What’s the matter?” she asked.
I tasted blood in the bottom of my mouth as I bit clear through my cheek. Alex and I exchanged glances, trying to decide non-verbally how much was okay to tell her about. Digging my fingers into the fabric of my pants, I thought, How am I supposed to tell my daughter that her best friends are dead?
“Mommy?” Lanie whispered.
She hasn’t called me Mommy since she was eight or nine years old.
“Sweetheart…” I hesitated, unsure of how to continue. “What do you remember about being in the cafeteria?”
“Did something happen? Mom, please…”
“Honey,” Alex said, “what’s the last thing you remember?”
“I told you,” she answered, starting to cry quietly. “I told you, I was introducing Rich to Cassie, she was being weird about it, I…What happened to me? Mommy, tell me, please, tell me what happened?”
“There was…an incident,” I began, no longer able to keep my own tears at bay.
“You’re crying,” Lanie said, reaching up to wipe the tears off my cheeks. Her forehead scrunched as she struggled to think. “Something happened…I was leaving, I was going back to class, and I didn’t leave. Why?” she finished, looking to me again.
“Sweetie…you didn’t leave because…you couldn’t,” I said.
Alex reached over and grabbed her hand. “Why don’t you get some rest, and we’ll talk about this all tomorrow, okay?”
“No,” Lanie answered, her eyes wide. “I have to know, Daddy, it’s…It’s bad, isn’t it?”
He nodded silently, unsure of what to tell her.
“Becca’s son,” Lanie interrupted.
“Yes. Doug…He…” I broke off, shaking my head.
Alex put one arm around my shoulders and stretched the other one across Lanie’s body to hold her hand.
“He…brought a gun to school, Lanie,” I murmured.
She looked her body up and down. “But…he didn’t hurt me. Why am I…” Her head snapped back against the pillow as she sucked in a sudden breath, her grip on our hands tightening.
“I didn’t mean it, I…not Rich…”
“Get out of here! Get out of here!”
“Extraordinary is my legacy.”
“Extraordinary is my legacy,” Lanie whispered.
“Lanie?” I touched her shoulder gently.
Lanie took in several shuddering gasps of air as her grip on my hand loosened. “That’s what he said…after he killed Rich…I…I was holding him when he died. I was…holding him…”
She began to sob uncontrollably, and I pushed my chair aside and climbed right up in the bed with her, drawing her into my arms.
“And Doug…” she bawled, “Doug was holding me with the gun to my head, and I…” Her tears took over again, and she buried her face in my shoulders, her fingers entwining in my hair. “He shot himself in the head,” she sobbed into my shoulder, her voice so muffled that I had to strain to hear. “He shot himself, and he dragged me with him…when he fell…and he’s dead. He’s dead, Mom, he’s dead…they’re dead.”
Her grip on my hair tightened, and I lowered my face so that it was resting on top of her head. “I’m here now, it’s safe.”
Alex went into the bathroom and came out with a damp cloth, which he placed careful on the back of her neck. I kept Lanie’s head close to me, cupped in the palm of my hand, as I rocked her back and forth.
“Mom…where’s Cassie…?” she asked as her sobs lessened slightly. “Is she okay? Was she hurt?”
I pulled her face back into my chest, praying that I could draw all of the hurt out of my daughter and into myself. “Cassie…Cassie was shot, sweetheart, she didn’t make it.”
“Oh no…” she wailed, latching back onto my hair. “Not Cassie too…”
We stayed that way for a long time, Lanie sobbing into my chest and Alex rubbing light circles across her back. We stayed that way until Lanie’s sobs ran dry and she slipped back into sleep.
Alex touched my arm softly. “Let’s go out in the hall for a little bit.”
I shook my head, not wanting to leave my daughter alone.
“Let’s take a break, just for a minute. Get something to drink, something…”
Nodding reluctantly, I carefully lifted Lanie’s head and slipped out from underneath, her before lowering her head down to the pillow so as not to wake her up.
Taking my hand as I stepped down from the bed, Alex led me out into the hall and down the way to the vending machines. “That was rough,” he said, feeding a dollar into the vending machine and punching for a cup of coffee.
The machine spit out the styrofoam cup and filled in up with coffee. Alex cracked open a couple creams and some sugar, dumping them into the cup and mixing it quickly before handing it to me.
“Coffee,” I shuddered, warming my hands around the cup as I sank into one of the waiting chairs.
Alex pressed the button for his own coffee, bringing the cup over to sit beside me and drink it black.
“Where do we go from here?” he whispered.
I took a sip of the scalding hot liquid, relishing the burning sensation that filled my mouth before my tongue went numb. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “This is nothing I’ve ever done before.”
“Me either.” Setting his coffee down on the table, he folded his hands under his chin and leaned forward.
I draped a hand across his back and we sat together in silence, neither of us sure how to fill it.
Becca let herself into her house, dropping her purse onto the floor in the kitchen and trudging up the stairs as if her pumps were filled with lead. She stayed in the door for several seconds before entering; her mere presence was the thing that would disturb the illusion of her son coming home. It was neat and orderly, normal Doug. Nothing littered the floor, the books in the bookcase were alphabetized, and his gaming headphones were over a hook next to the computer.
Running her hand over the dust free desk, Becca noticed the note addressed to her propped up in the keyboard and picked up. Unfolding it slowly, she sank on to the bed as she began to read.
By now, you probably know what happened. I may or may not be coming home. I don’t really intend to. There’s no place for me here. You might not have noticed this, but I don’t really fit in.
I know that Dad thinks I’m a disappointment. Honestly, I’ve never done anything but try to please him. But nothing that I do is ever good enough. I feel like I’ve spent sixteen years wasting everybody’s time.
You have always loved me, Mom, and I know that. I love you too. I want you to know that none of this is your fault, so please don’t blame yourself for any of it. This is something that I have to do. I have to let people know that I’m not ordinary, Mom, I have to go out with a bang, and leave my legacy. I have to do something extraordinary, and this is my moment; this is my something. I’m doing something so that when I’m gone, I will not be forgotten.
Whatever happens, however today ends up, I’m not sorry for any of it. I would do it all again. They deserve it, every one of them, and I’m not sorry.
I don’t expect you to understand. I don’t expect you to forgive me.
I love you, Mom. I always will.
Becca folded the note up almost robotically, and shoved it into her pants pocket. Letting herself fall back on the bed, she curled up in the blankets and buried her face in the pillow. Doug’s scent was all over everything, and Becca absorbed it into her very pores.
Her husband and her child were never coming home.
Rummaging through her VHS tapes in the dark, Jenna pulled one out and put it in the VCR.
Sinking down on the couch in front of the fireplace, Jenna watched as the television flickered on. She still didn’t bother to turn on any of the lights, instead reaching up and pulling the blanket from the top of the couch down around her shoulders as the image of her son came up on the screen.
“Present!” the five year old Rich on the screen squealed, tearing into the wrapping paper surrounding one of his birthday presents. “Present!”
Jenna grabbed the remote and turned down the volume, reaching over to the end table and taking the portable phone off of the charger. She dialed the number that she knew by heart without looking at the buttons, and rested her head on the back of the couch. The phone balanced easily on her shoulder as she listened to the ring.
His new wife answered. “Hello?”
“Carrie, it’s Jenna,” she said, biting her cheek to keep her voice from quivering. “I need to talk to Mark.”
“Hang on one second, okay? He’s downstairs.”
Jenna listened as she went down the stairs, opening and shutting doors searching for Jenna’s ex-husband. Rolling her neck back and forth across the back of the couch, Jenna ran everything through her head and tried to figure out what she wanted to say.
“Mark, it’s Jenna,” she heard Carrie say through the receiver.
“Jenna,” he said, rustling fabric as he took the phone from his wife. “What’s up?”
“Hi,” she answered, unsure of what else to say.
“Hi,” he replied, puzzled. “Is everything okay?”
Despite her best efforts, Jenna realized that she was starting to cry. “No, Mark, something…Something happened.”
After several seconds, he responded, “What? What happened?”
Jenna drew her knees up to her chest, pressing a pillow against her mouth to keep herself from hysterics.
“Jenna? Are you there?”
“Yeah,” she managed to choke out.
“Is it Rich? Did something happen to Rich?”
“He’s…gone,” Jenna whispered, wiping furiously at her cheeks with the sleeves of her sweater. “He’s gone.”
“What do you mean gone? Where did he go?”
“He’s…gone, Mark. He’s…” Jenna sighed deeply, wishing with all of heart that her ex-husband was the type who would have watched the news. “He’s dead, Mark. He died.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
Jenna was freely crying again as she answered, “There was a shooting at the high school today. He was…killed.”
“What?” he asked again, and Jenna could tell by the tone of his voice that he had started to cry too. “How…”
“It was Doug. Doug Watkins. He brought…it to school. He wanted to use it on his father, I…”
“Oh, man, Jenna, this isn’t happening. Please tell me this is a joke, tell me this isn’t happening,” Mark’s voice shook slightly.
“They keep calling him a hero, and I keep saying that…that doesn’t make it any better that I’m home and I’m sitting here and…he’s never coming back,” Jenna sobbed. “He’s really gone, Mark, he’s really gone…”
She heard a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line, and then Mark said, “I’m coming. I’ll pack up some stuff and I’ll come out there to help.”
“I don’t know what you can do,” Jenna whispered. “He’s not coming back.”
“You shouldn’t have to plan things alone. I’m coming up to help you. Don’t argue, okay? For once? Let’s just not argue. Not today.”
“Okay,” she answered, folding over so that she was lying across the couch twisted up in the blanket.
“I should be able to be there tomorrow,” Mark said.
Jenna buried her face in the back of the couch.
“Okay,” she said, muffled by the couch. “Okay.”