I never thought I'd get so close to those teeth. I had a hundred nightmares about them since my parents pulled me out of Long Island City High School and put me in this drug program five months ago. Half the time, I'd walk the long way around just not to hear him growl at me, or feel myself jump when he threw his weight up against the fence. But even from the other direction, I could see when his gate was open from the end of the block. That's when I'd feel my mouth go bone dry. I'd take one slow step at a time. Maybe he could smell me coming, ‘cause he wouldn't start barking till I was too close to jet back the other way. Sometimes he'd step out into the middle of the sidewalk and stare me down. I could smell his piss on the fire hydrant in front of Daytop. He'd pull back the corners of his mouth and show me his teeth. They were white as could be, and the two sharpest ones on either side came down beneath his lip. He was gray with swirls of black and white mixed in. You could get hypnotized just trying to figure out where the colors started and stopped. He looked more like a wolf than a dog, and I never felt more like a piece of meat. But I wasn't about to let it go on another second. I couldn't live with myself if I did.
The door to Daytop would stick. So I turned the knob and rang the bell at the same time, pushing hard as I could. My heart was pounding faster and faster, till I finally felt it give. Then I shut the door behind me just as quick.
"It's never locked after eight o'clock, Clay," said Andre, one of the counselors, who buzzed me in anyway. "You just have to be strong enough. That's all."
Andre always knew when that dog had me shook.
"All you have to do is stand up for yourself one time," he poked at me. "That mongrel's gonna keep on top of you till you do."
I held my breath and just nodded my head. Then I took off upstairs to the kitchen where Miss Della, the other counselor, was making breakfast.
I smelled eggs cooking from the bottom of the stairs. Then I reached the top and heard the tail end of a voice I knew from somewhere talking to Miss Della. He was sitting with his back to me, at a table full of kids. Right away, I recognized the way his shoulders stood out, and the brown #32 jersey. My mind went sideways for a second trying to piece it all together. But before I saw the side of his face, I knew it was my cousin Addison.
Addison was a year older than me, and lived in the Ravenswood Houses, right across the street from the Co-ops where I was. We hadn't hung around together since we were little kids. He used to be like my big brother, till our mothers went cold turkey on each other, and stopped talking. And now I couldn't even remember the last time one of us was at the other's crib.
I'd see Addison on the street, but it wasn't the same. He started running with a crew of older kids, and everything we had got left behind. We got to high school and it was almost like we were strangers. I knew he was dealing, and he knew that I smoked weed. But that was it between us. Then I didn't see him around for a while, and heard he got kicked out of LIC and bagged by the cops for selling drugs.
But there was that spark inside of me when his eyes caught mine. I felt like I was ten years old again, and he was visiting my house on Christmas.
"Flesh and Blood!" he called out, and jumped up to wrap his arms around me. "Miss Della, Clay and me are family," he said. "We're first cousins."
"We're all family here, Addison. This is your Daytop family now," she said, pushing the eggs from the frying pan onto a plate. "We're all trying to overcome the same addictions, and that includes your counselors."
"Pardon me, Miss Della, but I'm not addicted to anything. I don't do drugs. The judge and my probation officer sent me here because I got caught selling crack," Addison said. "I've been in programs like this before, and my urine always comes back clean."
"Do you drink?" she asked him.
Addison grinned, putting his hands together out in front of him.
"Well, I'll drink a little something if I'm having a party with a proper female," he said, shifting his eyes to Ivy, the best looking girl in Daytop.
"All right, then," Miss Della said, mashing her eggs down with a fork, "Alcohol is a drug. You'll learn that in this program."
That's when Andre came upstairs, yelling at kids to lose their jewelry and do-rags.
"You should all know better. It comes off the second you hit the facility," Andre shouted. "Set the right example for our new family member."
"Fuckin' bling police!" somebody said underneath their breath.
But Andre just stared into the crowd of kids, and let it go.
Addison popped the diamond studs out of his ears without a peep. Then we sat at a table by ourselves, and I clued him in on how everything at Daytop worked.
"There's group sessions where kids talk about what's eatin' at them— stayin' clean, sex, their folks— all of that. And if you don't say somethin' yourself, the counselors will call on you," I told him. "They got a GED class that goes half the day. Then after lunch, there's structure— we clean up the building 'cause that's supposed to show we care about where we are. The counselors came through the program, too, and if we piss 'em off, they can keep us all the way till four o'clock."
Addison didn't blink at any of that. He said it was better than jail, or the residential program he was in upstate. He asked me how quick the counselors were to call your probation officer if you screwed up. I told him kids beefed about it all the time, saying it was like the counselors had a gun to their heads.
"I never heard about you getting locked up," Addison said. "I know they're not exactly tight anymore, like back in the day, but I figure your moms would have said something to mine."
"It wasn't like that," I told him. "I never got arrested. I failed all my classes one semester, and got caught at school with a bag of weed. The dean of discipline told my parents about Daytop. Her daughter got a GED here and made it into college. That's all my parents had to hear, and signed me into the program."
"Oh shit! I'm mandated here, and you're mom-dated!" Addison laughed out loud.
It wasn't funny to me, but I laughed it up, too. And it just felt good to have something going with Addison again.
I gave him a rundown on kids, and who flew what colors. But Addison shook his head and said there weren't any real gang-bangers in programs.
"Kids here are just frontin' to look tough. I sell to all different crews. Hardcore cats couldn't mix like this without settin' it off every day," said Addison. "That's why brown's my color. It's neutral. I'm down with everybody, as long as their money's green."
Then Addison turned his head around quick to see if the counselors heard him.
"I already learned the hard way," he said low. "You gotta play like you're poor in these programs. If staff thinks you're in business, they'll lean on you over every little bullshit thing."