Forty-nine faces. Softened, wiped, burned, blown away.
You build sandcastles on Florida beaches, collect scallop and conch and cerith shells for a mason jar your family keeps above the television in the vacation condo. You ride an inflatable orca in the pool while your hair tints green from hours in chlorine and salt.
You catch lizards as small as your little finger with red flaring necks and keep them in plastic tanks filled with saw grass and hibiscus flowers. You release them before dark—a pet just for a day. On your longboard, you play surfing games with your bleach-blonded cousin.
Your mother piles your sisters and you into her Suburban and drives the three hours to Orlando.
To Orlando, a place home to towns called Celebration, Enterprise, Reunion, Winter Haven, and of course: the “most magical place on earth.” You hug the costumed characters; you know they are human on the inside. When you’re older, and you hear of things, you question the safety of their cartooned embraces.
At 18, you move to Florida to study English and theatre and writing and Christianity and late adolescence and independence and choice. At 21, you become a permanent resident. You move in with your best friends, into a two bedroom house with five women and occasionally a large coon hound. You grow tomatoes on the screen porch. You decorate a plastic Christmas tree in ninety five degree heat. You mow the lawn nearly naked, though you know your bareness is a hazard to your skin.
You develop deep, deep friendships. You cry and sing down A1A, unsure how you could be so deep, deep, deep in America’s belly, surrounded by sun and sea and palm trees, and still feel the pitted ache of sadness in your chest. Can you run any further?
You let women pray over you—call demons out of your body, out of your chest, out of the pit and into another pit well within the earth, away from your spirit. You wonder if you can see them float away.
Your college science professor tells you that once, on a large lake in Orlando, he saw a man fall into a pit of water moccasins. He could hear the screams from 1,000 yards away.
You pass alligators on the side of the road on your way to your best friend’s new house. She lives in a community that has been hot and broken and beaten and broke since the great Okeechobee Hurricane, when the sea-flood waters crept miles and miles and miles into the Lake, and the dead floated all the way back to the Gulf stream.
Your best friend hears gun shots at night, every night. Her bosses do not allow her to walk home alone from the fried chicken restaurant where she works. Here, it feels as if bodies float along the air.
You climb lighthouses, each one you can get your feet on. Augustine, Key West, Jupiter. You run your hands along their cool, inner bricks. You read about the Fresnel light systems, the last of their kind, the strongest of their kind. You imagine a fiction story of a young brother and sister growing up on a light, climbing its stairs, launching parachutes from the catwalk. You write your master’s thesis about a wreck diver who sees the Key West light house in a vision as Jacob’s ladder to heaven.
You live next to a crack house. You see your neighbors, and their eyes are dark and bruised and full of that void that comes when you are just moving, moving, moving through the world breath by breath by breath.
A swat team comes. They have automatic weapons and a battering ram. Your roommate and you hide in the closet as they scream inside, Come out now, open up and come out! There are 15 people and an infant pulled from the two bedroom house next to yours.
You learn to run on sand. You wonder how many miles you can live away from the ocean. You wonder how you could ever live with snow or cold again.
You visit Orlando many times. Your best friend and you drive the three hours to Harry Potter World. You both get drunk and high on beer and Dramamine and ride the Dragon Challenge after a rainstorm, scream-laughing and soaked from Florida’s inconsistent showers. You giggle in line, sip mugs of sweet butter beer. You think: can a place be as magical as Hogwarts? The eighth film has not yet released—the installment in which Hogwarts is destroyed, cherished characters massacred, split open by magic which may as well be blade or bullet.
You decide the Pacific North West is far enough to run. It is green and clean and far. While Florida smells sweet, like peaches and mangoes and burning citrus, Oregon smells like roses and pine and mineral soil.
Now you live in Portland, far and west and west and many sunsets from the bullets carried into an Orlando nightclub—a club much like the ones in Portland.
Now you are far from the 49 faces softened, wiped, burned, blown away by 49 bullets. You are far from the body of a man who did not ride an inflatable orca in his childhood pool, but did learn how to master the perfect arabesque.
You are far from the body of a man who did not ride the Dragon Challenge drunk and high with his best friend, but who worked on the rides in a perfectly pressed Hogwarts uniform. You may have brushed his shoulder once.
You are far from the body of a woman who did not play surfing games with her cousin, but who did take her tiny nieces shopping to help them feel beautiful. You may have passed her once in Downtown Disney.
You are far from the body of a man who did not hide in a closet while a swat team raided the house next door, but who did crouch in a bathroom, texting his mother,
He has us.
He’s in the bathroom with us.
He’s a terror.
Mommy I love you.
How far is far enough? You may dodge 49 bullets, drive west and west until you’re running along another ocean. You may be spared. But they’ll follow—ghost-floating bodies like those washed to and fro in that 1928 cyclone.
Each pop, each shot in the night bursts from your own gun.