What started off as a peaceful protest had quickly turned into a violent riot. The crowd roared as chaos swallowed the street. Some people stood by gawking without so much as a helping hand. Others continued on participating in the madness as if nothing had happened. Glass shattered as baseball bats and angry fists came crashing down on nearby cars. A black Cadillac had been turned on its side not a 100 feet from us. I wanted to move him further away from the street but I couldn’t risk causing more damage.
“What’s taking them so long,” I said to myself, searching the thick crowd for the ambulance.
My knees pressed into the concrete as I crouched down to protect him and apply pressure to the wound. The metallic smell of his blood seeped from my drenched shirt causing me to gag. My eyes watered as I tried to maintain composure.
“Hey, stay with me okay?” I said, “What’s your name?”
His eyes barely open, he said, “Aries.”
“Is that your sign?”
He shook his head. Before I could respond a tiny woman had pushed her way through the crowd and was approaching us. “How’s he doing?” she asked.
I shrugged, “I don’t…know.”
He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.
“Say it again?” I asked, leaning closer to his mouth. His breathing was ragged, a discomforting wheeze. The tiny woman kneeled down next to me.
“He can’t breathe,” she said. She listened to his chest for a moment. More shots from the crowd rang out, briefly snatching my attention. The nearby crowd scattered and ran for cover. My heart beat heavily inside my throat. I used my body to shield him from the stampede.
The woman grabbed my hand firmly. Her eyes focused, intense, “You should get inside.”
“No, I can’t leave him.”
“It is too dangerous for you.”
“I am not leaving him.” I stood firm.
The heavy pounded of feet on the street redirected our attention.
“I’m Betty,” she said. She pushed salt and pepper curls behind her ear as she put her ear back on Aries’ chest. Aries squeezed my hand slightly. I leaned in.
“Aries, they’ll be here any minute. Please hang in there.”
“I think his lung is collapsed,” Betty said.”
“What do we do?”
“Do you have a knife? Something sharp?” she asked.
I shook my head.
She looked at me with her sad eyes.
“I don’t think he’s going to make it.”
Sirens in the distance interrupted the rant I was about to go on.
“They’re almost here, Aries.”
His breathing was shallow. He was dying. Tears streamed from his eyes as he gasped for air. My hand trembled. I leaned down so close to him that my lips brushed his ear. I squeezed his hand tightly. I didn’t want to lose him.
“Aries, please, they’re almost here. Please fight for me.”
He feebly squeezed my hand. The tiny woman laid her hand on his forehead and began murmuring prayer under her breath.
The ambulance flew through the crowd and right in front of the address I’d given them. The EMT’s jumped out of the back, rushing toward us, stretcher in hand.
Betty was still praying while they placed the stretcher on the ground.
“Hurry! He can’t breathe.”
“What happened to him?” the younger EMT asked me.
“He was shot.”
“I think he has a collapsed lung,” Betty chimed in.
The EMT’s stabilized him before putting him on the stretcher and sliding him into the back of the ambulance. I climbed in behind them and slid next to Aries and grabbed his hand again. He opened his eyes momentarily looking up at me while the EMT’s hooked him up to machines. The sound of his heart beating steadily was a slight relief. The younger EMT closed the ambulances doors and we pulled off. I glanced out the window looking for Betty but she was gone.
“Ma’am, is he allergic to anything?” the younger EMT asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” I answered, trying to keep my composure.
Aries squeezed my hand again and tapped on his leg.
“Does your leg hurt?”
He made a grunting noise and kept tapping. Finally, I stuck my hand in his pocket, pulled out his phone and searched until I saw “Mama” in the contacts list.
I dialed the number. She answered almost immediately. I swallow the thick spit that accumulated at the back of my throat whenever I was nervous.
“Hey, baby boy,” she said.
“Ma’am, you don’t know me. I’m here with your son, Aries. He’s been shot. The EMT’s have him stabilized and we’re headed to Cook County hospital.”
I tried to get all of the information out as quickly as possible.
“I’m on my way,” she said. No sooner than she’d hung up the phone the gut wrenching long beep of a flat line filled the ambulance. I quickly released Aries’ hand allowing the EMT to get close to him. They blew into his mouth, beat on his chest and defibrillated him 3 times before we reached the hospital.
His mother pulled up moments after they rolled his lifeless body away. I was sitting in the waiting room, echoes of the flatline still ringing in my ear. I heard her asking for him at the front desk. She’d barely gotten his name out of her mouth before the doctor gave her the news that her son had died.
Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. I saw her scream as her body hit the tile floor but I didn’t hear her. I walked toward her and wrapped my arms around her. She clung tightly to me. It didn’t matter that I was a stranger. We sat there in each other’s arms for nearly an hour. She sobbed for the loss of her child. I sobbed for a stranger who’d died taking a bullet meant for me.