The Conservation of Matter


It’s been five years today, and I’ve spent the whole gray morning glued to the archived videos of her, interviewed in the eye of chaos on the Blacksburg evening news.

She’s unmistakable—head shaved into a pearl, fishing-line eyebrows penciled in darkly, ears flashing their dozen bright piercings—and here we are, surviving eighth grade all over again: the D.C. suburbs seething with acned punks, our mohawks spiked with Elmer’s and dish soap, cheap Christmas-gift guitars nicked with pocket knives we’d used the year before as Cub Scouts.

I spend entire nights tearing holes in filthy t-shirts, scrawling in black Sharpie all-caps FUCKs into the fabric—after school we head to Flamer’s basement to scream into a tape recorder, the cassette’s memory Scotch-taped over to repurpose as our own.

Guerrilla middle-schoolers studying the differences between drill bits in the wood shop, fooling around in the band room until we miss the bus and our moms are called to please come and get us, pissy and silent.

We mock the JV lacrosse jocks behind their backs, compose long suicide notes in sneering ugly dictions—and Erin is the best of us at this.

Six foot three in leather knee-highs, mesh tanks and fishnets, white as powdered sugar.

Afternoons, she works the mall’s makeup kiosk, blows every paycheck on drag wigs and liquor; blanketed in safety pins, she can do any idiot thing she wants, and does—fucks German punks her older sister knows and pastes self-built websites with faux-glamour softcore shots—all of it, breasts barely covered by a broken snare drum.

And still she never misses class, sits listening, attentive as a cat beneath a birdcage.

She shrugs, pulls on a pilfered Parliament, tells us she’s working from inside to shake up all the bullshit, and we believe her.

Why not? You learn to remember stunning figures like that, to take the contradictions and package them into image and dazzling recollection.

So maybe it’s providence, some tricky god of symmetry, that has her in the classroom the gunman comes to first, her body barricaded against the heavy wooden door, mind clear as polished glass—she moves her classmates to the wall, huddles them beneath the blackboard, recruiting two to shoulder with her against the door the maniac whispers through, throws his hip and rifle butt against; he empties a round through the wall before moving like water down the hallway.

And she is so colossal, so stored in my memory’s molded shoebox, that today I’m watching all the major networks thrust mics at her, five years in the past—like time can pass so quickly, horror patched that fast—and still all I know of her is black lipstick and leather, a steel bar through cartilage, anarchist in a stilt-limbed frame.

And I’ve never had a reason to believe in patterns, in the little things returning, but maybe I will learn to—how everything changes, and nothing ever does.

Brad Efford

Brad Efford was a finalist for Shenandoah’s Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets in 2012. His work can be found in jmww, ShadowboxOxford MagazineThe FiddlebackMonkeybicycle, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Hollins University and teaches middle-school boys in Richmond, VA. Find him online at