Bright Lights, Dark Nights

 

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Chapter One

 

Hidden in the shadows of tall buildings are spots where no one looks, places where you can get away with things because nobody cares or knows any better. The court off Schrank Street, a few blocks north of our high school, was one of those places. Weeds grew out of the cracked concrete and reached about waist-high. That was how long it had been since anyone paid attention to the place.

High school kids fought there all the time. There weren't a lot of prying eyes since the buildings across the street were boarded up and condemned a year ago. When they had still been in use, worse things happened there than in the court. Two guys got into a fight last December and one guy shot the other one in the foot. It took his big toe right off. At the same building, same month, a guy was laid out in front of the door, OD'd. Cops went into his apartment and found forty bags of heroin and a pharmacy's worth of prescription meds. That had been one big crime right there, but think of how many people had bought from him, too.

The city can be seen in terms of what crimes happened and where, and there's no shortage of stories to tell. I only know the tiniest sliver, the standout stories my dad tells me, so the amount of actual no-good that happens must be staggering. Every face I pass, I can assume, has a secret locked away that they don't want anyone to find out.

Beardsley was fighting today. If no one else wanted to fight, if there was no other drama in the entirety of the school on any given day, you could count on Beardsley to show up at the court and throw some punches.

He was targeted on Bob Armstrong, a freshman kid who probably didn't know better, just over a month into the school year. Bob turned his hat backward and lowered his head, bobbing around like he was in some fighting video game, posing like an MMA fighter, throwing out kicks that went nowhere. Bob wasn't anyone at school, really. He might have been seeking attention, trying to look brave, impress some girls, but he was about to get his clock cleaned. Beardsley was a little nuts. He'd swing with all he had and didn't stop at the sight of blood like some kids did. When Beardsley fought, you knew someone was going to get hurt, and that was why we'd followed him to the court.

There were fifteen or sixteen of us there today. Lester Dooley was one. He was friends with Beardsley and was the most intimidating kid in school, if not the whole city. Built like a tree trunk, he squatted on the other side of the court with his hands clenched together, watching the fight like a gambler watching a horse race.

It was an excuse to get out of school for lunch, anyway. The wind picked up every few minutes, and the sun was feeling weaker by the day, but it still lit the sky a piercing blue, a far cry from the shadowy maze of hallways we walked the rest of the day. I reached up into the air for nothing, stretching my arm out. We stood by the chain-link fence, away from the action, me in the back. My dull jeans, dark hoodie—everything I wore screamed out
Blend in.

“All my homework is watching movies,” my friend Nate Halcomb said. He had a film history class this semester. He took a drag from his cigarette. I was Nate's nonsmoker smoking buddy when he needed to step outside. He turned to his ex-girlfriend Kate. “Walter's already devoured the entire French New Wave library.”

When Nate saw a film or read a book he liked, he would casually bring it up as if it was a fact that I'd already seen or read it. The funny part was that I usually had, and he'd laugh and laugh as soon as I responded.

“You're thinking of noir movies,” I said. “They came before New Wave. I have seen
Breathless
, though.” I watched that one with my dad. There have been four Walter Wilcox lifetimes between the end of the noir era and now, but somehow it still clicked with me. My dad and I watch old noir movies all the time, or at least we used to.
Breathless
was French New Wave but could definitely be considered a reaction to noir. The coolness, the cynicism, the complete refusal of the Hollywood Happy Ending. And Jean-Paul Belmondo made a great replacement for Humphrey Bogart.

Nate exhaled from his cigarette, and the smoke sped away in the wind. Nate had thick-framed black glasses like mine and long blond hair and jean shorts he wore all year long. He looked anarchist-meets-Disney-show-lead with his Skrillex-lite hair and his Day-Glo green striped T-shirt on. Nate could talk to anyone about anything. When a new kid came to school, they could usually say their first friend there was Nate Halcomb. That had been the case for me. Not that I'd been a new student or anything, but the first day of fifth grade, I'd sat at a lunch table alone and Nate had picked up my stuff and said, “Come sit with us. I'm Nate.” I'd been sitting with him since.

Kate put out her cigarette and pulled a sandwich out of a paper bag. They used to be Nate-and-Kate, and now they were Just Nate and Just Kate. Even rhyming names won't guarantee you
Forever
. They were still the ideal couple and the closest I'd seen to true love, whether they were together or not. Drama-free and chilled out, not at each other's throats, no jealousy, no bitterness.

No blood yet. Beardsley was on Bob's back, skinny arms wrapped around his face like tentacles. Bob was twirling and reaching at air. I'd seen enough of this kind of stuff to know better myself. I avoided standing in the center of that court like my life depended on it, since it basically did. Bob managed to throw Beardsley to the ground, looking relieved, unaware that it was the worst thing he could have done. Beardsley bounced back like a boomerang and full-on speared him to the ground.

Lester leaped to his feet. “Kick his ass!”

We had about ten minutes left before we had to go back. Nate didn't seem any different watching Beardsley hammer away at Bob than he had a few weeks ago when he was still with Kate, watching Beardsley toss around David Chamberlain. Always carefree and in the moment. Kate seemed completely at peace, eating her sandwich and squinting in the sun.

“I might get in there.” Nate nodded toward the action. “What do you think?”

“Dude. Don't.” Kate shook her head and dropped her eyes to the ground. “Let that kid learn his lesson.”

“I'm going in,” Nate said, increasingly satisfied with his decision. I've never seen Nate back off an idea when he got that look, and he's had some bad ideas. Not that he'd view this as one. The idea that people liked to do this was still an odd concept to me. This was
fun
. This was
recreational
. This was daylight activity.

“What if the cops come by?” I asked Nate. I passed out what-ifs like religious pamphlets. I could rationalize anything into inaction. “Why even bother with this stuff?”

“Why bother, Walter? Because,” Nate said. “Somebody has to. That's a massacre over there. These people want a show, Walter! Without me in there, their lunch is wasted. I will bring these people change!” Nate's voice rose, becoming more theatrical, more aware of an audience. “Hold this.”

Nate handed me his cigarette and made his way through the crowd, pumping his arms into the air with a roar. Everyone cheered—this lunch break would not be wasted. I squatted by Kate and pulled a weed out of the ground.

“Do you do Urban versus Suburban?” I asked Kate. She had a sweet demeanor that belied her tomboyish appearance. I mean, she looked like a girl, certainly, but she wasn't the most girly-girl person I'd ever met. I'd never seen her wear makeup. “I've heard people picking out kids and guessing where they came from before high school.”

“Actually, it's called Urbs and 'Burbs, Wilcox,” Kate said.

Looking at the crowd, I saw kids from both schools there. We had two middle schools, one in the suburbs and one in the city. The rich one and the poor one. In high school we were all thrust together. Kate went to school where I did, in the suburbs, before I moved to the city with my dad. “Do you remember Makiel from middle school?” Kate asked, pointing toward Makiel Romado. He was a thin kid with a baseball cap and skater clothes, but just for the fashion—there was no possible way he knew how to skate. “He used to be, like, the most suburban, computer-nerd type. Now I buy my weed from him.”

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