March 13, 2022
Map of My Escape - First Place Winner of the 2021 First Chapter Contest
By Cheryl L. Reed
We parked in the shadows of a South Side liquor store with bars on its windows. It was a chilly autumn night, and the Mustang’s heater fogged the tinted windows. I rubbed at the glass. Halloween decorations lay discarded on the lawn next to us—a blowup dragon and a zombie that someone had spent good money on that lay crumpled in the grass. The street was empty and dark. Several overhead lights were burnt out—or shot out—heightening the creepy feeling.
“Aren’t you afraid someone’s going to recognize this car and know you’re a cop because the drug dealer who owned it is in prison?” Reece got all his undercover cars from Vice. The interior reeked of cigarettes and Axe deodorant.
Reece shot me one of his cockeyed looks. He didn’t like it when I offered street advice. After all, I was just a civilian.
“Nah. That dude is probably driving something better by now,” he said.
“Nobody in this neighborhood drives a souped-up car like this unless they’re a drug dealer or a cop posing as a drug dealer.”
“Yeah? Well, tonight I’m a drug dealer, and you’re one of my ladies.” He winked. “A white woman with tats and ’tude. You’re like cocaine and candy all wrapped up in one.” He clicked his tongue, confident he could get a rise out of me.
I rolled my eyes. I was too tired to give him any guff. Reece was the only person whose crude jokes I tolerated. He was the only man who could make me drop everything with a phone call. Surviving a massacre together has a way of tethering you. You overlook each other’s shortcomings.
“Who is this guy, anyway?” Reece had promised me this stakeout would be worth my while.
“If I can stay awake.” I looked at my watch and sighed. It was well past midnight.
“Awww. Are you missing your booty call with Finn?” He flashed a sinister grin. Reece disapproved of Finn, whose Boy Scout demeanor and conservative politics rubbed him the wrong way. Worse, he didn’t understand my attraction to someone who espoused views so opposite my own. If I’d said it was the sex or the thrill of sneaking around with a politician, Reece would have understood. But I preferred not to lie to Reece, and the truth was much more complicated.
“This better be worth it, is all I’m saying.”
“Don’t you give me that attitude, girl. This right here is a gift. This fucker has the mother lode.” Reece’s face was animated, his eyebrows on high alert, his green eyes dancing. I called them river eyes because they reminded me of the Chicago River on a sunny day when the phosphorus was blooming.
Reece liked to play up the mystery and wouldn’t say who we were meeting. He’d hinted it was a well-placed source or snitch who could talk about the fed’s investigation into the Chicago police department. That was all Reece and me—or anyone in Chicago—could talk about. I thought maybe the guy knew which cops were about to be indicted and which cases were suspect. Reece was all about drama, but he rarely disappointed.
I sat quietly, watching the dark storefront. Then a line of men came out the front door, their hands empty.
“Where are these guys coming from?”
Reece shushed me.
“Where are we supposed to meet your guy?”
He shrugged and gave me a hangdog face.
I knew that guilty look.
“You didn’t tell him we were coming, did you?’
He threw up his hands. “That’s not how it works. No calls, sweets. I just show up.”
A tall, barrel-chested man wearing a full-length leather coat walked out of the store. The other men had vanished. He stopped under the streetlight and lit a black and mild. Even parked a hundred feet away, I could see the chunky gold rings on his hands and the rope chain around his neck, gleaming beneath the yellow streetlight. The man looked straight at us, his eyes flickering with recognition at the car.
Most snitches were skinny and strung-out, cowards who peddled in rumors, trading information for money or favors. But this guy wore money on his fingers and looked like somebody’s boss. Why would he tell Reece—or me—anything?
“Is that your guy?” We watched as he disappeared down a dark alley behind the liquor store.
“Just wait. He’ll be here.”
The heater fan made the only noise as we both watched the dark storefront.
I fidgeted in my seat. Something didn’t feel right. No one else had come out of the liquor store. Reece’s lips tightened, and I could hear him grinding his teeth. This wasn’t going how he’d expected it either.
A shadow flitted across the car’s rear window, then Reece’s door flew open. Big hands pulled him from the car. “Get out here, motherfucker. Show your face!”
It was the barrel-chested man.
Reece scrambled to his feet, pulled his gun from his shoulder holster, and thrust it in the stranger’s face.
The stranger jerked his head from the muzzle, stumbled backward, and fell to the sidewalk. Reece stood over him. “Who the fuck are you?”
When the man didn’t answer, Reece moved toward the car. The stranger grabbed Reece’s leg and pulled him to the ground. The two wrestled. The man clamped his catcher’s mitt palm onto Reece’s hand—the one that held the gun—and began pushing the barrel toward Reece’s head.
I reached under the driver’s seat looking for Reece’s spare but came up with a handful of wadded up fast-food wrappers. I opened the glove box, franticly digging beneath old registrations. My fingers wrapped around something metallic and cold. I held it up in the light: a silver revolver. I hated guns. Hated all the pain they’d caused in my life. I glanced at Reece, his face full of fear, and swallowed my uneasiness. I checked that the gun was loaded, turned off the safety, and got out of the car.
Reece’s arm shook trying to resist, but the barrel-chested man, twice his size, pushed Reece’s arm steadily closer to his temple. Reece’s face clenched with panic.
“Shoot him,” Reece yelled. “Shoot him!”
The stranger looked up at me, surprised that Reece was not alone. I raised the gun, my hand shaking, my forefinger quivering. I picked the stranger’s body part farthest from Reece’s face.
“Don’t bother, bitch,” the man yelled. “Bro here going to eat it.”
I lined up the sights, then pulled the trigger. Thunder burst in my head. I smelled the gun powder in the night air and looked down at the warm metal in my palm. Then, it got quiet. My ears filled with an empty, underwater sound.
Three minutes. One hundred and eighty seconds. That’s all it took to shatter our lives. Terror was short, but its effects were everlasting. I’ve relived those three minutes over and over in my head, slowing them down to milliseconds, freezing every frame, circling each angle, ticking through a parade of what-ifs to see how I might have changed our trajectories. Reece and I thought our past tragedy made us immune to further catastrophe, as if life had granted us a pass. He equated it to lightning never striking the same place twice. I’ve since learned that lightning does indeed strike twice, just as tragedy can be relentless.
This time I wasn’t sure we would both survive.
The man I thought I’d shot rolled off Reece and crawled to his feet. He glared at me, then took off down the street, swaying and stumbling like a drunk. Reece was splayed on his back, blood oozing from his neck and shoulder. For a moment, I froze, unable to believe I had just shot my best friend.
My legs moved before my mind could catch up. When I reached him, Reece’s eyes were closed, his teeth clenched. I grabbed his cell phone and tapped 911.
“An officer has been shot,” I spit out.
“What’s the location?” the dispatcher asked.
I looked around frantically, but there were no street signs. Where were we? “I don’t know. Somewhere in Englewood.” I could barely make out the liquor store sign. “In front of Markham Liquor.”
“What’s your name?”
I tapped the red button and slid it into Reece’s pocket. Then I ripped open Reece’s Kevlar vest. The bullet nicked the upper corner, slowing its trajectory, but penetrated the meaty shoulder muscle. I pressed my hands against the wound. Blood seeped between my fingers. He winced. When he tried to speak, the words gurgled in his mouth, and he gasped to breathe. I propped up his head and told him to keep his mouth shut. He blinked once. I forced my voice to remain steady. One hand staunched his wound; the other grasped his fingers. He clutched my hand tightly, but as we waited, his grip slackened. His chin slumped to his chest. I thought he’d stopped breathing and shook him. His eyes flickered with pain.
“I’m so sorry, Reece,” I said, my voice cracking.
He shook his head and blinked twice—telling me not to go there.
My throat caught with emotion, I looked away. In a second-story window, a tiny red light glowed. Reece and I were in the middle of the deserted street. When shots rang out on the South Side of Chicago, people scattered from the windows to avoid stray bullets. But someone was spying on us. Squinting, I could see that the red light was a video camera.
“Who are you? What are you doing?” I yelled.
The red light didn’t waver.
“This man is wounded. Help me save him!”
The camera tilted down toward me; its silver casing reflected the streetlight. I searched the nearby windows, hoping for some sign of a curious neighbor, but they remained dark. With my left hand pressing on Reece’s injured shoulder, I reached across the asphalt, scooped up loose gravel with my right hand, and threw it at the window.
“Coward! You want to film a man dying?” I could feel the tightness in my throat. Damn it! I wasn’t going to cry. I shook my fist at the window. “Come help me. You sick fucker!”
I picked up a piece of asphalt, stood up to get a better aim, and lobbed the chunk at the window. It hit the corner of the windowsill and shattered. I was about to try again when Reece began coughing.
I pulled his upper body onto my lap, keeping pressure on his shoulder. “It’s okay. The ambulance will be here soon.” But inside, I was yelling, Don’t you die on me. I can’t live if I killed you. He squeezed my hand, and I forced a smile. We waited, listening to the night sounds of the city—distant car alarms, a barking dog. Where the hell was that ambulance?
“Maybe I should call Finn?”
Reece’s eyes opened wide as if I’d suggested something heretical. He shook his head.
“Reece, we’re in trouble here. I don’t know what to do.” I glanced up at the red light mocking me. “And then there’s that asshole.”
The sirens sounded in the distance. Reece jerked his head, signaling that I should leave.
His mouth tried to form words.
“I will. When it gets closer.”
When the sirens were a couple of blocks away, Reece gripped my hand and whispered something
I couldn’t make out. I leaned my ear toward his mouth. He whispered again, a hoarse gasp. “Disappear.” Then he yanked my arm, pulling my face close to his, his eyes fierce. Tears wetted his cheeks. He swallowed hard and slowly enunciated each word. “You gotta get gone . . . become invisible. They gonna come after you, sweets.”
Then he let go of my hand and shut his eyes.
Was he dead? I shook him gently. He didn’t respond.
I could hear the roar of the sirens a block over. I picked up Reece’s spare, the one I’d fired, stuffed it in my pocket and darted down the alley.
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