Cavis Adams Posted February 6 Share Posted February 6 TERROR UNDELETED CHAPTER 1 Why bloody fingerprints on that note from his dad? Now was the wrong time to ask—a smear of senseless... as senseless as killing men he knew nothing about. But here he was. They moved up across the park-side to the back entrance, the one where the dope-fiends gathered in a tight company of pissy whiffs and shit-talking with hands…. The fiends made way without a third thought, keeping their chatter steady and casual, as the hooded men wedged through, guns downward…. Nico counted four men, between his own desperate heartbeats, himself included. Being 14 didn’t matter now. “Look here lil’ nigga,” one of men shot back with a turn of his head, the corner of his lip curling with a snarl, “don’t be stallin’ and shit when we get in here.” The man turned forward again, the back of a black hoodie the contour of a bald head beneath. The rest of the thoughts emanated as a halo of sound from that shifting oval. “Still not sure why Chauncey made us bring yo lil’ ass anyway. But time to man up.” Nicco heard the tone more deafening than the gruff whisper that it sounded. A loud secret that all of them knew as they breathed lower through the dirty hallway. The growl of anonymous stereos moved the walls like blunted speakers, people mindin’ their own business somewhere. Even the few roaches kept it casual, movin’ up and along that pale wall alongside them. Nicco rolled his eyes up there too... along with his thoughts. If he could listen through those rooms two floors up…. The dudes in there had no idea what was coming—not when…. Like the sun setting away from a day overcast as this one, everybody in the ghetto looked forward to death at some point. It came from a way off, like a sun going down, while that moment could be right there. Like looking out the window and seeing how dark it got outside. In the hood it turned darker than that—this far side of the ghetto. This was a world where, for them, dying from these gunshots would be like dying of natural causes. They’d all cocked their guns—carriages slid back and slapped forward—before crossing the park outside. So the first gloved hand to reach that battered, steel door to the stairway pushed with confidence, a chrome barrel pointing dull next to the spread fingers. From here there was not so much as a whisper. And at the pace of gestures and glances they made their way to the second floor. Up there the door was missing to the hallway, and a steady exhalation from that square throat put many things on Nicco’s mind; beer poured out in memory of that special, dead homie... the linear multitude of such rituals, and the pissing sessions that followed them all.... There was a gravity he could feel with those deeper vibrations of music, and his black-gloved hand, smaller than the others, slid subconsciously along the hallway wall in passing—shhh. He heard the sound, a tranquility of heaviness infused into the essence of this space, an aroma of heated chicken somewhere, (probably frying in old pork grease, next to that slab of salt and butter cornbread). “Them niggas gotta die this evenin’. It is what it is.” Chauncey’d ordered in the gravest of tones earlier that day, his stare turned focused and telling, as if projecting himself into this very moment. They stepped towards that apartment at the far end, many things on their minds, doubtlessly, or just one thing... and Chauncey’s orders resonated in Nicco’s mind, those deep vibrations… the chicken and salty cornbread… those pissy eulogies… all part of the natural causes they brought—locked and loaded—to the door in front of them. A boot shifted amongst them in the hall, and a screech shot from inside the door. “Haa yea bitch!” It was laughter, that gleeful pitch a black man can make when he wins at dominoes or something.... Nicco had wanted to listen more, his hooded attention coming closer to that door. It was in that split-second that Dozer kicked it, no raising of gloved fingers to count down first, but all guns lifted to catch up with the action. The door caved from the heavy Timberland boot, that pressed wood moving away in shards from Dozer’s heavy stomp, peeling open that space from the outside in. Frame by frame, Nicco pictured himself in that moment, a witness in the rush of deafening sound, those barrels of natural causes pointing their ways into the small apartment. That screech of laughter continued, breaking into panic as the door yielded. Same pitch, it was a pleading cry now as the pairs of black boots shuffled wide into stances over the worn, earthen carpet. “Shut the fuck up!” Lex slapped the dude whose teeth flashed in open contrast to dark skin, and those first strands of red traced the air in agreement, arcing down like the man’s falling head. It was an open-handed slap that Lex hit him with, along with the pistol in his palm. The man raised his face again, slowly, his large brown eyes leading the way up. “That’s right,” Lex answered that eye contact, his voice lowering but keeping the tension, “shut the fuck up. You already sounded like a bitch before we came in.” Lex pulled a silencer from his cargo pocket and began to twist it onto the barrel, looking around as he did. There was one other victim there; a tall, lanky dude with skinny jeans and frowning sneakers, a dude with two barrels at his solemn face. The other barrels stayed on the first target of focus. “Dee. My man...” Lex said almost proudly, “Where’s the shit you took from the trap bro? And don’t say nothin’ dumb.” He put the last tightening squeak on the silencer. Dee hesitated, looking around the little apartment but then stopped, aware of the other eyes that followed his own. He opened his mouth distractedly, teeth flashing again and before a word got out, Lex smacked that grimace like a professional batter, knocking a big tooth onto the bloody tongue. Dee cringed, a tear of acceptance squeezing from the side of his eye. His throat flexed, and the tooth slid down with a gasp. “Lex.... Bro...” Dee started, his eyes darting quick and round. If he produced the property, he was a dead man. If not, then he would be a tortured soul and then a dead man. They all knew it, as they kept their eyes on him, that reality reflecting more with the sweat on the man’s skin. Dee looked over at his partner just as dead, like looking to a mirror which shared the same, dark fate. Amidst the heavy breathing, Lex cocked his pistoled hand back, but Dee beat him to the punch, that voice lifted high with a trembling hand. “Stop! Lex, my nigga! You know I know better than to rob the clique, bro? Yea, we hit dealers and traps and shit around here, but never over Westend.” Dee’s gaze met his dead partner’s again, the wild ideas orbiting.... His partner’s eyes opened wider at the sight. “Was it you Skinny?” Dee asked suddenly, determined now to get the answer for himself. “Did you make a move without me Skinny?” his voice ran high again. “You fucked with the clique’s shit....” Those last words sounded like a final sentencing, not the way questions were supposed to end. And before Skinny could answer with a hell naw I ain’t rob Westend, or something like it, his mouth busted mid-expression, harder than Lex would 'a did it. That gloved hand then wiped the barrel unclean, smearing that nickel dull with the sticky polish. “Damn Dozer don’t knock the motherfucka out. Might not be able to wake his ass up. Give the nigga brain damage or somethin’ and he won’t tell us what we need to know... he be like duh uh....” Lex’s tone trailed into thoughtfulness. He was searching around the room for himself, his looks retracing the way they’d all seen a scared Dee looking. Nicco followed so closely he could see the flexing on Lexes chiseled, black face as it slowed, jaws still moving as if he chewed on something. The apartment was a space defined by the unmoving off-white that they made all the walls in the projects, the perfect pallet for the errant bug no matter how clean one lived. In the middle of that main, indifferent canvas, hung a four-color poster of Tupac Shakur. The rapper watched it all from the corner of his keen eye, no matter where one thought to move in the room.... It reminded Nicco of how rare it was to see the front of anybody’s face around here, how people turned away from you, even when they looked right at you. Tupac followed Nicco from that side eye as Lex led the way. They stepped past a PlayStation that sat on the floor in front of a large tv, that image of them flexing through the dark screen. Lex passed tall and fluidly, his near stomping motions stretched slower in passing. Nicco’s adolescent physique followed closely, his almond shaped eyes watching edgewise. In the little kitchen Lex threw open cabinet doors—face out of the way just in case—and began rummaging through everything from Chinese takeout containers, that spilled out as Tupperware, to little avalanches of condiment packets. He opened the refrigerator and shook his head over that cold empty light, before turning back to the others. “Dozer... Nicco, ya'll check the back rooms. Hurt you stay up front with me. And if Skinny moves....” Lex hesitated. “It’s Skinny, right?” Skinny nodded earnestly, and Lex reasserted. “Yea. If that Skinny nigga try somethin’ then you blow his skinny brains out early.” The two back rooms were systems organized at random, a bed in the center of handle-less dressers, strewn tank-tops under worn ball-caps—store tags dangling—and kicked-off sneakers orbiting closer to the doorway. They circled into that static action, Dozer pausing here and there, mumbling to himself as he came across things of interest. At one point lifting a red and black jersey, he whispered loud over to Nicco, if only because the kid happened to be over there, a quiet sounding board for the gruffest voice. “Damn! This a throwback jersey from the Bulls last run with Jordan!” Dozer’s respect stayed with the jersey while Nicco looked from the sideline. “Ya’ll found anything?” Lex called from up front and Dozer turned with a look of apology, his expression as if the leader stood there before him. “Nah man,” Dozer recovered visibly, “just some ol’ bullshit.... Lex these niggas got a throwback from the last season of the Bulls with Jordan man...” “Leave that shit Dozer,” Lex answered, reading those thoughts and questions that would follow from the other room, “when the cops find these niggas it’s gotta be clear this wasn’t no robbery. The more fly shit they find with the bodies the better.” Up front, Lex turned his gaze back to a sweating Dee. The man’s face was downcast, but those eyes stayed up—a plea of hope, maybe, the kind of hopefulness that understood this was the time of his death. But like a reflex which moved a man to shield his face with a hand of flesh and blood when it was a clip of bullets being fired from the upside of his fingers, Dee’s brown eyes fired-up a pleading look. It was a look that Lex recognized, not shying away or even defending himself. Lex kept eye contact with those teary browns, his own figure wavering tall in those deep watery mirrors. “I feel you Dee,” he said after a moment of looking, sounding surprisingly empathetic. “Ya'll did what you had to do. Same as we do now.” He placed the hand that was pistol free to the black chest of his hoodie. “I trust you feel me on that....” Deep in those watery, twin mirrors Lex was seen craning his jawline back towards the bedroom. “Nicco!” Nicco stepped into the way from the other rooms, standing there as if he was already expecting to be called, so that Lex might’ve questioned where the teen had come from.... Nicco said nothing if not by the look in his eyes, that recognition of a kneeling Dee before another man, an unnatural position, with a thread of blood trembling lower from his bottom lip. It was a sight that narrowed Nicco’s own gaze with realization. They’d told him the stories that made his skin crawl and now he was here. At a glance’s shot across the room stood the other dead man—Skinny, another barrel pointing-out that defiant posture, a chest swelling with an acceptance greater than its narrow size. Skinny was looking preemptively at Nicco, not a sorrowful or fearful look, but one that glinted dark with understanding... and perhaps, in the end, of forgiveness. Nicco felt his own lips move—an inexplicable mumble at the point of saying God knows what.... Lex interrupted. “Hey.” he called Nicco’s gaze to attention. “You know what gotta be done, right?” Nicco swallowed. “Yea...” he answered with a nod, the concerns behind his forehead showing as clear as sweat. “Yea, that’s right.” Lex nodded with him. “Time for you to put in that work Gee. No shakin’ this one. Since you Chauncey’s favorite and all that, a made man, so to say, we gonna make you a man.” Nicco’s gaze fell from Lex’s, down into the stares of those about to die, and his head shook slowly between the two—one hopeful... the other accepting.... “Over here Nicco.” Lex rescued him from those haunting looks of deep regret. He motioned for the child to come closer to where he stood taller, that barrel extending through sheets of light that slanted-in from the blinds. The sun was going down outside. Lex pulled off his hood as Nicco approached, that smooth of his bald head looking down over the younger man to be. “Take off your glove Nicco.” he said in a closer tone that everyone in the room noticed. His was the only voice there, not counting the heavy breaths... the chiming-in of birds and the shrieks of intervention from poor, invisible children somewhere in the distance.... But there was the deafening hum of an empty refrigerator that drowned it all.... The lone witnesses in the room looked on with differing expressions; some of them matter-of-factly, some amused, perhaps, while those that knew understood why Lex had Nicco to take off that glove... why he was now pushing a gun into the boy's hand, wrapping that entire childish grip around it under cover of those larger, gloved fingers. Nicco felt his own hand twitch then, caught between pulling away and holding on, the consequences of either sparking chain reactions through his mind—into the future. Why without a glove? He wanted to ask and feared that he knew, despite what he wanted to believe. The leather pressed tighter, creases that stretched smoothly over adult knuckles. “You see, Lil’ Nicco, poppin’ these pussies is like poppin’ your first pussy. You wanna do it raw. It’s feeling the gun in your hand... the begging in their eyes right when you’re about to bust....” Lex took a deep breath and let it go quickly, as if reliving a moment of his own. His eyes opened wide then with a compassion that Nicco swore he felt for himself. “Trust me Neek, you don’t wanna fuck this memory up with no damn glove....” A gripe arose between them then, a shriek from a kneeling Dee, who’s eyes were wide following the whole thing. Lex raised a thick, rawhide finger to cross his lips, a silent motion heard in the imagination if not the ears—shhh.... “A man is better off dying alone than a man tortured alive with family,” Lex reminded the dead man with the big eyes, a refrain that sounded suspiciously as if thought up under halos of weed smoke, and the philosophical killer looked down with an eye of self-promotion. But it was the pleading gaze of Dee that called for Nicco’s attention, moving his heart with compassion and with it, the even stronger feel of that leather around his hand, the squeeze that Lex was giving him—softly at first, a reminder of where he was and where his life was headed.... ****************************************************************************** Nicco’s head lifted from the desk with a jerk, a movement quick enough to catch the word before it left his lips—No! It was the sound that always ended the memory, those vivid details fading before his eyes were fully open. The deep regret lingered though; a flashback of scattered blood plastered like abstract art painted by a child’s hand. Now he struggled to fill in the details. His fingers massaged his closed eyelids, pressing luminous prints into that blurred vision inside. To say the memory haunted him was realer than the saying. It was a literal ghost from the past, a fearful nightmare that fled by the time he woke up, a hide-and-seek demon too scared to face him when his eyes were open. A bell rang, calling his eyes to that metallic orb over the door. With that bell came screeches around him, classroom desks being pushed away—that bustling of the young, standing bodies. School was out, and everybody moved like two-legged racehorses from the start, bookbags and saggy jeans snatched into shuffling airs of sights and sounds out in the hallways. Westend High had everything from basketball to basketball, without a team, everything from 13-year-old seventh graders crammed in with gown-ass seniors (niggas long out of their teens about to graduate into cars loaded with smoke to circle the schoolgrounds), to teachers who just came to pick up a paycheck, to weave tightly through the droves of budding but experienced teenage bodies. Nicco felt himself somewhere in the middle of it all, his balance brushed from one side or the other as he made his way through the bustling hallway. There was one thing on his mind, for now, get rid of the last 10 bags by the end of this week. That would put him over the 1000-dollar mark and justify that new virtual reality headset that he needed for the metaverse. He turned the combinations on the thin, orange locker between glances in each direction. The black backpack sat inside, just the way he left it, the zipper closed to two thumbnail-lengths from the top right, a single black thread laced through the eyelet. Nobody had touched it. Nobody would dare unless they wanted a war. He’d pinned an old cafeteria nametag smack in the middle of its face, one he’d laminated himself under strips of clear tape after marking a clear message in permanent black—W.E.C.. Who in their right mind would mess with merch belonging to West End Clique? The answer was nobody in their right mind, which meant somebody around here just might. He wore the backpack across his chest, like a vest, until he broke from the commotion of the building. Outside was an overcast day, cottony grey blankets moving over his head with just enough sun peeking through. He thought-up the best way to get rid of the tiny bags of cocaine that slung from his back with other things—schoolbooks, thin stacks of paper and thicker binders.... over everything he felt the weight of those little packets. He was getting tired of being a runner for the clique. He was tired the day he started. It was overcast that day too, though he’d forgotten for the moment in that third-floor room, far behind the reinforced doors laden with gunmen that talked shit through four-hour shifts. It was there that Chauncey handed him the first bundle to run across westside—15 minutes standing on an electric scooter, according to the GPS. It was an overcast day and he felt just as tired as he ever would. It wasn’t long after that he got the big idea to cut a little from the bundles, dropping bits of the coke, each time, into tiny gram bags. He shifted his shoulder without looking around, raising that weight of the strap a little higher. Finding the right time to cut from the bundles was no small feat when a tracker flashed—a winking in the background of Chauncey’s ongoing conversation, he imagined—whenever the scooter stalled for more than a couple minutes. He found there were always dead spots though, the signal indicator spinning where he could do his thing along the route, burning the plastic cuts back together and slipping out of that alley or from beneath an underpass. He’d do it in time for Chauncey nem’ to suspect the weak spots in the tracking signal. As long as the product made it with no complaints from the buyer, everybody came to trust him more, as in distrust him less. It was that, or he wasn’t greedy enough for anybody to speak on it. He was, after all, Nicco Myles, the only surviving blood of the late Terrance Myles, original founder of West End. That name meant something. It was an inheritance that dudes would kill for around here; the bodies and the rep that they built, like laying bricks, the status of being family of a Westend ground-layer. Yea, that Terrance was a bad motherfucka, as his Aunty often said so affectionately, and so everyone else reminded him. The problem was he didn’t get to know the man. More than that, this was an inheritance he didn’t plan to show up for. The hood could have it. “Son get out these streets if it’s the last thing you do. If you have to die, then do it.” He was whispering aloud again, his daddy’s words from the grave. They passed with a breeze and a highschooler’s voice that was growing deeper. He heard it for himself and smiled before reciting the message again.... But a timely wind took it from his ears and the howling was all he heard. He had the note at home. That crumpled note was all the man had left him. It was all and it was everything. It was the note that put words to what he’d felt but could never say. He didn’t belong in the clique, not even as a runner. And the day that Chauncey finally delivered that message from his father, that note written in the man’s own dying hand, the bloodstained fingerprints impressed on his mind forever. He had eclipsed those bloody prints with his own anxious touch that day, that larger halo of crimson around his fingertips. Reading from that piece of torn paper, word by word, he had felt a stronger voice passed down to him, a voice in which he could no longer lie to himself. He wasn’t meant to take his father’s place—not in the streets. That bloody generational curse had to be broken. And so help him God, he was the one to break it, if he had to die to do it. CHAPTER 2 “I don’t know what the fuck you think this is! I know you makin’ more than you been givin’ Nicco—way more!” She pushed strands of lifeless blond from the eye that she kept on him. “How you know that, Aunty? I don’t be makin’ moves out here like that. I be focused more on my schoolwork.” He stayed calm between breaths, holding his voice lower than hers. He’d learned before he could even talk, that getting carried away with her feelings would take them both to the same place—nowhere-and-back. “Aunty for real I’m bout to make some moves and it’s gonna be all good trust me.” “Nicco you can’t make no real moves in a fake world. That online shit ain’t gonna pay the rent no matter how good you get at it.” She looked at him expectedly, her breath of silence like a loud warning. He had to say something that made sense to her. “Aunty, I am making real moves in the streets. The internet games is just a hobby... for real.” His voice elevated at the end, but not in a way that questioned. In the end he had to meet her where she was at, bring her back down to earth. He didn’t bother to explain about the tournament, how he could win ten thousand just for fourth place. He didn’t plan to settle for fourth though. And to take first place in the tournament, he had to put the tournament in first place. Fifty thousand dollars... an all-expense paid trip to Newyork to play in the nationals... his brand mentioned in articles and all the gaming reviews... endorsements and fame... and he wouldn't have to kill nobody. He stood unmoved in front of her scrutiny, that excitedness of his thoughts being wiped behind blinking eyelids. The best prize would be getting out of this raggedy fuckin’ house... outta Westend Clique... outta Chicago... outta this fake, fuckin’ world. “Hmm....” she gave him the side eye as she turned away. “Well next month gimme two thousand Nicco.” She overtalked those suspicions that she couldn’t quite articulate, strands of the synthetic hair returning listless over her expectant eye. He knew she was tryin’ him, just like everybody else. He knew that the rent was only 800. He provided his own food, and the utilities he used was the showers and sips of water he took between gaming modules—less electricity in reality than he felt when he was connected to the meta-world. “Okay aunty. I got you.” he said, the look in his eye borderline telling as he turned away. She was already sitting back on the couch, her leg flexing loosely over the other, that fluffy pink bathrobe parting from a brown thigh. Her favorite show was on again, Real Ghetto something, and she ended that whole intermission as easily as changing a channel in her mind. He shook his head in that short distance. Now she looked happy. For better or for worse, that was good enough. He took what he could get. Upstairs he went straight to the computer and pushed the power. It would have time warm up while he went to the bathroom. He’d wait until everything loaded before turning on the surround sound, less static build throughout the module that way, real science to work in a downloadable metaverse. That smile on his face teased him from the inside. He washed his hands and splashed water over those tight, black curls and the forehead beneath them, before raising that look, almost hesitantly, to where his face awaited—split between that long crack that ran-up the length of the mirror. The water streamed down the cheeks on both halves of himself, where it felt natural, more soothing than he cared to admit as it trickled from his eyelashes, like teardrops he had to make himself feel. Here in this bathroom, it was the closest he ever came to crying. His focus lifted, the water sparkling with the almond of his gaze to where the note hung at the top of the glass. Son get out these streets if it’s the last thing you do. If you have to die to then do it Those blood-prints over time became what sealed the message more than the few words that a dying father could say, his last breaths weakening with the grip on a sticky pen.... He turned from that broken mirror, determined as ever, leaving those sharded reflections of himself to merge behind his back as he left the bathroom. ****************************************************************************** In that world of concrete and tar he was Nicco Myles, heir to a kingdom of unthinkable violence, a kingdom whose rulership was over unruly poverty, the drug-dealing and recklessness that really ruled the streets, all those loyal subjects, on the inside and out, being users themselves. While here, in the meta-verse, he was The Black Scarface Samurai, the meta-man who took no shit and kicked ass that tried to give it to em’. Nicco’s pupils constricted with the seriousness, that figure of his avatar dilating onto the screen, those flashing hues of animation changing the angles on his face. He breathed it in, and he swore that he could feel the game loading with the emotions inside... a surging courage that he would need to face his enemy on this next level.... His focus returned to the screen that his eyes had never left. It was the gleaming bust of the Black Scarface himself. As it spun larger into view, that telling scar on the left side of his scowling expression became visible for a few rotations... and the close-up panned away... until his whole body stood turning slower. The teenager’s fingers touched along the keyboard and straight-away, the samurai agreed with a nod, the spin of his kimono soon flaring from a dark red into silky black with deep crimson borders.... “Colors to match what I’m about to do to these bakas.” Nicco professed, his voice deepening to project real tension into the scenario. He had to go there in his mind, as good as he was, his eyes closing at times as his perceptions sharpened. The samurai held a veiny-dark hand over the hilt of the sword. It gleamed long down his right leg, the other hand was cloaked in a black glove and rested on the butt of a 50-cal. pistol that hung at his left hip. His bare hand raised reflectively to gather the ponytail of braids that graced the nape of his upper back, a tail slung to one side as he looked suddenly up and to the right. There was lightning overhead, the rumblings of thunder that surrounded the room with the downpour of online comments came streaming down from the top of the screen. “Blackface! Where the fuck you been?” “1000 BF for real bro been like 2 whole day my nigga....” “Black-face ain’t black don’t call him nigger....” “Let’s hurt em’ today BFS....” The rain continued until the hand of Nicco turned off the feed of live comments. He needed to focus, get a good lead in the opening as the Black Scarface took-off to the right of the home screen, leaving the static animation there—slow greenery and still bamboo shoots—to fade without his presence. The next screen opened like walking through a curtain, that oculus rising around the furthest of his peripheral. The sky was overcast here, darkness to overcome the random streaks of lightning over the roving fields around him. In the distant, surround sound could be heard the hordes of the soulless, their sleepless howling at the horizon. The soulless never slept. It was the one advantage they had over the living. And they were sniffing his lonely presence, a telltale of the downwinds and he heard them, doubtlessly closer than they sounded from against the breeze. It was a closer screeching of their boney talons as they sharpened, as they did, across the faces of stone that they scraped in passing. The time was soon upon him, with only one way to kill them all. CHAPTER 3 The Black Face Samurai in all his glory dashed from the scene, tucking under her right hand that touched at the screen, the leaves tumbling after his wake and the crimson of his kimono a fading hue…. Sasha watched it closely, feeling those last scintillating moments as her own breaths slowed to the pace of the bonsai trees that roused languidly, fading alone amidst the stiff reeds. She heard that breeze with the breath that escaped her, saw that delicate reluctance in her own hand as she reached to close the laptop. She had been following the Samurai, a guilty pleasure since she first saw his play a year ago this day, back when he had a mere dozen followers. Now he was big, so big that he didn’t respond to her comments like before. Everybody had comments on what he looked like, who he really was. He seemed childish to her, a highschooler at best. After all, what mature adult would name themselves Black Scarface Samurai? Maybe he was black, she considered and not for the first time, touching her bottom lip with a pointed finger. What had really captivated her at first was the catch-phrase he used…. “I am honestly of the weeds that grow-up through cracks in their concrete,” he had wrote and left it there on his home-screens, graffiti-style on a weathered brick wall. She loved it instantly, opening her eyes as large as she’d ever felt them when she saw it for the first time, shocked that she could share so much in common with a stranger far across the earth. In a rush it took her back, recalling what she had said as a small girl, that teary reflection of herself returning her gaze from those shallow waters of the black sea. She saw herself there again, wading barefoot from the shore as she revisited the moment. “I’m the rose that grows along the way…” her small girl voice reminded her… the child’s face undulating through the waves of time between them—murky, but unforgotten, “…the unseen places that fat men step,” the girl snapped. Sasha shuddered from the memory, looking around the sky-level balcony, this new reality for her that spanned the entire westward face of the luxury condominium. Rubbing her hands together, she stood from the unyielding Victorian armchair—the high price of discomfort, she thought. It was cooling out on the balcony. She looked away to where the balcony ended, enough steps to walk a private roof. The sun was lowering to crown the horizon, its reaches of crimson holding her vision level with its own. The city of Paris stirred in the evening as she did, the glittering of headlights starting to course the veiny expanse freeways far below. Forgetting her upright manners, she felt herself crouched for a closer look. That graceless arc to her back, she was as those statuesque angels overlooking the land, the goodness in her heart overruling the bad, as far as she could tell. What will be like in American city? She wondered quietly between the few languages that she understood, her lips mouthing those thoughts that stemmed from feelings as inarticulable as they were familiar. “I will go some day.” She said aloud, the heights of the luxury condominium keeping that secret between her and the passing wind, as it consoled her long, raven hair. She raised a hand to gather those billowing strands, the thoughts collecting in her eyes. The sparkles of the city below kindled in that vast darkness, as if awakening in agreement. Vladimir Ivan Abdulov would take her across the face of the earth, “to the reaches of money and the farthers of willpower,” as he put it, inventing the words when he needed them. The part about love went without saying, she assumed. The fact that the world had labeled her man Vladimir a terrorist, a mass murderer as real as he was now imagined, did nothing slow her resolve. It was that same world with its high-brow society that condemned her once, and for all, to eternal poverty—a Romani whore of the Ukraine being her filthy lot. They stamped her rejected behind the curtains, those silky bangs that still draped her forehead, and all the hopes within. But here she was, thanks to God and to Vlad, overlooking gran Pa-hee into the distance. She wiped a breeze-driven tear. This view was all the proof that she needed. She believed in this man, this one out of countless living and dead, even of those to be born. Vlad was the one. He snatched her from the deep brothels of Odessa, an action as ever present as the memory. With that same rough hand, he had paid a lifechanging dowry to her poor father before taking her away to France. And then, the most courageous thing; Vladmir waited until she was no longer a child in body to have sex with her. Though she had long lost the innocence in her mind, skipping gratefully into the room to jump on his bed in socks schoolgirl skirts, her laughter rising ever-higher. Once she tried in just a t-shirt and panties light green, his favorite color and that of his eyes… but he scolded her. He had scolded her, and then he waited. “Let all things be done decently and in order,” he proclaimed, standing up to her—often, she noticed, when it was hard for him to resist himself… to put the long and logical plan ahead of what feelings dictated. It was the phrase he had quoted to a room of his comrades when they told him they would kill roughly twenty-five to one-hundred children, women and men, but only if they struck the train station at the best time, peak time. She had overheard, his dispassionate tone resonating strictly within the walls of that room… as they did in her mind. And she had cried just as many times over throughout their seconds together. But just as many times over she was grateful. For whatever Vlad did he did for the good of them both, for the good of the world. He had sat her down after finding her there in the hallway, that rough hand softly on her knee, and explained through the tears that streamed her face, the naivety of her expression stopping to tilt with pigtails. Despite how plainly he spoke, it took her to understand, because she wanted to. Besides whatever his words were in that moment, the euphemisms that went over her head, she had seeded her own explanation with the tears. It was a reasoning that made sense to the frightful girl behind the dark, silken curtains, one beautiful brown eye peering through. In order to make things right in the world, people had to die some times. People died all the time. So it was better for them to do it for the right reasons. He had looked pleasantly surprised when she had recovered her skip by the end of that fateful day. Fast-forwarded to this moment on the balcony, as the years had done, and Vlad and his contacts were planning something big. It was something that would touch millions of people the world over. She didn’t know what it was this time. But she knew it was just the beginning, what would be the epitome of his life’s work and resistance. “Sasha come, please.” his voice sounded there with her at the edge, and her face turned to that balcony door, the drapes parting there with an unruffled billowing. The hints of jasmine potpourri lingered higher with the sundown, mingling with the evening and the warmer aromas of chicken confit. Her cheeks lifted with the scent, the smooth olive of her skin burnishing in the dimness. He was cooking her favorite food. And it was her favorite time of day, the end. Along with that first step, she draped her shoulders under the woven shawl, the satin slipping down those bustling contours of her body, and brushed inward with the patio curtains. CHAPTER 4 The cheering rose as a standing ovation in both his ears, their presence from the headsets filling the whole room and even his mind with the unspeakable possibility. It was something that could only be shouted as they did, and still he sat in disbelief. Nicco felt himself swooned from their waves of praise, his body unmoving in front of the computer, as it all unfolded. It was a flaring of celebratory lights like rain rising and falling again, a storming of commentary typed-in by fingers of every color, a rainbowing of nations around the word—around the metaverse, and smart devices, more precisely. And it was all for him, The Black Scarface Samurai, secret identity; Nicco Myles. He had just finished the high challenge of the 3rd round, the one that mattered. More than that, he finished number 1 out of the elite players! moving him with a waving kimono one step closer to finals—one step out of three ahead, a distance too short ignore and too infinite to think about. “You kicked ass Black Face!” Skinny sounded like a high-note reaching him in there in the clouds. Skinny was the only one of the squad who never failed to pull him from those distracted planes. “Black,” he emphasized, closer in his right ear, “it’s your moment bro! you might wanna be here.” Skinny’s avatar was a tall, lanky ninja that stood there shrouded in white (ironically), something that made the veil under his sky-blue eyes look more like a surgical mask. His face pulled away from the camera as Nicco looked, that slender arm sweeping away with a large hand, motioning to all those comments in the backdrop. “Say something to somebody bro.” The comments from around the world rained enough to animate the sky, the lapses of lightening outlining those clouds of dark letters that drifted in the distance…. The letters continued to gather and rain, streaming down into discernable words and sentences that grew close enough to read before fading at the bottom of his screen. “I believe in you BSF…” BigAsMidget. “Never give up on your get down Black…” MeSheLeft. “Black scarred face Samurai… are you a nigger?” WiteRiteBoy. “One day world bigger than metaverse will know you….” TheRoseThatGros_AlongTheWay. He lingered in the comments longer than he realized, that last one not fading, as the others had, until he realized that it was still on his mind. That weird thing was happening again, when the moments seemed to slow with a vague familiarity, almost stopping time… taking him back to a moment where he had been before. It seemed to happen when his heart raced past a certain point, a certain speed. Finding himself in this space again, it dawned on him what it was; he remembered seeing those exact words somewhere…. But it was here…. It had to be here, since this was the first time he won the 3rd round of this competition—the only time. This was the only time that TheRoseThatGros could have ever congratulated him for it. He moved to grip the sides of his head, cupping the headphones there instead. His eyes closed with focus. One day, a world bigger than the metaverse will know you. He thought about it. And with a budding sense of fear, decided that it was impossible. Deeper in his heart though, down in the subconscious, the questions remained as always. In the room he shook his head no to the impossible, watching that comment erase as the others had. Whatever these strange moments where, when he remembered being where he found himself for the first time, he hoped he would grow out of them. They were happening more often in his moments of excitement, stronger since he had reached puberty, since that first wet dream, as his aunty put it. He sat there, his hands patient at the sides of his head until he felt it pass, the beating of his heart as normal as his breathing again. He took off the headsets, feeling a smile broadening to take up the space. This moment was real. He had really won. On top of that, he had finished 1st place! Time to flex on these bakas. “I can’t have y’all talking me into starting another board yet.” He sneered at them all, alone in his room. “A Samurai’s got to heal from his wounds before the next battle. I’m out stage right!” The words typed nearly as fast as he voiced them, his lips in sync with the clicking of the keyboard…. The last period was pressed with a pointed finger. ****************************************************************************** “Man you be on one with all that internet shit bro.” Buck pulled out the slender, brown cigarillo like one of his own fingers, jabbing at Nicco as he emphasized the point. “If you spent as much time on the scooter as you did on your ass in front of that computer…. Man….” He stalled, apparently not able to finish on the positive note he’d had in mind. His eyes aimed harder at Nicco instead, as if to make his friend see something that he himself had no words for. Nicco slowed the pace of his steps, turning his attention to the muted. It was unlike Buck. The two matched gazes too brief to be awkward—the far shriek of a car almost crashing somewhere and the insistent barking of dogs in the background. “Buck, how many times I got to tell you? It’s for the championships, bro, nationals. Think basketball. If I win it—when I win it—I’m a get up out this hood bro. Stacks and racks my nigga… geeky bitches that come in paisley panty, the color of money and freedom.” He grinned, the gleam in his eye a persuasive focus. Buck looked unconvinced. The blunt jabbed again, now smoking, and Buck answered to the contrary, a voice pushed between inhaling breaths. “See? What the fuck I mean, my nigga. You weird. The fuck is paisley? Who says that?” His eyes opened slightly wider. “You spendin’ too much time on the internet with them white boys and shit. They puttin’ that crazy shit in your head.” With that, he offered the cigarillo, his whole arm extended for as long as it took for Nicco to reconsider. “I’m good today bro.” Nicco said, returning to that normal pace. His focus went back to the street ahead, while Buck’s gaze lingered at the side of his face, the scrutiny of someone who examined a problem on feet. The last few blocks to school turned the conversation back to the usual, the two of them meeting in the middle over females… fights… over who died recently and how…. In the end, Buck always asked about when he’d get to run packs for Westend, make some money like his friend. In so many words, questioning if his bro was really doing enough to make it happen. This time, surprisingly, the subject didn’t come up. They made it to school, ending the exchange on mutual grounds. The word was fuck the police, and niggas ain’t shit. ****************************************************************************** School that day was a different kind of normal, like every day in a free-for-all body-grabbing, teeth-bared with reckless laughter, dashed with droplets of smashing red now and then... all before the odor of foodstuff grew from the cafeteria enough to cloak the back of their minds with nauseousness… cheese-stuff, fish-eyed day all through the hallways, another reason to get the hell outta Dodge before the bell rang. Anyway, he still had packs to get rid of—lighten his bookbag, so he could at least wear it as a backpack and not a vest for the rest of the week. He looked forward to it, a week closer to the final boards in Angels Over Dragons, Secret Societies, the game that had brought promise to his life and now, shit was getting real. He was really moving into the last phases, and had to make sure he played it just right. To that end, during 5th hour, he leaned over and told Buck that today was the day. “Today’s the day bro,” he whispered, as if somebody might sense what he said amidst all the noise. A few heads did turn in time to see him leaning back in his chair, a sly return to his drawing of the scar-faced samurai, that nonchalant expression of black and white. Violence of the mind is the foremost runner of warfare, he wrote the black samurai’s thoughts carefully below the picture, sensing it somehow relevant. It was a good time to let his friend in on the game, shut the nigga up for a while and let him make a little money. He could tell that the news excited Buck who, if past experience was any teacher, was thinking about a car packed with heavy bass, heavy smoke and heavy booty, in that order, sort of. The dude was so excited he held the smile in, acting instead like everything was cool… not asking out loud, but not turning away. “Yea bro, I’m serious,” Nicco answered that silent interrogation, “Today we’ll go down by the park where them skateboarders be.” Buck started to look away then, satisfied before Nicco called him back for one more look. “Buck, you know you just helpin’ me right? We gonna get this little weight off. This just between you and me.” Buck smacked his lips, of course, and looked elsewhere, eyes turning away before his face. “Hey Angie,” he voiced triumphantly across the room to where a girl’s dark face turned, her grin widening with the preemptive surprise… “what color is your paisley panties?” The room thundered from the tennis shoes to lifting hands all the way up until the bell rang. That Buck say nothing about the packs went without saying, especially in Westend. It was a small world. ************************************************************************************* After school they walked the way of the skate park, after finally breaking Buck away from much fun and people. Nicco told him that business wasn’t about fuckin’ around unless you was a hoe, a friendly reminder that triggered a slap-boxing session between the two, a ready-made crowd there watching, just in case. Sometimes shit got real, but never between Nicco and Buck, nothing more serious than the skin stinging on their faces. At the fourth block they passed that same German Shepard that snarled and barked for no other reason—pissed off, they both could imagine. “You dirty bitch! That was your last time motherfucka!” It was Raymond—his new name straggly dope fiend—that shot from a tight space between houses to the right. Nicco and Buck fell back within the click of a second hand, their eyes trained already with the sudden curiosity. That dope-fiend floated out followed by the hiss of a bowie-knife. The knife jabbed at his sweaty temple in passing, tumbling ahead with a clanging into the street. “What the fuck…” Buck broke the spellbinding shock, but stopped short again, his eyes flaring…. Lex himself came shooting into the space of a few long strides after the dope fiend, the two boys standing straighter as he passed. He seemed to sneer with an awareness of the figures drifting motionless past his left, his full intent steady towards that dope fiend that now stumbled past the shore of the boulevard, falling hands-out into the street. The addict flailed into the middle of the hard, black flow-way after the momentum of that bowie knife and Lex landed in tow, his black timberlands stopping into stomps, a piston blending of effervescent crimson and tarry backdrop…. That bigmouthed German Shepard edged it on now, blood in the air exciting beyond words he barked, teeth and gums baring…. Lex joined-in at the hectic pace of the stomping. “I-told-you-motha-fucka!” Still spellbound, Buck moved to join them. “What you doin’ yo?” Nicco grabbed him, an instinct that drew back as Buck turned. “Nicco this our chance to put in work for the set bro!” Buck exclaimed on a higher note, that explanation short as a wild urge barely contained. And in those eyes Nicco was forced to acknowledge something that had been revealed to him countless times. His friend was more of a subdued savage than a rebellious adolescent. He had to face it right then and there; Buck was cool with life in the hood, always had been, down to do whatever it took to get a gangster’s respect, which was fear. Moving past Nicco’s hand, Buck had gone down into the street with a nod, helping Lex by pulling rearward on the dope fiend’s shoulder-length dreadlocks. That fiendish, slender neck craned backward as Lex stepped over to recover the fallen bowie-knife, the measure of a man’s forearm. Nicco covered his own eyes then, not with a steady hand, but with steady shades from within himself, a dark and solemn reality that he had grown to accept. Everybody wore shades in the hood, though they were different kinds. Seeing what Lex and Buck were doing to the man in the middle of the street and broad daylight, he needed shades to face this ugly reality. He was more alone than he liked to pretend. “Neek.” Buck chose to call him with a graver, stranger voice like the one inhaled in his chest with blunt smoke. “Nicco,” he breathed heavier, you gonna help with this?” His desperate tone, along with the pleading slant to his eyes, was on the verge of demanding outright... get some dirt on your hands to stay clean in these streets, is how they said it. Lex looked too, but only briefly. He turned back to that path of the bowie knife in his own hand. He was making a point with the man’s pleading face, pulling reflections along the surface of that metal turned sharp and blinding in the sun…. Lex’s gaze seemed somewhere beyond the screaming dope fiend by now, gone to some happy place ahead of that roving red line that zippered slowly up the side of the fiend’s neck, those screaming veins popping even more as the tip of the knife drew up towards the jawline. “Please Lex,” said the screams, now tuning like through a harmonica of desperation. “Promise I’ll get you the twenty dollars todaaaay!” “Today is over,” Lex said simply, his words leveled as if to someone beyond, someone equally as calm in that place where his attention seemed to had gone... while the man beneath him was all-out screaming again, his body contorting from the neck down. Buck pulled back harder, his eyes squinted invisible while beneath them, the sharpening of that knife drew its red streak to the side of a bulging eyeball. The fiend looked like a dumb horse when bridled, struggling to turn his head and see, that big eye at the side trying to look around behind. Buck swirled his wrists, a winding of several nappy strands and reined back harder, his fingers threaded and clenching with the fiend’s dreadlocks…. His eyes still shaded, Buck turned that dark and disappointed expression towards his friend beyond the street. Nicco stood unmoved up on the sidewalk—topside of the boulevard. From there he could see that thin, red line Lex had drawn in the skin—the ink of deep red and an artful side-eye…. That line expanded from a zippering into a streaming of blood and veil, masking the fiend’s gasping face under that translucent paint, those tendons and sinews animating down that neck over slender shoulders. Nicco’s eyes blinked, those flesh and blood lenses capturing this memory while the alarming of that German Shepard sounded louder in his ears, the sharp teeth flashing again…. Sirens were coming from more distant streets. “We gotta get outta here!” he barked, his own teeth flashing at Buck who, like an afterthought, let go of the nappy hair. The man’s head nodded with a crack to the street. Lex stood from his work too then, gathering himself within a few deep breaths. Sirens grew noticeably, the wailing of a different mankind, as he pulled a black glove more snuggly onto his right hand…. Then, as he turned away, he pointed a single finger of the bloodstained thing back towards Nicco, sending that message far across the street. Lex might have winked… or it was a trick of winking sunlight. Nicco couldn’t tell then and there. There was only the rising sirens in surround sound… a breeze of blood turning from an unwashed body in the street, and the hysterical snarling of a chained animal whose wilder instincts had been triggered. Nicco felt himself turn the opposite way, his shoes leaving from the sidewalk once Buck stepped close enough to match his momentum. The two ran between the same houses from which it had all unfolded, the sirens on the block behind them close enough to see. They shuffled thinner between the walls, panting over the worn ground where Raymond likely slept, smoking any bits of money he got his sorrowful hands on over time. Nicco thought about it, his eyes opening to the right as they swerved. They dashed through old man Jackson’s yard, the white of a Raymond’s deeper flesh expanding bright in his mind. Old man Jackson knew the boys and so did his two pit bulls, their barking more excited than anything, as the teenagers leapt the fence and sprinted across. The dogs trailed in full stride to keep up, sniffing Buck and Nicco recalled, with a reflective blink, that image of Lex and the blood-soaked finger… the heaving as the man pointed his way. He ducked quick under the crossbar of a metal fence torn open, a makeshift gateway through which the footsteps of his friend followed behind. He knew intuitively what Lex meant by pointing that way, but that same intuition put to words could be said in very different ways, all of them just as real. The reality was that he would never say anything about what happened to the police or anybody like em’. In reality he was highly favored by Chauncey, the leader of Westend, and therefore had to be acknowledged and respected. It was also a reality, however, that anyone can be touched. All these different conclusions could be drawn from the pointing of one, bloody finger… and at the same time, they were all just as real. “Which way we goin’ Nicco?” Buck asked with the last, pounding steps that it took him to catch up, and left it at that, his chest heaving. He really had more to say and they both knew it. For the moment, those heaving breaths and teary stare said it all. “Buck, Just walk home man—” “—Just walk home?” Buck echoed, his tone asking if Nicco was crazy for real. “Look we done bent the whole block.” Nicco explained. For some reason he could see old man Jackson was peering from a slit in his blinds, his cottony head nodding the way old heads did when they knew everything. “You know how many niggas is out on the streets right now? They ain’t got enough police to run everybody down and ask questions, especially not over just another black man with his face cut open.” Nicco’s look was as steadfast as it was from the sidewalk. Buck looked as if he wanted to speak to it—speak to that just another black man shit. “Nigga, what you talkin’ about?” “Buck it’s coo. They ain’t comin’ for us over Raymond the dope fiend bro. That’s what I’m sayin’.” Buck seemed to listen quicker then, his head turning down as he nodded. “Yea yea…. You right.” he agreed, but lifted his head with eye-contact. “But we gotta get them packs off though Neek. Don’t get them packs off without me bro!” Buck only called him Neek when it was something as important as this, the equivalent of grabbing him by the collar, a stare before shaking. “Alright Buck damn. Can we not go to jail first?” He brushed the front of his T-shirt where something had stuck while they ran. “Hit me up tomorrow. We can go after schoo—” “—School?” Buck looked confused, but didn’t ask. He started to shake his head, a turning away that didn’t look back. “Alright weird as nigga.” He left the words over his shoulder. ****************************************************************************** The pretend chase was over, the men in uniforms circling back to brighter places, Nicco imagined, to share jokes of tragedies all part of the job—peeling red stories back over black coffee. The sirens that had called for them in passing had died, the more natural alarming of unseen crickets filling the wake by the time he headed home. He had doubled back and rested for a while under Old Man Jackson’s porch, one or another of the dogs keeping whining company with him until, with a yawn, he’d arose to leave. The police should’ve eased any searches by now, he thought. Regardless of what he’d said to Buck at first, or himself, on second thought he wasn’t taking any chances. At home, the metaverse was waiting. It was this greater reality that flourished in his mind, those crickets sirening higher in the night. In the anticipation of it he thought up one of those starry evenfalls over Japan…. If this were there, and he the samurai, a fitting proverb would unfurl as a scrolling from the heavens right about now… even over the ghetto. And to the wistful serenade of wayward flutes he would recite it for himself. He had done better to put the metaverse off for a few hours, as he hid from the real white people, than to be dead to it for 3 to 6 months as he grew older in juvenile detention. This was especially true when it came to consequences for an act in which he had taken no part. Hm.... He touched his chin thoughtfully, wanting for more stands of beard as he mulled-over that proverb, thinking about where he was. And when his eyes came down from the sky, opening to the level reality around him, he added two sentences of his own. “And perhaps Buck is right. Perhaps Nicco Myles is getting weirder by the day.” ****************************************************************************** Upstairs was waiting, and he was damn-near there, on levels deeper than the subconscious, mumbling something that he wouldn’t recall as he walked into the house. It was unusually dim in the front, and within a few long strides he found himself in the aroma clouds of incense. It was a tearful barrage of cheap Black Love, the brand that his aunt loved to burn for her “special occasions.” She had special occasions for everything and every time he turned around. “Nicco where you been?” Her voice reached his ears and the image of her eyes big in the dimness was as real as it sounded. He looked across the living room into the kitchen, where he pictured her to be, and saw the man first. It was a taller dude, dark and loose clothes draping him in part-silhouette. The eyes were there, down as much as the brim over his forehead, tipping up a little to acknowledge the surprise. What’s up, the dude said with a nod, his lips never opening. Nicco looked at his aunt instead, not as surprised as a normal teen would be to find a stranger different than the last one in the house. His aunt passed the smoking blunt to the unknown dude, who took it with a slowed reflex. His aunt, lips curved to the side like a deviated cannon, blew out what was left in her lungs in one long stream, not taking her eyes off her newly arrived nephew. The time and it took with that blank expression said he had to wait. “You got the money?” she said finally, almost coughing, and struck that satin robe that jiggled loose over her breasts. The unknown dude looked ready to help. “Well?” she pressed her nephew, the lashes over her eyes curving upwards. “Aunty I got you. Something went down today and I couldn’t get to the spot. but I’m a pick it up tomorrow after school.” “You got school?” she asked, moving strands from her eye. “Tomorrow’s Friday, aunty.” He reminded her. “I got you.” As he turned away, she was turning towards the man, a soft smile replacing her gaze. As far as Nicco was concerned, that smile of hers was misguided—always at an angle other than the front, something that used to make him move his own face around, trying to put himself in line. But he had long given up on being the target of her eyes and teeth. Her eyes were always glossy with anger or something else, her teeth appearing only for her to laugh. She was laughing behind him as he went upstairs. When went into the bathroom, recited his father’s words in a lowered voice and, after looking those split versions of himself in the eyes, went to give his undivided attention to the next board…. “Aaahh stop it!” His aunt shrieked from downstairs, stopping him in a crouched position over the chair, the headset held short of crowning himself. “Stop I said.” her voice again, now softer… too soft, he thought, for the command she was giving. There was a crashing sound, like dishes pushed aside on the counter, a couple of them tumbling to the floor. Yeah, he thought. Just the way her lazy ass would make space on the countertop. There was more of her commands, even softer—heavier, as he envisioned her bounced down on the counter, that flashy satin robe spreading from the rounded gravity of her hips. “We gotta be quiet Allen.” She commanded. “He up there with them headphones but I don’t want em’ to hear.” A moment passed, heated long enough for a raptor nail to point at the television remote, which then turned up louder than they could stand down there, some news story about the latest violence spiced with random moaning and profanity… a couple dishes breaking. Bitch, he thought, or he actually heard it, between himself, Allen and the face of that newscaster down there…. It could’ve been any one of them, or all three together. Frowning with frustration, he turned up the surround on the game all the way. If he went deaf, he would simply change his name in the metaverse—add D to it or something. But at least he wouldn’t have to hear all her bitching and moaning. ***************************************************************************** He couldn’t turn that background music on quick enough, though he did it quick, something to fill-in the down times in the game, instead of the clapping and clamor that competed from downstairs. Tupac was a voice strong enough—So Many Tears, says the man. Pac was old school, dead before he was born, but this old school was a throwback to when rappers had something to say about the world beyond the block. He felt like an old soul like that, and put the track on repeat when he went to the comments screen to scroll, catching up with those foreign thoughts past and present. A smile blossomed on his face until he stopped it, his teeth partially revealed. The Rose That Grows had left him another message. He couldn’t believe it. Out of all his followers she managed to stand out, giving is eyes something to see whenever he looked. He couldn’t avoid wondering who she was, especially at times like this when her timing, right before his eyes, was impossible. “Fuck them BFS. No distractions here.” Her letters were feeding across the opening screens, rounding over those dazzled nuances in his eyes. He thought about her being somewhere in the real world. She was typing in real time right now, and he wondered where and what that scene was like. “You got this, my samurai,” she said, and he wondered if she whispered where she was, or did she only say it with her fingers…. “Congrats on winning next phase. We all are wait for to see you go national love…. You cannot longer hide the face….” He touched the high side of his cheek as he read, surprised at a drop of wetness that smeared with the tip of his finger there—a tear? but then, it was only because he hadn’t blinked. He took a breath, that sniffle outside the headsets. He didn’t hear it. He tried to place her accent in his mind—Dutch? “You must be following me outside this metaverse Rose That Grows…” he clicked into the screen “…cuz girl your timing is unreal….” He paused, wanting to say something clever that would read as natural, the questions and possibilities expanding his brain inside the headsets…. He typed faster with two fingers. “What time is it where you at?” He waited and he watched…. Could’ve been a whole 4 seconds, as the last of her last comment vanished in 3-D at the bottom of the screen, short of where his chest heaved in the room. There was nothing more, only the stream of hollowing words that came like a conveyor belt from the rest of the faceless followers—some sincere, others sincerely antagonizing. Ducking the dreads of his ponytail as one through the rains of commentary, The Samurai passed through that veil of them—their voices sharper as he did but then, falling-away like sirens past his headset—as he emerged into that far-side…. It was a city grown of shifted bricks and steel buildings, the cracks and poles thereof sheathed in high-reaching foliage, the natural hand of an encroaching countryside. A samurai could only look at first, the incessant chiming of birds and the like turning his head… while a sudden roar from the distance kept that same head still. This board spoke for itself. “Well I’ll be damned,” said an astonished teenager, somewhere between an upstairs bedroom in Chicago, and this dystopian City of Wasure Rareta. “The challenge of No Teorisuto, (The Terrorist).” CHAPTER 5 By the time she saw that she was not alone on the balcony it was too late. Vlad came from behind her, his broad-shouldered reflection taking over the screen before she could close the laptop. At that point she did not try, would have shown something to hide. Instead she moved the pointer innocently, her head curiously to the side as the shopping results loaded. “Who is this that asks you the time where you are?” His voice rose above the wind on the terrace. She felt as if it carried just as far, as the climbing roses on the trellis fluttered eastward. “Who is this, Sasha?” He had experience in espionage and intelligence extraction, his senses sharper than that blade strapped under his pants leg. The chances were slim that he would not notice, even though she had changed the screen in time. Now it was a slim chance cut in half that he would ask a third time. She had better answer. “Sasha….” The impatience in his voice agreed. She turned, showing her eyes dark with innocence, the jet black of her hair swiping her face…. She captivated his attention, though it was all but too late. He looked at her with new admiration but lingering suspicion, as he took the laptop from her yielding hands. Gazing close into the screen, across those virtual spaces wherein real oceans of the world were crossed as quickly as the space between himself and where his eyes reflected in the screen. In that screen, they opened no larger with the surprise but rather, they narrowed with the discovery. “You are talking with man in U.S., Sasha?” The question posed the same ending as a sentence. And in her mind, time slowed to the point that the world had to stop, the real oceans sloshing. The outcome of this situation—the excuses she could give and the consequences of each—occurred to her so instantly that she did not think of them. They were simply there with real honesty. It was a gift of hers, and she reached for his arm without a hint of doubt, the first move in giving the best answer. Her voice was layered with the softness of her skin on his, her fingertips in perfect position to tease those hairs of his forearm. “Vlad you make me cry with laughing and with pain at once,” she admonished him, her eyes repeating the message. “How is this possible Vlad? You think I would compromise with American.” She thought of throwing the laptop from the roof… or stomping it at his feet as evidence of her sincerity. But he held it fast, his larger hands tightening. And in her own slowed time, she pressed her advantage, closing the space between them so that her voice struck a lower chord. “Love,” she spouted with a pursing of her lips, “This is game, love. It is simple game where foreigners of the world they chat shit. I am anonymous there.” His eyes half closing, he seemed suddenly convinced, if not of her truth then of her softness, an essence of her that drew him in to the point he no longer cared if she manipulated him. She would suffocate him in that bottomless affection. But that would be later. For now he thrust her back, that laptop crashing at her feet. She felt her shoulders shrugging higher with his grip. “Sasha. I am international wanted man. Which make you also wanted woman. You cannot take the chance to be traced, to be hacked. You do not know who these people can be….” He paused, as if being struck again by that memory of what he had just seen, and looked down at that broken machine. “This Black warrior to whom you write, whom you encourage…” his lips twisted with the thought, then pressed hard together, whitening with the unspeakable stress of what he tried to say. “If this man is real and you messaged him….” Before she thought of the move she struck him with an open hand, that reckless offense in her eyes not flinching. She stood defiantly, even as he drew his own hand back, a recoiling of anger in his eyes. She stopped him quickly, striking again with the strength of her emotions. “How do you think such things Vladmir?” His hand stayed, wavering…. “Is he nigger—" “—You will do less insult to smash me like computer there…” she slung a pointed finger, her tone rising sharply to try his wavering hand, “or throw me even from rooftop. I do not care. You cannot accuse me of such. You cannot think it!” He scrutinized her more from within the recessive greens of his gaze, his face lowering then along with his hand. Indeed, the two seemed equally convinced after hearing her out there on the terrace, the emotions of her voice as moving as an out-of-body-experience. She believed because she had to. The truth reverberated-away on a deeper level, a level safely out of reach even for his dog-like senses. They went inside together, that computer with its solitary lens dimming on the ground behind them. There was hardly a thought of looking back, as she smoothed her wayward hair. The intimacy that evening started with a probing for trust between them—something real to bridge the distance—but ended with a relentless thrusting from the subconscious, his and hers. While she convinced him on the surface with her yielding, they felt it together. The truth had gone deeper, unreachable no matter how hard he tried to go there.... It was there in the back of her mind, far behind those strands of disheveling raven, that veil of pleasure and pain on her face, that it dawned on her. She would have to walk away from the metaverse—disconnect from the American, whoever he was. There would be not so much as another message, for his own good. Vladmir was a man beyond merciless, a man for whom life’s passion and death’s ruthlessness, were indistinguishable in his eyes. She could feel it as that shallow green intensified the way it did.... She closed tighter her own in anticipation. Turning her face rather—to the side with the thrusting—she buried those glints of sadness into that pillow next to her. ************************************************************************************ She watched him for a long time afterwards, the shadows of the evening now blended so thoroughly that there was no more contrast between the day passed and where she found herself in this moment. The time it is here, she thought, watching him sleep less peacefully than the stilled branches of a winter tree when the winds breaks… less peaceful than the stilled flag of Mother Russia in that same lullaby… the outskirts of the storm. They were planning something big, and she felt it, something bigger than the great Vladmir himself…. He stirred as she watched, his head nodding at first but then, his neck stiffening as if to keep the secret. Inside of his twitching eyelids he held the secrets, but not as much as he thought. She had seen his diary more than once—his journal, as he had corrected her on the occasion that he caught her looking at it. “Sasha what are you doing in here at this time? What are you thinking?” It was evening then too, far too late for her to be in the back study without him. Sometimes he forgot to lock the door and she would steal inside to browse the more reclusive collections of literature. This time he had locked the door. She had picked the lock the first time, something he had taught her to do, though he seemed to underestimate her ability to do so now… her ability or the deceptiveness, something in which he had also trained her, how to believe in her own innocence as much as he had when he first laid eyes and heart on her. She let the red-bound leather book slip from her hand when he caught her, his face cringing as it struck the table-top. He looked at the thing for a moment as if not recognizing that keeper of his own innermost thoughts and dreams. “I swear I did not know it was your diary….” She spoke to his mind still in disbelief, the best time to steer his feelings. “My journal….” He corrected, speaking absently to himself at the same time. It was one of the rare occasions he had grabbed her by the throat without his hips grinding into the space between her legs. It had struck that fear into her, a fear so familiar that it was all but normal, the tears squeezing from her eyes as his grip tightened her neck. She played the role well, the wetness on her face and tricking lower, she had walked away from that moment as if she only started to scan those pages of his mind…. While in real time she had been in that room for hours, struggling between her poor Russian and those thoughts inconceivable in any language…. These (people) are suicidal. While as with everything they put to schizophrenic mind, they go about their own demise slowly and lazily. One foot in the grave always to avoid harsh reality of life. They have no conviction in this life, being therefore, hardly deserving of death, that eternal rest reserved for the purposeful and hard laborer. Thus terror must form as an integral part of their psyche, a consequence of their lack of earthly conviction. A redemptive quality to an otherwise pointless existence. Ultimately, and within the concentrating scope of benevolence, we will usher them along to their final destinations. It is the end of all man and beast alike, for they all go to the same place. Yes, as one dies so does the other, and within the same breath. The select of them we will bless to be expedited from the slower, torturous death that they walk over years in their wicked world. They are chained together as vessels bound as to one, hell-bound locomotive—one twisted railway are their deviant paths. In this way our cause is one as expressly for them, sparing the meaninglessness of a thousand stops along the way. Only begotten of the Old Country, Vladmir Ivan Abdulov, sincerely. That was then. She had veiled that shocking revelation from him with one of the dumbfounded looks she often showed for his approval, that astonishment on her face realer than she knew. She had gone back to that place many a time, to be sure, sneaking into that back study whenever he was away. She fed her insatiable suspicions—what would he do the next time that he left? She could see by reading what he had done before. Skimming those pages, she came across recollections in that journal of his mind that were her own now. It became too much for the imagination at times, reading a world through binoculars stained of bloody lens. The last time she had closed that red-bound book, she did so with a tear, thinking to wash her hands of it all. Now a smile teased thinly upon his lips as she watched him more intently, those orbs roving behind his eyelids as if feeling or searching for her in his sleep. She wondered if his dreams were as vivid as the nightmares he painted in the journal with the stroking of a pen... the ones she could now reminisce for herself.... If those dreams of his were nearly as detailed as his plans for the future, then both were more certain than this present moment. With an interrupted breath, he rolled over, turning his back to her. She had chosen to be a part of them, his dreams, to be at his side. But he only shared so much with her, the rest she had to see for herself. That was the part that scared her, even her, who as a child used to get her thrills out of fear. That was back before she knew how real fear could feel, playing dangerously close to the whorehouse of the town. She was like a stray pussycat that none could catch, a pet of sorts to the madam, that elegantly gray woman who let the girl brush against the visitors in passing, the men who reached out to stroke and to feed her. But she was a prowler, the pussy that slipped always from their grasp. Some of the whores placed bets on how long it would take for the little one to get busted. Her virginity always in the balance, she meandered the hallways of the old apartment building turned brothel, luring the men with pristine promises unspoken. Some of them ditched the older women to pull her slender, underdeveloped frame by the waist or the wrist. She was led to countless rooms, the situations mapped out ahead of time in her childish mind. It was simple. Collect up front, (rules of the house). Then go to the bathroom to freshen up. The last thing was to squeeze out of the window. As long as the men thought she worked for the brothel they cooperated, even when they were right not to trust her. The last time she drug herself from one of those windows, the tip of a nail stabbed in her thigh though. Its three, rusty inches inside her, it should have been nothing to pull it out. But one of the bigger men was pounding on the bathroom door, his voice frantic with Russian obscenities. So with the weight of her pressing down, she had to escape, the tip of that nail dragging a valley of flesh and blood deep along her thigh. She had screamed because she couldn’t help it, sounding like the young girl that she was for once. For the first time, reality was a dousing of fear, her mind soaked with the sights of her own blood, clinging heavier like the skirt drenched to her thighs. She heard the reproofs of those older women in that moment, as she drug herself through that little portal, voices altogether louder than when they had tried to warn her so many times. It was the only time had she truly prayed as a child. And by grace or God she had escaped, torn as her skirt was, but alive. The old man down by the sea sewed her up good like one of his trapping nets. She did what she did not because she loved candy and marionettes, (which she did), but because he was a real father in her mind. The fact that the poor man had adopted her made him more so. He was all she had since she was a crying baby, her real parents having been publicly lynched in the Ukraine—one of the relentless gypsy hunts so timelessly fashionable. Her new father had told her the story. She could remember nothing of if she tried, and she did not, outside of the inexpressible nostalgia that swathed her when she saw the young, Romani couples stroll together, childless or not. And seeing her stare, they gave her their own looks of understanding, smiling in a certain way. She risked it all, haunting the whorehouse countless times for herself and her father, so that they could be a family of two. As he sewed her up, the threading pulled wet with her blood and moist with the drops of her tears, he asked her questions. He asked plenty in his soft voice, never the hard questions to which, in hindsight, he had to know. But she did not have to tell him the answers nor the lies. After that, he looked the other way when he straightened up after her carelessness, washing the stained underwear that she left lying around, acting as if he did not notice the shortage of Peanut Butter from the pantry. Cleverly, she had started to swath her panties with the stuff before going to hunt the brothel.... Vlad sniffed hard in his sleep, his eyelids squeezing with some dreamy memory. She still thought that the Peanut Butter trick was quite clever for the time; that if she were to ever be caught, even the dirtiest man would not touch her upon seeing that mucky, creamy brown that spread with the cracking of her legs… but she was wrong. The last man to catch her, once he got over that initial shock, had smelled her, then tested her with a scoop of his fat finger, his eyes as widening as hers with the same realization. But she belonged to the brothel, unofficially at least. So, upon her ranting demands, the man had taken her to the madam. With several women lined excitedly in the background, some disappointed next to others vindicated, the madam nodded her grayed and elegant head very slowly. The two held eyes, that now remorseful woman looking down into the innocent face of a ravaged future. That is where Vlad came in. The madam had no choice but to put her to auction, the last-ditch effort to keep her from the fat hands of the one who claimed discovery rights, the salivating one known to be more inhuman than man. But that other one, a young and more impetuous Vladimir, having one, slowing look at her on that stage, flew instantly into a bidding war against the animal. Looking between the two she could only hope for the best, not knowing either fate. But when Vlad lost the bidding, her expression reflected that sadness that she saw on her madam’s face, that feeling that her worst fate was sealed. They had taken her to another room, one where she was supposed to wait minutes, as the fat was anxious. She waited in that room for hours for an embattled Vlad to stand finally in the doorway, the cuts beneath his green eye enhancing his smile. He and the madam had made a deal in the end. The woman had approached him with an offer he could not turn down. Pay half the money. Kill the fatted pig. Take the girl. But he had to take her from the Ukraine forever, for the rest of the madam’s life, take her from the whorehouses and the little fishing villages that fed them. She was yet virgin. Those stylish, black SUVs were out of place stopping in front of the little cabin. And when she skipped from a little dust cloud near one of them and fell into the arms of the simple fisherman, his surprise was a nervous reeling of questions. Vladmir held the answers, this time. There were conversations spoken and unspoken between men, promises and such that a young girl did not concern herself with. There would be no more shortages of Peanut Butter, or mending rifts with heated fishhooks. The two never told how much Vlad had given her father in dowry, just that it was enough to make him an old man by the sea no longer. But the fisherman that he was wound up staying, owner of the stone’s throws of land that he walked from the renovated casita to the old waterfront, those last days of his life as changing and steadfast as the tides that came for him. He welcomed repeated sunrises, no doubt, there at the shore with his thoughts, until the last one that he had merged with a final sunsetting—a miracle just for him. That is the way it was, the way she imagined it when constructing those memories that she missed out on. Because she had left. A cough sounded in her ear, turning her head across the room to see Vlad. He was protesting something in his sleep, his arms working in circular motions that nearly propped his torso up from the elbows. She watched in curious expectation as those arms fell full limp again, plopping his back down as a dead weight on the bed. She flinched with a thought before catching herself, that she was happy to not be under that body. She was unsure where the thought came from. And she did not let it entertain her. She was grateful for the life he provided for her. Back from where she had come there were girls who killed to be in her place and yet, they were not here... not all the time at least. It was just her and the man on the bed, the one who seemed to watch from his sleep—stirring now, his head turned her way. More than the disheveled, dirty blond that moved restless before her eyes, she could feel the man. His sleeping reactions were like an undeniable consequence of her thoughts, more so if those thoughts of hers ever crossed into intentions.... One time, a next morning under sunlight and over shimmering coffee, he had repeated something he asked her in his sleep the night before. All she could do was blink when she heard it, knowing she had not uttered a word about leaving. And as she withdrew from the question, in denial, he came in a forward way, grasping her hand before it left the table. “Do not lie to yourself, Sasha. It is greater sin than lying to me.” She blinked still, feeling something like fear in her next heartbeat and yet... not sure that it was her own. Looking her in the eyes, he nodded in slow acknowledgment of that feeling, and said the rest. “...for one I can forgive you, Sasha. For the other, I cannot.” He squeezed her hand before letting go, grabbing a crème croissant with the same pressure. To her if felt like enough to squeeze her heartbeat into stuttering. “Vlad...” was all she managed, “I would never think of—” —shhh, he finished her words with the silence, those birds rising slightly in volume around them, as the croissant lifted next to the finger crossing his lips. “I forgive you the one thing, Sasha... the other I cannot.” She would grow better at keeping certain thoughts from even her own admission, anticipating the things that he might ask and then lying to that voice in her head.... Never shouting, always softly, always a whisper. Until she had heard him ask out loud that morning she had not realized that dismissive thought about leaving, that it crossed her mind now and then. They were thoughts about what a normal life was like and what it was like in America, for example. They were thoughts that had turned her more curious face, ever-so-slightly, towards a look of intention. That was the expression there speechless before him. From the heights of the terrace it was a look to the east, that far horizon from which the sun arose behind his back. With his eyelids draped low towards the newspaper, he chewed for a time before sipping the coffee, his gaze not rising to her. He had said what he had to say. ****************************************************************************** “When they see that we are the source of death which takes them by the storm, that force of nature with the power to surge or subside, then they will pay. If they keep their lives they will surrender their freedom, but they will pay. And in that day our demands will be limitless as the potential for the world to come.” The wall-sized window behind him was a large screen en vivo, a breathtaking live-feed of Paris in miniature. Vlad stood from his chair at the base of the stretched wood table, calmly adjusting a cufflink, while in the spirit of the words he had just uttered, he could just as easily have slammed that fist down on the densified oak. The others, still seated around the table, seemed to see that latter possibility. They certainly knew him well enough and reacted accordingly, adjusting their own collars or looking away distractedly. The solitary woman among them, moving the fiery hair from her strikingly serene face, was the one who stared unquestioningly. It was the same look with which Vlad met that expression of hers, his hard anticipation across from her enduring resolve. “Yes, Bodhana?” he prompted. “Excuse me Vladimir, not to question but to ask....” Vlad nodded to her gruff humility, his ear turning as his gaze lowered to the glinting at his cufflink. “We have been wanting to know...” she motioned around the table, but her eyes returned to Vlad alone, leaving her with no option other than to say it. “What of NATO and Allied Forces? It is rumored that they are alerted to the plan.” She looked almost worried for a moment, barely a spark in her eye behind a wisp of falling red. “Some of us have trained for this chance since we took our first steps. We must know if is possible to lose this chance? Have we been discovered?” The men looked her way as Vlad pointed with a slant of sunlight from behind, that cuff-linked sleeve parting the group of 5. “Exactly, Bodhana. I am glad that you ask.” Bodhana did not show the sign of relief, rather her expression remained untroubled amidst those swooping, ardent curls of her head as Vlad continued. “It is very unlikely that NATO intelligence knows any details to our plan. In fact, it is impossible that they know it all....” He began to pace around the table, his frame towering as high as the confidence he exuded with each stride. “They cannot know it… since it is impossible to read our minds.” He stopped, turning mid-step as if intrigued with his own admission, focusing for a moment on a slender, T-shirted man who lowered a tufted head. “Close to execution,” Vlad continued his pacing, “each of you will receive one and only one portion of the mission—your own. Together we are 6 in total, the last will be mine to execute. No one will know the details of the other, only the minimal overlap necessary to take the torch and carry to the next. Bodhana, it will be yours to give to me.” he paused his pacing, the entire scene static until he moved again, nodding back over his shoulder at her. Predictably, she had more questions. “I know you have figured everything Vlad. You are the strong lead in the chain. After you, we are only strong as the weakest link. The information that each of us must receive in a way which is untraceable....” her lips stilled as her eyes opened. Vlad was touching a finger to the side of his head, a temple slightly grey—premature wisdom, as he referred to it. “Your part of the mission will be given to you as you need to know. There will be no flash drive which can be hacked, no code which can be cracked. It will be in your mind before you know it—as you know it. All the knowledge untraceable, it will be literally placed into your brain by means a technological means facilitated by our sponsors. We will all be retrofitted as per our unique cerebral signatures leading up through a specified timeframe—expect the visit and do not kill them.” He looked quickly at one of the largest of the men, whose Danish-blond head lowered between mountainous shoulders. “They will know what to say. After the fitting we all go to dead zone, not so much as a pizza delivery until activated. Perhaps the first alert you receive will be in a dream so detailed you will take it serious. Perhaps you will be awake, a more natural moment of enlightenment where you suddenly remember something you have never known. But it will be there just like that, as if you have trained for this since could walk....” It took him two casual strides to stand over her, his large and calloused hand peacefully on the shoulder next to her upturned eyes. “This way if they kill one, they kill only part of the chain. We can rejoin through time, through the same technology, the ability to reinject that critical link to yet another brain. One cannot be forced to give the plan away, for not a one of us will know it in its entirety. And when you do know your part, that part will come to you only at the last possible time.” he closed his eyes, his face turning up as he inhaled deeply. “All things be done decently, and in order....” They exchanged looks, mingling expressions of acceptance and more questions that would go no further than the room they were in. Outside in the hallway, Sasha waited—patient for Vlad, impatient as ever to read his mind.... She crossed her legs, that need to know barely contained. She stretched the hem of her red skirt down to her knees and sat still, her expression emotionless towards that large door. Whatever they were planning in there, it would come to her in a few days. He would write of this meeting in the journal without fail. And without fail she would risk everything to read it. Parts would be coded, for sure, roundabout speech even within the confines of his journal, but enough for her to follow that much closer. Her hearing was good, even better at listening through doorways and the thinner walls. But from where she sat, without leaning-in, she could make out only bits and pieces—millions, she latched onto... but then billions! She writhed on her seat a little, a near loss of control. The millions and billions in this lifestyle meant dollars. Or it meant lives. The one was a means to the other sometimes, fortunately and unfortunately, depending on one’s business interest. Whichever the numbers represented in this case, dollars or lives or some combination of the two, the possibilities weighed equally on her mind. It was the highest she had known to be tied to a single job. It was something big. It was something close. Something that will change our lives, as he had whispered in secret, her lips syncing in the hallway. She had heard him say it for the third time as of late, half-awakening to her as she had watched him in his sleep. She committed those twilit words to memory, keeping her own mental notes as the evening passed. She knew it would change their lives. She felt it would change the lives of billions. At what cost, she was determined to know. CHAPTER 6 “We got Nicco Myles here y’all! We gon’ see what he say about it!” It was a loudspeaker in a closed basement that called him out. He had let Buck drag him down here—willingly, for the most part. The bass was so heavy that the space felt like earmuffs of sound pressed to his head... a comforting feeling as he looked around. The deejay was smiling with eyes that looked through the smoke and dimness with ease, seeming to see everybody that was there. Rick was a taller dude, a dark lighthouse over the table where two flat disks turned centerpieces of winking electronics. His left shoulder shrugged-up a microphone at the side of his face, leaving his slender arms free to articulate above and below the elbows, his hands spreading at the turntables. “What Ya'll gon do Nic?” his voice blared like one covering his own mouth throughout the whole basement... too much grave in the gain knob, Nicco thought. But the question had been raised, and Rick’s ten, slender fingers edged forward on the turntables, all ready to make it happen. Nicco felt more faces on him than he could see, all the eyes and ears that showed up for the party. “Might as well,” he said, hearing for himself that his mind was made up. On cue it took Buck two swaggered steps to shoulder bump him, swaying his friend with a grin. “Let’s do it Neek. Let’s free-style this Bitch.” Buck’s words were a loud shot by his ears and the music turned up the background in agreement—the bass beating heavier and faster with his heart. Cell phones raised as curious third eyes among the packing crowd—unblinking little periscopes for those topside the basement... outside this moment in time. With one drawn-out scratch of the record Rick called their attention to the deejay table. His eyes were the slits that looked like nobody else—relaxed, his body arcing that same, dangling rhythm with which he held the microphone from the cord. He had heard them say they was gonna do it, or at least showed the confidence that he had, nodding with the certainty that sealed the deal in everybody’s mind. Nicco took the shot of Remy before he took the first step, crushing that Styrofoam in his hand as the other reached up for the mike. Having nothing to say, he looked around at nobody special, then down at his own shoe, a brown suede Puma with those dark streaks on both sides. “I know a lot of y’all niggas black and mild,” he ventured, his voice breaking the ice in the low light, those glints of platinum wrists and flashing teeth as people smirked around him. The whites of their eyes were blinking cutouts from the dimness, a show of anticipation kindling... an escalation rising with the thumping of a pulse that was the speakers coming closer…. It was the deejay ushering in that background. He nodded, his eyes down in concentration. No doubt he felt the people were ready, listening already to what was to come. Nicco rewound his own thoughts with the same confidence, the jet black of his curls leaning back at first. He came forward with a snap, eyes open and posture straightening in the midst of them. “I said I know some o y’all niggas so damn Black And Mild, but y’all don’t want this smooooke!” The voices around him came together as if his own, joining in laughter and cheering, just as he felt it would, lifting and holding the sound of his own above all else. ****************************************************************************** “Click click go the stick of the clique nigga stick wit the clique...” Nicco rapped fast as he thought about it, beats between beats where his mouth ran to keep up. “I wish a nigga would run so a nigga could gun... down wit the street you don’t wanna meet.... Nigga trust me if you wanna B...” he glanced to Buck, his rhythm stalling... and Buck picked up. “If you wanna be down nigga down like the dirt...” Buck was a tempo slower with gravity. His black fingers clenched the microphone with vice, his teeth flashing with tension and promise. “You wanna be down like dirt nigga fuck around...” (bass bumping in the pause) “Wanna be down like us nigga...” a quick glance to his partner, Nicco, whose eyes opened, “then nigga stay down wit the clique!” Buck raised his hand as for reinforcement, spreading the palm side like a call for cheering that everybody saw. As more people showed up, the teenagers rode the wave, firing their timely lines and rhyming with the thoughts of the crowd. From the low of a dancing step, Buck pulled a gun. The crowd turned half-away in a sweeping wave of surprise but then, resurged just as spontaneously with refocused ovations. A hump in his back, Buck was twirling that winking nickel—cowboy style. This how the party go! He could be heard stressing, his speech rising in the confetti of sounds until he brought the mike close again. His face was a gleaming close-up of serious beyond his years, his eyes a thousand-yard stare in a forty-feet basement. “This how the party go,” he repeated clearly, staggering with a lean to reclaim the flipping gun. “...If I don’t give yo ass a pass nigga... you know we gonna have a blast nigga.” The people stomped enough to make the poured cement move, as Buck pushed that fist with the microphone sideways at Nicco, who had leaned away from it with a swagger, slipping his own pistol back into the back waist under his shirt. With that same hand Nicco came with a right cross to grab the mike. He danced then in acknowledgement of the crowd, their laughter and cries in his ears. He took it in a nod of understanding, shifting his arms into that long, running motion, black mike in his right and in his left... someone had handed him an Uzi…. He moved it without looking, a baton taken in stride with this rhythmic marathon—rhyme and timelessness together while without looking, he focused on dropping neither. He swirled in a semi-circle, the hem of his long shirt slapping at a delicate hand as it reached toward his waist, a turn that made her swipe his hip instead. He made a victorious cocking motion with the Uzi... lifting the mike to rapid fire from his lips, those veins stretching up long through his neck. “We them done ones! We tha bom bom! We tha motha-fuckas in ya baby mom mom! We the lev pack we the clique clack—niggas in them figgas when you countin’ on your homies’ back....” he bounced once, his hands lifted higher—time for the last rhyme to sink in... and when the crowd got it with clapping.... “Yea you look alive you nigga fore you ride through. I advise you playa play a PlayStation instead.... Cuz tryin’ to come up on West end you fuck wit the best then...” he crossed himself with the mike—three bumps in surround sound, “yo only come up a be Jesus raise your clique from the dead!” The crowd came alive, some snatched to their feet, others half away in shock. Even the tall, black speaker, ecstatic with Rick’s voice, was buried under the deepening roars. Over at the deejay table, Rick’s lips could be seen articulating to Nicco—No! don't do it! No! After a glance Nicco did slam-drop the mike, his body stretching high as a leaping statue of liberty in loose pants, its legs hanging wide…. And hands went up there with him, suspending that moment for all time and feeling. ****************************************************************************** After the party, people stood around topside. Other stragglers lounged down in the basement backrooms, where the smoke lingered strong enough to give contact buzzes. Nicco and Buck stood atop the concrete stoop, the front of the house a larger frame of their silhouetted conversation. Buck was flailing his arms. “Bro you was on fire....” He looked at Nicco but then, almost suspiciously as an afterthought, the congratulations lingered into more of an unanswered question. Nicco said nothing. His eyes were a dark and neutral space, which made Buck take a second look without ever having turning away. “Nigga,” he demanded, his expression closer, as if trying to place the face of a stranger, “do you be hearin’ yourself? What’s that shit you be sayin bro?” He was really searching now, his eyes narrowed with scrutiny. “What is that one word you said? Ee-yay-yah?” His lips got stuck with the twisted pronunciation. Nicco responded then, his eyes opening. “The word is lev...” he said, his voice returning. “I think you say it like ‘n-y-eff....’” Nicco’s lips were stuck then, stopping to question himself... Buck chimed in. “What you mean, you think? You the one who said it, foo. What does it mean?” “...It means lion, I think, in Russian....” Nicco said with strange recollection, his gaze going beyond again. Buck pulled him back. “Russian? Nigga? Russian? You know you black, right? like every other nigga around here. Russian?” He aimed a finger at Nicco. “You need to keep yo ass out of that metaverse shit. You goin’ too far now, bringin’ that crazy shit to the hood.” Buck shook his head hopelessly, a rare occasion when his eyes stayed down. “Russian....” Nicco watched Buck with a neutral gaze, not making it not obvious what he was thinking. His friend was really starting to question his goals. “You can’t tell everybody everything you do. Some moves you gotta make lonely moves,” was one of the phrases of wisdom that his aunt echoed randomly through the house. Now it resounded just as loudly in his head. He had to be careful about the things he said to people. As lonely as it might feel, he couldn’t share what he was up to in the metaverse with damn near nobody around here. That was a whole nother space. A few stepped up to give dap, hand slaps and hugs as people drifted, loitering further away along the block and yards. Nina, the young lady of the house, came outside to say bye, something like “Ya’ll really turned the party up....” Nicco heard it only passively, her lively eyes and hips taking priority. He gave her a hug, the right thing to do, since she stood there for an otherwise awkward moment. “When you gonna come see about a bitch?” He heard her then, the full promise of her lips, her breath hot at his ear. “Shiiit...” he responded naturally, his mind improvising as it did when his lips were rapping... “I got you love if you got me... love...” he touched a few fingers in the valley where her butt started. She had on low-rise jeans and the slopes of skin there drew-in smoothly. She smiled with the awareness as his touch drew barely back from that fallen waistline, separating with the broken hug, she gathered both his hands in her own as she leaned back, seeing his face for herself. “You know my dick curve like a motherfucka but ah come straight at that ass!” Buck came between the two with a forward voice… a clever gaze. Nina rolled her eyes from him before giving them back to Nicco, her smiling shameless. Buck scratched his head, mumbling something that sounded like itch, but was interrupted by a louder cursing. “Aaaw shit!” All their attention turned, the three children poised to stay or take flight from the stoop. Their eyes were big with Lex coming up the walkway. They hadn’t seen him approaching. Buck looked preemptively entertained. Nicco shook his head pitifully in feeling, only a slight nod showing on the outside, his eyes fixed on the towering adult. “Aw shit is right.” he mumbled to Buck who in turn, grinned at Lex disarmingly. “What’s up OG?” Buck set the friendly tone. “Fuck’s up with yall?” Lex set a different one. “Ya’ll lil’ niggas out here turnin’ up huh?” He looked at Nicco, whose grimace was still downturned with eyes up to face him. “What's up lil’ G? Boy you a hood star. I saw you.” He raised a fist as if to drop the mike. “You live streamed boy!” He looked at Nina, who was retreating meekly into the front door. “Boy...” Lex was saying before his attention turned back to Nicco, you bout to be gettin' more pussy out here than a lil’ bit!” Those words of his ended sharply enough to slip in through that door as it closed slowly behind her. Then his eyes were full on Nicco as that screen door squeaked its last. “So, what’s good Nicco? What you on these days besides runnin’ for the clique and givin’ passes to the fiends out in these streets?” With his left hand he massaged the right, the one he had used to cut Raymond’s face open. Nicco barely blinked. “Nothin’ Lex. You know, just out here. Schoo and shit... just runnin’ besides that.” The apparent lack of intimidation in Nicco’s demeanor seemed to strike at Lex’s own, his next words the sounding agitation. “You sure fam? You ain’t got nothin’ else poppin’? You know we ride and die together whichever one. We family Nico. And family’s meant to share the wins and the els as one.” He struck that right hand to his chest as a statement and left the fist there like an exclamation point. Nicco didn’t flinch. He resisted the urge to look at Buck, who, from the corner of his eye, stayed as uninvolved a big fly on the wall. He might as well had been filing his nails. “Nah, Lex. I got nothin’ else O.G.” Nicco said with a sincere shake of the head. He turned straight to Buck and jabbed a fist at his friend’s chest. “I’m out bro. Bout to go crash. That Remmy hittin’ a nigga.” Buck fist bumped him and then so did Lex, more slowly. Nicco walked away, sensing the conversation that was sure to start behind his back. It would be a conversation about bitches... likely about knocking on Nina’s door to get in, using the bathroom as the excuse they all knew… and Nina’s guess was as good as any as to if she would let them in... depended on their mouthpiece, most likely. Or the conversation would turn to more serious things, like Nicco’s plan to win the tournament and escape to New York. He felt like he could trust Buck. But trusting feelings was a top killer in the hood, one of those natural causes of death and dismemberment. He felt like he could trust Buck, but thank God, he hadn’t told him how close he was to winning, how close he was to leaving. Like they said online, what they don’t know won’t hurt them, which could be true. But what they said around here was more real than true, what they don’t know won’t hurt you. He walked by that saying. He walked by all the rules of the hood, even as he came closer to breaking them by breaking free. Walking, running and gunning by the rules of the hood was really what made him a great Samurai in the metaverse. The hood codes were like the samurai scrolls and the more he read them, stage by conquered stage, those scrolls reminded him of the rules of the streets. And as he walked those streets home as fluidly as a young shark in dark waters, he gasped involuntarily at the thought of leaving them, not the first time he’d felt this reflex, but the first time he really faced it. “Am I trickin’ myself thinkin’ I was meant for anything more than the hood...” he voiced between pants of breath, his legs not missing a step. And when the thoughts of his friend caught up with, he repeated them to himself. “You know you black right? Like every other nigga round here....” He laughed at himself after hearing it, something Buck would do. His gaze narrowed with the possibility of not leaving... a strange comfort in knowing that he couldn’t fail if he didn’t try to. His place was secure in the clique. He tried to recall the freestyle from the party—the love they had shown him in the basement—and thought about bringing up that stream on his phone when his foot fell lower than the street—pothole. “Damn.” Gravity yanked him stumbling forward, his hand spreading to push the street. As the tar rushed up, strangely, his face lifted. This what you get for doubting, Nicco. He wasn’t the superstitious type, but he was falling, the gritty tar rushing to meet him with the punching force of the ground and everything behind it. His open hand landed first, the angles of little rocks forcing his skin. His elbow bent, a one-handed push-up failing…. He turned his approaching face to the side, the ground an expanding black canvas, and posed his body in time to strike a side profile. There he lay, an elevating pulse beating his shoulder at the ground, that throbbing pain held in the palm of his hand. The sky was looking down, the dark vision of those stars corrupted in the lower city lights. The sight felt as disturbing as the grit embedded in his hand and he shook his head, thinking that a fitting proverb could not come scrolling from a heaven like that, not the way it did in the metaverse. The sky was super-clear there... but still... he waited and watched for a several disappointing seconds, that pulsation slowing in his hand. He wasn’t superstitious. But if he didn’t know better it was like there was something he was supposed to see in this moment, like this was where he was meant to be by force. But he did know better. And since he was meant to be here by force, only by greater force was he meant to be free. “Get out these streets, son. Die if you have to...” he recited himself from a place higher than the streetlights that looked down on him—a deeper voice from within that same place. And he laughed with himself, brushing his clothes loosely as he stood with a smile so fulfilling, it lifted his eyes into squints. Those Japanese proverbs had nothing on these streets. ****************************************************************************** He moved slowly at first, making sure the key would go in precisely and then turn smoothly as he did the knob. The door opened enough for him to breeze through and shut with a muffled sound on purpose, by the time he finished the spin, his foot was out front again. He slipped through the foyer with a pattering and, looking ahead, had closed in on the first four stairs without hearing himself. “Nicco!” she snagged him with her voice at the nape of his neck. He stopped and turned halfway to look. The wall next to him went away and stopped at the corner. There was only the off-white of that foyer, a perspective that saw Martin Luther King Jr down there, the Martin of a hundred prints from the swap meet who hung from a nail over his head. It was a picture of a man that would fit better in different house. Nicco watched for a moment, that space between a tense Martin and himself going undisturbed.... “Yeees?” he called out, his voice groping around that corner. But she did nothing to bother the air, that static of silence settling at his ears but then, the shriller sound of a white man said something—words pronounced the way they was supposed to be. “Gunplay is again the order of the day, and the evening, it seems, as two men were found with fatal wounds to the head from close range, this time in the South-end area, a neighborhood known more for its stick-up culture and car-jackings, though the motivation for this double homicide does not appear to be murder, as things of value were left on scene. Police say that the suspects....” He turned away, stepping to the fifth stair, that news clip triggering a nauseating nostalgia. It was always the same old story. She probably ain’t left that couch all day, he thought over the sound of the television, sittin’ there bouncing an uncovered thigh crossed over the other.... “Yea, that’s right,” she agreed out loud, “ya’ll niggas better get ya’ll shit together before ya’ll wind up like these motherfuckas on the news.” He imagined her craning her neck over her shoulder, that premonition of hers following him up the stairs. He left it behind, a hand over his forehead as he went into his bedroom. He couldn’t let it get in his head, not when he was about to take the last step. In the bathroom he splashed water on his face and didn’t bother to dry it. He let it run down and imagined what it felt like to let it all out—to cry. Searching, he moved from the right side of the mirror into the middle, that long, vertical crack parting his face as he did, the one side rising higher. He moved that shifting reflection side to side, the water droplets on his skin rolling large across the middle. He had asked his aunt about fixing this mirror. When she told him do it yourself, he started to. He’d gone and got the right sized mirror from the Arabs at flea market. He had carried it up the stairs and then, those walking reflections stopped with the bathroom ceiling. There it lay still, square in the corner. He never got around to putting it up for some strange reason. And that strange reason was that he felt, deep down, that this broken one was really a better reflection of himself, a more interesting one, at least. His larger left eye blinked as he wiped the fake tears in frustration. He looked up at the note, careful not to touch it with his wet, trembling fingers, he drew back from himself. He turned and went into the other room where the metaverse connected, killing the light and shutting the door behind him. CHAPTER 7 The purge will be as they have imagined it. It will be ever before their eyes. As the entertainment they have so come to love, they shall see it, while not all at once. Evening by evening they go to sleep slightly more bound than the previous sunset—a great step backwards but yet, a small step forward, so they not distress... until all at once with a groggy dawning, they see it is the end. She half-closed the cover of his journal, the side of her face over her shoulder in the same motion. It was impossible that Vlad could surprise her reading. He was out of the country. She had dropped him off at the airport herself... rather the professional chauffer slash killer had. She had gone along for the ride, as usual. This driver was a good one though, a regular as balanced as a Swiss army knife in hand, as they all were—everything from bottle openers to sharp cutting tools, depending on what a lady needed. This time she had told driver to bring her straight back to the condo. No shopping sprees for things that caught her eye but never fit in the closet. Whatever the noise she’d thought she heard behind her back... it wasn’t Vlad, and it wouldn’t dare be the faceless driver, no matter how he watched her ass instead of their surroundings in the mall, it wouldn’t dare be him down here in the sublevel of the condo. She breathed again, satisfied when the silence reiterated the single heartbeat in her ears. She reopened the pages, her eyes now closer. The first sweep will fell millions of them, like dominoes, though that spread will falter along the gaps between social spaces. Some will stand their ground, to be sure. And this is to be expected even, so long as they stand their own grounds and not that of their fellows, the world will eventually fall around them as well. It is at this point of all their loss and despair that we will step in to fill the gaps. Towering over life itself, we shall stand in the way of sharp annihilation. The ones with a firm grasp on both realities, we will be the only bridge from mass genocide to a secure future. Oh! What will governments and men be willing to pay for such a secure future! There we will be rich to the level that our money is no good! A level where at our mere word, our will is worked into fulfillment....” She paused, the nail of her pointer finger scraping softly at her bottom lip. She had heard Vlad speak something about environmental and biological attacks before, but it was never something he had the financial or technological backing to accomplish, not beyond a communities local water or food supplies. But now... the way he spoke so confidently in this journal…. He was fully convinced, his mind made up that this plan was in motion. But where would he have gotten the resources to pull off something that would, in his words “bring the governments and men of the world to heel?” Her face turned upwards in pondering, her fingers massaging at her eyelids.... It was there, in that darkness, that the next words emanated from the page as an impression in her short memory—a drifting of negative print in the dark. She had captured it with her eyes open, but only now envisioned what she had really seen. Caught Sasha speaking with American.... In a heartbeat her fingers swiped from her tired eyelids down to the black-and-white page, that trembling handwriting of Vlad under the earthen-tones of her nail polish.... Caught Sasha speaking with American Sobaka.... If her eyes deceived her still, her fingers touched along that page in agreement. ...We confirmed he is negr in the city of Chicago. I do not believe she knows more of him than codename on internet. He is Black Scarfaced. I have compiled file of his true identity. He is gamer, a teenager. I believe there is nothing to worry about, like others that I have seen her chatting online. This one I have strange feeling about however. I cannot explain. I will keep track on this one yes, as it may become convenient to cancel him. I smashed Sasha’s computer. I will know if she takes money for another. It is too dangerous for her communicating on internet, especially with American. She assure me she has no interest and will stop. But she do special thing this time to convince me more than her word, when always she says it is too painful for her to take it there? I did not ask why she was motivated to this extreme this time. I have not known her to deceive me, but I do not trust my feeling. We are too close to mission for her to fuck it. “Up,” she finished that incomplete thought, “I believe the saying is ‘fuck it up,’ Vladimir.” She closed the journal, a sound of finality that lasted barely the moments it took to rewind a few phrases of short-term memory, and she reopened that cover to confirm it—I have compiled file.... She couldn’t place from where the butterflies came, they flourished with the blood through her veins from the warming pit of her stomach, or from somewhere deeper. It was reading the fact that Vlad had a file. She took the words in, an excited anticipation that pumped through her heart because she knew what it meant. She knew where to look. Vladimir was not so old as he was old-fashioned, a strength, according to himself and those who always agreed to his face. Living or dead he trusted nothing but used everything to his advantage, person, place or thing. Outside of a cellphone, technology seemed the only thing that he ducked more than fists, knives or bullets. And he had seen it all from every angle. In that vein, he preferred that any and all technology point away from himself. So when it came to his personal files he kept the most intimate ones in places that could not be hacked, not without fists, knives and guns, the old-fashioned way. She scooted her bottom a little in the chair, that curve rotating upwards as she stretched for the face of a cabinet drawer. It was one of many on that wall, but fell as a flap when she pulled the handle. Why bother to lock that false front with a key when there was a tumbler lock to face behind it? Anyways, the person that found herself here to discover this file and live to remember, one of several secrets locked-away in this study vault, was a person that was meant to see it. This was that place that could not be hacked from an outside server. She was that person that knew much of his secrets, the delicate touch that it took and how far to move the dials. Much came forth with time and patience. Much came forth with the talking diary of his sleep. 07-07-07, an omen everlasting. It told of the day and the age when he came home from school excited. It told of the day and the age at which his father’s throat was opened wide in front of his eyes like the pez dispenser, one of spewing reds, that fell cracked at his foot. It was the last day that he cried over death, the end of feeling excited about life. With a click she slid the drawer from the wall and skipped over the tabs, the dark flash of her fingernails pausing. Predictably, the one that she wanted was up front. “My dear Vladimir....” She shook her head in a mock disappointment that slowed to a stop as she opened the manilla file. There were sheets of dates and locations noted, times when surveillance had been taken on the child, online and in the real world. Her nails scraped further, digging deeper into that file, into that life…. Family, living and deceased... the father... the sprawling aliases of associates... gang affiliations? Her eyes came up from the papers questioning.... This kid who spoke so harmlessly online? For goodness’ sake, his favorite color is paisley panties. She smirked, looking down again. There were deep, generational affiliations with a local drug cartel, one Westend Clique, known for its consistent, ruthless delivery in a barrio where, according to police reports, Ruthless made stops like the mailman. She skimmed the pages, the top corner of the next held slightly higher with promise until, with full-color revelation, she uncovered the photographs. There were several, one just as interesting as the next, they drew her in like the motion pictures of her own childhood imaginations. The rappers and the stars before her eyes, those dark Americans—dare she say the black word. They projected gangster cool around the world... especially around the Ukrainian slums, where the dirt on their poor faces was, by default, blackface at the end of the day. Moved by some peculiar but incontestable comradery such as it felt, she had listened and watched the videos, coming to understand their slang in part but more than that, coming to know the deeper emotions that drove if with that small but growing part of her soul which spoke fluent humanity. Replaying those times in her mind, it was a dance with an unabashed self. And she swayed in the chair. It was a time when she found that voice to speak with confidence and smile through the dirt on her face. “Damn, Sasha girl, was it all that?” she asked herself openly, the question more than the unspoken answer. Her hands never left those images on the table. The one that she looked at now was already looking at her, his eyes fixed unabashedly into the camera that captured this still picture of him, the serious expression of a young man hacked from his own monitor. Off-white walls came together in the backdrop and in the center, the poster of a black samurai hung, an action shot so animated that it appeared to move in the still-shot, his wild afro breaking the monotony of the off-white surroundings, his large microphone wielded forward as a three-dimensional sword. Beneath the samurai, the form of a bed played hide-and-seek beneath a thin comforter, its edge peeking from loose clothes strewn stylishly here and there... ready to wear on the go, she thought, his bedroom. The young man was the figurehead of all that went on behind him. The crown of his short, black curls and his shoulders rose prominent in a white T-shirt, a live centerpiece whose arms went down as those of an elite gamer. He looked at her as if sensing her eye at that particular point in time, a pause when he looks up from the game, perhaps, maybe even one of those occasions when he is writing to The Rose That Grows. He looked young but his eyes were serene, the kind of deep hazel reached only through experience and wisdom. Why? Was the question, she asked herself as much as the young man in the picture. “Why so much experience at so young an age?” Nicco Myles, she closed the name inside her eyelids and held it there for a moment, thinking about what she would do. If she wrote him again he might be killed. Judging from the reports of the neighborhood where he lived, he might be killed anyway. But if that were to happen any time soon, especially in the fashion attributable to Vlad’s kind, it would leave her with the impression that it had something to do with a Russian cyclical killer and his hip-switching bitch in sophisticated dresses. How she did feel the part. Though it would be a thrill worth playing, the moral thing would be to not have to ask over his dead body. This one did not deserve to be a game pawned by her after she played it. She had to let it go. She felt her breasts lower with an exhalation, that shiver down her spine trembling them ever slightly. Her suspicions were true. He was just an adolescent. She had suspected as much by the name, that it was not something invented just to throw people off. She had been right about so many things, some so dismissive that she had not given them much thought beyond the back of her mind. She closed the file with a slap on that unflinching, black face. What did she care about the identity of some foreign boy? She had scarcely realized the questions were there until this moment, those images of the boy held unseen behind the manila cover. Looking at it from Vladimir’s point of view, it all took on a perspective that she had underestimated—blind spots, Sasha, always consider what is not in front of you. “Control yourself, woman. For you can more than I.” She listened to the man who was not there, the chimes of her vocal cords articulating a Russian accent thick as her brown winter shawl. The fact that Vlad had been cloaking her online was the least surprising thing. That was something she could understand, even respect. Cloaking her meant not a lack of trust on his part, because in this life nothing was personal. Not even in the midst of fucking her ass, those wasted pains she had gone through to distract his suspicions. She had done it without thinking though—instinctively, but why? She wondered. He too questioned her motives even after that, and was right to do so. He was arguably the greatest international talent on the black market for a reason. She touched at an itch that waxed inside her upper thigh, her thoughts going back over some things that made more sense now in hindsight. It explained why she was having to close her laptop unexpectedly lately, that inquisitive nature of his seeming to show up from over her shoulder whenever she went to the chat rooms. He seemed to show up just in time for her to change the page—something like shopping or flowering—by the time his kind, green eyes were there to look. It always ended innocently enough, a kiss and a question at her neck. What are you up to, Sasha? She could hear him asking, and after a dismissive glance over the shoulder, she answered…. “What are you up to, Vladimir?” She grasped the journal again and turned back the page, her dark pupils shifting to his earlier notes from that meeting. … The purge will be as they have imagined it. It will be ever before their eyes…. They were lives after all, not dollars—the millions… the billions he had spoken of, all human lives. She covered her mouth, her lips wanting to mime those thoughts from the page, only to feel them groping behind her fingers, moving to express her own thoughts. “A nuclear missile?” she whispered too low to hear. What would kill so many people? First a nuclear explosion and then the ensuing fallout... no. He did not say that they would die suddenly—explosively, but like dominoes they would fall. They would die being bound, as the days linked one to another, to a death that drug them to the depths of captivity over time... a time of gravitas counterbalanced with apocalypse, when they will extort the governments of the world—that was it! Her lips poised with amazement. Biological weapons… a bacteria? a virus! She may have said it aloud, enough to alert herself, and looked all around, (the only doorway still there behind her). She shut the journal carefully. That imagined creaking of the leather alarmed in her mind, that whine of Vladimir’s boasting. To bring the men of the world to their knees, a doubling of the billions. She covered her face. She had to ask how much money would be involved, a dismissive thought that doubled back to be considered. Vlad charged one hundred thousand dollars a head for his work, when he did the contractual thing. One hundred thousand dollars, and that was for faceless heads. Heads of state or other prominent ones raised the stakes. Millions… billions of heads would roll, and the loose calculation boggled her mind. He must be giving them some kind of bulk discount, she thought, and almost laughed, her gaze instantly serious again. Even at a rough dollar-per-head it was almost too much to fathom. Before she knew it she had spent more time dwelling on the money side, something that obliged her to come back to the morality of it, whether she ready to or not. She had never agreed with everything that Vlad did, especially not the way that he kept her on the outside, letting her in only on the things that were useful to him. Come to think of it, she didn’t believe most things that he did, though she would never let him know it. In this case, with the stakes so high, he would undoubtedly affirm that business was business. This was not personal. She knew better though. She knew how he felt… that in order to make the world a better place, some people—a lot of people, sometimes—had to die. Shaking her head from the moral angle, she returned the journal to the place that only he knew of, and left the vault faster than she could explain. In her heart she had felt that Vlad was approaching something great. She sensed the drama building in his demeanor, the shorter phrases with which explained things lately, even things unrelated to his mission, his turning away with an eye that retreated as did his touch lately. It was evident, the gravity of a pressing event and she felt it as real as whatever held her to the floor beneath her feet. That ominous static of a coming storm was upon her, that overcast of intuition she had hoped would un-eclipse the horizon within. But now she had seen the writing for herself, seen it with the mind above her heart. And nodding in acceptance or in sorrow, she did so with the insight that stared her in the face. Could she be a part of this? Could she not? Moving away from the reinforced threshold, she felt that door to the vault when it sealed an entire space behind her, always a feeling of being freed and of being shut out at the same time. Looking forward to the winding staircase of gold railing and marble, she never felt more married to the man than she did now. CHAPTER 8 “Congratulations! Black Scarface Samurai. You have conquered the last challenge! Midgard is now yours to control at the rank of shogun. Your overall tournament ranking is 3....” On the sidewalk, by the walking traffic of people and sound, Nicco smiled absently with the memory, so much so that Raymond, the dope fiend, was smiling back at him, that deep scar warping like a half-moon down the man’s face. Nicco’s smile faded with a twitch, his eyes returning serious from that happy place. He pushed Raymond to an arm’s length, his fist holding a small baggy. “Take that shit Raymond and get on.” He let go of the baggie and jabbed the air, fist-bumping the man away as he looked around. But Raymond stood there for a moment, considering the fist quickly, but looked to Nicco as if unsure again. “Keep yo twenty dollars, Raymond. Spend it on keeping that other side of your face closed.” Nicco sniffed, an uplifting motion of his head. Raymond shuffled away with a nod. “Yo man what the fuck was that?” Buck came from the alleyway zipping his pants, his eyes demanding attention. “Yo I didn’t see that motherfucka pay you bro.” he clarified, his tone imploring as to which action to take. “He already paid.” Nicco said flatly, an answer of no action. Buck turned that imploring look towards the corner. Already, there was no sign of the dope fiend. “It’s all downstream from me bro.” Nicco answered before Buck could turn back and ask. “What?” Buck asked, caught off-guard by another unexpected question. Nicco answered for himself. “I mean it’s not that important bro. None of this is, the drugs, the money, the rep… that bitch Nina y’all stayed behind to smash after the party….” Buck wiped his face with frustration, which Nicco ignored. “…It don’t matter anymore. It’s all downstream... as in behind me. What’s important is what I do from this point—up front.” Buck seemed to dismiss a thousand questions in succession, that rattling of his head stopping between disbelief and suspicion. “...What you got up now nigga?” he asked distractedly, pulling a baggie from his pocket and slapping it in a customer’s hand the way friends greet. He dismissed the fiend with a mean look at the crumpled money before turning back. “So what you mean by this down-stream shit you talkin’ bout... you mean you done won that game, or something? Nigga? Is that what you mean?” He slid a step back onto his rear foot, his hands still but restless at his waistline. It was the stance he took when he was ready to be sucker punched, or hit with something crazy. Nicco stared with a certain distance between them, holding back the expression from his own body language, the excitement especially. After Lex said what he had said at the party, he felt that he couldn’t tell anybody—that in four weeks and an hour he wouldn’t be here! He was going to nationals! He blinked instead, those natural dimples invisible at his cheeks. He had to draw the line, the line that had Buck on his side once upon a time, a time before Raymond’s face was slit open with a slow zipper… a time before the other night when Lex asked about the metaverse? Yea, now that line was drawn so close that it traced the edges of his own Pumas in front and behind. Before a smile could break Nicco took a step back himself, a playful approach that imitated the way Buck was standing. “Damn bro you serious. It ain’t shit with the game. Just tired of shit, you know. A nigga gettin’ weird, right?” With a lunge he flung a left jab, swiping at that suspicious look and Buck swerved it—stubbornly, as if holding fast to the point at hand. But then following that jab Nicco slid into crouched position, moving Buck’s eyes to the side where a body punch was now being leveraged. “Alright nigga,” Buck dropped the discussion with a block—a down-flinging down of his sleeves, “you wanna see these hands huh?” There were a few customers that approached but they kept their distance, as the two young men danced opposite each other in the sudden match, their hands, left and right, swiping quick between the changing expressions serious and playful. A young couple, suburban-ish looking in a grey BMW sedan, stalled patiently at the curb, the man pulling his closed, white hand back inside the car as the show carried on. A regular stood back from mid-stride, changing a gangly forward motion to one of idling. His long leg flexed with the constant walking energy as he leaned against the brick wall. Traffic passed by in the street without braking, the scene apparently as unmoving as any of the trees that swayed along the boulevard. ****************************************************************************** Chauncey didn’t look like the type to hold things in, even when the topic was heavy and despite the swelling of his chest, the way his voice went too deep to project at times. He had to push his point across. “Blow that shit out bro.” he said, relaxing his chest as a stream of smoke slowed from his lips into the space between himself and Lex. Standing across from Chauncey, the man didn’t move as much, those flashy hand gestures of his were subdued to a scratching at the side of his face and the openings of the fingers. “I’m sayin’, Chauncey, Nicco cool and all, you know. And you know how I followed Terrance...” He placed a tight fist over his heart, his bald head gleaming in a mock bow. “T was my nigga. But I don’t know if Nicco built for this Chauncey. I mean, dude all into games and shit, all on the internet talkin’ crazy. I heard he be talkin’ like tryin’ to say shit in Russian and shit...” His eyes opened large to share the disbelief. “Chauncey,” he leaned closer in face, that same distance between himself and the leader of Westend, “I heard the nigga was talkin’ about leavin’ the hood bro, goin’ to New York or some shit….” His face leaned back on his neck, leaving the words to linger in the thoughtful silence. The looping curls of Chauncey's head were accentuated in the swirling smoke, that dark, greyish cloud lifting as the leader took another toke of the cigarillo. He was clearly holding something in now, the sparkle of his eyes wincing dark with the thoughts. Lex waited patiently, as if already understanding, whatever the answer would be. “What you think we should do Lex?” Chauncey answered suddenly—coolly, that eye closest to the blunt winking as he puffed again. If Lex fidgeted excitedly on the inside, it showed only in the way that his posture held fast and still, a tall, black statue draped in his peach terrycloth jogging suit. His eyes bulged partially in his head before he caught them, fixing that look of innocence on the leader. “Look,” the statue was touching an open hand now over where a heart would be in its chest, “I got love for Nicco, Chauncey. I’m not saying we should violate him or nothin’ like that....” Lex stalled. Chauncey watched. “...Yea, I ain’t sayin’ that. What I’m sayin’ is we should keep an eye on the lil’ nigga. Put him to the test. Make em’ show what side of the street he on.” His burnished and jeweled hand extended out, flat over that vision of the street and Chauncey looked at it, those icy reflections glimmering over the black surface. The gleam in Lex’s eyes flared to match that recognition from the leader. “Okay Lex,” Chauncey said, interested after seeing it in the way Lex put it, “I got somethin’ for him.” He said with a tone of finally, leaning back in the large chair. That was the end of a conversation, the lifting of a weight on the inside of those curls. With a stare slanting upwards and beyond he let it go, a torrent of smoke elongating like a braid from his lips, that twisted stream slowing into a plume that lingered even higher. Chauncey looked at it then, oddly enough, as if that expanding haze could be read from a lasting, second glance... as did Lex, though more dismissively. He called his own attention to the leader again, that timeless gaze of Chauncey that returned with a darker, reiterated brown. Lex stood in that gaze, a welcome party of one. “Chauncey, you did what you had to bro, the right thing. Terrance was slippin’. Everybody and Stevie Wonder momma could see it, especially our enemies. You kept the clique together.” Lex’s fists met, the rings touching with a click. “Look bro, that past is dead as—” Chauncey did look and Lex quickly showed the brighter side of his hand. “You know what I mean Chauncey. You lookin’ ahead like a leader supposed to... a leader have to. Nicco still a shorty out here. Bring em’ up right if you think you owe em’ that much. The best way to look out for him is to keep em’ in line bro, make em strong. You know how the streets do.” Chauncey shook his head in the negative, to say no or to say it was just a shame. “Yeah Lex. The streets don’t care. Not by choice though, cuz it's not on the streets to care. It's on us, lex, we that run them streets. It’s on us to give a fuck.” Lex couldn’t disagree, but still, he nodded stiffly. Chauncey ignored that show unspoken dissent like just another thing filing in the back of his mind. “I know Nicco been skimmin’ from the bundles, Lex. You don’t gotta tell me...” he laughed, a serious statement. “For real though, I took it as a positive. The fact that he wasn’t makin a dent in the bag meant he was smart, a sign that he was growin’ with the hunger he would need to take the fast lane in the clique one day...” he pulled the hilt of a knife from the deep of his jean jacket, a smooth, pearl handle that winked with a few precious stones. He looked at them, turning the thing to dazzle and then, with a flick of his wrist a switch-blade flashed, locking into place. He began to pick his nails, a careful turning blade of light reflecting with his cool expression. “I know how Terrance felt about Nicco bein’ around this shit. It was somethin’ he had words with me over more than once. But like you said, He ain’t here now.” He retracted the blade and put it back in his pocket. “It’s on us to look out for Neek… our way.” Chauncey stood and walked to the blinds of the window. Approaching from the edge, he pulled a single blade downwards, that solitary grate, invisible from the street, showed the visible world outside that four-story, brick building. Through that thin, makeshift eyelet, the whole world was a ghetto restless, vehicles from four wheels to two legs going everywhere and back, a crisscrossing of joys and pains holdin’ it all together at the foot of that greater Chicago skyline unmoved in the distance. The glitter of that water-globe rounded in the shade of Chauncey’s eye. Behind the leader, Lex took a timely step away before that next sentence sounded. “I got somethin’ for em’.” ****************************************************************************** He didn’t touch the game for two weeks, thinking he ran the risk of being shocked back to a different reality if he did, maybe there was a reality where there wasn’t only two weeks left for him to leave this place for good. Not leave for good in terms of time, but leave for good in terms of that eternal struggle between good and evil. His pops would be proud. And though neither one of them could shed tears of joy, he could feel a certain cleansing starting to trickle on the inside at least, something he had never felt, not even in those stranger moments of DeJa'Vu. No, he didn’t touch the game, for this reason and for others. It sat where it was as did he, across the bedroom next to a solitary backpack. He would sling it over his shoulder when the time came and he went with a new future—money, a change of underwear and a jogging suit along with a stolen laptop. The last thing that he would take with him would be those words in longhand of his father. He would get the note photocopied and the original laminated at some place in New York. He had plenty of time. And he smiled. For now, sadly, he left that note hanging from that broken mirror, the way he had gotten used to it, the way his aunt was used to it. A new line was drawn, and he was going to stick to it. “Anybody who is anybody will hear you're gone when they hear you say it in your own voice from Verizon over the horizon,” he said consolingly, still looking at the dormant computer. And he felt the shocking impulse to shed a tear then—a thought or a feeling, it was a reminder of something lost in the deeps of his 14 years—lost, or never had. He could just as easily not call anybody from New York, and the tears would be just as hard pressed as the ones he felt on the inside. He could see it now; niggas shrugging at the question—what happened to lil Nicco? Y’all remember lil’ Nicco right? Fearing the worst, whatever it would be, he could see his aunt is ranting at a few dispassionate dudes as they watch her through low lashes, puffing on blunts, until even she lowers her tired arms to take-in that blunt and drink for herself, her cheeks still wet but only part-ways into the next song... into the next sleeves of the arms that reach out to comfort her... caress her backside... her eyes closing again, she’s feeling better already. It made him want to cry in that room by himself—want to. He picked up a drawing he had done of The Black Scarface Samurai, that long, sorrowful scar as unforgettable as the reality of his own past. Holding that worn paper, he wanted to cry but instead, the sketchy face looked up at him stubborn and dryly... not a single, undulating drop to coat the scarring down there. “I see we don’t always get what we want, do we Black Face?” Nicco waited for an answer from that stoic alter ego. The black face trembled. It was his aunt coming, the rush of her slippers up the stairs a quick syncing of sliding and surefootedness. He twisted at the torso, letting the backpack down by the side of the bed as her voice pushed through the door. “Nicco!” she called just ahead of the door. It barged inward with a single knock and there she was, a lot of what she had to say already obvious in the doorframe. Seeing him in an instant, she brought that pushing hand back down and re-robed the loose half of a breast that flew almost open with the door. She seemed satisfied to lay eyes on him, the exhalation obvious through her fluffy, pink robe as he sat there absently on the bed... until his silence came off as concealment. Hellooo... she started with that melodramatic look before opening her mouth. “Nicco you got to tell me what the fuck is goin’ on.” He shrugged. “Now don’t start that. You know what I’m talkin’ about. You all quiet around here,” her pink fingernail and eyeballs traced the air, “smilin’ for no damn reason and don’t wanna tell nobody why...” she looked, frustrated again with his concealment. “I know you nigga,” the nail that traced the air pointed at him. “You can’t get shit past me. I used to wipe yo lil’ ass. You forget....” Nicco sat on the bed unmoved, his shoulders fully relaxed from that shrug he had just given her. He simply watched through lowered lashes. Her logic obviously failing, Aunt Belinda shrugged herself. She gathered together that loose bust of her robe and sat down on the bed next to her nephew. He looked surprised enough to stay that way throughout the talk. The one hand at her lap pulling down that wide V of her robe into a tight, curving slit and keeping it there, the other lay softly on his knee, the only pressure being that which came natural with a hard life. “Look, nephew,” she started, her voice softer than the walls of the house had ever reverberated. And when his eyes grew larger than he could help, hers seemed to gloss over with the understanding… she just had to say it, to spite the instinct to not feel vulnerable. As her lips almost trembled, her eyes went completely uncovered before his, focusing on what she had to say rather than the utter fascination that seized him where he sat. His posture was straighter than any room in the house had framed. “I got some things to say Nicco…. And don’t interrupt me til’ I finish...” she started to go tough again, an instinct that faltered as her finger lowered from that statuesque frame of a young man before her—his eyes suddenly hard and demanding nothing less than she finish. Seeing him that way, her head bowed a little, that blond of her crown surprisingly softer than anything synthetic. “Two things, Nicco...” her lips were almost out of sight. “I had a dream. You was gone and nobody knew what happened. I went crazy.” She looked him in the eye. “I want you to know I went crazy. I know I act that way—crazy—and it’s who I am Nicco. But I’m also somebody beneath it all. Her lower fingers relaxed, the V opening a little. She spanked the hands hard on her thighs in a show of frustration. “Damnit I might not be able to change, Nicco. But you can. Your daddy was a good man. I mean, he was a street nigga, don’t get it twisted. But he was a good man in here...” she touched that soft brown between the lines of drooping pink. Her eyes followed his closely. “He wanted more for you Nicco. I gotta say that. We always thought that nigga was crazy, and he was. But he was crazy like a fox sometimes, now that I think back.” She bit her bottom lip a little, her eyes rolling up into the past before coming back with a snap. “You the spittin’ image of em’ Nicco. But you that face that he could never show to the world, because he went too deep.” She touched the smooth side of Nicco’s face, a few fingertips trailing down to his chin. “When you go too deep in these streets you don’t come back to the surface Nicco. You stay buried in the tar, so many layers of tar that all you see in the mirror is black.” her hand gripped down at his knee and he twitched, straightening more on the inside while keeping his eyes still on her. “Maybe I was wrong.” she was saying. “Whatever it is that you feel you need to do in that metaverse baby... maybe you supposed to just do it.... Is that it? Nicco? Is that’s what going on with you?” She leaned in to where the fragrance dabbed on her neck was visible as an oily spot in his eyes, her eyes knowing and sincere... rediscovering him in the closer look. “I see that nigga Terrance in you Nicco, but coming closer to the surface, every day, I see more of that man Terrance in you....” That man in her eyes, she looked glazed over with nostalgia. “And when you talk, sometimes I swear I hear his voice right here in my ear again.” With a tapping of her pointer finger there, she closed her eyes unashamedly, waiting—reaching for that man, as the two listened together for a moment.... Nicco watched her closer, quietly overwhelmed by what was supposed to happen now. Gropingly, he spoke, the only thing that came to him. “Get out these streets, son…” he recalled those bloodstained words with an authority of his own. “…die if you have to.” Her eyes and arms flew open, her robe following as she groped to stand from the squeaking bed. In her mind she seemed struck by the voice she heard, an attack of conscious that blindsided her, catching her there in the room with her nephew. She looked ashamed among other things, her lips stuck open as if there were a halo hovering where he sat. She seemed suddenly unsure what to do with herself there, her look, her open robe, pink panties and no bra to match! She gathered it together with a clawing and turned away, leaving that awkward feeling between them to be discussed later, or to go unspoken. The door closed and her slippers skipped dutifully down the stairs. Behind on the other side, that sound of her scooting away, Nicco felt his own exhalation, the standing heartbeat through his body starting to slow down.... He looked over at the backpack and noticed that image of Black Scarface looking up from the floor, his head shaking in shame with his own. “Yeah man, I know,” he admitted to himself. “But we drew the line for a reason. Now I know we gotta get the fuck up outta here bro, before these streets swallow us... whole as the Watersands of Okinawa.” ***************************************************************************** Everything was like it never happened. His aunt had gone back to talking shit with a vengeance, as if to say sorry for what happened... or for what didn’t. He continued to pay, whichever it was. 900 dollars now, three times what it cost to live under a roof where the windy city itself checked in on em’ from time to time and the roaches made special cameos in the bathroom. He did his best he to make sure everything was like it never happened, with his aunty and everybody else, even making an extra run that Westend needed and telling Chauncey.... “It’s on the house big bro. You’ve always looked out for a nigga.” Looking at him though, people seemed extra suspicious, something not necessarily out of the ordinary, since that ominous feeling was always present between the storms. The hood was like a big recycling storm of drive-bys, group fights and babymakin’ in the downtime, those future somebodies to live and die another day... a whirl-winding change of faces to weather the generational storming. It felt like that now, the way Chauncey didn’t look as he placed the bundle in the backpack. The big man had gone over by the window after that, peering away through a slit in the blinds. “You good family?” he asked directly, his back a crisscrossing of stitches in the jean jacket, as if asking people outside the window. Nicco wondered if the leader’s eyes were reflecting on him from the glass. “I’m good big bro.” he answered, as if those reflecting eyes were looking, his posture held as sincere as his words. Chauncey turned to face him that way, the blades of the blinds snapping shut behind his head. “I just wanna make sure you good, Neek.” he said with the same quickness, his face the light-brown glow of concern... that fast concern that Chicago dudes showed on demand... the only kind they could afford to show. After a few blinks and you’ll miss it moment of sincerity, Chauncey shrugged. He pulled a cigar from his pocket and sliced off the end with a pearl-handled knife. He made a snapping gesture with his left hand and something there glinted. He looked at Nicco, seeing the young man still in the same place, as he waved that cigar in his right fingers over the small flame that danced from his left. “Thanks for makin’ this run lil’ bro. You always treated me like family. Because I am, Nicco—family, that is. I want you to remember that.” he jabbed the fuming cigar at his listener, a languid plume following that hand-speak. He puffed decidedly on that cigar with a thought, or maybe a question, a longer puff than Nicco had seen him take and then, he held it in the same breath, his cheeks puffing his eyes into slits of scrutiny. The oil of his curls glistened like a shifty halo in front of the daylit blinds... a halo he dumped backwards as he blew upwards with a sigh. He seemed to shrug then too, on the inside, that motion of his forearm bringing the cigar back to center of his body. His jean jacket appeared freshly dry cleaned and pressed behind the streams of smoke. He followed those streams with a gaze that drifted as quickly, apparently seeing something with which he couldn’t argue anymore. “I have a confession, Nicco.” his eyes came back to stay. “It’s about your pops. You know I was the last one to see him alive right? the only one from Westend to make it out of that club that night. You was still just a bundle of nut that your momma held-in for dear life....” Chauncey looked more sincere than Nicco had ever seen him. “When them niggas from Southend hit us even the quickest to run didn’t make it. You know I got hit and your pops... your pops next to me... all he wanted was to get his words to you. Even though he only imagined your face somethin’ like his own....” Chauncey looked at Nicco as if back in the club with Terrance standing there instead, and he shook his head. “Unreal man, Terrance had no idea he spit out his own image. All he wanted as he lay there bleedin’ out. Some of his organs was pulled out like ribbons next to him, Nicco.... And all he could think about was to get his dyin’ words to you, the words that would live on.” His eyes opened wider. “That’s why I gave you the note Nicco, not to make you weak but to make you stronger. For you to see.” He got up and walked in semi-circles. “You see those bloody prints from your old man right? The bible say a doubleminded man is divided in whatever he put his mind to... it say that somewhere. And your pops got it in his mind at some point to leave the streets. But see the streets is like a rollercoaster Nicco, they can take you high and low, but the ride is so fast you never wanna just break away. That’s hella-more dangerous than ridin’ it out til the end. You see, when your pops took his mind off the street, his heart went with it—went soft, talkin’ bout takin’ some of the clique’s money to build shelters and shit… drug treatment and shit? I didn’t make no sense even as a front. It was the wrong kinda front. Visionary shit with the clique's money?” Chauncey sounded mad all over again, stopping his pacing to push his point across to that spittin image of Terrance Myles. “That’s what got your old man killed Nicco, takin’ his eye off the streets to look into things that ain’t for niggas like us. It got em’ killed and I be damned if the same crazy ideas get you killed.” He looked at that blood descendant before him like one with a mind divided between ages, unaware, for that moment, of what showed through his present face. He seemed to snap himself out of it now with a start, but an ongoing expression. “Terrance was my brother Neek. So I had love for you like a little brother before you was born. Since he been gone, you was like the son that I never had….” Nicco was silent while Chauncey all but stretched forth both hands across the room, a motion that barely straightened the creases in his jean jacket before the cigar went back to his lips for a moment…. “I guess what I’m really tryin’ to say is that we all we got. Nobody crosses the line with our family, Neek, nobody. I don’t give a fuck what side they on. Whatever you got goin’ on lil’ bro, I want you to know we got you. We support you one hundred. But we gotta trust each other whatever it is….” He paused. “You know what I’m sayin’?” Nicco stood in the same place, the same posture except for the slow shrugging of his shoulders on demand. “I ain’t got nothin’ goin’ on big bro. Just scoo and shit.” Hey eyes held innocently when Chauncey looked frustrated. The leader wiped his face with a steady hand, an expression of near indifference unmasked as he thumped ashes into a tray on the table. “Okay then Nicco,” He began before looking up again, “Do the clique like that, in a good way. Be safe with the bundle son.” As flat as his look of resignation, the leader’s tone sounded that much more sincere, his eyes already re-clouding behind the grayish haze. He was standing, turning his way back over to the blinds. Nicco turned to leave, opening the door to place one foot on the outside. “Nicco...” the leader called, stopping the teen in his tracks. The leader’s voice, so close to that glass, reverberated with treble. “Come by here for the team Monday. I got somethin’ for you.” “Okay Big Bro.” Outside, Nicco couldn’t remember if he had said some kind of goodbye, if he had walked or flown from the room. Whatever he had done, he was past the gunmen in the hallway without so much as a word, those normal nods and fist bumps missing when one passes unexpectedly fast. There was a knot in his stomach, a knot that grew with the throbbing pulse in his head. Why in the fuck did Chauncey want him at The Monday? “Fuck!” he said, and looked back again, hoping he was far enough away from the dudes at the front stoop…. Seeing that he was, he said it again. “Fuuuck!” He hit the end of the block and turned right, heading for that scooter chained to a fence near the alley. He had never been to a Monday before, and never wanted to be. The Monday meetings were for the inside players, the ones who made key moves for the clique. They was the niggas with a voice, like Big Lex, the ones who spoke to Chauncey’s vote of one. They moved with bigger bundles, and they pulled triggers when it counted. He swerved on the scooter, a car zooming past with a blaring horn as he bounced back to the right of the street. His eyes were big enough to see it all in motion—that panorama of the streets, houses and people rounding away on the tints of hazel, his eyes big enough to see the future. He could feel it, the eminence as real as his pulse racing, that feeling of something as familiar as streets that were taking him to the drop at these very seconds. This was the first time he made a free trip, but this was the way that he always came. And he knew it like the back of his hand on the trembling handlebar. “They want me to put in work,” he said, the throbbing in his head overloading with more thoughts. He swayed on the scooter, scraping a parked car then veering from those sirens. Alarmed himself, he lifted a hand to his pounding temple, leaving the other shuddering alone on the handlebar... a shuddering shot down through the front tire. “Fuck! They want me to kill somebody I know it!” The scooter wobbled, shaking his head in violent acknowledgement of those thoughts.... They were thoughts of brains and spattering blood that throbbed at his temples.... As he raced downhill, his eyes closing for a moment, desperate for the wind on his face, something to wipe away the stress inside his head, that last hand slipped from the handlebar. It was down when he realized it, the wheels soaring over the dashing, black tar. It was just before that front wheel would jam to the side, sending him to defy gravity and pain. He tried to bring the other hand down, his vision returning from where imagination had taken him, a place where he swore that saw himself killing somebody.... It was that daydream that really happened, the one that he forgot the instant his eyes opened.... Fuck. It was gone again. His eyes open with the wind on his face, his clothes flapping like gray flags until the front tire Jammed to the side, turning his head in time for him see it with a side-eye. He shot forward against the face of gravity, that mean face of down-scrolling tar and rock, a green scooter following his lead through the air. Both were suspended enough for him to see how he was going to fall, to think it through, and come to grips with this reality. ****************************************************************************** Back up the street, two of the men from the spot were out near the corner, the sirens of a car alarm calling for attention. Each with a right hand gripped out of sight, one peered around the corner—down the hill towards the sound—while the other looked around in general. Seeing nothing to move them into further investigation, the two returned to talking at the front of the four-story brick.