Jenna was lying across the couch in the same position she had been when she hung up the phone, the receiver still clutched in her hand. When the doorbell rang, she rolled over slightly, noting the sunlight streaming in the window. She couldn’t remember whether or not she had slept. The last thing that came to her mind was hanging up the phone.
“Come in,” she called, but her dry throat made her call weaker than she wanted. Drawing the blanket around her body, she tried to sit up, but she realized she was shaking horribly. As she tried again to push herself up, the door swung open.
Mark came in, with Carrie close behind carrying a large duffel bag.
Jenna shielded her eyes against the light. “Hey,” she whispered.
“I remembered where the spare key was,” Mark said, taking off his jacket and draping it over the chair by the door. “I was afraid you would be sleeping.”
Shaking her head mutely, Jenna realized she was blatantly staring at Carrie.
“Where can I put this?” Carrie asked, holding up the duffel bag.
“The spare bedroom,” Jenna answered.
“Up the stairs, the second door on the right,” Mark clarified.
“Okay,” Carrie said, giving Mark a squeeze on the shoulder. “I’ll give you guys some time alone.”
Jenna sank back into the couch cushions, her head swimming as Mark sat gingerly beside her. “You came,” she said quietly.
“I said I would,” he calmly replied. “How are you…holding up?”
She shook her head mutely. “I’m not sure…I don’t remember sleeping. I think I just laid here all night, I don’t know.”
He took the receiver off of the cushion next to them and put it back in the charger. Carrie bustled past them, moving into the kitchen and continuing to give them some space.
“I’m not sure what to do now,” Jenna said, pulling her knees up to her chest underneath the blanket.
“I don’t think this is something that anybody’s prepared for.”
“I guess…” she answered, her voice trailing off at the end. “Just sitting here…it still feels like he’s going to come down the stairs any minute, you know?”
Mark hung his head slightly, afraid to look at her. “I just…I wish I would have spent more time with him, I…”
“I wish that too,” she interrupted.
“When was the last time you saw him?” Mark asked.
“Waking him up for school yesterday. The last thing I said to him was will do. Will do. I mean, if I would have known, I…”
“You couldn’t have known,” he broke in gently. “There’s no way that you could have known what was going to happen.”
After several minutes of silence, Mark noticed her shivering. “Are you cold?” he asked.
She nodded. “I can’t shake it out of me; it goes all the way down to my bones.”
Getting up off the couch, Mark put a couple of logs in the fireplace and carefully started a fire. Sitting down on the rug in front of the flames, he gestured to Jenna to follow. Drawing the blanket even tighter around herself, she slid off the couch and down to the floor, finding her legs to be too shaky to provide support. She scooted over next to Mark, her body welcoming the warmth from his fire.
“They’re calling him a hero, did you know that?”
“That’s what you said,” Mark replied.
“A hero. As if that makes it better,” Jenna said bitterly.
“What…Did they tell you…”
She nodded slowly, biting down on her lip. Thinking about her son’s last minutes made her stomach churn slightly, but she said, “Just what the other students said.”
Mark stared straight into the fire, giving her time to pull her self together and continue.
“He and Lanie…you remember Lanie?”
“He and Lanie went to the cafeteria with another girl. I guess Lanie was introducing them or something. There were a couple of explosions…” She paused, taking care to take deep breaths as she thought about the fear her son would have felt during the explosions. “They heard the shots out in the hall, but when they tried to get out, the door was chained.” She struggled to keep breathing, and was dimly aware of Mark reaching out to touch her.
“It’s okay, Jenna, you don’t…”
She shook off his hand, trying to cycle her breathing like she would tell any patient having a panic attack. “He…he led them into the backroom. When Doug came in, he grabbed Lanie and pulled her out into the main room to be a lookout, jamming the rifle into her back. When Doug tried to bring her back, Rich jumped him.” Jenna looked up at Doug, her eyes filling with tears. “Rich jumped him and knocked the rifle out of his hands, but Doug had another gun in his boot, and he…he…”
Jenna was gasping for breath by the time she finished, tears streaming down her face as she rocked back and forth. She was no longer able to concentrate enough to focus her breathing, and realized in the back of her head that it was mildly out of control.
“Jenna,” Mark whispered, reaching out to smooth her hair behind her ear. “It’s okay, you’re okay. You have to breathe, okay?”
She shook her head violently, skittering away until her back was pressed against the couch. Burying her head in the blanket, she wheezed desperately, gasping for oxygen.
“Jenna,” Mark crawled over to her, extending a hand cautiously. “Try to take a deep breath and hold it, okay? You have to try. You’re hyperventilating; you’re going to pass out.”
Jenna looked around the room wildly, her hands shaking as her teeth and fingers started to lose feeling from lack of air.
“Hey,” Mark said, snapping his fingers in front of her face. “Focus on me. Focus on me, instead. You can do this.”
She sucked in air desperately, the blanket falling away as she clawed at her throat.
“What’s going?” Carrie asked, sticking her head out of the kitchen.
“She’s having a panic attack. I need something for her to breathe in, a paper bag or something, quick. Before she passes out.”
Jenna curled in a ball on the floor, dizzy, but unable to stop her frantic breathing.
“Here,” Carrie said, rushing back into the room and handing Mark a small lunch sack.
Mark tried to place it in Jenna’s hands, but she was shaking too badly. Wrapping his arms around her frail body, he lifted her up and held the bag to her lips himself. “Breathe into the bag,” he instructed. “Keep breathing into the bag, it will help slow your breathing.”
Jenna leaned heavily into Mark’s arms, too exhausted to sit up on her own. After breathing for a few minutes into the bag, she felt her breathing return to something close to normal. Mark pulled away the bag, and she continued to breathe regularly. “There you go,” he said. “That’s a little better.”
Mark scooped Jenna up, laying her back down on the couch.
Carrie came up behind them. “I brought a glass of water,” she said, putting it down on the nightstand with a straw inside. “I found a straw, I wasn’t sure if she could sit up.”
Mark held it out to Jenna, who grabbed for the straw gratefully. As soon as the water hit her stomach though, it started to churn again, and she had to bite down quickly on the inside of her mouth to keep from getting sick. Gripping the top of the couch, she pulled herself into a sitting position and focused on not falling over as the entire room spun.
“Are you okay?” Mark asked.
She shook her head. Rising on shaky legs, she crashed into the table and sent the water flying.
“Where are you going?” Mark asked, alarmed. He reached out a hand for her, but she shook him off and stumbled into the bathroom right down the hall.
Slamming the bathroom door, Jenna locked it behind her and collapsed to her knees. She barely made it to the toilet before the water and all the other pitiful contents of her stomach were coming up into the bowl. After the first wave, she wiped her mouth and tried to lean back against the wall.
The nausea came again, and she was retching so hard this time that her head was practically in the bowl. There was nothing else in her stomach to come up, but every time the heaving stopped, she thought of Rich again, and every time Rich came into her head, the nausea came back.
There was a light knocking on the door as Jenna leaned her head on the porcelain seat, relishing the coolness against her sweaty forehead. “Are you all right?” Mark called.
Jenna tried to answer, but her throat was burning, and the dry heaves came again. She vomited repeatedly, and even though nothing would come up, the heaving wouldn’t stop.
The door rattled as someone outside played with the lock. It popped open slightly, and Carrie slipped inside. “I thought it might be better if it was a woman coming in,” she whispered.
Jenna lifted her head slightly, the room spinning slightly as she gripped tightly at the sides of the toilet. Carrie walked over to sink and wet a hand towel, kneeling down beside Jenna. She willed her body to obey in front of her husband’s new wife, but the thoughts of Rich overwhelmed her again.
“It’s okay,” Carrie said quietly, seeming to understand.
Jenna started gagging again, and put her head down into the bowl, heaving more violently than the last time even though still nothing was coming up. There a brief reprieve, and Carrie held her hair back, wiping away some of the sweat with the towel before laying it on the back of her neck. At the cool feeling, Jenna started gagging again, retching as if there was something inside her that she desperately needed to get out. He was dead, her son. Dead. She didn’t know how to process that; she didn’t know how to accept that he was gone.
When the heaving ceased for what seemed to be the final time, Jenna was shaking so badly that she couldn’t hold her head up. Carrie leaned back against the wall, drawing Jenna towards her. Laying Jenna’s head down in her lap, she produced another towel that Jenna didn’t even realize she had. She cleaned Jenna’s face with a gentle touch before discarding the towel and rubbing her hand in small circles on Jenna’s back.
“I lost someone too, once. My little boy,” Carrie said, so softly that Jenna almost didn’t hear it. “I know how it feels.”
Jenna nodded, her body too drained from being sick to do anything more.
“Let’s just stay in here for a little while, hon, and make sure you’re okay, all right?”
Jenna nodded again, closing her eyes and giving in to the exhaustion.
Lanie was sitting up in bed, the dark circles under her eyes standing out in stark contrast to the paleness of her skin. “Hey there,” I said, sitting down on the edge of her bed.
“Hi, Mom,” she answered, putting aside the notebook that she was writing in.
“What are you writing about?” I asked gently, hoping she would realize that I wasn’t trying to pry.
“What I…remember,” she answered hesitantly.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I offered.
Lanie looked at me, her eye shimmering with unshed tears. “I do…but I don’t know if I can.”
“Okay,” I answered. “It doesn’t have to be today. It can be whenever. I just want you to know that I’m here if you need to talk.”
“You know I…I…I…I loved him, Mom.” She chewed on her upper lip as a single tear fell off her cheek.
I could practically hear her heart breaking, and I wished with all my power that it could be mine that was shattered instead of my daughters. “I…Lanie, I wish I could make it go away,” I said honestly. “I really do.”
“I know, Mom. I’m just really sad,” she said, embracing me and letting the tears bleed into my shirt. “I never got to tell him.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I murmured, unsure of what else to say.
“Me too, Mom. Me too,” she answered, pulling away and laying her head down on the pillow.
I stood up, taking that to mean that she wanted to go to sleep. I was almost to the door when she stopped me. “Mom?”
“Yeah?” I answered, turning around.
“Can you sit with me until I fall asleep?”
“Of course,” I assured her, cutting across the room and sinking into the papazon next to her bed as her eyes drifted closed.
Lanie’s breathing took on the deep quality of sleep, and I let my own eyes drift shut as well. It didn’t take long before I drifted off to sleep.
Lanie bent over her locker, pulling out her sixth grade math book. Swinging her backpack from behind her to under one arm, she shoved the book in and zipped it shut.
Lanie closed her eyes, the sound of his voice like nails on a chalkboard.
“Can we talk?”
She turned around, staring into Doug’s hopeful face. “I guess,” she answered, leaning back against her locker.
“I was wondering if…”
“What is it, Doug?” Lanie snapped, fighting impatience.
“There’s…a dance on Friday. I was wondering if…I was wondering if you wanted to go. To the dance. With me,” he added the last part as almost an afterthought.
Lanie shook her head slowly. “I can’t. I already have plans…”
“What are you doing?”
She winced, she was sure visibly, as she said, “I have another date, Doug. I’m sorry.”
“Oh,” he whispered. “Okay, I guess, I…”
“What are you doing, nerd?” One of the older kids, an eighth grader, slammed his hand into the locker above Doug’s head.
“Just talking,” Doug said, staring at the floor.
The boy grabbed Doug’s sweater and swung him around, shoving him into the opposite wall. Lanie realized she was shaking slightly, and took a couple of steps backwards along the locker wall.
Spinning Doug around again, the boy slammed him to a stop right in front of Lanie.
“Stop it,” she whispered.
“What was that?” he asked nastily.
“Stop it!” she cried, a little more fiercely. “Just leave him alone, okay? He wasn’t going anything to you.”
“Don’t,” Doug hissed. “I can handle it.”
The boy reached out and ripped Doug’s glasses right off his nose. Dropping them to the linoleum floor, the boy stomped his boot down on top of them, shattering the lens into several pieces. “There,” he said, an evil grin filling his face. “Now you don’t have to watch your girlfriend save you anymore.”
Lanie sat bolt up right in bed, shaking off the dream. I was at her side in an instant, balancing on the edge of the bed. “What is it, sweetheart?”
She held her hands out in front of her, shaking her hands out. “I had a dream about…Doug,” she answered, her voice quivering slightly.
“Are you okay?”
She nodded. “It wasn’t anything that bad…it was…Did you know he asked me out when we were in middle school?”
“You never told me,” I responded, in awe, and found myself wondering how many other things Lanie had never told me.
“There was this dumb dance,” Lanie continued. “He asked me out, and I had another date. I think it was in…sixth grade. And then right after he asked me out, this older boy came up behind us and slammed him around into the lockers. He ruined Doug’s glasses, crushed them under his boot.”
“That’s awful,” I gasped.
“Yeah. Doug cried,” Lanie replied sadly. “But that was middle school, you know? That was the way it was for some people…it just…happened.”
“Oh,” I said, pulling myself all the way up onto the bed. “Did anybody ever do anything like that to you?”
Lanie thought for a second, leaning her head back against the pillows on her headboard. Shaking her head, she answered, “Not really.” After a second, she added, “Pretty much only when I was with Doug.”
“You guys were good friends when you were younger.”
“Yeah,” she said wistfully. “I don’t remember when it happened, but…At some point, we weren’t really friends anymore.” She started to cry again, and swiped at her cheeks with the edge of her comforter. “And here I go, crying again.”
“It’s okay to cry,” I told her.
“I know, Mom. You taught me that. I’m just sick of it.”
I reached out and wiped away some of the tears.
“What’s up?” I answered.
“If I would have still been friends with him…do you think I could have stopped him from doing this?”
I closed my eyes, praying for the correct thing to say. “You can’t think like that,” I replied. “You can’t change the past.”
“I guess…” she accepted, stretching back out on the bed and closing her eyes.
I sat beside her on the bed, stroking her hair until she fell back asleep.
Mark stuck his head into the bathroom. “Is she okay?” he asked quietly.
“She’s not feeling all that good,” Carrie answered. “But I think she’s doing okay now. Could you maybe carry her upstairs for me?”
“Yeah,” he said, bending down carefully and scooping Jenna up.
“Watch her head,” Carrie said, cupping around the top of Jenna’s head to keep it from banging on the frame.
Mark walked up the stair carefully. He went through the door, and Carrie ran ahead to peel the blankets back. Placing Jenna carefully on the bed, he pulled the covers up and tucked her in.
“I’m going to sit up here for a little while longer and make sure she’s okay,” Carrie said, “and then I’ll come down.”
“All right,” Mark said. “I’m going to go make some phone calls.”
“Okay,” Carrie said, draping the afghan from the back of the corner armchair across her lap.
As Mark left the room, Carrie leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes.
“What happened to your son?” Jenna asked, so quietly that Carrie almost missed it.
Jenna’s eyelids felt like they were weighted. She let them drift shut again as Carrie talked.
“He was six. He had acute leukemia.”
“I’m sorry,” Jenna whispered.
“Me too,” Carrie answered. She got behind the armchair and pushed it closer to the bed, leaning over to wipe the sweat off of Jenna’s face. “No more getting sick on me, okay?” she teased gently.
“Okay,” Jenna agreed. “I’m definitely good with that.”
“It gets easier.”
“It can’t,” Jenna protested weakly.
“It does still hurt, every day. But every day, it gets a little easier. Every day, it hurts a tiny bit less.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes,” Carrie answered firmly. “I do.”
“Okay,” Jenna murmured.
“You need to get some rest,” Carrie said, but before the sentence was out of her mouth, Jenna was already asleep.