Jas is an MFA in Writing candidate at SCAD with a passion for creative writing including poetry and memoir. She is planning to graduate this Spring hoping to continue her love for writing with a PhD in English.
“Soda Pop” Pt. I
Friendly Warning: some violence and language
“Wake up, man! Wake up!” shrieks Jared.
“He dead, fool!” shouts Richard.
Richard yanks Jared’s shoulders off of him to get a better look.
And there he was. Christopher Williams. Dead. Not a beating heart to hear. Not a beating heart to feel. His eyes wide open staring into his own momma’s house. A shame this is the way she’ll find her son. You could see every pulsing vein on his head’s surface slowly disappearing with no reason to push blood anymore. Seconds turn into minutes as the group of friends begin to mourn without knowing it. Young black hearts filling with guilt and terror. But this is nothing new for a group of black boys in St. Louis.
Chris laid there as still as he sat in Miss Peaches class. Or in the living room of Momma Sharon’s house. Or standing in line at TJ’s Corner Store. His silence speaks more than ever now; yet, it’s too late to even have a chance to speak. The boys had been looking for weeks now just to find their friend, more like their brother. The blood shedding from his flesh was theirs, too. And the minute they found him … they killed him. Stephen starts wailing to wherever the heavens could hear him. Jared pushes Richard out of the way again.
“Do we run?” shouts Richard.
“Our homie’s dead, you dummy. No, we don’t run!” responds Jared.
What a dumbass thing to ask me.
Richard places his hand on the gun still steaming in his pocket. It stings. Jared’s hands start dancing all over Christopher’s body again. Checking for a heart beat only to feel the dent of the bullet pierced into Christopher’s side.
Man, you gotta wake up. This isn’t real. You’re not dead.
Jared’s vision becomes blurry as rivers of tears flow down his face to his neck to his chin only to spill onto Christopher’s body.
“What the fuck are you doing, Jared?”
If Rich says one more thing…
A sharp ringing in Jared’s ear drowns out Stephen’s wailing and Richard’s stillness. An emotional rampage takes over his body with eagerness to just end it all.
Just kill me, too, Rich.
“Man, what are you doing?”
Tears blur Jared’s vision as his head sways above Christopher’s body.
Is this it?
Jared snaps his neck to look up at Richard standing still in terror. A single tear trails down his face as the gun swings between his fingers. Jared then looks at Stephen walking in circles with his palms pressed to his forehead.
“Lord, Jesus, Father God, why?” wails Stephen.
And Jared? Just pressed. The ringing is interrupted by doors slamming open. Sirens coming in the distance. Closer and closer. Porch lights shed even more light on Christopher’s body sleeping under Jared’s. The Lou could hear the cries of MLK Drive. The Lou could hear the shriek of Momma Sharon.
“My baby!” booms Momma Sharron.
And here come the running footsteps.
The school bell blares and students of Lafayette High flood the hallways before it could even finish sounding. Miss Peaches shouts over the bell as her restless students shuffle books and papers in their bookbags to hurry to the hallway. The three boys huddle in the back of the dusty classroom: Stephen Johnson, Christopher Williams, Jared Langston, and Richard Cross. All best friends since diapers damn near. Now they share classrooms and orange soda pop together when they’re not trapped inside Lafayette’s walls.
“Y’all don’t forget yo papers are due on Friday! And don’t be chewin’ no gum in my class on Friday either.”
“Yes, Miss Peaches,” the class moans.
“I just bought a new pack though,” Jared mumbles as he unwraps a fresh piece of Extra chewing gum and forces it between his lips. He shrugs his shoulders as Miss Peaches gives him the stink eye.
The boys join the other students in the hallway because Miss Peaches don’t play. “That bell don’t dismiss you! I do.” rings in the boys’ ears every single day leaving Miss Peaches class.
You’d be in big trouble if you walked out of that classroom before she was finished talking. Don’t even try it.
The boys take on the river of students at Lafayette High together. Richard daps up a few of his buddies. Stephen double checks, no, triple checks his schedule to see what’s the next class. It’s been the same all year. Jared checks out all the fly honeys walking by as they wink back at him.
“Aye, lil mama,” Jared flirts smacking his gum as Destiny parades past him.
He turns his body towards her direction just to walk backwards and bumps into Christopher. Destiny snickers and rolls her eyes.
“Hey, watch it!” Stephen exclaims as he pushes Jared off Christopher. Christopher pays no mind. Hands to himself, eyes to himself, and mouth sealed.
“My bad, C,” Jared apologizes as he taps him on the chest.
Steph so protective for no reason.
“It’s coo,” Christopher forgives.
Christopher picks up his stride and catches up to the boys’ next class. Jared stands still in confusion against his locker. Richard and Stephen come storming behind him to catch up. They all three watch Christopher disappear past the classroom doors. Richard grips Jared’s shoulder.
“I don’t know why he running. He knows we gon’ meet him there anyway. But, aye, did you see Laquisha’s outfit today, man? She has no idea what I would–”
“No,” says Jared plainly.
But she was looking good.
“You need to stop looking at these girls around here and go look at the Lord,” adds Stephen as he rolls his neck.
“Aye, the Lord gave me eyes to see, so I’ma use ‘em,” snaps Richard.
Stephen thumps Richard on the head before Richard smacks the back of Stephen’s neck laughing. The boys break out into a play fight throwing their bookbags onto Jared’s feet and diving into the sea of Lafayette students. Jared rolls his eyes and grips the handle of his bookbag on his shoulder using his other hand to motion his brothers to stop playing around. He smacks his gum a few times staring off into space. Stephen and Richard make their way back to Jared retrieving their dirty bookbags away from filthy sneakers and dried gum on the sidewalk. That’s what makes up Lafayette High anyway. “Y’all notice anything wrong with Chris lately?” Jared questions.
“I think–” starts Stephen.
“Nah, he seems fine to me,” interrupts Richard.
“Well, if I could finish,” snaps Stephen as he fixes his neck towards Richard again and then turns back to Jared in confusion.
“We usually walk together, no?”
Steph’s right, but somethin’ ain’t right.
Richard cups his hand on Jared’s shoulder again.
“Man, chill. You trippin’ for nothin’. Maybe he’s just havin’ a bad day.” The school bell rings.
“Ah, shit!” They all mumble and hurry to class.
“Ya know, I finally got Laquisha’s number today. She told me not to call ‘til after 9 though. Her pops must be crazy.”
“Man, that’s because she ain’t gon’ pick up after 9,” claps Jared.
“Or pick up at all!” chuckles Stephen.
The boys break out in laughter as they stomp through the grassy sidewalk of MLK Drive before they reach the corner of Johnson, the street named after Stephen’s daddy. A preacher. He’s done more than enough for the black community in the Lou; and yet, still struggling to do so. He gets no support from the white politicians, but support from the church members. Many say Pastor Johnson is saving the Lou; slowly, but surely. From food drives to church community service, the Lou needs all the help it can get. And it solely comes from the help of Carver Baptist Church. Your typical black church with old, hollering preachers humming negro spirituals that the ancestors sang in the cotton fields. The boys could hear the spirituals on the other side of the church doors every time they walked by. Even when the church didn’t schedule choir rehearsal or it wasn’t Sunday morning, the ancestors continued to fill the sanctuary with their voices.
Richard kicks an empty soda pop can rhythmically between each step. Stephen fumbles through his school journal dropping a sheet of notes here and there. The hot dog stand across the street begs for the nickels and dimes in their pockets. The smell of overpriced, sloppy pig quenches their hunger everyday after school; they know they can only afford the soda pops at the corner store. Raggedy pairs of ripped up nikes and adidas hang on the thin shoe strings above the boys heads. No wonder the telephone lines could never reach the next house down the street. They’re drowned in marks of drug dealers and memorials to lost homies. Then the sidewalks drowned in overwhelming patches of grass and broken cement. Jared checks the tips of his shoes in between the high grass mounds in frustration.
When they ever gon’ fix these streets in the hood? I just got these Jordans.
Christopher walks quietly without adding his two cents or a laugh. He starts to pull out his house key for all the boys to shuffle in. They always stayed at Momma Sharon’s house after school just to keep themselves out of trouble, or to wait for trouble to find them. 1024 NE MLK Drive. Then they would head to TJ’s Corner store to grab an orange soda pop. 112 MLK Drive.
Christopher throws the keys on the kitchen table and makes his way to his bedroom as all the boys make their way in. Clean Jordans fling across the room as heavy bookbags hit the floor. Richard hops on the couch with remote in hand as Stephen joins him.
“Man, y’all know we goin’ to TJ’s. What y’all gettin’ comfortable for?” complains Jared as he shuts the door behind him routinely dropping his bookbag on the floor, too. “I can’t relax after a long day at work? Ya know I worked a 9-5 today,” explains Richard. Jared thumps Richard on the head as he falls on the couch, too. “Now what job you got, fool?” Stephen laughs.
Jared chuckles. Richard swipes their laughs away with his hand as Christopher joins them in the living room and takes a seat on the recliner. The boys get quiet. Richard turns around to Christopher.
“Aye, Chris, what’s up with you?”
Stephen and Jared join Richard in staring at Christopher. Their silence just begging for a direct answer from their friend.
“Miss Peaches must’ve been disappointed that her favorite student didn’t kiss her ass today,” Richard teases.
Christopher throws a balled up straw rapper at Richard’s head without a word. “I answered a few questions today,” brags Stephen.
Christopher gives Steph a stern look.
“Boy, don’t nobody care. Go read a Bible!” Richard exclaims and turns to look at Christopher.
Steph scowls at Richard.
“So, what’s really going on, man?”
The boys get quiet again and wait for an answer.
Christopher looks at Jared, then Stephen, then Richard, then his lap.
“Alright well, ya boy is getting thirsty. Let’s hit up TJ’s,” encourages Richard as he claps his hands to signal their exit.
Jared rolls his eyes again as he slides off the couch in disappointment. The boys all gather by the door grabbing for Jordans and the few crumbled up dollars of change their mommas gave them just for soda pops. Surprisingly, Christopher agrees to tag along, quietness and all. He grabs his keys and shuts the door behind them as they make their way to the corner store.
“What up, TJ!” Richard shouts as he runs into the store heading straight for the soda pop refrigerator.
Stephen, Jared, and Christopher follow in behind him nodding their heads to TJ. “That’s Mr. TJ to you, boy. You know better than that,” he shouts back. Mr. TJ is the owner of the corner store and has been for 50 years now. Old man with a good soul and rusty hands. Patches of white hairs sit upon his head just waiting to disappear, but just enough remain to call it hair. His round belly swallows the edge of the cashier counter. A belly sandwich is what the boys like to call it. Behind the belly and his wrinkled face, was a deep admiration for those four boys. If anyone, Mr. TJ was a grandfather to them.
“I didn’t see you at church on Sunday, Mr. TJ,” wonders Stephen as he approaches the cashier with a bag of Fritos and a purple soda pop.
“I had to take care of my old lady. She’s not feeling well,” answers TJ with a stern face.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. TJ. I’ll keep her in my prayers.”
“Yeah, we all will!”
Richard walks up to the cashier with Christopher and Jared following behind him. All soda pops in hand.
“Boy, why you hollerin’?” snaps Stephen.
Richard gives Stephen a confused look.
“I’m just making sure Mr. TJ can hear me?”
Jared thumps Richard on the head again. Christopher chuckles.
“Aye, man, stop doing that!” snaps Richard as he turns around and lightly pushes Jared.
Jared laughs as Christopher quietly slides in front of Richard to the cashier to pay his change.
“That’ll be it, Mr TJ, sir,” says Christopher in a low mumbling voice.
“Pick ya head up, boy. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Mr. TJ, sir,”
“How ya momma doin’?”
Mr. TJ briskly slides the soda pop and bag of chips across the counter. “She’s doin’ good, Mr. TJ, sir.”
“Y’all boys stayin’ out of trouble?”
TJ makes eye contact with all of them. Their bodies straighten up quickly. “Yes, Mr. TJ,” they all say together.
He takes Christopher’s exact change as the cashier drawer jolts out with a dinging sound.
Stephen steps up, then Jared, then Richard. The boys leave the corner store with lips pressed against their soda pops. That would be the last time all four of them visit TJ’s Corner Store together.
Days pass and Christopher hasn’t said a word since he talked to Mr. TJ at the corner store. Jared asks time and time again what’s up with Christopher. But all he gets is…
“Nothing,” says Christopher.
“Man, you’ve been quiet for a week now. Did your puppy die or something?” asks Richard.
Stephen has a concerned look on his face as he stares at Christopher sinking his face into his lap again. Jordans and bookbags cover the floor of Momma Sharon’s. Richard flips through the TV channels waiting for the basketball game to pop up. He pauses when he sees the corner store flash on the TV screen while the news anchor delivers the breaking news.
“This just in, The Corner Store on Johnson and MLK Drive has been robbed by who seem to be local gang members. At least three young men were involved, all about 6 feet tall wearing all black. The late Thomas James Williams III was 70 years of age when he was shot and killed during the robbery. He leaves behind his wife, Coretta …”
Richard clicks the power button on the remote before the anchor could finish. He cups his face in his trembling hands. Jared’s mouth caves open in shock as Stephen rocks back and forth in the recliner shutting his eyes.
“He’s with the angels now,” utters Christopher.
Jared turns his head towards Christopher in confusion.
That’s the first thing he’s said in like a week.
Jared frowns as he looks at Stephen and Richard. They both frown back in grief. The room is silent as Christopher gets up from the loveseat and pulls the shades back from the living room window. Jared follows him with his eyes. Christopher subtly nods towards something on the other side of the window. Jared arches his eyebrows in confusion again.
Who’s he looking for? Momma Sharon doesn’t get back until 5.
“Yo, what’s up?” shouts Richard from across the room.
“Just looking. Nothing,” responds Christopher.
The three boys look at each other then look back at Christopher.
Weeks go by and Christopher creates a new routine for himself. All four boys would walk back to Momma Sharon’s house after school and Christopher would do nothing but check the window every 5 minutes. He started taking his bookbag back to his room. Putting his shoes in his own closet. His absence in the house became more normal as he left his brothers behind everyday. Jared, Stephen, and Richard would wait for him to get home after school like they were Momma Sharron or somethin’. But Chris always got home before Momma Sharon did anyway.
Christopher bursts through the front door panting and slams it behind him. The best friends all hop up from the couch from watching TV.
“Chris, what’s going on?” Stephen hollers.
Christopher runs to his bedroom and returns with a small, black metal object. The boys all stare at each other in fear and confusion.
“Man, where the fuck did you get that from?” demands Richard.
“Don’t worry about it!” responds Christopher.
“You’ve been in and out of here for weeks not you like a drug dealer or somethin’ without telling us anything then you run out of here with a gun? Are you kidding me?! You gon’ have to tell us what’s going on, Chris” battles Jared.
“What, you my momma now?”
“Maybe yo daddy!”
“You have no idea what’s been going on okay.”
Stephen burst into tears.
“Yeah, because you won’t tell us!” shouts Jared.
“Shut up with all that crying, Steph.”
“Now you gotta glock?” Richard shouts. “Man, give me that!”
Christopher pulls away from Richard.
“I’ve got to handle some business.”
Christopher darts out of the house leaving his best friends behind… again. “Man, where are you going?” Stephen shouts after him.
He hops in the back of a black car. Jared squints his eyes to see the passenger window roll up before revealing who is taking his best friend. His brother.
What in the world did he get himself into?
Jared and Stephen hear Richard punching a hole in the kitchen wall behind them. The porch door swings back and forth in the wind flowing down MLK Drive. And that would be the last time the boys saw their best friend … alive.
“Man, just go in,” pushes Richard.
“No, you go in,” snaps Stephen as he nudges Richard’s shoulder.
“We all need to go in,” says Jared.
The boys stand outside of TJ’s Corner Store peering past the glossy windows and ripped flyers. “We’ll miss you, Mr. TJ” reads the graffiti letters right on the center window of the building. Jared swallows the lump in his throat.
I told myself I would never go back into this store.
“Just follow my lead,” signals Jared as he starts towards the front door. The boys follow in a scattered line. The handle is cold as Jared pulls open the front door. He immediately glances over at the cashier.
That’s definitely not Mr. TJ.
A tall hispanic gentleman sways behind the counter and raises his hand at the boys as they enter the store.
Must not speak English.
The boys walk up to the counter timidly.
“Um, have you seen this boy around here?”
Jared holds up Christopher’s high school picture from last school year. His teeth beaming white. He still had his braces on then. That’s when he was Miss Sharon’s boy and the boys’ best friend.
“No,” says the man bluntly.
Richard lets out an angry sigh while Stephen lowers his head to the ground. The picture trembles in between Jared’s fingers as he still holds it up to the man. “Are you sure?” Jared asks as he hides behind the picture.
“No,” answers the man.
The boys storm out of the corner store. This time, no soda pops in hand.
“We’ve been looking for days now,” says Stephen as he kicks the soda pop can in between his steps.
“We seriously need to go to the church and talk to somebody.”
“Man, ain’t no preacher gon’ know where he is if we can’t find him,” responds Richard.
“Oh, so you got all the answers now?” questions Jared.
Richard runs in front of his friends to stop them in their tracks. He stares Jared and Stephen in the face teary-eyed.
“Man, I just know my best friend is gone. And we gotta find him.”
Stephen and Jared look at each other and back at Richard.
“We know,” answers Jared.
The boys hang as they stand close on the corner of MLK Drive and Johnson. Cars pass by honking with booming trunks and open windows. The smell of wet hotdogs and marijuana fill the air. Jared takes a moment to look up at the sky. Looking past the hanging sneakers, the sky is a shade of peach with wispy yellow and lilac streaks.
You’ve gotta be out there somewhere, Chris.
The boys sit in Richard’s older brother’s Honda Civic at 3 in the morning. They wait across the street from Momma Sharon’s house. Stephen is fast asleep with his head leaning up against the car window in the backseat. The grease from his nappy curls smears all over the inside of the car window making the dirt more blurry. Drool drips down his chin onto his lap in slow motion. Jared and Richard slump in the front seat with the pistol sitting on Richard’s lap. Stephen starts snoring. Richard starts nodding off. Jared’s eyes are heavy. 30 more minutes pass with not a car in sight. Instead, the ongoing sirens in the distance rock the boys to sleep.
Jared taps Richard on the shoulder. Richard jumps and drags his hand down his face to adjust to the streetlight’s brightness. He turns to look at Jared. “Man, we just needa go inside and sleep. No reason to be sleeping in no car,” whispers Jared. Richard shakes his head in disagreement and tiredness.
“What’s the difference between sleeping on the floor at Momma Sharon’s and sleeping in this car? She only got two rooms. And we ain’t sleeping in his bed. That’s fucked up,” Richard explains quietly.
Jared sighs and replies, “Alright, man.”
Richard shifts his body around looking into the back seat to check on Stephen. “That boy knocked out.”
“I know,” Jared mumbles. “Wish I was, too.”
“Aye, what’s that?” blurts Richard.
The boys all sit up in the car and peer out the front window. A black car pulls up slowly to Momma Sharon’s house.
“That’s them!” shouts Richard as pushes open the car door and jumps out the car with pistol in hand.
“Wait!” Jared calls after him.
Jared and Stephen jump out the car to chase after Richard bolting down the street. “What’s he doing, what’s he doing?” screams Stephen as they stumble behind Richard.
The car door opens and a young Black man hops out with a black ski mask over his face and a black hoodie swallowing his small stature. He is frightened by raising both of his hands in the air as he sees Richard running straight at him. Richard’s steps get heavier as he comes to a stop right in front of the car while Jared and Stephen run in right behind him.
“Shoot him!” shrieks Jared.
A gunshot goes off.
Momma Sharon’s front door swings back and forth in the wind with flashes of red and blue reflecting on the tarnished wood. Inside, the bowls of Fruity Pebbles are still rimmed with whole milk and small specks of rainbow-colored flakes. The cakes topple over the left bowls of cereal with paper plates and napkins spread all over the table. The news anchor flashes on the TV screen in Momma Sharon’s living room with tissues spread all over the couch and coffee table. More sirens wail in the distance over the cries of heartbroken neighbors and a heartbroken mother of four boys.
“This just in, multiple killings take place on MLK Drive at approximately 3 a.m. this morning…”