Updated: Jul 10, 2021
Seven, eight, nine interstate overpasses sheltered the paved walking trail, which wound between graffitied columns and green-painted steel trusses along a hidden, rocky creek.
Rippled concrete slopes formed the walls of the valley through which Braxton and his cousin Robert walked. A swelling roar echoed around them as eighteen wheelers thudded across joints in a bridge deck, zooming overhead at sixty miles an hour. Taking the lead, Braxton had a Tupac album playing on a tiny speaker in his back pocket, the rapper’s steady verses in sync with their steps.
Neither of the boys had spoken since their descent from the Walmart plaza to the trail, a shortcut Braxton often traveled from downtown to his apartment complex. Robert, an uninitiated suburbanite with long pants, a manicured afro and glasses, had never traveled this route, had never witnessed the underside of a city on foot. Braxton, almost a sophomore in high school, had taken this path numerous times, as his older brother Jamar had taught him.
“Ain’t this better than Uber? Or your mama driving you around?” Braxton called, all too aware of his younger cousin’s nervous glances in every direction. Robert’s eyes were wide like domed hubcaps, his head swiveling to take in their surroundings. Braxton held his chin up and focused straight ahead, carrying a proud sense of familiarity and ownership of the space through which they walked, like he was giving Robert a tour of his own backyard.
“There’s no way we’ll make it in time. My mom wanted me back by dark.” Robert clutched a white, box-shaped shopping bag under his arm like a football, though his pace did not match the urgency of his words.
“Relax, your mama won’t leave without you. Besides, you oughta see the city up close if you’re gonna move here for high school.”
Robert didn’t reply. He must have been thinking about playing whatever video game he’d just bought, his eyes now directed at his toes.
On this rare visit, Robert’s mom had forked over a wad of twenties and told him and Braxton to go out and entertain themselves. A few minutes later, Robert had stared over his glasses at Braxton, hands on hips, when he was asked to wiggle through the gap in the apartment complex fence and crawl down the slope to the trail. It had taken some coaxing to get Robert join him, unlike the first time Jamar had let Braxton tag along on walks around town. Navigating the city streets, alleyways and shortcuts at his brother’s side was the most alive Braxton had ever been.
Tupac was spitting verses about his mama now, his voice cutting in and out above the wail of a siren. Braxton hiked up his shorts over his narrow, bony hips and clicked up the volume on the speaker, his purchase with his aunt’s money. He fingered one of his hair twists, smirking at how many times his mom had dreamed aloud of moving he and Jamar out of town to be closer to their aunt. Now his aunt and cousin were instead moving into the city so Robert could go to a magnet school.
“Don’t sweat it, cuz, I’ll show you how it is when you start school,” Braxton said, lifting a branch out of his cousin’s path. “Freshman year is rough, but you’ll find your groove. We won’t be at the same school, but we can still roll together.”
“Do you walk everywhere?” Robert said between heavy breaths, his wide forehead shiny with sweat.
Braxton sucked his teeth. “We ain’t got no car.”
“I know, but what about taking the bus?”
“When I’m outta options. It ain’t reliable, though,” Braxton said, picturing the swaying, boxy frame of the city bus, the smoky scent in his nostrils, the crowd of bodies pressed together. Better to be out in the open air, navigating his own route.
“What about riding a bike? We’ve passed other bikers,” Robert said, sounding desperate.
By reflex, Braxton glanced over each shoulder, his heart hammering in his chest. He hadn’t been on a bike since Jamar was in high school, since they’d been ambushed behind their old apartment building.
“I can’t ride no bike,” Braxton shot back. His naive cousin didn’t need to know about that painful encounter, when there hadn’t been a shortcut or concealed trail to deliver him and Jamar to safety. A bicycle was a target, a liability.
“Guess I’ll have to convince my mom to drive me to school,” Robert said.
At an overgrown mass of trees, they cut over the stream by skipping across jagged slate stones before rejoining the paved trail, shaving a few minutes off their travel time. Braxton, with his long, gangly legs and familiarity with the terrain, moved more quickly, and he had to backtrack to offer Robert a hand for balance.
As they crossed more level terrain, Robert began babbling about his new video game while Tupac rapped Jamar’s favorite song. Braxton’s lips formed each line as he pictured he and his brother shoulder to shoulder, standing against the world.
“The new weapon upgrade cuts response time in half, so you can double your kill count.” Braxton caught Robert saying as the song ended. Braxton wondered what his collared-shirt cousin thought of their excursion to and from the game store. Robert must have been used to seeing neat rows of houses from a car window on his way home, rather than piles of frayed tires, muddy creeks, tattooed sound barriers or the backside of abandoned buildings.
“What’s so great about where you stay at, anyway?” Braxton asked as they walked by the base of a billboard, towering overhead like the black trunk of an ancient tree.
Robert shrugged. “I’m at my house or at school most of the time. But my mom says it’s safer. Not as much crime.”
“It’s too damn quiet where you’re at, way outta town. Everybody hidden away in a shell.”
“You’ve never been there. We have tennis courts and a pool. I bet you’d like it.”
“I’d be a fish outta water,” Braxton said through a laugh. Deep down, he knew he wouldn’t feel safe out in the suburbs, but his cousin couldn’t understand. Not with his prep school clothes and rich mom, or all his white classmates and neighbors.
“I’m gonna move away when I graduate from school,” Robert said, shifting his plastic bag between hands. “Maybe somewhere in California where my dad lives. Lots of video game companies out there. Where will you go?”
“I’ve been in this city my whole life,” Braxton said quietly.
“Your brother moved away, didn’t he?”
“He joined the Army. That’s different.” Braxton squinted into the setting sun and sighed. Jamar, even thousands of miles away, would be proud of him for showing their nerdy, rich cousin the most direct routes, the ones that kept them out of sight, out of trouble. Braxton wished he was there in person, instead of only sending money once in a while to help their mom make ends meet.
The recessed trail sloped up until they stood in an open meadow, their view expanding out to include a large train yard in one direction and the jagged outline of skyscrapers in the other. A single, curved interstate overpass cut across the horizon. The opening to the valley remained on their left, its gloomy shadows in stark contrast to the bright green field, illuminated by the descending sun.
They walked along a concrete barrier decorated with painted cartoon characters and neon pink aliens. Where the barrier ended, a wooden fence began, and Braxton pointed out the different types of trains they could see through the slats. Robert didn’t ask any questions, instead complaining about there being no cell service as he waved his phone around like a parking lot attendant. This area had more foot traffic, the trees sparse and well-trimmed, so Braxton moved more swiftly to compensate. He lowered the volume on Tupac as dog walkers and bicyclists passed them, wishing he could tone down his cousin’s erratic motions as well.
When he saw shirts and pants stretched along the top of the fence up ahead, Braxton smiled. A shopping cart piled with belongings was situated beside the walkway, just out of sight from the bulbous security cameras conspicuously installed along this section of trail. These articles framed Old Man Jackson, who sat on his overturned milk crate taking a reprieve from panhandling at the interstate off-ramp. His brown skin was wrinkled like a walnut shell, and his head was crowned with a red beanie, the frizzy ends of his dreadlocks tufting out like socks from a dresser drawer. Known as the eyes of the trail, Braxton could rely on Jackson for the latest news on the streets. With an empty plastic milk jug set out in front of his station, Jackson often serenaded pedestrians by playing Bob Marley or Stevie Wonder on his harmonica and hand-made bongo drums, the tunnel below the nearby overpass acting as his own theater.
As Braxton approached Jackson’s perch, he was surprised the old man wasn’t playing music. A couple white ladies dropped him some change as they shuffled past, but he was silent and didn’t even look up. Closer now, Braxton noticed his limbs were trembling, and he was shaking his head.
“Rob, hold up.” He held out his arm like a ticketing turnstile and reached for his back pocket, switching off Tupac mid-lyric. Robert grumbled in protest, using the opportunity to clean his glasses on a heavy cotton sleeve.
“Ya hangin’ in there, geezer?” Braxton swaggered a few steps off the trail and hung his head to the side. Robert guffawed as if his cousin had said something offensive.
“Course not, boy. Y-you listen here...I been h-hearing him hollerin’ all day.” Jackson sputtered, stroking his speckled beard with still-shaking fingers. Braxton whistled a spooky tune. Jackson reminded him of his grandpa, who was usually friendly but had fought in the Vietnam War and could slide into an anxious state at the drop of a hat.
“Who’s talking to you, Jackson?” Braxton liked to egg Jackson on, just as Jamar had done. When the hermit wasn’t in the state of mind to share local news, his cryptic stories were always amusing.
“It ain’t no t-talkin’. He making a horrible racket. I c-can’t play with that noise in my head.” Jackson waved at his drums, which were turned sideways and tucked into the bottom rack of his shopping cart.
“You hearing things again?” Braxton knew the old man was going deaf and suffered from ringing in his ears.
“We’re gonna be late,” came Robert’s anticipated warning.
“You gotta meet Jackson, seeing as you’re gonna be neighbors soon.” Braxton yanked his cousin into the shoulder of the trail and introduced him to the old man. Robert merely nodded in acknowledgment, while Jackson fidgeted with a loose thread on his beanie and continued mumbling.
“Now, whatcha goin’ on about, Jackson?” Braxton asked.
“He’s stuck down th-there, next to that abandoned t-tunnel. I been hearing him call out to me, but I can’t do n-nothin’ about it.” Jackson pointed a gnarled finger at a train tunnel down the shadowy slope, partially obscured from view by unruly vegetation and piles of soot-like debris. The waning evening light seemed to be drawn into the arched opening in the hill like a vacuum.
“You figure it could be a ghost?” Braxton asked, embarrassed by the shiver down his spine.
Jackson’s eyes narrowed slightly. Under his beard, his lips almost certainly curled into a heavy frown. He reached for his shopping cart and retrieved a rag, which he used to wipe his face.
“L-listen now, I’m talking sense to you, boy. It was just a kid, no older than you are. He was ridin’ his bike, fast as an arrow. Must have hit a rock, ‘cause he tumbled head first down that slope over yonder,” Jackson said, the stutter now absent. “You know about my bad leg. It’s been killing me today. I couldn’t stand up to check on him. And folks haven’t been listening to me. I’m tryna explain what I saw. But I’ve been hearing that boy call out all afternoon. I reckon he’s still down there. Lord knows what shape he’s in, considerin’ that fall.”
Good humor wheezed from Braxton’s chest like a punctured helium balloon. The ground at his feet seemed to heave slightly, the hair on his arms bristled, his fingers balled into fists. It was the lump in his throat that kept him from yelling, screaming, anything to communicate the twisting sensation suddenly churning in his stomach. He felt violated, his face growing hot with anger.
Robert was staring at his phone absentmindedly. Braxton jabbed him in the arm.
“What was that for?” Robert looked like he’d been awoken from hibernation.
“C’mon.” Braxton trotted across the trail and down the slope to the stream, shot through with renewed determination. Old Man Jackson shouted something indecipherable after them.
“This can’t be the right way, Braxton,” Robert yelled, already a significant distance behind.
“I can’t let this happen again,” Braxton said in a feverish voice, dust scratching at his lungs as he thought of the shiny blue bike his mom had surprised him with as a kid. He’d owned it for less than a week before it was stolen from him. But he couldn’t think of the bike without also hearing voices in his own head: Jamar’s cries of pain, threatening laughter from all sides.
As they trudged down, down, the world hidden below the city played tricks on Braxton’s ears and eyes. The deafening interstate din and dusty haze glowing orange in the sunset seemed to signal an advancing train, about to emerge from the abandoned tunnel. Or was it the memory of his older brother barreling through his mind like a steam engine? The image of Jamar’s body, beaten bloody on the bank of a stream near a dark hole in the ground, suddenly emerged into this place he thought he knew so well.
“Braxton, what the hell are you doing? It’s almost dark out,” Robert whined, moving down the slope at a much slower pace.
“I...I need to find him.” Braxton tensed his core and stepped, foot over foot, along the trash-laden stream bank toward the shadowy tunnel. He called out after the boy, trying to pick out the crunch of bicycle tires or a cry for rescue over the rumble of traffic overhead.
The path of the old train track, long ago buried by modern modes of transportation, was littered with rotted wooden sleepers scattered haphazardly and rusted metal rails yanked from the ground like uncurled paperclips. The mouth of the tunnel gaped wide ahead of them. The setting was eerily similar to the concrete drainage channel behind Braxton’s old apartment complex, where Jamar had tried to defend his younger brother in a street fight.
Robert didn’t know about the cause of Jamar’s injuries. How could Braxton express what had happened? How the nightmare had settled over him afresh at the news of this injured kid?
“This looks like a level of Halo. An alien might shoot out at us from that tunnel.” Robert’s voice was hazy, distant, hovering behind him, disengaged.
Braxton yelled louder, stepping down into the murky water trickling toward the tunnel. Through the haze, a form appeared up ahead, twisted on the ground at the base of the slope. He ran to it, and found the bicycle, its wheels bent and handlebars dislodged, but no sign of the fallen kid.
Crouching to inspect the bike, Braxton's fists trembled and his back tingled, signaling the muscle memory of cowering in a fetal position on that bank years ago. It had been dark, and Braxton had been knocked off his brand new bike by a teenage bully. Sprawled on the ground, he watched in horror as his brother faced a ring of shouting and cat-calling young men, looking for a chance to prove themselves. Jamar had bobbed, swerved, ducked, and weaved, smack-talking their attackers, putting on a brave face as he swung his arms in defense. Through cold fingers, Braxton saw his brother keel over from several punches to the abdomen, then a kick behind the knees and a hit across the back with a crowbar.
“Looks abandoned to me.” Robert sighed, surveying the disfigured bicycle.
“Old Man Jackson ain’t crazy. I’ve known him since kindergarten.” Braxton stood up, his face stone-cold serious, fighting to keep his thoughts in the present. “If he saw that boy, I reckon he’s still down here. What if it was your brother?”
“If there really is a kid out here, what could we even do to help?” Robert straightened to full height, eye to eye with Braxton. He suddenly appeared comfortable in his own skin.
“There’s strength in numbers,” Braxton told his cousin. He bit his lip and inspected the ridge line, where a couple brave silhouettes still walked the trail above. The yellow interstate lights flickered on, their glow unable to penetrate down into the valley, which grew fuzzy and gray. “That kid ain’t safe down here in the dark by himself.”
“Why don’t you call the police then?” Robert said, taking a step forward and swinging the carefully-wrapped video game to his side.
Braxton scowled at his cousin.
“What?” Robert asked innocently.
Braxton didn’t respond, instead hanging his head. Robert’s ignorance unnerved him, made Braxton want to take a swing at his cousin or push him into the stream.
After the street fight years ago, red and blue flashing lights had washed over Jamar’s bruised face long after the mob had stolen the bike and vacated the scene. At his brother’s urging, Braxton had dragged Jamar into the ditch to hide in some bushes. The boys had watched the cops sweep the scene with their flashlights, chatter on their walkie-talkies, and light some cigarettes. When Braxton started to raise his head, desperate to ask for help, Jamar delivered him a stern look through swollen eyes. Soon, the cop cars left, finding nothing out of the ordinary.
In the present, Braxton picked up a rock, swiveled on his heel and chucked the dusty object toward the tunnel. With a great gulp of air, he screamed upward into the night, his chest reverberating as he sank to his knees as if praying, pleading. He could feel Robert standing over him. Cars honked, an owl hooted. His head throbbed.
“What’s wrong, Braxton?” Robert whispered. He seemed somehow closer, present.
“This place…Jamar…Jamar was jumped at a place like this,” Braxton muttered in raspy breaths.
Robert dropped the plastic bag to the ground and it flopped over with a puffy thud. He exclaimed something incoherent.
Braxton clenched his eyes shut, words pouring out of him despite his dry mouth. “I was little and couldn’t defend him for shit. Couldn’t call for help. Couldn’t do nothing.”
Robert sat next to his cousin and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t know.”
“Nobody was there to help.” Braxton wheezed into lap, still doubled over.
Robert shifted his weight to wrap an arm around Braxton, hesitantly at first, then leaning forward on his knees to rest gently against Braxton’s back.
“You’re gonna make it. You’re gonna be ok,” he said. The same words Braxton had whispered to his brother Jamar years ago as he was bruised and bleeding, grasping for comfort in the shadow of fists, pain and powerlessness. Now the memory flew past like a semi-truck on the highway, the edges melting, softening, losing their sharpness.
Braxton wiggled from Robert’s arm, feeling a little embarrassed but significantly lighter, if not slightly floating above the ground. His mind was clearer as he thought again of the boy falling down the hill on his bike.
“I don’t think that kid’s down here,” he said, even though the darkness was now deep and black, the night air heavy, the city still bustling, never sleeping. “We should go.”
“First catch your breath,” Robert replied. “I’ll text my mom. Let her know to wait a little longer. We can keep looking.”
Braxton stood, thinking of the scars Jamar still carried on his body, of his silly-headed brashness for running into this pit with his cousin. “Nah, I better take you back,” he said.
“We could talk to the old man again.” Robert’s eyes were wide, visible in the dark like two bright stars in the night sky. “Ask him a few more questions. Seems like he knew what he was talking about.” He flicked on his phone light and retrieved the shopping bag, slinging it over his shoulder.
Braxton shook his head. “I think the boy got away without Jackson seeing.” He remembered Jamar’s arm around his small neck as they hobbled through the shadows toward home after the cops had left, their clothes torn and bloody. Jamar’s silent dependence on him had stirred Braxton to ignore his aching muscles and continue on.
“He was lucky. I told you this place isn’t safe,” Robert said.
“He’ll learn to be more careful.”
His present anxiety subsiding, Braxton marveled at the bravery of his younger self, at the strength that sprang up even in a pit of despair. He didn’t associate opportunistic violence with the city, instead it was the protective presence of his brother that followed him on the streets and along the hidden trails laced between them. It had shaped him in a way he hadn’t witnessed until now.
“I don’t think I’ll take this route to school,” Robert said. He turned back up the hill without waiting for direction. “You coming?”
Braxton couldn’t help but smile. Perhaps he’d make a city boy out of his cousin yet.