As the last bell of the day rings, Ryaan Asfour stands amid the cheers of his fellow students. Throwing his backpack over his shoulder, he grins at a pair of girls who wave to him across the classroom. One of the guys on the football team pats him on the back and congratulates him on his big shot last night.
Last night was his moment. He hit the shot that won the game for Franklin Roosevelt High so his classmates have been paying attention to him all day. It’s a welcome change of pace for a guy who usually makes himself heard on the court with defense and passing. It was only his third shot of the night and his first that went in but when he found himself open as the clock wound down, he had to take it. Now they’re going to the playoffs which makes him a hero around school.
Another teammate stops to congratulate him as they head out the school’s front entrance. Coach gave them today off as a reward and told the team to rest up because they’ll be going hard next week. They can celebrate for a moment but then they need to get ready for the school’s first playoff game in sixteen years.
It’s a bit overcast and very cold for this time of year. Usually it’d be starting to warm up by late March but today’s just above freezing. Not the kind of day you want to walk home but he doesn’t have much choice. The bus route is so nonsensical that it takes hours to get home and while his dad would usually pick him up after practice, getting out early means he’s still at work. Waiting around for hours doesn’t make a lot of sense and if he’s not gone in the next hour someone’s bound to try and get rid of him.
He could probably use his newfound celebrity to bum a ride but he wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so. He always feels embarrassed asking anyone for anything. If he wants to get home in the next couple of hours, his best option is walking. It only takes around a half hour to walk home so it shouldn’t be too bad. He glances at the overcast sky, half expecting to feel a drop or two. There’s nothing yet. Hopefully it stays that way. A sliver of sun was showing until a few minute’s ago but it’s hiding behind the clouds now.
Almost as soon as Ryaan starts his walk he begins to feel drops bouncing off the top of his head. The cold water provides an incentive to walk faster. The news said it was going to be nice today but it really shouldn’t surprise him that they were wrong. The unofficial motto of those who live in Chicago is, “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes, it’ll change.” Some days it feels like it can be sunny and seventy one minute and snowing the next. You get used to it.
Ryaan moved to Chicago when he was two years old. It’s the only home he’s ever known and he was naturalized as a citizen years ago. He was born in Iraq but his dad chose to help the US army when the invasion started. Fourteen years later Chicago’s the only home he’s ever known. His two little sisters showed up over the next few years and now they’re a big happy American family. Or at least they would be if his mother hadn’t walked out on them. He’s heard from her exactly once in the last four years. A call on his birthday which lasted all of two minutes. She managed to get out a sad sounding, “I’m sorry,” before ending the call. Since then he’s tried not to spend much time thinking about her. She only crosses his mind twenty or thirty times a day at this point. Big improvement.
Most days Ryaan feels like any other kid. His parents settled in Bridgeview because they were told there were plenty of other Middle Eastern families in the area. They were told right, he sees plenty of people who look like him.
Despite wanting that sense of community, from the moment they arrived in the US his parents dedicated themselves to fitting in. From driving the biggest trucks, to eating the biggest steaks, to his dad packing on the most pounds, they put their old life behind them. Only English is spoken in their home. His sisters speak just a handful of Arabic words and Ryaan doesn’t speak much more. They never eat food from the old country and they have almost nothing that was brought from there. His dad was even annoyed when he and his sisters starting enjoying soccer. He mumbled about Americans not liking soccer. At least until the first time they went to a game. His dad cheered as loud as anyone there.
From the minute they stepped foot in America his family made a conscious choice that they would be Americans. Growing up Ryaan felt this deeply. In fifth grade his class was assigned a project on their heritage. He went to his mom with his list of questions as he already knew not to ask his father. Asking her didn’t go much better. After making sure this was mandatory and she couldn’t get him out of it, she gave the most generic answers possible. When asked what life was like in Iraq, all she said was, “There was a lot of sand.” The look on her face told him this was the entire answer and he wasn’t getting more. He ended up getting a B.
The one connection to their culture they didn’t lose was religion. His parents could walk away from the art and the language and the food but they wouldn’t give up their god. For many years they were regulars at the local mosque. That ended when his mom left. His dad wasn’t willing to make the effort. Ryaan still could have found a way to get there if he wanted to and sometimes he thinks about doing so. Life is full though. He’s a sixteen year old kid who plays sports, hangs out with friends, tries to do well in school and has so much going on that he never seems to have free time. At this point he can’t even think of the last time he went.
The rain’s really starting to pick up intensity. Making his way through his normally peaceful neighborhood, he can feel tension in the streets. People walk quickly and lock their doors behind them.
Most of the time Ryaan feels as American as anyone. His favorite dessert is even apple pie. Sometimes though he gets a look from some random person in the street. Someone who won’t stop staring. He knows he gets it easy compared to a lot of others in the area because he’s wearing a jersey and a pair of Jordans. That doesn’t prevent the occasional, “Oh god, you’re going to kill my family,” look from someone. It makes him feel small. Like no matter what his family did to get here wasn’t enough and they’ll never be accepted.
Those looks have been more common since the election of President Richard Hughes. The man ran on an anti-immigration and anti-minority platform and managed to get elected. That doesn’t help immigrant families feel welcome. Ryaan’s tried to remain positive. Initially he was even excited about the Vigilantes Making Us Safe Act passing. It promised to empower everyday citizens and he figured that could be a good thing. He’s grown up reading about the vigilantes in the war and seeing the exploits of the rare modern day vigilante on TV. He always thought they were cool. So far, the act hasn’t lived up to the legends.
Chicago has gone from zero remaining vigilantes to over five hundred in a couple of months. If they all had altruistic intentions that would have gone a long way towards preventing crime and solving the ones that still happen.
Instead it seems their lives have gotten more dangerous. Many of those who signed up have no interest in protecting anybody. These people love bothering anyone walking down the street. The browner the better. So far he’s gotten away with only a few taunts. He’s heard others receive far worse. One friend at school told him how her neighbor was beaten within an inch of his life. In an area well known for safety and escaping from the violence that permeates other parts of the city, it has become normal to hear a few gunshots in the distance. It always feels like they’re right outside his door every time he hears them.
Putting in his earbuds he starts listening to music to pump himself up. He mostly sticks to classic rock, the older the better. It gets in his head and gives him confidence in a way no other music can. Most of his classmates only listen to hip hop and that can definitely get the blood flowing but he’d rather go with something that makes the hair on his arms stand on end.
The music distracts him so much that he almost walks by it. Two men are following a couple he’s known for years. They’re not close friends but they go to the same mosque he used to attend. He’s seen them around. They’re a fairly young pair, probably in their 30s. They’re fairly light skinned and probably wouldn’t be noticed walking down the street except the wife wears a headscarf. Apparently that’s all it takes as these two men, openly carrying shotguns, are following about ten feet behind them yelling one slur after another.
There’s a part of him that wants to look away but he can’t. Following close behind, he turns his music off so he can hear everything they’re saying. He tries to balance being able to hear with keeping a safe distance on the opposite side of the road. Block after block the couple try to ignore the men and continue to wherever they’re going. They’re walking fast but they’re smart enough not to run. For some people this would get old and they’d give up their pursuit. Not these two.
Both are white guys with short, cropped hair. They’re wearing a combination of leather clothing so garish it looks like a biker had a wet dream all over them. For some reason they’re wearing aviator goggles. Maybe they think it makes them look cool. It doesn’t.
Most days they would just seem like a couple of guys with really bad fashion sense. Today isn’t most days as each has a shotgun in their hands that they seem to take a great deal of pride in. The one on the left, who is absolutely huge, seems to be actively stroking his.
Something in Ryaan’s gut says to run, these guys are trouble and he shouldn’t get involved. There’s another part of him that knows he needs to stay. If something happens here there needs to be a witness. He’s never been afraid to take a risk so he decides to listen to the second part.
The taunts continue but finally the husband has enough. He turns to face his stalkers but even in his anger he manages to keep calm. “Please sirs, we’re just walking home from a friend’s house. I apologize if we’ve done anything to upset you.”
Ryaan’s blood starts to boil. One thing he can’t stand is when people who’ve done nothing wrong apologize. As if their very act of being is something they should be sorry for. He understands the danger of the moment but he wants to get mad, to scream and shout at these lunatics. He doesn’t want to say anything that will make them think what they’re doing is okay or somehow righteous.
The smaller of the two men loses it laughing. “Oh, oh, he’s sorry Billy.”
The bigger man, apparently named Billy, smirks. “We don’t like sorry people in this neighborhood. Why don’t you tell us what you’re sorry about? Maybe then we can let you folks go on your way. Maybe.”
The two idiots may not be as dumb as they look. The husband gets a look on his face of total confusion. He’s at a complete loss for words. He just apologized. How can he now say there was nothing to apologize for? Because he hasn’t done anything though, what can he apologize for? There doesn’t seem to be a good answer.
The shorter of the two men gets in the husband’s face. “Duh, duh, duh. I don’t think this one has anything to say. If you’re sorry for something in my neighborhood, I need to know. We have people here who need to be safe, you understand. People I need to keep safe. So we’re not going anywhere until you let us know just why you’re sorry.”
The man’s wife is shaking now, practically in tears. Somehow he’s managing to keep it together but only barely. “I am so sorry if I bothered you is all I mean.”
“You know, I do feel pretty bothered. Why would you bother me? What possible reason could you have for bothering me here in my city, on my streets? That’s not very considerate.”
The man lets out another quiet apology, seemingly not knowing what to do other than keep saying he’s sorry. That doesn’t seem to be getting him anywhere. Billy has another idea. “If you’re really so sorry, why don’t you say it with a kiss. A nice kiss.”
The man looks incredulous. “A kiss? I don’t usually give kisses to anyone but my wife,” he says with almost a laugh, perhaps hoping to put the two men at ease. It definitely doesn’t work.
“Kiss us? What do you take us for? Some kind of faggots? Fuck you. You ain’t getting your slimy lips anywhere near us. Now this lady here though,” he says, stroking his gun as he does so, “you can kiss her if you really want to make it up to us. Right on her open lips. You know though, no one likes a cold fish. Let me warm her up for you.”
With that he aims his gun into the air and fires. The wife screams and her husband clutches her to him. He starts to tell her it’s going to be okay, although the shaking in his entire body betrays that he doesn’t believe it. He just keeps telling her he’s going to make sure it’s okay.
There’s no way he’s going to do what they said is there? These jerks might just pull the trigger to be funny. He hasn’t done anything. Ryaan finds himself screaming inside his head to stop this. “No, no, no, no,” he says over and over. Suddenly he realizes that he’s not in his head. He’s screaming out loud and moving in the direction of the group. What’s he doing? This is crazy. These guys have guns and don’t seem afraid to use them. Does he have a death wish? By the time he finishes processing all of this he’s on the opposite side of the street and only around ten feet from the men. It’s at that point where his legs freeze.
The men stare at him in surprise. Usually in this area people ignore them and let them give people shit. This kid wants to get in the middle? They’ll have to teach him a lesson.
Billy looks at his shorter friend. “You ever see anything like that Jimmy?”
The short man, apparently named Jimmy, takes a moment to respond. “Can’t say that I have Billy. Kids should mind their own business. Unless maybe they have a guilty conscience. What makes you get in the middle of this boy? Why don’t you come a little closer and say no to my face?”
Ryaan doesn’t move. He finds himself completely frozen in place. Despite this, he notices the two men have given him their full attention. The couple are still standing there holding each other but the men don’t seem to notice them. They start to slowly back away. Ryaan tries to use his eyes to gesture to them to get out of here. No point in them standing around. At least maybe they won’t all die today. After managing to creep about ten feet there’s an alleyway and the two of them dip into it. Ryaan hopes now that they’re out of sight they’ll start to run. Maybe they’ll even send help. Not that it’ll do a lot of good. What these two are doing is legal now. Still, maybe a cop showing up will get them to calm down and let him go.
The two men don’t seem to notice their original prey’s gone. They’re like moths to a flame, not noticing anything around them except whatever has their immediate attention. They start circling Ryaan. What has he gotten himself into? Why did he follow these idiots? He could be almost home by now. It won’t be long until his dad gets home and starts to worry. He promised his sisters Nadia and Lana that he’d help them work on their jump shots tonight. He can’t do that if he’s dead.
A part of him wants to drop to his knees and beg. He thought he was so awesome and couldn’t believe what the couple were about to do in order to try and protect themselves. Now he finds himself willing to do anything they would have and more to get home to his family.
Jimmy gets right in Ryaan’s face and looks him in the eyes. “Not so tough now, huh? Maybe it’s best to stay out of the way of people who are doing their jobs. This had nothing to do with you but it sure as shit does now.”
Ryaan struggles to express his anger. “What did they do to you? Why did you need to bother them? I know them. They’re nice people. They’ve lived here for years. They’re just trying to walk home and they have to kiss a gun? What kind of craziness is that?” Once the words start flowing, they don’t stop. They flow out of Ryaan as if he’s puking his guts out.
Jimmy seems to finally realize the couple are gone and scowls. “We’re appointed by the government. We’re allowed to do what we want to protect this community. I have to protect my home from people who put us in danger. Those two were suspicious. That’s all you need to know. If they hurt someone that’s on you kid. You got involved in something you shouldn’t have. I think we need to make you pay for it.”
Billy points his gun right at Ryaan’s face. Staring down the barrel of a shotgun is a new experience but one he’s pretty sure he could have happily gone his whole life without experiencing. Slowly it inches closer and closer to him. As it touches his forehead he can feel the barrel is still warm from the shot into the air.
“We’ll give you a fair shot,” Jimmy says. “I’m going to pick a number between one and ten. You’re going to guess that number. If you pick any of the other nine numbers, we’ll let you go and be on our way. If you pick the number I’m thinking of though my friend here is going to put a nice sized hole in your head.”
“You can’t!” Ryaan puts his hands together. “I’m not doing anything wrong. Vigilantes aren’t allowed to hurt innocent people. You have to have a reason to think people are in danger. How am I a danger?”
“Innocent? You came rushing at us screaming while we were doing our jobs. Witnesses will agree with that. We thought you reached into your bag for a gun and we did what we had to do. That’s good enough.”
Realizing he doesn’t have a way out and they may actually be serious, Ryaan’s legs start to tremble. He doesn’t want to die here but it’s starting to look like he may not make it home. The barrel pushes into his head a little harder while Jimmy tells him to pick. When he refuses, he’s informed that refusing to pick will be treated as if he picked the wrong number. “You have a ninety percent chance kid. That’s better than a lot of us get. Just pick a number and live with whatever it is. Or, you know, don’t live with it, depending.”
That gets Jimmy laughing again but Ryaan feels like crying. After trying to stall as long as he can and realizing no one’s coming to help, Ryaan picks the first number that pops into his head. “Nine.”
Jimmy stares at him for a minute and his eyes go cold. “Bad choice kid.” A cry forces it’s way out of Ryaan’s throat. He tries to think of some final protest but Jimmy bursts out laughing. “I’m just shittin ya, stupid kid. That wasn’t the number. If it’d been the number you’d never have known it.” He turns toward Billy. “Now let’s show him what we think of stupid kids.”
Before he can process that he isn’t about to die, Billy takes the shotgun from his head and drives it into his gut. Ryaan doubles over in pain but manages to stay on his feet. Jimmy circles behind him and kicks him in the back of the knee. It buckles and he finds himself falling forward where he takes a kick right in the stomach from one of the men. At this point he doesn’t know who’s doing what. He’s getting kicked, hit with the end of the shotgun and just generally hurt. It doesn’t last that long. Ten or fifteen seconds, but it seems longer. They avoid the face. Probably don’t want to leave evidence of the beating they’re giving. Hard to explain why you felt the need to kick the crap out of someone but didn’t feel the need to bring them in or take any further action against them.
When they finally finish Ryaan’s lying on the ground clutching his stomach. He doesn’t think anything is broken but everything hurts. Jimmy comes over and gets down on one knee as close to Ryaan’s face as he can. Ryaan can smell the tobacco on his attacker’s breath. “Remember this the next time you think about interfering with the Goggle Guys.”
Ryaan can’t stop himself from bursting into laughter but he’s still not processing things well and it sounds more like a cry. That’s what these idiots seem to want to hear as they get up and walk away. There’s a look of satisfaction on their faces. The pain they’ve put him in tells him they aren’t complete jokes. He knows it shouldn’t be funny, especially right now. He can’t help it though. They’re two grown adults who have to be at least forty years old. Yet they’re walking around in ridiculous outfits calling themselves the Goggle Guys.