Be Aware of Your Surroundings

It was Christmas eve 2018, Wellington Green Mall was packed with last-minute holiday shoppers and boisterous kids waiting to meet Santa inside a makeshift snow globe. My twin brothers and I were three of those last-minute holiday shoppers. There’s something about the holiday season that makes the days feel bubbly and warmer, and that Christmas was no exception. Up until it wasn’t bubbly and warm anymore. 

This was the year I learned the importance and need to always be aware of your surroundings. 

The mall closed at 5:00 that day, so at 4:30, everyone scurried trying to find last minute deals for last-minute gifts. My brothers and I had just finished buying the last gifts of our shopping spree in a small antique store where we bought comical gifts to play White Elephant that evening with our family. We rushed back to the food court to eat something before it closed. One of my brothers, Maigel, skipped out on the food court and went to Macy's to buy another gift. My other brother, Mateo, and I began ordering our food when I received a call from my cousin. She asked me to buy a gift at a store before it closed because she couldn't make it on time.

I left Mateo sitting at one of the tables as I walked out of the food court to make one last purchase. The next couple of minutes are those that are engraved in my mind, even today. I walked out of the food court with no care in the world, looking down at my phone as I scrolled through Instagram. This simple mistake was one that changed my life. As I absentmindedly scrolled through social media, I missed the chaos that was unraveling around me.

It wasn’t until someone rammed into my shoulder that I finally unglued my eyes from my phone and saw what was happening around me. It was like zoning back into a war zone. Around me, people were screaming at the top of their lungs and running like crazy. The second I took in what was going on around me, my first instinct was to run back to my brother to get him.

But that was when the first gunshot went off. 

It’s like no sound I’ve ever heard. The worst part was I had no idea which way it was coming. I wasn’t sure if it was a bomb or a gunshot. I remember feeling like I was going to pass out, and like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I started running aimlessly, but I had no idea which way to run because everyone around me was running in different directions. I ran to the nearest place I could hide, which just so happened to be a jewelry store. If this had been an armed robbery, my hiding place was not it.

At this point, I’m crouching behind a counter alongside seven other strangers. My hands are shaking, so much so it makes it so hard to grab my phone. I try calling Mateo, but I misdial the first 5 times because of my trembling hands. I call him about 15 times, and he still doesn't answer. This makes me even more nervous. I finally get a hold of him and tell him to hide in the bathroom. My brother is so in shock that he couldn’t speak more than two words over the phone. All he kept repeating was, “I can't."

Suddenly, a new wave of people running appears but this time everyone starts running out of the mall back towards the food court. I muster the last bit of courage and strength I had in my body, that at this point just felt like jelly. I follow the crowd, but instead of running out of the mall, I run back into the food court to find my brother. 

Mateo is standing in the center of the food court by himself. His eyes are fixated on the body of a woman hyperventilating on the ground. His face is eerily pale, his gaze is empty. There are only 4 people in the food court at this moment, my brother, the woman on the floor, the man helping her, and me.

I run to my brother and practically drag him out of the food court. Shocked by the events that have taken place, he can't even move. Somehow throughout all this, my other brother Maigel found us and met us back at the food court. He too, had no idea of what was happening around him because he was on the second floor and the other side of the mall. Since he had his headphones plugged in, he never even heard the gunshot. The three of us ran out together to see the scene unfold outside with the police, and we were finally safe. 

The police received a tip that two men were inside the mall, what was supposed to be a quick arrest turned out to be shooting when the two men were discovered to be armed. 

We live in a world constantly moving at 100 mph, where everyone you pass throughout the day has their own story and baggage. In the times we’re living in, not only do we need to be educated on specific topics, but we need to be physically present at the moment. You never know what's going on around you until you disconnect from the internet realm and take a closer look at the physical world we live in. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad people in this world. People who put their wants or issues above the safety of others. This is why we have to be careful and be present. 

I could’ve seen the chaos taking place before me way before I did if I had put my phone in my pocket. Maigel would've known there was trouble happening on the floor below him if he had taken his earphones out. It’s a lesson I learned and try to live by today, for my safety and the safety of those around me. However, just as we need to take a look around to be safe, it's also nice to disconnect, really take in where you’re at, and enjoy the moment. 

A piece of advice from me to you: put your phone down and take a look at your surroundings.