How the Carters Got Their Name
A lot of Black folks are walking around with their owner's last name. Or rather their ancestor's owner. Others are a little luckier. They're Johnson from Son of John. Baker 'cause that's what they did. Cobbler from the skill it took to earn that name. Ezekiel was one of these last. Sometimes he wished he were a son of John, though – 'cause the Carters had earned their name in death, and revolution.
His grandmother only told Ezekiel the story once. He had just finished weeding their garden and stood in the kitchen, gulping down sweet iced tea. Outside it had been hot like it only got in the moist river valley of Kentucky: hot enough to take notice, but not to impose too much on the beautiful day. Grandma Maddie called him into the living room. She sat in her overstuffed armchair, watching one of the reparations protests with the sound turned off. A throng of brown faces filled the small screen, mouthing the same words. Their expressions said more than the placards they held, articulated their position better than a thousand raised fists. Grandma Maddie looked up from the scene and told Ezekiel to sit so she could tend to the rose bush scratches riddled down his arms. He settled at the foot of her chair, his shoulder resting against her knee. With both of Ezekiel's parents long ago passed away – his mother, into the grave, and his father, into the night – Ezekiel and Grandma Maddie shared the small confines of their country home with an uncommon grace.
Grandma Maddie plucked a fat leaf from the plant that stood on the chest near her chair. Above it, a blurry black and white daguerreotype of her great-grandmother hung. Only their expressions differed. Ezekiel's grandmother had deep laugh lines and a ready smile. The woman above looked as if someone had carved worry and hard work into her brow with a sharp stick.
Grandma Maddie broke open the aloe leaf. As she slid her finger through its milk, Ezekiel laid his arm across her lap and began to relax into the folds of her skirt.
"You did some good work out there today, Zeke," she said. "Should be able to get those cabbages into the space you cleared. Maybe some squash and more room for some yellow tomatoes." She said this to watch Ezekiel's face screw up in disgust, knowing how much he hated tomatoes, yellow or otherwise. Even in these food-lean times where gardens were a necessity and livestock a luxury, he would rather go quietly hungry than eat them. She never tired of the joke, and unlike most twelve-year-old boys, neither did he.
Ezekiel had never been like his peers. His genius made him different. Though applying to biology programs left little time to spend with other kids, he doubted they would want to be with him anyway; his daddy didn't. Even with his stratospheric IQ, Ezekiel didn't believe that women or prison or selfishness had kept his father from him – though his Grandma Maddie, the man's own mama, had told him as much.
Because of his father's absence, or perhaps in spite of it, Ezekiel made it his business to know everything there was to know about being a Carter. He had almost exhausted what Grandma Maddie thought it proper to tell him. The Carters, it seemed, had been a raucous bunch right up to his grandmother – though really, it had been her 'dealings with women' that earned her the title. She loved to put it that way, heavy on the sarcasm. The Carters, she said lived loud because they knew that they would die young.
They didn't die from bullets or barroom brawls or overdoses either. Their bodies just turned on 'em one day, made them suffer like hell for a spell, and then gave up with the soul inside screaming. That's the way Grandma Maddie always put it; she had a way of putting things. On this particular day, his grandmother decided to acknowledge his burgeoning manhood by way of telling Ezekiel how the Carters got their name.
"Zeke, today I'm gonna tell you something special." She dabbed the aloe under his eye where a deep groove of blood had sprouted. "Boy, how'd you do that? Looks like it hurts like bajeezus." Looking into his eyes, she said, "You gotta be more careful with yourself." She stroked the soft dense hair on his head. Ezekiel moved closer, breathed deeper.
"It ain't a pretty story, but it's the truth." She paused, collecting another swipe of aloe from the reserve on the back of her hand.
"A lot of black folks walking 'round with their owner's last name. Or rather their ancestor's owner. Others are a little luckier. They're Johnson from Son of John. Baker 'cause that's what they did. Cobbler from the skill it took to earn that name. The Carters are like that. Way back before you or even I can remember, we was slaves. Not like the processing pools in Brandermill or even the way them reparations people talk about it, but real slaves. Hanging tobacco, sweating in the fields, hearts long broke. There are stories for every one of them days, but this is about the day before the day we got our name. The way it was told to me, a young girl had been taken in the night by the overseers. In front of her mama. Which, unfortunately, was nothing new. But on that day something in the mama snapped – like a stepped-on stick that whips up at the one who broke it. She started screaming and jumped on them overseers. Went straight for the eyes, as it was told to me. She broke noses when they tried to restrain her, shattered teeth, closed windpipes with her bare feet, kicking out against all those restraining arms and hands. Four men couldn't stop her fury, the protecting of her child. Outside the cabin the people had started to gather. As it was told to me, their eyes filled the small window and doorway of the cabin. They watched as the mama blinded two of the men, and was working on a third when the head man, himself, came barrelling through the doorway and shot her right there, back of head, like a coward would. Blasted her all over the cabin and the screaming child. By the time the echo cleared, all hell had broken loose."
"The people had caught a fury. Any other day, they might have dragged themselves away. In the morning they would have cried for the woman slung up on a tree, split from hind to head. But not on that day. There was no reason other than their lives."
Ezekiel's eyes nearly vibrated in their fullness. He didn't realize that he gripped his Grandma Maddie's thigh like the last solid thing on an endless sea.
"They ran, not to the paths that led through the woods, but straight toward the bright house on the hill. Some were shot down before they'd even gone a few steps, picked off by the head man. Their arms reached out even in death, trying to grab some of the vengeance surging toward that house. They lit fires in the field as they went, moving as one. The people had no plan, no weapons. They carried only the weight of their years. And with that, they tore the place apart."
In his mind's eye, Ezekiel could see the people moving – splintering wood and tearing down doors. His gaze drifted to the television set, settled on the tumult that filled the screen. The two images merged – all these people fighting for something when there was so little left. The force of their union pulled him away from his grandmother and further into the world. He sat next to her, his back now so rigid and straight it seemed as if his shoulders were pulled from above.
"Soon enough, the head man found more men and more guns. When the shooting and screaming were done, and the birds came back to the trees to soothe the earth that had witnessed it, there were more bodies than people. The folks who had survived were beaten, strung up. Our ancestor, Brother, was one of the first to be put back to work, hefting and carrying the bodies of man, woman, and child. He placed them softly as he could into a waiting wagon. He was so good at the task, so swift and so strong, that they made it his job." Grandma Maddie shifted in her chair and tilted her head with a sad smile. "Brother worked the death cart until he was the one laid."
Tiny scratches forgotten, Ezekiel wrapped his arms around his knees, head cradled between them. He gazed into a distance that he now knew he would someday meet. Grandma Maddie placed her hand on his shoulder.
"… And that, Ezekiel, is how the Carters got their name."
"Welcome to Phylogenetics 101. I see we have some new faces on campus today," Professor Szlasa, a graying wisp of a man in beige slacks and a matching button-down, stood in front of the class, leaning against his desk. He'd scrawled his name on the blackboard behind him and from where Ezekiel sat, it looked almost too perfect. Professor Felix Szlasa floated just to the left of the desk, like a huge name tag. When Szlasa mentioned 'new faces' he glanced over at Ezekiel and nodded slightly.
Fifteen-year-old Ezekiel shifted in his seat, hoping no one else had noticed. Bad enough that he felt like he stuck out; worse still, to be acknowledged for it. Ezekiel looked over at the Asian girl in the blue spring dress just in front of him. They were both noticeably younger than their classmates. She hadn't been at the morning's special orientation meeting with Ezekiel, but he felt sure Szlasa must mean her as well. Her gaze moved slyly around the room, taking it all in, and Ezekiel thought she too had moved a bit in her seat when the professor mentioned new faces. Ezekiel couldn't help but notice that amongst the students filling the lines of seating they were the only two brown faces.
The girl looked his age or even a bit younger, probably not even old enough to drive – if her family had that kind of money; The exorbitant licensing fees kept Ezekiel from taking the test. He couldn't really tell if she was wealthy by looking at her. All the most obvious cues were absent. Since he had arrived earlier in the week he'd noticed that in this town, the well-off usually had adaptations. He'd seen built-in drives, umbi ports, preternaturally handsome babies, and the occasional bold Adapts of the very wealthy: impossible heights and proportion, cranial boosters and things he didn't yet know the name for. Back at home in Erlanger, he could identify wealthy people by their cars, their clothes or frequent trips to the well-stocked grocery blocks hidden behind guard towers. Here things were utterly different. If Ezekiel had been a geeky outsider at home; here he felt he would find new levels of isolation.
He looked around. At least half the kids in the room had small ports at their wrists. If the girl had adaptations they weren't obvious, which could mean she didn't come from wealth or that they'd gone the genetic route prenatally, meaning her family had a quite a bit of money – or even that their religion precluded any tech in the flesh. He rested his gaze on her, trying to decide which it might be.
She had thick, dark hair that fell just past her ears, but he saw no ports there. Perhaps hidden by the black-framed glasses? The girl drummed her fingers once on her desk – shiny, manicured fingernails that contrasted with her light brown complexion. As Ezekiel considered her, she glanced back his way and caught him looking. He quickly shifted his attention back to the lecture.
"This semester we'll touch on many topics, as tends to happen when discussing the history of creation." Here the professor waited for a polite chuckle from the students. "In terms of evolution, one would think it's best to start at the beginning," Another pause. Ezekiel looked down at his handheld on the desk, checking the time.
"In our study, we'll be doing something slightly different than you may be used to. We'll not focus on evolution as a conscious force with agency, seemingly making decisions. This particular approach, though common and exceedingly convenient, is ultimately quite unscientific as there is an inherent personification of nature at the least and a reliance on shadowy notions of God perhaps at most." Ezekiel heard noises of disapproval from the back of the room. The professor took no notice.
"Instead," he continued, "we'll look at it as a process that is natural." He scooted back so that he was sitting on the desk and slowly swept his gaze across the room.
"This means it is both predictable and unpredictable and above all else, a means of survival. Life in all its forms is all about and perhaps essentially is survival." Professor Szlasa gave another meaningful look; this would be a long class indeed Ezekiel thought.
The professor stood up and walked to the blackboard behind him.
"So we begin with the definition of evolution." He wrote in the same nearly illegible scrawl just below his name: The means to promote the probability of survival. He turned back to face them.
"Evolution can be prompted by many things." He held up his pointer finger. "One: it can be the result of steady differences and improvements from one organism generation to the next as necessary in a changing environment. This kind of evolution is dependent on the life span of generations as well as the rate of change in the environment which defines the necessary rate of adaptation. In this way, evolution shows us that organisms often have to get through their challenges, not over them. But there are exceptions to this rule. There are jumps." The second finger came up.
"Two: Evolution is also prompted by unique cataclysmic events. So while sometimes these changes are prompted by forces eons in the making, at others the catalyst is as sudden and unexpected as a stray comet. Often it happens in jumps and starts, and from different places."
A hand shot up in front of Ezekiel. Professor Szlasa ignored it.
"It's only with the luxury of hindsight and proper method that we can look back and call it evolution, say that it's a discernible narrative, recognize it as a road that even now we are walking. Just a few decades ago, most people would have said human evolution was at a kind of standstill. Now this is largely a matter of our own inadequate perspective, but there are varying schools of thought. One says that Humanity has mastered nature. Even the ravages of global warming have been contained to unfortunate locales where technology has not yet made nature obsolete as a formidable foe – with the exception of a few megastorms and the like."
The hand slowly went down, followed by an audible sigh.
"These jumps in evolution and the transitional lineages that accompanied them are only evident to us in the fossil record. That's the only way we know it happened. But now with the advent of genetic adaptations, evolution is happening beyond nature's dictates, making this the most exciting time in history for phylogenetics. Professor Szlasa smiled. "One wonders what fossils will we leave behind."
An alarm blared. Or rather a vibration and simultaneous cacophony of noise filled the room. Ezekiel had never heard or felt anything like it. He jerked his head up to look at the plastic horn speakers in the corner of the lecture hall. But those sirens were silent.
The vibration shot across his desk. It buzzed. The alarm, he recognized as he looked down at the handheld, was not one uniform sound, but many, an explosion of noise. It was his handheld and everyone else's going off at the same moment. He tried to turn his handheld off. The screen reacted to his touch, but the noise continued. He looked around and saw that it was the same for everyone in the room. Students began to stand up from their seats. Some eyed their handhelds suspiciously.
The girl caught his eye. She was removing the battery from her phone as she looked at the exit in the back of the room. The professor spoke up, above the din.
"Let me just check with the administration for a bulletin," Professor Szlasa yelled over the din.
Suddenly the noise stopped. There was a second of silence and the handhelds all went off again, this time louder. When Ezekiel looked down at his screen he saw a clock counting down: 5:00, 4:59, 4:58.
"What the fuck?" he heard disbelievingly from the woman next to him. From the other exclamations and murmurs in the room, it seemed that everyone's handheld was ticking down. The data port kids held their ears; they squeezed their eyes shut. After a few seconds Ezekiel realized that the clock must be counting down in their heads.
The speakers in the corner of the room crackled to life.
"All students, administrators, faculty, and staff – in a calm and orderly fashion – please report to Dunley Square."
The students began to collect their things and make their way to the exit. Ezekiel stood and grabbed his bag. With her pack already slung across her shoulder, the girl moved past him and toward the back door; through the small, oblong window in it, Ezekiel could see the hallway was empty and all was still. He could hear the voices of students in the other classrooms and their chairs scraping the floor. In his own class, the first person to reach the exit, a lanky boy with brown hair, twisted the handle and pulled so hard that his fist flew back and he hit himself in the gut. Cursing, he tried it again. But the door didn't budge. He looked back at them all with wide eyes and tried it once more. The door's airtight seal didn't break. The next girl in line tried, and the next. The door stayed closed.
Ezekiel tried to dial out on his handheld. No signal. The clock was at 3:58.
"It's the Knights," someone said in a tight voice high as a whisper.
"Or the Handouts," another voice countered.
Had the reparations factions escalated so quickly? Ezekiel wondered. The Knights' tactics were usually more along the lines of their Klan forefathers – political office, law enforcement infiltration, and shock troops. He'd not known them to be especially high-tech in their efforts – but there had been that virus on the federal mainframes two years before. And the Rep War protestors were just that – protestors, of the non-violent variety. He didn't know if either group was involved or what more they were planning to do. As the clock continued to tick down he didn't want to find out.
"The windows! It's only the second floor," the girl announced from the back of the room, near the exit. "We can make that."
"Now, Addie," Professor Szlasa interjected. He held up an open palm. "Everyone just calm down."
A student in an orange T-shirt near the exit strode over to the bank of windows. He picked up the nearest desk and threw it at the last window's plexi panes.
"Stop that!" Professor Szlasa yelled.
The chair bounced off and slammed into the corner of the wall. It had left a small crack and scratch in the plexi where it made contact.
"Back away." The deep booming voice belonged to the huge guy who'd been anchoring the last row of seats. At his full height he must have been 6'6" and twice Ezekiel's weight. He didn't acknowledge Professor Szlasa as he picked up the chair and approached the window. He hit it full force; the jolt of the impact sent the chair back at him and he turned his hip and shoulder just in time to avoid knocking himself in the head. On his next shot, he held the chair at shoulder-level like he was taking a pitch.
"What's the time?" he called out.
"3:12!" someone yelled back.
Professor Szlasa tried to take charge of the situation.
"Stop that! That is school property!" he said feebly. "Everyone just calm down. I'll contact administration."
This seemed to pacify a few students in the middle of the room, who had been watching the scene, askance. They sat down in the nearest chairs, whispering to each other as they watched the guys at the window, pounding away at the plexi. Ezekiel looked over at Addie as Professor Szlasa had called her. He guessed she wasn't new after all. She walked away from the windows to the exit. When she reached it, she pushed her face as close as she could into the small window embedded in the metal door, peering out into the hallway. She looked down both directions.
Ezekiel approached her.
"That's probably not plexi," he said.
She turned around and sized him up at a glance.
"No, probably not. Good eye." She looked around the room, ostensibly for something to bust it with.
"I overlooked that. Panic, you know," she said. "I should see if anyone has anything." She started toward the rest of the students. "If we can get through maybe we can reach the keypad on the other side."
"Maybe we're stuck inside for a reason," Ezekiel responded.
Addie turned back to Ezekiel.
"Yeah, but I don't particularly want to find out what that reason is. Do you–" she paused and looked at him expectantly.
"Ezekiel," he responded.
"Do you, Ezekiel?"
"No," Ezekiel said.
"I got through!" the lanky brown-haired boy stared at his handheld. "I got through to the net. It's everywhere."
Questions filled the room, loudest among them, 'What's everywhere?'
"People locked in schools. Looks like some dorms and apartment buildings too," he responded.
"What do they know?" someone called out.
"Hold on." He brought the handheld closer to his face and began to read aloud.
"Reports are pouring in that there may be a terroristic threat underway . . ." he read.
The small group seated in the middle of the room exclaimed: "Oh my god! Oh my God!"
"Is there anything specific?" Addie asked.
The boy shot her a dirty look and appeared to skim ahead, running his finger across the small screen.
He shook his head as he mouthed the words.
"No," he looked up slowly still shaking his head. "No. They're just saying what's happening as it happens."
Ezekiel spoke up above the clamour.
"We need something, strong and long. Small enough to fit through the window," he said, pointing at the door. "Does anyone have–"
"I know circuitry," Addie said. "Maybe we can short the lock out and get out that way."
"What if the danger is outside?" someone said from the back.
"That doesn't make any sense," another student responded. Ezekiel looked around the room for Professor Szlasa. The professor sat at one of the desks, listening as he dialed on his handheld.
Ezekiel looked around the room for a suitable tool. He picked up one of the desks and with Addie's help worked to separate the metal leg from the plastic. The first two bolts busted cleanly with a few kicks. Still, the leg remained attached to the frame.
"Let's just bend the rest of the chair out of the way." Addie said.
"I've got it. Just get what you need for the circuits," he responded. Ezekiel paid little attention to everyone else in the room. He kicked at the desk leg until it jutted out from the twisted frame. The argument continued.
"There's no way of knowing if it's inside our outside."
"There is. He said people are locked in everywhere. Everywhere else can't be dangerous."
"Why not? It was fine 10 minutes ago!"
Time. Ezekiel stopped and looked down at his handheld. The room went temporarily silent; when he glanced up he saw that the combatants looked at their handhelds as well.
1:00. He picked the chair up and with all of his strength bashed the leg into the small window in the door. The glass fractured. With the next blow the leg shattered through. He caught the chicken wire inside the window around the leg and pulled it out. Before he could ask, Addie was there at his elbow. She held a small eyeglass screwdriver. Ezekiel stepped out of the way to give her access. As she reached through the broken window, small glass shards at the edge of the frame sliced a long gash down her arm, nearly to the elbow. She hissed in pain and wrenched her arm around until Ezekiel heard something metal hit the floor on the other side of the door.
"Hand me my bag," Addie said as she pulled her arm back through. Ezekiel turned his head to find it. A dozen students now crowded behind them. He stood up and put himself between Addie and the crowd, handed her the bag. She pulled out a small black stun gun, and pushed her hand back through the opening in the door.
Addie looked at Ezekiel.
"It'll work," she said.
The seal on the door lock hissed open as the connection broke.
A hard shove at Ezekiel's back sent him went reeling as he was pushed out the way. He landed behind the door and Addie. His apparent assailant, the lanky brown-haired boy, pulled the door open with Addie's arm still inside the window. Glass cut into her elbow. She shrieked. Only Ezekiel's body behind her stopped the door from going any further. Two more people hurried out.
"Hey!" Ezekiel yelled. More students ran out the door. Gingerly he lifted Addie's arm out of the opening.
"Wait!" he yelled. He kicked the door off of them and it nearly closed. Professor Szlasa held back the other students for a few precious seconds until Ezekiel and Addie could hustle themselves out.
Streaks of her blood trailed them out the door as they stumbled into the far wall. Standing next to her, Ezekiel watched as more students streamed out of the room.
The alarm screeched. Ezekiel looked down at his handheld.
'Reparations, it's time', it read.
The lanky boy looked over at Ezekiel, a sneer on his lips.
"Handouts," he spat.
Addie reached down and took Ezekiel's hand, blood streaming down to the point of contact.