The Washington Post's Eli Saslow takes a look at the youngest victim of the Roseburg, Oregon shooting, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, and a uniquely American group of people: mass shooting survivors.
This, she was realizing more and more, was the role of a survivor in a mass shooting: to be okay, to get better, to exemplify resilience for a country always rushing to heal and continue on. There had been a public vigil during her surgery, a news conference when she was upgraded from critical to stable and then a small celebration when she was sent home after two weeks with a handmade card signed by the hospital staff. “Strong and Moving On,” it had read.
By then, the college had reopened. What remained of her Writing 115 class had been moved across campus to an airy art building with windows that looked out on Douglas firs. They were forging ahead and coming back stronger, always stronger. That’s what the college dean had said.
Except inside the rental, where every day was just like the one before: Awake again in the recliner. Asleep again in the recliner. Cheyeanne dressed in the same baggy pajamas that hung loose and away from her wounds. She was wrapped in an abdominal binder that helped hold her major organs in place. Her hair was greasy because her injuries made it painful to take a bath. Five medications sat on the coffee table, next to a bucket she reached for when those medicines made her throw up. She couldn’t go back to school, or play her guitar, or drive her truck, or hold a long conversation without losing her breath, so she mostly sat in silence and thought about the same seven minutes everyone else was so purposefully moving past. The shooter was standing over her. The hollow-point bullet was burning through her upper back.
She wanted to talk about it. She needed to tell someone who knew her — someone other than a psychologist — what she’d been thinking ever since that day: “I just lied there. I didn’t save anybody. I couldn’t even get up off the ground.” But what everyone else around her seemed to want was for the shooting to be over and for her to be better, so they came to urge her along at all hours of the day and night.
In came the assistant district attorney with a bouquet of flowers and a check for $7,200 in victim restitution. “On to better days,” he said.
In came her best friend, Savannah, with a special anti-stress coloring book. “For your nightmares,” she said.
In came Bonnie, always Bonnie, rushing between the kitchen and the living room, her eyes bloodshot from sleep deprivation and hands shaking from a heart condition. “Think positive. Think positive,” she said, because a therapist had suggested that as a mantra.
In came one of her brothers, Raimey, 24. “Can I get you something?” he asked. And then in came her other brother, Jessy, carrying two large boxes and handing one to her. “A present,” he said. “Open it.” She lifted the lid and reached inside, removing what looked like a small gun.
She had owned guns since she was 6, when her father had given her a hot-pink youth model .22 for Christmas. She’d killed her first deer at 12 and another two years later. “A gun person all the way,” she had said of herself, and now she was fingering the trigger of what was not a real gun but a replica, a self-defense weapon designed to shoot lasers and pepper spray. Her palm found the barrel. Her index finger found the trigger.
“It’s got a nice feel to it, right?” Jessy said, as Cheyeanne began to think about the last time she had been this close to a gun.
“It’s small enough you could put it in your purse for school,” Jessy said, and suddenly Cheyeanne was smelling salt, metal and blood. It had smelled nothing like deer.
“Do you want me to set it up for you?” Jessy asked, and Cheyeanne shook her head. She put the weapon back in the box. “Not yet. Thanks.”
I know I've put up a number of pretty sobering Sunday Long Read stories over 2015, but this one is probably the most painful to read.
America has failed Cheyeanne is so many ways.