TO PLEASE AN UNFORGIVING GOD
Shawn “Wavey” Teele was about to commit a public murder. He rode through the downtown section of the city with two friends, accomplices who would witness him end the life of a man who, at that moment, was unknowingly ordering the Uber that would ferry him to oblivion. In the driver’s seat was C4, and in the passenger seat was JD. C4 was driving erratically, stepping on the gas too hard and the brake too late. JD had bitten down the cuticle of his middle finger, so low that a trickle of blood had begun to seep into his mouth, staining his bottom teeth.
Shawn sat in the back seat up against the window, with a matte black Glock 45 sitting silent, arrogant, and comfortable in the seat next to him. The car’s leather seats vibrated under his thighs. His insides vibrated even more. Outside, the city’s buildings scowled at him, judged him; in the darkness, the scenes behind their windows were extra-illuminated. He saw young financiers in bright blue shirts loosening ties and leaving cubicles. He envied them.
C4 looked at Shawn through the rear view mirror. “You know we don’t have to do this shit.”
“I know we don’t have to do this shit. I have to do this shit,” he replied, pointing to himself by pounding on his chest with the knuckles of a closed fist.
Sucking on his inflamed cuticle, JD pivoted over his left shoulder and turned toward the backseat. “You know we gon’ be here for you, Wavey. We your ride or die boys, Wavey. But this is serious shit.”
“That’s why I’m taking care of it. You heard the Big Man. He said I’m the one who’s gotta do this. Y’all just gotta be there to witness it, to show that you really are ride or die,” Shawn said.
“We can just turn around, grab a Dutch, and hide out upstate,” C4 said, smoothing his beard with rapid, anxious strokes. Three streets separated them from The Envy nightclub, where they would become full members of the city’s most prominent street gang.
“And do what? Wait for them to come and ice us?” Shawn said. “I told them boys I was gonna kill this motherfucker myself and that’s what we gon’ do. That’s what we have to do now.”
“We don’t even know what this whiteboy really did…” JD said.
“Yes we fuckin’ do. Big Man said these frat boys bummed an ounce of bud off of his cousin and didn’t pay him back. They didn’t know who he was connected with, and now they been dodgin’ ‘em for two months, hiding in that college. They only come out when they at the club, and that’s where we gon’ be. They gon’ be an example for the rest of the city. So everybody know not to fuck with us.”
“My man, Wavey,” C4 began, “Is an ounce of weed really a reason to ice somebody?”
“Is this fuckin’ 21 questions now? Why didn’t y’all ask any questions to Big Man last night? Y’all was fuckin’ mutes yesterday. It’s an initiation kill. The reason don’t matter.”
C4 cut the wheel, made a hard right, and parallel parked in front of a corner store. “I need a blunt if we gon’ do this shit. Let’s get a Dutch, come on.”
The three men stepped out of the car and walked with false confidence toward the store.
“Wavey, my man, we gotta think real hard about this shit!” JD yelled to him over the sweeping sound of traffic and car horns.
The three stopped when a voice called to them. It was a woman’s voice, so scratchy and so worn that it should have gotten lost in the raucous, audial clutter of Downtown. Instead, it resonated throughout the street, and upon turning around the men linked the voice immediately to its source: an elderly woman no taller than 5’2” emerging from the automatic doors of a Walgreens pharmacy, clutching a red and white prescription bag.
“Wavey?” She said, wagging a bony, distorted finger at him. “You look so incredibly familiar. You see, I used to be a teacher. Problem is, I never had a student named Wavey. I do know, and remember well, however, a student named Shawn Teele. He was very special to me.”
Shawn stood on the sidewalk, stunned. His friends watched him, waiting for a response. Staring back at them was his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Faith Brownlow.
She was old then, and she was old now. Her skin, which always shone with a tint of Dorito-orange, was almost bronze. Her spine was hunched, and she held a silver aluminum cane in her left hand. Still, her hair was a striking jet-black, so dark you could almost see your reflection in it. A purple-yellow blouse, which once fit snug on a more nourished body, hung nearly to her knees.
Faith was made ancient more by tragedy than she was by time. The disasters that found her were horrifically unique and happenstance, holding with them the sense that they occurred solely for the amusement of an unforgiving and facetious God. The worst of her misfortunes involved her only son, William. While playing outside one cool April day, he had received multiple bee stings, consequently revealing his deathly anaphylactic bee allergy; the reaction was so precipitous and so aggressive that he was gone before the ambulance arrived.
She squinted at Shawn from behind thick-rimmed glasses that covered most of her face. “Could you be the Shawn Teele I taught?” she asked.
“Yes, Mrs. Brownlow. It’s me,” he said, avoiding eye contact.
“This is so exciting!” She shouted, with the vigor and eagerness of a woman who had long spent her days alone, thousands of experiences now separating her from the lives and minds of the children she once taught. She forgot none of them, but she feared they had forgotten her. “You have always been alive and well in my heart, so it is so wonderful to see you. You’ve grown into a handsome young man.”
“I appreciate that, Mrs. Brownlow,” he said, looking at the ground and searching for his manners. “It is great to see you.”
She walked up to them, and looked up into their worn, nervous faces. She patted him on the shoulder. “You know, I had always been concerned that you didn’t realize how incredibly special you were. I am glad that you’re well.”
“I won’t keep you, Mrs. Brownlow. But it was nice to see you.”
“Remember what I said, Shawn. You remember what I said,” she told him as they parted ways.
The three men turned around and walked toward the corner store. Shawn looked over his shoulder, hoping to catch one last look at her. But she was gone, swallowed by the shifting kaleidoscope of human bodies and bright lights.
Faith remembered the day Shawn was taken, screaming, from his parents, his mother with a hypodermic needle still lodged in her lower forearm and his father laid out on their frayed couch suffering a withdrawal-induced seizure. The red and blue flashes of ambulance lights lit up the neighborhood. Shawn was in the frame of the family’s front door, waving down the ambulance with both hands in the air. In a neighborly attempt to save him from Child Protective Services – from becoming a child of the state – a middle-aged couple who lived next door snatched Shawn from the confusion and dragged him into their car. The man crossed Shawn’s arms behind his back and pushed his tiny head into the bumpy leather of the car’s door frame. With powerful, staccato kicks, Shawn tried to fight his way free. Jesus, just relax, son. We’re trying to help you.
The couple gave up and brought him to school, where Faith, from her classroom window, saw the car pull up. The back door of the car swung open and the singular mass of two grappling figures fell out onto the pavement. Faith sat up in alarm, and as she did she saw, crushed under the weight of the large man, a smaller figure struggling to break free. Although the scene resembled nothing other than an early-morning kidnapping gone wrong, Faith seemed to recognize, whether intuitively or by some sort of humanitarian telepathy, that what she was witnessing was a rescue.
She knew about Shawn’s troubled home life. Though he didn’t speak much, the two connected, almost as though they sensed each other’s sadness. She reciprocated his confidence in her by trying to cleanse him of the destructive tendencies he inherited from his parents.
“He’s my student,” she yelled to the couple. “I will take him.”
He calmed down when he saw her, and ceased his self-defensive onslaught. She led him by the shoulders into the main administrative office. His skin, blanketed by sweat and tears, glistened in the fluorescent light like the surface of a lake at sundown. He was only eight, but his eyes held the scorched, glowing indignation of a grown man. Teeth gritted and eyebrows down as far as they could go.
“I have no idea what you are going through,” her mouth muscles trembled as she sat across from him. “But I want you to know how special you are.”
“I ain’t fuckin’ special,” he shot back at her with an abrupt, outward flex of his upper body.
Shawn’s history led the school psychologist to conclude that he was not fit for public school, nor was he safe in his current home. Soon, a blue-and-white van with long, rectangular windows pulled around the school’s circular parking lot. Its rusty, sliding doors read, “CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES.”
Faith pleaded with the assistant principal. “Give me another month with him, and I can help him,” she cried. Tears rolled down her face and she slammed her feet into the pavement with each syllable she spoke. “I swear I can help him! I swear I can help him!”
“Faith,” he said, as three large CPS agents dragged Shawn down the school’s entrance ramp. “This one cannot be saved.”
The last time she saw him, Shawn had his face pressed up against the frosted window of the van. She saw his tiny hand raise toward the glass, and for a moment she believed that he would wave to her. Perhaps he would offer a subtle gesture of acknowledgement, in the delicate way only children can, that he knew someone cared for him. But he offered no such sign. The van rolled down the street and disappeared in the lush greenery that wreathed the entrance to the school’s grounds, and Faith felt, again, that she had lost someone before they ever had a chance.
Shawn, C4, and JD pulled up to The Envy, the city’s renowned nightclub. C4 put the car in park but left it running. As the engine caught its breath, he laid his hands on the top of the steering wheel, gripping it tight. “We can’t do this shit. We can’t go in there and ice some fool we never met. We just can’t.”
Shawn grabbed the cushion of the driver’s seat headrest and pulled himself up until he was leaning into the front of the car, inches away from both C4 and JD. “Do y’all want to keep living at your fuckin’ momma’s house? Y’all wanna keep robbing old folks in the middle of the night?” he said with resentment.
“Wavey…” JD started.
“Nah, I’m fuckin’ serious. We been hangin’ around these streets for years getting shit on. Doin’ small time bud deals for nickels and dimes. This is our time. If we don’t do this, some other motherfuckers are gon’ do it, and they gon’ run up on us. That’s the fucking game.”
In silent agreement, or maybe surrender, C4 shut off the car and JD clicked the faded unlock button above his door handle. Shawn pulled the Glock 45 off of the seat next to him and wrestled it into the left hand side of his waistband, concealing it with his puffy white coat. The three men made their way through the club’s entrance – a long aisle of velvet rope supported by golden posts, with knobs that shimmered in the street light. Their legs shook and their teeth chattered.
Their target lingered toward the back of the club near the DJ’s booth with a group of other college men. Shawn gestured toward C4 and JD to follow him, and they made their way through a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, their sneakers soaked by sporadic pools of hard liquor and their nostrils strangled by the stinging scent of cheap cologne. Their target was inches away. The DJ’s speakers beat loud and close; it felt as though the skin on their faces would begin to recede. With his right hand, Shawn carefully fingered the rubber grip of the gun tucked into his waistband.
He imagined the hit the night before. He would walk up to the man, draw the gun quick like an outlaw in the Old West, and put the barrel to the man’s temple. He would pull the trigger. Splatters of maroon would be sent diagonally across the club’s mirrored walls, or across the smoke-gray marble bar, or onto the glistening jewelry of the club’s beautiful women. He, C4, and JD would escape out the back door, blend into the chaos, and never have to struggle again. He would become something more than just another street kid lost in the dark ocean of street life.
When he was taken away in the CPS van all those years ago, he believed that he needed to leave his old life behind. He was thrust into adulthood, in which he would make such grave decisions without thinking – he would lie or steal or kill out of pure instinct. And his initiation would be the final step of that evolution.
But because of the old woman who had appeared from the pharmacy, a simulacrum celebrating the past, the life he had left behind now merged with the one in which he stood. His life materialized, mentally, subconsciously, into one long timeline, with connections and consequences laid bare. Minutes away from committing a murder, he realized that in fact he had never progressed. He never became the man that Faith Brownlow knew he could become.
In his head, he searched for justification. If he shot this man – still a boy in demeanor and thought – he would rob him of the chance to mature according to nature’s law. Yet, he was robbed of the same chance. So if he shot him, he would right a universal wrong.
He tightened his grip on the gun. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply to shut out the world. When he opened them again the world raged back at him.
With two loud cracks that sent clubgoers escaping through smashed windows and kicked-open emergency exits, one life was sacrificed so that another could commit its vices in serenity.
Joseph Guarneri is a multigenerational Italian-American writer from Connecticut. He is a higher education professional and psychology researcher, having published in a range of journals such as Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Journal of College Orientation and Transition, and College Student Journal. He is also an aspiring author of dramatic short fiction. His stories focus on intergenerational relationships, aging in the modern world, and the emotional psychology behind decision making.