Welcome to Short Story Saturday, where I practice my skills in writing shorter fiction pieces. My aim is to get myself out of the habit of overthinking the prompts I’m given, and to instead just start writing. These pieces will likely not be polished or proofread, they will instead be posted “as is”, almost like flash fiction, though in many cases, a bit longer than the average flashfic.
Today’s story was inspired by the prompt: Jenna is backstage at graduation about to make her valedictorian speech when she hears a gunshot in the crowd. Write an account of the next 10 minutes from her perspective.
Jenna clutched at the seam of her robe, bunching up the black fabric in her hands.
“Just breathe,” she whispered to herself again. “There are only a thousand or so people out there. What’s to worry about?”
She exhaled, and checked her notes once again. In the darkness of the wings, she couldn’t really see the words printed on the page, but knowing they were there made her feel a little bit calmer. She ran her finger along the edge of her mortarboard, and then checked it was secure and wouldn’t fall off when she was halfway to the lectern.
The Vice-Chancellor was winding up his speech now, and it would only be a few more moments before –
The bang sent her diving for the floor before she had even registered what it was. The screams started moments later. Jenna raised her head and realising she seemed to be in no immediate danger, she edged her way to the end of the curtain.
She didn’t scream at the sight before her; she felt like the wind had been knocked out of her. Her breath caught in her throat.
The Vice-Chancellor was lying on the stage in a pool of his own blood.
“What the hell?”
Jenna crept forward a little further, trying to see the culprit. They couldn’t have escaped easily in the ensuing panic. But where had they been. This was some sniper-level shit.
“Hey!” called a voice. “There’s someone backstage!”
Jenna saw the finger pointing towards her and ducked back behind the curtain. Too late. Several people jumped onto the stage and pounded towards her. She was yanked roughly up off the ground.
“Let me go!”
“Did you shoot him?”
So many people were firing questions at her, and the two men holding onto her were gripping her arms tightly.
“Why were you back here? All the students are in the auditorium.”
“I was waiting to make a speech!”
She felt the grip on one arm loosen. Absently, she reached up to check her mortarboard again. Of course, it had fallen off in all the commotion. She realised wasn’t holding onto her notes anymore, either.
“But did you shoot him?”
“I just answered that!” Jenna snapped. “And anyway, does he look like he was shot from the side?”
She realised she was angry. The auditorium had emptied out in the moments after the shooting. She’d worked for hours on her speech, making sure it had just the right amount of inspirational talk and self-deprecating humour and encouragement. Now she was never going to have the chance to deliver it.
Just as suddenly as the anger had come over her, she felt it dissipate, giving way to high-pitched giggles. A man had died, and she was pissed that her speech would never be heard. Surprised, the men who had dragged her from the floor let go of her arms. She felt her knees go weak and sank back to the floor. When she placed a hand to her cheek, she realised she was crying even as she was laughing. She was a mess.
Vaguely, she heard sirens outside the graduation hall, and much closer the sound of her name. Someone was calling her. Someone who knew her. Someone who had been here to watch her cross the stage.
A few moments later, her father pushed through the group that had surrounded her. He knelt beside her and put his arms around her shoulders. She leaned into him, thankful for the familiar smell of his cologne.
“The police are here now. Let’s get you home.”
Jenna nodded, sniffed, and wiped her eyes. She stood shakily, grateful that her father never took his arm from around her shoulder.
A police officer approached them as they began making their way down the aisle to the door at the back of the auditorium. Jenna’s father stopped and pulled out his wallet. He extracted his business card and handed it to the officer.
“Call me tomorrow,” he said. “My daughter can’t talk right now.”
The police officer looked like he wanted to object, but when Jenna’s father continued leading her out, he didn’t argue.
Later that night, there was a story on the news about the shooting. The ceremony was being filmed and so the police hoped to be able to track the gunman down by working out what seat he was sitting in. Jenna realised halfway through the coverage that she was shivering.
A couple of months later, she was out for coffee with some friends. They commiserated over job applications and caught up on dating and relationships, and then conversation turned to the graduation day. Jenna hadn’t followed the news. She couldn’t. She still had nightmares about it. She’d burst into tears halfway through giving her statement to the police, and had to be escorted out of the station for some fresh air before she could continue. Everyone had witnessed the crime, but she was one of few who had witnessed the scene up close.
The shooter had been apprehended. The gun was found hidden at the back of his wardrobe, under a pile of shirts and a winter coat. He hadn’t seen fit to get rid of it but he had thought he had done a decent job of hiding it. He was some crackpot, angry at the university for raising its fees. For that, he’d taken another man’s life.
Jenna wished that knowing justice was to be served made her feel any better about it. It still made her angry sometimes, and she suspected it always would.
That day was supposed to have been one of celebrating with friends, taking stupid photos, and posting them all to Facebook.
And instead, this was how this day was going to be remembered.