I was underwater for a long time. I couldn’t find the surface. I knew I should be drowning, but I never died. Sometimes I was aware that I was dreaming, and I would try to force myself awake. Sometimes I even thought I was awake, only to realize I was still sleeping.
And sometimes I was back at school.
I ran in a series of endless hallways. In the distance there was gunfire, and at each intersection I would stop and listen. But no matter which direction I chose, the gunfire grew louder. I was sweating and sweating, my heart pounding, so choked with terror I couldn’t scream.
Sometime later, I hid from a shooter in a kitchen under a mound of marshmallows. They kept falling off me, and I kept trying to mound them up again before the shooter appeared. Then he stood over me, and I looked up at a backlit figure pointing a gun at me. It was a big, buff figure, and it was familiar….
Someone squeezed my hand. “I think he’s waking up.”
I opened my eyes. My mom was in a chair next to my bed, holding my hand. My dad was next to her, looming over me, and my sister, Lisa, was sitting in a chair, feet on the seat, staring at me with big, teary eyes. Mom had been crying too, her face puffy and red. My dad’s mouth was in a grim line.
“Oh, honey,” my mom said, hiccupping a sob. “There you are!”
“Hey, son. You’re gonna be all right.” Dad leaned down to pat my leg through the blankets.
“Brian, are you okay?” Lisa asked with a trembling lower lip. She was four years younger than me, skinny, with brown eyes and long dark hair that always looked messy.
Was I okay?
“What’s happening?” I tried to sit up, but there was a sharp pain in my stomach and a nauseating, tugging sensation.
“No, honey, now lie still.” A nurse was at the window, having just opened the drapes. Maybe the light was what woke me up. She came bustling over and put a hand on my shoulder. “Relax! I’ll put the bed up for you.”
She used a button to raise the head of the bed. I tried not to move and breathed through my nose as the pain faded. My head felt all loopy. I didn’t like the feeling of being so drugged up. Or being in a—
Oh. I was in the hospital. There’d been a shooter at our school, and I’d been shot.
I was alive. Oh my God. I’d really thought….
A vivid flash of memory came to me. I was lying on the cafeteria floor, certain I was going to die. A stab of pain went through my heart, and my stomach fluttered with an echo of the panic I’d felt.
Landon. Then Landon Hughes had been there. I could still hear the exact tone of his voice as he told me, in a bossy way, that I wasn’t allowed to die.
Will you kiss me?
Holy…. Had I really asked that? Oh God.
“Do you want some water, Brian? Is there anything we can get you?” Mom asked. She turned to the nurse. “Wouldn’t he feel better if he ate something? With the drugs and all? I know he’s on a liquid diet, but maybe a little apple juice?”
“Water,” I croaked.
“We’ve got that covered, honey,” the nurse said cheerfully. She held a plastic cup with a straw to my mouth.
The liquid was heaven. I could feel my mouth coming back from mummification. I looked up at the nurse as I sucked on the straw. She had a warm and motherly sort of face, was maybe in her forties, and she was black. I hoped my dad wouldn’t be rude to her. He never used to be racist, but that was another thing that had changed in the past two years.
“Not too much at one time,” she said, motioning upward with her chin.
I let go of the straw and gave her a smile. “Thanks.”
“I’ll go get you some fresh ice. Don’t try to move, sweetness.” She bustled out of the room.
Lisa came over to the side of the bed where the nurse had just been. She petted my shoulder, still looking tearful.
“Hey. It’s okay,” I told her, though I wasn’t sure about that.
“How do you feel?” Mom took my hand again, squeezing it hard. “For goodness’ sake, Brian, we thought—” She bit off her words.
“I’m okay, Mom,” I repeated, because I couldn’t stand it if she and Lisa started crying.
“It’s so weird and gross that you were shot, Bri,” Lisa said. “It’s not fair. And I don’t want to ever, ever go to that school!”
Lisa was in seventh grade, so she’d go to The Wall in two more years. The thought made me sick. I made a strangled sound in my throat.
“Lisa, go down to the cafeteria and get an apple juice for your brother,” my dad said with a bite to his voice. He took out his wallet and handed her a five.
“Okay,” Lisa said eagerly. “I’ll get you some juice, Bri. Be right back.” With a last wobbly smile at me, she left the room.
I rubbed my face. With Lisa gone, I could ask about the gory details. “What happened? I was shot in the gut. Did they operate or….” I tried to look down at my stomach, but the sheets and a gown were in the way, and it seemed like way too much effort to move them.
“You were lucky,” Mom said in a fake upbeat voice, wiping her eyes. “They had to remove part of your colon and small intestine, but the doctor says you should be able to function normally. You’ll need to be on IV antibiotics for a few more days, and you’ll have to take it easy. But you’re gonna be fine.”
“Better than fine!” My dad gave me an attaboy smile. “I know you’d hate to miss your first year as quarterback, son. But you’ll bounce back. We’ll show those doctors a thing or two, huh?”
Mom patted my hand. “Well, now, you just take as long as you need to recover. The important thing is you’re alive, and you’re in good hands. There’s no reason why you can’t live a full life, the doctor says. Praise the Lord.”
“Guess you can get along without all your intestines. Smart of you to get hit where you had some extra,” my dad joked.
“Yes, we’re all very lucky.” Mom sniffled. “Everyone from church sends their thoughts and prayers. Reverend Arnold said he’d stop by tomorrow.”
“And Bull asked me to tell you he’s real sorry you were shot,” Dad said.
Bull was my dad’s friend from work, a guy who would go on about Democrat pedophile rings and QAnon for hours if you so much as looked at him twice. My dad and I had been really close until two years ago when he started hanging out with Bull. I hated what my dad had become, so Bull was not exactly my favorite person.
I hoped to God he didn’t visit me. Or Reverend Arnold either, for that matter. Where were my friends?
“What about Jake?” I asked. “Cameron. Gordo. Coach? There were so many… I saw—” I couldn’t finish that sentence. Could not. I swallowed down a hot lump. “And the shooters—did they…. They got them, right? Who did it? Are they dead?”
I felt myself ramping up, anxiety climbing. The monitor next to my bed beeped. It sounded like an alarm. Please tell me the shooters are dead.
My mom looked up at my dad. “Now, Brian, you don’t need to worry about that right now,” she said in a soothing voice.
But my dad grimaced. “They got away. You tell me that’s normal. That ain’t normal!”
“They…. What?” I gasped.
“Clean as a whistle. You tell me a couple of kids coulda done that.” He shook his head bitterly.
“John,” my mom warned, only it sounded faint because my ears were suddenly filled with cotton.
A vision came over me like a dark tidal wave. The rat-tat-tat-tat of gunfire down the hall. Me hiding by the water fountain as gunfire came closer. The other students huddling behind tables. The terror on their faces. The surreal sight of tables, chairs, windows, and bodies jerking in a devil’s dance.
“No. No!” I ripped my hand from my mom and tried to get out of bed.
“Honey, it’s okay,” Mom said.
“Brian,” Dad barked.
I had to find a place to hide. I pushed off the sheets and started to swing my legs over the edge of the bed, but the pain in my gut stopped me. It was so bad, I choked in a breath, and my eyes watered.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s all comin’ back. I know. I know.” The nurse was there. Her voice was soft and her hands firm as she pushed me back down and sort of hugged me at the same time. “Come on, baby. You’re safe here. I promise. No one’s gonna hurt you. Relax.”
I would have fought her, but the pain was crippling. My dad held my shoulders to the bed while the nurse injected something in the IV line.
“Please help me,” I slurred just before things went dark.