“A Sense of Justice” by Omar ZahZah
Sometimes I wonder if part of what draws people in to a good ghost story is a sense of justice. Of course there’s a lot of chaos ghosts can wreak. No denying that. But sometimes, also, the ghosts can be more powerful than the living bodies they inhabited in one important way: they can finally realize the revenge they were too powerless to claim in life, maybe because the victimizer was too powerful socially, politically, or whatever else.
I know this was the case with my father.
I don’t know much about his life before he was a cop—we never talked about anything, and my first major goal in life was to get out of that house as soon as possible—but he was definitely one of those people who personified their job, if that makes sense, and in all the wrong kinds of ways. He enforced “the law” with a gun and baton outside, day and night, and when it came to “order” in his house (my mom and I were never credited with much of anything) he wasn’t shy about using his hands—knuckles, fists, palms… that’s pretty much all I’m going to say about that. But I think it’s enough to give a pretty good image of what life with him was like.
I’ve wondered about this a lot. You know, sometimes, I get to thinking about how informal personal relationships are, and what that can mean for how you treat people. After all, once the courtship is over, the mask can come off. You don’t need to do much work on yourself, especially if, like my father, you came from a world where your wife, like your child, is your property. The family’s been wooed, the house moved into, and that’s it—the trap snaps shut.
Maybe for these reasons, it’s not totally accurate to connect his home life to his work life—maybe the senses of entitlement were different, I mean—but I as I grew I couldn’t help but think, even as I was slowly learning how to exorcise my internal impressions with words, that someone who could treat his wife and son in the way he did would be a terrifying force to come across while he was on patrol.
There was never a time when I wasn’t afraid of him. Even during the morning, when he was supposedly at his most vulnerable because he was technically still groggy and coming to, I couldn’t stand to be near him. I can still see him now, sitting at that tiny kitchen table with the rose-patterned table-cloth in his sleeveless cotton shirt and underwear, always wearing the gaudy gold watch (a gift from his father) and dog tags from his army days he never took off, slowly slurping his black coffee and pawing at the paper. Eventually, he would light his first cigarette, and the stinging smell and fumes of the tobacco would blur into the scent and steam of the coffee (I can’t stand either cigarettes or coffee to this day.) No matter how quiet I was, how far I stood away or how small I tried to make myself, he’d always eventually look up at me, standing there in my pajamas and bare feet and, like a great evil demon with all that smoke and steam coming out of his nostrils, mouth, smoking hand and coffee cup, holler at me to get the hell out.
The thing about fiction is that you get to reduce people into caricatures. Human beings are typically complex, and made up of contradictions. So in expressing all this about my father now, I’m self-conscious about how it comes across. And, perhaps against some better judgement, I’m trying to find some empathetic moment, some selfless gesture, to balance all this out. But I just can’t. Maybe sometimes, reality can operate like fiction, after all. Or maybe that’s how it comes across to us.
Even the paper he didn’t read much. He was usually looking for some reference to a case he worked, some incident he was involved in. He was obsessed with that. Some nights he would bring his buddies over for beers, and all of them would laugh so hard they would get to screaming over pictures of the prostitutes they’d start handing around. Sometimes he’d call for me to come down (it was supposed to be my bedtime, but that, like any other boundary me or my mom would try to uphold, never mattered when he was drunk.) He’d show me one of the photos, and if he didn’t like my response, I’d get a backhand across the mouth, which would inspire a new wave of laughter from him and his friends. I remember falling asleep with the blood on my lips still wet and waking up to it dried on my pillow the next day.
It was more than just the photos, too. Especially back in those days, cops didn’t get questioned for much of anything. They were always the “respectable” ones in a court of law, no matter what the charges were, and it felt as though the judges and the local press tried to outdo one another when it came to fawning over the boys (and yes, back then it was always the boys) in blue. We certainly didn’t have anything like the internet today.
And that’s the truly terrible thing: it didn’t matter what my father or one of his buddies on the force was accused of. To this day, I get sick thinking of some of the charges. I can’t even bring myself to name them here, because it feels futile; he always got off scot-free, even—you might say especially—when it came to shooting down civilians, and civilians of color, to be more specific. His testimonies might as well have been written down in the Bible, because the word of a white cop against a Black or brown individual or family was received as though it came from heaven on high. He was untouchable, and he acted on it every day.
Like today, the killings that my father or one of his buddies took part in would lead to demonstrations. Unlike today, though, there was nothing to counter the local media’s demonization of activists. And since my dad and his buddies usually ended up being the police detail assigned to those actions, my mom and I would usually be regaled by stories about all the “skulls I’d cracked today,” usually replete with poisonous slurs.
I don’t really remember when the activity started. I wish I could pinpoint a trigger of some kind, but even all these years later, I really couldn’t tell you what it might have been. As far as I know, my father was never held accountable to a single thing he’d done in his life, which only seemed to inspire him to become more vicious in his violence, more confident in his cruelty.
But all the same, strange things started happening. And they began with me.
One night—I must have been about twelve at the time—I had just finished brushing my teeth and was about to climb into bed, when I saw something startling: my dad’s gun was sitting, upside down, with the muzzle pointed in my direction, in the center of my bedroom floor.
Now, there were only two places that gun would have ever been in my house: next to my father’s bedside, or possibly in his gun-safe (though he usually just kept that for show—he preferred having his gun on or near him as often as possible.) The last place it should have been was anywhere near me. And it’s position on the floor was, to put it bluntly, impossible; what was holding its balance? Why didn’t it fall?
Nevertheless, there it was.
Believe it or not, though, as ominous as it was to have that gun facing me, what scared me more wasn’t how the gun had gotten there, or whatever it was that put it there or was holding it in place, but what I was going to do with it now that it was here. If I took it back to my mom and father’s bedroom, there was no way they would believe it had just magically shown up and turned itself on its head all on its own, and my father had beaten me for less.
I climbed into bed and turned out the lights.
Next morning when I woke up the gun was gone, but any relief I might have felt was short-circuited when I heard my father roaring in anger. I ran downstairs to see him raging at my mother, who was on the floor, crying, and trying to back away. I’ll never forget how big his eyes were, how he kept yelling and, while my mom cried, raised his gun to her face and pulled the trigger.
So many things seemed to happen in the split second between his finger squeezing the trigger and the internal firing pin striking the cartridge primer: I, who was usually so terrified of my father I could barely say so much as a word to him, screamed out for him to stop, and my mom wailed and put her hands in front of her face, turning her head away. But what was also bizarre was what happened next.
The gun just let out a hollow click. This seemed to surprise my father, who turned his attention to the gun in his hand and began to take it apart. Meanwhile, I ran down to my mom. Our gazes were temporarily diverted in our mutual embrace, our tears, and our trembling so sharply from fear and relief that it felt as though we were one giant bush whose thin, nervous branches were being shaken back and forth by a mischievous kid.
What brought our attention back to my dad was his question: “Did you do this?”
We looked up to see the gun dismembered, an emptied magazine in his hand.
It wasn’t what he asked, but the way he asked it: it was hesitant, confused. As unsympathetic as my father was, even he couldn’t escape the fact that neither me nor my mom knew how to use that gun, much less take it apart. He was the only one who could have taken the cartridges out, and he was the last person who ever would have done such a thing. He turned and left us to go to the kitchen, shaking his head.
A few nights later, something similar happened. I’d just finished brushing my teeth and was about to climb into bed when I was a series of rounds arranged in a spiral shape on my bedroom floor. I knew these were rounds from my father’s gun. And just like before, I was more afraid of my dad than whatever seemed to be messing with his gun, so I turned out the light and went to sleep.
Sure enough, when I woke up the next morning, the rounds were gone, and when I made my way downstairs my dad was drinking his coffee, smoking his cigarette, and reading the paper, the pages crinkling and the smoke and steam blowing this way and that. But this morning, as he took his last sip, he began to sputter and gag; the retching and gagging sounds continued, tears and saliva ran down his face, until, finally, he was able to spit up whatever it was in the coffee that was tormenting him so onto the rose table-cloth.
It sat there, wet, sleek, and gleaming with spit under the weak kitchen light. And that’s when my dad slowly looked up and saw me. He was too dazed to be able to scream at me like he usually did, but the rage in his eyes flashed at me all the same, and I ran out of there.
And I knew just what it was, too: he was even angrier that I’d seen him in a moment of fear, confusion, and vulnerability. It was like catching him with his pants down.
Things continued on like that for some time, with objects going missing and then turning up in unexpected places. He beat the hell out of me when he found his badge in the toilet. Of course he wouldn’t believe it wasn’t me.
The activity not only continued, but it escalated and eventually peaked with my father’s death. He’d been shot in the head with his own gun, and forensics confirmed that there was no mitigating, suspicious circumstances, but I’ve still never been able to fully believe it was suicide. Even if he died by his own hand, I can’t help but feel that something helped him along.
There’s so much talk about haunted houses, but the smallest objects can have the most devastating impacts, too. My dad, who was physically the biggest man out of anyone he knew, as well as symbolically the biggest authority to all who were under his jurisdiction, personal or professional, had been undone by the tiny sabotage of some of the smaller items that made up his aesthetic of power. To this day, I can’t help but think that there is more than a little poetic irony in that, and probably the most comprehensive justice for all of those who were unable to claim it in life.
Omar Zahzah is a Palestinian American activist, writer, poet and horror enthusiast whose work has appeared in various publications. Omar holds a PhD in comparative literature from UCLA, with the subject of Omar’s doctoral thesis being the ways in which African American and Arab American activists and writers use literature as a means of contesting racialized state projects of policing and surveillance.
Some Bewitching Line Drawing by Jennifer Weigel
This month we are going to explore more fun marker art from Jennifer Weigel, starting with black and white line drawing. Jennifer is getting ready for her big Life Is Brilliant solo show in March and has snuck in a few spookier themes, so she wanted to share them with you here.
The magic is strong in this Witch Way line drawing with its fun witchy head-topper, complete with striped hat band and star dangle. No self-respecting wizard’s ensemble would be complete without it.
And now the adorable Kitty Witch will don the Witch Way hat and cast a spell of cuteness on you. You gotta wonder just how the hat stays on but best not to question these things. We all know it’s magic…
The devil is in the details in this Not Today Satan line drawing, and boy is he pissed!
This She Devil is just plain goofy. Maybe she’s coyly playing innocent; it’s not a look most devils can pull off, seeing as how innocence really isn’t their schtick…
This little spider came down to your tuffet to remind you to Hang in There. She is very well-intentioned and is only looking out for you. I guess maybe she’s not so little though, she is an Argiope after all…
LTD Tripped Out Motivational Posters
Tripped out… in case you just couldn’t get enough of Everything Everywhere All at Once and the return of the infinite bagel with EVERYTHING on it…
Artwork description: kaleidoscopic image of pink hairy horror (This is actually a fink fuzzy frond plant not unlike a Cockscomb but with longer thinner flowering feelers rather than the fuller protuberances you see on a full-bodied Cockscomb plant. I have no idea what it was, but it was very odd so I had to snap a photo.)
Image text reads: Mixing Magic Mushrooms & Peyote Just remember: once you open that Pandora’s box, you’re never going to get the pink hairy tarantulas back in it…
Artwork description: kaleidoscopic sunflower backlit by the sun with text and rainbow eye overlay
Image text reads: Eye See You Eye See All (in circle text so you can start and end reading wherever). In an ideal context this would be printed in the bottom of your tea mug or on a record that can slowly spin.
For more crazy tripped out fun, check out Weird Al’s post on Craig’s List…
The Elves Reunion, a short story by Jennifer Weigel
I had heard tale that The Elves dwell in these woods. Many underestimate The Elves; they have a fondness of heart for Tolkienesque Middle Earth fantasy stories and tales where Elves are the most highly civilized, virtuous and intelligent. They forget that those are just myths, save for The Elves being cunning. Remember that the Pied Piper was an Elf, and the children he took were not destined for such a glorious fate.
My sister lost her firstborn to The Elves. She hadn’t noticed the Changeling until it was too late. Her baby had already long since been stolen away. She was so distraught she refused to eat or speak. She locked herself in her room. Or my family locked her into it as she succumbed to the madness. Such are the ways of the family, for all of our protection. We never question but follow as expected, as a means of self-preservation. It has kept us all alive.
But I couldn’t get the sinking feeling out of my stomach; the grief became too overwhelming. That is why I came here. I know I will not be able to rescue the child, nor my sister. But I seek to avenge their meaningless deaths. To ensure that it doesn’t happen again. My family will never act. I am tired of the Village Elders just shrugging these things off in hushed whispers and badly shrouded secrets. It happens time and again. We are all expendable. They never do anything.
So here I am, in the Elven wood. Alone. As soon as my family figures out that I’m here, they will disown me. They probably already have. Again, it is for our own protection. I’ll be just another casualty of The Elves. Everything is so structured, so regimented. Anyone who dares act in opposition to the rules vanishes. We are all so afraid.
I lay in wait. It’s just a matter of time before the portal appears. The Elves use the portals to travel across time and space. They appear where and when they wish. But this time, I will go through first. I know not what is on the other side, just that the portals allow only one to traverse in each direction. We will trade places, if only for a moment until another portal forms. Hopefully that will be enough time.
The trees shift and morph. Falling leaves drift slower and slower towards the ground. There is a stillness that I cannot fully express. My breath hangs heavy in the silent air. There is no sound, no smell, no taste. It is time. The hairs on the back of my neck and arms rise. I can sense the opening forming. There is an uncanny familiarity in this moment, as if I have been here before.
As soon as the portal opens, I dash through. But something isn’t right. No one came through from the other side. Or did they? I cannot tell. I am alone, in limbo between states of existence. The world spins around me. I can feel the drift. Is this what death feels like? Cold unbroken silence? I feel distant eyes upon me everywhere, all around me, in the trees, the clouds, pinpoints of light that shimmer through.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe this is all according to plan. But who was orchestrating the exchange? My idea was only half formed in those passing pensive moments I am able to think for myself, few and far between. My family, the Village Elders… no one allows time for freeform thought. I hadn’t considered what would happen after the portal exchange. I never really got past step one.
A voice greets me from the trees. It is hauntingly familiar but seems only a distant memory.
“I’ve been expecting you.”
The world slowly comes into focus. Clarity restored, the leaves circle me in an embrace. My sister emerges, her dark eyes smiling. She cradles the baby in her arms.
“You made it. You escaped,” she sings.
“I didn’t see anyone,” I retort, skeptical. I hadn’t recalled having seen any Elves, dark nightmarish fiends that they are, wild, unkempt, uncouth. Savage beasts like Pan or Krampus. Is this an illusion? My sister seems so lifelike, so much herself. She is the joyful young mother I had known her to be. Filled with love and laughter. Light dances about her, and she shimmers.
“Not in passing,” my sister clarifies. “You have been living among them your whole life. I had done so as well until the baby was stolen. My heart broke; I had to follow after. That was when I learned the Truth.”
“Why do you think we are so sheltered? Why are we forbidden to do anything? They do so to protect us from the Truth about who and what we are,” she continued. “We’ve spent our lives evading that which we truly know ourselves to be. We were the stolen ones, not the other way around…”
I notice that the portal I came through is still open, reinforcing my idea that no one had passed through the other way. It is as if the portal was opened specifically to call me through. My sister extends her hand, beckoning me to join her. There is a gleam in her eye I cannot pinpoint. She seems happy, but something still isn’t quite right. I’m still uncertain why I am here, in this time and place, as if destined to be present in this moment, in this decision.
The Village has fallen away to the woods. There are no breadcrumb trails to follow home. The idea of home itself seems distant like yet another illusion. Nothing makes sense anymore. I am unsure whether I am coming or going. Two paths lay open before me. Which shall I take?