Kevin stared at the pair of red Nikes that hung from the telephone line. They dangled in the breeze and looked like a bloodied blister against the blue afternoon sky. His mother had purchased them for his last birthday. The kicks were all he wanted. Forget the cake, he said, knowing the flashy leather and suede shoes would be the only splurge they could afford on her nurse technician pay check. He frowned and choked down a hard swallow, unsure how he’d explain their disappearance to her.
He balled his hands into the pockets of his jeans and began to walk home, sidewalk grime collecting to the soles of his white socks. The street was empty and quiet for a Saturday afternoon. No one sat out on their stoop or washed their care, nor were the neighborhood girls jumping rope or the boys tossing the football as far as they could to the next fire hydrant.
How would he extinguish—a word he learned the other day during science class—his mother’s yelling once she pried loose the truth that his shoes were stolen? Once, last year, Kevin made a dive on the neighborhood basketball court to keep the ball in bounds. He landed on his elbow and knee, burning a bloody scrape across his elbow and forearm, and tearing a hole in his jeans. He arrived home, and after nursing his arm with hydrogen peroxide, she administered a rash of guilt about the tear. For months, he went to school with a flannel square patched on the right knee of his jeans. Would she make him wear his black leather church shoes? They were already scuffed at the tips, and they pinched his toes, and he couldn’t play on the basketball court with them.
He’d have to tell her he, Ricky, and Latasha were cornered to an alley by the Food Mart by school. They were cracking open their orange and grape soda pops when the two older boys stopped them on the sidewalk. They were six foot tall drop outs and wore local colors. The one with the white tank top bumped Latasha down, and she spilled her orange pop all over her shirt. Ricky shoved him back, but the other guy with the flat brim baseball cap stiff armed him to the ground and batted away the soda to a corner of the alley.
Kevin shouted a string a words he couldn’t remember, and sought to pick Latasha up. Baseball cap guy pulled a silver gun from behind his back and waved it casually at his waist, just as casually as he asked for Kevin’s shoes.
Still walking shoeless and his socks fading to the color of the street, he saw a large number of cars parked outside his house. Uncle Dwayne’s brown Impala, Uncle Freddy’s beat up Oldsmobile, Minister John’s Buick, Ms. Thompson’s black Civic were those he recognized. He’d probably know who else was there once he got a little closer. His mother usually made gatherings a big deal, yelling at him to clean his room, pick up the TV room, scrub the toilet. The house would fill with the spiced smoke of pork ribs, booming laughter, and hands and arms waving at the good times. Kevin rubbed his head as if to summon any memory of his mother telling him about a party. He wasn’t prepared to ruin the party with news about his stolen shoes.
He strolled with his head bowed and approached the door. He took his hands out of his pockets, exhaled, and crossed the threshold.
Inside, everyone was dressed in black, moving slowly with their hands clasped, and instead of the delicious scent of pork ribs, earthy notes of coffee floated about.
“Hey, Uncle Dwayne,” Kevin called out to his uncle, whom Kevin would never had guessed owed a black suit. It appeared too small across his belly. Uncle Dwayne remained focused on his conversation with a woman Kevin didn’t recognize. Her eyes were a bleary red.
Confused at the dreary crowd, and annoyed that his uncle ignored him, Kevin looked around for his mother, stepping into the TV room.
All the furniture had been pushed aside to the walls to make room for a casket. Kevin’s stomach lurched, and his face grew cold. Surely, he wouldn’t forget his mother telling him there’d be a wake in their living room.
The casket was open and he saw the scuffed tips of the shoes.
Those were not his shoes.
His stomach tightened and a slick of sweat lined his brow. He approached the casket, dragging his dirty feet across the rug. Which cousin had died?
Kevin stood at the edge of the casket, and stared down at his own face, like a wax figure he, Ricky, and Latasha laughed at inside the haunted house last Halloween. His eyes were closed, and his hands rested across his stomach.
Which now stung. He drew his hand across his shirt and a dime size spot of red bloomed horrendously down his shirt. His grew dizzy and collapsed to the floor. He couldn’t get enough air, and his screams made no sound.
He remembered the truth now. It was quick, loud, cold, and smelled like grape soda pop.
He saw his mother seated in the corner, her face blank, eyes wet and red, and her body slack.
She knew the truth, too.