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Culpability

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“WE are EACH OF US RESPONSIBLE
FOR THE EVIL WE MAY HAVE PREVENTED.”
-JAMES MARTINEAU

Sun burned through my blinds, through my eyelids. It burned through restless dreams and the groggy stupor of unconsciousness. Prying my heavy eyes open, I forced my stiff body to a sitting position. I blinked against the mercilessly bright room and stifled a groan that rose in my throat. Everything ached. I ached in places I didn’t think possible. I yawned and that ached. I threw my legs over the side of the bed. Wincing, I drew in a sharp breath and waited for the pain to subside. I sighed. Time to greet the day.
??
“Made the front page of the sports section again today, Andre. You deserved it, as hard as you were playing.” Dad peered at me over his glasses, the Daily Sentinel covering the rest of his face. He held up the paper, the bold headline “BROOKE DOES IT AGAIN” boring into me like a blade. Across the table from him, Tamika’s shoulders slumped. An all-too familiar pang of guilt struck me. I pondered my cereal.
“Yeah.”
Had my reply not been so curt, Dad wouldn’t have put the paper down on the dining room table where he sat perched. Had I not made the paper, he wouldn’t have even acknowledged me.
After a quizzical stare, it began. “You know, Andre,” it usually started like this, “you’re just like me when I was your age.” I sighed. Tamika stiffened like hunted prey beside my father. But he didn’t notice. He never did. “Undefeated heavyweight quarterback, just like you. Back then not many black kids held that title. But I did. We went to state my senior year.” His eyes gleamed with pride. But not for me, not for his son. “Won first in districts and then went onto state. Won that, too. Just like you will.” If I’d been able to look at him, I’m sure he’d have winked.
I’d come to realize by then that I didn’t even have to pretend to be listening. He was so preoccupied rolling in his own magnificence when he reminisced about his short-live glory days, he didn’t even notice my lack of attention or interest. In a way it made having to sit through the same stories countless times over, almost easier.
I knew it did for Tamika.
But even if he was out for attention, he wouldn’t much care for hers. She was a mistake. A glitch in the genetic makeup of our elaborate family tree. She couldn’t catch a ball if her life depended on it. She couldn’t hit within a five foot radius of a target if it were three feet from her. But this was not the Brooke way. The Brookes’ made varsity. The Brookes’ scored the winning point. The Brookes’ had a reputation to uphold. A very distinguished, very precarious and structured reputation they could not afford to have shattered. A reputation acquired by a long string of generations who each made a name for themselves through their athleticism. Each reestablishing the name before it could be forgotten, until it was hushed regularly in admiration by those nameless to us. On our gravestones were not but the name. Brooke. Not but the name because it was not just that. It was a title. A legacy. An intangible greatness in and of itself. There needn’t be more explanation.
Tamika began to show an interest in art before any of us could even remember. My parents figured it was a phase, were convinced it was nothing to worry about. That soon these drawings and paintings of hers would evaporate, along with the excitement in her eyes when she showed them off. An excitement she lacked when the family watched football or baseball. Curious, they thought. And even more so when they signed her up for cheerleading and softball and volleyball thinking, of course, she would be the best on each of the teams: the fly, first setter, pitcher, just like her mom had been, just like every other Brooke daughter had been. Curious even more so because she wasn’t. She wasn’t the best. Wasn’t like every other Brooke daughter had been. She was awkward on her feet, uncoordinated even for a third grader. She’d come home and complain to our parents, not knowing better, that she hated the sports. Every one of them. That she was the worst on the team. A liability. That she’d much rather stay home and paint. They got angry. Told her that she’d go to practice whether she like it or not. That they’d force her kicking and screaming. So she went miserably. The white kids on the teams teased her relentlessly, mocking her “reputable family name.” This continued until middle school hit, until my parents caught wind of the hushed rumors that the Brookes’ daughter was what was holding the teams back. That Tamika Brooke was the one who was causing the teams to lose. And this was unacceptable.
It’s easiest to lose your footing at the peak of the mountain. The very top is where you fall the fastest. The hardest. Unacceptable.
They took her out of the sports, gave up on an athletic career for her altogether. At first she was ecstatic, knowing they were disappointed in her now, but convinced she’d make up artistically where she lacked athletically.
She painted her days away, locked in her room with the scarce supplies her allowance provided. But from these dollar store paints and cheap brushes, magnificence was born. She painted the world. But not the world as we know it. The world as what it could be. Her work was exquisite, incredible for a girl of her age. And for a while not even I could find a reason why our parents wouldn’t love her paintings. Why anyone wouldn’t.
But they were art. Just art.
Just.
Her work failed to impress our parents. I was with her the first time she showed them one of her pieces. I was in eighth grade then and had just finished basketball practice. The piece had won the sixth grade talent show, but she’d refrained from showing our parents until it had the ribbon on it. She’d showed me the moment she’d finished. She always showed me first. She knew how much I loved her art.
Our parents had been sitting on the couch in the living room, watching a soccer game. She proceeded with excited trepidation, but I urged her on, assuring her they’d love it.
“Mom, dad, I want to show you something.” With a grin, despite their indifference, she pulled the painting out from behind her back. They’d each given it a passive once-over, without so much as a raised eyebrow. Dad’s eyes wondered back to the TV. Mom attempted a compliment through gritted teeth.
It was then that I realized despite her talent, Tamika’s paintings were not but a reminder of the disappointment of a daughter they had.
“It won first place at the talent show!” she tried desperately.
“It’s…good.” Mom’s eyes were now back to Sports Center as well. Tamika stood there, her arms outstretched with the painting, for a couple more moments.
She threw the painting away that night.
I said nothing to our parents. I didn’t tell them how their apathetic response hurt her. I didn’t tell them that she cried herself to sleep that night. I didn’t try to convince them to show a little more interest in her passion. I didn’t try to tell them that sports weren’t everything.
Tamika stopped painting for a while after that. Mom and dad didn’t notice, but I did. I talked her into painting again, began looking for art contests and shows to enter her in. I encouraged her to foster her gift, because it was just that. I tried to inspire her. Eventually she let me enter her name in the contests. She asked me to come sometimes, but I didn’t, though I promised several times I would. There was always something in the way. A game. Practice. Conditioning. I’m sure she understood. And this didn’t stop her. She started coming home with ribbon after ribbon. They turned her walls blue; she never settled for second place. Since sixth grade she’d never had to.
I looked at her from behind the kitchen counter. She loved me for bringing the gift out in her, but hated me at the same time for being the golden child. The sports stud. The one our parents favored. But she couldn’t hold that against me. Mostly because I was the only one she had.
Dad droned on about his high school and college sports careers, oblivious. After a moment I realized it was too quiet for anyone to be talking. I glanced up at him. His eyes were skimming the paper.
“Son, come home after practice tonight. Basketball season is coming up fast. There’s a meeting tonight at the college.”
“Why the college?”
He scoffed. “I don’t know. Something’s going on at the high school. They cancelled last minute.” He muttered something about inconsiderate such and such.
Tamika dropped her spoon. “Yeah, the junior art show. My art show.”
Dad looked unimpressed. “You’re a sophomore.”
“They said my art qualified at a junior level. Senior, actually, but there was no room left for any more pieces with the seniors. I already told you that. A week ago. You said you’d come.”
“Did I?”
“Yes.”
“Oh.”
There was a pause.
“Well, are you coming?”

“Don’t get exasperated, Tamika. I’m sorry but your brother’s meeting is very important. I’ll come to your next one.”
“That’s what you said last time when he had a game!”
“Tami, it’s cool.” I jumped in before Dad had time to ground her for yelling. “Listen Dad, it’s a parent meeting, really. I’d just be sitting there. And they’ve already told us at school everything they’re going to tell you there. I really don’t need to be there. Tami, I’ll come to your art show.”
“Andre, this meeting is too important for your—”
“I don’t need to be there, Dad. It’s fine. I want to go to Tamika’s show.”
He grumbled something about responsibility and ownership. I gritted my teeth and dug my nails into my palm, watched Tamika’s eyes cloud, watched her heart recede at the passing of a few seemingly meaningless words. Or so they were to Dad. To Tamika, little did he know, they meant everything.
“Tami, time to peace out.” It was too early to leave for school, but I knew she wouldn’t mind. I couldn’t watch him destroy her anymore. She pushed her bowl away and threw her chair back, not apologizing for the noise.
“Tamika,” Dad called firmly after her. She didn’t look back.
??
“So, you gunna be featured a lot tonight?” I tried to shatter the silence that hovered around us, a thick, dark layer of fog suffocating us in our own ways.
“Yeah.”
“’Course you are,” I offered an encouraging smile and nudged her with my elbow. She gave me a sidelong glance and the corners of her mouth turned up just slightly. Her big brown eyes were darker than the color of her skin as they flicked back to gazing out the window. I wondered what she saw through those dark eyes, how an artist saw the world.
“So, listen, I might be a couple minutes late because of practice but I’ll definitely be there. Seven o’clock, right? Maybe this weather will keep on how it is and practice will get cancelled.”
I craned my neck over the dash, gazing at the swelled, threatening clouds, pregnant with the promise of rain.
“Thanks, Andre.” I knew she meant it, too.
??
I swore to myself again as I jammed the key in the ignition for what seemed like the millionth time. I turned it hard, listened to the stutter of the old Ford pickup and prayed again to no avail. The engine hissed and moaned its protest, its life ebbing away as I gritted my teeth against the chill outside these rusty doors. I groaned and pulled my iPhone from my back pocket. 6:35. I groaned again. Coach had decided to wait until we were all dressed out and on the field in the freezing rain to announce that practice had been cancelled due to the weather. Fantastic.
I sat back and contemplated my options. I had already asked some of the other guys on the team for a ride, but they were all headed to the basketball meeting. I could miss the art show, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
“Screw it,” I muttered to myself as I threw the truck’s door open. I’m an athlete. A couple miles or so to the high school shouldn’t be bad at all. I did that daily at practice. I might even be able to make her entire show. I hopped out of the car and took off sprinting. It didn’t take long for the fast-falling October night to take its toll on my bare arms. I hated the way the sun sunk to the other side of the world so fast now that summer was drawing a curtain close—I needed light right now more than China did. Especially on moonless nights like these, when any source of light was shrouded by black clouds and drizzling rain.
I took the back way, the short cut through the poorer neighborhoods that I’d found when trying to find a faster way from my house to the high school before I had my license. Shandoeka. I usually didn’t go this route unless I had too due to the bad reputation around these parts. The “white slums” wasn’t an unusual nickname for Shandoeka. A bunch of bored white kids angry because they were the minority in our dominantly black school. These were the streets notorious for the drug deals and street fights, though I’d never seen one in the eighteen years of my life. The kids at my school who were from these neighborhoods were the ones typically causing trouble. They didn’t take to black kids invading their space too kindly. But I’d never had a problem.
I slowed to a walk when my phone beeped from my back pocket about twenty minutes later. Pulling it out, I saw I had a voicemail from Tamika.
“Hey, Andre, it’s me. Listen, I had to run home and grab one of the main pieces that Jackson was supposed to pick up for me. He called in sick today. I talked to the director; she said it’d be fine if we moved my showing to maybe 7:15 or so. So, sorry if you beat me there. You won’t have to wait long, though. Thanks for ev—”
The message cut off there. There was a scuffling sound and then the line went dead. The call was probably dropped. I tried to call her back but her phone was off. Maybe that’s why the call broke off. She was always forgetting to charge her phone. I wondered who she’d caught a ride with, since it was originally supposed to have been Jackson. But the thought didn’t stay with me long. Jackson had bought me more time. I jogged easily down the streets in the direction of 2nd and North, where the college was.
After another couple minutes something stopped me. I held my breath to listen. Yelling. Shouting people. I jogged a few more yards, following the sound. From across the street and into an ally were a group of kids. White. They were pushing someone around, taunting the poor soul. I thought I recognized a few kids from my school, but the others looked older. It was hard to tell with the rain. Almost impossible. The one they surrounded was yelling at them to leave them alone and stop it. Whoever it was was obviously a lot younger. The older kids laughed and teased their victim but it didn’t look serious. I wanted to stop. To scream at these stupid kids to leave the poor guy alone, to go home and move on. But I knew that would only cause trouble for me. I knew my place in Shandoeka. And it was almost 7:10, I would not miss Tamika’s showing.
Just a bunch of bored white kids.
I kept walking.
But the shouts didn’t seem to be fading into the night as I kept on my way. In fact, as I waited for them to dissipate, they seemed to be doing the opposite. The shrill voice of their prey seemed to steadily be getting louder and more desperate.
I began to jog.
No, these shrieks were not subsiding, in fact they grew louder the farther away I tried to run from them. I wondered where the void was between shouts and screams. Where the line was drawn between harassment and crime. Between guilt and blame. Between Shandoeka and 2nd and North.
I stopped. Turned. This kid needed help. You know your place in Shandoeka. Just a bunch of bored white kids. Your sister needs you.
I plunged into the night at a sprint. I would not be late.
??
My foot tapped. My fingers drummed. I tugged at the collar of my shirt.
“It shouldn’t be too much longer, folks.” This was the third time the uptight looking woman with the bun pulled too tightly back had said this. She sounded agitated, embarrassed, flustered. Looked hot under the lights of the small stage where Tamika’s art should have been showing.
I pulled out my phone out for the fifth time in three minutes. 7:28. I’d tried calling her a couple times now but her phone was still dead. At first everyone had been in their seats. Almost a full house. Now, people were milling about. Some filed through the exit. I wanted to scream at them to get back in their seats. That Tamika would be here in a matter of minutes to blow them all away.
But that wouldn’t do much more good than the tight bun lady.
Where was Tamika? Where was Tamika?
I tugged at the collar of my shirt.
??
By 8:00 the only ones left were me and maybe two other couples. One was asleep. Bun woman announced they’d be shutting down and pleaded her apology. I stood stiffly and ambled out of the auditorium.
My hand was on the doorknob to the large front doors of the auditorium when the words of a news reporter from the TV in the entrance hall stopped me.
“—what appears to be yet another attack from the Shandoeka gang. The identity of the 16 year old girl is confidential, but the victim has been sent to St. Archers Hospital for treatment of the mugging. We can only hope for some hero to put these lawless streets to rest. More of that, after this.”
My heart had stopped. The blood in my veins turned to ice. I didn’t stop sprinting until I was inside the St. Archers Hospital doors. The receptionist behind the counter to which I ran was clearly startled by the appearance of a soaking wet eighteen year old bursting through the doors.
“Tamika Brooke,” I heaved, “is Tamika Brooke checked in here?”
“Uhm—let me look.” She began punching in letters into the computer as I prayed to a higher good that her answer would be no.
“Yes.” All else had ceased. All else was gone with the passing of this word.
“Sir? Are you?” I mentally shook myself.
“Am I what?”
“Immediate family. Only immediate family is allowed to see her at this time.”
“Yes, I’m her brother, I’m her brother.”
“Alright,” she seemed to take my word on this. “Room 102.” She pointed down the hall.
I ran, the throbbing in my ears the only sound I could comprehend. I followed the room numbers until I came to a white closed door that read 102.
I burst through the doors. Two startled nurses looked up at me as they loomed over an unconscious being wrapped in white. Mom and Dad sat in the corner with stony faces. They jumped to their feet when they saw me. I stood in the doorway, vaguely aware of the nurses yelling at me “Sir, sir, you can’t be in here right now!” My parents said something to them and they shut up.
I felt sick. Tamika’s sleeping, vulnerable face was not her own. Her eyes were swollen and black. Bruises covered her face where white bandages didn’t. Her lip was busted open, bloody and swollen. Her left arm was in a white brace, her dark fingers curled and stark in contrast to it. Her right arm was bruised and bandaged in some places. Other minor lacerations covered it. A white bed sheet covered the rest of her and for that I was glad.
On the bedside table lay her cell phone, the screen shattered and lifeless. Her phone had not been dead when her message cut out. It had not been dead when I tried to call her back. It was broken from the fall when she’d dropped it in the ally. She hadn’t caught a ride with someone else because Jackson called in sick. She’d taken the shortcut through Shandoeka just like I had. Why hadn’t I thought of this? Why hadn’t I stopped?
I heard not the sophisticated words of the nurses and they tried to explain the condition she was in, or the murmurs of my parents whose hands were now touching mine, resting on my shoulder, rubbing my back. All I heard was the shrieks, the rain, my pounding footfalls as I fled from the scene in the ally. As I fled from my sister and her assailants.
I caught only six of the hundreds of meaningless words spit form my mother lips: “there was nothing anyone could’ve done.”
Had I not left then, I would’ve retched on my father. I ran blindly from the room, down the hall, ignoring the calls of my mother as I did. I ran through the hospital doors, into the cold October night and blistering acid rain.
??
I didn’t visit Tamika in the hospital. For weeks after that night, the coldest night of my life, I could not speak to Tamika. I could not look at her. A month went by without more than fifty words passing between us. But as time went on and I watched her spirit erode from her being, I realized I was only abandoning her a second time by not being able to face her.
On an especially chilly night in the middle of November, I fell to my knees before her, caved under the pressure, the stress and oppression I had channeled and kept buried so far within me. My body no longer physically able to hold the millions of pounds of guilt and grief labored on my shoulders, I collapsed. I told her what had happened that cold October night. I explained the memory I’d ran so far from to escape, run from just like I’d ran from her. She sat shocked, staring at me stricken. I cried into her knee, begging her to forgive me, pleading, telling her how so, so sorry I was that I was the reason she had to endure that, the reason for all her pain and suffering, the reason she didn’t talk much anymore and slept a lot, the reason she’d stopped painting.
Once my voice was lost to the sobs and there was no breath left in my lungs, I looked up at my sister, expected a disgusted, betrayed look. But her eyes held no remorse. The fact that even after that, even after all the pain I’d caused her, she looked at me with nothing short of untainted, uncompromised acceptance and love, was proof in my mind that my sister was the closest thing to an angel that I’d ever come across.
“It’s alright, Andre. It’s okay.”

??
Mom and dad started showing up to Tamika’s art shows a couple months later when she’d fully recovered and gotten the cast off her arm. They stopped minding as much when I skipped practice to help Tamika out with an upcoming show. They started engaging in conversations about her art with her, and were genuinely curious, as it was an alien field to them.
The first art show of hers they came to, she had, of course, taken the blue ribbon for her painting. It’d been one she’d refused to show to me when she’d completed it. The painting that hung on the mantle with the big blue ribbon she’d add to her collection was not like her others.
The painting hung on the mantle was of me.





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