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“Friends, family, graduates...”
I watch my best friend Jane as she paces back and forth, practicing her speech in the darker corner of the stage. She stands behind the closed thick curtains, anxiously waiting for the program to start. As valedictorian, she was asked to speak at our high school graduation. Generally, she wouldn’t be nervous about public speaking, but our school’s graduating class this year was huge. There were three to four hundred graduates who would receive Jane’s speech, plus any of their family and friends. Jane was dressed in a blue cap and gown. Underneath, I can see a sparkly pink dress down to her ankles. I see she fixed her blond hair into golden waves hanging at her shoulders.
I glance at my own cap and gown which were lying limp in my arms, then cast a glance my dirty sneakers. I shrug. I don’t really care that much about ‘dolling myself up’. I would rather be natural. Running a mile is less of a bother when you don’t have makeup leaking down into your eyes. I watch her as she shakes her head and repeats the first line with more gusto, and peppier than before.
“Friends, family, graduates!” She shakes her head again, and I interrupt by walking up next to her. “Oh, Mickey! Hi! What are you doing back here?”
She gives me a quick hug then notices my regalia “Why aren’t you wearing your gown?”
She is horrified as she sees what I plan on wearing underneath it. “What are you wearing?!”
She stares at my shoes, my ripped jeans, and lastly my gray T-shirt with a band on it. I’m not familiar with the band, it was just clean and in my closet, so I put it on. Okay, it may have been on the floor…and dirty, but it smells fine.
“I don’t know. Why does it matter? I’m going to have the gown over it anyway, so no one’s going to see it.”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh boy. I don’t understand why you don’t get anything I teach you. I mean, even Austin is at least wearing a button-up shirt and khakis!”
Austin’s my other best friend, and Jane’s “sort of” friend. He’s more like me than I was like Jane. He prefers being outdoors and doing ‘sport-like’ activities. Normally, he’d dress like I am now. Jeans, T-shirt, sneakers. Jane glances at someone who hurried by with a cart of diploma cases.
“I gotta go. I have to practice a few more times. So wait, why are you back here again?”
“I was asked to help back here until everyone’s seated, and after your speech.”
“What if you miss getting called?”
I shrug. “My last name’s Monroe. I’m practically at the end of the line...well, more like halfway to th—it doesn't matter, I won't be late. Besides, I wouldn’t mind not graduating just yet.”
Jane glares harshly at me, then softens her expression into more of a ‘We’ve been over this a million times’ look, complete with an eye roll.
“Mick, we’ve been over this a million times. You have to graduate! Get on with your life! Think about how ridiculous you’re being! Last month, you wanted to fail your last classes, just so you could have a fifth year of high school! Who does that?!”
I shrug. “Someone who’s not sure what they want to do with their life? Still sounds like a good idea to me.”
“Stop being a baby! You know what you want to do, you just have to get out there and do it!”
I look away, trying to change the subject. I’ve been throwing around some ideas for what I want to do with my life, but I don’t want to get a college degree and start work, only to realize that I actually hate that occupation! Or what if I start down the road, only to have someone tell me I’m not good enough to do that? I’m not creative enough, intelligent enough, or I’m not spontaneous enough? What if I do well for a while, and then bomb it, and destroy a company? What if I get someone’s hopes up with something, and then mess it up, crushing them and their loyalty forever?! I’d rather just stay in my shell. Maybe if I always fail, I won’t be expected to succeed?
I’d been a failure my whole life. Eight years ago, my father got in a car accident because I’d distracted him. It was a car trip to the movies, a special trip that Dad had just taken me on. On the way home, we drove onto a bridge, and hit a bump in the road. I spilled my drink, and started crying loudly, so dad glanced back to see what was wrong. When he turned his attention from the road, the car in front of him had to stop abruptly. Dad didn’t have time to stop, and hit him full-on. My dad didn’t make it, but I escaped with just one scar on my arm.
After that, the family dynamic was different. My sister blamed me for it, and regarded me like I deserved to be in a dungeon--if she acknowledged me at all. Then, a couple years ago, my sister ran away. She just got up one day and left. No one has heard from her since. Since then, I’ve felt like nothing I do can ever make a difference. I blame myself for our father’s death too. I feel like my whole life is just a disaster. So, instead of setting up life goals, I just sat tight through high school. This past year, however, Jane’s gotten me to come out of my shell a little. I help where I’m needed, and offer help to boost others to the top, but I can’t help myself. I don’t want to set myself up for failure.
“Mickey, get over here, we need some help with this!” I snap back to reality as I hear someone else call me.
Both Jane and I glance across the stage, to see someone frantically picking up diploma cases that had fallen on the ground. To me it li
“That’s my cue.” I tell Jane, then I run over to help them.
Fifteen minutes later, I hear the song “Pomp and Circumstance” finally coming to a close, and am glad that I’m still backstage. If I was walking past, I know that people would be watching me. I shudder. I hate being watched. Somehow, I was put in charge of manning the curtain, and I currently stand in front of the ropes that control them. Navigating the ropes and switches is like navigating a maze, but one whose end determines eternal embarrassment, or a job well done.
I nod and yank the furthest left-hand rope. The curtain slowly climbs up to the rafters, and the principal is revealed to the audience.
“Hello, and congratulations to the 2019 graduating class!” The principal always gives informal speeches. I don’t think he really understands the formality of this event. He opens his arms and his face spreads into a wide grin. “Now, I’m truly sad to see this class go. You guys were very close to me this year with the budget cuts and all the mess going around the school. You guys helped raise money, even gave some of your pocket money and or allowance to keep the school running.”
The girl who put me in charge of the right side of the curtain gives me a ‘thumbs-up’ and a smile as she walks up to me.
“Thanks so much for doing that! Man, am I glad you interned at the Community Theater last semester!”
I nod, wave, and walk toward the exit. Yep, I interned pretty much everywhere trying to find my purpose.. As I walk backstage to the other side of the stage, I hear a ‘clunk’. I notice the left side of the curtain still hangs, covering half of the faculty. There’s a girl pulling frantically on every rope, trying to find the right one. I go to her side of the tangle of old ropes, and slowly pull one, opening the other half of the curtain. She sighs in relief, and nods her thanks. Clearly, she’s new. I sit down in a chair, and decide to wait a moment longer before heading to the other side of the stage. They may need my help again. I lean back and close my eyes, listening to the principal’s speech.
“…and thus I can truly say I’m genuinely proud of this year’s graduates!” Roaring applause comes from all sides of the gym. I open my eyes and see the back of the school president. I chose a good spot. It was angled so that I could see the speaker, but the congregated crowd couldn’t see me. When the applause finally dies down, I realize that our guest speaker has taken the place of the president.I sat up straighter, so I could get a better view of her face. I recognized the woman from somewhere, but I can’t remember where…
Then it hit me. My science lab internship! This woman was the scientist who mentored us. Dr....Moira? Moira Jameson? No. It was Dr. Moira Jefferson. I remember she was really open, and into getting kids interested in science, and things kids can base a career off of. It makes sense that she’d be here to wish us off. Dr. Moira looks much different here than she did in the lab. In the lab, she almost always had on a giant lab coat, green gloves that reached her elbows, and safety glasses that looked like scuba diving goggles. Her hair was generally put up into a bun so as not to accidentally brush any of the chemicals. She had all us girls do the same, to keep their hair safe. Here, her straight copper red hair is down, gathered around her shoulders, and she has no goggles whatsoever.
She opens her mouth to speak. I lean over a little, to see if I could get a better look at her. Suddenly, a loud sound rings out through the gym. Then another quickly after it. Gunshots. I hear screaming, and then more gunshots. The sound fills the auditorium . My eyes grow wide as I stare at the mayhem dumbfounded, unable to move because of my shock.
I'm pulled back to the present as I see Dr. Moira gasp, and stumble to her knees. Her hand flies to her side, and I see blood spreading there on her white shirt. My mouth just hangs open. I can't think. Panic is bubbling up inside of me. I hear someone scream, then footsteps as people try to run away over all this, I hear the terrible sound of gunshots. People fly past me, trying to get out as fast as they can. When someone almost knocks me over, I realize I need to do something. It suddenly hits me I should be running too, but something inside me says to make sure everyone else gets out. I can't leave them while I run away—like a coward. A woman grabs my arm as I move toward the stage. She shouts into my ear, half dragging me backward. "Are you insane?! Run!"
She has a tight grip on my arm, her face full of fear and panic, the same emotions running through me. In one hand, she holds beige high heel open-toe shoes. I'm suddenly glad I opted for sneakers today. I run with her, and don’t stop until we’re outside. When we're out on the lawn, she finally lets go of me. She stops and turns to the school building, tears brimming her eyes. Both of us just stand and stare, mystified at the depravity that would cause someone to do this. What would anyone get from this destruction?
Moments later, someone comes out with Dr. Moira, supporting her as she stumbles along. I rush over to them, and help them hoist her to a clear spot in the ground. I crouch next to the woman. I’ve never seen someone shot before, and have no idea what to do. Some faculty members and graduates kneel on the ground next to Moira. None of them seem to know what to do either.
“I’m a nurse.” A woman by me said, revealing a First Aid kit she probably pulled off the wall inside the school. I have a feeling that the kit is not going to be of much use. It is only stocked with small bandages and some ointments. Still, we part so she can get through. She lays Moira down a little more. Before she does anything else, I look away. I’m a little squeamish, and hate the sight of blood. I hear sirens, and try to find where they are, so I can get someone over here to help. I see them rounding a corner, so close.
"I'll go get a paramedic!" I announce, and run away, toward the trucks. I see the nurse nod, and usher me, as she continues trying to work. I shrug off my gown so I can run easier. I finally reach a paramedic, and gesture over to the field.
Breathless, I tell them, "Over here! Dr. Moira is bleeding a lot!"
"Where? Show us." Two paramedics follow me as more ambulances and police cars arrive on the scene. I run across the grassy lawn, trying to ignore the faces on the people I pass. Some are covered in fear, many are in pain, but still others bear a face of grief. It pains me to think about those who haven't yet made it out, or who will never get out. I block the tears from coming, and swallow all emotion. The paramedics have a hard time following me. The stretcher is not working with them, tripping in the grass, short though it is. We reach the spot that I left the doctor at, and let the paramedics do their job. They lift the doctor up onto the stretcher, talking to each other quickly. I back up, watching. I stand until they leave.
When they do, I take a deep breath, and move next to the woman with the beige shoes, who’s getting some help with her arm. I'm relieved to see it's just a cut, not a bullet wound. We watch as people are put on stretchers, or tended to right on the field here. All we see is destruction.
"What happened?" She asks, her face full of horror. Her lips quiver as she speaks. "How could this happen?" I bite my lip, to keep it from quivering. Tears spring to my eyes as well.
"I don't know." I try to answer. The words form in my mouth, but my voice doesn't work, it comes out as a whisper. I haven't fully grasped what just happened--it hasn't hit me yet.
The severity of it.
Suddenly, another layer of panic wells up in my stomach. Where are my friends?! What happened to my mom?!
I scan the growing crowd standing out on the lawn, and don't see any of them. "No."
It comes out as a whisper.
Just because you cannot see them doesn't mean they didn't make it out. I repeat to myself as I scan the crowd, barely holding myself together.
I need to get somewhere with a better view of the lawn. I go back towards the stairs into the school, weaving through the crowd on the field.
I stand on the top step, pulling myself to my full 5'8".
I scan the crowd again, and—yes! relief surges through me.
I see Austin and Jane. Jane's hands are buried in her eyes, and she's sobbing. Austin’s looking around for someone. Probably me. Next to them stand their families, and my mother.
My stomach surges with happiness and relief as I see all of them. They're all safe. I jump off the stairs, and I race toward them.
When I reach the group, I barrel into my mother, wrapping her in a bear hug. Surprised, and weakened by the impact, she stumbles back a bit, before wrapping her arms around me, too. Right then everything hits me. It's like I finally have time to think about it, not just about escaping.
The tears come.
I'm embarrassed to be crying in front of my friends, but I can't stop, so I let my tears fall.
"It's okay." She says, wiping her own eyes with her free hand. I release my mother, and back away, using my wrist to clear the tears out of my eyes.
"Are you okay?" My mom asks, looking hard at me. I nod and turn around. The scene hasn't changed. It's still chaos and confusion. Jane throws me into a hug so tight she barely lets me breathe. She sobs, and I hug her back. It must have been harder on her than it was on me. She'd been sitting right up front when it happened, next to the faculty, right up front. She could have been shot so easily.
Once we've all calmed down, after confirming that everyone in our group is safe, alive, and uninjured, we load up in our cars, still shaken up.
I stare out my window as we drive down the road. I'm exhausted, but I try to keep my eyes open, just for a few more minutes.
I look at the world around me as the day draws to a close. The sun is slowly setting around the horizon, dropping behind the mountains way in the distance. Everything is bathed in a beautiful golden light.
It's not fitting for the kind of day it has been, but it's reassuring. Comforting.
It tells me that not everything's bad. That even in a storm, the sun will come. I just stare at it, and let a few more tears fall as I think about and wonder how many people died, or got injured.
I realize something right now. Each life is precious, and we only get one. I am determined to change my mindset—my entire lifestyle, to do more for others, to "jump into" more things, more activities. I slowly doze off, lulled by the car’s hum, and exhausted by the events.
My last thought before dropping off to sleep is,
This is our only life, we've got to make it count. If we have no more time than right now, why are we wasting it?
I close my eyes.
Why am I wasting it?