These chains on me won’t let me be. You got the keys, come rescue me. Come set me free.
Come set me free.
He wills the tears to stop, but they continue to flow freely.
Come set me free.
His knees buckle.
These chains on me won’t let me be.
He’s sobbing now.
You got the keys, come rescue me.
He doesn’t have to will himself to breathe anymore.
Come set me free.
He wants to breathe now. He wants to live.
Come set me free.
For the first time in forever, Shaolin Fantastic wants to live.
Come set me free.
Not survive. Not exist. Live.
These chains on me won’t let me be.
He survived his chains. He survived his parents. He survived group homes. He survived Annie. He survived drug dealing. He survived prison. He survived all the chains that refused to let go.
Come set me free.
He sacrificed his freedom, his peace of mind, his body, his heart.
You got the keys, come rescue me. Come set me free.
And he freed himself.
For the first time ever, Shaolin belonged to himself.
He sobs louder, fully collapsing into Boo Boo’s arms; exhausted from the weight of his autonomy. This is new to him. He didn’t expect it to be so heavy. He thought it would be like flying.
Then he thinks of Penny and his pigeons. When their wings were damaged, it took them a while to fly again; they had to heal first. And even after they healed, it took a few tries to get it right.
He’s free, but it’ll take some healing, some time, to fly.
But he made it.
“Yo, Shao, you good?” Is the first thing he hears once a peace begins to settle within him.
Through snot and tears, he looks up at his brother with a bright smile. “I’m free, Boo. I’m finally free.”
He smiles too, then turns back to the guards. “Nah, you don’t need to call nobody. We good.”
“I’m free,” he repeats, a little louder this time, and he hiccups a laugh that rumbles deep in his belly and shakes him with joy.
Boo Boo pulls away from him a bit, giving him space but also briefly concerned at the sudden switch in emotions. Then he realizes that Shaolin’s mourning turned into tears of joy. Of freedom.
Boo understands. To be caged then set free. But he knows that what Shao is experiencing is deeper than that. It’s a conversation that Dizzee would be more equip for.
“Yeah, you free, Shao. Now let’s get you home.” Just as Boo Boo lifts them up from the ground, Shao doubles over in laughter again.
“I ain’t got no home to go to.”
“Boy, stop,” he responds as he looks Shao upside his head. “As long as I gotta place to stay at, then you gotta home, too.”
You got me.
He cringes. He wants to be free of that voice now, too. However, as fate would have it, as soon as Boo Boo starts the car Books’ voice blasts through the speakers.
All the time I invested in school is now in question / Shao prone to violence / like a dog returns to his own vomit / a fool for chaos / takin’ what we could salvage / hustlin’ is an art / I’m just tryna be smart / strung out bodies found in the park / Shaolin was my heart / we stood for loyalty / all we had was each other’s backs
He hasn’t heard this song, but it ain’t the first time Ezekiel dogged him out.
He scuffs, shaking his head. All them words in those letters were bullshit, too, huh?
He switches the radio station.
“I’m throwing it waaaay back,” the radio personality shouts out through the airwaves. “You youngins don’t know nothin’ about this. This was the joint that introduced me to hip hop. Bout That Bank by The Get Down Brothers.”
His scratches play through the speakers. Nostalgia instantly hits him as he remembers a time when everything was as perfect as it could get for somebody like him. A time before everything went to shit.
“Shout out to my mans DJ Shaolin Fantastic,” he announces over the song’s intro. “He’s out of the pin today after doing a fifteen-year bid. If you listening, welcome home, man. And his brothers are throwing him a welcome home party, so stop through Club Roxy and show our mans some love tonight. Only on Hot 97.”
He cuts the radio off, silence falling over them. He cuts his eyes at Boo who pretends to be overly occupied with watching the road. “What was that about?”
He chuckles nervously as he glances at him. “Oh, uh, surprise?”
“Y’all know I hate surprises,” he grumbles.
Boo roughly swallows the lump in his throat. “We know, but this is a celebration, Shao. It’s supposed to be something light and fun. But after what happened back in the parking lot, or if you ain’t up for it, then we can call it off. Or maybe we can have a small get together at my place instead.”
He hums in response, then turns his head towards his window to watch New York breeze by as he contemplates Boo’s proposal. That scene, that breakthrough, took a lot out of him, but it didn’t leave him boggled down with depressing emotions. He was freed, and he believes that should be celebrated.
“You right, Boo,” he finally says. “This is cause for celebration, but I only want it to be a small get together. SMALL, Miles.”
He shoots Shao a side-eye as he smacks his lips. “I heard you the first time, nigga. You ain’t have to shout out my government, son. You know the Feds stay watchin’.”
“Miles Lamont Kipling, if I find out you doin’ anything that would have the Feds buggin’ you, I’ll fuck ya lil ass up.”
Boo Boo chuckles and Shao snickers along with him. “I’m too old to believe in ya fake karate shit, Shaolin.”
“Yeah, keep on playin’ and you gon’ see wassup.”
He waves him off, a playful smirk on his lips. “Fuck outta here.”
“You must’ve for—” he pauses, eyeing the device in Boo’s hand. “The fuck is that?!”
“The fuck is what?” he asks, looking around the highway frantically.
“In your hand!”
He looks down at his Motorola flip phone he just retrieved from the armrest compartment, then bursts into laughter. “Yo, chill, Shao. It’s a mobile phone. I was just about to call Dizz on it.”
“Oh,” he says simply as his heart rate slows. “For a second there, I thought it was like a small gun or some shit.”
He gives Shao a questioning glare from the corner of his eye. “Why would I pull a gun out on you? You straight trippin’, son.”
He chuckles, shaking his head, and returns his gaze out of the window. “I know it sounds silly, but a weapon was my first instinct. And I know you’d never do no shit like that, but after you been locked away in a place where a nigga don’t give a fuck about your life cuz he ain’t got nothin’ else to live for, your brain gets rewired or some shit, man.”
“It’s like you think differently. You think everything could be a threat. But, shit,” Shao begins, chuckling humorlessly and shaking his head once more, “that’s how it’s always been for me, really. I’ve had to watch my own back my whole life.”
I got your back.
Bitterness taints his chuckle this time. “In some ways being out on the street was more unpredictable. With Annie, I never knew when shit would come my way. I never knew what shit would come my way...” he trails off, looking down at his twiddling fingers that are itching for a cigarette to be held between them. “And on the other hand, Rikers was more unpredictable. Especially them fucked up COs. You remember, don’t you?”
“I try not to,” Boo answers softly. “I was only in there nine months. I can’t imagine fifteen years.”
“I was supposed to stay another five years,” he reveals. “Cuz towards the beginning of my sentence, I got into a couple of fights, but these prisons are so packed that they went ahead and paroled me for good behavior.”
“Hold up, hold up. When did you learn how to fight?”
Shaolin flicks him off as they both chuckle. “About a year before everything went down, I had this old boxer teach me a thing or two. He was a friend of Grandmaster,” he explains. “I been preparing for prison long before I got locked up.”
Boo Boo briefly glances at him, his eyebrow raised in interest. ”Why? You thought you was gonna get caught sooner or later?”
“Nah, Annie was lining too many pockets for me to worry about that.”
“Then why were you preparing for prison?”
“It was more like masterminding an escape plan from Annie.”
He side-eyes him. “So lemme get this straight; you’d rather be in prison than work for Annie? What the fuck she have you doing, Shaolin?”
He looks out of the window, immediately closing up at Boo Boo’s prying and intrusive questions. “It ain’t for you to worry about.”
“Drop it, Miles.”
“Okay, okay,” he rushes out before an awkward silence intrudes upon them.
Once that silence weighs too heavily on Shaolin, he attempts to alleviate it. “I’m sorry, Boo. I didn’t mean to snap on yo like that,” he apologizes, his head hung in shame. “It’s just ... Annie was apart of a dark past that I never wanna remember.”
“It’s okay, Shao. I understand.” Silence falls over them again, but it isn’t as thick and heavy as it was before, and they return to their respective tasks; Boo Boo focusing on the road and Shaolin looking out of the window.
He tries to rebury the memories and nightmares, bury them in the deepest recesses of his mind, alongside his mother and the fire and Books.
This was the hardest part of his trauma; trying to lay the exhumed bodies from his graveyard of pain back to rest.
“Remember, sugar, ain’t no rest for the wicked, and my restless soul will haunt your ungrateful ass as long as you live.” Annie’s last words still feel like ice running through his veins, and her infamous sick grin still burns his retinas.
During times like these—when thoughts of Annie refused to let him rest—he wonders if made the right decision. He wonders if there was another way to gain his freedom, because her ghost could be just as restricting.
“Shaolin!” Boo Boo shouts after several failed attempts at getting his attention. Blinking out of his troubled thoughts, Shaolin looks over at his brother who looks back at him with knitted eyebrows. “You good, man?”
“Yeah, my bad, B. I ain’t mean to blank out, I was just thinking.”
He eyes him skeptically before holding out his cellphone. “Here, Dizz wants to talk to you.”
Shao also eyes the phone with skepticism before taking it from him. “I just put this shit up to my ear, right?” he asks, making Boo Boo laugh and break the tension between them.
“Hello,” he answers as he chuckles.
“Shao! It’s so good to hear your voice, man.”
“Shut up before he hears us, Thor!”
“You’re being loud too, Dizz,” he spits back.
The quick and sudden exchange between boyfriends slightly confuses Shao. He doesn’t know why or how their greetings turned into bickering.
“You’re right,” Dizzee suddenly says, ending their bickering and confusing Shao further. “You know I get nervous about this kind of thing. I don’t even know why they thought I—”
“Hey, just calm down, Dizz,” Thor cuts him off before he can accidentally reveal anything. Shao hears Dizzee take a few deep breaths, followed by soft lip smacking and the faint sound of a running shower.
“I know y’all niggas are not about to have shower sex while I’m still on the phone.”
They’re snickering now, causing Shao to playfully roll his eyes. “No, we’re not. That would be hot, though, but Ze—Ow! Why the—oh! Dammit I did it again.”
Shao pulls the phone away from him, and looks at it as if he were looking upside Dizzee’s head. “What the hell is going on with y’all?”
“Sorry, Shao, but—”
“I’m horny, now let’s do it,” Thor cuts him off by singing his own rendition of the chorus to Ginuwine’s hit single. “Ride it, my pony. My saddle’s waitin’, come and jump on it.”
“Oh my god, Theodore,” Dizzee shouts and Shaolin doubles over in laughter.
“Yo, what you call me for if you and ya man tryna get down?”
“I didn’t call anyone. Boo Boo called me, and told me about the change of plans,” he corrects. “I just wanted to talk to you to see if you were up for a party at all, y’know?”
Dizzee was having second thoughts about the whole surprise him, his boyfriend and brothers planned. They wanted the former friends to work through their issues, but now, their well-intended idea seems more like an ambush than a surprise. Dizzee knows the pain Zeke has caused Shao; he read it in letters, heard it through phone calls, and seen it during visits. He also knows of Zeke’s resentfulness and guilt that prevents him from properly apologizing, and continues Shao’s pain. Given Zeke and Shao’s sensitive history, Dizzee wonders if this will cause more harm than good. Are they ready for this?
“Why do you say that?” Shao asks after briefly mulling over Dizzee’s question.
“Well, because I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed. We don’t have to do the loud music and booze, we can just have a movie night or something light like that. Or, if you don’t wanna be bothered with us at all, then that’s okay too, Shao. Just let me know what you wanna do.”
He smiles, appreciative of his concern. “Thanks for lookin’ out for me, Dizz, but I’m not tryna be alone tonight. I wanna chill with my boys.”
He sighs, still a bit weary of what’s to come. “Alright, Shao. Guess I’ll see you in a few hours.”
“See ya, Dizz.” He pulls the phone away from his ear and inspects it. “How does it turn off?”
“Hit the button that says end,” Boo Boo answers, trying not to giggle at Shao’s unfamiliarity with the new piece of technology. “And you can just drop it in the cupholder.”
He marvels at the phone once more before doing as instructed. “I missed a lotta shit in fifteen years.”
Tossing him a smile, Boo Boo counters, “ain’t nothin’ you can’t learn, though.”
♪ ♫ ♪
“Welcome home, Shao,” Boo says, clapping Shaolin on the back while he walks through the threshold.
Lips spreading into a huge smile, he takes in the spacious living room in the two-bedroom apartment. “I see Janet’s paying you well,” he says, referring to his job as the singer’s choreographer.
“Miss Jackson if you nasty.” Boo winks and Shao laughs.
“I don’t think your boyfriend would be too fond of you sleeping with your boss.”
“It’s Janet Jackson, though; Napoleon would understand.”
Then realization dawns on him as he rushes to take out his cellphone. “He’s probably setting up for the club.” He quickly types in Napoleon’s number then holds the ringing phone up to his ear. “Damn, he shoulda been the first person I called about the change in plans.”
“I mean, if y’all gotta go through all this trouble then it’s fine for us to just go to the club.”
“Nah, it’s fine, Shao. How about—” His boyfriend’s chipper hello cuts him off and makes him smile. “Hey, hold on for a sec, baby,” he tells Napoleon before directing his attention back to Shao who’s looking at him knowingly, which makes him smile harder.
“Heeeeey, Leon,” Shao singsongs loud enough for Napoleon to hear the teasing in his voice.
“Hey, Shao,” he shouts, equally loud.
“How you been, man?”
“Anyways,” Boo interrupts.
“Why you being rude, B?”
“We under time constrains, yo. Y’all can catch up later. Now like I was saying,” he stops to take a deep breath, “you should take a quick nap while I set up. That way you’ll be well-rested for a long night.”
“Take a nap? Nigga, I ain’t a toddler.”
“Don’t act like you wasn’t nodding off in the car, son.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he waves off. “What room am I staying in?”
“Once you go up the stairs, it’s the first door on your left, and the bathroom is right across from it.”
“A’ight, cool,” he says with a nod of his head. “Thanks for everything, Boo.”
“No problem,” he says, returning Shao’s smile. “I’ll wake you up in about an hour so I can shape up that dusty ass ’fro.” He chortles when Shao flashes him the finger. “No thanks. I’ll leave that to my man.”
Joining in his laughter, Shao shakes his head. “You and your brother are some freak hos.”
“Guess it runs in the family.”
He goes to make a witty comeback, but huffs when nothing comes to mind. “Whatever,” he says as he turns, walking towards the stairs.
“Still gotta have the last word, huh?”
“Yup,” he shouts back, a smirk on his face that drops when he opens up the door to his new room.
“I can’t believe them,” he whispers, nearly choking on the cry forming in the back of his throat.
One wall contains a galaxy exploding with rich purples, pinks, and blues, littered with stars, planets, moons, and Rumi the Alien. “Only From Exile Can You Come Home” stretches across the wall in elaborate block letters. The piece easily transitions to the adjacent wall with the cool colors of the Bronx’s nighttime skyline as the backdrop. A yellow brick road stretches across the wall and “Let Our Candle Light the Way” is written in cursive with a neon pink paint underneath it. Several flickers of flame surround a character—obviously Dizzee’s cartoon version of him—walking the paved road. “Unfold Your Own Myth” hangs above the skyline and lastly, at the end of the yellow brick is a sunset with “Imagine What You’ll Become” hanging above it. The other two walls are a stark contrast, simply painted an off white, one of which has a sticky note stuck to it that piques Shao’s interest.
Here are two blank canvases to document your bright future, or to just go crazy free.
— your brothers
He doesn’t realize he’s crying until he tastes the saltwater tears on his tongue. “God, I can’t believe they did all this for me,” he says, marveling the artwork.
Even after all these years, Shaolin still has difficulty believing that he has a family who loves and cares for him so much, that they would take him into their home, then put their love on the walls of a room so he could feel at home.
Then it hits him.
He’s never really had a room.
Or a home, or a family.
Just temporary, unstable, and unsafe environments where he constantly had to look over his shoulder. But he doesn’t have to worry about that. He has his brothers. They aren’t fleeting; they’re fixed, grounded by their love for him.
He’s crying harder now, the weight of realization and acceptance heavy on his heart again. For the second time today, he had to face devastating truths about the ways his humanity has been stolen from him. Exhausting truths.
He trudges toward the bed, the nap Boo Boo suggested sounding more appealing than ever, and places his bag of belongings on the floor before stretching across the mattress. He puts the heel of his hands over his eyes as he blows out a shaky breath, willing the tears to stop.
Stop fucking crying, Shaolin, he chastises himself.
He knows no other way to stop the tears and the massive headache he feels returning. Crying is like a blue moon for Shaolin; it comes every once in a while, and the rarity of it leaves him ill-equipped to handle the intense emotions that surface.
Annoyed and frustrated at his own tears, he huffs as he turns on his side, ready to cry himself to sleep. However, just when his eyes are about to close, a picture on the night stand catches his attention. He leans over to grab it and immediately regrets it.
It’s an old picture of The Get Down Brothers posted up at a booth in Club 1051, but all he sees are the two of them. His arm hanging loosely around his wordsmith’s shoulder, looking at him with a fondness he didn’t understand then, but now knows as love.
And knowing that, knowing that he loved and is still in love with Ezekiel Figuero, breaks his heart and another dam of tears.
Because he knows that even after Zeke broke his heart 17 years ago, he would still look at him with that same fondness and awe if he were in front of him now. He knows that the anger and hurt he has carried with him for so long, would give way to the longing and aching in his hear. He doesn’t want that, though, because Books shouldn’t be let off that easily. And it terrifies him knowing that his heart would ignore what his brain was screaming at him. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Yo, Caldwell,” an officer called out, making Shao cringe.
“Wassup?” The CO handed him an envelope and he grumbled a thanks. As he walked back to his cell from the cafeteria, he looked over the envelope and the name in the upper left-hand corner made his heart skip a beat.
He put a pep in his step, rushing to get back to his cell so he can read the letter in peace. And thankfully, his cellmate wasn’t there either, giving him the privacy he needed.
January 11, 1982
I’m sorry, Shaolin.
Guilt has been consuming me for two years, and it almost swallowed me whole when I heard that reporter on the news say there was a shootout at Les Inferno. My whole world stopped, Shao, because I thought you were no longer in it. I thought my worst nightmare had come true. And I sat still like my body was asleep. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t catch my next breath. But I felt. I felt the world stop and my heart drop to my stomach. Then I felt the vomit coming up my throat. Then the tears. Then the hand on my shoulder. Then the phone to my ear. Then my world become whole again when my tía said you were alive, but you got arrested. That last part didn’t matter, because you were alive and my world was fine again even though I threw up in my own lap and scared my roommate so bad that he had to call my tía. But that didn’t matter either, because you were alive, Shao, and all I wanted to do was apologize to you. I wanted to say sorry in every language just so you could understand how much I mean it. I am sorry. Lo siento. Je suis désolé. Those are the only three languages I know. Pretty impressive for a half-black Puerto Rican from South Bronx, huh? At least that’s what Leon tells me.
I’m rambling now. I don’t wanna say what I have to, because I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed that I hurt someone I call my best friend, someone I love. That night you asked me what happened to family and I don’t know. I was just so angry and hurt and I felt so betrayed that night. You gotta understand that both of my parents died because of drug dealing. I never trusted the streets, but you are the streets. So when you told me what happened with Boo, you weren’t my best friend who I would trust with my life; you were just another victim, another soul, that the streets would not let go. And when you bound by something as vicious as that, you can’t be trusted. I know that firsthand, Shao. I know you love Boo Boo, I know he’s as much of a brother to you as he is to me, but you blinded by that fast life. It made you lie to me and it finally caught up to you.
But even though it’s messed that you got Boo locked up, you still didn’t deserve those words I said. You didn’t deserve me walking out of your life like you never meant nothing to me. And now I struggle with thoughts like, did I betray you? You taught me values, Shaolin, I could never play you. In fact, I can only thank you for what I become. Supposed to have been me, you, the crew taking over the whole world, and now we seem a world apart. I never thought we’d be here, Shaolin, and I take full responsibility. All I ask is that you forgive me.
Ignoring his instincts, ignoring his brain trying to rationalize all the emotions overwhelming his heart, Shao rushed to get to a phone. Waiting impatiently in the short line, he reread the letter, experiencing a range of emotions. When it was finally his turn, anxiousness consumed him as he waited for someone to answer. All the while, something inside him was telling him to hang up, something was trying to protect him from the rejection he felt when his call went unanswered. Once again, he was hurt, but he left a voicemail in hopes of being able to speak to Zeke directly, because it was obvious from the letter that there was some miscommunication that needed to be cleared up.
“Hey, Books. I, uh, I got your letter. It was really good to hear from you. But um, I think we should talk about a few things. You know, clear some things up? You think you can come visit me and let me explain myself? You know I ain’t good with writing and shit, man, and I need you to know exactly what I’m saying. I mean, I could try and give you a call back, but I, um, I’d like to see you, too.” He took a deep breath, glad to get that off his chest and apprehensive about revealing his next thought. “...I miss you, Books. I miss you a lot. And I hope to hear from you soon.”
It was another year before Shaolin received another letter from Zeke.