The shooter had his next victim in sight. He took a split second to check his aim, but just as he squeezed the trigger, his target turned ever so slightly. The bullet did not strike the center of Tyler Cassidy’s heart as intended but instead tore through the edge of the left ventricle, exited his back and struck his friend, Justin Harper behind him. Justin had instinctively started to crouch down sideways in self-defense. The bullet still had enough velocity to splinter the left side of his skull just behind his hearing aid and lodge deep within the soft exposed brain tissue. Both of the students collapsed to the floor, still breathing – but just barely.
On this sunny afternoon, the assailant would shoot a total of nineteen people. As part of his well-planned attack, he used hollow point bullets to increase the lethal effect of each shot. Tyler and Justin would be the only victims to be transported to the emergency room alive. The shooter’s composed demeanor insured his accuracy as he stood and repeatedly fired his weapon, without remorse, remaining coldly detached and without displaying a trace of emotion.
When the first shot was fired, the high school immediately went into lock-down. Because it was lunchtime, teachers herded students into the first classrooms they could find. The gunshots were deafening as the sound echoed down the hallways, and the pungent smell of gunpowder hung in the air. All of this, mixed with the muffled cries of victims scattered on the floor, their lives ebbing away, created a surreal atmosphere that the human mind had difficulty comprehending.
The shocking reality of what was occurring in the cafeteria was unfathomable. Only a few minutes before, students had been eating their lunches, joking, laughing and talking on their phones. Those devices now laid scattered on the floor along with textbooks, half-eaten trays of food and overturned chairs. Because of the open design of the room, there was no place to hide. For the gunman, it was a target rich environment, a fact he took full advantage of. For the victims, it was a war zone, and they were being slaughtered.
The shooter reloaded and continued firing with chilling precision, tuning out the screams and pleas for mercy. Two more students were hit in the chest and then one in the head. The gunman carefully walked through the large room, making sure not to step in the growing pools of blood. He did not want to get his new shoes dirty. Some of his victims were shot down as they attempted to flee. Others tried to take cover behind whatever they could find. That was a mistake. The assailant calmly shot them in place and methodically moved on.
As he continued the attack, he took his time selecting his targets. He believed there was no need to rush because no one was in a position to fight back. But then suddenly from out of view, a teacher bolted around a corner and lunged at him. How foolish the assailant thought. At such close range, shooting her was even easier than the others. But a moment after killing her, he showed the only emotion of the day. He happened to look down, and he saw that his left shoe was covered in the red mist ejected from the teacher’s gaping wound. He paused for a second and frowned. Then he refocused.
Slowly he turned to his left and caught a glimpse of someone crouched behind an overturned table. After waiting for just a heartbeat, the girl bolted from behind the protection and ran for an exit. The shooter dropped her with a well-placed shot between her shoulder blades. Within seconds of crashing to the floor, the African American student drew her last breath as she quickly bled out.
The assailant continued to pick out students with complete randomness. Ethnicity and gender did not matter. No one was spared. Later that evening the press would focus on the fact that even a young man with cerebral palsy was executed as he tried to maneuver his electric wheelchair through the chaos.
Turning his gaze back to the center of the room, the gunman noticed a solitary figure standing in the midst of the carnage. He was a slightly built young man who was not moving. His mind had shut down, and his awareness had faded away. The reality of what was happening all around him could no longer be processed. Debilitating shock had overtaken him, and he had become unresponsive. Although his eyes were fixed on the individual with the weapon, he did not actually see him. His eyes saw nothing. It was as if he was already dead. The shooter turned and looked into the face of the motionless student. This boy was to be his twentieth victim. He aimed his weapon at the 60 mm space between the young man’s pupils, but at that moment he heard a faint noise behind him. As he tried to whirl around, a police officer fired a single round into his left temple, and instantly the killing spree was over. The shooter hit the floor dead. He was fifteen years old.
As officer Gary Taylor lowered his weapon, he looked at the young bodies strewn around the room, and tears began to streak his face. In his seventeen years on the force he had never fired his gun, but when he entered the cafeteria his training kicked in and he responded without hesitating. Over the next few days, he would be hailed as a hero. Officer Taylor looked down at the smoking barrel of his Glock and realized his hand was shaking. As he brushed away tears he felt like anything but a hero.
Nothing would ever be able to undo the horror one teenager with a gun had chosen to unleash. At the end of this very long day, news commentators would disperse the brutal facts, the public would be stunned and disgusted by the needless violence, and political hacks would quickly take sides. The blustering would begin using the same tired arguments that never resolved anything, with both camps irrevocably convinced that their counterparts were reprehensible and did not love America as much as they did.
But a few miles away – out of sight of the politicians, the gun lobby, those willing to fight for the second amendment, and those who wanted gun control – another life or death battle was about to take place.
Every time the phone rings, there is the chance our life will change forever. That was never truer than when the mothers of Tyler and Justin were notified of the shooting.
Paula Harper’s kitchen phone rang at 12:39 p.m. Because it was her day off, her hands were wet from washing the produce that she had just brought home from the market. She let the call go to the answering machine. When the familiar voice of a neighbor came through the speaker, she thought nothing of it. But when she heard the panic in her voice, she momentarily stopped breathing.
“Paula?! Paula are you there?! Oh my God! NO! Paula, it’s on the news. Students have been shot at the school. You better get over there now!”
A half mile away, Brooke Cassidy was driving her SUV down a busy suburban street when her phone rang. She answered it, and a few seconds later she slammed on her breaks and made an illegal U-turn in the middle of traffic, nearly causing a serious accident. However, there were no police available to pull her over. Every patrol unit for miles around was racing to the school in the desperate, but futile, effort to save lives.
Forty-five minutes later, Brooke was led into the hospital’s trauma waiting room where she encountered her best friend softly crying. When Paula saw her, she jumped up and the two women embraced, holding on tightly for support. They instantly realized that, at least for the moment, both of their sons were alive. But each had been informed that their child was gravely injured.
All of the emotion from the past hour flooded over them, and it took several minutes to regain their composure. Other friends and family members began arriving, but the two women did not leave each other’s side. They were the only ones in the room who could truly understand what it was like to contemplate the possibility of losing a child.
They had seen this same heartbreaking scenario play out far too many times on TV, and they had always felt great sympathy for the affected families who were forced to endure such misery. However, now the unspeakable tragedy was actually happening to them. But as wretched as they felt, they knew that there would soon be moms and dads, who would be told the unthinkable. But this time, the mothers and fathers were not strangers. They were parents the women knew well from PTA, scouts, and church. And, of course, they knew those dead children laying in the school cafeteria, a room that also doubled as an auditorium. It was where parent meetings were held, and it was the setting for award ceremonies, as well as the annual Valentine’s dance. And now, incredibly, the boy and girl voted king and queen of that event lay dead, less than ten feet apart.
On such an awful day, the two women were thankful to have each other. Brooke and Paula had been friends for years. Their relationship had developed over time through their sons. Tyler Cassidy was just three weeks away from turning sixteen, and he was already acknowledged as a tremendous athlete, excelling in multiple sports. He was just as gifted academically too. He handled his classes with ease and never seemed to struggle. Tyler was also one of the most popular people in school. He was well liked by both the staff and other students. He had run for student council president and narrowly lost in a close election. He had a natural friendliness that put people at ease, and it was that particular gift that had drawn Paula’s son to him.
Justin Harper had led a far different life than his friend. Born with a developmental disability, he had faced challenges that Tyler had not. His speech had been impacted by his severe hearing loss and that made people less inclined to try to connect with him. But Tyler was the one person who had made that effort years ago, and they had remained good friends ever since. Justin had endured multiple surgeries during the first ten years of his life that were designed to allow him to maintain his balance and carefully walk on his own. His mobility issue had been the first thing that entered his mother’s mind when she heard the news of the shooting. Because her son moved more slowly than the other students, she knew it would certainly make him more likely to be a target.
Brooke and Paula had hit it off from the very beginning. Because they were both single parents, they felt an immediate connection. It wasn’t long before they learned they could count on each other for help and support with all the challenges that came with raising young boys alone. The knowledge that there was someone who understood their situation allowed them to develop a deep friendship that they both treasured.
Justin’s other good friend at school was Zachery Thompson. He was relatively new, having only attended there for one year, but he and Justin had quickly become buddies. They shared an abiding love for pizza and anything having to do with science fiction. Many weekends were spent together at one home or the other pursuing their two great passions. After hearing the devastating news about the attack, Zach was the third person Paula thought of after Justin and Tyler. However, she didn’t actually believe that anyone could be cruel enough to shoot a person with a disability in a wheelchair – but she was wrong. Of course, Brooke and Paula had no way of knowing yet who the other casualties were, but over the next twenty-four hours their hearts would break over and over again as the names of the deceased were made public.
But as the two mothers agonized over the fate of their sons, the feverish battles to keep the young men alive were being waged a corridor away in the surgical wing that housed multiple operating theaters. It was in Trauma Units 3 and 4 that the frantic activity took place as teams of surgeons did everything in their power to prolong the lives of the two gunshot victims. They knew from experience, however, that the odds were not in their favor. But that did not keep them from making every attempt to maximize their knowledge and skills as they utilized the latest technology to try to create a miracle where there should be none. Some individuals on the medical teams were familiar with the school and knew families that would soon be getting the horrific news that they had to plan a funeral. That knowledge only reinforced their determination to fight with everything they had to spare these two families from sharing that fate.
Back in the waiting room, Brooke and Paula counted the minutes that eventually became hours. Their initial shock had now turned into paralyzing fear that their child would not survive. They tried to remain strong, but it was impossible. The events of the day were emotionally overwhelming and their anxiety grew by the second.
They each dreaded the conversation they knew they were going to have with the surgeons. Would they be given the devastating news that their child had lost his life and their world had ended? Would they be told that their child had survived but would never fully recover from their injuries? Would they be warned that their child would be psychologically traumatized for the rest of their lives? Their consciousness was ablaze with questions which, at this time, had no answers. And so they held each other’s hand and waited. And they cried together and waited. And they reminisced and waited.
Paula could clearly remember the exact day, eight years earlier, when Justin burst through the front door after school and exclaimed, “Mom, I made a friend today! His name is Tyler and he invited me to his birthday party!” She had never forgotten how her heart soared when she saw the look of absolute joy on his face. No one had ever invited her son to a party or anything else. The other kids were not mean to Justin, they just ignored him. They considered him to be different because of his disability, and the fact that he was quiet and shy only compounded the problem. She didn’t know who Tyler was, but she wanted to find out what had made him reach out to her son when others didn’t.
On that same day, only a few blocks away, Tyler had told his mom about a boy at school that almost no one would talk to. He decided to start sitting with him at lunch. Eight years later they were sitting side by side in the cafeteria when the first shot was fired.
Paula eventually met Tyler and his mother, and it turned out they were both remarkable people. Brooke had taught her son to treat everyone the same, and that’s exactly what Tyler did. By treating Justin like every other kid, he made their classmates feel comfortable around him. He set the example that the other children needed and that broke down the door. Suddenly whatever was different about Justin didn’t seem to matter so much. If Tyler liked him, they could too.
It didn’t take long before the two moms had become best friends. They developed a deep level of trust in each other that sustained them when they felt unsure about their roles as a mother. They were each relieved to know someone else who had the same self-doubts about their parenting skills that they did. Over time they became confidants as they shared the considerable struggles of life, but no matter how difficult their situations became, they never foresaw a day as horrific as this coming.
Now as they sat side by side in the hospital waiting room, they faced a reality that was staggering. But at least they were here. The longer they waited, the more apparent it became that no other families would be joining them. That meant that no other survivors had been brought to this particular hospital. But they still held out hope that there were survivors somewhere. Paula had kept a vigil watching the door, wondering if Zachery’s parents would arrive. However, family members around them knew the truth. As they scanned their phones for information about the shooting, it became clear that Tyler and Justin had been the only victims to leave the cafeteria alive.
But tragically, the inevitable was now taking place. The two mortally wounded shooting victims were reaching the end of their young lives. As talented as the trauma specialists were, there was just too much damage. The hollow point bullets had achieved the exact result they had been designed for. As the medical teams struggled against insurmountable odds, they began to realize the fight was lost. But even as their frustration and weariness grew, they refused to give up. These two young men represented far more than just two lives. If they could only save them, it would be a victory against the incomprehensible evil that humanity is capable of.
But they could not save them, and it broke their hearts and their spirits.
After five hours of intensive surgery, Tyler’s heart finally stopped beating. Justin continued to linger for a few additional minutes, but the destruction of brain tissue was catastrophic. As his life slipped away the surgeons were powerless to stop it.
Finally, the exhausted medical teams admitted defeat. Every measure had been taken, every possible procedure had been tried, but it was not enough. While this was a fight they waged on a regular basis and sometimes lost, losing hurt much more today. Although they were supremely skilled professionals who had seen it all, in the end, they were human beings. They were not immune to emotional pain. They could not completely disconnect from their feelings.
And now they had to share the heartbreaking news with two people who were about to have their worlds collapse.
A short time later, two nurses were sent to get the women. When they walked into the waiting room, an electrical surge of terror ran through the nervous systems of Brooke and Paula. They turned to each other and hugged as they sobbed. In some strange way, they did not want to know the truth. As long as they were isolated in here, away from the medical realities, there was hope. It allowed them each to believe that their child would recover completely and go on to lead a long happy life. But in their hearts, they knew it was the slimmest of hopes. After a few more moments together, they were taken separately to small rooms to await the arrival of the surgeons who had given everything they had to save their children. Both of the women were joined by a few close family members so they would not be alone when they received the news – whatever it might be.
Brooke and Paula loved their sons unconditionally, just as the parents of the other deceased children did. The young teacher that gave her life in the attempt to stop the killing was the mother of twins. Every person that was murdered had families that desperately loved them, but now they had become statistics in a sickening national story that would be added to an ever-growing list of shameful days that continued to break the country’s heart.
For the mothers of Tyler and Justin, it was in many ways the end of their lives as well. Although they would continue living day by day, as best they could, the one thing that mattered most to them had been torn from their hearts. Nothing would ever be the same. Absolutely nothing. Each year when their son’s birthday came around they would withdraw from life and slip into their own private hell. Each Christmas would bring unrelenting pain as they watched others enjoy spending time with their loved ones.
But this particular date on the calendar would be the worst of all. Each year this single twenty-four hour period would force them to relive their personal nightmare over and over again. Every detail would play out in their minds. They would remember the last glimpse they had of their sons as they headed out to school on what seemed to be a normal day. They would try to remember the last time they had told them how much they loved them. They struggled to remember the last hug, the last touch – and then they would remember the moment they were told of the attack – and their minds would cloud with such grief that for a time it rendered them incapable of seeing the point of going on.
But they would go on.
Slowly over time, they would rebuild their lives into something that was worth living. They would make incremental progress against the dark clouds of depression that often threatened to sweep them away. They would face the daily challenge of trying to live without being able to hold the most important person in the world in their arms. They would fight mentally and emotionally to resist the intense desire to just give up and quit. And because they battled so valiantly, they would keep living.
With each passing year some small measure of relief would be achieved, and as time marched on, a subtle form of healing would begin to take place. But no matter how long they each lived, they would never fully recover. They would forever remain incomplete.
These two women, who had formed a lasting bond based on how much they had in common, now found themselves bound together for eternity by the worst possible fate. They had each lost a child in the most senseless way possible. Brooke and Paula had now joined an ever-growing group of individuals who’d lost loved ones to gun violence.
In this particular tragedy, the shooter claimed the lives of nineteen innocent people, but in the process, he destroyed entire families, a school, and a community. He’d committed the most selfish act a human being is capable of, and the resulting agony he caused could not be measured. It had only required three minutes in the present to eliminate the future of his victims. For his efforts, his name would become a footnote in history for the ugliest of reasons. He would forever be known as a mass murderer.
For several days the nation wrung its collective hands over the school cafeteria massacre, but after cries of outrage and demands for change, it eventually lapsed into non-action – just like always. Sadly, it did not take that long for Tyler, Justin, Zachery and all the others to be forgotten, thus ensuring that within a few months a similar event would occur in a church, a school, a theater, a mall or at a concert– and another piece of America’s soul would die.
It was just a matter of time.
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