Three years. It had been three years since the shooting. It sure didn’t feel like it was that long ago; then again, sometimes it felt like it had been longer. K.J. stood at the bottom of the steps, watching the families file into the school through the front doors. There had been a remembrance ceremony every year since that tragic day, but this was the first one that he had been able to muster the will to attend.
Three years prior, there had been a shooting at the high school; twelve people had been killed, and among them was K.J.’s father, a 10th grade science teacher. He still remembered in horrific detail the phone call he had received from his mother that day. A student had gone into the school with a shotgun and a .45, and had altered the lives of the people in that town forever.
K.J. sighed heavily and made his way up the steps, his legs feeling like they were made of lead.
“It’s time,” he thought to himself. “I need to be here for this.”
He walked inside to the gym, where a stage had been set up with a microphone and several chairs. Tables filled with refreshments lined the walls of the room, and the people milled around quietly, speaking to each other in hushed tones as they gathered their snacks and returned to their seats. K.J.’s mind wandered back to that day, and suddenly, he found himself in his father’s old classroom. He walked over to the large oak desk and ran his finger along the edge. A splinter stabbed him in the finger, and he sharply withdrew his hand.
There was a knock at the door behind him, and turning, he saw a friend of his standing in the doorway. Jason and K.J. had been on the football team together when they had been in high school. That was quite a few years ago now, but it was a small town; they still saw each other at the bar or the hardware store from time to time. They hadn’t really kept in touch much lately, but that didn’t matter much on a day like today.
Jason leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms.
“So, uh…how are you doing, buddy?” he asked.
K.J. shrugged, and returned his gaze to the desk beside him. “I’m fine, I guess. You?”
Jason ran his hand through his hair. “You know, same stuff, different day.”
K.J. nodded and looked around the room. “Can you believe it’s been three years already?” he asked quietly, almost to himself.
“I know, right? I guess these types of things just sit in your memory,” Jason replied. “Clear and vivid, like it happened yesterday.”
They stood in silence for a few minutes before Jason coughed, and awkwardly began to speak.
“Anyway, um…I…I saw your mom at the store the other day; she seems to be doing pretty good these days.”
K.J. remained silent, and Jason continued, “She said you haven’t had the same luck, that things have been kinda rough for you lately.”
K.J. sighed. “Yeah, I have my days. It’s just tough, you know?”
Jason nodded. “Hey, man, I’m really sorry about what happened to your old man and all, but don’t you think it’s time that you, you know, let all this go? It’s been three years, dude; it’s time to get over it…”
K.J. was instantly furious. He spun and faced Jason, his nostrils flaring.
“Get over it? You’ve gotta be freaking kidding me right now, Jason. We’re at a ceremony remembering the people that died in this very classroom, and you want me to just get over it?!”
Jason shifted uncomfortably and put his hands up in surrender. “Look, man, I’m not trying to diminish what happened, but you’ve gotta move on with your life.”
K.J. laughed dryly. “Screw you, man. I have moved on with my life. You wanna know why things have been so tough lately? Because the job market is in the toilet, and I got downsized at the plant, dickweed. It’s not like I’m sitting down at the bar trying to drink my sorrows away. I’m a big boy, and I can handle my own crap.”
Jason blinked. “But…your mom said…”
“Yeah, I know what my mom said,” K.J. shouted back. “She’s worried about me because I’m having a rough time. What you ASSUMED was that I must be having a rough time because I’m so distraught over my dad getting killed. This is exactly why I never talk about this stuff with anyone; all you people want to do is tell me what I need to do with my life, how I need to pick myself up and keep moving. Well, I did that, and now I lost my job, I had to drop out of school, and quite frankly, all I want to do is talk to my freaking dad, alright?!”
K.J. swatted a book off the desk. “Dammit! I can handle life, okay? I can take my lumps better than the next guy; I’ve got a big enough chip on my shoulder to take whatever comes my way. If you wanted to talk about how life was going, you sure as hell picked a bad time to do it. I came here tonight to be around people who understand that while not every problem I have is because my dad died, it makes it ten times worse knowing I have to go through this garbage without him. Instead, I’ve gotta deal with Dr. Phil over here, telling me that I need to just ‘let it go.’
“It’s not that easy, jackass. You don’t know what it’s like to have to try and fill the gaping hole that he left. Where were you when we couldn’t pay the damn rent? Where were you when I was laid up in the hospital, and my sick pay wasn’t enough for groceries? Where the hell were you when it counted? HUH?!”
K.J. panted, and Jason shifted awkwardly once more. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
K.J. held up a hand. “No, I’m not finished. Since you want to dig up old demons, I’ll let you see what you came here for. I keep this stuff locked down pretty tight, for the most part. I dealt with most of my grief a long time ago. There are days still where it hits me like a freight train, though. I wake up, and I can’t breathe. All I wanna do is talk to him, share a joke with him, tell him I love him one last time. You have NO idea what it’s like, Jason. You don’t know what it’s like to be perfectly fine, and then out of nowhere, a memory hits you, and you go into a three-day spiral. You don’t know what it’s like to sit and listen to a song on repeat for four and a half hours, lost in your thoughts, desperately trying to relive fading memories. You don’t know what it’s like to see his face in the mirror, and have to do a double take as your heart skips a beat, hoping against hope that he’s really standing behind you.
“No, dude, you don’t have the foggiest idea what life is like for me. You don’t GET to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do. How I handle my grief is my own damn business. Here we are, at an event INTENDED to bring these memories up, intended to help the survivors deal with this stuff and grieve together, and you’ve got the balls to tell me I need to ‘get over it.’ You can take that advice of yours and shove it up a donkey’s ass.”
K.J. stormed out of the room, wiping a single tear out of his eye. He shoved Jason out of the way as he walked through the doorway, knocking Jason to the ground. Jason spun where he sat, calling out after K.J.
“Where are you going?”
K.J. through his hands in the air angrily. “Back to the gym; I need to make sure nobody is treating these other poor people like you seem to think you can treat me. They deserve better than that; they’ve been through enough.”
After the event was over and everyone left, K.J. sat on the steps, smoking a cigarette. Jason walked up to him from the street, stopping several feet away.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked quietly.
K.J. silently motioned for him to take a seat next to him. Jason walked over and sat down, lighting up a cigarette of his own. They sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, Jason spoke up.
“Look, buddy, I’m sorry; I was out of line. I should have known better than to say that stuff to you.”
K.J. waved him off. “No, no, I get it. You were just trying to be helpful. I appreciate that you care. It’s just…this ain’t like anything else, you know? This ain’t something you can just brush off lightly, even after all this time. It’s still fresh. The wounds have mostly healed over, but the pain is still very real. For what it’s worth, yelling at you like that was kind of cathartic.”
Jason tilted his head in confusion. “What do you mean?”
K.J. chuckled. “I’m sorry for going off the deep end like that; it’s just I haven’t ever really talked to anyone about it all before. I had all this just bottled up, and you happened to be the first person to light that particular fuse.”
Jason blinked. “Oh; well, my pleasure. Anything else you’d like to talk about?”
K.J. smiled. “Back for another round, huh? Didn’t get enough abuse the first time?”
Jason arched an eyebrow and took a long drag off his cigarette. “You know me; glutton for punishment.”
They sat on those steps, with words, laughs, and a few tears, flowing until almost dawn. Then they stood, shook hands, and went their separate ways. They still didn’t see each other very often, but like I said before, it’s a small town; when they did see each other, at the bar or at the hardware store, there was an understanding between them that had been absent before. And that was enough to simply carry on.