On October 16th, 2009, a boy by the name of Finn Carlton walked into the band room of my high school and closed the door behind him. He pulled a pistol from his coat pocket and fired six shots. Then he tied his belt around a pipe on the ceiling and hanged himself.
Six shots; seven bodies. That’s what the authorities found when they entered the room. Finn’s victims were apparently made to kneel in a straight line before they were executed, and their half-eaten lunches had been spoiled by the carnage. Six rounds. Six heads. One bullet each.
Chloe Cannon—15 years old, loved the color blue, played the French horn. Cute in a mousy sort of way. Murdered.
Xavier Mayweather—15 years old, on the track team, always rode his bike to school. Murdered.
Ronald “RJ” Saldaz—16 years old, had a notebook he sketched in, already bought his tickets to the midnight premiere of the new Harry Potter movie. Murdered.
Zach Trainor—15 years old, 280 pounds, played the tuba. Refused, several times, to join the football team. Murdered.
Marianne Ortega—15 years old, barely spoke English, liked horror films. Murdered.
Christopher Carlton—16 years old, played the French horn, secretly dating Chloe Cannon. Murdered. By his older brother, no less.
I didn’t know any of these students in life. But I know them all too well in death. And I hate each one of them with my whole heart.
This all went down during my junior year. Our school was closed for a few days, but it’s amazing how quickly business as usual returns. A grief assembly, a memorial plaque in the band room, and bam—it’s like everyone’s forgotten. Everyone’s moved on. Everyone except me.
Myself, I never experienced the grief. I didn’t know any of these kids, and while I felt for my peers who were close to them, my life wasn’t really affected by their gruesome ends. Sure, there was the existential shock, the “life is fleeting” realization, but I’d already lost a sibling in a freak accident years before. I was familiar with death. That’s why, in the weeks following the tragedy, I didn’t have any trouble sleeping.
So there I was, a month after the shooting, on a school night, not having any trouble sleeping. I had forgotten to silence my phone, so when I got a text, it buzzed on the wooden nightstand near my bed. Groggily, I rolled over to check it and was instantly jerked awake by what I read:
IM GOING TO KILL HER BOTH OF THEM SURE WHY NOT
“Jesus,” I muttered, eyes fixed on the macabre message, a threatening collection of black pixels backed by a heartless electric glow. I found a morbid fascination then, as I do now, in letters—meaningless squiggles, by themselves, which can combine to strike with more terror than the steepest cliff or the most menacing beast. The combination of these particular squiggles drilled a strangely familiar fear into my heart.
I glanced to see what number the message had come from, but that field was blank. It appeared as though the text had not been sent by anything at all. Frantically, I hit reply: “What? Who is this??” I waited for a few minutes, but received no response. Unsettled, I got out of bed and turned on the light. I wanted to do something, I just didn’t know what. Finally, after staring around my room for a moment, I decided I’d splash my face with water.
I went to the bathroom and looked myself in the mirror. A good, long, hard look. Staring myself down, willing myself to get a grip. Finally, I splashed my face with the icy pour from the tap. I patted dry with the hand towel and went back into my room. My phone’s LED was blinking from the nightstand—I’d received a text message. I shut the door, turned off the lights and took a step toward my bed, wondering somewhat anxiously if the new message was a reply from whoever had sent the previous one. But I’d barely moved before I stopped dead in my tracks.
I wasn’t alone. There, hovering in front of my nightstand, faintly luminescent and barely visible, was a girl—a tiny, mousy-looking girl, a girl who was strangely pretty in a non-obvious way, a girl who would never celebrate her Sweet 16 or stretch her undersized legs to reach the pedals of a car. A girl who was dead.
Chloe Cannon wore a thin blue nightgown that reached her knees. Her feet did not touch my floor. She bobbed slightly, up and down in the air, seemingly staring not at me but at a point in the wall directly behind me. She appeared both solid and not—her skin had a distinct silver pallor yet I could see the light on my phone blinking through her torso. Her face looked vaguely sad. I could not move; I could not speak.
We remained still, together, for what felt an eternity. Finally, I convinced myself that I was imagining things. I took a step toward her. Then another. Another. But not another. I could not bring myself to step closer, because as I neared her, her face began to change. Her left cheekbone began to sag. Her skull began to dent. Her eyeball began to rotate and protrude from its socket. A dark spot began to appear amid her fine, silvery hair. I backed away in horror and the bullet’s fatal blow faded from sight as quickly and seamlessly as it had appeared. In desperate panic, I flicked the light switch up.
She was gone. I heaved a sigh of relief. I had been seeing things. I thought perhaps the shooting had affected me more than I’d let myself believe. Still, my knees wobbled—I could barely even stand. Bracing myself against the wall with my arm, I stared at the blinking notification light on my phone. Eventually, my curiosity over who had sent that morbid message was too much. I flicked off the light—no hovering girl, that was good—and scrambled into bed. Safely under my covers, I grabbed my phone and opened the second text message. This time, I found no morbid fascination in the squiggles before me. These five letters and two punctuation marks, backed by a harsh glow in the comfortless dark, carried only dread.
I didn’t know Finn Carlton. To this day, when people hear what high school I went to, they usually ask me if I was acquainted with the scrawny kid who murdered his brother and five others before stringing himself up in the pipes. They ask it with a sort of reality-show fascination, and it feels like they’re only asking so they can later tell their equally fascinated friends that they knew a guy who knew the guy. And their face always falls a bit when I say no, no I didn’t. I’d never seen him before.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. Finn actually didn’t live too far from me, and we both walked home from school most days. I was a year younger than him, and we truly didn’t know one another in the least. Not a word was ever exchanged between us. Still, I knew who he was. I stared at his backpack some days on my way home—black, with bright green trim. The green was my favorite shade. I have to admit, it was a pretty cool backpack.
I suppose part of the reason I tell people I didn’t know Finn is that it’s simpler than going into detail about how I really didn’t know him but I knew of him and sometimes stared at his backpack when I walked home from school. But there’s another reason, too, and I’m reminded of it every time his victims come to me, when I’m scared and cold and in lonely moments: I’m ashamed.
I checked myself into a loony bin (oh, pardon me, a psychiatric hospital) the year after I graduated. That’s how bad things had gotten. I’d never seen Chloe again, but I’d seen all the others. By this point, Xavier and Zach chilled in my room practically every night. They never hurt me—but if I got too close, their faces would fall out of place and their death wounds emerge.
If I’m being perfectly honest, they didn’t scare me that much. They didn’t seem to bear me ill will—apart from that bizarre message the night I saw Chloe, they seemed content to merely hang about, and their presence had become almost comforting. If they were real, I figured I could handle that. No, what truly frightened me was the idea that they might not be real, that I might in fact be out of my fucking mind. All I wanted was to live a normal life. Xavier, Zach and the others weren’t getting in the way of that, but a mental illness certainly would.
I thought it would be an easy process—“Hey, doc, I’m going nuts, can you lock me up for a while and hit me with some meds?”—but it’s not that simple. As it turns out, there’s a lot involved in admitting oneself into the farm, not the least of which is a series of probing interviews with psychiatric professionals. I know they mean well, but in my experience, chats with these quacks usually do more harm than good. They drag up stuff that your mind hides, and sometimes your mind hides that stuff for a reason. I must have met a dozen people who went in for a five-minute checkup and came out remembering how their uncle used to touch them when they were kids.
For me, it didn’t happen quite that way. I was in my third and final interview, this one with the head of the institution herself, when I finally remembered. It wasn’t gradual. It came all at once. I broke down sobbing, realizing what I’d done, what responsibility I bore. It’s a surreal experience, to forget. Not just to have something slip your mind, like where you put your keys, but to really, truly, forget. I wish I had forgotten forever.
Seeming a bit taken aback by my outburst, the hospital administrator signed a piece of paper and tried to hand it to me, telling me it would account for at least a ninety-day stay. But I barely heard. I wiped the snot from my nose, blinking back tears, and stared behind her in horror, where Chloe Cannon hovered, the strange sad look still etched on her face. It was the first time I had seen her since that night, long ago, in my room. I pointed behind the lady, shrieking.
“She’s there! She’s there!”
Now thoroughly alarmed, the administrator whipped her head around, and then, apparently seeing nobody, pressed a button on her desk. The paper she had been trying to hand over fluttered to the ground. As the men in the white coats came to restrain me, I wrenched my gaze from Chloe and looked at the paper, face up on the concrete floor. And as they dragged me from the room, I saw a message written, in the unmistakable handwriting of a teenage girl, where the administrator had signed:
WITH MY DADS GUN I GUESS OF COURSE I KNOW WHERE HE KEEPS IT
Chloe’s face, twisted in a cruel smirk, was the last thing I saw before all went black.
October 15th, 2009. Chloe Cannon and her friends had less than 24 hours to live. Of course, they didn’t know that then. Nobody did. It was just a regular day in our regular town.
School had been out for half an hour, and I was on my way home—and who was right in front of me? You guessed it, boys and girls, Finn Carlton. I walked a few dozen paces behind him, my feet crunching the leaves on the sidewalk, my breath barely visible in the brisk autumn air. I stared at the green trim on his black backpack. God, it was a good-looking backpack.
His head hung and his shoulders were slumped. That was odd. I mean, the kid never had great posture, but on this day he looked like his books weighed a hundred pounds. He was sniffling a lot, too. I can’t be sure, but I think he was crying.
I didn’t care much about that, though. Finn Carlton’s problems were none of my concern—at least, that’s what I thought at the time. No, most of my thoughts were on my mother. She didn’t have work that day, and that usually meant she had a damn fine meal waiting for the family at home. And I know you all think your mothers can cook a damn fine meal, but trust me, they wouldn’t even compare.
Anyway, Finn had barely even crossed my mind until he reached in his pocket. He pulled out a ringing cell (a flip phone—2009 was a simpler time) and answered it.
“What do you want?” His voice seemed thick, like a guy trying to sound more masculine than he felt.
At first, my ears barely even registered the first half of the conversation.
“No, I can’t . . . I can’t ask her . . . Because, man, I think you already know . . . Dude, she’s with Chris . . . Yes, my brother Chris, what other fucking Chris would I be talking about?”
My ears perked up a bit. Drama. Just what I needed to take the boredom out of this brutally dull walk. I quickened my stride somewhat, hoping to get a bit closer and catch more of the conversation. I took care to avoid the leaves on the sidewalk, not wanting to draw Finn’s attention to my presence. He continued:
“No, I’m not guessing, I saw them kiss . . . I don’t know, next to the band room . . . Are you fucking high? Of course it was her . . . Yeah, you’re telling me. I feel like shit. I’m losing my fucking mind over here.”
I didn’t know who the girl he mentioned was, but I did know of his brother Chris. He was a year younger than me, and it always struck me as strange that he and Finn were related—while Finn was quiet, scrawny, and a bit morose-seeming, Chris was a handsome, upbeat kid who gave off the impression that he was going places in life.
“Oh yeah, dude, that was the last straw,” Finn continued, his voice shaking with rage. “You have no fucking idea how done I am with this shit.” Then he was silent for a long time. Finally, he spoke again, and his voice sounded different. Lower. Meaner.
“I’m going to kill her . . . Both of them, sure. Why not?”
My blood instantly turned to ice. I stopped dead in my tracks. Did he just say what I think he just said?
Finn laughed, a harsh, excited laugh, then spoke again. “With my dad’s gun, I guess . . . Of course I know where he keeps it.”
My head was reeling. I stood, alone, on the sidewalk, my breath short and my heartbeat quick. I tried to force what I had just heard from my mind. Surely he couldn’t be serious. But God, he sounded like he was. He sounded deadly serious. I don’t think I’ve heard that tone of voice from anyone else in my life.
Finn had continued walking and was almost out of earshot. He stepped further and further away, and I had no interest in hearing any more of his conversation. I felt sick to my stomach. I was only close enough to hear one final sentence before he trailed off:
“I don’t know, man—tomorrow’s as good a day as any.”
It happened the next day, at lunch. I was in the cafeteria, sitting at the usual table with the usual people, when a pop, muffled but clearly audible, rang through the air. A few seconds passed, then another. Another. Another. By the third pop, the cafeteria was silent. By the sixth, pandemonium had ensued. Students trampled over one another in their flight to the west exit, away from that sound. Teachers tried unsuccessfully to give the mob order. Everyone—myself included—was getting the hell out of there.
As I ran with the crowd, my thoughts were with Finn Carlton, who was presently undoing his belt and staring at a pipe on the ceiling of the locked band room. Those pops rang in my head, grisly echoes playing over and over and over, getting louder and louder and louder. This is your fault, is all I can think. This is your fault.
The final knock on my cell door awoke me. Perhaps cell is too harsh a word—it was a nice room. They took good care of me. Still, when I climbed out of bed and saw those beautiful words on my calendar—DAY 90—I dressed with a little pep in my step.
I could have left at any time, of course, but the paperwork would have been so complicated. That, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do on the outside. So I stayed, for three long months, talking to therapists and swallowing pills and sharing my feelings in hilarious group circles with other inmates who were actually crazy. And that’s the thing, the one thing I learned from my time in the funny farm: They were crazy. I wasn’t.
No, Chloe Cannon was real, in life and in death—as real as my fingers flying over my keyboard right now, telling you my story. Her secret boyfriend, Christopher Carlton, he’s real too. So is Xavier Mayweather, and Marianne Ortega, and RJ Saldaz, and every last pound of big Zach Trainor. They’re all real, realer to me than they ever were alive, even though they’re all lying in the frozen December ground with traces of lead still in their heads. They’re all real, and they won’t leave me alone, and why should they?
I’m the reason RJ never got to use those Harry Potter tickets. The newspapers reported tirelessly on the victims after the shooting, and one of the details they really harped on was that RJ was a huge Harry Potter fan and that he’d bought tickets for the upcoming midnight premiere months in advance. I think J.K. Rowling even sent some nice shit to his family. I didn’t catch the movie in theaters, but I got it on Redbox a few months later. I wish I could say I was alone when I watched it, but RJ didn’t miss a single frame.
I’m the reason that the kiss shared between Chloe Cannon and Chris Carlton, the kiss they meant to hide but that was seen by a jealous brother anyway, was their last. I’m the reason Xavier never broke five minutes in the mile, the reason Marianne never learned better English, the reason Zach never lost all the weight he’d meant to. I’m the reason they’re all dead.
I got Chloe’s final message in an email two years ago:
TOMORROWS AS GOOD A DAY AS ANY
Though I see her every night, she hasn’t spoken to me since. There’s so much she could say, but I think she’s choosing—somehow, some way—to let it remain unsaid. Isn’t it better if I fill in the gaps?
What’s it like to still be alive?
How can you live with yourself?
You could have saved us.
She never says it. None of them ever do. I don’t even know if they can. But as they crowd around my bed every night, all six of them, I can feel it in their stares. They all want to be alive, and they’ll haunt me as long as I draw the breath they crave. I’m not crazy, I’m not hallucinating, I’m not a freak—I’m simply and overwhelmingly consumed by guilt.
I have a gun that I keep in the corner of my closet, a gun not unlike the one Finn Carlton stole from his dad’s dresser, in a box that you could only find if you’re looking for it. I look for it sometimes. I pull it out sometimes, too. And every once in a while, I put a bullet in it, close the chamber, and hold it to my temple with a trembling, sweaty palm. Every time I do, I feel my six friends, my six tormentors, cheering me on. But I’ve never pulled the trigger. Not yet. I guess the time’s just never seemed right, but perhaps there’s no sense in putting it off any longer. From where I sit now, I can see the box—just the corner, peeking out from the top of my closet. Taunting me. Daring me. When will I give in?
I don’t know, man—tomorrow’s as good a day as any.