The Whole Sea
I know the sound is a gunshot because I have always been afraid of dying this way. I am in a classroom with my favorite English teacher and the rest of my class when I am shot in the back. I fall out of my chair and experience the worst fear I have ever felt in my life and then I am shot in the head. I’m afraid that I am dead. My eyes are closed and I am afraid I cannot open them. I am afraid because I cannot feel any pain.
There is ringing, or a soft, static in my ears that sounds like the inside of a conch shell. My mom used to say conches were a telephone that let you hear the ocean. I wish she was with me now, in this ocean of darkness.
I open my eyes because I am more afraid of not knowing than I am of seeing the truth. If I’m wounded—if it’s fatal. To my surprise, I am not on the floor. I am standing up, facing a boy with an assault rifle in his hands. He is looking directly at me, but he is frozen. My heart lurches. I recognize him. He sits across the room from me in math class. I don’t think we’ve ever spoken.
“Benny?” I say. I reach my palm out to him, to tell him to stop.
He trips backwards. He looks as terrified as I am. Does he recognize me?
Benny puts the barrel to his mouth and shoots himself in the head. Blood splatters all over the wall behind him and I flinch away. There is screaming coming from everywhere.
When I turn around my entire class is out of their seats, huddling together behind Ms. Proulx and staring at me. I try to move towards them and some people step back. I am trembling.
I say, “Ms. Proulx?”
She stares at me, wide-eyed, then looks down at the floor.
I see myself lying on the ground, bleeding from multiple places. I fall to my knees and press my hands over one of the wounds. The blood flows, uninhibited, out between my fingers.
“Help me,” I barely manage to say.
Ms. Proulx rushes to my side and removes her sweater, which she uses to clot the blood bubbling out of my head. My classmate Nyla pushes her way to the front and uses a scarf to stint the blood in my back. I lift my hands away to find them dry. Bloodless.
“There’s no pulse,” says Ms. Proulx. She takes bloody fingers away from my neck and holds them in front of my mouth. “She’s not breathing.”
The fear in Ms. Proulx’s voice scares me.
The lockdown alarm finally sounds, though the shooter is already dead, unless there’s another. My classmates scramble to hide together in the corner of the room. The door is still open from when Benny walked in, but nobody wants to walk past the bodies to close it.
Ms. Proulx stands up and locks the door. While she is pulling down the blinds Nyla lifts Ms. Proulx’s blood-clotted sweater away from the wound in my head. We look at it together. There is a gory bullet hole next to my left ear and an exit wound on the top of my skull. Blood is still pooling. My eyes are open.
Nyla throws the sweater across my head. There is no longer any reason to try and stop the bleeding. In front of me is my own body. I was a corpse before I hit the ground.
The alarm continues to screech at us. Ms. Proulx walks over to Nyla, pulls her to her feet and holds her close. They are both covered in blood, and Nyla is sobbing. Ms. Proulx whispers something to Nyla and leads her into the arms of her classmates before turning around to face me.
“Marie?” she calls to me. “Are you still here?”
I peel my eyes away from the body.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m here. I’m right here.”
“We can see you,” says Ms. Proulx. “We can hear you.”
“What do I do?” I ask. “I’m scared.”
“It’s okay to be scared,” she says. “Marie, you can…go. It’s okay.”
“Go where?” I ask. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t know where to go.”
“Marie, you’re—” Ms. Proulx is interrupted by pounding on the door someone shouting, “Police!” She runs to open it, and a flood of police and first responders enter the room.
I step back as they swarm Benny’s body and then mine. My classmates are ushered out. Medics provide them with blankets for shock. I want a blanket too, but none of the responders notice me standing there.
“That’s me,” I say to the medic kneeling over my body. “I think I’m dead.” I try to touch her but her arm doesn’t give and she doesn’t react to me. When I pull my hand away, she brushes her arm off as if something had tickled her. I stand by while she and a team of other medics try to resuscitate me. I watch them shake their heads, and when they cover my body with a sheet, I slip out of the room.
The halls are empty. I follow the sound of sirens outside to the parking lot where the school has evacuated. Some people are talking to the police. Many are crying and holding each other. The majority of people are confused. They don’t know what is going on, and they are scared. Everyone is asking questions and nobody here has the answers.
In a matter of time, parents begin to appear. Mothers clutch their children, already sobbing. Some people climb in their cars as soon as they arrive and drive off. Students who are not with their parents are on the phone with their parents. Seniors with their own cars give shaky hugs to their teachers before going home. The parking lot is chaos. Voices are shouting names above the police’s commands to stay calm and orderly. I struggle to see over someone’s shoulders when a car that looks like my mom’s pulls into the parking lot. I have to squeeze past people but nobody seems to notice me. Nobody looks me in the eyes when I look at them or responds when I say, “Excuse me.” I see the back of my mom’s hair through the crowd. She is talking to someone standing near an ambulance. Police are around her. Her shoulders are shaking. I move towards her. Someone cuts me off to embrace their friend. I search for another open path but cannot find one. I push past someone and make them stumble forward. They turn around quickly but do not look in my direction. A nurse has her arm around my mom’s shoulders and she is leading her to the back of an open ambulance. There is not enough room to run. I shout for her but she does not turn around. I shout for her again, and she does not turn around. I am screaming at her. I shout at her to wait—that I am here. I shout for her that I am okay. I shout for her to turn around.
Someone cuts me off again. I break past them and see that the ambulance door has shut behind her.
The next day there is a memorial. The town gathers around the entrance to the school with flowers and candles. I hear the sound of my name like an electric crackle through the solemn crowd. On the ground there is a framed photo of me that my mom took on my most recent birthday, when I turned fifteen. I am wearing a blue cardigan and a skirt, smiling from ear to ear and holding an envelope that, at the time, contained four tickets to see Hamilton this summer. My friends had saved up their money and bought them for me as a surprise. We were all going to drive up to New York together to see the show right when school got out—only a few weeks away. I start to wonder if they’ll still go without me, then remember that the tickets are tucked away in my journal, which I keep hidden in my nightstand. It’s unlikely that they would find them. I think it’s unlikely they’ll look.
“What a terrible waste,” someone mutters.
I turn around to see an older lady shaking her head. I think I recognize her as someone’s mom, but I can’t remember whose exactly. I am stuck on her words. It is a waste. Everything has been a waste. The concert tickets, all the things my parents bought for me, the love they gave me, all the textbooks I bought, the essays I wrote, all the time I spent studying for finals, all the good grades I earned, all the time I spent thinking about my future. Wasted. What I want more than anything is my mom. I want her to hold me again. I wish I had stayed home from school yesterday so I could talk to her. I wish I had a minute to say goodbye. But it is impossible. Now, I can’t even cry. No tears form in my eyes. I am hollow. Part of the wind.
A week later class starts again. I sit at the desk I always do in English class. Nobody looks directly at me when I walk in, but I catch them stealing glances. Nyla takes her seat next to me and stares at the floor. Nobody speaks. When Ms. Proulx walks in, she sees me then looks away. She goes to sit at her desk.
There is some, but not much, relief in their dodging stares. It at least tells me that they can see me. For the past week I’ve been wandering around the empty school, getting used to being a ghost. I can’t seem to leave. I find myself always circling back around to this classroom and sitting in my desk, like I am now.
Ms. Proulx stands up and closes the door. She walks to the front and says, “Hello again, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. I’ve been thinking about you guys a lot over the past week, and I hope spending time with your loved ones has helped the process of recovering.” Ms. Proulx seems to shake off a tiny shudder. “I know it’s going to take a long time to heal, but just be aware that I’m here for each and every one of you if you need someone to talk to. We’re going to do this together, okay? I want everyone to feel safe in this classroom.”
I find myself nodding quietly along with the rest of the class.
“Any questions or comments before we begin?” she asks.
Someone raises their hand.
“Yes?” says Ms. Proulx.
“Are we still going to do the final paper? Because—"
“Since we’ve been cut short on time, I’ve decided to cancel the final paper. We might do a shorter project, but don’t worry, it’ll be easy. I want to give you guys a break.”
The room stews in silence. Most students are looking down at their desks. One boy is wiping his face with his sleeve. I notice one of my classmates staring at the door with wide eyes.
“Okay,” says Ms. Proulx. “I wanted to start us off by—”
Nyla raises her hand.
“Nyla?” Ms. Proulx says.
“Are we just going to ignore her?” she asks.
The forced smile drops off Ms. Proulx’s face. She is looking at Nyla but I have a feeling her attention is focused on me.
I raise my hand.
Ms. Proulx looks at me directly in the eyes. It’s the first time anyone has done so in a week.
I swallow the lump in my throat. I couldn’t cry I if I wanted to, and I’ve tried. “I don’t know why I’m still here,” I say, “but as long as I am, I just want things to go back to normal. I want to be in class with you all.”
Ms. Proulx nods. I turn to look at the rest of the class, but they are all looking away. Without another word, she starts with her lesson.
Around a quarter after two it happens again. Benny bursts into the room with an assault rifle. Amidst the shrieking of my classmates, I am shot in the back, then the head. I open my eyes. Benny stands in front of me. He sticks the barrel in his mouth and splatters his brain across the whiteboard. When I blink again, the image is gone.
Most of my classmates run out of the room. Some are covering their faces, crying, trembling in their chairs. Mrs. Proulx appears to faint, but catches herself on the ledge of the whiteboard, then sinks the rest of the way to the ground. Nyla takes jagged breaths and presses her fingers into her closed eyes. Some teachers step out of their classrooms to investigate the screams, but no alarms sound. It appears nobody else heard the gunshot.
On Tuesday it happens again. Less than half of the class shows up, and at a quarter after two, Benny walks into the classroom and shoots me in the back. It hurts just the same as the first two times, but this time I am almost expecting it. After he shoots me in the head, I look him in the eyes and say his name. His reaction does not change. Then he disappears, just the same. One of my classmates has a panic attack.
Another stands up, looks me in the eyes and shouts, “Why won’t you go away? Leave us alone!”
I am still dazed and recovering from the feeling of a bullet ripping through my body. I feel hateful, terrified eyes burning into me. I am in a nightmare.
On Wednesday Nyla and I sit alone in the classroom with Ms. Proulx. Nyla and Ms. Proulx stand back behind the teacher’s desk while I sit across the classroom, farthest from the door. At a quarter after two, we watch Benny enter the room with his gun. He has his eyes locked on me the whole time. Moving seats only prompts him to walk farther into the classroom as if it were his natural path, and he shoot me again in the same cadence he has killed me prior. He takes the last shot and disappears once more.
“We’re stuck in a loop,” says Nyla on Thursday. “We have to try to break it. Let me stand in front of you. He won’t—can’t hurt me, right?”
“I don’t know, Nyla,” says Ms. Proulx. “If anyone should confront him it should be me.”
Nyla and Ms. Proulx agree that they will try to restrain Benny together. We decide that I will sit far from the door again so as to give them the most time before he shoots me. We set up the ambush, and when Benny walks in at two fifteen, Ms. Proulx and Nyla lunge at him, and pass through him entirely. Nyla crashes into Ms. Proulx. Bang. Bang. Bang.
On Friday I stand in the middle of the classroom. Nyla and Ms. Proulx stand close to me. Their faces are worn and deprived of sleep. I’m tired too. I can close my eyes but never drift off. I feel like this is a test of some cosmic nature—perhaps a God is involved. No human on earth could allow this to happen. I know that I do not deserve this. My classmates and teacher do not deserve this. I do not want to remain here as a restless spirit. Whatever might come next, if there is anything, does not scare me. What I am scared of is being shot again, and the pain that follows.
At a quarter after two Benny and I stand facing each other. I make a move for his gun and my hands grip cold steel. We push at each other. I am inches from his face. My fingers struggle to peel his off. His eyes are rabid, mine are determined.
Nyla and Ms. Proulx stand beside me. This time, I feel their hands connect with my own. They lend strength to me as we fight for control of the gun. Benny becomes weaker. He cannot win against our collective force.
We have the barrel pointed to the ceiling. We have been stalling him for a minute. He cannot kill me this time. His finger is on the trigger, but he cannot point it at me, or himself. I use all the strength in my body to keep a rein on his rifle.
The gun goes off.
I cannot hear anything but the ringing in my ears. I keep my eyes closed, expecting another shot, but one never comes. The ringing fades. A feeling of lightness washes over me.
I hear the sound of a tide washing against sand. I’m a little girl, and my mom holds a conch against my ear. Can you hear it? The tide recedes, and the sound becomes whispers. They are voices not unlike my own. Voices I hear in the halls, and in the cafeteria. I think I recognize some of them.
When I open my eyes, I am somewhere else. I stand among my peers. Some younger, some not much older than me. Some still dressed in their school uniforms. Some are small. Their heads barely come up to my hip. They are from all around the country, all sent here in a burst of random hate. All victims of preventable violence. That last flash of fear is still fading from behind their eyes. They lace their fingers with mine while my gaze washes over the crowd of children. There is a whole sea of them.
Zoe Leonard is currently in her final year studying for her Creative Writing BFA at Emerson College in Boston. She works as a peer tutor for Emerson's writing center. During the summers, she is at home in Baltimore, MD, tweeting (@ZTL_storymode) and reading poetry on her Instagram (@zoe_leonard.storymode). She has been previously published with Bag of Bones Press. Zoe recommends Sandy Hook Promise.