PG-13 for graphic images

At fifteen he was thin and wiry, a beanpole dressed in threadbare Levi’s and second-hand Nike’s. Some of it was genetics, of course, and he hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet, but there wasn’t exactly an overabundance of food either.

He walked with his hands jammed deep in his jacket pockets, jammed and balled into fists. His sneakers thumped along the cracked sidewalk, the yellow handkerchief hanging out of his back pocket swishing in time with his footfalls. Thump swish, thump swish, thump swish.

He first realized he wasn’t alone when he saw a shadow on the ground next to his own, moving in time with him.

It was a kid, walking just behind him, thumbs hooked in his pockets, cornrows standing up from his head. He looked up and grinned. “Hey, Jasper.”

At first, Jasper thought it was his kid brother, Duke. But he quickly realized it wasn’t. For one thing, Duke had almond eyes, and this kid’s were hazel. For another–

“We look pretty alike, don’t you think, man?” the kid asked.

Well, yes. Eerily so. “No,” Jasper said. “Get lost.”

“So whatcha up to?” The kid skipped a step to keep up with Jasper’s longer strides.

“I said get lost, man! Didn’t your mama ever talk to you ’bout talkin’ to no strangers?”

“Ye-up,” the kid said, drawing the word out like gum between your fingers. “But you and me, we ain’t strangers.”

“I ain’t met you before, and that’s what it’s called when you ain’t met a body. Stranger.”

The kid side-stepped in front of Jasper and stood blocking the sidewalk, arms akimbo. “Gosh, who do you think I am, Jazz-man?”

Jazz-man. “What are you runnin’ around callin’ me that for?”

“Callin’ you what? Jazz-man? Jazz-man, Jazz-man, Jazz-man!” The kid poked his tongue out.

That was when Jasper realized who the kid was.“I’m trippin’,” he said. “I ain’t even taken a hit, and I’m trippin’.”

“Nu-uh, man. I’m real. I’m the real deal. See look.” The kid poked Jasper in the stomach with a knobby finger. Jasper batted the hand away.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Um, let’s see. You got a splinter in your finger the day Duke was born, so Leshawn had to pull it out. And then, you really hate oatmeal. You saw Mr. Davison hit Rachel, and then you cried. Or I should say, we cried.”

“It ain’t possible.”

“Yeah, but it’s true. And that’s more important.”

“One thing: ain’t nobody ever called me Jazz-man since Cherie—well, since Cherie.”

“Yeah.”

There was silence for awhile, silence under the streetlights with just a thump swish, thump swish, thump swish.

“So you’re, what, a ghost?” Jasper said finally.

“Nu-uh. Just you. You six years ago. So like I said, whatcha up to?”

“If you’re me, you should know, right?”

The kid shook his head. “I’m who you were, I ain’t you today. If you was me, right now you’d be sleepin’. Yeah, or reading Superman. And you’re not, so. . .”

“None of your business. Beat it.”

“But I’m still in there, right?” the kid asked, gesturing at Jasper’s chest. “So I sort of already know, right? So you should just tell me already.”

“This is big stuff. You can’t go blab and all.”

“C’mon, Jasper, blab to who? I’m you, remember? Only one of us can be real at a time, and my time’s past.”

“The used car lot. Fifth and Vine.”

“There? You’re going there? You crazy?”

“Since I’m seein’ you, yeah, probably.”

The kid piped down for half a block, maybe. “So you doing coke or junk?” he asked softly.

Jasper glanced down at him, irritated that the kid’s obvious disappointment bothered him.

“Dude, is this what I have to look forward to? Turning into one of them crazy junkies?”

“Shut up. I’m just hawkin’ it, is all.”

“Oh, just hawkin’? Okay, guess I got nothing to worry ’bout then.”

Jasper ignored the comment.

The kid took hold of Jasper’s jacket and tugged.

“What?”

The kid pointed to the other side of Jasper, eyes wide. Jasper turned to look. The kid was walking on his right, and now some dude was on his left. A big dude, a good four or five inches taller than Jasper, tattoo-covered muscles exposed in his wife-beater. Gold was in his ears and on his fingers.

The guy looked sideways at Jasper, hazel eyes glittering, and grinned. “Boo.”

Jasper curled his lip. “And you’re the ghost of Christmas future, right?”

The guy shrugged. “Overheard ya talkin’. Off to Wilkes’ Car Lot, small-time dealin’. Not bad, but it gets better.”

“Push off,” the kid said, glaring at the guy. “Go away. Jasper and me was doin’ just fine without you.”

“Sure if you was jawin’ about the good old nursery days, sure you’d be fine. But I got a hunch Jasper maybe wants to talk to me. Ain’t that right, Jazz-man?”

Jasper gave the guy his own version of the sideways look. “I dunno. Knowin’ your future sure is temptin’, ain’t it?”

“Could be,” the guy agreed. “Wanna see your tarot cards?”

“Course he don’t,” the kid snapped. “Come on, Jasper, let’s lose this fool.”

The guy gave Jasper a wry look. “We was a smart little fool when we was a kid, wasn’t we, Jasper?”

Jasper shrugged.

The kid tugged on Jasper’s hand. “We should go. Let’s just go. I’ve got a Wolverine comic I found on the sidewalk. Let’s just go read it.”

Jasper brushed his grasping little hands off. He turned to the guy. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Twenty-seven,” Jasper repeated. “And what do I got at twenty-seven?”

The guy held up one massive hand, flashing his rings in Jasper’s face. “Dough, man. A sweet crib. And babes, man. And you’re the top dog. El numero uno.”

“And Mama? How’s she?”

The guy shrugged. “Fine. Good. You buy her a house, a real house instead of the apartment. Timmy and Rayla had a yard growin’ up.”

“So what’s so terrible about that, huh?” Jasper asked the kid. “We do somethin’ right.”

The kid frowned and folded his skinny little arms. “Ask him what the catch is. Cuz I got a feelin’ there’s a catch somewhere here.”

“No catch. Just keep doin’ what you’re doin’, Jasper. You do good, kid.”

“What are you leavin’ out, man?” the kid asked. “You’re leavin’ something out. Who does Jazz-man have to kill?”

“I ain’t leavin’ out nothin’.”

The kid stopped walking and since, he was slightly in front of Jasper, Jasper ran into him. The kid turned to look at the guy. “It’s drug money, isn’t it?”

The guy shrugged.

“It is drug money. That’s who he has to kill, huh? All those kids with junkie daddies.” The kid looked up at Jasper, starting to cry. “Just like Daddy, remember, Jazz-man?”

Jasper didn’t answer him.

“Just like Daddy! You remember, don’t you? Or maybe you got memory issues. I sure don’t, cuz for me, he just shot himself to pieces three weeks ago.”

“Shut up! Daddy made his own choice. He was a fool, but so what? Junkies are gonna get their fixes from somewhere, so I may as well be the one to get rich from it. You know? Help Mama?”

The guy nodded. “That’s it. Make sure Duke finishes high school.”

The kid’s face twisted into a mask of misery and fury. “Help Mama. This is gonna kill her, Jazz-man. Kill her.”

“Come on, what do you want me to do? Turn out to be a loser like all the guys here? Can’t even take care of my mama when she’s old? What wouldn’t we have given to have a yard? An actual house?”

The kid aimed a quivering finger at the guy. “Know who this punk makes me think of, Jazz-man? Daddy. Just sell, sell, sell. Drugs, sure why not? The rent money, not a problem. His kids’ souls, they’re going too. Cherie’s life, go right ahead. That’s all this punk’s doin’, sellin’ lies instead of crack right now, but what’s the difference in the end, huh Jazz-man? What’s the difference?”

Jasper gestured at the guy himself. “Look at me. I’m not Daddy. I’m taking care of the family, not crushin’ it all up into bits.”

“Yeah, there you go. Take care of the family by crushin’ other people’s families into little bits.”

“I ain’t makin’ them buy drugs.”

The kid got in Jasper’s face, arms crossed over his chest. “You are too.”

Jasper pushed the kid back, not hard enough to make him fall, but hard enough that the kid stumbled back several paces.

The kid’s eyes blazed. “We’re just like Daddy. I hate Daddy. Do you hear me, Jazz-man. I. Hate. Daddy. And I hate you. I hate you for you, and I hate you for turnin’ me into you. Have fun with your sugar daddy, so long and I won’t be seein’ you again, cuz I sure ain’t goin’ down to the same place you goin’, with baby-killin’ Daddy.”

The kid turned and ran off, sneakers slamming into the sidewalk. Jasper almost called him back—but no. No matter what the kid said, Jasper wasn’t like his daddy, not by a long shot. Jasper squashed the twinge and turned to the guy. “So what, this deal goes down tonight and it rolls from there?”

The guy nodded. The two kept walking down the street, their shadows shrinking and growing as they stepped into and out of streetlight-illuminated sidewalk.

“Hey I got somethin’ to ask you,” Jasper said. “Kinda been chewin’ on it for awhile.”

“Yeah?”

“Do I—do we—ever, you know, use the stuff?”

The guy paused. “Not much,” he said finally.

“We ever like Daddy?”

The guy shook his head emphatically. “Never.”

“And you said Duke graduates? And Timmy—you’re twenty-seven so he’s what, sixteen now? He still in school then?”

The guy paused.

“I asked you a question, man.”

“He ain’t in school.”

“He drop out? You need to go tell him to finish, man.”

“You’ll drop out yourself next year.”

Jasper missed a step. “I don’t finish school?”

“This is full-time job, man, by this time next year. You do good.”

“But Timmy needs to finish. When you get back to the future, or—or whatever, put him back in school.”

“Can’t do that, man.”

“Why not?”

“He dead, man. OD’ed on junk last year.”

“He’s dead?. Little Timmy, my little nephew Timmy, he’s dead? Lashawn’s son is dead?”

The guy nodded, face down. “I didn’t give no drugs to him. He went behind my back.”

“Like that matters. He’s dead.” A sob hitched in Jasper’s throat. “Someone sold them to him.” He sagged against a streetlight. “I can’t do this, man. I’m gonna sell junk to someone and they’re gonna OD, just like Timmy.”

“Thing is, Jasper, things just happen sometime. Can’t stop OD’in’ by backin’ out no more than Honda could stop accidents by not makin’ cars.”

Jasper shook his head. “Can’t do it, man. Sorry.”

“Even for all this?” The guy pulled one of his rings off and pressed it into Jasper’s hand. “That’s real gold, man, none of that fake stuff.”

“Timmy, man. I just gave him his bath and put him in his bed three hours ago.”

“Yeah, then I’m tellin’ you to go down to the car lot. I want this. Timmy woulda died anyway, everyone dies sometime.”

Jasper straightened and shoved his fists into his jacket pockets. “I said no. I’m gonna tell you somethin’, man. I am like Daddy. We both got ourselves backbones of steel. His backbone let him stand there and do his ‘business’ even when the deal went bad and Cherie was shot to death. Him standing there and his baby girl with her brains on the wall. My backbone’s gonna let me say no to you, so Timmy doesn’t have to die too.”

The guy’s eyes hardened. “How do you know Timmy won’t OD anyway?”

“I won’t let that happen. Just watch me, ya punk.”

Jasper turned and walked away. He felt the guy’s sudden movement behind him and lurched forward, narrowly avoiding being grabbed in one of the guy’s huge hands. He pelted off.

“You will go!” the guy shouted, running after him. “I want this, I need this!”

Jasper just ran. He got the feeling that, despite the guy’s muscles, the older him hadn’t sprinted much lately. The guy’s stamina was probably better than Jasper’s, but Jasper was faster in the short run. As the blocks stretched out, block after block, Jasper’s breathing became ragged and his chest throbbed.

The guy was catching up. Jasper could hear the guy’s breathing huffing behind him, could feel the heat of it on his neck.

The guy swore suddenly and stopped running. Still moving away from him, Jasper turned to face him. The kid had barreled into the guy, hammering at the older man’s stomach with his little fists.

“Let him go!” the kid yelled. “We’re not gonna be you! We ain’t never gonna be you!”

The guy shoved the kid away. The kid stumbled and fell, the back of his head hitting the pavement with a sickening crunch. He didn’t get back up.

The guy stepped over the still form of the kid and came toward Jasper. “You’d better not be late for your appointment, man.”

Jasper grabbed the ring from his pocket and dropped it on the ground. “I will not be you. You ain’t ever gonna get want you ‘want’ cuz you won’t ever exist. The twenty-seven year old me ain’t gonna be nothin’ like you.” He ground the ring under his sneaker. “Those ain’t my tarot cards you read.”

A look of disbelief floated across the guy’s face, but only lingered for a moment before the guy’s face floated right off, dissolving into millions of tiny particles that drifted into the night sky, caught in the glow of the streetlight. His head followed, and then the rest of him blew into dust.

Jasper crouched on the sidewalk next to the kid. The pavement was dark and sticky around the kid’s head, but he opened his eyes anyway. “Hey, Jazz-man.”

“Hey.”

“So whatcha up to?”

Jasper smiled faintly. “I dunno. Go to sleep, maybe, or read a comic.”

The kid tugged a folded magazine out of his jacket pocket. “This one’s pretty good. Wolverine fights Sabretooth.”

Jasper closed his hand on the comic but didn’t take it from the kid’s grasp. “Gonna come with me?”

“Who, me? I’m not real now, remember? It’s your time.”

The kid smiled, his whole face lighting up, the way Timmy’s did when he got excited. Jasper couldn’t help but smile back. The kid closed his eyes. His body shimmered with transparency, until he was more invisible than visible. After a minute, he had vanished entirely. Even his blood was gone.

Jasper was left kneeling on the cold sidewalk, a wadded up comic in his hand. Slowly he got to his feet and walked home, hands jammed deep in his jacket pockets, jammed and balled into fists.

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