Tyler Johnson Was Here

by Jay Coles

Clock Icon 9 minute read

Here’s what goes down:

It’s just the four of us. My best friends, Ivy and Guillermo (G-mo), my brother, Tyler, and me. We’re just strolling through the aisles of a corner convenience store, rapping aloud to my favorite Kendrick Lamar song, “Feel,” taking turns rapping verses out loud.

We each choose a bag of chips and a candy bar. For me, I pick salt and vinegar Lay’s, something I could toss a mint in my mouth after and still be fine, and then a king-sized Kit Kat bar.

We go up to the register and pay for our stuff. I’m mostly excited to satisfy my growling stomach over a binge marathon of A Different World, at my and Tyler’s place.

Tyler wouldn’t normally be hanging around me and my geek friends, but this is his way of bonding with me. His way of saying I love you, bro, even though those words never fall out of his mouth. When we walk out the store, now singing the theme song to A Different World, Tyler rolling his eyes and grinning, we realize that we spent too long strolling through the aisles of packaged goods, and by the time we’re out the door, the sun has left the sky, the world darkened.

This gets Tyler a little irritated. He checks our shared phone furiously, as if he’s expecting an important message or phone call.

Our hood is called Sterling Point. Streetlights smoldering in a fog of cannabis smoke, potholes mazing the roads, gravel driveways, and garden gnomes with bullet holes. Everything is just ugly as shit, except the murals painted out on the sides of walls, black African queens holding their heads high, Tupac staring out with a small smile. But even the ugliness, I guess, is its own kind of beautiful. So I’ve learned to embrace it.

Tyler, G-mo, and I get on our bikes, and Ivy flips her skateboard right side up. We clutch our snacks to our sides, like they’ll somehow get stolen from us on the way back. And when we’re a block away from my place, we see a guy walking up our way down the block, turning from Ninth Street. He’s dragging his legs, a backpack under his arm.

I slow, and then pump on my handle brakes.

I recognize him. He looks like every other white guy at Sojo High. Skinny. Sad, like he constantly feels out of place. I think I know him from a music theory class I took freshman year. We never talk much outside of class, but we’ve shared notes.

I’ve heard all the horror stories of people walking all alone at night ending up missing or something, so I’m about to wave him down—maybe even invite him over to join us for some geeking out over A Different World—but all of a sudden, coming out of nowhere, is the striking sound of gunshots. Pop! Pop! Pop!

They come in fast and piercing blasts. Again and again.

The skinny white dude drops to the ground, shielding his head.

“What the fuck?” G-mo shouts.

And I fall on my side, my bike slamming down on top of me, crushing my chest on impact with one quick punch.

Everything starts blurring and fading like someone drugged the Kool-Aid I’ve been sipping on all day from a water bottle. As I lift the bike off me, I feel this huge pang in my head, like I got some sort of goddamn concussion from colliding with the concrete sidewalk.

My next instinct is to stay quiet, to internalize all my cussing and fear, to make sure Ivy, G-mo, and Tyler do the same. It’s hard, but I’ve gotten a lot of training.

I turn over to check on Tyler. Hot Fries are littering his chest, and first they have me thinking they’re bloodstains. I furiously search his body for any wounds, almost about to rip off all of his clothing before I finally realize.

He’s okay. I’m okay.

G-mo and Ivy are okay.

Their faces are frozen with fear, like the gunshots released all the fear chemicals in their brains. But they’re still here.

Man, what the fuck. This shit’s straight up got on my last nerve. Why’d they choose tonight for a gang shoot-out?

Then, like, out of nowhere again, I see a cop waddling toward us, and my worst nightmare has started to come true. It isn’t a gang shoot-out.

The cop is really pale, skin like a snowfall foreign to Sterling Point—the toilet of America, where shit really goes down. He has a bald head and eyes like the most chilling emeralds. Eyes that scream shitty things at me. We shouldn’t be here.

He’s dragging a boy wearing an all-black hoodie whose hands are being held behind his back—the boy screams in excruciating pain, calling out that he wants to get back home, wailing for the cop to let go of him, that he’s unarmed, that he doesn’t want to die, and reminding the cop that he’s innocent until proven guilty. But the cop isn’t hearing that shit.

And so, just ten feet away, he slams the boy on the ground. Suddenly, I’m a little kid again, watching my first body drop from a single bullet, feeling an overwhelming surge of adrenaline. Heart pounding in my chest. Cold sweats sending me shaking.

The cop keeps bashing the poor kid into the sidewalk, smashing his face onto the surface, screaming hate into the back of his head, screaming that he forgot his place in the world, screaming that his wide nose had it coming. All I can see—all I can focus on—is the cop as he pulls out his baton.

And the air I swallow is like Novocain. I go numb all over, adrenaline rising within me. My heart is doing more than beating in my chest—it’s rhythmically shredding me. I wonder if I’ll return home again. I struggle to remember the last thing I told my mother. Was it something really fucked up? I can’t think straight.

The cop’s head remains angled down for a while, his baton rising in the air and coming down in rapid, brutal strikes to the back of the poor boy’s head. My chest gives in and out, constricting tighter and tighter as each bloody second slips by. I’m stricken with fear.

“What the fuck?!” Ivy screams, hiding her face from the horror that’s going on in front of us. And it’s in this moment that the police officer looks over and notices us.

After cuffing the boy underneath him, the cop clutches his gun holster—gives us a glare. “Stay where you are,” he says. “Don’t fucking move.”

I’m thinking to myself: Holy shit. Oh, God. Holy shit. Oh, God.

G-mo slowly tries to reach for his bike. I can hear all the panic in his deep, gasping breaths.

“Where’re you coming from?” the cop asks. “You came from robbing the store? Bunch of thugs just ran in this direction. You one of them, huh?”

My thoughts start to run a marathon, so long and far, going miles away from this city, as hot tears streak my cold face, drying beneath my nose. “No—no, we didn’t rob anyone!”

The cop shows his hands, his knee in the boy’s back, and clutched neatly in his fist is his gun, aimed at us.

“Hold up, hold up! What’re you doing?” Tyler says.

“Hands up!” the cop shouts, foaming at the mouth from the anger inside him. The darkness kind of covers his face, but not his hatred. “Do not fucking move!”

“Ohshit,” Ivy says all as one word, her arms shaking while raised. I hear a low scream.

“Oh fuck, oh fuck,” G-mo goes, like he knows this is going to be the end of the road for us. We’ve heard too many stories and seen too many things not to feel like this could be it for us, that it could be a white police officer signing our death certificates tonight.

A yelp emerges from the void in my gut. The air suddenly feels rough against my skin. In that moment, I replay the time when Mama got pulled over for speeding with Tyler and me in the back seat when we were eleven. “Keep your head down,” she said to us. “Breathe right. Breathe easy.” Mama and Dad didn’t teach Tyler and me to be afraid of the cops—only to listen to their orders.

G-mo, Ivy, and I have our hands in the air like we’re reaching up to touch the sky and collect all the stars. Mama taught me that listening is as important as breathing. That it can save your life. And I’m telling myself that right now is the best time for me to listen to her. Listen to this cop. Comply. Don’t make a move. Keep my hands up. But Tyler doesn’t.

“The fuck he gon’ do,” Tyler mutters as he stands up.

I jump to my feet and push Tyler behind me, stretching out my arms as if I’m a shield. “Stop moving,” I say, giving him a worried look, seeing the reflection of a streetlight in his brown eyes. He pushes past me anyway.

“He ain’t gon’ do anything,” Tyler says. “We ain’t do nothing to begin with.”

The cop shouts, “Don’t fucking move!”

I make sure not to move. “Sir, what did we do?” I ask, trying not to sound as terrified as I really am.

The officer doesn’t say anything, just breathes heavy and keeps his gun pointed at us, wanting us to move, as if waiting for us to give him a reason to shoot, a way to get away with murder.

And it’s like he doesn’t even notice that there’s a white boy there with his face buried in the concrete sidewalk like it’s a pillow.

“What happened, officer?” G-mo asks, his voice moving slow like molasses—sounding heavy like it, too. “I’m sure this is some sort of misunderstanding.”

“Shut the hell up,” the cop barks.

“We deserve to know. We’re innocent. We’re kids. And you have a gun pointed at us. What’s going on?” Ivy chimes in, her voice filled with defeat.

Silence. I breathe out the air I’m holding in.

“Look, man,” Tyler goes, his voice not even cracking, “you’ve got a fucking gun pointed at us and shit, and we just wanna know why. We were just trying to get home.”

More silence.

Tyler breaks it. “A’ight, y’all need—”

“Tyler, be quiet!” I shout.

“No, he out here acting like—”

“Say one more goddamn word,” the officer says, “and I’ll shoot. I swear to God, I’ll do it.”

I look over at Tyler and see his face completely change, as if he’s backpedaling in his thoughts, remembering: Keep your head down. Breathe right. Breathe easy.

“Don’t fucking play with me,” the cop yells. “I’m sick and tired of fucking responding to calls because some thugs are terrorizing the poor businesses around here. Do you even know how lucky y’all are?” he asks, his hands shaking around the butt of his gun. “How lucky y’all are to have white-owned businesses in this area? Those poor people have made sacrifices, and this is the way y’all treat them? I’m sick and tired.”

“Please, officer,” I mumble, my arms looking like noodles. “Please, don’t shoot. Don’t kill us. Please let us go!”

“Boy, I swear, I’ll pull this trigger!” the officer barks. “Shut. The. Fuck. Up!” And he’s not lying. His trigger finger starts shaking.

And it’s in this moment that I realize that 1) the cop has definitely confused us for some other kids, 2) he is racist, and 3) we’re going to die.

“Sir, we were just heading home, I swear,” I say, pleading, taking huge gulps of air in between words. “We didn’t… do… anything. You have… the wrong people. We were just… heading home.” I try and try and try so hard to explain, but nothing, no remorse, no sympathy, no second thoughts, no step back, no removal of the gun from innocent kids’ faces, absolutely fucking nothing.

My arms start to feel numb from being raised so high, so straight, so still. But I keep telling myself over and over again that if I move a single muscle in my arms, it’d be the end of me. I’m not ready to die, so I keep still even though my arms burn.

And then out of nowhere, the white kid lunges up from the ground and tackles the cop like an ass-kicking prodigy or something.

A shot is fired, but I don’t see where it came from and I don’t know where it landed. But I move. And that means I’m fucked one way or another. And I keep cussing myself under my breath, saying I just gave the cop a reason to shoot me, to just fucking kill me, no further questions or commands.

The skinny white boy screams, “Run!”

It takes me a minute to realize that he’s talking to us.

And as the cop has another problem on his hands, the four of us grab our bikes and skateboard and cut out, shouting “Oh fuck” too many times for a single lifetime.

I look up at the moon as I pedal, pedal, pedal the fuck out of my bike toward home, and I force myself to believe that I’m okay, that I’m still whole.

I’ve never felt so terrified in my life, and stepping foot inside my house has never given me so much relief.

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