THROWBACK * Chapter 1: Parnell’s Plight

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And where were the flying cars, he wondered. Parnell watched people buzz along in their vehicles—cars that were likely to remain terrestrial for the next twenty years.

As a child in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the forward-thinking magazines he’d read, comic books he’d traded, and movies he’d seen promised a future that would allow modes of transit that defied gravity and wouldn’t pollute the environment. Hell, hybrids and electrics had finally come into vogue after the technology had been available for years.

There would be no vertical takeoffs from the tops of apartment buildings anytime soon.

He putted along in the van, cursing under his breath at the dense holiday weekend traffic. While everyone else was daydreaming of barbecues by the pool, Parnell trudged toward what would hopefully be his last emergency call of the day.

He loathed the stench of sewer gas and wondered how his life had come to snaking sinks and blowing shitters for a living. With the stop-and-go gridlock, the myriad of parts and fixtures stored in the back of the van rattled each time he tapped the squeaky brakes. He swore this was to remind him just how meaningless his life had turned out to be.

As if the incessant clanking of PVC pipes and elbow joints combined with creeping traffic weren’t enough, the vehicle’s air conditioning had long gone out. What was a heat index of 101 degrees outside became a merciless, rotisserie oven inside the rolling metallic prison. His name-tagged blue shirt adhered like a second skin, glued firmly in place by sweat.

Greg, his boss, wasn’t just a taskmaster, but also serious cheapskate. Parnell had first mentioned the AC back in April, long before the skyrocketing temps of summer had the chance to set in. But Greg didn’t see any benefit and promised to get it fixed after the new fiscal year turned over.

“The summer is forecast to be extremely hot and humid,” Parnell had muttered while staring at the carpeted floor in Greg’s office.

“Just drive with your windows down,” his manager snapped, irritated that the matter was even being discussed. Greg looked his employee square in the eye. “I promise I’ll get you straight, come October.”

Parnell watched as his boss licked his fingers and slicked back his mullet hairdo—something he often did whenever he was lying. Seeing that gesture, he knew the air in his van would never be fixed.

The phone rang and Greg had an official excuse to sidestep yet another empty conversation about AC repair. It was on to more pressing business—the kind that made money and didn’t subtract from the bottom line.

“That Sinking Feeling Plumbing,” he chimed cheerily, suddenly subtracting the asshole quotient from his voice, “How may we be of service?”

The work van was the oldest and cheapest in a fleet of ten. The other nine had their issues, but they all had electric windows and the air worked just fine. Parnell’s piece of crap was equipped with handles for the windows and the one on the driver’s side was broken. That meant he could let down the passenger’s side window for a bit of air but it made little difference.

Yet another thing Greg promised to get fixed.

Parnell stood on the showroom floor, staring at the waves of heat through the panoramic storefront window. He dreaded stepping out of the comfortable 75 degrees of the office back into the inferno.

Taking his mind off it, he perused the business logo that sat behind his boss’s desk. Though it had been designed to display two cheery plumber characters clearing a clogged drain, the name of the company resounded in Parnell’s head: That Sinking Feeling. Just like his life, just like the empty promises of repaired air conditioning…and flying cars.

“You’re in Yorktown,” Greg repeated into the phone, sounding courteous and unlike himself. “Yes, ma’am, we can get somebody on it.” He scribbled the lady’s address onto a piece of paper, ripped it off the pad and handed it to Parnell dismissively. Then he spun in the chair, turning his back and continuing his conversation. “He’s on his way now. Yes, ma’am. And a Happy Independence Day to you, too!”

When Greg turned back toward his unhappy employee, he wrinkled his nose at the fact that the underachiever hadn’t already left. He leaned forward in his seat and flatly said, “Busted toilet that overflowed in the upstairs bathroom and down into the AC vent.”

Of all things, it would come down to air conditioning. Parnell sighed.

“Do yourself a favor,” Greg yammered on, “Take the Monitor-Merrimack Tunnel to save some time. I guarantee the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel is at a standstill.”

When the boss finished speaking, there was an uncomfortable silence lingering in the space between them. All Greg cared about was a representative from his company getting to Yorktown in a timely fashion and before the customer called another plumber.

“Why you still standing there?” he asked gruffly, turning his palms up. “Time’s a-wasting. Pick up any parts you need and get moving.”

Parnell held his breath, wanting to protest, but not able to bring himself to do it.

“Look,” Greg said, bringing his voice down a notch. “We’ll discuss getting your van fixed on Monday. Maybe I can get Todd to do a jerry rig and dump some Freon into the loop. That should at least get you through next week. Weatherman says we should be back into the lower 90’s by Wednesday, so that should be some relief.”

The plumber pursed his lips, muttered a defeated, “Okay,” and lumbered out toward the parking lot.

Antioch Jackson: Monster Hunter (Part 1)

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Ghost, Man, Scary, Alleyway, Night, Walk, Alone

Englewood had once been an up-and-coming neighborhood for immigrants. That was long before Antioch was born and many years before White Flight. Now, all that was left was an urban war zone, stranded four miles inland from the coastline, and all-but-forgotten by the sprawling city.

The residents never saw the money brought in by big business and tourism in the city’s affluent Downtown and Gold Coast areas. For everyone not living there, it was a place to be driven through quickly or to see on the news as the murder rate climbed.

But it was the place that Antioch Jackson called home. And the apartment she shared with her mother and father was full of love. And, though she and her little brother Corinth did more fighting than anything else, the actually loved each other, too.

Their place overlooked the large grassy median on Garfield Boulevard. It ran east from Washington Park, past her house, and west to Gage Park. There were apartment buildings on her side of the boulevard, but large bungalows and old miniature mansions on the other. During her walks into Sherman Park, which sat diagonal from her building on the corner of Garfield and Racine, she imagined the neighborhood a century before. Back then, it was a place where doctors, attorneys, and affluent businessmen took up residence. But not anymore.

“Antioch,” a booming baritone called in a singsong-y cadence from the dining room.

“Yes, Papa,” she replied, emerging from her bedroom.

She headed toward the back of the house to find her dad sitting at the dark wooden table, taking up an antiquated pastime: reading the newspaper. She could smell the hash browns, turkey sausage, and eggs that Mama had placed beside him. There was a crinkling sound as he turned one thin sheet to the next page.

“Yes, Papa,” she repeated.

He had heard her footsteps and felt her presence, but like many other things in life, Gerald Jackson took his time. There was a pile of books next to his plate, the bottom being a thick, hardback tome. It wasn’t surprising for his wife, Demetria, or his children to see his nose between the pages of some volume or paperback whenever he was not at work. His eyes roamed from one article to the next, before he turned the newspaper page again.

“Is Cory up, yet?”

She and her brother had been named after the cities where churches were set up in the New Testament. His name had been shortened to Cory while hers didn’t get a nickname. This told her something about her position over her less-than-responsible sibling: she was the one to be taken seriously, while Cory had the luxury of slacking off.

Though she read about as much, Antioch had not taken on her father’s patient outlook on life. She was up early each morning, even on weekends and during summer vacation. And, save the time she set aside to read, she almost hyper-kinetic.

“He doesn’t want to let that pillow go,” she said with a sigh, “But I shook him after his alarm went off the second time.”

The top of the newspaper canted downward so she could just see the frown on Papa’s brow. His eyes were serious.

“You tell that boy I said for him to get his butt up!”

Her father never raised his voice but he knew how to convey the gravity when he needed to. She had accepted she was the liaison between her father and brother. More often than not, she was the one to plead Cory’s case when Papa was ready to use his belt.

“Yes, sir.” With that, she excused herself and gave her brother’s box spring a good kick. “WAKE YOUR BEHIND UP! Daddy said if he has to come in here, you’re gonna be dancing above the sheets!”

Corinth half-grumbled and half-whined in protest, sounding more oinking pig than growling bear. He was tangled up in the sheets and swinging for his sister, he rolled out of bed, and hit the floor.

She giggled.

He rolled his eyes and yawned. He liked sleep too much and what she imagined the modern-day Rip van Winkle to be.

“Dang, Antioch,” he complained. “You didn’t have to kick my bed.”

“I’m gonna tell Papa you’re trying to cuss again.”

To that, he sucked his teeth, and tried unraveling himself. “What time is it?”

“Not enough time for you to eat breakfast. You’ve got about five minutes to brush your teeth, get dressed, and get out the door for school!”

What ensued was a catastrophic, offbeat dance that sent Cory knocking over the lamp, losing balance, and falling to the floor again.

“What the hell is going on in there,” she heard her father boom from the table.

“Nothing, Papa,” the children said in unison.

They heard the faint crinkling and he went back to his morning reading.

Antioch made a playful fist at Corinth, putting it under each of her eyes in a comical threat. “Five minutes,” she said plainly.

When she left out the door, it sounded like her Uncle Chris was playing his trade on the drums. Her brother was still wrapped like a pig in a blanket, trying to untangle himself. She shook her head, kissed Papa on the cheek, and made her way to the bus stop to wait.

***

When Cory emerged, he looked like he’d slept in his outfit. No doubt he’d whisked past their father without being seen. Though not always he newest items, Papa wanted their clothes to always be pressed and neat. Cory, however, marched to the beat of his own drum.

“You’re ridiculous,” she said.

“Shut up,” he shot back with a frown.

“Up late again playing those games, I see.”

“You ain’t my mama,” he fussed.

“The word is aren’t and you still have some crust in the corner of your eye.”

He stopped and used his shirtsleeve to get it together. She shook her head.

Though the Number 55 bus stopped right in front of their apartment, they would walk down a few blocks until it caught up with them. Mr. Anderson, who was a family friend, would pull over even if they were between stops.

As they made their way east on Garfield, Antioch looked at the dilapidated homes on the other side of the boulevard. She imaged buying one, fixing it up, and moving her family into it. Then, all of Mama’s early shifts and Papa’s extra hours would be for something more than paying rent.

They were nearing Carpenter Street when Antioch noticed something different. She nudged Cory and pointed toward the corner diagonal. “Look at that.”

“Okay, it’s a crew, working. What’s the big deal?”

There were men in hard hats with tools and equipment moving about, busying themselves, and making a fuss over a house that had been abandoned since her Mama was a little girl.

“They’re not tearing it down.”

“Okay, so what’s so weird about that?”

“Nothing, I guess. But why now?”

Cory was munching on a granola bar he’d pilfered from the pantry. He took a bite and, with his mouth full, said, “You ask too many questions.”

He may have been right. Her curious nature kept her in the books, inquiring about things most kids never bothered to ponder. But something about that house on that corner had gotten her attention. Yes, part of it was the construction crew but that wasn’t the only thing.

Then she saw it. The figure appeared to be a man but something about him was out of place. He was very tall, extremely skinny, and stood stark still. While the men moved about with pieces of lumber and bags of concrete mix, he stood there in his dark clothes, not wearing a hardhat at all.

“Look at him,” she said, trying not to point too obviously, though the figure’s back was to them.

Cory took his last bite. “So what? It’s a man standing on the corner.”

“Look at how he’s dressed.”

“He’s rocking a black getup,” Cory said dismissively. “Maybe he’s just making a fashion statement.”

The gaunt man with the wiry, gray mane of hair did appear to be dressed for a funeral. But something about him made her suddenly feel like she had to use the bathroom. Reality seemed to retard itself and cars rolling down the Garfield seemed to do so at a turtle’s pace, still blurry from their momentum.

It was a cool autumn day and the colorful leaves were swirling about in the wisps of wind in slow motion. A closer observation revealed that many of the leaves were gathering at the man’s feet, as if he was the center of a vortex. She had to squint from across the street but it appeared that the ones that were drawn to him lost their bright colors of orange, yellow, and red. As they came to him, the brilliance of each leaf dulled, the color fading until they were about as black as his pants.

Her stomach churned. She looked to her right and her brother’s mouth was moving in slow, silent commentary, a bit of granola stuck to his lip.

She looked to her left and the creep across the street turned without effort. His feet levitated above the pile of leaves and his entire body rotated until he faced her. He wore black shades and his skin was about as gray as his shock of hair. His shoulders were slightly hunched like a predatory cat.

Antioch froze in place. Her heart was all over the place, palpitating like Uncle Chris slapping the skins on his latest Jazz tour. As when she played Hide and Seek as a younger girl, she suddenly hoped that shutting her eyes tightly would render her invisible.

It didn’t work. When she opened her eyes, the gaunt man raised his glasses so he could see her clearly from his perch. In a fluid motion, he rested the shades on his prominent brow, continuing his hand upward to the mushroom cloud of wiry hair. As if smoothing his mane, moving his hand backward pulled his facial muscles, his somber countenance transformed to a wide, snaggletooth grin.

His smile sent an electric chill from the base of her neck to her tailbone. She could barely control her urge to run to the restroom as not to soil herself. She gasped and suddenly…

The world was moving at its normal speed again. Cory was in the midst of telling her how silly she was and how she thought too much.

She furrowed her brow, wondering if her overactive imagination had gotten the better of her again. The construction crew was still buzzing about and there was a dark figure looming on the corner, watching their progress. However, his back was to her and her brother.

Antioch sighed with relief. Corinth, her mother, and her father were probably correct. Whereas her brother stayed up late playing video games, she put off sleep to read her books long after her mother told her to turn off the lights. Her e-reader was perfect for what she deemed night ops. Could it be that the superstitious and mythological world had converged on her real one?

“You’re right,” she told her brother.

He stopped and his eyes nearly popped from his head. “Say what?”

“I said you’re right. I probably do think too much.”

“You alright Big Sis? Do you have a fever or somethin’? You never admit to being wrong!”

“Hardly ever,” she agreed monotonously. That may have been true but what she had seen seemed so real.

They continued to walk and the man in black took up space in her periphery. The sickening feeling in her gut returned and she tried not to look. But that didn’t stop him from rotating above his pile of leaves so that his predatory eyes remained locked on her.

When they passed Carpenter, she ventured a peek over her shoulder and found him standing there, just a stone’s throw away. He was no longer on the other side of the street but right behind her and Cory.

Her mama had told Antioch from the time she was little that she was a tomboy who didn’t seem afraid of anything. But Mama had never seen this looming, levitating presence in his musty, tattered suit. He was casket sharp and just as dead.

His announcement was timed to get her attention and shake her up a bit. It had unsettled but not immobilized her. She had seen ghosts before, though they were non-sentient, spiritual recordings. People were spooked by them but the ones she’d seen were virtually harmless.

Not this shadowy man. He was interacting and intelligent. The beady, fiery eyes, which has sucked the color from the leaves, framed in his dark sockets, told her that. His crooked smile of jagged, yellowed teeth, was beaming malicious intent. When he winked at her, she knew she had an adversary with which to contend.

Cuddly

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Like clockwork, each month, my uterus went through a ritual of trying to turn itself inside-out. This made for some rather sleepless nights when the cramps were at their worst. I stumbled back from the bathroom, initially happy to get back to sleep until I saw him. Gerald had wrapped himself up on his side of the bed, stealing all the covers. As if to balance out his inconsiderate move, he’d left me a hot water bottle.

“I brought you a little something,” he said.

I wanted to comment that he’d also taken a little something by rolling himself up in the comforter, hogging it to the left side. Instead, I took notice of the bottle’s silhouette and replied, “How’d you know?”

“C’mon, babe,” he said, shifting a bit on his old pillow. “After all these years, you think I wouldn’t be aware of such a thing?”

“I guess you’re right.”

Oddly, I didn’t hear him head to the kitchen as I made my way to the restroom. I didn’t hear him stumbling about clumsily as he typically did, nor did I pick up the sound of running water. I wasn’t going to question how he’d done it. He wanted to impress me with the fact that he’d done it at all. I just wish he could’ve been as considerate when he was still…

“Come to bed,” he said, patting the right side of the mattress. “We can cuddle.”

With the blinds partially open, the pale moonlight formed stripes that contoured over the sheets, pillows…and my husband’s body, wrapped up in the blanket. This was a problem, because Gerald had been dead for over thirteen months and I’d paid good money to ensure he was. Yet, he always came back, more like cockroaches after an exterminator’s visit than undying love. I saw his presence as the former, his being there making the hairs levitate from the back of my neck; he saw never leaving me alone as an act of the latter: love everlasting.

I just wanted him gone.

“Come to bed,” he repeated, more demanding than asking this time. That’d been more like the tone I was used to, thinly veiled by feigned sweetness. The hand flipping back the covers and inviting me into his cocoon was gray and skeletal. Earthworms slithered through and beetles gnawed away at the dermis and tendons of his forearm. Graveyard dirt soiled the sheets and matched the dank, stolid smell hanging in the air. “We can cuddle.”

But I didn’t want to be near him, let alone make spoons so that his bony, dead fingertips could make my skin crawl. “I’m not feeling well, hon.”

“I know,” he said, his empty eye sockets ogling me. “But that’s why I’m here. The vow I took said ‘in sickness and in health.’ Remember that?”

“Yes. But I also recall something about ‘till death do us part.’”

He flashed a snaggletooth grin, his lips long devoured by insects, yet smiling, nonetheless. “That’s a minor hiccup, since I died before my time. I’m never going to leave you, Marjorie!”

I wished that he could’ve relented on that statement like his empty promises to stop drinking and to never hit me again. In death, there was no need to consume alcohol, he’d once told me, and with his muscles rotted away, he exerted no physical strength to worry me. It’s just that my husband’s constant nighttime visits ate away at my sanity like the spiders and maggots and stink bugs had done to his body.

The moonlight shifted and more of him was visible now. There was a garter snake inching along his pelvis where his penis should’ve been. He’d raped me the night he died, so anything phallic near him made me relive that horror.

Tears streamed down my cheeks and I forgot about the cramps and the hot water bottle which had been his gesture of kindness. And, though I wanted to run, my feet were cast in magnetized lead. I could move no way but toward him.

“That’s it,” he sang, his deteriorated vocal cords making his voice sound like fingernails across a chalkboard. “Come cuddle with your man, girl!”

With my sobs came the irrigation of snot and I didn’t care to wipe it away. All I could do was submit to his beckoning and climb back into the bondage of our marital bed.

© 2014, Don Miskel.

Whippersnapper

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“I hate when it rains. Reduces visibility.” That was my uninformed, upstart of a partner running his mouth again, not knowing a damn thing about anything that mattered.

“You talk too fuckin’ much,” I said gruffly. Stakeout tête-à-tête made the time go by, but it was only when that conversation wasn’t for the sake of creating carbon dioxide. “What’d I tell you about that?”

He sighed like a frustrated little brat that’d been relegated to the nearest corner when all he wanted to do was play.

“Rain is a good thing,” I informed him. “Reduced visibility makes it harder for witnesses to make out detail…and it washes away evidence, too. Lemme see your piece.”

I didn’t particularly like breaking in the new guys, tagging along so they didn’t make the stupid mistakes not covered in class. However, it was us older cats—me being one of the most ancient still able to work in the field—that pulled the coattails of the irreverent ranks.

He unholstered his firearm—a huge, gaudy monstrosity that would make a movie action hero soil himself with delight. He was trying to overcompensate and impress me. The organization already knew he had the basic skills to do the job; it was left to me to get the tyke fine-tuned.

“.50 cal, huh?”

He nodded proudly, big stupid grin extending upward to his rosy cheeks.

“We ain’t huntin’ buffalo, kid.”

His smile faded a shade and his brow creased ever-so-slightly. To him, I was a crotchety old relic that should’ve retired around the time his daddy refused to pull out the kid’s whore of a mother. I could’ve said something to the beat of the best part of him went running down Mama’s thighs and gummed up the sheets, but I didn’t. This was a learning opportunity for the youngster. I reached into my belt and pulled out my primary: an easily concealable, smaller caliber wheel gun.

“Whatcha gonna do with that, Pops,” the kid demanded to know. He was determined to let me know he had the cajones, smarts, and speed to get the job done. It was yet another teaching moment, of which the night seemed to have no shortage. “Rob stagecoaches?”

To that, he guffawed, still gripping the butt of his hand cannon. I smirked, since I could appreciate a good sense of humor. Besides, it would take more than remarks about my age or tools of the trade to get me seeing red.

“You’re funny, son. I like that.” A silence settled between us and I didn’t blink. “How many rounds does that thing carry?”

“Twelve,” he said with a defiant nod. “Twice as many as your old peacemaker.”

“Twice as likely to get your hopes up and twice as likely to get you killed, too. I have exactly six chances to get the job done right. That means I take my time and aim, remembering my fundamentals. I breathe, apply even pressure on the trigger, and pull it smoothly to the rear. Each round counts.”

“Takes too long,” he exclaimed dismissively. “By the time you fire your second shot, I’d already have emptied the clip and begun my reload.”

“You’re right. And there would be empty shell casings all over for the cops to find and accidentally wounded bystanders for them to question.” I leaned back a bit, squaring him up. “I’ll bet you even shoot sideways, like you’re in some in-the-‘hood gangster flick.”

His smartass expression said, Yeah and so what, old man?! It was his blatantly disrespectful attitude that made me decide just how to capitalize on the moment. After all, lion cubs had to be groomed to one day lead the pride.

“Let me tell you a story,” I began, much to his chagrin. He stifled the breath he wanted to huff, thinking better of it. “I was probably about your age…”

“Back in the days when they invented the wheel and Moses rode the ark, right?”

I shot him a glare, not bothering to correct him on the fact that it was Noah. But Sunday School was a class I hadn’t been paid to teach.

“Mind if I finish?”

He nodded. “Please…by all means, carry on.”

“I was arrogant like you when I was your age. I was fresh out of Force Recon when I was recruited by the organization. Had done a good share of wet-works by then, too.”

The kid exhaled, his eyes bugging as if to say, Is this gonna be a long story? I got shit to do, man!”

However, the only shit he had to do was whatever I told him. And, regardless of his insolence, I had to issue the story as a preamble. It was only right to give him a chance.

I continued: “My field training officer seemed more ancient then than I am now. Had a buzz cut of white needles framing his leathery face. Never smiled. Growled a lot, though…”

Yeah, yeah, yeah! And, as he lay dying in your arms, he passed on some sort of profound knowledge concerning this job. That’s it, right?! You don’t hafta go describing the type of aftershave he wore or the repressed homosexual urges you all shared. Just get to the fuckin’ point, man!”

I chuckled, looking through the windshield at the rain coming down in sheets. “Why don’t you step outta the car, youngster?”

To that, he exploded. “Ya know what, Gramps? I ain’t yer son, I ain’t a kid, and I ain’t here to listen to some tired old windbag relive his friggin’ glory days!”

I calmed myself, slowing my heart rate, taking time to breathe. This is what I did before engaging a target with a weapon or in hand-to-hand. Though I could easily leave the kid with a knife through his windpipe or a smoking hole in his temple, I still wanted to give the kid a chance. I liked him. “Step out,” I repeated, unbuttoning my jacket and opening the door.

Five minutes later, he was huffing and puffing, the fingers of his right hand broken to resemble a windmill. I’d hung that miniaturized missile launcher off his trigger finger, which he couldn’t bend. I’d told him not to reach for it, as I just wanted to knock him around a bit to prove a point. He didn’t believe fat meat was greasy and had to find out the hard way.

“M-may I please have a cigarette,” he begged. He was dripping wet from the rain, cradling his useless arm with his left. I didn’t break his elbow as much as I’d given it a nice hyperextension to reinforce some respect for his elders.

“No smoking when you’re with me. Cigarette butts leave a trail like breadcrumbs.”

“I-I-I’m sorry,” he said through bruised gums and clenched teeth. Though tempted to knock them out and leave them on the pavement like candy-coated tablets of chewing gum, I didn’t. The organization had an excellent dental plan, but he’d already be exercising the medical benefits that night.

“I know,” I said coolly, looking at his humbled countenance from the driver’s seat. “Now, may I please continue on with my story?”

His swollen lips drooled blood and saliva onto his dark shirt. The white of one eye was discolored from a nice blow to the temple. A little harder and I could’ve made his eye pop out altogether. Hell, I’d done it before.

He nodded. “Please do, sir. Please do.”

I cleared my throat, watching the rain, which had muffled his screams, washing any remnants of blood into the gutter. “As I was saying, I was also arrogant at your age, until I ran afoul of my mentor.”

The kid’s eyes blinked and he sat up straight, giving me his rapt attention.

I displayed my right hand, opening and closing the fist. “In fact, my arthritis flares up whenever it rains.”

The whippersnapper frowned at his own hand, the tips of each finger snapped to point leftward. His thumb, which I’d broken inward on itself, remained balled up against the palm. It was the same type of learning moment that’d enlightened me over 20 years before. It was a lesson that, if he was lucky, the kid would one day pass on to another aspiring assassin that’d been left in his care.

© Don Miskel, 2014.

Image courtesy of kellieelmore.com

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)

The Forgone Conclusion

Standard

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

Standard

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.”