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A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
From warhmstr on my FList.
>If you're at Virginia Tech or you're in Blacksburg, check in, okay?
Raj, text me or comment. Please. Anyone else, pass along.
Gonna put on CNN.
I'm nineteen years old. I'll be twenty this summer. When the Columbine shootings happened, I was in the fifth grade. One of the boys in my class claimed that he knew something was going on, but this was the next day and most of us didn’t believe him. We talked about it for weeks after it happened. We talked about it more than you might think that fifth graders would. The story went around about Harris and Klebold (except in the fifth grade no one ever called them by name; they were the Trenchcoat Mafia, shadowy bogeymen that kill children) holding a gun to a girl's head, asking if she believed in God. We sat in on playground swings whispering about what the right answer was; the answer that would save us from getting shot.
On September 11, 2001, I was in the eighth grade. We were the middle school equivalent of the senior class and I was co-captain of the soccer team. When they filed us into the auditorium and somberly announced that "something terrible" had taken place in New York City, my classmates shushed the younger kids. We were expected to be leaders and we put on brave faces and dispensed solemn hugs between cell phone conversations with our parents in which we assured our moms and dads that we were fine and we didn't need them to take us home from school. They came and took us home anyway, but the school never turned on the televisions like they did for the high school kids. My friend Jenn's older brother told the story of how the teacher got the TV working just as the second tower collapsed, and a girl in the back of the classroom screamed.
I didn't watch Columbine as it happened, and I didn't watch September 11. I was only a year old when the Challenger exploded. Mom and Dad say that was like 9/11. Something so shocking you always remember the moment you saw it on the news.
I was nineteen when the news of the Virginia Tech shootings showed up on my blog feed and I came out into the TV lounge where Kim, Mellie, and Cathryn were already watching. Rachael arrived back from her morning class about twenty minutes later.
My friend Raj was at Virginia Tech. He was sleeping off a hangover in his dorm room with his phone turned off. He had a class in Norris Hall, but it didn’t meet on Mondays. Someone got a hold of his roommate about an hour after I first heard of the shootings and he texted me to let me know he was okay. Kim had an aunt who lived in Blacksburg, but Kim had reached her right when the news first broke. Kim's aunt was fine. She'd been nowhere near campus all morning.
That was everyone that we knew who was in the area, so we sat there watching CNN replay the same footage over and over, trying to grasp the idea of thirty students dead, another twenty shot, fighting for their lives in hospitals all around Blacksburg. We just sat there. No one wanted to break the silence.
That's how we were when Steph walked in. She went right over to me and hugged me.
"Are you okay, Katy?"
I hugged her back, suddenly conscious of being the center of attention.
"Fine." I said. "My friend Raj from high school is there, but he's fine. I just heard from him."
I was looking up at Steph. She had her hands on my shoulders, and a look of concern in her eyes, and I was missing something. She didn't seem to know how to connect the dots for me, so we stood there with the CNN anchor reading the names of the dead in the background.
Steph found some words. "I just figured after that hoax that happened in January. You know… I thought… You…"
"Oh my God." I hadn't even remembered it. Maybe I'd blocked it out. It made sense to block it out. It was nothing. Some sick prank.
But now I could remember bits of details from the hacked blog entry that mentioned something about a campus emergency messaging system, and hadn't they just been talking about that on the news? Whether Virginia Tech had used it and when?
Steph must have noticed my reaction. She hugged me again.
"God, Katy, I'm sorry. I thought… Oh, hell, I don’t know what I thought. Just… It's nothing, right?"
"Yeah, Steph. Nothing." But as much as I wanted to, I couldn't dismiss it the way my friends could. There were patterns, chains of events linked by dreams and symbols and premonitions, and I'd learned that you can't just write things off as coincidence.
Steph and Mellie were comforting me, but over by the TV, an argument broke out between Kim and Cathryn. The silence had been broken. We'd apparently moved on to another stage.
"Well, what would you do?" Kim demanded.
"I wouldn't commit suicide! That's what you're talking about. Getting shot. Dying."
"I'm just saying if there were twenty people in the first classroom and they'd rushed him, then there might have been five people dead, maybe ten, but not thirty." Kim looked over to the rest of us, seeking support.
"Would you just hide behind a desk and wait to get shot, Steph?" Kim probably figured that Steph, tall strong Steph, was gonna take her side if anyone was.
Steph shook her head. "I don't know what I'd do. I won't stand here and claim I'd be some kind of hero. When these things happen, people hide behind desks. I can't pretend I'd be any braver."
It wasn't what Kim wanted to hear, so she moved on. "Katy, you'd fight back, right?"
"I'm with Steph. I can't say what I'd do. Charging a gun, that's some serious shit. I don't know if I've got it in me to do that." And I should have stopped there. Instead I kept on talking. "But if I had a gun of my own, I'd have taken the son of a bitch out or died trying. I know that."
The silence came back. And I was the center of attention again.
It was broken a moment later by Kelsie's arrival.
"Has anyone heard from Greg?" She sounded close to panic. "I can't reach him on his cell and I tried calling the lab."
We didn’t understand. Kelsie filled in the missing piece.
"Greg's best friend is an engineering student at Virginia Tech."
Kelsie wanted to check her email and her Facebook for messages. I volunteered to walk over to the computer lab with her to try to find Greg while the rest of the Alexander 6A crew volunteered to check some other likely places on campus where Kelsie's boyfriend might be found. It was a relief to all of us. In the face of disaster we confront our own helplessness, and we take comfort in being able to take action, any action that somehow might help.
Mellie's family lived in Brooklyn, and she told me how on 9/11 she'd gone with her mom and dad to serve hot coffee to commuters who'd been stranded when they shut down the Verrazano. There is comfort in making a difference in the face of tragedy, however small that difference might be.
While Kelsie was going online, I slipped into my room and opened up my own blogging site. I wasn't looking for Greg. I was looking for the hoax entry. The one the hacker had posted on my blog, the entry about the shooting on campus. The details seemed fuzzy. It hadn't been that long since the incident, but I'd forced it out of my head after all of the other fucked-up things that had happened between then and now. I suddenly needed to see it again. I wanted to know the details, to check it once more for clues I'd overlooked.
It wasn't there.
I ran through the steps again: Toggle hidden entries, search the date, search the whole month of January just in case I'd misremembered the date.
"There was nothing. Are you ready to go?" Kelsie was standing in the doorway, talking about her own fruitless check for information online. I fought back the urge to explain that I needed a minute to run my search again. It could wait. Getting in touch with Greg was more important.
"Yeah. Let's go." I shut down my laptop and grabbed my jacket and followed Kelsie to the back stairwell. She didn’t want to wait for the elevator.
She got to the bottom before me and hesitated, looking at the solid fire doors.
"He put chains on the doors so they couldn't get out."
I stopped, standing beside her.
"I know," I whispered.
She started to push the door open and the wind pushed back. I moved to help her and we made our way outside.
There was a nasty storm blowing that day. It got second billing in the news to the shootings, but it was real bad up and down the East Coast. Towns in New York and New Jersey flooded. Heavy wet snow brought down power lines in Canada. The Boston Marathon was run in the worst conditions in its 110 year history.
In Blacksburg, they couldn't use helicopters to medevac the wounded.
On the UNH campus, a driving wind was blowing stinging icy rain that soaked us in seconds. It was the middle of the day, but the campus was a ghost town. The weather was keeping everyone indoors, and most of them were still gathered like we'd been, watching the news and comforting friends.
Halfway across campus we took shelter in the library doorway.
"It’s this week, you know," Kelsie said.
"No, I don’t know. What?"
She spoke like she'd been called on in class. "April nineteen, 1993. Waco Siege. April nineteen, 1995. Oklahoma City Bombing. April twenty, 1999. Columbine. April sixteen, 2007. Virginia Tech."
"Jesus, Kelsie. Where do you get that stuff?"
"Wikipedia. I remembered Columbine was close to this date and I just stumbled on the rest of it. We’ve talked about these things at the Christian Fellowship meetings. You know. Human suffering. Why the Lord allows these bad things to happen."
"That must be hard. Holding your faith up to things like that." I held her hand, numb from the cold and barely feeling her touch.
"It is. But it's why we need faith, right?"
She didn't wait for an answer. "Wind's dying down. Let's go."
Something wasn't right. I knew that the second we entered the IT building, but I couldn't figure out exactly what it was that was bothering me. I was thinking of chains of events, tenuous connections around dates and places and tragedies. They were not coincidence, of course. Oklahoma City had been planned for the anniversary of Waco. Columbine took place on Adolf Hitler's birthday, and Klebold and Harris had mentioned Waco and Oklahoma City in their journals. They'd also written about stealing an airplane, flying it east, and crashing into a building in New York City. Chains of tragedy connected by something more than coincidence, like the mysteries I'd uncovered. I wanted to see the connections, as terrified as I was of where those connections might lead.
But you could never quite see all the links in the chain.
We were freezing wet, and the door whipped open as we pulled on it, caught by the wind. There were certain links in the chain that I could not have known about. The IT building had been closed down, and the work-study students sent home for the day due to a combination of the bad weather, some network issues that would need to wait until the phone company could free up a repair crew, and the student body's reaction to Virginia Tech. I didn’t know about that.
But I should have remembered that we should have had to be buzzed into the building. I should have realized that the security post by the main entrance is normally manned at this time of day. And I should have noticed the SYSTEM RESET flashing on the alarm code box by the door. Maybe I did notice these things, just not consciously. I know that I was getting more on edge the further into the building we got.
The door to the server room was open. I noticed that.
"Something's wrong." My warning went unheeded. Kelsie pushed past me to get in.
I followed, scanning the room. There was a chair knocked over, some shelves tilted and partially toppled, leaned against a wall at an angle that mocked the tight meticulous order Greg kept the room in.
Kelsie was behind Greg's desk, leaning over his laptop. I came to her side and looked down as she clicked on the blinking instant messenger icon.
It was from an hour ago. Greg's friend Evan down at Virginia Tech. Checking in to let Greg know he was okay.
Greg hadn't answered.
Kelsie scrolled up the chat log. "Greg heard the news this morning. He'd been waiting here to hear back from Evan."
I was examining something in the microwave that had caught my eye. Greg's cup of tea was in there. I opened up the microwave and touched it. Still warm.
A muffled cry came from out in the hall.
"Come on!" I yelled, heading for the door at a run.
There was an equipment storeroom right down the hall from the server room. It's normally kept locked. I should have noticed the door was open a crack when we were in the hall.
Kelsie was behind me.
"Call Public Safety!" I didn't look to see what she was doing. I was too busy flinging open the door to the storeroom. Greg was tied to one of the chairs from the upstairs Mac lab, blood and snot dripping from his nose over his mouth, an oozing cut on his cheek. I was focused on Greg's face because the two guys standing over him had ski masks on theirs.
One of them came at me and I grabbed a keyboard off the shelf beside me and swung it at his head. I got him pretty good, but he didn't go down. He shoved me back into the wall and when I grabbed for something else to hit him with, I took a punch in the mouth that put me on the floor.
He had something metal wrapped around his fist when he hit me, and I was bleeding and moving too slow. I hadn't counted on any help from Kelsie, but she jumped on his back and dug her nails under the eye-holes in his mask. He yelled and twisted around and finally sent her flying back out into the hallway.
The other guy was taking his time, walking over to where I was still on the floor.
"We were gonna pay you a visit next. Looks like you saved us the trouble." He kicked me hard enough to knock me back against the shelves, hard enough to keep me down. "Stay the fuck out of places you don't belong, bitch."
He leaned back to kick me again, but lights started flashing and a buzzer sounded. Kelsie had pulled the fire alarm box out in the hall.
The two guys looked at each other and walked calmly out of the room and down the hall to the stairs.
We had a long conversation that afternoon in an empty quiet corner of the library while the wind howled outside. Across campus, students sat in front of their laptops or gathered in TV lounges trying to make sense of a tragedy while the three of us tried to make sense of what had just happened.
Greg hadn't told Kelsie about the secret society that he had taken it upon himself to investigate, and it was hard to judge her reaction. If anything, the events of the day had driven Kelsie back into her shell. I wondered if she resented me because Greg had confided his troubles with the secret society in me and not in her. I hoped it hadn't come to that.
Greg didn't want to talk to the police. I backed him on that, at least to a point. It was a can of worms that I really didn't want to open. Fortunately, none of us had been hurt too bad. Cuts and bruises would heal. If people asked, we'd make up lies. Parties, mosh pits, that kind of thing. A few friends would realize we were lying, but they'd politely keep that to themselves.
"This was a warning," Greg told me. "If we back off now, there probably won't be any more trouble."
Neither of us felt much like backing off, but Kelsie was very worried about Greg getting hurt again. In the end, nothing was resolved, no course of action chosen. We talked into the night until we were to exhausted to talk.
The next day was pretty horrible. I hadn't slept well. I kept flashing back to that storeroom, the guy's boot connecting with my shoulder. In my dreams, he was pulling out a handgun to finish the job.
When I finally crawled out of bed and logged on, my Yahoo news page had me facing down Seung-Hui Cho aiming two pistols at the camera. He'd mailed the video to NBC News between the murders at West Ambler Johnston Hall and the ones at Norris, and for the rest of the day, every TV screen, every news site, and every newspaper had his face, mocking, hateful. I stumbled into the bathroom and puked up the late-nite dining hall food I'd eaten with Kelsie and Greg. That pretty much set the tone for the day.
I got through classes and spent the afternoon wandering around campus, avoiding the places where I'd find people I knew. The afternoon came and went with the rain and wind now a dull drizzle, and I just kept walking around aimlessly through the buildings and paths. If anyone had asked me I would have said I needed time to think, but I was really trying to avoid thinking. I focused on the sights, my steps, the pain in my cheek and my shoulder.
A text message from Kelsie finally broke the fugue. Christian Fellowship was holding a candlelight vigil on the quad in support of Virginia Tech. She was there with Greg and some of the 6A crew. I looked across campus and I could see the long slow chain of lights slowly making its way around the side of the library.
I finally decided I'd been alone enough for one day.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2008