The South |

Fourth of July

by R.D. Williams

edited by JD Scott

In a few weeks, on the Fourth of July, you’ll be in Miami for fireworks and ice cream. Under a smoky sky by the bay, vendors will sell teriyaki and barbeque shish kabobs, rice and beans, fried plantains, corn on the cob. Paper cups will tumble in the night breeze past palm trees, off asphalt and grass and into the water.

You and three friends, sunburned from the beach, will wander through the marketplace outside, then inside the multi-floor maze of bars, shops, and restaurants, in search of cones, when Ally decides no, she wants gelato. But, like, the good gelato.

On the way down escalators in search of good gelato, people below you will begin to run. Slowly, at first, then quicker. Rain? Jen will ask, frozen, as you watch families abandon merchandise and strollers, grab children to run.

We have to get outnow—John will say, voice strained, as the four of you try to push through the panic, people screaming, tripping down stairs. Sales girls in the stores floors above and around you will pull down gates, turn away people scrambling for safety. Your mind will race through 9/11, the remembrance of bodies tumbling out of flaming buildings, the panicked last love you calls to families replayed over and over on the news. Stop, you’ll think. This isn’t a towering building, this doesn’t happen here. All of you are, were, kids from the suburbs. In this moment, you still feel like kids, terrified at the prospect of a nameless threat.

You have never seen so much fear, up close, concentrated in one place. Your mind races through the prospect of a shooter, bomb threat, explosion, blood, bodies flung apart. Stop, you’ll tell yourself, deliberately, as Jen reaches for your hand. It’s just a scare, whatever it is.

In the street, everything will glow orange from lamplights, the water black and sparkling, a quiet calm. Vendors, still stationed, their stalls swarmed minutes before, yell Pollo y plantanos!, waving meat on sticks as you and your three friends, hands-linked, run together. You won’t approach police, guns drawn, eyes distressed, hunched and peering from around a trailer, or the ones ambling in, no rush, hands on their holsters absently, chatting.

At the parking garage, hundreds of people will cluster at one entrance to access stairs, elevators. The other doors are locked, someone will say, angrily. You won’t feel safe there, in the crowd. You’ll tell John, Jen, Ally, let’s just walk through the car port or get a cab. But John wants his car, now, and Jen won’t leave him, says it’s not safe. We stay together, Jen will insist. Looking at the streets, jammed with back to back traffic, you know that really, a cab will make no difference.

So you wait, ask the man next to you if he knows what’s happening. He looks Middle Eastern, holds a Nike satchel in his left hand, smirks, then smiles, shaking his head. You glance and glance again at his bag, notice his calm, different, it seems, from the panic around you. You hate yourself for this dangerous paranoia, remember the years after 9/11, the raging fights between your father and brothers, your dad demanding your siblings shave their goatees. They’d been stopped in airports and pulled over by cops again and again, even though your family is not Middle Eastern, identifies as Indo-Guyanese. But even to you, their Saudi best friends look like part of your family and they, yours: the same dark skin, the same thick wavy hair and easy smiles.

At eleven, you remember the kids at school lumping Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Indian, Indo-Guyanese, Indo-Trini, Indo-Jamaican kids all together, interchangeably, white girls coming up, asking are you from Pakistan, wrinkling their noses, confused that Pakistan is not, in fact, in the Middle East, that you are not from Pakistan, that you are Indian, but not from India. After each time, your best friend, a Hello Kitty collector, asks if you want them jumped. No, you shake your head. But you start to wear henna on your palms and wrists at school even when there are no weddings, no reason. You wear dozens of colorful glass bangles on your hand, slip a Shah Rukh Khan poster in the front of your binder. Khan, isn’t that like Muslim? someone will ask.

Outside the parking garage, a man will raise a cell phone in the air, yell Run! Shooter!, voice shaking with panic, and you, jolted to the present, will feel the crowd break, shift. Jen will yell Stay together! as you struggle not to get separated in the mad dash of hundreds shoving—the vulnerable, elderly and children, getting hurt first. A baby is thrown out of a stroller, an elderly man is pushed aside away from his walker, looks around, confused. It’s strange how when we watch movies, crime thrillers for instance, how the mad dash of people screaming after gunshots escapes our notice. Typically, we see the film, that specific world, through the eyes of a hero and the mad scramble of the less badass crowd, if we do take notice, is almost comedic.

The four of you run fast, get carried with the crowd, unsure of who or what you’re running from—or toward. How can one tell with sound of fire crackers going off indiscriminately, now here now there, across the city? It’s unspoken, but all of you are thinking of the Orlando shooting. Less than three weeks ago, 49 are killed in a nightclub in the city just hours away, where all of you have gone to Disney, Magic Kingdom and Epcot, on fieldtrips since childhood. Your parents have had a house there for years. You’re thinking of sitting in your living room at eleven, over homework, your parents watching the Beltway sniper attacks on TV, a man and teen shooting at people from cars indiscriminately in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, until they are caught.

Now, you’re thinking of Strozier Library at Florida State, where you worked front desk security with other undergrads, snacking and texting, not taking it seriously when kids forgot their IDs, how two years after you left, a disturbed man, Myron May, entered with a gun, shooting three people. On the news, you recognized one of the men shot, Nathan Scott, a library worker you saw almost every day, who ran to warn others after getting shot in the leg. Another student, Farham Ahmed is shot twice, left paralyzed from the waist down, a bullet lodged in his spine.

You look down to your phone. There are no updates on news sites, nothing on Twitter or Facebook yet. You don’t know what this is, a scare, something that’s happened, is happening, will happen? You run and it seems like the whole city is running, unsure of what or who is behind you. The cabs are filled, sitting in traffic, shops locked, the people inside standing back from the glass. You are moving moving moving, lungs throat burning, but barely feeling it. The next time someone shouts Gun, run! you’re thinking please please please—

—God? as an afterthought, but you are an atheist on most days, agnostic at best.