\"They looked at me like I was a monster.\" Says the tall, dark man next to me. The time meter at the front of the taxi ticks as the numbers rise, and I can't help feeling guilty that I don't have the money to pay for the ride. \"I'll tell you something, Son, I'm not a monster.\"
I watch him as he pulls a cigarette from his pocket. \"I know, Mr. Jett.\" I say, feeling both scared and sympathetic. He lights the cigarette and puts it to his lips. He takes the smoke in before facing the window and exhaling. My body starts to crave one as the scent fills the cab.
\"Let me tell you something about black folks, Charlie. They're just as smart, just as aspiring, just as important as you white folks.\"
\"I know, Sir. My old man always told me that.\" I say, remembering how my father would always tell me how he'd grown up with Mr. Jett and he saw him as more than just a 'black man' as most people would call him.
He takes the cigarette to his mouth and, again, inhales through the bud and exhales out the window. \"Then why'd you do it?\" He says, lacking the compassion I once heard in his voice.
\"I don't know.\" I inhale as much smoke as I can in one casual breath. I then start to wonder, why did I do it? \"I was afraid of what they'd say to me. I was afraid if I backed out last minute, they'd call me a coward or chicken shit. And I was afraid of getting kicked out of the gang.\"
He looks me straight in the eye. I start to feel intimidated but don't dare look away. \"Was it worth risking your life? And the people at the old folks home?\" He flicks the excess off his cigarette.
\"Not at all.\" I face my window. My eyes follow the trees as they pass. I wait a full two minutes before I decide to explain myself. \"I was afraid they'd hurt me.\" I say, my eyes still glued on the road.
I hear a shift in fabric and turn to see Mr. Jett facing me, maintaining an expression of subtle surprise. \"What?\"
\"Well, when Monte was driving us up to the retirement home, he said to me, quote, 'I'll skin them blacks alive. I hate them, I fucking despise them.'\" He looks at me in a state of shock. \"And James and Ricky laughed. And I laughed too, but only because I had to play along.\" I watch my breath as it leaves my mouth. A few seconds of silence pass as I wait for a reaction from Mr. Jett. No response comes. \"If they could shamelessly say they would skin someone alive who they didn't even know, what would they do to me? I know, I was selfish, but I was using my instincts, you know?\"
He shakes his head and the astonishment fades from his expression. \"Nonsense. You weren't selfish. But you were foolish to get mixed up with them in the first place.\" He says. \"You're better than them, Charlie. Do you know they have nothing? Nothing. You have a good father, good food, a home, money. They have no parents, no money, no morals; hell, even I have more than them. So they take from others. That's what they do. But boys like you don't have to do those things.\"
I look at the floor of the taxi. Mr. Jett tosses his cigarette out the window and rotates the lever on his door to close it. I shift to look out the front window. \"We're almost there.\" Says Mr. Jett.
I nod at his pack of cigarettes. \"Sir, could you spare one? I'm about tto have an anxiety attack for God's sake.\" He pulls one from the pack and hands it to me with the lighter. I put the tube of nicotene between my lips and set it before handing him the lighter. I silently thank the Lord as the smoke fills my lungs and I exhale the stress of this day.
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