60: Still Here

60: Still Here

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Still Here

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

~Winston Churchill

He is wearing the same knit beanie cap they described on CNN. His face, emotionless, scans the audience at random, pausing when he detects his next target. I am sitting there, in that poorly lit auditorium, in the same chair where I always sat during that same class two years ago, surveying his every evil motion. He moves with a sort of order and ease, as if he has been planning this attack since birth. He looks at me, and I at him. His steely gaze holds me for a moment, as I realize I am looking into the eyes of Satan himself.

And then I wake up. Unbearably cold, yet ironically sweaty, I sit up in bed and adjust my eyes to the darkness around me. He is gone, along with the hard metal rows of seats and the sheer panic and disorder of the classroom.

• • •

I was hoping for roses. Two hours away from my boyfriend, on love’s biggest holiday, I was secretly wishing for a bouquet of flowers. It was as if he had read my mind when I heard a knock that Thursday afternoon. I had just come back from campus, and was watching a stupid talk show because nothing else was on. The delivery guy wished me a happy Valentine’s Day as he handed me a large package that I knew to be flowers, and I wished him the same as I smiled back.

The arrival of the twelve red roses marked my last ten minutes of normalcy and security as a twenty-two-year-old girl. I wish I had used those ten minutes differently. I should have gone walking and absorbed the beauty around me, as I often did when I was a child. I never suspected that the beauty would disappear for me in just a matter of minutes, nor did I imagine that it would take so long to come back to me. I should’ve captured that world before it lost its innocence.

I was thanking my boyfriend for the thoughtful flowers when my call waiting beeped. My roommate was calling while she waited for the bus after her last class. I clicked over, excited to tell her that I skipped my last class to come home early in hope of flowers. I never got the chance to mention the roses. She was out of breath and panicky as she told me of a shooting in Cole Hall. She knew nothing else, only that a teacher had told them to stay in their building because someone said something about a gunman.

I went online to find a yellow alert on the school’s webpage. “Possible gunman on campus,” it read. “Get to a safe area and take precautions.” My mind reeling, I wondered what a safe area consisted of. Was my apartment, five minutes from campus, a “safe area?” Was a crazed maniac with a gun on the loose, seeking shelter from the police in any apartment he could find? I checked all my windows to make sure they were locked.

In a panic, I tried to call my father, only to find my phone had stopped working. I dialed again, and again, and yet again... still my numerous attempts at reaching the outside world floundered. Now, in a full-fledged panic, I found myself cursing Verizon Wireless. My thought process and reason delayed, it finally occurred to me to turn the television station to the news. And there it was — my school! There were all of my buildings on national news; all of my former safe places were now a scene of sheer chaos and panic. I did not cry. I did not move. I sat in front of the screen that had moments before displayed smut entertainment and watched as my school fell apart at the hands of brutality. What had once been Columbine and Virginia Tech was now Northern Illinois University.

After I discovered that no cell phones were working, I realized that Verizon Wireless had not failed me after all. The hardest realization, however, and perhaps the most frightening, was that my school had not failed me, either. I could not point a finger at NIU officials or our police officers or our professors. There was no blame to be placed on my fellow students or my friends or my family. For the first time in my seemingly short life, I could not hold anyone accountable for my gut-wrenching pain. The only person I could blame for creating this living hell was Steven Kazmierczak, who, in killing himself and five amazing individuals, also murdered my sense of safety and security.

More than two weeks later, away from the quiet rage and hurt we were all experiencing on our beloved campus, I sat in a dark movie theater and tried to focus on some dumb comedy my boyfriend had convinced me to see. He nudged me throughout the film, asking why I wasn’t laughing. Didn’t I find the movie funny? How could I explain to him, to everyone so far removed from February 14th, that I couldn’t see the humor in the movie because I was too busy looking at the audience. Did anyone seem out of place? Could someone have brought a gun into the theater? Could I die tonight? I calculated which exit I would crawl to if the situation arose. A friend later asked me if the movie was worth seeing. I had no idea.

In class the other day, a counselor brought up symptoms of grief and depression. She grabbed my attention when she brought up the term “survivor’s guilt.” Was it possible that I felt guilty for not being in that classroom on Thursday? This idea seemed preposterous to me. Of course I did not feel guilt... did I?

Alone with my unbearable thoughts, I now know what that counselor was talking about. I don’t know if guilt is quite the right word, but I am experiencing something very similar. For some unknown reason, Steven Kazmierczak did not select my particular classrooms that day. He could have. He very well could have. Had he woken up earlier in the morning, was there a chance he would have picked the building next to Cole — the building where I sat bored and inattentive, oblivious to what would unfold just hours later? Did I see him that afternoon? Was he parking his car as I was leaving campus? The questions will not stop, and although I am fully aware I will never find answers, my mind will not sit still. We will never know why it was Cole Hall, but indeed it was, and I am still here. I cannot make any sense of this.

My roses died that night — fittingly, it may seem. They must’ve realized the joy they momentarily brought was over, and their deep red color made me cringe. It was the same red that soaked the dirty snow outside Cole Hall — the same red that seeped from the wounds of my fellow, fallen Huskies.

• • •

I put on my brown, furry snow boots, kick at the snow, and wait for the bus. It eventually arrives and I take my seat with the other students as we head off to campus — tired, deprived of dreamless sleep, and eerily quiet. We look at each other, though. For once in my four years at this school, we actually really look at each other. And we feel the pain, and we bear the hurt, and we share the agony of that day. We wear our red and black ribbons over our shattered hearts, and we keep going. The bus drives on and we look out the windows, hopeful that one day it will take us back to the harmlessness of yesterday. For a moment, as we pass untouched snow and aged oak trees, it seems almost possible. I close my eyes and take it all in.

The brakes of the Huskie Bus signal our stop, and I open my eyes. We are stopped in front of Cole Hall.

~Stefanie Smith

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