*This essay refers to the shooting at New River Community College in Christiansburg, VA, April 12, 2013.
Every time I talk about the shooting, I dream my dog is murdered.
I am standing in a field in the twilight, high grass painted black against the glowing, lavender-gold sky. My dog has run away. A man is calling her by her name, and she’s running toward him, not me. I can tell from the tone of his voice that he isn’t calling her out of love and concern, that there’s hate beneath the honey in his voice, and when Daisy comes to him, he says, “I’ll teach you to run away from me again,” and I see his hand, clutching a hammer, rising high above his head, and he brings it down on her over and over and over again. He beats her to death and I stand there, shaking, paralyzed, unable to scream, unable to save her as she howls and cries in agony, until finally there’s silence.
“The daemonic night and its chief product, the nightmare, have always been a special hell for survivors,” writes David Morris in his study of trauma, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Daisy—my most cherished companion, the tragic object of my nightmares—is the target, the innocent sacrificed to evil. All the dreams are variations on this one. She is tortured and killed, and I can’t save her. I cradle her in my arms as she bleeds to death, shuddering and gulping.
I fling myself up out of sleep to see Daisy, safe in her bed in the corner; her sweet eyes are closed and her feathery tail thumps gently as she chases a rabbit in a dream of her own. I get out of bed and creep over to her, placing my hand on her maple-colored fur, feel her heart beating beneath my hand, stroke her ears.
I know by now that every time I speak publicly about the shooting, or am “triggered” (how I hate that word: why must the term itself remind me of the gun?) by the news of another campus massacre, I will dream of Daisy’s murder. I turn the lights off and lie in the darkness, fighting off sleep for as long as I can. I never dream of my own students, or the classroom, or even guns. The shooting dreams are always Daisy dreams. Sometimes a man cuts her paws off. Sometimes he nails her ears to the floor. The killer comes after her, but spares me. I am never there in time to offer myself instead.
Nighttime has become an entrée into a treacherous limbo. Instead of sipping the waters of Lethe, I choke on the filth of the river of lamentation.
• • •
On the Tuesday after the shooting, I, along with other faculty and staff, convened on campus with administrators and the director of the counseling center at Virginia Tech; fortunately / unfortunately, we had their experience to guide us through our own horror. We sat in an auditorium that had once been a movie theater. I chose a seat at the back, close to the door. Did I realize even then how space would rearrange itself, so that I would never again see a door as a benign architectural necessity? I was wobbly and frightened. I had gone back to my classroom with my father just three days earlier, the day after the shooting, to collect my belongings, and now the college was reopening. I had no idea how I was going to face my students the next day. All our focus was on them.
Our administrators walked us through the logistical steps for the rest of the semester. Students could finish early and accept their grades as they were, if they felt they couldn’t manage to return. (It did not occur to me to ask what to do if I couldn’t manage to return.) Police would be there every day for the rest of the term. One administrator reiterated that the official college safety protocol still advised sheltering in place and locking down during an “incident.” Even though we might think that we have safe egress, she said, we never know whether there will be a second shooter and if we might be sending students into sniper fire.
I thought about how quickly I had made the decision to tell my students to run once the shots began (Get out!), I remembered the sound of gunfire coming from the reception lobby, just around the corner from our classroom, and the certainty that it—he—would come closer. The emergency exit was right across the hall. Using it had seemed like the only option. I remembered how my students flew over their desks and out the emergency exit door, how quickly they disappeared into their cars and sped away, or else hid with me behind parked cars. But what I heard from this administrator was that I could have sent my students into a gauntlet of bullets from an unknown second assailant, and that if they were unhurt today, it was in spite of my choices, not because of them.
Images of my students tumbling one by one in a storm of bullets punched me in the gut. I crumpled forward in my seat and started to sob. The administrator came up to me afterwards and patted me on the back, saying that I had done the right thing and that no one was criticizing my choice in the moment. I couldn’t stop crying, though. The thought of my students, dead because of me, was too much to hold. What if? What if?
The what-ifs following a school shooting are as cacophonous and repetitive as tornado sirens. They constantly wake me out of hazy dreams, forcing me to go over each moment again and again, parsing every action for every other permutation I might have chosen. What if I had shut the door and turned off the lights? What if he had entered anyway? (I learned much later that surveillance video shows him coming to our classroom and peering inside just minutes after we fled.) What if I had gone back inside and tried to help instead of standing stupidly in the parking lot and listening to the shots? What if I had gone after him myself?
• • •
I wake up in the shadows, the sheets damp. I can smell the sour sweat on my body. There is a howl in my throat that can’t force its way out. Shreds of the dream linger in my mind, flitting away when I try to grasp them. No matter. I can imagine it well enough. What time did I go to bed? The clock radio reads 7 am, but that means I lay down hours ago. Time slips out of my hands now, minutes disappearing like snowflakes. The light outside is pale and gray, the steely sky melting into the dull snow-covered yard and neighboring paddock. Entre chien et loup: between a dog and a wolf, the French expression for that dusky hour when you can’t trust your eyes, when you don’t know if you’re safe or if there’s a predator lurking just around the corner. Harmless student, or furious young man?
Ice cracking, or gunshot?
I wonder if the nightmares will always come like this. Could I avoid them by never speaking about the shooting, or by traveling out of town on anniversary dates, or by calling in sick to work and downing a Klonopin to black out the day? Why can’t April 12 be the new leap day, so that I only have to face it once every four years? And why can’t I dream about something else? Why can’t my nightmares take a different form? I would rather endure dreams of my own dismemberment than be forced repeatedly to watch Daisy’s torture.
Safe spaces, safe sex, drive safe; I want to weep with sick laughter at how meaningless the word has become. My school, my classroom, my dear students: all of us have been violated. Not even my unconscious mind is safe anymore. In the daytime, I can push away memories while I’m walking Daisy, opening into warrior pose on my yoga mat, or grading my students’ papers. But in sleep, in the daemonic night? Powerless.
• • •
A week after the shooting, I get an email from the mother of one of my students, thanking me for keeping them safe and getting them all out of the classroom. My boyfriend, too, assures me that I did just the right thing and fuck protocol; the students are safe and that’s what matters most. No plan survives contact with the enemy, he tells me. I replay their words when I find myself, in my mind, back in the classroom that day, standing at the door and listening to the gunfire, deciding without deciding what to do.
Unlike the flimsy cassette tapes of my adolescence, this mental tape never seems to wear out. I have played it ten thousand times, remembering the sound of the first shot, the number of steps it took to cross the room (eight), the sound of the next two shots, the total, flat silence in my classroom in the moment between comprehending and acting. I’ve mentally copied parts of it for the next time:
If I can get the students out, I will. Fuck protocol. The FBI says that if you can escape, you should escape. But this time, I’m not going with them. I will make sure they’re all outside, and then I am going back in.
I’ve imagined the charge many times. I’ve pictured the kind of gun he will have (our shooter used a shotgun, but the AR-15 is the weapon of choice for many enraged men who decide to enact their death wish on us), whether he will be walking methodically from room to room or firing haphazardly in every direction. I’ve memorized the distance between every hallway off the main corridor so that I know where I can conceal myself for just a few moments before I make my attack. I consider every day what shoes I will wear to school, because I need shoes that I can either run in or kick off quickly.
I’m not running away this time. I’m running toward him.
I’ll have the element of surprise on my side, I think. He might be looking for a cop, a male for sure. He won’t expect a small-framed female English professor to come tearing at him. I imagine paralyzing him with my gaze. I imagine my mouth open and teeth bared, my arms tight at my sides. A predator.
His surprise may buy me a few seconds to launch myself at him and tackle him to the ground. He may drop his weapon. He may shoot me as I’m coming at him; I know this. I probably won’t survive. Still, I’ll have startled him long enough for someone else to call 911, or to help me keep him pinned to the floor away from his guns.
I’ll get there in time.
* Illustration by Anna Hall