It hasn’t changed much. 20 years almost a quarter of a century. The name still echoes, everybody remembers, no one can forget. Mommy didn’t want me to go back. Home-schooled all the way. I’m parked at the drop off, I watch Tony walking away, his oversized schoolbag on his back, he was afraid he would forget something. Other kids spill out of yellow buses, all following the same sidewalk. The trees are still there, green, leafy, alive. Tony’s blonde head is receding in the distance, in the flow of students, converging to the portico, disappearing, swallowed up by the building. My knuckles turn white on the wheel. I can’t even hear the car honking behind. My son, still a kid, still innocent, like so many that day.
The same parking lots. One for students, a special one for seniors, where it all began. They both lead to a path made of concrete winding up to the cafeteria. Its set of double white glass doors, its greenish glass walls, unchanged, burned inside forever, the circular grey tables, the kids under them, the smell of cordite, mayhem. I wasn’t there on that day. I can’t drive away. The concrete slab held between two brick pillars is still there, the motto’s the same, the school’s name’s the same. Home of the rebels. That’s what they were. Rebels. The sun didn’t shine that day. I can feel the end of the summer in the air, the warmth behind the windshield, a new departure. And yet, behind these walls, these mere masses of concrete, I feel like Tony’s trapped, inside his father’s worst fear, inside his father’s nightmare.
The old library is gone, torn down. I loved the place, its bookshelves, its pleasing whispers buzzing through silence, the groupworks, smiling and cheerful students I was to never meet again. I look at the drivers as they go past my car, trying to recognize faces, remember names. The old library, a refuge from the noisy cafeteria, chatty children sharing a meal, the din of fork and knives on plates, a pipe bomb going off. The old library, a shelter from the hectic hallways, the lockers’ doors being slammed, the screeching of soles on linoleum, the conversations of students as they went from one room to another, the coach covering the students’ flight.
I look past the parking lot, the hateful starting point, I see it, the new library to wash away the old one, to blot it out, to start over. It is still in my mind though, the carpeting against my cheek as I saw their combat boots walking to and fro , the hysterical voice of the art teacher, her oh-my-gods, her frantic breathing, the shouts, the pops, the hatred spilling over, the blinding hatred poisoning to madness. Books, ideas, stories, words, a temple of tolerance, knowledge, a haven against ignorance and violence turned into a slaughter house. The yellow evidence markers sprinkled all over the place, each one for a casing. The pools of blood under the tables, the trails of blood leading to the windows. Two final pops, then the groans of the wounded, the cries, the fear keeping me down, my eyes closed till it ached.
Tony, inside my own personal hell, listening intently at assembly, following in my steps along the hallways, ushered into a new class.
“Did you go there, Dad?”
“The school, dad”
“Sure, I did. Not for long though, we had to move out”
I can’t tell him. He must have figured it out with what his grandparents told him. The hushed conversation at the table every April. Almost a quarter of a century, the date keeps coming back. The 16th, the 17th, the 18th, the 19th. Haunting, always the same feeling, always the same nightmare played inside, repeated each year, without fail. The concerned look on my wife’s face, the noose in the garage ten years ago, same date, springing back up, jack-in-the-box-like, dooming and damning me forever.
I can’t park here but I step out anyway. I try to rub the sweat off my palm on my trousers. The sun has disappeared behind a plump cloud, the air is cooler. I should save Tony from it all, rush inside, wrench him away from there. I stand alone, the buses have left, the parents have left, only pupils, teachers and staff inside, just like on that day. Whole families, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins walking inside, feeling the weight of the past, marking the spots I marked, always in the back on their mind, an underlying curse, latent, irrepressible, unerasable.
I start walking, the new library looming in the distance, flight of stairs leading to its entrance. A surrogate for a lost pass, a celebration for the future, a memorial. But I don’t walk over there, I turn around, leaving the future behind my back, living through the past. Pierce Street hasn’t changed either, its cracked-up sidewalks flower-beds for weeds, its traffic lighter now. It still borders Clement Park. A green wide area, with winding paths, batting cages, a big reservoir on the other side. I follow one of the paths with my former high school on the left, still staring at me, hunting me as I walk up the path leading to the memorial, forever haunting me.
I wasn’t there for the inauguration. The ring of remembrance built in red stones with the name of the victims on it, its wall of healing, its grey ribbon on the ground with the words “never forgotten” are unfamiliar, too set in stone, immobile,dead. They live inside of me, all fifteen names, every pop, every shout, every second of it, lapsing interminably, woven with prayers, begging, unfulfilled promises, an endless thread, winding in and out of my nightmare, stitched eternally inside the pupil of a teenager, looking 20 years into the future, to the site where his son is patiently listening to his head teacher, assiduously taking note, safe in knowing that death can’t be lurking outside the door. Innocent, blameless, ignoring that adults had failed us and that we, as adults, are failing them. The echo still exists in Parkland, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, senseless copycats, shooting through our minds like flying bullets, unheeded warnings, useless tragedies, unfolding again and again, blackening the pages ,without a full stop.