We tell our daughter to look for the fairy protectors who live high in the trees. It is her fifth birthday. We are staying in Sedona, a tradition to travel because her birthday is so close to Christmas, in a cabin nestled among the trees near Oak Creek. We look for the fairies because our daughter told us she saw them up there amongst the leaves, a glimpse of them, looking down at her in the morning. She wants to say thank you for protecting the trees.
My wife and I ignore the gunshot we heard a few minutes earlier, a single pop reporting in the air near us. “Probably a hunter,” I say when my wife heard it and looked at me. I don’t know how much I believed there would be hunters right outside federal land in Sedona, but this is what I said. “Fairies are tricky,” we tell her. “You can only find them by not looking for them.” We plunge down the path named after our daughter toward Oak Creek to collect red rocks to throw into the water, to spy a hint of fairy wing shadows flittering across the forest floor, to play the chase game with the squirrels, because the squirrels have told my daughter that they love it, being chased up the trees by a screaming five-year-old, because she is little and cute and for her all things are possible.
There was a gunshot. There are now sirens. We are supposed to be leaving for her birthday dinner. I am running up a hill. My directive: to decide if it is safe. My wife and two daughters are at the bottom of the hill looking at my back as I run. I tell myself, please let there be no body, please let there be no person who was on the other side of that gunshot, no body lying in the road. I tell myself it was a hunter shooting game in the mountains around us. I tell myself it was a neighbor target practicing. I crest the hill. There is a body in the road. He is a man. He appears to be middle-aged. He is face down. I think he is naked. The vast bulk of his body facedown so white against the black of the asphalt. I see no blood. His skin glows in the desert sun, stark against the red rock cliff face behind him. I cannot see his face; his face is turned from me. I see a woman across the street from the body crying, and a man whose arm is around her. The man says, "I'm sorry."
What is my obligation in this moment? I want to run to help, but I have nothing to offer the man in the road. I have two children at the bottom of the hill. Are they rising up to meet me in this moment? Will they see what I see? I turn toward them, run down the hill. When I see my wife, I shake my head. No, it is not safe my head tells her. They cannot ascend the hill, see what I saw.
A second ascent of the hill. Another guest is ahead of me. I try to tell her not to go up there, she doesn't want to see what I saw, but she does not hear, or does not want to hear; for her, the siren call, the red and blue lights, draw her and her curiosity to see, to observe, to be present.
This time there is blood, tributaries snaking down his belly, which heaves and jerks as the EMT performs chest compressions. He is now covered in a chest blanket, but his vast middle-aged belly still rises beneath and around it.
"Have you got a pulse?" the second EMT asks. There is no answer, only the body, the heavy breathing of the first EMT, his locked arms pressing down on the body so white against the black of the blanket covering it, belly jerking upward with every downward compression.
We will not be leaving anytime soon. I leave. The woman stays. Watches.
When the Medevac comes, hangs low in the sky, rotors shaking the trees, blows red dust over our heads, lands on the street, we tell our daughters that a deer is hurt and they are taking it to a special hospital to be fixed. In this way, the man becomes a deer, is transformed, is fixable.
It was meant to be my daughter's fifth birthday dinner. We were meant to be in town eating pasta, having birthday cake. Instead, we have leftovers from lunch. We have crackers and chips and salsa. We have Lee Ferris and his guitar. We make a picnic on the floor in front of the fireplace, have a dance party.
The red and blue lights flash in between the leaves of the bushes in the dark outside.
At night, the white half-moon of his belly, the gunshot, the red dust rising above the trees.
There is a dark stain where he lay in the morning. Yellow police tape barricade the only exit.
In the inn house I am eating breakfast alone. The man who I think said "I am sorry," on the road tells the owner what he saw, heard, what the rumors are, what they told him they are investigating. I hear fragments, try not to pay attention. I hear "she did the right thing," I hear "she tried to tase him first, but it didn't work." I hear, " he hit her, and that's when she shot him."
I don't know if any of these things are true.
Because the shooting happened just off federal land by a federal officer, the FBI is called in to investigate. I spend all the next day waiting for a knock on my cabin door, expecting to be interviewed about what I saw or didn't see, what I heard or didn't hear, but it never happened. I wonder why. I do not know the truth of things, but I heard the crash, like a demolition crew trying to take down the side of the mountain, saw the balloon of orange dust rise above the trees, heard the single gunshot, saw the man lying naked and face down on the road. These were truths I did know, pieces maybe, threads toward the truth maybe.
According to the Washington Post, 465 people have been shot and killed by police as of June 9, 2020. Because there is no official record kept for these numbers, we do not know how accurate this number is.
Later we find out the man's name: Tyler Miller. He was from Kansas. He was 51-years-old, had four children. He was in Sedona on a spiritual retreat. There are rumors he took what he thought was CBD oil, which explains away the erratic behavior, the car crash, the running naked down the highway. These are all rumors. We have not heard anything from the investigators.
About a year before the death of Tyler Miller, my wife thought she heard our daughter whisper “I’m going to kill myself” while climbing rocks at the park and spent the entire day worried about ideation, about passing a darkness to her four-year-old.
She researched family therapists and scheduled an appointment. There was a look in her eyes, my wife said.
It turns out she was reenacting a scene in Frozen where Kristoff tells Anna, who is climbing a mountain to reach her sister, “you’re going to kill yourself,” and our daughter was playing both parts. But I don’t know how accurate this story is. I was not there when she whispered the words, our daughter did not tell us this is what she was doing, it was me who made the connection when my wife told me the story later. Did I invent a justification for her words—it was play, mimicry, imagination—to make us both feel comfortable?
My wife finds the family on Facebook, reads their stories, reads their anguish, reads their anger, their questions, asks if she should reach out, tell them what we know, help make connections. I tell her we have nothing to give, that our involvement would bring more questions, pain, anguish, but not comfort.
When I was nine, the man who lived across the street from me killed his wife and then barricaded himself into his home. He killed one police officer before they raided his house and killed him. I don't know if this story is true. My family left to go on vacation only hours before the incident, but this is the story we are told when we got back.
"You are lucky," my best friend told me.
"The family is wondering why she didn't just let him go down the hill. Can you believe that?" My wife asks. She is still following on Facebook. "My kids were at the bottom of that hill. What would they have seen? What would they have been exposed to? What would he have done?"
I contemplate confronting Miller at the bottom of the hill myself; my daughters, curious, always curious, staring at the naked man as they are shuttled away. Could I have helped calm the situation, get help? Would he have attacked me too, confused, disoriented, hurt?
What is my obligation to the hypothetical?
The Pink Jeep tour guide tells us "in the 1980s, a psychic from California came and proclaimed there to be some kind of energy vortex emanating from the red rocks. We all know it's bullshit. The city has doubled in size in the last 20 years. Anything with a good view of the red rocks in town is worth over a million dollars now." It's bullshit, but the Visit Sedona website proclaims, "all of Sedona is considered to be a vortex," and the four best vortex sites to be "Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon."
People come from all over the world to visit these sites. You will see them meditating, doing yoga, alternate nostril breathing, laying on the sun-warmed red rocks in corpse poses. The California psychic's story of the healing vortices of Sedona is apparently what brought Tyler Miller there. According to one son, Miller was potentially suicidal, distraught over a recent separation. Maybe he was coming to Sedona to heal?
What is my obligation to the possible?
When she was three, our daughter made friends with a spider who had spun her web on the side of the house. She named her Wilbur. Every day, she woke up at dawn and we would go outside to pick the little yellow flowers that grew on a bush in our backyard to hang on the web as a gift to Wilbur, because Wilbur liked yellow flowers. I did not tell her that those little yellow bells dangling from the web so carefully made hunting for the spider nearly impossible. We did this every day for two weeks, these offerings, these little yellow trumpets hung from her web, whispering to her “there you go, Wilbur,” until an overnight monsoon moved through and when we went outside the next morning the spider and its web and the yellow flowers had been washed away. My daughter, yellow flowers in hand, freshly picked, dropped them into the dirt and cried “Bye-bye, Wilbur.” She cried with her entire body, a seismic ripple, a vibration of the bones that moves from her body into mine.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “Wilbur didn’t go away. He just moved into the house during the rain storm.” And I said, “come on, I’ll show you.” I took her into her room and showed her how, on the picture wall, a painting of a spider that looks remarkably like Wilbur, hung there, saying hello, a painting my wife has had for years, put there as filler, as color, when we made our daughter’s picture wall in her room. In this way, Wilbur remains dry, remains safe, remains alive, remains. And I wonder if I transformed Wilbur to save her or to save myself the mourning of this ritual, these mornings, we lost together?
In June 2009, driving home from work, there was a CSI truck in the middle of my apartment complex's parking lot in Annapolis. There is at least one news van parked there as well. More would come. The yellow lights of the tuck burn through the night. I periodically go outside to check, to voyeur the police at work from the entrance to my building.
The next morning, on the way to work, there were at least three news trucks in the parking lot. Reporters troll the exit.
"Did you know the man?" They asked. A microphone is shoved through the window.
I was tempted by the attention. I want to tell them stories, to invent an entire relationship with this man, to bring some insight into his character, to scratch the itch of a microphone and a platform and a person willing to believe anything plausible. I had no idea who they were talking about.
What is my obligation to the truth in this moment?
Later, we would know his name was James Weneker von Brunn, that was he 88-years-old, that he was a white supremacist, that he apparently did not hide this fact to anyone and thus contradicted the quiet, loner stereotype of mass shooters. We learn that von Brunn shot a guard who opened the door of his car when he parked in front of the Holocaust Museum, thinking the elderly man parking in front of the museum did so because he had trouble walking. We learned that he wrote in his journal some time before the attack "the Holocaust is a lie."
The investigation into Tyler Miller's death concluded that he disrobed after leaving his vehicle. Motorists who called 9-1-1 claim a naked man running down the street was throwing rocks at cars, one caller said he tried to kick at their car. His son told investigators that his father had not slept and was sending unusual texts about religion and God, that he might be suicidal. The FBI claims the agent who shot him was "shaky and loud on dispatch radio" just before tasing and shooting him. There were no illicit substances found in his blood after an autopsy. No one can tell us what happened between Miller and the agent who shot him. This part of the story remains blank.
In class teaching, I stand in the back of my classroom, but I am really running down the hill again, the facedown body of Mr. Miller gleaming. In the January sun. I might be driving to the grocery store or getting gas when I'll be running down the hill again.
One night our daughter, crying and upset, stood in her little sister’s room as she was being put to bed and told her mother that she wished she didn’t exist. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her voice breaks.
“You will go to your room and wait for me,” my wife told her.
I was standing in the hall when she says this. My body felt like it was falling into my heart, which had become heavy, a lodestone in my chest.
What is my obligation in this moment? Is it to my body or to my daughter’s?
My wife comes out in tears. “Did you hear that?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What do I do?” She asked.
“I don’t know.”
She walks in. I stand in the doorway. She sits down on the edge of the bed. My daughter sits amongst her stuffed animals.
“Do you know what happens to us when we die?” My wife asked.
All the mythologies of death I have spun for her unravel.
My daughter pauses, thinks, “you are gone,” she said.
“Do we ever come back?”
My daughter pauses, thinks again. “No,” she said.
“We never come back,” my wife repeats.
Tyler Miller is a cloud of red dust, a gunshot, a body of a man spread across Arizona State Road 89A, his skin so white against the black of the asphalt. He is a justification for his own killing. He was 51-years-old when he died. He was a father and a husband. He was transformed into a deer by the imagination of my daughter.