He had hollows under his eyes, a flush on his oily cheeks, his acne worse than I’d ever seen it. His face was swollen and red, and he vibrated with nervous energy.
Cameron looked me over and patted my leg awkwardly. “You gonna be okay, Bri? You look wrecked. No offense.”
Gordo leaned over Cameron to study me. “Yeah, man. You don’t look so hot. Sorry you were hurt, Brian. Seriously, man.”
I nodded. Thanks. “Doctor says I’ll be fine.”
“We lost two guys on the team. Austin and Jake. And you’re out of commission.” Cameron shook his head unhappily. “Game was canceled this weekend, obviously. They haven’t even said when we’ll be playing again.”
“You’re comin’ back, right?” Gordo asked.
I swallowed. “Doubt it.” My voice was rough. “Can’t do anything strenuous for at least eight weeks.”
“Fuckin’ hell, man!” Cameron growled. “We can’t lose our quarterback too!”
“Not the quarterback!” Gordo agreed with a shake of his head.
I blinked. I always thought Gordo was jealous of me, at least a little. Like, secretly he would have loved to be quarterback. Maybe that’s why he didn’t strike me as all that sincere.
“So where were you guys when it happened?” I asked.
“Detention,” Gordo said. “We barricaded the door and everything. People were screaming. It was freaky as hell.”
“I was in the bathroom,” Cameron put in with a slight cough. “Heard the shots and stayed in there. Yeah, like Gordo said, it was freaky.” Cameron shook his head, but his face sort of froze up.
“Freaky” was hardly the word for the horror I’d seen. A vision of the cafeteria flashed through my head. After. The red on the floor. Looking down to see the raw hole in my gut.
Stop. Couldn’t think about that now. Not when I had to hold it together for Jake’s funeral.
I’d insisted on coming. I wanted to connect with people, share… something. But Gordo and Cameron weren’t on the same wavelength at all. I guess it was different if you’d been shut away in a room somewhere, hadn’t been hurt, hadn’t seen the carnage firsthand. Also, Gordo and Cameron had never exactly been sensitive guys. Jake had been the only one I could really talk to.
Jake’s loss hit me again, striking with a stab of pain and forcing a quick gasp of breath. The guy had been my teammate for as long as I could remember. Summer softball, he was there, handing me the bat, squatting at home base in a catcher’s mask when I was on the mound. In football, he and I worked the field like we could read each other’s minds. And what he meant to me wasn’t even the important part. I’d be cool with never seeing him again if I knew he was out there somewhere, living his life. He was seventeen. The fact that he was up there in a casket was so wrong.
I took deep breaths, trying to get myself to chill out.
“Let’s bow our heads,” said the minister, stepping up to the podium. “Heavenly Father, please be with us in this time of unbearable grief. It is beyond our understanding why the lives of so many beautiful, bright, and promising young people were taken. Why we lost beloved teachers and administrators who dedicated their lives to serving and protecting our children. We stand in the wilderness like Job and cry—why God? Why now? Why our community?”
Because of two assholes with semiautomatic rifles, I thought bitterly. The pressure on my chest grew tight, and my stomach was going south. It was hot, stifling. I took deep breaths through my nose, trying to get air.
Damn, there were a lot of people here. I looked around. The pews were packed, and there were people standing all along the back.
Jake hadn’t known this many people. They hadn’t come for him; they’d come for the school, for the tragedy. I sort of resented it.
All these people packed in like sardines. It would be a great place for someone to—
I squeezed my eyes shut, rolled my neck. No. No one was gonna come in here shooting. That was just dumb. Still, dread crept up my spine like a knife-wielding, maniacal inchworm. I had a strong urge to push past Cameron and Gordo, to get out of here, to go hide.
My head was fucked-up. At least I had enough wits left to realize that. I’d been having super-bad nightmares. And sometimes, in the hospital, if there was a loud noise in the hall, I panicked. A few times I’d gotten up and gone in the bathroom and stayed in there for a while. The doctor said it was common for shooting victims to have PTSD. Principal Baylor said so too. Well, he’d said, “You’ve been through one heck of a trauma,” and that the school would have special volunteer counselors available when it reopened to “help start the healing.”
But I hadn’t thought about how the PTSD would affect me once I left the hospital. I hadn’t thought how I might feel in a crowded church, or seeing Jake’s coffin, or….
I tuned the preacher out and stared at the hymn book in the holder in front of me for a while. Paper book wood. Paper book wood. Everything was fine. I hung my head, hoping to get more blood to my brain. There was a noise like something fell, and my head jerked up. I scanned the room for danger. And there he was.
He was seated on the opposite side of the aisle about four rows up. He had on a classy black dress shirt and tie. There was no mistaking his short, wavy brown hair or the serious set to his narrow shoulders. I could see just a sliver of his face—his expression grim. He looked so uptight and proper. For some reason, it made me smile.
Something eased inside me, like cool water had been poured on the burning pit that was my soul. It wasn’t that I’d been worried Landon had been hurt. My mom had said he was fine, and I’d seen videos of him online. Saw one where he’d been interviewed by CNN outside the school right after the shooting. He’d been wearing a too-big white T-shirt; probably he’d borrowed it. There’d been blood on his hands.
But even though I knew Landon was fine, it was a relief to see him in the flesh.
I’m with you, and I’ve stopped the bleeding, so we’ve got time. I won’t leave you.
I squeezed the lip of the pew on either side of my thighs. My stomach hurt so fucking bad. I wished I was home in bed. Or at least sitting next to Landon instead of Cameron. Imagining Landon sitting to my left felt… comforting. Landon would understand. He’d understood on that day. He would understand now.