No question left about it ... I had to get a tattoo. As my guide and I sauntered into a room brimming with guys who wore ink on their arms as proudly as the jocks at Austin High wore a tan, my mind played with the possibilities of what design to settle on.
Walking through that room gave me plenty of ideas. The styles of tats represented were as diverse as their owners.
A muscled African-American guy with a tiger head on his upper arm. A skinny Oriental kid with a bloody-fanged wolf on his wrist. A blond Caucasian with a killer football player build and a winding anaconda rippling over his biceps and curling around his neck.
“So what I tell you, bro?” Ricardo, my self-appointed tour guide, tapped my shoulder with the back of his hand. “Is ‘dis worth leaving school for or what?” Nicknamed “Ricky” by his homies, Ricardo was known for his pride in Latino heritage and his disdain for the educational system.
My eyes roamed the thickly carpeted room. Leather sofas framed nearly every wall. Coolers of soft drinks were readily accessible. A beat from Eminem was pulsing through a pair of five foot speakers, coursing through my body, accentuating my heartbeat.
I nodded my head in sync with the song’s rhythm and gave Ricky a sly grin. “It sure beats a stuffy classroom and hard wooden seats.”
Ricardo laughed and tossed me a can from a nearby cooler. “Here you go, bro. You deserve one of these.”
One glance at the label told me it wasn’t a Pepsi. I hesitated. “But I’m not ...”
“Old enough? That does no matter here, bro. Most of these guys are underage.” He swung his arms to indicate a majority of the room. “They drink as much Bud Light as Mountain Dew.” He laughed again and delivered a friendly punch to my arm. The can of Budweiser swished lightly. “I go drop it to the boss now. Tell ‘im we got a new recruit for the gang.” He pointed a ring-laden finger at me as he left. “You be cool ‘till I get back.”
Holding tight to the icy can, I watched Ricky snake his way past several guys and vanish through a doorway. Condensation was beading over the can like dozens of dewdrops, dripping from my fingers like rain. I wondered if it was mingled with sweat from my palm.
With my chest keeping pace with the pounding drumbeat, I moved to peel back the tab.
“Hey, could I see that for a minute?” A guy I hadn’t noticed before stood up from the couch he was occupying. His arms were bare of tattoos.
Before I could decide what he wanted with it, the curly-haired stranger had the unopened drink out of my hand and tossed nonchalantly into the nearest cooler.
“Hey!” I felt the blood burning its way to my head. “What ...”
“This is better. Trust me.” He placed a Mountain Dew in my still-open hand.
“What if I wanna drink the other?” My eyes were lasers, daring him.
“You don’t need it.” His gaze was unafraid, but soft somehow. “You shouldn’t even be here. You’ll find all the friendship you need in high school.”
I chuckled and shook my head in disbelief. “Thanks, but nobody elected you as my older brother.”
“What’s your name?” His unfazed question knocked me off my axis.
“What grade are you in, Derrick?”
“Eleventh,” I eyed him warily, “Why?”
“Seems like somebody so close to graduating should stick it out. Get a job or go to college instead of ending up here.”
“Yeah?” I studied him, guessing him to be several years older than me. “So what’d you do? Get kicked outta college?”
For the first time, the stranger looked down. “Close.” He slipped his thumbs into his jean pockets and looked back at me. “I was in my first year before I joined up here. Thought I could use it as an opportunity to scrounge up some fast tuition money. Ya know, be debt free. No student loans.” He rubbed his neck. “Turns out we robbed a gas station where a fellow student of mine worked. I can’t go back now.”
A hand touched my shoulder. Ricardo was back. “Boss wants to see you.”
As I moved to follow my friend toward the door I felt another hand.
“You have a choice, Derrick.” The tattoo-free arm dropped to its owner’s side. “You can choose to walk away.”
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