Knock, Knock – A fiction short story addressing friends, support, and school shootings.
Recently I entered the Iron Pen writing contest and was challenged to write a short story in 24 hours based on the prompt “If I don’t have real answers, it is because we still don’t know what questions to ask.” I didn’t win. Or did I? I explored a tough topic through writing.
I wrote Knock, Knock – a fiction short story that explores a different aspect of school shootings than gun control. As a physician, I know the lack of access to and understanding of mental health must play a role in the discussion. This story is FICTION, but it may trigger conversation about mutual respect and empathy. The story is below:
Three weeks, three days, and one hour ago I hovered under a desk trembling, bawling, and peeing my pants as bullets bounced off the white board and screams echoed off lockers. Now I sat in AP History listening to the teacher ramble on about Manifest Destiny. I stared at the teacher’s face because she was not Mrs. Phipps; Mrs. Phipps was dead. Shot three times and then collapsed next to me on the floor. Her blood stained my white Converse shoes.
But I survived.
Allegheny High School proceeded as usual, minus Mrs. Phipps, six students, three additional teachers, and . . . Pete. The hallways filled with zombie students walking with hollow, dark eyes missing their souls as they mimicked the motions of normal. We were robbed of normal three weeks ago.
The bell rang and the usual rush out of the classroom was replaced with shuffling feet and murmurs. I shoved my books into my bag and bee-lined toward my locker.
“Emily, wait up!” Morgan pranced down the hallway in her pink dress and chunky heels with sculpted makeup oblivious to the surrounding mood. Morgan never spoke to me so I was afraid to know what she wanted.
“Hey, Morgan.” I tossed my stuff in my locker and grabbed my Calculus book. Morgan leaned in close and twirled her golden locks.
Her eyes twinkled, not like a princess but more like Maleficent. “You knew him, didn’t you?”
My stomach dropped and sweat formed on my palms. I played dumb, closed my locker, and started toward class without looking up. “What? Knew who?”
Morgan grabbed my arm with her manicured red claws. “Pete. The guy who shot my best friend!”
The hallway silenced and everyone turned toward us. I trembled inside and my cheeks flushed, fighting the urge to smash my calculus book across Morgan’s face. But I didn’t want lipstick on my book. I took a deep breath and looked deep into Morgan’s eyes. “I knew Pete. He was my friend.”
As gasps and whispers erupted down the hallway, I walked away. Everything inside my body told me to sprint out the door and keep going, but I stayed.
Pete murdered ten people three weeks ago. He left school after lunch and returned with his father’s gun. He opened fire in the school hallway and classrooms while screaming “NOBODY WILL HELP ME!” A police team eventually came and Pete gave up willingly in a puddle of tears. He currently resided in jail at seventeen years old.
Pete had a crush on me. He wrote notes, slipped them into my locker, or dropped them into my notebooks. When I told him that I wasn’t interested, he moped the hallways with head hanging and he didn’t shower for a week. Finally, out of sympathy and in the name of good hygiene, I explained to Pete that I wasn’t interested in ANY men. Pete was the first person I came out to, and we soon shared a bond of swapping stories, jokes, and worries.
As I now walked into calculus class, the shock wave that Morgan started in the hallway caught up with me. I sat in the back of the class with my head down as the murmurs grew.
“Emily, you knew Pete?” Nate plopped into the desk beside me. “Did you know he was going to do it?”
More voices chimed in. “Yeah, did you know?”
“Why didn’t you stop him?” Lily stomped her foot and pointed her finger at me.
While the interrogation was underway, Mr. Breese walked into his room. “What’s going on here?”
Mr. Breese sat on his desk with arms across his chest. “Everyone sit down. Nobody will be pointing fingers or placing blame. Hasn’t there been enough pain in this school already?”
I couldn’t look up. I knew eyes leered my way and anger shot my direction. Pete’s actions became mine by association. My churning stomach forced me to scan for the nearest trashcan as breakfast refused to sit quietly. Mr. Breese met my eyes with a nod and a smile, and I warmed with his blanket of support. He said, “This is the first day back to school and emotions are high. Let’s talk about it. What’s on your minds?”
Lily shot her hand into the air. “What will happen to Pete?”
Mr. Breese shifted on his desk. “He’s undergoing evaluations, and I don’t know what will happen to Pete. Hopefully he will get help but also pay the consequences for his actions.”
My mind focuses on get help. That’s all Pete ever wanted. He always said he couldn’t “think straight” and he couldn’t “control his thoughts” at times. His parents took him to dozens of specialists, psychiatrists, counselors, and he tried a rainbow of pills. Pete wanted help and he screamed, “Nobody will help me” as he fired the gun. I fought the tears. If only I had known he was that desperate.
Sydney raised her hand. “How do we prevent it from happening again? We had locked doors and a guard and Pete still shot everyone. Why? I’m scared.”
Nods of agreement around the room with wide eyes looking to Mr. Breese for the answer.
He stood up and paced while he squeezed his fists. “If I don’t have real answers, it is because we still don’t know what questions to ask.” He concentrated on the frightened faces. “We will do everything to protect you in this school, but I can’t explain why Pete did this.”
Lily raised her hand again. “Pete should get the death penalty. He killed Madison, Mr. Jepson, Olivia, Sara, Ms. Slattery, and all the others!”
I couldn’t take it any longer. “Stop it!” I stood and tears ran down my cheeks, and I did nothing to hold back. “Just stop.”
Mr. Breese walked toward me with arms held out warily, not sure if I was ready to explode or collapse. “Emily, it’s okay. Do you want to go see the counselor?”
“No.” Deep breath.
Blood stained Converse.
I was not the type of person to seek attention and usually hid in the back of the room, but not today. My voice needed to be heard. I walked to the front, and despite my sweatpants and baggy T-shirt, I commanded the room.
“My name is Emily, and Pete Stout is a friend of mine. Pete is awkward, weird, and quiet but he is also hilarious, loves pugs, the Simpsons, and knock-knock jokes. He has a little brother named Sam and a guinea pig named Gus. Pete sometimes heard voices in his head, some days he got really sad, and some days he worried about everything. He needed someone to talk to and I listened. But all I can think about this last three weeks is what did I miss? What did I not hear and how could I have listened harder. I didn’t know Pete was going to shoot anybody and I didn’t know he was so desperate.”
I wiped my face on my sleeve because the tears and snot dripped onto the floor. Gaping mouths stared at me. Lily shut up. I continued, “I know what Pete did was awful and terribly wrong. I feel sick for those we lost and will never see again. But I also wonder if we could have prevented it by listening more to Pete. Maybe they’d all still be here.”
Mr. Breese walked over and wrapped his arms around my shoulders in a hug. The room was quiet.
Nathan cleared his throat and raised his hand. “Mr. Breese, can I say something?”
Mr. Breese released our tearful, wet tangle of a hug. “Go ahead, Nathan.”
“What if we started a group? A sort of support group for students to vent their problems to each other.” Nathan raised his eyebrows with uncertainty.
Sydney sat up straight in her chair. “Yeah! We could meet over lunch or during study halls and anyone could come if they need to talk. If it was run by students, then kids may be more comfortable talking.”
Wyatt grumbled from the corner. “Can I bitch about my old man drinking all the time?” The class turned to look at him.
With a sympathetic smile, Sydney said, “Yes.”
Wyatt dropped his eyes to his desk, but the corner of his lips tweaked into a semblance of a grin.
“I would come.” Lily added. “I get so stressed out with classes, dance, the play, and orchestra that sometimes I want to scream.”
Mr. Breese stood up. “This is an excellent idea, but I think having an adult available would be important. When a problem hits, sometimes having an adult to troubleshoot helps.”
I couldn’t believe it. They were brainstorming ways to prevent this from happening again. If a group like this had been around when Pete was here, he might have had an outlet to vent his frustrations. Voices in the room chattered and ideas flew around as Mr. Breese wrote them down on the board.
The S.O.S was formed – Student Organized Support could help anyone that needed to talk about parents, girlfriends, divorce, grades, sports, or anything they wanted. Emily wished she could have helped Pete before the tragedy. She wished she could have saved lives, but after later talking to S.O.S she knew all of the responsibility was not on her shoulders and her guilt lessened.
Emily closed her eyes to envision the faces of the many students and teachers now gone forever, and the Pete she once knew.
Amos you, too.