21

This piece of fiction, written by Jude Casimir, is about the loss of an old friend and the grief and coping that follows

By Jude Casimir

 

Apparently it was a drive-by. Four bullets. Twelve were shot, but four sliced him open.

I can hear them. All of them. The loud pops that separate themselves from the air, resounding into your ears from a different plane of existence, beating relentlessly, one after the other. I wasn’t there, but two days later, exactly forty-eight hours since I woke up to this news, I can hear them.

It’s hard to forget how they sound when you once had to fall asleep to them every couple of months. People make jokes about not being able to tell on the Fourth of July if those are actually fireworks they’re hearing.

Two days later, and I sit in this cold basement classroom and this professor is talking about how the Romantics were one with nature and how they strived for the sublime, whatever the hell that actually was, and I can’t focus on any of it because all I can think about is how he doesn’t know. I know he’s talking, I know I should be taking notes because, as he likes to point out, everything’s fair game for the final, but all I can think about is how none of this matters. None of this helps me. None of this gives reason or meaning to anything.

It didn’t help him. Nature worship didn’t help him. The divine entity or whatever didn’t reach out a hand to knock those bullets away before they could hit him. This class can’t draw his mother in and console her of the loss of her only child, can’t dry her tears and tell her it’s going to be okay, can’t bring him back.

All of this is distraction.

But I can’t afford a bad grade. My family moved out of that bad place with the bad sounds and the bad people who do bad things and now there’s no room for anymore bad. Only way to go is up, my dad told me when we first moved. That’s the only way I’ll allow.

So it takes me awhile, but I finally pick up my pen, untwist my face, breathe, scribble down some notes.

He would’ve been 21 in a week. They robbed him of 21.

When I first met him, we were seven. We were small and wide-eyed and scared and confused and even though we weren’t treated any differently from the other kids, we must’ve been aware on some level that we were different because we flocked to each other, the two little dark kids. We became brother and sister.

When I last saw him, when we last talked, we were fourteen. I was angry with him for something I can’t remember and he was angry I was angry and everything would’ve exploded, so instead of trying to diffuse it, we avoided each other for the remainder of the eighth grade. By the beginning of freshman year, it seemed too late to reconcile. I’d changed schools, changed addresses, changed lives. I didn’t stay in touch.

The professor shouts out a line from Wordsworth, stressing how absolutely, splendidly powerful it is, and it startles me. It’s funny, I was writing down something about how the poet uses language, like the professor wanted, but I don’t remember doing it. The words could’ve just appeared on the page for all I know.

I wanted to keep in touch. I wanted to reach out, but it seemed too much, and then it became too little. I always saw posts about how well he was doing in soccer—he’d been playing since he could walk, made captain of the high school team his junior year—and I’d remember how I used to go watch him practice when I could, on the rare occasion my parents weren’t overrun with their paranoia of the world, the paranoia I used to make incessant fun of. I’d see pictures of him smiling with his new friends, friends who wouldn’t abandon him—maybe they’d get mad at something he said, stay mad for a couple days at most, but these friends were forever, they wouldn’t throw away this precious gift of his welcome, of his embrace. I would always wish that smile, warm, inviting, a little crooked, would once again be turned upon me. But I’d always cower and cave. How could I ever try to encroach on this? How could I ever dare?

My friends—they’re worried about the time stamp. Why was he in the projects at three in the morning anyway? What could he have possibly been doing there? Was he involved in gang shit? Drugs possibly?

As if they didn’t know him, didn’t grow up with hm.

As if they never knew him.

As if he was just another statistic, cold and lifeless.

As if even if he wasn’t saint, even if he wasn’t this kid who’d comfort everyone with a joke, even if he wasn’t ready to reach out to a lonely kid on the playground, even if he didn’t know better than to get involved in all that despite all the things pulling him in, he would still deserve to get four bullets in him. As if maybe if he wasn’t black, maybe if he had a little money, he could’ve avoided all this. The as ifs go on forever;, they spin into infinity.

To my friends who used to be his friends as well, he wasn’t allowed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However unconsciously, they won’t, they can’t afford him that luxury.

I can’t blame them, though. Because maybe if he was anyone other than who he was, they’d already have someone caught for his murder. They’d have a whole line-up. Expedite the conviction. Or maybe they wouldn’t. Who the hell knows.

I haven’t talked to them in two days. I tried to make them understand, I went on the defensive, but they didn’t and I was already exhausted and they never will.

I haven’t really talked to anyone in two days.

God, I wish this professor would shut up already about nineteenth-century poetry that doesn’t matter. One day, there’ll be no humans left to read this. We’ll all be dead and under the ground and we’ll have decomposed and turned into nothing but the molecules we we. One day, there’ll be no earth, no sun, no universe.

I could pack my bag and walk out. The door’s right there. No one’s blocking it.

I sit. I stare at the wall until I’m not staring at the wall but at some other point that just happens to be in the same place as the wall.

Yesterday, his friends and family held a vigil. I saw a few pictures. About five hundred people gathered in the old park he played impromptu soccer games in, the park he’d walk around in when he was upset. Candlelight flooded the frames.

I cried.

But then I thought, who am I to cry? Who am I to feel as bad as I do? Leave all the grief to those friends who knew him past fourteen. Leave all that for his mother who had him and doesn’t have him now. I didn’t even know him. He was a stranger. Leave it alone.

And then I cried more.

I cried until I fell asleep.

I thought there’d come a time when I could finally get over myself and reach out or we’d meet again one day like in the movies and it’d be just like nothing ever happened, we wouldn’t need to rehash anything, we’d fall into place, we’d be fine.

He’d be fine, no matter what.

I stare at the wall that isn’t a wall, and on it, a picture forms.

It’s a picture of his bony knees hitting the ground, blood slicking the concrete, his boys panicked and shaking, shaking his body, the body I always thought could handle anything, the body lined with scars and scabs, some he’d tell me about, some he wouldn’t. His boys holding him, asking him to wake up, knowing it’s futile, sirens wailing in the distance. It’s a full scene, rewinding and rewinding.

He’d be fine, I’d told myself. He’d be great. He’d excel at everything because that’s who he was, that’s what he was built for.

But they robbed him of any possibility beyond twenty years and three hundred fifty-six days.

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