Volume 32, Number 4


Sarah M. Prindle

Selene Painted Crow turned her head for the umpteenth time to peer behind her. People might think she was looking back to be sure her parents were still walking behind her and her little brother or that she was looking for a friend who’d agreed to meet her at the vigil. But the truth was that Selene was checking for gunmen, for the long silhouette of a rifle or an automatic weapon. She was listening for loud cracks and screams of terror. She was tense and half-expecting to feel the crowd around her start pushing and shoving. Could she and her family escape quickly if someone in the crowd pulled out a gun?

Ever since the massacre two weeks ago, Selene had faced the same questions whenever she went out in public, the same feelings of alertness and helplessness. She had survived the recent mass shooting without any injuries or scrapes, but terror had left deeper scars inside her than anyone could ever guess just by looking at her.

As Selene walked on towards the church, she held an unlit candle in her right hand, and held Derek’s hand in her left. Her six-year-old brother looked around excitedly, too young to understand the somber expressions on everyone’s faces. He probably thought this was a parade of some kind. He walked quickly, as if wanting to race on ahead, but Selene tightened her grip on him.

Over the sea of heads, Selene could make out the spire of the local church. They were almost there. Even more people had gathered outside the church, spread out on its lawn and the road in front of it. Normally, that road would be crowded with cars on a weekend, but it had been closed for the vigil, which was expected to draw hundreds of people.

It was twilight, with a dark blue glow over everything. The people at the church had already lit their candles, and the flames flickered in the dark, reminding Selene of fireflies. People’s soft murmurs were like background music, only the words they spoke were sadder than any song.

“… can’t believe it happened here.”

“My niece is still in the hospital.”

“Poor man, he lost his wife.”

“She keeps asking when her grandma is coming back.”

“I heard they’re closing the café. Who’d want to eat there again?”

Selene shuddered.

“Kids, over here.” Their mother guided Selene and Derek to a spot on the church’s lawn that hadn’t been claimed yet. They all took seats on the grass, waiting for the ceremony to start. Dad pulled a lighter out of his coat pocket and began lighting the candles the family had brought with them. “Remember, don’t touch the flame,” he warned his son.

Derek rolled his eyes. “I’m not a baby, Dad! I’m six years old!”

He’s wrong. Derek is a baby. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t understand yet what’s happening in this country.

Once all their candles were lighted, Mom placed a hand on Selene’s shoulder. “Are you doing all right?”

“Fine.” Selene replied. She hesitated, then blurted the truth. “I’m still scared when we go out. Even now. I keep thinking it’ll happen again.”

Derek turned to his sister with wide brown eyes. “But the bad man died, didn’t he? Mommy said he won’t hurt anyone ever again.”

“He won’t.” Selene reassured her brother. But that’s just one man. One shooter. It’ll be another man next time. And the time after that. And the time after that. There are many who want to kill other people, and they can. Easily. That’s the sad truth. We’re not doing enough to stop them. It’s like letting people drive around without speed limits or any rules, then wondering why there are so many fatal car crashes.

Selene got to her feet, too restless to stay seated. She noticed a cardboard sign beside the church door. She started to go over to look at it.

“Where are you going?” Mom sounded worried and looked as if she didn’t want to let Selene out of her sight. For the first time, Selene saw a flash of the fear her mother had carried around with her since the shooting. Usually, she kept it hidden, but she’d just showed it for a moment.

“I’ll be right back. I want to see what that sign says.” Selene pointed to it, and after her mother nodded, she headed over there. When Selene got near enough, she could see the sign was a list of the names of the victims and their ages. She recognized some of the names from the news, but others were unfamiliar to her.

However, one name stood out: Serena Pritchard, 17. God, she was the same age as Selene! She even had a similar name. If Selene hadn’t reacted quickly when she’d heard the gunshots, if she hadn’t run out the back door, her name could be on this sign. It could have been her who died. She could almost see it. Selene Painted Crow, 17, written with the same thick black marker as all the other names.

Selene hurried away from the sign, wishing she hadn’t looked at it, hadn’t seen the name of the teenage girl who had died. It was a reminder that it could easily have been her…and might be if she were ever in another shooting. She returned to where her family was sitting and sat beside them. She looked down at the candle she held in her hands, watching the flame jump around, as if it had picked up on her anxiety.

Nearby, a woman had started crying. A man hugged her against his chest, his arms around her in a protective manner. Derek looked at her in confusion and then turned to his sister. “Why is she crying?”

How did you explain this to a child? “She’s really sad, Derek. She likely lost someone in the café.”

“When the bad man came in?” Derek pressed.

“Yes. When the bad man came in.” Selene could still imagine herself coming out of the bathroom. She had been just about to walk back into the main part of the café when she’d heard deafening cracking sounds. Then screams. She’d realized instantly what it was. She might have frozen if she hadn’t already sort of had an idea what to do. She’d read articles about shootings in the news over the years, about experts who always said the same mantra: Run. Hide. Fight. This advice rang through her head in the moment she heard the shots, and this propelled her to action.

She had turned around and spotted a back exit. It was only ten feet away, but that distance felt impossibly long when she ran it, expecting a bullet in the back. She wondered if she’d make it out safely and wished she were back home with her family. Then, she had pushed the door open, and she was outside. When she glanced behind her, she saw other people running too, one with blood on his shirt. They had fled to a nearby apartment building and taken shelter there. They had waited for news, listening to the gunshots and sirens. Eventually, Selene had called her mother to let her know she had escaped, and that was the first time she ever heard her mother cry.

The rest, Selene learned from the news, the official facts and tallies that changed with every shooting. Seven dead. Six injured. The shooter committed suicide. His motive was unclear. He’d made Facebook posts showing support for white supremacist groups, but he’d had no communication with them, and his victims had been many races, including whites. He also had a history of mental illness, paranoia and delusion that he’d struggled with for years. It was a big debate now, whether to call this shooting a hate crime by a self-radicalized extremist, or a mass-shooting by a mentally ill man. Or some combination thereof.

Whatever his motive, the result was the same. People died. Others were left scarred for life. It was happening all over the country now. Selene thought about the shootings that had taken place over the last few months and realized she could no longer remember the death tolls for each of them or in which state they happened. Spas, stores, workplaces, schools, it all blended together. The situation was a dark cloud looming overhead, with lightning that struck randomly, and you could never tell where or when the next strike would be.

Derek turned to his older sister again, as if she had all the answers. “Did you see the bad man? When you were there?”

“Thankfully, no. I was in a back hallway. I never saw him, but I heard the shots. That was scary enough.”

“Why did he do it? Why did he shoot those people?”

“God, Derek, I don’t know.” Selene sighed. Her parents had tried to explain both mental illness and extremism to Derek, but he was obviously still confused about it. Hell, the whole country was! “I guess what it comes down to was that, for whatever reason, he wanted to kill someone. He wanted to kill a lot of people. Maybe he hated them. Maybe he was crazy. Maybe it made him feel good. I don’t know. But he destroyed so many innocent lives, he caused countless people to grieve and feel scared.” She gestured around at the crowd. “That’s why we’re all here today. We’re all sad and scared, and we don’t know what to do to change things. But we want to honor the people who died. They should still be alive now. But they’re not. Their lives were taken too soon.”

Derek looked grim. “There was something on TV about a shooting this morning. Daddy turned it off when he saw me looking at it.”

“Yes, there was another shooting last night. At a bar.” Selene didn’t tell him that the death toll had reached ten. “There have been a lot of them, unfortunately.” There was so much rage, hatred, insanity and distrust nationwide. How long would it be before Derek understood how dangerous things were?

Then Derek asked his toughest question yet. “Will I ever be in a shooting?”

More than anything in the world, Selene wanted to shake her head and wave away his question, to chuckle as if it were too ridiculous to even consider. More than anything, she wanted to reassure him, “Oh, hell no. That won’t happen. Don’t worry.”

But she couldn’t say that. It would be a lie. The fact was, it could happen to Derek, too. At school. At the mall. On the street. It could be carried out by a racist. By a terrorist. By an insane man. It was all possible.

All Selene could say, as she put her free arm around her brother was, “God, I hope not.” She knew this answer wouldn’t reassure him, but it was the most honest answer she could give.

The reverend came out of the church then, holding a large candle of his own. Selene, Derek and her parents got to their feet to stand among the other vigil goers. Candlelight lit up the faces around them, illuminating the fear and grief in their eyes.

“We’re gathered here today,” the reverend spoke into a microphone, so everyone could hear his voice, “to remember those that we lost two weeks ago, when a gunman burst into a crowded café and took away innocent lives.”

Someone in the crowd choked back a sob. The reverend kept going. He faced the audience with a worn, tired expression. “I’ve spoken to many of the families of the deceased, to the people who survived their injuries, and they all ask the same question: Why. Why did their loved ones die? Why did some people live while others didn’t? Why did the shooter do this?”

Selene glanced down at Derek. Children weren’t the only ones who asked, it seemed.

“I don’t have any answers to give you,” the reverend admitted. “There are no words that can explain murder and hatred. There is no way to rationalize or justify the slaughter of innocent people. Nothing I say here today can undo what happened or erase the pain it caused. It is a pain that has been experienced by too many people over the years. We hear about it on the news, we see it on the TV, but we always hoped it would never touch our lives. Now it has. We can’t pretend that we’re immune to the violence plaguing our country.”

“Any type of shooting—gang violence, domestic violence, terrorism, a hate crime—is an atrocity. It’s a blight on all human beings. And we will never know why. We cannot know if this is part of God’s plan—”

Plan?!” Everyone jumped, including the reverend, when a crying woman screamed out from the crowd. “Are you saying God planned the shooting? Are you saying he wanted those people to die?”

The reverend stared at her, openmouthed, before he managed to say, “That’s not what I meant. I—”

“I’m sick of hearing people talk about ‘God’s plan’.” The crying woman made air quotes with her fingers as she said the phrase. “I’m sick of people implying that the victims were meant to die then, that it was ‘their time’. If they were meant to die, then that means God meant for their killer to shoot them. Is that what you’re saying? That the shooter was just doing God’s will?”

“N-no,” the reverend stammered. “Not at all—”

“My mother was one of those victims!” The crying woman shouted. “Am I supposed to believe that God wanted her to die? That God sat back and let it happen?”

No one spoke. No one had an answer to give this woman.

The reverend cleared his throat. “I didn’t mean to imply that the shooting was God’s will. I don’t believe that it was. No violent act could ever be.”

“Then why did you say it was ‘God’s plan?’” the woman challenged.

Selene felt sorry for the reverend. He’d probably uttered the words God’s plan a thousand times in his sermons, and only now was he realizing what that implied to a grieving woman.

The reverend paused to take a breath, to consider his next words carefully. Selene hoped he would leave all the usual ‘thoughts and prayers’ platitudes out of his answer. They didn’t work anymore.

“I don’t know why the shooting happened,” the reverend admitted quietly, “and I won’t pretend to understand it, or why God didn’t stop it from happening. I won’t pretend to know why your mother died.”

The crying woman folded her arms, but she stopped yelling and listened to the reverend’s gentle words.

“This is a hard world that we live in. It can be cruel and senseless at times, yet we cling to it with all our might. We keep searching for answers even when we’re unlikely to find them. But sometimes we look in the wrong places, we believe in the wrong answers. That’s what the shooter did. He believed he had the right to take other people’s lives, something no rational person should ever think.”

Selene glanced from the reverend to the woman who’d yelled out, watching the exchange carefully.

“There are too many people who believe in the wrong answers. There are those who believe violence gets quicker results, and there are those who believe that anyone who isn’t like them is an enemy. Hatred and division are poisoning our world, and if we don’t do more to stop it, we’ll continue to see killings like these, over and over again. The shooter—and all others like him—made their choices. But now we need to make our own.”

Where was he going with this? What choice was the reverend referring to?

“We need to decide whether to help each other or to hurt each other. We need to decide if we want mass-shootings to keep happening the way they are, if that’s how we want our kids to grow up.” The reverend glanced down at the candle he was holding and stared into the flame for a moment. “We can choose to do good, to be kind to those around us, or to treat each other with cruelty. We can choose to surrender to lies and bigotry, or we can choose to let our light shine.” He lifted the candle for emphasis. “None of us have magic powers. We can’t snap our fingers and make everything all right. But if we do good, if we show compassion and decency to each other, our lights will shine brightly, like this candle.”

Selene glanced down at her candle, then let her eyes rove the crowd. The lights from each candle seemed to pool together, creating a warm, yellow glow that hovered over the vigil.

“We may not be able to make cruelty vanish altogether,” the reverend went on, “any more than we can make the night disappear. But through our actions and choices, we can find our way through the dark. We can become light, comforting and supporting each other, as we are right now. We can choose love and peace. We can hold out until the dawn, as long as we have candlelight to get us through the night.”

Selene wiped a tear from her cheek. She wasn’t the only one; others sniffled and swiped at their eyes as they looked around. It had grown even darker outside, but the light from the candles was somehow both soft and strong, and despite the reasons those candles were lit, the scene was beautiful and moving.

The reverend’s simple message had given them the hope they desperately needed. It might also inspire them to do more in their lives, to carry their candlelight with them wherever they went. Selene felt that way, and she would be willing to bet that so did most of the others gathered here.

The grieving woman was still crying, but when the reverend handed someone else his candle and held his arms out, she went forward and clung to him. Selene felt her father put his hand on her shoulder. Her mother gently stroked Derek’s hair. The siblings held hands. Everyone in the crowd silently offered comfort and support to somebody near them.

One of the reverend’s helpers stepped forward and suggested the crowd move on to the songs that had been planned for the vigil. Some of them were sad and mournful, others held a note of hope in their lyrics. As their voices carried across the town, Selene thought about the people who’d died and wished they were here to see how much everyone cared about them. Then again, if heaven was real, perhaps they were watching at this very moment. Perhaps they were standing near their loved ones, invisible, but there all the same.

When the vigil finally ended and everyone headed off to their homes, they all walked more slowly than usual, making sure the candles they carried didn’t go out. People were tired and emotionally drained, and it would have made more sense to just blow out their candles and hurry home, but no one did.

Selene, Derek and her parents were quiet as they meandered through the streets, towards their small, one-floored house. Selene reflected on the vigil. Her fear of a mass-shooting hadn’t magically disappeared, and she would cope with that fear for the foreseeable future. But she liked the image that came to her mind, of a glowing light emanating from her body to brighten one small corner of the world, and of similar lights emanating from other good people. Maybe if enough people showed compassion and decency, like the reverend had said, they could brighten the darkness enough to hold out until the dawn.

Their candles were just four pinpricks of light flickering in the night, but Selene and her family still found their way home.