When the windows shattered and the ground shook, my parents named me Koa. It means warrior in my native language. But I can’t speak Hawai’ian anymore, and I’ve never been a fighter. The only thing I’ve ever been able to actually fight is the clod of discolored gunk that forms beneath the thumbnail that I don’t trim. I scrape with my opposite index finger while the day whistles on above my head, because there isn’t much else to do in Plano, Texas, unless you want to file the remaining time in your life down by watching another movie for the eighth day that week, or analyze how s***ty everyone here can be. Life can get draining.
I woke up on a sharp winter morning and rushed into my car, waiting for my hands to get warm under my thighs so that I wouldn’t need to use the heater. My parents gave me a brand new Camaro for my 16th birthday. I don’t really know what that means, but everyone at school always gives me attention for it. I wish they wouldn’t. It’s just a piece of metal that takes me from one place to another and whittles humanity’s lifespan down a little more.
I drag myself into calculus class and collapse into a seat in the middle of an intense conversation that a group of girls is having. “... no he actually freaking stared me in the eyes and told me to go the back of the line. I don’t know! Probably because he could tell that I was Persian. I freaking hate white people so much.” I’m 100% Hawai’ian, but no one ever believes it on account of my peachy skin and light hair, so I don’t really know what I’m allowed to say when people talk about white folk like this. The Calculus teacher overheard Mellica’s story and decided to butt in with his own story of racism. He’s a black dude, but I never really notice because he’s just like any other man I’ve ever met: tall, broad shoulders, and breathes oxygen. Soon enough the classroom reaches a crescendo as kids raise their voices to share their own experiences with persecution, and nobody is listening to a word of it. Disgusting. How can people bring themselves to criticize one another when in the back of their mind they all know that we can’t stop hate until we quit antagonizing one another? Give me any issue in the world: drought, famine, sex trafficking, and I can tell you what needs to be done to stop it. I’m a pretty smart kid; I get all A’s in school, and my teachers compliment my argumentative skills in essays a lot. But what’s the point of being good at arguing if I can’t bring myself to tell someone that their hair looks bad in the morning? I look down and see a new layer of dirt beneath my fingernails, probably there from when I stopped myself from falling in the mud this morning. I start scraping it away, relaxing as the sound of overreacting teens fades into white noise.
With the school day up, I began trekking to the parking lot with my arms shoved in my hoodie pocket, pushing the front down so that I looked a bit like a penguin. As I waddled up to my car I brought my eyes from the ground and saw my friend Taa waving at me excitedly through the window, laughing his a** off with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. I lowered myself into the driver’s seat and worriedly laughed back at him.
His laugh is kind of a cultural icon at our school. If he lets out even a chuckle during class, you are required to laugh along. Not because of peer pressure or anything, just because Taa’s laugh could make even plate tectonics the highlight of your day.
“What are you doing in my car? How the hell did you even get in here? I locked it!” Taa just kept on laughing, his pure white teeth reflecting the garrish overhead light that came on when I opened the door. He held up a thin piece of metal. “I picked the lock with this paperclip.” “Holy…”After a few more seconds of gleeful convulsions, he composed himself. “Koa bro, let’s go see Hidden Figures. Ian and Drake are gonna be there too.” I didn’t even stop to think about whatever else I had planned to do that night. “Okay.”
I don’t enjoy spending a lot of time with most people, but I could sit in a room with Taa all day long, never say a word, and still not want to leave his side. When I’m trapped, blanketed by anxiety, endlessly wondering about how I can meaningfully spend my time on this Earth, Taa’s laugh pulls me out. He’s the type of person who makes cutting a couple of hours off your life with a meaningless movie worth it. Neither of us really sees race in people including ourselves, we just see good and bad, and maybe that’s why we get along so well. Why distinguish between skin color when everyone already knows that the same s***ty person lives in Rio de Janiero and London at the same time?
After the movie, I sat outside the bathroom on a bench, waiting for Taa and eavesdropping on the conversations around me. I heard streams of conversation from all angles as families and couples pushed open the chipped wooden doors. I could make out one conversation above the rest, that of a backpedaling Middle Eastern man exclaiming to his East Asian companion about how awful white people were. His brows were furrowed and his lips pursed. He emphatically moved his arms, and I overheard fragments of the conversation. “...fix the world… get rid of them.”
I must have been staring, because he averted his eyes and shot a threatening glare my way. I quickly put my head down in response and pretended to be focused on my lap, until it turned into a real focus as I watched my index finger drift over and frantically begin scraping away the dirt beneath my thumb. All the noise around me melted into a murmur, and the skin beneath my nail began to turn raw. I felt my face get hot and noticed sweat dripping down from my armpits. I was furious, but more than that I was disappointed in myself. I wanted to make him understand that acceptance builds bridges, that no race is more evil than the next, but there was no way I could stand up him. He was just like my calculus teacher: tall, broad-shouldered, and he breathed oxygen too. So I settled for wrapping myself in the blanket of thoughts. I wish I could show the world that they’re just perpetuating the hate. I wish I could make a difference somehow.
It felt like the sun had come and gone, but after what was probably a few minutes Taa came out of the bathroom, his smile as big as ever. It’s kind of creepy how happy he always is, but comforting nonetheless. He noticed the disturbed look on my face and became serious. “What happened?” I told him about the conversations I heard as we opened the doors to exit, squinting at the red light of the sunset.
“Taa, why doesn’t anyone understand? We blame and blame each other but nobody ever seems to see the needle in their own eye...” He stopped walking and stared at me all solemn-like, lips sucked in.
“Why don’t you pull it out and show them, Koa?” He leaned against the wall on the outside of the theater. Our breathing came in intervals, turning the air a faint smoky gray before dissolving into oblivion. “What?”
“You’ve got everything right. You know what the problem is. So why not pull the needle out?” He raised his open hands. “People have always been willing to listen to you because you hardly ever speak. And you have these big ideas about how to make the world a better place. I’ve been listening to them for years, man.” The breath caught in my throat. I sighed and sat down against the wall, not caring about the cold or the people walking by. Taa sat next to me. “I think you’re right, Koa. You’re right about why all the hate is still here, even with everyone being connected. Heck, you’re more right than any philosopher or politician that I’ve ever read. But you can’t just keep using me as a sounding board for all the ideas that you’re gonna yell at the ocean.” His eyes were glistening, but I couldn’t tell if it was because of how much he cared or just the piercing wind. “I want to, Taa. I want to be able to do that so so badly. But I’m not as confident as you. I can’t just talk to any random person. I get nervous and, sweaty and, I start to overanalyze things and... I’m really bad at telling people how to change their lives, even if I’m always thinking about how they should
He stared at me for a few more hourly seconds, cutting into my soul with his friendly brown eyes before he stood again, his expression dejected. “Okay, Koa. I think you’re strong enough, but I can only give you the directions. You have to choose which ones to take.”
But his mood quickly shifted as his big smile came back. He helped me up off the ground and put his arm around me in a half-hug. “So, you want to go see Hidden Figures? Ian and Lakota tell me it’s good.” I half heartedly chuckled as he began his glorious laugh. While he laughed, I could almost see the world around me becoming a smooth gold color. I felt the air get warmer for a second. When his laugh subsided, a gust of cold air blew, and we parted ways in a brisk jog. On the way back to my car, I tucked my hand into my hoodie pocket to scrape away the dirt from my nail, even though there wasn’t any left. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d let Taa down just by being me.
I came to school the next day with a bandage on my thumb. I had been scraping at it all night, mulling over what Taa had said to me at the movies. I’m pretty sure that he’s right; I have solutions to problems. Actually, I know he’s right. But surely someone else has the same ideas that I have; so why can’t they pull the needles out?
I got out of my car and strolled along the large brick building that is Apollo High. The cold air cut through the layers I was wearing, chilling the beads of sweat on my back that had formed on the drive over. I turned right to enter the language arts building and noticed out of the corner of my eye the blinking red light of the camera on top of the door. The school district had cameras installed everywhere after 9/11. There were so many that I was always finding new ones like this; I had written a letter to the board when I got here asking for some of the unnecessary ones to be removed, but I tore it up before sending it. Once I was inside I turned again to face the absurdly long English hallway, where I saw Taa sitting outside of Mrs. Ciego’s classroom. I talked to him for a bit before the bell rang and sent us on our way.
On all of our desks was an excerpt from some manifesto titled “2083- A European Declaration of Independence.” Our teacher began debriefing us on what it was about, but once she mentioned the words race I started tuning her out. I began tugging at my thumbnail, the one I always clean, thinking more about Taa’s words. A wave of guilt rushed over me, making my body shiver. Taa believes in me, but I just can’t even bring myself to have a light argument with the dumb girls in my calculus class.
I was holding onto my thumbnail when it happened. The ground shook, and the windows shattered. It made me pull my whole thumbnail off, revealing pink skin that was infected near the top, where I had been scraping. I let out a sharp, guttural cry and looked down at my finger in a daze. The red light I had seen on top of the door wasn’t actually a camera, it was a bomb. Small, but big enough to blow off the locked doors so that he could come in. I got up and weaved through the kids who were huddled on the ground from the shock, heading for the door. In hindsight, going outside was one of the dumbest things I could have done, but I never get scared when I need to most, and plus I was curious.
The scene I saw was heart-numbingly boring and terrifying at the same time. There were large holes in the floor where I had walked into school ten minutes prior, and chunks of tile laying everywhere. I felt my chest begin to tighten and my breathing begin to expand. I wanted to return to my classroom and lie down with everyone else, but then I glanced down and saw my exposed thumb, free of the nail that had been holding me prisoner for so long, and I remembered Taa. Mrs. Ciego’s class is right next to mine.
I ran into the room and stopped dead in my tracks once I saw him. His back was turned to me, but I could see who he was. He held a gun at his side, smoke drifting upwards from the barrel. In front of the man sat Sarah Vita, a short white girl. She was crying, looking down at the boy whose head was in her lap. It was Taa. There was a huge gaping hole in his right cheek, surrounded by red, and you could see the inside of his face. Sarah looked up at me from across the room and mouthed “he saved me,” tears streaming down her face as her body shivered. The man turned around and stared at me, that same menacing glare he had given me at the movie theater. Without looking, he brought his arm up and pointed the gun at Sarah. “No! No! No please don’t stop!” The trigger went off. You could hear the bullet round hit the floor at the same time that Sarah’s body did.
I stared at Taa’s body, the one I had been talking to minutes before. I heard his voice in my head, his laugh that lit up the room. The room was silent now, aside from the sound of children holding in their sobs in the corner of the room. I looked down at my raw finger, saw the small drops of blood forming at the edge. This man was only making things worse. What did he think killing an innocent white girl would change? It would create a rift in the world even deeper than before. The man smirked and turned away from me, raising his gun to aim at another child’s head. My blood began to boil and my face got hot as my index finger instinctively tried to scrape at my thumb, but with nothing there to fight, I pulled my hand back.
I lunged forward and tackled the man to the ground, wrestling with him for a grip of the gun. I wrenched it out of his grasp and stood up, pointing it at him. “Leave.” I commanded, my voice shaking along with my hand. He smirked again, and I almost thought he was going to stay right there, but then he raised himself up slowly. He was walking away when he slipped his hand into his pocket and grabbed the knife. Before I could even register what had happened, he thrust the blade forward into my chest. I dropped the gun and stumbled backwards, blood coming out in waves as I gasped for air. He recovered the pistol and ran out of the building screaming. Maybe he saw the needle in his eye. Taa’s classmates gathered around all three of us, but mostly me as they tried to assess my wounds, as if they knew anything about chest lesions. I didn’t need their words, though. I already knew it was over. Lying there, my thumbnail ripped off and the blood pooling up in my chest, I was finally free.