A Step on the Path

February 28, 2010
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Once upon a time-no, you can’t start a story like mine with once upon a time. Once upon a time is for fairy tales, with happy endings. And there won’t be a happy ending to this story. This is the story of Queens, New York. Otherwise known as a step on the path to America’s hell. My name is Elton Leone, and this is my story.
My parents used o make an effort, when I was still young. They used to do fantastic things with miniscule resources. They’d save up for months, just to make my Christmas special. They’d decorate the whole apartment, and Ma would make us a Christmas dinner while Pops set up the tree. I remember one year we even had a whole turkey! But that was a long time ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, and you could make something from nothing.
Those were the days when Gran was alive.
I remember the way she used to brighten up everyone’s lives. Not just our own family’s, but everyone’s. It was like, when she walked down the hallway of our dingy apartment building, she trailed behind her a ray of sunshine that just made everyone stop and smile for a split second, and forget how mixed up in drugs, alcohol, guns and gangs. And she knew everybody too, if not by name, then by face or reputation. She would stop in the middle of the sidewalk on a rainy day just to ask how someone was feeling. As she got older, her walks around Queens increased, and she went out constantly, whatever the weather or time of day. We were always worried she’d get mugged, but she always came back with out a scratch. I guess the local gangs respected her-and what she did for the community-too much to let her get hurt.
The day she died, it was like a light went out in everyone’s lives, and things became bleak, dull...sad.
And that was when my parents stopped trying to make Christmas the one day of the year that I could look forward to. That was when, at the age of eleven, I had to grow up very quickly.
Christmas Eve, 1991
Most days I can delay going home until after 11 pm. There’s always some guys at the courts to hang with, and most of them have similar problems to me: families way to mixed up in alcohol, drugs, guns and gangs, and zero money to pay for it all. But it’s hard to stay late on Christmas Eve. Although they’ve all got issues, they still have some people relying on them. Most of them are gone by 9 pm. Some of them are even going to church, to midnight mass.
God doesn’t want me anymore.
All that was waiting for me at the apartment-I’d stopped calling it home years ago-was a drunk Dad, a stoned Mum, and an empty fridge.
As I start to trudge home through the New York sludge we call snow, I think, as do many times, of Gran. It’s six years ago today that she died, six years ago since I watched her die.
When I get home, I ignore my parents, slouched on the couch and stinking of all kinds of crap. As I head straight to my room, a little voice in the back of my mind complains that it’s going to impossible to ever bring girls back here.
I lock my door, crash on my bed, and allow myself to be alone with my thoughts and memories.
The wind begins to howl outside, and open windows in other apartments bang furiously, until the owners run to close them. I ignore it all, and turn the music on my iPod up louder.
I used to never be able to stem the excitement at Christmas Eve, even after Gran died and I knew there would be nothing waiting for me in the morning. It’s like it’s part of the human genes. Even as I lay in bed that Christmas Eve, thinking that my life could never sink lower into destitute despair, I couldn’t help hoping-praying-that there would magically appear a Christmas tree, and a turkey dinner, and maybe even presents! And Dad would stop drinking, and Mum would stop doing drugs, and we’d all be happy again.
Yeah, sure. And the Twin Towers would magically spring up out of nowhere again too.
I didn’t deserve this, I knew I didn’t. I’d been a good kid, before Gran died anyway, and I used to try and take care of Mum and Dad. Of course, and eleven year old has a tough time of doing that, and eventually I had to give up and turn to crime, but I tried.
The windows bang louder and the wind shrieks outside like a woman in pain. I sit up and pull my headphones out of my ears. As I look around, a chill passes through my body, making me gasp in shock. Goosebumps appear on my skin, and the room temperature drops even lower.
In front of me, an icy mirage begins to appear. I narrow my eyes, shake my head, blink several times, but the wall becomes more and more blurred.
Then it changes, and instead of being barely transparent, it begins to take on an icy white colour. Then it begins to take shape.
At first, it’s just like a vague silhouette, a mere white shadow, before it slowly condensing into a shape, so as you could see the body of an elderly woman. As the room temperature decreased even more, her features become clearer, until I can see every wrinkle on her face.
I stare. It looked like the...the ghost was Gran. At least, she appeared to be Gran, physically. But there was something in her eyes, or lack of something, that made her seem less...humane. Like she was a dim portrait, or a cold statue made of the whitest marble.
I didn’t know what to think, what to feel. My grandmother had died six years ago, I had watched her die six years ago, and yet here she was in front of me, in my own bedroom. I rub my eyes vigorously, trying to find some reasonable explanation for what was currently occurring.
The only thing I could come up with was that the ghost of my grandmother had come back to haunt me after six years, because I never told anyone that I knew exactly who had killed her.
And I could prove it.

I remember walking around Queens with Gran was always safe. Like I said, nobody would hurt her, and definitely not her favourite grandson. Nothing could ever go wrong.
Then at some point, I remember it changed. We were still safe from everyone in Queens. None of the gangs would hurt us, not even freelancers. It was the police that worried Gran, in particular an officer called Edmonds.
I didn’t know at the time, but the reason Gran became worried about Officer Edmonds had to do with a gang war, and several murders that had happened as a result of it. She wasn’t directly involved of course. She just knew every minute detail about it and it’s participants, and she was withholding vital information.
There must have been a point in time, probably coinciding with the murders, that it stopped being %100 safe to go out with Gran.
I didn’t have a choice though. With the police hanging around our neighbourhood more and more often, people were on edge.
I never fully understood why Gran was as well though. People in Queens were always on edge, it was part of leading a criminal lifestyle. Gran had always laughed them off, told them that the cops were too well paid off to take any notice of what they were doing.
I guess money won’t allow you to ignore five murders though.
Particularly in Officer Edmonds’s case. He was what you could call a “straight cop”, the type that abided by the laws and wouldn’t accept bribes from anyone. The annoying type, Pa used to say.
He wasn’t like the straight cops in movies though. He wasn’t noble, bent on telling the truth at all costs. In all honesty he was a dickhead. He wouldn’t accept bribes, but he didn’t report certain... incidents...either.
They were mainly incidents that would make him look like the bad guy, so I was told.
Anyway, Officer Edmonds scared Gran, and that scared me.
At first it was just questioning, the smallest query on a street corner, but as Gran gave them nothing, sent them running around in circles chasing after dead ends, they became more intense, more serious and severe. She was brought down to the station for official questioning, they kept her there for hours!
But still they got nowhere.
Gran kept her mouth shut, the gangs ran free, and the cops began to loose their minds.
This had been going on for months before Officer Edmonds began to start to make threats. They started out fairly mild, just the occasional word or two. Then he got bolder. He’d come right up to us in the middle of the street, glare down at us in broad daylight, and say things like, “For the sake of your grandson, Mrs. Leone, you’d better start telling the truth!”
It was insanity on his part.
And insanity is dangerous.
The first thing they teach you here? Never underestimate your enemy, especially in Queens.
We should have known that.
Gran should have known that.
Christmas Eve, 1991
As I think of Officer Edmonds, and all he’d done to me and Gran, a cold fury builds up in my chest. I clench my fists, wanting desperately to punch something, raising my hand to hit the wall.
Then something catches my eye.
I lower my fist, and look once again at the image of Gran. She hadn’t moved, she still wasn’t moving, and yet it appeared as if she was smiling, and shaking her head at me in exactly the same way she used to when I was a kid.
“Elton, Elton, Elton,” she used to say, “What will I do with you?”
I sink onto my bed, my head dropping heavily into my hands, as I think of the night when she last said that to me.
Christmas Eve, 1986
“Can’t we go to the candy store Gran?”
“Candy will rot your teeth Elton.” Gran replied firmly.
“Not if I eat it quickly,” the eleven year old me protested, “Then the bad germs won’t have time to rot my teeth!” Gran smiled at my little boy logic.
“Not germs, Elton. Bacteria. Bad Bacteria.”
“So? Please can I go?” I begged mercilessly, “I swear I’ll be good, I promise!” Gran’s smile grew wider as she took my hand in her own.
“Amore,” she said, smiling slyly at me, “I will take you to the candy shop on one condition.”
“What?” I asked eagerly. She bent down until her eyes were at the same height as mine.
“I will take you to the candy store, but only if you promise to buy, with your own money, a present for each of your parents there, because you know they’ve been working hard to make Christmas extra special this year, don’t you?” I nodded solemnly. She smiled. “Then of course we can go to the candy store.
The only decent candy store in Queens was Cammie’s Candy Bar, and that was where we set off for, and precisely 7:35 that evening.
To get to Cammie’s, you had to walk partially down one main road, then cut through a short alley, to get to the next main road, at the end of which was Cammie’s. It was a route we’d taken a thousand times, and never with any trouble before.
It was when we turned into the alley that the normality changed. I sensed it first, a sort of eerie quiet. Normally there was the sounds of rats, a cat, maybe a tramp or two. But there was nothing. Just Silence.
I pulled on Gran’s hand, trying to get out of the narrow passage.
“Gran, I don’t want to go!” She turned and looked at me, puzzled.
“Why not, Amore?”
“I feel sick. Please can we just go back home? Please?” Gran smiled and shook her head.
“Elton, Elton, Elton. What will I do with you?”
Then she turned around, and it ended so fast, I didn’t even have time to scream.
Hollywood’s got it all wrong. Death isn’t noble, it’s not something full of drama. It’s fast, and the reality is that you’re too numb with shock to react in any way, especially not to fall down on top of the deceased’s body and scream out your grief to the world.
You want to. You just can’t.
There was just the man, Gran, and the gun.
And then there was blood.
After he did it, he didn’t stay to shoot me, or to taunt or show off. He just dropped the gun, and ran.
It wasn’t until after I’d picked up the gun, and the NYCPD official badge, that I understood.
Officer Edmonds had killed my grandmother for withholding information.
Why kill someone for that?
Christmas Eve, 1991
As I stare at the ghost in front of me, the first thing to cross my mind was not to tell the truth to the world, to punish Officer Edmonds for what he had done. Nothing crossed my mind at all. I was numb.
I cross the room to a chest of drawers. Slowly, hesitantly, I open the third one down.
Staring up at me is the blank face of Officer James Edmonds on his police badge. Next to it is a shiny NYCPD issue pistol.
As I pick it up, I think about the past six years. My life had fallen into nothing.
I press the shiny barrel of the gun to my temple. I will not tell anyone. The police can clean up this mess, if anyone bothers reporting me missing anyway. I’ve always been a coward. I always leaned more to the flight side of my “fight or flight” instincts. Finally, I can stop running.
The last thing I felt was my trigger finger twitching.

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RitaChristine This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 25, 2010 at 8:55 pm
Hey Maya - This is very well written! But very sad. My heart broke for your character. It upset me that she had no one to turn to. I challenge you to write an alternate ending in which someone finds her and reaches out a hand. Call me a sucker for happy endings, but I like a story with a message of redemption. Have fun and keep up the writing! You're getting really good. :D
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