Normal is three hours away. It’s the last day of school, and I daydream of summer break. My treehouse. Steamy streets and woods. Sleeping in. It will all replace these stale, frigid classrooms. No more dodging classmates. Instead, I’ll relax with my family, who love me. And I’ll get better. I just need some rest and peace. And, I’ll get better.
Ms. Porter says something, but I’m zoned out. I don’t hear her. Nobody hears her. We don’t need to. We haven’t received meaningful work for three days. Why do we even come to school the final week?
An announcement interrupts my daydream: “Attention upper school students. All juniors and seniors immediately report to the gym. Important instructions will be given in ten minutes.”
“Is Paul getting out early?” I worry. My older brother is my ride home. I don’t need any stress now. I’m so close to summer. So close to normal. So close to better.
Ms. Porter’s phone vibrates on her desk. She glances at a text message. She pops out of her seat and starts towards the classroom door. “I’ll be right back, students. You may talk quietly. Just, stay in your seats, please.”
The door closes. The class erupts. Stay in our seats? Seriously? It’s the last day of school, and the teacher leaves a class of sixth graders alone. Almost everybody leaves their seats, or at least turns in them to find friends. A small group gathers in the back of the room to plan one last prank. Others throw spitballs at the ceiling. Most are content to chat with friends. Me? I keep to myself, as usual. I need to avoid attention for a few more hours, then everything will be fine.
Everything is fine. Just get to the end of the day, my mind assures my body.
I take some deep breaths and hope nobody notices my odd attention to breathing.
Stay calm. No episodes.
Can anyone tell that I’m getting nervous? I rub my thumbs against my palms, another trick Dr. Watt taught me for staying calm. I feel eyes turning to me. Is the whole class looking at me?
Ms. Porter returns. Thank goodness. She’ll take the attention away from me. I expect a perturbed reprimand for the chaos that exploded after she left, but her face is empty. The switch from orderly classroom to end-of-year madhouse doesn’t phase her. Something else holds her full attention.
“Class,” she whimpers. She speaks so quietly. She’s scared. I think I’m the only one who heard her. What is wrong?
She stands for a few more seconds and continues to look straight forward. What is she looking at? She seems to stare directly through the back wall as if she can see something in the next classroom.
I forget about my controlled breathing. My thumbs stop moving. My fists clench. Oh no. I feel my nerves heating up. What is going on?
“Class,” she says, a little louder. Most students ignore her and remain lost in their personal conversations.
A blaring intercom saves Ms. Porter from two failed attempts to claim the class’ attention. The emergency tone screams through the classroom. Everyone cups their hands over their ears. The class snaps to attention. We turn to Ms. Porter and wait for an explanation.
“Class,” she starts again. “There has been an emergency, and we are going to leave school early today. Please walk to the cafeteria. Principal Stevens will instruct you how to get home.”
As she finishes speaking, a strange noise floods the hallway outside our classroom. We all turn our eyes to the door, equally confused by the unfamiliar sound. I hear students swarming and moving towards the cafeteria. But there’s something else. It sounds like marching. It is marching.
Soldiers are in the building.
The contrast of middle school voices against stomping military boots makes my stomach churn. What is going on?
I join my classmates in an uneasy dash for the door. We throw it open. The hallway scene stops us all in our tracks. Armed soldiers file through the hall, taking no notice of the growing confusion and fear among the scrambling students. They are on a mission, and nothing will interfere. But what type of military mission happens at a school? As more students pour into the hallway, the path to the cafeteria turns into a stampede.
I freeze, trapped in the confusion. I push my back against a wall and focus on breathing.
In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4. You must stay calm.
My thumbs rub my palms raw. I can’t afford an episode right now. I feel the pill in my pocket. Dr. Watt told me that if I feel an episode coming on, I can take the pill. It will stop the episode, but it will knock me out. I’ll be asleep in minutes.
Falling asleep in the middle of an emergency evacuation is not the best way to avoid attention. Maybe I can slip back into the classroom and sleep while this blows over.
I consider taking the pill. But wait. Paul!
I need to find Paul, and we need to leave. We need to leave together.
An avalanche of students and military entangles everything in the hallway and carries it towards the cafeteria. Paul is in the gym, the opposite direction. I squeeze against the wall and fight against the traffic. I feel like one of those fish that swims upriver to lay eggs. It’s nearly impossible to move against the hall’s current. But, Paul. I have to get to Paul, no matter the difficulty.
Somehow, I make it to the end of the hallway. What will I see outside? I peek my head out the door.
Students and teachers clamber all over the school grounds. If anybody had made it to the cafeteria, they didn’t stay long. Some students run to the edge of campus. Others head to the parking lot where the upper school students park their cars. Even teachers are taking off. I scan the campus in between the parking lot and the gym. Principal Stevens catches my eye. He pleads with an upper school teacher to stay. The teacher pulls away from him and runs towards her car. Before she closes her car door, she turns and screams at Principal Stevens: “The parents need to know first!”
Principal Stevens drops his eyes and slumps his shoulders. I think he agrees with her, but he acts helpless to do anything about it. He turns and walks lifelessly back towards campus. My eyes rush ahead of him to the gym and stop at the gym doors. A dozen or so upper school students are coming through the gym's main doors in an orderly line. They stay silent, surrounded by soldiers. They are escorted to a bus. It isn’t a school bus. It’s unmarked, with blacked-out windows.
I look back to the line of students. I scan for Paul. My heart beats faster. I don’t know anything about this line or this bus, but I don’t want Paul in either one. My nerves prevent my eyes from focusing. I shake my head and start over at the beginning of the line. One of Paul’s basketball teammates is first. Jake Cross, a state champion wrestler, stands behind him. Jane Simmons, our school track star, is behind Jake. A pattern emerges. A pattern that surely includes my brother. I lose control of my breathing, again.
My eyes rush through the line again and again and again. There he is. Paul holds himself like the rest of them: poised, silent, and ready. But ready for what? What don’t my parents know about Paul and the others?
The student athletes move in procession towards the ominous blackened bus. Compared to the rampage unfolding across the rest of campus, the small plot between the gym and the unmarked bus exudes an eerie sense of order. The soldiers and the students are on the same page. They move with a shared sense of purpose. That small group of students has joined the soldiers' mission.
I don’t understand that mission, but I can't let Paul join. I must get to him. I must get him out of there. I need my big brother. I drop my bookbag. I drop my breathing exercises. I drop my thoughts. And I run: I run towards Paul.