The early birds get there right at 3:30 p.m. Those of us hosting the shower set our boxes of centerpieces and gifts aside. I wipe snow from my hair. My face tingles with heat. The principal stands at the front of the gymnasium with the fabric of her red dress pulled tight at her belly.
“Today’s meeting is actually a training,” she begins. We wait for those stragglers to file in from the back of the gym to their chairs. They sit still muttering to one another. “Given the circumstances.” The circumstances. (The shooting.)
“The district sent a video. We will watch it together. I’ve been asked to give you the following information before viewing.”
The information: the video illustrates the shooting using symbols. “They want us to understand how it happened,” she says. “They want us to ensure that we learn from this tragedy.” They. The district. The families. The government. The news.
“The symbols are simple — just like in football plays.” Some of us murmur since we have never understood football, let alone its plays. She provides us the verbal key. A few of us take notes.
X is the shooter. O is the victim. A white O is blank meaning undamaged. (Safe.) Yellow indicates shot and injured. (Hospitalized. Bills to be paid.) Red symbolizes, the principal clears her throat, expired. (Dead.) She provides this key as she absently rubs her belly. She turns to the screen dragged in for our meeting. Presses play.
First is the schematic of the building. Free of X’s or O’s. We are given a bird’s-eye view. Hallway. Classrooms. Bathrooms. Stairwell. I recognize the floorplan from my time there as substitute right after college. I lay my pen beside my notebook. I force myself to breathe.
X appears in the hall. He moves. His pace is slow but energized like a jungle cat prowling the glass of a cage in a zoo. A herd of circles emerge from the stairs. Seeing X, they flee. X stops. Red O. Red O. Red O. The yellows dart around the corner with a few remaining whites. One yellow remains astride the reds. X approaches. Yellow blooms red. X looks after the escaped O’s. We feel him sniff the air. Red O’s pimple the now emptied hall. X resumes his hunt.
The video has no sound. The gymnasium thrums with stillness like held breath. Gasps. A few men talk in faux casual tones. The woman next to me whispers, “I’ll fucking run. I will not leave my son to my ex-husband. I’m not playing hero.” I glance away from her. I’m sick about the cake.
O’s now understand. O’s huddle in corners of classrooms. The video emphasizes X moving to doors and O’s quickly metamorphosing to yellow to red again again again again again again.
The video times out with ten red O’s left on the first floor. We know, from local news, that there are seven still not shown. We forget how many yellows have been depicted or ignored. The principal clears her throat. She picks up a sheet of paper from the table at the front. “The shooter killed himself after slaying seven more students. He shot and injured more than twenty.”
I put my face in my hands. (That fucking cake.) “We expect a swift reaction.” She looks up from her script. District orders, her eyes indicate, but also moral decency. We are expected to play hero. The woman next to me chews at her thumbnail.
“From our training today, we expect you to go to your classrooms and cover your windows.” Complaints rise up and float through the gym. What will paper really do? “We don’t want him to be able to see our students and get a good shot.” Him. X. Our still-to-be-determined shooter.
“We also ask that you mark safe corners with X’s of tape as a visual indication to students that they are safe from view. The best place to hide in an event of ”
it hangs there. We complete it in our minds. A shooter. An emergency. The end.
She says more. I hear her voice, but over it x marks the spot x marks the spot runs through my mind.
I try not to cry for the cake.
The men mostly drift away after the presentation though I wrote in my email that all were invited. We push tables and chairs closer together. We lay down pink and red tablecloths. We stand up centerpieces: baby bottles stuffed with pink bouquets of posies punctuated by balloons that read Oh, Baby! in bubbled text.
I hold my breath as Ms. Boddie carries over the white baker’s box. She opens it. XOXO Baby Valentine. The swirling, sugared longhand now jeering and grotesque.
Principal Valentine forces a smile. She lifts her hand from her taut red dress. She smooths her hair, says, “Oh ladies, I love it.”
Someone sings, “Who wants the first piece?” A knife is produced. I shake my head, declining the honor of cutting my shame cake. Ms. Boddie offers her hand. The knife grows longer in her tiny fingers. She sinks the blade into the XO and its buttercream backdrop. She drags the knife to the edge. She frees a square. The yellow flesh, once exposed, makes our mouths water with fear.
She lays it gently, as if on a stretcher, obscuring the Oh, Baby! at the plate’s center. Hands it off.
Molly Gabriel is a writer and poet from Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Queen Mob’s Tea House, After Alexei, Back Patio Press, and Jellyfish Review. She is the recipient of the Robert Fox Award for Young Writers. She has been selected for flash readings with Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and the Jax by Jax Literary Festival. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband and toddler. Twitter: @m_ollygabriel.
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