The wild night takes the shouting of the people far into the distance, crime and adrenaline and the norm of gunshots all alive and hungry. The blood stains on the streets are melting silver under the light of the moon, soft and wavering, as I walk on them with recklessness and apprehension gripping the corners of my chest. I fiddle with the knife in my pocket. It is my claw. Who will be the prey for me tonight?
“You. Where’ve you been all day? Your old man got in jail again,” Ry says, walking towards me, lit cigarette in hand, and a bottle of whiskey in the other.
Ry. Pretty amazing, actually, that guy. Always been here or there, chasing girls and fighting with guys and never really caring about anything, but a good person. Trustworthy.
“Had a lot of hiding to do from the police. They almost caught me stealing again. Who cares, though? I didn’t even know he got out. He’s been there for like ten times. I haven’t seen him for years now,” I respond.
He clasps his hand around my shoulder, releasing a puff of smoke into my face.
“Yo, you hear? Alex. He’s dead. Suicide. He’s been unstable ever since his mom got murdered. Sucks,” he says.
“Nothing unusual, though. Ashley died last week. People dying every day. We live here, in this neighborhood, we got to deal with it. Didn’t you drop out of school today?” I continue.
“Yeah, might as well spend my days roaming around like you. Doing whatever,” he says.
He rummages in his pocket for a while, and taking out a few bucks, he says, “Happy fourteenth birthday. It’s not much but-“
I start to laugh, a soft chuckle spiraling into a boisterous cackle, as I manage to get out, “The last time somebody told me “happy birthday,” was years ago. Well, it doesn’t matter. Thanks, I guess. Let’s go look for trouble.”
We slip into a fight, not even looking at the people’s faces. With rough skin against rough skin, eyes all fury and burning, and the thrills, the heights, coursing through our bodies like unrelenting molten lava, we bury ourselves in tensioned brashness and fueling turmoil. It’s nights like these that I love the most, where my thinking is frayed and on edge as I grip my fist, where I can storm and pound as I slash through the dark, and where only blood and pain and sweat is all that there seems to be as I charge for more.
I stumble out, jaw numb with bruised colors of dark blues, purples, and reds. Just a scratch. I glance in the mast of brawling bodies, all teenage boys and beasts ravenous, while I reach in and grab Ry’s arm.
“Come on. The police might come,” I say.
With a busted lip and revealing a wad of cash from his pocket, he barely manages to get out, “I took some guy’s money. It’s a lot. We better go before he finds out.”
It’s easy to run and hide in the slums. The many edges and corridors and paths of this town are mine to roam, with years of street smart stealth to control these empty alleys and the memory of all the escape routes, from tunnels to abandoned buildings, embedded and reachable with a sprint. We’re leaning against the outside of an old building when we decide to rest, a hint of soft chuckles still light in our breath as we take swings out a bottle of soda. The sun is rising.
“I got to go, dude. You’ll see me, sometime. If I don’t get killed,” I say, as I get up to go.
He gives me a nod, and a stifled laugh. I walk on without turning back.
I see him right outside my house. Curled up, with his knees touching his chin and sitting on the grass, there’s a quiet expression his face, sullen and reserved, like a timid mouse. There’s a steady stream of bubbles from his direction, and a small bottle in his hand. I walk towards my brother, jaw set and fist clenched.
“What the heck are you doing?” I said, ripping the bottle of bubbles from his hand. “It’s embarrassing to be seen with you like this.”
He doesn’t look at me, nonchalant eyes still staring at the sky.
“Grow up already! I can’t have you doing this. You can’t be like this, being a kid,” I yell, smashing the bottle to the ground.
I glare at the spilled contents of the bottle, water running down the grass, and I push him down to the ground.
His eyes are wide. Quivering. I turn away.
“I’m leaving,” I say, turning to go.
The voice is sudden. Unsettling. I stop.
“Where is my money?”
Slowly, I turn around. The person is holding a gun, barrel aimed at my head and finger edging towards the trigger.
I roll my eyes.
“Don’t have it,” I say.
“Some guy, name of-what was it again? Person named Ry told me you took it. Give it here, boy.”
So this is it.
“I said, I don’t have it!”
His finger presses down on the trigger.
So this is what it all comes down to.
I lunge for my brother. Pulling him towards me with brutal strength, I angle myself in between him and the man.
“Run!” I scream in his ear.
The bullet enters my arm. I turn around and chase after my brother, my heart a drum and a sinking pit in my stomach, while crimson bleeds through the staunching of my hand. Amidst the rash firing of angry bullets chasing me, I see a figure through the fog of gunfire. It’s faint, outlined in shadows and only the silhouette is there, but someone is collapsing.
A boy. My brother.
I’ve had enough of it, really.
The bullets stop coming. A few moments shooting blanks and the man is walking away.
My eyes enlarge as I see my brother. I slow to a walk, paralyzed and quaking. A hammer beats against my heart. White-hot tears stream down my face. I prop him up. His blood stains my hand.
And all there is is my screams echoing in the air.
It really is disheartening.
It’s quiet here. Gentle and warm, with the sky blooming orange and yellow and soft purple, and the grass, wispy and vibrant green, swaying lightly, barely, in the wind. I put a bottle of bubbles in front of my brother’s grave as I sit down beside it, and I arch my head back to lean against the cool bark of a tree. I close my eyes. It comes back to me suddenly, overwhelming me, like a cascading rainfall with the droplets all blended with tears. So I let it unravel. And the memory begins to play.
In the blinding and simmering summer, my brother was there, with only the unclear image, blurred and slipping, of his small hands trembling. The funeral was already over. Having cried at my mother’s grave, he sat on a curb outside with his eyes swimming and not really looking. I had walked over to him, and I sat down beside him.
“I know. It’s hard isn’t it? The reality of everything. It forces you to grow up. Dad just got into jail and now mom’s dead. Kids like us, with me only ten and you seven, we’ll be eaten alive,” I said.
He slipped his hand into mine, and said, “I’m scared.”
I turned to face him. I smiled.
“You’ll be okay. I’m not going to let all the bad stuff affect you. You can be a kid, having fun and playing in the mud and doing what you’re supposed to do. Almost impossible, I know, cause’ you live here. But I’ll grow up instead, and protect you from this scary world.”