Nothing But Silence.
The sun had barely returned from his winter nap, proudly stretching his rays out far enough to awaken the grass, opening the shutters to call to the birds. Branches burst in dark green leaves and stark white blossoms, lifting to the sky, giving off a sickly sweet smell just thick enough to slow everything down, nothing moving faster than a meander, a float downstream with no cares, no worries, nothing but the heat and the trickling of time in the afternoon. Spring had sprung in the panhandle of Florida and the air was full of promise and adventure, but I, along with twenty-six others, was stuck in junior English, taunted by the warm sunlight flirting near my left foot.
It had been a long, slow day, the type that lasts forever. The class sat and daydreamed, longing for release, and while the teacher did his best to engage us, he too seemed lost in the daze of a promised vacation only a couple weeks away. Normally I enjoy English. I like writing and the imagination that comes with it, crafting your own world in whatever way seems fit. Today, however, English was just slow. The intercom snapped us from our reverie.
“BLAKE LAWRENCE, PLEASE COME SEE MS. DAVIS IN THE FRONT OFFICE IMMEDIATELY.”
There weren’t any Blakes in our class so we gently settled back into the daze, only an hour left until our deliverance by the bell. I doodled absentmindedly while thinking about my afternoon plans. My friends and I had been building a fort out in the country from planks and branches, a stronghold for us to defend in case of invasion. It sat in the center of a copse of trees, providing us a clear view of our surroundings and relative camouflage from hostile observance. Our old fort had lasted years, but we decided to tear it down this summer, the summer before senior year, in order to remodel, building a structure bigger and stronger than our ten year old selves could, one that would last generations. A real stronghold — with a throne of living wood fit for the soon-to-be kings of the school.
Our throne grew in the center of the grove out of an old oak, gnarled and twisted. A network of roots wove together into a chair providing solid armrests and a high back. It was the only piece of the fort that would stay standing. On the opposite side of the tree grew a plethora of planks nailed up and down the trunk, accessing a lookout tower positioned high enough above the surrounding trees to provide an unobscured view of the prairie. Nothing could sneak up on us there.
The fort was defended by a brotherhood, growing together since childhood. Our archers, Will and Mason, were small and fast, able to climb the trees with ease, their slingshots always tucked into a sock for easy access. Bryan was the knight, standing taller than the rest of us and able to wield his broadsword (an old rusted pipe) with brutal strength. We had a few nobility, Samuel, Parker, and Wyatt, given their titles due to the lack of aid when the fort was initially constructed. Being less athletic than the rest, my primary role was strategist; designing and planning our exploits or conquests.
And then there was James. Fit to be a king, James was the one that brought us together. He was the hardest working, the kindest friend, the loyal companion. James was the most noble of us all, unanimously voted into the throne. He believed in the goodness of the world, the gift of life.
My reverie crashed quickly as scattered laughing snapped me back to reality.
“Did you hear me Mr. Jones?” The teacher asked a second time.
Every eye in the class was turned my way. I blushed, my cheeks turning hot as I shrunk back from the sudden spotlight. I had been so totally lost in my thoughts that I had missed it entirely, and I scrambled for the first thing I could think of.
“Sorry Mr. Allen,” a voice piped up behind me. I spun around, seeing my savior and best friend right behind me as he continued, “I distracted our good friend Tom with a question just a moment ago, but he will happily read the third paragraph on page seven.” James winked at me and flipped his book around, pointing at the spot while sliding the book closer. I grinned sheepishly, cleared my throat to read. A tone from the intercom interrupted me before I could begin.
“YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE. THIS IS A LOCKDOWN. IT IS NOT A DRILL. I REPEAT, WE ARE NOW IN A LOCKDOWN, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The demeanor in the classroom instantly changed. Mr. Allen took control. “Alright everyone, to the back corner. You know where to go.”
We scrambled back into the corner, away from all windows. Mr. Allen locked the front door and grabbed the bat he kept in the corner for emergencies and then slid back to join us. His knuckles were chalk white gripping the handle.
Silence fell in the room, malaise spreading as unease took hold of us. My chest tightened. I forced my breath deep to avoid an asthma attack. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. My breath turned in to a gasp. James put his hand on my shoulder, giving me a soft smile to help calm me. The ticking of the old clock on the wall was the only sound we could hear.
It seemed to increase in volume and intensity as the time wore on.
A sound began filtering into the room, filling it from everywhere, coming from nowhere. The panic grew palpable as I strained to hear, tension straining like a knife. The sound was growing, increasing in volume. Confusion wove through the room. I couldn’t even breathe. Fear grasped me as I recognized the sound of crying, screaming, echoing and echoing and echoing through the school, filtering in from the halls, the air vents, the windows. My eyes widened as I turned toward James. My breath began again in ragged gasps. His eyes mirrored the horror in my own, but something in them was different. The look scared me. We made eye contact, and instantly his look shifted away from uncertainty, hardening. He opened his mouth to whisper, comforting me as a true friend and king, putting others needs ahead of his own.
“It will be okay.”
And then James ran. Mr. Allen lunged for his arm, scrambling to grab something, anything to catch James before the doorway. But James was too fast. He crashed through the door, tearing down the hall. Mr. Allen dashed after him, and the door swung shut with a bang. We all stood, even more shocked than before. I was too frozen to do anything but stand helpless as my best friend left, completely blind to the situation, but with a firm knowledge that someone in this building needed help. Someone started crying, a weak, helpless sniffle. And then they stopped.
Silence settled back over the room heavier than a blanket, and we began to make out sounds from the hallway again. It was closer this time, screaming, crying, yelling. And something else, a hair raising sound that I had only heard driving past the range on the way into the city.
The pop of gunfire.
Gasps of fear filled the room.
The crying renewed behind me again.
And then, nothing but silence.
We sat for a long time. It felt as if time had stopped, an eerie stillness that extended beyond our classroom. The birds no longer called, no bees played in blossoms. The distant fear, the panic, was gone. An eerie silence filled the room, smothering every sound until nothing was left but the roar of blood in my ears.
The bell rang and I started, heartbeat through the roof, before plunging back into the impenetrable nothingness.
Sirens came and went. I knew from living near the hospital that they were ambulances.
After what felt like hours, a tone from the intercom made us jump.
“YOU WILL NOW BE RELEASED AND ESCORTED DOWN THE HALLS. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR ROOM UNTIL A POLICE OFFICER COMES TO ESCORT YOU.”
The echo of the intercom faded, and relief began to spread. Someone clapped. Someone began crying for joy. My malaise remained, filling me with nothing but worry for my friend.
A police officer came to our room. He spoke, but I didn’t hear what he said. I was empty, gouged by the events of the day. We lined up. As we filed out of the room, a second officer picked up the tail. We walked two-by-two down the hall to the back door. They opened it, leading us to the front of the building. We walked past the parking lot to the pickup line, where frantic parents were reuniting with their children, hugging, kissing, crying. The parking lot was full of police cars. Row after row. At least a dozen. A couple firetrucks stood at the end of the line. The police released us to go find our cars.
I began to run.
Overwhelmed and afraid, I sprinted to the safe haven of our fort. Everyone would be there. Will and Mason, Bryan, Samuel and Parker and Wyatt. James would be there. Oh God, I prayed James would be there. Across the field, over grass, through stream. My chest tightened in the typical fashion of an asthma attack. On the horizon our grove began to grow. The great oak stood majestic over it all, gnarled branches bent low to protect the young trees around it. My feet pounded the grass as I sped up, sensing something wrong.
I rounded the final hill, skidding to a halt in front of the fort. It was empty. No one was home. With trepidation I went in.
Alone in a daze, I slumped to the ground at the foot of the throne, shoulders heaving, chest tight, the scattered supplies of a fort that would never be built strewn around me. There were no thoughts running through my head. Nothing but silence. The grandfatherly oak, wise to the ways of the world seemed to drop its leaves even farther down. Our fort, torn down days before, was no longer enough to protect us from the world. The children that had built it, played in it, relied on it, were gone. Even the throne seemed to sag.
In a spurt of rage I stood and screamed. I punched the gnarled roots, drawing blood. The tool box that had been loved for years became my next target, hammer, saw, screwdriver flying with a single kick. I picked up the stick that had held our flag and heaved it out into the field. I tore at the last standing wall, the last reminder of the childhood that we had, the last barrier that protected us from the unforgiving world. The security that our old fort had provided was gone, leaving nothing but the wind blowing through the prairie. I fell to my knees, enraged at the world. And then, inexplicably, the rage stopped. I was empty, drained, and tired. There were no thoughts running through my head. Nothing but silence.
My emotions cut off as quickly as they came, leaving me numb. I picked up the rusted hammer strewn in the grass, pulled a nail from our box, and turned toward the tree. A ladder step had slipped months ago.
I put the nail against the wood and lifted my hammer. Each blow caused a shock to travel from hammer, to wrist, to elbow, to shoulder, numbing me from everything but impact after impact, the sound echoing in nothing but silence.
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