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Graduation. It was finally here. But for Liz Knox, and undoubtedly most of the other students surrounding her, it didn’t mean nearly as much as it had before. It wasn’t nearly as important anymore. It had been two months since that untimely, terrible, March day. She could still remember everything so clearly, so lividly. There were many times when she couldn’t decide if she wanted to remember or forget…
She had sat in her fourth period class, waiting for the bell to ring and release her from the hell that was AP Government and school in general. She had one hand on her backpack, the other on her purse, and her eyes locked on the clock ahead, waiting for the long hand to strike the twelve. It was Friday and she was more than ready to drop her thirty pound load off at her locker and meet Alex in the parking lot to confirm their plans for the night.
It was March, the second semester of her senior year. There were unlimited parties and senior get-togethers outside of school. There was also the last minute schedule changes to make sure they had the necessary credits, limited patience with the underclassmen, and sheer anticipation for May twenty-third, when they would all don the cap and gowns, walk up to the stage that held their past, present, and their future. The stage where they would collect the ever important, hard worked for, and desperately wanted paper that held their fate, the signatures that would unlock the door to their futures.
The bell finally sounded and Liz hoisted her backpack on her shoulder and settled the strap to her purse in the crook of her arm. She sped out the door with the other twenty- some odd students into the rush hour-like traffic in the hallway. She maneuvered over to locker number 427 and entered her combination. She shoved her backpack in and slammed the door. The hall was somewhat clearer then and it was easier to get out the doors of J.R. Holt High School. Once she was out, she hurried to the student parking lot and over to her car. Alex, with her shoulder blade length, curly chestnut hair, oversized black sunglasses covering her hazel eyes, and a blue T-shirt and faded jeans, was already at her car, parked right next to Liz. She unlocked her door and tossed her purse onto the driver’s seat.
“So, what’s going on tonight?” She asked her best friend. Liz had known Alex since the eighth grade, when Alex and her family moved in next door to her. They had been inseparable ever since and neither would have it any other way.
“There’s a party tonight, some sophomore is throwing it. Heard it was gonna be pretty lame. You wanna go or just do something else instead?” Alex walked over to lean on the trunk of Liz’s 2006 silver Toyota Camry.
“We can just do something else; I’m not really in the party mood…unless you wanna go. It doesn’t matter.”
“Okay, well I’ll call you later. I gotta go pick Jamie up,” Alex said rolling her eyes, walking back to her car. Jamie was Alex’s twelve year old brother. He was a royal pain in the butt, seriously though, what little brother wasn’t?
Liz got behind the wheel of her car, brought the engine to life, and pulled forward out of her parking space. She got in the line of cars that waited to be released from the parking lot. She heard the faint words to a song she liked and turned the radio up, singing along. Soon she was able to drive out of the parking lot and drove the mile and a half to her house, parking behind her mother’s car in the driveway.
The house was it’s normally quiet self when she walked in. “I’m home!” she called to her mother who was more than likely in the kitchen.
“How was your day?” her mother called back.
“Fine,” she replied and headed upstairs to her room. She sat down at her computer to check her MySpace. She replied to the comments and messages she had and then checked her E-Mail. When she was done, her purse started to ring the familiar ringtone and she reached into it, grabbed her cell phone, and answered it.
“Hey,” she said, knowing from the ringtone that it was Alex.
“Hey. What are you doing?” she asked.
“Nothing, just sitting here.”
“Well, what do you want to do this weekend?”
“You wanna just come over here? We can just hang out and figure something out later.” Liz swiveled the computer chair and lifted herself out of it, moving to her bed.
“Sounds good…I’ll be over in a second.”
About forty-five seconds later, Liz heard the front door open and close and footsteps up the staircase. Alex appeared at her door, dropping her bag by the computer desk and flopping down on the bed next to Liz.
“So, how does renting movies, ordering pizza, and pigging out sound? Yay or nay?” Liz asked.
“Definitely yay. We haven’t done that in a while.”
That made her sad. They used to live for this kind of stuff, but lately they had been spending the majority of their time with other people, at parties, at the movies with a group of people, stuff like that. She and Alex got off of the bed and went downstairs to the kitchen.
“Mom, Alex is going to stay over, okay?” She knew her mom wouldn’t mind, Alex was like a second daughter to her.
“What are you guys gonna do?” she asked.
“We thought we’d stay in, watch movies and order pizza. What are you and Dad doing tonight?”
“He’s dragging me to one of his co-worker’s parties. Fun, fun, fun,” she rolled her eyes jokingly.
“Sounds like it…Well, we’re going to go get the movies. We’ll be back soon,” Liz said.
She and Liz rented four movies, got a bunch of junk food, and ordered pizza. They devoured the food and the movies. They talked about boys. They were girls weren’t they?
“What’s Tucker doing tonight?” Liz asked. Tucker Cabrera was Alex’s boyfriend of a year and a few months. They complimented each other perfectly. They looked like they belonged together, him with his electric blue eyes and shaggy, sandy colored hair with sun-bleached tips. She was short and skinny, and he was tall, but not too tall for her, and muscular from the sports he played. They were pretty near inseparable. Liz didn’t mind though, she’d never felt left out. They were all friends and hung out a lot together.
“He has a family thing,” Alex replied.
“Oh well…he’s going to miss out on a night of terribly fun girl stuff,” they both laughed.
“So how about Kyle Montgomery?”
“How a-bout him!” Liz exclaimed, leaning forward running her hands through her short honey blonde hair that was cut angled down toward her face and stacked in the back. “Did you see him today?” she sighed.
“Yep. He was looking pretty cute, can’t say he was looking as good as Tucker though.”
“Tucker Shmucker, Kyle looked amazing today, as always.” They giggled. Kyle Montgomery was the most popular non-jock at J.R. Holt High School. He was hilarious, cute, smart, and nice all in one package. “I can’t believe he’s going out with Heather…she’s such a b—”
“Alex, phone!” Liz’s mom called.
Alex raced to answer the phone. When she came back a few seconds later, she said she’d left her cell phone at her house; she went to get it and was back in a minute.
“Did you hear about Keith today?” Alex asked.
“Yes. He seriously needs to leave Gabe and Michael alone. What have they ever done to him?”
“Nothing. I like Keith and all, but sometimes he just takes his jokes a bit too far.” Keith Blair was a bit of a jerk to people that were “under” him. He was also on nearly every sports team the school had and was extremely popular. He had most of the teachers wrapped around his little finger, too. When he was a jerk, other people tended to follow suit.
“Yes, he does.”
In between movies, they went into the kitchen to make popcorn. They could hear from the kitchen what was being said on the TV, something about another school shooting. They both laughed it off. They knew nothing like that would ever happen in Morgansville. Nothing even remotely similar to that had ever happened in Morgansville.
When the last movie was over, they cleaned their mess up and went to bed. The next morning, Liz got up, took a shower, and got ready for the day. Shortly after, Alex was up, moving towards the bathroom for her shower, too. She stayed in there for what seemed like forever, like she always did. When she came out, her chestnut curls were in place, her make-up was done to her liking, and she was dressed.
“Wanna go to the mall today?” Liz asked. “You can call Tucker, too, if you want.”
“Sure,” she took her cell phone off the charger and made the call to Tucker. When she hung up the phone, she said, “He’s gonna meet us there.”
“Okay, well I’m ready. You?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
They arrived at the mall just as Tucker did. They went in, passing tons of stores displaying graduation signature stuffed animals, and other graduation paraphernalia. They settled in at the food court, got some pizza, and talked about the impending graduation day.
“Guys, can you believe that we’re graduating in, like, two months?” she asked.
“I can’t,” Tucker said. “I’m nervous but excited at the same time about college. It just seems like it shouldn’t be happening yet.”
“Same here. There’s just so much stuff I haven’t done to get ready yet; and we’re gonna be so far apart, Georgia and North Carolina are like forever away,” Alex said to Liz. She and Tucker had gotten in to the same college, but Liz didn’t. She’d be in North Carolina, roughly six and a half hours away from her best friend.
She felt her eyes fill up and quickly blinked the tears away, not wanting to look like a crybaby in front of Tucker. “I know; seems like just yesterday I was in eighth grade and you moved in next door.”
Tucker took that as his cue to throw their trash away and return the trays.
“I know…We’ve gotta keep in touch. Call everyday, send e-mails, letters, whatever. And we’ve got to visit each other as much as possible. Okay?” Liz announced.
“We will; nothing’s gonna happen to our friendship, Liz. We’ve been best friends forever, it can’t,” Alex assured her.
On Sunday, they hung out around their houses, juggling back and forth between the two. They did homework, listened to music, and watched a ton of mindless TV. It was great. Just the two of them practically reverting back to their childhood. No worries and nothing to occupy their time. They were just themselves: Liz Knox and Alex Jenkins—best friends, always.
Monday morning was terrible, just like always. Liz woke up a little late and had to rush to get ready for school. Once she was ready, she headed out to her car and saw Alex and Jamie scrambling into her’s. Liz waved to Alex and said she’d see her at school.
When she arrived at school, she parked and went to her locker, getting her book bag out just in time for the bell. She walked to first period—honors English and took her seat. The morning announcements, accompanied by the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence, were done and class started. At eight thirty-five, the phone behind Mr. Monroe’s desk buzzed and the look on his face was one of terror and anguish. He hung the phone back up, and composed himself. He announced the school had gone on lockdown and walked calmly to lock the door. He checked the windows, made sure they were locked, and reminded everyone to stay calm and away from the door and windows. He asked everyone to lie on the floor and stay quiet.
Liz’s heart lodged itself in her throat and she felt hot, wet tears seep from her eyes. She knew that school shootings weren’t uncommon these days, but her school wasn’t supposed to get shot up. Her school was supposed to be safe. Along with that, all she could think of was her mom, dad, and Alex. What if I get shot? What will they do? It’d kill them.
Moments later, the sound of muffled gunshots filled her eardrums. The room erupted with cries, pleas, and prayers. She tried to count the gunshots. One…two…She heard the sounds of sirens and an uncontrollable sob broke from her chest…Three…four…five…six…seven…eight. After the eighth shot, she heard no more.
They stayed on the ground, weeping, praying that it was over. A while later, a police officer, accompanied by a medic came to the door, knocked, gave the release code and escorted us out of the classroom, of the building.
Parents had been called. They were scattered feet away from where Liz stood. She looked around, there were squad cars, ambulances, reporters. There were stretchers, eight of them, seven topped with filled body bags, and one with Mr. Alvis strapped to it. She tried to fight down the panic, searched her parents out in the crowd. When her eyes located them they were standing with Alex’s parents, holding them. All four of them, she could tell, were crying. The panic, the fear, the tears, none of it could be fought down. She let them rise. She ran to her parents, wanting answers, comfort.
“Mom, where’s Alex?” When her mother didn’t reply, only looked up, cried harder, and grabbed onto her, holding on for dear life, Liz turned to her dad. “Dad? Where’s Alex?” Liz had begun to cry all over again. She looked around, searching for her. She couldn’t see here. She started to shake. Alex had Mr. Alvis first period. Liz, still in her mother’s arms, sunk to her knees, crying even harder. “Oh God…Oh God, no…No…” She clung to her mother and squeezed her eyes shut as tightly as possible, hoping that she was asleep. That’s right, it was all a dream. When she woke up, Alex would be there, and they’d laugh about her crazy dream. When she opened her eyes, there was still no Alex. “S-she’s gone? They k-killed her?” A strangled sob erupted. She got to her feet, shaking along the way. “No,” she said, swiping fiercely at the tears streaming down her face. “No. She’s not dead. Maybe she just had to use the bathroom. Yeah, she’s in the bathroom. Don’t worry, she’ll be out soon. She always stays in there a long time f-fixing her make-up…” Her mother had wrapped her arms around her again, along with her father, and Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins. She’s gone. She’s really gone…She’ll never take extra time in the bathroom again. She broke away from her parents, wrapped her arms around Mrs. Jenkins and struggled to say, “I’m sorry. I’m so s-so sorry!” She cried, and she cried some more.
She was still crying when she woke in her bed later that afternoon. She didn’t remember how she got home, or when, or how she got in her bed. All she could remember was that Alex wasn’t in her’s, and she never again would be. She glanced at her alarm clock. The local news would just be coming on. She knew it would be hard, but she wanted—had to watch it. She needed to know what happened. She clicked the TV on and flipped to the news channel.
“Today was a very sad, terrifying day for everyone here in Morgansville, South Carolina. We are mourning the loss of seven students from J.R. Holt High School,” Cynthia Miles reported. “This morning at eight thirty, instead of being in their own first period class, juniors Gabriel Ramirez and Michael Smith entered the classroom of John Alvis, with ski masks and sawed-off shotguns. They shot Mr. Alvis in the right leg, injuring him, and killed seniors Jeff Brighton, Keith Blair, Jennifer Cruise, Tucker Cabrera, and Alexandria Jenkins before turning the guns on themselves. It was said…” Liz turned the TV off. She didn’t need to know anymore. She cried fresh tears for Jeff, Keith, Jennifer, and Tucker; and she cried more for Alex. In a way, she was glad Tucker died too, that way Alex wouldn’t be all alone up there and Tucker wouldn’t be all alone down here. …
The past few months had went by in one huge blur for Liz. The, what seemed like millions of funerals went by in a blur, the last of school went by in a blur, and now that graduation was here, she wasn’t ready. She never would be. Alex was supposed to graduate with her. But Alex wasn’t here. Alex was definitely in heaven along with Tucker, Jeff, Jennifer, and Keith. None of them would be here. Liz had felt nothing but emptiness, sadness, anger, fear, and so many other jumbled emotions over the past two months. She still felt exactly like that. Many times since March ninth, she’d thought back on that morning, what she’d thought when she’d woke up, what she’d said to Alex. She’d been wrong. That Monday morning was much, much worse than terrible. And she hadn’t seen Alex at school.
Now that it was finally May twenty-third, they weren’t all donning the cap and gowns like she thought they would be. There were five of them missing. Five of them who were, no doubt up above, looking down on the ones that were lucky enough to survive. Those forty-five of them left behind, knowing it wasn’t fair that Jeff Brighton, Keith Blair, Jennifer Cruise, Tucker Cabrera and Alexandria Jenkins weren’t here with them, to graduate, to go on to bigger and better things, to celebrate this should-be happy time. She thought about what she’d thought before. About how they would walk up to the stage that held their past, present and their future to collect the ever important, hard worked for, and desperately wanted paper that held their fate, the signatures that would unlock the door to their futures. That’s how she’d thought of it before. That wasn’t how it was anymore though. It didn’t matter nearly as much. Before they walked up to the stage to get their diplomas, after Kelly Parker said her valedictorian speech, the principal, Dr. Knight, stood at the podium, bowed his head and lifted it again, as if pondering what to say. When he finally began, no one made a sound; it was very safe to say that you could have heard a pin drop.
“Today, we are here to celebrate the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. But, as you all know, everyone isn’t here today due to a very tragic, devastating event that happened two months ago. On that terrible March day, we lost seven wonderful people, people who will never be forgotten. Five of those people were supposed to be here today, grace the stage with their presence. I would now like to ask for everyone to bow your heads for a moment of silence in remembrance and prayer for those and their families.” More than a moment passed when Dr. Knight continued, “Thank you. I would now like, when I call their names, for the parents of those students to step up and accept their diplomas. Keith Blair; Keith was a good student, on the basketball, baseball, and football team, and an all-around joyous person to be around. Thank you Mr. Blair…Jeff Brighton; Jeff was the captain of the basketball team, an A-B student and someone everyone loved. You couldn’t miss his smile in a crowded room,” Mr. and Mrs. Brighton arrived next to Dr. Knight. As he handed the diploma to them, he continued, “Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Brighton,” they pasted a trembling smile across their faces and nodded, making their way back to their seats. “Tucker Cabrera; senior class president, All-A student, and star quarter back of the football team. He always looked out for the underdog and never let anyone down. Thank you Mrs. Cabrera…Jennifer Cruise; Jennifer was a very bright girl, there’s no doubt in my mind that she would have given the shirt off her back to someone in need. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Cruise… Alexandria Jenkins; Alex was president of many of the clubs, a volunteer at the public library, and an All-A student. I feel truly blessed to have known her, and all of these other students. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. When Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins got back to their seats, Dr. Knight went on, calling all the names of the other students to get their diplomas. Once everybody had theirs, he said a small speech of congratulations and good luck and turned the mike back over to Kelly Parker. At the podium, she held a cap in her hands in addition to the one on her head just like four other people in the graduate section of the audience.
“In memory of Jeff, Tucker, Keith, Jennifer, and Alex; myself and a few others will now stand and toss the caps that would have been theirs,” when she said that, Liz, Lindsey Willingham, Joey Eads, Cole Peters, and Melanie Pierce each stood, waiting for Kelly’s nod and tossed the caps they each held in their hands into the air. As they were flying, everyone else stood and threw their caps as well. As the caps flew, black birds filling the dusk blue sky, a piece from Shakespeare’s Come, Night; Come, Romeo filled her mind. “…and, when he shall die, /Take him and cut him out in little stars, /And he will make the face of Heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night /And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
This, somehow, soothed her mind, her thoughts. She smiled up into the sky, the stars breaking through the blanket of midnight blue. She watched one pop up, twinkle, then steady. The star reminded her of Alex. Taking her precious time to show up, twinkling like a beautiful diamond. That was Alex.
At that moment, Liz knew everything would be alright.