WARNING: This story contains some sensitive material.
At 11:49 AM on the morning of Thursday, September 17, 2020, Julie Bradworth bought a cherry popsicle from a very smiley woman in her school cafeteria as part of a music department fundraiser. She gave the woman the dollar bill that her mother had given her before she got on the bus that morning, and made sure her voice was very loud and very clear when she said, “One cherry popsicle, please.”
Julie didn’t realize it was possible for the woman’s smile to grow even wider, but it found a way. “What wonderful manners you have!” she gushed as she put Julie’s dollar into the cash box. She reached behind her to grab the popsicle, and as she handed it to Julie, Julie said, “Thank you, ma’am.” Once again, she made sure her voice was very loud and very clear, and this time she even added a smile in return. The woman went pink with pleasure and turned to the woman next to her. As Julie walked away, she heard her say how polite children were so hard to find in this generation.
As Julie walked to the table where her friends were sitting, she pulled the wrapper off her popsicle and threw it into a nearby trash can. The cafeteria did not have very good air conditioning and the popsicle had already begun to melt, so Julie took a small lick as she sat down between Sammy Andrews and Erin Heath. The three girls had been best friends since Mrs. Meade had made them work on a group project about Costa Rican rain forests last year. But this year was different. Sammy couldn’t stop glancing at the soccer boys in the middle of the cafeteria since she got one of their Snapchats at a football game last Friday. Erin was constantly touching up her lip gloss and checking out anything that would reflect her pretty face back at her. And Julie felt… the same as last year. And left behind. She stole her sister’s makeup but couldn’t figure out where it was supposed to go. She tried talking to Evan Scripps on Monday but when she couldn’t find a way to compliment his hair, they just ended up talking about the history assignment they had just been given. Julie was hopeless. But when she talked to her grandmother about it, she just said, “Don’t worry, child. Sixth grade is a piece of cake. You don’t have any problems to worry about yet.”
Julie took another lick of her popsicle. She definitely had problems. Maybe they weren’t as big as paying the bills, picking up two kids at the same time, or ruining a casserole, but they were still problems and they mattered. And she didn’t complain about them nearly as often as Sammy and Erin complained about their problems.
“Do you think John will snap me back?” asked Sammy as she popped gummy bears into her mouth. “I sent a picture of my entire face this time, not just my forehead and an eye, and it’s been opened for 5 minutes.” She tugged at her hair, trying to make the light curls straighten out, but they stayed curly and all of the soccer boys continued to be absorbed in each other.
“Just give him time, Sammy,” Julie replied, but to be perfectly honest, she didn’t really care. If she did care, she might’ve told Sammy that she saw John talking to Vanessa Dickens at her locker yesterday but she didn’t want to deal with Sammy’s meaningless tears at the moment.
“Julie, what do you think of this shade of lip gloss?” asked Erin. “I had to buy the cheapest one because my mom said I couldn’t spend my entire allowance on makeup.”
“It looks fiiii-”Julie started, but loud cracks filled the lunch room. They sounded like the fireworks that Julie used to watch explode over the lake at her uncle’s lake house on the Fourth of July. But today they were a lot louder, a lot closer together, and Julie knew that fireworks did not go off inside of buildings.
“Are those-” Sammy began, her face white, but Julie pulled her up before she could finish. She grabbed Erin too and as she started running towards the big doors that led outside, the screams finally reached her. She didn’t know if they had just started or if she had been blocking them out, but she could hear them loud and clear now. She glanced back and amid the rush of kids, she couldn’t help but notice her cherry popsicle on the floor. It sat untouched, halfway underneath the table, as hundreds of kids rushed for the doors. Julie couldn’t help but wonder if her grandmother would still disregard her sixth grader problems after today.
She turned to face the doors again, running as fast as she could. One hand gripped Sammy by the arm and the other was tugging at Erin’s sweater sleeve as she stumbled after in shock. They pushed through the doors and once they were outside, they ran faster and faster, until they made it to Jane Richards’ house, Julie’s third grade best friend whose backyard was in the school’s softball field. Almost as one, they turned around. They were breathing heavily, but not just because of the run. Hundreds of kids were spilling out into the parking lot. Each one had the same exact look, the look of fear and terror and shock all rolled into one. The teachers looked slightly more put together but not by much, especially as they began to try and find their kids.
Julie and her friends sat down on the edge of Jane Richards’ lawn and watched as their classmates flooded the parking lots, the streets, the lawns, anywhere away from the school. They watched as the police showed up and then the ambulances. They watched as the police entered the building, and once they said it was safe, they watched as the paramedics entered too. They brought others out, like the big smiley lady that had given Julie her cherry popsicle, but she was no longer smiling. They brought out one of the soccer boys and his pants were strange, like one leg was white and the other was red. They brought out Mrs. Aikens and her arm was in a sling but she kept looking at the girls while they were sitting in Jane Richards’ backyard. The girls didn’t talk much and it was hard to focus long enough to listen, but after a while it was obvious that Jane Richards was still in the school. She lay under a white sheet while her mother cried a hundred yards away in her house that she had moved into ten years ago because the school district was so good. Julie still wasn’t talking and it was still very hard to listen, but one thought popped into her head and stayed there even though she tried her best to make it go away. She couldn’t help thinking of her cherry popsicle and how it was probably melted by now. It was probably nothing more than a red puddle on the floor of the cafeteria, but there were lots of red puddles on the floor that day so who would really notice another one. She couldn’t help thinking about Jane Richards and whether she had her own red puddle, and whether that puddle had mixed with Julie’s red puddle. Like the world’s worst Venn Diagram. And finally, Julie couldn’t help thinking about her grandmother and whether this was a school problem finally worth worrying about.