A Real and Imminent Threat

"View from an Airplane Window" by Jim DarlingJune fifth of this year was already a scary day for me. 

In the late afternoon my girl friend — who only two months before had been a stranger, but opened her home to me when my husband and I separated and I had nowhere to go — dropped me off at the entrance to the Philadelphia airport. 

I had a one-way ticket to Seattle to live for the next year working on a book about prison as a writing fellow at Seattle Pacific University, home to Image Journal, where I’d worked for a couple of years before, and hopefully figuring out what to do with my life after that. I had a suitcase, a carry-on, and my backpack. I had shipped two boxes of clothes and books by train, and everything else I owned was packed up in my husband’s basement, to be used again who-knew-when and who-knew-where. 

I’d spent the previous day — my wedding anniversary, by an unfortunate twist of fate—walking the hot streets of the city with my husband, saying goodbye to our favorite haunts and to each other. At the end of the night, sitting in Lauren’s courtyard garden, we both cried — I until I hyperventilated. I thought I might die, but I didn’t. 

Now, for the next few hours, I was truly without a home, in transit between one place and the next, surrounded by people in the same situation, either beside me on the ground, or above me in the air: rising, falling, taking off, landing. When I could, I stood on those moving sidewalks and let them take me to my gate, where I’d board another machine that would propel me forward. And that was fine by me: I was too tired and too afraid to keep moving by myself. 

* * *

The first leg of my trip was okay, except we were an hour late taking off, so I worried I’d miss my connecting flight. When we deplaned in Minneapolis, I ran to make it to my gate before they closed the doors. Standing in line to check in, I took out my cell phone and debated whether it was worth it to power up in the few minutes I had. But then I thought, “What if he texted me? To say goodbye again, or that he’s thinking about me, or that he loves me and will come visit me as soon as he can?” 

So I turned on my phone and, sure enough, I had several messages. But they were not what I expected. The first was from my best guy friend in Seattle, who, like many of my Seattle friends, works at Seattle Pacific. 

It read: “In case you hear on the news, there was just a shooting at SPU on the other side of campus. I’m okay. I was off campus at the time.” 

* * *

Originally I was going to make that last section longer. 

I was going to tell you about how I barely waited until I got to my seat to call my friend for more details. About how he told me the shooting happened in a classroom building just behind the small old house where Image Journal lives. 

About how my friend had been off campus because he wanted to get to the butcher shop before it closed to pick up a leg of lamb he planned to grill for me the next evening. 

About how a brave student took down the shooter, who was armed with a shotgun, before he did as much damage as he could have. 

About how one student died. 

About how I was thinking it couldn’t be true, not really, that someone could disrupt that campus — that small, quiet campus with the hydrangea bushes that inspired my wedding bouquet — and walk into a building set just behind the duck-dotted Washington Canal, the science building, actually, just before the beginning of final exams, actually, and end someone’s life, just like that, bam. Or, more accurately, bang.

About how hard it was for me to shut off my phone for the remainder of the flight, or keep from turning to my fellow passengers and shouting, “Did you hear what just happened?” 

How I took two Dramamine, which made me drowsy, and lay my head against the cold window, and spent the next few hours suspended between wakefulness and sleep, earth and sky, east coast and west, day and night, my past and my future, married and alone, safe and not safe.  

How I realized in this strange space that the boundaries between those dichotomies don’t actually exist the way we think they do. 

* * *

But I didn’t tell you all those things immediately the way I planned because when I got to the point where I was writing about getting the text, I became frightened. In writing the straight narrative I was living it again, and feeling all those things I felt before, and I needed to stop and remind myself that I’m not there anymore. 

I’m not waiting to board my plane, I’m not getting a text message about the shooting, I’m not sitting on the plane imagining the chaos at a place I loved, imagining the faces of people I loved on the face of that dead boy. Feeling guilty for being relieved that it was not a person I knew who was killed, when that wasn’t true for someone else. 

Feeling like the place that had been my hope for a more stable future was maybe not that after all. Like the universe was telling me, no place is safe. 

No, I’m not there anymore. If you want to know, as I’m writing this I’m actually on my bed in the apartment provided for the writing fellow, on a bedspread I bought on a trip to IKEA with the same friend who sent me that text, typing on a computer bought for me by Image friends. In an hour or so I’ll get dressed and take the ten-minute bus ride to SPU’s campus, where in the mornings I work on my writing, and in the afternoons I work as a receptionist in the School of Education. 

* * *

When I first visited campus over the summer, there was yellow caution tape across the doorway of the building where it happened. I could hear hammering and drilling inside. It was this way for weeks, until close to the beginning of fall quarter. 

Part of my fellowship involves teaching a class in creative writing to undergraduates, but somehow the thought that I might have students who were traumatized or at least still processing what had happened escaped me until I had lunch with a friend who works in University Communications. She told me how crazy the days and weeks after the shooting had been for her and her colleagues, and how finally things were growing calmer, and how she hoped the start of the quarter didn’t reopen wounds that were barely beginning to heal. 

The head of the English department emailed all faculty a new page to include in our syllabi: instructions for what to do in case of a campus emergency. On the first day of class when we read over the course materials, I mentioned the page, but the students said nothing. 

After I began my job in the School of Education and got to know our student workers a little, I asked them how the students were coping with the tragedy. They said it was hard to know how to talk to each other about it, because individuals were responding so differently. Some students were openly grieving, and some didn’t want to talk about it at all. Some weren’t sure they had the right to grieve as deeply as others who had been in the building or known the victims personally. Some said they weren’t feeling anything. And freshmen were aware of what had happened but hadn’t been on campus, so they were navigating how to enter a wounded community.

Then, in late October, a shooting occurred at a high school just north of Seattle, and more students died, including the shooter. A few days later one of my student office assistants told me that Marysville, where the shooting happened, is her hometown, and she was having trouble coping with another act of violence. She looked down at her desk for a while and then looked back up at me, and her face was so white when she said, “Four months is just not enough time.” 

* * *

Her words would echo in my head when, exactly one week after the Marysville shooting, SPU again went on lockdown. 

It was a Friday, and Halloween, and my day had gotten off to a rough start. I woke to an e-mail from my brother, who is in federal prison. Halloween is a big deal in our hometown, so being apart on the holiday is akin to how some might feel being apart on Christmas. Then I called my little sister, who lives in Tennessee with the rest of my family, and listened helplessly as she cried, also mourning the day. 

I’d just begun my shift at work when a brightly colored message popped up on my computer screen: “SPU is in lockdown. This is not a drill. The threat of danger is real and imminent.” Then I heard the door to our office suite lock automatically as it did each afternoon at closing time, and my boss say quietly to another woman in the office, “Do you see this?” Then I heard the buzz of cell phones receiving emergency alert text messages, and we all stood up at once. 

I followed the lead of my boss, who was calm and composed. We turned off the lights and shut the blinds to the hallways. I heard someone with a megaphone announce in the hallway so all the classrooms could hear: “We are in lockdown. This is not a drill. Lock the doors, turn off the lights, close the blinds, and move away from the windows.” I joined my boss in the Dean’s office, where she was struggling to lower the blinds over the tall windows. They looked out over the main loop, where students gathered to pray and grieve together the night of the first shooting. It looked calm and peaceful. No one was out walking around. 

I went down the hall and peeked into the office of one of my coworkers. She was sitting on the floor beneath her desk. She looked scared. 

When we locked eyes, I realized that I was scared, too. I walked over to my computer and looked at the short response e-mail I was writing to my brother. It ended: “My life in Seattle is getting settled and I'm starting to feel safer and braver. Thinking about you and how brave you've had to be (and continue to be) helps a lot. I miss you! I love you so much, and I’ll talk to you again soon.” I wondered briefly if I should write anything else, but then I pressed send. 

My boss was texting her husband. I wondered if I should text anyone. Isn’t that what people did when they thought their life might be in danger? Text people and tell them they loved them? But then I realized I had already told everyone. Every call with my parents ends with “I love you,” and I’d told my sister that morning on the phone, and my brother in the e-mail. I’d even told my husband at the end of our last phone conversation, even though he hadn’t said it to me since I left Philadelphia. I’d told my best guy friend who works on campus the last time we talked. And I’d told my other closest male friend, who also works on campus, just before my shift started. I was all paid up in the love department, which somehow made me feel simultaneously comforted and sad. Like I was so accustomed to separation and afraid of losing those I loved that I had been living my life as if I was always saying goodbye.

* * *

There are so many other things I could tell you about that day. 

How my coworkers and I gathered in the break room with a bag of Halloween candy and checked our Twitter feeds for news while listening to helicopters outside scanning the campus, and they told stories about what happened on that day in June, when they had been in the office, just like this, and received alerts, just like this. 

But they hadn’t gathered together just like this. They had been separate, locked inside their offices. Some of them had been alone. So while I was aware of how many faculty, staff, and students were having to relive what had happened before, I also knew that at least some of the women before me were being given the chance to live it with different results, and I hoped that could offer the possibility of healing. 

I could tell you about how the lockdown was lifted after about an hour, and there was no shooter. The ex-girlfriend of a student had sent a text threatening gun violence on campus, but the police located her in a different county and arrested her. 

I could tell you about how angry I felt, some at that woman, but mostly at the fact that things like this happen at all. How I stood on the balcony of our building afterward and looked at the loop and saw a student walking across it wearing a Snow White costume, and how I thought, These students are just children. They should be worrying about midterms, and whether the person they like likes them back. They should not be worrying whether they or someone they love will die today at the hands of a gunman. 

How for the rest of the day my coworkers and I ate candy and chatted and got little work done, and felt happy to be alive. 

How I stayed thirty minutes past when my shift actually ends because I didn’t want to leave and be alone. 

How I thought I was okay but when I did leave saw a man on the sidewalk with a closed umbrella in his hand and for a minute thought the umbrella was a gun, and my heart started pounding and I stopped in my tracks and then realized maybe I wasn’t okay after all. 

How after that I thought I saw my friend who grilled the lamb for me in the distance, and I ran across the campus where he was headed, trying to reach him, but when I rounded a corner into the loop, he wasn’t there, and neither was anybody else. And I stood for a moment heartbroken, watching the leaves fall. 

How I called another friend and she came and picked me up, and I bought a hamburger and watched her get dressed for a Halloween party and then called my husband and told him what had happened. How I thought I might die, but I didn’t. 

And then my friend went to her party and dropped me off at my house and I was so sad about the distance — some literal and some figurative — between me and the people I love, when I feel like emotional closeness is something I spend most of my time and energy trying to cultivate and protect.

* * *

For me this story is about many things. I’ve told it several times — to my friends, my family, my therapist, and myself — and each time it seems to be about something different. But right now, in this writing, it is mostly about protection. 

How that is something I crave, and how I want to give it to the people around me, but how I keep learning I cannot secure it for them or for myself. 

When I look back on this year, I see a deep and abiding vein of grace that has brought me to the place I am now, safe, and I am so grateful for that. But it has existed in what has seemed mostly like a nightmare, so much like a nightmare that my memories of it are fragmented and disjointed, and the images rise up out of it like terrible fish out of a black pond. 

One becomes another, the way the umbrella becomes a gun, then turns back into an umbrella: the plane window I leaned my head against becomes the window in the Dean’s office, and the blinds are stuck. The face of my student worker becomes the face of my sister, who is dressed like a princess. The sound of the keyboard when I press “send” on the e-mail to my brother becomes the sound of a door locking. The Halloween candy I put into my mouth becomes grilled lamb. I’m in the garden at night with my husband and I say “I love you” to him, to everyone, but when I turn around to face him, I am alone. 

I know that after time has passed, I will be able to make more sense of all of this — the images will settle like leaves on the ground, connecting as if they are one coherent thing, a blanketed lawn. But for now they are still separate, swirling in the air.  

When I relive that afternoon in my mind and try mentally to change what happened the way my coworkers were able to revise their earlier experience, I imagine that I get up and walk out of the break room, and past my desk. I raise the blinds, and I turn on the lights, and I unlock the door. I enter the hallway and go down the stairwell to the main entrance. Then I leave the building and continue down the stone steps, and walk into the loop, slowly, right into the center of it, and stand there and look at the blowing leaves, and marvel at them. And I say, to no one in particularly, as quietly and calmly as my boss did, “Do you see this?”

I don’t know what is happening beyond what I can see. I don’t know who is safe and who is not. I don’t know whether I am safe or not. 

I have no idea what will happen next.

Dyana Herron is a writer and teacher from Cleveland, TN. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and currently lives and works in Seattle as the 2014–2015 Milton Writing Fellow.

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