“Hold still! I can’t draw a straight line with you fidgeting all over the place!” Aaron’s father laughed and tried to hold the level against his only child’s head while he marked the new height on the door frame. He wrote the date next to the line that showed Arron was at least two inches taller. It was a good day! Pancakes for breakfast, then off to school where Aaron knew his mother would set up a birthday celebration for the entire class in the afternoon. Aaron wasn’t a popular kid. He was overly shy and cautious, but each year on his birthday, he felt like a star, and it always started with the mark on the door frame. He was eight yesterday.
Through blurry eyes, Aaron’s father leaned against Aaron’s cold bed, and stared at the mark he had made just the day before. His wife clung to him like an anchor in a hurricane. The traditional mark, was an indication of the passage of time, a measurement of growth marked in perpetuity. It was the last mark he would make. Eight lines that marked eight years of potential, eight years of joy. The eight years of reward for the years of infertility treatments. It was life’s cruel joke. He remembered trying to make the first two marks with his always squirming boy, and he laughed before catching himself, and breaking down into deep visceral sobs. Together, they were alone, mute and immobile as they both replayed the apocalyptic day in their minds.
Mom left early for her hospital shift, while dad got Aaron ready for his first full day of being eight. He was a good student, artistic, and always with his nose in some book. Dad was on remote control making lunch, and ensuring his school books were in order. He did the dishes and off to school they went. Aaron was a demonstrative child who loved the affections of his parents. His dad hugged him tight just as he did every day.
“I love you! Be amazing!” Dad remembered whispering to him just before he left the car and made his way into the school. He loved to watch him all the way into the building. Aaron routinely peeked over his shoulder and waved just before the door closed. Today was no different. It was a comforting routine for an anxious father and son. Dad then mindlessly drove to his office a few minutes away and settled into his work routine. It started with coffee, then check emails, and the morning ended with a partner’s meeting, before he had to review cases. He remembered the day being quiet, until the phones exploded at 11:30. He remembered thinking he was annoyed by the din of phones, and tried to dismiss the noise until his assistant walked into his office. Her face was ghostly pale.
“Answer your damned phone!” She demanded. It was only then that he realized that his phone too was ringing. He had it on silent so he could focus. Four missed calls from his wife. He remembered hitting the call back button then listening to his wife sobbing.
“Get to the school!” She screamed into his ear. “Find Aaron!” Then there was silence. He remembered sitting frozen for a second before he could move himself out of his chair. Like a tornado, he was out the door. He didn’t remember how he got near the school, roads were blocked, parents were frantic. He abandoned his car a few blocks away and ran with other maniacs towards the school, only to be stopped by heavily armed police officers in riot gear. All he could do was watch helplessly. He could barely see the school. He saw glimpses of panicked children running in fear. It gripped him like never before. His mind said: ‘go, run save him!’ But his feet wouldn’t, and couldn’t move. He was stuck behind the officers, and impotent along with other horrified parents, spectators and victims. He couldn’t look, but he couldn’t look away from the events unfolding in front of him. He felt his heart pounding in his chest, and he wanted to throw up. He looked for sympathetic eyes, but only found desperation. The police looked past the onlookers. They didn’t make eye-contact. Perhaps they were parents too? He ached to see, straining to find Aaron’s face among the children. Eye contact, no, move to the next face, then the next…. He watched each group of the lucky and scanned their tear-streaked faces, nothing… No Aaron, his fear building with each face he scanned. Other parents pushed and strained to see. Occasional gasps from around him signaled relief for someone; not for him. He watched ambulances arrive. Too many ambulances! Why so many? He knew his wife was stuck at the hospital. Police were massing at the side of the school. They entered single file, crouched with automatic weapons behind a metal shield. A likely scene from Afghanistan, or Ukraine, but not Pennsylvania! Silence enveloped the masses, everyone holding their breath begging for something, hoping for nothing. Time stood still, in the overwhelming silence. Minutes felt like hours, the wind rustled the trees and the smell of spring mixed incongruously with the sounds of soft cries and shuffling feet. Voice was a taboo, hope too. Aaron’s father felt like he was about to pass out from the strain.
An officer emerged from the school and motioned to the awaiting ambulances. Teams of paramedics ran forward pushing their stretchers. He counted one, two, three, four, five, six… How many? What happened in there? Why so many? No! No! No! No! Why so many? His mind was a vortex. He could think of nothing but Aaron! Where was Aaron? He had to know! His heart racing, he was ready to fight but there was no one to fight with. The innocence surrounded him, the hell before him, the hate within him. He ached to Do something, but there was nothing to do but to witness.
He vaguely remembered being led to the high school auditorium a few blocks away where a nice man said they would bring the children. Like a lemming he followed with hope and gathered with other parents in anticipation of a reunion. Slowly, children trickled in. Counselors from the high school arrived to offer assistance where they could. Shrieks of joy and relief came as each child entered the auditorium. A flood of parents pushed forward to envelop their children reassuringly. Panic continued to rise as the steady stream of children started to ease then stop. The officer in charge found the childless parents and herded them into an adjoining room, Aaron’s father was among them. He tried unsuccessfully to contact his wife. Maybe Aaron was at the hospital? A police officer moved into the group to ask for names of still missing children. How many was that? Ten? Twelve? He tried to keep count before it was his turn. The officer took his name, and his child’s name, a description of his clothing, then took his phone number. He and everyone around them were crying and trying to keep it together. Still no news from anyone.
“What happened?” He asked the officer.
“We don’t know exactly as of yet.” He looked down to the floor when he said it. He knew, he just couldn’t say. It was bad. Really bad, and Aaron was in the middle of it. He thought he would explode. Some parents did! They screamed at the mute police officers who continued to not make eye contact. They knew, and everyone in the room knew. They just didn’t want to know. When anger has no place to go, it goes everywhere. Again, time stood still. The remaining people started to huddle together in some instinctive defensive formation. Strangers held strangers, to soothe themselves. Finally, a grave man in a suit entered the room. He had an officer’s badge on his hip and a gun protruded from under his jacket. Instinctively, they all gathered around him, hope still not gone. The officer cleared his throat, and the group watched as he bravely gathered himself. Tears started to run down his face when he spoke.
“There’s been a mass shooting at the elementary school.” Stop. He wiped his face and took a deep breath. He pulled out a list of children and handed it to his assistant. “She will read the names of the children at the hospital right now so you can go and be with them.” He wiped his eyes again as the assistant listened for the names. Aaron’s name wasn’t among them. Upon hearing each name, parents ran out leaving about twenty people in the room.
“The rest of you please…” The tears started more forcefully. He didn’t need to say more. No one was listening anyway. Aaron’s father fell to the floor and others with him. The counselors were there and they tried, but there was nothing they could do. Grief is strange. Pain affects all of us differently. One man punched a concrete wall and wailed. His emotional pain now physical. Maybe that was better? Aaron’s father felt a person sit on the floor next to him. She said something but his brain couldn’t process. His mind was screaming No! And there was no space for input. She stayed beside him as he cried on the floor. He knew what the officials would say “Our thoughts and prayers are with you!” they mocked. Aaron’s dad didn’t want “thoughts and prayers.” He wanted his son. His beautiful Aaron.
He didn’t know how, but he found himself home. His wife now beside him staring at a line drawn on a door frame. They were no longer parents. No longer Aaron’s mom and dad, they were once again Mr. and Mrs. Davis. Together they sat slumped on the floor with his permanently cold empty bed behind them. Thoughts and prayers mocked them. Apparently, someone’s right to bear arms was more important than their son’s right to life.