By Tochi Onyebuchi
When Dad talked about the Screamers, I thought maybe he could’ve been a writer. We were different like that. I was never too good at metaphor myself.
I’d brought homework with me so I could get some done in the back seat of the cruiser while Dad answered the call. He was working Homicide at the time and I could tell what kind of case it would be by how he came back into the car. If the case was going to be a quick clearance, Dad was all purpose, and it showed in his stride. If the case was going to be slow-going, so was he.
“Bad case, Dad?” I asked from the back of the cruiser one night.
He’d been in the driver’s seat for a while, long enough that the body had been carted off to the morgue and the crowd had dispersed. He had pinched the bridge of his nose and had even undone his cufflinks and loosened his tie. He looked at me in the mirror and smirked. “It’s all right,” he said. “Just need a couple base hits is all.” He talked like that sometimes, like he was America-born. He took their metaphors, their imagery. I figure he thought I liked it.
This was usually around the time Dad would pull out another notebook and, with a pencil, scribble something down. A line or two, sometimes an entire paragraph. He’d tuck it back into his breast pocket, and then he’d transform himself into the Super Detective he’d always been, his lapse in confidence all but forgotten.
With Dad taking me on occasional runs, it was only a matter of time before we ran into our first Screamer. There had been blood everywhere.
Body parts littered the alley floor like a bomb had gone off. In the flashing light from the cruisers, the fingers and pant legs shone blue and purple in their sanguine coat. Chunks of scalp hung from the fire escape, strands of silver clinging to the rails like spider webbing.
Nobody knew whether the whole thing should go on the board in the office as a homicide or if this had been some sort of terror job, but the absence of evidence left it in the no-man’s land of accidental death.
Dad had come back into the cruiser with that going-into-overtime shuffle and stared ahead for a long while and when I reached out from the back seat to touch his shoulder, he didn’t move.
He hadn’t once reached for the tiny notebook in his pocket.
Soon, the office board was entirely covered in the red ink of open cases. One by one, detectives would come in, shake their heads, and slump into their seats marveling at the bad luck of a perfect crime committed with as comprehensive a lack of physical evidence as ever.
Afterwards, they’d retreat to a nearby Irish pub called McLarney’s and compare notes. We all gathered in the back. Nigerians, mostly, with some Ghanaians and a few Senegalese detectives. I sometimes sat with Dad with my ginger ale and his pint of Guinness and watching him scribble in that notebook while the other detectives reminisced about old cases.
“He is practically a boy, nah. No hair on his chin even. And he comes in smiling like a, a, a Cheshire cat. He says he solved the case. It took him three weeks! Eh-heh, clap for yourself.”
Someone else waves their hand dismissively. “If they are raised here, they think they deserve a prize for every mystery they solve.”
“These children. Give them a gun and a badge, and suddenly, they are talking to you as if you’re their age-mate.”
Then a more conciliatory voice: “It is not easy o. Any proper police knows all you need is a jury of these, these just-blacks, to ruin a perfectly good case.”
“Where is the lie?”
On and on they went, about the woes of training this new generation of immigrant police, about how often the just-blacks refused to cooperate and accept their policing, about how this land had inured them to common sense so that each generation of ancestry that could be traced to a plot in Georgia or North Carolina or Missouri was another stone in the mountain of their stupidity. But beneath it all was wonderment at why African-Americans made it so difficult for the Africans who had been brought in to police them.
“But these new things, these bombings in the projects with no witnesses–”
“That’s not news, now.”
“That’s not news o.”
“No nothing. Except a pile of mismatched limbs. I’m telling you, eh, it makes me want to scream.”
Dad looked up at that, but only I had noticed. A moment later, he was scribbling again. I wouldn’t find out till later that what had happened in that moment was a bit of serendipity, a two-step in what Dad liked to call the cosmic choreography of his existence.
Someone’s phone chirruped, and the detectives were off again. Dad was a little slow getting up, but when I tried to follow, he said, “go home.” The way he said it was enough to keep any protest I had in my gut where it belonged.
The victim was identified by his teeth, and when the hits came back for a kid whose dad was a banker, the rest of the city seemed to want in on the investigation.
I didn’t ride along with Dad as much anymore. Some college buddies and I would trawl the abandoned neighborhoods of foreclosed houses, and stare at them from hilltops with a case of Coors between us. Sometimes we would toss our empties and try to hit a few windows.
By then, more squatters had filled the vacant homes and occasionally I’d watch some of my dad’s old partners make their rounds, rousting the kids who always shouted that they were protesting, though they never said what; that they had rights, though they never mentioned which. With their iPhones and their hoodies and their braided hair, they’d shout and cry until the whole block was quiet again.
I saw Dad roust a few, but he was never rough with them like his partners were. His heart didn’t seem in it and when I’d watch him get back into his car from the hill, I’d wait to see if he pulled out his notebook to scribble out some lines. But, nothing. Just the protestors in the back seat as his cruiser sped off and I finished another Coors. Like he’d just tucked the neighborhood in and couldn’t be bothered to see if we were all asleep or just pretending.
All the base hits in the world couldn’t turn up a clearance in the case of the erupted banker’s kid. The city threw the entire force at it, but the most closure the kid’s divorced parents could hope for was that it had been an accidental death. A freebase session gone wrong.
The case forced a few retirements and I hung back, against Dad’s wishes, to watch some of those guys who’d given him company at the bar pack up their desks before their pension could join them. A couple of them went into private security, but I never heard from most of the departed. Even when the protests started up again and tents lined the streets and sidewalks of those foreclosed neighborhoods and vagrancies went up by double digits, the department slimmed.
So maybe it was a sense of duty that made me take the cadet’s exam. Or maybe it was my inability to see something so full get gutted and made irrelevant. Maybe it was the reverence in the voices of those detectives as they’d swap stories at the bar and talk about their profession like it was a religious calling, like you could actually see God, or something like Him, in the titanic folly that made up a single evening’s work. Maybe it was because I’d just wanted Dad to tell me what he was writing all that time in that damn book of his.
She had silver hair and silver eyes to match. And I was coming for early relief when they brought her into the box. By the time I’d arrived, she’d already dropped names on perps involved in fourteen open cases. I watched from the other side of the one-way glass of the interrogation room as she closed a dozen more cases for us.
When Dele started in on the details, she filled it all in, describing each scene as though she’d been there herself. Some of the Number Twos on those investigations went scurrying back to their files to match the little physical evidence they had to her statements and everyone came back green. The board went from blood-red to night-black in a single shift. Dele went on with her for hours, but when he finally asked about cause of death, she told him they were suicides. Each and every one of them. Including the banker’s kid.
The whole place went still; detectives crowded around the partition holding their breath.
I’ll never forget what she did next. She closed her eyes, almost like she was praying, and she opened her mouth. And the entire world went white.
When I woke up, the whole floor was in pieces, chunks of wall were missing, desks split in half, glass all over the floor like hail. My ears wouldn’t stop ringing and when I put my hand to my face, it came back bloody. Someone had the sense to call it in as a terrorist attack. My body felt like I’d been laid on some train tracks right before the 4.30 uptown came through, but I managed to sit up enough to see what remained of the interrogation room.
Blood had sprayed over the entire place, with no body part large enough to use for identification. Intestines hung in ropes from the overhead lamp and the metal table between Dele and the girl had crumpled in on itself like tin foil. In the uppermost corners of the chamber, silver hair splayed like webbing.
I saw Dad at the funerals and then the memorials afterwards, and though he never reeked of Guinness or looked at me with the blurry-eyed semi-lucidity of the day drinker, I knew he was on the slide. It showed in his shuffle.
Routine, after that, meant showing up to support the grieving families of the slain officers, holding our own wake at McLarney’s, singing a few songs from back home and knocking back shots in honor of our fallen comrades. We clung to that because there was nothing else to cling to, no explanation, no motive. At least, until the first silent protests started.
Lining the protest tents in the wasteland of foreclosed homes, they stood like columns of soldiers: just-blacks, men and women with their hair uniformly silver, duck tape over their mouths. We’d gotten so used to hearing them chant about police brutality and hoist their ensloganed placards and shout and rage against anything they could blame, but we’d never seen them silent before.
The first time I saw them, I’d been on the hillside with Detective Kolade and we’d had a case of Coors between us. When he saw the columns form, saggy-jean kids spilling out of the empty houses, an electric current passed through him. Before I knew what he was doing, he’d gone back to the cruiser for his nightstick and had marched down the hillside. I waited for the inevitable confrontation, for that one kid to break ranks and charge him or to say something stupid, but there was only silence, then the accusatory thunk of nightstick cracking jaw. I don’t know why I did nothing as he beat that poor kid, but I think a part of me saw my father in that moment, saw him grasping at answers to a thing, a type of killing that he could not explain, among a group of people who, though we looked so much alike, were as inscrutable as night. Kolade had no notebook, but he had a nightstick and who was I to stop him?
We locked up a few more silver-haired just-blacks after that first run-in, mostly from downtown protests gone awry, but when we brought them to the box, they lost all usefulness. Almost anything they took credit for was proven false a few minutes later. None of them had left behind an ensanguined crime scene. None of them even had natural silver hair. After a few hours of interrogation, they were quick to confess to that lie. They had dyed their hair in solidarity with whoever had committed these crimes.
But soon after the silent protests started up and home vacancies spread even further, the first envelope came in. Witnesses would later report a high-risk analyst at a securities firm had been sorting through his mail when he came across an envelope marked with his name and nothing else, no postmark, not even a stamp. He’d turned it over, then opened it, and in the next moment, his two halves had traveled in opposite directions the length of the trading floor. Witness reports vary on just what happened the moment he opened that envelope, whether the cry was one of anguish or rage, whether it was even he who had screamed or someone else who, knowing something was wrong, had emitted the cry. But everyone there agreed that there had been one. That it had been pained and laced with injustice and that it had been like nothing they’d ever heard before.
Dad took a few more of those cases, but he was never Number One anymore. Most nights, when my shift ended, Mom would call and tell me that Dad still hadn’t come home and I’d crawl his familiar haunts until I eventually found him wearing a groove into a barstool, head and shoulders hunched over his notebook, a pint of Guinness at his elbow.
I’d wait till he finished scribbling before I’d sidle into the stool next to him and tell him how much Mom worried. But it always took me a few moments to work up the courage.
Dad looked more like a stage-four cancer patient than a veteran cop. His balding head had pits in it. His cheeks had hollowed out, and the joints of his fingers were knotted with arthritis. Scribble, scribble, drink. Scribble, scribble, drink.
“My son,” Folasade the proprietress said, smiling with all the sadness in the world. She knew why I was here, but she’d still ask, “What are you drinking tonight?”
And I’d say, “I’m fine, Sade, but thanks.” And she’d walk away and leave me and Dad alone.
“We’re like priests,” Dad said one time when I’d come to pick him up, “and this, all this, is our battlefield. And you have the angels on one side and the demons on the other side, and us taking care of what’s in the middle. What is encased in all the glass and steel? That supernova that is getting dimmer and dimmer and dimmer until one soldier from either side accidentally kicks dirt over it and, pfft, the fire is out forever.”
This was senility, and I recognized in myself the fury at my own powerlessness. People said that would happen. Dad was crumbling in front of me and every misspoken metaphor was another brick coming lose, another rusted beam creaking against the weight it supported, another moment before inevitable gravity caused the whole thing to collapse on itself.
The cancer we all knew was coming finally had Dad bedridden.
He refused treatment and contented himself with having his loved ones near for his final months.
In the room Mom and I set up for him, the lights were left dim, like he preferred. We’d filled it with his effects from the old house in his village back home: his writing desk, the standing lamp that looked like an upright tree branch, the hollowed-out calabash bowls I used as a helmet when I was a child.
In the beginning, when I took up my post at his bedside, I filled the air between us with news of his contemporaries, his “war buddies.” Nneka was sitting pretty at a university security gig. Chidi retired to a place in Fort Worth where his whiskey and his porch could keep him company. Babatunde finally patched things up with his wife and was seeing his kids again. Israel couldn’t cure the policing itch, so a routine traffic stop gone wrong cured it for him. Since the departmental reshuffle and the creation of a new unit specifically for Scream-related crimes, most of the veterans had been put out to pasture. It didn’t take long for me to run out of news.
Dad seemed content enough with silence anyway.
“Strange,” he said, one night.
I must’ve been sleeping. Or halfway there.
“When I was a child, my Mama was the woman in the village to whom others came to resolve disputes.” Smiling, “her reputation was unimpeachable. On one occasion, she was told something that someone else had said about her behind her back. She went to the offender’s home to confront her, and the woman was nowhere to be found. Her husband was, however, and, by the end, the poor man had begged your grandmother to understand that this was simply his poor wife’s nature. She loved Sunday School, your grandmother, because that is how she learned to read. Your grandmother could only read words as they were written in the Bible. If they were arranged in any other order or formed any sentence not written in Scripture, she lost her ability to read. When I told her I was coming to America to become a detective, she looked up from her Bible and the look on her face…”
The cancer had broken down his American-ness, rendered him unrecognizable. He no longer spoke in colloquialisms, no longer talked or sighed or laughed like an American. And I wished I’d seen this part of him sooner.
“Was as if…” His voice carried off, and we settled into our familiar silence. That was when I got the notion to ask about his notebook. Before I could get a word in, though, Dad said, “…as if…” and this time his voice was little more than a whisper. I felt as though I should have done something, adjusted his blankets, turned down the lighting, raised the heat a little, but I didn’t want to interrupt whatever communion he was carrying on in that moment.
The muscles in his face shifted. Light flared briefly in his eyes. His wrinkles smoothed and everything sort of loosened. I knew what had happened and part of me was happy that I’d been with him for it. But the smirk on his face angered me. It was like he’d finally figured out the perfect metaphor, seen in his mind’s eye the perfect image to describe what he felt and decided in that final moment, as with that damned notebook, to keep it to himself.
I transferred out of Homicide soon after we buried him.
In the Scream unit, they’d discovered, after some very expensive failures, a way of corralling the weaponized envelopes. They weren’t hard to notice. Their targets were obvious, and despite the infighting amongst the growing number of protestors, the message the envelopes were meant to send was quite clear. It was only a matter of time before law enforcement adapted.
The envelope disposal rooms were steel-reinforced and soundproofed and the suits they made us wear began as bulky encasements of plastic armor and were soon slimmed down so that we could fit our entire bodies in the upright chamber where the bravest of us took the things apart with our own hands.
They trained you for half a year before they let you open your first envelope. Meditation techniques. A slew of controlled exercises in disassociation. By the end, you could watch yourself from several angles at once with clinical distance. Tedium became a shield against the explosion sealed in the envelope, ennui a rampart.
That’s what the Screams were. Entire souls encased in folded paper. Lived existences laced with every weaving of emotions so that when the encasement was opened, the entirety of someone else’s anguish and joy and hope and fear and hatred assaulted the victim, resonated with the swirling emotions within them so that the matched frequency overrode the physical confines of flesh and bone and sinew and the human body came apart.
To battle such a thing, you had to give it nothing to resonate with. You had to still the tuning fork in your own body. And once you did that, a Scream could tear a metal desk in two, topple an entire skyscraper, level an apartment block, but it would leave you untouched.
Dad had been two years buried when I finally found the notebook.
It’d been nestled near the bottom of a cardboard box whose soggy bottom gave out when I tried to lift it. Mom’s basement had flooded in the spring thaw and I’d come along to help her out.
The little thing had plopped into a small puddle, but when I took it out, none of the ink had smudged.
…like how a sunrise would taste if such a thing could be tasted. The scribble trailed off after that and I flipped back to the beginning of the paragraph to find what looked like a description of Mom when she’d been younger. I skipped a few pages and found another line: the smokestacks like minarets and the church spires like watchtowers all arrayed like some steel mill blue-collar kingdom where workers lived with the dignity of kings and the hope of paupers and where cops policed less like people and more like forces of nature, stalking the edges of paradise and eliminating anything that would disrupt the rhythm of peacefully-lived life.
I sat on an upturned milk crate and turned to another page.
…less like the aftermath of a massacre and more like the alley had been built in reverse, like the architect used the very act of destruction to construct it, stacking broken bricks on top of each other and carving large pocks into the concrete to catch blood or whatever might leak there, metal staircases twisted like balloon animals on each side of the passageway expanded by the blast, the walls half-coated in blood-paint, the whole thing unfinished.
As I read, I found fewer and fewer complete sentences. Instead, the metaphors grew more wrought, extended over entire pages, mapped out like a cartographer’s first draft, and Dad turned, in my mind, from some unknowable specter into that frontiersman I always imagined he was, an explorer skirting the edges of known experience, peering into the blackness, the unknown, and shining a light for someone else to follow.
The Screams grew new texture. Like marijuana laced with PCP or a cocktail with an extra kiss of vodka layering the top. Some Screams managed to break through the defenses we’d erected in ourselves.
I remember the beads of sweat on Obiwu’s forehead more than anything else. His fingers were deft, his movement smooth, and his eyelids didn’t flutter like they used to. His poise was erect and he moved like he did during every other disposal, but the beads of sweat beneath his visor told me that his concentration had been bent and would soon be broken. The next instant, the disposal chamber had acquired a new coat of paint. The clean-bots went to work preparing the sturdy contraption for its next victim. For those of us with enough training, we could look at Obiwu’s death with the clinical distance of a scientist marking a failed experiment. We were already recalibrating our ingredients. For those ready to crack, those whose hands had already begun to shake, whose distance between soul and body was too easily bridged, the chamber became less a place of work and more a coffin, a sarcophagi they would never be comfortable stepping into.
I started carrying Dad’s notebook into the chamber with me. Slipped it into a little fold by my left hip, about where my holster used to go.
After my shift, I carried it home and in the empty pages Dad didn’t have the time or energy to fill, I’d describe my own crime scenes. I’d climb into the interior of each Scream. I’d traverse each river, crawl along every thread of every emotion braided together, and I would write down what they sounded like. One sounded like a chorus of angels that, for the duration of the blast, fancied themselves demons. Another sounded, at its apex, like a massive log the size of the earth was being chopped inside my head and when the wave passed, it sounded like how a sunset might sound if such a thing could be heard, a red and blue and purple and golden thing that slid along the underbellies of clouds before the entire world was engulfed in darkness.
I would return to some of Dad’s earlier metaphors to buttress my own. And in those moments, I felt like I was right alongside him on the edge of the darkness, his sidekick, his Number Two, the both of us metabolizing the psychological trauma of the just-blacks into a shining light for others to follow.
I was sent in to handle the third envelope we’d collected that day and in the chamber, my hands on the envelope, ready to open it, my heart quickened. Not with fear or worry, but with excitement. What would I write in that notebook when I finished? How many generations of racialized violence would this Scream sound like? How many forced prison sterilizations would fuel this Scream’s tenor? What specific brand of injustice, colored by equal measures loss and never-having-had, would tint the timbre of what awaited me in this envelope?
A sweatdrop plopped against the inside of my plastic visor.
My fingers froze, and I could hear fear stampeding towards me in the distance. I thought of Obiwu, remembered the look of frozen calm on his face just before the envelope in his hands had detonated. But this, this was different. This was possibility sealed tightly between my fingers.
The part of me governed by my training told me to put down the envelope, step out of the chamber and hand this one off to another officer. But I couldn’t. What tapestry of experiences and feelings could I walk into by opening this one? What if this one held that perfect combination of rage and joy, that perfect amalgam of loss and gain?
I heard voices through the muffle of the chamber’s walls, then an alarm sound as personnel began to evacuate. And I don’t know why they did it, or why they thought I would do what I would do.
Because I was the only one in that room who had in his mind’s eye the image of my father smirking at the ceiling of his study. Like he’d finally answered a lifelong riddle, like he had solved the mystery of the just-blacks, had understood them, and could at last quiet the rumbling in his own heart.