by Ian Johnson 1
The Team: White and rich enough to merit national media attention. The Mission: To force the President to take notice and to compel Congress to rub its eyes and scratch its head, to the point they agree it’s about time they did something about the gun epidemic. The Method: Make things so bad, stack the body count so high, that the government would have no choice but to rip up the 2nd Amendment…
They called themselves The Activists, though none of the group’s four members, in retrospect, could remember what they were activating for, nor why they were so hellbent on activating to begin with. After all, they were just kids. But, like four stray leaves migrating to a bare stem, they somehow recognized in each other bits of themselves, and so the four of them coalesced, and The Activists they became.
When they first banded together – not all that long ago – they worked on their individual activism origin stories, so that, when chic young journalists from trendy magazines profiled them, they could deliver adorable coo-inducing background bits to compliment the undoubtedly more sobering elements that would define their activism in present times. The Activists, at the beginning, didn’t know specifically from what angle journalists would want to profile them, as The Activists had yet to define their primary mission, but they were pretty positive that one day, no matter the topic, they’d be famous enough, and it was best to be prepared.
Activist #2 related the story when, as a kindergartner, at Thanksgiving, she managed to convince her fellow kids’ table occupants to hunger strike, to not even sniff at the eye-level buffet-style spread laid out on the kitchen counter in order to raise awareness of the disturbing differences in table and chair quality, the heavy oak linen-covered dining table with high-backed padded chairs for the adults versus the rickety fold-out table with scrunched newspaper under one leg and squishy easy-wipe top for the kids, a table that didn’t balance their cups very well and didn’t even have a tablecloth or a candle, not to mention the hodgepodge of beat-up chairs arranged like a jagged skyline around it. The bid was unsuccessful; the adults laughed merrily and even applauded as the chanting children made laps around the adult table, demanding prandial equality before they’d take a single bite. Hunger pangs quickly got the best of the hunger strikers, however, as one-by-one dissenters from the picket line decided how they ate wasn’t as important as that they ate. Even Activist # 2 herself only fasted through the main course before she swallowed her pride to clear her palate and piled high her oven-warmed plate with delectables she was chewing on before she’d even sat back down. She felt guilty, eating like this, and the guilt, along with the sting of such jovial rejection on the part of her parents and the other guests, was the combustion that would rev her activist passions for years to come.
In elementary school Activist #3, after striking out three times through five innings in a Little League game, three times whiffing at a vicious changeup from the peach-fuzzed opposing pitcher, a changeup which nobody in elementary school should be able to throw anyway, Activist #3, the umpire’s strike threeee still echoing in his ears, deferred his walk of shame back to the dugout and instead announced to anyone within earshot of his nasally pre-pubescent quiver that he was officially protesting the game, and that he would be demanding his righteous share of fastballs by laying limp on home plate and refusing to move until he’d extracted a promise from the opposing pitcher to throw only straight-line heaters from now on. The sparse crowd had booed him, had actually booed at a little league game, had booed louder than they’d ever cheered, it felt like, and it was as Activist #3 lay strewn over his father’s shoulders, having been plucked off home plate like a bag of oats by his old man, it was as he rode on his father’s shoulders towards the family sedan, wondering whether this would result in a spanking or lecture or both, that future Activist #3 began to realize the nuances of activism, e.g. know your audience; think ahead; and, most importantly, activism for self versus activism in service for others. If he had, Activist #3, for example, smothered home plate demanding fastballs for the teammate just behind him in the batting order, things might’ve been perceived differently. He would’ve been seen as selflessly sticking up for someone else instead of pining for himself, and maybe he would’ve been carried triumphantly off the field on his teammates’ shoulders instead of contemptibly on his father’s.
The Activists’ first joint effort, in junior high, was to lobby the principal to ramp up recycling in both the cafeteria, for obvious reasons, as well as in classrooms, where en route students often drank the last few sips of their canned sodas and bottled fizzy fruit drinks only to get to class and not have anywhere but the trash to toss their cans and bottles. The balded principal had listened politely, steepling his fingers under his nose in his windowless office as the Activists took turns solemnly outlining why broader recycling options were a good idea, and took turns outlining basically the same point but in slightly different ways, each wanting a chance to speak. The principal nodded and sniffed thoughtfully and probably wasn’t falling asleep when his eyes started to droop, was probably only strategizing his own presentation to the County Waste Board, whom he’d have to contact in order to request the special delivery of blue bins, the necessary number of which the Activists had provided as part of a quarter-inch-thick packet with a laminated cover, a compliment to their oral presentation, a packet which also had figures detailing the number of classrooms in the school and diagrams of where in each classroom the blue bins would best fit, taking into account feng shui principles and the probable ante-blackboard pacing habits of all the teachers. The principal said he was impressed the Activists knew about feng shui. The principal promised he’d consider the issue further privately before standing up and making a kind of funnel with his arms in the direction of the door. The activists thanked the principal and giddily marched out. Most students got kicked out of class and sent to the principal’s office. The Activists had been kicked out of the principal’s office and sent to class. They weren’t sure, but they thought this might be a good thing.
The next morning the Activists were thrilled and encouraged to hear announced during morning announcements a reminder for all students to be more aware of the blue recycling bins in the cafeteria. At the end of lunch that day the four Activists huddled over the bins and decided that yes, there were more crushed cans and mottled bottles in the bins than there had been in recent days, which meant that yes, even sans objective measurement, their venture with the principal was a success. They used words like “unequivocal” and “resounding” to describe their achievements. They stacked their hands and on three shouted “Change the world!,” and it felt so good to declare victory in this way that they re-stacked their palms and next time on three chanted “Yeahhh, bitch!,” the clamor startling a few passersby, one of whom was holding a cardboard box of some sort and apparently wishing to dispose of it in the bins, and the Activists, realizing they were in the way, quickly parted and made a kind of tunnel for the student to traverse to get to the bins, and the student seemed a little rattled as to why there were these four people guarding and/or inventorying the recycling bins and chanting, and then the passerby was both rattled and confused when the four guards celebrated his disposal of the cardboard box. They Activists recognized it was a limited success, the announcement. That an announcement by some random eighth grader more anxious about his voice cracking than he was about properly articulating the announcements, an announcement inserted last-minute between reminders of school picture day and modifications to the bus schedule, an announcement as part of a broader morning intercom monologue that most students only half-listened to anyway; still, this announcement was a success, albeit only a limited success, they reluctantly admitted, but the first success of many. They knew the principal was likely placating them, that he probably had no intention of contacting County Waste. They decided they weren’t satisfied, the Activists did. They quickly formulated another plan. They decided they’d each write one letter a week to the principal, succinctly but thoroughly re-outlining and re-defining their recycling objectives, and would keep writing letters until the principal caved and those objectives were met. At the end of each letter, they would politely remind the principal to recycle the letter in the nearest blue bin. Before heading back to class, the Activists dropped a quartet of quarters into the nearby vending machine and took turns chugging the orange soda that tumbled out the slit like a fallen gymnast, taking big celebratory/inspirational belch-inducing swigs but making sure to pour a little out for the perfectly recyclable No’s 2, 3, and 7 that had already been lost to landfills, before symbolically and proudly tossing the empty can on the ant-infested mound in the closest blue bin.
By eighth grade the activists were going locker to locker, stumping for various candidates running for school president. It didn’t matter which candidate as long as the candidates believed in something, as the Activists at the time looked more for passion than policy, though they preferred candidates friendly to recycling, on which they had become well versed. Among other endeavours, they’d started a campaign to get more vegetarian-friendly options in the cafeteria, but they were okay with pescatarian options as well, although some poor miscommunication by unknown parties resulted in the rumor that the Activists were aiming to convert everyone to Presbyterianism, and the Activists decided to back off a little, and so the food that students scooped from the dented stainless steel pans resting on sickly yellow-blue flames remained the same as always, alas.
Finally, in the months leading up to the eighth grade semi-formal, and despite zero percent of the student body having any chest hair, the Activists lobbied school officials to allow attending boys to wear their dress shirts only halfway buttoned up, arguing this point for long after-school hours with the ever-balding principal. It was never made clear why this was important to the Activists, particularly to female Activists #1 and #2, but that’s all the activists wanted, Activists #1 through #4, was to believe in something, to have something matter.
By high school, school shootings were the bullseye in the center of their activist radar, a much more heartfelt and passionate pursuit than had been, say, the dress code at poorly attended school dances. The Activists were understandably very “anti” when it came to school shootings, and as school shootings spread like contagion around the country, the pins on the virtual map on TV popping up like pimples, here one and there another and over there a third, as the shootings proliferated, the Activists felt the eyes of their peers turning towards them for help, and it felt like all previous activism had been leading up to this, and that it was up them to do something about it. The way to do something about it, they thought, was to control guns, and so before their first Homecoming, gun control had officially vaulted the how-quickly-they-become-irrelevant issues of recycling and pescetarianism-not-Presbyterianism to claim the top spot on the Activists’ unofficial priorities list.
Activist #3, who still occasionally in gym class was chided for his Little League fastball lay-in, Activist #3 in particular became obsessed with how to prevent school shootings, once The Activists had identified school shootings as Topic 1A re: Activism. Sometimes in class Activist #3 was certain that the classroom door would burst open and a sad-looking but determined dirty-blond junior, a reluctant looking sixteen year old with slouched shoulders and eyes still red from playing all night the single-player fantasy shoot-em-up that he never shuts down, who just turns the monitor off when he goes to school, a slightly pudgy but not quite overweight virgin whose only social skills were pixel-animated and directed by his fingertips, Activist #3 was about fifty-fifty sure that on any given day that such a boy, dressed in clothes as black as his guns, including the ski mask that rides high on his head, the extra material at the top kind of like a pinched condom tip, but not that the shooter knows about that anyway, and not that he’ll ever need to know, after today, a ski mask that he doesn’t, the shooter, pull down over his face because who cares who sees his face because in an hour or three either the police will shoot him or he’ll shoot himself anyway, and the point anyway is to be seen, to show his face and frustration and anger to the world and to demand at gunpoint that the world see his face. Yes Activist #3 would on any given day put even odds on such a figure interrupting a lecture on tectonic plates or sine waves by bursting into the classroom to pull the trigger in the direction of four or fourteen students. Four or fourteen or maybe twenty students, depending on the shooter’s aim and the shooter’s ability to aim while being bug-eye stared at by twenty or so of his any-second-now former classmates, classmates who until the moment the door swung open had been doodling 3-D squares on wide-ruled notebook paper or been arranging seating positions to minimize boner exposure risk or been wondering whether Daddy had meant to rest his hand on my breast like that or maybe even been paying attention and actually grasping the difference between sine and cosine, the shift in continents, that the earth was magnetic, that Thomas Jefferson was the worst presidential public speaker of all-time, all before this kid busts in wielding a semi-automatic handgun and/or a single-barrel shotgun, and there’s a moment of aphasia and catatonic paralysis and nobody can tell who’s more surprised, the shooter or the non-shooters, and if anyone were to look closer it might be the shooter who is the most terrified person in the room, because he’s the one holding the guns.
Activist #3 started having this day terror or variations of at least once a week, beginning around the time the Activists began brainstorming ways they could put their Activism to use against guns. Activist #3 didn’t fear other forms of violence, not knives or bullying or someone’s fist growing larger very quickly in his field of vision, the way he feared gun violence. Very rarely and usually only in conjunction with another weapon do fists kill someone, Activist #3 knew, and when you factored in things like self-defense, it was much harder to stab someone than it was to hold up a pistol at distance and aim. Activist #3 didn’t know all this for sure, as he’d never stabbed anyone, nor has he ever really been mad enough to even consider using his knuckles against a fellow man. Never been mad enough or never had the guts to fight, it’s unclear, but still, the fact is that knives and fists and even something like a slingshot, while definitely bad, aren’t as bad as guns. Meaning they’re usually less fatal. This is part of his day terrors, too, the constant analysis of what’s worse than what.
Gun control, the Activists quickly discovered, was more difficult to get results for than something like, say, recycling, and understandably so. Shifts in national gun control policy required congressional amendments or executive orders or both, and locally there was already a state law prohibiting firearms in school. The sign out front made this very clear, the black pistol with a red X over it, next to the sign declaring the area a Drug-Free Zone. So they’d be fighting for something which was already against the law in multiple ways, as homicide was both against the governmental law as well as a sin in most religious contexts, so how to do anything about it? Plus they worried that increased activism against gun violence might actually get more people thinking about gun violence, e.g. an angry lonely and helpless-feeling kid might for the heck of it attend an anti-gun rally and notice the passion with which the anti-gun people were rallying, and he’d get an idea of how to vent his anger and helplessness, might ask for help, this kid, might show everyone how lonely he is by demanding help and attention in the most extreme way possible, and the Activists, because they’d been so eager to do good, would’ve indirectly but significantly contributed to a school shooting even if their intent was completely opposite.
The Activists thought next on the topic of opposites, that they might hold pro-love rallies instead, might march around offering hugs and holding signs with big red hearts on it, in hopes that the same angry and lonely and helpless-feeling and potential school shooting kid might notice the love rally and come out for a free hug and a lemonade and maybe he wouldn’t be so inclined to do the shooting anymore. But the idea of love as a policy made The Activists sneer nervously and giggle self-consciously. Not that it was a bad idea, love, they said, but they just weren’t that kind of Activist. They weren’t versed in that kind of language.
So the Activists started feeling a little helpless themselves, about guns. Well-meaning names on ballot boxes, names followed by a capital letter in parentheses, names with far greater clout and resources than the Activists could dream of utilizing, names that in unison with weepy parents and grieving towns, in one or two week no-one-would-dare-question-your-motive goodwill periods following incidents with breaking news HEADLINES, had been pushing for better gun laws for generations, with little to show for it. With gun control no longer for the Activists was their greatest hurdle for change an amused ex-Navy balding principal. The fight now wasn’t even for change; it was for the chance to fight for change, a chance to get even a few minutes of playing time in the rhetorically-dense gun-freedom versus gun-control pun satirically intended slugfest playing out in high-decibel, hold-on-to-your-hats exchanges on television. Short of catching wind in advance of an imminent shooting in their own school and doing something to stop it, there wasn’t much the Activists could do to prevent gun violence so far back from the front lines. The Activists couldn’t even vote or sign official petitions. Nor did they want to fuel anger by lending their voices to one side of the match, so that the other side had to shout a little louder in return, and the Activists had to shout even louder now to be heard over the increase on the other side, the increase that their initial shouting was the reason for, with both sides shouting and shouting so on and so on until something snapped.
The idea of love came up again. They thought perhaps they could set about being the nicest four kids at school, could make an effort to love absolutely everyone, including the kid who masterbated in the bathrooms between classes, the fat kid who made fun of himself for being fat before you could, the girls who said “Oh my god” and put a hand up like a partition whenever certain boys tried to talk to them, the kid whose headphones were either around his neck in class or over his ears whenever he wasn’t in class, the kid who always said “I’m trying it’s okay,” said this real wearily with a sweaty forehead whenever you asked him what’s up and so you stopped asking him what’s up, could love absolutely everyone, the Activists could, including the really tall girl who slouched to fit in, the black kids who spoke unintelligibly because that’s how they knew the white kids expected them to talk, the white kids who exhibited friend-like behavior with the black kids to compensate for confusing internal racial dialogues, the kid who pinched his pimples so frequently his face looked like chicken pox, the kid who was constantly saying “You don’t know me. You don’t know me,” the kid with the overgrown and appliance-graveyard front lawn who nonetheless still forced himself to the bus stop each morning ignoring the curious/judgmental eyes from bus windows, the kid who everyone somehow knew had gone to the doctor several times already for a body-odor related condition, the kid who couldn’t decide if he loved his best friend like that or like that, could love them all, leaving nobody out, the Activists could, could even love the kids who were already nice to everyone else, and if everyone got enough love there’d be no risk of a school shooting because nobody who truly feels love could not possibly do anything violent.
The problem with this love strategy was that the Activists probably didn’t have enough love to cover even just a homeroom’s number of students, not to mention the whole school, not to mention the millions of schools around the country where love was surely needed too.
And plus there was the risk that someone might react against being loved, might be so afraid of love that he would rather shoot his classmates than accept love from them.
And plus love was no guarantee against violence.
And plus the Activists didn’t really know how to love.
And plus love couldn’t really be faked.
And plus it was possible that certain students, particularly the so-called fucked up students who needed love most, might become dependent on the Activists’ love, the way a recovering addict might rely on cigarettes or caffeine or methadone to survive early sobriety. And let’s say the Activists missed a day or two of school and could not for a day or two provide the dose of love for that formerly-fucked-up-and-loveless-now-transitioning kid, and let’s say that kid relapsed into his loneliness cave, only this time the cave was too lonely to handle especially in contrast to the love he’d been getting and so he decides to act out. That was an extreme hypothetical scenario, the Activists agreed, but so were school shootings.
And plus sometimes the shooters in school shootings weren’t even students at the school.
And plus the Activists were kind of afraid of love themselves.
So love was risky. Really the only way to stop gun violence was to get rid of guns.
The Activists felt helpless and frustrated in their nose-bleed seats until Activist #4 had a brilliant idea. The idea was this: instead of becoming just four more frothy-mouthed, cliche gurgling, ultimately unremarkable school activists, activists whose greatest accomplishment might be some token community service award at convocation, instead of waiting it out until they turned eighteen to vote and sign petitions, waiting until they turned twenty-one so they could run for county boards, or twenty-five to put their names on ballot boxes, the Activists would instead change the world now, and Activist #4 knew how: they would become school terrorists themselves. “Hear me out,” Activist #4 said when the other three raised six eyebrows in unison. They would, Activist #4 explained, purchase firearms and take turns mowing people down, would light ‘em up on the football field or at a pep rally or in the science lab or at lunch, wherever, one school shooting per month, one Activist acting alone at a time, for four consecutive months. If they couldn’t petition or argue or editor-letter their way to peace, at distance, they would summon the fight to their home soil, and make their school ground zero, and would drop a rock so heavy into the ground beneath their very own feet that the ripple would knock down the people who lived in the city with white houses and big domes and a gavel that was meant to be struck with good will. They would make things so bad, would stack the body count so high, that the names on the ballot boxes would have no choice but to screw open their canisters of white-out, and on the parchment paper that hibernated under bulletproof glass in a windowless, light-sensitive section of a museum, on this parchment paper they would cross out the frumpy amendment written in iron gall ink, the amendment that came after one.
The Activists met secretly to discuss the particulars of their plan, often in a bathroom, the shower running to distort the attempts of anyone attempting reconnaissance. Up first for discussion was whether it was actually a good idea, to fight violence with violence. Sure, rare was the successful unbloodied revolution, but the plan would go against their long-held nonviolent activist mantras; they’d always thought their only weapons should be enthusiasm, plentiful cough drops, perhaps a bullhorn and/or a few of those cones male cheerleaders used, and of course their unshakable belief that they could make the world a better place. They couldn’t see any of their heroes, Ghandi, MLK, Hayden Panettiere, approving their plan. But in the same way a vaccine requires a little of the actual disease to be effective, in the same way firefighters sometimes set fires to fight fires, they decided to keep moving forward with The Plan.
Some parts of The Plan were simple. Maximum body count, for instance. The worse it got, the greater the sadness, the greater the uproar, the more pressure on the people who wrote their names with an accompanying capital letter on ballot boxes, the faster the scratch-through on the parchment paper could be made, the faster ten would become nine.
Other parts were more difficult. They argued vehemently and intensely and emotionally over whether each shooter should commit suicide at the end of his or her designated rampage. Suicide would mean the end of the individual Activist’s career – they avoided saying “death” at first, instead referring to it as a sort of retirement from Activism – but suicide would also eliminate risk of the shooter once apprehended ratting on his or her activist mates, and would also excuse them from having to experience the inevitable backlash, from seeing their mugshots in the paper, from huddling over their knees in some dank juvie cell, from shuffling into a packed courtroom and bearing the gaze of a judge who stared at you over the tops of his glasses, from hearing their psyches dissected on seven stations, would save them from the regret in the event The Plan wasn’t as potent and powerful as they now imagined it to be. In the end, to avoid unnecessary risks, they agreed to take their own lives after they’d finished taking others’.
But doing so would also mean the shooters would not be around to shake the President’s hand when he visited their school, as he undoubtedly would, to address the Nation, first somberly, and under heightened security, to tensely mourn in the immediate aftermath, then again perhaps a year later in bittersweet celebration to announce, following a nationally televised moment of silence, on a podium to the left of which would stand four easels with the four Activists’ photos, the President would announce to an audience of dignitaries that The Body of Amassed Checkmarks On Ballot Boxes was in fact composed of sentient creatures — television footage could corroborate this — and that, effective immediately, and with immediate effect, the world of guns would be properly and comprehensively regulated. The Activists all thought they wanted to be around to meet the President, to actually stand at the President’s flank, and the President would probably want to meet the Activists too, to congratulate them and maybe bestow a shiny medal on their adolescent lapels, but the Issue At Hand was greater than any post-hoc reward, and the Activists in their own ways began to let go of the fantasy.
One of the more pacific Activists, Activist #1, the Activist who was the least active among them, in truth wasn’t really all that passionate about the issues, not even gun control. Activist #1 just liked being part of a group and the rest of the group liked having her around because she would do whatever the rest of the group said to do. Activist #1 wasn’t so sure when she thought about it that she could pull the trigger on one of her fellow classmates, let alone fire a weapon at all. She’d didn’t even like handling a serrated knife to cut bread, so Activist #1, at one of their shower-soundtracked meetings, suggested they shoot each other instead, or perhaps simply commit suicide solo, on school grounds, without the prior inter-classroom rampages. They were white and rich enough to merit national media attention, she argued, particularly if they took their own lives in public places with publicly acquired guns.
Another Activist, Activist #4, the de facto leader since their recycling days, the one who’d come up with this homeopathic-like plan in the first place, the Activist who hated himself for secretly kind of looking forward to playing Rambo on his classmates, particularly the classmate who may or may not have stolen his girl two summers ago, he absolutely loathed himself, Activist #4 did, for the giddy feeling he got when he thought about The Plan, for the way he felt empowered by it, and by the way it gave him a sense of purpose and identity. He hated himself so much for these feelings that he began to formulate a separate plan, one where he went solo to the principal’s office and confessed The Plan, would confess that he often felt isolated and depressed and had several times entered the ideation phase of a solo self-cancelling kind of plan, had thought about self-cancelling before self-cancelling was considered a part of the broader Plan, and Activist #4 recognized that The Plan was perhaps just a reaction to his mini-plan, he knew this, but the rest of the Activists were looking for him to lead them, and Activist #4 was willing to lead and part of him wanted to lead, and so Activist #4 dismissed the Activist #1’s hesitant misgivings along with his own.
Simple math, he said. Not enough of us to make it work. Four teenage suicides would mean local headlines, perhaps a national mention. But the focus would be on the suicides themselves, not the guns. Where they procured the guns would be a minor detail in the bigger story. Conversely, mass shootings meant global attention, and four mass shootings over four months would offer the kind of sustained scrutiny of American pastimes required to make the worst of those pastimes go away. Activist #4 explained the necessity of The Plan in this way to Activist #1.
So Activist #1 agreed with Activist #4, because that was what Activist #1 did, be subservient and make others feel smarter by agreeing with them. But as the days creaked towards D-Day she began to have nightmares, when she imagined herself following through, when she closed her eyes and could practically feel the recoil. She knew she’d never be able to shoot someone else, though she thought it might be possible to take her own life. In fact, she knew it was possible because it kept her up at night, the thought of it, even if a bullet from a self-fired gun wouldn’t have been her preferred self-cancelling method. If given the chance to choose she would’ve opted for an M & M bag’s worth of pills, or a Johnson & Johnson’s canister’s worth of some crazy drug she could procure just as easily as a gun. She began to inventory the things she’d miss should her life end in the coming months, even going so far as to make a list, and because she was inventorying the things she’d miss and not the things she wouldn’t miss, it was pretty evident that she really didn’t want to die, but she was committed to Activism and things were what they were.
The plan was to wait until after school pictures at the very least. It was important when the media descended with their roving satellite trucks, when the concealer-pasted reporters posted up with wide-legged stances on lawns just off school property, a finger to their ears and the long-distance feed with the anchor back in NYC, it was important that when the producers went digging for background information in yearbooks that the Activists’ most up to date photos depicted them with fresh haircuts and smiling.
They spent time managing their social media accounts, doctoring their personalities to erase any investigatable hint or doubt that they were anything but the most well-adjusted kids alive, alive and thriving, so that shock and confusion would be maximized when the media transformed them into the for-better-or-worse overnight celebrities they would inevitably become, and when the media/parents/teachers wracked their brains and dug through hard drives and examined recent report cards they’d see nothing but exemplary, and everyone would be at a loss for words on matters of how and why, leaving nothing but guns to blame. The Activists eliminated black from their wardrobes. Those who needed to, wiped clean their hard drives of questionable content. They worked on their participation grades and studied a little extra to bump up their GPAs. They joined various non-Activism clubs to diversity their portfolios, extracurricular clubs that seemed to have been conscripted simply for the pleasure of the activity itself, like chess club, where Activists #2 and #4 played chess not to raise awareness for some great cause, not to make the world a better place, not even to buffer a resume but simply for the enjoyment of tracking a king and queen across a checkered black and white board, and at the end of the game there was no new local law to applaud, no injustice righted, no extra few sentences in morning announcements, no congratulations from the principal, no ceremony with the mayor, only a chance to put the pieces back in a little velvet sack and fold the board over on itself and put it all back in the bin.
Or like art club, where the point of sketching nature scenes in the grove behind the track was to sketch nature scenes. Nobody seemed interested in submitting to art journals or highlighting eco-corruption or oil spills. The most anyone seemed to care about art in terms of future reward was a possible future bunk with the local art collective that both lived and did their art shtick in the remodeled but still dingy ex-steel factory building near the reservoir. When the hour of art was up the Art Club members tore the top sheet from their sketch pads, perhaps commented or giggled a little, and then walked back towards the track, accomplishment unclear. Most perplexing of all was perhaps hiking club, which met on Saturday mornings and required a permission slip and a liability form to meet off school grounds, at the nature reserve outside town, where the shaggy environmental studies volunteer from the local college kept stopping the group to implore them to do nonplussing things like inhale, or make ‘ohm’ sounds with the eyes half-closed, or, most challenging of all, simply be.
The self-image enhancement changes were particularly challenging for Activist #3, he of the day terrors and eternal Little League fame, challenging with respect to The Plan. He’d never gotten a professional haircut before, and it was unclear if he’d ever smiled before bending his lips for school picture day, and when he smiled with a fresh do he found he rather liked the way sharp locks and billboard teeth made him look and feel, the way it made talking with Non-Activists easier, the way it made him sit up straighter and walk a little taller even though undulating inches had been sheared from his dome. He liked the way the resulting confidence seemed to involuntarily usher him onto the basketball court for JV tryouts, basketball, a sport he’d always loved and secretly always wanted to play, and even though he didn’t make it it didn’t bother him, getting cut, and he joined the just-sign-up YMCA league instead and even started looking forward to practice and several times a game he would be passed the ball and not always as a last resort. Activist #3 also discovered that he really enjoyed geometry and history, and often he forgot that he was only making perfect attendance and getting good grades to bolster his self-image. And perhaps most most challenging for Activist #3 was the attention he was getting from girls, and even if it wasn’t quite romantic attention, it was at the very least extracurricular and not in a repulsive way, and when it came to girls, and outside of random group projects, Activist #3 had only ever really interacted with Activists #1 and #2, and with them only in a platonic sisterly way, and that he might, no satirical pun intended, have a shot at some non-Activist girls now that he was smiling more frequently was enough to distill a little the intensity of his day terrors, and it was enough for him to question his commitment to Activism and The Plan, that he might rather wish to for a while at least commit himself to getting a girlfriend, or even just asking one out, before he went about shooting people.
It was easy to get the guns. Big heavy massive things that made the Activists tingle with fear just holding them, even the Leader Activist #4. At first they couldn’t even grip the barrel. They held the guns the way a wizard holds a crystal ball, with fingertips only and at distance. To get them Activist #2, Activist #2 of long-ago Thanksgiving hunger strike lore and a close second to Activist #4 in terms of being an Activist Leader, to get them Activist #2 had sucked off Matt, Matt the owner of Matt’s Firearms, Matt’s Firearms in the beige-stone strip mall bumping elbows with Sue’s Flowers and Mario’s Pizza. Activist #2 had gone down on Matt four times over four nights, once for each gun, then twice more for the extra clips. She’d told Matt the guns were for her hunting club, that they, the hunting club, were a little short on cash and that they would repay in full one way or another, eventually, at which Matt had looked skeptical and told Activist #2 that it was real easy to lock up shop, that all he had to do was flip off the lights and flip over the sign on the door, and it was never that busy anyway, and that he had a private office in the back.
Activist #4 wanted to shoot Matt, owner of Matt’s Firearms, as he’d been since pre-Activism days desperately in love with Activist #2, and the thought of her on her knees in Matt’s dirty office with NRA posters on the walls and the shades drawn and a .44 in the desk drawer made him want to puke. And that Activist #2 had sucked off a pot-bellied man who probably cleaned his guns more than his balls, a man who made hissing noises through his teeth as he pulled on Activist #2’s hair with cordite-laced fingers, that Activist #2 had sucked him off without even seeming regretful about it, without bothering to notice how jealous it made Activist #4, when Activist #4 heard about her mouthing off for free guns, it was enough for him to consider scrapping The Plan altogether and committing instead a 2 Plus 1 Take-Out Special, so he’d never have to think about how gross it would be if he ever got around to making out with Activist #2 himself, which apart from success through Activism was probably his life’s intent.
So The Plan was to over four consecutive months stage four separate school shootings at school, their own school, they decided, was where the shootings would happen. It was only fair, because they already knew the lay-out and class schedules etc, etc. Or maybe only three school shootings, if that’s all it took, depending on the national response. They could always keep a shooting on stand-by, whoever got to go last, in case it was needed. The Plan called for the collective consciousness of the United States of America, and in box seats the rest of the world, to be held captive by the unorthodox and perhaps a little paradoxical but ultimately and especially in hindsight brave actions of the four Activists, and the ballot box people would stop counting checkmarks and rub their eyes and scratch their heads and say you know what it’s about time we made that gavel mean something again, and they’d dip their brought-to-you-by quills in overflowing pots of red ink and sign their names over to common sense, and the Activists would be heroes. Dead heroes, but the kind that ended up on postage stamps.
The Activists decided to start filming their strategy meetings, risking turning off the shower to do so. They wanted everyone to understand that this wasn’t a rash decision, The Plan, and no, it wasn’t overly optimistic to assume that everyone would be interested: parents, principals, balding or otherwise, police, media, students. That they at least vaguely understood what they were doing. That they had asked themselves if they were crazy. That they had peeked down at their baby-smooth innies and outies to determine if they weren’t just attention-starved or if not individually then collectively mentally ill, that maybe there was a warping Nazi-ish peer pressure effect in play. That maybe it wasn’t about Activism at all, The Plan, for the Activists, as much as it was about some misguided adolescent pursuit of accomplishment and/or a debt of general uniqueness in a hormone-ravaged scholastic environment where everyone was the same but wanted to be different. The Activists wanted the world to see that they’d considered all these possibilities, that they were self-aware enough to admit that some of it might be true, that The Plan was absurd, but what was more true/absurd was that far too many students were being erased all too frequently from class rolls. That the flower business was getting a little too much business in far too many places. That the words “our condolences” and “our hopes and prayers” had long been the worst kind of cliche. That the promises from the names on the ballot boxes to do something about it were as empty as the discarded clips that lay on cold linoleum school floors outlined in chalk until the blue-suited crime scene investigators scooped them up with tongs and dropped them in plastic bags to be used as evidence for trials that would never happen.
Activist #2 hadn’t really gone down on Matt, owner of Matt’s Firearms, to get the guns. No way, sick, gross, she’d told Activist #1, who, sworn to secrecy, was let in on this tidbit of truth. Activist #2 had just said she’d blown Matt, owner of Matt’s Firearms, to make Activist #4 jealous, because Activist #2 had long known Activist #4 probably was madly in love with her, and she didn’t understand why but she wanted to make him jealous as a result and it’s just what she did. Really to get the guns Activist #2 had utilized her uncle, who used to fuck her when she was in grade school before she got old enough to realize it wasn’t normal, he’d raped her much more frequently then but this time he’d fucked her just once, bent over the hood of his Duplass in his garage after school while the classic rock station from the tubular boombox with the handle played on the dusty slightly-angled wood shelf next to grocery-store produce bags filled with nails and bolts. She’d let him fuck her this time, and in return he’d driven to Matt’s Firearms and got the three-day background check and passed it and bought several guns and plenty of ammo. Activist #2 hated herself for utilizing her uncle, had bit through her lip trying not to cry or make a noise as her chin squeaked on the hood, but she’d let it happen because she knew she could get the guns that way, that her uncle wouldn’t ask questions, and if he squealed on her she could squeal on him, and she’d let him fuck her and she’d gotten the guns so that the group would find her appreciative and thank her and make her feel included, because it’s possible that she’s wasn’t much of an Activist either, Activist #2. That really she just liked being a part of something, because she never really had that growing up, the feeling of belonging, given her uncle and family of origin, and being an Activist had always been really good for her. She felt so proud she cried the day the extra blue recycling bins eventually arrived, back in grade school, cried because she’d been a part of something good, and Activists #3 and #4 were like brothers now and Activist #1 was like her soulmate, and if there’s one thing she didn’t like about The Plan it was that they wouldn’t be The Activists anymore, once and if it happened.
At another meeting the Activists drafted a note to send to various media on the morning of the first shooting, to explain their reasoning. They all drafted it but it would be signed by just the first shooter, whoever went first.
The morning when it would first begin dawned red-skyed, the horizon a maze of red seeping upwards through sponges of cloud. Activist #1 watched the sunrise that morning, sitting very still on the edge of her bed from which she had not pulled back the sheets the night before. Activist #1, the most peaceful of The Activists and very obviously the most reluctant, had been chosen to go first, by reason of these very traits, as she was the one most likely to chicken out. Her backpack hung a little lower that morning. There were no metal detectors at their suburban school. There were no gun-sniffing dogs. Only a portly security guard slash everyone’s best friend who daily sat on a stool in the lunchroom, staring at his phone and/or giving daps to passing students, who called him by his first name, Gerald, and all Gerald seemed to do was break up the occasional fight and help out in the bus parking lot after school and once or twice a year talk to the kids about gun safety and drugs. Gerald didn’t carry a gun, but he probably knew how to use one, and if he happened to be around when Activist #1 officially kicked off The Plan, assuming she could, if he asked Activist #1 to kindly hand over the weapon, she probably would without hesitation, because Activist #1 still didn’t really understand the device, the particulars of the hatch and clip and barrel and safety, nor its broader purpose, or her purpose in possessing it. She did not understand it, nor did she want to understand it and even less did she want to use it, and least of all did she want to use it against one of her classmates.
As she walked through the hallways she passed bulletin boards on which hung notices for volunteer opportunities. There were administrator-added enticements written in tacked-on bubble letters above the notices. Some of the notices were the kind where you rip off the phone number from the row of fringe-like tabs on the bottom.
It had not struck Activist #1 until this morning that there was a real possibility she might die. The Plan until that morning had seemed abstract, like a thought experiment, rather than something tangible. A few days ago she’d held Activist #2’s hair as Activist #2 had barfed into the Target bag in her bedroom trash can the morning after she had, Activist #2, gotten so drunk she couldn’t remember anything, which is what Activist #2 did sometimes, understandably so, because Activist #2 occasionally did things like bend incestuously over a car hood in a darkened garage so her uncle in return would buy a small cache of weapons and extra clips so the Uncle’s Activist niece and his Activist niece’s friends could shoot squirrels, or whatever Activist #2 had lied about. Activist #1 had not thought about death then. But now the gun was a tangible entity, with a mass and weight and color that she could detect with her own senses, and The Plan was becoming real, and an excess of various outcomes, none of them good, were broadcasting in her head, all on the same channel, and she couldn’t really think except to think think that she might die today.
There was a handwritten letter in the pocket of Activist #1’s jacket. It wasn’t supposed to be there. The Plan had called for no personal notes or explanations. The only explanations were to be the group-approved letters and videos sent to the media. But Activist #1 had written an explanation anyway. Or more like a goodbye. She’d wanted to write something from her point of view and her point of view only, on The Plan about The Plan, to rationalize it to her friends and family, but she’d been unable to come up with anything. She found that, when thinking on her own, she couldn’t justify the group’s justifications. Instead she’d written a letter to her parents, saying that she hoped they’d one day be proud of her, that one day it would all make sense, and Activist #1 added a paragraph for her sister in which she expressed sisterly affection, a paragraph she eventually occluded from the final draft for reasons she wasn’t entirely sure about.
She’d wanted to feel a certain way about The Plan on the eve of The Plan, of which she was running the important opening leg. She wanted to feel certain of its merits, or at least of the merits of her fellow Activists. She wanted a secret memo from the people who put their names on the ballot boxes that all but guaranteed a subtraction of one from the list of ten on the parchment paper, provided The Activists follow through with The Plan, but Activist #1 on the eve of The Plan had felt nothing but uncertainty and an arresting wash of anticipatory regret. Other parts of her felt numb and impersonal, closed off and boarded up, as if her body was a city and on some blocks citizens were rioting and on others residents were passed out dreamlessly. And that was the saddest part of all this, that Activist #1 had never really been all the way on board, with Activism in particular but with Life in general, had always felt like there were feral animals nipping her heels that she couldn’t kick away, and swarms of tiny black bugs were buzzing like a veil she couldn’t lift, the buzz like a constantly unstabilized amp in her ears, and she knew that the feral animals and black bugs stood for something, and that with some therapy and/or travel and/or reading and/or a healthy dose of time and space, that the animals and bugs might start to mean something to her, at which point she could learn to tame and release them and live with unobstructed steps and clear views, and she wouldn’t need Activism to dwarf the confusion anymore. And the absolutely saddest thing, if you discounted the people who would fall down today and never get up, is that she would never really understand herself and why, that she would never give herself the opportunity to understand herself and why, and nobody else would really understand her either, and it would all just be some big awful bloody misunderstanding, the shooting. And if there was another tragic element to all this it would be that they, Activists #1 through #4, hadn’t been able to give it some time, hadn’t been patient enough to overcome their impatience, to see who they might become, to see who they’d turn into when they stopped being fifteen years old, who they might be once their cortexes and jawlines and hips reached maturity. To see if one of them might not do something magnificent, something that might truly on the count of three change the world without excising a fraction of the population in the process. To see if they might as they get older actually figure out that mystery of mysteries, Love, and, more in the present, it’s tragic that The Activists couldn’t give it a little more time to see if one or all of them might not somehow ask for help in a more literal way, as opposed to asking for help via The Plan, because who are they kidding this really isn’t about guns or even gun control, these guns could’ve just as easily been pills or sports, or anything else that occupies the mind and prevents the mind from really feeling, could’ve easily been anger or alcohol or sex or a few minutes a night with a blade, because hurt and confused kids with no outlet for the hurt and confusion need something to distract them, and who are they kidding they’re just like everyone else, afraid to ask for help, afraid to admit they need it, afraid to feel afraid, afraid.
Activist #1 thought this as she sat her backpack down on a chair in the cafeteria and rummaged inside. It was the first of three back-to-back-to-back lunch periods and the cafeteria was filling up. There was the savory and warm just-vacuumed-the-carpet smell of food produced in industrially large quantities. The growing roar of her gabbing classmates was oceanic. Gerald was wearing a Hawaiian shirt with patterns of thongs on it. Her hand reached the bottom of the bag. The gun was wrapped in a t-shirt. Even though it was wrapped in a t-shirt the barrel was still cold. There was the discordant percussive sound of trays clattering on tables and the cracked-icicle-like tinkling of silverware on trays. The oceanic roar ebbed as people took their first bites. It’s possible someone just asked her if she was okay. She maneuvered the gun until she found a good grip. It’s possible that someone was Gerald. She felt around for the safety. She didn’t remember if the safety was on or off. She didn’t remember if anyone remembered to load it or not, the night before, when the Activists had discreetly met one last time and helped her arrange her backpack, tucking an extra clip in a brown paper bag underneath her algebra textbook before stacking their palms and on the count of three not saying anything, just kind of looking and not looking, very sadly, at each other, one last time. She doesn’t remember if she remembers how to load it, or even, if she does remember how, if she could load it fast enough to get a few shots off before Gerald or some sangfroid student takes it from her, which wouldn’t be hard because Activist #1 is still really really unsure if she can pull the trigger anyway, at whom, for whom, and for what reasons.