The bullets discharge from the muzzle of Officer Carson Blake's sixteen-round Beretta with the tinny, explosive popping sound of a toy gun. He will not remember exactly how many shots he fires so wildly. Fires with pure intent. Fires, he is sure, to save his life. In the first seconds after the shattering sound of the bullets subsides, he would say, if asked right then, that he had fired every bullet in his gun. Never before has his gun been so large. Never before has it weighed so much. He's dizzy and breathless. His heart beats so fast, he can't believe he is still standing.
When he shoots the man, everything, all of it, unfolds as if in slow motion. He wants to look away. He dares not turn his gaze. The first bullet boring through the man's thick neck riddled with razor bumps, the force twisting his head to the side, as though he is looking with those astonished, horribly open, not yet dead eyes to see where the bullet comes from. The second bullet piercing the skin of the black leather jacket, lodging in the flesh of his shoulder. The third bullet, fired at his groin, bringing him to his knees and then onto his face, sprawled flat out on the parking lot forty feet from the entrance to the Chinese restaurant The House of Chang.
Carson stands staring at the man on the pavement, his body a bloody heap illuminated by the fluorescence of the mall parking lot lights, and sees the cell phone a few feet from the man's hand, and he prays for the ground beneath his feet to shift in a cataclysmic rumble and swallow him whole. A cell phone, he thinks, unbelieving. A cell phone. Not a gun. He hurls a howl, deep and guttural, into the night. Sinking to his knees, he touches the man, turns him over onto his back, sees the bulbous, bloody wound in his neck, smells the sharp odor of his sodden groin, desperate now to find, to feel, a pulse. There is none. There is only the cell phone. Looking up in desperation, Carson sees a sky unfamiliar and frightening, in which he can fathom not a single star, a vastness that makes him wish for wings.
Carson tries to stand but cannot, and he crawls a few feet away and vomits. When there is no more sickness to spill from his gut, he wipes his mouth and shouts at the dead man, through trembling lips stained with a blistering splash of tears, "What the f--- were you doing? Why didn't you just do what I said?"
In the afternoon Carson goes outside to retrieve the mail. His neighbor Earl Mattheson is walking down his driveway. The day is chilly, too cold for casual banter, Carson thinks as he plots a quick retreat back into his house after getting his mail. Earl waves politely, and Carson feels immediately the wariness in his glance. There are the odd days when he and Earl will talk for a while, clutching hands full of junk mail, bills, and magazines. When Earl discovered that Carson was a police officer he told Carson he had wanted to be a fireman when he was in high school but as he got older realized he wanted money more than he wanted to be a hero, so he went into accounting. Carson and Bunny have been to dinner a couple of times with Earl and his wife, Sheila, a flamboyant, buxom woman who's made a small fortune selling cosmetics out of her home. They're good neighbors, friendly but not intrusive. Carson enjoys Earl's gruff but warm greeting when he sees Carson drive up to his house some mornings after a late shift. Earl, behind the wheel of his BMW, will pull close to Carson's cruiser and lean out the window and ask, "Man, when you gonna stop all this crime out here?" jocular and teasing.
"I can't do it all by myself," Carson would say through a grin, throwing his hands in the air in mock confusion as both men laughed.
Today Carson just wants to get the mail and go back inside his house. He's got an armful of magazines, Essence, Jet, Popular Science, Woodworking, and a stack of bills when Earl turns around clutching three envelopes and walking toward Carson, saying, "I been reading about you in the paper."
"Yeah, everybody has." Carson is intentionally rude, pretending intense interest in the envelopes and magazines, riffling through them to avoid looking at Earl.
"In the paper it said that young man you shot didn't have a gun."
This is just like Earl, Carson thinks, blunt as a hammer. Carson turns to look at his neighbor standing before him, his body trim, his stance rigid, arms behind his back. As usual Earl is impeccably dressed, today in brown slacks and a white turtleneck sweater. He's a tall man, coal black. His mustache is flecked with gray and behind his bifocal glasses his small eyes squint impatiently, looking at him, Carson thinks today, as though he's seeing him for the very first time.
"That's right. He didn't," Carson says defensively.
"But you thought ...?"
"Obviously, Earl, I thought he was armed."
Bringing his arms from behind his back and folding them across his chest in a grand, sweeping gesture, Earl tells Carson, "A friend of mine knows the family real well. Says he was a good kid."
Before Carson can say anything Earl goes on, "You know, I never understood how you all decide to shoot to kill." He's drawn out the last words, articulated them slowly, carefully -- shoot to kill -- so that they hang like an incontrovertible judgment between them.
"Earl, trust me, you have to be there, in the moment," Carson says, forcing a reasonableness he does not feel.
"But if he had no gun ...I don't understand. How was he a threat to you?" Earl shifts his weight from his left leg to his right and is clearly prepared, Carson sees, to stand outside for as long as it takes to interrogate him about the worst moment of his life.
"It's a tragedy, Earl, that's what it is."
"Maybe it's a tragedy for you. But it's over for that young man."
Carson turns away and walks up his driveway, the weight of Earl's disdain nearly grinding him into the blacktop with each step. Earl stands proud and censorious at the base of Carson's lawn, watching him, Carson thinks, as though he is a formerly tame animal who has committed an unprecedented act of violence. Earl watches him, Carson thinks as he closes the front door as though he is deciding whether he should be destroyed for his own good.
Excerpted from After by Marita Golden. Copyright (c) 2006 by Marita Golden. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.