A Novel by A. D. Metcalfe
Johnny Álvarez runs away from his abusive Miami home to take his chances on the unforgiving streets of 1970s New York City. He usurps a vacant apartment in a Washington Heights tenement and begins to form a diverse gang of smart, loyal boys who help him survive and shield him from authorities.
But Johnny remains afflicted by his past. Flashbacks from the torture he suffered cause him to feel violent and reckless, which sometimes works in his favor amid the life he has chosen.
Though the boys share ambitions that fall on the right side of the law, the money-making opportunities on the street are far too tempting. Johnny eventually earns the trust of the Brick, a mid-level drug dealer, when he overhears that the man is about to be cheated on a shipment and warns him in time to call off the deal.
Johnny’s loyalty is rewarded, and soon he and his gang are making regular drug runs for the dealer.
When the Brick learns of a primo shipment that is about to be smuggled into Miami by a notorious drug lord, he sees an opportunity to greatly increase his supply and solicits Johnny to make the pickup.
Johnny is then forced to decide if the extra money will be worth risking everything he has built, and if he can handle confronting the memories he’s been trying so hard to forget.
Johnny Álvarez took his time, walking on side streets, keeping close to the shadows, and looking out for police. A twelve-year-old boy unattended in the middle of the night would be suspicious. He snaked his way toward the Miami airport, knowing there was a Greyhound bus station nearby. When he got close, he could see there was little activity. A child alone in a terminal would throw up as many red flags as one wandering the streets, so he found a secluded spot in a nearby park and hunkered down till morning. He shook off his school knapsack, which was stuffed with as many clothes as it could hold, and lay on the grass, but he was too wired to sleep. Instead, he looked at the stars, hoping he’d be out of town before his parents woke up and discovered his empty bed and his eighteen-year-old brother lying in a pool of blood on the basement floor.
By dawn there were enough people inside the station for him to blend in, so he pushed through the glass doors and went to study the list of departures. Amid the many buses was one leaving for New York City in less than an hour.
He walked to the counter and stood in front of the clerk—a tired-looking, gray-haired man—and asked to purchase a one-way ticket.
“Where are your parents?”
Johnny scanned the large room. Since he was brown-skinned with dark hair, he thought it would be more believable to pick people who looked similar. He found an acceptable couple lingering at the concession stand and pointed at them. “They’re over there, but I’ve got the money to pay. They let me go to New York every summer to visit my grandmother. She picks me up at the other end.”
“You don’t need a round trip?” the man asked, with a hint of suspicion.
“No. This year she’s going to drive me back and visit for a while.”
“Okay,” the man said. “That’ll be thirty-six dollars.”
Johnny pulled two twenties from his pocket and handed them over.
The clerk gave him change and a ticket in return. “Your bus is boarding in thirty minutes from gate seventeen.”
“Thank you.” Johnny headed toward his pretend parents to polish off the ruse.
Near the magazines and books, he saw The Traveler’s Guide to New York City. It was outdated—printed in 1969—but he figured things wouldn’t have changed that much in three years. The guide described different neighborhoods, provided maps for subway and bus routes, and highlighted historic sites. He brought it to the register, along with a few snacks and a drink, before drifting to the gate where the empty coach was parked. He looked at the sign above the windshield, which read New York City, and smiled. When the driver arrived to unlock the door and punch tickets, Johnny was the first one on. He marched straight to the back row and settled in with his gear.
It wasn’t until the bus was moving down the interstate that Johnny sat back and allowed himself to think about the events that had occurred the previous night. He rubbed his wrists. The rope burns from the night’s captivity had reopened the existing scars, but it wasn’t as bad as the other times. Glancing out the window, he tried to recall what had happened, but his memory was patchy. Had he killed Orlando or just knocked him unconscious? He had been too afraid to check, for fear he’d rouse him and have to go through another demented torture session. Instead, Johnny had sat quietly on the top step, behind the bolted basement door, and waited for his mother to release him. When she finally did, he went to his bedroom and lay awake until both parents were asleep. Once he felt it was safe, he packed his things and slipped out of the house.
The absence of guilt surprised him. He felt calm and confident now. Whatever might happen out in the world would not be worse than what he’d endured in that house. He wondered if his parents would care that he was gone. Would they even bother to file a report with the police? It was doubtful, but he could never be sure. He was going to miss his friends, but there’d be new ones. Ones he wouldn’t have to lie to all the time. He vowed to make sure he was never sent back to Miami. Dying on some unfamiliar street would be preferable. Johnny looked out the window as the scenery rolled by, feeling free and fearless.
As soon as the bus arrived at Port Authority, Johnny went into the terminal. It was much bigger and dirtier than the one in Miami, with hundreds of people hurrying in different directions, and there were more vagrants than he was used to seeing. As he made his way through the colossal station, looking for an exit, he scanned passing faces, trying to gauge if anyone seemed concerned that a young boy was wandering around alone. To his relief, no one even looked at him, not even the three cops chatting outside a shop.
When Johnny stepped out onto 8th Avenue, the heat hit him like a brick. It was hot in Florida in late July, too, but here the air was different—thicker and fouler—and he welcomed the change. The crowds were just as big outside the station, travelers trying to navigate luggage around commuters, beelining to their respective destinations. Johnny chose the path of least resistance, following a random flow of foot traffic until it spit him onto the curb at 42nd Street.
On the bus, he’d read about Times Square in the guidebook, and since it was close, he decided to check it out. He walked east until he came to Broadway. The scenes he’d seen in movies and on television didn’t do the iconic landmark justice. Johnny wandered around, drinking it in. Men at folding tables tempted passers-by to play their games of three-card Monte, while others sold cassettes and 8-track tapes. Made-up ladies in high heels, short shorts, and tube tops tried to lure anyone walking by into peep shows and XXX-rated movies. Mixed with the hustlers were people in three-piece suits and fancy dresses weaving through the crowd. Despite being small and alone in a city so huge and populated, he had never felt safer.