Playing Tricks

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For six months I’ve been living in an apartment no one sets foot in but me, in a building full of med students I never see, in a city I have no desire to live in. I have thoughts, but no one to tell them to.

I need to focus on the readings by Jane Austen and Susan Sontag for this morning’s English class, but my delicate reading rhythm is broken by a series of bangs. Hammering, perhaps. A headache pounds along with them. This is the most noise I’ve heard in the time I’ve lived here. Until now, it has seemed like I’ve had this building all to myself. Constructed in the 1900s. Nine stories. 90 units. 19-year-old me. Alone.

Over the next 15 minutes, though it feels much longer, the blasts take on a different tone quality. Louder. Sharper. Closer. Someone is slamming a door over and over again.

And then I realize. This isn’t hammering or slamming. It’s gunshots.

I freeze. My book drops to the floor. I listen. My mouth is full of cotton. I grab my flip phone and run to the left corner of the dining room, the farthest place from my front door. I crouch down and turn my back on the apartment. Tears warm my cheeks as I dial home. My trembling fingers can’t press each number hard enough. After a few false starts, my mom answers.

“Mom? Mom! I’m in my apartment — there’s a shooter in the hall!”

Mom says she’ll call me back.


I gather myself into a ball, sobs pulsing with the gunshots. Virginia Tech was two years ago — I know what this is. It’s what I’ve feared since I moved in. A lonely, overworked med student on a spree. Why would he spare me?

I’m trapped. I evaluate the risks of jumping out the window. I’m on the fifth floor. I’m in my pajamas. No wallet. No bra. No shoes. There’s snow on the ground.

But it’s your life.

The shots are getting closer. I crawl under my dining room table to the window.

Stand up.

Slide the window open.


You can do it.


Phone rings.

“Mom? Why did you leave me?!”

“Sweetie, I called the building manager.”

The phone is drenched with tears. Will the water cause a short circuit? Will we get disconnected? Will I get electrocuted?

“Someone went to check it out. It’s maintenance opening and closing the door across from you. They’re fixing the hinges.”

“What? No.”


“It’s gunshots. I hear them!”

“You’re okay.”

There’s banging on my door. The shooter is coming for me. I squeeze my eyes shut, I squeeze my arms around my legs, I squeeze my phone between my shoulder and my ear. I sob, scream, and speak all at once.

“Someone’s trying to get in!”

“Answer it. It should be someone letting you know it’s safe to come out.”

I’m unsure, but I trust her.

I open the door.

It’s my favorite maintenance man, Lincoln.

He looks at my soaked, flushed face. He takes in my depressed brow, wrinkled chin, and bloated lips. I know he has his own pain, but he smiles warmly, as always.

“You okay, honey?”

I fall, sobbing, into arms twice the size of mine, phone still open to Mom. Lincoln’s the closest thing I have to a friend in Pittsburgh.

I don’t move, and he doesn’t ask me to. We stand like that for a while. Then I thank him for checking on me, and he leaves. I shut myself inside again.


Samantha earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She has written for The Washington Post, The Week, Ms. Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post, Bustle, Attn, and Beautiful Minds Magazine. Her nonfiction essays are forthcoming in the literary magazine The Passed Note and the anthology My Body, My Words. Please visit HERE for more of her work.

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