This is a very short story that I will never try to sell. Since Friday, I’ve been in a sad, shocked daze like everybody else. Last night I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. I kept praying (’cause that’s what I do), asking how this could have happened, what possible great, higher purpose could it serve? I wish I could say I got a nice, concrete answer suitable for a bumper sticker or a Twitter post, but I didn’t. What I got was this. I woke up this morning with this story in my head, just as you see it here. I’ve always rolled my eyes at writers who talk about their muses pushing them one direction or another or stories that just appear to them in the night, so if your eyes are rolling now, I totally get it. Honestly, I’m not even sure my writing and posting this isn’t offensive. I certainly don’t pretend to know what was happening inside anybody’s head last Friday in Connecticut or to understand even the tiniest fraction of what the family and friends of the victims are going through now. But the act of writing this has made me feel better, so maybe reading it will help somebody else.
* * * * * *
The gunshots were loud, close, coming closer. Later some of her friends who lived would be saying it had all happened so fast. But she knew she wouldn’t be with them.
The lights were out, and the door was ajar, so from the hallway the classroom would look empty. The children were huddled in a ring around her at the back of the room on the Story Carpet. “Quiet,” she had whispered to them, forcing herself to sound calm, to even smile a little. “We have to be perfectly quiet.” They were trying so hard to obey, holding hands with one another, two of them holding her hands.
Please God, she prayed inside her head. My babies . . . please, God, please please please please please please please . . . .
She felt hands folded over her hands. She opened her eyes and found him crouched on the Story Carpet with them, an angel. He was beautiful, and he was smiling, but his eyes were sad. His wings, translucent in the dim light from the windows, spread and curved around their circle, holding the children as his hands held hers.
I was sent to be with you. She heard his voice inside her head, and in an instant, she felt calmer. You don’t have to talk; I can hear you.
She was still terrified. More gunshots rang out, coming from next door. Can you save them? she asked inside her head though she already knew the answer. Can you take them away from here? A tear slid down the angel’s cheek, confirming what she knew. She thought for a moment about her husband and her family and her best friend and all the ones she loved so much, and for that moment, she thought she would shatter. But the angel held her hands and looked into her eyes, and after that one moment, she could stand it.
Can the children see you? she asked.
They can feel me, he answered. She knew it was true. She could feel some of the tension going out of them, some of their fear melting away. The ones holding her hands inside the angel’s hands looked almost dreamy, sleepy-eyed and smiling. But they don’t need to see me, the angel said. They see you.
A moment later, the door slammed open–screaming, a terrible noise. She had just enough time to stand and turn, arms outspread, to think, no, you can’t have them, you bastard! And all the time the angel was behind her, hands on her shoulders, holding her tight. A single, terrible moment of pain ripping through her, screams of the children . . . .
Then she was walking in an open field, green and lush, gentle sunshine all around, a playground from a fairy tale. The children were running around her like running out to recess, laughing, shouting, perfect in their joy. She looked to one side and saw the teacher from next door. She was holding hands with one of her students, a boy who had been in a wheelchair, barely able to speak. Now he was walking beside her, tall and strong. And everyone was smiling.
The angel was walking beside her. “What will happen to them now?” she asked him right out loud, all thought of fear forgotten.
“They’ll decide.” Peple were coming toward them, calling out greetings. The children knew them; they were running toward them, arms outstretched, being scooped up and hugged close. “Some of them might stay here, but most of them will probably choose to go back and start over. They were all so young.”
“Miss, look!” A little boy from her class had stopped and was dancing in front of her, pointing. “It’s my pawpaw!” An old man dressed in camoflage with a bright orange hat on his head was coming toward them. Suddenly the little boy was dressed just the same, and he ran to his grandfather’s arms.
“What about you, Teacher?” the angel asked. A woman had appeared on the crest of the hill just ahead of her, and her heart skipped a beat with joy. “Will you go back?”
“I don’t know.” She had an idea that beyond these hills, this place was even more beautiful, not a place of clouds and golden harps but of peace and laughter and love. But the place she’d left behind had been beautiful, too, with so much love her heart ached remembering it.
She turrned to the angel. “If I go back, will I remember this?”
“No,” he said, smiling. All of the sadness was gone from his eyes. Here, he had no wings she could see. He looked just like everybody else. “You’ll start fresh, a w hole new life.” He took her hand. “But I will remember you.”