That night, shadows fell in every direction, cast by the thousand lights of the city that never sleeps, and under the cloak of darkness Rael and his brother John gathered with the street gang for a bit of nighttime excitement.
“Everybody here?” asked Henry, the tallest one of them all and the gang’s unofficial leader, surveying the alley. He was much admired by the street kids for being the oldest in their group, and for leading a double life. By day Henry had a job, working for money (though none of the kids quite knew what it was he did). By night, he led the gang in their raids, free from the constraints of social life. Rael had always hoped to be like him someday.
“We’re here,” chorused a few voices. Henry scrunched his face up, squinting at the faces of the gang members, and took roll call. “Who’s present tonight? Say your name if you came.”
There was a shout of many voices, and then Rael said, “I’m here!”
“Great,” Henry said. “Couldn’t pull this off without you, Razor.”
“I’m here,” John said. Henry ignored him.
“Don’t worry,” Rael whispered. “He knows you’re with me.”
“Who’s worrying?” John murmured back coolly.
Taxis passed in the street, and some small animal- a cat, most likely- jumped from the rooftop of one of the buildings onto the trash can in the alley. One of the gang members started at this, causing mocking laughter to sound across the brick walls. Henry silenced them. “Shut up!”
The gang turned their faces in his direction, and Henry began. “We all know what kind of a raid this is tonight, right? If you don’t know you shouldn’t have come.”
“I know!” piped up one of the kids in front. “It’s a-”
Henry cut him off. “It’s a fire raid. Now, do y’all have your bottles?”
Each boy hoisted his high, Rael and John included. Henry showed his approval in his eyes. “Good, good. If you forgot your bottle you shouldn’t have come.”
A wind began to blow at Rael’s back, and he tightened his jacket around himself. He looked to John automatically, checking to make sure his brother had worn the right apparel. He had- John was clothed in a World War II-era bomber jacket and long jeans, perfectly warm.
“Now,” Henry continued to the gang, “we all know what to do. Is this your first time on a raid?” No one raised their hands. “Well, if it’s your first time, you still shouldn’t have come. Rael, come up here. I need you to take the second group. There’s a big crowd tonight.”
“All right,” said Rael- it really was a big turnout. Most of the gang had nothing better to do at night anyway, but usually there were at least a few who wanted to sleep. But nobody would be crazy enough to miss a fire raid. Rael took his place at Henry’s side, and Henry began speaking again. “Divide yourselves into two groups. And no fighting, for the love of God. If you want to fight-” he paused for a moment, knowing that everyone knew what he was going to say- “you shouldn’t have come here anyway.”
The gang split into halves. John joined Rael’s group, much to Rael’s happiness. Henry looked on with approval.
“Now, follow me!” And they took off. It wasn’t running, not yet- the gang would save their running energy for later- but it was swift motion, and Rael could feel the wind in his shaggy hair. He liked how the night air felt on his skin- nice and cool.
There was a shopping center that was the gang’s target tonight. As soon as they arrived, Henry checked for passersby. Of course there were a lot- this was New York, after all- but Henry felt certain that the gang could keep themselves hidden. “My group gets to come with me. The rest of y’all follow the Razor. You get the front parking lot, I get the back of the stores. Don’t get yourselves caught. See ya back at the alley.” He departed with his excited group. Rael stared out at the light-washed lot, puffing with pride like a peacock. Henry trusted him with the cars! He’d better prove he was worthy of them.
Rael checked to make sure that Henry’s group was out of sight, and then turned towards his own group. “Okay, c’mon.” The gang silently descended on the parking lot, puddles of blackness exposed in the light. Rael ordered the group to split up, to dissolve suspicion.
“Should we slash their tires first?” one boy asked. Rael shook his head, wondering why slashing tires seemed to be so entertaining to the young gang members. “When I give the signal, you begin.” They nodded and split. John went with them, leaving Rael to his car.
It was a handsome one, that was for sure- a sleek black Mercedes with shiny metal door handles. Rael rubbed his hands together, half-wishing he didn’t need to destroy it. He could do a lot of good with a car that cool. But Henry was expecting him to pull it off. So Rael removed the glass bottle from within his leather jacket and uncorked it, discretely pouring the liquid onto the car’s hood. The smell of gasoline filled the air. Rael reached into his pocket and dug out the most vital ingredient in the recipe for fire- a box of matches. He opened the box and shook one out, striking it against the side of the box to light it. Rael admired the steadiness of his hand, no longer shaky and full of nervousness. He gave a glance around- no one but the gang was in sight, waiting on his signal- and whistled two off-key notes, one higher than the other, loud enough for the wind to carry them to the ears of his companions, before dropping the match onto the gasoline-infused car. The vehicle went up in flame.
Rael lit another match and tossed it onto the car, making sure the whole thing burned. Then he stepped back, his head whirling. His group was shrieking with joy as their individual cars burned. Rael breathed, seeing flame and fire and feeling adrenaline racing through his veins. He let out his own cry of joy, pumping his hands in the air. Exhilaration ruled his mind.
But the pleasure couldn’t last long. Onlookers caught glimpses of what was going on and raced towards the parking lot. Rael was torn from his celebration to instantly be shot with fear. Henry’s words rang in his ears- Don’t get caught. In a few moments it would all be over if Rael lingered. But should he call it off now, or should he wait for Henry and his group?
The people were running, and Rael’s instincts took over. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “To me!” The gang came running towards Rael and took off, not even bothering to check if everyone was there. Rael sped up, breaking into a run. He scanned the group for John, the light of the fire staining his retinas, and finally spied him weaving his way through the group, running faster than Rael was. Somewhere along the line Henry and his group returned from the back lot, mixing in with Rael’s group to make a fully-formed gang. They ran as one, as a pack, leaving the danger of the parking lot far behind them.
In the dark, Rael was usually more sure-footed. But the car fires had blinded him with their brightness, and so he stumbled once, and finally tumbled to the ground. Rael’s jacket caught the ground, ripping his leather-clad elbow, and Rael cried out as he hit the pavement, more for the sake of the jacket than anything else. The gang blew past him, not helping him up-their mindset was that if you fell, you deserved it.
“Uhhh...” Rael groaned as he rolled onto his side, winded. He tried to push himself up, but his limbs felt like rubber. That was when John appeared, snaking his way back through the night to help his brother. Without a word, he bent over and extended his hand to Rael, who took it and used it as a lever to get himself on his feet. John still said nothing, barely waiting to see if Rael was okay before he was off again. Rael checked himself for scratches or bruises, and then began jogging in an attempt to catch up with the gang, his heart burning with gratefulness for John.
So the juvenile arsonists scampered and gamboled playfully all night long, setting the city ablaze. But it wasn’t like that every night. Sometimes the gang would go tire-slashing as another way of destroying cars, which excited the younger members but was an activity that Rael saw no point in. His favorite nights were the spray paint raids, where every boy had a can for themselves and wrote on the walls until morning broke. Every night was something new, forgotten by morning, but wholly enjoyable while it lasted. The city was theirs, every man for himself, and they would never, ever grow old.
After a few more targets of flame and destruction, Henry called it quits for the night. He declared he was going back to his apartment, which inspired some kids to ask if they could come with him. Henry sighed, but gave in, as he always did. “But if you stick around for morning there’s no telling how fast you’ll be kicked out!” Rael looked around for John, intending to leave with him, but found no sign of his brother. He worried for a bit, hoping that John was safe on his own, and loitered around before finally departing. His stomach rumbled, begging for food. So Rael decided to swing by his favorite bar and find something to eat within his price range. At the very least he could find some late night entertainment.
As Rael entered the bar, he glanced forlornly, as he always did, at the sign which read: THOSE WHO ARE UNDER 21 YEARS OF AGE MUST NOT PURCHASE OR DRINK ALCOHOL HERE. Rael was only three years under that rule, an adult but not quite old enough to drink. He despised the rule that made it so he could not get drunk, and wistfully thought back to his first attempt at purchasing alcohol-
The bartender raised his eyebrow as Rael slouched down in a barstool, putting his tough face on. “I’d like a beer.” He growled these words at the bottom of his voice, in the lowest range he could muster.
“How old are you?” the bartender questioned.
“I’m 22.” Rael squinted, annoyed. Are you questioning me?
But yes, indeed the bartender was. “Suuuure you are,” he stated in disbelief. “Let’s see some ID.”
Rael sprang up, indignant. “But I’m tall for my age! Why don’t you believe me-” He fell silent, realizing immediately what he had done. A second later, Rael was sitting on the sidewalk outside, his head stinging from the cuff the bartender had administered to it, reading the sign on the door. THOSE WHO ARE UNDER 21 YEARS OF AGE MUST NOT PURCHASE OR DRINK ALCOHOL HERE.
That was just before he’d gotten hauled into the Pontiac, Rael remembered. He blinked, resurfacing and shaking off the remnants of old memories. He wondered, as he took a seat at the bar, if John was doing all right.
Somewhere in the back of the bar, a live band was playing. Rael didn’t know if they were any good or not. He wasn’t listening. The bartender came over, a man who was sympathetic to Rael’s age limit. He had made it clear before to Rael that he would gladly sell him alcohol if it didn’t cost him his job. The bartender and Rael chatted for a bit, and then broke apart as the man behind the counter went to get a nonalcoholic drink and a plate of food for Rael. He rarely minded if Rael didn’t pay. Rael supposed that he was the bartender’s favorite regular.
All around the room, couples danced to the live band. Their friends egged them on from their seats, cheering. The night was young and some folks were only on their second drinks. The atmosphere was teetering on the edge of controlled and wild, which was a tense feeling that Rael loved. The bartender whirled back over to him with his order, and Rael took it, sipping his drink slyly.
That was when he saw her.
Down at the far end of the bar, a woman came to sit. At first Rael thought she was a man- her dark hair was cropped short and close to her head. Then, as she swiveled her neck, Rael realized that she had on earrings, and a short silver dress. Wrapped around her shoulders was a black pashmina, and at the end of her feet were high, spindly heels. Her skin was the same color that Rael’s was. She ordered a drink and fiddled with her earrings.
Rael, openly staring, had never seen a woman more attractive. Especially not here in this bar. He slowly got to his feet and approached her from the side, sitting down on her left.
“Hola, chica.” The Spanish flowed easily from his mouth. “You come here often?”
She looked at him deeply. Her eyes were like two orbs of pure, dark chocolate.
“Nah. I’ve never even seen this place before. Who the hell are you?”
Her voice was flavored with a distinct Hispanic accent, the country of which Rael could not place. He struggled for words.
“I’m Rael. And who are you, chica?”
“Marina. Stop calling me chica. You’re not even fully Hispanic.”
Rael started. How did she know that...? Forgetting to be cool, he blurted, “How could you tell?”
Marina shook her head, rolled her eyes. “For heaven’s sake. The lights aren’t that dim in here. No Hispanic person had sky-blue eyes.”
Oh... Of course. Rael had forgotten his eye color for a moment. He tried to think of a snappy comeback. Unfortunately, his brain was empty. Rael was tongue-tied.
“So... where’re you from?” he eventually managed to say.
“You mean my home country? Colombia. I’ve been living here for a week, though. Where’re you from?”
Rael hesitated, unsure of what to say, before finally responding, “New York.”
Marina laughed. “I thought the natives around here were more suave. Bartender-” She stood up, catching the barman’s attention, who came over and refilled her glass. Marina sipped from it and glanced back to Rael. “Say, don’t you get enough sleep at night? There are huge circles under your eyes.”
“I know,” Rael huffed. He was fully aware of those strange circles, and felt uncomfortable whenever anyone pointed them out. “I’m... not one for sleeping.”
Marina wagged her head. “Makes sense to me. I’d go insane if I had to sleep exposed to all that honking and all that shouting every night. It’s bad enough for seven days so far.” She leaned over the counter, and conversation was lost for a few moments. Rael floundered for words. Desperate to say anything that would impress Marina, he opened his mouth and found his foot inserting itself in there as he blurted something that was definitely unimpressive- “Are you one of those women who do it for money?”
Marina, settling herself back down in her chair, whipped her head towards Rael so fast that Rael expected it to snap off. She glared evilly, coldly at him. “What the hell? Do you think I’m a hooker?”
“No-” Rael knew that he’d made a huge blunder, and wanted to slap himself. “I... I was just wondering if you were.”
“Bastard,” Marina hissed, standing up and taking her drink along with her. Rael wasn’t hurt by the insult- it was true, after all- but he was hurt by her departure. “Hey! Don’t leave! I’m sorry I thought you were a hooker!”
Marina stopped and looked back at Rael, her face hardening. She mouthed one word to him- “Unbelievable.” Then she gave him the bird and moved on to a new section of the bar. Rael wanted to drown in his nonalcoholic drink.
He set the glass down on the counter and spun around in his barstool, watching Marina on the other side. She sat alone, reaching down the top of her dress... Rael’s breath caught. Marina slid her hand out from beneath her clothes and produced a lighter. She looked around, and stood up to tap the shoulder of the man at the table in front of her. They conversed, and he gave her a cigarette. As Marina walked away, she let her pashmina drop, revealing her broad brown shoulders.
Rael was smoldering.
He leapt up suddenly and moved down the bar, away from the counter, away from Marina. The band was getting into a fast song and everyone was jumping around, energized. Rael joined them at the front of the makeshift stage and began dancing in time. He wasn’t exactly a good dancer, but his feet had a certain instinct and rhythm, and he hardly ever misstepped. Soon a space was cleared out as the couples parted to make room for Rael, the king of dance.
Up close, the band was so loud that Rael could barely even hear himself think. He closed his eyes, getting so much into his dancing that he was frightened when someone tapped him on the shoulder. Rael opened his eyes to find Marina there, offering herself to him. She said something, but he couldn’t hear her above the music. He grabbed her and pulled her against his chest, and the song sped up. Rael and Marina moved to the beat like there was no tomorrow.
Marina was quite the dancer, it turned out. Rael had never seen anyone who could groove so well. He was out of breath by the time the band finished their song, but kept it together to dance another. And another. Then a slow song came, and the couple rested on each other, Marina softly petting Rael’s shoulders. Rael was in bliss. Neither of them spoke.
The guitarist played a splendor of rippling notes, and Rael whirled Marina around. He dipped her at the climax of the song, and she lay limp in his arms, her soft skin exposed on her neck and shoulders, her delicate breast going up and down, panting. Rael imagined that they were the only two in the room, that her fluttering eyelids hid deep love for him, that her trembling lips were breathing, sighing his name... He leaned in.
And the song ended. Couples pulled away from each other and moved to sit down. Marina, a still life in Rael’s arms, suddenly flipped out from under his grasp. She stepped a few paces back, wiping the sweat off her forehead. The band retuned. Rael, drunk with the effect of Marina, tried to locate the words that would call her back to him.
“I’ve never danced with anyone before,” he said.
Then he turned around and left her.