Look Inside Tied: A Street Gang Novel

ONE: Purple Fingernails

This wasn’t the first time Jess had snuck a peek at the gun, but it was the first time she aimed it at someone. She looked across the small, cramped room to her sister’s bed on the other side. The sheets lay in a heap, undisturbed. Like most nights, Nova hadn’t come home.

The small house Jess and Nova had spent their lives in was a small, two bedroom, one bathroom bungalow. A short, central hallway connected the front door and kitchen/living area with the bathroom and the two bedrooms, their doors facing each other further down the hallway, and ending at the back door. It had been at least five years since the place had been cleaned, and all the windows had bars, except the small one above the sink in the kitchen.

Years ago, despite security concerns, Lucia had insisted the bars be removed so she could have an unobstructed view while washing dishes. “I want to see my neighbors,” she had said, even though the window afforded only a view of another run-down house. Jess and Nova had never understood the appeal.

Lucia didn’t wash dishes anymore. That was one of Jess’s jobs now. She sat up and swung her legs off the side of her bed. Stale air washed over her. The bare walls held no posters of favorite rock and roll bands or actors. No stuffed animals or books, except for the odd library borrow from school. Instead, paint cracked and peeled off the wall in chunks. A small desk where Jess did her homework was wedged against the wall at the foot of her bed. A torn blanket, riddled with holes, served as a curtain in front of the barred window. The morning’s sunshine began its slow, striped creep across the room.

Jess tip-toed to the side of Nova’s worn, dirty mattress next to the wall, careful not to wake her sleeping mother across the hall. The floor tended to creak under Jess’s feet but it was impossible to predict. At the top end of Nova’s mattress was a hole big enough for a small hand. She knew its location from feigning sleep as she watched Nova return from her night missions.

Jess reached in, the hole stretching to fit her hand, and grabbed the textured grip of the gun. She cradled its cool weight as she maneuvered it out of the small hole. It was a tight fit. The smooth, brushed metal and her purple fingernail polish competed for the early morning light. The gun felt heavier than she remembered, but it also felt good. Jess raised the gun with outstretched arms. She squinted, one eye aiming at a small bedside mirror, her sleek fourteen-year-old Latina reflection aiming back.

“Bang. You’re dead, bitch.” A smile crossed her lips, but before she could enjoy the moment, Jess heard the front door to the house open and slam closed. Footsteps in the hallway approached fast. Nova was home.

“Shit!” Jess scrambled to put the gun back into the mattress, snagging it on the small, frayed opening. It wouldn’t go back in. She pulled her hand out and hid the gun behind her back just as Nova entered the bedroom.

Two years older than Jess, Nova belonged to the Dynamite Queens, a local girl gang and the better half of the Dynamite Kings. She stood glaring at Jess. Veins in her neck stood out beside a tattoo of a stick of dynamite with three diamonds above it. “What are you doing by my bed?”

“Nothing.” Jess tried to maintain eye contact.

“Bullshit. What’s behind your back?” Nova knew something was up. Nova always knew.

Jess revealed the gun in her right hand. Busted. She tried to prepare herself for what was coming next, but Nova didn’t do predictable, with the exception of an inevitable explosion of curses.

“What are you, fucking crazy? Give me that!” Nova crossed the bedroom and grabbed the gun from Jess, anger flush on her face.

“Sorry,” Jess said, doing her best to dodge the wrath of her sister. “ I was just trying it out.”

Nova slapped Jess hard across the face with her free hand. “It’s loaded, you dumb bitch! You could’ve shot yourself!”

The hot sting of Nova’s slap spread across Jess’s face. “Don’t freak! I’m not an idiot! The safety’s on.”

“What if it wasn’t?” Nova popped out the clip and pulled back the barrel, making sure the chamber was clear. “Have you seen the damage this can do?”

“No, but I want to.”

“Believe me. You don’t. Now get the fuck away from my bed!” Nova tucked the gun into the back of her pants.

“You’re never here! This should be my room.”

“I said move!”

Jess stomped to her side of the bedroom, stopping to face her sister. The shape of Nova’s hand stood out on Jess’s cheek, red and angry.

The sight of its cherry silhouette softened Nova’s demeanor, if only for a moment. She pushed past Jess and headed down the hallway to the living room.

Jess sensed Nova’s resolve weakening and followed, tugging on her shoulder. “I want in, Nova.”

“No you don’t, so stop fuckin’ asking me.”

“Come on. You promised.”

“I didn’t promise shit!” Nova pushed Jess away from her.

“Shut up!” Jess’s mother Lucia, twenty-nine going on forty-nine, staggered out of the bathroom, half dressed and arms peppered with heroin injection scars. Her pale skin hung off her atrophied muscles in soft folds. Her pallid face and sunken eyes suppressed her beauty of five years earlier. She stumbled toward Nova. Her underwear hung loosely off her hips, defying gravity somehow. “I need a hit. You holding?”

Nova looked at Jess with disapproval. “You let her sleep in the bathroom?”

“She wasn’t there last night,” Jess said. “But you wouldn’t know that, because you weren’t here either.”

“Ugh. Get dressed, Mama. You look like shit.” Nova took Lucia by the shoulders, turned her around and pushed her toward her bedroom.

“Don’t you talk to me like that,” Lucia said, glaring back at Nova.

“Or what, Mama? You gonna ground me?”

“Don’t test me.” Lucia changed direction and shuffled back toward the bathroom.

Nova threw open the front door.

“You promised!” Jess said, following close on Nova’s heels.

“We’ve been through this.” Nova blocked Jess’s path. “Not gonna happen. End of fuckin’ story.” Nova crossed the brown patch of lawn in front of their house and toward the street.

Any other time, Jess would have let it go, but this morning was different. Perhaps it was Nova’s slap, still warm and heavy on her cheek, that snapped Jess into action. She refused to give up and pursued Nova across the lawn.

TWO: The Drive-by, Part 1

Vendetta preferred the black 1979 Cadillac Coupe de Ville with tinted windows over anything else, especially for a drive-by. Brick and Crook wanted to take the Escalade, but it was a dead give-away as well as a cliché. There was something about the low rumbling idle, the growl, of the V8 engine that Vendetta loved.

In her head she was eight again. Vendetta pictured her father, Bear, a mountain of a man, behind the wheel, waiting for her curbside on Sunday morning.

“Where should we go today?” Bear would ask. “Hollywood? The coast?”

Vendetta saw herself raising her arms and yelling “The pier!”

Vendetta and her father went to Santa Monica Pier a lot. On the way there, she got to sit in the front seat without a seat belt, the warm summer breeze on her skin. They’d spend the day at Pacific Park, playing games, riding the roller coaster and eating junk food. Vendetta’s favorite above all was riding the Pacific Wheel, round and round, always in a red gondola, never yellow.

“Dad, when are you coming home?” Vendetta would ask, snuggled under Bear’s arm, watching the sun set as the Ferris wheel traced circles in the sky.

“Soon, babygirl,” he would say.

Not soon enough. Bear was shot and killed running from police after botching his first bank robbery.

What a fucking dumb ass. Vendetta snapped back to her sixteen-year-old reality. Selling smack is where it’s at.

The Cadillac rolled forward along West 54th, then turned right onto 4th, keeping pace with Nova walking two blocks ahead. Every house had a Mexican fan palm out front, towering high above the rooftops. They looked like twisted, unkind versions of Truffula trees and seemed to go on forever.

Brick was the wheel man for all of their drive-bys. Two-hundred eighty pounds and stacked like a linebacker, he often passed for 21. He used to be teased about his weight in high school and still remembered the chanting. Fatty, fatty, two by four, can’t fit through the fuckin’ door.

Now a member of the Dynamite Kings, no one dared to say anything about Brick’s size, even within the crew. The Dynamite Kings demanded respect and when they didn’t get it, they took it by force. The last kid to make fun of Brick, a little outspoken runt who didn’t know when to shut his mouth, received a beat down so severe he came close to dying in hospital. Brick wouldn’t have taken it that far by choice, but with the rest of the Kings involved, escalation was inevitable.

Crook sat in the back seat, tiny by comparison. A scrawny five-foot-two, he overcompensated for lack of height with misguided bravado. Crook was the best at everything he did, a legend in his own mind, but not so much this morning. His throat still burned and his breath reeked of vomit from early-morning terror. His stomach clenched in knots. Drive-bys always made him nervous.

For Crook, guns were his security blanket, and today he would be using a MAC-10, modified to be fully automatic. Banned in 1994, MAC-10s were easy to get if you knew the right people, and the Dynamite Kings knew everyone. They ruled the drug trade of this South Los Angeles suburb. Their turf sat surrounded by Crips to the north, east and south, Maryjanes to the west and spanned from Crenshaw Boulevard and West Slauson Avenue to Western Avenue and West 48th Street. It was a large area for a gang of their size.

“Gimme the gat.” Crook held a fully loaded clip in his fist. He pumped his thumb with excited intensity, pressing the top of the spring loaded hollow point bullets up and down like the jump button on an xBox controller.

“Not yet, bitch.” Vendetta kept her eyes locked on Nova walking ahead.

“Who you callin’ bitch, BITCH?”

“I am, you little shit. Now shut da fuck up.”

Crook fumed in the back seat. He imagined placing the barrel of the MAC-10 behind Vendetta’s head and coating the windshield with her brains. He smiled at the thought.

“She’s gonna hear us,” Brick said. “We shoulda took the Escalade.” Brick gripped the steering wheel of the Cadillac and tried to maintain a safe distance on the narrow street. A tattoo of a stick of dynamite with three red drops stood out between his thumb and forefinger.

“Fuck your Escalade. Just don’t lose the bitch,” Vendetta said.

“Hey, she’s going inside,” Brick said.

From down the street, the three assailants could see that the run-down house was equipped with bars on the windows and had a short, concrete retaining wall guarding the front where a flower bed used to be, long ago. A wobbly fence, broken in spots and in need of a coat of paint, lined the property on three sides. Nova crossed the brown, dead lawn and opened the front door, disappearing inside.

“Now what?” said Crook.

“Pull over,” said Vendetta. “Now we wait.”

Brick slowed the Cadillac, bringing it to a stop a block away from Nova’s house. The slow, hungry idle of the Cadillac echoed through the neighborhood.

“Fuck that shit.” Crook worked the spring-loaded bullets in the MAC-10 clip with his thumb. “Let’s go in and waste the bitch.”

“No.” Vendetta turned and looked back at Crook. “We’re gonna stick to the fuckin’ plan.”

“This is some bullshit, man,” Brick said.

“Want to be next? Shut da fuck up.” Vendetta and Nova were both senior members of the Dynamite Queens, both with the same level of status. Vendetta led the Queens because Nova had never challenged her. Vendetta intended to make that permanent.

“The crew looks up to her.” Brick was down with killing when it was justified, but this didn’t feel right to him.

“Shut your fat face, bitch. She ain’t the leader of the Queens. I am and don’t you forget it.”

Brick kept his eyes on Nova’s house. “She ain’t got no violations.”

“So? She’s a fucking tease,” Vendetta said. “I don’t like the way Rooster looks at her.”

“That’s cause they used to fuck, Rooster an’ her,” Crook said.

“What’d you just say?” Vendetta glared at Crook in the back. “I aught to waste you right now.”

Crook laughed. He’d hooked Vendetta, and began reeling her in. He nudged Brick’s shoulder. “She don’t know.”

“Everyone knows,” Brick said. “How could you not know?”

“Shut up!” Vendetta said, her angry eyes back on Nova’s house.

“You gonna kill all of Rooster’s ex-girlfriends now?”

Vendetta leaned in and squared off with Brick. “Just her, motherfucker.”

“Shame to waste a smokin’ hot bitch like that,” Crook said. “Rooster’s gonna be pissed. He loves the smokin’ hot bitches.”

“Shut da fuck up. That’s why we ain’t telling him shit, remember?”

“Look.” Brick spotted Nova leaving the house.

All three pulled bandannas over their faces. “Show time. Let’s roll,” Vendetta said.

Crook reached to the front with an open hand. “The gat, pass it back.”

Vendetta pulled the MAC-10 from under her seat and handed it to him. “You ever shot one of those things before?”

“Who do you think you’re talkin’ to, bitch?” Crook slapped the clip into the bottom of the MAC-10. It looked and sounded impressive but the truth was Crook had never held a MAC-10 before today.

Vendetta looked Crook over. “Don’t miss.”

“I never do.” Crook’s eyes sparkled with excitement as he pulled the charging bolt. Brick slipped the Cadillac into gear and into a slow creep forward down the street.

THREE: The Drive-by, Part 2

Nova made it halfway down the front walk before she turned to face Jess’s pleading. “You’re such a fuckin’ pain in the ass,” Nova said. “And you’re smart. Way smarter than me. Why do you want to be a gangbanger?”

“I’m tired of being the maid!” Angry tears welled in Jess’s eyes.

With each heated word between them, the Cadillac rolled closer.

“It’s dangerous. You could die. You want that?” Nova said.

“I don’t care anymore. Anything’s better than this.” It was rare for Jess to raise her voice, but the flood gates opened. There would be no stopping her now.

The Cadillac rolled closer, less than one hundred feet away. The tinted passenger window slid down and revealed the barrel of the MAC-10, emerging like the head of a snake. In the shadow of the cab, Crook’s eyes squinted over his bandanna, taking aim on Nova.

“I support you,” Jess said. “I clean up after you, after Mama. It’s all bullshit. I want the life you have. I want to have… fun.” The low, rumbling of the Cadillac’s engine distracted Jess from her words. She looked past Nova toward the source of noise.

Nova picked up on Jess’s loss of concentration and looked back towards the street. All the tell-tale signs of a drive-by were there: the slow moving Cadillac, the open window, the gun barrel.

Nova switched into battle mode. “GUN!”

For Jess, everything moved in slow motion. Nova spun toward the house, grabbing Jess and throwing her back over the concrete retaining wall.

Bullets erupted from inside the Cadillac. The initial kickback of the MAC-10 caught Crook off guard and he sprayed a short burst of bullets toward the sky until he regained control of the weapon. His second volley of bullets tore up the front walk, the dead lawn and punched crumbling holes in the retaining wall. Crook followed Nova’s movement, trying to maintain his erratic aim. The kickback and vibration of the MAC-10 was more difficult to control than he thought it would be.

Nova covered Jess with her body, breathing hard behind the concrete wall. Nova pulled out her Browning 9mm from the back of her pants and stuck her hand up over the top of the wall, firing back blindly.

As fast as the shooting started, it was over. With Crook’s MAC-10 clip spent, Brick floored the gas on the Cadillac and peeled out down the street.

Nova jumped over the cracked concrete wall that had saved her and Jess’s lives. In hot pursuit, she ran after the Cadillac, firing back.

Nova’s aim proved to be much better than Crook’s. The back window of the Cadillac exploded into shards. Nova continued to fire back.

One bullet grazed Crook’s neck, leaving a bloody mark. “The fucking bitch shot me!”

“You dumb-ass!” Crook had blown the entire mission and Vendetta was livid. If she had had a gun Crook would have been missing his head. “I thought you never miss!”

Crook gritted his teeth. “Fuck you, bitch.” He grabbed a second clip, reloaded the MAC-10 and fired back through the shattered rear window.

Nova ducked behind a palm trunk, narrowly missed by Crook’s second volley of gunfire. Wild bullets ripped up the pavement around her, again, never quite hitting their target.

Nova stepped out from behind the palm trunk and fired back several rounds at the fleeing Cadillac.

The bullets struck the rooftop and ricocheted inside. The noise and bullet holes appearing around Crook’s head startled him. He lost his grip on the MAC-10 and watched it slide off the trunk of the Cadillac, cartwheeling on the road behind.

“Stop! I dropped the gat,” Crook said.

“Fuck that shit.” Vendetta nodded at Brick. “Drive. The motherfucker can’t shoot worth shit anyway.”

Brick didn’t show any signs of stopping as he hurtled toward the intersection at West 52nd Street.

“Are you fuckin’ crazy?” said Vendetta, her eyes going wide. “I didn’t say kill us.”

Brick focused all his attention on the road just past the intersection, like he had the ability to warp past, and through, the cross traffic. “We’re cool,” he said. “It’s a four-way.”

Twenty-five feet from the intersection, Brick saw a Toyota SUV begin a left turn from West 52nd onto 4th, heading in the same direction. As the Cadillac blew through the stop sign, Brick swerved left and clipped the left rear bumper of the Toyota.

Nova holstered her gun in the front of her pants and watched the Cadillac straighten out and speed down 4th. By the time the driver of the Toyota realized what had happened, the Cadillac was long gone.

Nova trotted up to the MAC-10 lying in the street. Several neighborhood kids took an interest in the gun as well, squatting to get a good look at the automatic weapon up close.

“Stay back,” Nova said.

The kids recognized Nova’s neck tattoo and backed away, respecting her authority and giving her space. Nova picked up the MAC-10, still warm from gunfire. The barrel had bent when it struck the pavement. She removed the clip and unchambered the unfired round, catching the bullet in her hand without batting an eye. It was clear to all the kids watching her that she knew her way around a gun.

The warm 9mm hollow point bullet lay in her left palm, the MAC-10 held tight in her right.

“Any of you know who this gun belongs to?”

The kids stared back at Nova with blank faces.

“I just need a name.” Nova scanned the half dozen kids, memorizing their faces as best she could. “Anyone?”

No answer. One boy shook his head and received a whack from his friend beside him.

Nova singled out the two boys and crouched to their height. She held the hollow point bullet up close for them to see. “You know what this’ll do to your head?” The two boys stared at the bullet between Nova’s thumb and index finger. “Let’s just say your pretty faces would be gone.”

The other kids watched Nova, wide-eyed and too terrified to move.

“You sure you little fucks don’t know anything?” Again, the kids returned blank fearful faces. Satisfied, Nova waved the kids off. “Get out of here.”

The kids turned tail and ran.

“Nobody saw nothin’,” Nova said, loud enough for their escaping ears to hear. “Or you’ll meet this bullet again.”

Nova stood and walked back to the house to find Jess still cowering behind the concrete wall, covered with dirt and concrete dust. Police sirens wailed in the distance.

Lucia had propped herself in the doorway, still half dressed. Her t-shirt hung off her body like a flag in a windless sky. “What in the hell is going on out here? Did I hear shooting?”

“Go back inside, Mama. This don’t concern you.” Nova helped Jess to her feet. “You okay?”

Jess nodded. “I think so.” Nova looked Jess over carefully, trying to spot any visible injuries.

The tattoo on Nova’s neck, diamonds and dynamite, pulsed with her jack-hammering heart. “You wanted fun?” She pointed down the street. “ You’re gonna get that. I told you, gang life ain’t for you,” Nova said.

For a fleeting moment, Jess agreed.

FOUR: Lam’s Grocery

Dahn Lam stood outside his grocery store, moving an extended squeegee attached to a hose across the store’s sign, Lam’s Grocery, Est. 1976. His trademark whistle hung loosely around his scrawny neck. He looked like a high school coach without the muscles.

“I think it’s clean now,” Jess said, looking up.

“Jess! You early.” Dahn retracted the squeegee and turned off the water to the hose.

“Why do you clean that every week?” Jess asked, still looking up. “Does it really get that dirty?”

“This is my family now.” Dahn motioned to the store front. “Important to take care of family. Plus, looks good, eh?”

Jess nodded. The sign sparkled.

“Good advertising, good business, eh?”

“Yeah.” Jess disappeared inside the store, reappearing moments later with her apron. “Danny, have you thought about my idea of pushing the fruit and vegetables out onto the sidewalk?”

Dahn tapped his temple. “Still thinking.”

“You’d pull in more business,” Jess said, smiling.

“Easier to steal.”

“Who’d steal from you? Everybody loves you, Danny.”

Dahn picked up his whistle and gave it a quick blow, emitting a shrill chirp. “Time to start work.”

For Jess, working at Lam’s Grocery was a blessing and a curse. She didn’t mind the work, but all the money she earned went towards buying groceries and paying rent. The job was necessary for Lucia’s survival. Jess dreamed about opening up a bank account to save for college, but there was never anything left over.

Inside the store, the air was always cool and sweet. The smells of all the fruit and vegetables mixed to produce a unique essence Jess had grown to love.

Jess began every shift with a quick walkabout to check out the day’s produce. “Danny, these green peppers look like they’ll be toast soon. Maybe put them on sale?”

Dahn walked over to take a look. “Good call.” He pulled a Sharpie from his apron and adjusted the price. “How about a dollar off per pound?”

“When do we get more peppers?”

“End of week.”

Jess scrunched her brows in thought. “I’d make it a dollar fifty.”

Dahn balked at Jess’s suggestion.

“You don’t want to have to throw any away,” Jess said. “Peppers are expensive.”

Dahn nodded. “Okay. Dollar fifty.” He stroked out the price with the Sharpie, then tapped Jess’s head gently with his index finger. “You have head for business. Extra for you today.”

“Thanks, Danny.” If Jess wasn’t able to save for college, being able to exercise her business acumen gave Jess some of the job satisfaction she craved. Being rewarded for it made it all the better.

Jess looked at the Mickey Mouse clock over the cash register. It read five thirty. It was one of those days that felt like it would never end.

As Dahn dealt with customers, he could see Jess’s enthusiasm drain as time went on.

Her shift finally over, Jess moved through the aisles of dry goods and produce, gathering the week’s groceries. She had found another way to pay herself first by bringing home fresh fruit and vegetables. Nova and Lucia stuck to processed foods like Rice-a-roni and Kraft Dinner. That kind of food turned Jess’s stomach, but it kept the rest of her family off her back. It was their loss.

Jess leaned close to smell the Pink Lady apples, placing a few in her cart. Dahn’s produce was as fresh as if she had picked it herself.

Jess pushed her grocery cart to the till. Dahn began packing her groceries into paper bags, punching the items into his old cash register as he went. Dahn could see the exhaustion behind Jess’s eyes but knew enough about her family situation not to mention it.

Dahn paused at the bag of Cheetos. “You eat this?”

“My sister does.”

Dahn nodded and punched in the price. “Take care of family.”

“Something like that,” Jess said.

After placing the last item in her two bags, Dahn stepped out from behind the counter and trotted out to the fresh produce. He returned with a couple of peaches and tomatoes.

“Fresh today. Good for you.” Dahn placed the fruit in the remaining space in the paper bags. “No charge.”

“Thanks.” Jess grabbed the two bags of groceries with both arms. The bags were heavier today and she was not looking forward to the walk home. Jess backed her way through the reinforced front door and began her journey west down West 54th.

Dahn poked his head out of the door. He grabbed his whistle and gave it a blow. The shrill sound shattered the few thoughts left in Jess’s head. “Tomorrow, big delivery. Work early.”

Jess nodded but didn’t bother to turn around. “Yup,” she said and continued walking. She wasn’t sure if Dahn had heard her and she didn’t care either. She was beat.

It was only a few blocks to her house from Lam’s Grocery, but by the time she past Century Liquor, her arms burned with fatigue. The sweet fragrance of peaches rose past her nose as she walked, and a small, almost imperceptible smile crossed her lips. Jess imagined how the peaches would taste, how the sweet juice would drip from her chin. The image gave her renewed energy and Jess quickened her pace.

FIVE: She’s Off the Hook

The difference between Lam’s Grocery and Pho’s Mini-mart was fresh versus factory-made. There wasn’t a fruit or vegetable to be seen that wasn’t dried, processed or preserved. Tam Kwan, the owner of Pho’s, unpacked a box of Pringles. He noticed that the best before date was three years past.

From within the store, Tam could see a group of Dynamite Kings hanging outside. His eyes narrowed with contempt as his gaze shifted from the boys to a sign above the door that read No Loitering.

“Fuck you, Rooster.” Tam shrugged and continued to stock the shelves with stale Pringles, label out.

Rooster kicked open the door, as if he had heard Tam from outside. “Yo, Chinaman! Get us some forties.”

“Not China!” Tam was proud of his Vietnamese heritage.

Rooster raised his shirt tail, revealing a gold Beretta. “What’d you say… Chinaman?”

Tam stared at the gun tucked in Rooster’s pants, reflecting the buzzing fluorescent lights in gold glints. Memories of being dragged to the back of the store by Rooster and his thugs, and having that gun shoved down his throat, came flooding back.

“Move your fuckin’ ass!” Rooster kicked the door.

Tam blinked and snapped back to reality, fresh fear on his face and no idea what Rooster wanted, his task all but forgotten.

“What are you deaf?” The Dynamite Kings’s distinctive tattoo of a stick of dynamite with three red drops above it rippled and danced on Rooster’s neck as he talked. “The forties!”

Tam nodded. He scurried to the back of the store to look for the cheapest beer he could find.

“Make it quick!” Rooster turned to his crew. “Fuckin’ Chinaman.”

A middle-aged black woman exited Pho’s with her groceries and faced a gauntlet of insults from the boys.

“Hey, bitch, show us your tits!” a voice called out from the center of the group.

“Come take a ride on this!” A boy named Shaggy pushed to the front of the gang, pulled out a Saran-wrapped and partially eaten hoagie tucked in his belt, and held it over his crotch. “You know you want it!”

“I got a barrel you can suck,” Crook said.

Rooster scanned the woman’s body as she hurried away. “The bitch got an ass that just won’t quit.”

Tam opened the front door to the store, carrying a bag of bottles. “Leave customers alone. Without them I go out of business and you got no more store.”

Rooster’s mood flipped like a switch. He turned and approached Tam. “We gonna do whatever the fuck we want to.” Rooster landed a solid fist to Tam’s gut, doubling him over and almost knocking the bag out of his hand. “Got it?”

Tam nodded, struggling to breathe.

Rooster pulled Tam up by his collar. “Gimme those.” Rooster grabbed the beer and pushed him toward the front door of the store.

Tam disappeared into the store, clutching his gut.

“The next time he disses us, I say we waste his sorry ass.” Crook extended one arm at the door to the store and mimed aiming a gun with his hand and index finger.

“Who asked you?” Rooster’s eyes narrowed on Crook. “Shut the fuck up.”

Rooster examined the contents of the bag. “Next time, one for all of us!” Rooster passed out a couple of forty-ounce bottles of beer, keeping one for himself. He cracked the seal and took a swig.

“Hold up, Bro.” Brick pointed at Nova charging toward them from across the street.

Rooster took another pull from his beer.

“Damn, she’s fine,” Pee Wee, the youngest member of the gang, said.

“Say that again and I’ll pull your fuckin’ card.” Rooster glared at the boy. “No one disses Nova, understand?”

Pee Wee nodded and backed down.

Rooster returned his gaze to Nova. “Look what we have here. Super Nova.”

“Spare me your bullshit, Rooster.” Nova dug into the front pocket of her tight jeans and pulled out a 9mm hollow point bullet. “What the fuck is this?”

“Cool it, bitch.” Rooster took a step back. “It’s a nine mil hollow point. So?”

“So someone tried to take me out with it this morning.” Nova shifted her gaze through the gang, one by one. “Driving a caddy with a MAC-10”.

Stay cool. Crook shot a quick glance at Brick. They both realized at the same instant that the bullet was from the botched drive-by.

Rooster stepped forward, almost nose to nose with Nova. “You gonna back that shit up with some proof?”

All Nova had was the bullet and the busted MAC-10. She hadn’t seen anyone in the Cadillac this morning due its the tinted windows. “I’m gonna find out who did this, and when I do, you better watch your ass.”

“You think the Kings wanna bust a cap in your ass? In a Queen?” Rooster matched Nova’s accusatory stare until she backed down. “You do something I don’t know about?” Rooster scanned Nova’s body, head to toe and back, grinning all the while. “We don’t kill our own without good reason. You know that.”

Nova returned her gaze to the rest of the gang and looked for anything to help her case. One after another, each member of the Dynamite Kings offered an emotionless face. When Nova reached Crook, his eyes wavered. Not a lot, but enough to notice. She shifted her focus down. “What’s up with your neck?”

Crook raised a hand instinctively to the bloody mark on his neck where Nova’s bullet had grazed him earlier that morning.

“He cut himself shaving, ain’t that right?” Rooster laughed at his joke, shoving Crook on the shoulder. Crook managed a laugh and the rest of the Dynamite Kings joined in.

Nova ignored the laughter and kept her eyes on Crook. He tried his best to avoid Nova’s stare, but she knew in her gut that Crook was involved in the drive-by somehow. She just couldn’t prove it.

“I protect my fuckin’ crew. Remember that.” Rooster looked at the rest of the Dynamite Kings surrounding him, then back at Nova. “If I find out who tried to take you out, they’re fuckin’ dead.” Rooster extended his fist. “We down?”

“Yeah.” Reluctant, Nova bumped and shook hands with Rooster.

“Just like old times.” He broke a wide smile at Nova, revealing a mouthful of golden teeth. Rooster’s eyes roamed Nova’s body again, pausing a little too long on her breasts and crotch.

Old times meant to be forgotten, you fuckin’ perv. A shiver of revulsion shot through Nova’s body.

A block away, on the opposite side of West 54th, Jess headed toward them, her arms full of groceries. Rooster spotted her in an instant. “That your sister?”

Nova looked back over her shoulder, then back at Rooster. “Keep your tongue in your mouth.”

“Damn, she’s off the hook,” Rooster said.

“He likes them young chicas cherry,” Crook said.

“Damn straight!” Rooster bumped fists with Crook, laughing. “She ain’t no little girl no more.” The rest of the Dynamite Kings joined in, yelling cat calls at Jess across the street.

“Hands off, you pervs. I mean it.” Nova ran across West 54th to catch up with Jess.

Rooster kept his eyes on Jess, watching her fourteen-year-old behind move under her jeans. He licked his lips. I’m gonna get me some of that.

SIX: The First Step

Jess and Nova walked at a brisk pace down 4th. Their joint journey had been silent so far, except for the soft sound of their sneakers striking the warm sidewalk.

Nova glanced at Jess, watching her concentrate to keep her eyes forward. Looking at them together, their resemblance was as strong as their beauty.

Jess looked up at the Mexican palms that lined her street, sending a cold shiver traveling up her spine. To her, the iconic plant reminded her of clawed hands waiting for the right moment to reach down and grab her and rip her apart, and the trunks looked like jail bars. The leaves provided no relief from the summer heat and left a huge mess when they fell to the ground, dead, dried up, and brown.

Jess’s arms ached from carrying the groceries. “Did you find out who shot at you?” She thought talking might distract her from the pain.

“Maybe, but I don’t have proof.” Nova kept her gaze straight ahead.

“I bet it was Rooster.” Jess’s eyes narrowed. “He’s an asshole.”

“It wasn’t Rooster. He doesn’t operate like that.” Even though Nova talked, she was also lost in thought, still trying to piece together the day’s events. “If Rooster wanted you dead, he’d just walk up to you and cap your ass.”

Jess pictured it. The morning could have played out so much differently. Instead of talking with Nova, Jess could have been picking bits of her sister off the front walkway. The thought pricked the hairs up on the back of her neck.

“What about Vendetta?” Jess asked.

“Maybe,” Nova said. “We got history and she’s a candy-ass.” Voted most likely to shoot her sister in the back.

“Can you take one of these?” Jess motioned at the grocery bags in her arms. “It feels like my arms are gonna fall off.”

“We’re almost home.” Nova quickened her stride, leaving Jess behind struggling with the groceries.

“Hey, wait up!” Her plea ignored, Jess stopped to sit on the curb. Her arms enjoyed the rest. I should form my own gang, Jess thought. Then everyone couldn’t ignore me anymore.

By the time Jess arrived home, Nova was planted on the couch watching TV with two other Dynamite Queens, Codina and Tiny. Codina was a wiry sixteen-year-old Latina, with a braided pony tail that almost reached the floor.

Tiny, sixteen as well, and black, lived up to her name. Compared to Nova and Codina, Tiny was a foot shorter, but her lack of stature was balanced by an ability to spin a butterfly knife with deadly accuracy. She could even do it with her eyes closed.

Lucia lay passed out in a corner of the dirty floor beside the kitchen table. An empty “smiley-face” bag, rubber tubing and a spent needle lay beside her.

Jess set the two bags of groceries on the kitchen table and knelt down beside Lucia. Jess raised Lucia’s limp wrist and felt a slow steady pulse.

Jess picked up the smiley-face bag. “I thought you weren’t gonna give her this shit anymore?” The trademark smiley-face sticker appeared on all heroin sold by the Dynamite Queens. It was their brand, Nova had told Jess back when the Queens began dealing.

“If she’s buying, I’m selling,” Codina said, keeping her eyes on the television.

“Supply ‘n’ demand, an’ all that shit,” Tiny added between click-clack twirls of her butterfly knife.

“I know. I’m not stupid.” Jess moved the groceries from the table to the kitchen counter and began unpacking.

“You hungry? I’m hungry.” Nova bounced off the couch and made a bee-line to the kitchen where Jess was unpacking. Codina and Tiny followed, all three ransacking the groceries.

“Hey! That’s supposed to last the week.” Jess moved toward the bags of groceries but Codina blocked her path.

“Back off, bitch. I’ve got a date with that bag of Cheetos.” Codina sneered at Jess as she grabbed the bag of snacks with ultimate cool cat Chester the Cheetah staring back.

“Tomatoes? And fruit? What the fuck is this shit?” Nova grabbed a tomato and threw it into the kitchen sink, splitting its skin.

“What are you doing? That was good,” said Jess.

Tiny waved her knife at her.

“Why are you buying expensive shit like this?” Nova threw a peach into the sink. “We can’t afford this.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jess shoved Codina aside and rescued the peach from the sink. “Danny gave me extra today.”

“Oh, what else is your Chink sugar daddy givin’ you?” Tiny said, between click-clacks of her knife. “Slippin’ you his little rice dick?”

“Shut up.” Jess pushed past the three girls and wrapped her arms around the remaining groceries like she was protecting a child. “Buy your own food.”

Codina pulled her pony tail around in front of her and held it tight between her fists, an instant choke rope. Tiny, always the follower, flipped her knife blade out, pointing it at Jess. Nova watched from the sidelines, impressed by Jess’s courage.

“I’m gonna kick your fuckin’ ass,” said Codina through gritted teeth.

“Supply and demand. If you’re buying, I’m selling.” Jess smirked, knowing she was getting under Codina’s skin.

“Quit being a baby,” Nova said.

Jess grabbed a box of Rice-a-roni from one of her protected bags. “You want this? I want to be a Dynamite Queen.”

“You?” Codina erupted with laughter and dropped her ponytail. Tiny joined in.

“Whatever money you make, I could double it,” Jess said with confidence.

“You’re so full of shit.” Codina scoffed, dismissing Jess’s potential.

“Give me the food,” Nova said.

“No. I want in. I want to be a Queen.” Jess stood her ground, defiant. She felt good, powerful, if only for a moment. Thoughts of almost dying on the front lawn were far from her mind.

“Give me the food and we’ll talk.”

“Promise?” Jess tried to read her sister, knowing full well that Nova was an expert liar.

“We’re talking, right?” Nova extended her arms.

Jess considered her gesture and released the groceries.

Codina ripped into the bag of Cheetos. “Dumb bitch.”

“You don’t belong in a gang,” Nova said.

“This is bullshit, working, going to school and buying shit for you and your friends... and Mama.” Jess locked a fiery gaze with Nova. “Besides, it’s my decision.”

“Got to admit, the girl knows what she wants.” Tiny reached towards the bag of Cheetos in Codina’s hands.

“Get your own!” Codina pulled the bag away from Tiny and continued to stuff her face with the dayglow orange snacks.

“Just ‘cause you want to don’t mean we gotta take you.” Nova returned Jess’s gaze. “We steal. We deal. When we gotta, we kill.”

“Sometimes, just for fun,” Codina said between mouthfuls of baked nuclear cheese.

“Everyone pulls their own weight,” Nova said, the seriousness of her words apparent. “Once you’re in, you’re in for life.”

“The only way out is to die,” Codina said.

“Or have a kid.” Tiny grimaced. “I ain’t never having a kid. That shit’s ugly.”

“Who’d wanna fuck you, anyway?” Codina pushed Tiny on the shoulder, leaving orange finger marks behind.

“Lots of guys wanna do me,” Tiny said, brushing off the orange Cheeto crumbs on her shirt. “Deshawn Bishop would do me. He’s fine.”

Codina laughed. “Deshawn fucks anything with a hole.”

“Who gives a shit.” Nova pushed Codina and Tiny. “Shut the fuck up for a second.” Nova turned to face Jess. “You sure this is what you want?”

“Yes,” Jess said, without hesitation. In her head, she was playing all the scenarios at once: selling drugs, ripping people off, and killing. And it was great. In her head, everything was easy.

SEVEN: Distractions

Samantha Walsh sat in history class, feigning interest. Most classes bored her. She often replayed memories from when she first met Jess to pass the time. Billy Horton’s comeuppance in Grade 2 was one of her favorites.

She stood behind a tree, watching the playground at 55th Street Elementary. Jess joined her, breathing hard.

“Didya get it?” Samantha asked, excitement twinkling in her eyes.

Jess held up a small, yellow bucket with a creepy clown painted on the side. “Yup. Look!” The bucket was filled with a brown, muddy mess.

“Why is it all wet?”

Jess shrugged. “I added water. I didn’t want the worms to die.”

The two girls looked at each other and began to giggle.

“This is the last time Billy Horton hogs the sandbox,” Samantha said between snickers.

“When should we do it?”

Samantha looked at Jess, surprised. “Now, of course!”

“Yes, of course!” Jess said, and they both began to giggle again.

“Shh. We got to be quiet.”

“Yeah, okay.” Jess scrunched up her brow. “How should we do it?”

“We’ll just sneak up on him and dump it on his head,” Samantha said. “Ready?”

Jess nodded as they both set off on the most important mission of their young lives.

Billy was alone, as usual, making roads in the sandbox for his Matchbox cars. He carried his cars everywhere he went in a branded Matchbox suitcase laying nearby.

The two girls approached Billy from behind, holding back their giddiness. Samantha stopped and looked at Jess. She smiled and nodded. They both grabbed a side of the bucket, raised it up and inverted it over Billy’s head. Because the dirt was so wet, it flowed out, rather than forming a mountain, but their aim was true.

Dark, muddy earth ran down Billy’s face and ears, most of it following the curve of his back and into his pants and underwear. Samantha and Jess dropped the bucket and ran.

Before the girls were halfway back to their tree to observe the damage, Billy erupted in a scream unlike anything they had ever heard before. It stopped them in their tracks. They looked back to see Billy in a full blown tantrum.

“Our job here is done.” Samantha took Jess’s hand and shook it, smirking.

“Pleasure doin’ business with ya,” Jess said, smiling back.

And that was that. Samantha and Jess were best friends forever.

The period bell rang, snapping Samantha back to her history class, one of her many classes without Jess. It had become more difficult to do everything together once they got to Centra Vida High School. Different classes limited their time together, plus their interests had begun to diverge. Samantha got into photography in Grade 7, and two years later a digital SLR camera hung off her shoulder like it was a part of her body.

The school had two levels and was made for a photographer’s eye, with lots of interesting angles and colors. Each wing of the school featured a different hue: blue for Math and Science, yellow for English, green for Economics, red for Drama and the Arts, purple for Physical Education and brown for History and the library. The lockers were painted alternating colors, white and the hue of the wing in which they resided.

Samantha was a regular contributor to the school newspaper, the Centra Vida Voice, and had even sold a few photos to the Los Angeles Times. Centra Vida was home to over one thousand students, most of them Black and Hispanic. Being a blonde white minority helped her visibility.

Jess focused on business and economics. Samantha had suggested they pool their talents after graduating and open a photography business.

“You could run the business side of things and I’d take photos,” Samantha remembered saying. “It’d be rad.” At the time, Jess had seemed into the idea.

Students spilled out into the hallway. Samantha raised her camera to her eye and scanned the sea of students through her camera lens. Jess’s next class was Business Studies and Samantha knew Jess would have to pass her locker to get there.

Jess’s face slid into view. “There you are,” Samantha said to herself as she framed a candid portrait of Jess. Click-click. “Hey, wanna hang after school?”

Jess, lost in thought, walked by Samantha without responding.

“Jess?” Samantha raised the camera to her eye again. Instead of taking pictures, she followed Jess down the hall with her zoom lens until Jess was out of sight. What’s up with her? Samantha thought.

* * * * *

Being a teacher at Centra Vida was difficult, without adding minority status to the mix. Even though students in Nari Tanaka’s Business Studies class chose to be there, most of the faces staring back at her every day were blank. Student apathy ran high, making it difficult to maintain her passion for teaching. Nari, a Japanese American in her mid thirties, had given ten years of her working life to Centra Vida but she wasn’t about to give up hope yet.

Nari wrote Marketing on the chalkboard in neat, measured letters. “So how is marketing important in business?”

The class stared back in silence.

“Come on guys and gals. We’ve been talking about this for an hour. Hailey?”

Hailey shrugged indifference.


“I dunno, Miss T,” Caleb said.

“Okay.” Nari erased Marketing from the chalkboard and replaced it with Go Viral. “How about that?”

Nari spotted Jess, busy at the back of the class, head down, writing notes. “Jess? What do you think?”

Today, business class wasn’t even on Jess’s radar. Instead, images of becoming a Dynamite Queen consumed her. Everything else took a back seat in her mind. Nari voice droned on, wah wah wah, wah wah, like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon. 

What role would I play in the gang? Jess thought. What kind of missions would I go on? Would I have to kill someone? Would I have the guts to kill someone?

Jess filled her notebook with doodles instead of notes. Images of money, guns shooting rival gangs, knives, and speech balloons yelling “DIE, BITCH!” filled the page, all falling beneath a banner in big, block letters: “DYNAMITE QUEENS RULE!” The side of her right palm was stained blue with smudged ink.

I can’t believe I’m gonna be a Dynamite Queen! A sly smile crossed Jess’s face.

“Jess?” Nari raised her voice enough to punch through Jess’s daydreams. Titters sounded from the rest of the class.

Jess raised her head, her smile gone and aware of the class’s eyes on her. “Yeah, Miss T?”

“What does Go Viral mean to you?” Nari crossed her arms, annoyed but waiting for brilliance.

“Uh…” Jess stared back, blank like all the rest of her classmates.

Nari searched the class for another student. “Makayla, how about you?”

“Isn’t that when you like something on Facebook, then your friends like it because you liked it, and it becomes a… thing.” Makayla said.

“Yes!” Nari gave Makayla a thumbs up. “Now replace the word like with buy and you’re getting close,” Nari said. “Who buys apps for their phone?”

Every hand in the class went up, except for Jess’s. Her head was down again, focusing on her doodling.

“Why?” Nari asked.

“Because they’re cool,” a voice from the back said.

Nari gave a thumbs up. “What else?” Nari looked around the class.

“They’re cheap.”

Another enthusiastic thumbs up. “And?” Silence again. “You heard about the app somewhere. You read about it. Your friend told you about it. That’s marketing.”

The bell rang. Students grabbed their books and filed out of the classroom like they were on autopilot, Jess included.

When a student showed real interest, it could turn a class around and make learning fun again. Jess was one of those students. Most days, Jess led discussions and asked questions, but today she was in her own world. Nari missed the interaction.

“Jess?” Nari waved her over to her desk. “Are you feeling okay? You looked a little distracted today.”

“Nah. I’m good,” Jess said, tucking a page with doodles all over it back into her binder.

“What did you think of class today?”

Jess scrambled for an answer, her mind drawing a blank. All that swirled through her head were images of the Dynamite Queens kicking ass.

“Marketing and its role in business?” Nari said, knowing full well Jess had no clue what she was talking about.

“I got to go, Miss T,” Jess said and rushed out into the hallway, now congested with students heading to other classes.

Nari followed Jess out into the hallway. “Will I see you at business club today?”

Jess turned to face Nari, walking backward. “Can’t. I got to work.”

Nari watched Jess turn and continue walking down the hallway, then lost sight of her in a swarm of students. Her next class began to trickle in and she greeted them as they walked by to find their seats.

Nari spotted a piece of paper on the floor near the desk Jess had been sitting at. She picked it up and unfolded it, revealing doodles of money, drug paraphernalia, and little smiley-faces. What’s going on in that head of yours, Jess Garza? Nari folded the paper and slipped it into her pocket.

EIGHT: Photo Booth

Enriched French class, the last class of the day. Samantha watched the clock’s second hand tick its eternal trip. Normally Samantha enjoyed French, but today it was torture. She wanted the day to be over.

The robotic second hand of the clock jerked its way toward twelve. Samantha had been watching its movement too closely. She scrunched her brows together. I swear the second hand stopped moving just now.

The bell rang. Samantha collected her books, her camera and was out the classroom door pushing her way through the crowd.

At her locker several spaces down from Jess’s, Samantha threw some books into her backpack, grabbed her coat and headed to the main doors, scanning the exodus of teenagers all the while.

Samantha parked herself on the side of the steps leading to the front of the school. Across from her stood Centra Vida’s infamous digital sign. Today, the words “every child, every chance” scrolled by in red, electronic letters.

I’m not a child anymore, Samantha thought. She preferred it when students hacked the sign to display offensive jokes and insults. Once it read “Knock knock. Who’s there? Fuck you.” The student who did that was expelled for a month.

Samantha turned her attention back to the front entrance and watched students flow out of the school. She loved to take candid photos of people and later try and figure out what the person had been thinking.

Jess appeared at the double-doored entrance, emerging from the shade within the school. She spotted Samantha right away, the only blonde with a camera within a ten mile radius. Samantha was her personal paparazzi and most of the time Jess didn’t mind. Today was different. It felt like an intrusion.

Click-click. Jess wasn’t smiling. Later, Samantha would spend considerable time examining that photo of Jess, trying to figure out why Jess had decided to change their graduation plans.

Jess paused, then walked past Samantha down the stairs and out to the street.

“Hey! Jess! Wait up.” Samantha grabbed her things and took off after Jess. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?”

Jess maintained a steady pace down the street.

Samantha stepped in front of Jess and faced her, walking backward and matching her stride. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Jess said. “I just have a lot on my mind.”

“No shit,” Samantha said. “So what’s up?”

Jess hesitated, then pushed past Samantha. “I got to get to work.”

“Come on, Jess. Remember our promise? No secrets.” Samantha raised her camera to take a photo.

Jess blocked the lens with her hand. “Stop it.”

Samantha lowered her camera, confused. Jess usually hammed it up for the camera. “You’re scaring me.”

Jess stopped walking, sighed and closed her eyes. She turned to face Samantha. “You’re not gonna like it.”

“Like what?”

“Before I say anything, my mind’s made up. Okay?”

“Okay.” Samantha locked eyes with Jess in a way that felt very foreign to her. They had always shared their innermost thoughts.

Jess took a breath. “I’m going to be a member of the Dynamite Queens.”

The words stung Samantha like a hard slap across the face. It took her a moment to take it all in. “Seriously? You’re joining a gang? No offense, but isn’t that a little stupid?”

Jess started walking. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

Samantha followed. “But the Queens are bad ass.”

“It’s my life.” Jess kept her gaze straight ahead.

“What about our plans after we graduate?”

“We can still start our own business.”

“Not if you’re in jail, or worse.” An image of Jess, lying in the street mortally wounded, flashed through Samantha’s head.

“You worry too much,” Jess said.

Samantha pulled Jess’s shoulder to face her. “Will we still be friends?”

Jess saw Samantha’s concern, and in that instant felt the love of a sister, a love she never got from Nova. Her heart softened and she hugged Samantha. “Of course. You’ll always be my B.F.F.”

Samantha savored the hug, filing the moment away for later. She pushed the news of Jess joining a gang out of her head. “When do you have to work?”

“Four,” Jess said.

“Good. There’s still time. Let’s go to the mall.” Samantha led the way.

Jess smiled and followed. For the next little while, everything felt normal again.

* * * * *

The concourse of the Sunny Super Mall was packed with people, more than usual for a weekday afternoon, Jess thought.

Samantha returned from the front counter of the Freez-E-Scoop, holding two ice cream cones, peanut butter and chocolate for Jess and bubblegum for herself. They walked as they ate.

Jess looked at the neon pink and blue concoction being devoured in Samantha’s hands. “Gross. I don’t know how you can eat that.”

“It’s so good. There’s bits of bubblegum in it too, so afterward I get a second treat,” Samantha said, already a wad of gum collecting in her cheek. She spotted a mother and father walking their two-year-old. “Hold this for a sec.”

Samantha handed her bubblegum abomination to Jess and crouched with her camera, firing off several photos, the telephoto lens working in and out with each shot. Jess looked at the pink and blue mess, already starting to drip.

Jess licked some of the melting slurry off her hand and shuddered. “Hurry up. This stuff is getting all over me.”

Samantha stood and took back her ice cream. “Did you try some?”

“It’s disgusting.” Jess noticed some drips still on her hand and wiped them on her pants. “Let’s go.”

“Look!” Samantha pointed to a box about the size of an average person, with a curtain on the side. “A photo booth! When did they put that here?”

Jess shrugged.

“Let’s do it! Hurry up and finish your ice cream.” Samantha attacked what was left of her cone.

“I don’t have any money left,” Jess said between licks.

“I do. Come on!” Samantha finished the last bite of her ice cream. “Hurry up!”

Jess jammed a final mouthful of peanut butter and chocolate into her mouth. “How’s this?” muffled Jess with bulging cheeks. The two girls began to giggle. Melted chocolate dripped from the corner of Jess’s mouth. She wiped it away with the back of her hand.

Jess and Samantha entered the photo booth and closed the curtain behind them. A small video screen inside displayed sample images.

“Ready?” Samantha looked at Jess, excited and in the moment.

“Yup. How do I look?”

“You have a bit of chocolate... right here.” Samantha pointed to the corner of Jess’s mouth.

Jess wiped it away. “Better?”

“Perfect,” Samantha said.

Jess smiled, feeling that sisterly connection again.

The booth consumed Samantha’s five dollar bill. “We get four photos.”

On the video screen a countdown began.

5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Go!

The girls began to pose, smiling and giggling, making kissy-faces, tilting their heads, hugging cheek to cheek. A heart-shaped pendant surrounded by a ring of silver stars slipped out from behind Jess’s shirt and dangled. The photo booth flashed four times.

After a moment, a strip of photos fell into a dispenser below. Samantha grabbed it.

“Oh, so sexy!” Samantha made a kissy-face. “You have to let your hair down next time.”

“Shut up! Give me that.” Jess grabbed the strip of photos. “Let me see.” She saw herself and the pendant in one of the images, her smile fading. Jess looked down at the pendant hanging outside of her shirt. She caressed it for a moment and tucked it back into her shirt.

Samantha knew how important that pendant was to her, remembering the day when Jess’s father had given it to her. Jess was so happy and proud. She’d worn it every day since.

Samantha gave Jess a moment before placing her arm around Jess’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Jess nodded and handed the photos back to Samantha.

“I’m sorry, Jess.”

“Look. I got to go. I’ll be late for work.” Jess pulled back the curtain and hopped out of the photo booth. “I’ll call you later.” She walked away, disappearing into the mall crowd.

Samantha watched Jess go, then returned her gaze to the strip of photos. Now, all she could see was the pendant hanging from Jess’s neck and what it meant.

It was the year Jess turned nine. Christmas celebrations were simple, not by choice but by necessity. The holiday meals were simple as well, often hot dogs and a fruit pie from Pho’s.

That year, Jess’s father Elias had splurged on two identical pendants, one for Jess and one for Nova, and hidden them in a paper bag of Pink Lady apples. No one but Jess ate them and she had managed to stretch the apples for two weeks. It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve that she discovered the surprise.

Jess pulled a small wrapped box out of the bag. The tag read: For Jessie, Love Papa. She looked in the bag again to find a similar box addressed to Nova.

She ran to her bedroom and jumped on Nova’s bed. “Look what I found!” She lay the boxes on the bed.

Nova dropped the magazine she was reading. “What’re those?”

“I don’t know. They’re from Papa.” Jess pushed the one addressed to Nova across the bed. “They were in the bag of apples.”

Elias appeared at the doorway to the bedroom. “I was wondering when you were going to find those,” he said, arm around Lucia’s shoulder and her arms around his waist.

 Lucia looked up at him and smiled.“You did good.”

“What are they?” Jess’s eyes sparkled.

Elias smiled. “You’re going to have to open them up and find out.”

The two girls tore into their small boxes until the treasure inside was revealed. Jess was first to hold up the pendant, hanging from a silver chain. The heart-shaped ring of stars twinkled in the light of the bedroom. She stared at it, enraptured.

“I love it!” Jess scrambled over to Elias and held up her hair, exposing her neck. “Put it on, please.”

Elias brought the ends of the necklace around Jess’s neck and locked the clasp.

Jess turned around and looked at the pendant in the mirror, hanging above her heart.

Lucia nodded in appreciation. “Very nice.”

“I love it, Papa. Thank you!” Jess wrapped her arms around Elias and Lucia together and squeezed.

Nova had fastened the necklace around her neck herself, but joined Jess to hug Elias. He gave her one of his famous wide smiles and kissed her head.

“I just had to celebrate the women in my life,” Elias said.

Three months into the new year, Elias collapsed in the bathroom from a brain aneurysm. Both Jess and Nova were at school when it happened and it shattered the family to its core. To cope with the loss, Lucia turned to prescription medication, then harder drugs.

As Samantha held the strip of photos in her hand, she was reminded of the slow deterioration of Jess’s family over the years. The happiness of their photo booth moment melted away, leaving her thinking of her own father and how different her life had turned out compared to Jess.

Samantha headed home, spurred by a sudden need to hug her dad.

NINE: You Scream, You Die

Dahn was right when he’d said there would be a big delivery. Jess lugged big boxes of fruit, apples, oranges, peaches, pears, standard fare, across the floor of the stock room and onto a dolly. Dahn didn’t sell anything exotic.

“What about star fruit?” Jess asked.

“Tried couple years ago,” Dahn said. “Too expensive.”

“Maybe things have changed.” Jess dropped a box of oranges onto the dolly.

“No. Margins too low.” Dahn marked off items from the delivery on a clipboard. “And star fruit taste terrible. Word spread fast. No one buy.”

And that was that. When Dahn made a decision, it was final. There was no going back.

Jess stacked a box of Bartlet pears on top of the oranges and a box of Pink Lady apples on top of that. She rolled them out from the stock room and began unpacking, sorting older apples from new ones and removing the odd rotten ones.

Pink Ladies were Jess’s favorite and she tucked one in the corner of the box for later. Pears, on the other hand, were number one on her lame list. She hated the taste and how their texture made her picture a mouthful of sawdust.

Back in the stock room, Jess flipped an empty box and sat down, exhausted. She grabbed her saved Pink Lady and took a bite, savoring its crisp sweetness. The beat-up Coca-Cola clock on the back wall read 5:45 p.m. Her shift was almost over.

Dahn poked his head out of his office and into the stock room. He grabbed his whistle and gave it a piercing blow. “Don’t pay you to sit and eat. Back to work!”

Jess mocked Dahn, mouthing “back to work.” In anger, she threw the half eaten apple into a box of garbage and dragged it out the back of the store. A scummy dumpster awaited. Jess strained to lift the box of garbage over the lip of the dumpster. Rotting fruit and vegetable juice leaked out of the box and down her arm in brown rivulets.

Crook and Brick appeared out of the shadows and surrounded Jess. Rooster moved behind her and cupped his dirty hand over her mouth.

“You scream, you die, bitch.” Rooster’s words were laced with the odor of cigarettes, malt liquor and unwashed teenage boy. The smell turned her stomach.

Jess struggled to get away, but Rooster’s grip was strong. As he forced her to the ground, Jess saw an opportunity and raised her knee hard into his crotch. “Let me go!”

Rooster fell off Jess clutching his groin. Jess turned over on her hands and knees, crawling away. “Get her,” Rooster yelled.

Crook lined up his high tops and kicked Jess in the stomach, winding her and knocking her onto her back again. Jess’s necklace and pendant slid out from under her shirt. In a flash, Rooster straddled her.

Rooster’s lips peeled back into a sneer of golden teeth. “You don’t listen too well.” Rooster spotted Jess’s heart-shaped pendant and ripped it from her neck.

“That’s mine. Give it back.” Jess struggled against her pain and lack of breath, slapping and hitting Rooster wherever she could, but her strength was fading.

Crook and Brick watched as Rooster wound up and struck Jess across her face, then unzipped his pants. “I’ll give you something. Turn the bitch over and hold her hands.”

Crook, eager to help, took advantage of Jess’s weakened state. He pulled her arms above her head and turned her onto her stomach. Crook knelt on her hands to make sure she couldn’t move.

Rooster yanked Jess’s jeans and underwear down to her knees. His eyes flashed with anticipation at the sight of her exposed body.

Although still dazed, Jess knew what was going to happen. “No! Please, no!”

Brick pulled Crook off Jess’s arms. “This wasn’t part of the plan.”

“Plans change, nigga.” Crook pointed his Glock at Brick’s head. “How can you say no to a virgin ass like that?”

“If she’s as good as her sister, this train’s gonna be badass.” Rooster, rock hard with excitement, pulled his underwear down.

Dahn emerged from the back door of the store and blew his whistle. “Stop! I call police!”

Crook turned his gun from Brick to Dahn, pulling the trigger. Crook’s bullet went wide, missing its target. Dahn disappeared back into the store and continued to blow his whistle.

“Fucking chink,” Crook said.

Dahn returned to the back door of the store, holding a small caliber handgun. He aimed and fired, narrowly missing Rooster. “I call police!” Dahn blasted two more rounds at the boys, missing again.

Rooster leaned in to whisper into Jess’s ear. “You’re mine, bitch. You hear me?” Rooster pulled up his underwear and pants. “Let’s book.”

Rooster, Crook and Brick sprinted down the alley and out of sight.

Dahn ran to Jess’s side and placed a blanket over her, no longer a boss but a friend. “Jess, you okay?”

Jess turned away from Dahn, hurt and embarrassed. Dahn realized Jess’s need for privacy and stepped back, giving her space. She hitched up her underwear and jeans, and removed her apron.

Jess placed her hand on her chest, feeling the spot where her pendant used to hang, already missing it terribly.

Jess and Dahn shared a look. No words were shared between them but they both understood. Dahn watched as Jess stood up, brushed herself off, and ran in the opposite direction down the alley. The wind dried her tears.

TEN: Split Lip

Jess ran the entire way home on autopilot, reliving Rooster’s attack. She wanted to knock his smug face into oblivion, including all his gold teeth. Maybe she’d collect his teeth, melt them down and make a necklace out of them.

Her necklace. Jess felt where her pendant used to hang close to her heart. She felt naked without it.

Jess stood at the front door of the house, trying to think of the best way to go inside without drawing attention. The more she hesitated, the darker her blackened eye got. Her split lip stung when she licked it and she could taste blood. Jess pulled her hoodie up over her head and went inside.

Lucia sat at the kitchen table. A sleazy guy, one that Jess had never seen before, was helping Lucia shoot up. The table was littered with empty smiley-face bags, cotton balls and a couple of soda bowls with remnants of liquefied heroin in them. The distinctive red and white Coke logo could still be seen at the bottom of the jagged cut edge of the inverted soda can.

The guy leered at Jess, tracing her body with his eyes. “Want a hit?” He grinned, revealing brown, rotted teeth.

“Fuck off, loser,” Jess said, heading to the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator and found spoiled leftovers. The cupboards were bare. All the groceries she had bought earlier in the week were gone.

Nova closed her bedroom door and walked up the hall to the kitchen table where Lucia was already in a deep high. “Hey douche bag, when are you leaving?” Lucia’s sleazy companion released his makeshift shoelace tourniquet, falling back in his chair and slipping into euphoria.

“Fucking addicts,” Nova said, looking at Lucia with disgust.

“You should talk. You’re the one selling them that shit,” Jess said.

Nova ignored the irony. “Where have you been?”

“Work.” Jess stood in front of the stove, her back to Nova. “Where’s all the food I bought yesterday?”

“How the fuck should I know?”

Jess tried to push past Nova without revealing her face, but she blocked Jess’s path. “Turn around.”

“No.” Jess remained standing with her back to Nova. She touched her split lip and looked at the bloody mark it left on her fingers. Her face must be worse than she thought.

Nova reached out, grabbing Jess’s shoulder and turned her around. “I said turn...” The sight of Jess’s face stopped Nova cold. She pulled Jess’s hood down. “Who did this?”

Jess ran to the bathroom and slammed the door. Nova followed, trying the door, but Jess had locked it. “Open up, Jess. Now!”

The bathroom mirror reflected Jess’s battered face back at her, revealing the aftermath of Rooster’s attack. It looked much worse than it felt but it horrified her just the same. The right side of Jess’s face was bruised and swollen, her split lip was bloodied and the orbit of her right eye had developed into a dark shade of purple.

Nova kicked the bathroom door open, splitting the wooden frame. “Who did this to you?”

“Did what?”

“This!” Nova pulled Jess closer to the mirror, making every broken blood vessel in her face clearer. Jess and Nova looked at each other in the mirror.

“No one.” Jess wasn’t going to rat out Rooster, even after what he did. She’d get her revenge. She was already thinking of ways to get back at him.

“Don’t fucking lie to me.”

Jess turned to face Nova. “What does it matter? I’m fine.”

Nova clenched and shook her fists. “I’m gonna kill the motherfucker who did this to you.”

“Why do you care?” Jess said, locking eyes with Nova. “You’ve never cared before.”

“This is different. This is family.”

“Bullshit. We’ve been family all my life.” Jess leaned closer to the mirror and touched her split lip again. It stung more now. “You’ve decided to start being my sister now?”

Nova remained silent. No response could make up for the fact that Jess was right. Nova had avoided Jess for most of her life, even more so after Papa died.

“It wouldn’t have happened if I was a Dynamite Queen.”

Nova shook her head. “Queens get jumped too, you know.”

“When have you ever been jumped?”

Nova softened. “You don’t give up easy, do you?”

“We have a lot in common,” Jess said. “If you’d only stop and look once in a while.”

Nova and placed her arm around Jess’s shoulder. For a moment they were sisters again. They were family again. Jess closed her eyes and smiled, even though it hurt.

ELEVEN: Beat Down

Brick was a big, strong guy. Being a member of the Dynamite Kings meant that sometimes he had to do things he didn’t like doing.

“You said you were gonna scare her,” Brick said. “Raping her wasn’t part of the plan.”

As twisted as it sounded, Brick had no issues beating the shit out of anyone if they deserved it, but raping a woman crossed the line. Unfortunately Rooster didn’t share his morals. Rooster had no morals at all.

“Shut the fuck up, motherfucker.” Rooster hissed.

Brick was in violation and that meant retribution in the eyes of the Dynamite Kings. What kind of retribution was up to Rooster to decide. Failing to finish an assignment was one thing, but defying Rooster to his face was quite another. Rooster was pissed.

The rest of the Dynamite Kings looked upon Brick with indifference, waiting for the word from Rooster.

“You’re such a pussy,” Crook said to Brick.

Rooster turned on Crook. “Did I say you could talk?”

Crook took a step back, avoiding Rooster’s stare.

Brick laughed. He couldn’t help himself. “Who’s the pussy, now?”

Rooster walked up to Brick, nose to nose. Brick held his own, meeting Rooster’s stare head on.

“Do it.” Rooster backed away as the rest of the gang surrounded Brick.

Individually, Brick could have taken on any member of the Dynamite Kings and knocked the sense out of them, including Rooster. Taking on the entire gang all at once was a losing proposition. Brick blocked the first few hits, but soon the entire gang descended upon him like a pack of wild dogs. Protecting himself as best he could was Brick’s only option.

Rooster stood off to the side, watching, grinning his golden grin and enjoying every moment.

Brick fell to the ground, fresh blood trickling from his mouth. All of his strength wouldn’t help him now. It was him against the Dynamite Kings. Brick looked up long enough to see Crook smiling down at him.

“Pussy.” Crook swung his boot, connecting with Brick’s face.

Brick rolled onto his back, shielding his face, seeing stars of pain shoot behind his eyelids. Another kick found his ribs. Brick rolled the opposite direction, and was kicked in the back.

The assault came at such a furious pace that it was difficult for Rooster to see Brick’s form beneath the throng of boys.

“Back away.” Brick’s cowering body lay in a heap on the pavement. The rest of the Dynamite Kings parted as Rooster approached. He knelt next to Brick’s head, grabbing him by his short afro. “Look at me.”

Brick turned his head but not quick enough for Rooster’s liking. Rooster yanked Brick’s head back.

“You came close to dyin’ just now.”

Brick’s chest hitched in hard, short breaths, as bloodied saliva hung in sticky strands from the corner of his mouth.

“Never question me, motherfucker. Ever.” Rooster glared at Brick’s face, smeared with blood, sweat and dirt. “You do what I say you do. Got it?”

Brick managed a nod. Rooster dropped Brick’s head to the pavement and pulled his Beretta from his belt. He jammed the gold muzzle of the gun into the back of Brick’s head and cocked the hammer back.

“Anyone else who disses me is gonna get capped.” Rooster surveyed the rest of the gang, making sure his words were heard.

Brick’s mind swirled as he tried to ignore the press of cool gold into the back of his head. Rooster’s unpredictability combined with not knowing if he was going to live or die scared Brick to his core.

The rest of the gang stood by, mesmerized by Rooster’s every move. Rooster smiled, content that his message was heard. He reveled in his power over this group of kids. Rooster uncocked the Beretta’s hammer and shoved it back in his belt. Brick collapsed in a heap, managing to hold back his sobs of relief.

Rooster kicked Brick in the stomach and extended his hand. “Get up. We got work to do.”

Brick took Rooster’s hand and pulled himself up. He clutched his stomach, still in spasm from Rooster’s kick. Purplish-red bruises swelled up on his face. The importance of following orders was not lost on Brick. Anyone in a gang with half a brain knew to follow orders, but any respect Brick had for Rooster was gone.

TWELVE: Mystery Girl

The school bell rang. Samantha stood at her locker collecting the books she’d need for her next class. Photographs of exotic people and places covered the inside of her locker door. The image of Mount Fuji at sunset was her favorite. Samantha wanted to visit there someday to take her own photos.

The hallways filled with kids heading to class. Samantha closed her locker door and spotted Jess standing at her open locker, a wide hank of hair shrouding her face. “Hey, Girlfriend.”

Jess looked at Samantha, then back to the contents of her locker. It was a look long enough for Samantha to register Jess’s bruises.

Samantha’s eyes opened wide. “Damn, Jess!”

“I ran into a door,” Jess said, continuing to rearrange books inside her locker.

“Seriously?” Samantha wasn’t buying it and Jess knew it.

“I zigged. The door zagged.” Books in hand, Jess turned to face Samantha. “Don’t make a big deal about it.”

Other students passed by, staring, pointing at Jess and whispering. Samantha moved to block their view.

“You’re full of shit.” Samantha reached out to Jess’s face and reconsidered, stopping just short of touching her skin. “Does it hurt?”

“What do you think?” Jess turned away from Samantha’s hand. “Just stop, okay?”

Samantha lowered her hand. “Who did this to you?”

Across the hallway, a girl dressed in Goth gnawed a wad of gum as she watched Jess and Samantha talk. They felt her stare, turning to look.

Her black long-sleeved shirt was anchored by finger holes in the cuffs, and one shoulder was exposed, with a web of silver chain pinned to the shirt with safety pins. She wore black shorts with a heavy chain for a belt, and at least two layers of coarse netted stockings, riddled with overlapping holes. Completing her ensemble was a pair of black Hi-Tops with white soles.

“Who are you looking at?” Jess saw beyond the black lipstick and eyeliner to the beauty underneath. This girl was bad-ass, but Jess would never admit that, at least not yet.

The girl walked across the hallway, without pausing for other students in her way. She slammed Jess’s locker door closed and looked at Samantha. “I know who did this to her.”

“Who?” asked Samantha.

“I’m no rat.” The girl gave Samantha a once over. “Nice camera,” she said between chews of her gum. “Ever take nudes?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” Samantha said, entwining her arm in the strap of her camera to make sure this new girl couldn’t grab it and run.

The Goth girl’s black lips curled into a smirk. She had gotten the reaction she wanted from Samantha. “You’d like it too, honey. Trust me.”

“Who the fuck are you?” Jess curiosity waned.

The girl turned to face Jess. “You’re strong, but not as strong as you think.” She took the gum out of her mouth and stuck it to Jess’s locker. It was black like tar, just like her clothes.

Jess looked at the inky hunk, half repulsed and half intrigued. Where do you get black gum?

Before she could protest, the girl pulled a business card out of her jacket and stuck it on top of the wad of gum, affixing it to Jess’s locker. “You need a posse or you’re gonna end up dead.”

The business card depicted a dagger centered over a marijuana leaf, with a phone number underneath. Nothing else. No name or address.

“Think about it,” the girl said, tapping the business card before turning to walk away.

Jess pulled the business card off her locker, examining it. The insignia was printed in raised ink and felt good under her fingertips. “My sister told me about you dykes.” The mystery girl disappeared into the crowded hallway. “Go screw yourself!”

“Who was that?” Samantha asked.

Jess stared into the busy hallway. “Competition.”

“Competition? For who?”

Jess left Samantha’s question unanswered, instead focusing her attention on the black wad of gum left stuck to her locker door.

“Wait.” Samantha looked at Jess, then the gum, then back at Jess. “You’re not gonna—”

“Well, I can’t leave it there,” Jess said, and reached for the gum.

“Hold on.” Samantha dropped her books on the floor, raised her camera and framed the shot as Jess worked the gum off her locker with her thumb and index finger. Click-click. “Let’s get a close-up.” Samantha moved closer and focused. Click-click. “Gross.”

Jess moved the gum towards her open mouth, then stopped short to smell it.

“Jesus, Jess.” Samantha heaved a sigh of relief. “I thought you were gonna put it in your mouth. What does it smell like?”

“Is that licorice?” Jess asked between sniffs.

Samantha gave the gum in Jess’s fingers a tentative smell. “Yup. Double gross.”

Jess flicked the gum off her fingers and watched it sail across the hallway. It stuck to a poster of a student talking about peer pressure, right on her nose. Both girls began to giggle.

“Nice shot!” Samantha raised her camera. Click-click. “You working after school?”

“Yeah,” Jess said.

“I’ll walk home with you.” Samantha grabbed her books from the floor and ran down the hall. “Later.”

Jess took a closer look at the business card, its raised green ink and thick card stock. She brought the card to her nose. A faint smell of licorice still remained. She slipped the card into her back pocket and headed for class.

* * * * *

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