Category Archives: John Teel

Scared Straight

It was cold and quiet and Nick surveyed his surroundings. A line of dilapidated buildings sat in front of him; their burnt out carcasses infested with vermin both human and quadruped. The traffic light across the street was flashing red for weeks. No city workers were willing to risk a shanking just to fix it. The asphalt was riddled with pot holes, bringing what little traffic there was to a crawl. Nick sighed, his breath hanging in the air like a smog cloud. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, constantly moving in place to keep the blood flowing. There was movement to his left and when he turned a black SUV pulled up to the curb where Nick stood with his handwritten cardboard sign that read; Homeless. Please Help. God Bless. The passenger side window rolled down with a gentle hum and Nick high stepped it to the door, the chain attached to his wallet jingling as he went.
+++++“What’s up?” Nick mumbled between furious chomps of his gum, not looking the driver in the face.
+++++“Hey there.” The voice was warm and friendly and Nick lifted his head. The man was dressed in a black suit and tie with one hand on the wheel, his sleeve pulled back slightly to reveal an expensive looking watch. The SUV was clean and well kept. Both he and the automobile were a strange sight under the tracks of the El. The man started to speak, but a train screeched by overhead, the grinding of the wheels drowning out his words. He waited for the train to move along before speaking again.
+++++“Why don’t you get in? Get outta the cold.”
+++++The heat from the SUV was pouring out of the window, caressing Nick’s face like a warm towel after a nice shave, something Nick hadn’t had in months. The man touched a button and the lock disengaged. Nick dropped his sign to the floor as he slid inside and tried to warm his hands up the best he could. He could feel the man staring at him, but his high was dwindling and the feelings of shame and disgust were replacing the euphoria of the heroin.
+++++“Thanks mister,” was all he could muster.
+++++“No problem.” The man hit the locks, rolled the window up, then shifted into drive, silently guiding the SUV through the darkness like the captain of a submarine. Nick pointed to an empty lot where an Italian restaurant used to sit. “That’s a good spot there.”
+++++The man hit the brakes.
+++++“A good spot for what?”
+++++“You a cop?” Nick asked.
+++++The man chuckled. “Absolutely not.”
+++++“Are we gonna do this then, or what? I need the money, you stopped to give it to me. I know what I have to do so let’s just get it over with.” He reached in his mouth and plucked out the gum, sticking it to the knee of his filthy jeans. Leaning over the middle console, he threw his head near the man’s lap and grabbed for his belt buckle. A blow, like the crack of a two by four, smacked against his cheek, snapping his head back.
+++++“Jesus Christ, dude.” Nick sat bolt upright, rubbing his cheek where the red imprint of a hand was starting to develop.
+++++“Are you gay?” the man asked.
+++++“No. What does that matter?”
+++++“Don’t degrade yourself, kid,” the man said, easing the vehicle back down the road. “It’s one thing if you like putting cocks in your mouth. It’s something else entirely if you’re doing it for drugs.”
+++++“I don’t need the money for drugs,” Nick said unconvincingly. “I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in days and-”
+++++“Look at your fucking eyes,” the man cut him off, slapping the overhead mirror down in front of Nick’s face. “That runny nose you got could be from the cold, sure, but I’ll bet it’s got to do with the junk. You’re either on heroin or you’re the only guy who gets poison ivy in December.”
+++++Nick didn’t even notice he’d been scratching away at his neck. He pushed the mirror away and put both hands under his armpits.
+++++“Don’t bullshit me with that ‘I’m hungry’ crap, either. I’m sure you know what bakeries or delis around here throw out their perfectly edible bagels or what restaurants get rid of their day old produce. You live in America. No one sucks dick for a meal.” He shook his head. “I hate liars. My brother was a liar. I watched the pills turn him into a complete stranger. He never did figure out how to beat it. He was weak. Sound familiar?”
+++++After the slap and the brow beating he’d just taken, Nick’s high was almost completely gone. They were fast approaching a red light up ahead. “Look, just let me out here, alright? I don’t need this shit.”
+++++The man cruised on through the light, not even bothering to look both ways. There wasn’t a soul on the road anyway. Nick yanked the door handle, but the lock stayed put.
+++++“Child locks,” the man said. “Works on adults, too.”
+++++“Unlock the fucking door, man,” he pleaded, his fright betraying the attempt at anger in his voice.
+++++“I don’t think so. I’m not done with you yet.”
+++++He eased down Frankford toward the now abandoned Catholic high school and turned onto Torresdale Ave. Nick reached across the console again, this time to try and undo the locks, but the man’s powerful hand gripped his wrist and bent it back. Nick let out a weak cry as he felt something pop in his arm. The more he struggled, the more pressure the man applied, never taking his eyes off the road.
+++++“Please. Stop. I think you broke something,” Nick whimpered.
+++++The man tossed his hand away. “Don’t try that again,” he said, his voice as calm as a mother speaking to a newborn at nap-time. Nick rubbed his wrist as hot tears made tracks in the dirt on his face on their way down to his chin. The man gave him a backhand to the side of the head.
+++++“We clear?”
+++++Nick nodded, his body wracked with tremors.
+++++“Good.”
+++++They drove a while in silence. A light rain began to fall, dotting the windshield and making it hard to see. Nick’s eyes scanned the sidewalks for any pedestrians he could get to look his way, but the streets were deserted; help was nowhere to be found.
+++++“What’s your name anyway?” the man asked, jolting Nick out of his dreams of escape.
+++++“Tim,” Nick said, giving his little brother’s name instead of his own.
+++++“Tim,” the man repeated. “How long have you been living on the streets?” There was genuine concern in his voice, a rather different tone than the one he’d gotten after the man’s two outbursts.
+++++“Six months,” Nick said, reaching down and peeling the gum from his knee and popping it into his mouth. Six long months. The good thing was he barely remembered a minute of it. When his parents finally kicked him out, he tried going to his aunt’s house, but they’d gotten the entire family on board with the whole “tough love” movement, which meant no help, financial or otherwise, from anyone. After a few failed attempts at rehab, (both times he was tossed for being caught with drugs) his parents decided the best course of action would be to let him live out on the streets, hoping he’d hit rock bottom. So far he’d made it out there robbing, attacking or blowing anyone who crossed his path. Rock bottom seemed like it was a long way off.
+++++“Six months,” the man repeated again. “Seems like you didn’t waste anytime whoring yourself out.” He looked Nick over. “You’re a young kid, too. Let me guess. Parents threw you out?”
+++++Nick didn’t answer, but his angry expression did.
+++++“Thought so. Probably started out taking some pills with your buddies. Next thing you know, your little party has become a full blown habit and you don’t have the cash to afford it, so you move on to the heroin. Nice and cheap, but you get that same high.”
+++++Even underneath the grime, the man could see Nick’s cheeks burning red. A razor thin smile spread across his face.
+++++“I’m pretty good at this game ain’t I?”
+++++“You don’t know me. You don’t know a thing about me.”
+++++“That’s true. But I do know addiction. I know weakness. And I can see that shit oozing out of you like hot breath in the cold air.” He turned the car off of the avenue and took some side streets until he was running underneath I-95, the world growing even darker and emptier. He parked the car alongside a chainlink fence that had a heavy chain looped through the gate with three padlocks hanging from it.
+++++“What do your parents do for a living?”
+++++Nick laughed. “What the fuck is this? You looking for work or something? Mom’s a teacher. Dad’s a carpenter. I don’t know if they’re hiring though.”
+++++“Any brothers or sisters?”
+++++The smile disappeared from Nick’s lips as quickly as it appeared. He hated his parents for what they’d done to him. Throwing him out with nowhere to go, no one to look to for help. But Timmy was an innocent. A good kid who looked up to his older brother even if he was a junkie. He loved him no matter what. In Nick’s mind, Tim was the only family he had left.
+++++“A brother,” Nick said, “but we’re not gonna talk about him.”
+++++“Hmm. I see.” The man killed the engine, pulled the key from the ignition and stepped out into the night. He came around Nick’s side and opened the door.
+++++“What’s with all the questions? What are we doing here?”
+++++“We’re almost done,” the man said. “You do what I say when I say it, understood?” Nick nodded his head faster than he’d meant to. “This way. And Tim. Do not fuck with me.”
+++++Nick stepped out of the warmth of the SUV and into the chill of the December night. None of the street lamps were working; the only light came from the moon shining off of the wet concrete as the rain came down harder. He thought about taking off on foot, but up close and standing in front of him, the man was much more than he’d seemed sitting down in the driver’s seat. His thick arms filled out the sleeves of his dress shirt. He was tall; over six foot, his shoulders blocking out the sliver of moonlight creeping in behind him. Besides the man’s intimidating frame, the stinging of Nick’s cheek and the pain in his wrist reminded him it might not be the smartest idea to run. He was a junkie, but he wasn’t a stupid one.
+++++The man pointed at the wide gap in the fence where the gates were chained together.
+++++“In.”
+++++Nick slithered through, followed closely behind by the man. Once they were both on the other side, the man grabbed Nick by his arm and led him along between the concrete piers that kept the interstate afloat. The ground was littered with a plethora of garbage, dirty diapers, scrap metal and hypodermic needles. Nick’s heart was hammering his chest like a snare drum; the smacking of the rain so loud he couldn’t hear himself think.
+++++The man stopped him in front of what looked like a rolled up rug surrounded by junk, but when his eyes fully adjusted to the dark, Nick could make out the body of an old man wrapped in blankets, his belongings scattered all around him. His chest heaved in and out and a thin line of drool dripped from the corner of his mouth and disappeared into a forest of matted facial hair.
+++++“Take a good hard look at him,” the man said, pointing to the sleeping vagrant. “This is your future, kid.”
+++++Nick tried to hide his smile once he realized what the man was up to. Most times when people tried to preach to him, it was just a quick word on the street or a blessing from some religious do-gooder. But this guy took things much further than anyone had before, including Nick’s parents. He’d opted for the old scared straight method.
+++++ Just let him get his whole good deed bullshit out of the way, Nick thought. Let him think he’s turning my life around and I can get the fuck outta here.
+++++The man let go of Nick’s arm and kicked the bum hard in his foot, jolting him out of his sleep. The bum smacked his lips like a dog with a mouthful of peanut butter and looked at the party of two standing in front of him.
+++++“What the hell you kickin’ me fer? I’m tryin’ to sleep here goddamnit,” the bum yelled over the pitter-patter of the rain. “This here’s my spot, so piss off.” A flash of lightning illuminated the darkness followed by a hollow thunk. Another flash came after it and Nick realized it wasn’t lightning at all, but the muzzle flash of a silenced pistol in the man’s hand. The homeless man’s face erupted like there were fire crackers under his skin. Warm blood dotted Nick’s cheek as the man fired again and again. The old man’s decrepit body slumped over his blankets, his legs tucked under him like he was doing some sort of homeless yoga. His face resembled a piece of raw meat that somebody worked over with a pitchfork. Nick wobbled as his legs betrayed him, landing hard on his knees. The big mac he’d eaten out of the trash for lunch began to force its way up out of his belly, chunks of it spraying the dirt. The man took a handful of Nick’s shirt and pulled him to his feet. He swayed there like a newborn fawn, turning his head away from the scene before him.
+++++“Look at him,” the man whispered into Nick’s ear. Nick was blubbering hard, the gasps between sobs wracking his body up and down.
+++++“I…. don’t want….to.”
+++++“Look at him or I’ll cut off your eyelids.”
+++++Nick obeyed, looking the old man over. The dirt was drinking the puddle of blood that was oozing out of what used to be his face. “Why the fuck did you do this?”
+++++The man chuckled. “You did this to him, kid. All the years he’s been out here, scrounging, copping, surviving. Now he’s dead because of some weak little piss ant who’d rather degrade himself than be a man and get himself straight. All of your life’s choices have led to this.” He motioned to the old man’s corpse. “Remember what this looks like. Let it sear into the back of that pea brain that’s resting in your skull. Now. Let’s go. We got one more stop to make.”
+++++The man drug Nick back to the gate, shoving him through and onto the sidewalk. Again Nick thought about running, only this time his legs barely worked. The man opened the passenger door and tossed him inside. He hopped into the driver’s seat, sliding the pistol out of his jacket and pointing it at Nick.
+++++“Is that chain on your hip attached to a wallet?”
+++++Nick nodded and offered the wallet with shaking fingers. He felt like he’d just run a marathon, his body achy and his breathing labored. The man rested the gun on his lap, slipped a pair of leather gloves on his hands, then opened the wallet, sliding Nick’s driver’s license out.
+++++“Nicholas Cheeseman.” The man glanced at Nick. “We’ve established how I feel about liars Nick.” He sighed. “I guess given the circumstances I can let that one go. 5754 Shellmire Street. That where your folks live I guess?”
+++++Nick nodded.
+++++“Hmm,” the man said, tossing the wallet back to Nick and slipping the license into his chest pocket. “I’m gonna hold onto this, Nick,” he said, slapping the pocket. “We are gonna do some experimental rehab, you and I. Now I’m a busy man, but I’ve got a soft spot for the youth of America, especially the kind that are really lost in life. Hell, I was lost myself, until I found my calling.” He held the pistol up for Nick to see before unscrewing the silencer and tucking it back in its holster.
+++++“It seems to me that you don’t really care for your parents, but I’d guess that has to do with them throwing you out on the street. Am I close?”
+++++Nick nodded.
+++++“Thought so. Well what’s gonna happen is this; I’m gonna be watching you. Making sure that you’re staying on the straight and narrow. You won’t see me, but I can guaran-goddamn-tee I will see you. I’m gonna make you my own personal project. If I get the slightest hint of you going back on the shit, Mommy’s dead and Daddy’s dead. If you go to the police, and I’ll know since I have people all over this city, they’re dead. Capiche?”
+++++“Okay,” Nick managed.
+++++“Now from our little chat earlier I noticed you didn’t want to talk about your brother. He lives with Mommy and Daddy doesn’t he?”
+++++Nick’s head snapped up, terror filling his eyes.
+++++The man smiled. “See, in my business, there are people who will only kill men. It’s very taboo to even consider getting rid of a woman or a child. It’s frowned upon. Me, however, I got no problem killing anyone as long as the price is right. Or the circumstance. Everyone is up for grabs as far as I’m concerned. You remember that guy back there we just met?” he said, pointing towards the fence and the bullet riddled body of the old man. “Still got that image in your head? Close your eyes and picture his face. Go on.”
+++++Nick closed his eyes, tears squirting out from under his eyelids.
+++++“Think of that face next time you decide to go buy a bag. And know that I will shoot that brother of yours in his fucking head. No more drugs or I kill them all. And it’ll be your fault again, just like that old sack of shit back there. This is where you find out what you’re made of, kid.”
+++++“You’re insane,” Nick said, between sobs.
+++++“Maybe. What do you say we get you back home?”
+++++The man brought the vehicle to life and within minutes they were parked in front of 5754 Shellmire Street, the click of the locks making Nick flinch.
+++++“Here’s your stop. Remember what I said to you, Nicholas. I’ll be watching.”
+++++Nick stepped out into the night, nausea hitting him again at the thought of the old man’s face.
+++++“Good luck,” the man said as the door slammed shut.
+++++He didn’t wait to see if Nick went in. He knew he did. He could sense the fear in him. The fear was stronger than the withdrawals Nick would soon be feeling. Stronger than the sickness and the aching body. The fever and sweating and fatigue. He would get clean and stay that way, the man was sure of it.
+++++The man smiled. It’d been a long time since he’d done something to help someone. He’d be lying if he didn’t admit it felt pretty damn good.