As a kid I thought that any bad thing could happen to any person at any time. I knew a seemingly healthy human could die in their sleep, and, since that was possible, it’d be crazy to just assume I’d make it through the night. As children, we don’t yet live cushioned by the idea of probability. Somewhere a murderer would enter a home for the purpose of doing harm. Someone would trip while carrying a knife, or an ax like in Where the Red Fern Grows. A friend could drown when you thought they were just playing. Cars exploded. The fact that nothing horrible had happened to us yet only meant we were due.
It seemed to me then that the worst things that happened were the ones you truly weren’t expecting. When the phone rang, the bad news was the possibility you had forgotten or never considered—a friend’s father hit by a train. So the defense I believed in was to name the possibilities—to call out terrors as they crept up through the woods around our house, breaking twigs under their feet. If I lay in bed before falling asleep and thought, Tonight the house could catch on fire, it was a bit like a prayer. The chance of it happening plummeted by a degree of thousands.
As we grow we learn that a lot of bad things happen to people in predictable ways. Communities without enough to go around have more crime. States with more guns have more shootings. People with more money tend to avoid a lot of common dangers. People who drink too much tend to forget what that means. Young men and women without money do most war-fighting for us. People with untreated mental illnesses are more likely to hurt you. Dying in your sleep of no cause at all is unlikely.
We are confused that we could have forgotten for a second the crippling luck of being alive and well.
But then the events of Aurora, Colorado. And we relearn death and chance. We relearn how much we can’t see, and that likelihood isn’t a shield. Human agency and dumb, blind accident twist together, and we have no idea which is which. Some people were in Theater 9 and some were not. We are confused that we could have forgotten for a second the crippling luck of being alive and well.
The shooting in Columbine, Colorado was during my freshman year of high school. After, we all had new vocabulary for nightmares. I remember sitting with Time magazine for hours, staring at the victims’ yearbook photos and descriptions. I thought about which classroom doors the shooters had chosen to open. I dreamt of machine guns clanging against the white-tiled hallways of my high school, and gunmen in the library of my middle school. I dreamt of crouching under wooden tables on brown nub carpeting, just like the students in the surveillance footage, and I remembered that hiding had helped some and others not at all. Awake at school, I thought about theoretical escape routes, though most of the fear came from the idea that there was no way to prepare.
In the months after Columbine our high school was evacuated four or five times because of anonymous bomb threats. I think these types of things were happening all over the country. They were the shock waves spreading out from Colorado. During the evacuations we would stand outside at the front of the campus, by a large parking lot, and nervously shift from foot to foot. We had the feeling of being set-up, exposed, waiting stupidly for harm to come to us. We chatted normally on the surface, and I pinched my finger—a reminder of what was possible.
As a kid first developing a sense of routine, climbing into my dad’s car every morning before he drove me the one mile up the road to my elementary school, I began to have what I thought was an extremely confusing and fascinating idea: I’m always seven; every day I’m still seven. I’m always a kid, and I’m never dead. There were some things it seemed we never experienced. Though when I stopped and considered I did know what it was to age, it still seemed most likely that no one ever reached their own end, though we moved closer and closer in infinite steps. It seemed possible that instead of experiencing death, you slipped into a parallel life—one in which you survived. For each person we thought was gone, in their world it hadn’t really happened—they were the statistical survivors. They simply lived a parallel life we couldn’t see.
And what if it were true? That to each missing friend, each victim of the most brutal crimes, in their mind, they had been elsewhere, it had gone differently.
This idea clung to me in a residual form—like the memory of my childhood faith in a human-like god—as I grew much older and continued to be lucky. In someone else’s universe, it must be the case that I hadn’t made it home the night of the drinking and the snowstorm. That the rumble strip at the highway’s edge hadn’t woken me while driving south. That I had been on the wrong plane that day. That that man had successfully locked the door.
And what if it were true? That to each missing friend, each victim of the most brutal crimes, in their mind, they had been elsewhere, it had gone differently. It was their close call. Or it was a nightmare they awoke from. The material reality of our world—crashing metal, scraping concrete, a shining hubcap spinning alone in the road—whispered into their lives only. A heavy door slammed too hard. Fireworks at first mistaken for shots from a gun. A moving shadow in the dark of the bedroom. A wailing coyote, sounding like a woman screaming. In their lives, that was all. They brushed past the danger, like pushing through a wooded trail. Branches and thorns that trace along your clothes and fall away.
I wish it were true. That in Aurora, we see the catastrophe of Friday. We see death. And the victims in their own parallel worlds wake from nightmares and close calls to a sight that shares its name with their city. Something strange and bright. Particles charged by solar winds, hurled by the magnetic fields of their own particular earths. There was some event—they can feel it. But they’re alright. I wish it were true.