Now, here's what happened. Pay attention.
I finally picked out my bag of chips—barbecue, tasty, and easily beatable by mint. That settled, I reached in my back pocket for my cell phone to let Spoony know I was on my way. Damn. Left it in my ROTC uniform. So I set my duffel bag on the floor, squatted down to unzip it, the bag of chips tucked under my arm. At the moment the duffel was open, the lady with the beer stepped backward, accidentally bumping me, knocking me off balance. Actually, she didn't really bump me. She tripped over me. I thrust one hand down on the floor to save myself from a nasty face-plant, sending the bag of chips up the aisle, while she toppled over, slowly, trying to catch her balance, but failing and falling half on me and half on the floor. The bottle she was holding shattered, sudsy beer splattering everywhere.
"Oh my God, I'm so sorry!" the lady cried.
And before I could get myself together, and tell her that it was okay and that I was okay, and to make sure she was okay, the guy who worked at Jerry's who everyone knew wasn't Jerry, shouted, "Hey!" making it clear things were not okay. At first, I thought he was yelling at the lady on some you-broke-it-you-bought-it mess, and I was about to tell him to chill out, but then I realized that he was looking at my open duffel and the bag of chips lying in the aisle. "Hey, what are you doing?"
"Me?" I put my finger to my chest, confused.
The cop perked up, slipping between me and the clerk to get a better look. But he wasn't looking at me at all. Not at first. He was looking at the lady, who was now on one knee dusting off her hands.
"Ma'am, are you okay?" the officer asked, concerned.
"Yes, yes, I'm—"
And before she could finish her sentence, the sentence that would've explained that she had tripped and fell over me, the cop cut her off. "Did he do something to you?"
Again, "Me?" What the hell was he talking about? I zipped my duffel bag halfway because I knew that I would have to leave the store very soon.
"No, no, I—" The lady was now standing, clearly perplexed by the question.
"Yeah, he was trying to steal those chips!" the clerk interrupted, shouting over the cop's shoulder. Then, fixing his scowl back on me, he said, "Isn't that right? Isn't that what you were trying to do? Isn't that what you put in your bag?"
Whaaaaa? What was going on? He was accusing me of things that hadn't even happened! Like, he couldn't have been talking to me. I wanted to turn around to check and make sure there wasn't some other kid standing behind me, stuffing chips in his backpack or something, but I knew there wasn't. I knew this asshole was talking to . . . at . . . about . . . me. It felt like some kind of bad prank.
"In my bag? Man, ain't nobody stealing nothing," I explained, getting back to my feet. My hands were already up, a reflex from seeing a cop coming toward me. I glanced over at the lady, who was now slowly moving away, toward the cookies and snack cake aisle. "I was just trying to get my phone out my bag when she fell over me—" I tried to explain, but the policeman shut me down quick.
"Shut up," he barked, coming closer.
"Wait, wait, I—"
"I said shut up!" he roared, now rushing me, grabbing me by the arm. "Did you not hear me? You deaf or something?" He led me toward the door while walkie-talkie-ing that he needed backup. Backup? For what? For who?
"No, you don't understand," I pleaded, unsure of what was happening. "I have money right here!" With my free hand, I reached into my pocket to grab the dollar I had designated to pay for those stupid chips. But before I could even get my fingers on the money, the cop had me knotted up in a submission hold, my arms twisted behind me, pain searing up to my shoulders. He shoved me through the door and slammed me to the ground. Face-first. Hurt so bad the pain was a color—white, a crunching sound in my ear as bones in my nose cracked. After he slapped the cuffs on me, the metal cutting into my wrists, he yanked at my shirt and pants, searching me. I let out a wail, a sound that came from somewhere deep inside. One I had never made before, coming from a feeling I had never felt before.
My initial reaction to the terrible pain was to move. Not to try to escape, or resist, but just . . . move. It's like when you stub your toe. The first thing you do is throw yourself on the bed or jump around. It was that same reflex. I just needed to move to hopefully calm the pain. But moving wasn't a good idea because every time I flipped and flapped on the pavement, with every natural jerk, the cuffs seemed to tighten, and worse, I caught another blow. A fist in the kidney. A knee in the back. A forearm to the back of the neck.
"Oh, you wanna resist? You wanna resist?" the cop kept saying, pounding me. He asked as if he expected me to answer. But I couldn't. And if I could've, I would've told him that I didn't want to resist. Plus, I was already in cuffs. I was already . . . stuck. The people on the street watching, their faint murmurs of "Leave him alone" becoming white noise— they knew I didn't want to resist. I really, really didn't. I just wanted him to stop beating me. I just wanted to live. Each blow earthquaked my insides, crushing parts of me I had never seen, parts of me I never knew were there. "Fuckin' thugs can't just do what you're told. Need to learn how to respect authority. And I'm gonna teach you," he taunted, almost whispering in my ear.
There was blood pooling in my mouth—tasted like metal. There were tears pooling in my eyes. I could see someone looking at me, quickly fading into a watery blur. Everything was sideways. Wrong. My ears were clogged, plugged by the pressure. All I could make out was the washed-out grunts of the man leaning over me, hurting me, telling me to stop fighting, even though I wasn't fighting, and then the piercing sound of sirens pulling up.
My brain exploded into a million thoughts and only one thought at the same time—
We had to hang around for a while, but soon after it was actually dark out, I left Guzzo and Dwyer in the alley and leaned up against the brick wall down the block from Jerry's until I saw a guy making his way up Fourth Street toward us. I recognized him; he'd helped us out before. He was a skinny white dude, who was a little strung out. I told myself that the guy looked like he could use my money to buy himself some food, but he's going to buy more beer anyway. And while I'm fucking judging the guy like that, I'm also digging in my pocket for the money I'm about to give him to buy me and the guys our beer at five thirty in the goddamn afternoon. See what I mean? Who's the sane one now? I'm thinking all this, but on the outside, I was all smiles and handshakes—All-American.
And I was about to hand him my money when the front door to Jerry's whacked open and a cop pushed a younger guy out in front of him. It was only a matter of seconds before the cop had thrown the guy to the sidewalk and pressed him face-first into the concrete. I was barely twenty feet away. The guy on the ground was black and he looked like he was around my age, and I wasn't sure, but I thought he was looking at me. He was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place him. Did he go to our school? All I could really see was the cop over him, shouting. The cop was white and it took me a second to recognize him, because his face was angled down the whole time, but then, when he raised his head for a second, I realized right away it was Guzzo's older brother, Paul.
Holy shit! Paul! Paul was hitting the other guy, again, and again, smashing his face into the sidewalk. The blood kept coming. I wanted to move; my gut wanted me to rush to help Paul. But I knew enough to know that you stayed out of police business, plus Paul didn't need my help because he was pummeling the guy. So I just stood there, sorta frozen, just watching, transfixed. With one knee and a forearm pinning the guy beneath him, Paul bent low and said something into the guy's ear. I couldn't look away; I didn't even want to. I didn't know what the hell was going on and my own pulse jackhammered through me. I heard sirens coming up the street, and I swear I would have stayed staring if it hadn't been for the cop car that pulled up onto the sidewalk between us. When car doors swung open, I turned and ducked back down the alley to find Guzzo and Dwyer. They were waiting near the back and I ran toward them.
"Oh shit," Guzzo said.
Another cop car raced past the entrance to the alley behind me.
"Oh shit," Guzzo said again.
"We have to get out of here now," I hissed.
"What the hell happened?" Guzzo asked.
I looked up at the chain-link fence behind us. It was higher than a basketball rim, maybe fifteen feet. But climbable. On the other side were the tracks to the commuter rail. "Dude," I said, putting my hands on the fence. "It's your brother. He busted some guy in the store. It's fucking ugly and we need to get the hell out of here. Now!"
I started to climb.
"The tracks?" Dwyer asked. "Are you crazy?"
When I got to the top, I looked both ways. No trains. Still, it was probably a high traffic time, so that wouldn't last for long. I dropped one leg on the other side of the fence, swung myself over, and began to climb down.
"What the fuck, man?" Guzzo shouted.
"No one saw me," I said when I hit the ground. "If we get out of here right now, maybe nobody will, and we can all just pretend like we weren't here. Like it didn't happen."
"What happened?" Guzzo asked, one hand on the fence, but hesitating. "Is Paul okay?" kid on the sidewalk and we don't want to be around to have to answer any questions—it was fucking ugly. Now get over here before a train comes."
They hauled ass over the fence, and we ran along the pebble embankment of the railway until we came to the Fourth Street bridge, and then we slid down the embankment to the fence along Fourth Street and climbed over that one. I heard a whistle in the distance, but we all made it over and away from the tracks in plenty of time.
"Paul?" Guzzo said again, his voice cracking.
"It was bad," I admitted.
"What the hell do you think the kid did?" Guzzo asked.
"I don't know," I said. "But whatever he did, your brother just put him in the hospital for it."
"You know what?" Dwyer said. "Let's just get a slice and chill. Seriously."
It was a good plan, but when we got there, I couldn't stop thinking about what I had seen. I swear I thought about the guy on the ground, but mostly I thought about Paul, because Paul was Guzzo's older brother, and after my own father died, Paul had basically been my older brother too. And I couldn't shake that look of rage I'd seen on the face of a man I knew and thought of as family.
From All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Copyright 2015 by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds. Excerpted by permission of Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.