The Bridge by Jess Mowry: all rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. The Kindle edition, to date, is the only legally authorized ebook or web-accessible edition of this work. If you find this book being offered anywhere else, either as a download or to be read online, it is there without the author's permission and in violation of copyright law.
Thirteen-year-old Bilal was raised as a Muslim but is questioning his faith... as well as many other things that people of his age often question. Bilal's middle-class parents were killed in a car accident when he was ten, and he's been living with his devoutly Muslim grandfather in West Oakland, California, where he's learned the rules of innercity life... vastly different from life in the 'burbs. His best friend was murdered in a drive-by shooting and, partly prompted by his faith to do the right thing, Bilal testified against the gang members involved, sending them to prison. He is now under a death sentence from the remainder of the gang, who also want to kill his grandfather. There is no witness protection for kids like Bilal -- black and poor -- though a biracial pair of good Oakland cops help Bilal, both within and beyond the call of duty. For his own safety, Bilal's grandfather has to move, and Bilal is sent to live with two cousins in a small rural town in the Sacramento River Delta, an area of mostly farms and what some might call traditional American values... in some cases the worst but in many the best. Though less than two hours by bus from Oakland, it's like being on another planet for Bilal, and again he must learn to adapt and make friends in a strange new environment while being the only black kid in town... and a Muslim on the under. Meanwhile, the gang is looking for him, and though thrown off his trail by the Oakland cops, eventually discover where he is. It's an alien environment for them, too, where the rules of thug life don't apply as they try to hunt down their victim.
© 2011 Jess Mowry
To Mark Dennis
"Your back!" yelled Bilal, spotting the gun as a minivan skidded around the corner, its ass-end clipping a bag-lady's cart, scattering cans and trash everywhere. The old woman might have seen the gun but shook her fist and cursed anyway. The driver almost lost it, but then recovered sloppily and smoked the van to a stop.
Devon had his I-pod cranked, about to go into the liquor store to buy a candy bar. He might have heard Bilal's warning, or maybe just the van. Bilal was diving for the ground but tried a desperate tackle.
The AK hammered full-auto fire, spewing yellow flame and smoke that almost hid the monkey face. Bullets hissed above Bilal as he slammed to dirty concrete. Instinct screamed to hide his head, but he made a grab for Devon's legs.
He felt the bullets hitting Devon, tearing into flesh and bone and slamming Devon backward. The liquor store window rippled like a puddle on a windy day, then morphed into a waterfall and gushed between its bars. Something hit the sidewalk amid the falling glass... Devon's I-pod blown apart. Devon followed seconds later, crashing half atop Bilal who sprawled with chest to pavement. Both were shirtless after school and Devon's blood felt like hot water pouring over Bilal's bare back. The AK went on firing, monkey face behind it snarling, bullets blasting concrete chips, searching for Bilal.
Bilal snapped awake. But this wasn't the dream he'd been having for weeks! He heard the same echoes of screaming tires, the same steely stutter of full-auto fire, but it was his window exploding! Crystal razors sprayed the room, slashing over his naked body. Bullets tore into the walls, ripping holes in his movie posters, breaking the backs of his books on the shelves and spewing shredded paper. The clock on his nightstand tumbled away in a burst of jagged plastic, trailing its cord like a wriggling tail. Then his lamp followed, blown apart. A shelf above the bed collapsed, raining books and broken things. Bilal flung himself to the floor. Would the clip run out again before the bullets found him?
As if in answer to a prayer the AK fire cut off. But then another took its place as if they were running a relay. Glass in the living room shattered.
"Grandpa! Jadd!" Bilal scuttled doglike into the hall as bullets ripped the front of the house, drilling the interior walls and slashing the air above his head. Chunks of plaster spattered his back as he scrambled along on his hands and knees like a rug rat being cluster-bombed. "Jadd!" he yelled again.
Once more the gunfire suddenly stopped with the tinny clank of a clip running out. An engine screamed and tires burned. A car went squealing up the street as Bilal reached the living room doorway. For a second there was silence, as if the 'hood was holding its breath and wondering who would be next. Then, the soundtrack faded back in... a few dogs barking down the block, a siren yelping, coming fast. Bilal's grandfather lay on his mat, facing the rosy glow of dawn that turned broken glass into spatters of blood across the Persian carpet.
"Jadd!" Bilal leaped up and ran to the man.
"Be at peace," his grandfather answered, turning calmly to face Bilal.
Bilal was panting for breath, as if he'd run the middle-school mile. His cheeks were suddenly hot with tears that felt somehow like Devon's blood. He almost puffed a prayer of thanks. "Are you all right?" he asked instead, kneeling beside his grandfather.
"Another war of terror," murmured Jadd Taimur.
Bilal almost spit on the floor. "Monkey-boys with guns!" he snarled, glaring out through fangs of glass where dawn was painting the neighborhood with kinder shades of soft pastels, turning rust to mellow gold and grimy grays to silver. The siren's cry was coming fast though many blocks away. He looked around the living room at bullet-torn pictures on bullet-pocked walls of bullet-ripped villages in Sudan. A chair and the sofa were leaking cotton; the TV stared like a jagged skull eye at a shattered vase in a pool of flowers, and the lamp he'd once thought had belonged to Aladdin was brightly bleeding scented oil. "Are you all right?" he asked again.
Bilal's grandfather sat up slowly, a slender man of seventy years with skin of a deep mahogany shade and hair of iron gray. Daggers of glass made musical sounds as they fell from his robe and scattered the floor. "Other than having my prayer interrupted." His coffee-brown eyes ran over Bilal, as naked as his birthing day except for Devon's sliver chain around his midnight neck.
"Are you all right, my grandson?”
Bilal became aware of pain; there were cuts on his chest, a few on his arms, but nothing that would kill him; no wounds like Jadd Taimur had suffered many years ago. No bloody bullet holes like Devon. "Yeah," he said, then added, "I'm sure Allah will understand about your mornin' prayer.”
"On whose name be praise.”
"...Yeah," said Bilal. "You sure you're okay?”
"I have lived through worse, by Allah's mercy.”
"On whose name be praise," said Bilal. It was automatic, like saying wassup when somebody said yo.
A second siren had joined the first, squalling distantly. The barking dogs began to howl. Tires squealed around a corner... a heavy-ass car, probably cops. Bilal looked out past shredded drapes that gently swayed in a salt-scented breeze. "I give 'em another three minutes.”
He rose to scan the empty street where scabby faces of shabby houses stared with blind and curtained eyes. A shade twitched warily here and there, but nobody wanted to witness. Or be suspected of witnessing. He tried to still his panting breaths and listen for sounds of danger -- a car approaching stealthily, coming back to finish the job -- but the dogs only howled as the sirens wailed. He spit through a broken window. "Plenty of time for another roll-up, but the monkeys probably don't got the balls.”
"We were warned the police would not always be here," Jadd Taimur said as Bilal helped him rise. More bits of glass rained off his robe to sparkle the floor like junk-shop jewels.
Bilal snorted. "They warned us about a lot of things... after they got what they wanted from me!”
"You did what any good man would do.”
"...Yeah," said Bilal then added, "Be careful," though Jadd wore African sandals. Something sliced the sole of his foot as he picked up his grandfather's walking staff and led him into the kitchen. The window there was still in one piece, but that probably hadn't been Allah's mercy; the monkeys had known when he'd be in his room. And probably when his grandfather prayed.
A black-and-white smoked to a stop at the curb as Bilal eased his grandfather into a chair at the table already set for Bilal a bowl and a box of Count Chocula. The ruby and blue of the car's flashing strobes were dim against the growing day. Its siren cut off, leaving still-howling dogs and the second siren approaching. Heavy boots trampled the porch. Then a fist pounded the door... which was stupid because it was half blown apart. "Oakland police!”
Bilal almost yelled duh, but called instead, "Don't break it down. ...What's left, anyhow." He realized he was naked, but found he didn't give a shit. He stopped in the kitchen doorway, scanning the glittering razors of glass that mined the living room floor. His grandfather offered, "Take my sandals.”
Bilal only said, "I'm okay," and carelessly went to unlock the door.
The cops were a typical West Oakland team, one almost as black as Bilal, thirty-something and butterball fat, his belly pouring over his belt. The other was blue-eyed and still fairly ripped, early twenties and new to the street, usually letting his partner interpret the baby-talk language of thugs. They had their guns out, and Bilal couldn't hold that against them.
"Jesus!" muttered the white cop as Bilal pulled the splintered door open, sweeping aside a fan of glass. "This looks like Iraq!”
"My grandfather's from Sudan," said Bilal.
"I meant the mess," the cop corrected, scanning the bullet-trashed room. "Not the middle-eastern stuff.”
"Sudan is in Africa," said Bilal.
"...Oh." The cop seemed to notice Bilal's nakedness but caught himself before looking surprised.
"You cool, little bro?" asked the black cop, as if naked kids and bullet holes were just a normal part of life.
"Yeah," said Bilal as the cops crunched in. "My grandfather's okay, too.”
"Thank the Good Lord!" sighed the black cop. He'd had this watch for two weeks now, ever since the trial; and he'd been the cop who'd saved Bilal, off-duty but packing his Glock -- only a fool wouldn't pack if he could -- on his way to the liquor store to buy a sixer of beer. He'd had more balls than all the monkeys, dropping and drilling their van a few times, his only cover the bag-lady's cart... after he'd shoved her into a doorway where she had continued to curse.
A real man would have reloaded, capped the cop, then finished Bilal. ...And probably offed the bag-lady, too. But the monkey-boys had squealed away, their tails between their wheels. Too bad the cop hadn't seen their faces... the bag-lady swore they were Little Grays on a mission of intergalactic terror. Bilal often brought him coffee, the strong, thick brew his grandfather made, and sometimes a box of Safeway donuts while he sat overnight in his car. His name was Akeem but he was a Christian. He wasn't fanatic or boring about it, though he'd given Bilal a Bible last week. But he probably gave everyone Bibles. At least anybody he thought could be saved.
"We had to leave," said Akeem, looking a little embarrassed, an expression you seldom saw on a cop. "Sorry, little bro.”
The white, named Mark, was looking a left-out, like people do when other people are speaking a different language. He added, "Somebody shot up a liquor store over on Adeline Street. We were the closest unit.”
"It was probably them," said Akeem, snapping the strap on his holster. "To get us away from your house.”
Bilal only shrugged. "Monkeys know their jungle.”
"Monkeys?" asked Mark. "I thought the gang was called the Dubs.”
"They're all stupid monkeys to me!" Bilal glared around at the wreckage again. "Stupid monkey-boys with guns!”
Akeem frowned. "If you'd come up in this neighborhood you might be a little respectfully scared.”
Bilal's eyes narrowed. "Don't gimmie that 'code of the 'hood' bullshit! I'm scared of dogs with rabies 'cause they're sick an' dangerous like Cujo, but I sure as hell don't respect 'em!”
A glass fang dropped from a window frame, and Mark spun around, gripping his gun. Akeem chuckled. "Chill out, dawg.”
Bilal's grandfather came in from the kitchen, his sandals making potato chip sounds, his staff gently thumping the floor. "Would you gentlemen like coffee?”
Mark hesitated, but Akeem smiled and said, "Thank you, sir.”
An ambulance rolled up outside. Akeem's quick eyes ran over Bilal, noting the cuts on his chest and arms, and a trickle of blood spreading under a foot. "Better have 'em check you out. An' maybe your grandfather, too.”
"Not if we gotta pay!" snapped Bilal. He realized again he was naked, but crossed his arms and stood proud.
"I don't know about that, little bro.”
Bilal puffed his chest. "We didn't call it, an' we're not gonna pay for it!”
The EMTs were on the porch, both white, a man and a woman, peering in past the half-shattered door, their medical boxes in hand. Akeem faced them. "Nobody's hurt. Bill the department.”
"You don't have the authority..." the woman EMT began.
"Neither do you," growled Akeem. "So blame it on me an’ see where it gets you.”
The EMTs traded glances, then shrugged and returned to their idling truck. Akeem spoke into his radio mike, advising someone about something as Bilal's grandfather reappeared with two small porcelain cups. The rich scent of coffee seemed to banish the stink of hot lead in the air.
"Thank you, sir," said Akeem, accepting a cup and sipping. Mark echoed him, then added surprised, "This is good, Mr. Jadd.”
Akeem murmured, "Jadd means grandfather in Arabic. His name is Taimur.”
"Oh," said Mark. "It's very good coffee, Mr. Taimur.”
Jadd smiled and bowed. "Thank you. And welcome to my home.”
What's left, anyway, thought Bilal.
He noticed a few of the braver neighbors gathering on the cracked sidewalk beyond the house's little lawn and narrow strip of flower bed. Bilal mowed the lawn on Saturday mornings, pushing an ancient clattering thing that burned his sweat instead of gas, and picked the trash out of the flowers almost every day. He saw an elderly, bathrobed woman, Mrs. Turner, a few houses down, the neighborhood candy lady who also baked delicious pies... sweet-potato with real whipped-cream. Hers was the only name he knew, though he'd often seen the other faces. A man had a pit-bull on a chain, and Bilal watched it piss on the flowers. There was also a handful of kids with packs on their way to school. Some were pointing at bullet-holes and probably guessing the type of gun by the scatter of brass in the street.
"Dammit!" muttered Akeem, as several boys grabbed souvenirs. "Mark, get those back!”
"Hey!" Mark ran out and the kids ran away, laughing and dissing him over their shoulders.
"Stop!" Mark's hand dropped to his gun. The kids automatically scattered, becoming multiple targets. Mark could have caught the fattest one or shot a few of the others, but he only looked back at Akeem, who sighed.
"Get the tape," called Akeem. "Find out if anyone saw anything. An' don't lose any more evidence." He faced Bilal again. "We'll have to take you to the station. This is a crime scene now.”
Bilal glared out at the street. "This whole fuckin' place is a crime scene!" He watched the EMTs roll off. "If you didn't haul the bodies away there'd be more skeletons than people!”
Akeem only shrugged. "Get a day off from school.”
"I already missed two weeks. For the goddamn trial. Got a D on my history test.”
Akeem's round face looked slightly sad, as did Jadd Taimur's, though Bilal hadn't specified the god. "Pack some things. They'll probably put you up somewhere. In a hotel. At least overnight.”
"We're not payin'!" snapped Bilal.
"I'm sure they'll cover it.”
Akeem winced as Bilal crunched away leaving bloody footprints. "Be careful, son!”
"Why?" Bilal muttered. "I'm already one of the walkin' dead.
End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.