My mother used to give my sister and me glass hearts. The ritual was based on the book The Kissing Hand—the story of Chester Raccoon, who is terrified to start kindergarten. Throughout the story, his mother reassures him of the wonderful things he will discover at school, like friends, toys, and books. Then, she goes on to share a special secret that had been passed down through generations, one that will make Chester feel at home in this novel place. After kissing Chester’s palm, his mother tells him, “Whenever you feel lonely…press your hand to your chest and think: ‘Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you. And that very kiss will jump to your face and fill you with toasty warm thoughts.’” And indeed it did. Just like Chester, my sister and I slipped glass hearts—our mother’s kisses—into the outermost pockets of our backpacks to hold close when home seemed too far.
I exit a bus to find a place as far from my San Diego home as I could have traveled while remaining within the bounds of the U.S. This time, I don’t have glass hearts in my backpack, but a bottle of wine. My younger sister chose Colby College in Waterville, Maine for its scenery and tenderhearted community, and I have come to love it too. But this weekend would be particularly special. This weekend was “Doghead,” a Colby holiday that takes place on or near St. Patrick’s Day, during which students pull an all-nighter to watch the sunrise on the Miller Library steps. Some students also choose to ingest live goldfish, for reasons I do not know.
I can see from afar as she gallops toward me—her hair is already done, the two front portions woven backward into small French braids lying idly atop her head. It is March in Maine and the sun has arrived gleefully, at least for the day, its fervor and her blonde enough to make me squint.
“Ellyse, why are you so bundled up? It’s warm out!” I wear a scarf, and she a cropped green tank top.
“I thought I was coming to Maine!” I shout, jogging the last couple of steps to wrap my arms around her, letting go of my suitcase handle.
Tumbling up the three flights of stairs, I can already hear the familiar bounce of Hannah Montana’s “I Wanna Know You” playing in her room. I don’t usually like small spaces, but her clutter feels comfortable today, every charger cord and throw pillow and wall garnish the same light pink hues as her childhood bedroom. I rush to slip on the outfit I had already curated, a cropped green blouse and blue jeans, as I greet Sophia, Julia, Jonah, and Daniel. Apparently, Emily’s room is the place where they “normally pregame,” which elicits just a tiny sense of pride in me.
There’s an a cappella concert and a dance recital and the dining halls are open all night, and everyone is very excited because an official Doghead has never “really” happened since before the pandemic. I hear all of this as I press gold glitter into the inner corners of my eyelids and tattoo a figure of a miniature leprechaun holding a rainbow on my cheek.
We go to the dining hall for dinner, each of us mildly buzzed. Unbeknownst to me, Emily brought a canned margarita into the dining hall. At one point, her friend Sophia swiped it abruptly and held it under the table.
“Emily, the dining hall worker was glaring at us so hard!” But Emily just laughs, dipping a french fry into a ketchup puddle.
I feel free here, almost anonymous, no longer at my own college and thus no longer concerned about what others think of me. There’s a similar feeling of jubilation amongst the Colby students; I suspect differences in age or origin or opinion wither into irrelevance tonight, twenty-somethings drinking and dancing as one in celebration of their tiny college home. Emily and Sophia hold hands and skip sloppily up the sidewalk as we leave the dining hall and I scurry to keep up, a goofy grin smeared on my face.
It’s only 11:00PM and I think we have been to five parties already, all of them blurring together.
I remember jumping up and down to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” I remember watching a boy stare at my little sister as she sang. I remember the world spinning.
I remember stomping through snow from one party to the next; my jeans were beginning to dampen but I didn’t care—the alcohol a shield keeping unpleasantries at an arm’s length.
I remember a boy asking me to make out (I said no); I remember dodging another’s hands as they inched closer and closer to the small of my back. I remember jumping up and down and swaying my hips and raising my arms to “raise the roof, woo!”
I remember a bang on the door.
“Get on the fucking ground!” a voice shouts. “Someone has a gun!”
I don’t remember how we got on the ground. But there was banging on the door and I
didn’t know what to do; my sister was in my arms and we were sitting below a window—does that mean I should duck my head down? My neck aches.
There is banging on the walls from outside and I wince with every strike, my body shaking now. People stand above me and look out the window, and contemplate jumping. Others huddle under a beer pong table. Should we jump?
“IS ANYONE HURT? Is anyone shot?” A SWAT person barges into the room. His gun’s length stretches from the corner of his left knee all the way up to his right shoulder. My sister puts her face into my chest so that she does not have to look. My brain is screaming; I think of my parents. I think of my boyfriend. I DON’T WANT TO DIE. My brain screams again. The window. I duck my head down. My neck aches badly now.
I wonder what I would say to a shooter, how I would convince him that my life was somehow special enough to be worth sparing. But how could it be? I have two dogs, and a cat, and maybe I’ll have a baby, and—and what? What makes a life more deserving of continuity?
I wonder what a gunshot would feel like. My mother tells me I “have a high pain tolerance.” But some part of me thinks I would not be able to bear one.
I wonder what will happen if I survive this. I wonder if I would have a renowned appreciation for life; if I would quit college and stay home in my parent’s arms; if dreams of graduation and law school would suddenly become trivial matters—unimportant compared to the security of my own human life.
Suddenly, my sister and I are mothers to each other. Her body is splayed across my crossed legs, and I hold her head. She holds me too. I find myself stroking her hair with my palm, just as our mother would do when we cried as children. But I was crying too. I was a mother no longer strong, covering my baby's eyes while also closing my own.
“We are getting out of here, okay? We are getting out of here and we are going back to your room and getting on a plane back home,” I whispered to my sister firmly, still stroking her head with my hand. But I didn’t know that; I was trying to convince myself, too. In The Kissing Hand, Chester’s mother told him that leaving home was good, that he would be safe at kindergarten. But how did she really know?
“‘Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you,’” the mother raccoon said to her baby. I hold my hand to my chest, and it feels hot. I want to see my mother again.
We stay huddled in our spot under the window for two hours, consoled only by obscure emails from administration saying to “remain in place!” We didn’t know what was happening, only that there was a gun involved, and that the police were trying to detain the shooter. But what if there were more? Finally, there is a knock on the door. A senior speaks to the police before informing us that we can leave now, but only one by one, as the hallway is now a crime scene. I stand quickly and begin to slowly budge through the crowd. I am selfish now. I want us out. It is 3:30 a.m.
“We’re sisters. Can you please let us out together?” The police officer frowns at me, so I exit first. I remember seeing blood on the door frame. I remember walking over broken glass.
Three non-Colby students had entered campus to partake in the festivities, and started fighting amongst themselves in that very hallway I walked down; two shots were fired, barely missing passersby. I didn’t know this at the time, so I didn’t think to look for the bullet holes in the walls.
We run back to my sister’s dorm. I fall to my knees on the carpet, finally sobbing. I understand why Chester didn’t want to go to kindergarten. I understand that his mother, deep down, probably didn’t want him to either. Glass hearts can only protect you from so much.