FPS (Fiction Excerpt)

Devon found that his new school felt like a prison. But, like, a nice prison. One with a courtyard in its twisted brick heart where two trees towered over lunching pre-teens. In the shade is where the true teenagers sat, those so ready to depart for their next correctional facility, where they could smoke behind the gym instead of in the history annex bathroom. It was far too easy to be discovered there, amongst its cool blue tiles, a Greek bathhouse for those who could not yet drive. 


Devon’s only friend, so far, spent his lunch period in that very bathroom, but Devon didn’t have the guts to partake. George was far savvier than he first appeared. Devon found it admirable how his thirteen-year-old mentor wore button-up shirt camouflage. George did not dress like the cool jocks, who constantly flaunted the mandated tuck-in rule with their oversized basketball shorts and graphic t-shirts adorned with such clever phrases as ‘Sarcasm…only one of the services that I offer”. Devon could see it pained George to do so, but everyday his secret rebel arrived on school grounds with nice shoes, khaki pants, and a belt that he despised more than anything in the world. It was brown leather, with a gold latch that held it together, that bounded the limits of perception around George like some spell out of Hogwarts. 


Devon’s mother had taken to calling George’s smile a Haskell smile, out of some sitcom far in the rear view. Devon knew his mother held suspicions about his friend, of what might lie behind that smile, but all the same she liked the kid. Her eyes shone when George spoke to her, in a voice and cadence very much like an adult himself. She felt exactly like Devon had when he first met George. As if they had finally met a real person. 


It wasn’t that Houston was an unfriendly place. It wasn’t that it was so different from New Orleans either. The same low, gorgeous clouds that grew heavy with melancholic gray every few weeks. The same miasma of heat, a sort of ectoplasmic atmosphere that felt like walking through an evaporated fog of one’s own sweat. The same grease of fried cuisine that would follow the touch of fingers all day, leaving the surfaces of the swamp city gleamed with desire. What felt most foreign was the proximity of that mighty Interstate 10, and the sprouting of communities and strip malls off its spine, a flowering concrete growth. Their apartment complex was tucked right off the main drag. Its three floors seemed massive to Devon, used to his small family home back in Louisiana. But that was gone now. Mom told him so. When he asked after the rest of their family, she would shake her head and kiss the back of his. 


“They’re okay, baby. Not so far away.” 


Devon had slept through most of their drives westward, so he wasn’t sure of the real distance outside of abstract figures. It hadn’t been a direct journey either. They stopped over in Baton Rouge during the winter and the subsequent spring months after Katrina. His mother’s sister took them in, a woman whose smile seemed weary yet not false, at least not when it was directed toward Devon or her own son. She got Mom a job at the UI office, understaffed. They’d leave each morning under slate dawn sky. Devon liked to get up early and watch them drive off. He’d have a few rare moments of silence in the still foreign apartment, tip toeing around another life. He always grabbed at least half an hour on his cousin’s GameBoy before the day awoke in earnest. Because soon enough, he and his cousin would be placed under the home-schooled tutelage of his Uncle, a strict man who yearned for the marshes, always uncomfortable even in small Baton Rouge. 


It was his Uncle’s will that his cousin not attend school, and while he was under the same roof, the same dictum applied to Devon. His mother’s eyes flashed when his Uncle first laid down that law, but when his Aunt touched her arm, she cooled. Devon felt as if he was about to enter into some strange rite, caught between moments of time. As if he and his cousin were selected by divine law, and would now be brought up like the Chosen Ones of the films they watched each weekend.


“I’ll give you some of the truth they won’t in any public establishment. Trust, it’s what y’all need to hear. What this world’s really all about.” His uncle spat chew juice into a waiting cannister, knowing it both disgusted and enraptured the two near-teens in his presence. “This country’s a rat nest, and the hierarchy of vermin rule. Clever, in a scrambling way. Fast moving and beady eyed. Dirty. Full of shit. Now sure, opportunity. But the hand offered ya, the one promising you the ladder up? Always remember, that slickness ain’t sweat. It’s fresh blood. What do you think really brought down those two towers? Worldwide goodwill? Hell, domestic goodwill? Shit. You think that Osama fella was smart enough to bring about such a reckoning, don’t ya. You and you young guns, itching to pull a trigger on some of his pals out in that godforsaken desert? That’s how they want you to feel. Bloodthirsty, just like them. Only you don’t get the money. You make it for ‘em. Tied together tailwise, struggling and biting and killing each other and everyone else. They’ll make ya a king. Sure. Rat-kings, all of ya.” 


His cousin seemed beaten down by the harsh education that mostly entailed outpourings of revolutionary U.S. history, perhaps a complex lecture on mathematics before lunch, and then a hasty exile to the blacktop apartment parking lot for a long afternoon of basketball, as his Uncle had real work to do. Left to their own devices in such a way, Devon wondered whether that long chain-link of time called schooling had come to a close. With the arrival of the hurricane over New Orleans, a new chapter would now begin. 


Yet his mother laughed when Devon suggested such a thing. She told him that soon his Uncle would no longer be a tutor of any kind, not even for his cousin. No, his Aunt would be taking Devon’s sole companion to Arkansas, where another branch of the family kept aloft. His Uncle refused to join, stubbornly insistent on staying in the land that had fostered him his entire life. Devon didn’t find that so unreasonable, but he voiced no such opinion to anyone over those final, tense dinners, soundtracked by American Idol from the living room television. His Aunt and mother voted every week. 


At first, Devon thought they would also be Arkansas bound. But it seemed his mother was quite hesitant about their kin there. A bad batch, she often said. His Aunt’s eyes fell at such comments, and his cousin would pretend not to hear, nudging the lime green GameBoy to Devon for another try at Frieza. They were galactic, basketball-slinging warriors. His cousin’s flair for the dramatic on the court left an impression. It’s as if by taking up the rules of the game, the structure of that private world, his true power emerged. He handled the ball with such ease, such deft precision, and would often create his own moves named after Dragon Ball battle cries. 


“This is streetball. Kamehameha, cuz!” The ball would arc high and almost seem to slow in mid-air, truly enchanted. But when it crashed into the backboard, the long frame of the communal parking shed shook with ferocious energy, as if battered with the high velocity winds of a storm.