Dawn rises through a haze of tear gas, glittering off broken glass that crunches beneath our boots. The new day casts a muted warmth on last night’s destruction, but the smell that lingers is sharp and acrid–a mix of rubber and plastic and things not meant to be burned. The city smolders. Everything is burning.
Day two and its been ripped apart.
Most of the storefronts are smashed. The only witnesses to the looting are the fallen mannequins that lay bare but poised. A park bench aims skyward, jutting out of the windshield of an unlucky squad car. A bench I sat on last summer as I’d watched a parade on this very street. Kids on shoulders. Balloons and ribbons. Now I find saw horses, helmets, angry batons. Shields smeared with spit.
Trashcans plume with wafts of black smoke, a naive breeze knocking it around between the two sides. I’m in the middle of it–politically, socially, mentally–trying hard to remember what it means to be a National Guardsmen. Honestly, I’m can’t find much worth guarding here: a city of rioters, a state of panic, an entire nation broiling in self-hatred.
The police quit almost twenty-four hours ago. Simply handed over the keys to the asylum and walked. Now teenagers strut and laugh from the hoods of squad cars, hoisting lights and radios as trophies. Guy Fawkes’ everywhere. On shirts and masks. Others record the mayhem with phones.
Between the tear gas and panic my vision is teetering. I’m a medic, classrooms and residency haven’t prepared me for combat. I jump at the touch of a sloppy hand clapping my shoulder, sliding down my back when I spin around, half-expecting a bottle or brick to find my face. Instead it’s a kid, lying crumpled at my feet.
I kneel, amid footsteps and howls. The kid points and I look up, over to the corners of Eighth and Commerce Streets. A man slinking off with a knife. Jesus, I think they’re turning on each other. Before I can think two soldiers move in on the attacker.
“Don’t you fucking move!”
The man pitches forward, his lifeless body lands on the knife. Two beats of silence. Two seconds for everyone to react. Then the uproar.
“Lieutenant, we need a hand over here!”
I can’t handle it, the cracking and smashing and breaking. The mannequins watching from the store. I Just can’t think or move. Three drills a year, the rest is research and study. This is war. Pure and simple.
I turn back to the kid, eyes so wide they pull me in. His boxer shorts plume out from his pants. His chest bounces and he wiggles, swimming with the pain and fear.
Pressure on the wound. The kid’s blood leaps to leave his body, hot and slick as it trickles through my fingers to the pavement. I wave for a medic. Oh yeah, me. I’m frantic as hell watching the kid writhe in pain. A red bandanna dangles loosely at his neck. He’s fifteen, maybe, and my knee rests in a puddle of his blood. I try to think when it happened. Fuck, I was collecting baseball cards at his age. This kid has a collection of scars on his chest.
The barricade is a joke. Same as the curfews and protective orders. The other side is growing fast. Hell of a lot faster than ours. They have the numbers, the rage, and the dangerous conviction that what they are doing is just.
When the police threatened to strike no one believed it. Talk, same as always. Nothing ever gets done, only posted. It would never happen. Then the militias arrived by the truck load, shouting and swinging, red-faced and ready to exercise a right to shoot people without consequence.
Now it’s on us…
Kenneth arrives and I clean the wound. He’s an older guy, with stubby fingers and bad skin. Kenneth’s got opinions and a shaky hand. He picks a grand time to tell me this kid he got what he deserved. The kid squirming and going into shock. The kid who should be asleep having a bad dream.
I try to keep focused. “We need to get him up to St. Peters.”
Something explodes at the corner. The crowd teems with hostile energy. Kenneth’s eyes flash before he shakes his head. “Good luck.”
St. Peters is four blocks away. The streets are clogged with the mob, choked with tear gas. Basic essentials are gone. Civil obedience trampled. Free Wi-Fi remains. The whole square is shut down. There’s just no way. But there’s going to be more than two bodies on the street if we don’t do something.
The kid whimpers, flailing and kicking as I tear off his shirt. His diamond-studded belt buckle seems at ends with his black jeans and renegade attire. I duck as another something booms overhead. A news chopper thumps from above. At some point I thought this gig would impress on a resume, now I’m ready to clean a toilet.
The kid’s body fuels the crowd. They climb up on the monuments, looking to break and punish. To destroy. The soldiers pat their batons. Kenneth tells me I’m on my own and goes looking for a barricade.
A tin voice crackles through a loudspeaker. I curse the Mayor for not having the cops’ back. This kid and his eyes for looking at me to save him. Kenneth for not giving a shit. I blame my hands for trembling too hard to hold a gauze. All I can do is take the kid’s hand. His eyes snap open as I start praying.
Because what else is there?
When the life drains from his eyes. When the stampede of war swallows us.