The force moved me.
A powerful one beyond my conscious control--it pushed me through the torrential rainstorm darkening the landscape of my consciousness. Walk upstairs, the force compelled. Turn right. Three shadowy, indistinguishable figures were to my right, standing just outside of my mom’s apartment door. Go inside. Another dark figure inside--keep moving. Somehow, someway, as I moved past the figure inside, a slurry jumble of sounds coalesced into a recognizable expression: “What’s up, Rico?” But I was powerless to respond to it. Keep moving. Then all of a sudden, as if teleported, I found myself standing at the foot of my mother’s bed, trembling uncontrollably as I looked down at her napping. About two feet to the left of her head, a night stand held a small, rectangular alarm clock. In red, computerized digits, the clock read 2:53 p.m.
Just an hour earlier, I had been playing Nintendo at my friend Kevin’s house.
“I’m tired of beating you,” I said to Kevin, playfully.
“It’s three-to-one,” he responded. “You said the same thing last time and I came back on you.”
We were playing a Nintendo basketball game called Double Dribble. Kevin, who was fourteen, thought he was always supposed to beat me in any competition since he was a year older than I was.
“Let’s go by Lil Robert’s house and shoot a game of twenty-one. I might let you win a game,” I said.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Lil Robert was a friend of ours who lived in a section of our neighborhood called ‘’Cross The Canal.’ To get to his house, we’d literally have to cross over a canal that divided The Loop--our neighborhood--into two almost symmetrical sections. The canal divided The Loop in other ways as well. ‘Cross the Canal was the more crime ridden section of The Loop. Once happy homes where large family gatherings had taken place, where childish squeals had erupted from little kids playing hide-and-seek, where love, laughter, and life had vibrated like a pleasant hum, soothing and welcoming--most of those homes ‘Cross The Canal had been reduced to barely habitable dwellings. Some were crackhouses in front of which stood any number of drugs dealers plying their trade. Sometimes when we’d pass them, the younger ones close to our age--Kevin and mine--would stare at us with provocative intensity, daring either of us to respond to their unspoken challenge. Beware, their eyes said to us in warning. Beware!
Nevertheless, whenever we wanted to play basketball, we’d go to Lil Robert’s. His house was a refuge of sorts ‘Cross The Canal. His dad had bought him an adjustable basketball goal for his thirteenth birthday and set it up in their driveway to keep Lil Robert close to home and out of trouble. All of the neighborhood kids loved to play ball over there since they could adjust the goal to its lowest notch and mimic the slam dunks of their favorite basketball players.
The sun hugged me when I stepped outside of Kevin’s house. I greeted it with me eyes closed, smiling as it delicately embraced me with its warmth, a sensation which reminded me of the loving, good-bye hugs my mother gave to me just before she’d send me off to stay with my dad for the holidays. A lot of people will be there today, I thought, as Kevin and I skipped down the street. In our neighborhood, everybody liked to play basketball on beautiful summer days.
But to my surprise, when we made it to Lil Robert’s house, Shane was the only person there. Shane was another friend of ours who lived ‘Cross The Canal. We often played basketball with him whenever we met up at Lil Robert’s house. You could count on him being there any time the sun was out.
“Where’s everyone at?” Kevin asked him.
“I don’t know,” Shane replied. “I was just sitting here waiting for somebody to show up so I could beat ‘em in a game of twenty-one,” he added tauntingly.
“Take out,” I said.
Shane took off a black backpack that he always carried with him and laid it in the grass right beside the driveway. Then he took the ball out.
Just as he usually did, Shane completely dominated the game. He was sixteen years old, five feet ten inches tall, athletic, and very strong. He was also very aggressive. Neither Kevin (standing at about five feet even) nor I (standing slightly under that) could compete against his physical or athletic advantages. We tried though.
One play during the second game, as Shane drove hard to the basket, Kevin, laughing, jumped on his back to prevent him from dunking. After shaking Kevin off his back, Shane immediately spun around. His presence had completely transformed; it radiated with violent energy. It was there like atomic energy, present but not visible, unstable and highly charged--explosive.
“What did you do that for?” he yelled angrily at Kevin . Then he grabbed the basketball with both hands and slammed it into Kevin’s face. Kevin staggered backwards, stunned. Shane then turned and glowered at me. “You want some, nigga?” he asked and started in my direction. At his approach, my reality seemed to speed into a streaking almost imperceptible blur: adrenaline rushed; time zoomed; sound muted. The minutes earlier screech… screech… screech… of athletic shoes gripping on concrete pavement; the loud CLANG of a vibrating rim; Kevin’s gleeful, childish exclaims of “Michael Jordan”--all of those 'summertime in The Loop' sounds--transformed into tragic silence seconds after I looked away from Shane’s stare and ran towards his black backpack where I knew he always kept a loaded handgun.
* * *
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but at some point I raced home from ’cross the canal, shock subjugating my conscious thought, turning instead to instinctual drive. So it was with a vague sense of puzzlement that I read the time--2:53 p.m.--on the alarm clock beside my mother’s bed. After standing at the foot of her bed for a few seconds, my mind cleared up suddenly, like someone had blown a layer of settled dust from the surface of an old record. “Ma! Ma, wake up! Ma, wake up!” The words nervously rushed out of my mouth. I was just about to reach down and shake her, but she turned on her side and groggily looked up at me. I was her only child, her innocent, precious and only son. “I think I just killed Shane!” she heard me say in a panic.
Before that day, I didn’t know that taking someone’s life was something to be proud of. I had been a normal thirteen-year-old kid who loved to hang out with his friends and play videogames. Nor did I know that I was supposed to idolize the neighborhood drug dealers, gangsters, and killers; no one had ever taught me that what they did was a route to success. I certainly used to listen to gangsta rap music, but only because I liked the sound--before that day, I had not interpreted its messages as tutorials on how to live. But years later, after I had served two years and eight months in a juvenile prison, I had been reprogrammed to travel life in accordance to the rules of a new value system. I had crossed the canal.
Jirrico McKee is currently incarcerated at Raymond LaBorde Correctional Center (RLCC).
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