By Emily K Harrington
It’s midnight, and I’m half-heartedly picking up around the house with Conservative propaganda in the background. Keeping tabs on the likes of Tucker Carlson and Nick Fuentes makes me feel like a super-spy and gives me the illusion of being protected from the evil they promote, since I’ll know where they’re headed next if I keep paying attention. State propaganda vs. pure hatred. I don’t know which is worse. In this moment, picking up socks and putting away cereal, I rest in a comfortable mental space. The White Nationalists are up to their monkey-business, but I’m smug in my sense of being one step ahead. The more I learn about the ways the world works, the more in control I feel, and I take comfort wherever I find it. Picking up socks and resting in moral superiority is my peaceful existence in this moment.
Plugging in my computer to take a break from my less-than-vigorous cleaning, I hear loud popping sounds. They sound like they’re right next door, and I can’t tell whether they were several large fireworks or something more sinister. I quickly shut off the tv and mute my computer, and sit in silence for a long and tense pause, listening for clues. I expect to hear neighbors laughing and yelling drunkenly if it was fireworks or screaming if someone was shot, but there are no sounds. I wait for sirens and wonder if anyone else heard it. My hackles are raised, and my body prepares for crisis. Am I overreacting to be this freaked out? I question calling the cops, because many people in my neighborhood are undocumented immigrants, and I don’t want to put anyone in danger if it’s not a true emergency. No sounds. Should I text my dad and ask his opinion about calling the police? It’s so late. I don’t want to wake him up.
Still no sirens. Must have been fireworks.
I slog back to cleaning and think to take out the trash and change the cat litter. I take the garbage can and litter box out on the front lawn, and the moment I see the red and blue lights flashing, I get a lump in my throat and a tingle of adrenaline fills my body. I’m ready to fight, freeze, or flee, but I have no idea which response is warranted. All I know is that what I heard was indeed gunfire, and now there are four police vehicles blocking off my street. They came with their lights on but sirens silent. This is clearly a specific police practice that I can’t interpret, and the human reaction to preserve the self makes me fearful. I mentally replay the sounds I heard, starting out with two loud pops, and then a string of pops right on top of one another, almost making one continuous sound. I don’t know much about guns, but I do know what a semi-automatic can do.
I really, really wish it had been fireworks.
I go to my neighbor’s house. There are always teenage boys hanging out in the front yard, so they are the premier source of information about the goings-on of our street. Sure enough, one of them saw what happened: he said that a car pulled up to the stop sign and another car pulled up next to it at a strange angle, blasted the first car, and took off.
I want to walk up to the scene. I need to know what’s happening. It’s the human instinct. It’s the same reason all my neighbors are on their lawns, even at midnight, creeping closer to the scene bit by bit. I know that nearly every person in my life would chide me for not reacting by going inside, locking the doors, turning off the lights, and staying in the back of the house until sunrise, but fuck that. I’m an independent badass bitch, not a frail delicate flower who is always at risk when walking alone. No shooter would voluntarily come back to a police-laden crime scene if their target was a specific person in a car. That sounds like gang-violence, not a lone-wolf rampage. I trust my judgment. I go back to my house, get my keys and pepper spray, and lock the door behind me on my way out.
I walk up the sidewalk of my dark street toward the scene, slowly. I watch my footfalls and step only on bare concrete. I avoid stepping in the dry leaves that crunch and could bring attention to my presence. My pepper spray is in my pocket so that the police don’t think that I’m approaching them with a weapon. I get to the second house on the block, and I can hardly see from all the flashing lights. There is a large white light projected at the lawn and porch of a house where a policeman talks to a man and a woman. The man has his hands over his mouth and is rocking back and forth. The woman keeps looking between the man and the cop. Please, god, or whoever is listening, please let those people be frightened instead of grieving.
The dead and dying leaves in the trees above and on the ground below rustle and whisper, creating perfect white noise, which makes this entire unsettling scene silent from where I stand. I shudder as my insides harden. There are a dozen numbered, yellow, triangular plastic markers scattered on the ground, and an official is methodically taking pictures of each one. I think I see the reflection of light off of a hand open on the ground, but the police vehicles obstruct my view. Surely not. Surely that’s not a body. There is no ambulance. How long do the police wait to call an ambulance after someone is murdered? I know that the police don’t move a body until the entire scene is documented, but my knowledge ends there.
I try to comfort myself with the assumption that if there was a person murdered, the ambulance would have come to pronounce him dead. That has to be policy. Yes, of course it is. It must be. The man rocking back and forth on his porch is anxious, not sobbing. The police are photographing shell casings, not blood.
Our bodies are designed to protect us from bad choices, and there is little else to learn from here. The bright, strobing blue and red lights are blinding. My instincts send me home. I walk back in silence, avoiding the leaves and this time not saying anything to the teenage neighbor boys I pass, who are still watching the scene from their front yard. It’s too somber. I believe we all share the deep rift in trust in the safety of our neighborhood, our street, our homes.
Back inside, I lock the door behind me. It’s now midnight, and I’ve got what feels like enough adrenaline to last me for days. I probably won’t sleep. Any big imbalances in my brain, even those caused by real-life situations, have substantial consequences for me as a disabled mentally ill person.
I try to find a lesson here, and there’s not one. I wish I could say something snappy and political about ending gun violence, intervening in gang recruiting of young people, ameliorating the poverty that often lies at the root of that gang violence, or working to treat national mental health. I’ve got nothing. This is something that happened. I don’t know if any government action could have prevented it. At this point, I don’t even know what “this” really is.
I’m left unsatisfied, uncomforted, and unnerved. There is no action to take. This had nothing to do with me. I was simply in close enough proximity to hear semi-automatic fire and see red and blue lights strobing through my curtains for 2 hours or more. I have questions about what the consequences of that one second of rapid fire were. Maybe it will make the morning paper. Maybe not. I’m not sure how common or uncommon this is for our police department. Please, universe, let this be uncommon.
Gun violence is a cancer. You treat cancer by eradicating it down to the last cell. There is no realistic way to do that with guns. Are we doomed to become a more and more violent nation? Will this cancer just make us more and more sick? I’ve heard gunshots all my life, but I had never seen a motionless hand on the pavement before directly after those gunshots. It may have been a trick of the eyes.
And honestly, I really don’t want to know for sure.