Once Brothers

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chapter-1

drop-cap-jacob shook his head. He couldn’t understand why random bullies were always getting on his case. He didn’t bother anyone. He let everyone else live their own lives without interference. Why did they always think it was their calling to interfere with his?

He continued on at a quicker pace, turned a corner, and crossed the street partway down the block. Jacob slipped into a narrow lane and waited. He knew the streets and alleys in the area.

The banger came along looking down the other side of the street to where Jacob should have been, afraid he’d lost his mark.

“Looking for me?” Jacob asked as he walked by.

The other boy jumped and whirled around with a switchblade in his hand. They both looked each other over, assessing the situation. The boy might have a blade, but Jacob was much bigger and stronger and had the drop on him. Jacob had a feeling the boy wouldn’t have pulled a blade if he’d had time to think it through. He didn’t want to threaten or stick Jacob right in the middle of a busy street. Jacob swallowed.

“What do you want?” He kept his voice low and unemotional.

The boy’s grip tightened on the knife, his knuckles turning white. His lips were pressed together tightly and his eyes darted back and forth. “Nothing,” he sneered, surer than he looked, putting a lot of force into the word.

“You’ve been tailing me for at least three blocks,” Jacob pointed out. “You want something.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jacob couldn’t understand what the boy was afraid of. Jacob wasn’t known for beating people up. He had a reputation as a coward, avoiding fights whenever he could. He couldn’t stand to see other people hurt. To be the cause of it. But the kid was scared. Jacob took that to mean there weren’t any other Wildcats close by to help out. The boy swallowed, inching back from Jacob as if he was afraid Jacob was going to attack him.

“You’re a Wildcat. Is this business?” Jacob suggested.

The kid cleared his throat, shifting back and forth like a little boy trying to ask a strict teacher for permission to go to the can. “Yeah,” he admitted finally.

“What do you want?”

“Sarin wants to talk with you.”

Jacob’s eyebrows traveled up. Sarin Mace wanted him? “What about?”

The boy shrugged uncomfortably. Biting his lip, he finally withdrew the switchblade and put it away, looking down at the ground. “Couldn’t say.”

“Where?”

“Huh?”

“Where did he want to see me?”

“Oh… your place… I was…” he ran his fingers through his hair. “I was supposed to find out where you live…”

“Where’s Sarin now?”

“I dunno.” He got red in the face and turned away, probably knowing his blush gave away the lie. Jacob didn’t say anything. He just stood there looking at the Wildcat. The boy did a little more of his gotta-pee dance.

“I don’t know!” he insisted.

Jacob shook his head, considering. “I’ll bet he’s hanging out at Antonio’s about now. Come on, let’s go see.”

The flush drained from the boy’s face. He opened his mouth to argue, but apparently he sensed that there was no point. Maybe Sarin was at Antonio’s and maybe he wasn’t, but arguing over it wouldn’t change things one way or the other. He nodded sullenly, and he and Jacob headed over to Antonio’s in silence.

When they got to the cafe, Sarin was outside, sitting on his motorcycle in the parking lot, his helmet resting on his knee as he talked with a Wildcat with a tattoo on his throat. He was involved in the conversation and didn’t see Jacob until he was within a few feet. His eyebrow twitched up.

“Hello, Donell.”

Jacob took note of the fact Sarin knew him by sight. He hadn’t just heard Jacob’s name or something about him and decided he wanted to talk. He knew what he was doing. Jacob swallowed and stood his ground. He was quiet and shy, but he was straightforward. And showing any weakness in front of the gang leader wouldn’t benefit him.

“You got one of your Wildcats following me,” Jacob accused, motioning to the kid, who was now as pale as a ghost and looked like he was going to throw up.

Sarin glanced at him. “Maybe you and him were just going the same place, huh?”

“I know a tail when I see one.”

“Yeah? Where’d you learn that?”

Jacob breathed out, trying to relax his tight muscles and keep his temper. “What do you want?”

Sarin’s eyes flicked over him. “Where do you park your bike?”

“Few blocks away.”

Jacob couldn’t exactly keep his bike at home, where Duke might see it and start asking questions. It was his bike. He’d saved the money for it, and he didn’t want to get it taken away, either because Duke took a fancy to it, or because he thought Jacob was going to get himself in trouble.

“I’ll double you over and we can talk privately,” Sarin said, with a glance at the other Wildcats.

Jacob nodded. Sarin put his helmet on and did up the strap. While he turned on the motor, Jacob slid on behind him. It was probably a good thing that they were only going a few blocks, as their combined weights put quite a bit of stress on the suspension. But they were at Jacob’s bike a few minutes later and he transferred to his own ride.

“Just follow me,” Sarin instructed over his shoulder.

He roared away. Jacob gave him a lead and then followed. Sarin led him on a speedy tour of the neighborhood and nearby highways, obviously testing how well Jacob could manage his cycle and the traffic. Then Sarin led him to a strip of trees by the river and they parked. Sarin took his helmet off. He offered Jacob a flask from the inside pocket of his jacket. Jacob shook his head. Sarin took a swig and stowed it back away.

“I need another member for the Wildcats,” he said.

“No.”

Even if Jacob had the inclination to join a gang, and he didn’t, where was he going to find the time?

“I’m afraid it isn’t quite that easy,” Sarin countered.

Jacob waited without saying a word.

“The Wildcats have already voted you in.”

“It isn’t that easy,” Jacob echoed.

“Oh?” Sarin smiled, anticipating the ensuing discussion. “You’ve got the bike and the skills. You’re already halfway there.”

Jacob shook his head. “I’m flattered. But I’m not interested. Lots of guys want in… pick one of them.”

“You haven’t been around the guys. How do you know you wouldn’t like it?”

“I’m not into gangs.”

“We can protect you. Take care of those guys trying to prove themselves by jumping you.”

Jacob was startled. He looked quickly at Sarin’s darkly tanned face.

“You think I haven’t done my research?” Sarin grinned.

“I can look after myself.”

“Can you? If four guys can’t beat you, maybe five could. Or six. Thugs can still count. They can figure it out. Next time, maybe you won’t be able to beat them.”

Jacob ran his thumbnail through the grooves in his motorbike grip. He didn’t understand why guys wanted to fight him. What point was there in beating up a random kid? Jacob didn’t run in their circles. He wasn’t involved in gang politics. He’d never crossed these guys or ratted them out or challenged them. He was just big and they wanted to look tough.

“There’s other things we can do for you,” Sarin said, watching Jacob. “We’ve got pull.” His dark eyes bored into Jacob’s and he changed track. “We’re family. We look out for each other. You telling me you don’t want someone watching your back?”

“You’re the one behind my back,” Jacob pointed out.

“So… you want me to be for you or against you?”

Jacob shook his head, frustrated. Sarin took two steps toward him. With a lazy gesture, Sarin pulled a deadly-looking pistol from under his jacket. He tapped the barrel against Jacob’s sternum.

“Look, Donell.” He lost the friendly, easygoing manner. “You can make this easy or hard. But the result is the same either way. You’re in the gang.” He drew a small circle on Jacob’s chest with the tip of the barrel. “Now, maybe you’re the target and maybe it’s someone else. That cute girlfriend. Someone in your family.” He shrugged widely. “I don’t really care. You can be part of the gang, and get all the benefits that come with that or you can be on the receiving end. And if you think you can handle it because you’ve beat down a few random bullies, you’d better think again. ’Cause that’s nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you if you dis’ the gang.”

“I don’t know why you want me,” Jacob pointed out, trying to swallow the dark foreboding rising in his chest. “I’m not… your type. I’m not like the others…”

“We take all kinds. We can make you.” Sarin smiled. “We can make you or break you, Donell. What’s it gonna be?”

Jacob’s initiation looked more like bear-baiting than a beat-down. Sarin watched the Kittens swarm him, only to get thrown off or knocked down within seconds. Jacob couldn’t avoid getting hit, not with so many attackers, but he certainly held his own for much longer than anyone Sarin had ever seen before. Sarin probably should have enlisted the older Cats to take part to unbalance the scale a bit more.

He was only supposed to be allowing two minutes for the beat-down, but Sarin ignored the time, evaluating Jacob’s skills in defending himself against the attackers. He wasn’t able to defend himself effectively against so many and it wasn’t long before his nose streamed blood and more blows connected with his body than he was able to land. But he kept his feet. Even after five minutes, he wasn’t on the ground, at the mercy of the gang’s feet. That was where the worst injuries occurred. Feet and boots inflicted far more damage than bare fists.

The other Kittens started to slow down. They’d put all of their energy into the first minute or two of the attack. Jacob delivered a right cross to Jackson’s temple that knocked him cold. The other boys tried to kick Jackson out of the way. That didn’t work and two of them grabbed him by the arms and dragged him off to the side, so they wouldn’t be tripping over him.

Sarin was impressed. Even tiring against so many opponents, Jacob was still able to do damage. He hadn’t dropped anyone when he’d been fresh. Had he held back in the beginning and simply held the Kittens off? Watching him, Sarin wondered if Jacob had some kind of formal training. It wasn’t any form of martial arts that Sarin recognized, but Jacob was definitely a disciplined fighter and Sarin had never seen some of Jacob’s moves before.

There was a flash of steel and several of the Kittens stepped back away from the fray, looking at Sarin to call an end to the fight. Lanny Talet had pulled a knife. Who else? Talet’s face was red with anger. He was naturally slim and his face was more battered than Jacob’s. He’d put himself in the way of Jacob’s huge fists too many times and he’d had enough.

Jacob managed to grab Talet’s arm. He twisted it rendering the knife harmless, but not disarming him. The other Kittens held back, looking at Sarin to call the fight. Jacob took a few steps back from the others so that they were all in front of him when he turned his eyes to Sarin.

“You said no weapons.”

“That’s the rule,” Sarin agreed. “Do whatever you like with him. I won’t interfere.”

Jacob’s brows drew down at this response. He forced the knife out of Talet’s hand and closed it, putting it in his own pocket before releasing Talet and pushing him away. Talet whirled back around, angry at being embarrassed in front of the gang by a green, untrained initiate. Jacob circled, his eyes alert, watching for a further attack, maybe more weapons. Talet dove in and in the blink of an eye, Jacob had him in a sleeper hold. His muscled arm closed around Talet’s throat and held there for the few seconds it took Talet to black out.

“Call it,” he ordered Sarin. “You said two minutes. Call them off.”

Sarin nodded. “You’re done.”

Jacob transferred Talet’s limp body to two of the Kittens standing closest to him, but they simply dropped Talet to the ground. Hi-Top gave Talet a kick in the ribs for good measure, cussing him out for dishonoring them by breaking the rules.

Keith handed Jacob a rag. Jacob wiped his face and then pinched his bleeding nose with it. “That was some brawl,” Keith observed. “Where’d you learn to fight like that? I ain’t seen half those moves before.”

Jacob didn’t answer Keith’s question, eyeing Sarin.

“I let it go over,” Sarin admitted. “I wanted to see what you could do. Two minutes wasn’t long enough to evaluate your skills.” He paused. “I’ve never seen an initiate keep his feet for that long.”

Jacob’s mouth and nose both bled and one black eye was already swollen too tightly shut to see out of. His slow movements betrayed his exhaustion.

“Come on, come have a drink and take a load off,” Sarin invited, motioning to the condemned building that acted as their current base of operations. The rest of the gang headed inside. Jacob followed. Normally after a beat-down, the initiate was unconscious or too badly injured to participate in the festivities. It was novel for Jacob to still be on his feet and they pestered him with questions and comments. But he was reserved, not responding to the chatter.

Sarin saw to Jacob’s comfort, giving him a drink and a chair to rest his bulk. The boy was going to be mighty stiff and sore by the next day.

“What kind of training have you had?” Sarin asked, watching Jacob take a swig of his drink and then hold the cold bottle against his bruised face. “You don’t learn to fight like that street-brawling.”

But Jacob was keeping his cards close to his chest. “Just picked it up,” he said tersely.

“Picked it up where? From who?”

He shrugged and didn’t answer.

chapter-2

drop-cap-deke watched Jacob talk with Sarin—or refuse to talk to Sarin—and nursed his own cuts and bruises. Jacob packed a powerful punch and Deke had been clipped a few times during the beat-down. He couldn’t recall ever seeing an initiation like that before.

Deke’s own recruitment to the gang had been far different. He wasn’t courted by the gang like Jacob. He had to work his way in. On his own on the streets, he did what he had to in order to survive. He’d badly needed a gang. A family. Stability and protection.

It was Larry who brought him up. Now a full-fledged Wildcat, Larry was one of the Kittens then, but senior enough to have his say in gang politics. Deke remembered standing there, slightly behind Larry, as he was presented for the first time to the gang as a potential recruit. His knees shook like he’d climbed a hundred flights of stairs and he felt queasy and faint. He covered it the best that he could with bravado, putting on a tough face and attitude. He folded his arms across his chest and looked challengingly at the established members.

“This here is Deke,” Larry introduced him. “New in the neighborhood. Looking for some protection.”

Deke steeled himself against the catcalls and mutters.

“What is he, twelve?” Someone laughed.

Deke swallowed and drew himself up, trying to look taller. Tougher. More experienced.

“He’s fourteen,” Larry said, looking at Deke’s slight frame. “Don’t worry, we’ll put some muscle on him.”

“I’m strong,” Deke protested, swaggering. “I might not look it, but—”

“Keep your shirt on,” Larry counseled. “Don’t let them get to you.”

Deke did his best to reign in his emotions. “I’m tough,” he said in a quieter voice, unable to leave it without one last protest.

“Sure you are,” sneered Vincent, a boy long since gone from the gang now. Deke couldn’t remember what had ever happened to him.

“He got references?” another voice piped up.

Deke looked for the owner of the voice, but couldn’t pick him out from the crowd of Kittens.

“He’s got no references,” Larry said. “All he’s got is this.”

With that, Larry reached behind Deke’s back and shoved him toward the other boys, propelling him straight into the group. Deke had no warning this was going to happen. No way to know that when Larry brought him before the gang that he was going to be forced to defend himself or be killed.

They all started punching and kicking him, shouting and swearing and calling names. Someone grabbed him from behind and Deke couldn’t escape the grasp no matter how hard he pulled and twisted. He was held there in front of the rest of the gang, with no way to defend himself, while they fought with each other for the opportunity to use him as a punching bag. He heard his nose break. Dark patches and bright lights filled his head so he couldn’t even see in front of himself. Ribs cracked.

The boy behind him got tired of holding him up and dropped him to the floor. Kicks landed in his kidneys, his ribs, his head, and his groin. Blindly, Deke tried to grab their legs to pull them down, to sweep his legs out to trip them up.

He was still conscious when someone said, ‘time’s up,’ and the punishment petered out. Deke lay there gasping and sobbing, soaked with sweat and blood and tears and his own urine, his whole body a mass of quivering jelly.

“Not bad,” one voice said. “He’s tougher than he looks. He was still fighting back at the end there. Wouldn’t have thought he had it in him.”

“Mama’s boy,” another sneered. “But he’s got promise.”

“Can you get up?” someone asked from nearby.

Deke tried to open his eyes, but even if his head hadn’t been spinning, and the whole world flashing in and out of consciousness, his eyes were already swollen too much to open.

“I’m just… gonna stay here a while…” Deke croaked. He couldn’t even imagine moving an arm or leg to get up.

There were chuckles and some jeers from the gang. They left him laying there on the floor, untended. Deke wasn’t sure if he could make it through the night and the days to follow. Maybe they’d ruptured or broken something vital or he would just bleed out while they walked around him. He was just thankful that the beat-down was over before he even had a chance to worry about it.

Deke survived his initiation, though that first night and the following few days were a blur of pain and confusion. The Kittens were usually pretty good about not killing their initiates. Usually. Deke was sure he’d been pretty close to death. But his will to survive was strong and he was tougher than he looked. In a few days, he was able to get up, move around, and walk without assistance. It took much longer to heal all of the bruises and broken bones. Several of the gang seemed to take great pleasure in jostling him when they walked by, seeing how high they could make him jump.

The emotional scars ran pretty deep too. Deke still had nightmares now, years later, about having to go through it all again. Having to endure another horrific beating at the hands of the boys he needed so desperately to accept him.

But he was part of the gang. He succeeded in his goal. He had a home and a family. Maybe not what his real brothers would call a family, but it was a place he belonged. They watched each other’s backs. That was more of a family than where he came from.

Now Jacob Donell was part of that family too. He was lucky to get off so easily. Lucky that he was bigger and stronger and better skilled than the usual recruit. Jacob appeared to be settling in and relaxing now, having finished off a couple beers. He was starting to realize that he wasn’t in danger anymore. He belonged somewhere now. He didn’t smile at Sarin or the other boys, but he seemed less tense. His neck and shoulders were hunched, making him appear a little shorter. Deke didn’t know whether he normally sat like that, or whether it was the pain and fatigue of the fight and the soporific effect of the alcohol.

As Deke watched him from across the room, Jacob roused himself and looked at his watch. “I gotta go.”

“Go?” Keith demanded. “You don’t have to go anywhere. Where do you gotta be?”

Jacob looked at his watch again, a frown line forming between his eyebrows. “I gotta… take care of some things. I didn’t know I was gonna be so long today.”

Keith snickered. “You’re lucky to be able to go anywhere tonight. Come on, your girlfriend can wait for another night. This is your party.”

Jacob’s face reddened.

“Be a man,” Travis urged. “Tell her she’s just gotta listen to what you tell her.”

Jacob got still redder and scowled at the floor. “Ain’t my girlfriend. It’s something I gotta take care of.”

He struggled to get up out of the chair that he had sunk into. It was obvious from his movements that he was stiffening up. But his face remained an expressionless mask, not showing any pain. It took a few moments to climb out of the seat. Jacob massaged his muscles and worked out the kinks.

“See’ya ’round,” he said to the gang as he headed for the door.

“Donell,” Sarin called after him.

Jacob turned around and looked at him.

“You’re here tomorrow after you’re off work. And no ducking out early.”

Jacob looked him over for a moment, not saying anything, and then left.

chapter-3

drop-cap-sammy hadn’t chosen to join a gang. He wasn’t even a good prospect. He was too young, too small, and too shy. Unlike Jacob or Deke, he did have a mom. But that didn’t keep him away from the local gangs. Living right in the projects, there was nowhere else for him to go. As soon as he walked out the door, he was in gangland. There was no avoiding it. He knew the bigger players, knew as much about the various gangs as any of the cops who patrolled the area. It never occurred to him to join any of the gangs, but it also never occurred to him that he had any choice. All of the older boys were in gangs. Most of the older girls too. Some of the boys his age or younger were already affiliated with a gang, through a father, cousin, or older brother.

Sammy’s induction into the Sixth was nothing formal. He was still uninitiated, though he wore their colors. He had simply been walking to school one day, dragging a stick along the fence, and he stopped when he saw the big, black car pull over. He didn’t want to get into the middle of something. He didn’t want to get in the way of a drive-by or a drug deal or some other kind of transaction. So he just stopped and hung back against the fence, waiting for the boys to finish what they were doing and go on.

One of the Sixers, Marcos, swaggered up to the limo, tugging at his belt-loops to let his pants ride a little lower and adjusting the cocky tilt of his green cap. The dark window of the car went down, and the man inside, with lots of gold jewelry, greeted the banger. They bumped fists and they talked in loud, bragging voices like they had nothing to hide.

Sammy’s heart sank lower and lower. He was going to be late for school now. As it was, he’d been running too late to make it in time to get a free breakfast. Marcos and the limo man continued to talk loudly like they had all day to finish. There was no way for Sammy to sneak by them. Any movement he made would attract attention, and attention was not good. Not good at all. He tried to remain invisible.

Eventually, Marcos stepped away from the car and he looked around, up and down the street, like he was searching for something. His eyes caught on Sammy and he tilted his head to the side slightly.

“You. Kid.” His finger jabbed toward Sammy. “Come over here.”

Sammy didn’t move. He stood there, frozen, hoping that if he didn’t respond, the man would give up on him and find someone else. He wished he could just close his eyes and fade from view. But that wasn’t going to happen. Marcos continued to stare at him, raising an eyebrow.

“You hear me, kid? I said get over here.”

Sammy bit his lip, trying to keep from crying. The Sixer waited, and Sammy eventually managed to get his feet to move. He shuffled a few steps closer. Then a few more, until he was finally close enough for Marcos to inspect him and make a decision.

“You live around here, right? Over on Fifth Street?”

Sammy nodded, gulping.

“You know the Sixes’ crib, just down from your house, eh?”

He nodded again. How could he not know where the gang holed up? Marcos pushed a package into Sammy’s hands.

“You take that over. You go straight there and don’t stop to do nothing else on the way. Got it?”

Sammy looked down at the package in his hands in terror. He didn’t want to be involved in any gang transaction. He tried to hand it back, but the man wouldn’t take it.

“Go on. Deliver it for me. Straight there.”

Sammy’s hands shook. He looked up at the banger’s face. Marcos looked back at him, scowling. “Do you understand?”

The jewelry-decked man still watching from inside the car chuckled. “You going to trust that little moron? He’s obviously got no clue.”

“He’ll do it,” Marcos asserted. “He just doesn’t talk much.”

He raised an eyebrow at Sammy. Sammy finally gave up and headed back the way that he had come. He looked back over his shoulder once or twice while he walked down the street. Marcos watched him until he was out of sight. After he got around the corner, Sammy stopped and tried to catch his breath. He swallowed, staring down at the innocuous package. He could just dump it, but Marcos knew where he lived and how to find him if the delivery went astray.

Sammy forced himself to go on. He went back past the house he lived in—families crammed into single rooms. Hallways that smelled like rats and skittering noises inside the wall.

Sammy walked past the building, further down the road to a bungalow. But no family lived there. Sammy stood at the end of the sidewalk, not turning into the yard. For as long as he could remember, he’d been told to stay away from the place. And now he had to deliver a package there. He was terrified to go in and he was terrified not to.

He stood there for a few minutes, unable to convince himself to go in. Eventually, a younger gang member strode out of the house. “Get out of here, kid! You can’t hang around here.”

Sammy shook his head in protest. “N-n-n-no. I g-g-g-got…”

“What are you babbling about? Come on, move on.”

Sammy tried to get control of his words, but couldn’t get anything coherent out.

“What are you, some kind of retard? Get out of here!”

Sammy held the package out like a shield to keep the other boy from physically removing him from the property. The boy looked at it. “What you got there? You delivering this? That for Sixth?”

Sammy offered it to him.

The boy shook his head, holding his hands up. “No, I can’t take it. Bring it in.”

Sammy stood there, unmoving. The boy grabbed him by the arm and pulled him up the sidewalk toward the house. Sammy went with him, a lump in his throat. The young Sixer pushed him through the door.

“Delivery,” he sang out.

One of the older gang members appeared. Pinky. “Hey, Maury.”

Pinky’s gaze shifted toward Sammy. He looked Sammy over and pulled the package out of his grip. Sammy was relieved to finally have it out of his hands. He turned to go.

“No, no, no,” Pinky said, grabbing his shoulder. “Where’d you get it? Who sent you?”

Sammy motioned in the direction he’d come. “F-f-from…”

The man felt the package and used his nail to peel up one corner, peering inside. His mouth curved up slightly.

“My man Marcos. That where you got it?”

Sammy nodded.

“You know who Marcos is?”

Sammy looked down at his own feet, nodding. Of course he knew who Marcos was. Everyone in a six-block radius knew who Marcos was.

“How about Zed? You know him?”

Sammy nodded again.

“He’s hanging out over by the Big Box. You tell him a message for me—”

Maury nudged Pinky, shaking his head.

“What?” Pinky demanded.

“He, uh, doesn’t talk.”

They both looked at Sammy. Sammy bit his lip. His mouth was as dry as a bone. He wanted to protest, to explain that he could talk, he just couldn’t get the words out sometimes. But for that, he’d have to speak.

“Oh, he’s that one,” Pinky looked down at Sammy with dawning understanding.

Sammy twisted his fingers together and tried to leave again. The man kept a grip on him.

“No, stay. Just wait here while I get a piece of paper.”

Sammy waited. The older Sixer disappeared into another room. Maury kept an eye on Sammy, making sure he couldn’t take off. Pinky came back a few minutes later with a folded-up piece of paper. He gave it to Sammy.

“Take that to Zed. Got it?”

Sammy sighed. Pinky patted him on the shoulder. Sammy left the house to make his second delivery for the gang. He’d been making deliveries ever since. Sometimes he got to school in between, but often he didn’t. He was a part of the Sixth now.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Once Brothers

By P.D. Workman

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