I tried really hard to get my kid out of my neighborhood. When he was born, I made all the promises I’m sure my old man made to me when I was young.
You’re not gonna live like this.
You’re gonna be better than me.
You’re gonna be somebody.
But what does an eighteen year old know about getting anybody outta anywhere? I couldn’t even get myself out. Me and my girl lived in my mom’s basement while we tried to get our shit together for Abel’s sake, but it was never gonna work. She was younger than me, she didn’t want to be a mom, and she split when he was only a couple months old.
My mom sat me down and she told me, “Boy, I’m not raising your child, so you best figure out what you wanna do; man up or drop him at one of those safe places where he can be adopted out and get himself a real family.”
I knew it killed her to say that. Mom loved Abel even more than me, I think, and the last thing she wanted was to lose her grandbaby, but he was my son. My responsibility.
I dropped out of my last year of high school and started working a couple of part time jobs. It was the real fucking American dream; fifty to sixty hour work weeks and still not able to make ends meet. The only reason I kept going was my little boy. The world just seemed to be getting shittier around us, but I kept clawing my way up; didn’t hang out with my old friends, didn’t get involved in any of the old shit I used to do, just kept looking ahead and working my ass off.
Things started to get better when I met Shayla at one of my janitor jobs. She had a kid around Abel’s age too and wanted out of the neighborhood as bad as I did. We got together, started figuring out goals and saving money and we thought we were really gonna do it.
Closest we came was when Abel was about eight. We’d gotten married a couple years before and could finally afford to rent a place of our own a few blocks from my mom. It was still in the same neighborhood, but closer to the edge. Shayla got a real good job working as a secretary in a law firm and I was digging ditches for the city. We were finally managing to get by with some money stashed away for the future. We could almost see a way out.
I had told my boy to stay away from the older kids a few houses down. They were no good, I’d say when he asked why, they were dangerous. I didn’t tell him it was because they were messing around with a gang, one of the reasons me and Shayla wanted out in the first place, but I probably should have. Maybe it would’ve stopped what happened.
I’d been at work on a Saturday, overtime to afford a present for Shayla’s daughter’s birthday, so I only got to hear about it after it happened. Abel had slipped out of the house and gone to hang out with the “cool” kids down the road. It had only been a minute, shouldn’t have been long enough for anything bad to happen, and it was broad fucking daylight.
Didn’t stop some rivals from driving by and taking shots at the group. At my son.
He took two in the back before he hit the ground. The two that had been meant for the “leader” he’d been standing in front of.
By the time I got to the hospital, Abel was in surgery. Walking into the hospital was like a dream. Nothing felt real; not the hugs from my mom or Shayla, not the updates from the doctor, nothing. I sat in one of those hard plastic chairs against the wall and I put my head between my knees and I prayed for God to spare my boy.
Shayla and Mom went to the cafeteria to get coffee while we waited, but I stayed there, staring at the doors and wanting some kind of answer.
When someone stepped between me and the doors, I looked up, angry and grateful at the same time. I needed an excuse to vent and scream and fight and this bastard had offered himself up without realizing it.
“Hey!” I snapped, but then I froze.
The figure before me was tall and covered in a heavy robe of black. Its hood was pulled low, hiding his features, but I was sure that a skeletal smile lurked in the shadows. All he was missing was a scythe.
Then I blinked.
The robes had become brightly colored in blue and red and flowers were wrapped around the skeletal figure. Beads had been draped around the skull and its tall headdress.
Another blink. Now it was a Chinese man with a long black beard in official looking robes and a cap.
Every time I blinked, the figure would change; a small Indian child, an old, haggard woman with wild hair, a large black dog. I had never seen most of them, but I knew what each was called.
All different names for the same being.
“No.” I don’t know if I was denying what I was seeing or trying to ward off the creature in front of me. “Oh God, oh please, no!”
It turned towards me, a hundred faces in a single form. Trying to focus on any one shot lightening across my brain. It wasn’t real, but at the same time, it was the only thing that was real. I was going insane with grief, it was the only explanation, but I didn’t care. If there was any chance I could save Abel, I was going to try it.
“Not my boy.” I begged, somehow miraculously alone in the hallway while I spoke to something that probably wasn’t even there. “Anyone else, just not Abel.”
It continued to stare.
Slowly, it lifted a hand, one minute boney, then dark skinned, then old, young, a paw, and touched my forehead.
I wasn’t me anymore. I was someone else, someone angry, so full of hate, there was a gun in my hand. It felt heavy and familiar. I was fearless, I was hot blooded, I was out for revenge.
I was Abel. Older, no longer an innocent child, flashes of a life whirled before me; drinking, drugs, love and loyalty bought with blood. The colors of the gang he’d been with when he was shot waving like a flag over it all.
Everything went black for a moment and then I was opening my eyes as someone else. A pastor, filled with peace and generosity. The beloved leader of a congregation, a pillar in the community, a husband, a father, a friend.
A reformed gang member who had changed his ways and escaped a life of violence after being shot in a drive-by on a Saturday afternoon in broad fucking daylight.
My body jerked sharply and I was back in my own skin. The figure was in front of me, its endless eyes all staring, waiting.
“They’re both in there?” I asked weakly.
The figure remained silent and still, but I knew. My boy and that piece of garbage were both in surgery, but only one would make it out.
“You can’t know that that’s what will happen.” I said with a defiant shake of my head. “My son is a good boy! I’m getting him out of here! It won’t happen!”
It tilted its head slightly.
“Y-you don’t know. Abel is good. Abel is…he’s good.”
I started to sob while it continued to stand in front of me, waiting, expectant.
“My boy.” I whispered. “Save my boy.”
And then I was alone again.
Carter Wright died on the table five minutes later. He was sixteen years old.
I don’t know what I saw in the hospital or how real it even was. I don’t know why I was given the choice when it shouldn’t have been mine to make. I tried to go to different churches and temples to have it explained, but no one could help me understand.
Even without that knowledge, I told Abel he’d been given a second chance and not to waste it, but it never made a difference. First he lost his innocence by force and then he willingly gave up the rest of himself. He wanted revenge, he knew who to go to to make it happen, and he was going to get it whether I liked it or not. I had to kick him out when he was eighteen, after he pulled a gun on Shayla in our home.
Despite my best efforts, all of the love we gave him, all the attempts we made to change things, to move, to separate him from what was always outside our door, he was never my little boy again.
He had become everything that I’d been warned about.
And now, almost fifteen years later, not a day goes by that I don’t regret the choice I made in the presence of Death.