Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Bright Lights, Dark Nights

Stephen Emond

Square Fish

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Chapter One



Hidden in the shadows of tall buildings are spots where no one looks, places where you can get away with things because nobody cares or knows any better. The court off Schrank Street, a few blocks north of our high school, was one of those places. Weeds grew out of the cracked concrete and reached about waist-high. That was how long it had been since anyone paid attention to the place.

High school kids fought there all the time. There weren't a lot of prying eyes since the buildings across the street were boarded up and condemned a year ago. When they had still been in use, worse things happened there than in the court. Two guys got into a fight last December and one guy shot the other one in the foot. It took his big toe right off. At the same building, same month, a guy was laid out in front of the door, OD'd. Cops went into his apartment and found forty bags of heroin and a pharmacy's worth of prescription meds. That had been one big crime right there, but think of how many people had bought from him, too.

The city can be seen in terms of what crimes happened and where, and there's no shortage of stories to tell. I only know the tiniest sliver, the standout stories my dad tells me, so the amount of actual no-good that happens must be staggering. Every face I pass, I can assume, has a secret locked away that they don't want anyone to find out.

Beardsley was fighting today. If no one else wanted to fight, if there was no other drama in the entirety of the school on any given day, you could count on Beardsley to show up at the court and throw some punches.

He was targeted on Bob Armstrong, a freshman kid who probably didn't know better, just over a month into the school year. Bob turned his hat backward and lowered his head, bobbing around like he was in some fighting video game, posing like an MMA fighter, throwing out kicks that went nowhere. Bob wasn't anyone at school, really. He might have been seeking attention, trying to look brave, impress some girls, but he was about to get his clock cleaned. Beardsley was a little nuts. He'd swing with all he had and didn't stop at the sight of blood like some kids did. When Beardsley fought, you knew someone was going to get hurt, and that was why we'd followed him to the court.

There were fifteen or sixteen of us there today. Lester Dooley was one. He was friends with Beardsley and was the most intimidating kid in school, if not the whole city. Built like a tree trunk, he squatted on the other side of the court with his hands clenched together, watching the fight like a gambler watching a horse race.

It was an excuse to get out of school for lunch, anyway. The wind picked up every few minutes, and the sun was feeling weaker by the day, but it still lit the sky a piercing blue, a far cry from the shadowy maze of hallways we walked the rest of the day. I reached up into the air for nothing, stretching my arm out. We stood by the chain-link fence, away from the action, me in the back. My dull jeans, dark hoodie-everything I wore screamed out Blend in.

"All my homework is watching movies," my friend Nate Halcomb said. He had a film history class this semester. He took a drag from his cigarette. I was Nate's nonsmoker smoking buddy when he needed to step outside. He turned to his ex-girlfriend Kate. "Walter's already devoured the entire French New Wave library."

When Nate saw a film or read a book he liked, he would casually bring it up as if it was a fact that I'd already seen or read it. The funny part was that I usually had, and he'd laugh and laugh as soon as I responded.

"You're thinking of noir movies," I said. "They came before New Wave. I have seen Breathless, though." I watched that one with my dad. There have been four Walter Wilcox lifetimes between the end of the noir era and now, but somehow it still clicked with me. My dad and I watch old noir movies all the time, or at least we used to. Breathless was French New Wave but could definitely be considered a reaction to noir. The coolness, the cynicism, the complete refusal of the Hollywood Happy Ending. And Jean-Paul Belmondo made a great replacement for Humphrey Bogart.

Nate exhaled from his cigarette, and the smoke sped away in the wind. Nate had thick-framed black glasses like mine and long blond hair and jean shorts he wore all year long. He looked anarchist-meets-Disney-show-lead with his Skrillex-lite hair and his Day-Glo green striped T-shirt on. Nate could talk to anyone about anything. When a new kid came to school, they could usually say their first friend there was Nate Halcomb. That had been the case for me. Not that I'd been a new student or anything, but the first day of fifth grade, I'd sat at a lunch table alone and Nate had picked up my stuff and said, "Come sit with us. I'm Nate." I'd been sitting with him since.

Kate put out her cigarette and pulled a sandwich out of a paper bag. They used to be Nate-and-Kate, and now they were Just Nate and Just Kate. Even rhyming names won't guarantee you Forever. They were still the ideal couple and the closest I'd seen to true love, whether they were together or not. Drama-free and chilled out, not at each other's throats, no jealousy, no bitterness.

No blood yet. Beardsley was on Bob's back, skinny arms wrapped around his face like tentacles. Bob was twirling and reaching at air. I'd seen enough of this kind of stuff to know better myself. I avoided standing in the center of that court like my life depended on it, since it basically did. Bob managed to throw Beardsley to the ground, looking relieved, unaware that it was the worst thing he could have done. Beardsley bounced back like a boomerang and full-on speared him to the ground.

Lester leaped to his feet. "Kick his ass!"

We had about ten minutes left before we had to go back. Nate didn't seem any different watching Beardsley hammer away at Bob than he had a few weeks ago when he was still with Kate, watching Beardsley toss around David Chamberlain. Always carefree and in the moment. Kate seemed completely at peace, eating her sandwich and squinting in the sun.

"I might get in there." Nate nodded toward the action. "What do you think?"

"Dude. Don't." Kate shook her head and dropped her eyes to the ground. "Let that kid learn his lesson."

"I'm going in," Nate said, increasingly satisfied with his decision. I've never seen Nate back off an idea when he got that look, and he's had some bad ideas. Not that he'd view this as one. The idea that people liked to do this was still an odd concept to me. This was fun. This was recreational. This was daylight activity.

"What if the cops come by?" I asked Nate. I passed out what-ifs like religious pamphlets. I could rationalize anything into inaction. "Why even bother with this stuff?"

"Why bother, Walter? Because," Nate said. "Somebody has to. That's a massacre over there. These people want a show, Walter! Without me in there, their lunch is wasted. I will bring these people change!" Nate's voice rose, becoming more theatrical, more aware of an audience. "Hold this."

Nate handed me his cigarette and made his way through the crowd, pumping his arms into the air with a roar. Everyone cheered-this lunch break would not be wasted. I squatted by Kate and pulled a weed out of the ground.

"Do you do Urban versus Suburban?" I asked Kate. She had a sweet demeanor that belied her tomboyish appearance. I mean, she looked like a girl, certainly, but she wasn't the most girly-girl person I'd ever met. I'd never seen her wear makeup. "I've heard people picking out kids and guessing where they came from before high school."

"Actually, it's called Urbs and 'Burbs, Wilcox," Kate said.

Looking at the crowd, I saw kids from both schools there. We had two middle schools, one in the suburbs and one in the city. The rich one and the poor one. In high school we were all thrust together. Kate went to school where I did, in the suburbs, before I moved to the city with my dad. "Do you remember Makiel from middle school?" Kate asked, pointing toward Makiel Romado. He was a thin kid with a baseball cap and skater clothes, but just for the fashion-there was no possible way he knew how to skate. "He used to be, like, the most suburban, computer-nerd type. Now I buy my weed from him."

Nate dove into the fight headfirst and pulled Bob back in by the sleeve of his shirt. Nate wasn't saving Bob from Beardsley. He was putting on a show, and everyone was fair game. Beardsley threw a flurry of punches into Nate's skinny ribs. I could barely watch. I didn't want to see Nate get hurt over something so dumb. I had to admit, though: it was entertaining. Bob's shirt collar had already been stretched to twice its original size. Nate caught a stray elbow and his nose started to bleed. The red on his shirt would be a badge of honor by sixth period.

"Nate's changing lives," I said. "Anything for the people."

It wouldn't have been the end of the world for me to get in there, even the score, get those two kids off Nate. That would be the code; that would be the appropriate friend move. With Nate there, we could put Beardsley down, not that there was anything we could do that wouldn't result in his picking on someone else the next day. Still. I might even get some respect from it. I didn't want to get hit, though.

"I'm gonna knock off a liquor store after school and see if I can claim a Nobel Prize," I said.

"See? Now you get it," Kate said.

Nate put Beardsley in a headlock, holding on tight like he was riding a bull. "That's my problem," I said. "I really don't get it at all."

"It's not too complicated," Kate said. Her nose ring caught a sparkle of sun. "People fight because it's what they do." They fight and they break up. Kate held a gaze on me for a second before she broke out laughing. "The way you're holding that cigarette-it just looks weird. Here, give it to me."

I gave her the cigarette.

"Don't ever smoke," she said, shaking her head. "You don't have to do what he says."

"I don't mind. It's not a big deal," I said.

"Fighting is dumb-you're absolutely right," Kate said. She looked up at me and smiled. "You're gonna make some girl really happy someday, Walter." The wind was blowing her clumpy brown hair in her face. I used to have a crush on Kate in middle school. She was my first real female friend. But once she and Nate got together, their relationship made so much sense that me and her seemed like a ridiculous thought in retrospect.

"Thanks," I said.

While Kate smoked the cigarette, Nate tossed Beardsley and Bob around like a lanky professional wrestler. Nate pumped his fists up again to more applause before Beardsley dove back into him. Lunch was almost done, and this would be a stalemate. Bob's best scenario involved Beardsley forgetting this ever happened and finding someone else to pick on. Maybe it'd be Nate, for interfering in his fight. That thought gave me some relief that I'd stayed put on the sidelines.

* * *

I got back around five, judging by the dimness of the hallway, and climbed two flights of stairs to home, sweet home. My dad and I had lived there since my parents divorced, so a few years now. When I opened the door, I saw a soda cup on the coffee table and an empty fast-food bag. Cheeseburger wrappers. Judge Mathis was on TV.

"Dad, I could have cooked," I said, dropping off my book bag and coat on a chair in the corner.

"I wasn't sure when you were getting home," Dad said, sitting up on the couch and adjusting his shirt. He looked tired. I got my expressive eyes from Dad, but lately his just seemed worn and heavy. The apartment was a mess, but that wasn't anything new, and I couldn't blame it solely on Dad.

"I can still make something," I said.

"Nah, don't." Dad leaned forward and muted the TV. He smiled so those prominent dimples came forward, warming up his face. "Look, no offense, Walter, but you're no Rachael Ray."

"Or Ronald McDonald," I said. "You're not supposed to eat that stuff." I picked up the empty bag and wrappers and took them to the garbage in the kitchen.

"It's fine. Don't worry about it," Dad said. "It's just for today." He found out he had diabetes last year, but he hated doctors and he hated hospitals, so there was no telling how long he'd actually had it. I'm fine when I eat better, he'd say, the problem being he never actually ate better.

When I sat down and looked at the TV, Dad pulled a heavy wrapped gift from beside the couch and placed it on my lap.

"What's this?" I asked.

"It's a Christmas present," Dad said. "What do you think it is? It's your birthday, isn't it?"

"Can I open it?" I asked.

"You've got a lot of dumb questions. Open it," Dad said with a nudge.

I tore the paper and found an oversize hardcover book on old noir movies, full of artsy black-and-white frames. All the movies we watched when we first moved here. The Asphalt Jungle, The Big Sleep. Movies where the good guys are kinda the bad guys and things usually end short of happy.

"I was at the little bookstore down the street today and thought you'd like it." Dad leaned back a bit on the couch, getting more comfortable. "Caught a punk kid running out of there. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Stand downtown and pay attention for an hour and you'll see a few things."

We lived in the Basement of the city; at least that's what they called it around here. It wasn't the brightest, safest section to live in, but Dad says when it gets too safe, he's out of work. It was what we could afford, these days.

"This kid comes barreling toward me like he's running from a mad dog or something," Dad said, leaning forward and using his hands to tell the story. "I'm expecting drugs or weapons to come falling out of his coat, but these Harry Potter books go flying all over the place, like the kid's some kind of book junkie. Any cop worth his salt would have picked him out even before the mad dash from the store. Big, long coat, almost seventy degrees out, middle of October. Had, like, a hundred bucks' worth of books on him. Maybe they'll give me some real work now at the station. Who knows?"

Things in general got worse after Mom left. Dad gained weight-a lot of weight-slowed down a lot. Aged faster, if that was possible. Nothing helpful in a cop's line of work, so they stopped giving him much to do. He was always complaining about the kids they hired who got all the good jobs.

It wasn't all "These kids today," though. There was another side to Dad. He was kind of a legend in the city:Officer Wilcox. When he was working and in his uniform, out on the streets, he knew everyone, he was well-liked. He'd had people laughing while they were getting handcuffed. They could pull all the good jobs, but they couldn't take his good name.

I thumbed through the large glossy pages of the book. Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, about to punch out Peter Lorre. Bringing in the noir era in fine fashion.

"They didn't waste a shot back then," Dad said. "Every frame was a work of art. They could paint a whole room with light placement. You got this, too." Dad placed an envelope with Mom's handwriting on it on the book. "I don't wanna know."

I thought of saving it for later, but I went ahead and opened it. There was a card and a check for five hundred dollars. Five hundred bucks. That was something she could do now. She could give me five hundred bucks for my birthday because Mom still lives in a big house in the suburbs. But Mom moved in with her boyfriend almost immediately after the divorce and I went with Dad, and years later, he's supporting us both on one salary.

I could give the money away. I could visit Kate's weed guy. Develop a habit. You're gonna make some girl really happy someday.

The card said, Happy birthday, honey! Love, Mom. I put it in the back of the book.

"Happy birthday," Dad said, and unmuted the TV. The news was on now.

"Dad, thanks," I said, and leaned over to give him a hug. Dad got up slowly, like he was carrying another person, and turned the living room light on, then settled back onto the couch. I opened the noir book and turned the page. Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, bloated, drunk, and crooked. Considered the last of the film noirs.



Text copyright © 2015 by Stephen Emond