Amal was in the passenger seat and he kept talking about faith and loyalty to his God and the gang, while he continued to blow smoke in the already airless cabin. I coughed, but Amal ignored me. He usually did. The smallest of the five of us, I was the last to join the gang. They accepted me rather than invited me, because I was the only one of us who hadn´t yet joined, but the one who still had to. Other boys might be an optional addition to the gang, but my name was written down for a membership ever since Fadi got killed.
My mother cried for days on end, but she did not only mourn my brother´s death, but also the fact that I would have to take his place. My father´s debts hadn´t yet been paid off and even though Fadi did his best to keep me out of it, his untimely death forced me to follow in his footsteps. I got my gun from the same dealer that had sold Fadi his. I remember how I waited at home for Fadi to return. Anxious, I kept watch, both staring out the kitchen window to see if Fadi walked down the street and down the hall to see if my mum woke. The light sleeper that she was, always worried, she checked on us more often than was healthy for our relationship. Now I know why she did it.
Fadi returned late at night. I saw him walk down the street, disappearing and reappearing in the distant circles of light cast by the street lamps, and hurried down the hallway, trying hard not to make any noise at all, and opened the door to let Fadi in. Soon, I heard his footsteps on the stairs and then his head appeared and suddenly he stood in front of me, signaled me to stay quiet by putting his index finger to his lips and, in complete silence, we walked to our room at the end of the hall. I remember that I listened carefully, but it was one of the fortunate moments during which my mum seemed oblivious to the danger Fadi had let enter her house. It had happened before and it would happen again, but Fadi never mentioned any of the weapons he had hid underneath the loose floor board close to the window, which I was always careful not to step on, and since he didn´t mention them, I didn´t mention them.
Fadi let me see the gun, a dusty revolver which he said could kill six before he ran out of bullets. He let me hold it, but only for a while, then he snatched it from my hands again. In the light of the street lamp that shone into the window, Fadi loaded the bullets into the cylinder and held the gun in my direction. I looked straight into its barrel. Only a second later Fadi had forced the revolver underneath the loose floor board and had jumped into bed, before I had even heard the footsteps in the hallway. The short seconds it took my mother to reach the door to our room I had jumped into bed as well and had pulled the blanket up to my nose. I hoped it would cover not only my fully clothed body but also my dangerously fast beating heart.
Days later, Fadi told me he had joined the gang. I already knew he had joined ever since he had bought the gun, but I kept quiet about it. I guess he had his reasons for letting me know. I guess he wanted to tell me that I was safe. I wish I had known back then what I know now. I could have told Fadi not to join. I could have told him to run away. We could have moved. But as with all the families in our street, you just don´t move away from here. You stay in limbo forever, dreaming of a better world somewhere far away, where a daily meal was not a daily struggle and the financial burden was not yet carried even by the smallest and youngest members of the family. Yet still you stay, stubbornly enduring the hard life in our streets, daring sometimes to dream of a better life you´ll never have or a brighter future that not even your kids could ever have. And you keep on going.
Fadi tried to find a way out of the misery that held us captive. He knew I liked school and he worked two jobs so that I could actually go to school. My mum worked two jobs as well, but even with all the money they both earned and the little money I got from Mr. Santiago for mopping his floors after he closed the shop somewhere around nightfall, it was still not easy to make ends meet. Half of what we all earned was handed over to the landlord, more money went directly into repaying my dad´s debts with various shady characters, none of which I ever met. Fadi made sure I was not concerned with any of that. Or as he put it, they don´t need to see your face. Fadi sometimes brought home money, but he never told neither my mum nor me where he had got it from, and I was too scared to ask. I knew he took his revolver with him on those days when he returned home and slipped my mum creased bills that looked like they hadn´t left their former owner voluntarily.
As a member of the gang, a certain reputation followed Fadi wherever he went. Opposite gang members seemed to recognize his affiliation and once or twice I watched Fadi beat the hell out of them to save both our necks. Fadi was a good fighter. Tall and muscular, he was a tough opponent. Our father had taught him how to fight. Not once was I scared of Fadi, not even when I heard from other kids in our street that he had gotten into a fight. Fadi could stop three men at once. But I broke out in sweat whenever I heard that weapons were involved. You can be the best fighter in the world, dirtier than the street you fight on, darker than any of your opponents´ souls, but you still don´t stand a chance when someone fires a bullet at your head.
I was 15 when Fadi got shot. My mum picked me up from school and she never picked me up from school because of her two jobs, so when I saw her standing outside the gates, I knew something had happened. The only other time she had ever picked me up from school was when dad had gotten killed. She didn´t cry. I remember she didn´t cry at all. Not on our way home, not when we entered the apartment, not when she told me what my heart had already told me before. Fadi was dead. Shot. They had found him in front of the Laundromat, his body contorted, shot twice in the head. Execution, the other boys told me.
The boys arrived two days later. They sat on the steps to our apartment building and waited for me. I knew what they had come for, even before the first of them opened his mouth. They said they´d pay for Fadi´s funeral. I knew I was not in a position to decline. And I also knew that this meant that I was to join. My mum started to cry at the funeral. She didn´t stop for weeks. She still worked both her jobs and I worked Fadi´s jobs, but it was never the same again. My mum stopped checking up on me the day we returned from the funeral. As if she knew that I was now a lost cause, too.
It took them four months to pick me up for our first ride. I had quit school and had started to work both Fadi´s jobs in addition to the work at Mr. Santiago´s place. He always told me to stay out of trouble. I never said anything. My mum still cried herself to sleep every night and I wondered how she managed to still keep her jobs they way she looked now. Haggard and with dark circles underneath her bloodshot eyes; stringy hair. She still kept her clothes clean and she never forgot to brush her teeth, but she didn´t look like my mother anymore. More like a fading replica, a copy of her former self, and effigy of a forfeited life, result of the many burdens she carried and the long line of bad experiences she had suffered through.
When they picked me up, it was for a routine job, nothing major. But back then, I was dead afraid of what was to come. Fadi had never told me what the gang did. His way of keeping me out of trouble. But since Fadi´s execution, I had to participate and I had to be involved and for a short while, I cursed Fadi for trying to protect me the way he had.
Amal was in the passenger´s seat and he told me all about faith and loyalty. To God and the gang. I had to listen to his endless sermon, while Musad drove us to an unknown destination. While the dark streets glistened past us, Amal turned around to me, his arm resting on the backrest of his seat, and he blew smoke in my face. He asked me if I knew all about faith and loyalty. He seemed to be questioning my loyalty to the gang, I read it in his eyes. I said I did. That seemed to be a good enough answer for him. I thought it should be enough that I was in the car with them. It was proof enough that I knew where my loyalty rested. It rested with Fadi.
We drove for about half an hour and when Musad turned into a dark street, fear crept through my body again. I knew this was not going to be easy. The first task. Initiation. We got out under the cover of darkness; muffled musical beats hit my ear. Amal pushed me down the street and told me to go ahead. A figure came out of the dark and blocked our way. I felt Amal getting nervous, not because the man posed a big challenge to us three, but because he anticipated the oncoming fight. You ain´t got not business here, boys, the man said. I forced myself to keep a straight face. I could have shitted my pants, but I didn´t. I felt an icy hand on my shoulder, and I knew it was none of the guys but Fadi who told me to get it over with. And so I did.
After that, they kept me on a tight leash. They let me do my day-time jobs, but once I had helped Mr. Santiago pull down the iron gate, there they were, waiting for me. They took me out again and again and I only returned late at night. We broke into stores, stole money and items of value, I learned how to beat up people, took a few beatings myself and soon I was at the same dealer who had sold Fadi his gun. I got the same type; it lay heavy in my hand. I got bullets, too. Walking home that night, I thought about Fadi a lot and I felt like crying for the first time since he had been shot.
For over a year, I did what they guys told me to do. Whenever I could, I stole money and gave it to my mother. She never said anything about it, like it was a normal thing for me to do. Once, she called me by my brother´s name, but I reckon she didn´t even notice. It was all the same to her now. And to me.
I became a liar, a thief, a violent criminal. One year in the gang, and I had already used all the weapons Fadi had hid underneath the loose floor board in our room. I had used them to intimidate people, to threaten their lives, to hurt and injure. I did it all and even though my moral strictly forbade me to do so, I did it anyhow. It is how you survive in these streets. You join a gang and hope not to get shot.
While winter was reaching its peak and icy winds wrapped around us at night, I heard from other boys that someone bragged about my brother´s execution. He seemed to have witnessed it all. The boys picked me up the same day to investigate the matter further, which meant that the poor soul who couldn´t keep his mouth shut was in for the beating of his life. You can´t brag about the death of a gang member and get away with it.
He was a beanpole, thin as a rake, but with a receding hairline, large glasses and a stutter and I thought he might have just told the rumors to show off. It took us about half an hour to get all the information we needed and then we were on the road again, beanpole´s blood drying on our knuckles. Amal was in the passenger seat, while Musad drove down dark streets and kept to no speed limit even though we were sliding dangerously on the icy road, and Amal kept talking about loyalty. Loyalty, he said, loyalty doesn´t stop with your death. Unless you were a snitch and we killed you, than it sure as hell ends with death, your death. I didn´t say a word. I couldn´t open my mouth, because I was sure that if I would open my mouth, I would start screaming right away. Amal kept going on and on about loyalty to the gang and while he was talking he was waving his gun around and for a split second I hope he would shoot himself and we´d be rid of him, but he didn´t and he kept on going.
We stopped in front of the house, number 15. I will never forget it, a dirty street door, sprayed with graffiti, some glasses shattered and replaced with cardboard. It reeked of urine and stale tobacco and of the hard life in the street. The door was unlocked, a fatal mistake seeing what we had come here to do, but revenge was a sweet taste on my tongue and I didn´t stop to thank destiny for putting no obstacles in our way. In the house, we heard the muffled noises of the residents, fights, screams, noises of love making, TVs, music and we smelled spicy food and my mouth was watering.
They were out in the back, holding court. We reached for our guns, the revolver now perfectly smooth in my hand, and it took him and his two friends only a split second to realize that we were the enemy, but Amal and Musad had already shot them, leaving their leader for me. I heard windows being banged shut and the noise of the house seemed to stop instantly. He kept staring at us, the playing cards forgotten in his hand, showing a full house, but with all the scattered cards on the floor, drenched in blood, I couldn´t tell if that hand would have earned him a victory, but his night was sure to turn out disastrously for him. I sensed he was reaching for his gun and held mine against his temple in a swift movement. Fear crept across his body and I saw it reach his eyes. No harm done, he panicked, just walk away from here, you guys. I pierced him with a sad glance. I wish I could have walked away. I wish there was no harm done. Not tonight, I said into the deadly silence of the night. What the fuck did I ever do to you? he asked and I knew he was trying to buy time. Who the hell are you? I waited for him to return my glance and then I waited a bit longer till I felt Fadi by my side. I´m Fadi´s brother, I said and pulled the trigger.