“Safety” by Lydia Fitzpatrick – Selection #9 of Deal Me In 2017


The Card:
♠7♠ of Spades

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me In, the suit of Spades is the domain of Clotho, one of the Fates from Greek Mythology who, according to Plato’s Republic sings of “the things that are.”

The Selection: “Safety” from my e-copy of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016. Originally published in One Story magazine.

The Author: Lydia Fitzpatrick – Currently a Los Angelean, and  a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program and a Hopwood Award winner.

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

Safety

“The children know that, for the first time, they are hiding without wanting to be found.”

I read this story on my lunch hour at work, and it held my attention better than most that fall victim to that unfortunate time slot. I found myself holding my breath during parts of it, as it was quite suspenseful.  The setting?  A school shooting, seen through the eyes of an aging gym teacher and a young student who turns out to actually know the (at first) unknown active shooter, recognizing the Saint Michael’s (patron saint of soldiers) medallion dangling from his neck.

The gym teacher protagonist isn’t named, but was easy enough to like. We learn that he “is old, has been at this school for decades, and with each passing year, the children like him more and listen to him less..” and that dripping of the shower of the locker room has become “the metronome of his days.” I liked that one. He’s in the process of leading his class of eighteen small children through the “wind-down” phase of their exercise period, when an out of place sound fractures their normal routine.  The sound reminds one boy of “the sound a baseball bat makes when it hits a baseball perfectly” and one girl thinks it is the sound of lightning – “not lightning in real life, because it is sunny out and because she can’t remember ever hearing real lightning, but like lightning on TV, when the storm comes all at once.” Only the teacher and one other boy (who has “been to the range with his father and brother”) recognize the sound.

The teacher leads the children to a hiding place in his office (within the boys locker room) where they “huddle” and where he covers them with an old blue parachute that “the children play with on Fridays.” There they hide… and listen. They hear the sound of the gunman entering the gym, then the door to the locker room. They hear footsteps moving across the floor.  One boy thinks it’s the principal “because the principal is the only one who walks through the halls when they’re empty.” Then they hear metal clang on metal (the gunman’s hitting a locker with the butt of his gun?)

I have to admit, this story got my adrenaline flowing. The topic is certainly not a pleasant one, though, as the term “school shooting” has sadly entered the language in recent years. I included this story in my Deal Me In roster at random, maybe because I was curious about the title. I didn’t know in advance where it would lead me. The author states (in the story notes in the back of the book) that she started the story just after the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, noting that she’d “just had a baby, and all of a sudden, my fears involved this new person and the safety of her current self, over which I had some control, and her future self, over which I have way less control.” These thoughts led to a good story – one good enough to make the O. Henry Prize Stories collection for 2016.

What about you? Have you ever encountered stories that – even though they were about a topic you would prefer to avoid – you found really “worked” for you? I’d have to say that was the case for me with this one.