The Office of the Child Advocate reports that the young man who shot the schoolchildren with his mother’s Bushmaster was obsessed with the video game Dance Dance Revolution. It describes him playing, in the months leading up to the massacre, frenetically, hours on end, at home or at a local theater, dancing until he was drenched in sweat, dancing until he was out of money, dancing to keep his mind off his mind.
And one of the children said to him, “I don’t want to be here.”
“Well, you’re here,” he said.
We think of our kids begging to skip school. Mornings, eating standing at the sink, the refrigerator door slightly ajar, some of the dishes in the dishwasher clean, jam in the peanut butter, peanut butter in the jam, forced air from the vent in the floor warming a pile of laundry. “You have to go,” we say. “Everybody has to do things they don’t want to do.”
The artistic director tweaked the Nutcracker storyline for the area’s progressive left. In this version, Clara and Fritz are destitute, living on the street, until an act of generosity shows them a new future. When the show opens, they’re huddled outside the toymaker’s house, shivering, sharing a tattered blanket.
At the end of Act One, sinister, dream-conjured mice surround a toy soldier who stands quavering at center stage, wooden rifle aimed at the audience. The music is dubbed with a pop at the bottom of an eight-count, and the dancer-soldier simulates rifle-kick, scattering the harassing mice.
In the lobby at intermission, one ballet mom can’t get it out of her mind. She keeps hearing the report, says it has torn through her. She tells me the Bushmaster’s ammunition was designed to disperse its energy on impact, to do maximum damage and remain in the flesh. Parents were barred from the bodies, asked to identify them with pictures.
Nothing could keep her from the body of her child. “Pictures aren’t real. I would never believe it was true. Who designs a bullet to not act like a bullet, to not go through? An entrance with no exit.”
Last year, on the day of the shooting, Act Two, the Little Angels bourreed on stage on demi-pointe, first-grade girls dressed in shimmering ankle-length gowns with pleated sleeves, smiling eyes drawn taut by topknots. Innocent little angels in line behind their Big Angels.
Every year they shuffle on, the energy shifts, the audience awwws. It is pure, reflexive. But not last year. Last year there was no sound. Just the impossible welling up of wet silence. Of sound swallowed down.
To escape the peppermint and perfume, we walk along the footpath that perpends the avenue, running back to the studios and dressing rooms. We glimpse dancers flitting out for fresh air, lithe in leotards and tights. We stop in the shadows away from the yellow cones of light meant to fend the homeless.
She says she dreads the Little Angels. “We’re all going to awww again like nothing happened.”
“Like it was a liberal hoax,” I say.
“I think I understand that,” she says. “It absolves us of comprehension.”
One year, we shared a joke about the program, its half-page ad for the company’s open house event for boys: a photo of a soccer goalkeeper and an opposing striker, leaping, arms and legs balletically extended. “Look, dudes,” she said, in the voice of the ad. “These guys are basically dancing—and they’re not pussies.”
“I tried to sign Nick up,” I said. “But he watched the other boys chase the ball and went, Dad, I’m not a dog.”
“I didn’t know you had a boy,” she said, meaning a boy in ballet.
“I’m the one.”
The ad is still there. But now the keeper seems to be attacking the striker, a player I recognize from a local professional team. He has one of those smug, suburban names—Landon, or Hunter, or Trace. My teammates and I used to pick them out before games, saying, “Who’s your red card?”
I don’t mention this because her own son’s name is Hunter, and today is not the day to casually discuss boyhood aggressions.
We talk about mothers who only have girls. She envies the purity of their fear and outrage. “When you have a boy,” she says, “you never know.”
She wishes she could judge the shooter’s mother—and she can, to some extent. “It was her Bushmaster.” She wishes the woman had lived, so she would have to comprehend with the rest of us. His killing her first was an act of mercy. “Or was it?”
“We’ll never know.”
“And where was his father?” The report says his father tried to reach out via email, suggesting a ballgame, a hike. “I think we can agree,” she says, “an email is not reaching out.”
Someone comes by to congratulate her on her daughter’s progress. “She’ll be Clara soon. Then the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
“Nothing is guaranteed,” she says.
The chime sounds, and people begin to drift toward their seats.
“I don’t want to be here.”
“Well,” I say.
The next year, her daughter is Clara, and Nick is Fritz.
We drop them off at Saturday rehearsal, and I follow her home, staying close to her bumper so we don’t get separated.
At a stoplight, I text her: “What about Hunter?”
She texts back: “With his dad.”
At her place, in the living room, I take off my shoes and jacket while she sets up the game. “Have you ever done this?”
“Never,” I say. “Never anything like it.”
“It’s pretty intuitive,” she says and unfolds two vinyl “dance mats” printed with blue arrows, up-down-left-right. When the game begins, she cranks the TV volume, and we move our bodies to 90’s pop.
I’m clumsy, at first. “I haven’t danced in years.” I try to track the digital arrows sliding up the screen, but my eye is drawn to the swaying avatar, glowing blue-white. I know without having to ask that she thinks of the avatars, ghost-like figures trapped in another world, as little angels.
“The trick is to let the music go through you,” she says between songs.
Or, I think, to let it enter and disperse its energy.
We dance until our clothes are soaked and shucked, we’ve thrown the windows open, and the TV is the only light, its grainy, pulsing radiance a medium through which we might connect in a suspended present.
It’s as if we’re living in a GIF, perfectly looped, like the one Nick showed me of the spinning ballerina. “You can make it switch directions with your mind,” he said. “But it never stops.” I said, “If it switches directions, doesn’t it have to stop?” I didn’t want to tell him I could only see it turning clockwise. “No,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it. Whichever way it’s turning is the way it’s always turned.”
I wake on the floor in the dark with the rain outside. Wind gusts suck the curtains against the wet screens in great heaved breaths. The TV is off, and I look for a digital indicator that might define the space. It takes me a few seconds to realize we’ve lost power.
I’m cold, except in the places our bodies touch. I reach for a dance mat and draw it over. The flexible plastic square settles stiffly around our torsos. A poor blanket, it gives little warmth. It’s something no one should ever have to feel.
Ben Jahn’s work has appeared in Fence, PANK, ZYZZYVA, McSweeney’s, and The Santa Monica Review. He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in fiction, and his story, “Reborn,” appeared in The Paris Review as the winner of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction contest. He lives in Richmond, CA, teaches English at Contra Costa College, and spends his summers traveling with his longtime partner and her kids. For infrequent updates, go to benjahn.com