Rebecca Townsend’s job was to walk the hallways and make sure that every teacher had locked their classroom door, shut their lights off, and quieted their students. The last item on that to-do list was sometimes a challenge for the teachers and certainly a challenge for Rebecca—determining the quietness of students inside a dark, locked room was difficult considering the intermittent alarms that shouted their echoed urgency through the stairwells and hallways. Still, last month she’d heard the physics teacher continue to lecture throughout the drill—her ear pressed to his classroom door detected his signature drone, marked by a sporadic cackle that followed some joke or another that he’d probably been telling for the last fifteen years. They’d had words after the drill was over. She’d lost her temper, called him an “irresponsible idiot” while she attempted to emphasize to him that this was not an opportunity to sneak in an extra lesson or teach his students that these drills were a joke. In fact, just last week there’d been a man walking the campus perimeter with a gun peeking out the back of his pants. They’d gone into full lockdown and the police were called—it turned out to be nothing, but the fatigue of that afternoon was still with her. They worked in a city. Things happened. Ugly, terrible things.
It was a private school—K-12 with the kind of sprawling New England campus that evoked a mini-Harvard or Brown. She fell in love with it when she interviewed and could picture her own children—two little girls—running across the quad or playing in the large indoor sandbox that marked the entry to the lower school. It was a place of privilege, and she’d found her way in by taking on the job of upper school principal.
The job was far less of a privilege than the place itself; stressful would be the right word. In some ways it reminded her of her college days waiting tables. Parents, like hungry customers, had no patience for nonsense. They showed up knowing what they needed to feel better, and when they got it, they left happy. When they didn’t get it or the wait time was too long, they got angrier and angrier. It often degenerated into absurd behavior regarding the exact percentage point of their child’s “A”.
Still, Rebecca adored the students and the faculty, as well as a few of the parents. She found their trust in her baffling. They gave her their secrets, handing them over as if she’d know how to care for each one despite their variety, and most of the time, she found she did know how. There was the young woman who told Rebecca she was pregnant—Rebecca coached her on how to tell her parents—and the young man who began cutting himself, telling her he didn’t know how to stop. The teacher who just discovered his wife was having an affair or the reading specialist whose adult daughter was diagnosed with cancer but refused to seek treatment. Rebecca felt unprepared for the baring of souls that came with the administrative work, and while it exhausted her, at least she knew she was needed.
And yet, Rebecca was bad at determining when she herself needed help. When the stress and lack of sleep piled too high on her shoulders, she often missed the moment and kept plunging ahead, unable to rest. She’d only notice how bad it had gotten when she’d look down and realize her pants were on backwards or that she’d scraped the right side of her car along the retaining wall that shouldered her work parking place. Little cracks in her façade told her it was time to ease up, but it was spring in the private school world and that meant full steam ahead. Go, go, go until graduation. There was no time to breathe or notice your own weaknesses. She had to keep moving.
So, she did. And today was their 3rd stay-put drill that semester. In February, when one teacher had kept teaching and another teacher—a Spanish teacher—had failed to lock her door properly, Rebecca had lost her temper in public. This was rare for her, a warning sign she did not heed—she’d gathered the faculty up at their usual Tuesday meeting and yelled at them. Raised her voice and admonished them for not thinking more clearly about the drill and the seriousness of the potential situation.
“You’d be dead!” Rebecca yelled at the Spanish teacher in front of everyone. “You and all your students. Bleeding out. Every damn one of you.”
The faculty, sitting in the large circle they arranged for every meeting, looked at her with a mix of annoyance and concern. She’d gone too far, but she’d been unable to back down from her anger. She’d gone on to invoke the image of a room full of shot up teenagers, digging into the gruesomeness of the unidentifiable mass of guts and shattered teeth that would splatter classroom floors as a way of making her point. She urged them to google pictures of gunshot victims so they could prepare themselves for the inevitable violence. They’d all had the training—ALICE: Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. If cornered, barricade the room. Identify the potential weapons. A sharpened pencil? Great. A wooden chair? Fantastic. A baseball bat? Even better. One trainer had suggested students carry soup cans in their backpacks so that they could bash an intruder with black bean soup when the time came. Who will wield this weapon? Who is the biggest and the most likely to attack rather than shrink? Could be the teacher. Could be a student. It had all been gone over with horrifying meticulousness, and yet they were all staring at her like she was the ghoul.
One faculty member, a young man newer to the school, raised his hand in the midst of her rant and asked, “Aren’t you conflating the active shooter drill with the stay put drill?”
She was, but that wasn’t the fucking point. The point was that she was the one walking the halls to make sure the rules were followed and that meant that if it wasn’t a drill, if somehow, she missed the memo and it was the real thing, she was the one who would be shot first or even worse, she would be the first to see the bloodied bodies of her students and faculty. She was the one who had to walk through the blinking red alarmed halls and rattle doorknobs and wonder if her own two children were safe in the lower school building, which, by the way, was all windows and access points. She had no exit from the imaginary horror of the ever-increasing drills and so, why should they?
She’d taken in a deep breath. Held it as they watched her in their wide circle of chairs, and then she’d said, “We will do this drill every month until the end of the school year. Get it right and take it fucking seriously.”
She’d walked out of the faculty meeting then. Left them all slack jawed. The registrar had found her in her car. The registrar worked there going on three decades and knew the school’s failures and successes. She’d knocked on the passenger side window and Rebecca had let her in. She smelled like the magnolia bush outside Rebecca’s bedroom window in their rental house.
“You okay? You need a break, sweetie.”
“I know.” She’d stopped crying but the small kindness of being called “sweetie” almost made her start again.
“You know the likelihood of having an actual shooter is pretty small.”
“I know,” Rebecca said, repeating herself. She wrapped her fingers around the steering wheel.
“You act like you know it’s about to happen and we are actually preparing for the day, the moment.”
“I have no doubt you’d throw your body between them and danger, but you don’t have to do that today. Today the danger is pretend. All you have to do is show them how best to behave.”
“Okay,” Rebecca said weakly, letting her hands fall to her lap. She knew full well that she had not taught them how to behave.
“Practice faith in yourself,” she said. “And, most of all, take a three-day weekend. We love you.”
Rebecca had taken three days off but they weren’t enough, so she was back at it on Monday unable to apologize for her behavior. She felt like the incident was a bubble of air she’d swallowed. It sat in her gut, growing a thicker and thicker skin around it. Sometimes the memory of the incident would be strong enough to poke out and remind her of how much she’d fucked up, but she couldn’t bring herself to poke back at it, couldn’t see it enough to process it and act.
Today was the last drill of the year. It was May, her walkie in her right hand turned all the way up so that she’d be able to hear the all-clear. Today she started her check at the basement level, and the faculty, so far, had all done right by the drill. She rattled brass doorknobs and peered into dark windows. She let some little bit of relief flood in.
“Good,” she thought. “We’ll all make it out alive for once.”
The second floor was good. All doors locked. Everyone quiet.
On the third floor—languages—she held her breath as she reached for the notorious Spanish classroom. This teacher was among the best at the school. Kind and amiable. She made students want to learn Spanish and her classes were always full. She’d been the one to forget to lock her door and today proved to be the second time. The doorknob twisted easily in Rebecca’s hand.
Rebecca let go of the knob without opening the door. The rage was so immediate and so all-encompassing that she knew she needed to breathe. Her face was hot. Her throat tight. She could picture all the students, the Spanish teacher inside dead. Blood everywhere. All of them fucking dead, because you can’t remember to lock the classroom door. What kind of asshole can’t do this one thing right?
She’d be able to report the all-clear, but she’d have to share in the follow up administrative meeting that they’d, yet again, failed the test. The high school had to report a dead classroom, and she could picture the middle school head looking at her smugly. He always saved his staff, faculty, and students. They knew how to complete a damn drill.
She knew too that if someone wanted to come on campus and kill them all, they would. There would be nothing she or anyone else could do about it. The drills were absurd—she knew
—staying put would get you killed, and the campus was echoey. If it was time to run, how would anyone know what direction to go? An exercise in ridiculousness and she knew this more than anyone. Why then was she so angry when it didn’t go perfectly? Each time they did a drill, she felt the seriousness of it with her whole being. The fear reminding her of her two little girls who couldn’t understand the need for the drills at all. Who would shoot children? It wasn’t a thing. But it was.
The blaring alarms had stopped. She would tell this teacher just exactly what she thought. She’d swing open the classroom door and scream at her in front of her students. Maybe that would make her remember to lock the goddamned door.
Rebecca graduated from a small liberal arts college in Ohio in the 90s. It was before 9/11. Before Columbine. Long before Sandy Hook. Back then, they’d joke about “going postal”, but no one ever worried about school children being shot. Her writing teacher—a man who would retire a decade later to a remote island in Washington State—was someone she’d known growing up. She’d stayed close to home for college, and so she knew his wife too. A painter. In his office, above his desk on the fourth floor of main building was an oil painting his wife had done inspired by the island they’d someday move to. It was of a room much like his office, only the wooden door of the painting was opened outward to reveal the ocean. It was a surreal painting, meaning the linoleum floor led to the threshold and just beyond that, only one step away was a swirling blue ocean. The office or classroom door leading out into a roiling world with a bright, sunny sky. Rebecca loved that painting. The idea that one all-encompassing world could simply open into another often distracted her when she met with her professor.
Over the years since college, she’d made that painting into a place in her mind so that when a therapist or a yoga instructor would tell her to picture a happy place, she’d picture that painting. Not her professor’s office. Or the oil on canvas but rather an ocean at a doorstep that in memory really existed. It calmed her. This impossible ocean.
She tried to access that feeling now. That blue ocean at her feet, but she found she couldn’t. She was too worked up. All she could find was anger. Rage. A volcano of feeling that would drown them all.
How was it that this drill was something she’d come to have to do regularly? Make sure students she loved weren’t about to get shot in class? How was it that one of her sole purposes was to pretend she had any ability to keep people alive? And in what world would a good mother ever stay to protect other people’s kids while her own were being shot up next door?
With a hot hate inside her, Rebecca reached again for the unlocked classroom door and threw it open so hard that the doorknob hit the cinderblock wall. She stuck her foot out to keep it from reverberating back into the shut position.
It took a moment to process what was in front of her. The open classroom door. A perfect rectangle of a space made for bodies to pass through, and yet what was there now was unfamiliar. The room, Rebecca saw, was filled with water.
Like that painting from her college days, the water was thick and blue. Unlike in the painting, the liquid filled the doorway, top to bottom, little currents moving through it, side to side, and none of it flooding out toward her despite the open door. It was impossible. It was like she had opened the ocean, except the classroom was there too. The teacher standing at the front. The students at their desks. All quiet and sedentary and under water. Frozen in fact. Their positions active, as they had been when the drill started.
Rebecca’s heart stilled in her chest.
What was she even looking at? She stepped forward; the walkie talkie buzzed in her hand.
“Middle House clear.”
“Upper School? You all clear?”
Rebecca didn’t like the fuzz of the walkie talkie and how it distorted the voices coming through until folks she knew well became almost unrecognizable. The latter voice, however, was her boss. No mistaking that.
“I repeat. Upper school? Check in please.”
She thought about announcing her own all clear just to end the whole event, but she was looking at a wall of blue. Her students trapped inside.
She turned the little dial on the walkie to off and set it on the floor. Next, she took her hand and reached out. Just her index finger at first and the wall of water wriggled under her finger. Rippled like oil. She pulled her hand away and made a fist, pulled her elbow back and punched through. Her arm moving into the classroom, the smell of saltwater filling the air, but the barrier between her and the classroom stuck. A world underwater while she remained in air. She pulled free, her fingers dripped liquid, the blue of the water stuck too, as if she’d dyed her hand in Jello-O powder or Kool-Aid.
Rebecca noticed the teacher first, her body moving, and although her mind was slow to comprehend, she realized next that the students had begun to move too, as if her fist punch to the water had reanimated them. A good thing, she thought, until she saw that they were screaming, thrashing. The alarm blaring began again. Different somehow but a constant shrieking in her ears. She pushed her whole body through the obstruction until she was under the water too, her limbs moving through the thick substance, her breath held.
She’d worn a long pencil skirt, a blouse, and heels to work that day. It was an inappropriate outfit for swimming, but all she could do to change her circumstance was kick off her black shoes. They stuck in the molasse of this new liquid world. She tried to reach a student. Melissa. 17. Her mother and father owned a seafood company that supplied most restaurants on the East Coast. She wanted to go to art school. Had just been accepted, in fact, and loved to draw on her arms. Elaborate ink drawings of fish and sailors. An anchor tattoo done and redone in black ink on her right bicep. Rebecca made swimming motions that moved her slowly through the watery dream. Progress was possible, but each time she reached the girl, Melissa sank further away from Rebecca until Rebecca could see Melissa’s feet disappear through the linoleum floor. Melissa screamed, no sound but the pain was clear on her face and so Rebecca dove as best she could, reached Melissa’s calves. She tried to pull her up. Instead, she felt herself sink, her own body disappearing, swallowed by the floor.
Suddenly she was in the classroom below, falling into another watery pool where students thrashed like fish on a dry dock. Her own lungs were burning, but she tried to reach the teacher this time. The 9th grade biology teacher who liked to birdwatch and coached soccer. Someone she’d always been able to rely on to follow the rules and someone she’d thought would step up and block an intruder with her. Now he was at his desk, his hand on his mouse, his eyes wide but his body frozen. She tried to motion for him to help, to tell him to move as the students around her clawed at their own throats, but he looked too scared. His fear directed at her. Was she the threat? Surely not.
Rebecca sank further, dropped down to the first floor, her own office. A room empty of the watery substance and so her body crashed to the floor, dripping with a thickening blue. The screaming of the alarm was still strong in her ears. Loud and shrill. She gathered her limbs together, her hair heavy with liquid, her clothes clinging to her. Her skirt hung past her knees, clamping her legs to each other. She, too, a fish out of water.
Her throat was sore with the sound of the alarm blaring and then she realized it was burning too. The alarm rising out of her gut, up her throat, and out her mouth. She felt her face with both hands. Sure enough, her mouth was open wide, the terrible warning was coming out of her.
In graduate school, she’d written about pirates. She’d loved the dangers of the sea. From the great white sharks to the Kraken to women whose songs made men crash onto the rocks. She liked these stories. Liked to picture how gorgeous things could quickly become ugly, because didn’t that mean the opposite could hold true too?
She’d left her walkie talkie two floors above, but somehow, she could hear the crackle of it again, inside her head. She heard the demand for her all clear over and over and over again. The ugly brown carpet under her was rough on her palms. She did her best to rise, to get the earth under her feet so she could move to the mirror she kept on the back of her office door.
When she finally got there, she saw a scream of a face. A wide mouth. The whites of her eyes huge and her pupils tiny. Her hair stringing down off her shoulders. She was the nightmare. The blaring sound. Above her the ceiling began to leak. Big fat drops of water coming through to puddle at her feet. She tried to force her mouth shut with her hands, both palms pressed to her chin, but her face only grew longer, the space of her open mouth darker. The scream piercing and simultaneously irresistible. So irresistible that all she could do was stare into the open hole of her head, her body drawing into herself, disappearing into the deep, deep dark. And then she remembered the people around her. The drowning school. She remembered that she had a choice. The shooter wasn’t here, but if she didn’t stop screaming, he’d come. She would call the danger closer with her dark insides.
She pulled her gaze away from the mirror, changed the pitch of her voice. Only weeks before she’d stood in front of the faculty and let the fear and fatigue and anxiety ooze out of her onto them. All her worry and resentment. Her fear an angry puddle. That picture over her professor’s desk hadn’t been a place to drown. It had been a window. It meant peace. How had she changed it to this?
The sound of her stopped. The blaring alarm of her gut quit. She was able to shut her mouth. The ceiling stopped its drip. Somehow the walkie was in her hand again and this time the voice coming through was that of the registrar’s: “It’s time to surface.”
The air around her gained the weight of water, her limbs able to pull her up and through it with one stroke. She was back in the second-floor classroom, swimming to the classroom door. She unlocked the door from the inside, and the water began to flow out. Students rose, breathing in fresh air while she kept going, swimming to the third floor, grabbing the hand of the Spanish teacher and moving with her to the open door. Together they pierced the seal of the room and oxygen flooded in. The sun shone in the classroom windows, and they stood together in the hallway looking in.
“I’m so sorry,” Rebecca said.
“For what?” the teacher asked her. “I’m the one who messed up.”
“But I’m the monster,” she said. The one trying to get in, she thought but didn’t say. She knew it wasn’t quite the right apology yet. She’d say more to the faculty when it came time. She’d know by then how to make them see that she loved them and that sometimes love could make you mean. It was no excuse. She’d do better.
Outside she could hear the wail of a siren. A real one. This time it wasn’t her. She gathered herself together and headed out to the deck to meet the cops that her slow response had called forth. To tell them not to worry. Everything was fine. Later she’d walk the brick path to pick up her children early. She told herself it was the only event she needed to prepare for.