“A Project’s Tale” by Michael H. Pasley – Summer 2019 Fiction Winner

When I saw on the internet that an entire family had died in a fire, it made me think of the new kids. It happened at the same government housing complex, what we called the Projects, where I grew up. It wasn’t the new kids who died. No they would be adults now.

My name’s Isaiah, and I left the Projects behind a long time ago. Now I’m an astronomer. I gaze upward for a living, but backward in regret.

I was eleven years old the first time I saw the new kids. They rolled up in an old, busted station wagon pulling a rickety trailer. The station wagon was brown, and had no hubcaps, and a big crack split its windshield. A noise, like the cough of an old man slowly dying from influenza came from under the hood.

It seemed like everything this family owned was on the back of that trailer, all piled up high and haphazardly roped together. The great heap of stuff swayed from side to side, like a back alley drunk about to tip over.

The family parked and started unloading. There were a girl, two boys, and a man who was probably the dad. The probably dad, grabbed a bag of something and went straight into the house. The girl, appeared around my age and her brothers younger. The boys were a dark-skinned African black, the soft blue-black of an empty night sky. They looked like twins but said they weren’t. One was even a few inches taller than the other. Both had shaved heads, and the whites of their eyes floated in their faces, bright stars shining at midnight.

I gave the kids a tentative wave, and to my shock, they all turned toward me. They bowed, like fighters in a Bruce Lee flick. I couldn’t help myself. I laughed and asked. “Hey, why’d you guys do that?”

“Peace and greetings,” said the girl. She sure was something. She was lighter than her brothers and had this cute button nose, smooth skin, and cheekbones you could climb on. When she smiled, her dimples made her whole face light up. Her hair was in fat plaits decorated with barrettes in a rainbow of colors. She had on a pretty dress, but I can’t remember the color; I only remember her face.

“That’s cool,” I said. “Hey, my name’s Isaiah. Y’all want to go to the park later?”

“Sure,” all three kids said simultaneously and bowed again.

“Why y’all so weird?” I asked.

“We ain’t weird. We follow the Water Path,” said the kids’ probably dad as he passed by carrying boxes into their apartment. He had a big afro, was knife thin and had deep-set, dark eyes.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A philosophy,” said the girl.

“Like a religion?”

“Yeah, but not quite. We don’t believe in God,” said the girl.

That was confusing. Who didn’t believe in God? To me, that was akin to someone saying they didn’t believe in air and fire, or birds and dogs. For my Pentecostal family, believing in God was not a faith-based endeavor. We didn’t believe in God. We knew there was a God. Who else could have made outer space?

Last year I had collected old boxes and car parts from a junkyard. I had hoped to build a starship and soar into the heavens. I had heard President Reagan on television giving a speech about astronauts who had died trying to launch into space. He had said they waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face God.” That sounded wonderful to me. My junkyard starship hadn’t flown, had not slipped away from anything. Gravity had her and always would. But my curiosity about space remained.

In a thoughtless motion, I craned my neck upward, hoping perhaps to see an angel on a cloud throw me a thumbs up, as if to say. “Those kids are crazy. Look at me, I’m here.”

A few days later, I saw the kids outside and decided to give them a chance. They were, if anything, entertaining. “Hey what y’all doing? Can you play?” I asked, running over to them.

The girl frowned, cocked her head to the side, put her hand on her bony hip and poked out her bottom lip. “No,” she said in a sassy tone.

“Why?” I asked, a bit put out.

“You’re not on the Water Path,” she answered.

The twins who weren’t really twins stared at me, creeping me out. But I was also curious, so I stood my ground “How do you do the Water Path?”

“You’re too weak,” she said.

I had no intention of becoming one of them, but I wasn’t gonna let some weirdo girl call me weak either. “I ain’t!” I yelled at her.

“Are,” she said.

“What I gotta do?”

“Renounce violence and meditate on peace.”

“What?”

“You gotta be like water,” she said. “Be fluid. Hold onto nothing heavy.”

I frowned. This, sounded stupid.

She went on. “Water doesn’t resist conflict, it simply moves out of its way. Throw a rock in a pond. It don’t float, water just moves around it and lets it sink to the ground.”

“I guess I could do that,” I lied. None of this made much sense to me. I liked to fight. My mama taught me to stick my fist in, to solve any problem I had. And here was this weird girl talking about being water and what not. But it still bugged me that she’d said I was weak. So, I started meditating with them right then, sitting in what they called the Ra position, cross-legged, my right leg over my left one. I held my arms and hands beside me in upside down L’s, palms to the sky.

We were out there for hours. The meditation felt better than I had thought it would. A calm washed over me, scrubbing at smears of anger on my heart I didn’t know I had. I closed my eyes and imagined myself floating through the solar system. I soared past the smiling moon with its pale pockmarked face. I heard the storms crash in Jupiter’s great ruddy eye and smelled the burnt copper of the frozen vacuum. I hurtled into the infinite black depths of that nothing sea where the word “emptiness” finds its true definition and proper form. I looked for God’s face, but found only the unending black. But it was okay.

Sitting there, an inner peace washed over me. And I would only ever catch glimpses of it again. Peace, like a fleeing figure ahead of me, seemed to always turn corners and hide endeavoring to evade.

Finally, we called it a day, and the girl told me her name was Ebony. Probably dad was really her dad and he had taught them this amazing skill. Ebony promised me she would show me more techniques tomorrow and I agreed to come by.

It’s a sad fact that in the Projects people talked a lot. Rumors were, and are, the cosmic microwave background of the ghetto, filling in all the empty places. And a lot of rumors about the new family ran wild at that time. There was one story that the family had been in a cult, with red pentagrams, animal sacrifice, and all that. Another story said the children were the victims of kidnapping, because they didn’t look like their dad.

I thought all the rumors were dumb.

One day, the twins who weren’t twins and I were outside playing. Ice, a neighborhood drug dealer, and tough guy smacked another kid called Dumpy Johnson with a Louisville Slugger. The rumor was, Dumpy got it cause he had stolen from Ice, but there were whispers of a girl they both liked being involved too.

Whatever it was, Ice ran off, and poor Dumpy lay there, blood pooling around him. When the ambulance and the cops showed, the hood was quiet. No one ever talked to the police. The cops knew this too, but they had to at least make a show of trying to investigate. I was standing there with the twins when this lady cop came over. She asked if we’d seen anything. I shook my head. But Little Twin said, “Yeah, Ice took a bat and smashed Dumpy with it.”

I froze.

The lady cop froze.

Some of the folk standing near us froze.

I’m pretty sure the world froze.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and neither could the cop. She blinked at Little Twin and asked. “What did you say?”

He repeated himself.

I ran.

Ice got arrested.

The hood went nuts.

As far as science can tell, the laws of physics are immutable, at least at a non-quantum level. The Earth rotates around the sun, and the moon’s gravitational pull creates tides. However, there was one rule where I grew up, that was, and still is to this day, unbending, unyielding, immovable, firm, cast-in-stone, and fixed, snitches get stitches.

It started with a brick through the family’s car window and was followed by their tires getting slashed. Some asshole fed their dog radiator fluid, killing it. Little Twin and Big Twin had their bikes stolen. Ebony was surrounded by a whole pack of hood rats at school. They screamed at her. They pulled her hair and threw soft drinks on her. Three guys jumped the dad, knocking out two of his teeth and breaking his ribs. This harassment went on for a long time.

The persecution might have eventually ended if the kid’s dad hadn’t broken another taboo.

He called the police.

Now, in the Projects, calling the cops was a notion as absurd as calling a mechanic for a broken arm. After the news hit the street. The family was not only snitches, but also cop callers, free and easy game for all the predators in the concrete jungle.

I found myself in a jam. I liked the kids, but hanging around them had become ghetto suicide. To my shame, I avoided them as best I could.

We were riding home from school on the bus, not long after the cop calling episode took place, and Tony Higgs started in on Little Twin, calling him names. Tony’s little sister Tasha yanked Ebony’s braids. Ebony turned around and asked her, “Why?”

“Cause y’all a bunch of cop-calling snitches is why,” said Tasha in her high squeal, her head weaving confrontationally, like a snake preparing to strike.

“Bless you,” Ebony said.

“I’m gonna bless your face with these fists, bitch,” replied Tasha.

A crowd formed around Little Twin. Various kids were pinching him, smacking the back of his head, and punching him in the arm. Meanwhile, Big Twin stared out the window like nothing at all was going on. Little Twin was crying.

A rage kindled inside me. My hands balled into fists, and I stood, ready to fight. Forget the ghetto code. What I was seeing was wrong.

“Hey, you little heathens, sit your butts down,” cried the bus driver, a rather large angry woman.

Everything got quiet.

But soon, everyone was whispering.

Everyone knew. It was gonna go down when we reached our stop.

The ride went by in a blink. Our bus stopped, and all the kids were looking at the new kids and at me. We got off last.

It seemed like everyone in the whole world had gathered around this small elm tree at the bus stop. Higgs was bouncing around, shadowboxing, doing his best Muhammad Ali impression. This was not good. Higgs was tough, but still, I thought I could take him.

The new kids were behind me, as if I were some sort of ozone layer and could shield them from all the hate radiating their way. Ebony looked at me. God, she was cute. Little Twin and Big Twin looked at me too, like I was their hero or something.

I sighed and told them to follow. We started walking. I knew it would be a long shot, but, my plan was to walk past Higgs and the crowd. I’d go home and not think about any of this anymore. I know, not great, but I was eleven.

Higgs called out. “Hey, black holes where you going?”

Everyone laughed. Higgs called the twins that on account of their dark skin.

I looked around, and what had once seemed to be everyone in the world had multiplied, turning into everyone who had ever lived. I know it sounds crazy, but I saw trillions of people over there, people stretching on into forever.

And I was all alone with these weirdo kids.

So, I did the only thing I knew to do, what the Projects had taught me to do. I pointed at Little Twin and laughed. “He called you a black hole.”

The crowd laughed hysterically, and within their laughter, I found a place to hide.

I didn’t look at Ebony. I didn’t look at Big or Little twin.

“Isaiah?” questioned Ebony.

“Shut up!” I screamed at her and swung on Big Twin, catching him in the jaw. My fist slammed into his face like an asteroid crashing to Earth. He never saw it coming. He collapsed like an old star. I wanted to vomit. My stomach rumbled, a storm brewing deep within. Why were they so weird? Why were they so different? This was the Projects. There was no peace here. Peace was in heaven or in the stars, places kids like me thought they could never go. The crowd’s shouts were deafening, but I still heard Big Twin sniffling. He was stupid. These kids were all so stupid.

I spun and shoved Little Twin down. “Be like water!” I yelled at him and laughed. A few kids clapped me on my back, but each slap felt like a betrayal, a little death. That’s the moment I grew up. That’s the action that cost me my childhood, what little innocence I had left that the Projects hadn’t ripped from me. It was a profound internal fee, I’ve been paying installments on ever since.

I walked away, went home and cried. I didn’t stay to watch the whole world, all trillion people beat up the new kids. I did hear them scream, though, as the punches began to fall like meaty rain. I snuck away into outer space and shame.

I couldn’t look the new kids in the eyes again after that. And, when they moved away a few months later, I’ll admit I was relieved. I never saw Ebony or her brothers again. Sometimes though, when I’m in the observatory late at night observing the glory of God’s cosmos, I find myself wishing I could bend my instruments back onto the Earth and magically, scan the planet for those kids. If I ever found them out there, I would tell them I’m sorry.

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