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Authors: Caleb Alexander

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CHAPTER TWO

Weeks Later

T
onight, like every other night since his brother's death, Travon dreamt of him. Sweating profusely in the blistering South Texas heat, he tossed and turned as his last conversation with his brother was replayed inside his head.

“How do you like these Jordans, Tre?” Too-Low asked.

“They're pretty clean.” Travon nodded. “Are you gonna let me sport 'em?”

Too-Low smiled at his younger brother. “I gotta stay on the cuts all night, 'cause tomorrow's the first. If I make enough ends, I'll take you to the mall and get you some.”

“Cool!”

“So, how are your grades in school?” Too-Low asked.

“They're all right.”

“All right? They need to be better than just all right.” Too-Low leaned forward and jabbed his finger into Travon's chest. “You better not be fuckin' up in school!”

“I'm not.” Travon frowned. “My grades are okay.”

“I'll tell you what,” Too-Low told him. “I'll spring for some fresh gear for school this fall, if you do well the rest of this year.”

“Put me down, and I can buy my own shit,” Travon replied.

Too-Low slapped Travon across the back of his head.

“Fuck!” Travon shot a venomous glance toward his bother. “What the hell was that for?”

Too-Low jabbed his finger into his younger brother's face. “Tre, if I catch you anywhere near this shit, I'ma put a foot in your ass! Do you hear me?”

“You're doing it, so why can't I?” Travon replied. “You won't even let me get down with the hood! That shit ain't fair, Too-Low!”

Too-Low kicked a crushed beer can that was lying on the ground near his foot, sending it tumbling noisily across the roughly paved street.

“Fuck this shit, Tre!” Too-Low shouted, once he had turned back toward his brother. “I'm doing this shit so you don't have to! And I already made it clear to everybody that I'll kill anybody who puts you on the hood, and everybody who was there watching!”

“Everybody else is down!” Travon protested.

“Tre, you better not ever join a gang, or pick up any kind of dope. Do you hear me?”

Travon shifted his eyes away from his brother, to a distant spot down the dark and empty street.

Too-Low grabbed Tre by his arm and shook him violently. “I said do you hear me?”

“Yeah, yeah, I hear you!” Travon yanked his arm away from his brother and again stared down the dark, trash-strewn street. All of his friends were joining, and it wasn't fair that he wasn't allowed to. All the girls in school were falling all over the guys who had joined. He would almost kill to be able to wear burnt orange to school.

“This shit is dangerous,” Too-Low added. “The first chance I get, I'm getting us the hell outta these fuckin' courts!” When he saw the moisture welling in his younger brother's eyes, Too-Low decided that he had been a little too harsh. He decided to make up for it.

“Here.” He reached beneath his burnt-orange University of Texas T-shirt and pulled out his nine-millimeter Beretta handgun. He handed the cold, steel, death black weapon to Travon. “Take this home and put it under my mattress. Go straight home with it, Tre. And don't be fuckin' 'round with it either.”

Travon lifted the weapon into the air and examined it. After a few seconds, he turned back toward his brother. “You ain't gonna need this tonight?”

Too-Low shook his head. “No. Lil Anthony, Pop, and Tech Nine are on their way. We all gonna stay down tonight. I know that them fools is strapped, so I don't need to be. 'Sides, if one time runs up on us tonight, I ain't trying to catch a pistol case.”

Travon slid the gun into his pants and pulled his shirt down over it. Too-Low reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a wad of rolled-up bills. He counted out fifteen hundred dollars and handed it to Travon.

“Tonight, when Momma goes to sleep, put four hundred dollars in her purse. Don't let her catch you. If she asks you in the morning where it came from, just tell her that you don't know. You can keep a hundred for yourself, so that leaves a thousand. Put the G under my mattress, along with the strap.”

“All right, Too-Low, thanks!” Travon extended his fist and gave his brother some dap. “Good looking.”

Too-Low roughly rubbed his hand over his brother's head, messing up his waves. Travon smiled, ducked away, and turned and headed for home. Of course on the way to his apartment, he would have to stop by Justin's and show off his brother's gun.

Once out of his brother's sight, Travon turned and made a beeline for Justin's apartment. He cut across the alley, then through the playground, taking the shortcut to his friend's apartment. He could faintly make out the sound of deep bass notes resonating from a stereo system. The notes grew progressively louder until finally a dark blue Hyundai came into view and passed by on the street just in front of him, silencing its stereo system. Travon watched from the shadows as the car slowed and turned the corner. Moments later he heard the sound of semiautomatic weapon fire crashing through the midnight silence, and quickly decided that he had better head for home.

Once safely inside his apartment, Travon did as his brother had instructed, and then retired to his bedroom. After awhile, he heard a knock at the front door, which was followed by his mother's screams.

Travon bolted up from his bed. His bare chest heaved up and down, his breathing was hard and labored. Travon wiped away the heavy beads of perspiration from his face, and then tried to focus his eyes. A slow glance around his balmy dark room quickly confirmed what he had suspected. He had, once again, suffered a nightmare.

Seven a.m.

“Tre! Tre!” his mother called out to him. “Travon! It's time to get up and get ready for school, boy!”

“Shit!” Travon swore under his breath and rubbed his eyes as he slowly pulled himself out of bed, then staggered to his bathroom. After washing his face, brushing his teeth, and taking a piss, he headed back into his bedroom. He had just begun to put his clothes on when his mother appeared at his door.

“Travon, I got breakfast waiting downstairs.”

“Momma, what are you doing at home this morning?” Travon asked, rubbing the top of his head.

“I had to change jobs, baby. The company I was working for only want to do home health care now, so they need people with cars. I have to work in a nursing home for right now, at least until I can get us a car. And the only positions the nursing home had open were night ones, so I work at night now,” she explained.

Travon stretched his arms and yawned. “Oh, I was just wondering what you were still doing home at this time, that's all.”

His mother smiled. “You're not afraid to stay at home by yourself at night, are you?”

Travon frowned. “Naw, I ain't scared a nothing.”

Elmira rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and crossed her arms. “All right, bad ass. You just better have your butt in the house by ten o'clock.”

Travon dropped his shirt. “What?”

She uncrossed her arms. “You heard me.”

“I can't even sit on the porch?” he asked.

Elmira stepped into the bedroom and caressed her son's chin. “Tre, you know what happened to your brother. So just bear with me for a little while, okay?”

Travon shifted his gaze to the floor and nodded. He could never forget what happened to his brother. He could never forget the night that his life changed forever.

“Okay,” he said softly.

Elmira turned and started for the door. “Now come on downstairs and eat you some breakfast.” Quickly, she whirled back toward her son. “Speaking of food, I haven't seen Justin in a few weeks. Where is he?”

“Well, he um, he got himself some new friends.”

Elmira tilted her head to the side. “Tre, look at me, and don't lie to me. You and Justin were as thick as thieves, and now he don't even come around anymore?” She placed her hand upon her hip. “What happened?”

“Uh, nothing, Momma. We just don't kick it that much anymore.”

“I was born at night, but not last night,” Elmira replied. “Justin done joined that damn gang, ain't he?”

Travon's gaze fell away from his mother. “Well, I guess. I don't know, Momma.”

“Tre, baby, just stay away from them and find you some new friends. Baby, just as soon as things get better, we'll get the hell outta this place. It's just gonna take some time.”

Elmira lifted her hand and pointed out the window. “I don't want those people's welfare or food stamps. I have to do it without those things, so it will take us just a little bit longer to save. But we will get outta here, baby. One day, we will get the hell outta this place!”

With his gaze still focused on the floor, Travon nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”

CHAPTER THREE

Martin Luther King, Jr. High School

T
he hallway was crowded with students changing classes, while faculty and staff stood vigilant to make sure that they did so in an orderly manner. Travon stood at his locker.

Today Tamika was wearing her cheerleading outfit. It gripped her body snugly, displaying her shapely young figure. She leaned against a nearby locker, with a flirtatious smile spread across her caramel-colored face.

“Hey, Tre,” she called out seductively. “What have you been up to?”

Travon returned her pearlescent smile. “Nothin,' what's been up with you?”

Tamika shrugged and tilted her head slightly to one side, causing her hair to fall over her shoulder. “Nothing, just chilling and working.”

Travon's eyes flew open wide. “Tamika, you got a job?”

Her smile widened, displaying her deep dimples. “Yeah. Why you acting like you're so surprised?”

Travon shook his head. “I can't see you working anywhere.”

Tamika flung her hair back over her shoulder and lifted an inquisitive eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?”

“Shit, girl. You're just too fine to be doing any kind of work. You're supposed to just ride around and look pretty.”

Together they laughed.

Tamika raked her fingers through the loose black hair at the end of her ponytail and smiled at Tre again. “So, you think I look good?”

Travon bit down on his bottom lip and nodded. “Yeah, I think you look real good. That ass is fat, girl!”

Tamika laughed and glanced over her shoulder, down toward her posterior. “How do you know? You ain't never seen it.”

Travon walked his eyes down her body, stopping at her wide hips. “I can't help but see it. I mean, the way it's sticking out from underneath that skirt.”

“I'm talking about naked. Until you see it naked, don't comment on it.”

“When can I see it naked?”

“Whenever you want to.” Tamika smiled, turned, and sashayed away.

Travon stood at his locker enjoying the view, as Tamika strutted down the hallway. His undressing of her with his eyes was disturbed by someone shouting behind him.


GANGSTERS!
Wheatley Courts in the muthafuckin' hiz-house!”

“Shit,” Travon turned and mumbled under his breath.

Draped in thick gold jewelry, and clad in Texas T-shirts and tan Dickey pants that were hanging well below their waistlines, Baby T, Jay Rock, Lil G, Dre, and Justin were heading in his direction. Justin's tall Afro was now braided to the back in long, thick cornrows, and his mouth was filled with gold teeth.

Travon smiled. “What's up, Justin?”

“What's up, youngsta?” Justin replied with a smile. The other boys that were with him snickered and laughed. “Oh yeah, the name is Lil Texas now.”

“What?” Tre asked in a voice that was a little too loud for everyone's comfort. What in the hell was going on with Justin, he wondered. Whatever it was, he knew that he would have to get him away from the other boys to find out.

“Say, Justin.” Tre nodded toward a less crowded area down the hall, away from the other boys. “Let me holler at you for a minute.”

Justin folded his arms and tilted his head to one side. “Holler.”

They stood staring at one another for several moments, before Travon smiled to break the tension.

“I meant, in private.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Justin replied. “And like I said, the name's Lil Texas.”

Travon and Justin turned and slowly walked away from the group of boys and began to make strained conversation.

“So, why haven't you been by the house to holler at me lately?” Travon asked.

Justin rubbed his fingers over his thick gold watch. “I've been clocking dollars. You know I gots to get mines.”

Travon smiled and nodded. “Yeah? So, what's with all of the jewelry? And what's up with all a this Lil Texas stuff?”

Justin frowned. “What do you mean by that, Travon?”

“I just wanted to know what you've been up to, that's all, Justin,” Travon replied.

Justin stopped and turned to face his old friend. “Look, Tre. You know where I've been, and what I've been doing. If you want to kick it, stop being a pussy and get put on the hood.” Jabbing his index finger into Travon's chest, he continued. “Your brother was down, he was a muthafuckin' soldier! It kind of makes me think that you were adopted. What you need to do is take your nuts outta your mommy's purse and get down for yours!”

He shook his head in disgust. “I thought you were down, but I see that I was wrong. You need to stop acting like such a punk-ass bitch!”

“Fuck you!” Travon shouted.

“Naw, nigga, fuck you!” Justin shouted, balling his hands into tight fists. “It's Wheatley Courts on mines, what's up?”

The boys squared off. A teacher, the vice principal, and a custodian quickly pulled them apart.

Justin struggled to break free. “You don't want to be down with the hood, then get the fuck outta the hood!”

“I don't get down with bitch-ass niggaz!” Travon shouted. “And I don't get down with bitch sets!”

Justin was quickly whisked off into the principal's office, while Travon was taken into the vice principal's office. The vice principal stormed in behind him, slamming his office door.

“Sit down, Mr. Robinson!” Mr. Reed bellowed. He seated himself behind his desk and scowled.

Travon dropped into a large overstuffed chair opposite the vice principal's. Mr. Reed was an ex-football coach, and had the build of the professional football player he used to be. His cheap, dark brown suit was pulled tightly around his bulging chest and massive arms.

“Now, Tre, what's all this about?” Reed interlaced his fingers and placed his hands on his wooden desk. “I thought that you and Justin were the best of friends?”

Travon shook his head. “It ain't nothing, Mr. Reed. We just exchanged a few words, that's all. Everything's cool.”

Reed leaned forward in his chair. “It sure didn't sound like nothing. Do I need to suspend you two for a while, so that you can both cool down?” He lifted a questioning eyebrow toward Travon. “Talk to me, Tre. You're a good student; this is not like you.”

Travon shook his head. “Naw, it's cool. It's over with, trust me.”

Reed leaned back in his gigantic leather chair, playing the role of a vice principal. He lifted his hand to his face and embedded his fingers deeply into his jowls, as if he were pondering the fate of the free world. After a few moments of gazing steadily at Travon, he nodded.

“Okay, I'll take your word for it. I'll let this one slide, because no punches were thrown, and because you are a pretty good student. Just make sure that it doesn't happen again.”

Travon nodded. “Yes, sir.” He stood to leave.

“Travon, I'm proud of you, son,” Reed told him. “It takes a strong man to stand alone, and stand up for what he believes in.”

The office door slowly opened and the principal stepped inside. Reed stared at his boss, who in turn gave a slight nod. Reed turned back to Travon and nodded at the office door.

“Get outta here, son.”

A wide, unintentional smile spread across Travon's face. “Yes, sir. And thanks, Mr. Reed.”

The vice principal nodded again and Travon bounded out of the office.

The principal smiled at his vice principal. “I don't get down with bitch sets?”

“First time I heard that one,” Reed told him with a smile.

They shared a long laugh.

Three Forty-Five p.m.

Travon was walking home from school lost in his thoughts, when the minivan pulled up beside him. For several moments the van drove alongside him, steadily keeping pace with his slow steps.

Travon squinted and strained to peer inside of the van, past its dark tinted windows. He could barely make out the occupants. Behind the steering wheel sat Lil C, while Quentin was in the front passenger seat. They were both from The Courts, and were old friends of his brother, which gave rise to the hope that they would offer him a ride home.

The minivan was a Dodge Caravan to be exact. But its factory paint job had been ditched, instead it had been coated several times with a silver metallic paint. The wheels were chrome-plated Dayton Wire Wheels, enshrouded in extremely low-profile tires. The bass from the van's custom stereo system seemed to be vibrating the pavement beneath them. Travon could see several television screens hanging from the roof of the interior.

Slowly, the side door of the van slid open, and out leapt Lil Texas, Dre, Tech Nine, and Lil G. Travon knew that they meant trouble, so he increased his pace.

Lil Texas ran up behind Travon and shoved him. Travon stumbled forward several steps before turning around and facing him.

“What the fuck's up with that shit?”

Lil Texas raised his arms into the air. “What's up with that shit you was talking at school? Say it now. Call my set a bitch set now, muthafucka!”

Travon shook his head and begin to walk away. “Fuck you, Justin.”

Lil Texas swung at Travon but missed. Travon had been expecting it.

“Kick his ass, Lil Texas!” Quentin shouted, exiting the van.

Lil Texas charged Travon and the two boys locked arms. They began to wrestle for dear life, with neither boy wanting to fall or let go. Tech Nine snuck up behind Travon and dropped down onto his hands and knees. Lil Texas moved Travon back; he tripped over Tech Nine, and all three boys hit the ground hard.

Travon managed to get his right hand free and throw a wild punch. His punch landed not on Lil Texas, his intended target, but on Tech Nine.

“Fuck!” Tech Nine grabbed his right eye and rolled away. He stood and immediately tried to reenter the fray, but was grabbed by Quentin.

“Whip his ass, Lil Texas!” Lil G shouted.

Travon managed to climb on top of Justin, and began to punch him hard in his face. This was a battle he desperately wanted to win. He wanted to beat some sense back into his friend.

“Wheatley Courts for life!” Dre shouted.

This rallying cry was followed by several more from some of the other boys. Travon understood what they meant, so he began hitting Justin harder and more solidly.

At this singular moment in his life, Travon hated Justin more than anything. He hated him for placing him in this situation. He hated Justin for his betrayal of their friendship. But more than anything, he now hated Justin because it was his fault that Travon was now about to become another statistic.

Like wolves upon a fallen deer, the boys descended upon Travon and began to beat him brutally. With fists and feet striking him from every direction, Travon could do nothing more than curl up into a tight ball and wait to die.

The boys continued to kick Travon brutally. They kicked him until he could not feel his leg any longer. They kicked him until he could no longer feel their blows. They kicked him until he could no longer feel any sort of pain.

Living in the Courts and knowing what would come next, Travon simply lay on the ground and waited for the gunshot that would end his young life. The sharpness of the report momentarily brought him back into a state of semi-consciousness, but he could not feel where the bullet had struck him. In truth, he no longer cared. He simply wanted it to be over. Blackness engulfed Travon's mind, and he drifted off into a deep, calming sleep.

“I don't give a fuck what he said; this is Too-Low's brother!” Dejuan shouted, pointing toward Travon's curled-up form. “This is my muthafuckin' dead homie's little brother! Quentin, if you want to kill him, then I suggest that you kill me first! Other than that, I suggest you put away that strap, get the fuck back in the van, and get the hell outta here!”

Quentin and Tech Nine, who both had their weapons drawn, slowly placed them back inside their waistbands and pulled their Texas shirts down over them. They, along with the rest of the boys, hesitantly piled back inside the minivan and then slowly drove away.

Once the van had turned the corner and driven out of sight, Dejuan placed his weapon back inside his pants and pulled his shirt down as well. He turned to the passengers sitting inside his large white Mercedes, and waved for them to join him.

“T-Stew, Anthony, help me put him in the car,” Dejuan told them.

T-Stew and Anthony exited the Mercedes S600 and walked to where Dejuan was standing. T-Stew bent down and in a single motion scooped Travon up into his massive arms.

“Say, lil homie, are you all right?” T-Stew asked Travon.

Travon could not answer.

Anthony peered over T-Stew's shoulder, and rested his hand gently on Travon's shoulder. “Shit, lil man, just hang on.”

T-Stew gently placed Travon on the backseat, then he and Anthony piled back inside themselves. Anthony shook his head as he glanced at Travon, who was lying against the rear passenger window.

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