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SOMETIMES HEROES CAN’T WEAR BROWN SKIN by Delvon Mattingly

In times of life-and-death, nobody quite grasped the concept of “be quiet.” But for us, it didn’t matter. My peers panicked, whimpered, some nearly hyperventilated—but nothing outclassed the tormenting screams coming from an adjacent room. Nothing could abolish the cackling gunfire, bullets penetrating walls and possibly bodies. Nothing stopped the killer from heading to our room next, glaring at us with a face of apathy, drawing our attention to boast about his body count, and how we were going to add to it. Nobody could do a thing, except for me.

I wouldn’t consider my actions gallant. I charged the moment the boy appeared distracted. An amalgam of fortunate events led me to overpower the shooter, using his weapon against him, my following actions fueled by pure trepidation. I realized I’d rather the boy fall than to witness a firearm pointed at my face again or hear the anguish of my friends. The worst part: the shooter was a student too. We acknowledged his bleeding corpse more than we ever did him. His name was Ethan, and only a few of us knew that.

An absolute silence plagued the air, and I began to pace the classroom, “no” continually slurring from my mouth. Nobody mentioned a word about the murder, not our teacher or my friends. No one.

* * *

There wasn’t much blood on my hands, although the few smears on my shirt reminded me of the monster I had become. I expected my classmates to see me in the same light. That wouldn’t explain their reluctance to speak, or even to move. They were afraid of me, their fear cemented in a truth that not only had one of their peers became a killer, but also another.

My best friend began to speak, my name slowly rolling off her tongue.

“I can’t, Marissa,” I interrupted.

“Jerome, you saved us,” she whispered.

“I still killed Ethan! I’m done for. My future, everything. I could go to jail.”

“No, you’re a hero,” she said. She searched for validation from our other classmates. “Right?”

Everyone remained quiet. Then, some of my classmates began to cry while others seemed to struggle to preserve their sanity. And I felt for all of them. I understood, but I knew I had to withdraw from my emotions to prepare for the arrival of the authorities. Picture this: an emotional, erratic, brown teenager with the blood of another student on his clothes. Yeah, that’s a minimum of 25 years.

“Jerome…” Marissa murmured.

“Stop. Please, just stop.”

* * *

Ten minutes passed, and the authorities arrived. Everyone was escorted from the building to the fields outside, like we were in a  prison line, distress printed on their faces, or even scarier: the expressions of those who were still processing—blank, unworldly.

I couldn’t stop picturing Ethan, another student, his glare, a rifle dangling from his hand, blood stains on his clothes—imagining my face stamped above his. A monster. If I wasn’t a monster, then why did the authorities scrutinize me with disdain?

Police officers pulled aside students from my class for questioning. Paranoia struck me like a chisel shaping a stone statue—one final tap and I’d crack. Some of my classmates clearly talked about me, peering back and leading the cops to notice me more than they had. Before I knew it, I stood alone. Then, it was my turn to be probed.

A stocky pale officer approached. “How are you, son? What is your name?”

“I’m okay. It’s Jerome.”

“My name is Officer Anderson. You don’t seem too shaken up by things, Jerome,” he said, examining at the small blotches of blood on my shirt before returning eye contact. “You’re quivering. You seem more terrified of me than anything.”

“That–that’s not true.”

The officer huffed. “Can you tell me what happened? If you’re uncomfortable talking about it, we–”

“No,” I said. “It’s okay.” I gave him a detailed chronology of events, up until Ethan’s death.

“So, the student massacres the entire classroom next to yours and then comes into your room to provoke everyone before killing himself?”

It sounded more artless after the officer repeated it. When I nodded, he suddenly grew reticent, looking down on me with eyes of censure. “That’s not what your classmates are saying. In fact, they’ve claimed you convinced Ethan to cease fire, and when he realized his wrongdoings and felt contrite, he impulsively took his own life. Correct?”

What?

“You and your entire class could’ve died if it weren’t for you.” Officer Anderson patted my shoulder with his right hand before meandering back to his colleagues. “Son, you’re a hero.”

“Hey!” Marissa called and trotted over to me. “Why are you all the way over here, Jerome?”

Attempting a smile, I replied, “I don’t really know.”

“We need you.”

“Why?”

Her eyebrows furrowed. “Because you saved us. Word is spreading fast, and people from other classrooms aren’t taking this well. The media is already here.”

In spite of what she did for me, she still didn’t quite understand. “Marissa, thank you.” I looked down at my palms, slowly twirling them while opening and closing my fists. “But sometimes heroes can’t wear brown skin.”

She nodded before tightly gripping one of my arms, that and the familiar way her nose twitched before speaking gave away her frustration. “People also don’t get to choose what color skin they’re born into. For what it’s worth, I think for you to be able to do these things, while fighting so many other battles, is something that deserves recognition.”

I smiled, shaking my head. “That’s incredibly sweet. But, there are consequences to my actions, all of them. Risks I’m usually not willing to take.”

She turned to see how our peers held up. “Well I’m glad you took one today.”

“May I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Why are you so calm? Everyone’s freaking out.”

Marissa finally looked back at me. “I could ask you the same.”

“Well, where I’m from … let’s just say this isn’t the first time a gun has been pointed at me, or has been fired in my vicinity.”

She looked away again. I guessed she couldn’t grasp the idea of such horror. “I think it’ll hit us sooner or later. This all feels too surreal, but being around you helps.”

“As long as I’m me, I can never be considered a hero.”

Exhaling, Marissa placed her two hands on my shoulders. I could tell she wanted me to own the title, or maybe she was hinting that I needed to do that for everyone else, at least for now.

“Jerome, we’re friends. We’ve got each other’s back. That’s all that really matters.”

Perhaps Marissa’s right, but probably not. Because of her and a few others, despite the color of my skin, I didn’t go to jail. I thanked Marissa once more. And with her, I joined my class.

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