The scissors follow the black marker path through the cardboard. My fingers are twisted into the tiny handles and every cut crushes my fingers, grinding scissor-handle-shaped grooves into my joints.
A shuffle of steps overhead. My father is on the hunt for a midnight snack. I freeze like a prey animal before I have the good sense to shut the light off. The flickering bar of light above me dies.
I crouch down there in the dark and wait for the noise to stop. When it seems quiet, I lean forward to press my ear to the crack in the closet door. A splinter stabs me in the cheek, and I pull back.
My cheek is wet when I touch it.
It hurts to blink, but he keeps blinking because all he can see is black, black, black like oil in the drinking water, like drowned crows, like so much blood in the dark.
None of the screaming voices sound like Mama. They wail and shout, words crashing against each other like ocean waves of “God, God, God!”
But where is he? He blinks and blood slides from the corners of his stinging eyes. Where are you, God?
“Can you hear me? Nod your head if you can hear me!”
His lips, encrusted with dust and ash, split when he peels them apart. “Mama.”
A cold, wet hand squeezes his arm. Another brushes back his hair, dusts off the ash, runs a slick thumb across his forehead.
“I'm here,” she says, and the tears in her voice put tears in his eyes, but it hurts, sets them afire, making him cry more. “I'm here, baby.”
“It hurts. It hurts.”
“God! God! God!”
He raises his hands to cover his ears but they don't come, and his bloody wrists touch his cheeks, attached to nothing.
The corners of his mouth tear when his screams join the others. Cresting over them all is his mother's wail as she tips her head back to the sky that betrayed them, that wept fire and Hell on a rainless Earth.
She shouted at the faceless men behind the bombs, “Is he Osama?”
The light flickers back on, the scissors start cutting. I let my cheek bleed.
I pull the peace sign free of the cardboard and inspect it. It's already bent, and the top isn't quite as rounded as it should be. But what the Hell.
I stand up too fast, slamming my head on the wood ceiling. Dead spiders shiver on dusty webs. I press my hand on the blooming bruise and bite back a curse. I close my eyes and grit my teeth and wait for the vision.
His first mistake was crossing to the other side of the street.
He walked with his hood down, his hands stiff at his sides. Never in his pockets, especially around the police. And always with his sleeves rolled down to his wrists, to hide the tattoo.
When he had the tattoo done, stinging but done and beautiful and permanent, his mother had cried.
"What's wrong with you?" he had demanded at the foot of her wheelchair. "It's just a picture. I wanted it done and I got it. I paid for it, just like how I pay the bills and buy your medicine. And as soon as I get something for myself, I'm evil?"
“No.” She buried her face in her hands. “I know you're not evil. But the police don't.” Her dark brown fingers slightly opened, making gaps for her eyes. “They don’t, son.”
She clutched him then, clung to him like he was the only solid thing left for her to lean on.
"Don't leave me," she begged, holding him with all the strength in her shriveled skeleton arms. “Please, son. Please.”
“I won't,” he promised. “I'll be careful.”
When he went out to buy his mother's prescription pills, he wore long sleeves. It was June and sweltering, and he was starting to think his red hoodie was attracting more attention than the tattoo would have.
He saw the car before anything else. That was when he had decided to cross to the other side of the street. His mama's pills clattered around in his pocket. What would happen to him if they found him with drugs?
He wasn’t sure when he started running－ was it before or after they shouted at him?－ but once he started he didn’t stop. They kept after him, shouting at him to cease and desist, put his hands over his head, and he even though he put his hands up he didn’t stop running and the pills were bouncing around in their white plastic bottle.
His mama would explain. She would tell them they weren’t drugs. They wouldn’t touch her, not an old woman in a wheelchair…
The apartment door slammed against the wall as he barreled inside. Footsteps thundered behind him.
His mama raised her hands as he ran past her. “Davey－”
A crash. The old woman spilled from her wheelchair, her broken body curling like a dying spider.
Davey whirled around at the same time the officer raised the gun.
The angel on his arm took a bullet to the heart.
The peace sign goes under my left arm, the gasoline cans hugged by my right. I wrestle the closet door open and leave the light on behind me, tiptoe-running to the back door. The screen bangs behind me. I flinch and look back, expecting the light in my parents’ room to turn on. It doesn’t.
I keep moving.
Moths flirt with the lamp posts that light my path. The sleeping town echoes with the claps of the peeling soles of my shoes against the pavement. Whatever isn’t illuminated by the street light is outlined by the moon.
My feet carry me to the plaza, taking me over the steps two at a time. When I get to the top of the pavilion, my body freezes. It’s cold, but my hands are sweaty and shaking.
There are two of me in one body, and only one can get what they want. Never both.
I want to go back to bed and forget everything.
I want to save the world.
One life can’t change anything. The world has buried the dead in numbers and statistics to big to understand, too vast and confusing for anyone to care. Humans can care－ and I mean care, as in care enough to cry for－ about seven to nine dead at a time, tops, if they know them well enough. Humans can wrap their heads around nine loved ones.
But a hundred strangers? Five hundred? A billion?
Me, I’m cursed. I can see the numbers and statistics because my pain is replaced by theirs, replaced and amplified a hundredfold. My knee scrapes, beatings. Paper cuts, betrayals. I knew the meaning of genocide when I fell off a peach tree and broke my arm. A curse is a curse is a curse. My imprecation is my injury is your pain.
I put down the cans of gasoline and prop the peace sign against the wall of the pavilion.
Before I can change my mind, I dump the gasoline over my head. I toss it to the side with a clang and dump the other one. Even though I try not to breathe, the acrid stuff burns my nostrils. I reach into my back pocket for my lighter. Its metal corners bite into my palm as I lie down.
The other me is dead, drowned by the gasoline, replaced with a hush that is almost soothing. I fold my hands over my chest, lighter cradled in my fingers.
I flick the lighter to life.
I carry a peace sign as I march to the pavilion with my parents, brothers, and sisters. There is a pregnant woman with her big belly out, and on it are the painted words ‘ALL LIVES MATTER’. To my side is an old man wearing a red cap with white letters proclaiming, ‘MAKE RACISM WRONG AGAIN’.
We place signs and flowers at the site of death－ my death, but not just mine. Last night, a child stole out of their home and set themselves aflame in protest of everything. Racism. War. Sexism. Homophobia. Xenophobia.
They took on my burden and were crushed. In their final moments, I lived in them.
I place my peace sign next to theirs and bow my head, mourning. The child's mother looks at me, and her face flickers with perplexed recognition. She asks me my name.
I tell her.