Once a year, we pretended we were dead. And we didn’t even get to choose our casualties — we drew slips of paper from a shoebox in the middle school cafeteria and were stuck with whatever we picked out: Lightning Strike, Nuclear Fallout, Nephritis. The idea was to be ready when the shit hit the fan. Not the teachers’ exact words, of course, but they might as well have been. After all, this was the Eighties, the beginning of The Age of Better Safe than Sorry.

On Worst Case Scenario Day, before the Medical Science Research Club entered the gym and saved as many of us as possible, the principal divided us into groups such as “Motor Vehicle Accidents,” “Environmental Contaminations,” and “Medical Misadventures.” We took our places, sprawled here and there over the hardwood floor, some of us writhing and shaking and groaning, others lying silently still with fake blood jellifying on our faces.

The medical science kids canvassed the gym. They hunkered close, probed for pulses, asked diagnostic questions. How’s your breathing? Do you feel cold? How many fingers am I holding up? To my left, a kid said that a bomb had gone off in his tree house. To my right, a girl said she’d been stung by a scorpion and was seeing angels. When Eli, one of the pre-premed kids, came around to me, I told him that I was basically okay, aside from a chalky taste in my mouth and some minor loss of cognitive function. But maybe he ought to check on Ben right over there beneath the basketball net, because he’d been flopping around, mouth working like a guppy’s.

When Eli rolled him over, Ben’s face was barbicide-blue. Eli called over some of the other medical science kids, and then Principal Alvarez, who scratched his head, frowning grimly. At first everybody thought it was part of the act. But then some of the kids took Ben by his arms and legs and carried him out of the gymnasium. Mr. Alvarez told us that no, sorry, this wasn’t part of the drill, and that Worst Case Scenario Day would have to be postponed until further notice.

There was a general shuffling out of the gym into the large hall outside, where theories were passed back and forth about what happened to Ben. Maybe he’d been poisoned, stabbed, electrocuted. An overdose was mentioned, then suicide. Autopsy would eventually reveal that Ben had died of an embolism, but it would be weeks before we learned this. Now, the teachers denied knowing anything until word eventually got around that Ben was really dead, a rumor confirmed when Principal Alvarez made an announcement over the PA system. A vigil was held on the football field, and then an impromptu memorial service, during which we shared our fondest memories of Ben.

It was around dinnertime, a cool Magnolia-scented twilight, when my parents picked me up in front of the school. They’d already heard about what happened; the school secretaries and nurses had spent the afternoon leaving messages on answering machines. I sat in the backseat of the Oldsmobile as they talked, saying that what had happened was terrible, tragic, but that something must have been fishy for a boy to have died so young.

“Maybe,” I said, and there was something sullen in my voice that made them turn around.

“Buckle up, mister,” my mother said.

“Relax, kiddo,” my father said. “You worry too much. Nothing like that’s going to happen to you.”

We continued onward in silence as I pressed my face against the back window, staring out at the gathering darkness, and for a second I could have sworn that it stared viciously back.

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