Uncharted Steps

(Originally appeared in Pennsylvania English.)

T-Bone became certain he’d made a mistake bringing Juice and pussy-boy Lewis to his Aunt Clara’s place as soon as he—using Ma’s keys—opened the door and saw his 11-year-old cousin looking startled and scared in his Catholic school navy-blue uniform pants and blue polo shirt. T-Bone knew they should bounce, should find another place to chill with their hostage, pussy-boy Lewis, but Juice pushed his way past T-Bone, looked around, and deemed the place perfect. T-Bone and Juice had planned to hang there with pussy-boy Lewis for a few hours, unseen, unnoticed, leaving before the family returned—no one the wiser. Except now Onion, whose real name, Patrick Fisher, spelled out in blue block letters on his plastic school name pin, beamed at him.

“Guy! Aunt Jilly tell you I got out early?” Onion asked.

T-Bone had nodded vaguely. “Came to keep you company for a few hours,” he lied. Ma didn’t know T-Bone’s whereabouts or that he was with Juice, who she’d disliked, saying he looked creepy, nor did she know that he’d brought Juice to his aunt’s apartment. The four boys crowded the small, shabby living room, pussy-boy Lewis sitting on the threadbare, gold wall-to-wall carpeting because T-Bone occupied most of the sofa and Juice, the one chair. Gold dime-store drapes with thin threads and loose seams drooped from bent curtain rods, covered two dirty, undersized, painted-shut windows, and allowed neither air nor light into the second-floor apartment. A hole in the dining room ceiling gaped like a toothless yawn over a dining room table cluttered with unopened mail, magazines, and papers.

T-Bone inhaled stale air, his breathing labored like any fat boy’s. Eying the others, uneasy at finding Onion home, he channel-surfed, ignoring the television’s kaleidoscope images, and watched Juice instead. Onion fidgeted on the sofa’s overstuffed armrest, his army-green eyes fixed on T-Bone.

“Daddy got me Dance Dance Revolution for my birthday, Guy. It’s fun. Wanna play?” He bounced off the sofa onto the balls of his feet.

“Not now,” T-Bone said with a wince. Juice didn’t know his real name was “Guy,” a much worse name than “Lewis,” and he didn’t want Juice knowing his suck-ass, uncool real name. Juice had told him that the only person to call him Rodger was his probation officer, Juice rising higher in T-Bone estimation for having a P.O. T-Bone didn’t know anyone else with a P.O.

Pussy-boy Lewis sat Indian style on the floor next to a pot of plastic ivy, near the TV, just in front of cherry wood shelves Uncle Bill had built in the niche there. The football player took care not to lean against the shelves and grimaced when his sleeve brushed against the dusty plastic plant. Lewis gawked at his aunt’s place as if he’d been transported to Mars.
“What are you looking at?” T-Bone demanded.

“Nothing much,” Lewis said.

T-Bone ignored the slight, checked his watch. Every minute he spent with Lewis felt like an hour, and so far 20 minutes felt like forever. Juice, with his fluffy, curly shock of red hair and cornflower blue eyes, slouched in Aunt Clara’s brown chair, watching pussy-boy Lewis with catlike alertness that made T-Bone feel invisible. T-Bone enjoyed being around Juice, being part of his posse, being around all the girls who wanted Juice to be their main man, and being the one they’d called when Juice was dissing them, but he didn’t like feeling invisible, not in his own aunt’s apartment. After this whole kidnapping business ended, T-Bone and Juice would never see Lewis again anyway.

And although they hadn’t yet decided what to do with the money pussy-boy Lewis’ parents would pay to get him back, T-Bone imagined a 50-50 equal split, imagined him and Ma, and even Aunt Clara, Uncle Bill, and Onion sitting on a fancy beach—maybe down the ocean— imagined Ma relaxing. He pictured her happy, surprised face when he’d hand her a wad of vacation money. Ma always talked about how different things would have been for them had Guy Sr. not run off with that whore of a bimbo when T-Bone was a baby, and how they wouldn’t have to be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Onion bounced from the floor to the sofa to the floor. “Settle down,” T-Bone said. “You’re a fucking live wire.”

Juice laid the gun he’d hidden in his waistband on the rickety coffee table. At the site of the gun, Onion squirmed more. T-Bone could tell the boy itched to touch it. Onion adjusted his thick, wire-framed glasses, which had slid down his nose, and gaped at it, his eyes the size of tangerines.

Onion pointed to the weapon. “Where’d you get it? Can I hold it?”

“It ain’t real,” T-Bone lied again to his cousin but looking directly into pussy-boy Lewis’ eyes. “And no, you can’t hold it, so don’t ask no more.”

“Guy, where’d it come from?” Onion repeated. T-Bone didn’t know. Juice always packed some heat, and he wished Onion stopped using his real name, the same one his bastard runaway father went by, preferring the new nick Juice had laid on him a few months back when they first met at the Square. “T-Bone” sounded cooler, a welcome change, too, since the skateboarders there had always laughed at him, singsonging, “Fat Guy in a little T-shirt,” calling him “Tiny,” snickering at him because of his size, calling him “Pizza Guy” because of his acne. Little punks.

“Where’d it come from?” Onion persisted. “Did you buy it? How much did it cost?”

“Mind your business, Onion,” T-Bone said, looking first at Juice and then Onion.

“You don’t need to get all bent,” Onion said.

Lewis eyed the gun, too, and then eyed Juice, but he didn’t say anything.

“Hey, let’s do DDR now,” Onion said. No one responded. “Ma said it’s good exercise,” he added. “It’s fun.” Every now and again, Onion glanced down at the gun and then at T-Bone with questions in his eyes, questions T-Bone plain ignored. He wished Onion were still at school, out of the way.

Twenty minutes ago corralling Lewis into the Juice’s vintage Mustang turned easier after Juice had flashed the heat—a pearly-gripped revolver—and stuck the barrel into the football player’s side. He’d stopped struggling immediately. T-Bone marveled at how light reflected off the revolver’s steel parts made it look like a shiny jewel on the coffee table. Onion bounded around the apartment like a caged monkey, stealing glances at the shiny wonder. “Is it loaded?” he finally asked.

“No.” T-Boned lied again. T-Bone also wanted to touch it too, wanted to shoot it. He chewed on the inside of his mouth. “Don’t be stupid,” he added. Juice shot him an appraising glance, and he felt good about it, though he wished they could leave the apartment and go elsewhere. The Plan, Juice’s Plan really, didn’t factor Onion being home; Aunt Clara’s place was supposed to be empty, T-Bone’s own suggestion of a hideout.

The Plan had formed when they were smoking weed at the Square, he and Juice jokingly hatching a half-dozen fast-money schemes—snatching a rich kid one of them—T-Bone never thinking any of them could become real. And not caring either. He just liked Juice, who treated him with respect, who had his back, who did things like build his yellow Mustang from an old junker. The skateboarders stopped messing with T-Bone once he began hanging with Juice. T-Bone had acted nonchalant the day Juice had outlined The Plan, then asked him to think of some down-low place until they could conduct the switch: the snatched kid for the booty.

“Best neither of us know all the details,” Juice had said, dismissing T-Bone’s questions. Not wanting to disappoint, T-Bone could only think of his Aunt Clara’s place. He hadn’t considered Onion being home.

“How about some snacks?” T-Bone asked Onion. “Got anything good here?”

“Chips and dip,” Onion said, disappearing into the kitchen.

“What about some drinks?” he called after his cousin. “Go help him with the drinks,” he ordered Lewis. Lewis followed Onion into the kitchen, and they emerged carrying bags of chips, tubs of dip, and two liters of cola.

Juice snickered. “Where’s your cell, pussy-boy?”

“Don’t have one,” the football player said. He sat again, shifting his legs so they looked like upside Vs, hiding the outline of a cell in his sweatpants pocket.

“Everybody has a cell,” Juice said, sounding matter-of-fact. Lewis shrugged. The footballer’s easy confidence annoyed T-Bone, mostly reminded him of his father’s two new sons with similar pussy names. The runts were 10 and 8. Who the fuck names a kid Guy or Xavier or Isidore? “Zave” and Iz played football and soccer at Blakefield High’s sports fields. When they get to high school, they’d be just like Lewis, driving their own cars, navigating as if they owned the world. T-Bone quit school, hung with Juice, earned his own coin signaling when competition or cops came, working his way into Juice’s crew. He’d be finishing up his senior year if he’d stayed and wasn’t failing. Ma didn’t know yet. He’d been snagging school letters from the mail.

T-Bone tore open a bag of chips and stuffed a handful in his mouth. No one else ate any, including Juice, who never turned down food, often saving it for his brother Jimmy. If T-Bone had gone to Blakefield High instead of to Highland Public, maybe those Blakefield kids wouldn’t harass him about his size or his pimples and he’d have gotten better grades. He’d be graduating in a few weeks. He’d asked Ma about it when she was ranting about Zave and Iz, but she’d dismissed the idea, saying she wasn’t about to ask his father for a shittin’ thing, instead working endless odd jobs for little pay, singing at night in a Podunk rock-and-roll band she felt certain would hit the big time. T-Bone finished the chips and rubbed his greasy fingers on his pants.

“You’re both fucking nuts, man. This is so fucking stupid,” Lewis said. “Man, and I thought my buddies put you two jokers up to pranking me. An end of year joke or something. Talk about a fucking bad call.” Lewis rubbed his forehead and eyes.

“It sucks to be you,” Juice said.

“Guy, what are y’all talking about?” Onion asked.

“Nothing, nothing at all,” T-Bone said. “Lewis here is referring to a misunderstanding between him and some of his Blakefield buddies.”

Blakefield High sat at the top of a grassy hill near T-Bone’s father’s house. T-Bone knew his way around the neighborhood better than Juice from the few times his asshole father had invited him there for a few weekend visits. The other Guy Cantor had ferried Zave and Iz and a car full of sports equipment to and from soccer and lacrosse practice held on Blakefield High fields, T-Bone the extra wheel, his father calling him “Sport” the whole time, as in “Hey, Sport, we gotta run some errands.” T-Bone had waited but his father never asked if he wanted to play soccer or lacrosse. Not that he would’ve said yes, but the offer would’ve meant something. His father also never asked about his mother, as if T-Bone had been inexplicably dropped into their laps by accident like a turd dropped haphazardly by a giant pterodactyl.

Earlier that day, when they had driven the Mustang past his father’s house on their way up the hill toward the high school, T-Bone peered out the window to see if anyone were home, to catch a glimpse of father or brothers or stepmother. Nothing. He pictured their big, sunny-yellow kitchen with the white-tiled table where they ate like a TV family. He remembered the basketball hoop in the backyard and the giant, rectangular trampoline and the garage filled with equipment and bikes. In Zave’s room Spider-man ruled the curtains, the bedspread, the rug, and trash can. Superman lived in Iz’s room. T-Bone didn’t point his father’s house out to Juice, who probably wouldn’t believe him anyway. Juice and his little bro Jimmy didn’t have any father they knew about, and T-Bone didn’t want brag about having an asshole one.

“What’s wrong? You got quiet all of a sudden. You gonna chicken out on me or something?” Juice had asked, facing him and leaning into the steering wheel.

“Nah, I’m in,” T-Bone had assured him, not believing they’d succeed, but allowing himself to imagine Ma resting on a powdery-white beach, happy and, for once, not complaining about stuff they needed and couldn’t buy. He and Juice were about to hit a giant payday, thanks to Lewis.

“This is such bullshit,” Lewis said. Moving toward the door, Lewis pulled a cell phone from his sweatpants pocket.

“Thought you didn’t have a cell,” Juice said, spitting a curse word, which prompted Onion to giggle. His face tense and red enough to match his hair, Juice rose to his feet and faced the football player, who ignored him.

“Where the fuck you think you’re going?” Juice demanded, his wiry arms held slightly apart from his body, his feet spread wide as if he were ready to spring.

“Away from here and you two clowns,” Lewis said.

Juice nodded at the gun. “It’ll end bad,” he added.

“Yeah, right,” Lewis said without stopping, punching his phone’s buttons, saying, “Shit” into the mouthpiece, causing Onion to dissolve into uproarious laughter.

“They’re saying bad words,” Onion said in between guffaws.

When Lewis grabbed the doorknob, Juice sprang, tackling the football player, who hit the floor sideways with Juice on top him. They wrestled, Lewis gaining the advantage, trying to put Juice into a half nelson. T-Bone heaved himself off the sofa. Onion swallowed his laughter and trembled, the two struggling, the cell phone opened on the floor nearby and Juice lunging for it.
“Stop, stop!” Onion shouted. “T-Bone, make them stop. We’ll get into big trouble if they mess up the place. Make them stop!” Onion shuffled from foot to foot.

“Yo!” T-Bone bellowed. Juice and Lewis, their faces flushed, Lewis’ jaw clenched, his hand pulling a fistful of red curls; Juice’s nails digging into Lewis’ wrist before he elbowed the footballer in the ribs. They thrashed, knocking over a table, the lamp on it crashing down, its lightbulb shattered. T-Bone hesitated, thought about tossing water at them as if they were dogs but didn’t want to soak Juice or risk his anger or make a mess. Or leave telltale stains on his aunt’s floor.

“T-Bone, make them stop!” Onion shouted, frantic.

Unsure of how, T-Bone moved slowly toward the fight. Then he picked up the pearl-handled gun, aimed, and shot Uncle Bill’s built-in wood shelves. Onion jumped at the sound of the blast. The sound, not as loud as on TV, but louder than T-Bone thought, stopped the fight, all the others looking stunned, staring at him holding the gun. T-Bone trained it on Lewis.

“This ain’t a game; we ain’t playing,” he said. “Get back over there by the plant.” Juice nodded slightly, an imperceptible smile on his face, an appraising glance. Juice reached for pussy-boy Lewis’ phone, pocketing it, and motioned for T-Bone to hand him the weapon. Juice slid it into his waistband as Lewis took his place on the floor next to the plant. Thrilled he’d made the right call, that he got to handle Juice’s heat, T-Bone resettled himself on the sofa.

Onion ran toward the shelf like an old lady. “Guy! You shot Daddy’s homemade shelf! You said that gun wasn’t real. You and your friends ruined Daddy’s shelf and broke the lamp. You gotta leave. Or just your friends have got to go, but all of yous can’t stay here. What am I going to tell Ma about the shelf? You know it’s going to be the first thing she notices!”

“I’ll pay to get it fixed,” T-Bone said, thinking about the ransom coming to them, thrusting his chest, basking in the power feeling that came from shooting the gun.

“Where you gonna get the money. You don’t have a job!” Onion’s voice cracked.

“Dig the bullet out,” Juice said. T-Bone heaved himself off the sofa and examined the hole, the bullet bored deep inside the wood, the impact buckling the joint.

“Man, must be solid wood. It ain’t coming out in this lifetime,” T-Bone said. “Maybe your Daddy won’t notice right away, and it’ll be fixed in no time,” he said.

“Anybody can see it’s ruined! You just got me in trouble.” Shaky, his green eyes big as apples, Onion lifted the overturned lamp, examined the dented table before returning them to their original places. Pieces of shattered lightbulb lay almost embedded in the carpet.

“Did you say you got DDR? Turn it on,” Juice said.

“You got to go,” Onion said, returning from the kitchen with a broom and shovel. “You can come back when Ma is here.”

Juice rubbed the top of his forehead where Lewis had pulled his hair. “We got to make a phone call first, though,” he said, pulling Lewis’ cell from his pocket. “Give me the digits,” he said to Lewis.

“I prefer not to,” Lewis said, deciding to Bartleby him.

Juice laughed incredulously. As he scrolled through Lewis’ phone’s directory, he listed all the things he’d preferred not to do: He’d preferred not going to jail for a burglary because it was a necessary job. He and Jimmy needed to eat when their mother was cracked up or drunked up or busy with one of her johns. He’d preferred not to be locked outside day and night, summer or winter with Jimmy when their mother was working. He’d preferred not to hear her stories about spitting a john’s jism out the side of her mouth in a way to conceal what she’d done and then charging extra for swallowing it. Mostly, he’d preferred not to have gas and phone bills in his name that he couldn’t pay, thanks to his mother who hadn’t paid them either. “I could continue but there’s nothing nobody can do about it,” he said, the incredulous smile making his face look like a mask.

Juice pointed his thumb backward at Lewis. “What a laugh riot!” he said. “What the fuck makes you think you got a choice here? It is what it is, so spill the numbers to talk to your daddio—or whoever controls the purse strings at your house.”

Lewis remained silent. Neither spoke. Onion fidgeted. T-Bone watched, astonished at Lewis’ refusal to cooperate. He either was brave or stupid; T-Bone couldn’t figure out which. Maybe neither. Maybe the football star was just stubborn. Or proud.

“So let’s see if the parents who gave you that pussy name will hand over some dough to get you back,” Juice said, breaking the silence.

“They aren’t home,” Lewis said. “They’re at work.”

“How much you think, T? What do you consider substantial?” Juice asked T-Bone, who straightened his posture, pushed hair away from his face, lifted his shoulders, raised his head. Shooting the shelf had been an excellent idea, Juice respected him more, asked his opinion. He shrugged, careful to sound nonchalant. “What do they do?” he asked Lewis.

“Mom’s a nurse. I don’t know what my dad does, some kind of analyst. Works in an office,” Lewis said.

“Maybe twenty to thirty thou? Thirty-five sound good?” T-Bone, careful not to show too much interest, asked Juice, but calculated a cool 17 thousand dollars coming his way.

“You asking or telling?” Juice said, squinting his steely blue eyes.

“My parents don’t have that kind of money.” Lewis said. He wiped both of his palms on his sweatpants.

“T-Bone, you got to go,” Onion said in a fast, bright monotone.

“Relax, Onion,” T-Bone said. “I got you. I got you covered.”

Onion ran his forefinger over the bullet hole, rubbing the buckled joint as if massaging a broken elbow, worrying the injury to the wood. “I thought we were buds,” Onion said in a stage whisper. T-Bone looked away, lowering his eyes, focusing on his wide knees, and Lewis grunted, rolling his eyes. T-Bone regretted dragging Juice and Lewis to his aunt’s place. Onion acted like such a baby.
Lewis pointed to Juice with his chin. “That’s his bud,” he said. “Nobody else.”

“We’ll bounce soon,” Juice said. “So, T, thirty-five Gs. Sounds right to me.”

“My parents are broke,” Lewis said. “You got the wrong guy.”

“I bet pussy-boy Lewis here ain’t never went to bed without eating the whole day or never slept on a mattress with no sheets. Them shoes alone probably cost a few Benjamins. That school ain’t for poor boys.”

“Whatever you say, man,” Lewis said. “But I’m telling you, my parents don’t have that kind of money. I have to play sports in order to get into a good college. Otherwise, I can’t go. Ditto for my sister. She plays lacrosse in the hope of a scholarship because they can’t afford college for us.”

“An even thirty-five thousand dollars,” T-Bone said, thinking of $17,500 with his name on it.

Ma had never mentioned the word “college” to him. Or “good college.” She said “job,” as in “get your lazy ass to a job.”

Juice raised the gun. “Spill the digits,” he said.

“T-Bone! Whattaya all doing? What’s he doing?” Onion shouted.

“Shut up,” Juice snapped. Onion contracted, pulling himself away from his spot near the table and lamp; T-Bone ordered him to go sit in his parents’ bedroom for a few minutes, but the kid stayed rooted to the same spot, and T-Bone wanted to smack him.

Even with the gun pointed at him, Lewis refused to speak, remaining immobile on the floor by the planter. He smirked. “So after you shoot me, how’re you going to explain a stranger shot dead in your aunt’s apartment? And how do you think your aunt’s going to explain that to the cops? She sounds like the kind of person who’ll go straight to the cops. And how do you expect to collect ransom on a dead person?” Lewis laughed, a snarky sound, as if he anticipated that events these clowns had initiated would end badly. For them. Never for him.

T-Bone considered pussy-boy Lewis’ points valid, but Juice held the gun steady, and Onion whimpered.

“Nobody’s home. It’s pointless,” Lewis said finally, omitting the fact that both his parents have cells, something Juice would’ve known had he known his parents names. “Mom gets home seven-thirtyish, and Dad, after midnight.”

“We have time to kill then,” Juice said. “Turn on DDR, Onion.”

Onion looked at T-Bone, his eyes pleading.

“We got less than an hour, “T-Bone said, the lie slipping out of his mouth easily, though he’d never lied to Juice before.

“We’ll bounce on time,” Juice said. “We’ll even take you with us, Onion.”

“I can’t leave without permission,” Onion said.

Juice snickered. “Baby Onion. You two years old? Your Mama knowing where you are every minute? Ha, we got ourselves a pair here, Baby Onion and pussy-boy Lewis.”

“I’m not a baby,” Onion said, crossing his arms.

“Leave the kid alone,” T-Bone said, hoping his voice sounded important.

Onion laid the soft plastic dance pad on the floor, its neon-blue arrows pointing north, south, east, and west, and attached the wires from the pad into the game console. A green screen flashed onto the TV screen, and words in red block letters flashed “Hottest Party Mix,” “Ready,” and “Here We Go.”

“Who’s first?” Onion asked. “It’s set for three songs to one game.”

“You,” Juice said. “Then Lewis here.”

Lewis glared at Juice. Wearing just socks, Onion positioned his feet on the pad, using the control stick to set the level to “Standard” before hitting play. The Dance Gauge representing the player’s life bar appeared, and the music began, a techno rock version of “Everybody Dance Now.” Onion missed a few steps, the word “Miss” in red appeared on the TV screen, but his score quickly rose—red numbers speeding upward like those on a gas station tank, his feet moving fast, always returning to the center. A computerized male voice said, “Keep on Going!” and “Well done!” which made T-Bone laugh. Onion finished three songs with a healthy dance gauge.

“Just try it, Guy. You might like it. It’s fun,” he said, breathless, handing T-Bone the controls.

“Lewis’s up,” T-Bone said.

“Come on, T,” Juice said. “It’s just a game. You’re good at videos.”

“This is going to be rich,” Lewis mumbled.

T-Bone heard it, heard the derision, heard the same tone toward his size hundreds, if not thousands of times before. “It’s Lewis’s turn,” he said.

“Pass,” Lewis said, holding up both hands, palms toward Juice and T-Bone.

“You don’t get to pass,” T-Bone said. “Your turn.”

“Ready” and “Here We Go” appeared on the screen in red. A techno tune began, the dance gauge at the top of the screen flashing green, and Lewis moved his feet; at first, a wooden Pinocchio with the red “Miss” popping up at each missed step. As the game continued, Lewis began following the patterns better, and soon the computerized voice called mechanical encouragements; the score scrolled up faster as the music sped, and Lewis scored a string of blinking orange, happy-looking words “Perfect!”, which to T-Bone looked more like angry scars. Of course Lewis would be good at it. Of course he played football and got all the girls. Of course, he’d be good at any fucking thing he’d tried. “Change the level,” T-Bone said.

Lean and muscular, slim-wasted like a movie star, graceful as a ballerina, Lewis danced nonstop with a strange joy, and for a second T-Bone wished he could be as free as Lewis, as Zave and Iz, two shiny new sons, not nameless “Sport.” T-Bone had asked his mother why his father didn’t see him more, didn’t treat him like the others. “He’s an asshole, Guy. We don’t need him. We don’t want anything from him neither, so forget him. I’m all we need,” she’d said, flashing a fierce look, as if his wanting to be with his father had betrayed her, T-Bone never considering that she’d betrayed him instead, punishing the man who’d fucked her over and her son at the same time. T-Bone had always wanted both, like Onion and Lewis, both accruing points so easily because of feeling confident. A hole inside him widened.

Lewis’ turn ended again but T-Bone told Onion to set it at the highest level; he wanted to see perfect Lewis trip, maybe for the first time in his life. Lewis danced “Perfect!” combos again with few missed steps, calm as a clam. T-Bone clenched his jaws, seeing his cousin obviously taken with the flawless Lewis.

Refusing to be bested, T-Bone removed his shoes and positioned his feet on the dance pad. Onion reset the game to the easy phase, forgetting to turn off the nonstop mode before hitting play. T-Bone danced, the word “Miss” popping up onto the screen like a hoard of red ants. His belly jiggled and, self-conscious, his face reddened. T-Bone’s dance gauge bar fell to nonexistent, a tiny sliver of green keeping his character barely alive; it rose slowly and steadily on the second song. T-Bone willed himself to move faster and began scoring some of the orange letter “Perfect!” combos like Lewis, prompting the mechanical encouragements, despite a low score. He stumbled, fell, rolled like a barrel off the pad, his dance gauge bar reduced to nothing—zero life left in the bar. T-Bone barely missed the rickety TV stand but crashed into the cocktail table, and, flimsy or not, the table’s edge hurt his side and back. All of them laughed. Juice, Onion, and pussy-boy Lewis. Humiliated, T-Bone’s face flushed and he blinked back moisture forming in his eyes.

“Not bad for a first timer,” Onion said, glancing at the console’s digital clock.

Red faced, dripping sweat, T-Bone sat on the sofa, struggling against his belly to retie his sneakers, careful not to show that his sides and back hurt. He decided to play it with Lewis again later. T-Bone watched Juice’s skinny legs flying, the red “Perfect Combos!” words constant on the screen, score rising, and saw in Juice’s eyes that winning meant everything. No one noticed Lewis backing toward the front door. When he cracked it open, the door whined. Seeing his potential $35K about to vanish, Juice leapt off the dance pad toward the door like a gazelle. Lewis dashed out, down the steps, jumped over the front stoop, his practiced football feet carrying him away.

T-Bone lumbered out the door, impossibly slow compared to the others. Onion locked the door behind him. Juice tossed the Mustang’s keys at him before disappearing outside.

Astonished Juice trusted him with his car, T-Bone pressed the gas pedal, wondering how they were going to force Lewis back inside. He caught up with Juice and slowed so he could hop in on the passenger side.

“You seen where he went?” T-Bone asked.

Juice sucked in his breath. “Turn right at the next light. He won’t expect us to come from that side.”

T-Bone followed directions and they saw Lewis running toward them. Juice pounded the dashboard. “Let me out,” he said, bailing before T-Bone came to a full stop.

Spotting the neon-yellow car, Lewis turned, retracing his steps. T-Bone couldn’t believe it. Incensed, he sped up and banked into the alleyway just before Lewis reached it and scrambled out just as Lewis ran around the back of the vehicle.

“Damn,” T-Bone said. He lunged for the footballer, missed the boy, but Juice sprinted from behind, wrapping his arms around the athlete and shoving him into the car through the passenger-side door. T-Bone shut it once Juice and Lewis were both in the backseat. Juice punched Lewis. The footballer used wrestling moves against him, but Juice fought dirty, thumping the footballer in a fury with balled fists.

“Fucking try that again and you’re history,” Juice said, out of breath.

T-Bone hadn’t seen this side of Juice. Lewis writhed on the backseat. Juice slid behind the wheel and beckoned T-Bone into the passenger seat, then pointed the car toward Aunt Clara’s, double parking in front of the apartment’s entrance, and hit the flashers.

“NO!” T-Bone yelled. “You said nobody gets hurt. That’s ‘The Plan.’”

“He knows too much,” Juice said, stone-faced.

“He don’t know nothing. All he knows is that I brought two jerky friends there.”

“It’s a problem we deal with now or later,” Juice said. He disappeared into the building and returned with a whimpering Onion. T-Bone’s heart pounded but Juice smiled a fake smile. He pushed Onion into the backseat and retrieved Lewis’s cell from his pocket.

“The number,” he said.

Lewis grunted. T-Bone trembled, feeling sick when the red-haired boy put the car in gear and drove away from Aunt Clara’s apartment.

“Come on, Lewis, tell him,” T-Bone whispered, afraid for the first time since The Plan was set in motion.

“ICE,” Lewis said, his voice hoarse. Sitting next to Lewis, Onion whimpered. He stared at Lewis’ bruised, puffy face and reached for his hand.

Juice found ICE, hit the button, and a man answered. “Lewis? Where the heck are you?”

“This ain’t Lewis but we got Lewis,” Juice said into the phone, a tone in his voice that T-Bone hadn’t heard in him before. “If you want to see Lewis again alive, we need thirty-five thousand dollars in a brown bag taped to the underneath of the first bleacher row closest to the parking lot at Blakefield. Got it? This ain’t a game. Call the cops and Lewis here bites it.” He listened, then handed the phone to T-Bone. “He wants to talk to pussy-boy there.”

T-Bone twisted his oversize body and held the phone to the footballer’s ear. “Dad,” Lewis said, his tone calm but his voice hoarse. “Dad, I love you. Tell Mom I love her. Ellie too. Take care of Spazz and Mr. Boots for me, okay?”

When T-Bone removed the cell from Lewis’ ear, he heard the man’s voice crack, “Lewis, did they hurt you? Lewis, I love you too. Hang in there, son. Oh Jesus Christ. We’ll do what we have to, don’t worry. We’ll do what we have to and get you out of there.”

Juice demanded the ransom by 8:00 p.m. He sounded practiced, as if he’d said those words a hundred times before, and drove in a direction that T-Bone didn’t know. T-Bone couldn’t remember ever saying “I love you” to his mother or to his asshole father. Worse, he couldn’t remember either of them saying it to him. He wanted to hear his father say “I love you” with a cracked voice and not just “Sport,” as if he’d forgotten they’d shared a name.

Juice pulled into a gas station. “You’re on watch,” he said, sliding out of the car.

“You going to let that dickhead treat you like a flunky?” Lewis asked, his voice strained. “He didn’t even ask if you agreed with his idea of taping the money to the bleacher. He didn’t tell you what he’s up to. I bet he’s calling his real partner and it ain’t you. He’s going to do us all and keep the cash to himself,” he said. He pointed at the still-whimpering Onion. “That what you want?”

T-Bone’s heart beat faster, sweat dotted his forehead. “Shut up, shut up. Juice ain’t like that!”

“Thirty Gs changes people. Let us go and I’ll tell the cops you helped us. You know they’ll be cops. There’s always cops.”

“Shut up, just shut up,” he said. Something inside T-Bone felt unhinged.

Juice climbed back into the Mustang.

“They can ID us,” Juice said, locking eyes with T-Bone. “You hear?”

“I won’t rat you out,” Lewis said.

Onion sniffed. “Guy?” Onion said in a plaintive voice.

“We never talked about hurting nobody,” T-Bone said.

“It was part of The Plan you didn’t need to know about ’til it became necessary. Now you know,” Juice said matter-of-factly.

“I ain’t doing that,” T-Bone said. He felt his heart pounding.

“It’s them or us,” Juice said. “Don’t get much clearer than that.”

T-Bone shook his head no.

No one talked. They killed time, circling the Baltimore beltway for hours. They stopped at a drive-through for burgers and fries that only Juice ate. Two hours after the appointed time, Juice pulled into the Blakefield High neighborhood, driving through the campus toward the wooded area behind the sports fields. T-Bone’s heart banged like a kettledrum in his oversize chest. He felt the seat’s plastic upholstery underneath him. It stuck to his pants. Juice pointed the shiny gun at him. For the first time he realized how lucky he’d been before meeting Juice, how lucky he’d been as a fat boy with an acne face, with his Ma and his asshole dad and two new brothers. He wished he’d never never offered his aunt’s place, wished the still-whimpering Onion had a full school day and now was at home playing DDR. He watched himself push open the car door, hold the front seat back so that Lewis and Onion could climb out of the car. He watched the three of them huddled under the moonlight, T-Bone holding Onion’s trembling hand, Lewis shielding the boy’s smaller body with his own. He saw the full moon shining its light on the treetops of the thicket beyond the sports fields and Juice marching them toward it.

THE END

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