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I learned how to bend light from my mother. Nights after I came home from math and Spanish tutoring were spent in our backyard, deep in the trees where no one would catch me learning the basics of refraction, drilling the slight movements that would keep me from moving too much air, or creating too large a shadow and revealing myself.
“This is a last line of defense,” she would say, telling me over and over again like I wasn’t listening, which I usually wasn’t because I’d rather be in the house playing Final Fantasy or something. Mama didn’t care and would talk right through my distraction. “The number one thing to do in any situation is figure out a way to calm things down before you have to blink out.”
“Why not just blink out before anything happens?” Mama was a teacher through and through, and she’d never lose patience with me or breathe hard when I asked a question. Instead, she would smooth back her crinkly black hair, or smirk like she knew all the secrets of the world and didn’t feel like telling me. Then she’d bop my nose or pull my ear.
“You can’t let them know everything, baby. If they know everything, they’ll definitely use everything they know against you.”
I learned how to spin shadows from my father. Back before the bus company laid him off and he had to pick up another overnight job, we’d go on fishing trips in the early morning. In the dark space before dawn he’d show me a different way to disappear.
“You can’t yank on the shadow like it’s a ornery dog on a leash,” he’d say. My Daddy was so black that only his teeth and eyes were visible in the dark morning, even without the shadows bubbling around him.
“You gotta caress it, you gotta love on it and convince it to help you out, tell it all you need and all you scared of. That’s the only way it’ll come.”
“Why do I need the shadow when I can bend light to where nobody can see me?” I’d ask. Sometimes this would make my father angry, and he’d suck his teeth or skeet a jet of watery saliva into the brush. Other times he’d rub my near-bald head and look off at the rising sun.
“Use ya head, boy. You grown in the eyes of the world now. It’s people out there just looking for a reason to take ya ass out, and you better be ready for em. This shit’s real. You hear me?”
I would nod. Daddy was good for going off on you when you hadn’t done anything wrong.
“You don’t wanna always be invisible,” he’d say, trying to smooth things over. “Sometimes, you gotta let a motherfucker know that you right there on they ass, right there in they shit and ain’t nothing they can do about it cuz you armed with the same darkness that they been using to hurt you.”
“And never use them at the same time,” they’d warn. “Your heart can’t take it, and you’ll burn up from the inside out. One at a time, you hear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I’d say. “Yes, sir.”
I learned how to use a knife on a hot, wet Thursday night. It had started out as a gray Thursday morning. School was out due to “civil unrest”—a wave of people, black, brown, and white, stomping around in every major city across the country, chanting and blocking bridges and, sometimes, sometimes they were fighting with the police. Fighting the police. Because school was out, Mama had to stay home too. We watched the news report in the living room together in the morning before Daddy was supposed to head out to work. I was bundled up on the couch with my head on my Mama’s lap. Daddy was sitting in his big brown recliner, slurping black coffee out of a steel cup and frowning at the TV screen.
“And in national news, riots and tensions are still high across the country, as protestors in various states disrupt major highways and occupy various government buildings in response to what they call ‘a failure to act’ on the part of various political and court officials. They allege that federal law enforcement and juries intentionally refuse to indict—or even detain suspects in a string of possible race-related killings from Michigan to Kentucky.”
The man reporting the news looked straight from a comic book. He had a square jaw and had a curl at the front of his hair like Superman, but his blue eyes were flat and his teeth were kind of yellow. I didn’t trust him. “So far, neither law enforcement officials or the office of the president has made a statement. The National Guard is on alert. We’ll have more on this ongoing situation, so stay tuned.”
“It’s a goddamn shame what they did to those kids,” Daddy said, and his voice was quiet but he shook when he spoke. As he was talking he blew a glob of spit out of his mouth and it landed on the knee of his blue work pants. He didn’t wipe it off and it just sat there. I watched it until his pants absorbed it, because that was easier than looking at him be angry at the world—and angry at himself for not being able to do much about it.
“I’m callin’ in today. How the hell is it right that folks, police and all, can just run up on black and brown kids and just kill em for fun? It ain’t right. Ain’t fair.”
“You’d think they’d get sick of having their foot on our necks,” Mama said. She stroked my head like she was afraid that I was going to disappear. Her fingertips trembled against my scalp. “I feel like we should be doing more than just taking off work. I’m gonna make some phone calls, check Facebook. There might be some organized action today, a protest or something. My bones are burning, we need to do something. How long is it before we go out next?”
I sat up, shocked to hear Mama talking like that. She never usually allowed herself to give in to fear. Daddy was good for exploding on people, but I knew deep down that Daddy was so angry because he was so scared. Scared for us, scared of the world. Everyone who knew us knew that if they should be afraid of anyone, it was Mama. She didn’t play, because she wasn’t scared of anything. Now was different.
Daddy downed his coffee and sat the bowl on the arm of the recliner. “The time for that protesting and singing ‘we shall overcome’ was over with when they shot Martin Luther King, baby. I mean, yeah, get you some people together and make a hashtag, but I’m gonna pull something together, too. Come on, boy.”
“Tell me you’re not going to that closet,” Mama sighed, but Daddy was already up out of his seat, trembling and tense. He led me down our house’s single long hallway, his work shirt bunched up between his shoulder blades. His work boots scuffed the naked wood floor. We stopped in front of the hall closet, where Mama kept the towels.
“Stand back, son,” he said, opening the door and reaching in. I already knew what he was gonna pull out of there—a steel lockbox that held his fishing knives … and something else, something that I wasn’t allowed to see. The box was so rusty that it looked like it had been used back during slavery times. He turned the key in the box, and it opened with a click and a whine.
“The time for fuckin’ around is over,” he said more to himself than to me, pulling out a long, hard something wrapped in a white towel. He lifted the towel like he was uncovering a baby, and all the light seemed to disappear from the room and leap right into the inky black of my Daddy’s gun. But when I looked at him, he wasn’t spinning any shadows. My head swam.
“This is old shit. We wasn’t ever supposed to live this long,” he muttered. I don’t think he even remembered I was in the hallway with him. “Now, let’s see anybody try any shit around here—”
Five pops split the morning, jarring us all. If we’d been glass we would have shattered into a million pieces. Daddy held up a hand as if he was mentally willing me to stay still while he ran to the window. My Mama came running down the hallway, and I was close behind her.
A caravan of trucks rumbled down the street in front of our house, each one carrying men wearing body armor and armed with enormous guns that sucked all of the little joy we had left right out. Somebody was talking over loudspeakers, but all I saw was men jumping off the backs of trucks, looking like soldiers with bulletproof vests and red bandannas tied around the bottom half of their faces.
Time moved like it was stuck in syrup. The men split into groups and stalked up to different houses, all of them built the same: two doors with one long hallway down the middle of the house connecting them. Some folks opened their doors willingly. Others got their doors kicked in, and whether they were welcome or they invaded, the men lit the houses up with flashes from the guns’ hot mouths.
One group stopped at the house of our next-door neighbor, Vanity. Before they could get too close she came running out at them, her hair wrapped in a pink satin cap and her feet in those slippers that you can get for a handful of change from the beauty supply store. She flailed a cast-iron skillet full of hot grease directly into the eyes of two of those dudes, and they crumpled into a ball like scalded roaches. She grabbed up her kids and tried to run, but there were three of them—too many for her to handle on her own.
The remaining men took out her knees first. By the time most of the soldiers gathered up, we could hear her screaming from up under scuffling and wet thwacking noises. Mama and Daddy had bundled me up in one of Grandmama’s old scratchy electric blankets and pushed me out into the backyard. My pockets had somehow gotten full of twenty-dollar bills that they’d pulled from under the mattress. That was always Mama’s trick, filling pockets when you weren’t looking. She shoved something hard and smooth into my hand and yelled, “Run, Goddamnit! Run!”
Mama never cursed.
My legs wouldn’t listen to me. Mama put a finger up to her lips and faded out of sight. Two men crashed out of the back door, guns in hand. Someone shoved me, sent me stumbling. The killers saw me, advanced—there was a sound like an axe hitting a tree and one of them fell forward, an axe buried in his head. The other turned and I felt Mama’s hand on my collar, dragging me.
The gunshots sounded like rapid-fire slaps. They kicked up big chunks of the backyard. Something leaned against my back, slumped over on me. Blood splattered across my shirt. Mama’s arms fizzled back into view across my shoulders, covered in blood from elbow to fingertips. I fell under her; she tucked me into her when she hit the ground, covering me. One word hissed from her throat: “Hide.” Six huge blasts, like cannons, burst from our house so loud that the sky cleared and a bit of sun peeked through the gray. A guy crashed out of our side window—and laid there, staring at the sky with blood pumping from a hole in his neck. Daddy stumbled to the back door, and his eyes were full of rage when he saw the dead gunman, the living one, and Mama laying on the ground with a bloody crown around her head, he screamed and flooded the entire backyard with shadows.
I couldn’t see the house, or even the sky anymore, but I could hear my Daddy roaring. Another series of slaps, and everything went silent, but the day was still black as midnight. Darkness pressed up against my skin, squeezing me, trying to hold me in place. I blinked and was gone.
My town is in low country—a river winds through hills to the west of us. That river floods like the Nile, making the fields around our house a swamp one half of the year and a rainforest for the other. Tonight, it was a rainforest, but the skies were clear and the stars bright. An urgent kind of laughter buzzed in my chest. Some of the men who had been killing people in towns like mine had made a barrel fire in the lot of an abandoned church, and it was visible for miles. I crept up as close as I dared, close enough to smell the blood and gunpowder on their body armor. I pulled up a little bit of darkness, just enough to make the night that had settled on my shoulders thicker.
“I got me about three niggers today,” I overheard the one nearest to me say. “They’re animals—one of them had like four grown-ass sons, just sittin’ up on the couch playing video games when we bust in. Collectin’ all the welfare checks. Shoulda seen the looks on their faces when I bust in hot. Good-goddamn-night!”
“Got me an old one,” another soldier bragged. This one was young, with square glasses. He looked like he’d teach English at my school, right alongside Mama. “Yep, I put two right in the back of her nappy-ass head. Her husband did some weird shit where he made the whole yard dark, but we got his ass, too. Got pictures of em on my iPhone, you wanna see that shit?”
“Hell yeah! I got video of us gettin’ the one that threw grease on Bradley and Witten.”
“No shit? I was wondering who took out the hoodrat.”
“Yeah, man. By the time we finished with her, there wasn’t enough left to fit in an icebox.”
“Sweet! You know that we’ve got the bomb drones on order, right? Wait until those come in. That’s where shit will get fun …”
My eyes burned wet, but my guts had frozen over. I fumbled around in my pocket. Mama had given me one of Daddy’s old fishing jackknives, the blade black with jagged silver teeth that glittered in the starlight. Holding that blade, right then, my tears dried up and cold darkness crept into my bones, smothered all of the trauma, the rage, the deep loss that was inside me. There was a near silent click as I slid the blade into ready position. Shadows bubbled around me, seemingly boiling up from the moist earth. My blade was ready, and my parents’ names were heavy on my lips. I blinked out.