At School, a Shooting

This piece caught the attention of our judge, Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell, with its "economy, directness, and searing honesty." She writes, "Like the best writing, it asks more questions than it answers, and succeeds at transferring the author's visceral feelings and concerns into the reader's body." The author is a 2011 graduate.


When I try to pay for my coffee, the woman—girl, maybe—refuses. “We all need a little love right now,” she says, smiling. I insist that she take my money. She refuses again. “I’m not going to take your money, sir.” She seems concerned now, her smile waning. I think she can feel how much I need this transaction to be normal. Coffee’s free all over the city, she tells me, because everyone in Roseburg needs love today. She doesn’t say it’s because of the shooting. I don’t know if that’s the company line or her personal choice. But even unspoken, the silence between us is electrified by it. First it’s in my chest, heavy and hot, and it next moves up into my head, filling it with buzz and hum. Then it’s in my eyes, and I finally recognize the feeling. I’m about to cry, for the first time in two days. 

But I don’t. I smile, and I say thank you, and I drive back to my parents’ house. I’m breathing heavier, and my heart is racing, but I haven’t cried yet. I won’t do that until the funeral.

Thirty-six hours earlier, I was working in a Starbucks, trying to use the change of scenery to get over a little writer’s block. Like any good millennial I was checking Facebook. And just after 11 I saw my news feed fill with the same headline: “BREAKING NEWS: Police responding to an active shooting at Umpqua Community College. Police reporting that one person has been shot.” I wish I could remember what I thought about first, how I was feeling, but I can’t. Another person used my hands to text my mother: “Where is Bryce?” Bryce is my brother, and a student there. She responds a minute later, maybe two: “At home. He didn’t have class today.” I couldn’t text my brother first. I couldn’t sit in a crowded Starbucks and wait for him to tell me he wasn’t dead.

Next I text my aunt. She is a student there, too. “Yo, are you ok? I just heard about the shooting.” Five minutes later, she replies: “Yes.” Later she will call me and tell me about how she was on her way to the bathroom before class. About how a friend of hers came around the corner, running. Screaming. About how they ran, and about how she wondered if she was too slow and old to get away. About being in lockdown. About waiting.

Next I call my sister. She lives here in Eugene with me now. Today is her fourth day of college. She is crying. So I pack my things, and I get on the bus, and I go to her dorm. We sit in the lounge and watch the news. Her friends from Roseburg filter in and out. The news repeats the things we already know, but we’re not listening. We’re poring over Facebook and Twitter, reading messages like “has anyone seen my son?” and “we haven’t heard from my sister yet.” Go to UCC, some answers say. No, they’re being evacuated to the fairgrounds, say others. (The latter turns out to be true.)

Eventually my sister decides to go to class. I call her later. Nothing is confirmed in the news yet, but some families are sharing their news themselves. A few people she knew from high school, she says. They were all in a writing class, on their fourth day of college. “People keep asking me if I know anyone,” she says. “I don’t know how to explain to them.”

I know exactly what she means. I remember being five years old, sitting next to my mother in a classroom at UCC. I was coloring, and she was going to be a nurse. I remember being seven or eight, sitting next to my dad in psychology class. I was supposed to color, but I remember watching the movies they watched instead. I remember my mom’s graduation, and my grandmother’s, and my dad’s, and my grandfather’s. I remember watching my sister’s dance recitals. Two a year, maybe three, for 10 years. And swimming lessons at the pool there in the summertime. All day, we weren’t waiting to see if we knew someone. In a town like Roseburg, we were sure that we would. We were only counting the degrees that separated us from loss.

In the morning, I got ready for work. I had just finished shaving when my mother texted. “Where are you?” I knew what that meant: someone we knew had been killed. I looked at my phone for a while, deciding what to text back. I called instead. She told me the name. Told me that she didn’t want my sister to be alone when she found out. They were going to release the names soon, my mom said. So I called my sister’s roommate and asked where my sister’s class was. I lied and said I wanted to surprise her with a coffee after her first college quiz. Instead, I escorted her outside, and I told her that the first boy she ever went on a date with, a boy she had known since she was five years old, had been murdered in his writing class on his fourth day of college, and that our mom was with his mom. And I hugged her as she cried, as she said “I want to go home.”

So we go home. Straight to his mother’s house. Now, I’ve been around death. Deaths caused by cancer, by old age, by accidents. But in his mother’s house, I have no words. They dry up in my mouth, in my throat, in my chest. I want to explain what it was like to talk with her, to hear what happened, but those words never came back.

On Monday, my sister and I go back to Eugene. She tries to go back to class and I try to go back to work. She mostly succeeds; I don’t. That night, we go to the candlelight vigil on campus. There are speeches, and some music. People I know from work come and hug me. They tell me they’re sorry for my loss. “It’s not my loss,” I want to tell them. But I am their connection to loss, and so I do my best approximation of a smile and I accept their hugs and their condolences. They say things about guns, about violence, about the National Rifle Association. It’s what good progressives are supposed to say. And even though I agree, I hate them for saying it.

Someone from the local news asks for an interview. My sister and her roommate say yes. As they are prepping, the reporter says that she is from Aurora, Colorado. That her sister bailed on plans to see the premiere of The Dark Night Rises at the theater where a gunman opened fire. “Did you know anyone?” she asks. “It’s a small town,” my sister’s roommate says. “Of course we did.” 

On Friday, the President of the United States visits my high school. He goes into the cafeteria and meets with the families of the dead, who wait for him in circles that each have an empty chair. 

I wonder if anyone told him, before he went inside, that in 2006 a young man was shot in the back right outside that room, just before school started one morning. Some of us were on the way to class. I was on the way to a bus, to go to a debate tournament. Just as we got to the door, everyone stopped, and the crowd parted. We saw blood, and we ran. Our teacher came out, yelling for us to get in the classroom. We packed in like sardines. I borrowed a friend’s cell phone and called my mom. “There’s been a shooting at school,” I told her. “I’m ok.” When I got home later that day, after the police let us leave, my mother hugged me and cried. Sobbed. I didn’t understand why; I was safe, and no one had died.

That doesn’t make the news, at least none that I watch. Instead they show protesters with their signs: “OBAMA GO HOME” and “NOBAMA” mostly. Many are misspelled. The reporters mock them with glee. It’s meaningless. It’s spectacle. So of course it’s live.

On Saturday, we get up, and we get dressed, and we go to a church. It used to be a gymnastics center. I remember walking on the balance beams there when I was four or five. But now it’s a church, and there’s a funeral to go to.

Later, after the funeral, my sister and I are alone. “If I die in a shooting, I want you to do the talking about me,” she says. “I know you’ll know what to say.” I think of being 16, the day after the shooting in 2006. Of my mother, crying.

I have no idea what to say.

—By Drew Terhune

Drew Terhune is a freelance writer and designer with a BA from Oregon in Classics and History.