Death is a funny thing. My friends and me, we’ve seen a lot of people die. Mostly men. Young guys. We’d wake in the morning to find a body in the street. Sometimes, it’d be there for hours.
We hardly ever talked about death, or what happens after you die.
It was like that in San Bernardino.
“What about Heaven?” Isis asked one morning, on our way to school. Her braids were thin and tight, and the pink and yellow barrettes kept smacking as we walked.
“What about it?” I said, shielding the sun from my eyes. “What would you do there, anyway? Do dogs go there, too?” We saw a lot of dead dogs. And cats.
“Come on, JoJo. It’s not like the movies,” she said. And I remember that Isis laughed a little. But it was a strange laugh, like she wasn’t so sure about it. Perhaps she thought it was like the movies, but she didn’t want anyone to know.
We agreed that if Heaven did exist, we’d only want to go if we were both there, could wear sneakers, blast Beyonce as loud as we wanted, and eat as many Takis as our heavenly stomachs could handle.
I can’t say that I made it to Heaven.
I died, but I’m still around.
I see Isis all the time. She can’t see me, though. For some reason, death doesn’t work that way for me.
Like the movies.
A few nights after I died, I was sitting in Isis’s room, and she was looking at me, or she was looking through me, and I didn’t see myself in the mirror on her closet door.
I was a bunch of lights. I am a bunch of lights.
Red and orange balls of fire. A group of them. Like four to five.
Sometimes more, I think. There are times when I pulse, like the sun on the hottest of days, or like one of those science films. You know, one of those shots where we’re looking at the sun from outer space, from above the earth. So bright, and so hot. And, sometimes, you can see the sun sending out little fireworks. Where they go, I have no idea.
It was Labor Day weekend. The three days off were long, and boring, and all I did was hang with Isis on her front stoop. We talked about Rina, and watched her down the street. She was always off with a group of girls, or a group of guys, or just one. The one guy.
My mother spent her nights at Party Doll, with her new guy Maurice. They’d only been dating for a few months, ever since my father moved out.
She didn’t like that I knew that she went there, but I could smell the liquor on her breath, and Manny told me that’s where she was at night.
“Your mom was out late!” he said to me, grinning.
It was Tuesday morning, and we were supposed to be walking to school. I didn’t feel like going just yet.
“So? How would you know?” I looked at Manny real hard. Sometimes, I thought he was nice enough, but I could never really tell what he wanted.
“I just do. I don’t ever sleep.” He shook his head, and pulled at his pants. They were baggy, and falling. He pulled them up some more.
“But, Maurice!” he said, real loud. “That guy is tight. He gave me all this candy, see?” he was digging in his pockets, and came out with a handful of Skittles.
“Yeah, he’s okay. He treats my mom good.” Manny held out his hands, and I picked out some red and yellow candy.
“Heck, yeah. MoMo and JoJo!” Manny laughed, and tossed the rest into his mouth.
“No one calls him that,” I said.
“I do,” he said, and then he walked off, back to his apartment. I wasn’t sure if he was going to class. He missed a lot of school.
Isis came up to me then, her backpack hanging off her shoulder, and she held her hands up in the air. She didn’t understand why I even talked to Manny. He drove us crazy.
“Really?” she said.
“He’s not so bad, you know.”
“Tell Ms. Rivers that,” she said.
I didn’t know it then, but that was the last conversation we would have.
It was Taco Tuesday. My mother always saved her money for Taco Tuesday. Nickels and dimes, dollar bills from her jeans, and sometimes mine.
My mother and Maurice were waiting for me and Stevie after school. Stevie was six. My mother liked to be early for Taco Tuesday. She said we had to get to Del Taco before dinnertime, and before all the other people who had nothing better to eat.
Stevie held my hand as we walked along Highland Avenue. The street was busy with cars, and people walked across whenever they wanted. For some reason, there just weren’t enough crosswalks. Sometimes, a car would stop. But mostly, you’d see people stuck in the middle, sometimes holding a baby, or pushing a shopping cart.
Del Taco wasn’t far from where we lived, and wasn’t far from school. Maurice and my mother walked ahead of us. He held her hand, firmly, and she laughed as they talked.
I liked Maurice. I liked that he whispered in my mother’s ear when they sat on the couch and watched movies. I liked that he fried wontons on Saturday nights, and I liked that when Stevie didn’t want to do his homework, Maurice sat him down at the kitchen table, and said, “Let’s do this, little man.”
My father never did any of that. He was always tired and mean.
Stevie’s hand was sweaty, and he was telling me about his day, and I remember he was showing me something he had made in class. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it seemed like Stevie had to glue a bunch of letters together to spell baby words and phrases, like I, see, the, man, my.
“Can you read any of these?” I asked him.
“Sure I can,” he said.
I turned the paper over, and someone had scribbled in green crayon, Fuk The MaN.
“Who wrote this?” I showed the words to Stevie, and he smiled.
“Isaiah. Mrs. K says he doesn’t listen.”
“Don’t let him touch your stuff.” I took Stevie’s paper, and put it in his backpack.
“Come on, you guys,” my mother said, turning to look at us. She was beautiful. Her hair was long, and blonde, and she liked to wear baggy sweaters and skinny jeans. She and Maurice started doing this little dance as they walked. A car cruised by, the music loud and beating down the street. You could feel the thumps.
Maurice liked to dance. He shook his shoulders, and Stevie got in on it, too. He ran up to them, and wrapped himself around my mother’s legs. We probably looked silly like that, but that’s another thing I liked about Maurice. He was fun.
My mother ordered as many tacos as her change could afford, which turned out to be twenty-nine. Stevie grabbed three, I had two, and my mother and Maurice divided the rest between them. Whatever we didn’t finish, we’d take home for later.
“Who do you think has the harder job, Santa or the Tooth Fairy?” Stevie asked. He was like that, always asking the weirdest questions.
My mother took a bite of her taco, and shrugged. She didn’t like to talk while eating.
Maurice squeezed some Macho hot sauce onto his finger, and took a lick. “I don’t know, man. Santa’s only gotta work that one night, and the Tooth Fairy, she’s busy all the time,” he said.
Stevie nodded. “Yeah, but he’s got to make all those toys, and brush the reindeer.”
My mother took a sip of her drink. She wasn’t going to say much. She took her hands, and rubbed Stevie’s head. “Eat your dinner,” she told him.
So, he did.
“What about all that teeth?” Maurice asked.
That’s when I saw my father. He was outside, riding a bike.
He rode up to Del Taco, and set his bike against the building. He looked different. He looked serious, like he meant business.
“Hey,” I said, nudging my mother.
She looked up.
Stevie couldn’t see him, and neither could Maurice.
Maurice was still talking with Stevie, but I wasn’t listening anymore. I wasn’t listening because my father was walking toward us, sweaty and red, and he had a gun.
And then he shot us.
He got Stevie in the head, and Stevie slumped over onto Maurice.
Maurice yelled out, and grabbed my brother. He looked at him. He looked at my mother. He looked at me. He was scared.
My father shot Maurice. He shot him twice, three times, more. I don’t remember. But, Maurice fell over, too.
My mother screamed, but she couldn’t move. The people in the restaurant were hiding in their booths, and some ran out, yelling and hollering.
It was so quiet, but so loud.
My father shot my mother, and then he shot, me, too.
So many people were crying.
It hurt. And there was blood everywhere. It was like hot sauce, but brighter, and thicker, and it smeared across the table.
My father looked at us. He shot my mother again, and she let out a loud, “Oh!” and then he looked back at me, but I wasn’t breathing anymore.
He walked outside. No one got in his way. No one tried to stop him.
And then, he took the gun, and put it under his chin.
It was one of those murder suicides. My mother liked to watch shows like that on Dateline. She was always asking questions, like how could someone do that? What are they thinking?
Maybe it’s just that some people are bad, and can never be good.
Like my father. He was always bad.
I died, but I’m still around.
Stevie’s alive, but he’s in the hospital, and needs to have brain surgery.
Maurice didn’t make it. MoMo. JoJo.
My mom, she survived. She’s in the hospital, too.
Sometimes I go and see them.
Me and the lights. We sit in their rooms, and just listen to them breathe. And when I get tired of that, I hang with Isis.
I look around for Maurice, but I don’t ever see him.
Maybe he’s a bunch of lights, too.