Today is the one-year anniversary of the Conway High Massacre, as it has come to be called, and we—the nineteen surviving gunshot victims—have converged on the large desolate field where Travis Covington, 17, filmed his now-infamous video diary before opening fire on a pep rally in the Conway High School gymnasium, killing twenty-six. It is midnight, and the crisp night air is rich with the aromas of earth and grass and decay. Our feet send up a chorus of inelegant squishing sounds as we proceed into the mud, sidestepping pieces of junk deposited by neighborhood residents unwilling to make the trek to the dump across town: broken appliances, tattered furniture, mounds of old mildewed clothes. A graveyard of possibilities. With our eyes fixed on the ground in search of rusty metal scraps, we might appear to any onlookers like a search party combing the area for a missing person.
What we are looking for, however, is the baseball diamond-sized pond on the far side of the field where Travis used to practice shooting at beer bottles, setting them to float in the center by way of a small platform constructed from plastic containers. In the video, which he Fed-exed to WKLL News an hour before the attack, the viewer can see the bottles pop and shatter in mists of brown glass. In the wake of the attack, the footage went viral, attracting scads of gawkers to the site, eventually forcing police to cordon off the area until the traffic stopped altogether. Up until now we have avoided the field, partially for this reason, but mostly out of a childish fear that our presence might be met with the ghostly vengeance reserved for movie characters who have stumbled upon ancient Indian burial grounds.
Classes will end at one o’clock today for what promises to be a sobering commemorative assembly in the front of the school. The mayor will speak, and then a few words from student council president Jessica Schiff, and then principal Moody will call for twenty-six seconds of silence. We will be seated in a row of folding chairs at the front, dressed in our honorary CHS letter jackets, of course, hands folded in our laps like penitents, exuding the heroic poise that has come to be expected of us. Actually, it’s not so hard to understand why our classmates would like our scars to Mean Something, to “emblemize the triumph of the human spirit,” as one well-coiffed South Carolina senator phrased it. Who doesn’t want to rationalize their traumas, if only to preserve their conception of the universe as an ordered system in which righteousness and evil are easily distinguishable?
It is for their sakes, then, that we have kept the truth to ourselves: that there is no meaning to be gleaned from our scars, no arcane wisdom, only a cold, sinister reminder that at best everything is only temporary. Even us.
Maybe this is why our hands instinctively seek out our scars as we approach the pond, the calm surface, sparkling plaintively in the moonlight. Notice, for instance, how Emily Lepisto clasps her left wrist, feeling the twin dimples from the slug that left her unable to bend her fingers more than a few degrees. Or see Adam Kravski remove his Clemson cap and absently trace the mottled pink ridge running from one side of his head to the other, making his skull look like a Phillips’ head screw. Altogether we carry 5.8 pounds of titanium alloys in the form of cranial plates, bone screws, artificial knee caps, and spinal fusion cages. So far we have undergone a total of seventy-one surgeries to repair punctured lungs, perforated bowels, temporal bone fractures, cerebral contusions, pulmonary lacerations, intracranial hematomas, arteriovenous fistulas, hemothorax, periocardial tamponade. Three of us have suffered neurological impairments that, while thankfully having no effect on our cognitive abilities, will prevent us from ever driving again. One of us is now blind in one eye.
The most iconic clip from the video diary features Travis standing with his back to the pond, dressed in a black t-shirt and cargo pants, clutching the weapon, a Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle purchased online with a fake ID, to his tawny chest. This is my manifesto, he says robotically into the tripod-mounted camera. For too long I have been ridiculed and tormented. Now the guilty must pay, the fakes and the liars. You brought this on yourselves.
It is this clip alone that has allowed him in our memories to take on the impossible dimensions of a mythical figure—half human, half speculation, a stunning contrast to the nervous, lanky, fair-skinned boy we’d see skulking through the halls like a death row inmate on his way to the gas chamber. He was never very popular outside of his cohort of friends, with whom he usually spent his lunch hour in the AV lab playing Jenga; with their bad skin and anime t-shirts, they all seemed interminably trapped on the edge of adolescence in a way that made them outcasts, foreigners amongst the rest of us. Beyond this, we knew almost nothing about his personal life, other than that he had an older sister, Tori, who had graduated before any of us had started high school but whose promiscuity remained something of a legend amongst the students (she was rumored to have once taken part in a house party game to see which of five girls could fellate the most boys in a half hour and, as a consequence, had to have her stomach pumped of semen; that no one was ever able to verify this did not stop us from trading the story time and again like gospel). His parents, we learned after the attack, had been divorced for most of his life; his mother was a paralegal in Conway, and his father had a wife and two other children and owned a four-wheeler dealership in New Orleans.
But it’s the seemingly innocuous memories of Travis that have taken on the most retrospective weight in our minds. Whitney Smith remembers when he chose Mein Kampf for his end-of-the-year research project in sophomore English, and how annoyed Janice Arendale was when it took first prize in the annual CHS Writing Contest, beating out her sonnet about her family trip to Mexico (He only chose that book to get attention she was overheard complaining to a classmate). Kevin Molarno recalls the two straight weeks he wore sunglasses for no apparent reason, and how he used to draw flames on his tennis shoes. Brian Vick remembers when, during a fetal pig dissection in his sophomore bio lab, he began to dry heave into the sink and had to be escorted into the hall by Mrs. Odell, where he spent the remainder of the period sobbing hysterically.
Maybe these were nothing more than the hallmarks of awkward adolescence—we were all teenagers, after all, gloomy in our own ways and terrified of what the world had to offer—but in our minds they now seem hopelessly laden with significance, like opportunities that only reveal themselves once you’ve missed them.
On the September morning in question, he strode into the gym with the rifle in his hands just as the dance team was finishing up a routine. “We didn’t know what we were seeing, not at first,” DeShaun Burgess would later comment in a CNN news feed. “We all thought maybe it was, like, part of a skit or something.” It was Coach Barnes, an Iraq War vet (the fact of which has received almost as much coverage as the shooting itself, not to mention whispers of a made-for-TV-movie option) who first realized what was happening. Leaping up from the bleachers, he yelled “Get down!” and then darted across the court toward Travis, presumably with the intention of tackling him. Travis, clad in the same black paramilitary garb he’d worn in the video diary, took aim and, with an eerie calm, shot the coach through the right eye. The man’s head snapped back violently as if yanked by an invisible string, and then he dropped to the floor in mid-step; at least three radio talk show hosts would make comparisons to the Kennedy assassination.
A chorus of terrified screams rose up from the bleachers. Students flooded the floor all at once, clamoring for the exits, tripping and trampling each other, despite the teachers’ frantic attempts to corral them into the halls. The thick pops of the rifle resounded throughout the room, big as planets, while all around us it seemed bodies were collapsing unceremoniously, shredded by gunfire. The scorched smell of cordite, the panicked tang of sweat. For some of us, like Katie Wilkes, the blasts hit with enough scalding force to send us flying off our feet. Others didn’t even realize at first that they had been hit, as in the case of Doug Castalabri, who, propelled by adrenaline and fear, assumed the blood on his shirt was someone else’s, until once outside the building he noticed the dime-sized hole in his abdomen.
Altogether, Travis Covington fired off 74 rounds in approximately 3.2 minutes before turning the gun on himself. Ballistics reports would later describe the shooting pattern as “random and uncoordinated.” The video diary was aired by every major news network in the country, and Travis, who had made a science of going unnoticed for most of his life, the same kid who hadn’t had the stomach to make it through a fetal pig dissection, he became the most popular search term online for nearly four weeks straight.
As for possible motives, people have suggested maybe video games drove him to it, or the absence of his father, or milk hormones, or perhaps even his ADD—the kind of paltry straws people are prone to grasp at in these situations, but you can never really know a person, not in the way we would like. And that’s the worst part, honestly, trying to find a singular cause, knowing all the while that such things don’t exist. Aren’t we naturally predisposed to believe, despite all reason, that tragedy serves some higher moral function? Isn’t that what this afternoon’s assembly is all about?
But no: tragedy has the same point of origin as everything else, and searching for it only makes you understand how little your own survival actually accomplishes.
And so this is why now, standing at the mucky edge of the pond with the reeds swishing gently against our ankles, we begin to undress, each of us without a word, because what do we have to hide now? The cool air slides over our skins like strangers’ fingertips in a crowd, arousing the fine hairs on our arms and legs. Then, leaving our clothes in piles in the grass, we wade chastely into the frigid water.
In the brittle moonlight, our bare bodies glow spectral, our scars rendered practically invisible. Could this be all that healing amounts to, outlasting whatever you thought was keeping you safe? Moving farther out into the pond, we think about the video diary. We remember the footage of Travis’ target practice sessions, and we imagine the bottom of the pond as a vast carpet of glass shards waiting to slice the feet of unsuspecting swimmers. Just like the childhood monsters beneath our beds. That’s where the danger always lives, at the bottom of everything. Hidden, but closer than anyone would like to believe.
You brought this on yourselves.
Now we lie back in the water and close our eyes and drift listlessly out toward the center of the pond. We are alone here and the night is silent save for the trilling of crickets and the wind against the grass and the water lapping gently at our goose-rippled skins. We float like corpses, the nineteen of us, wholly exposed, limbs splayed like the points of stars as we wait for whatever is beneath us to reveal itself.