Jimmy told me Elena was pregnant last week. Since then, he's insisted on going with me to each weekly meeting. Tonight is this group's last chance.
Maybe he feels that it's his and Elena's last chance, too. He's taken the hazing a lot harder than I did. Each wound pokes a hole in his hope for a better life.
Tonight is going to mend him or tear him. There is no in-between.
It's 2am, time to head out. Dad's out "collecting" at the local dump again, thank God. His absence ignites a sense of relief and regret that burns my cheeks as they greet the freezing night air.
Each step bruises the blisters on my heels. Ma's grainy, homegrown socks are more hole than fabric now. The streetlights quietly but consistently condemn us. "Turn around. Turn around.
" We begin to walk faster. Jimmy does not dare to look ahead or behind us. I told him that we won't have to do that ever again - not after tonight. I think he's scared because he believes me.
Familiar boarded up houses slowly slither into slums. Slums crumble into littered, jagged pavement.
Artificial light leaves us without a goodbye and an uncomfortable familiarity takes its place as our line leader.
Jimmy's breathing is labored, and he has been wincing periodically throughout our trip.
"What?" I ask. He continues to gaze downward. I repeat myself. He repeats me. My blood pressure spikes.
"I don't need another 'what'. I need to be sure you can fucking handle this."
"I told you I ca -" he begins.
"I know what you said but if you're bitching and getting winded from the walk then you shouldn't be going with me." I spat, starting to pick up my pace even more so. He doesn't respond at all.
It is only when we reach the tunnel entrance that I realize Jimmy is barefoot.
His mangled feet, etched with dirt and newly dried blood bravely expose themselves to an audience of initiates and initiators.
We join the crowd of boys cautiously leaning against the tunnel walls. Trembling candlelight undresses them.
All of them look inflated; puffed out chests, impeccable posture, furrowed and unkept eyebrows. All of them glance at Jimmy and me. I'm not a faker like them.
My strength is real, my endurance is real. Jimmy is deflated. Like a withered, wrinkly balloon, he slowly slumps against the grimy wall and lets his body fall into a resting position.
He doesn't seem to mind the mud and scattered teeth on the tunnel's floors, or the millipede that marches closer to his pinkie toe. Everyone takes note of his weakness.
Everyone rules him out as being the next leader. I crossed him off the list of potentials a while ago.
Hutch, our current leader, stands slightly adjacent to the center point of the tunnel. A circle sketched with worn chalk marks the spot in which our futures will begin.
Every body in here is hoping to take over Hutch's spot. Everyone envies his wealth, his resources, his following. This gang has made him who he is.
Ma always told me not to go around "gangbaning" and "making our neighborhood be what everyone expects it to be".
I can't blame her for wishing me and Jimmy to be quitters and wimps, dumpster divers like dad who prays for ends to meet. I can't blame her for that.
But she surely can't blame me for doing instead of praying, for accepting a chance to be greater than my father and grandfather and great grandfather.
"Rise." Hutch sternly commands. Every member immediately straightens up and focuses their eyes. Everyone except Jimmy.
I kick dirt in his direction to grab his attention and to express my endless frustration with him. So what if you haven't eaten a hot meal in weeks? None of us have. He still doesn't stand up.
I dare not shift my position or conjure up a reason to be punished.
"I know you all are hungry. I know you all are ready." He begins. Something is off about Hutch tonight. I'm still afraid of him, of course.
But his eyes aren't as vacant tonight, his presence feels inferior to how I remember it feeling. He feels more normal. I smile. We might be ready but he surely is the exception.
He's losing his alpha status.
"I know that I've talked this position up a lot. Ultimate power, control of everyone in this space, unlimited resources and allies.
It's invigorating, isn't it? We all made a pact two months ago. We all made room for each other, stole for each other, hurt for each other. Tonight we will go a step further.
" His speech turns into a demonstration, his voice trembles slightly. It's never done that before. "Tonight we kill for each other." No one dares to gasp.
The tunnel air thins so much so that it doesn't feel breathable. Jimmy is now standing. We look at each other. He's shaking. I almost want to hold his hand.
All my strength hides, all my endurance drains. I want to leave.
I'm not sure what hurts me more; Jimmy's agonized scream or Elena's petrified silence. Hutch grabs her by the arm and gently leads her to the center of our circle. This is wrong.
I can't move why can't I move? A singular gunshot drowns the tunnel with thick and inescapable sound. Elena never made a sound. Her body lays center stage at our leader's boots.
She's wearing Jimmy's shoes.
"I know you are hungry. I know you are ready." Hutch yells. Is he looking at me? His eyes are on me. No. No his eyes are raising upward. "I know you are worn out.
Let his presence take hold of you. You are his host now. Do what you wish for as long as you can. RISE!" Hutch drops to the floor next to Elena. I turn around.
My eyes meet with bare, bloody feet.