Mason led the Treetops to the Main Concourse, an asphalt line that bisected the park and was decorated with irregularly placed streetlights. It was twenty yards wide, and at night completely barren, making of it an eerie black stone river. One could almost watch the ghosts of wandering tumbleweed, emerging from nothing only to immediately disappear, as if they were too scared to exist.
This river, when viewed from above, looped, pooled irregularly, and split away from itself only to suddenly end in various places. At certain times in its history, many groups including but not limited to those aligned with the local government, had taken the mission of finishing Norwood Park’s Main Concourse once and for all.
Colorful speeches and jeweled banners often spoke of resurrection, attaching a religious significance to mending this economic hub, but the reality of the job was too much. Moral and economic bankruptcy on all sides of the effort had made the most noble hope crumble to nothing.
This meant that the concourse, which had been proposed and designed ages ago by people no one tried to remember, was like a mural born of committee politics. It began with a goal, undoubtedly, but the issues of diverse eras had caused the public to realize that they didn’t really care about Norwood park.
It was a forbidding symbol, the Teddy at night, and it’s reputation assured that law abiding citizens stayed away. For these bystanders and potential witnesses, The Teddy’s darkness was a symbol of a world they didn’t want to visit.
Simon, vitalized from what he felt had been a victory over Mason, strode ahead of the group and spoke to everyone like a camp counselor. “Let’s find a spot and post up, see what breaks.” Simon broke into a light jog, coasting out in front of the rest. He strode out of one of the streetlights’ halos, shadowing him in the night haze while he looked back at the others, “Why’a you all so tense?”
Mason grinned, barely letting his teeth show. Max noticed this anticipatory smile and called after Simon. “I don’t think that’s real wise.”
Simon responded, “Whatever,” curt and sharp. Hopping and boosting himself up over it with his arms, he sat on top of a garbage can, hanging his feet before its mouth.
As soon as he did this, two large, muscled gangsters rushed out from under the trees and knocked Simon to the ground, causing him to land painfully on his hip. They were both wearing black tank tops, green suspenders and world war 2 era headgear.
“The summit is to take place in Norwood park, keep moving.” These were members of War Helmet, a gang renowned throughout the city for its brutal discipline. Simon tried to lash out at the Helmet who’d assaulted him, but before he could take a swing, two more grabbed him by each arm and held him still.
“That’s War Helmet,” Mason said casually, smirking and chuckling. “They’re providing some of the security.”
“Security?” Simon opened his mouth as if he didn’t understand. After just a moment of consideration he closed his mouth and relaxed his arms, seeing that in a physical contest he would be overmatched and outnumbered. “Understood.” Simon frowned and lowered his head.
As they continued down the Concourse, Mason kept the dialog going. “War Helmet comes from Port Ashland, I don’t know much about them, don’t mess with ’em though.”
“Yeah,” Simon said, defeated.
As quickly as the members of War Helmet had arrived, they disappeared into the darkness under the trees. Art was intrigued by this show of mastery, and he searched the darkness for other members of this gang, crouching under low branches and peering up through leaves toward the streetlights.
“Stop looking for us,” a voice came from nowhere, loud and deep. “The summit is to take place in Norwood park, clear the Concourse.”
“Or what?” Simon trotted slowly into the middle of the black, solid path. Stretching his arms to his sides, he straightened his right leg out in front of him, then hopped to his left. “Come on, War Helmet, scare me, I wanna see your force.”
After around 15 seconds watching the willows, Mason tapped Simon on the shoulder and spoke softly into his ear. “Unless you’re gonna go in there and look for them, I think we should go.”
With his mouth held open and his pupils flicking back and forth, Simon nodded and began to walk forward. The rest of the Treetops followed, continuing an unnerved caravan.
The Treetops came to and passed what was affectionately referred to as the Big Fountain. The Big Fountain had once upon a time been one of the city’s central meeting places, hosting all manner of political rallies and musical performances, but it had been decades since water had flowed through it. Now it was simply a grouping of mold-covered gargoyles looking fearsome and portending doom.
On the edge of the Big Fountain sat a fairly nondescript group of street hoods, displaying no obvious colors and all facing in different directions. They didn’t seem like a gang at all, as all of them were distracted by their own pursuits. The tallest one, with his hair cut down to a light fuzz that covered his skull, quietly bounced a racquetball to himself on the edge of the fountain.
As the Treetops passed by, this apparent figurehead noticed Mason’s approach, and turned on his heel. “Mason,” he spoke, “Who’re these?”
The Treetops stood together in a tight group, as if they only just now realized the danger of their situation.
A Skinny man in an undershirt waved, remaining silent. His face was gaunt and his bones stuck out, making it appear as though he’d not eaten for years. The streetlights circling the fountain made the divots and crevices in his face create shadows in his face. The shadows made him appear ghostlike, but not the ghost of a person, more like the ghost of rumbles past.
“That was Jeremy, he runs The Numbers, they’re all right.” From the fountain, The Treetops and The Heaters continued through a tight group of willow trees. The trees were packed together such that they created a decaying canopy, moonlight shining through its gaps at different angles.
Max became uneasy. “Who’re The Numbers?” Max asked nervously, as though the answer would harm him.
“They’re from the outskirts, I think, by the train yards, I think.”
Waiting until the Numbers were out of earshot, Simon eventually proffered his analysis. “The Numbers is a stupid name.”
“So is the Treetops,” said Art, casting his potentially offensive statement casually; just throwing it out there. “And so is the Forty-Niners, and so is the Heaters. Gang names are stupid.” Art looked into Simon’s eyes, challenging him. Simon and Art conflicted often, sometimes even coming to blows, but Simon was too scared after his encounter with War Helmet to tire himself out in this way, so he said nothing.
As soon as he invoked the name of the Heaters, which had already been the center of a contentious moment, Art looked Simon in the eye, seemingly daring him to make a move. Simon silently kept moving, trying not to look at Art.
“The numbers is a stupid name,” Simon spoke, his voice tinged with anticipation. “The Heaters is a stupider name though, it must be said.”
In an instant Simon was on his back, Mason standing over him with a cocked-back fist. “Why’re you fuckin with me?”
Simon twisted and pushed up with his hands, backing Mason up and claimed his own patch of grass. “Cause we don’t need you. I don’t even know why you’re here, get the fuck out.”
“He’s here cause we wanted a guide,” Roly said, backing Simon and Mason away from one another. “We weren’t gonna come up here with no plan. Mason knows the park better than we do.”
“Oh wow he probably knows they got trees and stuff.” Simon spoke staring into Mason’s eyes as they circled each other, Big D standing between them. “Fuck that, like we can’t figure it out.”
As he stretched his arms out, Big D sounded like a toddler begging his parents not to hurt each other. “Two is better than one right? Isn’t that a good enough reason?”
Simon responded quickly, “No, I don’t trust Mason, he’s got a plan and I don’t like it.”
Purposefully and deliberately, Max strode out between them. “Cool it, Simon. Fact is, we weren’t gonna come without a guide and you know it.”
“But why couldn’t we come without a guide? We got an invitation same as them, we’re not stupid.”
Max lowered his head and beckoned Simon with his hand to lower his the same way so they could speak more softly and privately with one another. “I wasn’t comin’ without a guide, that’s what it comes to. You wanna blame someone for nothing? Fine blame me, but cool it, you’re not helping us, look around.”
Simon stood up straight, looked around and saw they were surrounded at all sides by the Heaters, many of them clutching weapons. He looked left to right, seeing the whole situation. “Okay, whatever.”
Mason stood silent watching Simon’s face, seeing from his expression that his apology had been insincere. “It’s okay, whatever. Want us to take you to Norwood now?”
Max felt sickened by Mason’s superior attitude, but he just said “yeah,” and they all moved on.