Photograph by Michael Howarth (2023)
She is allowed only five minutes, two weapons, and non-lethal tactics. No blows to the head, neck, or torso, but slaps on the face are allowed. Nothing sharp that is larger than a screwdriver, and nothing with a serrated edge. They recommend a standard baseball bat, either wooden or metal. Perhaps a lighter, though no lighter fluid is allowed. Blunt objects are encouraged. She chooses carefully, looking over the entirety of her tool shed. She goes with a hammer and a nail.
Guards wave her past the first few security doors, thick and inorganic and bullet-proof. She wonders how many people have passed through these doors clean and emerged dripping with blood. She scours the floors for rusty stains, proof of violence. There’s none. She silently commends the cleaning crew.
There are pat downs, rules and regulations read, a waiver dismissing them of any legal trouble should she come out the other end with psychological damage. They ask her if she’s seen the necessary instructional tapes. She has.
“Honestly, I think they’re a little conservative”, one of the burly slate-eyed guards says while she signs more paperwork, initials here, whorls her Ls there. “I’ve seen people take hits way worse than they show to the spine and live. If you aim right for the middle and only swing with your elbow, not the whole shoulder—but what do I know, right?”
She’s not sure if she’s expected to laugh, or even if he’s told a joke at all. Regardless, the hammer is weighed, the nail measured, a final pat-down and orifice check conducted, and then she’s there. In front of the final door. It slides open with a grim finality.
He’s in front of her now. Hands bound and lashed together behind the steel chair. His buzzed hair has grown out a little, just enough to give his skull the patchy effect of a drought-addled lawn. His tattoos are distinctive enough to send her careening. An iron cross, a snake twining around it. It hadn’t finished healing when he was arrested, and has since grown red and irritated. His eyes are puffy, deep-set into a pale face still clinging to its baby fat. Just eighteen. Old enough to be tried as an adult in a court of law. Old enough to buy a gun, to drive a car to an apartment complex, to jimmy the lock of a first floor window. His chin touches his collarbone in a sick mockery of shame, or perhaps fear. She was never really good at reading the nuances of human emotion, not even when it seeped onto a guilty face.
The door slams behind her. Her heart is rabbiting everywhere in her body, in her wrist, her face, her neck, which pulses with an unnaturally organic warmth. She’s far away from herself now, and it’s someone else whose footsteps fall heavy until she’s inches from his face. He’s got these slanted eyes that curve downwards, like they’re tears falling off his face. Lips so thin and chapped they’re nearly nonexistent, save for a scabbed stripe that reached towards his chin. She’s never been this close to a murderer, and she finds herself surprised that he has pores. Little craters in his skin where the acne scars never quite healed. She pictures in her mind this lanky
sonofabitch lilting into school, hunched under a backpack twice his weight and width, scratching and picking at his greasy face. Her stomach turns.
“Are you scared?” she whispers.
His face doesn’t so much as twitch. His silvery-blue eyes stay locked on the ground. She wonders if they told him who she is. What he took from her.
She rears a hand back and slaps him across the face, uncut nails first. She can feel where her claws dig into his cheek, where thin red stripes stretch catlike through his skin. There’s the barest red seep of first blood.
“I asked you a question. Are you scared?” she enunciates her words like she’s talking to a child.
His head turned away from her, and he swallows his saliva. His eyebrows are pulled together. There’s the barest line of tension in his body. He still doesn’t respond.
“Has your mom come to visit you at all? Huh?”
Still nothing, but that’s to be expected. She bends her knees until she’s making eye contact with him, the hammer resting on her thigh.
“They’re praising you online. They are. You should be proud. They’re saying you did what everyone had always wanted to do, but never had the courage. You’re a hero”.
She’s not sure if it’s real or imagined, but she believes she can see the subtlest pull of a corner of his lip. A smirk. An invitation.
She pulls her arm back and swings the hammer into his right thigh. There’s a crack, the breaking of bone, the animalistic yell. The hammer sinks into his flesh and she yanks it out. An arm accustomed to carrying the heft of a child falls limply at her side. His head is thrown back as he yells, body convulsing.
“They’re calling you a martyr. And throwing rocks at my window. And putting white powder in envelopes. And sending their fucking followers out to my family’s houses. You know that?”
He bares his teeth, hisses out of them, whimpers. Now he lifts his head, cranes his neck back, lets his breath staccato out of him. A moan slithers out.
“Don’t you make those fucking pitiful sounds. Don’t. You wanted to be a man, right? A fucking hero?” She stands, pulls the hammer back, and slams it into his right knee, cripples the bastard, and something curling and amorphous—not satisfaction, but not not satisfaction—wraps itself into the empty cavity of her chest. She feels the closest thing to divinity writhe around her, the righteousness, the vindication. There’s blood on his legs, there’s a shaking scream in the air, and she wants more of it. She wants it all. The red and yellow spike of violence, thin and sharp and inside of her, in her lungs, in his stupid fucking body, in his soul.
“Was she making those sounds when you held her down? Was she screaming like this, you fucking piece of shit!” She’s yelling now, she’s wailing, she’s a banshee, she’s an act of God. “Did you have mercy on my daughter? When you slipped into her window and beat her and shot her? Huh? Answer me!”
The nail, now, she lines against his arm. Somewhere in the back of her mind she remembers the video detailing all the non-lethal places one could puncture without hitting a major vessel. She doesn’t care, but she also wants her full five minutes, so she aims right into his shoulder, lines it up, brings it down. His flailing, his cries, his tortured, agonized screams—she’s bloodthirsty now. She wants his suffering like one drowning needs air, one falling needs the ground. She’s reaching for it with the hungry fervor of starving animals.
As she beats him, she remembers her daughter’s screams deep in the murk of the night, the rain of footsteps in her apartment, the scuffle, the blood, the tattoo peeking its way through the dark, the pale skin, the flash of terrified eyes, the fear in her mouth, the gun, the shot. The shot. The shot. The shot. The window wrenched open as she ran forward. The undersides of his boots over the pane. The flashing police lights. The shot. The investigation. The shot. The discovery of the internet persona. The shot. The racism, and the daughter that fought against it. The shot. The activist double-life. The shot. The slurs aimed at her for organizing. The shot. The threats flung in her direction. The shot. Her insistence that she’d never quit. The shot. Her daughter, Black and afraid for her future, Black and smart as anything, Black and bright and loud and snuffed out for being Black and bright and loud, and the shot. More than anything, the shot. More than her piano recitals, her honor roll, the shot, the shot that killed her, that ripped her away even in her mother’s memories. The tattoo, and the blank anger of a white boy with some internet smarts who wanted to be a man, who had something to prove. The shot. The shot. The shot. The shot. The shot. The shot.
He is nothing now, nothing beneath her, nothing behind her, but a smear of tragedy. A fucking white ghost of a history dragging blood behind it, bleeding from a mortal wound yet never dying, living on with her, living on with him, a tale old as time. She hammers at it, hammers at it, until her hands and arms and face are slick with blood and tears, blood and tears and ears ringing with the shot, the shot that killed her baby girl, the shot that opened the book and started the story all over again, the story she read with a hand at her throat, read again without her consent, is forced to read at gunpoint, forced to read without her daughter, without herself, forced to take the story into her body and digest it and become part of it.
Her five minutes are over. She knows because someone comes in behind her, rips the weapon out of her bloody hand. She kicks and screams, but they must have been used to this kind of violence-drunk behavior, because they calmly pin her hands behind her back, turn her around, and begin marching her to a holding area. She takes a final look at the murderer who killed her daughter in a rash act of hatred. He is crying pink smears into his bloody face. She grins, and his blood drips into her teeth.
The rest is a blur. She is accompanied by a nurse into a shower, where his blood runs off her body in sticky rivulets. She wants some of it to stay caked under her nails, but they take her limp, shivering hand and scrub hard to remove all evidence of her fury.
Some faceless, nameless social worker drives her home. She lays limp against the window, the glass warmed by the summer sun. Her breath huffs against the pane, her eyes searching the yellow day as it whips past the car. At some point, she is dropped off at home, the door opened for her, pamphlets for mental health and grief counselors shoved into her hands. She takes them, drops them all over the floor when the front door shuts, and ambles to her daughter’s
The bed is still unmade. Posters with Black faces leer above her, their gazes inscrutable. She was never good at reading emotions. She crawls beneath the covers and sniffs under her nails, drawing deeper and deeper inhales, hoping for the tang of blood. The darkness slithers around her and makes its home where she lies.