Clover mites march out of the library’s foundation, and Alex crushes them with his thumb. They mark him like freckles, like scabbed over zits, like chicken pox. Some have infiltrated his skin. Fingernails can’t dig deep enough to scratch the itch, to pull them out.
Students strut by his desk, backpacks slung over their shoulders, late for class. They are laughing. They cannot see what he sees. But they sniff out his strangeness like a smoke signal, like an alarm, and steer clear.
If he focuses on answering research questions, then maybe they’ll go away. But being a librarian is boring, even for him, today. Instead, he waylays his dreaming with the news. And that is where he sees it again.
NPR, CNN, BBC, and NBC have bought the same photos of people folded in half.
People huddled together under palm trees, holding small, wooden, cross-shaped figurines.
Depending on who you ask, those won’t do anything; or maybe this is what all that praying did.
Maybe that is the problem.
Alex finds Christopher Soto’s poem in the slurry of Facebook confessionals. A heartbroken poet recommended it. As he reads, the funerals in Orlando are being planned, and the body bags are being zipped shut, and the mothers and the fathers and the sisters and the brothers and the lovers are waiting to know if the tags on the bags match the tags on the toes of the bodies.
He jumps from one article to another:
◦ It does not matter who is stroking your hair, so long as they keep their handkerchief pressed into that surprising bullet hole and whisper, “Be strong, baby, be strong.”
◦ Liquor bottles look beautiful when you’re pressed against a bar’s floor.
◦ The family’s house is on fire, and those who do not live there say: “It is the family’s’ job to put out the fires. They chose to live in those houses.” They say: “It is their problem, and we have given them broken fire hoses and buckets of dirty water, but we shall not lend them our muscles, or our tears, because we have none. Not for them.”
During Alex’s lunch break, he walks to the quad with his boss.
His boss’ hat is drawn down to disguise his concern. Black sunglasses cover his eyes so his colleagues won’t see them leaking. Professionalism is a top priority for him.
Jessie is there, standing in the shade of an oak tree. She wraps and unwraps a purple scarf around her neck. Her mascara is a mess.
A man with a pastor’s voice recites Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech. He too has a dream; and the dream is the same; and the dream was for Alex and for himself, and for the one-hundred and two people who can’t scratch deep enough to draw out the music of gunfire and screaming and sirens ringing in their ears.
On the grass, mourners form a circle. And in the center of the circle a Jewish woman sings in Yiddish. Her blue dress spirals and flows out beneath her. Her arms stretch outward. She is a dreidel, spinning, twirling, unfurling, catching raindrop tears in her palms. Her voice touches Alex on the shoulder, cups its sound around his ear and whispers, “Shalom.”
A strong breeze blows through the trees; the rainbow flags flutter. Her singing grows louder. She cannot stop spinning. She doesn’t sing Shalom anymore, but now: “How strong I am. How strong.”
And the words place themselves like iron bars where the flower of Alex’s spine wilts from the weight of his backpack, or the weight of Orlando, of an entire city.
He, too, is mouthing the words, “Shalom.” But he is not Jewish.
Someone Alex does not know grabs his hand.
The wind carries caterpillars off the trees.
Someone says: “Omar was like a child spraying a water gun at a rabbit through the bars of its cage. The creature can do nothing but shiver, shake, and shit itself until Omar has given up or his pistol has run dry.”
Ava stands in the center of the circle, and the mourners struggle against the wind to keep the flags taught. Ava’s words fly across the quad, and bury themselves deep into the giant oak’s heartwood. Her syllables lodge themselves between the initials AT + LE, next to BM + MA, under SS + AG.
The mourners hear: “We should be angry.”
Ava punctuates her sentences with her fist. Leaning forward in her combat-boots, she looks ready to run into a burning building. To save the people inside who are screaming so loud that even God has turned the volume down.
She turns her back toward Alex.
The latina behind him murmurs, “How strong I am. How strong.”
Ava turns toward him.
“And it could have been you.”
She stands in the circle, pointing at him; her hand is in the shape of a gun; she is shooting him with those words. Everyone sees him; they see a target made of cardboard and concrete and Elmer’s glue—it is so heavy. He didn’t know he had it before, but now he can’t wipe his eyes and keep it steady in the wind at the same time.
An important man, the kind of man people protest to, is speaking. But he doesn’t seem to
mean it. It is all, “My heart is broken… blah, blah, blah.”
Five years ago, students refused to leave the library until he said, “You are safe here. You are welcome.”
He asked thieves to cut out his tongue so that he wouldn’t have to say it. But even thieves did not want it.
Powerless, he made his wife pin a rainbow ribbon on his wrinkled Armani suit and another on her pantsuit.
He used his lapel to obscure it; hers was camouflaged in a beautiful carnation she decided would be her new signature look.
His wife’s expression reminds Alex of that picture. The one of Carly from his sister’s wedding: two-year-old Carly staring at the camera, bored, miserable, and on the verge of shitting herself. Waiting for her mother to drink the only glass of wine she’d had in two months while she talked with the bride about love.
Jessie holds Alex’s hand. She is crying from behind her glasses, and he tells her, “Don’t be sad, Jessie,” although he couldn’t stop himself when the man with a pastor’s voice read, “I
Have a Dream.”
Alex dreams, too. The world has fallen back twenty-years. The Wyoming prairie is colder than he imagined. Alex searches for the fencepost where Matthew Shepard has been tied. Where snot is freezing in his nostrils. Jessie points to shadows on the horizon, saying, “Don’t let them get away!” The footprints in the snow are melting.
“Don’t be sad, Jessie,” Alex says.
The man in the wrinkled suit leaves the circle.
Another man replaces him. Patchy beard and a day-glow orange sign. No More Guns.
His mission is different; this is his opportunity to shine.
After the vigil, Alex sits down at his desk. He refuses to answer the emails that have built up over lunch. Daydreaming has already distracted him.
His heart has been shot through with an AR-whatever, and he is laying on the bar’s floor next to Edward, Stanley, Luis, Mercedes, Juan, Terry, and 97 other people who are crying, or can’t cry because they are wondering if they’re good enough to go to heaven.
Some have taken out their phones to text, “I love you, Mommy,” but it comes out, “I loathe you, Mommy.”
Turns out, it is impossible to tame fingers that cannot quit jumping each time Omar does to Edward and Juan and Mercedes what he did to his pet rabbit.
Tony trots up to the desk. He’s been working on that goatee for a while. Alex has seen him on campus—around. He’s thin, short, older, straight.
They whisper to each other about what it feels like to be afraid. Alex says, “It feels like when a wasp is stuck in your car. You put the windows down because you want it to get lost. You don’t want it to hurt you, but it’s looking for someone to sting. Then you swerve off the road and into the shrubs when it gets you in the neck.”
Tony says he carries a gun, but it’s not an AR-whatever, and he doesn’t know what he needs it for.
Protection, he says.
He says he doesn’t know what it is like to live like an owl, twisting his neck around to see who belongs to the footsteps creeping up behind him.
“But, I can imagine,” he says.
Tony says he can imagine how it feels to wear a target. Alex laughs.
A target is invisible to the people wearing it, but the mothers say, “I always knew.”
The fathers say, “Take that damn thing off.”
“Help us,” the people wearing it cry. It is too heavy.
Tony smiles and leaves. On his hip, the bulge of his piece protrudes like a tumor.
The clover mites are in the thousands now, marching over Alex’s arms and legs.
They’re pouring out of a crack in the foundation. It is widening and too expensive to fix.
Alex is sick of the headlines, so he watches the mites march out of that crack.
Alex keeps a one-liter water-bottle in his bag, and if he doesn’t hydrate, then he will shrivel up. And gays don’t shrivel.
If an idea could be shot in the back with an AR-whatever, then no one would have to lay their head in anyone’s lap and hear, “Be strong, baby, be strong.”
The handkerchief pressed over the bullet hole is dirty and may only cause infection. But it’s the only thing that the bear has with him. A handkerchief. A smoke signal. He pulled it out of the back pocket of his leather pants.
The building isn’t burning, but smoke stings his eyes. He wipes his face. He tastes blood. He smells blood. He hears blood. And now his blood is mixing with someone else’s, which is something gays are told never to do.
Alex turns to the gossip columns: “Omar Mateen, allegedly gay…” They gave him his very own target. Placed it around his shoulders like a prized hog and said, “blue-ribbon, first place.”
And the people ate that shit up.
Omar Mateen Allegedly Gay
“According to two men who claim to have previously had contact with Mateen via a gay dating app, Mateen frequented Pulse for as many as three years. He was often seen in the corner of the bar, drinking alone. Mateen was known for his violent outbursts, which were common. He abused his wife.”
Of course, they all say, and roll their eyes. That! That explains everything!
Once, a man reports, Mateen pulled a knife on him after a dispute about religion.
His wife made no comment. She was not asked.
One man says it is like peeling powdery wings off butterflies.
We are waiting for the Canadian Press to confirm these details.
When Alex is home, he kisses his husband goodnight and pulls the covers up to his chin.
He is standing in the center of the circle, in the grass, beating his chest and howling. He covers himself in dirt and shoves leaves into his hair. He pours the one-liter bottle over his head, and mud trickles into his mouth. He chews the grit. Swallows the mud. The man with a pastor’s voice is bellowing, “I have a dream,” and the Jewish woman can’t stop twirling. “Shalom, shalom, shalom.” She wheels into the sky, shrieking, “Shalom.” Her dress flies off her body and floats to the earth like a piece of paper. She is gone.
His boss crosses his arms and squints from behind his glasses, crying. His tears are clover mites.
The important man holds a rake, and he is raking tongues into a pile.
The man with the day-glow orange sign is using it for a math lesson, adding one and one to get 102, which is not divisible by the time it takes for Edward, Akyra, Oscar, Brenda, Deonka, or Alejandro to stop the bleeding where Omar shot them with his water gun.
“How strong I am. How strong.”
Sam Simas is a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island. His fiction has appeared in Flint Hills Review, Steam Ticket, and other journals