after Hansel and Gretel
“Nibble, nibble, little mouse. Who is nibbling at my house?” The children answered: “The wind, the wind, the heavenly child.” — The Brothers Grimm
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In the morning we wake up to cellphone alarms, or baby siblings crying, or our mothers with hands shaking our shoulders guiding us out of dreams. It’s Tuesday again. A school day, just like yesterday, and last week, and all the years back as far as we can remember. We stumble to our bathrooms to pee, or we press snooze, tunnel under the covers, press snooze again. Our bodies ache with how early it is, how little we slept, but at this doomed age our bodies ache regardless. We bud and bleed, we stretch and sweat. We are twelve, thirteen, and hungry.
Some of us slouch to our kitchens, leaving the lights off in the six-thirty dawn and pouring ourselves cereal in the dark, always cereal, same thing every morning, bowls brought to our lips to finish the dregs of sweet milk. Some of us find our mothers cutting fruit for us, or our fathers buttering stacks of toast to leave on the table like an offering. Some mornings we don’t see them at all, some mornings we don’t see anyone. If there’s apple juice or a can of soda in the fridge we chug it and call it breakfast, to fill us at least a bit. And some of us get sent to school with nothing in our stomachs, bracing ourselves for the long stretch of classes before free lunch.
We walk to school, even though it’s raining. We take the bus, pray no one looks at us, that it stays quiet enough to catch a few last minutes of sleep. Or our mothers drive us, drop our older brothers at the high school, then us next, before taking the babies to daycare. Most of us get to school just on time. We linger in the lobby, the bathrooms, the hallways, at our lockers, yawning and staring at the grimy linoleum floors. We tell each other the stories that need telling since yesterday, the ones too important to text about. Some of us like each other, like-like each other, hate each other, but when we pass one another in the halls we avoid eye contact indiscriminately, because it’s too early in the morning for any of it. Soon, the starting bell rings and we fall in step beside each other, go where we’re supposed to.
Some of us bring chocolate bars, Ziploc bags of Oreos, pretzels, apple slices, and share them between classes or pass them down the aisles of desks when the teachers’ backs are turned. We carry tiny red boxes of raisins and individually wrapped granola bars for quick dispersal. Our pockets are full. Our hands are full. We feed each other because we know we’re starving.
We forget how to answer all the questions asked of us: how to find x, identify the metaphor, name the four major causes of World War I. We can tell that our teachers are frustrated, we recognize those disappointed looks, but we don’t know what else to do. We hide our phones under our desks. We text each other from across the classroom, from the other side of the building, we do it all without looking, our poker faces immaculate. But sometimes they do get us, those teachers—get us excited about something wild or wonderful about the world, and we forget each other for a few minutes, stare in awe at this window to something bigger. We can’t forget each other for long though, we don’t like to, and when the bells ring again we come back to ourselves.
We listen to the bells when they ring. We respond to them immediately like dogs or soldiers, like they taught us. During fourth period, when the fire alarm blares through the loudspeakers, it barely startles us—we have made our homes in bodies constantly being startled, so this is nothing new. We follow the routes laid out for us, crowding outside to the wet basketball courts and the long driveway riddled with puddles, passing potato chips among ourselves. We squint up at the shifting clouds, feeling lucky that the rain let up, until another bell rings and we funnel back inside.
When the alarm rings a second time, near the beginning of eighth period, only some of us know right away that it means something different. Most of us just go along, listening to the teachers with one ear, thinking nothing when they tell us to kneel against the inside walls furthest from the windows. Some of us are in art class, in the room with windows on three sides, so we squish into the supply closet, all seventeen of us, giggling at the proximity of our bodies, smelling each others’ sweat. The alarm keeps ringing. Some of us press our hands to our ears, but most of us let the noise buzz inside our eardrums until we are sure we’re the ones ringing.
We hear another noise if we’re close enough. A misplaced noise, not like an alarm, more like the opposite—short, impossibly short, but deep enough to shake the walls we are pressed against, the floors we are kneeling on. We can hear it echoing nearer, and before we even process what it is we know it’s in the gymnasium. The high ceilings, the echo. We look at our teachers, the ones who answer our questions when we have them. They look back at us strangely, their eyes large, and we know with a jolt that we will get no answer, that they are children too, crouching on the floor beside us in their costumes of high heels and dress shirts.
Some of us hear none of this noise if our rooms are too far from the gym, so we shout into each others’ ears over the endless alarm, curse the cafeteria oven that warms our frozen burgers and macaroni, imagine fire crews arriving to discover a single blackened patty fallen between the grates. A misunderstanding. It doesn’t occur to some of us that this is a different alarm, a different protocol, that they wouldn’t lock us inside if we were burning. Besides, it extends our punchline that we can hear the fire trucks now, just barely screeching below our own wailing alarm, pulling into the faculty parking lot with a squad of police cars and ambulances.
This is when the first texts start coming from the most plugged-in of the parents. Tell me, tell me, they insist, but from inside our closets, from under our desks and in our dusty corners, we can tell them nothing. In fact, they know more than most of us do. We send rows of question marks from our hiding places, stare at the pulsating dots as our parents type. We are on the second floor, in the science wings, in the English classrooms and the library, when our parents text us back. There’s someone, they tell us, someone with a gun in the school and he is using it.
But those of us in the gym, in the girls’ locker room, in the math classrooms on that first floor hallway—we know this already, we have heard him, we are closing our eyes. Texts come to our phones too, but most of us don’t look, most of us don’t think to look, there is no time. A few of us do though, and we have to stare hard at our keyboards, place our shaking fingers carefully, still misspell I love you.
Long minutes pass, the quickest minutes we’ve known, the clocks don’t move, we’re trying our hardest not to move. Only our lips move but no sound comes out, just the shapes, incantations someone taught us once and called them prayers. We mouth anything that will come to us: a lullaby, the alphabet, the pledge of allegiance. Or else we keep our mouths closed which is another kind of prayer. We count in our heads as five windows in five classroom doors shatter like they’re made of the thinnest sugar.
When the police officers get to the second floor, they try to shout over the alarm but we cannot hear them. They rattle the doorknobs and we can feel it under our skin. Some of us scream. Some of us dig our fingernails into the arms of kids we’ve never spoken to. Our teachers crawl to unlock the doors and there is dust on the knees of their navy blue slacks when they stand. Some of our teachers shepherd us frantically, whisper a headcount with hands on our shoulders and the backs of our necks. A couple of our teachers are the first ones through the door and don’t look back. The officers are saying we have to go now, and as we stand a spell is broken: the alarm stops abruptly. We are left in utter silence.
We are led through the quiet hallways with our hands on our heads, and there are dark things scattered in our path: broken glass, pieces of doors, and bigger things, but they tell us not to look. We don’t recognize anything, we have no idea how to find our way, but they are leading us like we can trust them to and we do. We can hear everyone breathing. We don’t know whose breath is whose.
We are taken outside, into sunlight quickly, past the basketball courts and the front gates, down the street and down and down. We trip on the backs of each other’s shoes like we’ve forgotten how to walk. They take us to a place where our parents will come, some plain-looking building we have never noticed. They close the doors and lock us in again. There’s a table with baskets of snacks, boxes of fruit juice hastily stacked, a case of water bottles lined up in their cardboard bed. We stare at the table, no one moving, not one of us saying a thing. Strangers we have never seen before put their arms around our shoulders, talk softly, guide us to plastic chairs, but we’re having trouble hearing. We think the strangers are telling us to wait. We think they’re saying that someone will come for each of us.