Sierra Williams


My brother Cole and I prepared our gluten-free dinner to the sound of Lester Holt's voice in the background. The news anchor reported on ISIS and audio clips of the fighters drowned out his voice. I glanced over to the TV and watched more threats, more screaming, more tossing weapons into the air as they chanted praises to a god I didn't know, making me wonder what it felt like to believe in something with such unwavering faith.

They'd cut off another head, blown up another building. I emptied slices of cumin-chicken into a bowl and reached for my phone to tweet a picture of our plates. I typed something cutesy to distract myself as Cole changed the channel to re-runs of The Office. He's a thirteen-year-old Starbucks enthusiast who drinks his coffee black. Recently, he's moved on to a tea flavor called Zen. Like that night with dinner, the Zen was in an etched mug and our mom was on Google, searching for caffeine-free tea alternatives.

That's how most nights played out at home. Eating not at the table, but rather on the sofa with a plate on our laps. The TV on. The remote in hand. Sometimes a phone. Channels interchanged when I began to feel too much. I was always sure that something bad, something really bad was happening on another channel, but on my channel, Dwight Schrute spoke solo on camera and my family sat near while I laughed.

No one I knew had ever run from a debris cloud at the corner of Liberty and Church. My popcorn has never flown through the air because of gunshots erupting at a midnight movie-screening. I don't know what I'd say if I had to call 911. At three-years-old, I was taught to give my name to the operator. My location. But news clips were the closest I'd ever been to a non-Hollywood massacre.

I was in a Midwest hotel lobby when tragedy stretched its arm 700 miles to touch me, straining to reach, barely missing.

But it wasn't as suspenseful as you might would think. In fact, it was much the opposite. I was far from my TV. Far from my family. I was there. But I wasn't. I sat on a dingy couch wearing the same wrinkled clothes from the night before when I got the email that there had been a shooting in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee at a U.S. Navy Recruitment Center. Maybe that's why people called it a terrorist attack. If the shooting had occurred at a shopping mall, it wouldn't have been a headline. After all, what's so special about another shooting in America?

Twenty-four-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez broke my hometown, turned it into a hashtag while I sat on that dingy Iowa hotel couch, and I'm still waiting for my body to be catapulted into that expected realm of dejection. Never in the history of man has it been more socially acceptable to not react.

For Vietnam, college students protested in droves. For Pearl Harbor, men enlisted. For September 11, patriots bought flags like milk and bread in a Chattanooga snowstorm. I think maybe I'm missing something. A certain strand of DNA that allows someone to feel. Perhaps something is wrong with me. But really, I think I've just evolved. I'm a 9/11 kid who didn't grow up in Mayberry, but instead in a world where "I-Rock" was derogatory and part of a seven-year-old girl's vocabulary.

Back in my hotel room hours after the shooting, I watched the news recycle itself. It seemed everyone had the same thing to say. Rachel Maddow. Lester Holt. The President. The same obvious observations regurgitated for ratings and dramatic effect. I was bothered by the way networks aired photos of Erlanger Hospital and an ugly strip mall. Erlanger Hospital! Perhaps the most spiritless building in all of Chattanooga, and that's what they chose to represent my town. Not the Choo-Choo. Not Rock City or Ruby Falls or even the hipster walking bridge that I fantasized a proposal on, but Erlanger Hospital. I was bothered by the way reporters emphasized the second syllable in Chatt-an-ooga. I had probably stapled something for the shooter, probably copied his tests and filed his homework when I worked in the university's engineering department. I was bothered in a defensive way I cannot describe. I was bothered for being distracted by petty, technical observations when I should have been bothered by the shooting itself. For the absence of my sympathy and the desire for it, I detached myself. Buried deep inside of me beneath the hook-up culture and texting and straight-faced hallway walks, it's in my nature to feel, but that strand of DNA was removed a long time ago.You'd think I'd cry or pray or call my family or at least watch the news for more than ten minutes, but instead I left to get a pizza.

I brought the greasy box back to the room. The first thing I did was change the channel, a mix of emotion somewhere between desensitization and confusion. I think I tried to comprehend by shoving the pizza into my mouth and watching reality TV. I told myself that I could have easily of been on Amnicola Highway that day, could have put my brakes on for a convoy of police officers and ambulances. But I think as much as I wanted, even that didn't convince me to feel, didn't give me the understanding I was looking for.

When I returned home, my brother sat at our kitchen table, sipping his Zen. My daily commute went back to normal. I drove by a garden of posters and flowers and mini stars and stripes and plastic windmills, and I imagined who the next hashtag would be. How would the teddy bear memorial be arranged? Sometimes I almost expect for it to happen to me. Dying by violence. Like it's some kind of fate I've escaped because it's the era in which I live. I would just be another bullet-covered blip, having my Facebook profile-picture flashed across CNN.

Sierra Williams practices journalism and public relations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She serves as the creative nonfiction editor for the Sequoya Review and is active in the literary community. Her work in a creative nonfiction MFA program is forthcoming.

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