I used to dream about them as he read me to sleep, curled up with my head on his lap. The villains from my huge, illustrated storybook: the big bad wolf, skulking through the woods; the witch in her gingerbread house, heating up her oven; the dragon in his lair, guarding his gold. And the heroes who wanted to stop them: the plucky girl in red, smart enough to see through the disguise; the brave sister, nimble enough to save her brother; and the knight, strong enough to slay the dragon.
I always wanted to be the knight. I liked how he wasn’t scared to stand up and fight. He didn’t just sit and let things happen to him, waiting until grandma had already been eaten and the oven had already been lit. He went to the dragon all by himself, angry and powerful but never afraid. That’s why it upset me so much that he was a man. At first, I couldn’t understand why – if the other stories about baking sweets and visiting grandma could have heroes like me, why didn’t someone like me also get to fight the dragon?
It was my dad who convinced me I could. Pointing at the drawing in my book, he used to ask me what I saw. Not a man, he said – a suit of armour. He told me that anyone could wear the armour. They could have black skin just like me, they could have two webbed toes on their right foot just like me, they could have a birthmark shaped like Texas on their knee just like me. He said the dragon only sees the suit of armour, not the person underneath it. The dragon sees the armour and he knows to be afraid.
He’d pick me up when I was almost asleep, halfway between fantasy and reality, and tuck me in. I’d keep dreaming about the big bad wolf, and the children who needed saving, and me: the knight in shining armour on her way to slay the dragon.
We were in the car together. It was a hot day, so hot that the road felt a little sticky under my shoes as I clambered into the passenger seat. He had come to pick me up from one of my after-school clubs. I don’t remember which one. It was probably my music group with Mr Wilson, the young teacher from a city I’d never heard of in a state that was maybe Georgia, who always dressed for class in a tie and buttoned-up shirt, even in the summer. He picked out the gifted kids in his first week and set up an after-school class where we could learn the clarinet. I wasn’t very good – I spent most of the time thinking about how much spit my tongue could make and how to stop it from going into the mouthpiece – but my dad didn’t mind. He said the sound of the clarinet reminded him of Duke Ellington, who his dad used to listen to when he was my age.
He said he was going to take me for ice cream because it was so hot. That wasn’t true. Dad took me for ice cream almost every week anyway, regardless of the weather. I actually think he liked it more than I did – he would try a different flavour every time, tasting them in different combinations like a wizard mixing a potion. He always asked what I wanted, and I always said strawberry, which was my favourite. I’d sit in the tall seat by the window, watching the cars go by, and my dad would chat to the girl with the bright eyes behind the bar before coming back with a big smile on his face. I’m pretty sure she used to give him bigger scoops than everyone else.
Dad was playing with the radio when the car with the lights pulled out and started following us. The first he knew of it was when those lights started flashing and the sound of the siren started bleeding through the doors. He looked confused, then scared, then calm. He told me not to worry and pulled into a dusty little patch of dirt by the side of the road. The car with the lights parked behind us and killed its engine.
I heard a crunch as the officers swung their door shut and then more crunches as heavy boots stalked the gravel towards us. Craning my neck around I saw there were two of them, and that the other one was already standing beside their car. His eyes were fixed on us, but his body language was casual, the easy confidence of a man who had done this hundreds of times before. I wish I had paid more attention to what my dad had said to me in that quiet moment, but I didn’t. I know he kept telling me not to panic and that this wouldn’t take long.
Dad had already rolled down his window by the time the officer arrived at the door. He waited to be spoken to before saying anything which wasn’t like him. After what felt like several minutes of silence, the officer leaned down with both arms on the frame of the car door and peered in through the open window. He was younger than I was expecting, but with an unfriendly face that I didn’t like looking at. I could see dark patches of sweat on his uniform, and tiny beads of water clung to his forehead like raindrops on a window. He looked at me before speaking.
He asked my dad where he was going this afternoon. Dad started to explain about the clarinet, and the ice cream, and the weekly routine, but the officer didn’t seem interested and cut him off. He said it was unusual to see a man like him taking a little girl for ice cream on his own. There was a moment where I sensed that dad didn’t know what to say. After a pause, he answered – explaining again that I was his daughter and he’d just picked me up from an after-school class. Again, the officer interrupted him. He said that if this was a family outing, surely there should be a mom in the car taking her little girl for ice cream.
Mom died when I was a baby. Dad tried to tell me about her as I got older, but I could always tell he found it hard. He told me about how they met in high school, the old-fashioned way, and how he would try to impress her by playing basketball even though everyone said he was too short for it. He told me about their dates, buying too much food and bringing it home so they could listen to music together as they ate. He told me how much she loved me, how she held me in the hospital when I was born and said she couldn’t believe I was real. He tried to tell me about her accident. How the car didn’t stop for the red light when she pulled out of the junction, and how it hit her from the side before she had time to react. How the driver was in jail now. How mom was with us as long as we remembered her. The story never went much further than that. He’d grab my big book of fairy tales and ask which hero I wanted to read about today.
Dad was nervous now. He glanced back at me and then back to the man leaning through the window, telling him that he didn’t know how to explain in any other way that I was his daughter. The officer said he couldn’t just take my dad’s word for it, that I was his daughter, not when you see it on the news all the time about certain people taking little girls from right outside their school in broad daylight. He said if they just let every man with a little girl drive by without asking questions then they wouldn’t be doing their job, would they? Dad said he understood but said that wasn’t what was happening here. He was trying to stay calm.
It was then that the officer motioned to his colleague by the car. It was a gentle wave, barely noticeable, like asking a waitress to refill your glass in a restaurant. But we both saw it. And then another crunch, crunch, crunch as heavy boots approached the car. This time they were heading to my side; I don’t know whether the first officer told officer two to do that with a motion I hadn’t seen, or whether this was planned all along. It doesn’t matter. My dad’s eyes darted toward me protectively as the second officer’s shadow fell over me like nightfall. Even on a day as hot as this, it made me feel cold.
This was all the distraction the first officer needed. He reached through the open window and pulled the keys out of the ignition, palming them swiftly into his pocket. I think it was then that dad knew we were in trouble.
We’re going to have to do some checks, the first officer said. Take you down the station until we can get this all figured out. Figure out what, my dad asked. I’m taking my daughter for ice cream. The officer’s hand rested on something at his hip.
He said there was no need for aggression. Why don’t you just step out of the car and we can make this nice and easy? I could see that my dad was panicking now, the small movements he made were too quick and too nervous. He asked what it would take to prove to them that I was his, telling them he could get his ID from his bag in the back seat. The first officer told him that wouldn’t be necessary and asked him again to step out of the car. The second officer said nothing.
He told them he had a right to show his ID and prove who he was. They told him he ain’t got a right to shit until he gets out of the car. Seeing what was happening, my dad started getting out with the most precise care he could manage. I could feel the second officer’s shadow all over me.
I couldn’t see everything that was going on anymore, but I saw my dad pressed up against the side of his car with his arms spread out. I heard talking, angry voices, they were asking him questions, but I couldn’t really make out what they were saying. I was trying to think of what I could do to help. If I were one of the characters from my stories, I would have an idea. If I had an oven, I could push them into it. If I had a sword, I could slay them.
The first officer shouted something to the second. Get her out of the car too. Officer two pulled open the door and stood back a little, like I was Cinderella going to the ball and he was waiting for me to step out of the carriage. I was too scared to move. I heard my dad telling me to do what they said, and I tried my best. But I was taking too long, my seatbelt was too tight, the car was too hot, the shadow was too cold. Officer two reached out to grab me. I screamed.
It happened quickly. I heard shouting – the officer shouting something I couldn’t understand, my dad shouting for them not to touch me. I didn’t see him move, but I think something happened – either he went for the car door, or his arms came down, or maybe someone just saw a chance to get away with something they’d wanted to do for their entire lives. I heard three noises like fireworks. Pop, pop, pop. A sudden silence. And then I was screaming again. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped.
The book made it seem so simple. Good and evil and the hero who saves the day. I read it a lot after it happened, then not very much, then a lot again. I wanted to feel close to him. Usually, it made me feel far away.
I thought about our favourite story. I read it so often I knew every word, knew the spelling mistake that the editors had left in the forty-fourth line accidentally, knew how many birds were in the sky in the main illustration. I read about the knight. The knight I had wanted to be, brave, bold, strong, heroic. I hadn’t been any of those things.
On the night I packed my stuff up for college, I read it again. It had sat in the drawer in my bedside table for about five years. I hadn’t even opened it in all that time. But as I was deciding what to keep, what to throw and what to leave behind, I found myself drawn once again to the cutesy castle on the front and the pages dense with memories. I lay back on my bed with the book resting on a pillow. The pages crackled with age as I opened it, a static shock of words remembered but unread.
When I got to the story about the knight and the dragon, I turned the page quickly, like tearing off a band-aid. I devoured it like I was reading it for the first time.
Their armour shimmers as the dim moonlight breaks through the clouds of smoke gathering overhead. The visors of their helmets catch the light and shine like spotlights in the blackness. They raise their shields as one, a well-drilled army ready for war. Some of them are on horseback, brandishing weapons with one hand as the other tries to keep their steed calm among the chaos. All of them wear their symbol – on their chests, their shoulders, their arms, and their mounts.
I can’t see who’s behind the armour. There are hundreds of men, but their faces are obscured by the helmets, the shields, the smoke and the murk. I don’t care. I know what they look like – or more accurately, I know what they don’t look like. None of them look like me. None of them look like my dad. Anyone could be behind the suits of armour facing us, but not anyone is. The armour tells me that I should be afraid. I’m not afraid.
The video had been shared this morning. A routine traffic stop. Funny how it’s never a white person getting routinely stopped. A tale as old as time – different location, different characters, different excuses. Same outcome. Last time it was a chokehold on a man with learning difficulties. The time before that it was five bullets in a teenager’s abdomen. This time it was four bullets in someone’s back in self-defence. We didn’t need to pull anything together or send out a rallying cry – we’ve been through this so many times we all know what to do. We just tell people where to be and when.
They were waiting for us. They always are. I think they enjoy it. Spending their lives preparing for battle and wanting a chance to prove it. Hunting for a dragon to slay.
They raise their shields; we raise our fists. We don’t have any armour, but the smoke shields us. Our movements send a ripple of force through the air – I can see them tensing up a little more with every word we shout and every step we take. To them, this is a battle. To me, this is everything.
A bottle spins over my head from somewhere behind me, piercing the air like an arrow before looping down onto the helmet of one of the figures in front of me. It breaks with a crash as he staggers, reeling backwards onto his colleagues as he struggles to keep his feet. It’s the excuse they needed. The army surges forward as one, hungry for blood and glory.
I look at the people around me. Some of them start to run, legging it for alleyways, fences, parked cars, or anything that can protect them from the brutality that is coming. A man about my age trips and hits his head, scrabbling around on the floor in a daze until someone helps him up and he starts running again. Others are ready for the fight, wielding signs, bricks and bare fists. One man has a bandana pulled around his mouth and nose and is bouncing back and forth on his heels like a boxer, waiting for someone to give him a chance to swing at them. The rest stand their ground, fists raised and heads up, trying to look their aggressors in the eyes as they charge.
I look down at the bottle in my own hand. I reach into my pocket for the lighter and flick it until I get a flame, touching it carefully against the cloth until it ignites. I wait a few moments to make sure the flame has taken. When I’m sure it has, I wheel my arm back as far as I can and throw. I follow it through the air with my eyes until it lands amongst the advancing officers. The sky lights up red and yellow as it engulfs them in flames.
My dad said that I could be the knight if I wanted to. But I’ve seen what happens when you give someone a suit of armour and tell them their job is to save people.
I decided to be the dragon instead. And now they’re going to burn.