Jamie Beth Cohen
Bridget knew it was going to be a bad day when Mrs. Bledel wasn’t at her desk in the 7th grade science room. Mrs. Bledel, Bridget’s favorite teacher, was always there early on Wednesday mornings wearing plain khakis and a fitted button-down, collared shirt. She took the time before the bell to set up strange-looking equipment on her large, raised desk – beakers and balances and metal instruments that made fire – which would be used for extravagant experiments the students would then recreate at their own stations. Bridget loved how things that seemed so unusual at 8:05 a.m. became part of her known world before noon. These experiments were usually reserved for older students, but Mrs. Bledel trusted the small group of seventh graders in her Wednesday morning science class.
But no one was at the counter-like desk that day, and as the other students filtered in, a growing unease filled Bridget’s chest. It let up for a moment when Sam came in and gave her a half smile. His shirt was untucked (a uniform violation Mrs. Bledel would let slide), and he was shuffling his feet. He peeked out from his messy bangs, gave Bridget a quick wave, and then shoved his hand back in his pocket. He took a seat near the back of the desks.
Bridget and Sam had known each other since Kindergarten. Thanks to their parents’ friendship, they were often together on weekends and holidays, but rarely in school. The boys and girls sat separately at lunch, and science was the only class the two had together. Sam was the only boy Bridget could tolerate, even if she didn’t like him “like that.” Still, she wished he would sit up front with her. Sam sometimes whispered horrible puns under his breath, and she thought they were hysterical.
A head taller than Sam, Bridget was blonde and fair, while the boy had dusty, rusty brownish-red hair and his complexion moved beyond pale to translucent. It seemed everything between them was a zero-sum game. If something came easily to Bridget – karate, lacrosse, singing on pitch – it didn’t come naturally to Sam. They had been in karate together when they were younger. Their mothers liked to sit and talk in the lobby of the studio while Sam and Bridget practiced twice a week, but eventually Bridget needed to be moved ahead, and Sam quit. He never liked it anyway. The things that came easily to Sam – chess, memorizing long passages of Shakespeare, painting intricate patterns on smooth rocks he found in the woods– were things Bridget never even thought to try.
When all the students had taken their seats, and there was still no Mrs. Bledel at the front counter, still no adult at all, even though the hallways had quieted, Bridget turned in her chair to look at Sam. She asked a question with her eyes and he shrugged in response. When she twisted back around, she was able to finally put a name to her unease. Mr. Turner, the boys’ gym teacher and go-to, last-minute substitute, was wheeling a TV cart into the room. There would be no experiments today. No shiny equipment, no funky-smelling chemicals that smoked when they reached a certain temperature.
Bridget could tell the other kids were happy. They’d watch a movie and do some homework they didn’t get to last night. Bridget was not happy. She got to all her homework last night, like she did every night. Bridget, a tall, pretty girl who wished people would look at her less than they did, only felt at home in two places: the karate studio and Mrs. Bledel’s science lab. Mr. Turner didn’t belong in the lab; this was Bridget’s space.
Seventh grade phys ed was held fifth period, right before lunch, in the large, old gym at the back of the campus. The boys and girls were separated by a heavy curtain that rolled across the gym ceiling on chains dividing the cavernous space into two rooms. Mr. Turner barked orders at the boys, berating those who couldn't keep up with his push-up count or climb the rope to the top of the gym. He would yell things like, “Sam Cooperschmidt, do you belong on the other side of this curtain with the girls, or are you going to finally make it to the top?!?” Bridget would look to Ms. Finney, the girls’ gym teacher when Mr. Turner said those things, and Ms. Finney would pretend she hadn’t heard.
Mrs. Bledel’s experiments could only be done during the double period class on Wednesdays. Bridget would have to wait until next week to watch her science teacher create a perfect set of conditions that would allow for a robust and unexpected reaction. Bridget was just settling into her disappointment when the school’s public announcement system blared to life. It was two loud bursts, like an air horn marking the end of a half on the lacrosse field, and then a calm and clear recorded voice urging students to shelter in place because of an intruder.
They had practiced for this. There had been drills. But one look at Turner’s face, which had gone pale, and Bridget knew this was neither practice nor a drill. Turner moved quickly to the classroom door and locked the new deadbolt that had been installed over spring break. He turned off the lights and then practically ricocheted back towards the outside windows where he lowered the shades.
“Does this open?” Mr. Turner’s voice was loud but measured as he shook the handle of Mrs. Bledel’s supply closet.
Bridget jumped out of her seat, whipped around the counter, and fished out the key to the closet from Mrs. Bledel’s top drawer.
“Good!” Turner opened the door. “Girls in here.”
The girls – Janie, Rebecca, Halle, Hailey, Maddy, Maddie and Mady – quickly filed past Bridget.
“You too.” Turner reached for Bridget’s arm but she shoved his hand away.
“I said, inside!” Turner’s round face went red, his voice less measured.
“Not unless there’s room for all of us.”
She was looking at Turner, but thinking of Sam. And Stewart and John and James and Quentin, too.
“There’s room for all the girls!” Turner once again tried to move Bridget into the closet, the closet where she had spent lunch periods with Mrs. Bledel rearranging chemicals and carefully disposing of hazardous materials. This wouldn’t be happening if Mrs. Bledel were here.
“Come on!” Bridget called, motioning to the boys who seemed frozen in their seats.
“Just close the door!” One of the girls yelled from the back of the dark bunker.
“Come on!” Bridget said again to the room.
The boys looked to Turner for their orders.
“I need the boys with me,” he told them. And then he turned back to Bridget. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about women’s lib right now. Girls are no match for a man with a gun!”
The P.A. hadn’t said anything about a gun, or a man, for that matter.
“Bridget has a Black Belt … or something,” Mady said, from just inside the closet door.
Bridget stood tall, not as tall as Mr. Turner, but she didn’t shrink from him either.
“Come on!” she yelled to the boys, “There’s room!”
In the uncomfortable stillness that followed, Bridget thought she heard footsteps in the hall which caused her heartbeat to quicken. She turned away from Turner, tightened her core and squared her shoulders to the classroom door, but if they were footsteps, they grew fainter, not louder, so she let out her breath and faced the teacher again. There were birds outside the window behind him. She couldn’t see them because the shades were drawn, per protocol, but she could hear them. Mrs. Bledel had a feeder outside her window and sometimes Bridget helped her teacher fill it. Bridget knew how to pop the screen out, and although it made Mrs. Bledel nervous, Bridget was tall enough, and lean enough, to reach through the narrow window and fill the feeder with seed.
It wasn’t a far drop from the science lab to the gardens below. Technically the labs were on the first floor, but the library beneath them wasn’t completely below ground. It had high, small windows that opened to the courtyard, and the lab was really half a floor off the ground. Bridget was sure she could sustain the drop, and she suspected the others could, too.
Bridget wondered what color the birds were and if they had any way of sensing what was happening right now. Would birds really be singing if the school was in so much danger? If the students had to be quiet, shouldn’t the birds be quiet, too? Was there really a gun?
Bridget snapped out of her own head when she heard shuffling in the closet. The girls were bunching together more closely in the dark. There was definitely enough space for more kids, maybe even the whole class. Bridget motioned for Sam. He began slowly at first, getting himself caught on his desk and then tripping over his own feet, but eventually he passed between Bridget and Mr. Turner without looking at either of them, his eyes focused on his feet and veiled by his bangs.
There were more footsteps in the hall. Loud and fast thuds followed closely by the click of heels on linoleum. Someone in the closet gasped. Everyone in the lab was quiet and still: the boys at their desks, Mr. Turner with sweat beading down his forehead from the line of his buzz cut, Bridget, with rage in her thumping heart, the girls in the closet, and Sam, a tear dripping from the corner of each of his eyes.
Finally there was the sound of the air horn again. This time it was followed by the voice of the principal, shaky and halting. He apologized for the confusion, the “technical difficulty,” the “extreme distress.” It was a “glitch.” An “error.” A “false alarm.”
Some of the girls in the closet let out sobs, only realizing after the fact how scared they had been. But no one moved, because Mr. Turner and Bridget were still blocking the closet door. Bridget’s chin was tipped up, her teeth clenched. Mr. Turner looked down his substantial nose.
It was Bridget who moved first. She hugged Sam quickly and then walked calmly back to her desk at the front of the room.
“Take your seats now,” Mr. Turner said into the closet, his words tight and controlled. “And Cooperschmidt, tuck in your shirt.”
Sam and the girls returned to their chairs. Mr. Turner undid the deadbolt and turned on a movie about photosynthesis, as if the blinds had only been drawn to darken the room for the film.
Jamie Beth Cohen writes about difficult things, but her friends think she's funny. Her non-fiction has appeared in TeenVogue.com, The Washington Post/On Parenting, Salon, and several other outlets. Wasted Pretty, her debut novel, was published by Black Rose Writing in 2019. Set in Pittsburgh in 1992, it is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who faces wanted and unwanted attention when she inadvertently goes from blending in to standing out.