Kristine Langley Mahler
THERE HAD BEEN so many school shootings that no one paid attention when Anderson Cooper or whoever the anchor was on Channel One that year announced that two boys in Colorado had opened fire on their classmates. We turned around in our chairs, whatever, went back to passing one-liners on scraps of paper as the show cut to commercials and Pepsi told us we were “Generation Next.”
When our classmate moved to Paducah last summer, we all told him not to get shot.We didn’t understand the distinction between one school shooting and another, the news littered with middle-schoolers in Arkansas and a disgruntled high-schooler in Oregon. Another couple of teenage boys in black trenchcoats didn’t mean anything to us because Josh and his friend had already been sulking through the halls for two years, drowning in gothic ennui. We knew Josh was a nice guy. We’d taken drivers’ ed with him and he’d courteously readjusted the car seat after climbing out with his long legs; he just liked wearing dog collars with spikes and growing his curly hair long, lining his eyes black and dark so the intensity of his stare made us look away, for a moment.
We were called away from AOL instant-messaging to watch the TV coverage of Littleton, called to watch and rewatch the interviews that made our moms force us to stop wearing black, demanding we watch for the “signs” of violent tendencies in our classmates. We rolled our eyes at the 60 Minutes specials about troubled teens and outsiders and the evil of Marilyn Manson; we’d been filtering them out for years. We promised our moms we were safe at school. Josh got called down to the guidance office again.
It was four years before we saw any real footage, anything other than the clean shots of parking lots strewn with crying parents after everyone was already dead, anything other than stock concert shots of Marilyn Manson as he canceled his Denver show out of respect. It was four years before Michael Moore wanted to show theater audiences why gun control was important. He finally took us inside Columbine, made us rubberneck behind the surveillance cameras, impassively catching glimpses of running kids, screaming and crying, but muted. Open mouths and crumpling bodies and a silent terror that crackled off-screen, broke us into the individual nightmares we’d been suppressing, assuming they meant nothing; we’d thought we could clump together for safety but we had been singled out.
My roommate in college was from Littleton. She and her best friend called it “Little Fun”; there was never anything to do in that sleepy south suburb. She hadn’t gone to the famous high school, but everyone asked her, cautiously, like she’d had cancer or something, if she knew the boys. She started lying that she’d lived in another suburb; she seemed weary of explaining that no, she wasn’t there; no, no one she knew was killed there; no, she didn’t escape. Her actual high school got its shooting fourteen years later.
My last daughter was born the day before Sandy Hook, and when I logged onto social media to post her newborn picture, everyone was hashtagging prayers and smdh. I refused to click the links, buried my head in my newborn’s neck, kept the TV turned off, crooked my arms around my kindergarten and toddler daughters, their little bodies a ballast. I didn’t read a word about Sandy Hook for three months, a maternity leave from reality. Another boy, another gun, another artillery obtained, another suicide mission, another outraged nation, another day.
My high school friend graduated from Virginia Tech.
The shooter at my local mall was memorialized in a pop song.
The assistant principal was killed at the high school my daughters will attend.
There is no distinction between one and another. 97, 98, 99, 07, 10, 11, 12; one century bleeds into the next, the countdown starts again. Josh has a son, a blond boy born the same year as my last daughter, and Josh is kissing his son’s head in a Facebook picture; Josh has lined his son’s eyes dark in another; Josh is still slouching in silver necklaces and wallet chains. The intercom bleats “Lock down, CODE RED,” and the teacher rushes to the door, plunges the classroom into darkness, our children ducking beneath their desks, curly hair growing long as the wall clock ticks in the silence, waiting for the drill to end. Next.
KRISTINE LANGLEY MAHLER is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review and has been recently published in The Normal School, New Delta Review, Quarter After Eight, The Collagist, Gigantic Sequins, and The Rumpus, among others. Find her at kristinelangleymahler.com or on Twitter as @suburbanprairie.