[Trigger Warning: School Shooting]
By Megan Wildhood -
Every spring, on the hill behind my ex-best friend’s house, someone sets up 15 crosses. Every year for the last decade, someone burns two of them to the ground.
The day my hometown memorializes with this ritual began as bright as any other Colorado spring morning. By 11:32am, an hour after the shooting at the high school closest to where I was started, three police departments had deployed but were unable to enter the school for fear of tripping the wire that they’d heard the two boys had rigged to blow up the school. Pipe bombs were set all over the city as diversions for the police. Most of the school’s turquoise-tinted windows were destroyed. A second-story window had been shot out from inside and it became the only escape route for a student paralyzed from the waist down after taking a different bullet. I still have no idea if I’m the only one who thought the entire nine hours we were in lockdown that the country was at war and my state was being attacked because of Norad, which I as a 13-year-old knew then only as “something the Russians wanted.”
It seemed like the whole state wanted only 13 victims from the day that should have been a one-off but has started looking ten years of slow riot on like it might have been a watershed.
News anchors from across the state railed. They weren’t bothered so much by the shooters as the “renegade obsessed with spiritually bypassing justice.” Letters appeared in the local and national papers through the next several summers that threatened to sue whoever keeps “blasphemously erecting those two grotesque 2 x 4s that could hardly be worthy of the name cross.”
The grownups devised mandatory sensitivity trainings for us to be taught be a priest. Father Arons, the Sensitivity Trainer Who Will Keep Us Safe, told us that torment is eternal depending on how you die. He also revealed what the real cause of school massacres are. Not bloody movies, single-shooter video games, shitty parenting. Not outstanding warrants the authorities failed to follow up on. The real cause, actually, is that the peers of the perpetrators didn’t report suspicious behavior. As he said all this, Father Arons whirred a thin chain with a glinty cross that still had Jesus’ body on it over his head this entire explanation and it hummed like hell.
During our third sensitivity training, his cross necklace slipped from his fingers and it hit the window with a louder thud than it deserved. I expected him to go after it, but then I saw why his grip had slackened: Liam and Shiloh were beating each other up again and there was already blood, as if they were proving the shift from “every kid is a gift from God” before 1999 to “any kid could be a terrorist” after 1999. Liam and Shiloh were brothers; they’d lost their older brother in the execution chamber that was the library at his high school that day; their father left the family and the state pretty quick after the shooting.
Their peers, not me, surrounded them. They chanted and stomped louder over Father Arons’ bleatings to cease. I may not have known what to think about Jesus, but I wanted that necklace. So many priests have them—are the chains and creepy charms with dead bodies on them the source of the fathers’ control? Father Arons left the room without retrieving the cross, so I found it and ran its chain, it’s frailty surprising me, between the pads of my fingers. I fully intended to return the cross to Father Arons the next day, but I wasn’t wearing the hoodie that held it in its pocket then and, by the time I find it again, as I’m packing for a trip back home, Father Arons is probably long dead.
I moved four states away after two years of failing to adapt to college because adapting to a new state is definitely easier? and am not home again until the week of the 10th anniversary. They’re seriously still torching the crosses? They always wait until the night before the actual anniversary, sometimes day of, to start the fires.
How has it been a decade? I am still a child.
No. In Child Land, time barely passes.
I borrow my Dad’s mid-life crisis 4Runner like I did when I had to negotiate from him all those years ago, drive the route the muscles in my forearms know by heart. Fifteen eight-foot Roman torture devices that somehow now symbolize eternal life to millions of people worldwide rattle in the hot breeze. I shake, too, and shove my hands into the pullover I’ve clung to for 10 years, I hate shopping for clothes that much. A chain and charm find my fingertips. A piece of the priest’s power.
No one is around: I check over each shoulder. The park behind the school, where my grandmother took us when Mom needed “a day,” is never this empty. There’s only one other car in the parking lot, a pickup truck with a faded box of matches on the dashboard and duct tape at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. I don’t realize there’s a tiny dog trapped in it until I’m in the shadow of the crosses.
People have nailed photos to every one of them as usual. Notes to the victims, song lyrics, ribbons, flowers in unmoored gardens at their feet, as much memorial as there ever was. Hate mail, too, hexes, wishes for conscious torment for all the rest of time, on the two crosses at the end.
I’m still not sure at all what I think about Jesus and I still don’t know who faithfully raises those two extra crosses, but I side with that person.
I still haven’t heard the end of the debate about whether such a coincidence means God sides with the victims or the shooters. I never heard anything in the debate about how the Victims Versus Shooters Ven Diagram actually overlaps in some cases.
But fifteen humans left that school without their bodies that day.
I know that zero would have if it wasn’t for the two of them who carried all this out, but didn’t the families of those two also lose members? Don’t they maybe have it harder now?
I find the only free nail left in the center of the last cross to hang the chain on. Regardless of the paraphernalia they bear, the crosses at the ends are always the ones to burn. The dog yaps its head off as long as I stand there and until I’m back in Dad’s car and, who knows, maybe long after I drive away.
Megan Wildhood is a neurodiverse lady writer in Seattle who helps her readers feel genuinely seen as they interact with her dispatches from the junction of extractive economics, mental and emotional distress, disability and reparative justice. She hopes you will find yourself in her words as they appear in her poetry chapbook Long Division (Finishing Line Press, 2017) as well as The Atlantic, Yes! Magazine, Mad in America, The Sun and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at meganwildhood.com.