Rhythm & Beat

First Place Winner of Voyage’s Spring 2021 First Chapters Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Melissa de la Cruz

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*A brief note from our guest judge:  “The voice here is amazing, just so vital and real and modern and jumps off the page.”

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Though I ain’t an animal, I move like one. Sharp. Fast.

My opponent trips backward; his oatmeal-lumpy-looking ass hanging out of his boxers. His beady button eyes stare up at me. Like an insect caught in a spider’s web, his hands stick and jut out of our CAUTION tape make-shift ring. People in the crowd push and shove each other, clamoring to get a look.

“Fuck him up, Cheetah!” a voice roars, and the crowd cheers in unison.

I advance on him, my body shaking in rhythm to the thump thump thump of the music. Some niggas think they can just come up in here and dance against the Cheetah. Well…

He bout’ to find out why I’m called Cheetah.

How Moses walked on water, I’m moving on air. He stumbles back up, but he moves as if he’s swallowed a whole bottle of whiskey. Maybe he has. Pinocchio has nothing on me as my joints contort. The strap of my mask gravitates above the floor as I bend backward. I then spring forward, a battle cry springing from my lips. His pants fall with him, his skeleton ankles showing—and his nasty ass pee-stained boxers too.

My fingers cock into gun position. I take aim directly at his chest.

Flexing just ain’t for everyone. Not anyone can dance this dance. This dance is me. I feel the rhythm, the movement, and everything melts away. I’m Cheetah. I’m not Augustine Johnson.

“Gust—I mean Cheetah!”

A herculean figure rushes to the front of the crowd. Though his features are marred by sweat, Demetri still looks like Aphrodite had a son with an African deity. Some basic pick-me girls try to fix their three-month-old weaves when they see him. Girls always be doin’ too much. Demetri has that effect. Too bad he doesn’t fuck with girls. Guards haul him back, but he reaches for me.

“It’s Ziggy! He’s being jumped by some Blood Diamonds.”

Fear strikes my vines. No, no, no. Not Ziggy. I can’t lose Ziggy too. I jump over the CAUTION tape, grabbing onto Demetri. The guards back off when I give them a nod. Confusion descends over the crowd. Demetri grabs my hand but yells come from behind me. The announcer stands there with his wife-beater, his boxers peeking out from below.

“You just gonna dip? You promised—”

I bite my lip. “I know, I know. But family comes first. I’ll make it up to you. I promise.”

He sighs but gives me the go-ahead. I mouth a thank you before Demetri pulls me through the wet sandwich of crowded bodies. We run up the stairs on the side that lead to the blinking red EXIT sign. The cold night air hits me, making me quake a little.

Parked by the street is his Jaguar which resembles more of a 90s TV box than a car. The streetlight is faint, only the head of the car visible. A man that looks like blood-colored crooked sharpie-drawn lines were embedded into his eyeballs hangs around the entrance of the alleyway. His body twitches like the crackhead down the street from my home. Hell, he probably is a crackhead. Demetri gives the crackhead a wary eye, keeping me close in case the man gets ideas. As soon as we get close enough, the headlights flash, and Demetri helps me in. He hurries to the other side.

I flinch as several bangs come from my window side. I avert my eyes. Seen enough of that crap already—I don’t need a repeat of an episode I can look out my bedroom window for. That’s Brownsville New York for ya. The car sputters to life as Demetri revs up the engine. He takes off down the street. I undo the fastening off my mask, letting it lay in my lap. The bronze Cheetah mask looks like something out of that play Phantom of the Opera. Or least, that’s what I think it’s called. Every word or thought in my mind skates away in a haste. If my mind is a printer, it’s putting out jammed paper. My heart is practically doing jumping jacks. Ziggy. Dammit. How could I let this happen? If I just stayed with Ziggy after he fell asleep, he’d be okay. Safe. What would I tell Momma?

Demetri takes one hand off the wheel to squeeze my knee. “It’s gon’ be a’ight. We can tag-team ‘em.”

I give him the stare of a Black momma who’s gonna give her child something to cry about if they keep crying. Demetri removes his hand, rubbing the back of his head. How can he joke about this? I shouldn’t have gone to the competition. I’m out there dancing while my brother is being pummeled in the streets. I can’t lose another brother. Not again.

“This is all my fault. If Ziggy ends up like Tyrell…” The words get caught in my throat. I’d never forgive myself. Never.

Demetri tightens his grip on the wheel. “This is my fault, not yours. You asked me to watch him, and I fucked up. I just wanted to get somethin’ from my place, and I saw ’bout three Blood Diamonds jumping him from the window. Got to know a couple of ‘em in juvie. If I didn’t have that drug charge, I would’ve fucked them up.”

Right. What good would it do if Demetri ended up in juvie again? Or worse? I let my teeth drag across the surface of my nails. Fuck. I try to let more air in, not out. And Ziggy just had to get involved with the Blood Diamonds. They had as many shootouts as people had cookouts this summer.

Demetri suddenly stops the car. “We’re here.”

The light acts as a torch in the darkness, illuminating the scene before us. Three men stand over a figure that resembles a broken doll. My quivering glass heart shatters. That person is Ziggy. I need to save him. I have to save him.

“Gustine, wait—”

I’m already out the door, pushing past the men so I can reach Ziggy. Once I do, I drop to my knees. My hands cradle his face. From a crooked patch, a layer of skin peels back, blood running down his ebony skin. Right now, he looks like a bruised plum. His lip has a gash that ekes out blood. The blood is as tiny as a pebble, a speck. He lets out a wail. My stomach knots up in twists.

A shadow towers over me. The gangbanger leans within inches of my face. Three diamond piercings jut out beneath his lip. All Blood Diamond members have it. Sweat bubbles at the boundary between my forehead and hairline. I grip Ziggy tighter. The gangbanger’s grillz glint in the moonlight, the diamonds atop his lion canines. In the background, I can see Demetri from his car. Only his figure is visible through the tinted windows, but he’s talking to someone. Me? Or Ziggy?

“You betta get the fuck out of my way before I blow your brains out.” His voice is leveled, but my eyes follow his hand which cups an outline sagging in his pocket. A gun.

This is it. We’re going to die. None of this would have happened if I just stayed with Ziggy. If I just took care of him. What would Tyrell think of me? Abandoning Ziggy to go dance in some competition?

I let Tyrell down. I let Momma down. Most of all, I let myself down. And now we’re gonna die.

Whoop-whoop!

Red and blue lights flash. The police. Never has my Black ass been so glad to see the police show up.

“Hands up!” The officer’s voice rings out through the speaker atop his vehicle.

Grillz’s “friends” raise their hands. Grillz instead, pulls out his gun. Fear shoots up my veins like a drug. I cover Ziggy, letting my body be a shield. Just like how Tyrell covered my body before the bullet went through his back. I tear up. Ziggy deserves a future. A future beyond Brownsville. Something Tyrell could have had. If one of us can just make it out—I’m okay with being another casualty in the paper.

Pow! Pow! Pow!

That day, the blood battered my skin like a pot of boiling water. That day, Tyrell’s corpse smothered me like my heaviest sin. The lights in my eyes will eventually flicker off, just as a light switch is flipped. Death is staring me in the face. It’s our second meeting. And this may be our last one.

“Gustine! Gustine!”

My breath comes out in small, partitioned, halves. Light flutters through my eyes. Demetri is leaning over me along with Ziggy. Anxiety melts into relief on both of their faces. Demetri pulls me close, rubbing my back.

“It’s okay now. The cops went and chased after them. Those were just a bunch of warning shots. You’re safe. You ain’t dying on us,” Demetri whispers. His tone is as if he’s speaking to an infant. At this moment, I feel like one.

So, I let the tears flow.

###

“You were the one who started shit with them? What were you thinking, Ziggy?” I yell.

Demetri’s finished patching Ziggy up and disinfecting his wounds. Demetri has him laying down on our couch. Luckily, most of the damage was aimed at his stomach area. He’s got a few cuts and scratches on his face, but it’s not too bad. Now if Momma found out and whooped his ass a second time, I don’t know if he would make it. Ziggy’s lucky she out working at her second job.

Ziggy has the temperament of a newborn kitten but yet has the swagger of a wannabe SoundCloud rapper. Add some fades to his huge ass curly afro and he might be one in the making. I loom over him. He gives the epitome look of, “Who cares?”

If I could foam at the mouth, I would. “What were you even doing outside after I put you to bed?”

Ziggy side-eyes me. “Why did you sneak out when you were supposed to watch me?”

I don’t have a comeback for that. I back off, our little box of an apartment suddenly feeling much smaller. No one except Demetri knows about Cheetah. I want to keep it that way. Cheetah is everything I am but I can’t be. Life’s like that.

Demetri wrings a washcloth, steam rising in the cubic wall-to-wall kitchen. I jab my thumb in Ziggy’s direction. Demetri winks. He walks over and throws the towel on Ziggy’s face. Ziggy springs up horizontally.

Demetri plows into the space next to him. He hooks his arm around Ziggy. “Boi, we can let the real authority take over when she gets home. You want us to snitch on you, or would you rather tell us what happened?”

Ziggy’s face immediately falls. Hahaha. He knows Momma will whoop him back into the womb if she hears bout this. Ziggy clears his throat.

“Heard you come in after Gustine left, which woke me up. Then I heard you leave. So, I decided to take a walk. A man can’t take a walk?” Ziggy says.

The whites of my eyeballs have to be showing. They have to be. He left in the middle of the night. Where Blood Diamonds and other gang members are crawling the streets. To take a walk?

“You tryin’ to act grown now? Ziggy, you’re fourteen,” I hiss.

Demetri shakes his head. “Ziggy, foreal? My nigga.” He puts his hands up in a prayer sign. If the Lord can’t save him, we certainly can’t.

Ziggy puffs out his chest. “I ain’t ‘fraid of no gangbangers.”

Anger boils, smoldering within me. “You want to take a bullet and be in the grave like Tyrell, Ziggy? Are you really going to do that to Momma?”

His eyes have a flame lit within in them, a growing storm. Ziggy rises to meet me. Demetri stands up, getting between us.

 Ziggy points at me. “You know what they say. In Brownsville, by twenty-five, you’re either dead, or in jail, or you’re done with the gang life. Tyrell tried to leave. He didn’t know his place. That’s why he got shot—”

My palm smashes into his cheek, blood trickling out of his bandaged wounds. Demetri hauls me back, and my nails dig deep into his flesh. How could he say that about Tyrell? Tyrell was murdered. He died chasing his dream. Our dream. He died loving us ’till the end. How could Ziggy even think to say that about his own brother?

“Get yo ass to your bedroom. And you better be asleep li’l man when I get there,” Demetri says, still restraining me. Damn him.

Ziggy scurries away without a protest. Even after he’s out of sight, I’m still fighting against Demetri. Why? I don’t know. I don’t know what the hell’s going on anymore. Before I know it, Demetri has me wrapped up in a bear hug.

I let out the backed-up sobs, almost as if I’m throwing them up. His presence is like fresh dew after it rains in the morning. Finally, the tears stop coming. Maybe I’ve run out for the meantime. Demetri guides me to the couch, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. He’s a whole ass fireplace by himself. I lean into his warmth.

“People cope in different ways. He’ll get straight eventually,” Demetri says, squeezing my shoulder.

I shake my head. “Time is a rarity in Brownsville. You know that. We don’t have time.”

Ziggy wasn’t completely wrong. Just the other day there was a shootout at a business nearby. Most kids ’round here are either on their way to juvie or the grave. The classic prison to pipeline system at work. But that system can’t claim Ziggy. I won’t let it. And there’s only one way I can ensure that will happen.

“I have to stop flexing. Cheetah can’t go on anymore.” The words are blistering in my mouth.

Demetri’s eyes bulge out when he looks at me. “Gustine. You can’t do that. What about the Street Championships? You’re gonna win—”

“Dancing won’t get me or my family out of Brownsville, Tri,” I whisper.

He gazes at me, inside his eyes are a storm of emotions. Sadness. Fear. Affection. Those emotions come in waves, rolling into me. Demetri smiles, though it doesn’t reach his eyes.  

“Everyone’s pockets hurt, Gustine. But we gotta enjoy something.” His voice is small, a pin drop in the night.

I tremble but box my feelings away. I have to. I look at the ground, avoiding his gaze. “I promised one last time. Then that’s it. Cheetah’s dead.”

It’s Cheetah or my family. I choose my family. Always.

###

O-o-h Child by The Five Starships goes on its tenth lap in our apartment. On her knees, Momma fixes Ziggy’s navy tie. Momma is often asked if she’s our sister. Not because people are trying to be nice, but because she does look like our sister. She got pregnant in her early twenties with my dad, then popped out Tyrell. Then me. Then Ziggy. A baby had babies. That’s a common theme in the hood.

Momma has her coil screw curls that are wrapped up in a high bun. Her forehead stress lines are like rumples in clothes. Speaking of clothes, she made sure to iron out every single wormy crease on our Legacy Scholarly Institute uniforms. They arrived a few weeks ago after our paperwork to be transferred to Legacy went through. Not gonna lie, Imma miss being goofy with Demetri and cutting class. Those days are gone now.

“Be on your best behavior. I betta not hear a peep from the school.” Momma wags her finger at us but takes a step back to admire us.

Me and Ziggy haven’t talked since last night despite us sharing a room. He’s on the bottom bunk while I’m on the top. Ziggy told Momma he fell when she woke us up. Momma looked like she was going to give him a second beatdown before I backed him up. She let it go because of today.

Ziggy has snuck a few glances at me, but I ignore him. I instead focus on laying my edges into the perfect swirls that mimic the curvature of an ice cream. Gotta show these trust fund kids whose boss. Momma comes up behind me, fluffing my curls that are pulled into a low ponytail like a pillow. She looks like she walked straight out of a nineties R&B video. I inherited those looks a little. It’s as if when God made me, he mixed copper and dark chocolate to get my skin tone. With Momma, he just splashed some golden honey on her. I love every single piece of myself. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Ziggy is already sitting down on his bed, scrolling through his phone. Momma sits me down next to him. She gets at eye level with us by sitting on her knees. Ziggy senses the shift (or he senses the belt comin’ from Momma if he don’t stop) and switches off his phone. We both give her our undivided attention.

“Make the most out of the opportunity Tyrell left for us. He would have wanted that. Okay?” Her eyes grow a little watery, her hand swiping away a tear.

Ziggy nods. He gives Momma no backtalk. I nod as well. Pressure builds in my eyes. I push it away. I can’t go crying now. I have to wipe away Momma’s tears. I have to wipe away Ziggy’s tears.

The bus horn bellows from below. We stand up, ready to go. Resolve wells within my heart.

I’ll make Tyrell proud.

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