“Choose a place where you won’t do harm–yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.” —E.M.Forster, A Room with a View
This is the hand you used to hold, when I was only seven years old.
Maggie trailed a finger over the faded cursive scrawled along the ceramic plate in her lap. In the middle of the pottery was the imprint of a tiny hand, an art project her son Christopher had made at school for her birthday thirteen years ago. She remembered the day he brought it home—toothy smile and palms still splattered with white paint as he held it up for her to see.
An elderly couple shuffled past to approach the glowing memorial at the front of the sanctuary, the blue rhinestones along the woman’s cane catching inside the candlelight. There were three people ahead of Maggie now in line for confession. She’d been waiting in the same pew nearly twenty minutes since stumbling through the door of St. Anne’s, yet barely a drop of wax had bled from the fifteen candles flickering across the long table on stage. Someone had placed photos—black and white images behind each candle with a name and an age and the date they’d been lost. She wondered what they’d look like when all the flames went out. Fifteen fixed smiles motionless in the dark.
A man waiting near the shut confessional knocked against her pew, the hollow sound reverberating throughout the still sanctuary. He glanced at her apologetically, and she held his gaze long enough to watch recognition tighten the sides of his smile before she turned away, the tips of her copper bangs poking into her eyes as she hunched further over the plate.
You are so prity. You are so loveley.
Maggie flipped the pottery over and smoothed her thumb across the photo glued beneath her son’s words. She’d taken it during one of their trips to New Smyrna. He was in first grade then, with a pair of blue sunglasses two sizes too big and a smear of purple Kool-Aid across his upper lip. He grinned at the camera, knee deep inside the murky ocean water, a section of hair lifting to the side of his forehead from the wet cowlick in his bangs. Near the bottom of the image was a small blur where her fingers obscured the lens. She remembered having to hold the camera over her head to avoid the slap of the waves as schools of minnows darted around her shins.
“My toes!” Christopher giggled wildly. “They’re getting my toes!” He tried to catch them, splashing belly first into the water, then laughing hysterically every time he emerged with empty hands. She’d snapped the photo as they were heading back to shore, her son jumping the waves like a rope, before turning to look at her with the biggest smile.
Maggie stole another glance at the man beside her, who quickly moved to another pew a few rows ahead. Her phone buzzed again. Two missed calls and three unread messages from her cousin Cindy. The two hadn’t spoken in almost a month. Maggie figured she must have seen something on Facebook. Maybe there was a reminder for things like that—like birthdays.
Hello! It’s the six-month anniversary of Cuttle Creek Elementary! Let them know you’re thinking of them!
She picked at the scar on her forearm as more people approached the memorial to pay their respects. None of the faces meant anything to them. She could tell by the way they lingered before each photo at least a few seconds, before moving down the line, like museum visitors trying to find significance in a display. The church kept all the names in order as best they could remember, she figured. Victim number one beside victim number two. Three dead in the lobby. Two wounded in the hall. A class full of first-graders . . . and then there—at the very end of the row, a little space just big enough to fit a photo of her son.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity . . .
There was a necklace someone must have left behind, coiled beside her on the pew. A thick burgundy cross hung from the end. She scrunched the beads in her hand and tried to shuffle through them like she’d seen in the movies, counting backwards through the fifteen names listed at the bottom of each photo.
Thomas, Jessica, John, Alana, Matthew, Eric, Jade . . .
She was folding laundry when it happened. She was sitting on her living room floor, tucking in the sleeves of her son’s shirt when the phone rang. She ignored it at first. Let the machine click on. And then her cousin’s hysterical voice started screaming through the speaker.
“Maggie! Oh my god, Maggie! Are you there? Maggie, pick up the phone! Maggie, oh my god, if you’re there, please pick up the phone!”
She snatched up the cordless. “What’s going—”
“Turn on the TV!” she screamed. “Channel two!”
Maggie stumbled through the room, lifting pillows and cushions, trying to find the remote. “Cindy, you’re scaring me! What’s happening!” Her cousin only cried in response, and then Maggie spotted the control beneath a magazine and pressed the button that would change her life forever. It wasn’t channel two, but it didn’t matter, because every station was telling her the same thing: Shooting. Massacre. Cuttle Creek Elementary . . .
She clutched the necklace inside her fist. The end of the cross dug into her palm. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity. That’s what the church’s website read, under the tab labeled ‘Reconciliation.’ It’d been six months since she lost her boy. Six months of silence and staring at the chair, still slightly pushed back from the table since the morning he left for the school. Six months of flesh-rending guilt every time she allowed herself to cry outside the door to his bedroom. And then six months destroying every newspaper article that tried to make her feel like she wasn’t supposed to.
Maggie pressed her hand over the memory of her son’s in the plate, his little fingers disappearing beneath it. Traces of fault lines were visible throughout the ceramic from where the plate smashed against the hardwood a few years ago when she was cleaning out the cabinet. She remembered how hard she’d cried as she scooped up the severed pieces, but now here it was again—whole and cradled inside her lap. Her boy had mended it for her. Added a nail and little pink ribbon to the back so she could hang it on her wall. It arrived inside a box three weeks ago, the day of her birthday. Christopher must have delayed the shipping to arrive on time. She immediately hid it in the back of her closet. She had been living out of her hamper and wearing the same clothes over and over again to avoid having to go anywhere near it. It wasn’t until tonight, after Charles showed up at her door, that she made herself open it.
A woman knelt in the center of the church’s aisle before the large figure of Christ towering above her. She crossed herself as she approached the memorial, stopping in front of the first picture in line. The fume from all the burning wicks was beginning to choke the air. Maggie scratched her arm harder. They were opening the school again. That’s why the church organized the display. It’d been six months, and someone in an office decided now would be a good time to invite people back to the place where their loved ones had bled onto the carpet. There were plans for a “peace room.” A green space where teachers and students could reconnect with nature. Many in the community were protesting. Thought the entire thing should be torn to the ground. The church arranged the memorial as an act of support for those in its congregation who’d lost someone to the violence. Maggie had never been inside a church before. Never so much as opened a Bible. She’d found herself pushing through the door of St. Anne’s after idling in her garage that night with the door shut and window open. And now here she was, waiting in a pew during the final hour of confession, face to face with the fifteen names she’d been trying for six months to survive.
Thomas, Jessica, John, Alana, Grace, Matthew, Eric, Ambar, Larissa, Veronica, Dylan, Rachel, Gina, Steven, Kiera . . .
She knew all of them. Every name of every parent, child, lover, friend, officer, doctor, and ambulance driver who’d been involved in the tragedy at Cuttle Creek Elementary. She knew where most of them lived. Any children they had left. Where the bullets tore through their bodies. She learned all this from inside her silent, suburban walls at the end of the city limits of Prior Lake, Minnesota, which these days she only left for errands, half-hearted attempts at sanity, and to pick up the letters.
In the beginning, they came from all over. Every day she would crunch over the dead vines across her entryway to the rusted mailbox near the cul-de-sac, and retrieve one, two, sometimes five white and beige envelopes the postman shoved inside. They were mostly from him now, Charles Lightly, who lived with his wife Eleanor in a neighborhood less than five minutes away. They had a daughter—Kiera. The first photo in the memorial. She’d seen her face many times over the last six months between the news, the paper, and the pictures her father sometimes stuffed into his letters. The photo they’d chosen for the display was the same one that ran in all the papers shortly after the shooting. It was one of those school pictures. The stock kind with the swirled colored background they all used on picture day. In it, Keira posed with an American Girl doll, the two of them in matching yellow dresses and pigtails. She was age 7, the photo told her. Maggie flipped the plate over again to the picture glued to the back of the ceramic and stroked her little boy’s cheeks with her pinky. Kiera was only seven. With sea-green eyes and pink ribbons in her hair. The same age as Christopher in the photo, who would later grow into a nineteen-year old man, and put three bullets in her stomach as she took a sip of water from the fountain.
The door to the confessional re-opened. The next person waiting ahead of her vanished inside. Maggie checked her phone. There were only twenty-six minutes left for “reconciliation.” Twenty-six minutes till she could get inside, away from the flickering lights, frozen smiles, and Virgin Marys glaring at her from the stained windows, and ask the priest for his permission—for his forgiveness—for his acceptance—for still wanting to love her son.
She wasn’t supposed to miss him. She understood that. She’d understood that from the very first interview, the day they clunked into her house with their oversized cameras and stilettos. Take the money, Cindy told her. You’ll need it. So she let them come and position her in front of a lens as they tried their best to dissect her.
She gazed at the reporter opposite her as the light seared through her eyes. “What?”
“I said, ‘Were there any signs?’” The woman’s black heel bounced through the air. A shiny, fake nail tapped on her knee. “Anything he might have said in the weeks before that would give some kind of indication . . . ”
She kept talking as Maggie sloshed the word around her mind. Signs. She remembered blinking. “I don’t know.”
“Why do you think he did it, Margaret? Were there any problems inside the home? Maybe with the father—or lack thereof? Did your son ever show any signs of aggression or violence? Any issues at the school . . .”
She kept using that word: Signs. A streak of red slid up along the bottom of the woman’s sole, and Maggie thought it was strange to paint such a flashy color on something that would only see dirt and pavement. “No. I don’t think so.”
“Numerous studies have shown the indulgence in violent video games as a common thread between mass murderers. Was your son an active player?”
Maggie opened her mouth, hoping something would fall out and save her from the jumbling behind her forehead. Little boys loved playing war, didn’t they? She remembered buying him a pack of GI Joes for Christmas one year when he was nine. He spent hours organizing his troops into battle, spitting shooting noises into the air. Should she have bought him Legos instead?
It went on like this for half an hour. The reporter firing question after question. She wondered what the special would be called when it aired. “School Shootings and Violence: Where Did We Go Wrong?” Or, “Terror at Cuttle Creek Elementary: Who’s the One to Blame?”
“How do you feel, Margaret?” The woman uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. “About your son and his actions?”
She laid her words out carefully in front of her. Horrified. Yes. Devastated. Of course. Confused. Understandable. She thumbed through the thesaurus in her head, steering clear of the two words she knew she could never say out loud.
Angry, Heartbroken, Dejected.
Sadness, Pain, Remorse.
Baffled, Questioning, Aghast.
But never Love. Never Love and never Miss.
“Is there anything you would like to say?” the woman asked her. “To the families of the victims?”
It wasn’t long before the letters started. The therapist her cousin made her see warned her not to read them. Self-mutilation, he called it. Misdirected projections of guilt. So instead, she saved them. Stacked them neatly inside a small wooden box she kept beneath her bed. She couldn’t bring back their babies, their lovers, their moms and dads. The least she could do was keep the letters.
Charles was the only one who ever delivered them in person. The first time she spotted his headlights outside her home was a couple months after the shooting. She recognized him from one of the photos in the special, where he squatted beside Kiera in an Aurora costume for Halloween. Now he sat on her curb, car door ajar, smoking a cigarette and staring at the light inside her bedroom. He never seemed to notice her peering at him through the blinds, just waited till she shut the light off, before dragging himself to his car to leave. The first time, she was afraid, watching with one hand on the dial, ready to call the police. But over time, she began to realize, he wasn’t there to create violence. He was there to understand it.
Eternal rest grant unto them, Oh Lord, and perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Maggie gazed at the sign nailed over the prayer candles at the back of the church and lifted one of the wooden sticks from the jar beneath them. She’d left her seat in the pew and followed the light to the back of the room, right around the time she started entertaining fantasies of placing her son’s photo on the memorial. Now there was a little girl with pigtails at the front with her father. They made their way down the glowing row of images while the woman they’d arrived with finished her confession. There was one more person before Maggie could escape inside. She lowered her stick into the fire. Only five candles burned on this end of the church. One light out in the foyer beside her. She figured this would be a more appropriate place to light a flame for her child.
“What about the father?” they all asked her, during their interviews.
She watched a documentary once. Something about the importance of physical stimulation in newborns. Without touch, the voice had told her, their bodies would fail, shrivel up, die. When she held Christopher for the first time—sweat-soaked through the hospital drapery pressed against her—she let her nose linger inside his soft tufts of cinnamon, breathing in light and music as the delicate thing rested against her chest. And that’s where she kept him, from that moment on. In the space above the beating.
Maggie held the stick inside the flame, removing it just as the scorch marks began creeping up the wood toward her fingers. She passed the flame over each candle, before settling on one in the back row, a respectful enough distance from the other lives and memories glowing on the table. As she waited for the wick to burn, she caught sight of the jagged scar along her forearm. It looked worse now, from the constant picking and scratching she’d done earlier. Cutting herself had been an accident. She was washing dishes the day the box arrived, elbow-deep in a clouded sink of detergent and old slices of banana, trying to scrape off a week’s worth of scum from a paring knife, when a heavy thundering sounded against her door, and the knife slipped into her wrist. It wasn’t until she was holding the box with the handwriting of a man who’d been dead almost six months that she even paid attention to the gash. There was so much blood, she remembered, for such a small thing. Maggie studied her puckered skin and wondered if that was what the scars inside of her looked like—pink and swollen, with little red stitches holding everything together.
“Did you lose someone?”
Maggie swiveled around to see a woman with a silver cross pinned to her blazer standing right behind her. “I’m sorry?”
The woman motioned to the display of photos near the altar. Her eyes lingered over the images. The little girl and her father were gone now. The confessional open, curtain pulled back.
Maggie glanced from the booth to the woman and back. Whoever she was, she didn’t seem to recognize her. She shook her head slowly. “No,” she croaked, backing away. “No, I’m just . . . waiting to confess.”
She nodded and lowered her eyes, then moved to light her own candle near Maggie’s. The man who’d been watching Maggie earlier glanced her way again before slipping inside the confessional. The woman’s light in the tray began to pulse now along with Maggie’s, the tip of their flames growing paler and paler as they stretched their way to the sky.
There were times she’d forget. Knocking on his door to see if he needed something from the store. Yelling for him to come kill a spider. Once, when she was making spaghetti, she separated the clump of noodles onto two plates, getting ready to spoon the sauce before remembering—the extra portion crashing to the floor. The best moments were early, upon waking. When the conscious and subconscious converged into a reality where her son did not murder little children, and she could run around outside, chasing his laughing figure behind a tree.
There was never a service. That was the thing. She remembered the day they put him in the ground, when she made the long drive out to the cemetery. She expected protesting and was relieved at first when no one showed up, but soon began to weep—her son’s grave as empty as the world surrounding it. They’d asked her if she wanted his plaque to say anything. She flipped through a brochure they gave her, looking through all the options. Loving Son . . . Beloved Child . . . Angelic Spirit . . .
At least, that’s what the signs said. The ones they held outside her home after he died. In addition to the angry faces shouting at her came the reporters and news crews from all over, hovering in front of her windows to tell their own version of the nineteen-year old monster who grew up inside.
She was angry at first. The way they tried to make her hate him. She chucked her bowl of cereal at the TV the first time her neighbor’s face blew up on her screen. In the seven years they’d lived there, the woman approached her once to apologize for the times she was lazy and let her dog shit all over Maggie’s lawn. Now she was sitting on a couch crying into her husband’s chest about the crazy boy next door.
“There was always something a little off, you know? Like, I’ve had that feeling for a really long time, but . . . I don’t think anybody had any idea . . . ”
Over time, however, Maggie began to wonder if the woman was right. That something was—“off.”
Why. That little word was always there—somewhere—in the back of her mind. He’d become increasingly quiet, lost to himself, locked inside his room. But that was normal for a teenager, wasn’t it?
As the months passed by, people forgot about her, and her son, and the stories of little children hiding beneath bodies, and moved on to the next heartbreaking tragedy a few hours, or states, or countries away. It wasn’t until recently, when the school announced the re-opening that everyone started re-awakening to their anger. There was something to memorialize again. A reason for primetime news slots and churches full of dead faces in their sanctuary. But she understood for the rest of them, those who still couldn’t open the door to their children’s bedrooms--they would never forget. She understood that more and more, every time Charles showed up at her house with a fistful of his letters. There were times when he wouldn’t write for many days, even weeks, and she might allow herself to pretend his grief was getting better. But sooner or later she’d hear the screech of his tires, or catch the glare of his headlights through her front window, and retreat back into the dark corners of her home. The crazy thing was, the days he didn’t come were even lonelier than the ones he did.
Maggie fidgeted in the pew again and tried not to stare at the shut confessional. There were only fourteen minutes left, and that man was still inside. Behind her a pair of heels echoed down the aisle. She tried to distract herself by tightening and relaxing her fist in time to the sound, watching the blue veins jump beneath the scar on her arm.
He’d never come to the door before. Before that night, Charles never even stepped beyond her mailbox. She was wandering back after a rare venture to escape her house, a carton of milk in her hand from the 7-11 up the street when she spotted him—crumpled and banging at the foot of her front door. Several of her neighbors’ lights had already turned on. The closest, Mrs. Mulligan, hovered behind the screen of her open window, quickly pulling the drapes once she spotted Maggie in the middle of the cul-de-sac. She wasn’t sure how long she waited there. How long it took before Charles stumbled to his feet and turned back around. Why the milk slipped from her grasp. All she remembered was the smell of cream mixed with wet gravel, and the frigid air cutting through the hole in the back of her sweater. He’d been so close, the moment he moved past her. Close enough to touch her, throttle her, scream. But he said nothing. Arms rigid. Fists to his side. He wouldn’t even look at her.
Maggie rubbed her arms roughly. The temperature in the church had dropped in the last few minutes she’d been waiting to get inside. All around her there were whispers. Fervent lips. Heads bent over the backs of pews. Maggie flinched as she accidentally peeled back some of the scab along her forearm. A tiny puddle of blood formed in the center. She rubbed it between her fingers. Someone was crying. A woman with auburn hair near the memorial. A group of ladies huddled in the corner of the sanctuary peered at her from their circle. Maggie clenched the plate in her lap.
The confessional opened again. The man stepped out and crossed himself before passing her, eyes fixed ahead. The worker who’d guided her to the pew when she first arrived motioned her over now with a smile. She moved to gather her things, halting as she noticed a red smear in the center of the ceramic. She lifted her fingers in horror, the blood from her arm now streaked along the plate. She licked the hem of her shirt and tried to rub it out, but the stain only set in deeper. The woman at the front began to sob harder now. Maggie stared at the figure of Christ dangling above the memorial, the lights from the candles casting shadows across his agonized body.
She bolted out of her seat and quickly shuffled toward the confessional, banging her hip against the wooden pew. The worker motioned her inside, and she yanked the burgundy curtain shut, safe now from all the lights and faces. She tried to steady her breath, the air stiffening inside her sternum as she pressed the ruined plate to her chest and turned to the shut window beside her. A torn piece of paper was stuck to the top of the frame with a large wad of gum. Five enormous words had been scrawled across it.
YOUR SON’S FLESH IS BURNING.
The window shot open. Half the priest’s face was shrouded in shadow from the light sifting through the grate between them. He cleared his throat and leaned closer toward her.
Six months. That’s what she’d been thinking as she opened the box with the imprint of her son’s little hand; as she stared at the chair still slightly pushed back from the kitchen table. It’s been six months, she’d thought, flicking on the car ignition inside the shut garage. Six months. And she still couldn’t push back that fucking chair . . .
“My child?” The priest leaned his face even closer and whispered at her through the cracks.
“Glory be to Jesus! Who in bitter pains . . .”
There was a choir rehearsing now behind the memorial. Only a few souls still lingered inside the sanctuary. The large organ on stage pulsed through the empty spaces so that she could feel its vibration in the pew. The choir glowed like angels in their long white and gold robes. She closed her eyes as the music soared, lifting the nail she’d removed from the back of the little plate, carving another stripe into the soft underside of her arm. There were seven now.
“Grace and life eternal in that blood I find . . .“
She’d read an article shortly after Christopher died, where a man with lots of degrees tried to make sense of the shootings happening across the country. The parent’s negligence, he’d said. The mother’s failure. She saved the clipping for a while inside her box with the letters, reading it over and over and over.
Kiera, Steven, Gina, Rachel, Dylan, Veronica, Larissa . . .
She watched the red rivulets clump and slither down her skin in different directions, staining the white rose pattern on her skirt from where her arm lay on her lap.
Ambar, Eric, Matthew, Grace . . .
With each cut, she pierced deeper, breathing yet another name out of her body.
“What does it feel like?” they asked her, “to know your son was a monster?”
The word didn’t make sense to her for a long time. Monsters were something children ran away from in their dreams. Woke up shouting, their voices crying out. Not her son. She’d watch him in their home movie of the day a peacock wandered through the backyard, strutting around the petunias with its colorful eyes waving in the air behind it. Christopher was only four years old then, with Captain America pajamas and little curls dangling around his ears. The two of them sat on the bench in front of the kitchen window, his little hands pressed against the glass as he stared at the regal being outside. She remembered how his breath kissed the pane, turning around to whisper,
“Mama, a peacock. Do you see?”
She finished cutting the last line into the memorial on her arms, the dull red burn soothing her skin. The guilt wasn’t because she’d bought him his first gun. Or because of the man who came to her door with his letters, or the realization that she would always be the mother of someone who murdered fifteen people at an elementary school. It was the six. The six months living with all the violent and atrocious things her son had done to countless innocent families. The six months imagining all the broken bodies clumped together on the floor. And no matter how many months went by, or how many letters, or how many times she dreamt of her son aiming his gun at the water fountain—he would always be her little boy. And she loved him.
Maggie glanced again at the empty space at the end of the memorial and added one final line to the row of names across her arm.
Christopher . . . she breathed.
The heavenly voices on stage rose higher and higher. She closed her eyes and relaxed, softening her head back against the pew.
”. . .blest be His compassion, infinitely kind!”
Brittany Baum is an MFA graduate from Spalding University. She lives in Orlando, Florida, where she is pursuing a second Masters degree in Library Science. She has been published in Blue Lake Review and The Courtship of Winds. Her latest story from her collection, The Living Years, can be found here: https://www.thecourtshipofwinds.org/brittany-baum