So I’d just survived a shooting, and there was something oddly comforting about being back in the midst of all of those awful memories. Maybe it was that sweet feeling of knowing I wasn’t going to die after all, that I got to live – and believe me, that feeling is even better than closing your eyes to take the world’s most-needed nap – or maybe I felt like if I moved on from this incident, that would mean that it must not have been that scary or that real. Maybe I felt like if I stopped thinking about it and bringing it up to every new person I met, no one would talk about it and it would just be that one thing that happened that one time and “I bet that must have been scary, wasn’t it?”
It was a classic case of wrong place, wrong time, and I can write and rewrite my account of what happened, but the truth is that no words will ever do the experience justice. Partly because there are still things I can’t remember, but mostly because there are no words in any language that can encompass what it feels like to know you’re going to die.
I had an unnaturally difficult time peeling myself off the couch that morning to cover a friend’s shift at American Eagle, and I’m pretty sure I clocked in three minutes late. I remember being stuck behind an extraordinarily slow old man as I walked through the food court and every time I would make a break to get around him one way, he would decide that that direction was his new path.
I was folding a stack of men’s jeans when the first two shots rang out. And I hate using the phrase “rang out” because it sounds almost noble, like “let freedom ring”, when in actuality it was more like everything evil in the world encompassed into a single noise. And the first two shots almost sounded cautious, because no one knew what they were. I looked up and through the windows of my store, but I couldn’t see anything, so I went back to my stack of jeans.
A little anatomy lesson of the Columbia Mall for anyone (most people reading this, probably) who hasn’t been there before – the food court is on the lower level, and American Eagle is in the back of it. Zumies, the store where the shooting took place, is directly overtop of the food court and diagonal to American Eagle. At the time, though, no one had any idea what was going on. I was positive that he was on the lower level, in the food court, as were most other people who were with us.
There were four shots next. During shots number three and four I lifted my head and slow realization came over me. At the same time, an audible confusion could be heard outside the doors of my store, and the last thing I remember was the sound of the confusion growing into screams and the pounding of feet on the wooden floor of my store and – and nothing. My body reacted so quickly and with such a fierce burst of adrenaline that I’m almost positive my mind was still standing in the same spot for the next few minutes, because I can’t remember anything until I found myself next to my manager in the back of the store. Her hands were shaking so hard that it took longer to unlock the emergency exit than it should have.
“Does this lead outside? Does it?” Was all I could say. The words didn’t have much meaning and no one was listening to answer my question. It was just a noise to make, like the braying of an injured animal.
My manager finally got the emergency exit open and we ran. I remember thinking that this door was going to lead to outside and I was going to hit the pavement and run the highway home at a pace that would make my former lacrosse coach proud. But I was wrong and in front of me were the familiar employee tunnels of the mall – cement walls, floors, and ceilings, unmarked doors, pretty much any type of shady alley you could picture a killer hiding in. But it didn’t matter to me. I was in survival mode. I ran anyways, I was near the front of the group. I was sore for days after from the exertion. People were banging on the doors of offices as we ran by, yelling that there was a shooter. The words sounded ridiculous; it was like something out of a movie. I mean, there is no feeling like this, you can imagine it but you can never feel it until you are there. A shooter, a fucking man with a gun that wants to kill. You can watch all of the news coverage of homicides and school shootings and mass murders you want, but the average human mind (and when I say average, I mean someone fortunate enough to never have had their life threatened) just cannot wrap their mind around it.
When the tunnel ended we were at a dead end. Someone asked me what had happened. The whooshing sound in my ears stopped, like I’d just broken the surface after being underwater, and I looked at her like she was the first human being I’d ever seen. “There’s a shooter,” I said plainly. I could barely get the words out. I directed the group of people that were near me to call the police since I didn’t have my cellphone. And then we waited.
Human nature in the face of death is interesting. There were many parents who cuddled their children in the corners and murmured soft things to them. Some men broke off the handles of mops and fashioned them into weapons. A group of women stood in a circle and prayed. I prayed too, for the first time in years. And I really meant it. The looks on people’s faces are what really got to me afterwards. We were all random people brought together on what had to be the worst day of all of our lives, and the look of complete vulnerability and devastation on their faces is something that felt strange and wrong for me to have been witnessing. I shouldn’t have been seeing the way they dealt with their most private emotions, but I was.
Where the shooter was at that time or whether he was even still alive was irrelevant. To me and to most other people in that hallway, he was coming down that tunnel for us. I waited to hear the screams again that would signal his approach. Maybe there would be a gunshot; perhaps someone would get shot before I did. I reasoned with myself, figuring that my chances of being shot in the abdomen were high and mentally preparing myself to bleed out in this cement tube. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I was going to die. I told myself that it would hurt but I would power through it, and then I would be gone and feel nothing. Those were my most calm thoughts. I called my mom preparing to say goodbye, but never said so because she was asking too many questions about what I saw and where I was. So I hung up. I called my twin sister, and she said she spoke to a 911 operator. “It’s just one guy with a rifle.” She sounded excited, as if that meant we were going to be fine. I told her I had to go. So I kept my goodbyes to myself and silently said them to everyone else I knew – my best friends, my dog, that boy who I shouldn’t care about saying goodbye to but I did care, so much. I thought how I was only eighteen, how I didn’t even know what college I was going to, how I had all these plans to become a surgeon but my destiny all along was to become a number in the body count of victims on the news report later that night. Most of all, I waited for the SWAT to come in, machine guns in hand, waving us down the hall with tinted visor-helmets. But they didn’t come.
They did come eventually, but several hours later. My group was not so shelter-in-place, like most other mall employees had been. We were survivalists. We eventually found a way out of the tunnels and ran, scaling walls and checking empty police car after empty police car and finally taking shelter in a restaurant that locked its doors behind us.
Since then I feel like I’ve been picking up pieces of myself and sticking them back together. Some of the pieces, I think, were lost in that tunnel and are now gathering dust in its corners. I don’t think I’ll ever get those pieces back, but new ones will grow. I spent the first week listening to music from the Forrest Gump soundtrack and knitting in my bed, going through what happened over and over again in my head. It is hard to sit in school. To me, the kids that are concentrating on calculus are idiots, they’re not ready to fight to survive and they’re not looking for threats. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is that whenever I meet new people, I want to tell them that I was there, as if this experience has become an important identifier of myself. More accurately, I want to offer it as an excuse for every behavior I display, because the memory of it is all around me, like a ghost that nobody else can see.
And as time has gone on, it gets a little easier to concentrate, although periodically I’ll stare blankly, transfixed, running through gruesome scenarios in my head in which a man walks into school with a gun and shoots the secretary in the face; in which I hear the familiar sound of a weapon firing and the shrieking of two hundred students in the cafeteria from where I’m sitting in class and I go back into survival autopilot to escape; in which I am forced to hide yet again from a killer and maybe this time I might have a familiar pair of arms wrapped around me.
Horrible memories aside, I was meant to be there that day. I’m glad I was there. I had been planning on becoming a surgeon because I wanted to save lives, but now I know firsthand what it is like to look death in the face and walk away from it. It is all I could have done for the situation – I don’t have my full medical training yet, I’m not a SWAT member – the only thing I could have done is taken the place of someone who would have had to go through this mental trauma. And I welcome that.
There are times when I feel like I’m still in those cement tubes, and there are times when I realize I made it home safe. If they ever did figure out why that man came into the Columbia Mall with a single barrel rifle that day, I was never told. They closed the store down where the shooting happened and turned it into a sad wall for people to write sad things on. A few weeks after the shooting, news coverage of it stopped and the memory of it sank right beneath the surface, the ripples of its presence smoothed out with time.
And in the closing scene of this exploratory piece based around the most tragic occurrence in my short adulthood thus far, I return to the restaurant I hid in after the shooting. I am with two of my best friends. We eat a normal meal, and the sun that slants through the blinds lights the corners of room and leaves no shadows for ghosts to gather in. I see employees there who had lent me their cellphones that day, back to their normal routine at work, and I don’t say hello; I just watch them. I do not cry. The truth is that people die every day and these tragedies form unbreakable strings attached within oneself and to other people as well, and there’s no explanation for it, and the realization of this is both jarring and spectacular. After dinner, I go to a basketball game and everyone I know is there, even the boy who I shouldn’t have cared about saying goodbye to that day, but I did care, so much. I sing loudly in the car on the way to McDonald’s afterwards and fall asleep on my kitchen floor that night. And the sky is quiet above me, and the house around me is safe and secure.
And life goes on.