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DECEMBER 2004

> MARGUERITAVILLE | chris kuell

Last Saturday, the wife and I dropped off our kids at a friend's house for the afternoon and drove to New Jersey for some shopping. My wife has a thing about the gargantuan malls of New Jersey. I've tried to understand it, but I just can't see the appeal. Sort of how she feels about hunting. To keep the peace, I agreed and we were off a little before noon.

The ride down was smooth and uneventful. I recently took a new job in Connecticut and one of the major perks that got me here was the new Audi A6 that came with the position. The car is a fine example of sportiness and luxury wrapped in a burgundy finish. Driving for me now is much like when I was sixteen, minus the constant breaking down and uncomfortable backseat.

Everything was going fine until I took a wrong exit in Newark and then got detoured by road construction. It was just an inconvenience until we both realized that we were in the wrong neighborhood. A frightfully wrong neighborhood. Abandoned, torched vehicles littered the streets. Tall, rust colored tenements with cardboarded windows blocked out all but splinters of sun. Trash swirled around the street like tumbleweeds in an old western movie. Creepy men sat on stoops drinking from bottles wrapped in paper bags. Kathleen double checked the door locks and urged me to get out of there.

We were moving along, towards what I hoped was the parkway, when this big Sports Utility Vehicle passed us like we were standing still. It was a Yukon and was the size of a school bus. The windows were tinted so we couldn't see the passengers, all of whom were deaf based on the decibels of rap music blasting from the vehicle. The back of the SUV had a modified metal bumper that was nothing more than a guardrail welded onto the frame. Without warning, the driver swerved in front of us and slammed on the brakes. I hit our brakes hard, and if it were not for anti-lock technology, the asshole would have got an Audi enema. I was starting to lose my temper when we were bumped from behind. Not hit hard, thank God the air bags didn't release, but hard enough to know we were hit.

"Oh, great," I said to Kathleen, "What do you suppose the chances are anyone in this neighborhood has insurance?"

Kathleen's eyes grew wide and she gasped, "Edward."

There was a harsh crack on the driver's side window. Outside my door stood a kid in a green Jets jacket. He held a gun, pointing in my direction. He was just a kid, maybe ten or eleven. Our son Patrick is in fifth grade and is about this kid's size. The revolver he wielded in his little hand, by contrast, seemed huge and powerful. My brain attempted to absorb and comprehend the situation.

He hit the window with the barrel again, this time cracking the glass. "Git out," the kid demanded.

In front of me, the Yukon hadn't moved. The vehicle that hit us was another SUV. It was so close all I could see in the rear view mirror was grill and headlights. No chance of driving out of here.

"Ed, they're car-jacking us."

I opened the door, figuring I would teach this ballsy little shit a lesson.

"Ed, don't." Kathleen said as I shut the door.

All my courage evaporated when I saw the scary dude standing next to the fender of the SUV behind us. He was dark skinned, wore sunglasses, a black leather jacket and a purple do-rag tightly around his shaved head. The glimmer of a gold tooth leaked from between his lips, and the massive gun he held made the kid's look like a water pistol.

The kid poked me with the barrel of his gun and told me to "leave the keys and git away from the car."

I heard Kathleen get out and wished she hadn't. The kid actually looked more scared than I felt. It gave me a sliver of hope.

"Waste 'em," gold tooth commanded.

The young hand trembled like a palsied old man's now. The kid's eyes were wide and his face scrunched up like he was getting a tetanus shot.

"Listen," I said, directing my comments to the kid. "You can have the car. The keys are in it. Let me and my wife walk away. We never saw you guys."

"Do it!" Gold tooth ordered. A different voice came from the passenger side of the vehicle behind us. " C'mon, Kenny. Don't think about it... Do it." The voice had a tinge of brotherly love attached to it. Not in a ghetto-brother kind of way, but I thought I detected more of a genetically related tone of reassurance.

Kathleen, the eternal social worker, said, "Don't hurt us, Honey. You don't have to do anything."

Every muscle in the kids face tightened then, his pupils dilated to the size of pennies. He pointed the gun at Kathleen and said, "I ain't yo honey, bitch," and fired. A blue flame blasted out of the end of the gun and reality shattered. The sound of the gunfire, so close, was deafening, reverberating down the street and alleys for a lifetime. I didn't turn to look at Kathleen, but struck out to disarm the kid. It was a reflex, an unconscious survival maneuver, I suppose.

I grabbed the barrel of the gun; it was much hotter than I expected. Then Gold tooth aimed his canon and shot me in the head.

When I was a kid, my brother David and I built a tree fort in the woods behind our house. He was older, so he had the more important job of hammering boards together while I passed him up supplies. At one point, I handed him about a five-foot length of two by four. David lost his grip on the board and dropped it, quite unfortunately, on top of my head. I remember distinctly the heavy and solid impact of the board as it whacked me. The blow was followed by a second of shock at the realization that I had just been beaned in the head by a two by four. A rush of pain came next, accompanied by a reasonable amount of crying. Three separate and distinct reactions occurring in an instant.

When the bullet hit behind my left ear, I did experience the realization that the bastard had shot me, but the pain never came. My body, minus a large chunk of my cranium, fell to the pavement, as I seemed to fly somehow into Kenny. By I, I mean the spirit me that apparently no longer resided in that amazing bag of cells I used to refer to as me. I flew into Kenny and in the time it takes to switch on a light, I understood all that he was.

Kenneth Carter was actually thirteen, a little older than I originally thought. He was small for his age, a trait not uncommon among kids in this neighborhood. Kenny didn't see much of his mom, which didn't bother him. Some mornings she was passed out on the couch in the living room; other mornings she wasn't. A variety of losers sporadically came in and out of the apartment, but Kenny had never called anyone Dad.

Darrel is seventeen, and has been encouraging Kenny to join the gang. Darrel wants to be the big man some day, always talking about mansions and limos and 'mo hos than any one man can handle'. Kenny is smart, does very well at Broadview Middle School and shows an aptitude for mathematics. Darrel is smart enough only to know he needs Kenny.

Tyrus is the leader of the gang, the one I think of fondly as Gold Tooth. Tyrus has been paying Kenny a lot of money the last few months to deliver rolled-up paper bags and bring cash back. That's how Kenny paid for this new Jets Stadium Jacket.

Tyrus scares Kenny. Last week he saw him hit this girl Amanda in the face with the butt of his gun. Her cheek split wide open. She knelt crying and Tyrus kicked her in the side and told her to shut up. Kenny clenched his teeth and fought back the vomit.

Darrel has been pushing, though, and tonight when Tyrus saw the former me, driving the nice Audi, he announced it was time for Kenny to join the gang.

Kenny forgot how to breathe for a second. Every member has to prove he has the balls to belong. Kenny didn't want to do it, but felt he had no choice. So much blood on pretty Amanda's face.

All during the crime Kenny hoped Tyrus would let him by with just the carjacking. When Tyrus said to kill us, Kenny couldn't bring himself to shoot. He knew, though, that if he didn't, Tyrus would shoot him. He was in too far already.

Kenny was teeter tottering on the brink of decision when Kathleen spoke. Kenny lunged at that dark, cold spot in his heart and embraced it. Even before I arrived in him, he was distraught with remorse. Once I felt this, I glided out of him as easily as I went in.

I watched as he dropped the gun and slumped to his knees. Bits of brain and blood were splattered on the bright green jacket, but Kenny didn't notice. I don't think he could read me, but he felt me pass through and he would never be quite right again.

I moved over Kathleen and sensed life within her broken body. The bullet shattered her clavicle and she had lost some blood. There would be no more rounds at the golf club, but she would live to see our kids off to college.

When I tried to enter Kathleen, I couldn't. I was new at this kind of thing, or so I thought. In retrospect, it was likely for the better. I was allowed to see Kenny for a second, able to know that Kathleen would be okay, and then a wind not of air but tiny electrical pulses whisked me away into the vortex leading to the big blender in the heavens.

> BIOGRAPHY | about the author

Chris Kuell is a blind freelance writer from Danbury, Connecticut. His fiction has appeared in The Spillway Review, Dialogue, and Mountain Echoes. He also received an honorable mention in the 2003 Moonlight and Magnolia Fiction Writing Contest.