ou do this man, we crew, yeah?”
I nod, but it’s lost in the shake that has taken hold of me. I try to speak, but the drum and bass beat of the car radio batters my heart into a rhythm. I grip the steering, feeling my knuckles blanch.
“We crew and Jay is crew, yeah?” Passing headlights flicker over his strong frame, and he snarls, “You hear me? Yeah?”
“In. Past the old lady. Clear the house. The man’s gone out. Coast is clear. Yeah?”
“You pay off your brother’s debt, yeah? We take care of him on the inside, yeah?”
This isn’t my world. How did Jay get mixed up in this: Cain, the crew, prison, the whole bloody mess. He had been such a good lad, such a good brother.
“Boy’s scared, fam,” Smacks says. “He’s proper scared.”
“What I tell you about speaking out of place? Boy’s not scared, are you, boy? So shut that fish mouth of yours, Smacks. Yeah?” Cain leans into the backseat and thumps Smacks, who accepts it.
“Now,” Cain says, “take this and hit record.”
He swipes and unlocks his phone, and hands it to me. Outside the car window, the old lady’s semi-detached house pops up against the growing gloom of an October night.
“Pah pah, big up, new boy rollin’ with the crew tonight,” Cain says. “Big smash and grab. Gonna knock this old bit out cold. Big coin for the boys. Pow pow. Out.”
I end the recording, hoping the camera didn’t detect the shake in my hand.
“Cain, you said the old woman was out of it, demented like. No violence. Just in and out. No one gets hurt.”
I watch him, searching his tight jaw for any signs of the truth, as my stomach flops on itself at the thought of what’s to come.
He sucks his teeth. “Yeah, man. Easy pass. She won’t know what’s going down. I was just bigging it for the vids. All game, yeah?”
I want to vomit. And scream. And run. But a memory of Jay’s flashing eyes holds me there; the look he had given from the dock when the verdict was read, the look he had given in the prison visitor’s room when he told me he was in danger, the look he had given when he asked me to take his place on crew.
“Yeah.” A sigh passes my lips and dampens my skin.
Cain buries his nose in a bag of white powder then offers it to me. I shake my head, afraid I’ll puke if I say too much. Smacks reaches for the bag, but Cain pulls it from him, turning and throwing another punch. Smacks slinks into the security of the backseat, pulling the blanket of shadows around him.
“You ready, man, yeah?” Cain says.
“Yeah,” I say.
We step out of the car into the dark of the evening, and the streetlight caricatures our shadows; Cain swelling in his silhouette and dwarfing the withered image of Smacks. The orange glow from overhead paints his skin, and he looks jaundiced. He might be.
They come close, Smacks’s unwashed stench turning my roiling stomach.
Cain lays his meaty hand on my neck, the white powder crusts around his nose.
“Boy, you knock. In past her. Open up the back door for me and Smacks, yeah?”
He and Smacks pull on black leather gloves that squeak in the muted night. Cain hands me my pair. I pocket his phone and slide them on.
“Big man now, boy. Do this and we crew, yeah?” Cain says. “We take care of Jay, yeah?”
“You fuck it up, and we fuck him up, yeah?”
His eyes glow manic in the streetlight.
“People get stabbed in prison all the time, like.” Smacks’s words hang on the air, and then the men slip into the shadows and are swallowed into the night.
It’s just me now, and I knock.
One. Two. Three times. Even those sound petrified, shivering an echo through the air.
Last chance to run. But I can’t. I can’t do that to Jay.
An old woman opens the door, and a warm light washes over me. The bare bulb behind her seems to set her wisped white hair alight, and a rush of Murray Mint perfume assaults me. She reminds me of Gran. I feel sick.
“Is that you, Brian?” Her voice is broken, and she squints at me. “What are you doing out at this hour? Get in and get your bath.”
She steps aside, and I push into Brian’s place, my legs barely able to hold me up.
I keep my gaze low, avoiding her grey eyes that see me yet see nothing. Strides carry me through the house, and I hear her close the door as I enter the kitchen. Cain’s snarled face and Smacks’s rolling jaw loom at the window. Cain points to the door, and I obey.
Before I have time to release the handle, he bounces past me and prances around the kitchen like a boxer awaiting the first bout. Smacks slithers in behind, the crisp light revealing his bloodshot eyes snaked with red vines.
“Boy’s a man!” Cain says, slapping both of his heavy hands on my chest. “Forget Jay, this boy is crew!”
“Shouldn’t you boys be in your bed?” The old lady stands in the kitchen doorway, smiling absently at the three of us.
“Yo, ma’am, you got cash?” Cain says.
“Cash? Money?” She pats her threadbare dressing gown. “Not on me. Maybe under the mattress. Oh!”
Cain pushes past her, nearly knocking her over. I grab her arm to steady her. She looks from my hand to my face and smiles. I go cold inside.
“Check the living room,” Smacks says. “TV’s probably mint.”
Smacks and I move like inanimate ghosts into the living room, the old woman shuffling in our shadows. Cain’s thudded footsteps sound through the plastered ceiling, followed by grunted scrapes and scores.
“Are you here to fix the television?” the old lady asks.
“Yeah,” Smacks says.
The green corner of her purse disappears into his pocket, the golden zipper still dangling down his leg.
“Aren’t you two just darlings?” That same empty smile, the same sightless grey eyes.
Footsteps thunder down the stairs, and Cain waves a fistful of notes in his bare hands, his gloves draping from his pocket. He sniffs the notes, baring his teeth in an avaricious grin.
“Big cash, man, big score. Aw, feel it, man, feel it! Big score! Let’s go, we bounce.”
“TV,” slurs Smacks.
“Man, you gassed. We ain’t lifting no TV. Look man, cash!” He shoves the notes in Smacks’s face.
Smacks staggers back, blood seeping from his mouth. My reflexes don’t kick in. I hope he falls. He doesn’t, but a long string of bloodied salvia drools from his lip, snaps like an elastic band, and falls on the beige floor.
“Man, what you at? You hit me—”
The sound of keys rattling in the front door silences him, and fear seizes my chest, ensnaring me, choking the air from my lungs. Cain steps behind the living room door, and something glints in his hand before he’s hidden.
“What the hell is going on?” a man says. His rounded glasses droop from his nose. He marches into the living room, and his brown-to-speckling grey hair reminds me of Dad. A bilious lash scalds my throat. The man shouts, “I’m phoning the—”
Cain thunders the hammer down on the top of his head; a crack fissures the air between us, and the man collapses. He doesn’t scream like in the movies but deflates like a balloon, a short shrill whine sounding before he hits the floor, and lies motionless.
“Pow pow!” Cain says. The hammer thumps to the floor. He hops on his toes like Ali after the final knockdown. A snicker stumbles out of Smacks’ mouth. The old woman beams at each of us.
“Bounce, boys, bounce! Pow pow!” Cain says.
“Pow pow,” she parrots Cain, who’s heading for the door, Smacks trailing behind.
“Take that with you, yeah?”
I don’t look up; I know he’s pointing at the hammer. Instead, I grab a cushion and kneel by the man whose blood reaches for me across the beige carpet. He’s still breathing. The old woman slumps into an armchair with a contented sigh.
“Boy,” Cain says. “Bounce. Now.”
He’s waiting by the front door, holding the handle by his sleeve, but my hands are on the man’s head. I’m scared to push too hard into the wound with the cushion. The blood keeps flowing.
“Fuck you, then.” The door slams behind him.
The carpet devours the sanguine ooze until its parched fibres are satiated, and a rouged bubble crests on top of it. The air is stained with blood, and every breath stings my nose with a metallic twang, a ferrous fuzz buzzing on my tongue. I want to vomit.
“Cup of tea, darling?” the woman says.
I ignore her and dig for Cain’s phone in my pocket. I stab at the screen with my finger, but my gloved hands are rejected by its black screen. I tear the glove off with my teeth and fumble in the passcode, and accidentally phone nine-nine-six the first time.
After an eternity, it rings once.
“What service do you require?”
“He’s bleeding! He’s been hit–eh, ambulance!”
“Hold the line.”
There’s a click, and silence swallows me before a fresh female voice spits me back out to reality.
“Is the patient alert and breathing?”
“Yeah. I mean no.”
“No, they’re not breathing?”
“No. I mean he’s breathing, but he’s out cold. He’s been hit with a hammer. He’s bleeding bad.”
“And where are you?”
“Elm Street. Forty two I think.”
“Do you know the man? Is he on any medication?”
“I…I don’t know. I don’t know him.”
“Okay. Paramedics are on their way now. Can you apply pressure to the wound?”
“I am. But it’s bleeding still. Bad, like. You need to get here fast.”
“Paramedics are on their way. So just talk me through what happened?”
My mouth feels dry, and the ferric taste welds my lips to my gums.
“I can’t. I can’t! It shouldn’t have happened. He said it would be easy, no violence. But then this man was hit with a hammer, and he’s bleeding, he’s bleeding, oh God!”
“Did you hit him?”
“No! I’m not like that, it wasn’t me. It was—”
I catch myself. Snitches get stitches.
“It was who?”
“Nah, can’t say, I can’t say, you don’t understand. You gotta believe me, it wasn’t me. I’m not like that. Where is the ambulance? I gotta go.”
“It’s on its way. Stay on the line, please.”
“No, no, I can’t. I gotta…I need to…Are they close?”
“They’re going as fast as they can. Just stay on the line with me.”
“I gotta go.”
I jab the disconnect button, and the woman’s voice disappears. The old woman is watching the blank television.
The man moans, but his eyes stay closed. I keep pressing the cushion against him. The red ooze seems to have slowed.
Seconds languish into minutes, as though time clings to me, holding me captive.
A siren’s wail grows closer, and reds and blues dance across the walls.
“I didn’t know it was Christmas,” the old lady says.
I’m ready to run. The phone is in my hand, and I reach for the hammer, my fingertips flirting with the rubber handle. Jay’s face flashes before my mind. He did wrong, but I can do right. I can stop Cain.
Half-formed thoughts stutter and stagger through my head: the video on his phone, his hand on the hammer, Smacks’s blood on the floor.
I pull my hand back and instead wipe the phone furiously with my sleeve, back and front, making sure there are no marks. I drop it onto the carpet beside the hammer, then turn and slink through the kitchen to the back door.
“Goodbye, boy,” the woman calls.
I don’t look back.
“Shit. In here!” a man’s voice says, the rest of his words lost as I creep into the garden and out into the night, silently praying the police can piece it all together—Cain and Smacks.
Fuck them. I ain’t crew.