Prose, Grades 7-9: First Place

The Longest Sixty Seconds — Eva Goldfarb

I’m in science class, fifth hour. It’s 11:56, only ten more minutes till lunch. We’re taking an easy quiz on mass and volume, but my mind keeps wandering, thinking about video games. I don’t play them, but there’s always been one thing that interests me about them: you don’t die. You can do whatever you want and still have three more lives. But in real life, I guess you have to be a lot more careful.
“Hold my hand crossing the street,” my mother would say.
“Calm down. I know what I’m doing, it’s only walking,” I would say with my eyes focused on the numbers on the stoplights.
With a little laugh she would reply, “Of course you know what you’re doing, it’s the other people that might not,” as she gestured toward a teenager texting in her car and a man that blew past a red light.
Thinking back now, I guess our parents really are smarter than we think, they just want to keep us safe from some crazy things in this crazy world.
Okay, only eight more questions, so I try to concentrate. I blur everything out: the sound of Marcus Willards tapping his pencil on the desk, the feel of anticipation to go to lunch, the cozy look of the classroom with snow floating by outside, everything. I wait to turn it in because the teacher left to go make more copies of the homework, but everything is strange.
First I notice my best friend Sarah is perched behind her desk looking like she’s seeing a ghost. I almost ask her why, but then I notice another person doing that, and another and another and another and another… the whole class is hiding behind their desks as if hiding from a fire-breathing, man-eating dragon.
My eyes make their way to the front. No, not a dragon or a ghost or even the scary principal, it’s a man, a man with a gun. Not a gun that the police officer who strolls around the school has, a gun that’s in his hand, up in the air, and pointed straight at us. I can’t move, I’m frozen in my desk — the only one in my desk — and my eyes are also glued to him. My hands start sweating, my stomach sinks, my mind races with thoughts.
This made no sense, school was supposed to be a place with lockdowns, a protected place, a safe place. Yet here I am, looking at the man who couldn’t just ruin my life, but end it.
Where were the teachers? The policeman? How had he gotten in here? How didn’t I notice when he did?
I remember hearing about school shootings on the news. I listened to the stories, I prayed for the families, I might have even cried. But not once had I thought it would happen to me, nor did I picture how it was for them. Now I know how they felt, the fear welling up inside them like a balloon. But then something clicked in my mind. This isn’t a video game. I don’t get to start over or press a simple reset button. It’s my life. It’s Sarah’s life, it’s Benji’s life, its Mia’s life… it’s our life. It can’t end, not now.
I think of what my grandmother used to tell me, “Memories are sweet, cherish them. Grudges are bitter, let go of them. Life is short, live it well.”
I know life is short, and I’m fine with death, but not now. Not enough memories and too many grudges. I don’t know what to do.
“Hi,” I blurt out.
Hi? That’s the best you can think of!?! I say to myself.
But now my mouth has control over my brain, and I can’t stop talking.
“I… I’m Elizabeth. Elizabeth Johnson. Everyone calls me Lizzie though.”
I wait for a response, but he just stares at me, so I go on.
“I’m 12 years old,” I say, “but I’m about to turn 13 next week. I don’t want very many presents, but if there’s one thing, it’s a puppy. I love dogs, especially big ones like labradors or golden retrievers. Have you ever had a dog?”
Still no response, but I can tell he’s listening to every word I say.
“A-anyways, I like sports. I played soccer when I was little, but I couldn’t make a goal to save my life,” I say as I let out a fake nervous little laugh, “so later I switched to gymnastics. I get hurt a lot in it, but I still love it. I’m thinking of joining lacrosse in the spring.”
I’m talking very fast, but I can’t do anything to slow down. I don’t even know what I’m doing, but so far everyone is still safe in the class, so I should keep talking I guess.
“I really don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. There’s still so much to see, so much to learn… all I know is I’m not gonna be stuck in a depressing little cubicle or office all day. It’s gonna be exciting, maybe I could even make a difference in the world. But I don’t know, my mind could change in an instant, so right now I’m just trying to pass science class,” I explain with another nervous chuckle.
I wonder what he’s thinking, what he’s gonna do, why he would do this. I can’t think of why. I didn’t wake up this morning thinking it would be my last day alive. I woke up, I grabbed some cereal, I rode the bus, I popped a piece of gum into my mouth and headed into class, just like I always do.
But I don’t always do this, I never do this, there’s never a gunman in my class.
I try to think, no, to cherish, all the good memories in my life in case I… die, but the bad ones keep coming with it: The day we got our trampoline, the day I broke my leg on it. The day I got my braces on, the day that all the kids teased me about them. The best Christmas ever, the one I learned Santa wasn’t real. The day we got our sweet dog, the day he died.
I try. I try and try and try. I want to leave this world happy, not thinking of the bad things. I even try to let go of the grudges on my friends, my siblings, everyone. Then I burst. A single tear rolls down my cheek and onto my lip. It tastes like my childhood. The tears after ice cream fell on the ground. The tears of my brother sticking gum in my hair. The tears when my dad gave me a time-out for walking away from him and getting lost. But he just wanted to keep me safe.
Another tear, and another, soon they’re all rushing out. Salty and bitter, yet so sweet and reminiscent. I can’t talk anymore. I practically told him everything. He won’t talk, he won’t leave. All I can do is cry. I tilt my head up and see his gun pointed at me. I whisper, “I love you,” as if my family could hear my final thoughts, even though I know it’s dumb to say.
I hear the gun shoot, but I don’t jump. I don’t feel any different, I don’t feel at all, and there’s no more strength to care. I slowly look up to see him look at me, then I see him leave. I realize he didn’t shoot me nor anyone in the class. He shot a diagram of the human body in the back of the class. Bulls eye, he hit the heart, I knew it wasn’t a mistake or coincidence. And then he just left, walked right out as if nothing had happened.
I thought he had been there for hours, years, yet when I look at the clock, it says 11:57. I grow completely silent. Then I laugh and cry and yell all at the same time.
“Sixty seconds! That’s it!” I shout like a lunatic. “I could have died, we all could have died! In sixty seconds! Now go! Laugh till there’s tears! Dance in the storm! Love someone till your heart bursts! Go live! You’re alive!”
Of course everyone thinks I’ve gone psycho, but I can’t control it. Out of all the things I don’t, can’t understand, this is the greatest. Sixty seconds is all it took for my life to be fine, at the edge of existence, and back to fine again. Sixty seconds for me to realize how delicate life is, and, of course, to realize that I don’t like science class. Sixty seconds of my life, almost the last, but really the longest.