About Flowers and Fireworks
By Rachel Curtis
Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Violence, and Death
I didn’t know how to tell you this. I didn’t know how or where to start. So I’m taking you to its birthplace, where this story begins in China. It follows flowers and fireworks, pistils and pistols. It will end with flowers, too. It will end the flowers too soon.
I want to tell you a story about a daughter, a mother, a lover, and a thief.
Life as Chinese
Every winter, my family likes to celebrate the Chinese New Year. We hang rosy, fat lanterns and string up twinkly lights over the kitchen table. Always, we cook towering plates of egg rolls, steaming bowls of wonton soup, and fragrant pans of potstickers. Often, in the afternoon we visit nearby Buddhist temples or the North Austin Chinatown to partake in festivities. At the temples and mini strip mall, local groups take turns showcasing their culture’s unique way of celebration, often through singing, dancing, and drumming. One of the central performances at any New Year’s celebration is the Chinese Lion Dance, where teams of two people in giant ornamental lion costumes dance and swing and jostle to a powerful drumming beat. Grandparents with scarves tucked into their all-weather jackets tuck red envelopes into grandkids’ pockets and slip one and five dollar bills into the children’s small hands, cajoling them to toss money into the swaying lion’s mouth to wish for prosperity in the new year. After everyone is satisfied that enough money has been gifted, the lions leave, and strings of firecrackers are tossed down to the ground. The air is filled with children wailing and laughing. Everywhere, there is crackling and smoke and burnt shreds of red paper drifting low to the ground like confetti. The rapid pop-pop-pop of firecrackers is a happy sound. At least, I used to think so.
Life as flowers
About 800 BCE, peonies originated in Northern China. The flowers were celebrated for their full blooms, hardiness, and longevity. Around 700 AD, the peony came to be known as the “King of Flowers” for its prominence in the Tang Dynasty’s imperial gardens. From this royal cultivation and deeply-rooted ties to Chinese history, the peony has developed into a symbol of nobility.
Since at least that long ago, young women have been compared to flowers. Floral connotations are generally pleasant, if superficial. Pretty. Fragrant. Trivial. Transient. Worldly. Delicate. Soft. Fertile. It’s unsurprising that flower imagery is almost inseparable from commentary on women’s bodies. Budding: reference to a young girl entering into womanhood. Blossoming, in bloom: a girl in her youthful prime embracing her femininity and sexuality, at peak fertility and attractiveness. Withered: an old, used up woman. Deflowering: the plucking of the bloom, the taking of a prize, the irreversible loss of something precious.
The frustrating thing about floral metaphors for womanhood is that the petals are the most superficial part of a plant. Peonies can live and produce flowers for over one hundred years, well in excess of most human lifespans. Certainly, there are many species of domesticated peonies. But more than thirty species of peonies grow in the wild, and the oldest peony species is native to the cool, dry climates of Northern China, Mongolia, and Siberia. Peonies can weather a hundred winters, and yet we choose to write about pretty petals. We pluck the plant’s flowers, watch the flowers wilt, and then write woeful poetry about the fragile, fleeting, fickle beauty of women. The peony’s value is neither deepened by our appreciation nor diminished by our stealing of the blossoms. After all, peonies produce abundant blossoms which all eventually decay, regardless of if they are prematurely plucked. Rather than gaining significance by being beheld by human hands and eyes, I imagine the peony plant’s joy stems from simply producing, in marveling at its own remarkable, inexhaustible strength and beauty. Perennials have the strength to flower, die a little, and still bloom again each year. Maybe that’s worth writing about.
Life as Alyssa Broderick
Alyssa Broderick was a spirited and hardworking sixteen-year-old girl. She enjoyed playing basketball through middle and high school and was a high-achieving student on an accelerated plan. Her boyfriend of three years, Willie Simmons III, was a captain of the football team and had just signed to play with the University of Northern Texas. Like most teenage girls, Alyssa had secrets. One early summer afternoon in 2020, Alyssa decided that she would spill the secret that had been leaving her bruised, wounded, and afraid. When her mother, Amanda, came back from work one evening, Alyssa confessed that her stepfather had been inappropriately touching her, and that just earlier that afternoon, he had hurt her again. Immediately, Amanda rushed Alyssa to a children’s hospital, where a forensic exam found evidence of sexual assault.
After the abuse Alyssa suffered under her stepfather came to light, several things happened in quick succession. Amanda moved her family. Alyssa withdrew from school. Her stepfather was suspended from his position as an investigator and sheriff’s deputy and spent a few weeks in jail. Court proceedings began. In one letter, Alyssa pleaded with the court, “I felt safe after my dad had been arrested and he was in jail, but now that he’s out, I don’t feel safe. I’m worried that he’ll come after my family and try to take my brother. I’m afraid that he might hurt me or my mom for coming forward.”
Life as fireworks
The sky was exploding with color. Fragments of light rained down like stars that spattered the air. Sea spray blew in from the ocean, and blew in with it a pungent odor.
“It smells like rotten eggs!” I exclaimed and wrinkled my nose.
“That’s the sulfur from the fireworks.” My dad’s words drifted down to me.
My older sister gazed up at the sky wide-eyed, her head tilted back and mouth opened loosely in amazement. My little sister, Katie, was nestled against my mother with her hands and hair pressed over her ears. I liked Ocean City. It was the kind of seaside city that you’d find memorialized in a puzzle somewhere. I was sitting on a beach towel, surrounded by other families chattering and babies wailing in the distance. The shapes and colors and shimmers overhead were pretty, but it was much too loud and smelly and I didn’t completely understand why we were just sitting on the damp sand, staring up at the sky until our necks hurt.
I didn’t know at that time that fireworks are really brilliantly controlled chemical reactions. I couldn’t have named any of the different kinds of fireworks erupting before my eyes and was stuck describing the ones I liked or disliked with meager descriptions as “the one that sparkles down (brocade)” or “the little firework in the middle of the bigger firework (pistil)” or “the giant booming one (peony).”
Did you know that a peony is the name of the most common type of aerial shell firework? If you have ever watched a firework display and marveled at the giant, booming, round fireworks that explode petals of light in all directions, you were probably marveling at a peony. It is unsurprising that this iconic firework is named after peonies, given the origin of fireworks and the peony plant. The first fireworks, emerging in China around 1200 AD, looked nothing like the cultivated, colorful displays that we see today. In fact, “the first rocket cannons, using gunpowder to aim and blast projectiles at their enemies” were used by the military, and display fireworks were little more than orange explosions in the sky. Fireworks did not gain new colors until metals were added into the pyrotechnic mix.
The first muskets were little more than metal tubes directing gunpowder-fueled projectiles. They were a bit like small, disappointing fireworks. Tiny, controlled explosions, almost imperceptible flashes of light, and sharp sound, the energy generated in the reaction was designed to be lethal and efficient, instead of opulent and uncontained. Fireworks and firearms have similar origins, and are even regulated by the same US federal bureau. However, over time, fireworks and firearms have evolved to control violence for radically different purposes. Sometimes, unlike fireworks, violence is not controlled to be beautiful. Sometimes, like a firearm, violence is lethal and efficient. But sometimes, violence isn’t controlled at all. It explodes senselessly.
Life as stolen
“How much longer is he gonna be?” Alyssa huffed, more to the air than anyone. Her mom, Amanda, gave a thin smile. These exchanges one Sunday per month always set both women on edge. Although Amanda and Alyssa both had a protective order against him, Alyssa’s stepfather still had visitation rights with her little brother, who was waiting quietly in the backseat fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. Today, Alyssa’s boyfriend, Willie, had come along. Tall, bright, Willie sometimes waited with the family as a comforting figure and extra protection in case Alyssa’s stepfather became belligerent. For the three years that Willie and Alyssa had dated, Alyssa had hidden the abuse that she suffered under her stepfather. Now, Willie was determined that she shouldn’t ever have to fear that man again.
“Hey, babe, look at this.”
Alyssa leaned her shoulder against Willie and held out her phone between them. Her little brother twisted around the front seat to see the screen, where two figures danced together to a popular song.
Recently, Alyssa’s favorite pastime was learning TikTok dances with her friends and Willie. She’d had more free time that fall after she withdrew from school, when her family moved to gain some extra distance from her stepfather. She had just started the spring semester at a new school and had enrolled in all AP classes. Alyssa liked school and felt that she belonged on the basketball court. She wanted to play women’s college basketball, too, so missing out on school and sports the previous semester had been hard. TikTok was a fun distraction.
“Here he is…” Amanda spoke up, her eyes following the sedan that had just turned into the parking lot. The man who could hurt what she wanted to protect. Instinctively, her gaze flicked up to the rearview mirror where Alyssa and Willie were giggling, hunched over the phone. Her knuckles whitened as she clutched the steering wheel. When she glanced back up, Amanda felt the blood drain from her face.
“What’s he doin—oh my God!”
Alyssa glanced up at her mother’s scream to see that the sedan was not slowing or parking—it was barreling straight towards them. Alyssa shrieked as her head jolted back and the force of the impact launched her into the door. Willie careened against her side. Stunned and bewildered, what followed next was an explosion of firecrackers.
Life as neighbors
It was two o’clock on a mild Sunday afternoon in April. In ten minutes, my boyfriend, Ryan, would arrive to take me back to Trinity University in San Antonio. My dog, Sophie, led me in meandering circles along the little islands of grass in the parking lot of my apartment complex. She paused from rummaging her snout through the grass as the sound of firecrackers peppered the air for a couple seconds. She stood tall, her ears perked up and alert, then just as quickly returned to wandering along the grassy medians in the parking lot. Without warning, Sophie lurched, yanking me sideways, and my sneakers slid off the curb edge. I looked up and grip her leash a little tighter. A man with grey hair and a checkered button down was striding towards me purposefully.
“Did you hear that?” He called out, bridging the distance between us. “I’ve heard that sound before, and that sounded like gunshots. I would get inside.”
“Okay, thank you,” I acknowledged in a small voice as he turned away.
Something in my gut sank, and my heart began to beat rapidly. As if on cue, police sirens began to wail in the distance. A little further down the parking lot, a young couple had just begun unloading groceries from the back of their SUV. With wide eyes, they glanced around in twitchy movements, like suspicious prey animals. I jogged over. Lights were flashing now closer to the street, and siren after siren pierced the air. I quickly relayed to the couple what the man told me, then ran back up the stairs into my apartment. My breathing was ragged as I shakily latched the door, pulled off Sophie’s collar, and hung her leash up on the doorknob. The sirens were now screaming over each other to be heard. Even after they arrived, locked open-mouthed, horrified, scream after scream tore from their throats.
My mother and sisters were sitting on the floor in the family room, and faced me with questions already forming on their lips.
“Those were gunshots,” I say breathlessly. “What we heard just now were gunshots.”
I could feel my pulse, like a tiny hammer against my ribcage. Together, we peered outside our window. The midday light was now awash with flashing red and blue.
For the next ten minutes, sirens continued following closely one after another. We counted well over a dozen. From our window, we saw one of our neighbors wander out into the green between our apartments with her dog, perhaps to get a better look at the action.
“GET BACK INSIDE NOW!” A police officer screamed.
A gruff, warbled voice rang out over the police car intercom. “Remain inside your homes. Lock your doors and do not open them. You are ordered to shelter in place.”
“Girls! Get away from the window!” My mother hissed. She was staring down at her phone, wide eyed. “The news is saying that there is an active shooter. They still haven’t caught the man, and they think he might try to take hostages.”
A solid knock sounded on the door, and our eyes went wide. Quietly, I padded over to the peephole. Ryan was standing outside. I quickly opened the door and latched it behind him as he ducked inside.
“Do you know what happened? It’s crazy out there. I had to drive by a line of police officers with their guns pointed in my direction. They were pointed at the apartments. It was really intimidating. There’s probably over a dozen police cars out there, along with SWAT, ambulances, and firetrucks.”
I filled Ryan in on what we knew, before my mother turned to me and said, “If you’re going to leave to get back to Trinity today, you better go now. It sounds like things are only going to get more locked down here.”
I interlocked hands with my mom. “I don’t want to leave you all here like this. Can’t you all come with Ryan and me?”
“We’ll be alright. I’ll text you with updates. But you need to get back to Trinity for tomorrow.”
More information was trickling in from online news articles, which indicated that the shooting was targeted, but the man was still armed, highly dangerous, and hadn’t been found. I pulled my mom into a hug, wrapping my arms around her and breathing in her scent. She was so soft, so warm, so mom. I wondered if I was getting my priorities completely wrong, and if school could wait. But wait for what? For peace of mind? My mom’s peace of mind seemed to stem from me being away safe at school, and she pushed me out the front door.
Not long after Ryan and I left, the police completely locked down our block. A helicopter landed in the parking lot where I had just walked my dog. If, that afternoon, I had chosen to walk my dog on the other side of the building, I would have seen a man ram his car into a small SUV. I would have seen that man fire several rounds into the car, killing his wife, teenage stepdaughter and her boyfriend. I would have seen the man run, leaving behind his young son. The eleven-year-old boy ran to a passerby to call 911 to save his family, while his father, a member of the police force, fled the scene of the family he had just destroyed.
I heard three people die. It sounded unexceptional.
Life as hindsight
The funny thing about violence is that it is almost always preventable.
The murderer was given too many chances. Despite being ordered not to go within 200 feet of his wife or daughter, the man still had monthly supervised visitation rights with his son—as if a man who repeatedly raped his daughter could model good fathership to his son. Although the man was ordered to wear a GPS tracking device, his tracker was removed after five months of no violations. Within days after the monitor was removed, during a supervised visitation exchange, the man exploded into violence that would steal three lives.
Hadn’t he taken enough?
It would have been beautiful to see this family survive the thief’s winter and bloom again. It would have been beautiful to see Alyssa reclaim herself in the following years, empowered to share as much or as little of herself as she wanted. I don’t care as much about what she could have given. So much should have been hers, to keep and cherish all to herself, if she wished. So much could have been hers. It almost happened. It was happening. Until it wasn’t.
Does it break your heart the way it did mine?
It probably doesn’t. Evil feels different when you experience it in your own home, in your own backyard. When you hear it with your own ears. In the same way that I cannot fully comprehend the grief of Amanda, Alyssa, and Willie’s family and friends, we cannot care about every tragedy. But I have chosen to care about this story, so I will try to understand. I will try to understand what Alyssa, Amanda, and Willie meant to their loved ones. I will try to understand exactly what the thief stole. I will try to understand why I am telling you this story.
Life as relived
This past summer, I heard it over and over again. Constant fireworks. Distant snaps and cracks in all directions at any time–just your regular celebratory sounds. But I was having an unusual reaction to this Fourth of July.
The air was choking. Or, at least, I was choking on it. My chest heaved and thin shrill gasps escaped me as I tried to slow my breathing. My stomach twisted into knots and my throat burned. My face was slick, my vision vignetted and blurry. I could feel my skin buzzing, like static tingling. My heart was beating the way that a bat flies.
After a few minutes, I could hear my thoughts again over the pummeling rush of my pulse. I remember feeling confused. I didn’t understand why I was so affected by the sound of fireworks that year or why they produced such a visceral reaction. Nowhere celebrates the Fourth of July quite like central, small-town USA. I don’t know how to explain how all afternoon, the sound of firecrackers had filled me with dread until it reached a critical point.
Even though my mind had moved on from the tragedy, my ears still remembered. The exceptional violence of April 18th, 2021 had recontextualized my experience of fireworks and reactivated the adrenaline I had felt that afternoon. The uncertainty and fear of the lockdown when I wasn’t sure what the shooting might take from me. And then the sorrow when I learned it had already stolen so much from so many people. For a minute, I let myself feel every strange and painful emotion. I let myself feel lost and small and scared. And then I made a promise to listen to the story my body was trying to tell me–later. Life was moving in spectacular color outside the bathroom door and it was time to rejoin it. I had come to Coldwater, Kansas, to enjoy the Fourth of July with Ryan’s extended family, and I wanted to make a better first impression than “the girl who had a breakdown in the bathroom.”
Later that evening, I had the opportunity to launch off a roman candle. With a short nervous smile, I gripped the tube near its base, and rested the fuse in the flame for a couple seconds. For a few moments, nothing happened. There was hesitation and uncertainty. We wavered together, the candle and I. Then, so imperceptibly that it might have only been imagined, a faint warm buzz tickled my fingertips like a promise waiting to be spoken. Before any words were exchanged, the first light shot out from the tube, arcing through the sky. My fear was forgotten. I felt as if I had gathered the fallen stars up in my arms and was tossing them, one by one, back into the sky. Or, for a moment, the stars were letting me hold their light, white-hot and shuddering with movement, before they leapt from my arms back into the sky.
Life as loved
As I try to write you this story of fireworks and firearms and flowers, I’m scrolling online memorial walls for Amanda, Alyssa, and Willie. Friends and family have posted condolences and stories of remembrance. Amanda’s nursing patients weep words of gratitude for the compassionate care they received when they were most vulnerable. One coworker writes how Amanda was the sister that she chose. They were best friends, confidantes, tattoo partners, and snuggle buddies. Another woman writes how Amanda treated her daughter, a close friend of Alyssa, as her own. The three would go window shopping, and although Amanda always vowed she wouldn’t buy them anything, the girls would return with full bags.
Alyssa’s AP history teacher writes how after Alyssa transferred schools, she enrolled in full AP courses. On her first class assignment, Alyssa wrote a note that although she wasn’t good at history, she would work hard. And she did. Alyssa consistently showed up to office hours, asked questions, turned in her work on time, and squabbled with her teacher over whether cats or dogs were better. The teacher, who used to work with child protective services, also wrote how she could see the pain and trauma in Alyssa’s eyes from day one, even before Alyssa shared anything. Yet, remarkably, Alyssa was attentive and exceptionally kind to her classmates and friends. Her counselor wrote that Alyssa “refused to be a victim” and was working hard towards the future she wanted.
Willie’s page overflowed. Over six hundred pictures were posted to his memorial wall. Page after page was filled with anecdotes by friends, family, and classmates of pool parties, practices, dinners at home, and Sunday school lessons. Family posted pictures of Willie’s childhood. Clicking through these pictures, I watched a bright-eyed baby grow into a charming child with a lopsided smile. A boy in a purple “Wildcat” jersey at football practice grew into a young man in a dark suit with a red bowtie posing with his friends at high school homecoming. In school selfies, playfully puckering his face, arching his eyebrows into a question, beaming with his arms clasped around friends’ shoulders. A son, a friend, a brother, a believer, a student, an athlete. Willie was someone who belonged to everyone.
Each wall gushes with loss like an open wound. Loved ones bleed their broken hearts onto the pages. The thief stole Amanda, Alyssa, and Willie’s life. But, he couldn’t steal the light that these three individuals were to everyone around them. That light blazes to the point of burning. For now, the memory of their love is almost too excruciating to hold. Together, the mourners form a conflagration of grief.
I cherish their sorrow with gentle hands and damp eyes, even as I steel my heart to sift the fragments of these three individuals from the photos and stories overflowing in the fire. It is like plucking embers from a furnace.
Life as flowers
As I grip the sides of my laptop and take a few calming breaths, I notice small pictures of flowers at the end of some comments: “Flowers purchased for the Broderick family”, followed by a blue hyperlink: “Send flowers.”
On a whim, I follow the link, and it takes me to an online store. I scroll through hundreds of arrangements, many priced at hundreds of dollars. Roses and lilies make frequent appearances, but blooming modestly in almost every arrangement are white chrysanthemums.
This pretty and unassuming flower is so well established in funeral services due to its long entwinement with death. While peonies are titled noble “King of flowers,” Chrysanthemums have been called the “Queen of Fall” due to their tendency to bloom late in the season. Both flowers are native to Northern China and thrive in cool climates. Winter is rightfully known as the season of death, and due to their hardiness in the cold, white chrysanthemums are often strewn across graves or featured in memorials. In some European countries, chrysanthemums are gifted solely in times of loss. In Chinese culture, white is the color of purity and death, and white chrysanthemums are reserved for only memorials.
Did you know that, in addition to sharing its origins with the peony, like the peony, the chrysanthemum is the name of a popular display firework? Peonies and chrysanthemums are two of only three floral-named display fireworks. Despite sharing a similar round, full shape, there is one subtle difference between peonies and chrysanthemums. Peony fireworks focus all their energy on the climactic moment as petals of light explode outward and scatter. Their multitudinous pinpricks of light, known as stars, have an undistracted night canvas to paint with color. But chrysanthemums linger with sentiment, as their stars cast glittering trails over the sky. They leave a legacy of light, like bright spots burned into your eyelids after staring too long into the sun.