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Stormtroopers
by Ron Estrada
07/13/02
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It was too cold for mid-May, even in Michigan. Lindy Tucker pulled her jacket around her chest, cursing the broken zipper. A light drizzle fell on the kids standing on the field behind John F. Kennedy High School. Lindy shut her eyes and dreamt of a warmer place.

Anna brushed up next her, smacking the always-present gum in her mouth. Lindy sniffed the wind-Juicy Fruit.

"Hiya Lindy," Anna said, displaying her uncanny ability to appear cheerful under any circumstances.

"Hey." The tone of Lindy's response was more fitting to the dreary conditions.

"Think they'll send us home this time?"

"Dunno."

"I hope so. Got a test fifth bell." Anna attempted a bubble that popped immediately. She must have liked the way it sounded because she did it several more times.

Lindy watched the groups of kids-formed in the usual cliques of jocks, potheads, and nerds-scattered over the field. Some sat on the bleachers behind the baseball diamond, others huddled under the two oak trees that stood just outside the red line. Faculty members closely watched those who stood near the line, which was marked by paint in the cement areas and wooden posts over the rest of the field. Occasionally someone pushed a friend across, both laughing as the violated student jumped back over before a teacher intervened. From several locations, loud bass thumped from radios.

Anna continued the conversation. "My mom's gonna be peeved if we do go home. Third time this month."

"Hmm," was all Lindy got out.

Lindy wiped the rain from her cheeks and looked at Anna, who wasn't wearing a jacket. She stood shivering in her gray gym sweats, arms crossed tightly across her chest, rocking back and forth to stay warm. Anna couldn't be considered obese, or even chubby, but she fell short of the impossible standards set by adolescent boys. Her round face and curve-free torso didn't fit the perfect mold that was displayed nightly on TV sitcoms--sitcoms where teenage girls were portrayed by vivacious twenty-five year old actresses. Anna's constant chatter and good nature made up for what she lacked in looks. At least for Lindy they did. They'd been best friends since the fourth grade. That was before things started getting really bad. The only days of school they'd missed that year had been because of snow.

"'Course," Anna continued, "It would be nice to start summer vacation before July this year."

Lindy nodded and continued to study the clusters of students. The members of each group looked like manufactured duplicates of his or her comrades. She and Anna didn't fall into any group, they were just there as filler, maintaining the population level. Their yearbook pictures would never stand out to anyone but each other. Around the field, dozens of pairs like her and Anna stood together, along with another dozen or so individuals who stood alone.

"Here come the Stormtroopers," Anna said, arms still folded, nodding toward a black panel van that was edging up onto the sidewalk near the front entrance to the school. Two men in blue uniforms with ironed on white badges stepped down from the front of the van. Casually, they walked around to the rear and pulled open the double doors, then slid out a ramp and let it hit the sidewalk with a crash. Stepping up onto the bumper, they disappeared inside the cargo area.

Anna smacked her gum some more. Her hair was becoming soaked and lay in black clumps against the side of her face. "Either find it fast or send us home," she said, her teeth rattling with the cold.

"Oh, you know they won't find anything," Lindy said, still looking out into the field, "not on a Friday."

Anna, who had turned her face toward the grass at her feet, popped her head up and stared at her friend, suspending the gum chewing for the moment.

"Why not on a Friday?" she asked.

Lindy contorted her face into her best authoritative look, but only succeeded in looking like a cold, wet, fifteen year-old girl. "Well," she began, "Nobody would plant a real bomb on Friday, it might get found too quickly, then we'd be back inside. No, on Friday you call in the hoaxes, that way they'll search for hours and they'll have to send us home." She nodded a knowing nod to add emphasis to her insight.

Anna dropped her chin to her chest and bunched her forehead. She remained that way for a few moments while drops of water ran down her forehead and nose before falling to the ground. "Hmm," she said. She turned her eyes up again to meet Lindy's gaze.
"But wasn't that a Friday in November? You remember, the day they found the one in Jimmy Sattler's locker."

Lindy shook her head, the rustling fabric of the jacket's hood amplified back into her ears. "No, that was a Thursday." She wiped her bangs, now soaked as well, back up under the hood. "It only seemed like a Friday because somebody called in a hoax the very next morning, and we didn't even go to school that day."

Anna nodded a long, slow nod, an "oh" forming on her lips. She did remember. They had also spent that Friday night at Lindy's house, where they baked Jiffy Mix brownies and devoured the entire pan through two rented movies.

The men emerged from the van, facing each other, suspending a long gray box between them. They now wore the black helmets and padding that had earned them their nickname--Stormtroopers. They continued on through the front doors of the building, setting off the metal detectors in the main hall. The buzzing alarms sounded for five seconds and were then silent.

Lindy thought again of the Jimmy Sattler incident. She didn't know Jimmy well, but had never thought that he'd turn into a bomber. Of course, you usually couldn't tell who would. Jimmy was back in school now, but he and his stepfather still attended counseling sessions once a week.

Anna stared toward the glass doors where the Stormtroopers had been swallowed by the school building. She popped her gum a few more times before turning back to Lindy. "Sometimes I don't know why we even bother to come here," she said.

Lindy nodded and closed her eyes against the rain, she'd heard this particular speech before.

Anna continued, "I mean, it's just stupid. Why should we risk our lives just to learn a bunch of stuff that we're never gonna use anyway?"

Muttering an "I don't know," Lindy wondered how she would turn the conversation away from this subject.

"And it's not like I'd be missed anyway," Anna said, earning her a scowl from Lindy. "Okay, except for you. But nobody else would care. At least you're smart. Me, I'm just part of the stinkin' background."

Anna turned abruptly and continued to watch the front doors of the school. She wasn't someone to dwell in self-pity, but every now and then she'd comment on her own inconsequential status. Lindy often wondered if Anna's jocularity and sharp wit were just a cover, or maybe an attempt to earn the recognition of her classmates. Being popular wasn't as important to Lindy, especially if it meant impressing others by her looks or the brand name on her clothes or the type of music she listened to. Her own philosophy was, "Here I am, take me as is, or get lost."

After fifteen minutes the Stormtroopers emerged from the school, hustling the steel box over to the Blast Area, a large pit on the far side of the football field. Sunk into the ground at the bottom was a thick-walled steel barrel. They disappeared into the pit as all eyes watched, anticipating the hollow "thump" that meant that the bomb had detonated inside the barrel.

Anna narrated the scene with a slew of morbid comments: "Not the red wire, the white one!", "What's this button do?", and her favorite, "What d'ya mean 'oops'?" Lindy gave her a scolding stare, resisting the urge to laugh.

There was no hollow "thump" this time and, after only three minutes, both men climbed out. Every student watching knew that it was a hoax, three minutes was too quick. The men removed their helmets and walked over to the principle, who'd been waiting in the faculty parking lot, chatting with teachers and holding an umbrella that was large enough to be comical. After a few words were exchanged between her and the men from the bomb squad, she plucked the two-way radio off her belt and spoke into it. Immediately the faculty members on the field waved at the students, signaling for them to return to class.

A moan rippled across the field as students trudged to their classrooms cold and wet, hair embarrassingly matted. Lindy and Anna walked together until they got inside. Their classes were at opposite ends of the building. They gave each other the usual "Tah!" and separated into the swarm of wet bodies.

As Anna walked away, Lindy took a last look at her friend's soaking wet backside. The urge to pray suddenly overwhelmed her and, as other kids bumped into her and chattered in the hall, she bowed her head and said a hasty prayer for Anna. Though she claimed not to be embarrassed by a public display of faith, she tried to make it appear as if she was just looking at something on the floor. Now comforted, Lindy went on to class.

English was Lindy's favorite class, though to admit that publicly would mean being categorized into the nerd sect, a fate much worse than being a nobody. Her teacher, Mrs. Swanson, had told her on several occasions that she thought Lindy had a real talent for poetry. She'd even let Lindy write one poem a month in place of a more mundane assignment.

Now Mrs. Swanson stood before her class, discussing the most recently read chapter of Silas Marner. Lindy hated the story. She found it unbearably dull, but she pretended to be interested because she liked Mrs. Swanson. The teacher paced back and forth in front of the bored teenagers, the book open in one hand while the other hand waved through the air as she read, her voice rising and falling at appropriate places, in a tone that suggested the novel was high on her list of treasured literature.

Lindy was fighting back the drowsiness that threatened to send her face first into her desk when a dull thud echoed through the cinder block walls of the school, shaking floors and windows and knocking books off shelves. A sickening knot immediately sprouted in her stomach and her body stiffened.

Mrs. Swanson didn't hesitate. "Everybody out!" she commanded, slamming the book shut. Chair legs screeched across the floor and desks crashed into each other as the students leapt out of their seats. The alarm bells immediately followed. The students were well rehearsed in evacuation procedures, but now their movements were urgent, almost panicked. Bodies were pressed in tight and kids at the front of the classroom were propelled through the door by the mass behind them. Once in the hall, classmates crushed them in on all sides.

Lindy did her best to stay on her feet in the packed hallway, feeling as if she were being carried along more than walking on her own. Unlike the earlier evacuation, there was no idle chatter and joking among the students, just wide-eyes and pale faces as each was jostled toward the exits. Lindy could see the glass doors that would lead her to safety when another blast, closer this time, shook the building. The sounds of breaking glass and wrenching metal filled the hall.

Desperation turned to panic as the kids pushed harder on the backs of those in front of them, screams echoed down the hallway and a number of students sobbed and cried out to friends. Lindy did her best to remain calm, despite the bodies crushing in on her. She could smell the acrid stench of burning metal and sulfur in the air. The door was only a few feet away. She silently prayed that she wouldn't fall under the stampede.

The cool air and rain hit her face before she realized that she was out. The mob broke up and each student ran toward the red-line that marked a safe distance. Lindy ran and stopped at the line, scanning the crowd, looking for Anna. After five minutes most of the student body and faculty stood outside in the rain again. Many cried into their open hands, a few girls screamed hysterically, others stared in shocked disbelief at the school building.

After a few minutes with no further explosions, the voices began to multiply and soon the air was filled with excited chatter. Lindy, this time without her jacket, blinked against the rain pelting her face. There was no sign of Anna. She reminded herself that Anna had gone out a different door the last time. It had taken her several minutes to walk around the perimeter of the building to find Lindy.

Within ten minutes the emergency vehicles began to arrive; the front parking lot was transformed into a show of red and blue strobe lights. The principal, now without her umbrella, ran toward a police officer who appeared to be in charge. She stood at his side as he alternately barked out orders and asked her questions.

Fear grew inside Lindy's chest and threatened to choke her. She looked at her watch: 10:36. She shivered uncontrollably and tears flowed down her face. Anna always sought her out during the bomb threats and fire drills. Alone and scared, Lindy turned circles continuously while looking for her friend. She considered going around to the other side of the building, but decided it was best not to break from the routine. If Anna was looking for her, she wanted to remain stationary and easy to find.

At 11:00 parents began arriving, forced to park on the main road that ran in front of the school. Students ran to their mothers and threw their arms around them. With no concern for onlookers, tears and kisses flooded already rain-soaked faces. Lindy knew her mom wouldn't get here soon--she was at her office, at least an hour away. The calling chain that had been established by the PTA was efficient, but distance alone would cause numerous delays.

The paramedics and firemen were being held back as the Stormtroopers, two pairs this time, hastily searched the building for more bombs. From where Lindy was standing, she could see four kids being helped out by the police officers. She knew that the more serious injuries would remain until the paramedics could get to them. Again, she prayed silently, first for the quick recovery of the injured students, then for Anna.

After another ten minutes and still no sign of Anna, Lindy began to walk along the red line around the back of the building. She searched the faces as she went, her heart pounding in her ears. Other students did the same, wandering through the crowd, calling out the names of friends or siblings. Everywhere was the sound of anguished cries from students and adults. Faces were red and wet with rain and tears. Many students stood with their arms around the neck of a friend, doing their best to offer comfort.

Lindy walked completely around the back of the building, staying near the red line, and could see the front doors again. Now several students were being wheeled out on stretchers and loaded into the backs of ambulances. Had Anna been one of them? Did Lindy miss her during the time that she couldn't see the front doors? From the brief glance that she had of the victims, all appeared conscious. That was a good sign, maybe no one had been killed, but her stomach ached with the gnawing certainty that Anna was among the injured. She pushed away the thought of a more serious tragedy, but it remained nearby, like a demon peering at her through the narrow opening of a closet door.

It was almost noon when Lindy spotted her mother walking through the crowd behind the school, her face pale and eyes darting back and forth at each face in the crowd. Lindy ran to her, crying, weaving through the thinning mob. Her mother saw her coming and caught her in her arms. Lindy sobbed against her mother's chest while the older woman stroked her daughter's hair.

"It's okay, baby," Clara Tucker said, "I'm here." They stood in the rain for a few minutes, not wanting to let go. Around them, similar scenes were taking place. Ten feet away from Lindy, the captain of the varsity football team cried like a child onto his father's shoulder.

Lindy finally turned her wet, red face up toward her mother's. "I can't find Anna," she managed with a sniffle.

"Oh, I didn't ask about her," her mother responded. She looked back toward the faculty members at the front of the school building; they were all busy with a mob of hysterical parents and students. "Why don't we get to the car before you freeze," she said. "We can call Anna's mom from the cell phone."

Lindy nodded, the side of her head still buried in her mother's chest. She pulled away and they walked, hand in hand, toward the main road. People from the media now joined the crowd of parents, faculty, and emergency teams. A school bombing didn't rate the kind of press coverage it did ten years ago, but when students were killed or injured, there was sure to be a camera or two pointed at the principal and police chief.

The interior of the car didn't offer much warmth, but at least it kept additional rainfall from adding to their misery. Lindy grabbed the phone from the seat as her mother got in. She dialed Anna's number and hit the send key. Mrs. Tucker watched her daughter hold the phone to her ear and wait. After a few seconds, Lindy dropped the phone into her lap and stared at the blinking green light on the display screen.

"No one home?" Clara asked.

"No. Just the voice mail." Lindy wiped an arm across her face, sniffling.

Clara put a hand on her daughter's shoulder. "I'm sure she's fine," Mrs. Tucker said. "You just missed each other in all the confusion." Clara didn't sound convinced of it herself, but Lindy nodded, still looking at the phone lying in her lap.

They didn't talk during the drive home. Lindy looked out her side window at the drops of rain as they traced a jagged pattern across the glass. Houses and trees went by, distorted in the thin trails of water. Rain tapped on the windshield, somehow intensifying the silence inside. She could see her mother, out of the corner of her eye, continually glancing over at her. Of course they'd have to talk about it eventually, but now Lindy's mind held too many conflicting emotions for her to say anything.

The windows of the Tucker house were dark when they pulled into the driveway, which was shiny and black with the coating of rain. The house looked unnatural, without color, as if it hadn't expected anyone to be home at this hour. The automatic garage door opened with a series of metallic scrapes and rattles.

Once inside the house, Mrs. Tucker dropped her coat across a kitchen chair and grabbed the phone that hung next to a message board, cluttered with hastily scrawled names and phone numbers. Lindy watched her mother's face while the voice-mail messages were played back to her. There must have been a lot of them, judging by the amount of time she held the phone to her ear. The frown on Clara's face remained unchanged until she hung up the phone.

Mrs. Tucker looked at her daughter, who stood in the center of the kitchen, shaking, her arms crossed over her chest. Small puddles had formed around her on the blue and white-checkered floor.
"There's nothing from Anna, sweetie," Clara said, "I'll try her house again and then I've got to call grandma and the rest of the family to let them know you're all right. Why don't you go change into some dry clothes." It wasn't a question as much as a command.

Upstairs, Lindy grabbed a towel from the linen closet, then moved into her bedroom and stripped out of her wet clothes. The dry air inside the house immediately warmed her skin. As she dried off, her thoughts were still with Anna.

How could this be real? Sure, kids in other schools had been hurt and killed in the almost daily bombings across the country, but none at her school. It had turned into a joke--just another nuisance, like a power failure or snowstorm. She'd been talking to Anna only a few hours ago during the first bomb threat. How could those stupid Stormtroopers miss two bombs?

She pulled on her yellow sweats and lay back on her bed, soaking the comforter with her wet hair. She imagined Anna's funeral, with herself and a few-noticeably few--other students gathered around the closed casket. White flowers adorned the top and grieving parents sat in high backed velvet chairs at the front of the parlor. Lindy cried bitterly in her daydream, as she did while lying on the bed.

The day's event now seemed detached, like a dream or a movie. Lindy couldn't think past the sick feeling in her stomach and restless anxiety that plagued her body. She stood up and walked over to the desk that her parents had bought her when she was eight, still painted the girlish pink with yellow knobs. Sitting in the old kitchen chair that she'd dragged out of the basement, she thumbed trough a magazine, not even knowing which one. Glossy pictures from shampoo and cat food ads stared back at her, forgotten as soon as the page was turned. Burying her face in her hands, Lindy cried again and thought of Anna and her relentless gum chewing, her smart-alek retorts, her tuneful "Good Morning" at 7am.

Three soft knocks on her door woke Lindy out of her daze. Her mother poked her head into the room.

"Lindy, I think you should come downstairs."

Lindy mumbled an "okay" and pushed away from the desk. Her mother squeezed her shoulder as she passed. Wiping a sleeve across her eyes, Lindy descended the stairs.

When Lindy rounded the corner of the short hallway and into the kitchen, she stopped short, briefly, before sprinting across the kitchen to where Anna stood. Anna had scarcely gotten her mouth open before Lindy collided with her in a tight embrace, almost knocking her into the stove. The two girls stood motionless for a few moments, Lindy sobbing into Anna's neck. Anna, shocked but smiling, put her arms carefully around her friend. One hand was heavily bandaged. Lindy could feel the bulge against her back.

"I...I'm sorry I didn't call sooner," Anna said. "Mrs. Jenkins took me straight to the hospital after we got out and I've been in the emergency room all morning."

Lindy didn't answer; she only tightened her hold on her friend, letting her tears go in waves of released tension and joy. Anna's mother watched from the kitchen table, where Clara joined her. Both sat silently, their own tears leaving shiny trails down their cheeks.

Lindy sniffled and continued holding Anna. "Don't you ever think you're not important," she said. "You're not a nobody. You're part of me and I need you to be here."

Anna glanced over to her mother and let her own tears flow through a shaky smile. She pulled Lindy in tighter and whispered, "I know. I love you too."




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Laura Elam 14 Jul 2002
Well written. I felt all the emotions that were going on.




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