Non-fiction: Southern Welcome

2018 Issue, 2018 Nonfiction

By: Cheryth Youngmann

A young man ambles toward us. He’s about my age, handsome. My small town instincts kick in: I smile, all buoyant warmth. And then— he’s moving fast, too fast. He’s in our space now and I feel Jordan coil to move. But the boy, he has Sarah by the arm and he’s shaking her, and he’s got something black and silver. He hasa gun, I realize too slowly. Cold seeps through my dress despite the midday Tennessee sun. He has it pressed to her stomach and he’s shouting something.

“Give me the bag, give me the bag!”

I freeze, afraid to move. He could hurt her— kill her—if I move too fast. She tells him, “I don’t—man, you don’t want to do this, you don’t want to do this.” The boy is shaking, fumbling with the safety. Jordan realizes, knows this kid isn’t kidding.

“Sarah, give him the purse,” Jordan says slow and quietly. Sarah understands the second time, and jerks her shoulder. The purse strap catches on her wrist; the boy yanks violently. It’s free and so is he. He’s running the way he came. He throws something black: Sarah’s phone. With it clatters the gun. Jordan charges, screaming, “we’ve got you, we’ve got you.” Fear splinters through my being. My brother is about to die. The boy makes it to the gun first and—  

he takes off running again, doesn’t take the time to shoot.

Somehow I have Sarah’s small frame pressed to me and suddenly it’s the three of us huddled in a desperate echo of the embrace they welcomed me with an hour earlier. We call the police on Jordan’s dying phone and wait. These minutes are agony; I’m finally still enough, feel the pounding signs of terror all through my body. Jordan tries to make Sarah and me get in the car, but we object.

“You’re my little sister.” Then to Sarah, with something desperate in his voice, “You’re my wife.”

We get in the car.

I panic, claustrophobia closing in on me in the backseat.

AAA pulls up. Visceral waves of relief flood my system, but I scramble out of the car to tell the man—Derek, I find out—to leave, it isn’t safe. He doesn’t. I could kiss him for it. The only thing that stops me is a dim understanding that it would be rude. A police car pulls up. The next half hour is all, “He was about twenty, black, yes. About 5’8. Wearing gym shorts with silver trim.” His shorts and gun match, I note stupidly. I’m glad I don’t say it aloud. There’s a flurry of officers, of questions. And then, a lineup. Jordan, Sarah, and I sit in the hard plastic back of a cop car.

“Any of these boys?” They’re of all ages, early teens to mid twenties. No, we say. He’s not here. They drive us by again. But no, the kid who held a gun to Sarah’s side is definitely not with the boys who stand mutely in front of one of the small houses lining the street. I look out at their impassive faces, restlessness swirling my stomach. This feels wrong. A child trots out the front door of the neighboring house. He’s maybe five. He holds a toy lightsaber in his hand. It’s red and tiny, just right for his silver-dollar sized fists. He looks at the lineup, at the seven police cars with whirling lights crawling through his block and turns. He arcs the lightsaber it in the air. I almost vomit. “He’s not here.” I say it more loudly than I mean.

Because of all the images that sear into my memory, this will be the one that haunts longest: a little boy so used to violence he just continues to play while armed cops stand— hostile—by his brothers, neighbors, mentors.

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