I held on to Jeffrey’s hand as hard as I could out of paranoia that if I didn’t he’d lose his grip and let me go. I knew he wouldn’t let anything happen to me but I was still fearful. My mother had always told me to stay out of dark alleys behind buildings before she died, and that was exactly where Jeff was taking me. I was still so devastated by mom’s death and so was Jeffrey but he carried on. I hadn’t seen my brother Jeff in over nine nears, prior to a few months ago when he picked me up from the airport. I was two when dad took him to live in Harlem. I didn’t remember much about neither one of them. I did remember my mother saying that my father was a bad person though. She fought hard to keep Jeff but custody was awarded to my so-called daddy. While on her death bed, my mother begged Jeffrey to take good care of me, and to never let anything happen to me no matter what. He vowed to give his life for me if it ever got to that. I never doubted his words because he became my hero as soon as I moved in with him.
The alleys were all pitch black. No matter where I looked, there was only darkness, and more darkness. There were no streetlights, and the clouds obstructed the moon. Jeffrey begged me to stay quiet even if I was scared. I wanted to cry but I had promised him that I wouldn’t make a sound. Ricardo and Nick took the lead while Eddie, Robby and Fred were just a few steps behind us. I knew all of them pretty well after three months of living in Harlem and constantly being under one of them’s supervision. Jeffrey had told me that they did bad things because they had no choice, and to never end up like them no matter what. He also promised me that no matter what happened, they would always take care of me. In exchange I promised him to always be good and to finish school and to make a good life for myself.
“Why did you make me bring my sister?” Jeff asked, with an unusual sharp edge in his voice.
“There’s nobody to babysit her!” Nick snapped back, “this one isn’t as simple as the rest of them. And you can’t leave her in Eddie’s shit hole all by herself!”
I had no idea what they were talking about but in that instant I remembered my mother telling me that only bad things happened in dark back alleys. As my nails started digging into Jeff’s skin, he picked me up and held me in his arms the rest of the way. I pressed my face onto his chest and tightly wrapped my arms around his shoulders. Jeff will protect me, I thought to myself. I knew he would, he had to.
“It’s here!” Eddie called out from behind.
“Okay, Jeff, you watch out for jackass punks going around and Rob you survey the street for any vehicles.” Nick ordered, “let’s do this!”
Jeffrey put me down on a dumpster and told me not to worry. I pleaded for him not to go too far. He reassured me that he’d only survey two small alleys perpendicular to this one and he would always be within my reach if I needed him. His soft smile reassured me. I loved him, my brother Jeff. His blue eyes were just like mine and so was his blond hair hanging over his forehead on one side. Standing at 6’1” and 164 pounds, he was a giant for me. A friendly giant that I loved so much. I practically worshipped him. He was my hero. My provider. My protector. My big brother.
I sat on the dumpster all by myself, my hands huddled under my shirt for warmth. The breeze was cold and so was the metal from the dumpster. My eyes slowly got accustomed to the darkness and I could see a big building made out of large red bricks in front of me. Some of the boys entered through a back window but I couldn’t see everything clearly. I was so scared, but as the minutes passed, I became more relaxed. I assumed whatever the boys were doing inside was going well because there no sound apart from the humming of car engines in the distances and Jeffrey’s soft footsteps pacing back and forth. I began feeling calmer, and more at ease with the surrounding darkness. I no longer feared it, despite that I couldn’t see much. The streetlights were far away and none of the nearby buildings were lit up. The garbage smelled bad but the smell didn’t bother me. I was beginning to enjoy the cool evening air.
I had just started sixth grade in Harlem and didn’t know much about the nightlife. Jeffrey never let the gang members talk about their illicit activities near me. And instead of participating, Jeff stayed with me. If he couldn’t stay, he made Eddie watch me until he returned. He always made sure I was safe and in good hands. I trusted him and the other boys completely. One of them brought me to school every morning and brought me back to Jeff every night. I always had lunch money and clean clothes to wear. Wherever they took me, I never doubted them or their intentions. It was probably in part because I couldn’t possibly have imagined what they were doing while I wasn’t looking. To me they were soldiers. They protected me with their lives and provided for me, be it in ways that I couldn’t comprehend.
“Crap!” Nick came out of the building screaming just as shots were fired. “Let’s get outta here!”
Nicholas had his hand placed over the lower part of his stomach in an awkward way, as if applying pressure to an open wound. Jeffrey didn’t even have time to come get me, I was already running for my life. Multiple running footsteps trailed right behind me but I just wanted to get out of there alive despite that deep down I knew the soldiers wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me. I then understood what Nick meant when he said that this one wasn’t as simple. It wasn’t as simple and it hadn’t gone well either. And the thing was that I was just another headache on top of everything else that dark and frightening night.
“The kids got out!” Ricardo shouted from somewhere behind me, “I saw them running around here somewhere!”
And the footsteps ran in another direction. I kept on running but Jeffrey’s strong hands grabbed me and scooped me up into his arms. He ran as fast as he could to catch up with the other boys who had surrounded their target. He abruptly came to a halt and placed me down near a concrete brick wall, away from all the commotion. Despite the overwhelming fright that took over my body, I leaned over and peered at what the boys were doing on the other side of the old building. Ricardo was shinning a flashlight into the faces of two young boys who were just a little older than I was. The alley was at a dead end apart from a ladder that lead up the roof of a building. I didn’t want to look at what was happening but I couldn’t take my eyes off the pistol Ricardo had in his hand. The silver handgun was pointed straight at the two boys. I could see Jeffrey and Robby shouting something at them but their voices were barely audible in my moment of terror. All of the noise and the screaming was just a dissonant hum in the back of my mind. It was almost like a movie was playing in my mind except that a freight train was running through my thoughts and about to come crashing down off the tracks.
The tallest boy suddenly jumped up onto the ladder and started climbing. His light green shirt was draped in sweat as he climbed frantically for his life. I saw Ricardo’s finger squeeze the trigger of the handgun at the same time Eddie ran towards me, taking off his jacket to cover my eyes. But he was too late. I screamed and ran towards the boys just as the gun fired, killing the boy who tried getting away by climbing up the ladder. His limp body crashed to the ground and blood splattered everywhere. His green shirt turned to crimson in the deep of the night. The gunshot was so loud that in the moment I thought the whole world was crashing down around me.
“Don’t kill him!” I screamed in a pleading voice, “please don’t hurt him!”
“Goddamn kid!” Ricardo grunted.
“Please don’t hurt him!” I kept pleading, crying.
The surviving boy placed his hands meekly on my shoulder and begged for his life as tears started coming down his cheeks too. His face and shirt were covered in the other boy’s blood. I pleaded until Jeffrey and Rob came over to the boy and I. I kept on pleading the gang not to kill the boy while Jeffrey took me in his arms and carried me away. Rob tied up the boy and put his shirt over his face so he couldn’t see anything and so his cries for help would be distorted. The gang made fun of him because he wet himself during the whole ordeal and was shaking uncontrollably as he asked for his mother. Jeffrey held me in his arms while Eddie restrained the other boy in the backseat during the ride back to Lennie’s loft in Dobbs Ferry. The ride didn’t take long but it felt like an eternity for an eleven-year-old girl who had just witnessed a murder. I held onto the boy’s arm the whole time, still pleading for him to live. Jeff kept trying to reassure me that he would live but for the first time, I didn’t believe him. I had found out what his gang was up to when they were out. I really felt as if my whole world had just crumbled from under my feet.
Please don’t kill him.
Inside Lennie’s dirty little loft near the water, the boy was untied. He didn’t have anywhere to run even if he tried. His white shirt was stained red and his cheeks glittered with fresh tears. I ran over to him and hugged him. I held him as tightly as I could before Lennie’s old rusty voice interrupted the commotion going on.
“What the heck have you guys done?” He asked, obviously moved by the display.
“Well—” Nick began.
“Let me explain,” Jeff cut him off, “we were conducting a break-in on this family whom we knew had money in the neighborhood. Nobody was supposed to be home but the wife, the kid and that one were there too,” he said pointing to the boy, “she put up one hell of a fight for a little lady and wounded Nick before Richard shot her but the punks saw everything and got away.”
“And I shot the little snot but the kid ran to the other boy before I could execute him,” Ricardo added.
“Shouldn’t’ve brought the kid,” Nick whispered to himself.
“Please don’t kill him,” I whispered pleadingly.
Lennie opened the light to his dirty loft apartment and made us sit down on old wooden chairs around a table missing a leg. I had been to Lennie’s old loft many times before but it never seemed to be so dirty and broken. There was barely any plaster left on the walls and many of the floorboards were missing. He was basically tearing the place down from the inside out. That didn’t really bother me because the place was wide, open, and the bedrooms were big. I liked it and Lennie’s food was good. Most of all there was electricity and running water, unlike Eddie’s place. Leonard Crunch was a fifty-eight-year-old Dobbs Ferry native who lived alone in his loft slowly falling apart. He was 5’7” and 134 pounds with long brown hair despite his old age and big round brown eyes. He was a like father to the whole gang, supplying us all with most of the money and other necessities. I thought it was funny that his last name was Crunch and so I always called him Cap’n Crunch, much to his amusement as well as mine.
Cap’n Crunch was the definition of a hippie with his bushy beard that was beginning to turn grey. His clothes were disheveled just like his appearance was and basically his house too. He lived off the land, with a garden in his backyard and some solar panels around the property, he almost lived there for free. All he paid for was the rent. I didn’t know how he got all his money but he did, and he took care of us. To me that’s what mattered the most.
“What’s your name kid?” Lennie asked the boy in a friendly voice.
“Byron Davis-Harris,” he replied blankly.
“Oh! You’re the preacher’s son up in SoHo!” Lennie exclaimed.
“You know him?!” Robby asked in disbelief.
“My daughter went to school with his uncle,” Lennie added nonchalantly.
“The parish is now in Bronx, we had to move,” Byron added quietly.
Byron openly discussed anything we asked him without hesitation. After question period was over, Lennie let him use the shower and gave him some new clothes. I never let him out of my sight. I was afraid Richard or Nick would kill him if I did. It was hard to believe that big bad Nick Fleming would get stabbed by a little woman. The 5’11” and 147 pound second in command to Richard from Houston, Texas would have been able to put up a much bigger fight if Ricardo hadn’t intervened. His piercing blue eyes and short dark brown hair gave an eerie chill to him, the one of a murderer. His small round face and his snow white skin made his big eyes stand out. His thin lips nearly disappeared in his face once those eyes got a hold of your stare. He always gave me the creeps, and frankly I think he gave everyone who encountered him the creeps. You didn’t mess with the guy, you just didn’t.
That night I begged to sleep with Byron and Jeff. I always slept with Jeff and occasionally I slept with Ricardo unless both of them were out I stayed with Eddie or Lennie. I could sleep in a large bed at Lennie’s, unlike at the other places I had to stay. That night I had my face pressed to Jeffrey’s back as it always was and had Byron safely against the wall behind me. Not Richard nor Nick could get to him there. Jeff seemed to be exceptionally warm that night, or maybe it was just because I was scared, but I couldn’t let him go. Byron held me the same way in complete horror. He cried most of the night fearing what I was fearing, but nobody laid a hand on him. I’m sure they thought of him as a liability for a long time, but nobody ever touched him to harm him.
The following day, the soldiers brought Byron up to the factory and Ricardo taught both of us how to shoot a gun. I had only been to the factory once before and I found the big building to be eerie somehow. Lennie came with us and had a word with the gang and I before any decisions were made to decide where we would go from that point on. Lennie put gang life on the streets of New York into a whole new perspective for the guys since they had Byron and I involved. The boys agreed to no longer keep me in the dark about what was going on but also agreed that I was too young to participate. But I protested until they agreed to bring me along to every other robbery and break-in. The look on Jeff’s face indicated profound disapproval but Nick reminded him what I had already witnessed a murder and that I was mature enough to understand the things going on around me. They all made sure to explain to me that they had no choice to do what they did. They were on their own, and they somehow had to survive. Being so young, I believed them. I simply thought that that’s just how it was and everybody else was just like us. Plain and simple.
Back at the factory shooting a gun wasn’t hard at all. We shot at an old container on the factory’s lot. My brother watched us from a distance, but nobody was around our shooting range. It was the perfect opportunity for me to talk to Byron alone.
“Hold old are you Byron?” I asked him as I reloaded my gun.
“I’m thirteen,” he replied, “and you?”
“You’re so young! And you’re part of this gang?”
“My brother Jeff is, and I am too now I guess.”
I looked at him for a moment and he showed me his beautiful smile for the first time. In that precise moment I knew an unbreakable bond had formed between us. I was left in awe at the angel looking back at me. We were both so young, but already had lived through some life-changing experiences that would alter our destiny forever.
“And by the way,” he continued, “thank you for saving my life. I never got to properly thank you for that, but I will somehow.”
“You don’t need to Byron,” I replied in a sympathetic voice, “you don’t deserve to die. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
He looked down and sighed.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I had let them shoot you like they did to your friend.” I continued in a soft whisper.
“That wasn’t your fault.”
“But it is my fault that you’re here.”
Byron could never go home, but at least he was out of harm’s way as long as he stuck with the gang. I had practically given him a death sentence by letting him live, but I couldn’t’ve lived with myself if I had let him die like he was originally supposed to. Part of me knew he wanted desperately to return to his family but another part of me knew he would be just fine living the street life with the rest of us.