by Paul E. Saevig
Billy’s favorite part of kindergarten was finger-painting, and he also liked it when Mrs. Horgan helped each boy and girl clean the paint off their fingers, because she was nice. Sally was the best finger painter and he was the second in geography. He wore a nice plaid sport shirt and corduroy pants his mom selected for him, and white tennis shoes. When they all sang was another part he loved, especially watching the girls like Karen, Nancy and Linda. They were the best singers and he liked going to school.
On this day in February, Billy was eager to use the new baseball mitt his dad bought him for his birthday. They were done practicing writing letters, and he’d learned them all, including Q with the little tail, as Mrs. Horgan described it. Bobby, Jane, Donna and Terry were coming to swim after lunch and they’d have fun.
First he heard loud cracks and a second later, Sally and Nancy fell down hard with their blood splattered all over. There were more shots coming fast, and Jimmy, Mike and Cathy fell down, too. Mrs. Horgan yelled for all the children to get down under their desks and when she ran to help them do it, bullets hit her so hard it was like she’d been cut apart by swords. Billy’s skin felt cold and it was hard for him to breathe. Right away he thought of his sister Mary in the second grade and he had a bad feeling, the worst in his life, worse than when his dog died under the wheels of a car. All the kids cried and screamed, and those hit by bullets were dead already. Most of the floor was covered by blood so red and bright it hurt his eyes to look at it.
He thought he should go find Mary but he didn’t know where she was. Mom dropped them off in the morning and she went another way than he did. He kept thinking, “Somebody’s shooting at us!” over and over, as if he realized it for the first time every time. All the children had been drilled in what to do if anything like this ever happened, but it happened much too fast.
While he held onto Tommy’s arm and Joanie’s foot, because they were crying so loud, and they were his friends, they all heard footsteps and yelling outside. Outside the windows he saw the big kids walking fast as they could with teachers beside them. It was called a panic, he knew.
Then there were more shots, one after another, fast, much louder as the shooter came near. Billy held his friends and tried to pull them down to the ground, and he closed his eyes tight. The shots were louder than anything he’d ever heard, coming into the class to shatter the blackboard, their kickball and the record player. He kept thinking it was unfair, and now Joanie was shot in the face. Tommy threw up and it was terrible to look at her. Billy imagined her mom and dad, and her sisters. He felt like crying himself but he was too scared.
The shooting went on across the school and he heard sirens. He pressed his face so hard against the floor he thought it might smash him, and then there were shots that sounded different. Then all the shooting stopped.
Some kids stood up and tried to run but slipped in the blood. There were sharp pieces of glass everywhere, too, and a strange smoke in the air that made kids cough and gag. Billy heard more sirens and he wondered if this was the end of the world. Was his mom dead, too, and maybe his sister Mary? He wanted to run how but he wanted to close his eyes for a long time too. Dad might come from the hospital and Billy realized maybe they shot Dad too. The boy had wet splashes of blood on his shirt with his own sweat, and some of the kids had wet their pants. He saw Dawn and Pete, who were so small, and he wanted to help them especially, because they whimpered and cried.
All of a sudden, it was hard for Billy to concentrate. He had the strangest feeling of his life: that he was watching everybody, and himself, too, and he felt kind of like a rock. He slid himself against a wall and waited for whatever would happen next. For seconds at a time, he couldn’t think at all.
Later on his mom explained that the principal and assistant principal came around with the surviving teachers, and led all the kids to an area under the oak trees at the end of the parking lot, past the bodies on the ground that were covered with blood-stained sheets. There were nurses and doctors, police and parents, and for all the confusion a little while ago, things became orderly. Billy let a nurse look at him and she must have decided he was all right for the moment, and when his mom came, her eyes were red and full of tears. She was with the lady next door and they took him to the lady’s car and drove home. He sat in the front seat between them and felt his mom sob and shake. When he looked at the lady driving, she made a sad face and shook her head as if to say, “Not now, Billy! Let her cry!”
Of course Mary was dead and his older brothers came home from lunch at high school and told him. The news was all over town. Billy remembered all the kids he’d seen who were shot and killed. He’d never see them again. They were only five years old. He prayed for them but it was still hard to concentrate, and still he didn’t cry. His big sister Claudia made tomato soup and bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches for everybody, and they all tried to eat while she went to Mom’s room where she was lying down in the dark. Billy stopped eating and went back, too, and crawled in bed next to Mom and tried to make her feel better. He hugged her and felt the tears on her face, and she shook. When he saw her face, he slipped into deeper sadness and his stomach hurt pretty bad.
When he finally came out, after his mom kissed him and told him to, his oldest brother was on the phone begging Dad to come home.
“I just can’t get away right now. I’ll be there in half an hour,” Dad said.
The brothers except Billy smoked cigarettes in the house for the first time he’d ever seen, and they punched their own legs in frustration and cussed. They went to get beer and drank some bottles, then started drinking whiskey. Their friends came by and they all went out back by the pool, but nobody swam. From the living room, Billy heard them talking, except no one finished a sentence. They said, “Whoever did this .. “, and “There was so much ..” and “.. heard something from Hillside, I swear .. “ and mostly they looked at each other and wondered what to do.
When Billy’s sister Elaine from junior high came in, she hugged him and they sat in the living room by the piano. She kept asking him, “Are you all right, Billy?” and she was heartbroken, too. They listened to the big kids and Elaine made expressions to mimic them, so she and Billy could smile. For a few seconds at a time, they could forget all the killings, and Billy’s stomach ache got a little better. Then Elaine went back to see Mom, and Billy went outside to sit on the front porch.
He was the first one to see Dad pull up and the man picked up Billy and held him over his head. “William! William, what’s happened?” he asked, and Dad was very strong. “Where’s Mom?” he asked, and Billy told him.
Billy could think clearly again but he still didn’t quite feel like himself. Up and down the street with the eucalyptus trees and the deep yards, parents and kids were running to hug each other, and there was a lot of crying. Shrieks and screams, too. Billy couldn’t stop watching, and there was no place else for him to go. His big brothers and their friends came out and drove off in their cars. He thought maybe they’d go to the beach like they always did.
He kept reliving the scenes in his classroom and he thought maybe he could figure out something to make it better, as Dad said sometimes. At the same time, he realized that was futile, because he was a smart boy. He wished he could play catch with Bobby, or do anything. His stomach just didn’t feel right. He was looking down when Dawn’s mom walked up and put her hand on his head. She touched him.
“Billy, I’m so glad you’re all right,” she said, “I just don’t know what we’re going to do. It’s awful, it’s terrible. You’re a good boy, Billy. Dawn told me how you helped her. She was so scared. Thank God both of you are OK. Lots of the kids .. It’s unbelievable, son.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Burdell,” he said. He knew exactly what she meant, and by the way he liked the perfume she wore. Her husband was a big guy who taught the boys to play baseball.
“Is your mom here?” Mrs. Burdell asked him, and Billy had to say yes.
“Well, I’ll leave her alone with her family, but will you please tell her I sent my love?”
She touched his head again and learned down to kiss it. She was nice. Then she cried too and walked back to her house.
As soon as the older brothers got home, their father was mad at them and let them know it. They didn’t go the beach after all. Their father told all his children to sit down in the living room, and right now.
Billy felt sorry for Dad who looked so sad, sad and tired. The man started, and yelled at his oldest sons to be quiet and listen.
“Today was a family tragedy. We lost Mary.” Pause. “It was a tragedy for our community. The shooter is a custodian, or was one, who got fired for drunkenness. So he came back and started shooting. He’s dead now.” Pause. “I know you don’t feel like it, some of you, but life will go on. We’ll always miss Mary and love her.” His voice broke. “Right now there’s nothing we can do, except pray for the dead and their families. I want you all to do that. Mark? You, too. We’re going to do the best we can. There will be a .. “ Pause. “funeral, and a lot of funerals. Your mom needs our help and cooperation. She’s lost a daughter, and so have I. You’ve lost a darling little sister who made us all happy. I — I don’t understand it all, kids. I don’t. But we have to keep on going.”
Billy got up and stood beside his dad, to lean against him. His dad put his hand on Billy’s shoulder.
Mark asked, “Will school be cancelled?”
“I suppose so,” his father said.
“We’re all going to cooperate, Daddy,” Elaine promised.
“Of course we will!” Claudia emphasized.
Their father looked at all of them, one by one, slowly. He nodded. Finally he said, “I love each one of you very, very much. Help your mom. I have to get back.”
Billy ran after him to watch him drive away, and his dad sat in his car before he started it, sobbing.
When he left, Billy didn’t pay attention to the family chatter. He wanted to think about Mary, and went out back to sit under the elm tree. He stayed a long time, until the sun started to go down.
He didn’t know if his school would ever open again, or if he’d see his friends. He didn’t know if the boys would ever play baseball again, or swim in the pool, or if the families would go to church. He was scared of when night would come. He knew he’d never see Mary again. He couldn’t imagine any future at all.
February 26, 2018