By: Antwan Crump
They put us in a shelter after the first bomb hit.
We still don’t know what happened.
The shaky hand—covered in puss-spilling boils—emerges from the sheath of a black flowing robe. Its silky texture reflects the glare of the single lightbulb lynched above us by a thick rubber cord—oscillating like the metronome of our very existence.
Counting the seconds until we give in… Until it goes off again.
The hooded man would arrive shortly after our shadows—bartering sips.
“No. Thank you,” I’d shudder at his suggestion and let him leave—as he always did—smiling and carrying the weight of his burden in the form of a jug and a plastic cup.
He’ll show up again tomorrow. Wearing the same robe. Offering the same beverage. Smiling that same treacherous smile—like a hyena whose lips have been pinned to the tips of its ears.
He’ll offer me the elixir.
He’ll offer it to everyone.
“Jesse!” We’ve long been past the use for names. Hearing my own, I’d nearly forgotten how it sounded. “Jesse!” But it was my name.
She told me that hers was Blue.
“I’m coming,” I shout back, as if she’d been miles away.
As if we weren’t so close.
As if this room weren’t the size of a private swimming pool.
As if there weren’t dozens of others who’d hate that we’d disturbed their slumber.
“Kid!” An old man screams. He never bothered to share his name (or even make one up)—though he’d possessed no qualms with verbally expressing his every thought and opinion. “Put a muzzle on that bitch of yours! Some of us are trying to sleep.”
I ignore him and watch as his dead-eye plunges back down to the cement and the rest of him melts to the floor—inflating and deflating with every rasped snore under a dirty brown blanket.
Others aren’t getting their shut-eye as easily.
We don’t have beds here. Just our arms and the cold cement.
It does the job if you really need sleep. Otherwise, it’s just more hell.
At a glance, it’s like the universe compacted into one small room—barely high enough to fit a basketball hoop. There’s chaos. There’s love. There’s hate…protests.
False prophets and demagogues.
We have them all.
In a cramped space, of no more than sixty people, we’re still divided. Distilled to our baser selves. Still searching for that defining factor and keeping its use from anyone who doesn’t fit the subsequent hereditary bill.
Race matters here.
Then again, where doesn’t it?
Tribalism has long been a human survival instinct. Survival was paramount. The division helped us survive.
Simple math. Divided, we stood.
When the hooded man came knocking, with his jug of bubbling cider, the packs and clans remained strong and forthright in their resilience to him. Those were dark times.
By most accounts, the light hadn’t come on for eight days after that.
When it finally flickered its fluorescent glow, about half of the room had lost their nerve and been singing a different tune—something that rang truer to a negro spiritual than “Fight the Power”.
They left. The division remained—each faction, then solely comprised of its most dedicated members and the fearful.
There was blood.
The hatred that came with our packs had canceled out whatever good the segregated offensive had done. Our tribes became rivals in a war within captivity.
That’s how we lost the Whites.
Intimidation led them astray; led them to drink the elixir.
We watched them seize.
We watched them die.
Then we watched them walk away as if nothing had ever happened.
But at what cost?
Blue’s the only one of them left—a hybrid. Like me.
With her mother gone, Blue stuck to the East end—where she and the other Asians had set up camp.
Similarly, the Latinos took the West end, Blacks, with me, on the North, and we saved the South for our collective of outcasts—the broken or otherwise demented. It’s sovereign ground.
Blue’s there—the South end—trying to talk some sense into them. She’s a bleeding heart but Blue’s no dummy. She’d never co-sign the notion.
If it’s permission they want, they’ll have to bring it up with their god as they sip the juices of the forbidden fruit. My empathy for them would cease shortly after they’d gone pale.
They weren’t human anymore. They would become one of them.
I head to the South end, with balled fists. My fingernails curl into the creases of my palm. My pulse thrashes beneath my skin like river rapids on the underside of a tin boat.
But, maybe I can help.
“Blue,” I call calmly and watch the gathered crowd of outcasts halve like I was Moses, and they my river Nile. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s taken the drink!” Blue stands there, with her elbows drooped forward—ready to cave. Beside her feet, a thin child, no older than ten, writhes on the ground—foaming at the mouth and circling the rungs of his seizure.
The seizure, I think.
It’ll be the last thing we’ll ever see him do.
“Everyone back away! Now!” I scream with everything I’ve got and pray that there’s time to make him puke.
Before I can move, the light flickers and a ray of white overcomes us all. It burns like salt in a fresh wound.
This light’s brighter than ours.
A door. I watch it quiver open and retract.
The hooded man emerges—wielding his brew like the keys to Eden. He paces toward me from the doorway. His smile greets me as the rest of the room scatters back into the darkness. They’re afraid.
So am I.
He’s close now.
So close that I can smell the death on his breath.
I look up at him.
He asks me like he’s never asked before. Like he always does.
“No,” I answer. Like I always do.
He laughs, a cackled demon’s ecstasy, “…fool,” drivels from between his teeth like stray meat.
He takes the boy—dragging him out by the cuff of his soiled jeans.
As the door closes behind him, I wonder what’s out there…for the very first time.
It looks like sunshine.
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