Nothing can save you. Olivia Arias rubbed goose bumps from her arms as she read the words scrawled on the sign taped under a maniacal-looking wasp painted on the wall of the gym. NOTHING CAN SAVE YOU FROM THE STING! More hand-drawn posters hung crookedly around the ridiculous mascot, bubbly cheerleader handwriting declaring that the Millbourne Yellowjackets were going to take down the Creekside Tigers. Some smart-ass had drawn a tiger with a swollen face and an EpiPen with an X through it.
Nothing can save you. The level of artistic skill on the cartoon should’ve made Liv smile. Back when she was in high school, she wouldn’t have been the one making school spirit signs, but she would’ve appreciated the art and the sarcasm. Today, she couldn’t find enthusiasm for either. Because it all felt off. The new name for the school. The weird, too-smiley mascot. Her, being there.
This wasn’t the gym where it had happened. That building had been knocked down within months of the tragedy. Spilled blood covered with dirt. A memorial courtyard was in its place now on the other side of the school. She’d taken the long way around and had avoided walking past it on her way in, afraid it would trigger all the stuff she’d fought so hard to lock down. Even after twelve years, she couldn’t bear to look at a list of names that should’ve been in a graduation program instead of etched onto a memorial. People she’d sat next to in class. People she’d been friends with. People she’d thought she hated until they were gone and she’d realized how silly and superficial high-school hate was. Now they were just names on stone, memories painted on the walls of her brain, holes in people’s hearts.
“You said you weren’t in the gym when the first gunman came in.”
The interviewer’s calm voice jarred Liv from her thoughts, and she blinked in the bright camera-ready lights. They’d been talking about the tragedy as a whole, but hadn’t gotten into the details of the night yet. “What?”
Daniel Morrow, the filmmaker putting the documentary together, gave her an encouraging nod, making his too-stylish hair flop across his forehead. “You weren’t in the gym…”
Liv swallowed past the rubber-band tightness in her throat. Maybe she’d overestimated her ability to handle this. She’d agreed to it because the proceeds were going both to the families of the victims and to research that could help prevent things like this from happening. How could she say no to that and not look heartless? But in that moment, she wished she’d declined. Old fear was creeping up the back of her neck, invading like a thousand spiders, the sounds and memories from that night threatening to overtake her. She closed her eyes for a second and focused on her breathing.
She wasn’t that scared girl anymore. She would not be.
“Do you need to take a break, Ms. Arias?” Daniel asked, his voice echoing in the dark, empty gym.
She shook her head, the lights feeling too hot on her skin. No breaks. She needed to get this over with. If she took a break, she wouldn’t come back. She opened her eyes and straightened her spine, rallying her reserve of calm, that place where she went and pretended she was talking about things that had happened to someone else, to people she didn’t know, at a school she’d never heard of. “No, I wasn’t in the gym. I’d gone into the hallway to get some air.”
Not entirely true. She’d left the prom to sneak into a janitor’s closet with Finn Dorsey. But she and Finn had never told that part of the story because he’d been there with a “proper” date, and he would’ve never wanted his parents or anyone else to know he was sneaking off with someone like Olivia Arias. She’d first dragged him into the closet to fight with him, to let him know how she felt about being passed over for his student-council-president date. But fighting had only stoked the fire that had burned between them back then. Young, misguided, completely inconvenient lust. They’d been rounding second base when they’d heard the first shots fired.
“What happened when you were in the hallway?”
Liv didn’t want to picture it again. She’d wrestled with flashbacks for so long that it felt like inviting the devil in for another stay. Her only reprieve since that awful year had been one hundred percent avoidance, cutting herself off from everything and everyone from back then. Letting the scene run through her mind could be too much. But there was no helping it. The images came anyway.
“When I heard the shots and screaming, I hid in the janitor’s closet.” She and Finn had thought it was some kind of prom prank until they’d heard Finn’s date, Rebecca, shout the word gun.
A tiny, three-letter word that had knocked their world off its axis and punted it into a different dimension forever.
“So you never saw the shooters?”
Liv gripped her elbows, trying to keep the inner chill from becoming visible shivering, and ignored the pine scent of the janitor’s disinfectant that burned her nose as if she were right there again. She still couldn’t buy a real Christmas tree because of that smell. “I didn’t see anyone until Joseph opened the door.”
Because Finn had left her. The second he’d heard Rebecca scream, he’d bailed on Liv. He’d said something to her, but she could never recall what. All she remembered was him leaving. And in his rush to save his real date, he’d inadvertently alerted Joseph to Liv’s presence.
“He pointed the gun at me and yelled at me to stand up.” Her voice caught on the last bit, snagging on the sharp memory, bringing back that all-encompassing fear that she was in her last minutes. She’d learned to mostly manage the panic attacks that had plagued her after that night, but that moment was always the image that haunted her most—when she saw the barrel of that gun pointed at her, the scared but determined eyes of her former lab partner drilling into her like cold steel.
“But Joseph didn’t pull the trigger?”
Liv looked down at her hands, turning her mother’s wedding band round and round. “No. He knew who I was. I…wasn’t on his list.”