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Where I Was the Day the Students Turned

Chaos Along the Arroyo

By Philip CanterburyPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 10 min read
Where I Was the Day the Students Turned
Photo by Drastic Graphics on Unsplash

I was leaving my Zumba at the Park class when some teenagers ran laughing up the stairs to the footbridge over the Arroyo Freeway. Each of them cradled a big rock like a baby. It was weird— them being there and not in school— so I kept watching. I thought they would cross to the parks on the other side of the Freeway and the Arroyo, but instead, they stopped halfway across the footbridge. Three of them raised their arms slowly, then threw their rocks over the fence and down into traffic. I didn’t understand what I was seeing until I heard the smashing sounds and honking, and then a bunch of crashes. A dust cloud rose. I heard long, drawn-out sounds of a rollover. Someone screamed. I crossed myself. The kids cheered, then moved above the northbound lanes. The few who still had their rocks did the same thing all over again. There were more horrible crashing sounds, so I finally shouted at them. I said, “Stop! Hey, stop! What are you doing?” But it was way too late for that, and they didn’t hear me, anyway.

I looked for anyone else who was, you know, seeing what I was seeing.

People in the park all stared at the street. Kids were everywhere. I mean students— truants is what they call them on the news. I didn’t know kids all over the country had walked out of school at the same time, but that’s what I was looking at in front of the park. They chanted, “Fuck it all up,” over and over. I was immediately freaked out. It all felt wrong. To me, it was worse than watching a... shoplifter, or… I don’t know, seeing a robbery on the train or something— but like times a million. I had to cross myself, again.

Part of the crowd moved up the hill to the light-rail platform. To do what? I don’t know. Most kept chanting and marching up Figueroa. The rest spilled into the park. I realized I was backing away, but I couldn’t stop watching.

The crowd was all teenagers— middle- and high-schoolers— but also younger kids, maybe ten- or even eight-year-olds. Must have been from the schools south of the park— like all three of the schools. My kids hated being forced together, so for this crowd to group like that on their own… That terrified me, even before they got violent.

It was the younger truants who jumped on top of parked cars first. The older ones even lifted them— those who couldn’t make it on their own— and gave them things to use: a metal bat, a hammer, some piping or rebar, even cinder blocks. I watched ten little truants smash windshields while the others filmed and cheered.

That’s what made me turn and run. I tried calling my husband but the lines were all busy. The crowd was already halfway into the park and had surrounded some people near the exercise equipment. All my nerves screamed, “Run.”

I ran past the bandshell, past the playground and the tennis courts, and onto the dirt path along the Freeway. I was so scared of the crowd in the street, I’d forgotten about the accidents. Now I saw all the people stuck in their cars behind the pile-ups. They watched me through the fence. Some of the people helped the injured, but I didn’t slow to look too closely. I didn’t even shout, but I wanted to. I knew I should have. I didn’t have the words. I thought, “You need to leave.” I remember their searching eyes, uncertain and alarmed. They looked how I felt.

Behind me, the swarm had crossed the park and gotten through the fences onto the Freeway. I kept running. Later, the radio said that was maybe the biggest mass-carjacking in the country that day. But I didn’t know anything about any other cities. I didn’t know it was that big.

Through trees— over the Freeway and the concrete Arroyo— I saw the big hill in Debs Park burning. Truants shot fireworks into bone-dry grass and bushes. Thick black smoke rose above bright red flames that ate up the breeze. That park always made me think of walks with my kids back when they were little, so it hurt more than I expected to see it on fire like that.

I was barely paying attention ahead of me as I ran, you know? I was so scared about the crowd in the park, the Freeway, and now that fire, that I just wanted to get away. To get home.

When I looked back at the trail, I knocked over this little truant. He was so young, I almost apologized. His friend wrapped his arms around me. Another tackled me from my right. I tried to scream. One of them hit the side of my head with a rock, and I just lost it. I don’t know how— adrenaline? I shook my waist and kicked. I spun and threw my elbow again and again.

I was in workout stuff, too, you know? Yoga pants and a tight tank and everything. Well, they’d said these disgusting things about my body when they first had me tackled. They were so young it made me sick. I was so angry, but I was also just terrified. I didn’t like that path to begin with. I never liked it. There were always weird people doing strange or druggy or scary things there. So, I should have paid more attention. I was angry about that. I also had this feeling like I had to get home, no matter what. So I fought back.

When the one I’d knocked over got on me and tried to rip at my clothes, I kicked across his head and knocked him down again. I got loose of the others enough to break their hold, then I bolted. They shouted after me, but I ran clear off that path and up through the neighborhood without turning back. I’m sure I was sobbing that whole time.

It was chaotic everywhere. I passed the grocery store where I worked. The front windows had all been smashed. A huge mass of truants hung around drinking and dancing in the parking lot. They’d walk out of the store with food or alcohol or whatever else they wanted. The whole street was like a party. I slipped by as they chanted, “Fuck school! Fuck everything!”

Yeah, I heard gunshots, but I didn’t see any of them. Saw lots of fireworks, which made me jump every time. I heard tons of shouting and screaming, but I didn’t see any bodies in the streets. Not yet.

I saw people— adults— running like me. It was strange because we all ran in different directions. I’d have to move out into the street to avoid them.

Truants were unpredictable when I saw them. A block from my building, one bunch decided to throw rocks at me. I remember them shouting, “Old ass ratchet, good as target practice.” They didn’t have good aim— I took a few on my arms and legs and ducked any hits to the head— so it just made me faster. I was worried they’d chase after me, but they didn’t.

I hid in some bushes at the corner by my apartment when a huge group of truants rode by on bikes. Must have been a hundred of them, all laughing and chanting, “Fuck everything,” and smashing bottles. They didn’t see me, or at least they didn’t stop.

Through the bushes I watched someone breaking doors open at my apartment building. Others walked in and out of the apartments. I could tell they were young. I waited in the bushes even after the last bikes had cleared the intersection. I waited until the ones at my apartment building kind of stopped coming outside for a few seconds.

I crawled out of the bushes and ran. I had to sneak into my own building…

Somehow, I got to my third-floor apartment. At one point, this big, deep voice shouted at me, “Hey, lady—” but I kept going up the stairs. Through a window, one of my neighbors cried.

My front door was open, but it wasn’t smashed in or broken. I waited and listened.

The living room was still. Everything looked like it always did. Once I was inside, though, I heard sounds from my bedroom. I thought about leaving, but I couldn’t. Something made me grab the big red glass candy bowl off the coffee table. I crossed the carpet slowly and moved into the hall. I stopped. There was more rattling. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I took a step inside the bedroom and raised the heavy glass bowl. I froze for a moment.

Someone knelt rummaging in the closet. They wore a dark hoodie over their head. Soon, I realized they had the fire-safe, and were trying to pry the lock. When they straightened up, I smashed the side of their head with the glass bowl. It made a low clunking sound but didn’t break. The person fell by the bed and rolled before they settled.

It was Hector, my seventeen-year-old. He must have been after our emergency money. Or the pistol. My heart just broke apart right then and there.

I screamed and dropped the bowl. I saw blood soak into the carpet.

Then my breath was knocked out of me from behind. I was dizzy, then couldn’t move. I was on the bed face down. Someone was on top of me. His legs were around me, you know? Like on a horse. His hands were at my throat, and I clawed back at his arms.

His grip pressed down over the locket with my kids’ pictures inside. I felt the heart-shaped piece of gold at my throat, crushing my voice as I tried to yell. He told me what he wanted to do to me after he’d killed me, but I was blacking out.

I didn’t know my husband had walked in carrying his big plumbing mallet. There was a cracking sound and I felt blood come down the back of my neck and soak into my hair. Not my blood. The body fell onto the floor.

My breath was suddenly back, but I still coughed and struggled to stay conscious. I looked at the bloody truant and recognized he was some friend of Hector’s.

I looked at my son again, and couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive. I was afraid of both. I still don’t know.

My husband tried to help. He held me, lifted me. He told me to be still and rest my voice. He helped me to breathe.

“We need to leave right now,” he said, “...get to my brother’s in Apple Valley. He’ll know what’s happening.” I looked around the room. He said, “I know. But right now we gotta go. Come on; we’ll be safe. My truck’s in the alley, so we’ll take the back steps...”

I was glad my youngest, Bella, was away on a field trip. I wondered if she was changed, too, like those truants in the crowd. I thought, “There’s no way she could turn like that…” I said so many prayers for her safety. I thought she was lucky— being on an island and staying overnight. I had no idea what horrors she faced.

It was a fast decision. Home was just gone. I knew it as my husband walked me away. We drove out of town as fast as we could through the mountains in his big old red truck.

The radio called it, “ internet dare gone horribly wrong…” And it's still going wrong.

At a pullout halfway up the first mountain, we stopped and parked to watch fires burn all across the city— our city— as far as we could see. They say it was like that almost everywhere.

Short Story

About the Creator

Philip Canterbury

Storyteller and published historian crafting fiction and nonfiction.

2022 Vocal+ Fiction Awards Finalist.

Online Tutoring, ESL, College Essays, and Writing Coaching:

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