WMG Publishing is pleased to present “Snapshots” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which won the AnLab Award from Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine for Best Short Story. The story is also available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks and other online retailers.
Let the people see. Open [the coffin] up. Let the people see what happened to my boy.
—Mamie R. Bradley, mother of Emmett Till, quoted in “Mother receives the body of her slain son,” The Atlanta Daily World, September 7, 1955
The church was hot. Last of summer in Chicago. Cleavon didn’t hold his mama’s hand. At ten, he was too big to cling, but he sure wanted to. He ain’t never seen so many people all in one place, and they was cryin and moanin and carryin on, even though the preacher ain’t started yet.
Mama didn’t want him sayin “ain’t,” but he could think it, at least today.
Mama was draggin him here, not Papa, not his older brother Roy. Roy was the same age as Emmett Till. They been friends, and Papa said it just be cruel to make him go, but Mama said she would anyways.
Roy ain’t been home since. He probably wouldn’t come back till the funeral was over.
Cleavon never knowed anybody who been on the news, and Emmett’d been on the news for days now. And in the Chicago Defender, too. Papa kept staring at the headlines, but the only one Cleavon kept looking at was “Mother Waits in Van for Her ‘Bo.’” Ain’t no one outside of the South Side knowed that Emmett wasn’t Emmett to the folks what knowed him. Emmett was Bobo, and he hated it.
Cleavon didn’t talk to him much, couldn’t call him a friend. He was too big a kid for that—nearly grow’d—which was why, Mama said, them Southern white boys thought he was whistling at that stupid white woman. The idea of it all made Cleavon shiver whenever he seen white folk, and there was a lotta white folks near Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ today. They was all reporters, Mama said, and ain’t none of them gonna beat up little black boys.
“Not with all these people watching,” Mama said.
Cleavon wanted to correct Mama. Emmett wasn’t beat up. The papers said he was pistol-whipped, then shot in the head. Cleavon had a whipping before, more than one, with his Papa’s belt, but never at the hands of white boys. Whippings didn’t scare him so much as guns. It was hard to run away from guns.
He’d said that to Papa, and Papa’d given him a sad look. You ain’t never had a true whipping, son, Papa’d said, and I hope you never get one.
It was after Cleavon said that that Papa stopped arguing with Mama. Papa said it’d be good for the boys to know what them whiteys was capable of. ’Cept Roy was too scared to look.
Cleavon come’d here in his best Sunday clothes, the collar of his starched shirt too tight on his neck, and stood in line near to an hour now, right beside Mama, so they could pay their respects to Emmett. That’s what Mama said to the pastor, but that’s not what she said to Cleavon. To Cleavon, she said he was gonna see something he wouldn’t never forget.
They finally made it past the pews up front, and Cleavon could see the open coffin a few yards ahead. Grownups looked in, then covered their mouths or looked away. Next to it all, Emmett’s mama sat on the steps, tears on her cheeks, men Cleavon didn’t know holding her shoulders like they was holding her up.
Last night, Mama said to Papa after she thought Cleavon was asleep that she didn’t know if she could live without her boys, and he said, You go on, Janet. You just go on.
So Cleavon was watching Emmett’s mama, not the casket, as he come up. Papa told him ’fore they left, he said, What you’re gonna see, son, it’s not pretty. But it’s the way life is. It’s what death can be, if you’re not careful.
Mama yelled then. She said there wasn’t any proof that Emmett wasn’t careful, that whiteys killed us anyway just for breathing funny, and especially down south. Papa said, Now Janet, bad things happen in Chicago too, and she stood taller like she did when she had a mad on, and she said, Not as many bad things, and Papa said soft like he did when he didn’t want no one to hear him, You’re dreaming, honey. You’re just dreaming.
Mama stopped in front of the coffin. She made a sound Cleavon ain’t never heard before. She grabbed Cleavon’s shoulders tight with her black-gloved hands and said, “Never mind, Cleavon. You don’t have to look. We’ve paid our respects,” but now he was determined. She’d dragged him here, and he was gonna see what Emmett’s mama wanted the whole world to see.
He yanked himself outta his mama’s grasp and faced that coffin. Something was in there, dressed like him. Black suit, white shirt. But he didn’t recognize the rest of it. It had a chin and sorta mouth and some black hair what might’ve been Emmett’s. But there weren’t no eyes at all, and the skin was peeled back in places. Plus there was holes in his head.
Cleavon stared at them holes. Gunshot holes.
“Come on, Cleavon,” Mama said, but he wouldn’t move.
That was someone he knowed. That was someone he talked to. That was someone he liked.
“Holy Gods, Bobo,” he said real soft, like his Papa done just that afternoon. “This ain’t right. This ain’t right at all.”
“There are more senseless, irrational killings,” First Deputy Police Superintendent Michael Spiotto told the Tribune for [a 1975] series [on Chicago’s high murder rate]. “There are more cases of murder for which we can’t determine any motive.”
—Stephan Benzkofer, “1974 was a deadly year in Chicago,” Chicago Tribune, July 8, 2012
The traffic light turned red half a block ahead. Cleavon Branigan’s shoulders tensed. Kids—reedy, thin, maybe ten-twelve years younger than him—ran into alleys, away from the glass-strewn sidewalks. He was on a cross-street heading toward 65th, and if he didn’t stop, he’d probably get hit.
If he did, he wasn’t sure what the hell would happen.
It was his own damn fault, really. He’d been the one to take this route home after shopping down on East 71st. He wasn’t sure why he’d left the Near West Side anyway. The idea of good fried chicken for lunch and a black birthday card for his roommate, not one of those Hallmark pieces-o-crap, had seemed like a good idea.
Not good enough to stop here, right in the middle of the gang wars.
He slowed, foot braced over the brake, hoping the light would change before he got there. He scanned, left, right, back again, but there was oncoming traffic. He swallowed hard, deciding he’d punch it after the last car left.
He eased to a rolling stop—a California stop, his roommate called it—and all hell broke loose. Gunshots ricocheting, exploding at impact, those kids shooting at each other, not caring about him.
He eased down in the seat, peering over the dash, and slammed his foot on the accelerator. Oncoming traffic could fucking avoid him.
Someone swerved, brakes squealed, and then he was through the intersection, still driving like a crazy man. He didn’t stop until he was halfway up Martin Luther King Boulevard, almost out of the South Side, as far from the projects as he could safely get.
He pulled over into a vacant lot, his heart racing.
Then he saw the bullet holes in the side windows, rear window shattered, glass on the backseat. He hadn’t heard that. He’d thought all the explosions were outside the car.
He started shaking.
Enough. That was enough.
He was done with this Godforsaken town.
He was done, and he was never coming back.
I love Chicago because it made me who I am….But it’s the city I hate to love, and I won’t go back—especially now that I’m raising a son. I don’t want to lose him to the streets of Chicago.
—Tenisha Taylor Bell
CNN.com, February 15, 2013
“You don’t get a say, Dad.” Lakisha Branigan grabbed her book bag, the beaded ends of her cornrows clicking as she moved. “What part of ‘I got a scholarship’ do you not understand?”
Her dad put his big hand against the big oak door, blocking her way out of the house. “The part that ends with ‘to the University of Chicago,’” he snapped. “You’re not going.”
She flung the bag over her shoulder. He was getting in her way, getting in the way of her opportunities, opportunities he had said he wanted for her.
“Do you know how hard it is to get a full scholarship to the University of Chicago?” she asked.
“I’m proud of you, baby, I am,” he said, moving in front of the door, nearly knocking over her mother’s prize antique occasional table as he did. “But you haven’t been to Chicago. I grew up there—”
“And left when gangs were shooting at you, I know,” she said. She’d heard that story a million times. Her dad hadn’t done anything, he hadn’t gotten out of the car, he hadn’t shot back, he just fled. Reggie, her boyfriend, said that made her dad a coward.
She didn’t like the word, but the sentiment made her uncomfortable. It always nagged her that her dad ran away.
“It’s not like that any more,” she said. “The crime rate is going down. You want to see the statistics?”
“I want you to go somewhere else,” he said. “Dartmouth is in the middle of nowhere—”
“And my scholarship there is tuition only,” she said. “Do you know how much that’ll cost?”
“We’ll get loans—”
“I’m not going in debt,” she said. “University of Chicago or nothing.”
That threat always worked. Except this time.
Her dad sighed and shook his head. “Then it’s nothing,” he said.
She stared at him, shocked. All her life, the lectures: education lifts you up; education is the only way our people can compete; education will make you equal when nothing else will.
“Baby,” he said, “the school is on the South Side.”
“No, it’s not,” she said. “It’s in Hyde Park.”
“Bullets don’t acknowledge neighborhood boundaries,” he said.
“And you’re paranoid.” She flounced away from him, threaded her way through the heavy living room furniture and hurried into the kitchen. She’d wasted fifteen minutes she didn’t have fighting with her dad. She’d take his car, then, and drive herself to school.
She was an adult now, whether he liked it or not.
Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at President Obama’s inauguration with her high school’s band and drill team Jan. 21, was shot in the back Tuesday afternoon as she and other King College Prep students took shelter from a driving rain under a canopy in Vivian Gordon Harsh Park on the city’s South Side.
“Chicago teen who performed at inauguration fatally shot,” USA Today, January 31, 2013
Five black SUVs stopped in the alley beside Greater Harvest Baptist Church. Thin, serious men in somber suits got out, cleared the snow away from the tires, nodded at other black-clad agents holding back the crowd. Not that anyone was cheering, like the last time Lakisha Branigan had seen the First Lady.
Only Michelle Obama hadn’t been First Lady then. Just First-Lady-elect, if there was such a thing. That cool night under the klieg lights in Grant Park, the Obama family tiny on a tiny stage, a quarter of a mile from where Lakisha and her nine-year-old son Ty stood. She couldn’t even get her father to visit that night, the night the first African-American got elected President of the United States.
An African-American from Chicago. So there, Daddy, she’d said that night. And he’d said from his suburban Southern Illinois home, only three hours away, I don’t want you near Grant Park, baby. And I don’t want my grandson in downtown, ever. You hear me?
She’d heard. She never listened.
She helped Ty out of their own SUV. He was taller than she was now and had already outgrown the suit she’d bought him for the science fairs he specialized in. He’d been the only kid from his school to ever qualify for the First Robotics Competition and he’d been busy with his team for weeks now.
Normally, he complained when Lakisha wanted him to do something extra. His time was short these days. But coming to Hadiya’s funeral had been Ty’s idea. He’d known her all his life.
One of the Secret Service agents bent over, picking something off the ground. His sports coat moved slightly to reveal his gun.
“No,” Ty said, stopping beside the SUV’s open door.
Lakisha almost slid on the ice. She was wearing the wrong shoes for standing in the cold. And nylons. Her legs were freezing.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I can’t go in.”
He looked at the weapon, then at the side doors. Someone had set up metal detectors. Security protocols, because the First Lady was here. Lakisha’s stomach turned. Normally there weren’t security protocols at this church—at any church.
“You go through that stuff every day at school,” she said.
Ty held onto the open door like it was a shield. “I changed my mind.”
“Why?” Lakisha asked.
“No reason.” His voice shifted from its new tenor range to soprano. He didn’t even blush. He usually blushed when his voice cracked.
He slipped back into the SUV, and started to pull the door closed. She caught it.
“What aren’t you telling me?” she asked.
He threaded his fingers together. “Those men have guns.”
“To protect the First Lady,” she said. “You’ve seen that before too. It’s okay, Ty.”
“No,” he said. “It’s not. I want to go home.”
She sighed. Hadiya had been his friend. It was his right to mourn how he wanted.
She rounded the front of the SUV, and climbed into the driver’s side. She shut the door, and was about to turn the key in the ignition, when she hesitated.
“What else, Ty?”
He bowed his head.
“Ty,” she said in the voice she always used to get his cooperation, the voice that still worked, even though he was getting bigger than she was.
“I was in that park, Mama,” he whispered. “And I am not going near anyone with a gun ever again.”
Since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, we at Slate have been wondering how many people are dying from guns in America every day…. That information is surprisingly hard to come by…. [For example] suicides, which are estimated to make up as much as 60 percent of gun deaths, typically go unreported…
—Chris Kirk and Dan Kois
Slate, February 21, 2013
His grandfather smelled of mothballs. He hunched in the passenger seat of Ty’s car, clinging to the seatbelt like it was a lifeline. In the past year, his grandfather had become frail. Ty hadn’t expected it. His grandfather had always been so big, so powerful, so alive.
“Your mama said I’m bothering you.” His grandfather stared out the window at the neat houses on the old side street. Half the lawns were overgrown, but the others were meticulously cared for. “You’re too important to bother.”
“But she wouldn’t come,” Ty said.
“I didn’t call her. I just called you.” His grandfather shifted slightly, then looked at him sideways. “This is man-stuff. She’d yell at me for saying that.”
Ty nodded. Man-stuff. No one talked like that any more. But his grandfather was from a different generation, and in that generation, each gender had a role. His mother hated it, but sometimes Ty thought such strict definitions made life easier.
“Besides, she thinks I’m worrying too much,” his grandfather said.
Ty did too, but he didn’t say that. He’d made his first argument on the phone. Gramps, everyone’s entitled to go dark now and then.
But his grandfather had insisted: his friend Leon never failed to answer his phone. The police wouldn’t check and Leon hadn’t set up any health services, so no one was authorized “to bust into his house,” as his grandfather so colorfully said.
I’m worried, his grandfather had said. When Laverne went, she took part of him with her.
Leon, his grandfather’s best friend for as long as Ty could remember. Both men laughing, teaching him cards, giving him his first beer, teaching him to be a man, because, they said, his mother never would.
It was only a three-hour drive to his grandfather’s house. Ty hadn’t seen him enough anyway.
Ty pulled into Leon’s driveway, thinking about all those marathon movie sessions on Leon’s big TV in the basement, Laverne bringing popcorn, then pizza, and then grabbing the remote so they would get some sleep. Her funeral had been one of the saddest Ty had ever been to.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said. “Leon’ll be mad at us.”
“I hope you’re right.” His grandfather opened the car door and got out, fumbling in the pocket of his plaid coat for keys. He found them, and grabbed the one marked with blue dye.
Then he walked to the garage door, and unlocked it. He’d already let himself in by the time Ty got out of the car.
The garage smelled of gasoline, even though Leon hadn’t had a car with a gasoline engine in five years. The door to the kitchen stood open.
Ty frowned. It was too quiet. There should’ve been shouting or laughing or some kind of ruckus. That was what he always thought of when he thought of his grandfather and Leon. Ruckus.
He climbed the two stairs into the kitchen and the stink hit him first. Something ripe mixed with an undertone of sewer. But the kitchen was spotless like usual. The table clean, no dishes in the sink.
Ty rounded the corner into the living room, stopped when he saw his grandfather crouching. At his feet, some kind of gun.
Ty took one more step, saw Leon on his back, eyes open, half his face gone.
“Fucking son of a bitch listened to me,” his grandfather said.
Ty’s breath caught. “Excuse me?”
“I used to say, you don’t use a gun to kill yourself. What if the shot goes wrong? What if it only wounds you? He used the right bullets, made sure there was no risk of living.”
His grandfather stood, knees cracking. “Shoulda known when I seen Bobo. It don’t always happen in Chicago.”
Ty didn’t understand him, but he didn’t have to. “Let’s get you out of here, Gramps. I’ll call the police.”
“Because,” his grandfather said bitterly, “calling the police always does so much good.”
Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.
—President Barack Obama,
January 16, 2013
“I don’t see how this could work,” Deputy Chief of Police Hannah Fehey said, holding a small tablet in her left hand. She rested against the windowsill in her office, the skyline of Chicago behind, blocking all but a bit of blue from Lake Michigan. “Guns are still mechanical. No virus will shut off every single gun in the city.”
Ty smiled. His lawyer, Robert Locke, stood beside him, arms crossed, trying not to look nervous. Everyone expected Ty to be arrested by the end of the meeting.
He didn’t care. He had spent years thinking about this—ever since Hadiya and those bullets whizzing over his head in that park. Ever since his grandfather telling the same kind of stories. And Leon. Ty still didn’t want to think about Leon.
Ty had found a way to stop the violence. It would be slow, but it would work.
“I didn’t send a virus to the guns,” he said. “I sent it to the phones.”
She looked up from the tablet. “Phones?”
“Cell phones,” he said, trying not to treat her as if she was dumb. “And that tablet. And watches, glasses, clothing, and anything else computerized with a wireless or cell connection within a fifty-mile radius.”
If he had any hope of staying out of jail, he would need her on his side. Because he had already done it. He had hacked every possible personal system in the Greater Chicago area.
But she didn’t seem to notice that he had broken the law. She was still frowning at him, as if she couldn’t quite understand his point.
“So what?” she said. “You still can’t shut off a gun.”
“No,” he said. “I can’t. But if one fires, the phones nearby automatically upload everything to the nearest data node. Numbers called, texts sent, fingerprints from the screen, retinal prints, voice prints. The phone closest to the shot fired sends the information first. If you can’t identify someone from all of that and arrest them before the gunshot residue leaves their skin, then the Chicago Police Department isn’t as good as it says it is.”
Her mouth opened.
He didn’t tell her the rest of the details. All he had done was tweak already-existing technology to make it work for him. His little virus, which he sent through all the major carriers, turned personal devices on, and made them record everything in the immediate area—sound, video, location—everything. All of that data went to a series of dedicated servers, rather like those every major police department had now to scan all the traffic cameras and other security devices littering city streets.
Only those public security cameras didn’t activate when a shot rang out. They ran all the time, collecting too much useless data. These phones activated inside a house or a car, showing everything nearby. His servers instructed the personal devices to contact the police, all in a nanosecond.
It was the servers and data storage, his lawyers had told him when he came up with the idea, that made this action so very illegal.
So he wasn’t going to admit to all of his illegal acts. Just some of them.
“Check the tablet,” he said. “I’m sure someone has fired a gun in the last fifteen minutes.”
She glanced down at the tablet he had handed her at the beginning of the meeting. Her frown deepened. Then she set the tablet on the desk, leaned forward, and tapped the screen on the desk’s edge. Ty heard the chirrup as someone answered the Deputy Chief’s page.
“Any report of shots fired near the Art Institute?” she asked
“Yes, ma’am,” said the male voice, sounding perplexed. “How did you know?”
“We’re dispatching someone to the scene now.” Now the male voice sounded businesslike.
“Thank you,” she said, and tapped the screen again.
Ty nodded toward the tablet. “You have the information you need. You know who fired the first shot. If they have a criminal record, you already have their name and address.”
She picked up the tablet. Its light reflected in her eyes. “There’s more than one name here. Two of them belong to me.”
It took Ty a moment to understand. Police officers. “Everyone carries a personal device, ma’am,” he said. “You get reports of every shot.”
She clutched the tablet to her chest, like a child hugging a stuffed dog. “Criminals will stop carrying devices.”
“We don’t broadcast this,” he said. “We don’t tell anyone. We just arrest whoever takes a shot.”
“It’s not legal,” she said. “It won’t hold up in court.”
“Forgive me, ma’am.” Ty’s lawyer spoke up. Ty gave him a warning glance. Robert wasn’t supposed to speak unless Ty was arrested. “But under the revised FISA laws, you only need to notify the Federal Court that you’ll be doing this. You’ll have to do it under seal, but it should work.”
Ty let out a small breath. They didn’t know that for certain. The damn laws changed all the time, generally in favor of the government. But of course, he was talking to the government.
“My God,” she said.
For a moment, Ty had hope. She was going to try this.
Then she shook her head. “It’s one gun at a time.”
“One gun user at a time,” Ty said.
“We’d have to exclude firing ranges,” she muttered. “And weapons training facilities.”
“You can do that by location, ma’am,” Ty said. “Any guns fired in a sanctioned area wouldn’t trigger the alerts.”
The Deputy Chief blinked at him. “You’re giving this to us?” she asked.
“I want it tested here,” he said. “But it’s mine.”
She nodded once. “This might work,” she said. “My God. This just might work.”
“The data is dirty; it is not valid or reliable, there is all sorts of missing information,” says David Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer who is now an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “When I and other researchers compare what is there with what is in local police internal files, it just doesn’t add up. So we don’t have a national system for recording deaths at the hands of police. And we don’t have information about police who shoot people who survive or who shoot at people and miss.”
The Capitol Times,
February 19, 2013
“You did what?” Cleavon asked.
Ty was sitting in his grandfather’s kitchen, nursing a cup of coffee. “I gave it to the police.”
“You gave it…” Cleavon sat down heavily. His body hurt. His head hurt. He could barely catch his breath. “And you think they’ll use this technology to make the world better?”
“Of course they will,” Ty said. “You know that.”
Cleavon thought of his own grandfather, clutching a rifle on the rooftops of his South Chicago home in that hot hellish summer of 1919, fending off the police as they tried to destroy anyone with black skin, in the middle of the worst race riots of that horrible century.
He thought of the white police officers, who shot first and asked questions later in the gang-ridden Chicago neighborhoods where he grew up.
He thought of Emmett Till’s mother, sitting beside her son’s coffin, tears running down her cheeks. Of the bullet holes in Emmett’s head, done by two white men who would never have been arrested by the police of their day.
Of the bullet holes in Leon’s head, and of the arrest that would never happen, because it would have been too late.
Cleavon had no idea how to tell Ty that. How to convey all he’d seen, all he knew.
“Science won’t save the world, son,” Cleavon said.
Ty’s cheeks flushed, like they always did when he was angry and tried to hide it. He wanted his grandfather to praise him, not to criticize him.
“Mama said you would be negative,” Ty said. “She said I shouldn’t tell you anything I’ve done well because you always take the pride out of it.”
Cleavon looked at him. “It’s not about you.”
Ty raised his chin. “Then what’s it about?”
Cleavon started to answer, maybe quote some Martin Luther King, some Ghandi, words about changing men’s hearts. And then he stopped, smiled, leaned back.
His grandson believed that people were inherently good. Black, white, purple. His grandson didn’t care.
Yeah, the boy was naïve, but he was a new kind of naïve, one that didn’t even exist in Cleavon’s day.
“Never mind,” Cleavon said, getting up to pour himself another cup of coffee. “You done good, Ty. You done real good.”
Copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Analog, May, 2014
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2014 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Patrikeevna/Dreamstime, fstockfoto/Dreamstime
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