December 14, 2012 – Authorities in Connecticut responded to a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Police reported 27 deaths, including 20 children, six adults and the shooter. The rampage, coming less than two weeks before Christmas, was the nation’s second-deadliest school shooting. — The Huffington Post
Highway 34 stretches for miles. I drive with a wine carrier strapped in the passenger seat of the mini-van I borrowed from my parents. I had made the decision to transfer graduate programs, moving from Connecticut back home to West Virginia. Maybe moving was caused by homesickness. Maybe not. Either way, running was becoming my M.O. and I wasn’t going to hide from it any longer.
Cal, the automated GPS voice, reroutes me, trying his best to take me through New York City. Four trips back and forth from Connecticut had taught me the quickest way out of the state was to go north then west. My trip home to West Virginia had become a series of checkpoints: Danbury, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Morgantown, and, eventually, Beverly.
Newtown connects highway to interstate and nothing more. I pass through town, looking for the I-84 ramp but I can’t even find a piece of trash on the sidewalk. It is the kind of road I took advantage of at home, the kind of road well-traveled but soon forgotten. Buildings fade into each other as the highway weaves past vintage storefronts. Mannequins stand erect and naked in the windows left of the highway. They are more like body forms. Headless. Limbless. Stumpy necks covered with wide-brimmed hats.
A crossing guard stops traffic in front of Sandy Hook Elementary School. A mom nudges her son to the crosswalk. The boy, maybe nine, headphones down to his waist, glances at his mom, then to the school, and back to his mom again. When he doesn’t move, his mom grabs his arm and leads him. The boy’s feet scrape the concrete. While I wait, I pray the van doesn’t eat my CD and force me into a twelve hour drive of silence. Idina Menzel’s gravelly voice rises from the speakers, and I try to match her tone but my voice can’t manage Idina’s grittiness.
The wine bottles clink off key as traffic begins to move. I’m not sure if it is the music or the traffic or the wine that makes me miss the turn-off for the interstate, but I miss the blue sign and pull into Newtown Fire Hall’s parking lot. I blame Cal. He recalibrates while I find the printed directions my mom always nagged me about carrying, just in case. The goal is to reach Beverly in time to enjoy St. Brendan Catholic Church’s annual Christmas party. A party where barking Jingle Bells and passing religious paraphernalia like a wind-up nun who shoots sparks from her mouth is normal.
Somewhere after Scranton and before Wilkes-Barre a guy at the travel plaza breaks the news first. McDonald’s and gasoline cling to my clothes. He’s in his forties, shoulders pulled back, the word LORD tattooed on his knuckles. We stand shoulder to shoulder, the coffee pots crammed together, reaching over one another for sugar and cream.
“Did you hear about those kids?” he asks.
I focus on my perfect ratio of sugar, cream, and coffee. I just want coffee; I just want to get home, reunite with family and people who I didn’t have to try to impress. I want to know the people and places around me again.
“News said twenty are dead.” His eyes are soft, sunken in from age, a bandana covering his hair.
I take in his tattoo, trace the edges of the red lettering with my eyes. “I hadn’t heard,” I say.
He says the kids are the same age as his girlfriend’s daughter Ella then rips open a handful of sugar packets, dumping them in his cup. Then he says he hopes the fucker who shot the kids at least shot himself. He hands me a lid and we walk to the register.
“Where’d it happen?” I ask. The question hangs between us and the shrill beeps of the register.
He pays for my coffee. I pull my sweatshirt around me, fumbling with my zipper. I thank him, get back in the van, and pull up the news on my phone. The picture captures a line of coatless children, their arms outstretched holding on to the classmate in front of them, like a limp chain of prisoners led out of their cells.
In elementary school, I rode my bike on our dead-end street listening to The Little Mermaid soundtrack on my Walkman. Hot, hot, hot, I had mouthed in time with the music. Now, as I drive up the dead-end street, I think about the coatless children, outside of Sandy Hook. See people rocking, hear people chanting. I pull the van halfway in our yard, half in the neighbor’s, the woven steering wheel cover imprinted on my fingertips.
Why did the kids hold on to each other’s shoulders and not each other’s hands? A hand is more permanent. A hand forgives more than a Spiderman t-shirt. I would have wanted someone’s hand, to feel another sweaty palm pressed against my own.
As I stare in the rearview mirror, I promise myself not to talk about driving by Sandy Hook. What I saw or might have seen. What I missed. I unbuckle the wine, fumbling with the seat belt, the heat of an unusually warm December rising to my cheeks.
Inside, Jean, a schoolteacher, sees me first, her mouth agape. “Your parents said you weren’t coming.” She wraps her arms around me and I collapse into her chest. Woodsy musk and peppermint encases me.
“They don’t know,” I say.
Up North, no one knew me, which is what I had planned on when I applied to the graduate program. I went to class two nights a week and worked two jobs around campus. But I had fed off of my manager’s stories of weekends remodeling a house all the while imagining I was with my own family weaving through Ikea’s aisles. I had fed off of courteous questions. Top five favorite books. Favorite music. Was West Virginia really its own state? Every night, though, I had sat in a 500-square-foot apartment, playing my piano and singing to a phantom audience, wondering where I had lost myself.
Cabinet doors slam in the kitchen and Mom’s voice cuts through to instruct someone to take the potato casserole out of the oven. I try to see past the crowd of people smashed together in the doorway, but they are too hungry to move from the cheese balls and Buffalo chicken dip.
“I heard there’s a party here?” I say. At first, no one turns around. I clear my throat and try again, my breath deeper and more weight in my voice. “I heard there’s a party here?” The words come out more high-pitched, almost like a scream.
Jean’s husband turns first, Buffalo dip hanging from his mustache. His eyes widen behind his glasses and he hugs me. Fast and hard. Then Carol turns, decked out in her Christmas turtleneck, drapes an arm around my shoulder. In five months, her hair has turned from gray to white. Dad sees me next and grins, the same grin I inherited from him.
“Surprise.” I hand him the wine.
Mom rushes toward us. She has stopped frosting her hair to hide the gray.
“Isn’t this the best surprise,” Jean says.
“Did you hit traffic?” Dad says.
“Not too much,” I lie, and follow mom to the kitchen.
The kitchen is at capacity. Shoulder to shoulder parishioners stand eating and drinking and asking me if I like the North or if I had met someone yet? I nod, pull open drawers, shuffle through spatulas and slotted spoons, trying to find the corkscrew. My hands shake.
“You okay?” Mom asks.
I pop the cork out of the wine and pour a full glass, spilling a little on the counter top. “I’m just tired. I think I’m going to lie down.”
As I turn to go to my room, she grabs a paper towel and cleans up my spill. I turn on CNN while Dad and Jean stand in the hallway outside my room speculating about the updated death toll. CNN shows the same images I saw earlier: ten kids bound together by fear, led out as if they were prisoners, their hands holding on to the shoulders in front of them, parents’ contorted tear-streaked faces full of relief, worry, the horror of seeing their kids forced to grow up too soon.
The cameras cut to the anchor who is fighting a catch in his voice, before focusing on the front of the fire department, now a makeshift morgue, behind him. I stare at the familiar brick building with the seven garage doors that sit off the main road. The parking lot now full of emergency cars. I had turned around in that parking lot. I keep my eyes trained on the TV. This morning nothing had seemed out of place. The storefronts had been decorated for Christmas, the mannequins dressed in the last available merchandise. No one had been out on the streets but the crossing guard and the students and parents of Sandy Hook Elementary.
I wondered, if I’d slept a little later, would things have been different? What if I’d pulled into the school instead of the fire hall? Would I have seen him, the shooter? If I saw him, could I have looked in his eyes and stopped him? To reassure him, and tell him that he would find the answer if only he would wait and suffer through like the rest of us.
Every muscle in my body constricts. I take deep breaths, the same kind of breaths I took when I had panic attacks on I-95 when I lived in Connecticut. Every breath intended to keep me from breaking down in front of our entire group of party guests. I wonder if this is how the kids at Sandy Hook felt. I imagine them hunched under desks, their backs to the door, while markers mix with bullets and cries fade into sirens forming a Christmas carol none of them had ever heard. And so they suck the air and surrender to the sting of tears waiting for the carol to be over and for someone—their teacher, their parents, even the principle dressed as Santa Claus—to hug them and reassure them everything will be all right. I imagine it’s what I would have wanted.
I don’t know how long Dad stands in the doorway before I notice him. “You’re lucky,” he says. “They closed some of the roads because of the shooting.” He walks over and places a hand on my back.
I see my reflection in his eyes. My hair frizzy and my shirt wrinkled. How do I tell him I was stuck behind the SUVs and Minivans of unsuspecting parents and how his daughter made it home.
I take the last sips of the wine. “I know,” I say, “Lucky.”
How do I explain to him why the kids held on to each other’s shoulders and not each other’s hands? A hand is more permanent. A hand forgives more than a Spiderman t-shirt.
Danielle Kelly holds an MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College and is Managing Editor of HeartWood, an online literary journal. She is a banker, a multi-denominational church singer, and currently serves as Adjunct Instructor of English at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, WV.
Read an interview with Danielle here.