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“Yo, I’m not tryna go to no club tonight,” Zeke firmly states, even though his brothers are trying to convince him otherwise. “That’s like me going in on my day off. Nah, son, I’m good. I just wanna chill with my brothers.”

Boo Boo huffs as he rolls his eyes. “Well, I’m not tryna sit up in this boring ass hotel room, lookin’ you ugly mothafuckas in the face all night.”

“Plus,” Ra Ra begins before Zeke can tell Boo he’s welcome to leave. “When’s the last time we all been together? And what’s the chance that you have a day off the same day Dizzee decides to fly in from god knows where?”

“We were in Morocco, actually,” Dizzee says from across the room, looking up from drawing on Thor’s arm. As long as his man’s around, he’ll always have a canvas. “But Ra’s right. We don’t hardly see each other no more and now that we’re all together, we should do it up.”

Then Boo hops up from the foot of the bed and begins singing the 1995 Montell Jordan hit. “This is how we do it, it’s Friday night and I feel alright, baby.” He perfectly executes the dance moves from the music video as he continues singing. “I’m kinda buzzed and that’s all because—

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT!” Boo and Ra shout in unison, and Dizz joins his brothers by making the beat on the table.

South Bronx does it like nobody does,” the youngest brother continues to croon.

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT!

To all my neighbors, you got much flavor.

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT!

By now, Zeke is dancing and singing right next to his brothers. Then nostalgia fills him, hitting him with memories of their performances from back in the day, and word start flying from the mouth of the wordsmith.

This is how we do it, there ain’t nothing to it. / When I step up to the mic, I’m kinda ruthless. / Tryna keep up with this wordsmith is looking pretty hopeless. / I been known to rock the mic since nineteen seven-seven. I spit bars like bullets and send ya straight to heaven. / Please go find a reverend or maybe count ya blessings. / I don’t really give a fuck cuz I ain’t stressing. / Got my brothers with me and we bouta go clubbing / then touching and rubbing and maybe some fuckin. / Who’s the lucky man or woman / comin’ home with me tonight cuz I’m feelin’ real nice / but you gotta leave before the daylight.

“That’s what the fuck I’m talkin’ bout, B,” Boo exclaims as he daps up Zeke. “I knew we could get you outta whatever prude ass shell you been living in.”

“Fuck you,” he teases as Ra Ra daps him up next.

“That was really dope, Books.”

“Thanks, Ra.”

“It still amazes me how it all comes from the top of your head,” Thor says and before he can respond, Boo Boo wraps an arm around his neck and responds for him.

“Cuz my boy’s good with words like that. He the wordsmith.”

“Yeah, I can’t really explain it. The words just come to me. I don’t think it can be explained.”

But he does know Shaolin lit the match, and ignited the flames that allows him to spit fire.

I can still recall that fateful hour. Leaders lead and cowards cower. Shaolin Fantastic, no man braver. He showed me my superpower.

“Zeke!”

He blinks several times, coming back to the present. “Huh?”

“You ain’t hear what I said?”

“My bad, Boo. You know how I blank out sometimes.” He chuckles, but the looks on everyone’s faces lets him know they can see right through him.

“I asked do you even know how to spit game to anybody but Mylene? You can’t be goin’ around callin’ people ya butterscotch queen and shit, witcha corny ass.”

The rest of the room erupts into laughter as Zeke throws a pillow at him. “Shut the fuck up.”

“For real, though,” Boo begins through his giggles, “I never thought I’d see the day you and Mylene wouldn’t be together. And I never thought my sister woulda bagged Mylene and Regina.”

“Well, it seem like lil sis got more game then both of y’all,” Dizz interjects.

“Anyways,” Boo dismisses, “I’m bouta head out. Y’all know perfection takes time.”

“Nah, you just ugly as shit, fam.” He flips Ra Ra off before slamming the behind him, and the older brother chuckles. “I’ma be out, too, Zeke. I gotta check on Tanya and the kids.”

“A’ight, man.” They dap each other up. “Tell Tanya I said hi and tell my nieces I love ’em.”

“Send them our love, too,” Dizz says, still diligently working on his artwork.

“Bet,” he agrees. “See y’all in a minute.”

“See ya, Ra,” Thor calls out.

The door closes and he leaves behind silence.

Zeke looks over at his remaining guests expectantly. “So, y’all just gonna stay—” he cuts himself off with a shake of his head, “of course y’all would.”

“I’m still working,” Dizzee answers anyway, then takes a quick glance at him. “But, uh, maybe you wanna use this time to tell me why you blanked out earlier?”

He huffs. I shoulda known this was coming.

“I don’t know, Dizz, I just did.”

“Who you tryna convince? Me or yourself?”

“I’m sure you’re about to tell me anyways.”

“No need to get snappy with me,” he says cutting his eyes, “but I know this is a sensitive subject for you.”

And Zeke knows that’s a dig at him that went below the belt, and Dizzee immediately feels bad. “That was a little harsh, Zeke, and I’m sorry, but it doesn’t negate the truth. You were thinking about Shaolin because you felt him missing in the room tonight. Sure, I can make a beat for you to rhyme to, but it ain’t the same. I’m not Shaolin Fantastic. I’m not your DJ.”

I’m Shao’s wordsmith, and he’s my conductor…

Guilt churns his stomach. It’s the same exact feeling when he’s on the stage reciting love letters to an audience that it isn’t meant for. But it’s easier to tell his truth to strangers than to look Shaolin in the eyes.

“How,” he hesitates to continue. He chews his bottom lip as he contemplates asking the question. He isn’t sure he wants to know. “How is he?”

“He’s...you know Shao, man. He’s a survivor. He’s been through worst shit.”

His stomach drops and his face heats like he just took one to the gut and a slap across his face.

Now I struggle with thoughts like did I betray you? You taught me values, Shaolin. I could never play you.

I shoulda forgave you.
I shoulda saved you.

•••

Shaolin saved himself, though. Or rather, he sacrificed his freedom again.

When Fat Annie gave him no other choice, he accepted his fate gracefully. He danced to her every word as she held his weakness in her hand, waiting to pull the trigger.

He danced like his life depended on it. He danced because his life depended on it. He danced for Books. His words guided his movements. He copied their grace, and his moves mimicked the curves and lines of each letter.

He danced for Books.

He danced on needles and crack pipes.

He danced in sheets that left his skin raw and his insides numb.

He danced with fists and he danced with guns.

He danced all alone.

But you can only dance for so long.

His feet were tired, his body sore, his limbs not as graceful, not as obedient as they had been before.

Finally, after years of tap dancing on his own grave, he danced with bottles on a rooftop and danced too close to the edge...

But something kept him tethered to the earth even when he had nothing left. It was the wind whispering “you got me” in his ear. It coaxed him off the ledge just like it coaxed the knife from Zeke’s neck. The words grounded him as much as they gave him flight.

He missed that: flying with his wordsmith. Spinning and grinning.

That’s what tethered him; the thought of giving his wordsmith a beat one last time.

But he couldn’t dance for Fat Annie again. His body, mind, and soul couldn’t survive it.

So, he danced one last time. It was an extravagant, carefully orchestrated grande finale. The kind they write raving reviews about. And they did.

UNDERCOVER AGENT LEADS TO ARREST OF LOCAL DRUG DEALERS

QUEENPIN KILLED IN POLICE SHOOTOUT DURING RAID

6 INDICTED AS MEMBERS OF LOCAL DRUG RING

GRAFFITI VANDAL TURNED DRUG DEALER GETS 15 YEARS

Shaolin sacrificed his freedom again, but he no longer woke up next to his nightmare. Or rather, he chose a lesser evil.

His freedom was tied to the state, but he wasn’t completely isolated from his family. Unlike with his abuser, Shaolin could communicate with his family. They visited when they could and always accepted his calls. He could get hand-drawn comics from Dizzee and Thor, Marvel and DC comics from Ra Ra, pictures from Boo Boo’s life as one of Janet Jackson’s choreographers, cassette tapes of Napoleon’s live performances, and letters and books from Yolanda, who has become a close friend and a sister. In Fat Annie’s hell, she was his only family and used threats of death to keep it that way. In prison, however, he was reunited with his real loved ones.

Well...

Everyone except Books.

His old friend did send him letters and poems from time to time, he even heard his songs on the radio, but Zeke never visited or accepted his calls.

That broke Shao’s heart, too. It invalidated every word Books wrote or said to him. He couldn’t truly mean those things if he couldn’t say it to his face.

“Leaders lead and cowards cower,” he recites softly to himself as he stuffs the letters in the bag with the rest of his belongings, then shakes his head in disappointment. “The fuck you worried about a nigga who ain’t concerned about you, Shao? Fuck Ezekiel Figuero.”

“One last ‘Fuck Books’ speech before you get up outta here?” Rashawn, his cellmate, teased from the top bunk.

“Shut the fuck up,” Shao responds, his voice containing the same playfulness.

He snickers. “But in all seriousness, you needa talk to your boy and dead whatever beef y’all got. Life’s too short to be holding grudges and shit.”

“Thanks for the advice, Oprah.”

“I’m serious, Shao. From everything you told me about him, y’all had something most folks never find: a real friendship and a deep connection.”

When Shao introduced himself to Rashawn the day the young man moved into his cell a year ago, he immediately asked if he knew Mr. Books. “There ain’t no way two Shaolin Fantastic’s are roaming this earth,” he had declared. Shao chuckled and told him how Zeke got his nickname, and soon he was telling this stranger everything about him and Zeke’s relationship. Once he got to know him better, once he knew he could trust him, he also disclosed his feelings for his friend that still hadn’t gone away.

“The two of y’all got some soulmate shit, for real. I just wouldn’t want you to loose that, Shao. So, promise me you’ll talk to him.”

Shao knows he’s right, but there’s just one thing stopping him from agreeing to his promise. “What if he doesn’t wanna talk to me?” He’s terrified of Zeke’s rejection again.

Rashawn knows this, too. “I don’t see that happening, but if that’s the case, then fuck Ezekiel Figuero. He’s gonna be the one missing out on an amazing person.”

Shao blushes, looking down at the concrete ground.

God, I can’t wait to get fuck outta here, the thought briefly crosses his mind before he looks back up at his friend.

“You know, for a young nigga you got a lotta wisdom.”

He laughs. “When you raised by your grandparents, it kinda rubs off on you.”

Opening gate D.

“Welp,” Shao sighs, “I guess that’s me.”

Rashawn gives him a small from. “Guess so.” He hops down from the bed, daps him up, then pulls him into a hug. “You be safe out there, Shao.”

“You be safe in here, man. And don’t be gettin’ into no shit; I won’t be here to save you.”

“Whatever, old man, I can handle my own.”

Suddenly, Shao gets anxious when he hears the keys jangling from the CO’s belt. He looks towards the bars of his cell, waiting.

“Smith, against the wall, hands behind your head,” one of the officers order. Rashawn huffs, but complies. “You got all your belongings, James?”

“Yeah, everything’s all here. I’m ready to get the fuck out this shithole.”

“Opening cell 24,” he calls out and Shao rolls his eyes.

After this, I ain’t never gotta worry about people dictating what I do.

“Ayo, Shao.”

He tries to stifle his frown. It don’t feel right to see him through the bars of their cell. They both try not to flinch when the second officer locks the door.

“Don’t forget about a nigga, a’ight? I want letters, and artwork, and ya mixtapes and shit. And I wanna know what happens with you and Books.”

“No doubt, fam. You’ll hear from me soon.”

“Bet,” he says with a smile. “See ya, Shao.”

“Later, Ray,” he departs with a smile that widens with each step towards the booking area.

He was finally free.

Really.

Truly. 

Free.