A man kneeled on cracked cement on King Drive in the south side of Chicago, staring down the barrel of a .45. The man’s wrists were not bound, but hung limply by his sides, weighed down only by the heaviness of his coat. On either side of the man stood faceless, nameless men in uniform. They stared ahead, unseeing, performing their sightless speechless duties as required—no more, no less.
Beyond the uniformed, nameless figures was no-one. The business conducted in that alley was publicly private, and not even the brilliant flashes of blue and white could draw forth witnesses. Just one block from the alley lay another world entire; suits and dresses and the rhythmic staccato of the world beyond. Later these would be spectators, but the wall between the alley and that world had not yet been sold.
All were silent and still in the alley. The captain stood stiff and red-faced, breathing heavily. He knew what would happen next—what must happen. His lieutenants awaited his sign, and he would not rush it. He had read somewhere that “death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.” He wasn’t sure where he’d heard it, but he had known death and thus, he gave deference to him when he came.
The kneeling man was no more than twenty-seven. He was a man not educated by “The Streets;” even though he was not raised there, he was a part of them and they a part of the construction of him. He had familiar features—wide nose, dark skin, thick lips, coarse hair, and muscles rippling naturally from beneath his oversized hoodie. His eyes were large and dark brown, and his expression was accusatory. He had not been here before, but all was familiar. He had seen the scene before, if not with his own eyes. Those before were gentlemen, girl, and goon alike—when the moment came for sacrifice (and the moment was moments, now, one right after the next) all blood fell even.
Now was his moment. The lieutenants stepped aside—their part here was finished for now. It came to the captain; he had not had his turn in awhile, and the use of the captain was simple and effective. The story would always be clean, but this helped ease the stomachs of the lieutenants. They would quickly become accustomed to such methods, but too much of this justice would sour them.
Should they go before to be judged it would come out in their favor. The justice performed was for the people, and the people did not damn those who enacted their will.
The kneeling man licked his lips and let his eyes wander for a moment. How curious that they would wander now; a gun pointed toward the center of his face, and steel cuffs now chilled his wrists from behind. He noted a silver glint in the corner of his eye and he followed it. The strain was too much though and hurt his eyes, and he lost the glint just beyond his field of vision. Perhaps it belonged to the cavalry, all of those whose face his represented now. Perhaps a gun pointed at his accuser, its barrel caught by the light. Perhaps a small puddle reflected the sun peering at them from behind a slow moving cloud.
The kneeling man closed his eyes and thought of his parents and his siblings. Beyond his thoughts he could hear the bustle of people moving unaware of his ending. He could discern the city swell and a coming rain, but beneath those a new sound. The toll of a bell—how poignant! Were he not in the kneeling position as the condemned man he wouldn’t believe it, a bell sounding the hour of his death—though more likely it sounded noon. They must move soon if their story was to hold. The sound of the bell drawing him closer to an end cut through him like a knife, and he thought he might be sick with the thought.
He closed his eyes and saw the glint again. “If I could loosen the cuffs,” he thought, “I might distract them enough to run out of the alley. Run down __th and 1st, reach the boulevard, take the train and make my way home. They won’t come down there, thank God. My mom and the others are still beyond their reach.”
As these thoughts came upon him the captain nodded at the sergeant, and he did not hesitate.
Adwin Frost was unmoored, a drifter hailing from a generation of drifters. They worked—one could not eat if one did not work was an early lesson Adwin’s mother taught him—moving from odd job to odd job. Adwin, like his peers, was well-versed in the manner of the Self Made Man. To be made was to be content, and so Adwin sought constantly, contentment. His mother, Mrs. Frost, hailed from a different generation, and she hoped that, in spite of the toxic effulgence of his peers and their ambitions, Adwin would “make something” of himself. Mrs. Frost never revealed what making something of one’s self meant, so Adwin supposed that sleeping somewhere that belonged to him, somewhere that wasn’t outside—though the somewhere was not always better than sleeping outside—was making more of himself than others, but less, admittedly, than most.
Adwin’s father rested comfortably in his wife’s shadow, and preferred not to speak.
Adwin had envisioned himself an artist, but opportunity and luck passed him by. There was room for only one artist in the graduating class in which he matriculated, and that space was taken by a nameless, faceless other—someone other than Adwin. Though he was “well spoken” (people who knew told Adwin this enough for him to believe it himself; somehow well spoken meant acceptable other), he could not turn this into a career. In spite of his intentions, Adwin left college with a degree and contacts who were little better off than he, and no real insight into The Way The World Worked. For all of his scholarly knowledge, Adwin was wordly dim, and he could not seem to ease his way into the circles that would grant him passage into the elusive Middle Class. Adwin was pleasant to hear but not pleasant to see; a bit too dark with a voice a bit too deep. And his eyes. They were soul searching eyes; they suggested all manner of independent thought and rebellion.
Adwin did not give up on doing something more than shuffling from job to job, but he believed that his time would come. For now he did what he had to do to make an (honest) living for himself and his parents, his siblings all grown up and moved away. His mother would have killed him herself if she so much as supposed Adwin did anything untoward. Armed with a liberal arts education and connections only useful in the three block radius surrounding his childhood home, Adwin spent time doing what he could—yard work, carpentry, and construction work, when available. He would do this work for his aging parents, and eventually he would do something for himself.
Adwin would have been a great architect, of that he was certain. He could see in space buildings higher and grander than any he had ever seen in life. He excelled in math; indeed, he had an opportunity to prove it once. At a build the contractor asked for a number and Adwin gave it to him instantly. The man thanked him as Edwin and did not turn Adwin’s way again. Though his mother desired—she had, at a low point, begged—that Adwin turn to architectural design, Adwin insisted that through art he would find his voice, and through his voice he would be fulfilled.
He did not anticipate the years of silence.
Adwin’s circumstances made him pauper, but his imagining named him king. As a king he exuded the type of naivete that sees the wearer conned; of what, only time could tell.
One morning Adwin, his mother, his father, and his white friend Cain were seated in the Frost’s small kitchen, feasting silently on a breakfast casserole. The table and chairs were built by Adwin himself, of strong oak, the eye of the tree rugged in the center of the table. The knotted eye faced the ceiling, facing God. Adwin’s mother often stared at the knot in the center of her table, proud of her son, and dismayed. Mrs. Frost turned to her youngest son and said, “Adwin, George Willington is coming through town again. Did you hear?”
George Willington was a large part of the reason that rent had skyrocketed in Adwin’s neighborhood. He called himself a “revitalizer,” raging through communities like a fire. He burned the tenants and their savings and took what was left, sanitized it, and sold it. The people who were ravaged were cluttered in the only place they could afford, just south of the city, right inside the last train stop. Adwin and his parents still lived in the neighborhood of his youth, but only just. All of the others were gone. Cain came after the Williams’, the Frosts’ neighbors for more than twenty years, were asked to leave in thirty days, fourteen if they could please.
At his mother’s words Adwin felt a creeping heat at his collar. If George Willington was back that meant his eyes were set on their dwelling.
“You know, I’m tired of seeing everyone we know stuck in a small space with no way out.” Adwin’s baritone made the words sound more musical and softer than they were. Cain was silent. Adwin was his first black friend, but they hadn’t ventured to discuss his race, as Cain was committed to not seeing Adwin as black.
“How would you, you know, protest?” Cain asked this carefully, staring deeply into his plate. Adwin’s mother thought a moment before responding for her son.
“Well, they’ll have a town hall next week. They could use a voice like yours,” she nodded at Adwin. Adwin scoffed.
“What can a voice like mine accomplish? They won’t hear me. They’ll see me, but they won’t hear me.” Cain relaxed a bit. Adwin’s mother felt a tightening in her chest, but she swallowed it back. She chose her words carefully; Cain was nice enough, but he was new.
“They’ll hear you if you make them hear,” she assured him. Adwin nodded slowly. Mr. Frost stared at his son for a long moment.
“They don’t want your voice, son. They want your blood.” All in the kitchen were silent then. Adwin shook his head furiously.
“No, Dad. You’re wrong. There’s a movement growing. People are different now. They listen and if someone can get them together. . .I could. . .I could form a silent protest. Get a couple of guys. Meet George Willington right there in the middle of it.” Even the thought made Adwin’s heart quicken. Cain’s heart beat fast, too. Mr. Frost’s sank, like a rock, to his feet.
“We can’t let them take what’s ours,” Adwin stated assuredly. “Not without fighting.”
After a few moments more Cain thanked Mrs. Frost for a lovely breakfast. He nodded to Mr. Frost, who did not meet his eyes. He was barely past the front door before he pulled his phone from his pocket, warning his father’s old friend of a troublemaker and his riot.
Adwin Frost jerked backwards as something searing hot moved through him. He landed on the ground as one already dead, a sticky wet warmth enveloping him. He blinked rapidly, resisting the overwhelming urge to sleep. Excruciating pain radiated through his temples and throughout his body. His very sinew was aflame, and each pulse of his heart seemed to carry with it lightning designed to strike him at every nerve’s core. His mouth felt full and he thought he might vomit. He was panicked and could only succumb to this panic; from afar he heard voices screaming. Were they for him?
At once he felt a coolness and the earth beneath him; without thinking he ran. He drew a painful breath into his lungs; it burned and ached and the light around him was blinding. He dared not look back, and indeed could feel the whizzing of bullets as though they were jolting through his body. Perhaps they were, but he could not chance the glance downward.
“I will not go down like a dog in the street,” Adwin swore to himself. “I will not.”
Adwin was conscious of an ache in his shoulders, and remembered at once that he was still cuffed. The keys were tucked into the cuffs, presumably to be removed later as his murderers would have likely positioned him in an offensive position complete with a gun. Still, the strength to turn the key seemed just beyond him. The cuffs cut into his wrists like razor blades, and with great strength Adwin turned the key and wrenched his wrists apart. His arms felt heavy and not his own, but on their own they grappled at the warmth on his face. The hot pain that burned through him had subsided now, and a rapid cooling was taking its place. He knew he must continue if he were to make it home.
Gasping for air Adwin stumbled blindly into the street; he had an awareness of cars whizzing past but he could not see them. He could only see home. He could feel his mother’s warmth and her terror as she took him in. She would be grateful that he had survived, but angry that he had confronted George Willington alone. Shouts behind him caused Adwin to start, and he could hear the whiz of a bullet move close to his ear. He wanted to turn and look back, but the pain in his head made moving any direction but forward impossible.
Adwin closed his heavy eyes for a moment, and was immediately disoriented. He had thought that he was on ____th street when the initial shot missed him, but now he was near the train tracks. He supposed his adrenaline made the passage of time finite and infinite. Still, Adwin thought he might be sick, and he swallowed back the bile in his throat. The lights from the oncoming trains were blinding, and Adwin wanted to rest and reorient himself to the city for a moment. He focused on a singular light just before him—he supposed it was from the station. It seemed for a moment to grow larger in the dim around him; somehow the presence gave him peace. From behind he could hear the rustling of the officers and he knew that he would not find rest until he returned home.
He imagined that George Willington was among the officers, pointing at Adwin as the rabblerouser who confronted him. Adwin wasn’t armed—of course he wasn’t armed—but George Willington exclaimed as though Adwin had threatened him. In the commotion Adwin lost his cool. He had been taught to remain calm, of course, but he was angry and he was frightened and before he had even walked through the door it was clear he had lost.
Every face was white but his and his friends, who were detained immediately. Adwin was led away, uncuffed. He searched the white faces for friendliness, but all were impassive.
He did not want to think about the circumstances that led him to running for his life, but he could not contain himself.
He did not recall being quite so far from the meeting hall before, but perhaps the unquenchable thirst made it seem so much further away, home. He thought of his mother and his father, and the thought of their pride in him urged him forward. They would be upset that he had spoken at all, but they would only be upset with him because they had no access to Them. Once they saw what he had accomplished—he was certain something would be accomplished—they would understand. He would get home and explain everything.
There before him was the road to his house, wide and inviting, a pale smattering of stars pointing him home. The pain in his head threatened again to overwhelm him, and a sticky heat trickled slowly down his forehead. He reached for his face—only to find he could no longer control his hand. Indeed, he seemed to be rapidly losing control of all of his functions. His legs, so strong and powerful, were empty space beneath him.
At once Adwin was before his own house, and his heart fluttered rapidly in his chest. He did not remember walking, yet there he was. The door was flung open as though just inside his parents were already waiting for him. Sun enveloped the house and the warmth that always awaited him in youth was there now. His parents step through the door, smiling down at him, his mother softer than he has ever known her. Even his father appears pleased.
Adwin reaches forward, and at once he feels a blow to his face and a sound like a shot—then darkness, and silence.
Adwin Frost was dead on King Drive in the south side of Chicago with a single bullet to the brain, all that he once was leaking out softly into the cracked, hard street.