Today we’re pleased to reveal an exclusive excerpt from Your Corner Dark by Desmond Hall, which publishes on January 19, 2021.
American Street meets Long Way Down in this searing and gritty debut novel that takes an unflinching look at the harsh realities of gang life in Jamaica and how far a teen is willing to go for family.
Things can change in a second:
The second Frankie Green gets that scholarship letter, he has his ticket out of Jamaica.
The second his longtime crush, Leah, asks him on a date, he’s in trouble.
The second his father gets shot, suddenly nothing else matters.
And the second Frankie joins his uncle’s gang in exchange for paying for his father’s medical bills, there’s no going back…or is there?
As Frankie does things he never thought he’d be capable of, he’s forced to confront the truth of the family and future he was born into—and the ones he wants to build for himself.
Frankie put down his empty water bucket on the side of the steep mountainside road that was just wide enough for
a sedan and two well-fed goats. The sun had only just started to warm, too early for the post office to be open. Still, Frankie gazed at the ramshackle building. His scholarship letter could be inside. It was nearly all he thought about these days. If it came—if it brought good news—he soon might be headed off to study in America. Jamaica was so bankrupt it could hardly afford hope, but hope was Frankie’s light, and one he shined often.
In the distance lay miles of lush green forest and fields, and beyond that, the capital city of Kingston. A handful of twenty-story structures sat at the center of the skyline. Near the
Olympic stadium, where he’d once seen the Jamaican sprinters practice relays, stood the University of the West Indies campus. Frankie knew he could get into their engineering program, but all a Jamaican diploma guaranteed was debt. Jobs for young people were just too hard to find.
Gnats circled. Frankie stuck a forefinger in the corner of his eye and removed a dead one. He studied it—his own career might be as short-lived, even if he got the chance to study at the University of Arizona. A classmate’s older brother had recently come back from America—he hadn’t been able to secure work even though he had a master’s degree in engineering. No way was Frankie going to let that happen. He flicked the gnat away. The rev of an engine broke the early morning quiet. A black Toyota barreled down the mountain toward him. A thumping bass and pulsating rhythm rippled through the humid air, Sizzla’s raspy voice and reggae lyrics flowing from the car stereo. His uncle Joe’s long, sinewy arm emerged from the window of the shotgun seat, in his hand, a Glock revolving in a slow, tight circle like a predator stalking prey.
Frankie smiled, then pulled it back to a smirk. His uncle always kept a round in the chamber. Pulling the slide took time, and time was what you didn’t have when things got ugly. Uncle Joe had his finger on the trigger, and the road had a lot of potholes. A step to the left or right to get out of range would have been the smart thing to do—cuz accidents happened. But Frankie held his ground.
The Toyota rolled to a stop in front of Frankie. “Pop, pop, pop, pop!” his uncle shouted, his thick brown dreads making his angular face look even more so. He lowered his gun and extended his fist. Frankie bumped it with his own, catching a whiff of weed so skunky it had to be good. Uncle Joe’s red eyes confirmed it. Ice Box was at the wheel, engulfing the driver’s side with his massive frame. He was one of Joe’s enforcers. His other, Buck-Buck, sat in the backseat talking on his cell phone. “Wha gwan, Nephew?” Joe asked. “You hear about the scholarship?”
Frankie couldn’t go anywhere without being asked that question. “Not yet, Uncle.”
Joe pulled back his locks, gazing at him. “If you get it, you going to run away from Jamdown. You going to leave your people.” Joe was still smiling, but his words felt like a slap.
“I’m not running away, Uncle.”
Joe held up a hand—wait—as his phone buzzed. He searched his pockets, pulled out a flip phone and a Blackphone, and answered the Blackphone.
The flip phone was prepaid, Frankie knew, with nothing that tied his uncle’s name to it, and the Blackphone had special encryption in case he had to send a message.
Like Joe had just sent a message with his dis: You going to run away from Jamdown. Sure, Frankie wanted to leave Jamaica for the job opportunities in America, all his friends did. Jamaica was like a messed-up parent: You loved it, but at the same time you wanted to leave it. You said bad things about it, but you’d get mad if anyone else said anything bad about it.
Frankie wanted to explain that. He paced while his uncle barked at whoever was on the other line.
Finally Joe clicked off the phone. “Yes, Nephew.”
“I’m not running away, Uncle,” Frankie said again. “Once I set myself up over there, I’m coming back, gonna do some big things for Jamaica.”
“Big things, eh?” Joe nodded slowly. “Ambition is important, just no forget is here you born, is here you should spread your roots. And you must watch out for Babylon. It’s even bigger in America than Jamdown.”
Frankie nodded back knowingly. For his uncle, and all Rastafarians, “Babylon” meant corruption in the government and police forces. Joe loved to rail against Babylon as much as he loved to smoke ganja.
“All the wickedness and oppression them perpetrate is a sin me tell you,” Joe went on. “Them allow rich man in suit and tie to steal money them don’t even need. Poor people steal to eat and them go jail.” He sucked hard at his teeth.
Frankie looked away toward the post office, then back to Joe. “But Uncle, you do jobs for the PNP.”
Joe wore an oh, please look on his face. “Me work with the devil that pays me. But that doesn’t mean me won’t call them a devil. P-N-P”—he slowly drew out the letters—“that’s supposed to be the People’s National Party. Now, you going to stand there and tell me they really do anything for the people except feed them bogus theories on how people fi live?” He tapped his gun against the side of the car. “And the other joke. JLP. Jamaica Labour Party—they don’t create any decent jobs for normal people.”
Frankie folded his arms. He’d been doing a lot of reading up on America lately—he might spend four years there! They had two main parties too. As far as he could tell, the JLP was conservative like the Republican Party, and looked out for businesses. The PNP was liberal, and pushed for the rights of workers. But it couldn’t be that simple. Some kids in school were really political, but Frankie thought they just sounded like they were repeating things their parents had said. Would he become more political if he went to America? He wasn’t now, here in Jamdown.
Joe shook his head. “JLP, PNP, whatever, every fucking political party is the same thing.” He frowned. “Yeh, mon, like me say, I have to work with them but me don’t have to agree with their bullshit.” He looked toward Kingston in the distance. “Them protect me from police, and me get them votes. And you know how important that is, right? Whoever wins the Kingston vote, wins Jamaica. I tell you, it’s just one big shitstem.”
Joe’s Rastafarian accent was thick, sometimes even difficult for Frankie to understand. But there was no doubt he was down for the people. It was probably the reason everyone in his posse loved him so much.
Ice Box tapped Joe’s shoulder. “We going to be late, mon.”
Joe turned to Frankie. “Me would give you a ride but me have business in town. Later, Nephew.” He slapped the dash. The Toyota pulled away.
Frankie watched until the wave of the dust kicked up from the tires settled. Things were always exciting when Joe was around, even if nothing really happened. Frankie liked that thrill. He knew he shouldn’t. Posse life wasn’t for him. But still.
It was time to get back to work. He headed over to the old standpipe on the other side of the road. Setting the bucket beneath it, he twisted the iron handle. Water rushed out, water he and his father would use to drink, cook, and flush their toilet. Bucket filled, he gripped the handle and began his mind game: in order to keep his daily task from becoming life-sucking boredom, he would challenge himself to spill not a single drop. He straightened up, but too fast; water sloshed toward the metal rim. Frankie froze. Losing before he even started would make his journey up the mountain feel endless. The water calmed, then settled. He exhaled, took a slow step. Next step, next. As he strode up the road, he moved faster and faster, putting more skin in the game, determined not to spill anything.
A mile into the two miles to home, his arm muscles burned.
He paused to shift the bucket to his other hand.
Just past a row of flowering breadfruit trees, Frankie looked out over the gully at the explosion of green—coffee plantations that had been there for decades. The Blue Mountains wore mist like fine jewelry. This could be a scenic overlook, he thought, something to bring in tourism, and money. It wouldn’t even take much construction. A small loader tractor and a few volunteers could do the trick. The problem was the town across the way to the right. Stony Mountain housed a concrete juvenile detention center so massive, so overcrowded, it was practically its own city. The sun glistened off the stream that rippled down to the bottom, and Frankie looked at it longingly. There were underground streams higher up the mountain, and he knew there had to be a way to pipe the water down—like Roman aqueducts—to his own town. People were used to the hour-long journey for water each day—but they shouldn’t have to be! It was something he could do for his town, for others like his—once he came back from America with a degree. If only he could get there. He set off again.
Once the road flattened, the strain on his legs easing Frankie entered the town of Troy. The butcher’s shack, the small elementary school, the rum bar, and Mr. Brown’s general store, where Frankie worked, weren’t open yet. He passed several one-bedroom houses nearly identical to his own, then glanced down at his bucket; small swells lapped the sides, but not a drop spilled. Yeah!
Then a scream, followed by a yelp, pierced the silence. Frankie scanned the area. Damn. In the clearing just past his house, Garnett, Afro funkier than ever, was gesturing angrily at someone sprawled in the dirt.
What the hell was Garnett doing here? He had moved away from Troy last year, to everyone’s relief, especially Frankie’s best friend, Winston. Garnett was always after Winston. Now Frankie noticed the fine clothes—the distressed denim shirt and pants. Huh? Garnett wasn’t smart enough for a paycheck job.
He had to have signed on with a Kingston posse. A whole heap of guys were doing it.
And now Frankie knew exactly why Garnett was here. And who was on the ground. He set down the water bucket just as Garnett sprang toward Winston and kicked him in the stomach. “You haffi’ learn respect!” he barked.
Frankie assessed the situation: Garnett’s shirt clung to his body—no weapon bulged in the front or back. So he sprinted forward.
Winston rolled away, clutching his stomach. “Me didn’t mean anything.”
Frankie launched himself at Garnett as he was readying to unleash another kick, driving his shoulder into Garnett’s back.
They slid onto the dirt. Garnett swung, clipping Frankie’s nose. Eyes watering, Frankie hit back, pounded his knuckles into Garnett’s ribs—once, twice. Garnett curled in a ball like a spider about to die as Frankie hopped up, poised to keep swinging. Backing away slowly, eyes on Garnett, he said, “Winston, man, you okay?”
Garnett slowly unfurled, slowly stood, dirt on his fancy shirt, jeans, his cheek. “Me see your uncle drive past,” he scoffed. “You a big man only because him protect you.”
It was true. The thought of Joe was the only thing that kept Garnett at bay right now.
“Just go,” Frankie said in as calm a voice as he could manage.
But he knew this wasn’t the end of it.
Winston braved his way over to them. “You lucky Frankie stopped, or you would get a proper beating,” he jeered.
Frankie smacked Winston’s arm; goading Garnett would only make things worse. But Winston always had to save face.
Garnett smacked his lips as if his mouth was full of bitter fruit. “Me not done,” he said, spreading his fingers menacingly before he turned and stalked away.
“What’s he doing up here anyway? I thought he left.” Frankie said as soon as Garnett was out of earshot.
“Don’t know. Visiting his ma?” “Maybe. You all right?”
Winston slapped his ample belly. “Well padded, mon.” He stood there, chest out, as if he had just fought Garnett and won.
“So, what’d you do to piss him off this time?”
Winston smirked. “Me just point at his fancy clothes and ask if him win a gift certificate at the Dollar Store.” Winston’s eyes darted from side to side. Then, in a low voice, he said, “Wait till him find out me in a gang too.”
Frankie gaped at him. “Gang? What gang?” Winston’s eyes went wide. “Shhhh.”
Frankie spun around: Was Garnett back? No—but nearly as bad, here came Samson. Frankie’s father was a sinewy man, a half foot shorter than Frankie, but his fury always made him seem a half foot taller.
“Frankie!” he bellowed now. “What the hell is this? Me can’t believe it, you out here fighting on the street!”
“Yes now, Spanish Town, you daddy gonna beat you with the doo doo stick!” Winston hooted as if they were still in grade school.
Samson’s quick, chopping steps brought back memories of past beatings, each one accompanied by some version of My daddy did beat my behind till I reached twenty-one! Frankie was nearly eighteen, too old for this. Still, he shrank back, braced himself.
His father’s hand hovered by his belt buckle. “Me don’t want you on the street fighting! How much times me have to tell you?”
Frankie wanted to say this wasn’t like the last time, this was Winston, he couldn’t turn his back on his best friend. It was just how things were. “Garnett started this,” he blurted out instead. Those words were easier because he knew how his father felt about Garnett.
“What?” Spittle flew from Samson’s mouth. “Don’t blame nobody for this.”
“You don’t even want to know what happened!”
Embarrassment flickered across his father’s eyes. He wasn’t used to this kind of pushback, Frankie knew, not in public. Frankie usually tried to make things work, walk the tightrope when he had to. But he’d just done a really good thing—stood up for his friend—and it was like his father didn’t want to know about it—
“Me going beat you.” Samson took his belt off and whipped it through the air so fast Frankie didn’t have time to dodge, and it hit Frankie’s hip bone like an electric shock. The next pass cut across Frankie’s back. Spinning away, Frankie grabbed at the recoiling end. He missed, but it was enough to shock Samson. His father stood there for a moment, heave-panting, then stormed back toward their house.
Frankie glared after his father, then glanced at Winston, who gave Frankie a see-you-later chin up. But then he came over for their special handshake—fist bumps, snaps, and crossed elbows—and said he’d stop by the store where Frankie worked after school. He walked gingerly, hunched at the waist, chest no longer peacocked out. Garnett got him good after all.
Frankie watched until Winston made it home; he didn’t trust Garnett not to sneak back and jump him. As he turned back around, he nearly knocked over the water bucket. That would have sucked! He bent to pick it up, finish his daily game of delivering the water without spilling any. A sharp zing of pain made him flinch, and fury at his father flared, the sense of injustice like a mad dog that couldn’t be reasoned with. He cupped a handful of water, a taste as sweet and refreshing as any he’d ever had. Then, glaring at his father’s house, he tilted the bucket, released a slow stream, and angled it until it was empty.
Desmond Hall was born in Jamaica, West Indies, and moved to Jamaica, Queens. He has worked as a high school biology and English teacher in East New York, Brooklyn; counseled teenage ex-cons after their release from Rikers Island; and served as Spike Lee’s creative director at Spike DDB. Desmond has served on the board of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Advertising Council and judged the One Show, the American Advertising Awards, and the NYC Downtown Short Film Festival. He’s also been named one of Variety magazine’s Top 50 Creatives to Watch. Desmond lives outside of Boston with his wife and two daughters.