THE FINAL bell rang, and Dillon Smith was out of school for the summer. He paused long enough to empty his locker and then joined the tail end of the press of other high school kids heading out for three months of freedom. For Dillon that meant trying to find something to do while escaping the nearly constant pressure and ridicule from the gang that kept trying to recruit him. For extra cash he’d even be willing to take an outside job that meant dealing with the heat and humidity of a Dallas summer, but so far, he hadn’t been able to find anything.
Sliding his earbuds in as he walked out of the school, Dillon instantly lost himself in the country music he’d been raised on. The songs had more meaning to him, even though he was a city kid. He liked music he could easily understand and that had a nonviolent feel to counter the environment he was lost in while in school.
“Hey, Dillon.” Robbie, the captain of the swim team and the closest thing Dillon had to a best friend, jogged up alongside him as he turned the first corner from the school.
“Hey, Robbie.” Dillon pulled out the right earbud to hear him better. “I guess I won’t be seeing much of you for a few months.”
“I just got my driver’s license. If you want, I could come by every now and then. Maybe we could go to the movies, or something.”
“What about your lifeguard job?” Dillon was never sure how to take Robbie’s attention. “Won’t that be keeping you busy most of the time?” He liked spending time with Robbie, but he couldn’t understand why the swimmer liked spending time with him. Robbie was attractive, popular, and white. Dillon was mixed. Most of the kids in school didn’t want much to do with him, other than the gangbangers who just wanted bodies to fill their ranks. But Robbie didn’t seem to care.
“Not all the time.” Robbie pulled a big plastic-looking leaf off a magnolia tree. “It would be nice to hang out with you once in a while.” A weighty pause filled the air between them. “Sometimes summers get lonely.”
Dillon kicked a stone down the sidewalk. “Yeah they do. Sure. Call or text me sometime. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to afford to do, but it would be nice to get away from my mom from time to time.”
Robbie perked up. “Cool.”
They paused for a second at the corner near Robbie’s home. Robbie hesitated about something, then smiled at Dillon. “Well, I guess I need to get on to the house. I’ll call you soon.” Robbie hurried up the hill toward his house, halfway up on the right.
“You do that.” Dillon waved good-bye, put his earbud back in, and continued on his way.
Two blocks from Robbie’s house, the neighborhood changed abruptly. The nicer, upper-middle-class homes gave way to run-down dwellings. A narrow strip center marked the border of the two areas. Wanting a soda, Dillon strolled toward the convenience store at the corner. He didn’t often have the spare cash for a drink on the way home, but his mother gave him an extra five dollars that morning and a soda would be a kind of celebration for surviving his sophomore year of high school.
As he stepped from the cracked sidewalk onto the chipped tile, strong hands gripped his shoulders. Dillon jerked a look over his shoulder. Kareem Hassan, one of the gangbangers from school, had hold of him. His heart raced as panic flooded through him.
“Hey, Dill, just the stooge we were looking for.” The reek of pot rolled out of Kareem’s mouth. “It’s your big day. You get to start the summer as one of the South Side Shanks. Don’t do nothing stupid, and you’ll get out of this unhurt.”
Dillon glanced around. His heart pounded so hard it was hard to think. Two more Shanks he recognized from school were in the store, moving among the shelves and stalking toward the counter. As they went, they slowly pulled bandanas over their lower faces. Dillon struggled in Kareem’s hold.
Kareem was taller and outweighed him by a good hundred pounds. The gangbanger shook him. “Dill, Dill, just stay still and play along. This small start will carry you so far.”
As his world narrowed to Kareem’s hands and the movements of the other Shanks, Dillon went numb. This can’t be happening. One of the gang members had a gun out and waved it at the clerk. The clerk was shouting something in a thick accent that Dillon couldn’t understand. Then the clerk started to open the cash register. He jerked something up. The pistol in his hand fired, first at the Shank closest to him, then at the others.
As people he’d gone to school with fell to the floor, blood splashed his face and Dillon fainted.
A HARSH ammonia smell assaulted Dillon. “Come on, kid, wake up,” a male voice urged.
Dillon pushed away from the smell but couldn’t get far. A hard metal shelf blocked his way. He looked up into the face of an older man wearing a white uniform.
“Good, you’re awake. Let’s get you out to the patrol car, give the officers more room to move around in here.”
For a second, Dillon just stared at him. “What happened?”
The man touched his shoulder.
Dillon remembered Kareem’s hands on him and shuddered.
“People were shot.” The man moved his hands away from Dillon. “I think you were missed. Can you stand?” He stood and offered Dillon a hand up.
Dillon took it. His head swam as he got to his feet. He grabbed the nearest shelf to keep his balance and crunched a bag of chips in his hand.
The man in the white uniform seemed to study him with a clinical gaze. “You might’ve hurt your head when you hit the floor. Let’s get you out to the ambulance first, but we need to clear the way.”
With a quick glance, Dillon thought a couple of the Shanks on the floor looked funny where they lay in what looked like spilled red molasses. He turned his attention outside, where two ambulances and five police cars waited as a crime-scene van pulled up.
With a deep breath and still feeling light-headed, Dillon forced himself to walk out the door. The store clerk shouted something at him, but he couldn’t make out the words. He didn’t care. He wanted to find his mother and go home, but his mother was at work and probably wouldn’t know about anything that was happening for several hours. I doubt they’re going to let me go until Mom gets to the hospital, Dillon thought as the steamy outside air hit him.
One of the police officers walked toward him. “Is he ready for us now?”
“No, I need to check him out,” the paramedic replied. “He might have a concussion. Seems a little disoriented.”
The police officer huffed. “Disoriented? Well, part of his gang dying around him might do that to him.”
Dillon shivered. Thanks to Kareem, they think I was part of this. It’s not my fault they decided to rob the place as I walked in. The paramedic pushed him slightly, indicating he should sit in the open rear of the nearest ambulance.
“Okay, kid, look straight ahead for me.” He shone a penlight in Dillon’s eyes, first the right, then the left.
Dillon did as he was told. His head throbbed, but his thoughts slowly became more coherent. Around them radios squawked and people talked. Yellow police tape was strung between signs along the sidewalk. A growing crowd pushed against the tape and several police officers moved about trying to keep people back. It was Dillon’s first time inside police tape.
“Your eyes look acceptable.” The paramedic put his penlight away. “I want to do a couple more things.”
“I wasn’t part of the gang,” Dillon said. He wasn’t sure if he’d be believed or not, but he wanted to tell someone.
“Good for you. Gangs are bad news.” The paramedic felt the back of Dillon’s head. “But it’s not for me to decide. That’s up to the police officers. My job is to patch you up so they can take you to the station until a parent or guardian can be found.”
“Can I call my mom?” Dillon went to pull his phone out of his pants.
The paramedic caught his hand in a firm grip. “That’s not a good idea.” He dropped his voice. “There’s dead gangbangers who look like members of a gang you might belong to. It’s not a good idea to put your hands in your pockets right now. Everyone’s going to be jumpy for a bit. It’ll help to just be mellow.”
Fear washed over Dillon. It was almost as bad as when the Shanks pulled the gun on the clerk. Sweat ran down his face, burning his eyes. He nodded and the paramedic relaxed.
“You’ve not been in trouble before, have you?”
Dillon shook his head.
“That’s good. It’ll go easier on you, then.” The paramedic went back to checking him, feeling across his neck and back. “Just don’t make any sudden movements around the officers.” He patted Dillon lightly on the head. “Police officers can be a bit jumpy, particularly when there’s already been shots fired. Luckily, you weren’t hit, this time. Go along with everything they ask you to do. They’ll call your mother soon enough, kid. Keep cool, and everything will work out fine. You sure there’s no pain?”
The paramedic’s gentle voice and kindly demeanor helped Dillon relax. “Yeah. I’m fine. Thanks.”
“No problem. Unless I miss my guess, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Good luck.” He straightened and raised his voice. “Hey, Harris, he should be fine. Just take it easy on him. He’s kind of wobbly on his feet still.”
The officer who’d been eager to take him before came over. “Okay, kid, we’re going to take you to the station. It’s getting a bit too busy around here.” Harris put handcuffs on Dillon, more gently than he expected, then took him by the elbow.
Dillon walked along without any hesitation as Harris put him in the back of the squad car. “Look, kid. Don’t act up back there.”
“No, sir.” Dillon sank into the seat. Something in the car didn’t smell right. He couldn’t place it, but in his gut he didn’t want to know what it was.
Harris got into the car and took Dillon to the station. The whole incident became a blur as everyone ignored his objections. They just listened to Kareem and the store clerk. Dillon was processed as a gang member. It included fingerprinting, getting his picture taken, and peeing in a cup. He didn’t look anyone in the face. He remembered something about never looking authority figures in the face, so he kept his eyes on his overly tight and heavily worn tennis shoes until his mother arrived at the police station.