The Hard Count


by Ginger Scott

Prologue

I look over my shoulder when I walk home from school. If the sun is setting, I run.

Mom says it’s best for young boys like me not to be out on the streets at night. That’s when the 57 comes out. I don’t tell Mom, but they’re out during the day, too. My older brother, Vincent, goes with them sometimes. I don’t tell Momma that, either. I think, though, that maybe…she already knows.

I live on a quiet street. Me and my friends play football in the middle. The only time we have to stop our game is when one of them drives through. They drive slow. And they stare at me. Especially the one in the dark-blue car—his eyes look like the devil’s, and there’s always smoke coming from his mouth. My mom says it’s drugs, and his brain is poisoned. But his brain seems to be working okay. He always looks like he’s thinking. He’s the one I watch for when I’m alone.

My best friend, Sasha, is moving. There’s a sign in front of his house, and I heard his parents talking to my mom about how much the neighborhood has changed. I’m only ten, and it seems the same as it’s always been to me. The grocery store still has my favorite pop in the freezer box right outside, Pete’s Root Beer with vanilla. Marina and Paul still have the big orange house on the corner, and she always gives me tamales to take home any time I want. And Mr. and Mrs. Mendoza, who live across the street, still have the nicest yard I’ve ever seen. Vincent says boys aren’t supposed to like flowers, but Mrs. Mendoza grows roses. They smell sweet, and I like to watch the bees eat from them. I don’t care what Vincent says.

I like it here. And I don’t want to move. But I think Sasha’s parents have made my mom want to. She was looking at apartments in the paper yesterday morning during breakfast. I got angry and grabbed the newspaper from her hands and tore it into pieces when I ran out the back door. She caught me by the bottom of my Avengers T-shirt, and it ripped at the neck. She didn’t hit my butt, but she made me run to the store and buy her a new paper. I tried to glue my shirt back together, but before I went to school this morning, I saw it in the trash.

I miss that shirt…

I’m going to miss Sasha. He says he’s moving before they sell the house, but he won’t be far. He’s going to the other side of the freeway. We counted on a map, measuring with a piece of paper I ripped from Momma’s Bible. It was one of the blank pages near the back, so I don’t think she’ll notice. Eleven miles. That’s how far we measured. It costs less than three dollars to get to his new house by bus. Mom says I can go every two weeks. I asked Sasha if he would visit me on the weeks I can’t go to his house, but his parents said no. I know they like me, though, so it must be our neighborhood. They must be tired of looking over their shoulders and hiding inside, too.

I’m tired of being scared.

I used to not be. Back before we had to sit on the ground and stay away from the windows to watch TV in the living room. Mom put that rule in place when a bullet came through our front wall. Vincent says it was an accident, and usually that means it’s not going to happen again. It happened to Sasha’s house a week later, though. I thought the hole was cool, but then my mom told me I could have died. That’s when my headaches began, and I quit sleeping through the night.

That’s also when Vincent started getting in the blue car with the Devil Man. My brother told me the bullets wouldn’t hurt us now, because we were protected.

But I don’t feel protected.

I feel like I’m being hunted.

Every day.

I run home fast.

I don’t play outside alone when the sky is orange.

I don’t want to get in the blue car with the smoking man and his laughing friends.

I don’t want to learn how to keep my fingerprints off a sawed-off rifle.

I don’t want to sell drugs to “make some fast money” or “help my momma out.”

Those are the things the Devil Man says when he waits for me and his engine rumbles in the street while I walk home from school. He always laughs when I run. But I’ll always run. He’ll never catch me.

I won’t do any of it his way. I study hard. I get straight As. I run. I hide. I keep quiet. I stay out of trouble. I look at the tall rooftops and fancy cars on the other side of the freeway, and I wonder what they’re like.

Momma says we can’t afford the apartment. I don’t care. I don’t want any of it. I want my home with the sweet roses and tamales and music that plays loud on Saturdays.

I love my home.

I just hate what living here makes people do.

Nicolas “Nico” Medina

Journal entry

Fifth grade

Sunnyside Elementary at West End

1

I can tell within a glance if someone hates me. Sometimes it only takes one word. Other times, it’s those subtle nonverbal cues—a shift of the eyes or arms folded over a chest in an attempt to hide all of that hate inside that’s dying to bore through their chest and grip mine until I choke or die.

Nico Medina is subtle about it. It’s in the way he doesn’t look at me, and how he breathes when I speak—the sound of air filling his chest so heavy I think it may just turn into fire and come back at me in flames.

It began our freshman year, when we partnered for peer grading on our first persuasive essay assignment. I spent hours on his, offering critique points in the margins, circling arguments he made that I felt were strong and jotting down my thoughts and ideas on ways he could make his points even stronger. I was impressed with him. Maybe a little enamored, too. I was fourteen and precocious, the twin sister of a jock football player and the daughter of our school’s football coach and a socialite mother who spent every week planning the coming weekend’s cocktail party at our house. I was dying to find someone willing to talk about politics with me, to debate classic literature themes, or maybe sit next to me in the school’s editing bay working on video for the school’s monthly announcement show, that nobody watched, but I put every ounce of my being into. I just wanted another nerd. And I thought I’d found one.

We exchanged papers, and my crush was crushed into a thousand tiny, sharp, jagged bits.

Nico gave me a B. He wrote WEAK on the top—and circled it.

In red.

I approached him after class, paper in my hand and finger pointing to his one-word review, and asked him “What is this supposed to be?”

His response: “It’s a word. Weak. It describes your paper. You’re bad at this…” he paused when he leaned forward to look at my essay, now wrinkled in my angry, rigid hands. His lips quirked just before he looked up at me again, “Reagan Prescott.”