There was going to be a shooting on the day of the openhouse.
Everyone knew it, pretended they disbelieved it; whispered about it in frightened tones to their friends. Our high school was a million years old and had no air conditioning; we had been promised a new and better school with a bigger lunch hall and wifi that worked more than two classrooms away from the transmitter. My classmates and I had waited to get in and see the new building with apprehension and anticipation.
The closer the day came, the louder the whispers got. Some scoffed, most thought it was a prank, but there was enough real fear behind the jokes and jeers to set everyone on edge. After all, it probably wasn’t going to happen…
“Aww, not feeling well today?” the secretary asked.
Sniffling, I shook my head.
“Aww, you’ll miss the openhouse.” Her fingers click-clacked over the keyboard as she distractedly handed me a log out sheet.
“Thanks,” I said, signing it and handing it back. I blew my nose.
“Aww, get feeling better,”
“Aww, see you.”
I shuffled away, sitting in one of the uncomfortable folding chairs to wait for my mom to pick me up. A girl next to me leaned over.
“I’m ‘not feeling good’ either,” she whispered conspiratorially; making quotation marks with her fingers. “I didn’t want to be here. Just in case, you know. They say it’s all a prank, but they’ve had more police officers come, just in case, you know. So I decided I’d just leave. Just in case, you know.” The secretary overheard.
“Aww,” she simpered. “There’s no need to worry.”
“Still,” said the girl beside me, as I coughed into my elbow. “Better to be safe than sorry, just in case, you know.”
I looked to the balloons, the streamers, the huge sheet cake from Costco.
I was glad I was sick.
The next week, I was introduced to the new building for the first time. No longer contagious, but still sniffling, I sucked on a coughdrop as I toured the new school. There had not been a shooting, to everyone’s relief.
As the school year went on, most everyone forgot about the openhouse scare. I didn’t.
On the second floor, straight in from the commons area and above the lunchroom, was what we called the glass fishbowl. Four classrooms, enclosed with glass on three sides and a whiteboard on the fourth, where computer technology and financial literacy were taught. We called it “the fishbowl” not because the teachers went around in circles while we students forgot everything in four seconds (though that was true); we called it that because there was no privacy. Or protection.
“You’ll be the first to go,” joked the financial literacy teacher. He was a football coach, and I didn’t like him. We had safety drills for intruders, where we all filed into a dark classroom with four cinderblock walls instead of flimsy glass.
Now, I’ve graduated. The threat of a gunman has not left my head, however. I’ve heard of shootings at train platforms, in movie theaters, at shopping malls. I could look up statistic, reports, pull up a hundred articles, but I’m too cowardly. Headlines frighten me. It’s because of headlines I do headcounts.
“Walk beside me,” I complain to my sister. “How can I know where you are if you’re not next to me?”
“I’m right behind you,” she huffs. “And besides, I don’t know where we’re going.” The same old argument gets tired, but I can’t let it go. Whenever we’re together, I’m always tugging at her elbow, glancing over my shoulder, making sure I have enough cell phone battery… just in case. It’s not as paranoid as it sounds; it’s just habit, and caution. Better to be safe than sorry.