Gem Himself Alone

gem himself alone

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chapter-1

drop-cap-gem had a special gift. He knew from the time that he was little that he wasn’t the same as everyone else.

It had to be kept secret.

But it made him different, able to do things that no one else could. When he looked at the other people around him, he saw their limitations. How they were bound by rules he didn’t have to follow.

But he was special.

Gem stared down at the grave marker, trying to make out the letters of Honey’s name through a blur of tears. He took a glance around to make sure that no one was observing him. Gem didn’t cry. He wasn’t a baby. But knowing that Honey’s thin, tortured body lay under the ground beneath him caused a stab of pain in his chest so bad that he thought he might have a heart attack and lay his own body down right there on top of hers.

But he didn’t.

The doctors had patched him up, drilling screws into broken bones, dripping antibiotics and other chemical cocktails into his veins, and putting him on a diet intended to restore the weight he’d lost. They had wanted to keep him in hospital, but Gem was strong enough to leave. He wanted to move on. His heart pulled him south, following Honey, even though he knew he would never see her pretty face and shining blond hair again.

He knelt there staring at the temporary grave marker and the little pot of violets he had placed beside them, feeling the rocky soil beneath his knees and smelling the freshly-cut grass. He had followed her there, away from his origins and from Raphael’s shop, to where he didn’t know anyone. It was a fresh start, where he would have no rep, good or bad. He and Honey had talked about what they would do when they got out of there. Where they would go, the jobs and lifestyles they would have. They would go together, or at least keep in touch. They wouldn’t forget what they had shared.

He had known even while they talked about it that it was impossible. It would never happen. They were throwaways and would never be able to rise above the street life. They would either end up behind locked doors or under the ground.

Like Honey was now.

Even with his gift, he hadn’t been able to save her. He had been able to kill Raphael, but he had been too late to save Honey’s life.

chapter-2

drop-cap-gem had heard them coming. The Rippers, one of the local street gangs. Teens and young adults. Boys. A mix of racial profiles. There were a few girls associated with them, but only as girlfriends and groupies; they weren’t considered members of the Rippers.

Gem had been keeping an eye on the gang since he had moved into the neighborhood. Getting a feel for them and letting them see him, making it known that he was available.

It had started with one of them following him. One set of footsteps echoed behind him. He took a glance over his shoulder, but couldn’t make the boy without being obvious about it. Another set of footsteps joined the first as Gem went around a corner.

He looked around, back and forth, watching for more of them. It wasn’t very long before he was flanked; then he saw Thrasher approaching from ahead of him.

Gem faced the gang impassively, waiting for them to make the first move.

“So you been hanging around a lot lately,” Thrasher commented. The leader of the gang, he was one of the oldest, his scarred face chiseled and his eyes like ice.

“Yeah,” Gem agreed.

“You trying to get into a gang?”

Gem shrugged. “You looking?” he countered. It wouldn’t do to look too eager. He kept his answers brief, studying each of the gang members and assessing them. They hadn’t immediately grabbed him and didn’t look like they were going to beat him down just for being in their territory, so he was already ahead of the game.

“That depends. You got references?” Thrasher demanded.

“No.” Gem hadn’t been in a gang before, so he didn’t have anyone to stand up for him. In a new city, there wasn’t even anyone who could say that he wasn’t a snitch or a troublemaker.

“What’s your name?”

“Gem.”

“Gem what?”

Gem shook his head.

“Where ya come from?”

Gem considered his answer carefully, considering how much he wanted to reveal. “North.”

Thrasher chuckled. “You don’t waste words, do you?”

Gem shrugged again.

“You didn’t know anyone up ‘north’? Nobody to speak for you?”

“No.”

Thrasher put a cigarette in his mouth and let it hang there, not lighting it. “You don’t make it easy. How do we know you ain’t a rat?”

“I’m not.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

Thrasher laughed and shook his head. He had eyes. With Gem’s slight build and baby face, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t pass for an adult. “Good answer. How old are you really?”

Gem wasn’t sure he was willing to reveal the truth. After considering, he swiped his ragged blond hair away from his eyes and amended his answer. “Sixteen.”

Thrasher’s eyes flickered over him. Gem felt like Thrasher could see right through him. “Maybe. I doubt it, but it’ll do for now.”

“You ain’t letting him in, are you?” one of the others piped up. A darker boy, tall and gangly. The rest of the gang had remained respectfully quiet as Thrasher conducted business. Thrasher half-turned to see who had interrupted him.

“Maybe he’ll take your place. I ain’t making a decision yet, just getting information.”

Gem took a step backward. No point in prolonging the interview if Thrasher wasn’t ready to make a decision yet. “I’ll be seeing you around, then.”

“Yeah. We’ll let you know if we want you.”

Gem nodded and moved on. He could wait. If the Rippers wouldn’t take him, he’d find another gang for protection.

Thrasher consulted his lieutenants on various gang matters over a six-pack and a couple of lines of coke at his apartment. The TV played away to itself in the background. Smoke hung heavy in the air.

“That new guy looking to get into the gang,” Thrasher started. “Gem. The blond kid.”

“Something weird about him,” Bishop suggested. “The look in his eyes creeps me out.”

Thrasher nodded, grinning. “I finally got a line on him. Someone who went to school with him for a while. Said he’s nuts. Certifiable.”

“Then he’s out.”

Thrasher swigged a drink. He pursed his lips. “Don’t jump to conclusions. From what I gather, he’s still pretty savvy. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to have a nut job in the gang to do your dirty work.”

The boys were silent, considering the statement. Bishop frowned and scratched his sandpaper jaw. “You wanna take that chance? Having someone that unstable in the gang?”

“Like the rest of you are so stable? He’s probably no crazier than some of the others. So far, there are no complaints around the neighborhood. He keeps a low profile.”

Bishop shrugged and wisely voiced no further protest.

Gem talked to himself in a low whisper, huddled in the dark alley where no one could see him. The air was cold, and the ground was hard and littered with gravel and glass.

“The Rippers are gonna take me. Long as I pass the initiation. Thrasher said I checked out. Don’t know what he found out. No one knows anything. I’ll get through the initiation, though. No problem. I can manage that.”

He nodded and let out a long breath, trying to dispel the anxiety. “It’ll work out. A gang’s good protection.”

Gem yawned and stretched. “Better knock off and get some sleep.”

The next night, he watched the beat-down by the Rippers from up above. He wished he could go for help, but all he could do was stay and watch to see what happened. Someone must have seen what was going on and called the police after the Rippers took off, because the cops went straight to the alley as if they knew where Gem’s unmoving body was lying. Neither got close, to begin with. The junior officer hung back, and the older, graying cop turned away while he called in on his radio for an ambulance.

“Is he breathing?” he asked the younger officer.

The younger cop steeled himself and bent over Gem’s form, looking for the rise and fall of his chest and feeling for a pulse. He drew his hand away, fingers sticky with blood, trying to hide how violently he was shaking.

“Weak pulse,” he advised, “but he’s alive.”

“Where are your gloves?”

The rookie looked at him blankly.

“You’ve got gloves, haven’t you? You want to get AIDS?”

The rookie suddenly realized his mistake and looked down at his hands. “Oh yeah,” he wiped them on his pants, embarrassed. “I wasn’t thinking.”

The older cop nodded. “Be more careful. Always look out for yourself first.” Then he prodded at Gem with his foot. “He’s in pretty rough shape. I don’t know if he’s going to make it.”

“Shouldn’t we do something?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Something.”

They were both silent for a few minutes, waiting for the ambulance.

“What happened to him? This is Rippers territory, isn’t it? He’s nowhere near the boundary. Couldn’t have accidentally wandered into it.”

“Initiation. Rippers tend to go a bit overboard jumping their boys in. They’ve been known to kill initiates.”

Not this time. Gem wasn’t going to give up. Gem had been through tough times before and survived. He wasn’t going to get killed by a stupid jumping-in.

An ambulance pulled into the lane, lights flashing but siren off. A medic got out at a leisurely pace. “What’ve we got?”

“Ripper initiation.”

“Great.” The medic bent over Gem’s body and examined him. “Well, they did their usual thorough job. Let’s get him on the gurney.”

Gem’s form was loaded unceremoniously into the ambulance. The ambulance’s driver stepped out for a smoke before starting for the hospital.

Gem woke up in the hospital, sore and fuzzy-headed. His body pulsed with pain. For the first little while, he just drifted in and out, and couldn’t remember what had happened. He thought he was in the hospital after being rescued from Rafe’s shop. Then he remembered the gang. He had survived the initiation. Or at least the first stage; some of the gangs had several levels of initiations to pass. He wasn’t sure about the Rippers’ practices.

He’d been there for a while, aware of his surroundings but not ready to move, when a cop walked in and looked down at him. Paunchy. Graying at the temples. “Well, you’re awake.”

Gem said nothing. In trying to focus on the cop and to read his name bar, Gem realized that one of his eyes was swollen shut. His vision through the other didn’t seem to be as clear as usual.

“I guess that means you’re the newest member of the Rippers, huh?”

Gem shrugged. Just the slight movement of one shoulder sent pain coursing through his body. So that was it; that was the full initiation. The cop wouldn’t say he was in if there were more to it. He’d be trying to get Gem to back out, to stay away from the Rippers and live an honest life.

The cop stared down at him. Gem felt exposed and vulnerable lying there. “Do you have a name?” the cop demanded.

“Gem.”

“Gem? Like a diamond or something?”

Gem nodded. “Yeah, Gem.”

“That’s your street name. What’s your real name?”

Gem didn’t answer.

“I’m Pagetti.”

Gem still didn’t reveal his full name.

“You got folks around here? Or are you a runaway?”

“I don’t have any folks.”

“Foster care, or what?”

“Am I in trouble for something?”

Pagetti didn’t have anything on Gem, or he’d be using it. He wasn’t going to be able to trace Gem’s identity. Not like Thrasher had, putting the word out on the street. He’d have to try another method, like fingerprints, but he didn’t have any cause.

“That’s what I’m trying to determine. Have you been in trouble before?”

“None of your business.”

“I think it is. Are you on probation? Any outstanding warrants?”

“No.”

“You want to charge the guys who beat you up?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Gem carefully composed his answer, taking his time responding. “It was… a misunderstanding.”

“It was an initiation,” the cop said flatly, “and they could have killed you.”

“They didn’t.”

“Not through any lack of trying.”

“I’m tired,” Gem said, ending the conversation.

“You can answer a few more questions.”

Gem shut his eye and ignored any further attempts by the cop to get him to answer anything else. Eventually, Pagetti left him alone.

Sitting with Thrasher in his broken-down old couch, Bethany stared off into space, oblivious to him. He played with the ends of her long, blond hair, studying her face. She was young. And she was pretty. More than he could say about most of the girls who spent time with the Rippers. And he knew that unlike most of the gang groupies, she actually had some brains.

“Hey, what’cha thinking?” Thrasher prodded.

She looked at him, focusing in on his face. “That new kid. The blond. Is he gonna get into the Rippers?”

“Gem?” Thrasher yawned and stretched. “He might. How come?”

“Nothing. I saw him today.”

“Today? No way.”

“I thought I did.” Bethany’s brows drew down.

“Uh-uh. We jumped him in last night. He’s in the hospital if he didn’t kick it.”

“I was sure it was him…” She shook her head, puzzled. “Must have been someone else.”

“It was somebody else,” Thrasher assured her. “Or else it wasn’t today. Maybe it was yesterday.”

“I suppose…” Bethany gave a little laugh. “Who can keep track?”

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Gem, Himself, Alone

By P.D. Workman

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