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February 2013

Between Two Brothers

How do two boys raised in the same house grow up to be such different men?

Life’s been very good to Brooklyn Raines: he lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful girlfriend, works his dream job for a major magazine, and doesn’t have a care in the world. His older brother Derrick, on the other hand, has had to struggle with his small-town Florida life, where he has turned to selling drugs to support his live-in girlfriend and infant son. But everything breaks down when their parents die suddenly, and then Derrick’s life of crime finally catches up to him, resulting in his being sent to prison. Now Brooklyn must leave his life in L.A. and return home to pick up the shattered pieces of his family, starting with Derrick’s young son, Dimitri.

Between Two Brothers is the story of an incredibly close fraternal bond that is eventually destroyed by poor choices and unfortunate circumstances. Will sacrifice and hard work enable them to get back what they’ve lost? Or is it really true that you can never go home again?

Tags: Coming of Age, Young Adult, POC, African American, Literary, The South

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Sample Chapter

Chapter Two: The Playground

“Leave him alone!” young Brooklyn shouted, his voice cutting across the entire field. The ring of fourth graders stood still, silenced by that act that falls between stupidity and bravery.

“What did you say?” Karl asked. Karl was in his second year of fourth grade, and was taller and older than most of his contemporaries. Mere moments before, Karl had been administering a beat-down for the record books. His diminutive sidekick, Arturo, stood by him as always. The two boys had chosen that day to take out their frustration and boredom (which, they felt, they could not otherwise express) on James, a boy whose shyness was often mistaken for arrogance and snobbery. Karl and Arturo had circled him in, starting the session off with a classic maneuver: Karl pushed James backward over Arturo’s outstretched leg. The instant James hit the ground, a crowd of nine-year-olds began to form. James scrambled to his feet and tried to run, but Arturo pushed him back towards Karl, who socked him in the gut. When he doubled over, Karl punched him in the face, sending him crashing back down to the ground. On his back, James’ flailing arms did nothing to protect him from the blows that Karl landed again and again, to the face, to the stomach, the upper arms, the chin.

Brooklyn had been a part of this congregation of spectators, close enough to see the fear and pain streak James’ face, but not close enough to do anything about it. Just prior to this he’d been spending his Friday afternoon “game time” playing a game of Chess against the only other kid who knew how to play, and from the moment the bell rang, his mind had been wholly distracted by thoughts of rented video games for his Nintendo, Little Caesars pizzas, and late-night television – the stuff of dream weekends. He barely even knew this boy, having only seen him a few times in passing at P.E. or during lunch. But after his eyes connected with James’, all those other images vanished. He stepped into the circle, legs shaking so badly he could hardly stand, and took a deep breath. He had to be sure he’d be heard.

            “Leave him alone!” young Brooklyn shouted. Stunned, Karl froze, his fist inches away from landing yet another blow to his victim’s blood-swelled cheek. His reanimation came quickly though, as Arturo nudged him out of his trance. Karl stood and walked right over to Brooklyn, whose entrance into the circle had been dramatized by everyone else’s stepping back.

            “What did you say?” Karl asked.

            Fear wafted off Brooklyn’s body like heat waves from sun-drenched concrete. Tears had already begun to form and stored themselves behind his eyes. He knew what was coming. “I said leave him…”

            Before he could finish his words, Karl let fly a right hook. Brooklyn watched the world flip over as he toppled to the ground. Karl snarled at him, and kicked him hard in the stomach. This no longer had anything to do with James. This was about power, about reputation, and about setting an example.

But, to Brooklyn’s surprise, it was over before it had really begun. His eyes were shut tight as he felt Karl’s next kicks attempt to pierce his soft flesh, but suddenly, they stopped. And he heard a sound like… cheering?... coming from the bystanders. He heard one voice, in particular, above the rest: “So you like to kick people while they’re down, huh?”

Brooklyn sat bolt upright, his eyes wide open with amazement and disbelief, but they confirmed for him what he’d suspected: Derrick had come to his rescue. Brooklyn’s thirteen-year-old brother Derrick held Arturo by the arm, tossing him about like so much garbage, while landing several kicks to Karl’s midsection and legs. Derrick stood like a god among men, towering six inches above the rabble, his pubescent body already showing an inclination towards tone and definition. Wrath contorted the boy’s face, and for a flickering moment, Brooklyn could not recognize his brother inside this angel of vengeance. The spell was soon broken, as teachers came streaming in from all directions, alerted, of all things, by the crowd’s cheering at the sight of their most hated bully getting taken down by a middle-schooler. A balding, gray-pantsed man grabbed Derrick from behind and hefted him from the scene. Different teachers attended to Karl, Arturo, and James respectively. “You stay the hell away from my brother!” Derrick shouted as he was dragged away from the already dissipating crowd.

“Are you alright?” a soothing voice asked. Brooklyn’s attention was wrenched from his brother, struggling against his detainer. Ms. Jackson, Brooklyn’s teacher, looked down on him.

“Yes,” he managed, still a little shocked, his lip bleeding.

“Come on,” she said, helping him to his feet and leading him toward the nurse’s office.

 Derrick and Brooklyn sat together in a small room. Two empty chairs rested on either side of them. The door stood at their backs, the owner of the office on the other side. A cluttered desk rose from the floor, centered in the room’s perfect square. Brooklyn imagined this as the place to which all men who wore ties with short sleeved shirts retreated. The room lied silent. The beating of his own heart threatened to drive him mad, so instead he concentrated on the in and out of his brother’s excited breathing. A jolt of pain reminded Brooklyn that he’d just been in a fight. A fight that, for his part, he’d come out the worse. He looked over to the boy sitting next to him: Derrick had saved him. He’d come from nowhere, swooped in, and saved him.

No, he hadn’t really come from nowhere. Derrick often rode his bike over to Brooklyn’s school after his last period, and they would ride home together. Somehow this fact had escaped Brooklyn. He’d been as surprised as everyone else at Derrick’s arrival. His mind questioned, for a just a moment, how fair it was to sick a thirteen-year-old on elementary school kids, but he pushed the thought away. Derrick had done right by his baby brother, and therefore had done right. Brooklyn knew he’d never need friends again. He had a brother willing to go to war for him without hesitation.

But guilt, like a hollowing in his chest, threatened to shatter Brooklyn from the inside. His foolishness had landed Derrick in that position; if he hadn’t felt the need to play hero, his brother wouldn’t have had to play savior. Derrick was most certainly in trouble, and Brooklyn would have done anything to change the course that lay ahead of them. Locked in wordless communication, Derrick began to smile. His gaze narrowed though, aiming at his brother’s neck. Brooklyn followed the line of sight with his hand. The skin there had grown course like sandpaper in a snake-like arch creeping toward his cheek. Brooklyn was allergic to grass. Where his bare skin came into contact with the growth for too long, a rash developed; red, rigid patches of skin. The allergy wasn’t serious, and could be easily treated, but it served as an embarrassment all the same, and Brooklyn knew he’d have to wear this mark as a reminder that Karl had beaten him up for the next week. Derrick playfully punched Brooklyn in the arm, nodding his approval for what Brooklyn had done. Both boys laughed softly for only a moment, Brooklyn wincing at the pain in his rapidly blackening eye, before returning to their taciturn contemplation of what the rest of the day might hold for them.

The door to the office swung open. With the door at his back, Brooklyn could only make out the quick creaking of the hinges and the sudden change in the atmosphere. He didn’t dare turn around. He didn’t need to. He knew who was about to walk in.

The gray-pantsed man, Vice Principal Sanderson, walked in first, and came around to sit behind the desk, facing the boys. He said nothing, but made a gesture with his hands toward the two empty chairs on either side of them. Brooklyn could almost hear his brother’s breath catching as a tall, thin black man took the seat next to him. It was their father, Mr. Raines. At 40, his thick black beard was just starting to speckle with gray; the light catching the random gray hair only served to compound the look of sternness on his face. On Brooklyn’s right sat his mother, whose hair was pulled back into a single, large ponytail. Mrs. Raines wore very little makeup, not that she was at all in need of it. She wore a mixed and jumbled expression, at once showing deep concern for Brooklyn, anger and disappointment at Derrick, and a motherly protection for both boys as they sat opposed to the vice principal. Ms. Jackson was the last to enter the room, and took a chair off to the side of Mrs. Raines that Brooklyn hadn’t noticed before. Ms. Jackson was a young, new-ish teacher with a slight frame but very caring eyes.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. and Mrs. Raines. I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances…” Mr. Sanderson began, before being cut off.

“I don’t understand why Brooklyn is in trouble too,” Mrs. Raines said. “You told me that other little boy hit him first.”

“He’s not in trouble, Mrs. Raines. He simply insisted on waiting in here with his brother,” Ms. Jackson offered. This seemed to ease her considerably. She put her arm around Brooklyn and drew him in close, as close as the armed chairs would allow.

 “We have a very serious situation here,” Mr. Sanderson began again. “Derrick was attacking nine-year-old students. He’s much older than them, so you see the problem here.” Mr. Sanderson cocked his head to one side as he searched Mr. Raines’s expression. The boys’ father appeared completely unmoved by the statement.

 “Karl’s not nine, he’s ten! He failed…” Brooklyn began, but his mother tapped him twice on the shoulder, silencing him instantly. He looked up at her cautiously before falling back into his seat.

“Yes, Karl is ten. You are correct, Brooklyn. The point is, Derrick is a middle school student, and had no business on our campus in the first place. Karl and Arturo’s parents are very upset. They said they would press charges if appropriate disciplinary action wasn’t taken. Now, I’m going to recommend a two-week suspension.…”

            “No!” Brooklyn began, but his mother hissed him silent again.

“...and a written apology from Derrick to both boys. I should warn you, though, that the parents may request an apology from the two of you as well,” he said, shooting glances between both parents.

“But that’s not fair!” Brooklyn said, jumping out of his seat.

“Brooklyn!” his mother whisper-shouted.

“No,” he responded in unprecedented defiance. “Derrick saved me! He shouldn’t be punished! Karl and Arturo were beating up on James and nobody would help him, not even the teachers, so I tried to help James and Karl just started beating me up instead and nobody would help me either and Derrick finally came in and saved me and James and beat up Karl and Arturo because they were beating us up first! It isn’t fair!” Tears streamed down Brooklyn’s face. He’d been stomping and pointing to such a degree that he transfixed every eye in the room, including Derrick’s, who up to that point had been as blank and emotionless as his father. Brooklyn knew he’d spoken out of turn and disobeyed his mother, but his heart was breaking at the thought that, here he was again, watching someone get beat up while no one lifted a finger to help.

“Brooklyn, sit down,” Mr. Raines said calmly. Brooklyn turned, tear-stained, to face his father. His expression was softer now, but only by the tiniest degree. Brooklyn obeyed his father and took his seat. Derrick still had not broken his stare.

“First of all, Mr. Sanderson, I am insulted that you would suggest I apologize to the parents of a boy who attacked my son, regardless of whatever other factors might be at play. Secondly, you don’t have the authority to suspend Derrick, and should you make that ‘recommendation’ to anyone, I will file a grievance against you with your principal, the county school board, and the state board of education.” It was now Mr. Raines who commanded the room’s attention. Mr. Sanderson was shaken by the direct threat, but he held his composure.

“Now, you may inform Karl and Arturo’s parents that they may press charges if they like,” Mr. Raines continued, “but do remind them that their children attacked Brooklyn and his friend James first, and I will not hesitate to counter-sue on that very point, as well as sue you personally for the obviously abysmal response time you and your faculty and staff had to this whole incident. There should never have even been a fight for Derrick to break up.” Mr. Raines stood up from his chair with measured force and glanced down at the boys, who took their cue to follow. Mr. Raines remained stern, and the boys were awash in awe, but Mrs. Raines bore a grin. She deliberately rose from her chair, smoothed her hair (which didn’t need it), and cocked her head at Mr. Sanderson matter-of-factly.

She was the first to turn to leave. As she did so, she touched Ms. Jackson’s hand, giving her a thankful expression for taking care of Brooklyn after the fact. Mrs. Raines pointed towards the door, and Brooklyn and Derrick took their cue again to make their exit. Just before she’d cleared the doorway, Mr. Raines, who was following his wife out, turned again to Mr. Sanderson.

            “And since it is within your authority, I expect to learn on Monday morning that both Karl and Arturo have been suspended from this campus for a period of no less than two weeks. Good afternoon, Mr. Sanderson.”

“Good, uh, afternoon…” Mr. Sanderson said to Mr. Raines’ back.

            The Raines family loaded themselves into their Jeep Cherokee. Brooklyn and his brother sat in the back seat in silence, but their facial expressions showed that they were bursting at the seams with excitement. Getting into a fight, not getting in trouble for it, and seeing their father in action had been a thrill they were barely able to handle.

            “Derrick,” Mr. Raines called from the front seat. He stared at Derrick through the rearview mirror, and Derrick met his eye. “Fighting is wrong, son, and fighting people smaller and weaker than you is especially wrong. I am ashamed and embarrassed to have been called out to your brother’s school for this.” His words fell hard and iced the blood of both boys who, despite their bruising, had been feeling invincible.

“Terrance,” Mrs. Raines said, touching her husband’s leg.

“I know you did what you did to protect your brother,” Mr. Raines continued, with a slightly dulled edge, “and I am proud of you for that. We are family, and family must look out for each other. But you cannot use that as an excuse to get into yet another fight. This behavior will stop. I will not tolerate it in my house.”

Derrick’s head slumped to his chest, heavy with shame. The blow was especially strong coming on the heels of the vindication he received in Mr. Sanderson’s office.

The tension and silence swelling within the car pressed hard against Brooklyn’s chest. His breaths were quick and shallow in conjunction with his racing heartbeat. He had certainly witnessed his father angrier, but Terrance Raines was never more striking than when he stopped talking, lending immeasurable gravity to whatever was last said. Guilt settled into Brooklyn’s mind again. Derrick had gotten into plenty of trouble on his own. But this time, this was his fault, Brooklyn’s fault. And it had done something to their father; perhaps, pushed him too far?

Brooklyn tried to meet his brother’s eyes. They were still the same, still wild with youth and a kind of innocence, but they were changing. Hardening. Brooklyn was watching a wall being built, though he had no idea of it. He pained for the boy in the seat next to him, feeling that despite his best efforts, he’d still let him down. Derrick looked over at Brooklyn, able to read people with a greater accuracy than his brother, and through his own clog of emotions, managed, for Brooklyn’s sake, a thin smile.

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