What Made Us Leave
The Coffee Table Book of Funeral Etiquette
The Cedar Orb
Try to Be Normal
E. Ce Miller
A Shock to the System
Daniel C. Bryant
Armed and Dangerous
Investing in Plastic
This Mascot Business
The Person I Was Yesterday
Painting Over Stains
Something to Tell Henry
Steven Lee Beeber
Six Days of Pritchett
E. Ce Miller
A Shock to the System
The boy landed on the concrete beneath him with a hollow crack. I hadn’t known he was there until I heard him; hadn’t seen him perched atop the concrete wall like a dark bird, just beyond the yellow glow of the streetlights. I hadn’t seen his body snap against the impact of the bullet, which traveled up into the air and left a hole just below his ear—a hole that looked too small to have killed anybody. I hadn’t seen him fall; just saw his body after he’d landed, after the crack of bone against concrete echoed off the walls of the skateboarding park I stood in, next to my brother. Then, once I saw him—blood pooling in one ear and running thin rivers down the back of his bald head—I stopped seeing everything else.
I am David. I am twelve years old, but I pretend I am ten because I am in the fifth grade. In the United States, in the fifth grade, you are supposed to be ten. I play soccer, which is really football and I also write love stories—not gross love stories, just stories I think would be nice if they happened to me. Sometimes I shoot a gun; but usually just up into the air and usually only after parades and parties in the summer, when there are fireworks and everything smells like burnt quesadillas. I have been told I am about to have a shock to my system.
I don’t know what this is: a shock to my system, but it makes my teeth hurt just like the night Axel asked me to go with him to the skateboarding park at the corner of Cesar Chavez Avenue and Hazard Street. Axel is my brother. He is seventeen and shaves his hair so close to his head that it doesn’t even look like hair, just a thin layer of dust collecting around his skull. Thinking about Axel too much also makes my teeth hurt, and when they hurt too much, I have to go to the clinic on Whittier Boulevard, where I wait in line all day for the dentist to poke a little metal stick around my mouth and ask me if I grind my teeth, saying: “No, no cavities. Too much tension in your jaw.” I know when things are wrong by the way my teeth hurt. That night, at the skateboarding park, when I told Axel about the pain in my teeth he put his hand on the top of my head and squished my hair flat.
“Mijo,” he said, “I am covered in sand.” He grabbed my wrist and twisted it, running the back of my hand along his cheek and down his bare arm.
“You feel that, mijo?” I looked up at him and nodded, even though I didn’t feel anything except the soft little hairs that sprouted up from his skin.
“That’s sand.” He let go of my wrist and returned his hand to the top of my head. “Deserts and deserts of sand.”
That night the streetlights around the skateboarding park covered everything in a foggy, yellow glow. The air was warm and smelled sugary, almost sticky. In East Los Angeles the air in the projects smells good—not like in Mexico City, where the thick breeze can become so bitter it makes my eyes water. Breathing the air in Mexico City means breathing in the smell of hundreds of other beings: people and cars, donkeys and goats, dogs and chickens; all sharing the street and pressing tightly against each other
That night Axel jumped up onto a low wall that wrapped around the skateboard ramps in ripples and waves. He climbed onto a thin, metal rail that ran along one side of the ramps; performing like a tightrope walker we saw on Venice Beach one summer. The rubber soles of his shoes squeaked against the rail, and I felt my body tense with worry that he was going to fall. He stuck one leg out into the air and jutted his arms up in strange, unnatural angles.
“You know what I am now, mijo?” he yelled, jerking his arms back and forth. I shook my head no.
“I’m a cactus. One of those big saguaro fuckers!”
He jumped off the rail and over the low wall, running straight at me and grabbing me by the back of my neck, pulling my face into his. His breath was smoky and a little sweet, and I wondered if I could taste the salt from his sweat evaporating into the warm night air. My heart throbbed beneath my thin shirt and Axel’s hand began sweating against the back of my neck.
I wasn’t always afraid of Axel like I had been that night. I wasn’t always worried about where he was going or what crazy stunt he could be fooling around with. Axel used to take me to the skateboarding park at night and we’d lie on our backs on the cold, cement ramps, sneaking cigarettes and once in a while something Axel called hierba—what I learned later was really called pot. Axel would talk about the girls he had slept with, or wanted to sleep with and I would nod my head and pretend I knew about all the things he was saying. But then Axel went across the desert, to Mexico with a group of older men—men with tattoos across their bald heads who belted their loose, black jeans beneath their waists and greeted each other with wild hand gestures. When he came back he had cut off the long, thick braid he always wore greased back along his skull and couldn’t stop talking about sand—always feeling like he was covered in sand.
“You know what that pretty cactus is going to do for you out there in all that sand?” Axel asked, squeezing my neck tighter. My teeth began to hurt all the way up into my eyes. I squinted into the face of my brother.
“It ain’t going to do shit!” His voice grew louder with every word until he was screaming. He released my neck and danced around in front of me, twirling and kicking at the ground, stirring up dirt that stuck to the sweat on the back of his legs. As he pulled out the gun he’d started tucking into the waistband of his jeans I saw the thick skin of his stomach, paler than the sun-darkened skin of his face or arms. Axel clenched both of this eyes shut and lowered his chin to his chest, shooting twice into the air. After a moment, a third shot was fired shakily into the distance.
Neither of us saw the boy until he toppled off the ledge of a taller ramp, further into the park, and landed with a hollow crack into the concrete basin beneath him.
Axel said shooting the gun made some of the sand fall off.
Now I am folded into a blue, plastic chair that is too small, listening as Miss Therese explains to me “a shock to the system.”
“We have some documentation here,” Miss Therese says, sliding a thick folder of papers across the table to where my mother and father sit in their own larger chairs. My mother opens the folder and flips through the sheets of endless, tiny text. My mother does not speak English, but sometimes she pretends to read it. This, I think, is part of the reason I am sitting here. Another reason could be that during the math lesson on Tuesday I stood up before I was excused and walked across Mr. Rowan’s classroom to give Nadia Zavala part of a love story I had written for her. After I sat back down, Mr. Rowan took the folded sheet of paper from Nadia and began to read it aloud to the class.
In all of Los Angeles, which is a really big place, there were only two special people—a boy named Axel and a girl named Nadia. Axel was a star football player at Roosevelt High School and Nadia danced salsa, sometimes in the pavilion on Olvera Street and sometimes in Mariachi Plaza; and Axel thought she was beautiful, in her long skirts with green and white ribbons in her hair. But one day, Axel couldn’t play football anymore, because he was going to Mexico for a long time, and Nadia, if she would love him enough, was the only person who could bring him back.
There Mr. Rowan had stopped reading and threw the paper into the trash. I think he was trying to embarrass me, like he did to the girls when he read aloud the notes they passed to one another during class. But I was only mad that he threw my story in the trash. Then he sent me down the hall to Miss Therese, who called my mother’s answering machine and left a message that I had to translate for her when I got home that afternoon—leaving out the part about Nadia Zavala and telling her I was in a little trouble for using too many sheets of paper at school.
“We think this will help David to concentrate.” Miss Therese says, reaching across the table to run a finger along one of the sheets in my file. She pronounces my name “dah-veed”, slowly and making sympathetic eyes as she says it, even though I have been “day-vid” for a long time now. My parents nod from across the table and my father looks at me sitting in my small, blue chair, as I concentrate on pulling a thread out of the sleeve of my sweater. I concentrate.
Sometimes I concentrate on Axel and sometimes I concentrate on that kid, the one who was spraying graffiti on the brick wall behind the tall skateboarding ramp. I concentrate on how his whole body seemed to crack when he fell, and what he looked like when he landed, with blood pooling at the back of his neck and creeping along the concrete. I concentrate on how the ground around him was littered with spray cans, and the sound he was making when Axel and I walked over to him, like air being let slowly out of a tire. I concentrate on how long it took Axel and I to walk over to him, walking so slowly we couldn’t even hear our feet hitting the ground. Usually gunshots make things happen fast in East L.A.—cars speed by, swerving across two lanes of traffic; people duck behind parked vans and run into doorways, swearing loudly in Spanish and slamming their metal screen doors against the noise. But this was different.
“His health?” my father asked, interrupting Miss Therese and speaking slowly, stumbling over the words. “We don’t want him to be sick, or sad, or too tired. The doctor at the clinic said—.” Miss Therese folded her arms across her chest and cleared her throat.
“And this will certainly help Mr. Rowan manage the entire classroom better,” Miss Therese continued. “There are forty-three students in the fifth grade this year. Forty-three.”
This was true. So many students were crowded into the fifth grade that some of us—usually those of us who needed a shock to our systems, had to sit at long tables on one side of the room, with our backs pressed against the bookshelves, instead of sitting in desks of our own. Three days each week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Nurse Celia rolled a gray, metal cart into the classroom, covered with little plastic cups of water and white pills. Those of us who sat at the long tables counted down the minutes until we heard the cart rolling down the tiled hallway, like marbles being shaken in a jar, and knew we could end our spelling five minutes before the rest of the class. On Tuesday and Thursday, when Nurse Celia was at the high school, Mr. Rowan had to get the cart instead, and our spelling ended even earlier. Even though I sat at the long tables, I had never received a white pill or a plastic cup with my name written on it in black permanent marker. Now, it seemed, I would.
“We’re just helping David help himself,” Miss Therese said, reaching over the table again to retrieve the file and arranging the papers in front of her into a neat stack. “And everybody around him.” She removed one sheet from her stack and slid the small, pink paper across the table, before standing up. “You’ll be amazed what you can accomplish, David, when you’re able to concentrate.”
I finished pulling the thread out of my sweater and flicked it onto the floor next to my blue chair. I didn’t want Miss Therese to stand up; didn’t want a little white pill and a little plastic cup. I concentrate. I concentrate on the moment Axel and I stood over that kid, staring above his head instead of at his face, because his eyes were still open. I concentrate on how Axel grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me; shoved me so hard that I fell onto the concrete and scraped the skin off my right hand. He kicked the back of my legs while I was on the ground and yelled “Run, go home, fucking run”, over and over until I finally got up, tears streaming down my face and turning into hiccups as I ran. I concentrate on how, even though he could have run too, Axel waited for the police, who showed up too late and without an ambulance; how he stood there alone in the dark, next to that dying kid. He told the police that he had come to the skateboarding park alone and let fly a few shots; and since the kid was tagging gang signs, the police thought the shooting was gang retaliation—a battle over graffiti and drug territory. I concentrate on what happens to defendants suspected of gang affiliation; how I found “defendant” and “affiliation” in the dictionary when I finally went back school, and then got in trouble for playing at the bookshelves instead of concentrating. I concentrate on how the police helicopters, with their spotlights, hummed over the projects that night—ghetto birds shining their light on us only after it’s too late to see anything.
When I found “defendant” and “affiliation” in the dictionary I also looked for “indicted” and “probation.” I already knew what the word probation meant, but it was more interesting to look for words instead of trying to hear Mr. Rowan over the buzz of forty-three chairs scraping, papers ripping, pencils sharpening, faces sneezing, coughing, burping, whispering—every time the fifth grade made a noise it was made in sets of forty-three. Then I looked for Axel, which wasn’t in the dictionary, but a-x-l-e was, so I read that, and my teeth started to hurt again.
A-x-l-e—the definition fit. Since that night at the skateboarding park, since Axel went to jail, it felt like he was the thing around which my mind rotated, and the rest of life followed.
Then I looked up David, but I don’t exist in the dictionary.
“So then,” Miss Therese said, clearing her throat and making me jump. “You have the prescription. We take care of all that for you.” She brushed a stray hair off her skirt and walked to the door. My mother and father stood, uncomfortably, but allowed themselves to be ushered out of the office. I reluctantly peeled myself out of the plastic chair and followed behind.
“Now, this level of medication may be a shock to him at first.” Miss Therese led us quickly down the hall, her shoes echoing loudly off the tile, and held open the heavy door that led to the parking lot. “But this is really our only option if David would like to continue at our school.”
The next time Nurse Celia rolls into class with the metal cart there is a plastic cup of water for me and another with a white pill rolling around at the bottom, and my name written on it in black permanent marker. There are two more kids sitting at the long tables next to the bookshelves now, and I wonder how long it will be before they receive the shocks to their systems. There are twenty-eight kids sitting at desks, and fifteen crowded into the far side of the room, filling in where they can at the long tables. Mr. Rowan pulled the tables further from the bookshelves and turned them at odd angles, in an effort to make room for more bodies, but now the students seated at the left table have to turn sideways to see the chalkboard.
When Nurse Celia hands me my plastic cups, I fill my mouth with the water first and then slip the pill in between my closed lips. I swish the pill around in the water, waiting to see if anything will happen. My white pill becomes a thick, chalky dust and some of it sticks to my tongue. I ask Nurse Celia for a second little cup of water.
“I bring only one per child.” Nurse Celia stutters harshly and her accent is deep, like a man’s. She speaks English only a little better than my parents, except she is not from Mexico. She has pale, long hair—so pale it is almost white, and so long that she could probably sit on it. I wonder if anyone ever made Nurse Celia take a little white pill, out of a plastic cup with her name written on it in black permanent marker.
I press my tongue into the pill paste stuck to the roof of my mouth, and it feels like tiny grains of sand that taste bitter. Tiny grains of sand, stuck to the roof of my mouth and rolling over my tongue. The sand makes me think about Axel—about how there was one thing Axel didn’t tell. One important thing my older brother Axel, who was seventeen and who had tightly-shaved hair and a gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans, kept to himself. One thing my brother didn’t tell the police; one thing he didn’t tell the man in the tight gray suit who stood next to him in court and said he would help my brother for free, but then nodded at the judge and shrugged his shoulders; one thing he didn’t tell our parents, or even Father Adalberto who went to visit him in the Los Angeles Department of Corrections at 441 South Bauchet Street, Cellblock J, where for the first sixty days other visitors are not allowed.
What Axel didn’t tell was what happened after the first two shots were fired, but before the third one killed the boy. Axel didn’t tell anybody that I got mad at him, so mad it felt like the entire night was buzzing around me and I couldn’t hear anything but the roar of anger inside my head; how after Axel tucked the gun back into the waistband of his jeans, like he always did, I started kicking him, punching at his big chest and arms with my scrawny fists; how I yelled at him—yelled at him for going to Mexico, for shaving his head, for buying the gun in the first place. I yelled at him for staying out at night and not taking me to the skateboarding park anymore, except to walk around in the dark and fire the gun. Axel didn’t tell anyone about how he let me tackle him to the ground, even though he was so much bigger than me and could have easily stopped me. He didn’t tell anyone how—as I flailed my fists above him—the gun fell out of his waistband and onto the concrete and I stopped flailing, jumped up, grabbed the gun, and crying like a small child, aimed it at his face before firing off into the distance.
At home my parents watch me when they think I’m not paying attention. They watch me, look at each other, and watch me again. I think we are all waiting for the shock to my system.
It comes on the third day, after the third little white pill and the third little cup of water. There is a sharp, prickly pain in my head—the same feeling I get when I sit on my foot for too long or fall asleep on my hand, only this feeling is in my brain and I can’t shake it out. On the fourth day my hands start to twitch every time I hold my pencil, so I hold it harder, until it breaks and Mr. Rowan yells at me for “improper use of classroom resources.” But at the end of the week I can hold my pencil straight, and the pain in my head is dull and muffled, like a fight happening in the apartment next door—I know it’s there, but I can ignore it if I try. What I can’t ignore is how tired I am and how heavy my face feels, like there is a weight attached to each of my cheeks, pulling me forward. I lay my head on the cold table; too tired to concentrate on Mr. Rowan, or soccer, or police, or ghetto birds, or the kid in the skateboarding park, or Axel. Even too tired to concentrate on writing my love stories. With my head on the table I close my eyes and quietly think about nothing.
E. Ce Miller is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and her writing life has taken her to Los Angeles, Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, Kenya, Morocco and more. She holds a Masters of Arts in Writing & Publishing from DePaul University in Chicago, where she was previously awarded a Bachelors of Arts in Peace, Justice & Conflict Studies. When she isn’t backpacking around the world she lives in Savannah, Georgia. Writer, activist, artist, fighter, lover. www.ecemiller.com