Six Gun Fights
Melissa Flores Anderson
I was 16 when a black wrought-iron fence went up around the perimeter of my high school, limiting students to two entrance points and exits from our sprawling California campus on the edge of town. There had been a stabbing after school one day. Gang-related, they said. So the administrators erected the fence to keep us safe from the outside world.
My friends and I were college-bound, admissions and financial aid forms filled out. Most students were coasting to summer, but some of us still had a slate of AP tests to take. It was weird—no one noticed anything unusual about Al that spring morning, even though he was wearing a thick black parka, even though the weather had already turned warm. I’d known Al since middle school when we had some cheesy class together meant to bolster self-esteem. We’d been friendly then, but we weren’t friends. I hung out with the honors students and he hung out with—well, I couldn’t say.
I wasn’t in my normal classroom that morning. I had an AP test for U.S. Government and Politics scheduled in the language lab, a soundproof room set up with a cassette player and headphones at each spot along two narrow tables. We spread out with two empty spaces between each of us. I was the only one wearing grunge attire, with a worn pair of Doc Martens and ripped jeans. Anthony, who sat nearest me wore, spotless white sneakers and a striped polo shirt, the epitome of mid-90s yuppie style.
The teacher was only a decade older than us and wore CK One cologne that wafted through the room as he handed out the paper test booklets and number two pencils. He had a cleft chin and a dimple that appeared when he smiled at us, alerting us to start the test.
Anthony and I had studied for the exam together, after he’d gotten into Stanford and I’d been rejected. The fluorescent lights buzzed overhead and someone at the other end of the room cleared their throat at regular intervals, but I focused all my energy on the test booklet, set on earning a 5 to prove I was just as smart as Anthony.
A white phone attached to the wall by the door rang midway through the test. I cursed it silently for breaking my concentration and turned away as Mr. Gilbert answered it with a whisper.
A timer went off at noon to signify the end of the test. The teacher walked slowly through the room to collect the booklets and the number two pencils he’d handed out. He cleared his throat and folded his hands together, his tan face strained into a smile.
“Um, we’re going to be here for a while longer,” he said. “There is an incident and we need to stay where we are.”
“What’s going on, Mr. G? We’re going to miss lunch.”
“I’m sure everything will be resolved soon,” the teacher said, without adding details.
Anthony scooted his chair closer to mine.
“What do you think is going on?” he asked. “Maybe a mountain lion got over the fence.”
The high school sat adjacent to a 57-acre park that was filled with wildlife, including an occasional report of large predators.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said, as my stomach growled. I had been too nervous about the test to eat breakfast.
We sat in the bright windowless lab and waited. Some students pulled out bag lunches and started to eat. The smell of lunch meats and barbecue chips filled the room. Others lifted out textbooks and started to read.
By 1 p.m., the phone rang again. Mr. Gilbert answered.
“All clear, guys,” he said. “Head to your next class.”
“But what happened?” Anthony asked.
Mr. Gilbert shrugged, but we all found out before school let out for the day.
Someone brought a gun to school and shot a student.
One person was arrested.
One person was removed to the hospital with a wound to his abdomen.
The rest of us went back to class as though nothing had happened. The local newspaper didn’t list names of the minors involved, but people talk in a small town, so by the end of the week we all knew what had happened. I knew the shooter and I knew the victim.
Al hid the gun in his big winter parka, and during the morning break, while I was in the middle of the test, he walked up to Jason, a second-string football player, and shot him in the abdomen.
Jason with his blond hair slicked back with gel, a white t-shirt over jean shorts, a silver chain around his neck. Al in the black parka, his dark hair slicked back in similar fashion, a few inches shorter, ears that stuck out from the side of his head. Jason was heading to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in the fall, according to his mother who worked with my mother. Al was going nowhere.
I didn’t like Jason. I’d seen him pick on other kids since our middle school days. He’d been unpopular until he joined the football team junior year and started dating one of the cheerleaders.
Al said that was why he did it—Jason had bullied him for years. A motive.
Every spring, we played Assassin; my Southern California college was small—only 600 students—and we all knew our targets. Each of us received a package which contained the name of our target on a slip of paper along with a neon-colored squirt gun—equipment for the game. Dorms and classrooms served as safe zones. Each time I hit a target I collected the slip of paper with the name of my next victim.
People formed alliances and betrayed each other. The student with the most kills won. My boyfriend and I plotted together my freshman year, calling each other on landlines about target sightings across campus, sneaking around with the water-filled toys. We all loved the game.
But that changed one evening when my boyfriend called me from the computer lab and used the same words I’d heard once before: Stay where you are.
“We’re on lockdown,” he said. “Someone saw a guy with a gun on campus. Stay away from windows.”
“Do you think it’s true?”
“Probably not, but just stay in your room. I’ll call back if I hear anything else.”
“Okay, baby. I love you. Stay safe.”
“Love you, too.”
My dorm room was on a second story, facing out toward the quad. My roommate and I watched students walking obliviously across the grass in the dark night air. No one was worried. I wasn’t really worried because Claremont was the opposite of a place someone would worry about gun violence, a college town with upper-class residents on the suburban edge of Los Angeles. It wasn’t a place bad things happened.
Fifteen minutes later, our resident advisor walked down the halls and told us all to shelter in place. “I’m sure, it’s nothing,” she said, a tremble in her voice. “It’s probably nothing.”
That time, it was nothing—a high school kid had a black water gun that looked a little too realistic.
The Assassins game went on hiatus.
“I can’t believe we can’t play a game because of that lockdown,” my boyfriend complained. “I had a new strategy to win this time.”
“I know, babe,” I said. “It’s so much fun and we were good at it. Maybe they’ll bring it back.”
Then Columbine happened a year later.
I graduated and moved back to the Bay Area, where I eventually took a job at a university in a dean’s office. It was finals week during the fall semester when we got a text alert on our cell phones to shelter in place and stay away from windows. A colleague, a faculty affairs analyst, suggested it might be a hoax to get out of a test.
People took these calls seriously since the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shootings. A SWAT team gathered four stories down and yellow caution tape went up around the building across the way.
I was a newlywed and my husband worked on campus, too, in another building.
We are sheltering in place in my building. Don’t walk across campus for meetings, I texted.
I locked the entrance to our office suite and tried to distract my student assistants from the red and blue flashing lights that reflected off the windows of the building across from us. We gathered on wheeled chairs around a u-shaped desk that kept us out of sight from the narrow window near the door to the office. The desk held a miniature Christmas tree and garland in bright colors. I turned the conversation to the upcoming break to let them dream about a happy place, far from where we sat.
The students were a decade younger than me, both dressed in yoga pants, one in a baggy cardigan with white Keds and the other in a sweatshirt with black Converse.
The psychology student was heading to Mexico with her sisters.
“I can’t wait to see my grandparents and eat some homemade tamales.”
The nursing student had plans to drive down to San Diego to see her brother, who was stationed there in the military.
“I haven’t spent Christmas with him for three years. I am so excited,” she said.
Then the nursing student got a text on her phone and looked up.
“My friend just texted that they got evacuated from the building and he saw someone with a gun,” she said. “It’s real. It’s real.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” I said. “And you are safe here. Why don’t you have a snack?”
We sat at my desk long after their shifts had ended, after they had both missed finals that would have to be made up later, and got the all-clear four hours after the initial alert.
Officers had swept the building and found nothing.
I changed jobs and moved to the university’s communications team in the fall of 2015. My husband and I worked in the same building, two floors apart. It was fall and the campus got dark early. I usually waited to walk across the urban campus to the parking garage with my husband. I had packed up my gear for the day when my media relations colleague popped into my cubicle.
“We have an incident on campus. An alert is going out soon. Can you help me with social media?”
An incident, a police term, a word used by frightened teachers, a word meant to lower alarm.
“A person with a gun near Uchida Hall,” my colleague said.
I put down my briefcase and texted my husband.
Looks like we are stuck here indefinitely. Police investigating gunman on campus.
Okay. Be safe. I love you. Let me know when you know more.
I will. Love you, too.
I sat down and unpacked my bag in my gray-walled cubicle. Every 15 minutes I put a post on social media, even if we had no new news.
Police are still investigating. Please stay away from the campus. Classes canceled for the evening.
This time, I knew it was different. The number of police on the scene, the number of news crews my colleague was managing. I found myself clenching my jaw as I posted, my back teeth holding all the tension. I held my breath every time my phone pinged with a text message from my colleague. This time, it was something.
Police were in a stand-off with a man who had a gun along Fourth Street, across from a frozen yogurt shop. It was hours before they finally made an arrest. No one was shot.
After this, the university police department started offering “Run, Hide, Defend” training. I watched a video in an auditorium classroom with 75 university advancement colleagues and took away the lesson that in an active shooter event we would be on our own.
After this, I started having nightmares about active shooters coming to campus. In the dreams, I run away from campus into the streets of downtown, up the Paseo de San Antonio and once blocks away, I realize I no longer know where I am. In the dreams, I have to find my husband, but when I try to dial his number on my cell phone, I can never get the right number typed in. I search through crowds of running people, trying to find him, worried that I have survived and he has been left behind. I wake up from these dreams in a sweat and curl against my husband’s back to reassure me it was just a dream and statistically unlikely to happen.
Even still, I vowed never to put my son into the university daycare. If anything were to happen, I wanted at least one member of my family to be miles away.
The mom’s Facebook group posted the news first.
Roll call. Comment if you and your family are safe. There’s been a shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
It was Sunday, late afternoon. I had just turned 41 and I took my two-year-old son to the festival on Friday, locals’ day as we called it, with my parents. He’d had his first taste of garlic ice cream and my dad bought matching tie dye shirts for the two of them with the festival logo. My husband had to work and we talked about going back later in the weekend, but then the weather hit record highs and we got busy with other things.
I felt relieved that we hadn’t been there when I saw the post about the shooter, but not for long. I paced around the living room, texting friends and family to check in. My husband tried to pull me down onto the couch, to watch mindless TV, but every time the phone pinged I had to check to confirm someone is safe. And soon texts were coming in from my friends across the Bay Area or in other states asking if we were safe. Everyone knows I am from Gilroy. I’ve taken them all to the Garlic Festival at least once when they visited through the years.
We’re okay. Everyone I know is okay, I responded.
But we weren’t okay.
My social media feeds filled up with details and speculation.
I heard there were two shooters at the festival.
My husband is a firefighter and they are searching the area in the park behind the creek.
Stay indoors. My neighbor saw someone jumping fences near the corner of Westwood and Welburn.
That was a block over from my apartment.
My husband and I sat in the living room and listened to the chopping of helicopter blades overhead, unwilling to go to bed, unable to fall asleep. At 1 a.m., we lay down and just as I was about to drift off, the helicopter roared closer.
“It’s like when I lived in downtown LA,” I told him. “Police helicopters were out so often, I stopped hearing them.”
“We’ll stop hearing them because they’ll be gone soon,” he said. “The shooter will be caught.”
I sat in the dark, scrolling news sites on my phone, the bright glow lighting up my side of the bed. They had little information. I checked on my son, asleep in his crib in the front bedroom of our apartment, and thought it was a mistake to put him there with only a thin wall between him and the outside world.
A few days, later police announced they thought it was a single shooter who died at the scene. The young man had grown up in Gilroy, a generation after me. All the victims were from out of town.
I have a checklist now whenever I hear about a new shooting.
First, is it near anyone I know and do I need to check in with them to see if they are okay?
Second, did the shooter target specific people—women, minorities, Mexicans, immigrants, LGBTQ+? Were they people like me and my family and friends? Is there anyone I know who might need some emotional support?
Third, how many people died so I know if this is a new record, or just a same old, everyday shooting like the one at my high school when I was a kid?
Like one life isn’t so bad.
I went through the checklist on May 26, 2021 when there was a shooting at a public transit yard in San José, a few blocks from the office I would have been in if I were not working remotely. I connected with an old colleague whose husband is a bus driver. He was fine. He worked out of a different yard. He drove buses in South County.
The day of the shooting, we had no information. The next day we knew nine dead, mostly people with Hispanic and Indian surnames, a white shooter. Police were still investigating a motive.
On the morning of May 27, when the sun was just peeking out over the trees, I ran. I’ve been running since we moved into a new kind of shelter-in-place because of the pandemic. My husband and I moved into a house that looks out at the ranch side of Christmas Hill Park. Most mornings I don’t think about how three people died there next to a baseball diamond that served as a beer tent in the summer of 2019.
If I did, I would never be able to take my son to the park, where he skips stones in the creek when water runs through it and hunts for dinosaurs. My son doesn’t know what has happened here. He still lives in a world where he can put on a cape and a mask and be Spiderman. Sometimes he wears that cape and mask to the park and he shouts, “You’re no match for me” to passersby.
At the park that morning, I ran by the memorial garden, where a plaque lists the names of the victims from the Gilroy shooting, surrounded by purple and yellow native plants. If you look up mass shootings online, this particular tragedy isn’t listed. Only three people died here. Not enough to be part of history.
But all these moments are a part of my history and they ring loudly in my head whenever I see a new post, a new headline, a new tragedy. I am the mother of a four-and-a-half-year-old boy and my biggest fear is that I can’t keep him safe from the outside world.
Melissa Flores Anderson is a Latinx Californian and an award-winning journalist. Her creative work has been published by Vois Stories, the Placing Poems project, “the ocean waves” anthology, sPARKLE&bLINK, Rigorous Magazine, Moss Puppy Magazine, Discretionary Love Typeslash Review and Pile Press. Her work “Not a Gardener” was featured in City Lights Theater Company’s The Next Stage and Play on Words San Jose. She has read pieces in the Flash Fiction Forum and Quiet Lightning reading series. Follow her on Twitter @melissacuisine or IG @theirishmonths
© Variant Literature Inc 2021