Alright, so my style was stolen from a rapper named, Tommy Bump-stock. The album on my T-shirt was his recent single: Tuxedos and Speedos. The chains on my neck and wrists were his latest fashion. Fake gold for me, but real flashy. And my tattoo— Well, I got that before I discovered Tommy, but mine resembled one on his back. The tell was the tail peeking out of my sleeve, lizardy.
No self-proclaimed lyricist would forgive it. True battlers put the art in articulation. My man Tommy, though, he mumbled. And I looked straight poser.
As the seven o’clock High-Line clattered into station overhead, I ducked out of my mom’s Honda then peered around the dirt lot. For a cooler Friday, it was fuller than last week, but last week wasn’t Pastor Gavel’s BBQ Summer Stunner. Most of these rides were probably my competition, or my audience. Jittery, I laced my N95 around my ears then adjusted the nosepiece, spitting a line to myself.
“Go and trip the troll trap. I’ll just blow your whole rap.”
Despite the restrictions lifting a year back, a mask made sense. I’d grown up with them, and since I’d started hitting open-mics, I’d worn one. I supposed I considered them my thing. Besides, unless I crushed it tonight, I didn’t really want to be identified outright. This was my last summer here. No reason letting anything follow me out.
“Bolt action, jolt back. Like I said, hole rap.”
After I stashed the rest of my stuff in the trunk, I double-checked for my permission slip then began the block-walk to the gate. There might’ve been a spot or two closer, but this lot gave the best view. Half urban, half industry, the area boasted a gnarly development of apartments, small businesses, and shuttered shops. Right where the metro crossed the interstate, it lay smack-dab behind downtown. To the east was the stadium. The south, the Mississippi. And past the metro, layers of high-rises spanned the north. The contrast of glass, steel, and exposed brick felt as hip-hop as I could get.
The mask hid my grin.
I would’ve loved some headphones, but honestly, between the river and the freeway, the neighborhood bumped on its own. Already the party’s subwoofers were creeping in.
Once off the lot, I shielded my eyes and jogged across the street. At this hour, the skyscrapers made for a second sun. Someone did honk at me, but I swore I beat the yellow. On the other side, a group of older kids spilled out of a C-store and cut off the sidewalk. The tallest of them I overhead rapping, and while I passed them around a hydrant, he got funky.
“Amateurs, amateurs, amateurs.” Every beat, he pointed to another member of his crew. “Handle your beef or I’m eating your grandmothers’ hamburgers.”
They chuckled. So did I.
I recognized the voice. Spenser Dact. On VerseMe, he had like five-thousand subscribers. I was one of them. Goofy guy. Big eyes, lanky, high-top fade under a tie-dye trucker hat. No surprise he came. The Summer Stunner often attracted some serious talent. Pastor Gavel hosted it thrice a year: spring break, graduation, and back-to-school. I’d made every one since I could drive. However, this was my first actually competing. Sadly, I needed my mom’s signature to enter. The adult division was eighteen-plus, and my birthday wasn’t for another month. Worse yet, I had to promise I’d wear my sash for graduation on Sunday. The poem sash.
When I rounded the Laundromat, the heatwave hit. Grilled, smoked, or fried, dinner thickened the air to a haze I could taste. Vendors lined the curbs. Picnic tables filled the middle. Throughout, people ate, drank, and laughed with their neighbors. The spittle and sizzle of spatula and skillet mixed with the music. In the bustle, a younger kid knocked over a trash bin.
Before I reached the gate, my heart ratcheted into my throat. I wasn’t a complete stranger here, but I still stood out. Few others wore masks. At the entrance, I slid a ten into the donation box then shared a nod with the guard. For a legit cop, he played one heck of a bouncer.
“Amateurs, amateurs,” I repeated to myself, slipping into the crowd. “Get me a manager. Better, a janitor. Someone done opened a can of worms.”
As the routine went, I showed early to browse the shops, eat, and get a feel for the battles. One circle warmed up practically moshing beside the DJ. Another drummed on a table and busted over it. Most everybody else my age ran around among the open houses or the steel mill down the road.
Spirits were high. That was good.
On a sidenote, that mill was somewhat of a shrine to the local scene. Rundown and rustic, it acted as the community’s backstop. And photo op. In fact, a decade ago, Chilpty himself used the space to shoot his single, Resurrection. The song that pulled him from his addiction.
During my lap, a handful of regulars spotted me and nodded. I remembered them from spring break. The new kid, a junior from my school, also scouted me and waved. Funny, his girlfriend seemed more comfortable than he did. I snickered, raising a finger to wave back. Rap-wise, he was only so-so, but switch the battle to dance and forget it. Not much to clown when you get saluted mid-headspin. His shaggy mop-top was its own troll trap.
To spend the remainder of the hour, I visited my favorite booth. Manned by my man, Lieutenant Charles Leafson, Scenery Wood sat beside the church’s front stoop and sold a variety of whittled nature pieces. Types of trees, famous mountains, those sorts of things. Charlie lost his legs in the Gulf War and in turn began whittling full-time. Really, the guy was an artist, inside. Outside, the military never left him. His display was meticulous. His beard, groomed. He even waxed his scalp to a shine.
“Two-Units!” he yelled as I arrived at his counter. That was why he was my favorite. His energy. And he always called me by my stage name. “Son, I almost didn’t recognize you. You lopped your locks.”
I smirked, running a hand through my hair, tousling the bangs no longer in my face. Just this afternoon, I hacked it. Then styled it. “Yeah, it was too skater. Not enough rapper, you know?”
He laughed. “Yeah, but you overshot. Now it’s too boy band.”
I grabbed my chest and grunted. “Ouch, Grandpa. I didn’t realize you were so plugged into boy bands.” Without picking it up, I ruffled the magazine beside his register. Woodcarving Illustrated, the latest edition. “They got a gossip column in this?”
He laughed harder, until he coughed.
Tables over, the drumbeat ended in a cheer. Some punchline, I imagined. The uproar spooked a nearby family. Next the group rose, filed in, and headed for the back of the church. That was where our entrance was. The back led straight downstairs. Under the initiative “for teens,” Pastor Gavel renovated the basement into a youth center, slash concert venue, slash club.
“Oops,” Charlie said. “Hold up a minute.”
As not to ignore his customers, he gestured for me to move over then spoke with the elderly lady beside me. I apologized for missing her. She hummed it off. A string of others came behind her, and in the meantime, I stepped aside, practicing a line with the music.
“Spark the charcoal, jumpstart the fumes.” The tempo was slower. “Yeah, I’m starving hard, marveling at this barbecue.”
After the exchanges, Charlie rummaged underneath his countertop. It sounded of plastic bags and woodblocks. A moment later, he popped back then set a figurine on his magazine. It looked like a totem. Largely unformed, it had the etchings of a penguin for a top and not much else for otherwise.
“Check this one.”
I cocked a brow. “What is it? Or what’s it going to be?”
As if alive, the bird glared at me. Detailed with its wings in and beak down, it stared ahead, cold and focused.
“Not sure yet,” he said. “But it’s coming.”
“It’s awesome.” I pinched the base and rotated it. Other than the rough cuts of the body, the tail feathers were furthest along. “Why the penguin?”
He chuckled. “Not sure on that either.”
To interrupt then, the church bells tolled. Low and long, they rang over the party, signaling the beginning of check-in. My heart was back in my throat by the second chime. I must’ve jumped as well because Charlie yukked himself into another coughing fit. Three or four other kids startled too, and in their respective cliques, they made their way to the back. Albeit wasn’t merely stage fright, I snuck my hands into my pockets to hide my nerves, and recheck the wrapper.
Out of courtesy, Charlie said the goodbyes for both of us, shooing me off to tend to another customer. There was a “good luck” and “have fun” in there, but my mouth was too dry to say more than “thanks.”
Up the curb, through the hedges, and around the vine-laden brick of the church walls, I shuffled. Every step, the base grew louder. Something bouncy. The chain-link fence rattled against the building. By the backdoor, I was jiving with it, bobbing while I swooped between the couple in the doorway. A younger kid ran out. Another ran in. A third shrieked at neither from the top step. Past that, the stairwell opened up, 90ed, and plunged straight to the lobby. Lobby was a generous term, of course. With the remodel, the basement had been gutted, split by room dividers into three unequal parts. There was the bigger venue on the far side; the smaller backstage here; and for the lobby, an office desk and podium welcomed me at the bottom. The entire place rumbled, scented of sweat and fruit punch. Between the lasers and the strobe lights, no corner wasn’t lit.
“Be right there,” a woman shouted outside the dividers.
“That’s fine,” I shouted back, circling the podium. “No rush.”
Slapped in stickers, the old pulpit gave me something to read. Brands atop logos atop slogans, the collage showcased half the city’s music labels, artists, and albums. Many I recalled from spring break, but some had been peeled off, covered up, or scribbled over. Mine from last August was gone. There was usually a new layer each year.
Once the woman returned, she met me square across the podium and smiled. Immediately, the air caught in my lungs. It was a smile I’d seen a dozen times, yet never this close. I figured she’d be here. I just didn’t expect to run into her. Whether she was wandering the audience at an open-mic or chatting with the show-runners, I’d only ever been in her periphery. Face to face, on the other hand… There was no wonder why everybody smiled back. If it wasn’t the warmth she brought, it was the afterglow she left behind.
“Oh, hey.” She tilted her head, and her curls fell with her. Around her collar, they cascaded, no lie. “You made it. I like your haircut.”
My breath caught again. Flat-footed, I blanked, mouth agog, eyes agape. “Yeah?”
She smirked then flicked through her phone. “Kelvin, right? I didn’t see you on the list.”
In what hit like whiplash, I went from the butterflies of “she knew me!” to the gut-ache of “oh no, my permission slip.” The reflux burned. See, last Stunner I saw her mingling about in cap-and-gown, so she was at least eighteen. Probably nineteen. Yeah, the age gap was minor. Regardless, I removed the paper and laid it on the podium. An edge had to be flattened. Another, unbent. It was painful.
Brows high, she peeked at the slip, then back at me.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
Rather than respond, she abruptly crumpled the slip and tossed it into the bin behind her. I was lucky she turned. I flinched. When back at the podium, she rose to her toes and leaned forward, continuing on her phone.
“Maybe you used a rap name.” She tapped her screen and scrolled. “Most did.”
As her thumbnails click-clacked the glass, I heard myself groan. I forgot about the email. To make deadline tonight, I messaged Pastor Gavel directly. I forgot I gave my pseudonym.
Wait, could I’ve skipped the slip then, or did I just get vouched?
“Two-Units?” I inched in. “With a number.”
Still swiping, she nodded my direction then simpered. It didn’t sound sarcastic though. I should’ve guessed. She wouldn’t mock. Dressed in a pressed skirt-suit and flats, the chick was straight business.
“Gotcha.” She sprung off the podium then dropped behind it. “Okay, so I assume you know the gist. No drugs, guns, or references to anything too illegal.”
Before she finished, she sprung back up and handed me a flyer. It was the schedule. Dozens of battles long, the list stretched past midnight. I took it then mumbled some form of, “Yeah.”
“Good,” she said, barely looking up. “Y’all should get in two tonight. Maybe, three.”
I folded the sheet and stashed it in my back pocket. “Awesome.”
The tremble in my hands agreed. Afterward, she motioned for me to join her then swung backstage. I had to dodge the pulpit to keep up. Short or not, she cruised.
Beyond the dividers, kids were everywhere. It was like an arcade, but instead of games, recycled voting booths lined the walls. Someone repurposed them into personal dressing rooms. The holiday lights were a nice touch. They helped dim the flashes cutting in from the venue.
“You’re booth eight,” she hollered, pointing down the corridor. “And don’t worry about the lanyard. Gavel wanted name tags. I wanted swag bags. We compromised.”
“Okay,” I giggled. “Thanks.”
We swerved a redhead pacing outside his booth.
“One more thing.” She spun around, and I stumbled. I was in the middle of leaving. I thought we were done. For how sudden that was, she then veered sharply and brought me into the nook beside the stage’s backstairs. I tried not to ask, or appear confused. By no means was it secluded for something like murder, but the music could’ve drowned out my screaming. “Be great tonight,” she said, glancing over my shoulders. Okay, now— what? “We have a surprise opener, and this place will pack once word gets out. It could be big.”
A chill crept down my spine. That explained the extra security.
“Okay.” I forced myself to shrug and huff it off. “Thanks for the heads-up.”
She squinted, then huffed it off the same. “Yeah, I got you.”
Be great tonight? Admittedly, a smoother rapper would’ve played it off like, “Always.” Much to my regret, the alter-ego thing was too weird for me without a microphone. On top of that, my goodbye was a sloppy, “See you around.”
As soon as she bailed, I rushed to my booth to decompress. That much one-on-one had me stressing. How did she know my name and I not know hers? The tougher question now was, how did I get it without being awkward?
Booth eight stood crooked in the opposite corner. There were twelve stalls in total, and compared to the pulpit, none were as stickered-up. For privacy, a plush confessional curtain hung to the floor. The metal rings chittered as I slung it over then back. Inside, I found the lanyard dangling on a hook and the gift bag sitting on the sill under it. The bag was blue; the lanyard, checkerboard. I dug the font on the ID. Cursive yet bold, it simply read, “2-Units.”
While I rifled through the swag, my mind drifted, kicking around rhymes from earlier.
“Oh, Miss Opium, posed tippy-toed on that podium.”
First item from the bag was a mini bumper sticker. Patch-sized, it advertised for the church, Caprock Non-denominational. The sticker edited it: Caprock-Non. I cringed setting it aside. Of all the stickers here, I didn’t remember seeing this one among the fanfare. That was rough. The second and third items lay underneath. One was a key-chain cross that doubled as an ornament. The other was a pair of pine tree air-fresheners.
My first swag bag. I was famous.
“If she shows, you better owe her one. Shows she hits just get overrun.”
To be thorough, I dumped the bag onto the sill, unleashing a heap of glitter behind it. Some spilled over the edge. It shut me up fast. I doubted too many others fell for it. There wasn’t any glitter anywhere else. Nonetheless, I swept the pile into the bag then crouched to clean the floor. It was good thing too. I didn’t see it right away, but a sliver of paper hid among the mess. I plucked it without dusting it off.
It was a hidden note. I couldn’t believe it. Across the fold, inked in matching blue marker, it read, “Be great tonight.” I grinned. Even her handwriting was sexy. Best of all, she signed it, and I might’ve pumped my fist saying it out loud.
In goosebumps, I shot to my feet then unwrinkled the paper against the sill. “Be great tonight,” I chuckled. “Yeah, I got you.” Vibing to the beat, I next snatched the lanyard, threw it on, and sleeved the note behind my ID. Safekeeping, yeah? Lastly, I tucked everything inside my shirt then ditched for the venue.
It was time to prepare.
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