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It started late Friday, with Kenya lingering in Miss Lily's arms and breathing in the mingled scents of baby powder and fried chicken on a hot summer evening. It was hard for Kenya to let go of Miss Lily, because the reality of Kenya's home was a far cry from loving hugs and sweet scents.
But Kenya Brown was strong enough to accept her reality and wise enough not to dream of something more. Dreaming only made the truth of the projects that much harder to take. So when she left Miss Lily's apartment and headed home for the evening, Kenya didn't look back. Regret was a luxury that neither she nor anyone else in the Bridge could afford.
As she walked down the fifth-floor hallway and entered the building's shadowy stairwell, she passed by a group of men who talked too loud and laughed too hard as they guzzled forties of Old English from brown paper bags. She ignored them and pressed on, trying not to think of what awaited her at her aunt's apartment.
Kenya was halfway up the first flight of stairs when she heard a sound like footsteps padding softly behind her. She stopped and turned around, but there was nothing. Kenya felt her stomach flutter and instinctively began to walk faster.
Seconds later, she heard the sound again. She looked toward thebottom of the poorly lit stairwell and listened intently. She didn't hear anything. But she saw something move.
Kenya picked up her pace, skipping every other stair as she trotted to the seventh floor. By the time she reached the hallway outside her aunt's apartment, she was nearly running.
But then Kenya remembered what she was running to. She stopped in the middle of the hallway and held her breath as the echo of her heartbeat reverberated in her ears.
She looked around, waiting for the source of the stairway footsteps to appear. When no one came up the stairs, her heartbeat slowed. But by now, Kenya was afraid.
She walked down the hallway toward her aunt's apartment, sliding her hand against the dingy white cinder-block wall and listening to the muted voices murmuring behind her aunt's door.
She stood outside for a moment, and the voices seemed to go silent, as if they were waiting for her to enter. Kenya opened the door, took a few tentative steps into her aunt's apartment, and immediately wished that she hadn't.
There was a cloud of gray-white smoke wafting a few feet above the floor. She narrowed her eyes and surveyed the room. Aunt Judy was in a tattered armchair in the corner, handing a capsule of crack cocaine to an emaciated man who hopped from one foot to the other with bug-eyed anxiety.
In the ten feet that separated Kenya from Judy, there were others wearing that same look--a look that Kenya had seen more times than she cared to remember.
Uncle Darnell and Renee were hunched over a small pile of white rocks, ensconced in their own swirling cloud of smoke. Two gaunt-faced men were seated next to them on milk crates, greedily sucking crack smoke from makeshift metal pipes. A rail-thin woman in a grimy miniskirt swayed absently before a gray-haired man who slurped corn liquor as he groped her.
The man looked familiar to Kenya. She always saw him there, and he always seemed to be watching her. Thankfully, he had someone else to watch that night.
She looked beyond the old man to the wall where desperate, hard-looking women sat in a line, silently appraising the men's pockets.
Aunt Judy's boyfriend Sonny was in the kitchen, his hooded eyes observing every movement. He rested his left hand on top of the counter, while his right hand, and the gun that it held, was hidden beneath it.
Kenya scanned the room, taking it all in as she squinted through the smoke. She saw the old man shuffle over to her aunt and hand her five dollars. Judy pointed toward the room where Kenya normally slept. The girl with the miniskirt rubbed her hand against the old man's crotch and led him into the room.
Kenya stared at the closed door and knew that there would be no sleeping there that night. Because after the first trick was turned, there would be another. And the parade of whores would not stop until dawn crept through the window and all the money in the projects had been swallowed up in crack pipes.
"Here," Judy said, speaking to Kenya for the first time.
She was holding out the five dollars the old man had just given her.
Kenya walked over to Judy's chair and took the money.
"Go down the Chinese store on Ninth Street and get you some shrimp fried rice or somethin'," Judy said.
Kenya's blank expression said nothing. She'd long ago learned not to seek sympathy from Aunt Judy.
"What the hell wrong wit' you, girl?" Judy said, her face creased in exasperation.
"I ate already," Kenya said quietly, glancing toward the bedroom.
"Well, eat again. Time you get back, they'll be outta there, and you can go 'head in and go to bed."
Without another word, Kenya turned from her aunt Judy andmoved toward the door. She turned the knob and looked back at Sonny, who ignored her. As she closed the door and walked out into the dank hallway, a cloud of smoke followed close behind.
She watched it float toward the ceiling and disappear, and wished in her heart that she could do the same.
Kenya walked nervously down the hallway, trying to block out thoughts of the footsteps she'd heard on the way up to her aunt's apartment. She contemplated taking the elevator, then thought better of it.
As she ran into the dark stairwell, she tried to think of someplace where she could sleep. She couldn't take another night of waiting for Aunt Judy's crack to sell out.
Just the thought of going back there was too much for her to bear. And so she ran, trying desperately to erase the images of smoke and rail-thin women, old men and scheming eyes, footsteps and burning crack.
She had almost outrun it all when she passed the third floor and found Bayot--a man who often frequented her aunt's apartment--standing on the landing.
She tried to run past him, but he folded his arms and spread his legs, blocking the stairway.
"You in the wrong place, ain't you?" she asked with all the sarcasm she'd learned from listening to grown folks. "All the crack upstairs."
He smiled at her, revealing teeth as gray as the smoke in Judy's apartment.
"Move, Bayot," she said, low and threatening.
He didn't move. Instead, he fixed his eyes on hers. They seemed to bore into her.
"Move!" she screamed, pushing past him and running down the steps.
She could feel his eyes at her back as she made her way to thefirst floor. The thought of him looking at her made her skin crawl. She shivered.
Kenya ran out into the night, panting as she walked quickly away from the building.
"Where you goin', Kenya?"
Tyreeka, a thirteen-year-old girl whom Kenya had befriended just months before, was behind her, walking in the same direction.
"I'm goin' with you," Kenya said, looking back nervously at the dark entrance to the building and wondering if Bayot was still there.
"You ain't goin' nowhere with me lookin' all paranoid like somebody after you or some shit."
"Ain't nobody after me," Kenya said, catching her breath and smiling at Tyreeka as she prepared to spin a lie.
"I'm glad I seen you, though. Aunt Judy told me to see if I could spend the night with y'all'cause my cousins came up from down South today and they stayin' with us 'til they get a hotel room tomorrow."
"Why they ain't get no room tonight?" Tyreeka asked.
"I don't know." Kenya rolled her eyes with all the attitude she could muster.
"I'm 'bout to go out, Kenya," Tyreeka said, dismissing the lie and ignoring the attitude as she walked past her.
"Take me with you, Tyreeka," Kenya said with quiet desperation. "Please?"
The edge in Kenya's voice caused Tyreeka to stop and turn around.
Kenya forced her eyes to fill with tears. Then she looked up at the sky as if she was trying not to cry. She couldn't let Tyreeka put her off. Because in truth, Kenya had no place else to go.
Tyreeka could sense that this was more than just another one of Kenya's lies. But just as she was about to relent and take Kenya home with her, a bright green Mustang stopped at the curb.
"Come here, Shorty," said the teenage driver as he beckoned with a hand full of gold rings. "Lemme talk to you for a minute."
"Who, me?" Tyreeka said, hoping that the drug dealer she'd been watching had finally noticed her.
"Yeah, you," he said with a sly smile. "I don't bite, baby. I just wanna ask you somethin', that's all."
"Hold up," Tyreeka said, before leaning over and whispering in Kenya's ear.
"Go 'head up to my mom apartment, Kenya. I'll meet you up there in a few minutes."
"But, Tyreeka, I--"
"Go 'head, Kenya. Tell her you waitin' for me. I'll see you up there in a few minutes."
Kenya looked from Tyreeka to the boy and saw that she couldn't win.
"Okay," she said reluctantly.
Tyreeka walked over to the car, bent over, and leaned against the door with her cleavage resting on her forearms to give him a closer look.
Kenya walked slowly back toward the entrance of the projects, dragging her feet in the hope that Tyreeka would finish talking to the boy and join her before she went inside.
She turned around to look at them once more. The boy had gotten out of the car and was standing close enough to Tyreeka to kiss her. He said something, and Tyreeka threw her head back and laughed as she placed her hand gingerly on his chest. Kenya knew at that moment that waiting for Tyreeka was a waste of time.
But it would be okay, she thought as she walked back inside. Tyreeka's mother would let her in and allow her to stay the night. Kenya would be able to rest. Tomorrow, she thought, would take care of itself.
It always did.
The building seemed a little darker when Kenya walked into the foyer. The guard who should've been in the booth at the buildingentrance was gone, and the glow coming from the stairway was an odd yellow she hadn't noticed before. She thought that one of the lights must have blown out.
Kenya hesitated for a moment, listening as the sound of the all-night craps game echoed from the bottom of the ramp in the rear of the building. She glanced at the back entrance, where fenced-in Dumpsters hid used condoms and empty crack vials. Then she made her way toward the stairs.
As she was about to go up, five teenage girls in tight jeans and stiff hair weaves trotted out of the dark stairway.
"That nigga on the steps look crazy," one of them said, as they rushed out of the building.
"Girl, that's Bayot," her girlfriend said, as they walked away. "That nigga is crazy."
As soon as she heard that, Kenya knew the stairs were out. Even though she hated waiting for the elevator because it made her feel closed in, the thought of Bayot looming in the shadows frightened her even more.
Steeling herself, she approached the single working elevator and pushed the up button. The numbers above the elevator didn't light up to indicate its location. Like everything else there, the lights weren't working.
Kenya stood back in the shadows near the stairway, hiding in case someone she didn't want to see stepped off the elevator.
When the doors opened, Kenya looked to make sure no one was on board, then rushed out of the shadows and got on. She pushed 7, and when the doors closed, she leaned back against the wall with her eyes shut tightly, fighting against the trapped feeling she always felt in the elevator.
Her eyes still shut, Kenya counted the floors as the elevator ascended. When it reached the fifth floor, the sound of loud hip-hop poured in as the doors opened. Kenya stuck her head out of the elevator and saw a crowd outside 5B. Someone was having a party.
As Kenya scanned the hallway looking for people she knew, she felt someone slip into the elevator behind her. Startled, she turned and looked up into a familiar face. Kenya was relieved and smiled brightly as she reached out for a hug.
As the doors shut, Kenya closed her eyes and lost herself in comforting arms. She wished that she could always feel that way--protected and loved. But as Kenya began to melt into the embrace, the arms began to tighten around her. Kenya's smile disappeared.
Suddenly, there were hands at her throat. She was gasping as her windpipe squeezed shut. She tried to scream, but managed only tortured, animal-like sounds that died in the back of her throat.
Her struggle was silent, but violent nonetheless. She kicked her feet so hard that one of her sneakers fell off. She punched at her captor's back, but her arms were weakening as her muscles screamed out for oxygen. She reached for the hands at her throat and scratched at them desperately. But with each movement she made, their grip seemed to tighten.
Tears streamed down her face as the elevator lurched toward the top of the building. Kenya stopped fighting then. And at that moment, for the first time since she could remember, Kenya allowed herself to dream.
She closed her eyes and imagined that she was the smoke she'd seen at Judy's. She was floating toward the sky in great, looping wisps, coming apart and fading into air, into light, into nothing.
As her captor squeezed her breath from her body and Kenya Brown fell down into velvet blackness, she smelled the Bridge for the first time.
It was the smell of forties and blunts, swirling in a sweat-soaked summer. The smell of graffiti and urine sprayed haphazardly against concrete walls. The smell of fear trapped behind elevator doors.
For the first time, Kenya truly knew the smell of the Bridge.
It smelled like death.
THE BRIDGE. Copyright © 2003 by Solomon Jones. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.