The early sunlight rises through a haze of tear gas and ash, glittering on broken glass, beaming off bent street signs and the mirrors of overturned cars. Day two and the city has been ripped apart.
A park bench juts out of a storefront window. Just last summer I’d watched a parade on this very street. Kids on shoulders. Balloons and ribbons. Now there’s sawhorses, helmets and batons, shields smeared with spit.
Trashcans smolder in the dawn, as ominous wafts of black smoke drifts between the two sides. I’m in the middle of it—ground zero if you will, trying to remember just what it means to be a National Guardsmen. Because I’m not exactly sure what’s worth guarding here: a city of rioters, a state of panic, an entire nation broiling in self-hatred.
The police quit almost 24 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 8th 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. 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, then I wave for a medic. Frantic as hell while the kid tries to stretch out of the pain. A red bandanna hangs 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 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 quit no one believed it. The pundits said it would never happen. 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 we clean the wound. He’s an older guy, with stubby fingers and bad skin. He picks a grand time to tell the kid he got what he deserved. The kid’s squirming like a bad dream.
I try to keep focused. “We need to get him up to St. Peters.”
Kenneth shakes his head. “Good luck.”
St. Peters is four blocks away. The streets are clogged and choked with mobs and tear gas. Basic essentials are gone. 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 grunts and kicks as we tear off his shirt. His diamond-studded belt buckle seems at ends with his black jeans and renegade attire. I duck as something booms overhead. A news chopper thumps from above. At some point I thought this gig would impress on a resume, but this is no commercial.
The body on the sidewalk fuels the crowd. They climb up on the monuments, looking to break and punish. To destroy. The soldiers pat their batons. Kenneth heads for cover.
Orders crackle through a loudspeaker. I curse the Mayor for not having the cops’ back. This kid and his eyes, looking at me to save him. Kenneth for not giving a shit. I blame my hands for trembling too damn 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 shooting erupts, when the barricade retreats.
When the stampede of war swallows us.