They do Greek myths at Edmondson High this year. Mr. Peaby, grade nine English, white button-up rolled up to the elbow and brown pants with creases so sharp he must do ‘em with a ruler, pace at the front of the room like he always do. He ain’t got to talk loud to be heard, not in this room. Them corner boys ain’t here to shake up the class just to prove they hard. Peaby throw the troublemakers out first week of school, get them sent to Remedial Reading instead, and even Principal Brown ain’t changed his mind about that. Man got guts. Omar got to admire him for that.
“What do we know about Zeus?” Peaby ask now, and ain’t just a few hands fly up. Maybe they ain’t but white folks from ancient times, but this Greek stuff ring true in Baltimore. Folk here live they lives street level, and these gods, they got a lot of street in them too.
“He the king of the gods,” say Devondre, and “He throw them lightnin’ bolts,” say Tiana, and “He had a lot of girlfriends and a lot of children,” say Jemaine. “Half the gods were his kids, and I guess he had affairs with the other half. With a lot of humans, too. He was married to Hera, but he could never be faithful to her.”
Jemaine, he a light-skinned boy. Ghosty, they call him. He don’t talk much outside of class, ain’t got many friends, but in this room that voice of his is quiet and sure. Omar been noticing him for a while now. Ain’t never said a word to him, but watch him all the same.
“Good,” say Peaby. “Very good, Mr. Dawes. We’ve read about the consequences of some of Zeus’s affairs. Many of the characters in the myths we’ve read were his children. Aphrodite. Athena. Apollo and Artemis. Hermes. Persephone. And so on.” He wave his hand round and round like he ain’t got the time to keep listing them off. “Now, if Zeus was married to Hera, who was one mighty jealous lady at times, why did he keep messing around on her right to her face? Mr. Little, do you have any thoughts to share with the class?”
Omar look up from his notebook. His hand ain’t up, but he know the answer. Ain’t hard to figure. “He the king,” he say, and all the heads round him nodding, agreeing. How it is on the street ain’t changed since Zeus, probably ain’t changed since before him neither. Everybody know any big man take what he want, ain’t nobody small that can stand in his way. “Ain’t nobody got the nerve to come at the king ‘less he be prepared to fight. Ain’t nobody to get up in Zeus face if he want to bag all the babes he like. Just the way it is, Mr. P.”
“For real,” say De’Londa. “Nobody gon’ say no to the king, Mr. P.” She looking right at Omar with a lipgloss smile and a sway from her high-up hair.
Omar look back at her long and blank, till De’Londa drop her eyes and look away, and then he watch Jemaine again. Boy ain’t looking. Boy don’t look till Mr. Peaby tell the class to pair up for they research projects, and Omar pull his desk up alongside Jemaine. De’Londa ain’t got the chance to come up by him like she clearly want, and the light-skinned boy ain’t got the chance to move away.
He got light eyes, ain’t deep brown like the most the folk Omar seen. They get wide when Omar come up, and he shrink back like he scared. Peaby stop alongside them and rest a hand on Jemaine shoulder, putting a hard look on Omar. “Are you all right working with Mr. Little, Jemaine?” he say, all quiet under the noise of the class scuffling around. “Would you rather partner with Patrice?”
They eyes lock together, dark and light, and Omar know then that he was wrong. Jemaine ain’t scared, not like he thought. He just cautious. Smart boy. “It’s fine,” Jemaine say after a minute, and turn his eyes up to the teacher. “We’ll work together. I don’t mind.”
Boy always talk educated like that, sound smarter than most the teachers here most days. The crew from the rises say he talking white, and Omar seen them jump him for that out on the street, but Jemaine ain’t never played dumb. Skinny little thing he is, he still got a lot of heart in him. Lot of strength, all quiet like. Omar got respect for that.
“Fine,” Peaby say after a minute just looking at Jemaine. “Tell me when you’ve picked your topic.” And he move on.
“I’m not going to do your half of the work for you,” Jemaine say then, looking right at Omar. Naw, boy ain't afraid. “If that’s what you’re thinking.”
Omar sit back in his desk, fold his arms, and just look right back till Jemaine cheeks blush pink. He ain’t never seen a boy light enough to blush like he white, and it give him a feeling like he want to keep Jemaine close by his side, keep them corner boys from roughing on him. “Naw, man, it ain’t about that,” he say then, low. “Just need a partner is all. Got an idea we can do.” That ain’t the truth, but it ain’t like he can come out and say I been watching you, think I like you, think I want to be close to you, boy.
Jemaine don’t look too sure, but he nod. “What is it, then?” he ask, and he pick up his pencil, ready to write.
“You heard of this boy here?” Omar turn his book around, point one dark finger at the page at random. Picture got a big man wrestling down a lion. His name right there on the page, Her-ackles he say in his mind, but Omar ain’t too sure that how you pronounce it. He ain’t ashamed to say it wrong in front the class, but in front Jemaine, he shy of looking dumb. Ain’t something he’s use to. Omar Little never been shy.
The boy take a look, and he tilt his head up at Omar. “Heracles?” he say, and he smile. His teeth crooked, so that smile look like a raggedy fence. Ain’t no less pretty for all that. “Of course I’ve heard of him. Maybe you know his other name. Hercules. The strong man, you know?” Omar shake his head. It don’t sound familiar. Jemaine shrug and write down the name. “Okay. Heracles it is.” He get up to go to Mr. P’s desk, and Omar watch his back and his legs all the way there.
Jemaine always reading. Ain’t no book in the world don’t interest that boy. They in the second half of grade nine now, almost the end of the school year, and he ain’t in class with Omar and the rest anymore. He go to the advanced high school program, study independent, read anything and everything. He going to college for sure. He got that dream and he holding it tight.
“You could go to college, too,” he tell Omar one day. They sitting at Omar’s grandma good front table, got books spread out all over. They got a system now, even if they ain’t taking the same classes. Omar help Jemaine with math, and Jemaine help him with English. “You’re smart. You’re a good student. And it would be a chance to get away from all of this.”
Omar ain’t looking at the books. More and more, he just look at Jemaine. He watching him now, and he shrug. “Yo, why you so sure that a good thing, gettin’ away?”
Jemaine just give him a look like it ain’t even a question. “Do you ever look around at everyone in this town?” he ask. “I mean, really look?”
“I surely do,” he answer low, and he don’t take his eyes off Jemaine while he say it.
Boy don’t notice, he so intent on saying what he got to say. “So in five years, almost all of our class will be just like everyone out there on the corners if they aren’t already. Selling or buying. That’ll be their life. Or they’ll be in the Cut, or dead. And the other ones that step out of all that will be living day to day, just scraping by and hoping they don’t walk into the middle of some war and come home in a casket.” He shake his head, and those light eyes fix hard on Omar. “You want your life to be like that, Omar Little?”
Omar press one finger to his lip in thought. “Don’t guess I do,” he say after one long minute. He ain’t considered it being any other way, truly. He in the game. Ain’t no way out. Except when Jemaine look at him he want to believe in getting free. He want to believe he got more to do with his life.
“Then what do you want?” Jemaine look all serious at him, those light eyes all bright, and Omar let his eyes fall down over the boy. Skinny, but strong underneath, and Omar ain’t denying he look good enough to eat. What do he want? He know the answer to that, but it ain’t something you can say out loud. Not here. Not in this time, not in this town.
He don’t answer, not in words. He stand and run his hand across the tight braids he wear on his head, and then he bend down and kiss Jemaine lips. He kiss those skinny pale lips and he close his eyes.
Ain’t a long kiss, and ain’t a great kiss since ain’t neither one of ‘em got no practice, but Jemaine take his point sure enough. When Omar open his eyes again, that boy all flushed up like a police light, and he breathe fast and hard through his mouth like he just got shot, but he smiling all the same.
“That,” say Omar while he watch that smile. “That what I want.”
What they got ain’t perfect. It ain’t love, ain’t even dating, ain’t anything so stable. But it got something real in it, something deep and true, and when Omar pull in Jemaine head against his shoulder and play his fingers in that curly hair, he can feel it way down in his heart.
They make it to grade eleven, and Omar on a straight path. Jemaine look at him with all this confidence, like he can make it, like he can do it all right. He gon’ graduate, gon’ maybe even go to college, and when his fool brother Anthony get himself locked up for ripping from a jeweler, Omar know that ain’t gon’ be him.
Until one day everything change again.
“Yo, faggot,” Omar hear as he step out the school door that spring day to meet his boy, and his fingers go cold, even if his face don’t show it and his step don’t falter. Ain’t nobody called them out in all of two years since they start this. They careful, don’t talk much at school, don’t act different. Nobody calling out Omar. He too hard for that. But this place ain't never been kind to smart boys like Jemaine.
The corner boy, name of Marquis but everybody call him Bird, he young. Younger than Jemaine, but he bigger, and he got him by the back of his school shirt collar, and he holding tight. “Talkin’ to you, faggot,” Bird say, and even from a distance Omar see Jemaine flinch. He ain’t got a piece, ain’t fool enough to carry anyplace near the school, but he make a fist and imagine his fingers wrapping round that .45. That imagining steady him some, but it ain’t enough, specially when Bird got hold of Jemaine like that. Got hold of his boy. He start moving, long steps, quick, but then he see Jemaine wide eyes looking over at him. Jemaine shake his head, and Omar stop right where he is.
The whole front sidewalk all quiet, everybody watching. De’Londa slide up next to Omar with her baby boy on her hip, put her sharp-nailed hand on his arm, pinch tight. “Fag gon’ get it like a bitch,” she say, and her voice low and all satisfied.
And maybe he would, if Mr. P don’t come out at the right minute when Jemaine curled up on the ground but ain't beat yet, before too many punches fall, before Jemaine pale skin collect all the bruises Bird promising. He break up the crowd, send Bird in to the principal, take Jemaine in for the nurse. Omar do nothing but watch, with his stomach cold and his hands painful tight in fists. He beat Bird later for using Anthony name wrong, to make Bird respect, but it don’t do one thing to make this all better.
Because Omar in the game just as much as that Bird, and ain’t no way he getting out. Ain’t no use for dreams, a life like the one he got.
Next time he see Jemaine, it ain’t the right time to say a thing about ‘sorry’ or ‘should’ve done more’. Jemaine leaving. Ain’t leaving Baltimore, but leaving Edmondson High, gon’ do his studies at home till he graduate. “I’m still going to see you,” he tell Omar, he promise him that. But Omar say nothing back. Everything gon’ change, and that mean them hopes Jemaine start giving him, they gon’ go nowhere fast.
Day before Jemaine leave for college in Boston, he come to Omar’s grandma house with a book. “It’s a present,” he tell Omar, them skinny lips all curved up in a smile. “A graduation present in advance, because I know you’re going to graduate. Come on. I want to read you this story. I think you’ll like it.”
Omar lie on his bed, staring up at the crack in the ceiling, while Jemaine tell him about Zeus again. Zeus, that player god king, the one that mess around all the girls and ain’t nobody got the guts to call him out for it. But this time Jemaine tell him about Ganymede, this prince so handsome it hurt to look at him, and how Zeus fall in love with him and take him up to the mountain.
“Naw,” Omar say when he hear that, and he sit up and look hard at Jemaine. “Ain’t like that. Even a king ain’t allowed to go rollin’ no boys. Not all out and open like that. You tellin’ tales now, baby boy.”
Jemaine just grin and move in to kiss him, slow and sweet. “You said it, that day in class,” he tell him. “Remember? I remember. You said, ‘Nobody has the nerve to challenge the king.’” Omar shake his head, but he hold onto Jemaine tight. Ain’t about to let go, not till the minute he has to. “You said it,” Jemaine say again in his ear. “You were right. Nobody comes at the king, and he can do anything he wants. Just...” He rub his thumb over the bump of one of Omar’s braids, holding to the touch like he know he ain’t gon’ feel it again. “That’s what I want you to remember, Omar Little.”
Ten years on, when all the corner boys know his name and when the lookout calling “Omar comin’” send them all running, Omar do remember. He rule those Westside streets. He Zeus, he a god, he the king, just for this moment. He be who he be, and ain’t nobody come at him. That, maybe, that what they call success. Maybe it ain't everything he could be, but it what he got, and he got to be easy with that.