The Treetops all stayed silent as the train pulled into the Grayson Street station, where they had planned to disembark. As the train slowed to a stop, the metallic click of its trucks colliding with the track sounded like gunshots to some, and they all had flashes of the bloody dawn this evening could bring. Would the morning sun fall on a field peppered with bodies, or discarded weapons? Would the summit be symbolized by a fully felt handshake, or a knife in the stomach? Nothing makes you dread things going wrong more than considering what could be if things went right.
Big D was chuffed, or full of a bubbly, exorbitant cheer. His head bobbed and his grin widened. He stretched his lips as tight as he could, imagining his cheeks caught by fishhooks. This was a habit of his, and he performed it whether or not he was undergoing any emotional strain, but this time he felt as though his blood were on fire.
The Treetops, D felt, mostly regarded him as a bit of a patsy. He was without a doubt invaluable in a fight, and not one to be shook by the introduction of police sirens, but he was unlikely to be included in any planning or debate. Though he was not really as dumb as many of his cohorts considered him, he thought it was valuable to play the doofus, for comic relief and overall group togetherness. On this day however, though Simon had opened the door for a session of “Big D is stupider than. . .”, no one seemed to be in the mood. A pallid silence lay like a body over The Treetops.
Max would just as well have stayed on the train, he didn’t want to attend the speech; he didn’t want to see such a beautiful dream melt. It was spelled out in his mind’s eye, the headline splattered in blood on the asphalt: “NORWOOD PARK MASSACRE, FULL STORY ON PAGE 13.” It would be the lead story, he imagined, for at least one day.
He grinned, as he could predict what Simon might say if he shared with him his vision of a nightmare headline: “No way we’d make it above the fold, a Norwood Park massacre would be on page 2 of the metro section, no doubt.” Simon would grin while Max’s face drooped, knowing the truth of these words, and that nothing would matter anyway.
They all would be forgotten, Art knew, in the grand scheme of things. Though legends and memorials did exist in the gangster world, the world they occupied, he didn’t take them seriously. Everything was legend in the gangster world; vague, confusing, preposterous legend. Did the founders of Hi Rize, which held a tenuous truce with War Helmet, the Gents, and the Rosies over the entire Southern half of the city, really all spend their entire childhoods on the 68th floor of the Spencer-Hasting’s homes Southwestern Campus? No, of course not, but that’s what everyone said.
Art was the Treetops’ official historian, but it was mostly because he had the best imagination, and he could describe the most interesting ways for things to have happened. Little Bit, the firebrand of a dwarf who’d recently become one of The Treetops biggest earners, had been killed accidentally by a civilian minivan three weeks previous, but thanks to Art, the Treetops rank and file believed the pigs had murdered him on purpose.
Only Art, Max and Simon knew the truth about Little Bit, as well as a host of other truths they held in the strictest confidence, and this served best to make them all wary. They knew that underneath the sectarian posturing and greedy logistics of what it was to be a gangster, every heart beat the same, and all were prone to stupid wanton wrath. So far, Max had been the only one to give his concerns public voice, but he was far from the only Treetop concerned.
Simon was scared just like Max, but he told himself he wasn’t. Smiling wide, he hopped the turnstile on his way to the exit stairs, turning his body sideways and rolling over the top of it. On the other side, he landed on his heels facing Art. “Do you feel the air? It’s electric.”
“Shut up,” Art pushed past Simon, rolling his eyes.
“Let’s put our war faces on,” Max bellowed as bellicose as he could, acting the leader again. He jogged a few yards ahead of the others, turning in his last steps to look the Treetops in the eyes. “This isn’t a fucking joke. We gotta realize, um, this is dangerous. This isn’t a thing we’re just gonna walk away from, um, unchanged, I mean, this is gonna change everything.”
Simon could tell that Max wanted silence, and he obliged at least for the moment. His pure human instinct was to push back and show Max that authority in any form was a stupid dream, but it was easy to see Max floundering, and Simon wasn’t cruel or vindictive. What mattered most to Simon was freedom, and he believed that whatever the cost, all people should be free all the time. He realized however that open rebellion would not help at the moment, so he let Max say his piece.
Max’s voice was sober. “I see them say in movies to keep your head on a swivel, and I think that describes it well. Just be aware. Don’t get snuck up on.”
After a pause, Simon interjected again, sputtering with laughter. “Everybody heard Max, stay frosty and don’t get captured.”
Max laughed, looking at the ground, “Fuck you Simon.”
“If you are captured the agency will disavow—“
Max grabbed a fistful of Simon’s hair and pulled down. “Shut up,” Max hissed into Simon’s ear, in no mood for nonsense.
Simon relented, lowering his head and raising his hand in the air as a sign of conciliation. “Sorry man, just keeping’ everyone’s spirits up.”
“Whatever man,” Max responded, humorless and dry. “Just fucking watch yourself, right?” With his mouth open and his hands apart, slowly shaking his head, Simon returned the offense Max had given him.
“Ladies, please,” Art interjected from behind Max and Simon, “Pull out your tampons, man, we’re all friends.” Roly and Big D started guffawing and slapping their thighs, saying “oh shit” under their breath while laughing.
Standing near the turnstiles of the Grayson Street station, The Treetops stared into each other’s faces and forced laughter as best they could. They were all scared, but they couldn’t let it show, especially to themselves.
Chuckling and glad-handing, the Treetops struck out on to the sidewalk, claiming the staircase leading up into the station as their own. Max, Art and Simon sat on the bottom stair, watching Big D and Roly jut out to look for Mason, whom they’d known since they were little, and who was meant to be the Treetops’ guide.
Mason was head of a mid-sized city gang, the Heaters, and he’d proposed squiring the Treetops to the summit. At first, this had made Max and Simon nervous, they didn’t trust Mason. “Why do we need a guide?” Simon had asked aggressively, furrowing his brow.
“We don’t need a guide,” Roly submitted aggressively. “But me and D grew up with Mason, we know him, he gives us an in, we won’t have to prove ourselves.”
“Maybe I wanna prove myself,” said Simon, staring out the window at a fixed point.
They both looked at Max, indicating that he would break the tie. Opening his mouth, keeping silent, Max considered the problem, what should they do?
Before Max could come up with an answer, Art, who normally stayed silent as decisions were being made, proffered his analysis. “We don’t need to prove ourselves. If someone steps to us we’ll smash ’em and take what’s theirs.”
The Treetops waited for Mason at the bottom of the Grayson Street station stairs. Simon clicked his tongue and whistled, trying to seem bored. He raised up and started to wander, looping around, swinging his legs and sighing. His eyes drifted upwards into the starless night. “”So-oo-ooo,” he inhaled sharply before smoothly resuming his speech, “Which of us isn’t gonna make it?”
Art and Max glared in response, being sure not to make a sound and remaining as still as possible.
Just as it had countless times previously, this tactic fell short, and Simon continued. “I won’t make it, the funny one never survives.”
Max quivered silently with anger, and probably would have said something, but Art beat him to it. ”You’re not the funny one,” Art was annoyed, he sneered and spat on the sidewalk. “You’re the annoying one, the crowd cheers when you catch it in the face.”
Simon was energized that he’d drawn a mocking spirit from Art, “Five bucks says you die first.”
A loud, strong, steady voice cut the air. “If you’re right it’s worth way more than five bucks,” Mason clucked and came out of the alley just as the Treetops walked by. Mason had twenty or thirty mute soldiers trailing behind him as he emerged from an alley. “If he dies first you can take his shoes.”
“No one’s gonna die,” Max spoke quick and angry. “I’m sick of this shit, no one’s gonna die.” Max’s skin, or the fluid under his skin, boiled and gas was released as steam seeping from his ears.
Mason, feeling the strength of having a large, silent servant class en masse behind him, cackled as he spoke. “His shoes are worth at least five bucks.”
Max was famous for his anger, but like a clown, it was often used as a stupid parlor trick. He erupted in blustery profanities from nowhere on a regular basis. Many of his eruptions were saved on VHS tapes and tucked away behind rotting drywall, only occasionally to be unearthed by Max when he was drunk and at an informal viewing party. All of the Treetops had attended these viewing parties, where people would cheer and throw things.
Many of the other gang’s leaders, particularly Mason, often looked at the Treetops as a joke, though they could fight, everyone knew. There was no organized authority that stood watch over these fights, fights just happened, and seeped into the topsoil. Many upstart gangs big and small had stuck their toes in Evergreen, and been penalized.
If you deal in Evergreen, a Treetop’s gonna spot ya and flip a dove, which was only their way of calling Simon, Max or Art. At that point, whichever leader of the Treetops would make a call and get the rest of SAC in after them, which is what they called throwing bricks and rocks at any interlopers. These colorful sayings and turns-of-phrase had become street speak in the Treetop’s section of Evergreen Estates, and were exemplary of the Treetops’ attitude.
They fought a lot, ran some light protection schemes, small-to-mid level larceny. They stayed away from drugs, even beating up gang members for selling anything without permission in a neighborhood they occupied. They’d once attempted to eliminate the drug dealers completely, but now they simply taxed and regulated the drug trade in the areas they control. Drugs were like a tidal wave, they rotted neighborhoods from the inside out, and there was no fighting against them. The Treetops ran Evergreen with a stiff tax on any dealers they came across, which was the Treetops’ chief source of income.
As soon as Mason made himself known by stepping into the streetlight, Big D emerged from the darkness and gripped his forearms. Big D and Mason touched foreheads before falling into riotous laughter, slapping each other on the shoulder and swearing. They hugged and cackled, speaking of that one time last year when Mason had run into that one girl they remembered from back in the day, the one with the huge titties, and she was wearing like a business outfit or some shit, and she acted like she didn’t even see him, but who cares cause she was a bitch anyway. When they’d been in the same grade school back in Evergreen, they’d been very close, running in the same crew and always having each other’s back.
“Mason! This is the guy I told you about, he runs the Heaters.” Big D held his arm out towards Mason, giving him a formal introduction.
Big D jogged up and clasped Mason’s hand, holding it to his breast and gripping it tightly. “Mason, these are the Treetops.” He then introduced every member in attendance, indicating them by holding his hand out towards each in turn. “Max, Art, and Simon.”
The Treetops’ leadership remained seated, each holding out their hands for Mason to shake, which he did. After Mason shook their hands, Max, Art and Simon each stood up, putting themselves at his eye level and nodding slightly.
The most notable thing about Mason was his hat; a huge, ostentatious neon orange top hat, speckled with a green felt boa wrapped around its brim. Behind him were four lieutenants of the Heaters, wearing plainly colored stetsons, each of which had with him two soldiers wearing bowlers. Simon blurted an observation: “You guys should be the Hatters.”
Roly yanked on Simon’s hand and lowered his voice to rasp out a whisper. “Shut up, they know, they don’t like to talk about it.”
Simon cackled, knowing full well of the bear he was poking. ”I know, I’m just sayin, they’re all wearing hats, and hatters is pretty close to,–”
Roly pushed Simon’s shoulders, “they know, they know, shut up.”
Art and Max could both see the writing on the wall, and they each tried to grab Simon before he could do it, but they were too late. Simon laughed loudly, coughing as he spoke his observation. “Oh shit! The name of your gang is a typo!”
It took both Roly and Big D to hold Mason back. “Our name is not a typo! It was a typo, but it’s ours now.”
Simon could see the situation was more serious than he’d considered and tried to backtrack. “Okay, it’s your name now, begging your pardon, I meant no offense, sorry.”
Mason sighed and threw his right hand out in front of him, indicating that he let the insult roll off his back.
Simon, never one to leave well enough alone, continued. “Level with me, though, the name’s a typo, right?”
Mason flared once again, but this time Roly was right next to him and whispered something to him, calming him instantly. Mason finally admitted it, “Yes, the Heaters were supposed to be the Hatters.”
Art guffawed and slapped Mason’s right shoulder with his left hand, causing Mason to sneer.
After a few silent, calming breaths, Mason called out, “Right, let’s go!” The Heaters and the Treetops began to make their way across the Teddy.