TALLAHASSEE — On the day of his speech at the State Capitol, Ronny Ahmed wakes alone with a hard knot of pain under his rib cage and no one to help knead it.
The caregiver must be late. No time to shower, then. Not much time to prepare. In his wheelchair by the TV, by a table cluttered with pill bottles and Nintendo controllers, Ronny scrolls on his phone, trying to pin down how much the National Rifle Association spends in politics. Maybe better to hedge. Who's listening, anyway?
He's newly 25, shiny birthday balloons still floating in the living room, and three and a half years into his paraplegic life, the one that began with a few bullets outside the Florida State University library in 2014.
The old version of Ronny wasn't sought out for his thoughts on guns. That Ronny liked to do magic tricks and walk barefoot to class to see people's reactions. He was going to graduate in 2015.
This Ronny, graduation date TBD, wheels up the ramp into his special van and hauls his paralyzed legs into the driver's seat. He presses down on his thighs to calm the spasms.
His service dog, Marino, a yellow lab, slumps in the backseat, panting.
In the budding April heat, Ronny drives past the brick halls and garnet bus stops of FSU's campus, past the bike racks and the trees draped in Spanish moss. The Capitol rises up ahead.
Ronny's already counting the faces in the crowd, worrying about how he'll get up the steps.
He only agrees to these speeches because he doesn't want to let people down. The world wants a certain kind of survivor.
• • •
It was around midnight, in the last stretch before winter finals. Inside the fluorescent Strozier Library, Ronny typed up Physics II equations. "Wanna go out for a cigarette?" a friend asked, and they stepped out into the chill.
Ronny had finished his smoke when he heard a pop and saw someone rounding the bushes with silver in his hand. He saw the man's hard-set face and watched him aim. Pop. Pop. Ronny's legs gave out.
"Call 911," Ronny said from the ground, and his friend dialed and ran, leaving Ronny alone with the operator.
There's been a shooting, he remembers saying. Send help.
Was anyone shot?
Ronny lifted his right arm. It hung shattered, like jelly. He wanted to talk to his mom. Blood trickled between the bricks in right angles.
Is this really happening? Is this how I'm going to f-----g die?
He thought about how expensive a funeral would be.
On the edge of his vision, officers cornered the gunman and screamed, "Freeze, drop your weapon!" A ripple of shots broke out. He would learn later that the gunman, an alumnus suffering from paranoia, was killed. He'd learn two others were hurt, but not like him.
First responders loaded him into an ambulance. The roads were blocked, and still more cop cars were arriving, so the ambulance bumped over curbs. That's when Ronny started to scream.
• • •
First came the crush of attention. The football team wanted to visit, but they were celebrities, so Ronny declined. He deactivated his Facebook page in a deluge of friend requests. People called him a hero. They changed their statuses to say "FSU Strong."
Friends came, but they were awkward, some in hysterics, and Ronny realized he would have to be their guide.
He told them about the first bullet, which paralyzed him from the waist down. He told them about the second, which collapsed his lung, broke two ribs, damaged the nerves in his right hand and stopped just before his heart.
Within a week, all the calluses Ronny had built up in his barefoot years disintegrated, flaking from his unfeeling feet onto the bed.
• • •
It's almost 10 a.m., two days before the speech. Ronny is groaning in his narrow bed, a yellow blanket shrouding his mop of greasy black hair. The dark room smells of sweat and animals. Ronny's caregiver, Blaine Howze, a lanky, tattooed 23-year-old, unwraps a catheter and snaps on rubber gloves.
Though Ronny has lost feeling below his waist, pain still overwhelms him. He wakes with kidneys bursting and muscles aching. In his stomach, where scar tissue lumps have formed, the cramps make him want to tear out his own organs.
"Can you try to massage my side?" Ronny asks. He braces himself as Howze works gently. Above the bed is a portrait of Ronny holding a flame. A friend painted it after the shooting.
Marino chews one of Ronny's rubber-soled slippers.
Time drips like this, and this is when Ronny most wants to be dead, when his Sisyphean efforts to endure feel like they'll never be enough. When a speech seems like a joke.
"How about I get you up so we can get ready to go to that appointment?" Howze finally asks.
It's a two-and-a-half hour drive today to the University of Florida for quick injections in Ronny's hip muscles.
"Fifteen minutes," Ronny says, strangled by the pain he finds so hard to translate. "Two more minutes. Three more minutes."
• • •
Before, he crocheted. He whittled wood and played piano. He taught himself to breathe fire and take apart circuit boards. He climbed Kilimanjaro and became an Eagle Scout. He knew all the secret places the deer gathered at Wekiwa Springs. He cared for run-over turtles.
He was an outsider, the brown-skinned son of Bangladeshi immigrants at a largely white, Christian school in Orlando. "Fat," some kids called him. "Gay." "Weird." He got used to the stares, but suffered from depression. He fought with his parents about his bad grades until he got an A and realized such things were possible.
Florida State was a way out. He didn't party. He chose biomedical engineering so he could keep building things, and mostly, so he could help people.
• • •
The day before the speech, Ronny slouches in half to rest on his desk in his physics classroom. The professor paces in sneakers, discussing the merits of Technetium-99m and quizzing the class on how long a certain radioactive tracer should last in medical scans.
"What would you like this half-life to be?" Professor Peng Xiong asks. "Ronny?"
"Longer, a couple of days, perhaps," the professor says.
Students type, while in the back row, Ronny breathes heavily, using his fist to work the lump in his side. His leg quakes involuntarily, and he fans himself with a spiral notebook. One of his tattoos, an illustration of the bullet wound on his upper arm, peeks out from his sleeve.
He had tried a full course load after the shooting but struggled to keep pace with lectures and assignments, often falling asleep in the first minutes of class. That full load dwindled to half, then to this semester's single course. Graduation day hovers sometime in 2021 — a decade from the day Ronny arrived as a freshman.
Xiong asks why wearing lead is important in radiation.
"Absorbs energy," Ronny says, muffled.
"Absorbs energy," he says again when the professor doesn't hear.
The professor has hardly finished briefing the class on the final when Ronny is shoving through the heavy door and throttling toward his car.
"This is the least amount of pain I've been in and I still can't live with this," he spits. At a red light he exhales, hard.
After the shooting came 10 pain medications and three surgeries and a fleet of specialists for his bladder, stomach and brain. There were colonoscopies and ultrasounds in doctors' offices from Miami to Jacksonville.
Caregivers arrived and left, even the one who promised he'd always be by Ronny's side. His friends disappeared into marriages and babies.
In the early days, strangers cornered him in the gym to say, "I saw you on the news," or, "Let me buy you a drink." Ronny sometimes followed up, but his texts would go unanswered.
He doesn't get stopped so much anymore.
His mother, Rashida, quit her day care job to come live with him. His dad is still running convenience stores back in Orlando. Rashida says people have left her son behind.
"He's still here. He exists. Something happened to him," she says. "He needs to be acknowledged."
• • •
Now he plays Fortnite, his avatar bounding through shipping crates with a pickaxe.
He washes down a muscle relaxer with Original Ensure.
He snaps at Howze for picking out the wrong T-shirt.
He escapes to physical therapy, to the women who ask about his classes and dig their fingers into his stomach to release the tension there. It's the one place where people ask nothing of him, and on his way out, they say, "Love you."
He used to be self-conscious of his body, but now there is only the fact of it, his sore muscles and his bowels that sometimes loose themselves and leave him soiled.
He's suing the university he still attends for what his attorney calls inadequate security and FSU calls "the horrific acts of a deranged person."
He joins protests in front of the governor's office, tired of scrolling through Reddit only to learn of a new massacre and new victims he knows will be left behind when the next one comes.
He says, "What's the benefit of talking anymore? What am I going to do, say the same exact thing I said before?"
He still agrees to more speeches.
He can't focus on physics at home, so he goes to Strozier Library, at the foot of FSU's green-quilted quad.
He wheels up a spiral ramp, not far from the spot he was shot.
• • •
It's an hour until the speech. Ronny takes an elevator, then wheels onto the top ledge of the Historic Capitol steps. A hot breeze ruffles the candy-striped awnings. His right leg trembles.
He looks out onto the broad brick courtyard, at the towering Capitol flanked by the House and Senate buildings.
It's one year shy of the 20th anniversary of Columbine, and few dozen high schoolers gather on the middle steps, where Ronny can't go, raising signs: I SHOULD BE WRITING MY COLLEGE ESSAY, NOT MY WILL.
Alone behind the posterboard, Ronny can barely see out to the audience of three dozen scattered below. Marino's fur clings to his pants.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who's running for governor, speaks first, declaring that he has students' backs. The students chant: Vote them out!
A stocky protester in pinched red sunglasses holds a sign: "PROTECT THE 2nd AMENDMT!"
The heat builds. A Pulse nightclub survivor recites the names of the students killed at Columbine, and a couple with a tiny dog stops to listen. There's another "vote them out" chant. Ronny takes a deep breath. He bites his lip.
Finally, the students sit down to let him talk.
In his dispassionate way, he begins: "On November 20th, 2014, I was studying for finals." He tells them about the pop and the bullets still inside his body.
Whew, a woman sighs. A shutter clicks.
"Even three and a half years later now, I am still learning how to live with this new life," he says calmly. "The reason I'm saying all of this is that I need everyone to understand that the only purpose for a gun is to kill."
Ronny talks about the NRA and its lobbying. Major corporations, he says, pump millions into our politics, pitting us against each other. He has so much more to say — about dirty money and broken systems and how nobody should have to fight so hard to live half of a normal life in the so-called greatest country on Earth — but feels he should keep it short.
"We all want to be healthy and prosper," he says.
The students raise their signs.
• • •
Ronny rubs Marino's ear. He's thinking that he stuttered twice. He's thinking that this was probably his worst speech so far.
Another student has just named the Columbine students again when the Rev. Derrick Mercer takes the mic. His voice thunders.
"If one is in pain," he says, "then we all are in pain."
Ronny's still not sure what difference these sound bites make. But in his relief that his part is over, he lets the reverend's conviction wash over him. He lets himself feel that all of this effort has to be adding up to something. Just like his nights in the library and unbearable hours with doctors. He has to believe that things won't always be like this. He has to believe, at least in this moment, that he can make a difference.
When it's over, the high schoolers bound down the Capitol steps with adolescent righteousness. A few people clap Ronny on the back.
"Great story," one man says.
When the well-wishers have left, Ronny and Marino turn back toward the doors to take the long way down.
Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.