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The Way We Live Now

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We thought Kendra was playing about him being shot in the first place when we heard the news a few days before he died. Not him, he had good grades, Tika told Freddie, and he was planning to go to college, according to Trey, because they ran track together, but he did smoke a little weed, Erykah pointed out, at least once because she was there and laughed because he was the only one among them who hadn’t got blazed before, but he didn’t drink or do drugs and the counselor at school confirmed that he had in fact applied to four universities. He was a finalist for two scholarships, Marie told Phil, which meant he wasn’t the kind of dude to just be walking around reckless. That kind of shit ain’t him, Kai said and cried when we found out because Kai and him was tight back in the day when their futures were filled with comic books and club houses. He was so little, Sybrina said and slapped the back of her hand against her open palm when she heard the police officer described him as menacing. Five-seven, one-fifty, she said and shook her head until her box braids slapped across her chest.

I heard he had a gun on him, Tanisha said to Trinity, which might mean that you never really know a person or what they’re capable of, but Trinity said he didn’t have no gun, had never had a gun and that she was sure because she was his girl. He would have told me, Trinity pointed out, he told me about getting in trouble for staying out late and how Ms. Marie was sending him to spend more time with his pops. He said, Dang I’m a miss you but I need to get to know my pops man-to-man, according to Trinity.

Dontre, who was there when he got shot, said dude was just holding his cell phone, no gun, didn’t have nothing on him but a few dollars and a cigarette tucked behind his ear like a pencil, for show. He didn’t even smoke cigarettes for real, Dontre said, He found it on the ground. Oh, and them badass sunglasses, Dontre continued, he had them glasses on. Dontre chuckled a little bit about the glasses, run his hand over his chin then said, Shit was fucked up.

The school kept offering grief counseling and a whole lot of us went just to get out of classes but Dontre refused. Kendra said she heard Dontre whispering, Fuck all of this, every time the office called him out of homeroom to talk. Dontre went to the guidance office only about scholarships, Marie said to Phil, which meant maybe Dontre was thinking about going to college too. Least that’s what Gwen said. They were going to live in the dorm together, Gwen said, I heard them talking about it in third period. And everybody said, Gwen ain’t no lie.

Naeem said Sandra showed up at the hospital rubbing her stomach, said she was due around Christmas. Said Sandra was talking about they loved each other and wanted to get married. Ms. Marie told Sandra, My son’s too young to be a daddy and then, according to Naeem, Ms. Marie broke down, hugged Sandra and said she’d be there when the baby came. Then Ms. Marie hugged Naeem too, and told him, Baby, does your mama know where you at?

Naeem said, Trinity know good and well she ain’t his girlfriend. True facts, Dontre said, Trinity is a lie. Ya boy and Sandra been going together. But Dontre didn’t like meddling in his man’s business so he just twisted his dreads and said, That’s what’s up when Naeem said Sandra was pregnant. And then he said, Fuck all of this, under his breath just like Kendra said he’d been doing and stormed out of fourth period Algebra.

Big Hajj at The Corner Store said, Nice and respectful kid, always smiling, cutting up, no trouble at all, and then Big Hajj invited all the neighborhood kids to get a box of hot tamales and a bag of jalapeno potato chips on a discount because that was our home boy’s favorites. But when Big Hajj confirmed all of this, during his interview with a television reporter, the manager at the Burger Shack called the station to fess up that he was the one who called the police because one of his cashier’s got called a bitch. Said Dontre and dude came into the store asking for free cups of ice water and when the cashier was talking about two dollars somebody called her a bitch and ran.

Trespassing! the Burger Shack manager yelled into the microphone when the reporter came into the restaurant, flashed a microphone, and asked him why he called the police in the first place. And nobody’s going to mistreat my cashiers, the manager said, Nobody! People crowded around the TV cameras confused and grumbling until somebody said, He got shot because of your silly ass! Then the manager pushed his way through the crowd and slid back behind the counter and at first said, Calm down and then reached for his phone. Somebody knocked over one of those cardboard candy stands that said Proceeds go to the fire department. And that’s when Sybrina called her daddy and asked him if it was against the law to run or cuss somebody out. I mean can police shoot somebody because of that? Sybrina asked her father.

Phil told Marie that Diamond was standing in the line waiting to place her order when she heard Sybrina’s daddy on the phone screaming at the top of his lungs, Get out of that goddamn place! Bring your ass home! And then Diamond said, You don’t deserve our business! And Ezell said, Called the police over some dumbass ice water, and threw his hamburger on the floor and stepped on it. And half the people in line walked out of the Burger Shack and the manager had his phone in his hand the entire time like he was about to call the police. And Ezell said that’s why there’s a closed sign on the door and we don’t go there no more.

Mr. John reported that a scholarship would be established in our boy’s name so somebody could get the education dude wanted for himself, and everybody thought it should be Dontre who got the scholarship, but Sybrina’s daddy said it wasn’t enough money to support anyone trying to enroll in a reputable college and that our high school should be ashamed of itself for disrespecting Ms. Marie and her son like that and that’s when Dontre announced that he was going to get to college on his own and Fuck all this, and Kendra walked with him to the counselor’s office to ask about Pell Grants and Kendra whispered, Both y’all so smart, and Dontre fell into Kendra’s arms and cried in the hallway outside the door to the counselor’s office in front of the poster that said R.I.P. with a big picture of our friend smiling wide. Marie said she saw them in the hallway but she didn’t say nothing because they needed a minute. Trinity said Dontre and Kendra go together and that she knows because Kendra is her best friend but everybody thinks Trinity makes up shit sometimes, especially now.

We didn’t know Sybrina’s daddy was even a lawyer until Von said, Mr. Eric ain’t playing with these fools, we gone get justice. And that’s when Mr. Eric started showing at the hospital, then at the high school wearing a suit and tie one place or an African shirt the other and then Mr. Eric started wearing a t-shirt with dude’s face on the front and his 3.87 grade point average across the back. Didn’t none of us know dude was all that about his books until the shirts were made but we all knew he wasn’t no thug and some of us started writing 3.87 in the bathroom stalls, across our three-ring binders, and on the homeroom desks. According to Camila it was DeBraun who tagged 3.87 on the side of Burger Shack and on the side of the courthouse.

Somebody at the police station formed their mouths to say they believed homeboy was a suspect in an earlier incident but Mr. Eric put a stop to that and threatened to sue the draws off the entire town. According to LeAnna, Mr. Eric made the chief of police come back on TV to clear that earlier incident shit up. And then during the news conference on the courthouse steps Mr. Eric shouted ya boy’s name over and over.

Mr. Eric said, He was a respectable young man, on his way to college and found, to his and everyone else’s amazement, that something simple, wanting a glass of ice water on a hot day, and opening the door to the wrong restaurant, with the wrong people inside, had caused him to lose his life, his precious life, for nothing. We know all businesses are not like this, Brother Hajj, (Mr. Eric pointed to Big Hajj who stood in the crowd with his head bowed) but we need to make this community accountable for taking the lives of our children. Mr. Eric sounded like a preacher, according to Skyy, Cadence like Obama or King, had everybody feeling like we had a chance.

When the police came and lined up along the sidewalk ready to bust heads, Mr. Eric just lifted his hand up and called out our dude’s name again, lifting his entire name up to God and by then a hundred people had come to see what was going on (that’s what Skyy said) and we all lifted up our hands and kept calling out his whole name. I wish he could have seen us, Skyy said as we all sat around her in the cafeteria, eating lunchroom pizza while she told the story with her Afro looking round and perfect as the sun. We started chanting his name, too, and Dontre looked like he was about to cry and went down the hallway to be by himself and some of us got sent to the office for causing a disturbance. This’s worth getting in trouble for, Blair said and stuck his fist high up into the air and said our man’s name again before Mr. Charles hauled Blair away to detention.

A week after he got shot, the doctors told Ms. Marie there was nothing they could do (according to Ariella’s mama who’s a nurse), and some of us crowded into the hospital lobby to say our goodbyes, even if some of us didn’t know him like that. Ms. Marie came down to the ICU waiting room to see us all in our purple shirts with dude’s picture and 3.87 on them bought by the teen center. Dontre said he was going to the park to play basketball and Ariella said Naz would say later that they saw him across the street from The Burger Shack just standing with his arms crossed.

Ms. Marie asked us all how we were doing even though it was her who was hurting the most. Take these, she said, and handed us each a balloon or a flower from all that stuff that had been sent to the hospital for him. Y’all do good with your lives, Ms. Marie said. Keep fighting for what’s right. Honor him by doing something good. After a few minutes Tiffany came out and looped arms with her mama and they walked back around the corner.

According to Ariella, he’d been passed away since the moment he was shot so it didn’t take long. Machines and hope was doing all of the work anyway, Ariella said. And after the machine stopped beeping and all the hoses stopped whooshing, we could hear Ms. Marie moaning and Tiffany screaming all the way around the corner and down the hallway. Some of us ran down the corridor to the elevator to get out of there and some of us didn't move for a long time.

Mr. Mike got there twenty minutes late and just laid across the floor with his hands over his face. Two more weeks and he would have been in Phoenix with me, Mr. Mike told Ms. Marie, This don’t make no sense. Seventeen, Mr. Mike said and cried, hugged Ms. Marie a long time as if divorce and bitterness and moving away meant nothing now that their son was dead. And Kai said, Wish dude could have been there to see that, both his parents together, all hugged up on one another one more time like he said he wanted when we was kids.

After the rest of us drifted out into the hospital parking lot stunned like zombies, Ariella said, My mama say death make you family. And we leaned on cars, put our arms around each other, looked off into the space, checked our cellphones in silence until somebody said something stupid that made us laugh. Somebody said Sherise had the Praying for You banner from the church that Ms. Marie wanted Dontre to have. It was late when we all walked home, careful of every police car, every siren, every white person that passed by.

On the last day of school, Mya kept asking everybody if they went to the funeral but many of us didn’t go because our parents wouldn’t let us. Sherise tried to give Dontre the Praying for You banner but he mumbled something under his breath and threw it into the trash. Janel said a gang showed up at the funeral to pay respects but Tiffany cussed out the whole block because her brother wasn’t in no gang and all them brothers that were standing against the wall wearing black t-shirts were just cousins who had driven all night from Alabama.

My mama wouldn’t let me go, Mya said to Trey, She said, No store, No party, No restaurant. Just school and home. Can’t go to camp neither and she can’t even get her money back. Trey rolled his eyes and Mya said, What? She just trying to save my life! I didn’t know him like know him, know him anyway. And Trey started cussing and punched the wall in Mrs. Petry’s home room.

Three weeks later, Tika told Freddie about what happened to Candice at the pool, how according to Malik, somebody called the police and said, Them kids don’t have passes, this is a private pool, they don’t live here. But Candice had already gotten permission from her uncle who lived in Apartment 12 while he was at work. Malik said, When the police came, Candice stood on one of the pool chairs and yelled, My uncle lives here! My uncle lives right over there! That’s when the cop tackled her to the concrete and messed up her face, then handcuffed her and bent her arms back so far she had to go to the emergency room.

Tahniah said, Candice shouldn’t have been standing on that chair, she might be a cheerleader but that cop gave zero fucks about that until her mama came and somebody posted a video on Facebook. Tikka told Freddie that Candice had planned to transfer to a performing arts school next year. Ballerina, Kendra said she had seen the shoes in her locker before school was out. Trinity said, Don’t matter if she’s a dancer or a cheerleader or a giraffe. She’s a black giraffe, Tahniah agreed. Kendra announced she had stopped by Candice’s house and that she was improving but depressed. I’d be crazy, Tahniah said, if a cop put his hands on me like that. Girl’s lucky she ain’t dead. I brought her a card, Kendra said, Mr. Eric was there. Some of us heard it wasn’t her uncle who lived there at all but a white girl she went to dance class with.

Later that summer at Anika’s birthday party we were all milling around the yard when Tiffany showed up looking like she wasn’t getting any sleep, rubbing her fingers across a watch slouching on her wrist that Donte said belonged to her brother. How’s Ms. Marie, we all asked. She’s good, Tiffany said scratching her eyebrow, still waiting to see what happens with that cop. How you doing, we all asked. I’m straight, Tiffany said, and her lip quivered like she was going to cry. Mama said I have to be home before dark.

Ah, girl, we loved him and we love you, Trinity said and stepped on everybody’s shoes to move in close and give Tiffany a hug. We were all awkward and quiet but had come to realize in a few weeks what Ariella’s mama meant when she said, Death make you family. Some of us had started to move in closer to Tiffany, needing to hug her or to just lay our hands on her shoulder when Candice walked in wearing a bright yellow sundress that glistened against her dark skin. Her arm was still in a sling and she had on heavy makeup to hide the wound but we could still see the outline of the scraped place along the side of her face. She wore a thick smear of pink lipstick and dark sunglasses, which made her look like a superhero or a soldier home from war, a survivor.

So when she made her way toward us, switching like a runway model, we stepped away from Tiffany, stopped crying and started clapping as if she had just given a speech or won a prize. Jonisha said, Turn up the music! And we started dancing. Donte was in the corner of Anika’s yard with his foot pressed up against the fence and stepped out to give Tiffany a hug before he slunk back against the fence. Mya and Anika slung their arms around Candice’s neck while Kendra gently placed her hand on Candice’s back. Blair walked up on Candice and flashed a flirtatious smile, stroked a mustache he didn’t have yet and said, Damn, Queen! Kai whistled through his fingers and all the grownups came out of the house to see what was going on. We gave each other dap and watched Candice switch around the yard. We made as much noise as we could, Candice smiled widely though we could tell something was forever changed. We laughed and danced and clapped and ate because, at least in that moment, Ariella’s mama was wrong. We didn’t want to think about death making us family because we were all alive.

First appeared in AGNI, Issue 90
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