This is the same. It’s all the same. Until it’s not. I’m supposed to know when it’s not the same. That’s what the therapist said. Like everything else she said it makes no sense. But even bullshit feels like something to stand on this morning. Button my top button. This is the same. Tie or no tie? No tie. This is the same. Tighten belt. I go two notches past where I did three months ago. Not the same. Holster my gun. Crap. I can’t tell if this is the same or not.
Scott waits on the street in front of my house at the exact time he did three months ago. He still won’t come into the driveway. I exhale. He turns his country music down as I approach the truck. He remembers I don’t like country, evidence this could be the same as three months ago.
“Ready?” Scott says cheerily, putting the truck in drive. He’s asked this for last five years as we’ve pulled away from my house. He never waits for me to answer. I’ve never been more glad for someone to not want my answer. His familiar indifference feels like love.
On Highway 16 we turn left. For the last three months I’ve only turned right. Right led to the psychologist and the grocery store. My heart pounds as he pulls on to the highway, rolling away from my safe little triangle, but more frighteningly, back to the beginning of the last three months. I think about my shrink’s offer in our last session.
“Even though you don’t need hand-holding, is it wrong to want someone there?”
It’s just more bullshit, I tell myself. She said my heart would beat like this. And she said it would stop if I could stay in the moment long enough. Scott hums. It’s like he knows not to ask questions. I wonder if my therapist got to him. Boss told me the whole town was pulling for me. Maybe the whole town is in on this. This is certainly not the same.
“Getting cool early this year,” I offer. It’s more to break the sounds of my head than the silence of the cab.
“Yeah. Love this weather. Thinking about cooking chili this weekend.”
Chili. Weather. This is how the same can be. Maybe my job can go back to getting the work done. The last thought lands on my head like the bloody feather of the goose Scott shot directly over us in his camp last fall. It was perfect and then stained, making it something different.
“You alright, buddy?” Scott asks from the driver’s seat. I blink a lot. Damn. I’ve lost time. “Dissociation” is what my therapist called it. When my eyes find him again he looks like he’s on the other end of the football field he coaches on every Friday night. “Take some deep breaths. It’s normal to have some jitters. You’re going back in the game after a big hit. Soon as you get in there it will all come back to you.”
That’s what I’m most afraid of. Still, having his patient confidence coaching me from his hundred-yard sideline seat eases me. He keeps the engine running, waiting for my breathing to even.
Time skips again. I’m brought back to awareness by the sound of my hand knocking on my boss’s door. He opens it instead of telling me it’s open like he usually does. He even walks me to my seat. Sitting across the desk from me, he peers into my face as if he’ll find something hidden there. Maybe he’ll find what’s different. Hopefully he’ll find what’s the same about me.
“It’s good to have you back R.J.”
History tells me to say something bold and humorous. I nod instead.
“Listen. I know you probably want to get back to work and put this all behind you. We all want the same thing. I wanted you to start your day in my office to let you know we’re all so damned proud of you. You’re…you’re our hero.” He chokes through these last words. It’s easy to see he’s rehearsed them, at least in his head. They still make him cry. It makes it hard to tell if it’s really me he’s talking to. He clears his throat. “Sorry. I also wanted to let you know we made a few changes we hope you’re ok with. We would have checked with you about it, but we figured you didn’t need to be disturbed. We moved your classroom. We thought that would be best for the kids and…well…maybe for you, too. Also, you’ll notice your class is smaller.” I stare at him blankly. This should mean something, but I can’t figure out what right now. He responds to my stare with, “Some didn’t come back when we reopened. Heard some transferred. Some were more…affected.” Some were more affected. Are affect and effect the same? I get lost down the tunnel of this seemingly safer question. “Don’t kill yourself working today. You’re more than welcome to just do a video, act like a cheap sub for all I care. We’re all just happy you’re back.”
Nodding again, he walks me all the way out of the office. The halls are starting to move with teachers. Their eyes are on me exactly like they were the last time I saw them. This is the same. My face flushes.
“Hey,” the principal says behind me, momentarily reversing my blood flow. “The kids. They might want to talk about this. You don’t have to. Send them to the counselor. Especially if they start freaking out.”
On my way to my classroom I think about what freaking out might look like for them. What if I freak out? We could make good company, I guess. Will I talk out of my head like I did with the therapist, spouting words but no sense? How do I teach through that? It nauseates me. This won’t work, can’t work. It’s too different. The shiny linoleum beneath me reflects the edges of a black hole I’ll be sliding into for the rest of my career. Looking up from its glare I see an open door to a warm, familiar place. Mrs. Kutchen is already here, beating me to work as she does. I have never needed my strong, sturdy mentor more than I do today.
“Think we’ll win today?” I ask her blazer clad back as she writes the quote of the day on her board. I crave her usual response of, “As teachers, we’re always winning.” Instead she turns in place, the left shoulder of her jacket grazing the board, taking on a white mark.
“Hi, R.J. You’re back.” The thick lines around her mouth and eyes are poised in a smile as they always are. But they hold there with particular tension, as if she were willing this normal expression to emerge.
“Maybe not all the way. But, yeah. I’m here.”
Mrs. Kutchen would never let a self-deprecating remark like that hang in the air for very long. She would catch it, reflect it back, having simultaneously scolded me for disbelief in myself while finding some hidden latent strength beneath my words. In its place is a long pause.
“Everyone has been anxious about your return.”
“Count me as part of everyone.”
Again, she offers nothing back. There isn’t a bright future following her acknowledgment. It’s then I notice her eyes dart ever so subtly from my face to my hip, and then my other hip, her gaze reaching to pat me down. There’s no warmth in her eyes when they come back up.
“I’d better get it started,” I say, understanding clearly I cannot win today.
“Take care, R.J.”
The room they’ve put me in is on the other side of the school from where I was three months ago. They’ve strewn a banner over the board welcoming me back. My old decorations and educational posters hang places which make more sense. Someone worked hard to make this a nice room for me. It helps to fill the pit in my stomach left there by Mrs. Kutchen. I drop my things by my new desk, and collapse into the chair behind it. The chair is new. It’s more expensive than our budget would allow a school to pay for. Someone has privately funded or donated this. Someone who likes what happened three months ago. Wondering who makes my mind twist and in the twisting time is lost again. The bell is ringing.
Immediately following antiquated jarring of the old brass bell I hear a trickle of young voices down the hall. Entering my ears slowly at first, it turns into a flood, just like my dreams turn to nightmares most nights. Before I can see them, though, they hush. Familiar young faces, smiling, with respect, or caution, file past to drop off their book bags. They stand by their seats, waiting, as the rest of their peers arrive and put their books down. By unseen cue they clap. Then they cheer. A couple of them cry. The noise, all of the stimulation, it’s too much.
“Thanks. Y’all have a seat.”
“I just want to say Mr. Kealing that me and my whole family are forever indebted to you.”
I didn’t want it to go here. I just want to teach my class. I know the principal said they would do this and I could respond by putting in the least amount of effort. I want this part of my life to look like it did, where I can just be a teacher and they can just learn.
“Thanks Derek. That’s kind. But today we’re going to focus on—”
“Can I just say, too, Mr. Kealing that my dad wanted to come with me today to thank you. He says you did what soldiers do. You did what you had to do.” Rebecca’s dad would know. He’d just gotten back from a long stint in Afghanistan when it happened. But I’m no solider. I’m a tenth grade biology teacher who volunteered for the School Marshal Program because I care about my students. It’s the way I was raised. The reasons I made my choices are important to remember. I did what the men in my life taught me to do: protect no matter what the cost. The last thing I want to admit is I might need someone to protect me today. Damn it. I hate my therapist more every time she’s right.
“That’s kind of him to say, but—"
“He said if you ever need someone to talk to he’d get it.” She hands me a post-it with a number scribbled on it. “He had to shoot a kid once who was carrying a bomb into his camp.” I stare at her, waiting for a laugh or, more hopefully, a cry. But her visage is unmoved. It’s full of the solid compassion I imagine her father would give me. Compassion I’d sought for in Mrs. Kutchen’s face.
“Thank you. I’ll… thank you. Alright everyone. We need to move on to—”
“They did you wrong Mr. Kealing. Making you go on leave like that. They all just caught up in the system.”
“Tell you what. We’re going to watch a video today. Yeah. Let’s make it easy.”
This is defeat. Their eyes stay on me as I set up the digital projector. I feel them instead of seeing them, the same as I did that day. Quickly I turn off the light and take a seat at my desk behind them, where their eyes won’t comfortably find me. They settle into a boring film on photosynthesis. The muscles in my back commence unknotting. Until a book bag flops over. The sudden movement in the dark combined with the noise of it, made louder by silence of digital plants, makes me stand bolt upright, my right hand going behind my back. All eyes are back on me.
“Sorry,” is all I have as a response for the danger I just put all of our lives in.
E-mail is what I need: mindless and engrossing. There must be over a thousand accumulated over the last three months. These will make me come up with answers, something I’m in short supply of. The first is a weekly lesson plan request. The second is the social committee chair (delete). The third is from a student. Correction: from a former student. She is no longer in this class. Maybe she has something to say to give me a better bead on what exactly is the same.
“Hi Mr. Kealing,
You probably noticed I’m not in your class anymore. I’m not in any class. Mom is homeschooling me. School triggers me. My anxiety was bad before the shooting, but I can barely leave the house now. To be honest it’s taken me two days to write this much. But my therapist says it could help.
So here goes. You took something away from me. At first I thought it was someone you took away. For a month after you shot Skylar I thought my panic attacks and my suicide attempt were about losing him. I had to be honest and admit we weren’t that close. He was mad at the world for always getting him wrong. But I didn’t think he would go as far as he did. I had to admit that, too. I didn’t know so it wasn’t my fault. School scares me because I could get close to someone and get them wrong again. Not trusting myself is something I deal with every day.
There are so many other ways that day could have gone where Skylar would be alive. I’ve gone over all of them in therapy. Skylar had a gun and you had a gun. He was unstable, but the system said you were the sane one. That decides who’s dead. For me it decides where I’m not safe.
I’m sorry this happened to us.
A tunnel forms around these words on the screen. I get lost in them, rereading in spurts. They are not really sentences but pieces of that day: sensations, thoughts, emotions, images. The bottom of my stomach has dropped out, just like when I heard the kids scream in the hall after the first gun shot. In my ears I hear the evenness of my words telling the kids to lie flat. I feel the roughly painted cinderblocks felt against my back as I unholstered my gun and turned off the light. My gun was warm from laying against my back. When I turned the corner Skylar was in the intersection of hallways, standing still with a half of a faraway smile. He didn’t have time to find me before I fired. I can’t remember if I’d stopped firing before I ran toward him. He’d already stopped breathing by the time I was kneeling next to him. The glassy black pupils widened to reflect my silhouette in them. My first thought was a question: How long before his body would lose its warmth?
A bee tends its flowers and buzzes off screen. I’ve dissociated again. The eyes of the class fix on me. Most likely because my gun is drawn. The muzzle points toward the ceiling tiles, just as I was trained, to be both safe and be ready. I can feel the warm running from my gun same as it did from Skylar’s cheek. Still the question echoes. How long? How long have I been standing here with a loaded weapon? It’s only been seconds, I suppose. How long did I think about becoming a marshal? It was a little less than a week. How long did I hesitate to capitalize on the 80 hours of training to prevent “murder or serious bodily injury on school premises?” Much shorter than the time I’ve taken to consider all of these things while I stare at a group of students wearing expressions ranging from bunnies to bears. I started today wondering how long it would take for things to go back to normal, for me to be just Mr. Kealing, tenth grade Biology teacher. How long did it take Rebecca’s dad to just be a dad? And how long did it take for him to stop having nightmares and jumping at every noise? Was it longer or shorter than it will be for me? How long will it take these kids to sleep soundly? How long do people remember a soldier and dad as a hero? Long after the flag covering his coffin has been folded, handed to his widow, and encased in glass somewhere in her empty house. Skylar’s mom has newspaper clippings begging “How Long Had He Planned It?” to encase in glass. How long would mourners stay at a School Marshal’s funeral, especially when there’s no flag to fold? From the looks of fearful children in front of me there would be no one to give it to anyway. I can’t tell anymore if the answers are different, or the same.
With the slightest steps, I back away from the class. A single, soft movement and I remove the clip from the gun. The clip I leave on a student’s desk, the empty gun on mine. The students who hadn’t turned to face me, and are still awkwardly looking over their shoulders, are too afraid to move. We are all the same now: scared of what I could do and how it will define us. I back out of the classroom and sprint through empty halls. My legs slow in reverence at the intersection of hallways, where Skylar’s body once crumpled and eventually lost its warmth. Warmth in my legs, warmth he once had, is markedly different from the cold pit forming my chest, showing me, once and for all, it can’t be the same.
Toby LeBlanc is a Mental Health Professional in Austin, TX. While he and his family sleep under the Texas stars, his roots find their ground in the prairies and bayous of Louisiana. His work appears in Coffin Bell Journal and Deep South Mag. His manuscript, Dark Roux, was a semifinalist in the 2018 Faulkner Wisdom - Words Writing Competition in New Orleans.