A Nightmare in Orange (Part 1)

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Spooky Apartment (Obtained from Fazinphoto.com)

The entire apartment building was haunted—I could feel it in my bones. We stood there, staring up at the looming tower, which seemed to be the last dying thing against a backdrop of urban decay. Even the moon, which I could’ve sworn had been full and bright before we’d ventured into that part of town, refused to glow. Like a coward, it hid behind cloud cover, and I halfway couldn’t blame the heavenly body for doing so.

“Will ya look at that,” Marq said, holding his cap to his head as a warm gust of wind sucked the breath from his broad chest.

Lisa tilted her head back cautiously, as if the boogeyman was going to suddenly pop out and scare her out of her skin.

“Yeah, it’s a focal point of spiritual activity,” I informed them, “which is another way to say it’s haunted.”

“How do you know,” she asked, mesmerized by the five-story pile of bricks.

“I just do.”

“You sure we have to go in,” Marq asked. Though he was the largest of us—the highest curl of his head standing above mine a good two inches, his athletic frame draped in a football jersey—he was the most easily spooked.

“You big wuss,” Lisa ribbed. She was rarely kind to her on-again-off-again boyfriend. For the moment, they were on the outs. I suspected she was pretty enough behind thick, pop-bottle glasses, but would never take them off for confirmation. Kissing her would be like kissing my kid sister—at least, that’s what I kept telling myself. She probably would’ve belted me if I’d tried. Despite wanting to push her aside, there was something about her plaited, sun-bleached hair and cocoa skin that sent electricity up my spine.

“Yeah,” I sighed, answering my best bud. “My uncle lives in there. And, as Lisa said, you are a big wuss! In fact, that should be your new nickname!”

Marquez shot me a frown, his café au lait face sprinkled with bits of coffee that were a major turn-on for Lisa. She loved the freckles on and green eyes set in his olive-toned face, while I silently pined for her. And Marq, well, let’s just say he was enamored with the reflection in every mirror he encountered. We were all children of Caribbean parents; Marquez’s folks hailed from Puerto Rico, Lisa’s from Jamaica, and me, a second-generation Haitian. We made for an odd trio but this was my crew.

Clouds of moths, gnats, and mosquitos danced around the pale streetlamps. With the exception of the lights on the top floor, the building looked abandoned. That was where my father’s youngest brother, Georges resided. He’d called me and I came running to his rescue. I never asked why he couldn’t simply leave on his own. I put on the spectral specs I’d fashioned and didn’t have to question his logic—the place was overrun with ghosts like a Chicago apartment with a cockroach infestation. I had a deep disdain for cockroaches. They (the ghosts, not the bugs) swam in and out of the windows, most of which were broken, the jagged edges of glass having no effect on their ethereal movements.

“Whaddaya see,” Marq asked nervously.

“Yes, John-Henry,” Lisa joined in. “Don’t keep us in thrall!”

I grinned. Dead leg on a crooked love triangle or not, I was the de facto leader; the brains of the outfit, if you will. Oh, you’re probably wondering about my name. Well, let’s just say my mom and dad wanted to pay homage to an American folk hero while appeasing their desire for a strong Haitian moniker. I’d taken it upon myself to anglicize Jean-Henri so I’d be able to fit in. But fitting in was awkward for a gangly, 6’1” kid with the complexion of a black grape, an oversized head, and large extremities. I could palm a basketball and wore shoes large enough for a pro athlete, but alas, couldn’t dribble to save my life. What I did have in spades was smarts and a rather velvety voice at such a young age. Even then, I figured I might have a future in radio.

My maternal grandfather, who was reputed to have been a witch doctor of sorts, told me in broken Creole that I had a shine to me. That meant I could see spirits. The glasses I’d created helped to take their blurry figures and put them more in focus. He was a strange guy, my Gran-Pere, always mumbling stuff with a chew stick in the corner of his mouth. Most was in his brand of French, with snippets of English here and there. I was amazed by his creepy stories of zombies and magic and…

“Hey,” Marq yelled, giving me a light punch in my left arm. A light punch from that behemoth meant I slid to the right about a foot, and part of the earth knocked out of alignment just as much. The dude was strong as an ox, which was a benefit to him being my best bud. “Pull your head out your butt and let’s get to work, man!”

Lisa peered at me and smiled, her teeth beaming like beacons on the darkened landscape. I didn’t want to like her as much as I did and I feared what could happen if I’d stepped out of line with Marq. It didn’t matter that he didn’t want her half the time…

“You’re always daydreaming,” she said.

“He’s living the dream,” the jock chimed, making reference to my head perpetually floating in the clouds.

“Nah, bro. I’m dreaming to live!”

Marq paused and blinked, not understanding my brand of humor. “Whatever, man. Let’s get this over with.” He shook his head with a smirk and began trudging toward the building entrance, Lisa in tow.

Well, I thought I’d said something clever that would make them take notice. Guess not. I pulled a flashlight from my bag and followed suit.

The foyer leading to the staircase was black as a starless rip in the night sky. There was the spirit of an old doorman frozen in a long bygone era, when the neighborhood hadn’t looked like it’d been through a WWII air raid. In his dapper blue coat with gold trim and his hat placed perfectly, he stood proud. It was a warm summer evening and, as sharp as his outfit was, no living person in his right mind would wear such a heavy coat in this weather. But the dead were always dressed as they had been at the point of their transitions, their see-through bodies having no sense of hot or cold.

Typical of the deceased, his eye sockets were hollowed out. This was a fact that used to scare the cornbread stuffing out of me when I was little, but was nothing to be afraid of once I’d gotten used to it. The problem was encountering a spiritual entity with eyes—something that made me cringe and my skin crawl with invisible spiders. But the doorman was nothing more than a harmless, interactive recording. And he was friendly, too.

“Evening, sir,” I said with a nod of my head, to which he smiled.

“Who the heck are you talking to,” Marq asked, the doorman completely invisible to him. We’d done this half a dozen times but it was hard to retrain a troglodyte. “You do this every time.”

And you figured Marq would’ve finally gotten used to the fact that I could see ghosts and they could see me, too. That was part of the shine Gran-Pere recognized. I often saw my grandfather, too, whenever his spirit would wander into my room and stand guard over my bed.

“You already know the deal,” Lisa said, shaking her head and stifling a laugh. She couldn’t see spirits, either, but she was an empath who could feel them.

“Yeah,” my lug nut of a friend complained, “Doesn’t mean I’ll ever get used to it. John-Henry, you give me the heebie-jeebies!”

I chuckled and took that as a compliment. Without another word, we took to the stairs.

(Image obtained from Fazinphoto.com)

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The Forgone Conclusion

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Erick's Logo Artwork

Somebody had to die. That was always the case when the secure, untraceable line of my cell phone buzzed. The SIM card to its predecessor self-destructed into a wisp of smoke at the end of the last job. And the ones before that.

“Love,” he said in his Kiwi accent. He wasn’t using it as a term of affection. It was my code name, but not how I felt about the job. I needed to find something else to do with my time, but I was caught up in the lifestyle of death.

“Harbinger,” I responded emotionlessly. His name sounded like failed superhero from a dime store comic book. Unlike the steroid-pumped, masked, and caped character that came to mind, this guy was real. I’d seen him in action and knew he was good at what he did. He was my handler.

“Got something for you.”

“You all ever hear of a vacation?” I was irritable and needed some time off. But an unused knife eventually went dull. I sighed.

He was smiling through the phone. “We’ve taken you all over the world. Had you ever been to Paris before us?”

“No.”

“London? Portugal? Copenhagen?”

Of course I had been to those places, as well as dozens of others, to include a Sumatran shithole almost ended me. Didn’t want to reimagine that visit. I sighed, considering my last quick tour of Rome, in which I only saw the Trevi Fountain in passing. When tracking a mark, there was no time for snapping photos of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, shopping near the Champs-Elysses in Paris, or touring the Great Wall of China. There was only time to kill and my bosses were going to ensure I made the most of it.

In a sarcastic way, he was right. My cover was that of a flight attendant, wife, and soccer mom with blue collar husband whose ambitions rarely rose above watching the game on television. With the demands of our family, we couldn’t readily afford trips abroad. Heck, we were stretching it by taking the drive to Wisconsin Dells the previous summer.

The company—for whom my husband knew I worked, but had no clue of what I really did—had sent me around the world and back. Oblivious to the fact that I did more than fluff pillows or pass out peanuts to passengers, Gerald was understanding and kissed me on the forehead each time I absconded for a last-minute trip. Hayley, our daughter, looked up at me with big, brown eyes, and would always ask, “Mommy, when will you be back?”

I’d always promise to return in a few days. We’d exchange butterfly kisses with our eyelashes and I’d tell her we’d have a tea party or rearrange the furniture in her dollhouse when I returned.

My husband didn’t kick up a fuss, though the sudden commitments often meant rescheduling or canceling a date night. With him, I assured him I’d make it up, which usually meant a wild romp between the sheets. What he didn’t know was that I needed that sort of release after the things I’d have to do while plying my trade.

I’d been conditioned to relegate kills into a separate mental compartment, but their attachment was real. I adored my dependable, albeit boring husband and my baby girl. I usually couldn’t stop thinking about the task at hand or lying to my family, but there was something else that was on my mind: I was late.

“Where to this time,” I asked my supervisor.

“Something close to home for you.”

I didn’t like the fact that they knew where I lived, where my husband worked, and where my daughter attended school. They were aware of more than that, since it was their business to know. With their agents, tracking algorithms, and technology assuring me Big Brother was always watching, I wondered if they could tell my period had yet to arrive this month.

“That’s a relief,” I said, playing the role.

“I’ll send the package your way. Are you logged in yet?”

I’d already gotten out of the bed, unwrapping myself from Gerald’s snoring embrace, and made my way downstairs to the study. I connected the phone into the USB port and it lit blue to let me know the communication was encrypted. “I’m in. Got it.”

The laptop completed its download and asked for authentication. I typed in the password, fingers moving lightning fast over the keyboard. I could just as easily use my phone, but the larger screen of the computer made the details easier to read. Not that I needed much background information, but it helped to know the proclivities of the mark.

The dude was a cockroach. Those were some of the few creatures that would survive to skitter about a post-apocalypse landscape. I’d seen him before, so he was someone of note. Even we Milwaukeeans could tune in to the Chicago news for the latest tales of political corruption below the border. An alderman who owned several daycare centers throughout the metropolitan area, the mark had been accused of not only money laundering, misuse of campaign funds, and had purported Mafia ties—standard for Windy City high rollers—but he’d also been charged with several counts of child molestation. And, true to form, he’d slithered his way out. I was watching video of a press conference he held after beating the last conviction.

“We have a client who wants to send a message. There’s a bonus in it for you, which is good with Christmas being around the corner and all. Hayley could—”

“Don’t say my daughter’s name,” I told him in a curt voice.

He chuckled, his subtle threat conveyed. My family was always in the crosshairs if I’d ever failed. The company relished having that insurance policy to keep operatives from going rogue or pulling a disappearing act.

My nipples were extra-sensitive against my housecoat. I dismissed the symptoms of a menses that wasn’t going to happen. My body went through some of the same signs before I found out Gerald and I were going to be parents the first time. But I couldn’t think about the life that was stirring about inside of me at the moment.

I thought to warn my handler again to never say the names of my husband, daughter, or anyone else whom I held dear. But it didn’t bear repeating. His smugness on the other end of the line was going to get Harbinger rubbed out one day. And I had just the eraser to do the job.

“So what do you think,” he asked. “You have the right of first refusal.” That was his way of letting me know that others had gotten killed and moved out the way, giving me seniority for my pool of agents.

I studied the beady little eyes of Alderman Beloit Kidd—probably the worst name for a pedophile proprietor of nursery schools… They were soulless and cold, vacant of anything approaching true empathy. He walked around displaying a wide, plastic smile for the cameras, but something in his eyes never grinned. There was no way in hell I’d ever send my babies to Kidd’s World Daycare.

“I see no need for refusal,” I stated. I wanted to kill that bastard, and that was a unique thing about my position: follow-through on fulfillment. When I wanted someone dead and the light turned green, it happened. I could assure Beloit’s untimely demise before the sun peeked past the horizon. Harbinger would have to wait his turn.

“Good,” he said, “we have a vehicle you can pick up at the welcome center on the Illinois side of the border. Your weapons and other details will be in the in the trunk. Keys will be in the third stall in the women’s room.”

We’d used the pickup point before and my tools were always in the trunk of the car. All I cared about was the money. I had college tuitions I wanted to purchase at today’s prices. “And the bonus?”

“You’ll get the standard rate, plus an additional 25% if you carry it out before his press conference tomorrow. The cleanup crew will trail you, so you don’t have to worry about that. You’re free to make it as messy as you’d like.”

I hadn’t asked about the cleaners or the standard rate; I was concerned only with the bonus. He was volunteering information on stuff I already knew, which meant he was trying too hard to sell this. It was never out of my head that the company occasionally “retired” its agents early. This wasn’t done with the regular going-away party that all your family and friends could attend, because doing a slide show of your greatest pieces of handiwork didn’t go over too well family photo album. On this type of job, the danger wasn’t only from the mark and his or her protective detail; it was also from fellow agents.

“Am I scheduled for forced retirement?” I was straightforward when I asked, so I could gauge his response. My hormones had me acting out of sorts.

There was a brief pause and he chuckled slightly before he answered. “Retirement? What would ever give you a crazy idea like that, Love?”

Because raindrops falling on my head shouldn’t be warm or smell like an old, pissy mattress, I thought. We women were already attuned to sudden frequency shifts and unnecessary vocal inflection—that’s how we caught men cheating and knew when Little Johnny broke the lamp. Harbinger was lying to me. He had no need to answer my question with a question. Now, I knew he had to die.

“Okay, just checking,” I said with a fake smile in my tone. I was almost ready for politics.

“You’re one of our best operators.”

Buttering me up and going too far. Damned liar. Well, no, he wasn’t lying about me being one of the best. The lie was in the fact that he was tossing out the accolade like a doggie treat, hoping I’d be distracted by the bait. Chasing tail was a puppy’s game and I was a full-grown bitch.

“Why, thank you,” I blushed, using my own program to calculate his possible whereabouts. He could be waiting in the backseat of my car, like bad guys did in cheesy horror flicks, waiting to pounce. His pistol’s silencer or the throat-slitting knife would make no noise to wake the neighbors.

Fucker.

“He’ll be dead before dawn,” I assured him. I wanted him to think I was concerned about that bonus and not his sleight-of-hand trickery.

“I’d expect nothing less from the best.”

“Yeah,” I said, pressing the button to disconnect the call.

As much as I would’ve enjoyed it, I wasn’t going to Chicago to snuff the alderman. I wasn’t even leaving the house that night. I headed upstairs to tell my husband what he needed to know. After all, we were in for a long night and there was wet work to do. I’d been lying to Gerald since before we got married, so there would be a lot to hash out at the counselor’s office. There was Hayley and our unborn child to consider. That and the fact that I was crazy about his lackluster, dependable, blue collar ass.

If he ever tried to leave me, I’d kill him, too.

– Artwork and Story Copyright by Don Miskel

Close Call

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By the time my sixteenth birthday rolled around, Grimy and Theo were yesterday’s news. I saw them in passing, usually around the neighborhood, taking up their perch at the corner gas station. Just months before, I was there with them. As I’d make my way up the block, they’d ignore or simply mean-mug me. Theo would mumble a word or two under his breath, but never had the heart to go another round. Grimy would typically stare into the distance, toward the highway and further down 55th Street, as if he could see the lakefront from there. If our eyes briefly met, he’d avert his gaze.

Fine by me. My dad and my Uncle Ray were proud that I’d disconnected from those wannabe knuckleheads. I was pretty darn proud of myself, though I did kind of miss my former friends.

Grimy was more or less a loss cause, having decided long before that he was going to be an apex predator. Theo, however, had a chance to turn his life around. But he was gullible and wanted too badly to be part of something. I heard they’d both been initiated into the DQP: Devoted and Quoted Players—a burgeoning crew with ties to a larger gang that ran street activities all over Chicago’s South Side. What had once been a spot for catcalling at girls had become Grimy and Theo’s corner for slinging rocks.

I’d taken a job at the Finest Foods market, which was a short walk from the apartment. Making money felt good. I even sneaked a few dollars into Pop’s wallet every now and then, him being none the wiser…or so I thought.

“Junior,” he called to me one Saturday afternoon. He’d been fishing through his billfold for debit card receipts. He religiously purged the thing once a week to update his checking account register.

“Yes, Dad,” I said, emerging from my bedroom with a book in hand. I’d been wrapped up in the adventures of Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo.

My father, Carlos, Sr., was parked on the living room sofa, which was slumped in the middle from him sleeping on it so much between double shifts. He had a queen sized bed in his room but had lost the desire to be in it much without his wife. He was a respected man in our neighborhood and a survivor of the War on Drugs that’d claimed my mother. Unlike me, he’d never had any aspirations toward college, but the man was far from dumb. He sat back into the cushions, his hardened face breaking into a slight grin. “You think I’m slow on the uptake?”

“No,” I replied with surprise.

He began to rub his chin, fighting back a smile. “Stupid, then? Yeah, that’s it—you think your old man is stupid.”

“No, sir,” I laughed nervously.

He went into his back pocket and presented the worn bit of leather that may have been around before I was. He opened and sifted through it, pulling out the two Jacksons I’d slipped in. “You ain’t slick, boy,” he said, lifting an eyebrow, his teeth beaming like the Cheshire cat’s.

“That’s a little something to help out around here, Pop,” I admitted. “You said a man who don’t work don’t eat.”

Doesn’t,” he corrected. He was free to speak improper English and use all the linguistic shortcuts he wanted; I was not. “I did say that, didn’t I? I guess you were listening after all.”

I smiled.

My daddy took the twenties and put them on the cocktail table under the repurposed jar that served as his favorite drinking glass. The ice clinked around inside and a condensation ring formed on the currency. Despite being referred to as paper, our currency was made primarily of cloth, so the bills would wrinkle but would otherwise be fine.

“So,” he began, changing subjects, “how are things going with you, son?”

I loved those rare occasions when the two of us caught up and were able to just talk. He’d eased up on pulling extra hours all the time, slowly healing from my mother’s absence. My working hours, which were juggled between school and homework assignments, ensured we saw each other primarily in passing. But I’d already pulled an early shift that day, and he was off on weekends.

I told him about my physics class and how, though most people groaned about it, I actually found it exciting. I mentioned my new girlfriend, Aida, who lived a couple of blocks over. I also told him about Markell, another neighborhood kid that had to make the trek across town to Kenwood Academy High School with me.

“Sounds good,” he said proudly. “Whatcha got going on this evening?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Not much. I was going to do some more reading, then maybe head down to Aida’s house to watch TV.”

“Why aren’t ya going out to enjoy the weather? Ain’t long before the Indian summer is done, autumn sets in and it starts to get cold out.”

“Don’t have no money.”

Any money.” He expected more from me and would reinforce it every chance he got. I quietly appreciated him for it.

“Sorry. I don’t have any money. I gave the last of what I had to you.”

“Just as I thought.” He picked up the glass jar, which was halfway filled with a neon red concoction. My dad loved his fruit punch, often with a little nip of something extra that he wouldn’t allow me to drink. The two notes had overlapped so that part of each bill was wet. He fanned them, shaking off the water, and handed them over.

“Pop,” I protested in vain.

“Now you have a few bucks to hang out with your friends. Get out of the neighborhood for a while. Show that pretty girl a good time.” I fixed my mouth to complain but he shushed me by adding a 10 spot to the other bills. “Now you have an even fifty.”

I exhaled, both delighted and defeated. We both chuckled and I shook my head. “Thank you.”

My dad gave me a two fingered salute and I went to call my lady.

***

The walk from Aida’s to the bus and train stop at 55th & the Dan Ryan was only a few blocks. We met with Markell and his sister Reina along the way, greeting each other with smiles and hugs. The ladies walked ahead, yammering about goodness-knows-what.

As we made our way to the main street, we passed by the gas station. Neither Grimy nor Theo were there to suck their teeth or ignore us altogether.

“I’ve got a few dollars,” I half-whispered to Markell.

“Got paid yesterday, so I got a few bucks myself. Where you wanna go?”

“We should take the girls to the movies at Water Tower Place, then we can go hit up the value menu at Burger Joint.”

I nodded in agreement. Going to the movies would drain the little bit of money my father had given me, so we had to be smart about it.

Before I knew, we were at the Dan Ryan. “We should take the bus to the old Englewood el train,” I suggested.

“I don’t know,” Markell said. “We could just jump the train here instead.”

“Fear of heights,” Reina said with a playful nudge to my ribs. She was tall for fourteen and had something of a crush on me. I couldn’t see past her being anything more than my friend’s kid sister. “That’s why my brother avoids the rollercoasters when we go to the amusement parks.”

It was time for my girlfriend to weigh in. “He’s right, Carlos”—she never called me Junior—“We should probably take the Ryan downtown. It’s faster and cleaner.” To that, she winked one pretty brown eye and flashed a perfect set of teeth at me, causing me to melt.

“Okay, okay,” I relented. The antiquated elevated train, which was another mile or so east, was a throwback to happier times for me. Mom and I used to ride it downtown to see the nightly light show at Buckingham Fountain in the summer. But I was equally charmed and outvoted.

We approached the bus stop, which sat across from the station, the Dan Ryan Expressway running at full tilt beneath us. To get to the train, we had to cross the street, where I spotted two familiar figures. Grimy was posted up against the protective fence, which kept folks from falling onto the highway below. As expected, Theo hovered just a few yards away, whispering to potential customers on the stop. They were dressed in matching black tees and shorts that hung mid-calf. There were black bandanas hanging out of their right back pockets and baseball caps cocked to the right, completing their ensembles. They stood around, addressing citizens like young evangelists, blatantly peddling their wares and daring anyone to challenge them.
As we walked by, they took notice and sneered at me. They knew better than to step to me, but I wasn’t going to tempt the hand of fate, either.

My gaggle crossed the road to pay our train fare just as the 55th Street bus pulled up. And that’s when everything became surreal, the early autumn sky suddenly fading to a sickly green, the camera going askew. The back of the bus was full of young men wearing bright orange, with their hats cocked hard to the left—members of the rival Sherman Park Hustlers.

I glanced at Markell, who’d suddenly stopped chatting it up with his sister when he saw the grave look in my face. Without a word between us, we grabbed the hands of our respective dates and made a dash toward the ticket booth.

On the bus, two of the bangers stood up and pointed in the direction of my homeboys. I watched as the leader, face grimaced, yelled something. Through the glass, I couldn’t hear him, but I didn’t have to. Other members of the crew stood and began pounding their fists and throwing gang signs. Stacking, they called it.

Theo and Grimy, caught up in raising their net worth, didn’t even notice the bus beginning to rock, as one orange clad banger after another jumped off. It looked like a circus clown car, a seemingly unending number of street thugs pouring out from the exits.

YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” one of them yelled in a battle cry. “WHAT SET YOU CLAIMIN’, FOOL?!”

Have you ever walked into a dark kitchen and turned on the lights? Cockroaches tend to scatter, seeking out any dank corner or crevice in which to hide. Theodore was one of those six-legged creatures, sprouting greasy, brown wings, and taking flight.

Grimy wasn’t easily bugged out.

As Theo sped away, three of the orange boys with varying shades of dark skin peeled off to give chase. It was like watching an ill-fated gazelle trying to outrun a pack of lionesses eager to feed their cubs. I knew it wasn’t going to end well. He made it as far as the grassy boulevard before they caught up. All the weaving and stutter-stepping in the world couldn’t shake them. The fastest one kept delivering punches to the back of their prey’s neck and head. Finally, a hammer strike caught him square between the shoulder blades and Theo tumbled, his momentum carrying him forward like a sack of potatoes. They descended on him with a flurry of punches and kicks. The younger boy hunched into a fetal position, covering his head with his bloodied hands.

Grimy never even blinked or changed expression. His right hand went under his oversized shirt and slipped into his back pocket, next to the bandana. What he produced was hard to see, the blue steel blending in with his black clothing.

Vivid orange turned to bright red as the closest rival caught rounds to the sternum and chest. The screams of onlookers rang out a beat behind the gunfire and everyone who had not scattered before did so.

Not me. Like Alphonso Grimes, I was no cockroach. While Aida, Reina, and Markell flattened themselves to the pavement, I continued to stand and watch foolishly, like a deer in the headlights…

***

As the saying goes, there’s never a cop around when you need them. When the smoke cleared, Grimy had unloaded all seven rounds from his .45, killing one of the Sherman Park Hustlers and injuring an uninvolved mother who was shielding her baby. The bullet entered through her back and shattered her clavicle while trying to exit through the front. Her infant daughter was unscathed, just screaming and covered in her mother’s blood.

The slide locked to the rear on Grimy’s pistol and he was bum-rushed while dropping his magazine for a rapid reload. It wasn’t the boys in orange (who’d turned out to be cockroaches themselves), but two citizens who saw the mother get hit. One was a Gulf War veteran who instinctively fell back on his training; the other was a rather unassuming high school teacher in glasses who told reporters he was sick and tired of the violence. The former soldier had tackled the assailant while the teacher kept delivering punches until Grimy dropped the weapon and was knocked out.

Theo didn’t fare as well. The three who’d given chase went above and beyond to show how, though their skin was the same basic shade, they hated the colors he wore. Chicago’s finest had set a cordon while his corpse was zipped up and wheeled away. He was only fourteen and had been stomped and kicked to death with steel-toed boots—a gruesome Sherman Park trademark.

Reina and Aida had been crying, especially when we were told we couldn’t leave until after we’d spoken to the police. Markell was in shock, eyes wide. I was sitting down, my head between my legs, rubbing my head. I had to get out of there, was all that kept echoing in my mind.

An officer in plainclothes walked to us with a stern look on his face. He’d seen too many scenes like this and was war-weary. Rather young-looking to be a detective, he introduced himself and took down the information for the people I was with. After asking them a few questions, he crouched down to my level. I looked up with tears flowing down my cheeks.

“My name is Detective Brandywine,” he said with a bit of sadness. “Did you know Theodore?”

I thought about all the fun we had before we’d fallen out just a few months before. I considered how he’d looked up to Grimy and me as his adopted older brothers and how he’d do just about anything we’d tell him. I imagined the heartbreak in his mother’s face when the cops would show up at her door bearing bad news. No parent deserved that. Then I thought about how much potential he’d had and how, but for the grace of God, it could have been me being carted off to see the coroner…
I nodded to the officer, the Blue and White Nile converging to drip a river of tears down my chin. I looked up through the veil, Grimy’s image blurry but recognizable in the backseat of the cruiser. I put him out of my mind.

“His name was Theo,” I said, repeating his name in a quavering voice, as if that alone could bring him back. Realizing that nothing could, something broke in me. My shoulders heaved up and down as the sobbing became more intense. “He was my friend.”