Each evening, I remove the band-aid, pinch the tweezers’ silver teeth, and draw the splinter from my thumb. I faithfully clean the small wound. By morning my private stigmata will be partially healed. The body is a determined machine.
The sliver of pine is only half an inch long and thin as a needle, but against my brown palm it glows like a cosmic shard. I dip a cotton ball in peroxide, touch the splinter, disinfectant cold as river water, then place the baptized thorn in the hollow of a contact lens case and click the lid. The click always makes me flinch.
I was walking to the bus for more firewood. Maybe half mile down the trail.
That’s when you first heard the shots?
Can you turn off the lights?
The cruiser lights. The flashing, it’s… I think I’m going to be sick again.
Of course. Sorry. Hold on.
So you were half a mile away when you heard the shots?
I didn’t know what it was. It didn’t sound like gunfire.
A lot of people say that. A lot of people say it sounds like—
Shake my head, one quick jerk to return from the synaptic detour of memory.
Light an incense cone so my hotel room will smell like the forest. Fill the diffuser so the air will feel damp as that night two months ago. Turn on the sound machine so crickets and frogs will surround me again. Tap the desktop planetarium projector so the ceiling over my bed fills with stars. Then I kneel on a carpet countless feet have flattened into soft concrete and I pray.
“Father God. Set me free. See how I resurrect my pain. See how I fuel my dreams. I can’t let go. Forgive me for surviving. I hate myself for still being alive.”
When the words taste like salt, I sputter “Amen” and squeeze into bed.
Michael, would you say a few words?
Thank you, pastor. I don’t know how to do this. I wish I had died that night. That must offend you. But it’s how I feel. I wish my spirit was looking down with Nala and your sons and daughters. All of us together. Looking down on someone else standing here, someone with better words. I was going to ask Nala to marry me. I was going to attend nine high school graduations. Now I walk around with this hole in my chest, this this this hatred so constant I wear it like my own skin—
Shake my head to collapse the memory bridges. Lying on my back, tucked hotel sheets holding me down, I listen to the crickets and frogs, watch the stars, breathe the damp air, summon the dream, repeating “forest” over and over, clucking my tongue like wet gunshots. Eyes stutter. There’s the glow. I hear the voices. The trees part like curtains…
NINE HIGH SCHOOL KIDS CROUCH AROUND THE CAMPFIRE STACKING S’MORES OUT OF BROKEN GRAHAM CRACKERS CHOCOLATE CHUNKS BLACKENED MARSHMALLOWS / NALA LEADS THEM IN SONG STRUMMING “WE ARE ONE IN THE SPIRIT WE ARE ONE IN THE LORD” THE SAFEST PLACE IN THE WORLD GOD’S OWN CATHEDRAL / TWO MEN DRIFT OUT OF THE DARK LIKE FOG DRESSED IN WHITE CAMO PANTS JACKETS HOODS / THE SHOTS SOUND LIKE HANDS CLAPPING LIKE PLATES HITTING A TILE FLOOR LIKE HOLES PUNCHED THROUGH A GUITAR’S BUZZING CHEST / I CRAWL BETWEEN FACES NIGHT SHRILL FROGS CHANTING INSECTS CRYING BILE IN MY THROAT BRAIN FERAL HEART COLLAPSED LIKE A BLACK HOLE LEAVING NOTHING NOTHING BUT THE SOFT MARBLE OF THEIR WRISTS / I SEE NALA’S BODY SINKING INTO PINE NEEDLES THE DECADES OF SENSATIONS SHE WILL NEVER HAVE CONCENTRATING NOW IN THESE LAST MOMENTS / SHE FEELS ANIMALS BREATHING IN THE SHADOWS AND SEES THE SOULS OF LOVED ONES LONG PASSED TEARS PULSE OUT OF HER EYES AND STEAM IN THE COLD AIR / THE STARS DESCEND BEYOND THE NIGHT-BIRDS AND CRICKETS AND FROGS SHE DETECTS THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES BUT DOESN’T WANT TO LEAVE THIS IS HOME THIS HUMAN PLACE PLEASE SHE SAYS / I HEAR RUNNING AND TURN TO SEE MYSELF STUMBLE INTO THE CLEARING—
I wake, as I do every night, like someone brought back from drowning. The dream is so physical. It’s still shouting through me like a freight train rushing past an open window. I chew three orange Motrin tablets and lean against the wallpaper.
You plan to do this full time?
I’ve taken a sabbatical from the university.
And what do you hope to accomplish?
I’m joining families from Columbine and Las Vegas, Sandy Hook and Orlando, Virginia Tech and Aurora and Parkland. There’s hundreds of us now. We’ll march on foot from California to D.C., adding marchers and gaining support as we go. We’re spending every cent we have to feed and house the caravan. We hope to inspire pilgrimages from all directions. We want to be five million strong by the time we hit Washington. But we won’t pray with politicians. We won’t debate NRA spokesmodels. We’re going to make demands. Because we deny the American alchemy that transforms victims into accomplices. We reject the lie that the only way to stop mass shootings is to amass more weapons. We claim the right of—
Shake my head. Stare into the flat dark until dawn separates the curtain from the wall.
I scrape a match, hold a needle to the flame, reopen the wound in my thumb. The pain is quick, sharp, like an animal biting my flesh from the inside.
We’re in New Mexico this morning. Speaking at two colleges, gathering signatures for an amendment to ban assault weapons on a county-by-county basis, hoping to grow like grass under the feet of Washington’s lobbyists. This is my public penance. No one notices the band-aid on my thumb.
I was too late that night. By the time I got back to the campfire, everyone was gone. But it’s not too late to stop the next tragedy. That’s why we’re here today. Because the Pine Mountain shooters were two 15-year-old boys who attended the same high school as their victims. Because other shooters are arming themselves right now. Because a mass shooting is defined as four or more dead or wounded and by that definition Pine Mountain was number 71. Because in the two months since, there have been 42 more mass shootings in America. Because last year there were over 300 and because there were over 300 the year before that and because—
Another shake of the head.
Pop open the contact lens case. Steadying the tweezers, I push the splinter back into my thumb. In that snap of pain, I see what only I saw, what only I know. I wasn’t walking back to the bus. I was sitting on the opposite edge of the campfire. I see the two men in white, the black Xs of rifle straps over their chests like their hearts have been crossed out. I see Nala lunge to pull a high school girl down. I see my own view turn and run, ducking low, fingers scrambling in the dirt, stumbling down the narrow path, down into the huge night as hands clap and plates shatter and holes punch, my vision flashing like strobe lights, choke of blood in the back of my throat, running faster, wilder, until my right hand, as if the better part of me, slams against a rough pine, another, another, dragging on me like an anchor until I stop, sobbing under that swath of stars and like a man waking from a dream turn and run back to the fire. I won’t find the splinter until two days later.
Running saved my life. I would have died too, cut down in seconds. I know that. But what I know can’t save me. I was god to those kids. And it’s not just me. Everywhere I go I see gods running, abandoning our children and grandchildren to the shooters, to poverty and sickness and dystopian tidal waves stacking on the horizon. Maybe we’re all broken. I don’t know how else to understand it. All driven by hungers we can’t sate, fears we can’t control, guilt we hide in our bodies. Maybe we’re all walking around pierced, our wounds the engine of the world.
You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead—
My name is Michael Washington and I’m a survivor of the 71st—
Two students who survived Parkland have committed suicide. What’s your—
Nala stares up at me, waiting. I lean back so she can see the stars—
Knock on the door. A voice calls from the other side, asking if I’m ready.