Still I Rise
This asshole is tougher than I thought. Behind the screaming and cursing of our classmates, the teacher's voice shouts at me to let go. I didn't start this fight but I'm sure as hell gonna finish it. Only a defected moron would let someone still struggling out of a choke hold, which I'm not. The more he struggles the tighter my arms get around his neck. As soon as I see Principal Abrams rush in with the security guards, I lose the tension in my arms and roll to my back. Strong hands grab the front of my white t-shirt, jerking me to my feet.
"Torrez," Principal Abrams' hands shake with pent up frustration. I meet his eyes with my own, they seem to reflect everything but see nothing. Behind his eyes was something more intense than the usual disappointment. I had been hoping for, perhaps not outright forgiveness, but a slap on the wrist. Now I just hope to get through this without getting suspended. God knows he's given me enough chances to get my shit together.
"My office now!" He shouts, shoving me back a few steps. I grab my backpack off my desk and leave the classroom without a word. My body aches as I walk the familiar path down to the office, the adrenaline is wearing off. I nod at the secretary and drop on to the bench outside the Principal's office. My knuckles are cracked and bloody, and by the taste of familiar cooper tang in my mouth, I know my lip is busted. There is no way I can hide this fight from my brother. Another wave of disappointment washes over me. It hasn't even been a week since the last time my ass warmed this bench.
I glared at the five-point crown tattoo on my forearm. A reminder that I'm a King. As if I could forget who owns me. Our gang ran like a pack of dogs. Some of us were fueled with fear and others with hatred. There was no honor. With a single look or nod from the head we took action. I hated it, but it was better to be a dog in a big group than a loner. Loners get killed in this neighborhood.
A firm hand comes down on my shoulder pulling me out of thoughts. Mr. Abrams' dark brown eyes meet mine. He goes for a soft smile, but it does nothing to mask his frustration.
"Come one." His voice is heavy with exhaustion. I sling my backpack over my shoulder and follow him into his office.
"I didn't start it." I say quickly, dropping into the familiar seat.
"I left you out on that bench for fifteen minutes and the best you have for me is I didn't start it?"
My shoulders come up in a shrug. He knows. He knows about the gang I run with. He knows I have no choice.
"Alright, two weeks suspension. Give me your school ID."
Dread fills my stomach, locking it up tight. The tremor in my hands begin.
He arches his eyebrows when I don't move. "Your school badge, Torrez."
Burning rage hisses through my body like poison. I swallow it down and quickly, pull off the lanyard from around my neck and toss it onto the desk between us. Profanity slips from Mr. Abrams' guarded lips as both his fits slam onto the desk. A picture frame near the corner of the desk falls to the floor.
"Honor roll student by day and a damn thug by night. Is that the life you want, Torrez?"
My eyes sting with emotion as I struggle to keep my temper in check. "Give me detention. Give me in school suspension. Don't take me out of school, sir."
"Why?" The tension builds between us. " We've been down this road so many times before, Jayden. Nothings changing for you, son."
I want to tell him to go to hell but swallow my retort and let the silence stretch between us.
"I buried another student this morning, Jayden." Mr. Abrams says slowly, as if his brain still needs time to process his words. "He was stabbed a few blocks from this school. Just sixteen years old. As they carried his body out of the church all I could think about is you."
My anger leaves me the moment I realize I'm the reason for the look in his eyes. I try to say something, but my mind is blank, and my lips won't move.
"I'm so tired." Mr. Abrams continues slowly. "I'm tired of seeing your face in my office, Jayden. Especially when you come in here with your face all busted. I'm tired of you making me promises that you'll stay out of trouble only for them to be broken."
"I'm trying." My throat feels constricted and it comes out in a whisper.
"Try harder. Damn it, Jayden! Try harder! Next time a fight breaks out, leave the classroom. Come to my office!"
"Sir, I respect you because you don't bullshit me. Don't start now." My eyes are glued to the crown, chaining me down to something I have no desire to be a part of.
"Can't you see I'm trying to help you, kid? I've been in these run-down schools for fourteen years. I've never wanted to see someone succeed like I want to see you succeed. I need to see you succeed, Jayden."
"Then don't take me out of school." I say attempting a smile and quickly abandoning it as the pain radiates from my swollen lip. The piety is clear in Mr. Abrams eyes as they meet mine.
"Take your badge, I'll see you tomorrow." He breaths out. With a sigh, his shoulders fall in defeat.
"Can I get another book, too?" I ask quickly, taking the badge off his desk and placing it around my neck afraid he'll change his mind. "I finished the last one and left it with your secretary."
Before he has a chance to answer, I'm already walking over to the bookcase. My eyes scan over the familiar titles, looking for something I haven't read yet.
"Top shelf. Right side." Mr. Abram says over his shoulder. "It's new. I think you'll like it."
I quickly shove the book into my worn backpack and sling it over my shoulder.
"Have a good weekend, Mr. Abrams." I call over my shoulder not waiting for a reply.
Jayden’s POVIt takes fifteen minutes to walk the three blocks from school to the basketball court. It's cold and the wind is picking up the dead leaves from the street and blowing them around as I walk crosstown. I can always tell when I’m getting closer to my neighborhood, by the music blasting from the cars as they drive by. The switch from English to Spanish is gradual. When all I hear is Spanish, I know I’m home. There are a lot of people out today. Over in the park some guys are playing dominoes. The noise of dogs barking as they chase each other almost drowns out the shouting children on the playground. There is a girl trying to sell t-shirts, but nobody is buying. She looks like a crackhead and I cannot help but wonder if my brother and I sell to her.
I can see the guys running a full court game. My eyes automatically search for my brother. The first smile all day breaks across my face when I see him. Tyler is so focused on the game; he doesn’t notice me walk over to the bench and drop my backpack next to his. I wait until he gets the ball before coming up behind him and poking it out of his hands. Before he even registered what happened, I charge at the basket and dunk the ball.
“I was wondering when your shadow would show up!” One of the older guys laughs, throwing my brother the ball.
“Nice shot, hermano. You do that again and I’m gonna beat you.” Tyler laughs. I do my best not to wince as my stiff shoulders protest when I drop from the basket. Tyler is a year older, although looking at us you would say it was the other way around. I have a few inches on him. Both of us take after my Latino father, much to our mothers’ disdain. We have his blue eyes and broad build. Everyone loves Tyler, like they loved my father. They are drawn to him. I see it in the way they hang on to his words. They want to be close to him just like I do. If he wanted to, he could be friends with everyone, but for the most part he just sticks with me. Just me and him, it’s been like that for a while.
Tyler’s smile quickly disappears when he sees my face.
“Damn it, Jay!” He growls throwing the ball against the backboard. “It hasn’t even been a few days, hermano!”
I shrug my shoulders, keeping my eyes focused somewhere behind him. The disappointment in his eyes will make me feel worse, I refuse to look at him.
I hear a deep sigh before his arm comes around my shoulders. "Vale, hermanito. Let's see what you got!"
We break off into teams quickly, Tyler on one and me on the other. Tyler’s team is leading and it’s killing me. As soon as I get my hands on the ball, I go right towards Tyler. When he steps out, I fake left and drive around his right side. Another guy comes towards me a step too late. I go up, do a 180 and slam backwards. Before dropping from the basket, I give Tyler a cocky smile, knowing that shit is gonna piss him off.
We have one basket to win the game with the ball in my possession when all hell breaks loose. I see a guy push Tyler and I abandon the ball completely. I don't say anything. I just step between them and push the guy away.
“Put you hand on me again and I’m gonna mess your shit up.” He threatens stepping towards me. I just stand there. I know if he throws on me, I’m going to light him up like a firework.
“Hermano, I can handle my own shit.” I hear Tyler laugh lightly behind me. I feel his hand on my shoulder, pulling me back. Anger boils deep in my system. I know I’m overreacting, but I cannot make myself care. He is my brother. You don’t put your hands on him. No one does. We’ve had enough of that shit growing up.
I drop down onto the bench trying to rein in my frustration as the others awkwardly pick up the game. All it takes is a push and memories are flooding into my mind like water rushing into a sinking ship. The pain radiating through my face. His hands tightening around my throat. The sound of Tyler shouting at him until the abuse is directed at him. The memories are not that hard to recall. After all, this was our life for so many years. My mom’s boyfriend enjoyed beating his fists into our faces. We always took the abuse together. Tyler tried to protect me, and I tried to protect him. When we got old enough to pack power behind our punches, Leo kicked us out. My mom, high as a kite, didn't even look our way as he threw us out.
I can feel Tyler’s eyes on me, but I ignore him and reach for my backpack. The book Principal Abrams gave me is old. It smells like the inside of an attic. I flip the first few fragile pages and begin. Reading is like an escape from reality for me. It’s like I can create a little world in my mind away from this neighborhood, the drugs and violence.
By the time Tyler walks over to me, the laughter of the children in the park has died down and the sun is setting. He pulls his phone out of his backpack and sits on the bench beside me. “You eat at school today, before the fight happened?”
“Si, I ate.” I assure him, bending one of the pages before I close the book. Tyler’s fingers dance across the keys on his phone. The only indication that he hears me is the slight nod. His smile alone is enough to let me know who the messages are from.
“You gonna tell me again there isn’t nothing between you two?” I ask biting the edge of my smile, a bad attempt to keep the teasing grin off my face.
“Nah, hermano. She isn’t my type. You’d like her though.” Tyler glances over, the corners of his lips fighting a smile, his eyebrows raise slightly. “She’s smart as hell. Yall can read together.”
“Miss me with that shit.” I look away before that mischievous look of his spreads.
“I’m sorry about today.”
“No estoy enojado contigo hermano.” Tyler smiles softly. “I just wish things were different. I know you hate the Kings, but I can't protect you without them. If the bastards that brought us into this world stuck around maybe things would be different for us both.”
“We’re better off without them.” I say after a long silence. Our grandparents gave us a great life until our mother got custody. She moved us as far away from her parents as she could manage. It was all downhill from there. She started using again, becoming dependent on her abusive boyfriend because he was her hook up. The phone vibrates between us, pulling my attention away from my dark thoughts.
“Mi Sol ¿Qué tal?” Tyler answers quickly. “I hate talking to you like this. You can’t text?”
He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Yea, I understand. Si, we are still at the court.” Another pause. As soon as I open my book again, Tyler says. “His Steve Urkel ass is reading.”
“Oye, what ya reading?” He asks, nudging my shoulder.
“The Grape of Wrath.” I tell him dryly going back to my reading. He is always trying to include me in their conversations. I briefly wonder if I’d like her like he says I would, then shake the thought away.
“As punishment for the fight today, she wants to tell you that Jim dies.” Tyler tells me, the corners of his lips fighting a smile. Assholes, both of them.
“Anything you don’t tell her, TY?”
He gives me a wink and continues his conversation. I act annoyed but I’m happy he has her. Their friendship makes him happy.
I notice a girl coming towards us. She is brown-skinned and skinny. Her eyes are shiny and desperate, and her lips are drawn back from her teeth. I nudge Tyler with my elbow.
“Oye mi sol, I gotta go. I’ll text you tonight when I get home.” Tyler tells her, hanging up before she can reply. I get up when he does and sling my backpack over my shoulder.
“Can you help me?” She asks, holding out money in her shaking hands.
Tyler takes a few steps towards her. Taking the money with one hand, he opens the other showing a plastic vial. I’ve seen those vials a hundred times in the gutter, in the park, in the bathrooms in school, everywhere in my life. The girl quickly grabs the vial and brushes past us towards the streets.
“Vamonos, I’m done for tonight.” Tyler says rubbing his hand down his tired face. We walk in silence back out of the park and across the street. The corner store comes into view and with it two Kings standing at the corner.
“Jay, go inside and get me something cold to drink.” Tyler tells me, giving me a small shove towards the entrance door. I feel like a kid getting sent away while grown folks take care of business. Giving both Kings a nod, I step into the store. Remembering the homework waiting for me, I got straight back to the fridges and grab two red bulls. I’m halfway back to the cash register when I hear the first gunshot. My hands give out and everything falls to the floor. Five more shots ring out. People passing by rush into the small store for cover as I charge out. One of the Kings lay dead, a single bullet to the head blood pooling on the sidewalk beneath him.
“Tyler.” My hands tremble and my eyes water as I collapse down on my hands and knees beside him. I cannot bring myself to look down at his chest. It doesn’t matter.
His breathing is labored, and his hands grabbed at me in a panic. Blood soaks through his shirt radiating outward. “I can’t breathe.” He croaks sending himself into a fit of coughing. His eyes fill with tears as his grip on me tightens.
“I’ll lift you up, okay.” I tell him in a panic. Quickly, I grab his arms and prop him up against my chest hoping he can breathe better. The pained cry that comes from him tears through my heart. Doors and windows open from the buildings around us. The store clerk and the customers stand at the door. I could hear their voices and screams but I couldn't make out the words. Tyler’s body gets heavier against me causing my chin to tremble.
“You’re not leaving me, Ty.” I growl, shaking his body. Tyler winces in pain but doesn't open his eyes. “You have to stay strong for me. Please, Ty. Don't leave me here alone. You're all I know. Please don't leave me here by myself. They're coming. Can you hear the sirens? They're going to help you. Just don't leave me."
He opens his mouth to speak but starts choking, blood spilling from his mouth. Tears run freely down his cheeks. I can see the fear in his eyes until it fades. Until he fades and his lifeless eyes stare back at me.
The knowledge that I now exist without him shreds my soul. I don’t break quietly; my gasping wails echo around the street. Even the eyes of the strangers around me are wet with tears. The grief surges with every breath I take. For the first time in a long time, I turn to my Lord and beg him to take the pain away.
Hermanito- Little brother
No estoy enojado contigo- I’m not mad at you.
¿Qué tal?- how are youOye- hey
Vamonos- let’s go
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