Content Warning: This excerpt contains mentions of a traumatic event that occurred a year prior to the story’s beginning, including descriptions of injuries and images that still haunt the narrator. Reader discretion is advised.
[box]Author’s Forward: One of the first news stories I followed continuously was the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007. I had just turned 9. At first it was because I had a cousin who attended VT at the time (he was nowhere near where the shooting happened), but later it evolved into a more general fascination with the psychological issues that would lead someone to commit mass murder. Years later, I became more and more interested in the survivors’ and friends’ stories, then the stories of the family of the perpetrators and their states of mind and actions post-attack. As I grew and started writing creatively, I’d always intended to write a (completely fictional) story exploring the process of coming to terms with what happened. The protagonist and narrator of Bang Bang, 17-year-old Casey, combines both of these ideas. She is a survivor of a school shooting with a deeper connection to the killer, Luke– he was her twin brother. I understand that violence, especially in schools, is a controversial topic, and could be very touchy for many people. I want to emphasize that this story is completely fictional, and while it is inspired by my love of true crime and fascination with the psychological side of killers, the place in which Bang Bang is set and the characters that live in the story are all products of my imagination. [/box]
Idon’t hate my trauma counselor. In fact, I like her a lot. I just hate the fact that I have to see her.
Her name is Dr. Margolis. She’s older than my mother, though probably not by too much– if I had to guess I’d say she’s in her mid-fifties. She keeps telling me that I can call her Joan (I guess she’s trying to prove that she’s young and hip or something), but I can’t bring myself to. Of course she’s older than Celeste Tanner was, but they have the same coloring: deep silvery-blue eyes and thick auburn hair (though Dr. Margolis’s is liberally streaked with gray) with a smattering of freckles across the cheekbones. Nine months after, I’ve gotten very good about avoiding thinking about What Happened, but when I look at Dr. Margolis, sometimes I have a flash of Celeste’s body, slumped over in a pool of her own blood, once-bright eyes clouded and glassy.
Dr. Margolis is very nice and understanding, though, and she never forces me to speak. She always says she wants me to be the one who guides the conversation, so if I’m already talking, she’ll prompt me or ask questions, but if I’m not in the mood to talk (which is often), she won’t either. She’s let our whole hour run out before, not saying a word and acting like everything was normal.
Right now, at one of our thrice-weekly afternoon appointments, she’s tapping out a rhythm on her notebook with the pen in her hand. A strand of hair slips out of her bun every so often and dangles by her neck, as her body moves with almost imperceptible motions. I’m looking around her office, something I’ve done so often I probably know it better than my own bedroom by now. I’m sure I could recreate the pictures in the frames sitting on her desk from memory– there are a few of her children growing up, one of her husband dancing with their daughter at her wedding, and two of her son with the same man, who I’ve always presumed is his boyfriend or husband. I know the order of diplomas and certificates hanging on the wall, above the long black fake-leather couch she sits on during sessions: Williams, undergrad, to the far left; Emory, medical school, in the middle; Johns Hopkins, acknowledging her as a distinguished faculty member, to the right. Her certificate in trauma counseling hangs right below her Emory diploma.
It strikes me, as it always does, how perfectly organizes her office is– right down to the spines of the books on the shelves behind her desks and the sleek furniture, all a matching black, perfectly complementing the sky-blue walls and shiny hardwood floors.
“Are you supposed to be picking at the bandage?” Dr. Margolis asks me suddenly, snapping me out of my own thoughts. I look down at my left arm, where a skin-colored ace bandage climbs up past my elbow. I’m apparently playing with a frayed edge on one end of the bandage, hanging down from my stump.
“I didn’t realize I was doing that,” I say. I technically don’t have to wear a covering on my arm anymore. All the doctors and physical therapists I’ve seen say that what’s left of my arm has healed enough. Besides, they say, your body has to get used to a prosthetic limb and it’s about time you got your body used to yours, Casey. But I hate looking at the scars from the stitches and skin grafts, and I hate wearing my prosthetic even more, so the fake arm hangs in the back of my closet and I wrap up my stump in gauze or an Ace bandage.
Dr. Margolis jots something down in her notebook. “I’ve noticed you tend to play with the gauze or bandage when you’re nervous, Casey. Is there something you’re nervous about?
Of course there is, I think, I’m always nervous about something. But instead I say, “No, I just hate my prosthetic. That’s why I’m still wearing the bandage.” She keeps writing, and I imagine what sort of damning things I’ve told her about myself fill that notebook, now that I’ve been seeing her for so long. I absently imagine a dossier on me: Freeman, Casey Alexandra. Age 17. Daughter of Tim (trauma surgeon) and Caroline (psychiatrist). One brother (Lucas, deceased). Former student at North Lake High School, currently attends online school. Most recent GPA: 3.98 (unweighted). Recently had left arm amputated below the elbow. Presents with symptoms of PTSD and social anxiety. Understandable, due to her status as only survivor of a mass shooting. This would, of course, be followed by a cocktail menu of the medications I’m on, one with names I can barely pronounce and wouldn’t even be on if I hadn’t been such a goddamn idiot and realized and stopped him before he had–
“Casey!” I hadn’t even realized my eyes were closed, but they must have been since they snap back open. Dr. Margolis has moved from sitting on the sofa to the coffee table that separates us. She has one arm on my left shoulder and the other holding my right hand, her nose almost touching mine. “Casey, breathe. You’re not there. You’re here, and you’re safe.”
My senses come back to me slowly. Sight and hearing first, then I’m aware that my chest is heaving, breaths raspy. Then I can feel the tears streaming down my face. “I’m sorry,” I force out.
“Don’t apologize. Do you feel better?”
My breathing has started to settle, so I nod. She squeezes my hand one last time and moves back to her position on the sofa. “We were talking about your prosthetic before your episode. Do you want to keep talking about that?”
Although the prosthetic directly relates to What Happened, I feel okay talking about it. “Sure. Not much to tell, though. I just don’t like looking at the stump and my fake arm is so awkward and uncomfortable.” I don’t mention how the physical therapists expected me to take to it the moment I put it on the first time and seemed frustrated when I didn’t. (This was probably because the only times I ever wear it is when I’m going to PT sessions.) I also don’t mention how it looks just realistic enough to seem normal from a distance, but the awkward waxy sheen and all of the tiny abnormalities that you can only see up close send it right into the uncanny valley.
Dr. Margolis nods vigorously and keeps on writing. “Are you doing anything fun for the holidays?” she asks, and I shake my head. I’d tried my best to forget that Christmas was less than a week away, something I think my parents had successfully done. No one had broken out the holiday decorations and we hadn’t even discussed going out and getting a tree yet. We hadn’t done anything for Halloween or Thanksgiving either– my dad gave fistfuls of spare change to trick-or-treaters and I’d eaten a Thanksgiving waffle alone at a diner down the street. My parents both had enough to worry about, what with their constant fighting and the first holiday season without the glue holding us together (read: my brother.)
I speak without realizing it. “So, I want to get your opinion on something.” This is something I hadn’t intended to mention, instead planning to just do. But Dr. Margolis straightens her glasses, nods, and gives me a small smile.
I swallow hard. “I, uh– I’m sick of online school. I want to go back. To regular school, I mean. Like a normal teenage girl. I want to graduate from my local high school. So I… I’ve been thinking that I want to go back to North Lake, after winter break.”
She doesn’t say anything for a long time. When she finally does, she only asks, “Why?”
I can’t even articulate why I want to go back. There are too many reasons that I shouldn’t go back. There are too many reasons that I should keep going to a crappy online high school under a false name– not the least among them is because my digital classmates don’t really know me. At North Lake, I won’t be just Casey Freeman anymore. I’ll be Luke’s-sister-Casey, the perpetrator’s twin, guilty by association. Why the hell would I want to go back to that?
“Because I want my life back,” I say.
“Casey.” Dr. Margolis puts down the pen and notebook on the sofa next to her, then leans forward, elbows on her knees. “I’m glad that you’re prioritizing your education. I really am! But you need to think long and hard about whether or not you’re well enough to go back to school.”
“I mean, I’d have to start wearing my prothesis, but–”
She shakes her head. “Not just physically, Casey. I mean mentally, as well. We need to make sure that you can handle what kinds of things could very well happen if and when you go back.”
Listening to her, I’ve found a new resolve within myself. “Of course I’m ready. I’ve given it a lot of thought. I want to be… I just want to be normal again. Going back to school is the perfect way to do that.” I let out a humorless laugh. “You’re not going to change my mind. I’m going to go back.”
Dr. Margolis sighs. “Be that as it may, you are still a minor, which means your parents would have to be notified. You’ve already technically dropped out of North Lake, too, so you can’t be sure the school would even let you back.”
Something starts beeping insistently, and I fish around in my purse for a second, looking for my phone, then unlock it so I can see the time. 4:00. Our hour is up. I stand up, holding my purse in the crook of my arm.
Dr. Margolis stands up too, tucking her notebook under one arm and sticking her pen behind her ear. “I hate to have to end here, Casey. But please try and bring this up with your parents.” She walks over to her desk and rifles through the pile of papers, producing one folded piece and handing it to me. “Your parents pre-paid for the week, so just give them the receipt.” I shove it into my purse without looking at it, and start towards the door. “Are they picking you up today?” she asks.
“No, I drove.” Driving with one and a half arms makes my parents nervous, so the only places I’m generally allowed to drive myself are the park (only if I have the dog with me) and therapy– both of which are less than five miles from my house.
As I walk out of her office, car keys in hand and purse on my shoulder, I wonder if they would let me drive myself to school.
(Copyright 2015 Sadie Britton)