“No! Jackie, no! Please no,” he screamed.
Each night, I woke up convinced I was on the brink of death. But then my eyes would adjust to the darkness of my bedroom, and I would feel the writhing beside me.
“John,” I whispered and shook my husband’s shoulder. “Wake up.”
“Jackie!” He screamed again, a prisoner to sleep.
I pinched my thumb and forefinger on his narrow nostrils. My dangerous little luck charm.
John sat up so quickly that he nearly knocked me over. He panted in those terrifying few seconds it took for him to realize we were tucked in our bed, not in those bloody hallways again.
“It’s all right.” I rubbed his back. “I’m here.”
John threw his arms around me. “It felt so real.”
“I know, honey. I know.”
He squeezed. Sweat dripped down his broad back, wet against my hands. “You’re okay?”
I kissed his cheek and lay down once more. In four hours, my alarm would shriek. It seemed so imminent.
John collapsed onto his back. “I’m sorry, Jac. I don’t know why this keeps happening.”
“It’s okay.” I propped myself onto my side so that I could face him. My left side, of course. My right arm wasn’t good for much those days.
“It’s not okay.” He finally caught his breath and turned to meet my face. The inches between our faces felt static with electricity, a warm reminder of why I loved this man so much. Even after everything.
“It’s probably coming up again because of the ceremony tomorrow.”
“Probably. I’ve been thinking about it nonstop.”
“Me too.” I’d be folding my laundry or walking the dog and then it would hit me, that the one-year anniversary was approaching. My stomach twisted like an old rag at the mere thought. “What happened in the dream?”
John closed his eyes. “It’s always the same thing.”
“It might help to talk about it.”
He gave a slight smile. “I’m the psychologist, remember?”
“Yes, and that’s exactly why you should understand my point. Come on, babe.”
“All right. This time, I was trapped in my classroom. From the window, I saw Gregory approach you. I knew he had a gun even though I didn’t see it. Then I actually saw the bullet move in slow motion. It …” He paused. “It hit you. And you stumbled. And fell. You wouldn’t move. I kept screaming your name and you wouldn’t … move. And I couldn’t help, but I knew you were …” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Then I woke up.”
Chills pricked my forearms. It sounded like it happened to someone else, not me. I hoped for a full-on flashback to grab me like a fist, but nothing. Just like every other time I tried to remember that moment.
“That sounds really scary, babe.” I placed my hand on his cheek. His blond stubble poked against my hand.
“But it’s done. It happened. I lived. He can’t hurt me anymore. Or anyone else.”
John rolled away from my touch. “See, I know that cognitively. But I can’t shake the feeling that he’s still out there.”
“He’s not, though. He’s never getting out.”
John was silent.
I rolled over, anticipating the hours of sleep that lay ahead of me. Sweet sleep, warm and cozy in my white sheets and lavender comforter.
“I don’t understand why I can’t deal with this and you can,” John blurted.
“We’ve been over this.” I closed my eyes.
“I know, I know. But I feel like I keep having these nightmares because I don’t have all the details.” He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I hate to ask, but can you try and—”
“I’ve told you what happened, the best I could.” I grinded my teeth.
“I know, sweetie. But I’m saying I fill in the vague picture and make it worse.”
“I said I don’t remember.”
My back tensed.
I heard the slap of his hand against his forehead. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just really freaked out about the whole assembly tomorrow. I … I’m sorry.”
John curled around me and nuzzled his head in the nook between my shoulder and neck. “Your patience with me is astounding, Jacqueline Murney. How can I make it up to you?”
“By granting your wife a precious four hours of sleep before she has to wake and teach the youth of Brooklyn.”
He kissed my ear. “May I hold you while you catch those precious hours?”
The clock ticked beside the lamp on John’s desk, buried in papers and the DSM-IV. The thick book lay next to my daily army of vitamins, and painkillers, when physical therapy wiped me out.
Our Boston terrier, Freud, leapt on the bed and curled himself between our legs, despite that he wasn’t allowed. His breathing rattled, a result of his smushed — but cute — face. I skeeved the idea of fleas and germs where I slept. But on nightmare days, I let it slide.
“I love you, John,” I whispered. “Everything is gonna be fine tomorrow.”
“I love you too.”
* * *
The auditorium was hushed. Whispers pulsed in the droves of students woven in tight packs. The fear hung in the air like clouds before a burst of rain.
All eyes were on me. They always are, when you are a “survivor.” I forced a smile and ducked in the back.
Charlotte raced toward me. She plopped her thin frame in the seat to my left. “Please tell me this spot is unoccupied.”
Relief washed over me. If I had to sit beside any other student, this memorial ceremony would be equivalent to my wisdom teeth surgery. With a lot less drugs.
“All yours, kiddo.”
Charlotte grinned and relaxed into the seat. “Thanks. I’ve been dreading this whole thing for months now. Who the hell wants to listen to them rattle off the names of dead kids?”
“I treasure your sentimentality.” I slipped my arm around her shoulder. The move might’ve been odd in any other circumstance, but all boundaries get zapped when you’re lying in the hallway and your student’s hands are pressing on your freshly made wound. She came over for dinner once a month, I snuck her lunch from “the outside world” every Friday, and she even crashed on my couch during a snowstorm.
Even before the shooting, when I saw Charlotte, I smiled. There are annoying students, whiny students, kids who are just okay. And then there are Charlottes, who make it all worthwhile.
“But I mean, really,” she huffed her round cheeks. “It sucks every time we have to talk about it. I already think about it enough.”
I frowned. “You do?” The last thing I wanted was for Charlotte to picture my blood on her jeans and her hands.
“Well … yeah.” Charlotte tilted her cute, tiny head. “Don’t you?”
I drummed my fingernails on my thigh. When I thought of that day, I saw white. Only white. The hospital sheets, the bright lights. No red. Nothing.
“Of course,” I said.
She eyed me up and down with curious blue eyes. It’s hard to lie to someone when you’ve lost consciousness in her arms.
“You are so full of it. Do you really not think about it?”
I gave a small shrug. “I … can’t.”
Whenever I showed any discomfort, Charlotte was like a pit bull. “What do you mean? Is it too painful to think about?” She hesitated. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up. You’re just so … well you’re always so fearless and in control. I thought you wouldn’t mind talking about it.”
“I know. That’s not it. It’s … I think it was from all the morphine. I really don’t remember much of that moment. Only that I passed out. That’s it.”
Charlotte looked toward the floor. I tucked a piece of soft, light brown hair behind her ear, and she turned to me again. “I can’t think of anything but that moment. Nothing. I have these awful, awful nightmares.”
I imagined last night and almost each night since the shooting, when my husband saw my death projected behind his closed eyelids.
Guilt seeped through my system like a spider spinning its web. “I’m so sorry, Char. John has them too. He wakes up in the middle of the night, all freaked.”
“Really? Wow. Maybe I should talk to him. We could start Insomniacs Anonymous.” Charlotte rested her head on my shoulder. My good shoulder. “Speaking of, where’s the hubby?”
For the first time, I wanted to talk about it more, but I didn’t blame Charlotte for wanting to stop. She avoided John’s office like leprosy, one of the few students who didn’t spill her guts. Charlotte’s father and John spoke on the phone in the days after, when he was worried about her refusal to speak about the events. “It has to be on her own time,” John had said.
“He’s on his way,” I said.
“When can I expect a baby Murney? Will you name it Charlotte, after me?”
I rolled my eyes. I got that question ever since John slipped the ring on my finger. But with Charlotte, I knew she was only teasing.
“Charlotte, yes. But for Charlotte Brontë, of course.”
She blew air from her lips. “Oh yeah, you’re a huge Jane Eyre buff.”
We did try. Three months before the shooting, I went off the pill. The excitement of it all was thrilling, the attempts even more so, but … we’ve used protection since. We’re not ready anymore. I’m not ready anymore.
“There you are.” John waved to Charlotte and me before sitting to my right. “Did I miss anything?”
Charlotte lifted her head from my shoulder. “Jackie says she’s naming the baby after me.”
“What baby?” John’s thick eyebrows shot to the sky.
“Future baby,” I corrected quickly.
“The baby from the future.” Charlotte wiggled her fingers.
Principal Raymond took the stand. All became silent, even the three of us.
She faced straight ahead the entire time, not daring to look a single soul in the eye. She spoke about loving one another, about remembering the nine students and two teachers, about hope for the future. About surviving together.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
White. Beeping, beeping, beeping. John crying. Wanting to speak but my lips refused to move. The smell of iron.
I tried to be in that hallway again. What happened? All I could remember was after.
Hissing, the oxygen mask hissing. Red in my fingernails. My shoulder throbbing. “We’ve prescribed you morphine.” White, white, white.
John took my hand.
What haunts him at night is my ghost in the morning light.
“You all right?” he whispered as Principal Raymond went on about our bravery. “You look pale, babe.”
I felt Charlotte’s eyes on me. Worried.
“Mhm.” I squeezed his hand back and gave Charlotte my best reassuring smile.
“A moment of silence, please.” Principal Raymond bowed her head.
My heart was a jackhammer. I was sure everybody else could hear my pulse thudding in my ears. But John’s eyes were closed and Charlotte was staring at her pressed palms.
Principal Raymond cleared her throat. “Thank you. Before we conclude, I would like to remind students and faculty that our school psychologist, Dr. John Murney, is always here for you.”
A few heads turned toward us, and John waved with a sheepish grin.
Principal Raymond concluded, and the audience crept into somber chatter and solitary walks back to class.
The second she stopped speaking Charlotte leapt from her seat and peered at me. “You sure you’re okay?”
Beeping, the point of a needle breaking my skin, “Blood transfusion.” White light, white noise. White.
“Promise.” I stood, desperate to stretch my legs. To get out of there.
Charlotte’s pert nose wrinkled. “I don’t believe you.”
“I’m fine, Char. Seriously. Just need some air.”
“Air?” she squeaked. “Are you going to pass out?”
“No, no! Not like that. I need to clear my head.”
“Okay,” she said reluctantly. “Can I come over for dinner tomorrow or Wednesday? I feel like we should … you know. Be together this week.”
“Sure, sweetie. I’ve gotta run, so text me when you’re free.” I squeezed John’s arm. “See you at home.”
I barreled out of there. Fresh air. I needed to feel it in my lungs. I yearned for the sun to warm my skin. I pushed past students who had just been reminded that their friends were killed, past a few who had stared at the face of that gun themselves.
Gunpowder. The smell lingered on my clothes, in my hair. For days.
In the distance, I heard Charlotte’s voice. “Dr. Murney? I need to talk to you about something.”
“I think I’m ready to talk about what happened that day.”
Finally outside, I inhaled. Alone. Silence.
My body trembled like a fissure before an earthquake. What had she seen? I saw pictures. My blood was all over that classroom. It had to be all over her, too. The poor kid. Every time I called in sick to work, Charlotte called on the verge of panic, convinced my wound had opened and I was dying. Her voice on the phone was always frantic, like a child separated from her mother.
She didn’t deserve that. John didn’t deserve that.
I didn’t deserve that. Any of this.
What was she going to say to him?
I wanted to know. I wanted to know so that John could know and he’d sleep at night. And I could finally, finally breathe.
Then the selfishness swallowed me, as it always did. I lived. I “survived.” Yet there I was, complaining. Nine kids will sleep forever. Two families lost a parent. And Gregory, although I tried not to think about him, died that day too, if only in freedom.
I slid against the brick wall and pressed my palms into my eyes. Tears dripped down my wrists.
I pressed so hard that I saw spots. White, white spots.
* * *
That evening, John had come home with a bottle of wine. The glasses barely clicked on the table before he wrapped me in his arms. We kissed and I felt weightless.
“I love you,” he panted as our bodies met. His beard scratched my chin, my cheek, my neck. His arms had never felt so solid as he rocked inside me. “I love you so much. You know that, right?”
John cupped my face in his hands and put his nose to mine. His eyes were red rimmed. “You mean everything to me.”
I couldn’t help but smile. I’d never felt safer, wrapped in him.
Our breathing leveled off. I rested my head on John’s chest, and he traced hearts on my back.
“You talked to Charlotte today?” I asked.
He raised his eyebrows. “How did you know?”
“Well, yeah. She told me … everything.”
Everything? I wished I knew what “everything” meant. “Oh. Wow.”
“I feel better. A lot better.”
I perked up. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. I think I might actually get a decent sleep.”
“No way! Glad it only took hearing every grisly detail about your wife getting shot by a 16-year-old kid for you to get a full eight hours.”
“I hate when you joke about that.” John nudged me. “But I deserved it.”
“Humor is my coping mechanism. That’s what the psych term is, right?”
“How many kids barged into your office this afternoon?”
John laced his fingers through my dark curls. “It was like the Trail of Tears.”
“And you tell me I have a bad sense of humor.”
John chuckled, and I caught a whiff of his aftershave. Even after three years of marriage, little things like that sent a shiver down my spine.
“Where’d you go after the assembly?”
“I had a private lesson.”
“I came by your classroom. You weren’t there.”
Crap. “We painted outside. It was a nice day.”
“Uh huh.” John clicked his tongue. “You got freaked out today, didn’t you?”
“You know, the only reason Charlotte was ready to spill was because she thought it would help you. She said you didn’t look good. She’s worried about you, Jac. I am too.”
“I’m fine. Really. Just tired.” I feigned a yawn. “I’m gonna pass out. Some of us didn’t get enough sleep last night because their husbands thrash next to them.”
John snickered. “It’s charming how you think you can hide from me.” He kissed my cheeks, my forehead, my nose. My neck, my eyebrows, and my lips. “You know you can say anything to me, babe. But goodnight.”
John was right.
Three thirty a.m. and not a peep. Sirens rolled by throughout the night. He didn’t stir.
But my brain was still reeling.
White, fuzz in my brain, “Where am I?” so much light.
I slipped out of his arms and headed into the living room. The unopened bottle of wine still marked its territory on the coffee table, a reminder of our passion.
Freud leapt from his array of blankets. He followed me into the kitchen. I refilled his water bowl and a glass for myself. “Cheers, little man.”
I downed the water and reached for the TV remote.
CNN: “Breaking news this evening. Around 11 p.m., school shooter Gregory Vacher was murdered in prison. The 16-year-old was responsible for the massacre at Wakefield High School that left nine students and two teachers dead. It is believed he was killed by another prisoner …”
The glass shattered against the floor.
This couldn’t be happening.
I closed my eyes, and a storm pounded in my brain.
“Charlotte, get in the supply closet!”
“What about you?”
I ran to lock the classroom door, but it was too late.
Gregory pointed the gun at my chest. “Mrs. Murney. Are you alone?”
Thud. I dropped to the floor.
My shoulder ripped open.
Blood, the smell of my own blood. Charlotte’s hands, Charlotte’s tears. “Mrs. Murney, you have to stay conscious. Please, please stay with me!” Darkness, darkness.
Then white. Beeping, beeping. White.
John’s voice called from the bedroom and pulled me to the present. “Are you okay? I thought I heard a crash.”
White, white, white.
All the man wanted was one night’s sleep. I wasn’t going to take it from him.
“Yep!” I turned the TV off. “Just dropped Freud’s bowl. I’ll be back in a sec.”
It was over. Everything was over.
I retrieved the broom and swept the glass pieces into the duster.
We must fix what’s been shattered. No matter how many pieces get left behind.