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The Albatross of Albany High School
Chatter, chatter everywhere and not a true word said. Nine months and eighteen days since the first murder. Four months since the others. I was the only one who called them that.
My third high school was like the rest. Daily Pledge of Allegiance, security guards, concerned teachers, students judging my clothes. ‘The guidance counsellor’s door is always open,’ the English teacher red-penned beneath my half-blank Poetry quiz. I stopped reading Sonnets from the Portuguese when Elizabeth Barrett Browning threatened to reveal how she loved thee, but Coleridge’s albatross hung heavy around my neck.
After school I locked down in my bedroom. Another new house, this time in New York; our Florida one had still smelled of fresh paint when we left. I lay on the floor to attempt homework. Whenever the neighbour’s midlife crisis motorcycle backfired, I rolled under my bed.
My parents started leaving the TV on during dinner. Cheerful, vintage shows bantering over our memories of raucous Chinese takeaways in Oregon with my best friend Marci keeping us company. Then in Florida we used to eat on our poolside patio, hoping the breeze would dispel the ghosts, but instead more blasted in.
I excused myself once I’d eaten what my numbed appetite allowed.
‘Just a minute, Rachel.’ Mom stopped me. ‘Your school called today; they wanted us to warn you they’re doing drills next week.’
‘If that’s too much, I’ll work from home and stay with you,’ Dad offered.
‘It’s a good school. They have plans for helping kids cope,’ said Mom. ‘Might be worth a…’
‘Shot?’ I suggested. My voice ricocheted off the flatscreen TV. ‘Fine.’
My classmates, who already shunned me because I didn’t wax my eyebrows and didn’t offer tips on surviving massacres, became insufferable. Apparently practicing squatting under their desks made them frontline warriors. They bragged about whose bulletproof backpack cost more, who retweeted the most antigun activists, and how that weirdo who always wore camouflage deserved the egging his Pontiac got. ‘He needs to be more sensitive,’ they said, ‘about how he affects people.’
History lessons on previous gun control legislation, Math classes on probability and statistics. The Art teacher asked us to sketch designs for a memorial. ‘Shootings,’ she called them, like everyone else did.
I stared at my empty paper. I thought about the grave, on the opposite coast in Oregon, its firmly carved dates and Marci’s name. Beloved. Gone too soon.
‘How was the drill?’ asked my parents, over the Seinfeld theme.
‘Cringey.’ After we practiced hiding and evacuating neatly, we watched a film on managing trauma and expressing feelings, as if these kids would ever hold back.
‘I’m sure it wasn’t that bad.’
I pushed potatoes around my plate. Boinging synthesisers and a laughtrack punctuated the verse in my head leftover from my homework reading, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
‘The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.’
That night the dreams came back, rising from the terror cradled in my stomach when I crouched beneath my desk for the drill. It wasn’t the classroom in Parkland, Florida I revisited, though, where I’d crouched before. It was the Oregon school parking lot, exhaust curling into cold evening air, blood invading Marci’s field hockey skirt, Callum standing over her with the gun. Me screaming like the stupid kid I’d been, ‘But you said you loved her!’
I was the one who answered Callum’s desperate texts and told him when Marci and I would be back from our match.
After dreaming of the first murder, after Mom watched me take my morning pill, I was late for English. I stumbled, glaring, toward the back.
Each student would crack at the sound of gunfire. Football players crap themselves hiding in a corner, and goths with ‘Life means nothing’ scrawled on their notebooks beg not to die. At Parkland, our classroom was a tangle of prayers as we hugged our desk legs and heard screams down the hall. All I could whisper was how sorry I was, the same thing I’d been thinking since Marci died five months before. It seemed especially important when I thought I was about to see her again.
‘Back to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ murmured the slightly crumpled teacher. The front row girls insisted they’d been too upset for homework, after thinking about ‘shootings.’
‘Murders,’ I muttered. A pimply boy also cowering in the back row glanced at me in terror.
‘Anyone else feel like the ending was just tacked on there?’ asked Camouflage Boy. ‘God kills a whole ship’s crew as punishment for a bird, and then the punchline is how much God loves everyone. It doesn’t fit.’ This guy was an expert on not fitting. He’d taken a uniform meant to render soldiers unseen, and ensured he stood out.
He was right about the ending though. It had the impact of Tweeting ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a mass murder.
In Art the teacher had everyone present their memorial plans. ‘These are memorials to childhood,’ she said, twisting her chapped hands, sounding as if she’d cry. Kids talked about parks and statues. I shook my hair over my face and doodled watersnakes in my notebook, like the ones in the poem that taught the albatross-killer to love when he was alone and desperate.
How do you memorialise a particular snort-laugh, an obsession with dolphins and the color orange, perfect pronunciation of the entire Chinese menu, a phobia of anyone else’s bare feet, a junior division field hockey goal record and encyclopedic knowledge of One Direction songs? How do you convey the injustice that a fourteen-year-old girl who wasn’t old enough to drive or go to prom got murdered by her ex-boyfriend beside the school building? Marci was only one of 39,773 shot dead that year. She lived in a trailer park and had dark skin. Her death didn’t make local news for two days running.
I skipped the Art assignment. I haven’t found a power like the Ancient Mariner had, to force people to listen. A meaningful memorial would distribute the albatross’s weight around everyone else’s necks. Instead of politicians firing volleys of thoughts and prayers at us, a true memorial would make them hear ours.
I sketched diamond patterns down my watersnakes’ backs. When class ended, I was slow to pack up. I always leave late because crowded halls aren’t safe. Two girls swished their hair as they exited the classroom, saying, ‘It’s like she doesn’t care.’
Four months of being just The Girl Who Survived Parkland. Nine months and twenty-three days of being nothing but guilt and fear and constantly clanging irritation like those Seinfeld sound effects. Then I had my first new feeling in a long time. A painful need for Marci, for the next best thing to having her with me: other people knowing how amazing she was. ‘And till my ghastly tale is told, This heart within me burns…’
Before my parents used Marci’s killing as an excuse to move to Florida, I placed on her grave a rubbery, foot-shaped key chain that would have freaked her out, and a dolphin Beanie Baby she would have carried with her everywhere. Now, as the lunch bell sounded and the art teacher hovered, too nice to kick me out, my sketches changed from snakes to dolphins. I’m no artist; they looked more like socks. I guess sometimes we offer what pathetic tribute we can.
‘Do you have an orange pen I can use?’ I asked, and the teacher scurried to find one while I explained, ‘That was my best friend’s favorite color, before I got her murdered.’
Nastasya Parker’s contemporary literary fiction has appeared in two Bristol Short Story Prize anthologies, Perhappened magazine, and The Phare. In 2017, she won the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network Prose Prize. She works as a secondary school teaching assistant and is editing her irreverent novel giving Eve’s perspective on the creation myth, and blogging about the random stories we find in daily life, at http://nastasyaparker.com/