The Early 'Jass' of New Orleans
Life in Machines

Los Lost Boys

Story by Ryan Gattis
Illustrations by Jordan Bruner

Islands GIF

“The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on... ”

—J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy



October 18, 1991

2:16 p.m.

We all push into the gun store that’s so crazy it’s like we’re seeing things. Good things. Happy things. Rifles on walls. Pistols behind glass all around us. We laugh loud like we’re outside even though we’re not. Slighty’s pinching me from behind, on my kidneys, and I’m just kind of turning and elbowing his hands away, not even looking. Nubs has his arm around one of the twins and he’s hugging his neck close, almost like he’s headlocking him. Motherfucking Curly is saying to the other twin how this is it, how we made it, how we’re about to be safe now. The only dude not saying shit is Bread. He’s already up at the counter, staring at the guy behind it.

We high. You know we fucking high. And we missed meals for this. Everybody went down to one a day for this. Beans and tortillas and solamente peanut butter for this. Nobody cares how old you are here, or what you want with anything, which is why we didn’t have to pay a hype to come in and do it for us, like with beer.

They only care if your money’s green here and if it counts high enough in their hands. They’re greedy fuckers and that’s good, since we can work with greedy. We understand it. We greedy too.

Bread looks around at the whole place before he says to the guy, “Hey, where’s Sunny at?”

“Excuse me?” The dude behind the counter says.

Bread repeats what he said and they have this little staredown about why there’s a bunch of kids in here getting loud, and should he ask if we need to be in school or some shit, or if this is some sort of setup, but then he just gives up. You can see him do it, too, right around his eyes and in his shoulders, there’s this droop that happens.

The guy says, “Nah, Sunny’s out today. His girl’s having a baby.”

“Dumb bitch.” Curly aims his words at the ceiling more than to anybody. “This life ain’t shit to get into.”

Curly’s mom lost him in the courts ‘cuz she couldn’t quit with the heroin.

Dude looks at Curly, figures him for a little knucklehead you can’t ever talk to, and turns back to Bread. “Something specific I can help you with?”

Nubs jumps in with, “Yeah, what’s your name then?”

“Norman,” he says.

For this giant floaty second, nobody says shit. And then the laughter hits us all at once, like we all got punched and have to let it out at the same time.

Nubs grabs Slighty and screams, “Norman!” into the air five times, then six, all while Bread’s trying to keep a straight face, looking at me but I’m losing it too. Everybody is. Swear to god the twins slap each other’s knees. I got tears in my eyes before we’re done feeling it.

Don’t nobody know any Normans. That’s a stupid-ass name. We didn’t even know dudes named that existed, except for on TV. Oh, and now this sad motherfucker right here, about to sell a gun to some kids.

“Una—” Bread says, still laughing around the word, shaking, really, “—pistola. Porfas, Norman.”

“A pistol?” Norman’s got his arms crossed. They been crossed for about a minute now. “How much money ya got?”

Bread snaps out of it then. His smile falls right off his face, and he says, “Like I’m about to tell you, fool?”

Norman holds his hands up, like, don’t shoot but not really. “Just trying to figure what you can afford.”

“Plenty,” Bread says.

We watch as Norman lays out three guns. Shit I don’t even know the name of. But a Dirty Harry gun goes by and we all want it until we hear how much it is, and then we watch it go away again.

Before he’s done, the front door opens and a fat dude with no shirt on pokes his dirty head in. He’s holding his Walkman headphones up in the air over his head some like they’re some kind of fucking TV antenna.

“Hey,” he says to anybody, drunk as fuck, slurrin. “Where’s the monument at? Is it still around here?”

He’s the type that’s been drunk so long, you don’t know if he’s white or brown, or what. He’s just busted.

The twins look at each other, but Nubs is the quickest, grabbing his dick and shouting, “¡Tengo su monumento aquí, you borracho-ass motherfucker!”

We all laugh again. Not as much as on Norman. But still.

“Dumb fuckers!” The drunk dude screams that at us, and turns. He opens the door too quick and bumps into it on the way out, leaving a big oily belly mark on the glass of it. Just smeared.

We go parrot on that line of his too, saying “dumb fuckers” over and over and bumping into each other just like the door. Told you we were high.

Norman don’t care. He’s just trying to get this shit over with, laying out more guns on this piece of green fabric he set down over the top of a glass case.

I wouldn’t know what any of them were to look at but Bread’s saying, “Beretta, Smith and Wesson, Ruger,” shit like that as they get set down in front of us.

He picks the black Ruger up with the big handle and looks down the barrel of it. Norman flinches, reaches over the counter and tips the point down with his finger towards the floor.

Bread gives him a look that says don’t ever fucking do that again. He’s got a question on his lips too, though. “How come the inside of the end of this is all messed up? It’s got bodies on it?”

Norman makes a face.

“No,” he says. “It’s used, but not shot anybody. We don’t sell that kind of stuff here. What you’re seeing is that it’s got no barrel cap, so the threads are showing. That’s for a suppressor.”

Nubs says, “What’s a suppressor?”

Which is good, ‘cuz we were all wondering but just not asking, or gonna ask.

Norman picks up a thin, black, round thing, and screws it into the end of the Ruger. “People call it a silencer too. Takes the sound away so you don’t hear a loud gunshot so much as a pop.”

We’re nodding at each other like, oh shit. We all want it too. Until Norman says the price for both, and we know it’s not happening. Bread goes back to the others. He picks two littler ones up. Tries the weight of them.

And I see them guns right now, but I see more than that.

All that food we missed, I’m thinking, all them empty stomachs. It’s worth it now. No amount of food protects your ass from someone trying to do bad to you, trying to take something from you.

Only power and pain can stop them doing that. Only blood. Bread said once how nobody does good unless they get forced to.

The Raven Arms MP25. New Model. That’s the one Norman says we can afford. It’s small enough to fit good in Bread’s hand. In all our hands.

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When the price is agreed on, Norman counts out some twenty-five caliber bullets for us from a jar with a label on it that has a picture of a quarter. Rounds, he says they’re called. Seven costs us $1.75 more. Six for the cartridge. One for the chamber. So that’s how many we buy.

“That’s the top part,” Nubs whispers it to me like he’s smart. Like I don’t know.

We all watch as Norman puts the safety button up, towards the barrel, where it says safe on it with a little arrow up, and then we take turns holding the little fucker.

“That shit is cold,” I say when I hold it, the chill of it going up through my arm and up, damn near into my neck.

Slighty says, “It’s metal, dummy.”

“I know it’s metal,” I say, but I got my thumb on the part of the handle that looks like wood and I don’t know why I thought it’d be warmer, but it isn’t.

We’ve all held guns before, for big homies. We’ve ditched dirties in alleys. Or buried them. Or threw them in the backs of garbage trucks. Or in some unlucky motherfucker’s back yard that needed to get framed up. But we never had a gun before.

Not one of our own.

It’s special.

Holding it is like controlling a magic wand where all you have to do is point and you can make somebody go away forever.

“I’m about to blast a motherfucker,” Bread says, kind of whispering it, like he’s amazed at what we can do now. Whenever we want to.

We all look at each other then, and I can see how Curly’s thinking what Slighty’s thinking, and me too. That motherfucker Jaime’s going down whenever we see him. He’s catching one now. For real.

And Norman sure as shit can see it too, but maybe he don’t wanna know how real that threat is. All he needs then is green. And I see it come out of Bread’s pocket and go across the table. And then I see the smile on Norman and we’re free to go, so we do. Hard.

We crash out the door and out onto the sidewalk like we own it, screaming and hollering and calling out like the world better recognize who we are and where we come from. We shout at the sky. At passing cars. At motherfucking airplanes.

See us. That’s what we’re saying to them. Really see us. Look and then don’t look away. Feel us, we’re saying. Know how real we are.

And then you can run the fuck the other way.


Further down Long Beach Boulevard is home. For now, anyways. We walk there. Goofing. Fucking with each other. Saying, I’m gonna shoot you, that type of bullshit. Bread’s got the gat in his pocket, holding it tight, all the way to the one-level motel with a parking lot kind of in the middle of it, and a sign above it that says Islands, but the S burned out way back, so around here, people just call it The Island.

Fuckers come to The Island for pussy. For ass. For getting high. It’s a place nobody goes to for good, only for bad. We’re in room 14, at the far corner, back where nobody asks questions.

The big homies hooked it up for us. They always do.

They used to have us set up shop on Atlantic between Compton and Rosecrans, but we been moving all up and down Long Beach lately. Left side. Right side. Up by Cedar and Agnes. Especially down by Carlin and Palm, where’s there’s like three in a row. Shit goes good for a while, then some dumb fuckers end a police chase in the parking lot or kill a fresa or themselves and the big homies got to move us and find a new spot.

And these rooms end up being our only place to go. For the kids that never had a home. The kids no one ever cared about. Not parents. Not family. No one. The only way we get by is to care about each other. Orphan motherfuckers. Ran-away motherfuckers who had to jet from getting beat up or raped or just locked in closets like crazy-ass Nubs. We all live here. Ain’t nowhere else to go unless you like sleeping in bushes and having people stare at you. So, we’re fucking survivors. We know how to go shit in a bag and take a shower in a eight ounce cup of water if we have to.

We roll in the door of #14 still high, but smart enough to start getting paranoid a little. The big homies would hate if we had a gun. They’d think it’d get us in trouble. That we couldn’t handle it smart. They told us that straight up. No guns. Knives are cool, but no guns. They need this business to go smooth for them. Need it to be on-time, all the time. And we get that. But they can’t stop everything happening to us when they’re not here. People coming in and out of the hotel all hours, doing dumb shit, trying to get over on us.

It’s one large room we live in. We had to move shit for everybody to fit and sleep though. Two beds we share, homies sleeping toes to nose, but facing away ‘cuz people get kicked. Bread’s got them nightmares that make him kick. He cries sometimes too. So he’s got his own now. Two are wood and flat and hard. Only good news is, Slighty likes that. Weird fucker. The other hard one has both twins on it and some cushions we stole from chairs at a insurance office over on Imperial Highway. We all got bedbugs here.

The floor’s big, wide, got this blue carpet with yellow and green threads in it. Looks like water if you stare at it and let your eyes go. Sometimes we play like you can dig through it and get to real water and go fishing. I did that once with Boys and Girls club a long time ago before my dad up and killed my mom. They taught us all how to bait hooks and wait, so I told my homeboys how. The only thing that ever gets weird is how Bread always takes it too far and acts like it’s real. Some nights saving up for this gun we had to fake eating fish when there was nothing else. He fake ate two fish and got a big smile and went to bed happy and woke up happy. That shit was crazy.

Our room don’t have a TV. It used to, but not anymore. It got its front busted out once when we were fighting ‘cuz it fell. We played around with the glass for a while after, trying to make weapons and shit, but then Nubs cut himself up, maybe on purpose, so we chucked it all out. We pulled the back metal part out too. So now all we got is a hole we put our faces in and play like we’re other places. Other people. Like, last night Bread was playing like he was flying. Over the ocean. Popping through clouds. Cursing at birds, scaring them so bad that they pooped. That shit was funny as hell.

We call that motherfucker Bread since he lived for two weeks on that so the rest of us could eat. Like, Pan en Español. And he’s always getting money, so the name works that way too. Fool is fourteen and still has all his first teeth. I swear. We know he goes out alone sometimes, comes back whenever. We never know what he’s up to. Sometimes he’d have food. Sometimes we’d find a body out behind the carnicería off Norton. And not know if he did it or what. He’d never say either. But he could have. That fool is nuts.

Nubs is named for how he always picks up cigarette nubs and tries to smoke them, Curly’s got no hair anywhere cuz he’s got some sort of condition which ends up working out for him since he can’t get lice like the rest of us. Slighty’s short for Slight of Hand cuz he’s a slick little thief. The Twins are just the twins cuz it’s obvious why, and I go by Toot for no reason I’m ever gonna tell.

“We need a hiding place for this,” Bread says then, and he’s holding the Raven gun up for us to see.

“Under the sink,” Nubs says.

“Stupid ass,” Curly says.

He gets a punch in the stomach for it, and they’re about to go, but Bread shuts that shit down quick with a shout.

When it’s quiet again, I say, “What about in that orange box with the wraps and all that?”

I don’t say much. Not really. I usually just think instead, so that’s why the Twins blink at me at the same time cuz they’re surprised I said anything. Slighty, Nubs, and Curly all look at Bread.

“Good,” Bread says.

So we get the box, digging it out of the bathtub that no one ever takes a bath in. Instead it just holds all the dirty clothes for when we’re done with them. Under those is where the special box is, so no one will ever know we have it.

Curly’s the first to the bathroom door, but the Twins are right behind him. Between the three of them, they get to the bottom of the pile and bring the box up. They set it out on the floor in front of Bread and he makes this big show of opening it and lowering the gun into it. We hear it go click against the plastic side of the box and then Bread pulls the wraps out and says, “Mummies!”

And everybody dives for the box.

The way we got the box is, one time somebody dosed out in #11 and the ambulance men came and while they were working on her, we stole one of their little gear boxes from the back of the ambulance when they tried to pump her chest and she puked. I say we, but it was Slighty. He’s quick like that. Anyways, the box had all kinds of stuff in it. We drank a bottle of some shit labeled Ri-Lac but it didn’t get us high or nothing, just tasted terrible. All kinds of pills for blood pressure and hearts and stuff, we sold. Different kinds of needles, we sold. Little tubes of antiseptics and shit, we sold. But the Band-Aids and tape and the metal thing the doctor puts in his ears to hear your heart and little cloth wrap bandages, we kept those.

And most of those are out now, all over the place, and we’re wrapping our arms, our legs if we can, but the best part is the faces. Noses disappear. Eyes just barely show out. We wrap around the backs of oue heads and then back around, under the nose, until you can’t even see mouth or teeth, just little lines of black that move up and down when we moan and get mad about how we been dead for thousands of years but now we’re awake again and it’s the fucking future in fucking L.A. and not in Egipto where we always should’ve been, where things would’ve been fine, where we used to be princes and shit, but now we’re here and we’re nothing. Less than nothing. So we’re mad. Mad we’re here. Mad we’re not in peace, resting.

The game turns into zombie mummies when Nubs tries biting Curly, mostly for calling him a stupid ass before, and zombie mummies is always when shit pops off, and everybody wrestles everybody, but before that’s about to go down, a knock hits the door of #14.

It’s loud too. Loud enough to freeze everybody where we’re standing and make our hearts beat real fast. We all know we were just being noisy as hell, so we can’t act like we’re not here.

The knock comes again.

Bang. Bang. A knock that’s not gonna be ignored.

And nobody breathes, not until I’m back in the bathroom, putting the box back, and Bread is up at the window to see who it is that wants us, and for what.


It’s Chop at the door, and he rolls in with the smell of burgers and fries from the three bags of food he’s got. It’s Tam’s. That sets some stomachs growling for sure. Nubs elbows me, all excited, and I don’t even bother elbowing him back. I already got my mind set on ketchup, on some double cheese, on a burger patty the size of my head, that the more I eat of it, it’s still there, like I’m not even making a dent with my bites.

Chop’s wearing locs so you can’t see where he’s looking and you can’t see the tears he’s got inked there. Three on each side. His head’s clean shaved. He’s got this little black brocha going on his lip. Black t-shirt. Black windbreaker with its sleeves pushed up so you can see the black lines of some Mayan cocodrilo tattoo down his arm, and over it is this shiny-ass gold watch on his wrist going tick-tock. Khakis starched and pressed with a perfect crease hitting right in the middle of the laces of his chucks. He always carries but we never seen it. Everybody says it’s a .44 though. A silver one.

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Chop’s half-he-don’t-know ‘cuz of his mom, and half-Samoan from his dad. He ain’t even Mexican, but he kept putting in work, earning respect. Now he’s got some serious juice. We ain’t even on the totem pole. We’re down in the dirt till we get big enough to rank. Till then it’s hand to motherfucking mouth, that’s what it is. 

But the thing about it that gives us hope is how Chop started out like us too, living in the motels, slanging to get by, and now his name rings out. Everybody knows Chop around here. Everybody.

Chop’s the type of big homie we all want to grow up to be like. Everybody but Bread, anyways. Bread just wants to be Bread.

Chop says, “¿Qué te pasa, you lil fucking calabazas?”

“Don’t nobody need to hear you talking some East L.A. shit,” Bread says. The only one of us not licking his lips, the only one of us not ready, right the fuck now, for eating some food.

“This’s South Central, nigga. We know you from here.”

Chop pulls his sunglasses down and stares at Bread like, that’s your freebie, don’t fuck with me again ‘cuz I’ll beat your ass in front of your whole crew. It’s a warning look. A promise. And if he hadn’t come up how we’re coming up, he might’ve just smacked him already.

We all seen it, and we all kind of fall back a little. Even Bread, though he keeps smiling like it don’t even faze him.

Chop’s gold watch flashes as he lays out the bags on Nubs’ and Curly’s bed. He tips out one with just burgers. I count them quick. Fourteen of the little ones. Two for each of us! My heart’s jumping up in my chest at that shit.

This means the other bag’s full of fries, and the other-other bag is full of the stuff. Chop puts his hand on it.

“No weed this week, little fools.”

That means cocaine and heroin only, maybe a little PCP. Depends on whatever came through supply. The deal is, Chop comes by whenever with the stuff, and we put it out there to the putas in the motel. That’s how we pay for this room, for food. And skimming’s how we got the gun, but Chop don’t know that. Scooping up empty baggies and re-using them. Taking a little touch off new ones to fill up old empty ones. Selling three or four extras a week at profit, $20 bucks a pop, $15 each for two.

Chop’s looking at me when he says, “Little T, go and get my money, homie.”

I go and lift up the lid of the toilet tank and I pull out the plastic baggie with the bills in it that we rolled up. It isn’t the safest spot, but it’s good for quick stuff. Our big bank spot for money we can’t even have Chop finding is behind a base board we pulled the nails out of, but it still fits and you can’t even tell looking at it. That’s where the gun money came from.

I put the lid back on the toilet tank, take the roll out, and shoot a quick look at the pile of clothes and what’s underneath them in the box and I shiver a little as I remember the chill of it and walk back out and hand Chop his money cuz I don’t even know if he’d kill us if he found out we had a gun.

He knows I keep it right. I never fuck up the numbers. It’s straight. Every time. That’s why he likes me the best out of all of us.

While he’s checking the thickness of the roll with his thumb, Chop nods up at me. “’Sup with you today? You quiet.”

It’s quiet enough after he asks that everybody can hear that gold watch of his ticking and tocking loud, and I feel the whole crew’s eyes on me, sizzling up my skin. Like, don’t fuck this up! Like, Chop ain’t here 24/7 to protect us!

Sure, he does some after the fact shit if anybody messes with us. But that don’t stop anything from happening in the moment. Big as we feel sometimes, we’re still too little. Nubs is youngest, eleven. Me, I’m twelve. The Twins, we don’t know, but they’re taller than me. Curly and Slighty are thirteen.

“I’m always quiet, Mister Chop,” I finally say. “And I’m ready to get at a double cheeseburger for real. I’m gonna eat the hell out of two of those.”

He smiles at me then, and I know it’s enough for that to be that.

When Chop goes, we have a motherfucking feast like we ain’t had in weeks. I snag six ketchups all to myself and no one complains ‘cuz there’s like fifty. Whatever’s left, whatever I don’t get to with the fries, I scoop up with two fingers. You know I ain’t wasting any of that! Nubs does the same. We smile at each other with some red mouths.

After that, we sit, full. Our eyes on the ceiling. Our stomachs happy and hurting. All of us praying we don’t puke it up. All of us praying it wasn’t too much, too soon, with how we ain’t been eating.

“Shit,” Curly finally says, “you know some motherfuckers be itching right about now.”

He’s right too.

This’s our first drop since Tuesday and this motel has some eyes to it. They all seen Chop come through. They know we got filled up.

And they ain’t had shit in three days. Unless they got something somewhere else, they gonna be fiending.


My stomach’s good but my high’s pretty much gone and I got a headache coming into my head right over my ears, but we go out anyways, me and Bread. I’m the counting. He’s the muscle. He’s got two knives. Curly and Nubs got some too. They hang back a little, messing around in the parking lot. Slighty’s up front, on lookout duty for cops or people coming to rip us. Twins are back at #14, ready to page Chop if anything goes wrong. That’s how we do it.

We go to #11 first. We don’t even have to knock. The door opens right as we walk up and it’s Gordy, skinny like a white straw with black hair and a short beard pasted onto it at the top. He moved in right after the last dude died here. Gordy’s got scissors in his hand, but he ain’t dangerous.

There’s music going on his little boombox, guitars and a slow drum, and he tells us to come in. Usually, we don’t, but Gordy’s good people.

The room’s all red from handkerchiefs put over lamps. We always liked that and tried to do it in our room too, but Chop got mad and said we’d burn the place down, so we had to stop.

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Gordy does the gay shit. Everybody knows. He did it in county jail and he did it up in Quentin and he does it out here for money too. I don’t give a fuck what he do. Does he always take something off our hands? Yup. Does he always pay? Yup. Does he ever need more time to pay? Nope. Does he ever fuck with us for being kids? Nope. So, like I said, good people. The best kind we ever deal with, anyways.

Bread’s got his head tilted when he says, “What’s this shit you got playing, Gordy?”

“It’s The Cure.” Gordy’s looking at some flowers he’s got.

I don’t know what kind, but he’s holding them so he can cut them and the colored parts fall on the bed. Reds and pinks.

He does this sometimes when he’s sad. Says it cheers him up. How or why though, I wouldn’t know.

Bread says, “The cure for what?”

Gordy laughs. “No, that’s the band name.”

“Oh.” Bread makes a face like that’s stupid. “Why?”

“It’s short. People remember it. Don’t know that you need more than that for a band name.”

Gordy has a comb out and he’s working on his hair, pulling it back. He nods at the folded bills on the edge of the dresser. I pick it up. Count it. It’s straight.

“Just soda this time,” I say and thumb down four baggies where the money was sitting. “In case anybody asks you.”

Gordy nods. He’s the only dude I ever met that calls cocaine soda, but there it is. Chop always says it’s just good customer service to call it whatever your customer calls it, even if you think it’s stupid.

He likes it too. Soda and more soda. Nothing else. He wanted something called poppers once, but we didn’t know what that shit was, and Chop laughed and said no when we asked him for some. We could’ve gone outside for it, but it didn’t make money sense for one dude. If it was ten dudes, maybe. But one? Fuck your wish, homie.

“Gotta be on our way,” I say, which means goodbye.

I do a deposit of money at #14 and pick up more stuff after we leave. I always do that. After every one. It’s so we don’t get caught out with a lot. If we get robbed, fine, but we only lose one of either stuff or money, not the whole thing. It’s slow but smart. And we always got time. We pretty much go down the row then, skipping #10. We don’t sell to that fucker. He tried to gaffle us once and Bread had to stab his ass. He’s moving out soon, anyways. Chop told the owner to boot him but he’s not gone yet. At #9, Flora’s having a good day and not one of her freak-outs where she cries from seeing us ‘cuz she had her kids taken away from her twice already, so it goes smooth even if she’s ass naked when she gets up to get the door. Shit though, it ain’t nothing we haven’t seen before. #8, no one’s there. No Antonio, no nothing. You snooze, you lose, fucker. That’s what Chop says. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

In the doorway of #7, there’s a new fresa, not Amalia anymore, and this one, she don’t know how things go. She wants me to break it down. She’s got them hungry kind of eyes like street dogs have. But I ain’t breaking down shit.

“You have a real nice day,” I say and we’re turning and leaving.

That’s what Chop says to say. Never tell a first-timer you got shit and never sell to somebody that just moved in. You don’t fucking know them. They could be anybody. Could be a cop but ain’t nobody running undercovers in a shitty hotel for some ounces. Could be out to get you though. Give them a few weeks. Watch them. See how they go, then figure out if it’s worth it or not. That’s the playbook.

But this one? She don’t want to play by it.

She starts screaming, “You better gimme some!”

Bread turns on her quick and snaps his blade out. When that sound hits the air, man, you can tell by her eyes how she been cut before. She goes stiff, quiet, ‘cuz she knows what knives are about. She knows what they do. How they feel. And she shuts the fuck up.

“We’ll see you when we see you,” he says. “If you’re still around.”

I see faces pressing themselves to windows as we turn and walk away. We’re gonna head to #14, but I see something real familiar parked in front of #3.

A truck, a big blue one with silver bumpers.

“Uh,” I say, and it feels like I got a bee stinging me inside my stomach. “Ain’t that Jaime’s truck?”

We both freeze. Bread gets a smile going on his face.

“Yup,” he says. “It fucking is.”

We definitely didn’t see that before when we were walking around, so why the fuck didn’t Slighty say something if he was on lookouts? Man, I’m pissed. Nubs and Curly can see it on my face and tell how something’s wrong, so they come over but it’s too late to stop Bread, he’s already walking right to it, pulling his favorite knife back out.

I tell Curly and Nubs to grab Slighty and go tell the Twins to page Chop and when he calls, tell him Jaime is here. They run.

Bread’s not even playing when he carves PUTO real big into the blue paint right above the driver’s door handle so you can’t miss it. The angles are hard on it. The head of the P is a pointy triangle, the U looks like a V, the T is a T, and the O looks like a skinny diamond. So, yeah, there’s stress between Bread and Jaime. They bumped into each other one day when Bread was taking something to #8, and there’s this old man without a shirt on staring at him like he owns the place but he ain’t about shit, so Bread squares him up even though he’s short and this kid’s cockiness must’ve been too much for the old man to take. He hit Bread square in the mouth with a big old fist. And you know Bread’s not about to take that, so he’s got his knife out and was going for the gut but finding the wrist instead, the wrist meant to block the blade from coming in. It caught good too. Got stuck in and went through. So that’s when Bread let go of the handle and just jetted.

After that, we had to do some work and figure out what the dude’s name was, what he was doing here. Jaime, we got told. He lived down in the Port, working tugboats sometimes. He was at The Island fucking the puta calling herself Campanita but her real name’s Sheryl.

We ain’t heard about Jaime since then. But we knew he was out there, fixing to come back on Bread at some point, coming for his revenge.

Bread runs a finger over his work, proud of his letters. “I’m gonna shoot this motherfucker. You watch.”

And he will too, knowing Bread.

It’s today or it’s tomorrow, but that bullet’s coming for sure.


At first I think we’re walking back to #14, regroup with the homies and get that gun, figure out what the best way to go about this is, but Bread’s already walking straight for #3 to go and see if Jaime’s in there, maybe even trying to interrupt him getting busy. And that shit? That’s got my heart beating fast as I’m sliding in behind him, feeling the blood moving in me and wishing I had a knife or something, anything, when Bread bangs on that door.

It opens too fast. Not even one whole second and it’s open.

And there’s Sheryl, showing us one eye behind it, blocking the view of the inside. She’s all good or all bad, her. Never nothing in the middle. She’s still got that blonde thing going in her hair, but it’s almost gone. Her roots are coming in dark as she was born with. Gordy helped her dye that shit the first time. They’re homies, the two of them. He’s the one that likes calling her by Campanita.

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“Oh,” she says, “he told me I might be seeing you.”

Sheryl’s got this flash in her eye, this bright scary thing. You can’t put her light out, that’s what people say. She’s always on. 2 am, 5 am? Don’t matter.

Bread puffs his chest up. “He who?”

She don’t need to say who. We know who.

But that means, I’m thinking, he ain’t here. Relief kind of smacks into me, knowing it’s not about to go down—not yet, anyways.

Bread looks confused for a second, but then he pushes the door open and she has to fall back. “Where the fuck’s he at?”

We’re in the room now. Her sad ass, smelling like donkey dick with six different empty cups she never threw out from Tam’s, from King Taco, from El Infierno room. Her closet door off its rails, clothes spilling out of it room. Her TV on KCOP Channel 13 playing Death Wish 2 as Bronson’s jumping off the bus to chase some bad guys room. And she’s standing in the middle of it with her shoulders back. Her in a shirt with no bra. Her with a black eye swelling up and a long scratch down her arm.

She says, “You a bunch of silly-ass motherfuckers coming round here with a knife thinking you can take on a man.”

Bread sneers that sneer again, and it twitches on his lip. “Cut him last time, didn’t I?”

It’s Sheryl’s turn to sneer back, and she does it good too.

“I guess you don’t know then.” She’s holding her arm where the scratch is. “He had to lose that hand. Tried fixing it up himself, and it looked okay for a while, but then it got that gangrene shit to it, so they sawed it off him at Saint Francis.”

“Good,” Bread says. “He had that shit coming.”

Maybe he did too. Everybody knows Jaime stabbed his old homie Lights, this tall motherfucker, in the little room where they got the soda machine at the Flamingo. Dude just left him there, bleeding, while he was still smoking his cigar. We lived in #10 over there. And I seen for myself how Lights struggled out into the parking lot, how there was a cop murder tent up that night to keep the rain off him.

“Everybody’s been calling him Gancho now, for that hook he got fitted with.”

Gancho. The name sticks to my ear. Already it’s giving me a bad feeling, like, if it was that bad, he did some planning on how to get back on us. Maybe he watched us too. Maybe he picked his time just right to come at us.

Bread laughs, proud of himself. “He got a hook now? Damn, that shit’s crazy.”

I’m digging in my pocket though, finding what I needed and then holding out the shit I was gonna sell to #7 if Amalia was still there. It’s an offer for Sheryl. A bribe. I’ll figure out how to make it up to Chop later if we even get through this.

“Is Jukes with him?” I need to know that.

Already I’m having trouble thinking of him as Jaime anymore. I’m thinking he’s Gancho now. I’m thinking how Bread changed him, made him worse. And Gancho rolls with this dude Jukes sometimes. Tats everywhere on him. His eyebrows, down his face. Tops of his hands. Every single one saying how he don’t give a fuck about nobody. 

She’s not looking at me. She’s looking at the baggie. “Not here he wasn’t.”

I’m already afraid for the answer cuz I got this sick feeling all over but I got to ask it. “Where’s that fucker now?”

“He’s at your spot,” she’s smiling as she says it. “Number fourteen, silly-ass motherfuckers.”

My whole mouth must drop open cuz Sheryl just laughs at me. Sharp and nasty. But I don’t care about her anymore.

I’m looking at Bread, how his eyes are all lit up with a kind of anger I ain’t never seen on him before. It’s flashing, showing a thousand things at once, how he’s mad at himself, mad at her, mad at the world for being so stupid and fucked up. Mad at everything.

I act like I’m about to throw the drugs at her feet, but I don’t. ‘Cuz fuck her.

We bounce with her screaming mad behind us. But she ain’t about to chase. She’s not that stupid.

Me and Bread, we don’t even talk. We go straight to the phone in the manager’s office and page Chop. Manager Man don’t say shit to us when I pick it up and start dialing. Twice I put #14 in there, and then some 911. So he knows it’s real.

I do it one more time and then we go.


In the office, Bread needs me to tell him exactly where the gun is, how it’s under the Raiders shirt, the one that says Masters of Monday Night that we all fight over. He knows the one. Nubs wore it last and got gum stuck to it somehow. And where was it exactly in the box? Under two bits of wrap we rolled back up when we were done mummying.

He says, “Right side?”

“Dunno,” I say. “I think so.”

“You better fucking know so.”

I picture it in my head. How I closed the box, latched it up, moved some clothes out of the way to set it in.

“Left side,” I say.

“You sure?”

“I said ‘left side.’”

“Okay then. Handle to the edge or barrel to the edge?”

I got to think about that. “Barrel is pointing in toward the middle of the box, so handle to the edge.”

“Okay then,” Bread says. “We ain’t about to wait for Chop.”

He pushes the door open a little wider, picks up the brick doorstopping it, and goes. He’s expecting me to follow, so I do.

I don’t ask why or what about, I just go.

In the parking lot, Bread sees what he’s looking for, a brand-new Caprice Classic in deep purple that he knows belongs to Amalia and Sheryl’s mayate pimp, Damarian. He knows it ‘cuz it has a car alarm to it, and we were out playing pirates and gangsters in the lot the other day, Slighty smashed into the side mirror and the whole thing started beeping like crazy.

That’s what this is about. Find something loud. Set it the fuck off.

We’re lucky too. It’s parked near the office. In the very first space.

“I’m gonna huck this shit,” Bread moves the brick from hand to hand as he talks me through it, “and then we get low, go for the room. When we get there, you bang on the door. Act like you’re just looking for the homeboys. Be loud as fuck. He’s prolly gonna grab you.”

I’m punching my fears down already, trying to get hyped up. Fear is fear but that shit don’t own me.

I say, “Then what do you do?”

“I dunno,” he says as he shrugs and then laughs a crazy-ass laugh. “Get in somehow.”

Right after that, he lifts the brick up high over his head and slams it down on the side mirror on the driver’s side. The whole thing doesn’t come off though. The arm stays stuck to the car, but the round part comes off and the glass in the mirror crunches and goes to shiny-ass dust on the ground.

The alarm screams then, like we just wounded that fucking car.

Shit is loud. Almost fire truck loud.

A door opens nearby quick. I don’t know which one it is.

But I hear Damarian shouting, like, “Oh, what the fuck you little motherfuckers do? You think you can fucking step to my ride?”

But he don’t see us ‘cuz we’re already going, crawling to #14 while it’s still popping off, staying below the windows. Pebbles and sharp-ass rocks stick in to our hands, dig in.

“Fuck that motherfucker,” Bread whispers back to me. “Chop will fix his ass.”

We dodge glass bits from bottles and a busted needle and all kinds of bullshit on our fours. Bread’s focused in like a wolf, but I’m praying Gancho’s thinking about that car alarm instead, that he ain’t looking out at us, waiting for us to come close enough to snatch. I’m praying we’re low enough to get away with sneaking up this way.

At the door, I pop up and stand right in front of it. Bread’s down next to me, by my knees. Under the window. His knife’s out. He ain’t looking at me. He’s just breathing heavy. Psyching himself the fuck up.

So I go.

I bang, scream, go crazy. All at once.

I say crazy-ass shit too, just whatever comes to my mouth, like, “Yo, my mom’s in there with some bloody vomit! She in there! C’mon, Mom! Fuck! Shit! Ass! This ain’t it for you, I swear!” The car alarm stops. Somebody shouts behind me.


It’s Damarian. He heard me yelling and now he thinks I’m the one busted his car up. But I don’t even need to turn. The door to #14 opens right then, and I see Gancho’s face. I feel it too. The hate in it. The anger. I feel that right in my middle.

‘Cuz I know that look. Pupils wide as fuck. He high right now. The bad kind.

And under his face.

Is a knife.

With some drippy-ass blood on it.

And I’m freezing up.

And he’s grabbing for me with a motherfucking hookity hook.

6 Hook 960 sm


The metal end of it scrapes the shit out of my shoulder as he rips me forward into the room, tearing through my shirt, opening some blood up. He’s trying to slam the door but I’m going all hero and wedging my foot in it.

Past Gancho’s shoulder, I see the Twins up in a back corner, behind Slighty, who’s blocking them with his body. I don’t see Nubs. Don’t see no Curly. Not right off.

“You little fuckers,” Gancho says. Over and over.

He shoves me off-balance and I go backwards hard, smacking my head against the window, but I kick my leg out so he can’t slam the door.

He don’t.

Instead, the door slams on my leg above my ankle.

And something snaps inside me. And I’d scream but I lost all my breath.

Hot pain’s coming up under my knee though. So hot it’s numbing up.

But that ain’t what matters. What matters is I kept the door open.

‘Cuz when that door comes back towards Gancho on the rebound is when Bread comes in crouching, shoving hard, smashing Gancho in the face and busting that nose up, blooding him quick.

That’s when Damarian pops up ten feet from the door with no shirt on, walking towards this crazy-ass fight, words already coming out of his mouth. “I said hey, motherfu—!”

But he stops when he sees us ‘cuz every mad thing he’s gonna say about some stupid-ass car don’t mean shit to me on the floor broken and Gancho stumbling back and Bread bringing his knife up and then Damarian’s saying, “I ain’t seen shit, man,” and he’s bouncing the fuck out quick.

Right then is when Bread’s knife goes in, and I hear it go in and come out like with meat. And there’s drips after. A grip of them.

Gancho’s wheezing and coughing some blood up too.

And he turns away right as Nubs runs right at him and smacks into him, hitting him into the wall and back toward Bread.

Gancho loses his balances and steps forward to kind of steady himself but Bread’s right there with the knife again, swinging wild at his arms, his stomach, and trying to protect himself is when Gancho slips where he’s standing and goes hard to the floor, falling forward in some slow motion like a cut kind of flower.

And then I see what he slipped in.

And it’s a dark puddle. One Curly made. My homeboy’s wheezing in it too. Quick little breaths. Sharp. Shallow. Hard.

He’s fucking dead, I’m thinking.

That bald-ass head of his. Bald as a fucking egg. Blood coming out one ear. He’s done. That’s it for him.

He must’ve fought Gancho when he first came through the door. Or when the alarm went off. It don’t matter when. What matters is he got cut for trying.

He ain’t gonna grow up and be a little business dude like he always said he’d be. Suit and tie. Fly shoes. His own bed. His own phone. Eating restaurant food every night and not even finishing it. Just leaving it. ‘Cuz he can.

Not three feet away, Gancho’s fighting hard on the floor, like he don’t even notice. He’s like an animal. And he’s got no knife now. It got away from him, kicked to the closet door. His hook’s off too and Slighty’s at him with it, smashing it against his face, his chest. The twins are on his legs, getting kicked off, getting back on again. Nubs’s snatching punches at him wherever he can. Throat. Stomach. Ears.

And Bread . . .

Bread’s coming out of the bathroom with the gat in his hand, pointing the bad end down towards the floor.

And Nubs sees him coming and stands up, backs off. Slighty too.

But the Twins stay put as Bread walks up on Gancho and pulls the trigger.

And nothing happens.

I say, “Throw that safe down!”

And Bread looks at it, turns it in front of his face and clicks it down right as Gancho’s getting up and then bang.

Bread puts a little red spot on the chest of Gancho’s dirty white t-shirt. A dime size. But that don’t even faze him.

So then there’s another bang, another dime on his stomach. Red too. And this has Gancho stumbling, and he’s about to get it in the head as Bread gets close but that’s when he pulls this last crazy-ass move, just screaming and shaking the Twins off.

And jumping up. And running for the door I’m trying to close but I can’t cuz I can’t move and then he’s stepping on me as he goes over and through. So hard on my stomach that I scream and try to ball up but try to grab him too.

And I do. I hold him.

And he’s shaking. Kicking me.

And Bread points and bangs and misses as he’s going through the door. Puts a bullet through the window. Shaking some blinds.

And I let go when the glass comes down. From reflex.

And Gancho’s got two red quarters on his back from where the bullets popped out the other side. Bang. And he gets another red dime in his shoulder as he goes out through the door. Past me.

And how Gancho’s running with three bullets on him, I dunno, but fear can do that to you. Fear and drugs and pain. That shit makes you bounce like you never bounced.

And he’s bouncing.

And we see his body disappear from the doorway as he goes right.

I believe it, and can’t fucking believe it at the same time.

All we see is parking lot through that open door he left, and one car, and the other side of the building facing us, and Gordy standing at his own door, moving his face from us to watching Gancho go, and then we hear the best thing we ever heard in the history of our fucking lives.

Chop’s voice. Chop’s voice saying, “Oh, nuh unh, fool.”

And the only dude those words could ever fucking be for is Gancho.

The first bang’s like a M80 firecracker going off ten feet from our ears.

It’s gotta be Chop’s gun. The silver .44 we always heard about. Not the type to put quarters and dimes on you, but the type to take parts of you away with it.

Gordy’s eyes get big as fuck seeing whatever he’s seeing, and he rushes a hand over his mouth and goes right back in his spot. His door shuts quick too.

The second bang is for avenging Curly, who’s right next to me, who ain’t fucking breathing anymore. And I hate that. So the sound is good. Damn good.

After, it’s normal sounds of cars way out on Long Beach, putting gas down, speeding up.

In here, it’s crying. Sniffles. Shit, we can’t even stop. Slighty’s stuffing a fist under his nose, staring at the floor where Curly’s blood is at. The Twins throw mummy wraps on Nubs where he got cut on his arm somehow. Bread’s just standing there, tall, the same, smiling with his tiny-ass teeth.

And Chop’s footsteps are coming up towards the door, towards us.

We already know what he’s about to say.

That we have to go.

That we leaving The Island.

For good.

Now. ×

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Safe book cover


MCD × FSG, 2017

Ryan Gattis' gritty, fast-paced thriller, Safe, hurtles readers toward a shocking conclusion that asks the toughest question of all: how far would you go to protect the ones you love?

Ricky ‘Ghost’ Mendoza, Jr. is trying to be good. In recovery and working as a freelance safecracker for the DEA, the FBI, and any other government agency willing to pay him, Ghost is determined to live clean for the rest of his days. And maybe he could, if the most important person in his life hadn’t gotten into...

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