Running shoes slammed into the steps, pounding up the flight of stairs as Chris-R, enraged, climbed up to the roof. He needed the money Denny had promised, was desperate for it. And besides, even if he wasn’t, he couldn’t afford to let a debt slide. Image was everything.
Image was the entire reason Chris-R had dubbed himself Chris-R. He couldn’t go around calling himself Chris. No one heard Chris and thought gangster. When asked what his chosen name meant, what the R stood for, Chris-R would always reply that it meant he would Wreck Yo’ Shit. He had to say something like that, even if he inwardly cringed every time he said it. He could never let anyone know what he really wished it meant.
Rocker. That was what he always secretly wanted his nickname to be. All his life, he had loved working with wood. It calmed his normally hair-trigger temper the way he could shape, sculpt and smooth with only a few simple tools, turning mere boards and nails into functional, beautiful works of art. What’s more, he was good at it. His specialty was rocking chairs. The strong but gentle arc of the runners, the stern but loving form of the seat, all gilded with his own fanciful carvings, a perfect perch from which to sit on a porch and watch the warm afternoon sun sink to the horizon, the light turning orange and red as it faded.
In an ideal world, Chris-R would be known for his gorgeous rocking chairs.
He had once had plans of becoming a carpenter. Maybe apprenticing to someone after high school, eventually getting his own shop. Sometimes, on his most hopeful days, he decided he didn’t need all that, that he could buy a load of materials and work out of his garage. Discerning clients would forgive the lack of a storefront. They’d know to look at Chris-R’s workmanship to judge the quality of his labours.
Of course, Chris-R knew that would never happen. His home was small, and far too cramped, especially with his mother living with him her dialysis machine taking up the better part of the single bedroom. He’d tried to put money aside, but there was no way, not with the constant flow of medical bills. All Chris-R could do was scrape and salvage as much as he could, devoting every waking moment to keeping his and his mother’s lives afloat. He’d had to resort to things he never pictured himself doing, things he had thought himself above before his mother got sick. A cold knot of anger burned in his heart as he imagined the life he thought he would have, remembered the slow realisation that it had slipped away.
Hold onto that, he thought. He needed his anger. His rage smouldered like the sun as he threw open the door at the top of the stairs and spotted Denny, obliviously dribbling a basketball across the roof. The eighteen-year-old was pacing across the roof, hemmed in by waist high brick walls. A set of white patio chairs and a table was shoved into the far corner.
Chris-R paused, taking a deep breath of the cool air that hovered over the city, as he waited for Denny to turn around, to notice him, to realise for himself what was coming. The sounds of the ball bouncing abruptly stopped as Denny saw Chris-R, his face falling in fear.
His thick, muscular arms swinging, his black toque pulled down low over his brow, Chris-R scowled as he strode forward. Denny clutched the ball in front of him as if he could shield himself from the approaching storm.
“Hey, Denny,” Chris-R growled, closing the distance between himself and Denny even though they were already only two feet apart.
“Chris-R,” Denny returned, nervously attempting a smile. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Denny went to dribble again, not sure whether he was trying to appear confident or whether he just needed to do something to keep his hands from trembling, but Chris-R snatched the basketball out of his grip. “Yeah, sure you have,” he snarled. “You have my money, right?”
“Yeah, it’s coming,” Denny lied, looking down at the cement roof of the apartment building, trying to peer through the concrete as he searched for a way out. “It’ll be here in a few minutes,” he stalled.
There was a series of thumps, the first deafening to Denny, then growing quieter and quieter until they faded away, seeming to recede into the distance, as Chris-R dropped the basketball and let it roll away. He stepped back a moment, chewing the inside of his cheek as he mulled over Denny’s words, and for a moment Denny flattered himself that his ruse had worked and he had bought himself some time. “What do you mean it’s coming, Denny?” he demanded before leaning down, bringing himself only inches away from Denny’s face. “Where’s my money?”
Denny backed away, licking his lips as his mind raced. “Okay,” he started, sputtering, “Just… Just give me five minutes.” Chris-R stepped back again, but from the look on his face, Denny could tell he wasn’t happy. “Just give me five!” Denny insisted.
Chris-R nodded, as if he was giving the notion serious thought. “Five minutes?” he repeated, and Denny nodded dumbly in agreement. “You want five fucking minutes, Denny? You know what?” In a single smooth motion, Chris-R reached behind him, shoving his hand beneath his shirt before whipping it back out, a blur of shining steel extending from his fingers. For half a moment the black hole of the barrel of the gun pointed directly at Denny’s eye. “I don’t got five fucking minutes!” Chris-R roared.
Denny felt a huge, powerful hand clamp over the back of his neck, squeezing so hard he thought he heard tendons straining not to snap. A strong shove forced him to double over. Out of the corner of his eye, Denny could still see Chris-R’s hand brandishing the handgun, waving it around wildly. There was sharp pain as something – a knee? – was thrust into Denny’s back, holding him prostrate. Cold, heavy metal pressed into the nape of Denny’s neck, promising a hot trail of lead through the base of his skull.
Hot breath seared past Denny’s ear as Chris-R lowered himself, crouching close enough for Denny to hear his whisper. “I’m going to ask you again, Denny,” Chris-R told him, his voice calmer than Denny had ever heard it. “Where’s my money?”
His throat tightening, Denny could only whimper in response at first. “I don’t have anything,” he finally admitted in a high-pitched whine.
“Where’s my money, Denny?” Chris-R demanded again. “Where’s my fucking money?” he screamed. Crying, Denny winced at the force of his voice. “What did you do with my fucking money?”
“I swear to God it’s coming,” Denny sobbed, retreating to his previously abandoned story.
“Where’s my fucking money, Denny?” Chris-R persisted, maintaining his deafening volume only inches from Denny’s ear.
Wracked with sobs, Denny curled further into the fetal position. “Put the gun down,” he begged.
The door to the rooftop opened. At the scene suddenly revealed before him, Johnny’s calm expression jolted into shock before hardening into resolve. As the words, “Where’s my fucking money, Denny? Where’s my money?” repeated on endless loop, echoing across the rooftops, Johnny raced forward, followed closely by Mark.
Johnny slammed into Chris-R first, ramming into him from behind and taking him by surprise. Chris-R threw his arms up, flailing at the unexpected attack. Seeing the perfect opportunity, Mark grasped Chris-R’s gun, grappling with his grip on the pistol. As Denny crawled away, tears streaming from his eyes, Johnny wrapped his hands around Chris-R’s shoulder and arm, wrestling him into a hold. There was a clatter out metal on stonework as the flimsy patio furniture was upended, thrown to the ground in the struggle.
With an expert’s precision, Mark wrenched the gun free, pointing it at Chris-R. Defeated, the drug dealer slumped, raising his hands in surrender.
There was a scream from the stairs leading up from the apartments below. “What’s going on here?” Lisa cried, her hand clutched in her mother’s. “Somebody help!” she yelped, despite the strong grip Mark and Johnny had on Chris-R’s wrists and the gun Mark was pointing at the man’s head.
Johnny and Mark jerked Chris-R to his feet, dragging him towards the stairwell. Confused and scared, Claudette pulled her daughter out of the way. “Let’s take him to the police,” Johnny suggested.
“You’re fucking dead!” Chris-R threatened as he was pulled down the stairs.
Lisa rushed over to where Denny was recovering, his frame hunched over the brick boundary between the rooftop and empty space. “Denny, are you okay?” she asked, her arms wrapping protectively around the traumatised teen. “What did that man want from you?”
“Nothing,” Denny sobbed, his face contorting as he cried.
“Oh, that was not nothing,” Claudette scoffed.
“Tell me everything,” Lisa pleaded, forcing herself to weep as she made her face a mirror of Denny’s.
Pushing her daughter aside, Claudette told Denny, “You have no idea what kind of trouble you’re in here, do you?”
Denny’s lower lip jutted out as he swallowed back his tears. “I owe him some money,” Denny confessed.
“What kind of money?” Lisa demanded.
“I owe him some money,” Denny repeated with a shrug.
“What kind of money?” Lisa insisted adamantly.
“Everything is okay, he’s gone!” Denny evaded, his brow furrowed.
Disbelief flashed across Claudette’s face. “Everything is not okay,” she told him. “Denny, that is a dangerous man.”
“Calm down, he’s going to jail,” Denny whined, his barely-suppressed tears stinging his eyes, threatening to come pouring out as Claudette’s questioning overwhelmed him.
“Denny, what kind of money? Just tell me,” Lisa demanded again.
“What do you need money for?” Claudette asked suspiciously.
“Mom, please,” Lisa whirled on her mother, “Denny is with me and Johnny.”
“A man like that, with a gun,” Claudette reminded Lisa. “My God.”
Calming herself, Lisa turned back to Denny. “Denny, look at me in the eyes and tell me the truth. We’re your friends.”
Taking a deep breath, Denny looked up, finding a sense of safety in Lisa’s green eyes, rimmed with tears. “I bought some drugs from him,” he finally confessed. At his admission, Claudette rolled her eyes and mouthed an expletive in frustration. “Things got mixed up. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“Denny,” Lisa sobbed in a long, low moan.
“But I don’t have them anymore!” Denny added quickly, trying to minimize his mistake.
“What kind of drugs, Denny?” Lisa cried.
“It doesn’t matter, I don’t have them anymore!” Denny again claimed.
“It doesn’t matter?” Claudette repeated, disbelief turning into rage. Despite the fact that she had only met Denny once before, she could not understand how the eighteen-year-old could be so stupid. “How in the hell did you get involved with drugs?” Her words cut deep, and Denny resumed his weeping. “What, were you giving them to him, selling them to him?” Claudette continued, fundamentally misunderstanding the drug dealer-user relationship. “Where in the hell did you meet that man?”
Without warning, Lisa screamed, “What kind of drugs do you take?”
“It was nothing like that!” Denny asserted nonsensically.
“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Lisa screeched.
“I just needed some money to pay off some stuff,” Denny specified.
Lisa was not appeased. “How much do you have to give him?” she wanted to know.
“This is not the way you make money, young man,” Claudette chastised.
“How much?!” Lisa shrieked.
“Stop ganging up on me!” Denny blubbered, bawling like a little girl.
“Well, it is time somebody ganged up on you,” Claudette fumed. “For God’s sake, a man like that – where in the hell did you meet a man like that?” she demanded, interrupting herself in her fury.
“It doesn’t matter,” Denny sniveled.
“It matters a great deal,” Claudette raged, way too invested in the life of someone she’d really only just met. “A man holds a gun on you, you almost got killed. You expect me to forget that?”
“You’re not my fucking mother!” Denny shot back, making a good point.
Her wrath now completely awakened, Claudette grabbed the front of Denny’s blue and yellow striped shirt. “You listen to me, boy,” she hissed.
“No!” Lisa threw herself in the way of her mother’s ire, hugging Denny to her chest. His tears soaked into the front of her bright red shirt, leaving two wet circles of misery.
Claudette made another grab for Denny and was once again blocked by Lisa. She grabbed her daughter’s hand, trying to wrest it from its protective position and twisting it away. “Somebody had better do something around here,” she urged, her face flush with anger. Watching her daughter stroke Denny’s hair, trying to comfort the crying teenager and quiet his continued whine, Claudette stepped away.
“It’s okay,” Lisa murmured to Denny, “It’s okay.”
At that point, Johnny and Mark returned, having conveniently found an on-duty police officer the moment they’d exited the apartment building. The drug dealer’s gun and the myriad baggies full of an assortment of drugs he’d stashed in every pocket, not to mention his continued, enraged death threats he constantly shouted at everyone he saw, were enough to convince the cop to arrest him without taking a statement from either Johnny or Mark.
“Are you okay, Denny?” Johnny asked as he raced to Denny’s side, his voice strained. He put his arm over Denny’s shoulder, cradling him.
“I’m okay,” Denny answered.
“Are you okay?” Johnny demanded again, his eyes scanning Denny for any sign of injury.
“I’m okay!” Denny insisted.
“What’s okay?” Claudette broke in stepping forward again. Sensing danger, Mark put his hands on her shoulders, holding her back and hoping to calm the raging senior. “He’s taking drugs,” she announced.
As Johnny embraced Denny, letting the young boy’s head fall onto his shoulder and putting a reassuring hand on his scalp, Mark clutched Claudette’s shoulders tighter, tugging her towards his chest. “Come on, stop,” he urged her, “It was a mistake.”
“A mistake?” Claudette repeated contemptuously. “That he takes drugs?”
Denny’s head nestled in the crook of Johnny’s neck, Johnny muttered softly, “Let’s go home.”
“Come on, it’s clear,” Mark told Claudette, motioning to the drug dealer-free rooftop around them.
“What’s clear?” Claudette snarled. “I am going to call the police.”
“Mom, stop!” Lisa pleaded desperately. “It was Denny’s mistake, just stop!”
Claudette groaned, annoyed at her daughter’s naiveté before Mark began to lead her away with a nudge. “Come on,” Mark started for the third time in a row, “Let’s go.”
“Why did you do this?” Johnny asked gently, looking down at Denny with concern. “You know better, right?” he continued, his voice suddenly growing in volume. “Why?!”
“I’m sorry,” Denny whined stupidly.
“You know better, Denny,” Johnny repeated sadly. “You almost got killed.” Johnny started to weep, bundling Denny closer and running distraught fingers through his hair.
“I’m sorry,” Denny apologized again, his face pressed against Johnny’s chest. “It won’t happen again.”
“Denny, you know that Johnny’s like your father,” Lisa said, watching the two men cuddle. “And we’re you’re friends. We’re going to help you.”
Johnny rubbed a handful of Denny’s soft brown hair between his fingers as the teenager nodded, managing to smile at Lisa. “Let’s go home,” Johnny said again, reaching his arm far over Denny’s shoulders to put his hand on his future wife’s back.
As Johnny led what he thought of as his family away, Lisa was lost in thought. She hoped that Johnny and Mark had successfully taken the drug dealer to the police, and that he’d be arrested. It would make him much easier to find.
Not that it was so difficult locating the kind of small fry who were stupid enough to bully teenagers out in the open for what was probably a pittance. No, it would take little effort for Lisa to get the man’s name from Denny and then have him found. But the message she had to send – it would be so much more clear if it was sent from jail.