You can hear them coming from blocks away, a low thrum like the plucking of a bass string. As they grow closer it becomes a buzz in your inner ear, like hornets building a nest in your brain. By the time they reach your street, when they are right outside your window, the sound is unbearable: a rogue wave of moans and shrieks that rises higher and higher into a great crescendo of terror, the stuff of nightmares. You can’t sleep through it. There is no pillow in the world big enough to block out their howls. Just pull the blankets up over your head and wait for them to pass. They will. They always do.
I am not without fear, but my curiosity gets the best of me every time. I leap from my bed, pull up my blackout blinds, press my face against the windowpane, and squint hard before they melt back into the shadows. Like most nights, I am too late. They’re here and then they’re gone, like lightning bolts stabbing at the flesh of night. The only evidence they were here at all is the ragged wound in the peace and quiet.
But there’s still plenty to see. From not far behind comes a mob of men and boys armed with bats and booze, our neighborhood’s self-appointed guard dogs. They bark threats and give chase. And then, to close the show, here come the police with their lights and squealing squad-car tires. An amplified voice demands that everyone clear the streets, while a helicopter hovers overhead, poking into backyards and abandoned lots with its frantic spotlight. I hear a gunshot. Pop! Then more. Pop! Pop!
It’s after curfew in Coney Island.
“You should be asleep,” my mother says. She’s a silhouette in the yellow light of the hall. “Tomorrow is going to be a crazy day.”
“They’re on the run tonight,” I explain.
She nudges some space next to me at the window and gazes into the now-empty street. Her shoulders and neck muscles tighten into knots. Her breathing is heavy. She uses her thumb to dig into the meat of her palms. I don’t like this version of her—this jittery deer ready to sprint for cover at the slightest sound. I miss my happy mom, my bouncy, flip-flops, cutoff-shorts mom. My Summer Walker, version 1.0.
With a snap the blackout blind comes back down, and she shoos me toward my bed. “They’re probably scavenging. How’s your head?” she asks.
“It’s an F4, but it feels like it’s going to be an F5 soon.”
Mom flinches. I have been getting migraines since I was a toddler, and somewhere along the line we started categorizing their shapes and sizes like hurricanes. F1 is the ever-present storm in my gray matter. An F5 is a motherf’r, on-the-floor, curled-up-in-a-ball, puking, sobbing, wanting-to-throw-rocks-at God state of emergency.
“You’ve wound yourself up over tomorrow,” she scolds.
“How can I not wind myself up over tomorrow?” I cry.
“Why is this place so hot?” she says, then rushes out of my room. I follow and find her frantically twisting the knobs on our apartment’s sole air conditioner, a prehistoric, broken-down dinosaur my father purchased before I was born. Each night in the raging, humid heat of Coney Island it clings to life, wheezing out puffs of air one might describe as toasty. Mom pushes something, and the machine breaks into the hacking fit of an old chain smoker. She quickly turns another knob, and it kicks and spits before settling back into its usual fluttering rattle.
“We have money for a new one,” I say.
“That money is for emergencies,” she whispers.
“Mom, the emergency happened three years—”
“I’ll run a bath.”
“I think I just need some—”
Boom! The F5 has arrived. The pain is a sucker punch to the temple, an explosion that feels like the plates of my skull have just expanded and then fallen back down into a jumbled mess. Heat spreads across my face, a forest fire in my frontal lobe. It sweeps down my neck and burns down the base of my spine. I fall to my knees, hands on my ears, doing everything I can to not vomit.
“Mom,” I squeak.
She’s pulling on my arm, trying to get me up on my feet again, but then—boom!—I’m on my back. I can barely remember where I am, who I am.
“Don’t panic, Lyric! Just breathe.” She crawls onto the floor and wraps herself around me like she’s trying to shield me from hand-grenade shrapnel. Her arms are strong. They whisper and soothe. I am your mother. I will take care of you.
“I hate my brain,” I whimper through snot and tears.
“I know.” She repeats it over and over again.
When I can stand, she helps me into the bathroom. I sit on the edge of our claw-foot tub and watch cold water gather around the rusty drain. When it’s full, she helps me out of my clothes and steadies me. Stepping into it is like easing into a cup of frozen yogurt: creamy, cold, comforting. It takes a while to adjust to the temperature, but it’s the only thing that helps. When I can stand it, I nestle down, deep as I can go.
“I miss the beach,” I say as I close my eyes for a moment, flying off to the shoreline, where she and I would sit for hours as the Atlantic’s roar scared off my pain. It eased the agony without fail, like nature’s morphine, but we’re not allowed to go to the beach anymore, not since they arrived.
“I miss it too.” Each word is interwoven with guilt. She blames herself for what has happened to our neighborhood—the fighting, the martial law, the hate.
“Where’s Dad?” I say, hoping he wasn’t one of the cops down in the street.
She dips a washcloth into the water, wrings it out, then lays it over my eyes. “At the precinct. Mike wants everyone to go over the plans for tomorrow one more time. There are a lot of moving parts with the FBI and all those soldiers. But they’ll be ready. Don’t be worried.”
“I’m not,” I lie.
“Things will get better. You’ll see.” Now she’s lying.
I sink down farther, completely submerging myself. It’s down here where I feel most safe, where the headaches retreat, where the roar of the water drowns out the thrum.