By: Vivian Qi
Trigger warning: gun violence, mental health issues
The first time they met was filled with catastrophe.
“Ready or not, here I come!” A small child’s voice shouts across the noisy and rambunctious area that was a playground. His words sent gleeful shrieks ringing from all areas, betraying the position of the hiders.
The boy grinned and set off towards the slides, from which he heard giggling and whispering. Whispering was a bit of a stretch, for he could hear what they were saying from many footsteps away. He knocked on the frame of the slides, and the two children inside yelped and scrambled out.
Unfortunately, he was already waiting at the end of the slide, where he tagged both of them on the head.
“Hah! I found you!” he shouted triumphantly, as the other two children grumbled and crossed their arms. “You better wait here. Though no one is going to save you! I’ll catch them all before they can even think!”
One of them laughed. “That’s what you think!”
He returned the smile and set off to go find the others. As he climbed the ladder that led to the top of the playground, he spotted a huge gathering of kids cowering under the monkey bars. He sneakily crept towards the slide that led to the clearing underneath the monkey bars and launched himself forward, skidding down the slide in a way that burned his legs.
The boy let out a shout which immediately alerted the other children of his location. They let out screams of hysterical laughter and dispersed into the rest of the crowded playground. The boy cursed his bad luck and scrambled to the stairs on the other side of the slide.
This set another mass movement off as more kids sprinted to get away. But then, just as he hovered over the railing to survey his surroundings, he felt something slam into his legs. He desperately tried to grab the side of the structure to prevent him from toppling over, but it just slipped out of his perspiring palms and he landed hard onto the wood chips that covered the ground.
The impact knocked the air out of him, and he gasped rapidly as he pushed himself off the ground.
“Hey!” He managed to get out in a raspy voice. “That’s cheating!”
The boy turned around to see a girl curled up a few feet away, arms over her head. He glanced curiously at her and approached her, ready to eliminate her from the game.
She looked up, the fear visible in her eyes. Her hair was tangled from the fall and infiltrated with wood chips, but what shocked the boy the most was the large cut that ran from right above her eye to her cheek.
“I’m not playing!” was the first thing that came out of her mouth. “I’m not playing hide and seek. I just slipped from the side of the stairs.” She blinked away the tears in her eyes, most likely from the collision. “I’m so, so sorry! I didn’t mean to hit you.”
The boy stared back, watching the bright red blood trickle down the side of her face. “Your face,” he said.
She blinked back, confused. “What?”
He crouched down next to her as the volume in the playground seemed to decrease. Despite the children taunting him from higher positions and the flurry of motion around them, the boy didn’t look away. “You’re bleeding,” he said, pointing a small finger at where the cut was.
The girl moved her hand slowly to where he was gesturing towards. It settled on the fresh cut, and she lifted her hand back into her vision to see the blood. Her entire hand was dyed with a shining red, and the moment she glimpsed it, she shook.
“Am I– dying?” she asked with a trembling hand.
“I’ll get the nurse,” the boy told her, getting up and brushing the wood chips off his knees. The girl tried to do the same, but the sight of her hand covered in her own blood was too much for the young child to handle. She took a few more steps before she stopped and began to tilt backwards.
The boy saw this and rushed to catch her, grabbing her in what seemed to be a hug as he gently set her down. By now, others had seen what was going on. Any thoughts of the game flew out of their minds and they started screaming, crying, or covering their eyes.
The boy stared at the unconscious girl, not willing to leave her. But the alarming amount of blood that was coming from her cut commanded him otherwise. He gently brushed the hair out of her face and then he ran off to alert the nurse.
The second time they met was filled with a more tame sort of catastrophe.
“Honey, how do you feel?”
This was the first thing she heard when she came to, blearily opening her eyes to the white ceiling tiles above her. Her head felt woozy as she got up a bit too quickly, but other than that she felt fine.
“I’m good,” she told the nurse. She glimpsed herself in the mirror off to the side to see that the right side of her face was wrapped in bandages. “I’m not going to die, right?”
The nurse chuckled as if it was a good-natured joke rather than a real, fearful question. “Of course not, honey. The cut was shallow, you’ll be absolutely fine and off to class in a little bit.”
“But then why did I faint? I don’t remember anything except a boy telling me that I had blood all over my face.”
“I don’t think you’re accustomed to seeing this much blood, honey. It’s a normal reaction for a child as young as you,” the nurse explained gently and with a smile that was meant to be reassuring. However, she had practiced this smile too much and now it just looked robotic. “But speaking of that boy, he’s waiting outside.”
This revelation sent her into even more of a fit. “Did he faint, too? Did I do this to him? Is he going to die?” she asked, her voice raising with each question.
Once again, the nurse let out a guffaw. “No, no, no. He’s waiting for you! Isn’t that so sweet?” She turned to the door. “You can come in, honey!”
The girl grumbled to herself that if the word “honey” came out of the nurse’s mouth again, she would willingly slam her head onto the side of the table to knock herself out again.
But the boy walked in, concern written all over his face, and she forgot about her annoyance.
“I’m sorry for knocking you off the stairs, again,” she said immediately.
“That was an accident. Besides, you’re the one that got hurt, not me. You don’t need to apologize for anything,” he reassured her with a genuine smile that lit up the room.
The girl smiled and held out a hand. “Can we be friends, then?”
The boy smiled back and put his hand in hers. “I would like that a lot.”
The last time they met was filled with catastrophe.
She was doing math homework in her very favorite spot in the school when she heard it. When they all heard it.
The clamor in the hallway turned into screams as she jumped out of her chair. People around her were shouting and dashing in all different directions, a mass movement set off by three short sounds.
Then they all heard something that chilled them to the bone. Six words that would change their lives forever.
“Ready or not, here I come!”
It was malicious, it was tearful, it was full of… sadness. She knew that voice. It was her favorite voice in the world, until now. She saw two people next to her scramble behind a bookshelf as she came to her senses and ducked under the chair she was sitting on.
The screams faded into silence as everyone in the school fell into one huge game of hide and seek. She heard decisive, hard footsteps ringing through the school. She heard it come towards her.
“I found you.”
The words nearly made her collapse from fear, but she realized that he wasn’t talking to her. He was talking to the two children behind the bookshelf. Her breathing quickened, despite all her efforts to remain calm. She shut her eyes as fear shut her down.
“No one is going to save you. I’ll find them all before they can even think,” the boy murmured. One of them attempted to escape by slipping out the other side, but the boy was too fast. “Do you want to run?”
They both cowered as tears flowed down their faces.
He then turned around abruptly and sat upon the chair where the girl hid. “Go on, then. I’ll let you run.”
One of them didn’t even hesitate before sprinting down the hallway. The other one saw what his friend did and followed. The girl didn’t utter a sound. She didn’t know what the boy was doing right now, but she realized that she could stop it.
She propelled herself away from the underside of the chair and popped up silently. The boy should be looking in the other direction–
He was staring straight at her.
“I really wanted to see you,” he said in a voice as unperturbed as a rock perched in the middle of a desert.
“I’m not playing,” she whispered. “But whatever game you’re playing, stop it.” Her hands curled into fists to try and stop their shaking. The boy didn’t raise his hands at her.
But she did. She moved quickly, quicker than she thought she ever could. Her hands caught his, and she shoved him off the chair. He tried to grab her to stop his fall, but there was nothing he could do. She pulled herself away and dashed around the chair to take the weapon away from his hands.
Despite his fall, he never let go of it. He raised it. She covered her head with her arms. There was a blast, and she collapsed.
Silence. Her ears rang.
When she opened her eyes, she saw the boy hunched by the chair, a streak of blood running down his face. He turned his head towards her ever so slightly.
“I’m dying, aren’t I?” he asked with a trembling hand.
She shook her head and moved towards him. She should have caught him like he did for her. That day that they first met. And every day since.
I’ll get the nurse. What a silly thought to have. As if that nurse could do anything now. She realized that his weapon was empty. There had only been one bullet in there, and it was only meant for himself.
“I’m the one that got hurt this time, I guess.” And then his eyes closed. Maybe he had just fainted. Maybe all he needed was the nurse.
The girl wrapped her arms around him in what seemed to be a hug as the blood dripped onto her shirt. The blood that came from the same place where a scar from many years ago marked her face.
- Hathaway Brown has a Safe School Helpline for more immediate support if you ever have safety concerns for yourself or others
- Mental Health Resource: Call or text the Mental Health Crisis Hotline at 988 (available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) – provides crisis counseling and mental health support and referrals to anyone in need