The Thin Line Between a Drill and an Emergency

"Lockdown" by Mark Jacquemain, recommended by Electric Literature

Introduction by Halimah Marcus

Pre-Covid, the term “lockdown” first evoked another signifier of societal collapse: active shooter protocols. For parents, educators, and students, the threat of indiscriminate, fatal violence is a waking nightmare. Sometimes lockdowns are drills, sometimes they aren’t. When you’re inside one, it can be impossible to tell the difference.

Mark Jacquemain’s “Lockdown” closely observes what is an increasingly common day in the life of an American high school student. The loudspeaker blares a warning; a drama class crowds into the costume closet. There’s all the banter, sarcasm, and social maneuvering one expects from teenagers, and the contrast between a line of dialogue that might make you chuckle and the grim possibilities of their situation—of our situation—painfully underscores the ways in which our country is failing our most blameless and promising citizens.

“Lockdown” was originally meant to be published last month, just a week after the shooting at Oxford High School. Though this story isn’t based on any real event, we pushed the publication back out of respect for the grieving. It was one of those times—more common, it seems, in these years crisis—when a fictional story became heightened, when its powers of verisimilitude felt like prediction rather than reflection.

“When it happens we’re in drama class, still caring about stuff that doesn’t matter,” the story begins. Stuff like Miss Janetti’s warm-ups, which involve burpees and are apparently sadistic, or the fact that Powerball got banned because “Jordan Kloostra smoked Cheyenne in the face,” or mimicking a volcano for Final Project, which Yasmin is taking way too seriously, like it’s “an actual natural disaster.” Jacquemain describes “the stuff that doesn’t matter”—the mountains of adolescents, the stuff of afterschool gossip and under-the-desk text messages—as keenly as what overtakes it. The effect of his writerly skill and attention is that, by the end of the story, the petty drama and grade-grubbing and getting out of Miss Janetti’s warm-ups have been purpled by atmosphere, receding into a more innocent past.

– Halimah Marcus
Editor of Recommended Reading

The Thin Line Between a Drill and an Emergency

Lockdown by Mark Jacquemain

to Caity P.

When it happens we’re in drama class, still caring about stuff that doesn’t matter. Like Final Project. It’s nearly the end of semester, so we’re in that stretch that’s all about Final Project. Which is why Yasmin wants to get right to it. Our group is miming an erupting volcano, and she thinks that gives us so much to work with. All week she’s been saying: “Guys, come on, we have so much to work with.” Yasmin’s like that, grade-crazy, and expects it to come out like Shakespeare or whatever. So she’s all frantic cause it’s due in a week and we don’t have much done, other than some lava dances and some screaming and freaking out. And those parts are really lame. She’s started calling it an actual natural disaster.

We don’t care like she does, but “getting right to it” means skipping Miss Janetti’s warm-ups, so we have Yasmin’s back. Paige tells Miss Janetti, “Seriously, we’re so far behind.” Jacqueline says, “Please, Miss Janetti, please!” Because Miss Janetti’s warm-ups are sadistic. Every class she has us do burpees and squats like it’s gym class. No one complains anymore cause if we do she’ll just do the whole warm-up herself, right in there in front of us, in double time—which is amazing, this round lady with her pixie cut just crushing it—and then make us do warm-ups again, while chirping us for being slackers.

But sometimes, if we’ve been good or we’re under the gun or whatever, she lets us not warm up. So now we get down on our knees and grab Miss Janetti’s flappy hippie pants, and beg her, being silly in a way we couldn’t with other teachers. And she laughs—she has one of those bouncy, silent laughs that turns into wheezes when it slows down—but then says, “No, come on, girls, we’re warming up.”

And Paige says, “Oh, fuck.”

The thing is, a war’s been brewing about warm-ups between Paige and Miss Janetti since Powerball. We used to do Powerball for warm-ups when Mr. Lesnick from Guidance subbed for Miss Janetti, cause the boys love Powerball and he always lets them do whatever they want. The boys were joyful about it. Scrambling around all sweat-shiny and b.o.-smelling, taking these huge run-ups and pelting us. Sam Couvrette and Jake Grey made grenade sounds; that kid Ryota gathered the balls for them like a beagle. But last time Jordan Kloostra smoked Cheyenne in the face (they were wheeling back then), and they sort of wrestled, and Cheyenne sprained her ankle. All the parents got a letter; and after that Paige insisted her mom was going to write her a note excusing her from warm-ups. Except the note never materialized, and that was the last time Mr. Lesnick subbed, and Miss Janetti never does Powerball. 

So she keeps making Paige warm up. 

“Oh, fuck,” Paige says and Miss Janetti says, “What did I hear?” 

Paige grumbles out another: “Fuck.” 

“Paige,” Miss Janetti says. 

“You asked what you heard,” says Paige. “You heard fuck.”

“PAIGE!”

Yasmin says, “But, Miss Janetti, we actually are behind.” 

“And whose fault is that?” says Miss Janetti.

“Not ours,” says Yasmin.

Someone hasn’t been here,” Paige says, “for like ever.” 

“Is she even still in our group?” says Jacqueline.

We mean Cheyenne. She is in our group, but we aren’t speaking to Cheyenne, because of what she did to Jacqueline. 

What happened was this. A couple weeks ago Jacqueline started posting how she was “super low” and that things felt, like, dark. We were worried about her, obviously, told her we got it and we loved her and we were there for her. And that was it for a couple days. Then she wrote that she took a bunch of pills. And we were like, Oh, shit. Whoa. Most of us. We messaged her, and called her, and even called her landline, and she told us the pills didn’t work. 

We didn’t stop and think, Wait, was she bullshitting?

Not most of us, anyway. But Cheyenne did. She didn’t come right out and call her on it. The first couple things she put up were mostly funny—You must still be around cause you just liked this—and it seemed she just meant to cheer Jacqueline up. Except then she wrote that Jacqueline had been posting about offing herself for years, since before the rest of us knew her. 

Jacqueline and Cheyenne have this history. They’ve been pals since Grade One or something. And when they got in with the rest of us it was like a package deal. But Paige, who’s a total Mama Chicken, she took to Jacqueline—cause Jacqueline’s got this Baby Bird thing going—but not to Cheyenne. So it was probably just a matter of time. 

And then Cheyenne wrote to Jacqueline, You don’t even have anything to be sad about. 

Which was kind of the last strawberry. Yasmin said Cheyenne was bullying Jacqueline. Paige asked her what her fucking issue was. Cheyenne wrote back that we were all making it way worse and Paige wrote, WE? 

So we’ve basically been giving her the shoulder since then, and she’s been ditching a lot, and when it comes to Final Project she’s been totally M.I.A. The worst part, though, the part that’s just not fair—like, karmically—is that when Cheyenne does show up for class, she doesn’t even have to do warm-ups, cause of her sprained ankle. She’s allowed to just chill on her phone. And seeing her texting or whatever while the rest of us hustle and grind really makes you realize how fully cruel the world is. Or, when Miss Janetti told her no phones, and Cheyenne just stuck her phone in the rip in her jeans and had a nice lil’ chit-chat with Sara Zilinski (who’s got some auto-immune deal and shouldn’t sweat)—a chat about the ass-selfie Sara Zilinski got from some boy she met in Niagara Falls or whether Mr. Lesnick’ll be fired, or whatever—while we’re literally cardiac arresting over here. 

Then again, none of us is going to push it much further than Paige already has, cause we don’t want to be on Miss Janetti’s shit list. She has a crazy side. After her boyfriend dumped her, back in October, she turned up to school all weird-eyed in stained jeans that should have got her dress-coded, and made a gun with her hand, and picked-off all the boys in class along with her student teacher Mr. Van Schubert, who we called “Mr. Handsome.”

So, unfair or not, we know it’s over when Miss Janetti brings out her icy voice and says, “Girls, we’re warming up.”

Paige mutters one more “fuck” but only loud enough for us to hear. 

And we warm up.


Cheyenne shows up while we’re doing our burpees. She limps in, a bit later than usual, and sits on the volcano we’d made out of blocks, at the back of the stage. She hovers there like she wants to be sure we know she’s finally ready to get to Final Project; except then she seems to have second thoughts and retreats to the door, just as we’re finishing up. 

Paige breaks off early (like she always does) and heads for the volcano herself, her t-shirt sweat-pitted, her furry chin glistening—but then Cheyenne calls to her, with this dumb look on her face like she’s ready to grovel. And Paige goes over to the door; and they get into it. 

Cheyenne says, all sugary, “I just meant she shouldn’t make shit like that up—you know, just for attention. Cause some people really are in, like, crisis and really do need help.”

And we could see it: that Jacqueline might have done it for the attention. She’s a pretty insecure person. She has body image issues, definitely. She’s been dress-coded for really small tube tops and cut-offs cut to the back pockets and she always jokes about how fat she is. And she does, like, crave attention. But you can also tell Jacqueline really thinks she is fat. But she isn’t. 

“Okay,” says Paige, “but so why do you think she wants attention? Maybe cause she’s messed-up and sad?”

That’s when Jacqueline hears them and realizes they’re talking about her. She’s halfway to the volcano and stops and stares at them, and even though she’s already red from the burpees, she gets even redder, sort of glows, like she’s pleased. And we wonder about this, but before we can wonder very long, her face changes—gets all sort of crazed—and she gives Cheyenne this die-stare, and yells, “What do you know?” and marches out into the hall.

Paige looks at Cheyenne and says, “Happy?”

Cheyenne hisses, “What?” like she doesn’t get it. But then, even with her bad ankle, she goes out after Jacqueline. 

Miss Janetti asks Paige what’s going on, and Paige, in a kind of I-told-you-so tone, tells her Cheyenne just bailed on class. Then she sits with Yasmin, and says, “Quit breathing so loud.”


When Jacqueline gets back, just her, Yasmin tries to get us going. She’s always choreographing us, boom boom boom. (She’s a Highland dancer.) But all Paige wants to do is complain about Cheyenne. And Jacqueline shows us this super unflattering pic of Cheyenne limping after her in the tech hall, and then posts it with a caption that says, “Thanks a lot, FOUR BY FOUR” (meaning Cheyenne’s wide thighs), and Paige says, “I’m so sick of that bitch.”

It’s not totally Cheyenne’s fault. Her parents have split and her stepdad’s this creep. He’s super short with a buzz cut, and loves hunting, has these guns. One time we were in Cheyenne’s basement and he came downstairs and he was literally carrying a bunch of guns. We were like, “Oh my God, this is where we get shot.” 

Plus she has OCD. She’s actually on medication for OCD. 

But we don’t disagree with Paige. We’re sick of her too.  


This is when it happens. 

A recording of the secretary Mrs. Martell’s voice over the PA: 

EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, INITIATE LOCKDOWN

We know the chant, there’s already been three lockdown drills this semester. It’s been the big thing this year, what with all the stuff that’s happened at other schools: preparation

So it’s not like there’s even that second of like uh-oh. Like maybe this one’s real. We’re just annoyed. There’s groans and stuff. We don’t even stand up until Miss Janetti starts barking at us, “Okay, okay, you know the drill. Into the costume room.” And that says it all. Drill. And she’s just so calm and so on-it that it’s pretty clear she knew this was coming. The monthly tune-up or whatever. 

“Let’s go, people,” says Miss Janetti, and, “Slow it down, boys,” cause they’re all giddy about it, giddy at the break in having to do work. Like puppies. They’re jumping over blocks, and laughing behind curtains, and trying to spook us with shouts of “Oh, God, they’re coming!” Until Miss Janetti corrals them and we’re finally all squeezed in the costume room together. 

It is a bit eerie in here, once we’ve quieted down, just real still for a second in the dark, every face lit by a phone. But the quiet makes us giggly. The closeness, the smells—dried glue and dust. Pirate cloaks and ballroom dresses tickle our necks. There’s no window, so—except for our phones—the dark’s real intense, and we feel claustrophobic. But it’s funny. 

Someone makes a farting sound and the boys laugh. 

Paige says, “Ugh, is that someone’s feet?”

Miss Janetti whistles at us to shut up four or five times, and finally we do. And then the only sound is Mrs. Martell’s voice: EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, INITIATE LOCKDOWN.

Three minutes in, we’re already bored. Ten minutes and we’re back to annoyed. There’s too many of us in here to even sit down. The whole class, plus Miss Janetti, plus a Grade Twelve who’d been hanging his paintings in the hall outside the theatre for Art Night. 

Except…where’s Cheyenne? Is she in here? 

We’re not sure. 

Jacqueline whispers, “Cheyenne?”

But there’s no answer.

Fifteen minutes and we’re pissed. This is the kind of thing they do to us. They make us ask to go to the bathroom. They give us assignments they gave us last year and even when we say so they tell us we have to do them again. They don’t care if we don’t have a lunch or money for one. If we’re done our work or say we’ll do it later, they still say no phones. 

Twenty minutes and some of us are trying on hats from the hat bin. A joke goes around that we’ll all die of carbon dioxide poisoning (if that’s even a thing) or Jordan Kloostra’s b.o. And it’s not just feet and farts and b.o., now, but breath. Everyone’s breath on everyone else. And our legs are tired, our backs itchy. Our mouths start to go dry, and we’re all thinking it’s gone on a little long for a drill. We’re wondering: what’s going on out there? 

A text from Destiny, who’s in Math on the second floor: Why is it taking so long? From Kennedy, who’s also upstairs, in Spanish: Hear anything? 

So it’s almost a relief when Destiny texts back that she heard someone attempted suicide in one of the portables. 

Who?

?

Some kid tried to kill himself. Portable 7.

Who was it?

Heard it might be Chris Sneyd.

I hate that guy.

A relief, even though we feel bad about it. 

But the lockdown chant keeps going.

And a few minutes later Sara Wu (who we call Wu) gets a text that says there’s a gun on the property. Or at least a knife. Then we all see this, except Jake Grey and Ryota, who are at the back of the costume room near the swords, staring at some game on their phones, and laughing. Miss Janetti shushes them.

We text Destiny: Hear anything about a weapon?

Josh says air rifle.

Some of us know an air rifle’s different from a real rifle and tell the ones who don’t. And this is a relief too. It’s just an air rifle. It’s just a suicide.

Then a text circulates claiming that the cops are here.

Yasmin shows it to Paige. Paige shows it to Jacqueline. 

“But…why?”

“Cause of the gun.”

“I thought it was a suicide.”

“Suicide attempt.”

“They’d come for that, too.”

“Would they?”

A text saying there’s cops in the football field. Another claiming they’re by the portables. Another insisting they’re in SWAT gear. 

“Which is it?”

“What’s SWAT?”

“That can’t be right.”

The Grade Twelve says, “Quiet.”

Jacqueline says, “Shit, for real, guys, anyone seen Cheyenne?” 

And now we’re sure we haven’t. We whisper her name again, and again no response.

“Cheyenne’s fine,” Miss Janetti insists, “everything’s fine.”

So we’re not worried, not really. We trust Miss Janetti, from those scenes she makes us do that sort of pull out our feelings. Paige did a scene about her dead labradoodle, Angel. In Sam Couvrette’s, he pretended he was back at his old school in Windsor, where his dad lives. Plus sometimes Miss Janetti has us lie on the stage and imagine a violet light coursing through our bodies, healing us, making us beautiful and powerful, which gets us so relaxed we almost fall asleep, but not quite. 

So if she says everything’s fine, it must be.

Except the chant goes on. EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY… 

And Miss Janetti’s cool doesn’t last. Her face in the light of her phone looks squeezed. Jake Grey laughs and she hisses at him: “Jesus, shut up, Jake!”

Then Paige leans close and shows us texts: 

A woman cop yelled ANOTHER ONE IS RUNNING BACK IN THE BUILDING. 

Not a lie.

My friend heard it.

“Shit,” says Yasmin. 

“What’s it mean?” says Paige.

And then all of us are thinking maybe it isn’t just a suicide attempt. 

Maybe it’s more than that. 

“What’s it mean?”

“I don’t know.” 

Jacqueline says, “Seriously, guys, where’s Cheyenne?” 

This time we don’t just whisper Cheyenne’s name but sort of bark it, and still she doesn’t answer. And when she doesn’t answer we imagine her out there, alone. 

Maybe knowing more than we do, or less. 

“What’s it mean?” Paige asks again.

Yasmin says, “Is someone actually out there?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” says Jacqueline.  

The Grade Twelve cries, “Shut UP!” 

Miss Janetti muscles into the middle of us, knocking Jordan Kloostra into the Grease rack. “All right, everyone, we’re going to try to keep quiet,” she says, in her violet-light-voice. And we do quiet down. For a minute there’s just the chant and the hard-to-breathe air and our phones. 

Then Yasmin whispers, “Uh, guys?”

“It says shooters,” we whisper. 

“There’s no shooters,” says Miss Janetti. “We don’t know that.”

But everything we’re reading says: Five shooters.

“No,” Miss Janetti says, staring at her own phone, “no.” 

“Guys, guys,” cries Jacqueline, “Cheyenne isn’t texting me back!”

“Jesus, I can’t get through to my mom,” says Paige.

“No phone calls right now, Paige.”

“Shit, guys, we’re on the news.”

Around the costume room ripples a screen-shot from some news site: cops in SWAT gear walking by what looks like the smoking area near the portables.

“God,” says Yasmin. 

Instead of making it sort of cool, this just makes it real. And now we’re wondering how sturdy the costume room door is. And thinking about our moms and dads, our big sisters and little brothers. Thinking about everyone out there. 

Destiny & Kennedy. 

Mr. Lesnick, in Guidance. 

Cheyenne.  

Thinking about crashing out of here, running out the side doors.

“Oh my God,” Jacqueline says, but she doesn’t say why. 

Soon we all read it: Shots in the guidance office. And again we think of Mr. Lesnick—how he always wears shorts, even in winter. How he jams his thumb between our shoulder blades on our way out of class and says, “Stand up straight!” And his stupid licence plate: L. Nick.

Then, from Kennedy: Someone says a math teacher was shot.

“Oh my God,” Jacqueline says again. “Oh my God,” says Yasmin. Paige flaps her hands in a panic. Jacqueline says, “Guys…Cheyenne…where is she?”

Maybe cowering in a stairwell.

Maybe hiding in a bathroom stall with her feet pulled up onto the toilet.  

We imagine it. We imagine it. 

That’s when the chant stops. The silence is horrible. This horrible not-silence.

“Is it over?” says Jake Grey.

“SHUT UP!” says the Grade Twelve.

“It’s not over,” says Miss Janetti. “It’s on a loop. It must have stopped on its own.”

“Unless someone stopped it,” says Yasmin. 

“Like who?” says Paige. 

“I thought it was a suicide,” says Jacqueline.

Without the chant, we can hear things. Noises through the vents, bodies shoved against the costume racks. We listen for someone coming. 

And there are other sounds muffled by the door. Faint poppings, scattery footsteps.

Sara Zilinski says, “Do you hear that? Do you hear that?”

“Oh, God…Jesus,” wails Jacqueline. 

And we feel something now that we hadn’t quite, not fully. Not until now. Not wanting to, in front of everyone. Not wanting, desperately, at the corners of our minds, to go there. 

We’re scared. 

So scared. 

All of us, together, so scared. 

But together doesn’t matter now. You can only be scared alone. 

Jacqueline’s scared.

Paige is scared.

Yasmin’s scared.

I am.

This can’t really be happening.

Isn’t happening. 

It’s a drill. A suicide. A prank. A false alarm. 

Can’t be. 

I am. 

Isn’t. 

Is.

“Let me out of here,” says Paige, in a terrible voice, a baby bird voice, like maybe not sure she wants it.

Sara Zilinski screams, “Let us out!”

“Just quiet!” barks Miss Janetti, all her cool gone. “QUIET!”

Other sounds: wild thrown voices, slapping steps approaching fast, a crazy rattle like someone’s working the theatre door.

“NOW, NOW!” cries Sara Zilinski, meaning we don’t know what. 

Jake Grey whines, “When’s it going to be over?” 

Paige gives up on the door and staggers to the back of the costume room, trips over the hat bin, sinks right down into it. 

The chant starts up, ten times louder, it seems. 

EMERGENCY…EMERGENCY…

Jake Grey whines again, his voice rising over it, “When’s it going to be OVER?” 

From the hat bin, Paige shrieks at him, “FUCKING SHUT UP!”

She looks insane. She wriggles to climb out of the hat bin, face flushed like after the most sadistic warm-up ever. She gets to her feet finally and shushes us all like a freak. “Shush, shhhhh, shush-shush-shush, shhhhhhhhhhhhh!” 

We all shift to one side of the room, away from her. 

“What?” she hisses. “What? What what?”

And then, so quiet it’s almost a mime: “ARE YOU FILMING ME?”

Cause we were. 

The chant stops again. We listen, like holding our breaths. It’s one of those times when you’re fully, truly, you know, there. Like wide awake. Ready to break out into who knows what. To shove each other against the door like shields.

The principal, Mr. Hardwick, speaks into the P.A. “The lockdown is finished,” he says, “and since it’s almost final bell, we’re going to cancel last period.” 

And we know it’s over, it’s over this time for real. 

Still no one moves. 


Then we’re laughing, but only sort of laughing, and shoving hard against each other to get out. 

“Be safe,” Miss Janetti says as we pass into the cool air of the theatre, “be safe.” 

We burst into the hall, all of us as one. The school pouring out around us, gathering in groups, sharing theories. Later we find out that that kid Chris Sneyd did have a gun—a real gun, not an air rifle—in his locker. And when he was caught with it, by Mr. Hardwick or whoever, he took it to an empty portable and locked himself inside. No one could agree on whether he tried to kill himself in there (or at least threatened to); and no one knew where the idea of five shooters came from. Cause a kid with a gun locked in a portable was plenty enough. 

Right after it happens we know none of this. But we don’t care. At least for now, at least for a little while, we’re not thinking about things that don’t matter. Only things that do.

We were stuck in the costume room so long we totally missed Fifth Period and the home bell’s gone and some of us run to get our buses, which’ll take us home. We go looking for friends, call our parents. Jacqueline sobs, or pretends to sob. Paige demands that she stop. Yasmin walks off, to nowhere really, wondering what it would have been like. Imagining it. And then—at last!—here’s Cheyenne—okay, alive—and we feel not just guilty but gross about what we did, especially when she acts like everything’s good between us, everything just as it used to be, and hugs us and hugs Jacqueline, and they really do sob. 

This is how it is. 

Later, near Guidance, we bump into Owen Mawbey, and ask how he’s doing. We don’t know Owen Mawbey that well, we’ve never really given much thought to him being happy or sad or anything. But we stop when we see him standing there by the water fountain cause he looks sort of dazed, and say, “Hey, Owen, you okay?”

He looks up like he doesn’t recognize us and then shakes his head. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “I’m okay, I’m good. But that was crazy. I heard one of them had a Glock.”

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