Public Safety by Paul Rousseau
Emerging Writers Series
Every two weeks I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Public Safety” by Paul Rousseau. Paul is an emerging disabled writer from Minnesota. His work has appeared in Catapult and Wigleaf. You can follow him on Twitter @Paulwrites7.
This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
One month before college graduation, my best friend, Mark, shot me in the head inside our on-campus apartment. He was fooling around with the gun I didn’t know he had and pulled the trigger.
The bullet ripped through two walls before striking me in the head. It fractured my skull, driving shards of bone into my brain before ricocheting off and landing on the carpet.
I didn’t get any medical attention for over two hours because of a slurry of bizarre circumstances and negligent decisions. Mark refused to go get help. He was more concerned with his life fifteen years from now than he was with my life in the fifteen minutes after the shooting. Eventually, my other roommate came home and convinced Mark to call the cops. I finally got to the hospital and had a craniotomy – titanium plates and screws, reforming of the skull, the whole nine yards – first thing the next morning.
When I think back, I can’t help but wonder why Mark thought my life wasn’t worth saving.
In an effort to possess every written account of that night, for insurance purposes and perhaps for a scrap of closure, I’m collecting reports. The police materials were no problem to access. I have my own 120-page copy with pictures. But the University’s Public Safety Report is proving to be a challenge. They haven’t made anything easy.
I email a formal request for a copy of the report to be mailed to my home address. Someone working for the Dean of Students Office responds. They say they understand, they would be happy to show it to me, but only if I come back on campus and review it under their supervision. They would also like to know if anyone will be accompanying me, third party or otherwise, say, in the legal profession?
I tell them that’s not possible. I can’t drive yet, and I’m not making Mom take work off again. I include that, given what happened there, I don’t really want to come back anyway. Graduation was a decent closure ritual. I’d rather not disturb the dead, so to speak.
An electronic copy sent over email will also suffice, I type.
They give me the same bullshit: we understand this is a difficult…we want to accommodate you as much as possible…however. A Public Safety Report is a university record, and university records cannot leave campus. That means no email, either.
Mom schedules off work again.
I was able to secure a ride, I type.
They say their schedule is flexible now that it’s summer.
We set a date. They ask again if anyone will be accompanying me, which is twice, maybe even three times now.
I say my mom will definitely be there. Not sure about anyone else at the moment.
They ask if my mom plans to review the documents as well. Federal privacy laws require them to redact information about other students from the Public Safety Reports. They urge me to let them know my plans. If your mom intends to review said reports, they tell me, we will need to redact additional information since she’s not a university student.
I tell them sorry I didn’t email back sooner. I was at my surgery check-up, CT scan, and staple removal appointment. I just listened to their voicemail. I say I will be the only one reading the report and that my mom is only providing transportation. I say I’ll see them tomorrow and to have a good rest of their day.
Here’s what I picture in the moments before Mark pulled the trigger: I picture him unceremoniously opening the school-issued wooden safe alone in his bedroom, the gun and ammunition hidden away like pornography. He pulls out a molded case and places it on a dresser. After releasing the latches, he cleans his gun with a microfiber cloth stained with lubricating oils. Maybe there’s a song stuck in his head, or maybe he’s thinking about an action movie he really likes, but something gives him the itch to pull. He selects a target, the wall, toward me and the rest of our apartment, he maybe even closes an eye, and he turns his gun to the side for style points, to show he’s done this plenty of times before. He knows it’s wrong, but he shoots anyway. He could have pointed his gun literally anywhere else, in any direction, three hundred and sixty degrees. That’s why he waited so long to call the cops. Whether he intended to or not, he pointed a gun at me, his best friend, and pulled the trigger.
Mom and I don’t want to pay the school three dollars for underground parking. The garage is directly below my old apartment, and it’s the same garage where Mark went to hide his guns in his car minutes after he shot me. We waste time cruising around for a free spot on the street.
We find one near some housing being rented out by university students. I see Mark’s car. I know the license plate by heart from our road trip to his cabin in Duluth and from all our late-night excursions for cheap food. It takes me a minute to really understand what this means. We are in proximity again. We are close. We have entered the newly cursed grounds of the shooting together. Where it happened, who did it, and whom it happened to, all within a hundred yards of each other once more. Surrounded by these landmarks, the cruel, chaotic residual energy of that night is palpable still.
Mom asks how I’m doing. I gesture so-so. She knows I’m not okay. I could throw a rock at my old window. I kind of want to.
I wonder what happened to my room, if Mark’s will was ever imposed. He wanted to drive to Home Depot and get supplies to fix the walls with wood filler and paint.
“No one has to know,” I remember him saying about an hour after he shot me. I actually thought it was a good idea at the time.
There is no way the university would just decommission the whole apartment, even if that would be the thoughtful thing to do. I’m sure they powerwashed the blood, spackled and painted the walls. Profit margins don’t allow for wasted space, even if it serves as a reminder that guns are not toys. Why wouldn’t they make the room ready for some unsuspecting sophomore? Why wouldn’t they clean the mirror for that sophomore – the same mirror I used to check and see if I was going to die – so that he could pop his zits and brush his teeth and slick his hair back with matte finish transforming paste into a neat little fold, just like where I parted mine to find a bullet hole?
After he moves in, that sophomore will sit just beneath the still-hollow wall in the living room. He will bang his head against it after a long day of studying, or miss a pass that a roommate throws with a football, and the wood clay filler will come loose. It will pop out like a cork on a bottle of champagne. He will look for a hidden note, a message left just for him, the one who discovered this long-lost fraternity secret. But it will be empty. And he will be disappointed until his roommate takes a pencil and draws some lines around it, creating the illusion that the hole is actually a spread anus. And then, finally, they will laugh, taking turns pretending to finger it with their pinkies. That’s what Mark and I would have done.
The unsuspecting sophomore will sleep and have sex in the same bed I was unconscious and bleeding in because the university will tell him to, but the university will never tell him this story.
We take the elevator up to the third floor in a building that looks vaguely like one big jewelry display case. In the Public Safety Department of the Dean of Students Office, a student is working the reception desk. I’m wearing the works: hat, sunglasses, sour expression. I feel like one of those vintage action figures made of segmented wooden squares and elastic string, like nerves, but broken, with string twisted, wooden blocks not quite aligned, cords rolling over notches of bone. Things pop, grind, lock, and slide. The old me was no gymnast, but I could at least stand and walk in a straight line. Mom is behind me in case I fall.
“How can I help you?” the student asks.
“I’m here to read a Public Safety Report,” I say, a little too defiantly. Mom and I are on the front lines here. If I’m the Civil War horn blower, she’s my drummer boy.
“Paul?” the student asks.
“You bet,” I say, stuttering.
He hears me and comes out of his office like a bear just waking from hibernation. The man I had been in contact with via email. He’s massive, probably an ex-football player or wrestler. Maybe even an alumnus of this school. He seems used to being rewarded for violence and strength. I can tell he’s never dealt with something so serious before. I’m afraid to shake his hand. To maintain the illusion of confidence, I don’t take my glasses off. We are both nervous and expectant.
“Hi Paul. You can come right this way. I have the report ready for your review. I take it this is Mom?” he says.
“Kathi,” Mom says. She shakes his hand.
We sit down in what amounts to a police interrogation room. There are no windows. Everything is grey and plastic with that weird wispy design, which looks like someone ruffled a fuzzy black blanket over the top of it while the plastic was cooling.
“So,” he begins, “got any plans for the summer? Vacations anywhere?”
I got shot in the head two months ago to the day.
“No,” I say. “I can’t really do anything.”
“No,” Mom says, squinting at him. “We’re staying home.”
“Well, let me get that report all laid out for you,” he says, as awkward as ever. He looks at Mom. “Kathi, you said you’re not reading any documents today, correct?”
“Correct. I brought my own book to read,” Mom says.
I lay a pencil and notebook beside me, just to see if he says anything. I’m sure I’m not really allowed to take notes. I don’t plan on it anyway. I do it for the politics of the situation. My small but mighty protest.
“Okay. So here’s everything. Take as much time as you need,” he says to me.
There are three separate packets, write-ups and information from multiple different interviews and officer accounts. As I crease the first page over, I can’t believe all this was typed up about me. I need to know what happened during the minutes I was blacked out.
It reads like an old fable. The quirky patterns, steady repetitions of some kind, a character’s failed plot connection that seems so blatantly obvious from the third person. It’s just missing a moral. Do a poor job and lie? You can probably get away with it. Why bother doing anything right?
I skip over the public safety officer’s name. I don’t want to hate them.
As I read what Mark said and read about his mannerisms, my body mirrors his. My hands are shaking. I’m sweating, nauseated, close to throwing up. I feel faint, fuzzy, and grey, like the pattern in the furniture. The room is dead silent as I read. The man is watching me closely. I can feel him staring at the top of my head, checking out my crater and scar. Even his eyes feel overpowering. Mom has her book open to a random page, but she clearly isn’t reading. She’s watching me too, and she’s crying.
I page through everything. Some of it overlaps with the police reports, so I sort of have an idea already. After forty-five minutes, I say I’m done. I’m good. That’s enough.
The man gives me a smile that says, I realize this might not be the last time we hear from you. And he is right and wrong. Nothing legal will come of it. But I will write about it. This is it, for now. I never want to see him or this place again.
Mom and I take the elevator down to the first floor. I immediately pull out the notebook and start making a list. Mom is on lookout, checking to see if the man is watching us over the third-floor balcony. What would he even do if he caught me writing notes? What would we do? How heated would things get exactly?
Mom asks if there was anything new.
This is what it says, verbatim, publicly accessed, from the same document I just saw now on the university’s Public Safety Crime Report online.
04/07/2017 at 6:48-6:57. Public Safety responded to a localized fire alarm in Flynn Residence Hall. A [university] student claimed to have used an electronic vaporizer in the residence in violation of university policy.
That was Mark’s lie, which he admitted to. In actuality, the bullet went through the wall where the fire alarm was mounted and tripped it.
Here is the next entry, about me.
04/07/2017 at 6:46-11:00. Public Safety, [the police], [the fire department], and medics responded to a medical in Flynn Residence Hall. A [university] student who was injured by the negligent discharge of a firearm was transported by medics to an area hospital for further medical care.
Notice the paradox? How did they know I was shot two minutes before they came to the room to confront Mark’s lie? Why did they leave the room at 6:57 if they knew I was there and bleeding from a gunshot wound? It was the same room. You can’t leave a room and be in a room at the same time. You can’t know someone got shot without first entering the room.
Mark didn’t call for help until almost 8:45.
“So they lied. Make note of that,” Mom says. “Anything else?”
“You might hate Mark even more now,” I say.
I tell her what Mark did while I was blacked out, his string of lies to Public Safety, the time he wasted before getting me any help.
Mom starts crying. Tears accumulate, then wrath. She makes a fist. Her eyes are fierce.
“I want to beat his fucking ass,” she says.
We cut through campus on the way back to the car, and I remember how spoiled I was by this beautiful school. It makes what happened that much worse. I just picked the scab. This place will forever be an open wound.
Mark comes rushing out of his room.
“Shit! Shit shit shit fuck. I didn’t know it was loaded!” he says, one hand over his mouth, the other limply holding the gun.
He wants me to say something, and he keeps asking me to. But I can’t talk right now. I have to go look in the mirror.
Mark disappears. I pull myself up. I don’t know where the blood is coming from exactly. Somewhere on my head or face. I trip on my own silly putty feet and leave red handprints on the chair, the kitchen island, the walls.
My face is strung with a thousand fishhooks towing five hundred bags of sand. My jaw is dangling like I’m some undead, decaying thing. I use my palms as kickstands on the edge of the bathroom sink. I hesitate to look.
A hole in the middle of my forehead or through an eye would mean death is happening. This is what it feels like, this is it, like so many other first-time moments.
I part my already clumping hair. My bangs are a drawn curtain, below my widow’s peak, a stage in a theatre. I wipe away the blood to an imaginary drum roll.
Nothing. Just skin. No thimble-sized intruder.
I check for the source of the bleeding by poking around the top of my skull, and there’s a deep, wet indention there. I tilt my head like a holographic trading card to spot the bullet in the mirror, but I see only pink, red, and white. Nothing glimmers or refracts.
Mark is back, and he’s carrying a red pouch. He lays me down in bed with a pillow under my neck to minimize any swelling. He opens the pouch, a first aid kit he purchased for his solo hikes in California, and presses some gauze to my head.
“You must really fucking hate me right now,” he says. He’s speaking loudly over the fire alarm.
“No,” I say.
“There is no way, dude. You must really fucking hate me right now.”
He says he needs to get a better look at the wound. He says I should shower, so I do, because I trust him. He runs off somewhere again. I remove my clothes and start the water myself, sort of swaying on the balls of my feet, waiting for it to heat up.
Blood and loose hair run down the drain like sedimentation. Watching it reminds me that I have a haircut scheduled tomorrow. I consider excuses for the hole in my head, things I’ll make up to tell the stylist. Just cut around the gash. I’m under the impression that things will go back to normal, that this situation is only temporary. It hasn’t hit me that from here on out, I will be a radically different person. I will struggle with things I’ve only ever read about. I will be encouraged to treat every passing day as a gift from God. For now, I still feel like things can and will be the way they were before Mark fired the gun.
While I’m in the shower, Mark goes to parking garage beneath our building to throw the handgun he shot me with, along with three additional firearms and enough ammo to outfit a small militia, into the trunk of his car. He hides one assault-style rifle inside a guitar case. Then he returns to our apartment.
I dry off and carefully pull a clean sweater over my head, stretching the neck hole to get more than enough clearance.
I lie back down in bed, head where I normally put my feet, and the pain finally begins to loom, a teaser of what’s to come. Liquid pressure. My brain is in a heat pipe. A headache to the bone, pain in my flesh like fresh cauterization by a laser. My gut reaction is to touch it. I do. Parts of my skull move, and my eyes lace shut. It pangs as if the wound is one big cavity fixed with silver filling, and my fingers are wrapped in tin foil.
There’s a knock at the door. I black out.
The fire alarm is wailing. It’s contained to our room only. No one in the entire seven-floor dorm building heard the gunshot. Or if they did, they dismissed it as no big deal.
Mark lets the campus public safety officer in.
“Hey. Any idea why your alarm is going off?” she asks.
“I was smoking my e-cig,” Mark lies. The university is newly tobacco-free.
“I smell something burnt,” she says.
“I had something in the oven for too long,” he lies.
“I’ll have to write you up for smoking in the room,” she says.
“Yep,” he says. Mark is noticeably shaking. Abnormal, full body convulsion. His hands have it especially bad.
“Is there something wrong?” she asks. “Anything you want to tell me?”
“I get really nervous when I’m in trouble,” Mark says.
“Technically it’s just a warning. But if it happens again, there will be more consequences,” she says.
The public safety officer sees Mark’s empty holster on our loveseat.
“Where’s the gun?” she asks. Mark’s body probably goes faint, scratchy and grey like a freshly shaken Etch A Sketch. His stomach drops, blood flushed to his now off-balance center of gravity. Mine would have, at least.
“Car,” he says. This is the first time he’s telling the truth.
“Where’s your car?” she asks.
“Off campus,” he lies.
The officer takes a beat. Crosses her arms. Maybe rubs her chin or cheek, adjusts her hat.
“Okay,” she says.
She turns to walk out. Something new comes into her line of sight. A pool of blood on the linoleum. Above it, at least two residual stains on the wall shaped like claw marks.
“What’s all that?” she asks, pointing at the ground. Her line of sight makes the hole above the couch difficult to see. But there’s plenty of other evidence. There’s no need for a literal smoking gun.
“My roommate had a really bad bloody nose earlier,” Mark lies again.
“That should probably get cleaned up. Sooner rather than later,” the officer says, exiting.
For more of this kind of writing, please subscribe!