I couldn’t think about anything other than playing ball after school, hell, I don’t even remember going to class after that. Might as well have ditched and hung out at the park with how much of a fog in my own head I was in.
When the bell rang, I zoomed out of there. Probably startled everyone since they were so used to me slowly working my way out. I made my way over to where I had seen them gather up in the past before they made their way to the park together. I couldn’t be sure they wanted me to walk with them, but they had invited me so I assumed it would be ok…
Huh? Oh, yeah. I guess I forgot to mention, AP, Jackson, and Benny were black. Mulattos, actually, but to anyone who’s not black, they don’t give a shit about that. That definitely added to the troublemaker feel of their click in a school dominated by whites.
-The twins weren’t black though.
Might as well have been. They were darker than the rest of them.
-And you didn’t feel out of place?
A couple of weeks without anyone wanting to talk to you and finally a black kid does? No, I didn’t give two shits. Besides, in Mattern, I might as well have been the only white kid around for miles. I felt more in place with them than I did everyone else.
Anyway, reason I say that is that Jackson had a knack for coming up with these elaborate theories. He played the race card anywhere he could. Smartest one out of the whole crew, but I swear to you, no one could shut him up when it came to his conspiracies. They seemed to get worse as he came up with more, to the point where I think he did it as a way to cope with his dad’s absence and his mom’s emotional problems. He needed something to blame.
I found out later that his mom was unstable. Maybe bipolar. Super smart lady, a real sweetheart. I could tell she cared deeply for Jackson and the rest of us, but while one moment she would be all smiles and sunshine, the next she would turn into gloom and doom. She would cry randomly or pick up shit and throw it in a rage. I only saw it a couple times because Jackson would make sure to try to keep us blind to it, but we all knew.
She had married Jackson’s dad only to have him leave a couple of years after Jackson was born. Obviously it left the image of the stereotypical absent black father. Difference was, the guy still kept in contact with Jackson in secret, in order to not upset his mom. Can’t really blame the man for not being able to put up with that.
You ever dealt with mental health issues?
-Can’t say that I have personally, no.
It’s a bitch. You don’t want those type of people in your life. Quick way to fuck up all form of normality.
That was one thing, though. You could make just about everything when it came to Jackson, but if you touched his mom…game over. If you called her crazy…you went there and you were asking for a fight.
Anyway, we made it over to the park and met up with another group of kids from a nearby school. They were sitting around waiting for us and they all stood up as they saw us coming. I almost thought they had only asked me to come so they wouldn’t be severely outnumbered for an assbeating we were about to be handed. I didn’t like fighting, but I’d been in my fair share of them so I knew how to take a whip. Who knew, that would be a skill I would need.
“You fags actually show up,” said this big hispanic guy they called Juice. I’m inclined to say guy instead of kid because he looked like he was pushing thirty but he was still in school.
“You fuckin’ retared?” called out Benny, “we here every day.”
“I’d be embarrassed to show up after that beating we gave you.”
“That’s cuz you have no balls, bitch!” continued Benny. “Besides, you should be embarrassed to admit that you beat my meat all the time.”
I didn’t think it was very funny, but the whole crew laughed and cooed Benny on. It wasn’t about it being funny, it was about having each other’s back, no matter what.
The hispanic dude tried to step up but a smaller, lean kid who I recognized as a nearby neighbor of mine put his hand in front of him. He went by Sugar and, well, it would have been hard to describe him without using the word pretty. Bright green and very gentle eyes, light caramel skin, well defined jaw line. He was a pretty boy, through and through. To top it all off, he could sing, and really well too.
-Sounds like you were envious.
I wouldn’t say that. I guess it’s just…we’ll get to that.
“You bitches come to play?” said Sugar in his soft, melodic voice, “or talk shit?”
“Let’s do this then!” yelled out one of the twins and got everyone moving.
Someone threw the ball toward Jackson, who caught it with a single hand as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Behind him, off in the distance right in front of the big abandoned house I walked by every day after school, stood a man. He didn’t move, just stood perfectly still, watching me. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen him, every few days I’d see him. Sometimes just out of the corners of my eyes, other times in the distance, and every time I did, I felt my skin crawl.
-Who was he?
At the time, I thought it was my father, ready to remind me of what a failure I was, but I knew it couldn’t be. No one else seemed to pay him any attention, which led me to think…I don’t know what I thought.
“Hold up! Hold up!” said Sugar, pointing directly at me. “Who’s the white boy?”
“You’ll find out when we play.” said AP, saving me from an awkward introduction.
“So what? You guys lose so you go recruit some basic?” said Sugar. “Fuck that, y’all wanna win, you gotta do it level.”
“Like you did when I wasn’t here?” said AP, no fear in his voice, no sign of backing down. “If you scared Sugar, you should go home and get your nails did.”
“Yeah!” yelled out Benny. “Do up your nails and sign yourself a lullaby pretty bitch!”
Sugar stared at me for a while, probably gauging how big a threat I would be on the field. Must have not thought much of the white kid from Mattern ‘cuz he smirked and walked back to his team.
I don’t really think my crew expected much of me either. Probably just wanted another body on the field, but football was my game.
I’d always been pretty good at sports in general. I enjoyed them a lot. Not because of the competition, it was the thrill of the game. The adrenaline that pumps through you as you speed past everyone or dance around them. It’s…liberating. Makes you forget everything else in the world for just the slightest moment.
They were hesitant to pass me the ball at first. They knew AP was their powerhouse and would use him as often as they could but when Benny finally took a chance on me, they realized they’d hit the jackpot. I was a cheetah in disguise. Everyone could tell we had won the game already and I could see it in Sugar and Juice’s faces that they knew they wouldn’t be winning a game anytime soon.
They were pissed. Ready to throw down on the spot the moment they realized the lead was too big but we didn’t fight that day.
It could have been a combination of things. My crew not trying to scare the timid white kid too quickly, younger kids hanging out at the park, couple of patrols hanging nearby. Juice tried, shoved us around trying to egg us on and claimed we cheated. Benny, of course, talked his shit and instigated the guy, but in the end, nothing happened. Instead, their crew left and my boys patted me on the back like if we’d saved the town.
It sure felt like it too.
Benny pulled out a joint from his bag and offered me the first toke. I wasn’t one for smoking but felt the pressure of needing to belong. Luckily, one of the twins alarms went off and reminded me of the time.
“Shit!” I said. “I gotta go.”
I didn’t wait for any of them to acknowledge. I just ran. I turned that moment over multiple times. I must have looked so stupid. Stranger danger! Drugs are bad! But they never held it against me.
I barely made it home on time. Pretended I had been in my room and since they didn’t really give a shit about me, they didn’t question it. It sucked that it had been a Friday and I had left like that. I didn’t have the courage to show up uninvited at the park, so I spent the whole weekend turning over different conversations in my head instead. Replaying, over and over, what I would tell them about why I had taken off so sudden like that. I was hoping they wouldn’t all just laugh at me and discard me.
Turns out, I didn’t have to say anything.
“What the fuck dude?” said Benny, arms held high as he saw me in the class and walked over to me. My throat clogged and I found myself out of words. All my practice, useless. “If you didn’t wanna smoke with us, you coulda just said so and still kicked it.”
“I…I.” I stammered, “It wasn’t that.”
“Then why didn’t you come play on the weekend?”
It was quite admirable how little Benny cared about being so loud in front of other people. He was a loud mouth black kid, and proud of it.
“My aunt and uncle,” I managed to say before he interrupted me.
“They lay hands on you dog? I swear, you give us the word, we’ll get that shit straightened out bruh.”
He started laughing and I couldn’t help but join in with him. I liked Benny. I liked all of them.
Until the end of the school year, which wasn’t too far away, we played ball every day. It became our routine. Go to school, play ball, sprint home and pretend I was in my room, watch the news or hole up in my room. It wasn’t until the last day of school that shit changed.
On a few occasions a brawl or two broke out. I came to understand it as a part of the game. They all took pride in the match and knowing they couldn’t do anything to change it left them frustrated. Benny would talk way too much shit, the twins would hit too hard, AP would ‘cheat’, the white kid wouldn’t say enough. It didn’t matter the reason, we would fight, but it never got out of hand.
We all had gotten to know each other fairly well. There was a mutual respect between the two crews, and it was obvious that Sugar was not a part of theirs, but more a part of ours.
As great as Juniper City was, it still had its crews, and Jackson had been right about Juice pushing weight for some of the big names. Juice wasn’t a bad kid, but when you’re raised without much in your life, the promise of it all really pulls to you. Gangs know that and they prey on the young ones from early on.
If you accidentally caused a little boy to die, how do you think you would handle it?
-I don’t know. I hope I never have to find out.
Most people don’t carry that type of burden around lightly on their conscience. It’s not the type of shit you can just push out and forget. It follows you, watches at a distance. Crawls around at the edges of your mind and gnaws its teeth on your mind.
Seems Juice had sold to some tweakers who had a kid. Four year old kid, not even in school yet. Got into it and got fried off the stuff.
Know why they called it that? The final product was cut into small blocks of golden wax that looked identical to…well, you might have guessed it. This shit was versatile as fuck. You could shave off a solid piece and let it melt in your mouth, give you one type of trip. Place that same piece into a pipe and smoke it? Another type of trip. Melt it down and shoot it up in a needle led to another, but they all led to the same outcome. It melted, not only the drug, but everything about your being.
It was a new hallucinogen that had hit Juniper and was becoming the craze. Literally.
-Yeah, it made a pretty big wave before we were able to put a stop to it. Like the second coming of crack.
*Laughter* Of course.
We didn’t get to finish the game before Juice started shoving Sugar around. Sugar tried ignoring him but it was obvious that Juice had no intention of stopping. AP stepped up to him and decked the guy hard. The rest of the crew came at AP and, to my surprise, and frankly one of the only times I ever did anything without thinking first, I floored the first two fuckers in front of me without realizing that my crew was right behind me, ready to go.
We fought for what seemed like hours. You ever been in one?They normally do. You exert an immense amount of energy without realizing it and then, when you’re tired, time seems to dilate for the people involved.
Juice pulled a gun and everyone stopped, everyone except AP. He stood his ground as if there was no danger in sight.
“Come on then!” AP yelled, slapping his chest with his fists. “You pull that shit then use it!”
We were all surprised that Juice would have taken it there. I had come to appreciate him and the other team. We were distant friends of sorts. I knew their names, for the most part, and we had shared waters, laughs, snacks together after the games. None of us could believe it, but I think all of us, Juice included, were more in awe of AP’s fearlessness at what he’d done.
This wasn’t some deal gone wrong where Juice needed to defend his life. We were kids! Friends fighting because we didn’t have anything better to do and frankly, because we could. Looking into AP’s eyes must have made him realize how badly he had fucked up because he spat blood on the ground and walked off backwards.
“Let’s get out of here,” he called out to the rest of his crew. They hesitated, but ultimately followed.
“See this mother fucker?!” yelled out Benny, his middle finger over his chest. “It means NOT WELCOME!” He turned to the rest of us, bloody and bruised worse than any other of us and grinned. “Y’all seen that movie?”
We sat down by the bench at the edge of the park. There was a tiny hill that had bricks helping it keep its form. They started smoking while I opted out, like usual. Most of the time, they would pull out a joint and I would stay for a couple of minutes until I had to run home, but since the game had ended early, I didn’t have to.
“You ever go to any haunted houses down in Mattern?” said Benny.
Behind Benny, I watched the man at the end of the street cross without taking his eyes off me. His hoodie hid his features in darkness, only letting his bright red eyes permeate through. If only he had known that my mind was a living haunting.
“No such thing,” I said, shaking my head.
They all broke out into a forced laughter. “And that’s why you ain’t ever see no black folks dying in scary movies,” said Benny.
“See that house right there?” said Jackson, pointing at an old, run down, unkempt house. I’d seen it plenty of times on my walks. Impossible to miss, especially when the rest of the houses in the area were so well kept. I’d always gotten a weird feeling when I walked by it, like if I were being watched, but I figured it was just another one of my…there’s no such thing as ghosts.
“What if I were to tell you it was haunted?” said Jackson.
“I guess I’d say bullshit.”
“Why don’t you go inside and say that after?” said Sugar, grinning.
“Am I getting hazed?” I asked, half serious.
They all laughed for a long while until AP said, “Nah. Wouldn’t let you go in by yourself. Place is creepy.”
“You guys been in it?”
They all nodded. It got real quiet until Benny said, “Too many times.”
“Shut up Benny.” said Drop. “You barely made it through the door while the rest of us went in.”
“Well shit! That’s still too many times.”
“So what’s the story?” I said.
“No one knows for sure,” said Jackson, “but I have my suspicions.”
“Ah fuck, here we go again.” said Sugar. Everyone laughed but Sugar kept going before Jackson could say anything. “Really nothing to it. Place been abandoned before we were born. Ask the old timers, they say the same thing. City don’t touch the place, and considering they stickler asses, tell you something fishy going on with it. Strange is all.”
“Few times we been out here at night, we heard wailing coming from in it,” said Drip. All their eyes were glued to the house, as if unable to snap out of a terrible nightmare they were all sharing together.
“I know what you thinking, probably some hoes in their fuckin’ they johns or somethin’, but trust me, ain’t nobody get they dicks wet in there.” said Benny. “Not even bums sleep in there.”
“So…” I said, “When are we going?”
They had creeped me out, sure, but I figured that’s what they were trying to do. I had no intention of coming off like a bitch.
“That would be trespassing,” said a deep, gruff voice above us. We all turned around to see a black guy in a police officer’s uniform crouching down at the edge of the small brick wall. He reached out to snatch the joint from Jackson’s fingers. “And this would be possession.”
I stiffened and felt my heart start beating fast. My mind told me to run, but my body was glued in place. My training kicked in and I did what had been pounded into me when I was around authority. I lowered my gaze and became an obedient child.
“No, what that is is mine,” said Benny, tilting his head up like a defiant thug, “and you just be trynna snatch it for yourself.”
“Come on guys,” said officer Torrance. “You know anyone else but me catches you, y’all end up in the can.”
“We ain’t doing nothing wrong,” said Drip.
Torrance lifted the joint in the air at the same time as eyebrow.
“Never seen that in my life,” said Jackson. “Blatant misuse of power. Trynna keep the black man down by planting a nigga with false evidence. Go on nigga, sprinkle your crack.”
“Do I not look black to you?” scoffed Torrance.
“Not from where we standing,” shrugged Jackson.
I couldn’t believe it. I was over here scared shitless, a white kid, and here were these black kids running their mouth as if this were another dude playing ball with us.
“Y’all are good kids,” said Torrance. “Why y’all trying to fuck that up?”
“Give the joint back and we’ll tell ya,” said Benny.
Torrance smiled and nodded. He placed the joint over the bricks and stood up. He placed his boot over it and ground it down before saying, “All yours.”
Everyone’s arms went up in protest, curse after curse, everyone but me. I probably should have just so I didn’t stand out because the first thing he did was stare right at me. My eyes shot down to the floor.
“You come from Mattern, boy?”
“Yes sir,” I said in a timid, compliant voice.
“Why you hanging around these boys?”
I struggled to get any words out when Sugar came to my rescue. “Cuz he’s a killer on the field. Dude melts our asses everyday like its Butter.”
Something about the way Torrance watched me made me uncomfortable. It’s like he knew about me and had created his own idea of who I was. Like everything had been my fault and I had found a way to weasel my way out of it. I guess in a way, I had.
As soon as the word Butter popped up, though, Torrance’s focus was off me and on everyone else. “Listen here, that shit is no joke. Anyone ever offers it to you, you come straight to me. Understand?”
“My momma offers it to me every morning on my toast,” said Benny. “You gonna lock her up nigga?”
All the boys laughed hysterically.
“Seriously guys,” said Torrance, “I know you’ve seen how dangerous that shit is on the news. People killing their entire families, themselves, neighbors, friends, all because they in some type of psychosis. Just a few days ago some four year old kid OD’d off the stuff cuz some piece of shit was too high off it to notice.”
Everyone went dead quiet. We all knew about it. The number of reports were racking up. I’d overheard the news when my aunt and uncle watched it. Heard them talking about how fucked up people need to be in order to think its ok to do the stuff. You don’t have to be that fucked up. Sometimes you just feel too overwhelmed. They get you when you’re weak, kind of like advertising.
Seemed like the drug reacted differently to everyone. Some people would melt off the first use, others took a while, but repeated use all led to the same outcome. Severe schizophrenia during one of the highs, and they all turned violent. They’d kill everyone and anyone around them, even their most loved ones, as if the devil itself had come collect.
Torrance kicked the smushed up joint from under his boot. “That’s how you start. Take a few puffs of that here, few puffs of something else there. A rail or two later and pretty soon, y’all are dropping Butter with no care for your future or those around you and I’m left cleaning it all up.”
Benny laughed, “You black, nigga. You don’t clean shit.”
We all looked at Benny until he eventually stopped laughing.
“Let’s be real here Torrance,” said Jackson. “All the deaths involving Butter have only revolved around minorities. Absolutely no whites involved. Tell me that doesn’t sound a little ‘spicious to you.”
Torrance shook his head. “Really Jackso-”
“No, no, no,” interrupted Jackson,pointing a finger at Torrance, “tell me it doesn’t! I bet you anything, anything! This drug was made by the FBI or CIA or some other well hidden organization that no one other than the people involved in it whose sole purpose is to distract away from them sending out their agents to slowly kill off minorities everywhere and keep our country pure. They want to make it seem like we’re killing ourselves with drugs or gang warfare and can’t survive without the white man so they strategically place fake ass niggas like you in positions of authority so we can stay calm and not question the system. Hell, I bet you they refuse to put the lives of their white agents at risk too! Probably sending out robots to disperse out drugs and kill niggas when they want to.”
“You done?” said Torrance.
“They probably making all that shit happen right here in Juniper! Testing out they shit before they push it out to the rest of the country. Butter, the robots, everything!” Jackson’s grin spread mischievously. “Don’t worry nigga, they ain’t going after you. You they token black.”
“You got a great imagination Jackson,” said Torrance. “Now I’ma tell you boys one last time because I like you. Don’t let me catch you fighin’ out here or smoking this shit. I even get a phone call tellin’ me there’s boys out here doing that, I’ll round all y’all up and take you in. Got it?”
Most stayed quite, a couple grunted. Torrance turned his attention to me and said, “And you kid. Even one word about you and I’m takin’ your ass in. Understand?”
“Yes sir,” I said, not allowing my eyes to get anywhere close to his. I could feel his gaze burning over me, lingering, threatening.
After what felt like ages, his gaze broke and Torrance said, “Fuck y’all waiting for? Get outta here!”
Unsurprisingly, Benny’s mouth was the first to open. “Aww, come on Torrance! It’s the last day of school, no need to take that from us too!”
“Fine!” said Torrance as he pointed a finger toward AP as if they had a silent agreement between the two of them. It was further solidified when AP nodded back. “Don’t make me regret this.”
As Torrance got barely out of ear’s reach, Benny said, “Damn, I don’t know about you niggas, but I felt Torrance was like mad hard for E.”
“Hell yeah, I only seen him like that with your boys,” said Jackson to Sugar.
Sugar curled his lip. “Just cuz I kick it with them during school don’t make them my boys.”
“That’s right, they your boys cuz you sing while you suck them off,” said Benny, instantly receiving the middle finger. “Serious though, fuck was with that?”
I shrugged and shook my head. “Never met him.”
“Who cares,” said Drop. “That nigga lame.”
“Yeah! All that mother fucker ever does is steal my reefer and give me lectures,” said Benny with a grin. “Prude ass nigga.”
“How many times any of you been in jail?” said AP. Benny’s grin quickly soured. “He the only nigga out here lookin’ out for any of us and all you mother fuckers can’t do nothing but talk shit on the man. We lucky he watchin’ our backs all the time.”
AP redirected toward me. “Whatever it is he got a stiffy on you for, don’t trip. You ain’t gotta be all yes sir, no sir, let me cup your balls sir, with him. You good to him, he good to you.”
I remember feeling my face flush. Must have shown too because Sugar was quick to call it. “Damn, I’ll know where to get some ketchup when I need it.”
I felt even dumber as they all laughed, but I laughed with them too. One of the shitty parts of being so white, I guess.
Benny made a comment about Torrance not being the worst, which only earned him an annoyed look from AP. We all went quiet for a while until Sugar laid a bomb on us. A good one.
“Haven’t told no one yet, but y’all remember a few weeks back when East Millz went to the station down in Tracee?”
Everyone nodded. I knew who East Millz was but I wasn’t big on his music. As of late, however, hanging with them had gotten me a lot more acquainted with his stuff. Hip Hop with emotion. Back in Matter, they catch you listening to that shit and they’d stomp the fag out of you real quick. Funny how they’re also the quickest to find a guy’s ass cheeks to park their dick in when they get locked up.
“Had my moms take me when he was there so I could meet him,” continued Sugar, “but there was this big ass crowd of people.”
“You gonna tell us you met the nigga when in reality you barely could see his outline with binoculars?” said Drip.
“I sang for him,” said Sugar. He raised his chin and puffed up his chest.
“That’s gotta be the gayest shit I ever heard a man say,” said Benny.
“Ain’t no other way I could have caught his attention. My moms kept telling me to until I finally stopped givin’ a fuck. I closed my eyes and just let it rip at the top of my lungs. Must have been over a hundred people there.”
“Damn,” said Drip and Drop at the same time.
“So what happened?” said Jackson.
“Just kept singing ‘till I finally opened my eyes and Millz himself was standing right in front of me. Crowd was dead quiet and dude was staring at me with a fat grin on his face. Started clapping and the whole crowd started too. Shit was sick. His bodyguards made a circle around me and my moms and led us to his ride-”
“Did East Millz fuck you and your moms?” said Benny.
“No nigga, shut up!” said Sugar.
“Oh, right. Not that type of story.”
“Dude just chatted with me for a while. He was mad cool. Gave me his info and told me to send him some of my shit.”
“And you did, right?” said Jackson.
“That’s the part I can’t believe.” said Sugar, leaning in. All of us leaned in with him as he whispered. “Dude wants to sign me!”
“Nah!” said AP. “Shut the fuck up!”
It was the first time I had seen AP so happy. He had quietly laughed at jokes, smirked at comments, but this. This was a genuine happiness he could not contain.
“No joke!” said Sugar, grinning right back at him. It was as if they had forgotten the rest of us were there with them and it became apparent for me in that moment that AP and Sugar had been real close friends at some point. Even if they didn’t kick it as much anymore, they still cared about each other.
“I sent him all my stuff and he’s been messaging me back and forth. Told me he’s gonna get me some studio time for now while he draws up the contract and then we’ll start working on shit together.”
“That’s fucking dope!” said AP, getting up from his seat and bear hugging Sugar. The rest of the boys did as well, while I stood and watched. I was happy for him, but I didn’t know him that well.
Benny shot me a look to join them and so I did, but as I was about to wrap my arms around them, they dispersed.
“I’m fuckin’ proud of you Sugar,” continued AP, “Always knew you’d make it.”
“I feel like I owe it to you,” said Sugar, “I couldn’t have done any of it without you.”
“You don’t owe us shit,” said AP, “you did this.”
“Speak for yourself nigga! I want a new house and a new bitch erry night!” said Benny.
“You wouldn’t even know what to do with them,” said Drip.
“I seen what my parents do around the house. I know my shit.”
All of us shot him a disgusted look.
“No, no! I mean the house! I’d learn to be a homeow-” continued Benny. “Man, fuck y’all niggas!”
We all laughed until Sugar said, “Anyway, y’all be the only ones who know. Other than my moms.”
“We gotta celebrate.” said AP.
“Hell yeah! Let’s do it!” said Drip.
“We can jack a bottle from our old man!” said Drop.
“I’m outta reefer but I’m down!” said Benny.
Everyone was excited and ready to go. Everyone except me. I knew I couldn’t go. I wanted to, but I was dreading having to tell them that I couldn’t and kill their vibe.
“Alright then, we good,” said AP before turning to me. “E?”
“I can’t,” I said and pressed my lips together.
“What? Why?” said Benny, “Come on dude, it’s the last day of school and our boy’s made it! You gotta!”
“I want to, trust me. My uncle, I just can’t.”
“So let’s just go ask them. It’s cool man, last day, they’ll come around,” said Sugar.
I felt bad. The very person who we were trying to celebrate was asking me to celebrate with him. “It’s not that easy. I gotta be home before my aunt gets home at 5:30. They’re strict like that.”
“Well you’re already late dog. No difference now.” said Drop.
“What?” I said, feeling my heart in my throat.
“When you late, you late. No such thing as later,” he said, pulling his phone out and showing me the time.
“Fuck!” I yelled. “I’m sorry guys, I gotta run.”
“Come on!” said Benny as I turned around and took off.
“Don’t skip out on us E!” came AP’s voice as I started to run.
I didn’t see them again for close to a week.