Gunfire has an eerily familiar sound. For Levi, it harkened back not to any number of movies he had seen–where a booming cannon-like sound effect was emitted from a simple pistol. Instead, it sounded more, to him, like a pack of firecrackers going off. A thin crack-crack-crack sound, more like a sudden rush of air, than the boom-boom-boom of a movie’s sound effects team.
And when he had first heard that cracking sound, a voice in his head asked why anyone would be so stupid as to light fireworks in a crowded public park on a day that was not July 4th and how desperate for attention that person must be. But just as he thought that, it registered, for there came with those sounds a screaming. Unclear, a jumble of terror, agony, and the sounds of sadness from people who realized they were about to die.
In movies, panicked people run and children who are separated from their parents are picked up by some good-hearted Samaritan who, even in panic, helps the helpless.
In reality, those children are trampled.
As are the elderly, the senior citizens hobbling away, knowing they don’t stand a chance from the gunman at their back.
And as you run from the crowd, the crowd surrounds you, everyone running any which way. Only you find the crowd in front of you falling, as if they’ve jumped off a sudden cliff up ahead. And you realize they haven’t fallen into an abyss but down to the ground, shot and killed by a number of active shooters who are storming the park.
You become separated from those you were with as the crowd you are a part of becomes like water, willing its way through any space, coming between you and the friends you are running with. So if you are holding someone’s arm, you grip onto it like a life preserver, threatening to break their bones, squeezing hard as your teeth clench.
And when you feel something like fire tear through you, you still hold on, the pain tearing through your body so much that every nerve throbs instantaneously. Your mouth fills with something like sand as your jaw closes so harshly, you crack your teeth apart. And you go down, the person whose arm you are holding jerking every which way with you, and you with them, as they, too, are hole-punched by bullets.
When you go down into a swirl of pain and dark, you don’t even care that what you’re lying atop is the carcass of a man who only a few minutes before had been cheering on his child in an impromptu footrace. You don’t care that his blood is on your face, that you smell shit and urine and that sour blood smell, and you don’t care that he’s dead because you only want to live. You can’t process the reality at first and you think you’ve somehow been set on fire and are burning. And you look and see so many bodies before you—some faces you recognize because you passed them earlier that day, and that one there bumped into you at the sno-cone stand and apologized profusely even though she hadn’t done anything horrible or intentional. And you hear the gunfire continue and you lay there, on a chest no longer heaving but still and silent, and you let the executioners move on through the crowd, further into the park.
And when you dare to look behind you and see that they have moved away, you try not to scream too loudly from the agony of your red spilling out all over the park’s green. Or that the friend whose arm you’ve clamped onto is still. He’s breathing, but not for long.
And, though you can’t stand, and you won’t pull some action movie bullshit like charge a gunman from behind, and your legs and chest are in pain like nothing you have ever felt before, you begin to crawl, dragging yourself and your friend over the dead, the moaning, the broken glass, between turned over strollers, bicycles, and an empty wheelchair whose occupant is now sprawled on the ground with half her face shot off.
It takes forever and you dart in and out of being awake with pain and asleep with fatigue. But you drag yourself and Kyle toward Piedmont Avenue.
When you hear a thunder-like explosion in the distance, you ignore it, not realizing that, above the tree line, a skyscraper several blocks away is now missing and replaced, for the moment, by a low-lying, angry cloud of stone gray.
When you open your blood-stiffened eye lids you sees a series of red and blue flashing lights, and wonder why the police have not entered the park and why they are not helping you.
But then you hear more fire crackers. No. . .gunfire. The executioners have returned. They are behind you. Firing at the police. And you are between the rifles booming and cracking behind you and the occasional returned gunfire coming from behind a few police cars.
It is a day that seems like it will never end.
Jesus Christ. If I’m going to die, then just kill me.
There is something like silence above the hum of those wounded and crying, groaning, or screaming when the gunfire stops. Through your eyes, you see no police officers, and then realize that they are taking shelter. Behind their cars.
At this point, you realize they are not there to help you; they are there to hide. And there must still be shooters behind you somewhere. Turned toward them. Turned toward you.
You also know that if you wait there for the police to storm the park and pluck the living from the dead, you will die. If you move, the shooters may not notice your red-soaked clothing moving amongst all the other maroon. But you risk it because to not risk it would be committing suicide by not trying to live. You are bleeding too much and your chest hurting too much to be alive much longer. So you risk bullets to get to the police who are not coming in to save you or your friend.
You drag yourself, no matter how much noise you make as you gasp and cry, and then reach back and drag your friend, across the grass, across the dead, and across the sidewalk. Where, at last, some police officer races out from behind the patrol car and drags you across the grating pavement to lie you down on Piedmont, where cars are crashed here and there, windows shot out and dead drivers and passengers inside, some spilled outside the automobiles’ rapidly opened doors for aborted escapes.
Here you scream from the pain; you have held in your agony but now it is too much. Your legs are there but they feel as if aflame. Your chest is also burning; your lungs feel heavy, filled with something heavier than air.
And for a moment you think with weary disgust, “We knew this would happen eventually.”
But then the pain starts again and you surrender to it, allowing it to knock you out because you’d rather die than see what sits across from you, slumped up against a crashed car with three people in it, dead, shot through the head: that poor, agonized woman, bewildered, screaming in denial as she cradles the corpse of that sweet, lovely baby as your mind somehow regurgitates that odd nursery rhyme:
“Momma had a baby and its head popped off.”
That poor, sweet baby in the arms of its decimated, horrified mother.
In tears you slide into darkness. And your mind, already bouncing between two poles since infancy, is now irretrievably shattered until your old age.
You might have been better off dying.
From here on out, you will drift on the torrents of a nightmare. The day might end but it will never go away. Gunfire will wake you. Blood will fill your nightmares. And the things you have seen—the bodies turned inside out, the trampled elderly and the stomped-upon children, the faces blown apart and the chests and stomachs blasted open—will disgust you at unexpected moments for the rest of your days. You will never know safety or peace. You will never be able to be loved by anyone. Because you did not die, you will be an oddity. That “poor guy, so messed up.” The person people whisper about. The one doomed to insanity. Wave after wave after wave, this day will appear again and again and again in your mind, eroding you into a mess, a sad lonely person who will die alone because your insanity will chase people from you. This day will never go away. This day will never end.
This day is your eternity.