Pain and poverty never go away.
It was called the Ironside Projects, but it was better known as The Slum. The City was a big place with plenty of rundown, forgotten, and otherwise awful parts of town, but there was only one Slum. Located far to the west near the city limits, it was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. Poorly drawn graffiti covered the walls and turned them into splatters of red, black, and white. Garbage, trash and the refuse of the uncaring littered the streets, sitting side by side with piles of concrete and steel rebar that had fallen off the buildings. The cars were dirty, the windows were dirty, the air was dirty. Everything and everywhere had the invisible, suffocating feel and stench of loneliness, apathy, and life without life.
Some people embrace their ghettos and slums, accepting their meager means and turning them something almost like pride. Ironside was not these places. Here, no one cared. No one listened. No one got out.
It was nearing sundown, and on the top floor of a tenement complex, Owen opened his steel reinforced door and stepped outside onto the freezing, open air walkway. His breath hung in a fog around his head. He could already feel the frosty wind knifing through his ratty sweatshirt. He sighed and closed the door behind him, muttering. It was going to be a rough training session tonight. He turned and placed his key in the first of the three locks, but hesitated. He could feel someone nearby. Not a neighbor. Someone hostile. Looking straight at him.
“How long have you been sitting there?”
Rusty hopped off the railing and stepped out from the setting sun’s shadows.
“An hour. Got a little chilly there towards the end.”
Owen stood still a moment before continuing on and locking up the remaining bolts. He stashed the single key in his pocket and turned around slowly, facing Rusty. There was no emotion in either man’s face. He just stared at the redhead before him.
He asked, “How did you find me?”
“Kirra told me.”
Owen snorted and folded his arms over his chest. “She wouldn’t do that.”
“Not at first. It took some convincing. And a video. Even then she could only give me a building number. Took me two days of staking out the place before I pinned down your room.”
Owen’s stance never faltered. It was December 28. He must have been searching since Christmas. “Fine. Why are you here?”
Rusty shifted from foot to foot and pulled a few strands of hair from his face. “Why didn’t you tell me you knew my father?”
A pause. But no flinch, not even a tremor. “What are you talking about?”
Rusty didn’t waver either. “My father, JK. You knew him, Owen. You two were friends.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Owen’s voice was becoming tighter, sharper.
Rusty persisted. “I saw the video. ‘JK Speaks’. You were in the video Owen, both you and my dad. Why did you hide it from me?”
“Kid, I have no clue what…”
Rusty’s voice exploded. “LIAR!” The sound echoed over the rooftops, harsh in the quiet of Ironside. Far away, a dog began to howl.
Owen unfolded his arms and walked towards the smaller man. His glacier blue eyes were mere slits at this point. He stopped, just a few feet away, and stared down at Rusty. In a hushed tone, seething with anger, Owen said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Go, now, and leave me alone.”
With that he pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt and walked quietly past the boy. Rusty stood, still and silent, as the big man floated by. But then, at the last second, he wheeled around and grabbed hold of the fabric surrounding Owen’s right arm. For an instant, the world stopped. No one moved. All that could be heard was the faint howl of the wind and the dog barking, far off in the distance.
Owen was the first to speak. “Let go. Now.”
Rusty did not budge. “No.”
Another pause. Then, suddenly, Owen yanked his arm forward, ripping the sweatshirt from Rusty’s grasp. Reversing the motion he spun on his heel and threw his left arm around. He slammed, palm first, squarely into the center of Rusty’s chest. The smaller boy, not expecting such power, was hurled backwards. He stumbled for a few feet before losing control and crashing to the concrete floor in a heap. He coughed hard, the air knocked almost completely out of him. It took only a moment for Rusty to scramble back to his feet but, in that moment, Owen was gone.
There was only one way you could have run and Rusty took off down the walkway in chase. As he rounded the corner he just caught a glimpse of Owen’s white hoodie disappearing over the side of the stairwell. Sprinting to the exit, Rusty peered over the side and saw Owen descending the stairwell one floor at a time, skipping entire lengths by vaulting over the sides. Rusty had been exploring the apartment building for days and knew the layout well. It would only take Owen another three or four flights before he had a chance to escape the stairs. After that it would be child’s play for him to get out of the twenty-floor high building entirely. Rusty would have to find a way to close the gap.
The young man turned back around, frantically searching for an answer. He ran to the edge of the walkway and looked down. There was no fire escape on this side, only a small retaining wall with a railing on top and an open view out onto the skyline, not unlike a parking garage with multiple, similar levels. From there it was a sheer, straight drop to the street. Rusty wondered for a moment why Owen hadn’t gone this way, since it was quite obvious that he could have dropped down from here, floor by floor, much faster than the winding stairwell. Then in a flash Rusty realized the horrible truth and the answer to his problem. This way was a thousand times more dangerous. One slip, one missed grip, and you would plummet 250 feet to the asphalt below.
It was the only way to beat Owen to the bottom. It was going to have to be his path.
With a hard swallow, Rusty gripped the rail and hopped over the wall, turn vaulting to land on the building’s outer face. He landed successfully, with his fingers on the bar and his toes on the wall the only thing holding him up. He acted quickly, not allowing himself time for the fear to grow, and released his grip. He was weightless now, hundreds of feet in midair. He fell, gently at first but rapidly gaining speed, until he saw the next level’s wall and railing approach. With a practiced hand he reached out and grabbed hold of the metal, his feet skidding ever so slightly on the smooth concrete. He gripped the bar so hard his knuckles turned white. But it held.
He had done it – an entire story traversed in less than three seconds. One down, nineteen to go. He breathed hard, gallons of adrenaline pumping through his veins. Moving as fast as he possibly dared, Rusty let go of this railing and dropped again, latching hold of the next wall down. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Rusty dreamingly thought that all it would take was a half second’s hesitation and he would miss the railing. Then he would fall, fall, fall, just like his father, and share his fate.
But his muscles were strong and his technique perfect. Rusty counted each floor he passed, trying to figure out how close he was to Owen on the inside. It took less than a minute but already he was on the fourth floor. Another few drops and he would be safely on the ground. But then, just as he was preparing to go again, Rusty heard the loud bang of the building’s main door flying open. He looked down between his legs and saw to his horror that Owen had beaten him and was now jogging quickly through the courtyard.
Even at his fastest Rusty just couldn’t compete. He cursed loudly and was preparing to haul himself back up over the rail to the safety of the walkway when a strong gust of wind raced through the projects. Rusty pressed himself against the wall, fighting the ripping force of the wind. As he squeezed his eyes and focused entirely on the effort of staying on, he heard the creaking and moaning of metal behind him. He turned his head around like an owl and saw that there was a large round lamppost behind him, waving in the wind. He realized he was at exactly the same height as the domed bulb that topped it off.
A bolt of inspiration cracked through Rusty’s mind. Without giving himself even a second to doubt, he pushed off the wall he was clinging to and kicked away, sailing out into space. He turned, reached, and grabbed hold of the thick, circular metal post, just below the bulb. He loosened his grip ever so slightly and instantly began to slide down the post like a fireman’s pole. Foot after foot slid by in the blink of an eye and almost like magic Rusty found himself on the ground, totally unharmed.
The sudden recognition that his daredevil stunt had worked lasted only a moment. Rusty saw Owen quickly disappearing around a corner, trying to lose him down an alleyway instead of the open street. Rusty gave chase, dodging broken benches and piles of trash. He came into the alley just after Owen had ducked inside. He saw the old man darting down the narrow passage, heading for a barbed wire fence then freedom. Knowing this was his last chance, Rusty acted without thought and picked a fist sized hunk of concrete up off the ground. He reeled back and launched the projectile straight at Owen’s back, catching the big man in the back of his right shoulder.
Owen stumbled, off balance, and in rushed Rusty. With a heavy tackle the thin boy knocked Owen into a wall but lost his footing and couldn’t continue the attack. Owen, however, was quicker on the draw and much more experienced. He lunged forward and grabbed Rusty by the front collar of his jacket, heaving the smaller man backwards. He slammed the younger man into the opposite wall and shoved his other forearm up under Rusty’s throat. With one arm holding his feet off the ground and what was basically a block of granite cutting off his air, Rusty was helpless. He gagged and flailed, kicking out into Owen’s legs and chest, but the old man was a statue, immovable.
Rusty could feel Owen’s hot breath on his face. Owen panted hard, his nostrils flaring, his face and eyes a solid wall of hate and fury. Rusty’s strength began to fade, his vision blur, his eyes rolling up into his head. Owen was killing him.
Then, without warning, Owen released him. Rusty fell to the ground, gasping and wheezing. He laid out on his back, staring up as the darkness of the night took over.
Owen spoke, and even though he sounded miles away, the voice was clear. “You’re as stubborn as Jim was…”
Owen and Rusty sat on the street curb, watching the shadows dance on the dirty walls as cars and their headlights passed by. Rusty’s shirt and jacket were ripped along the collar and his throat was sore and painful to the touch. The calluses of his palms were ripped too, something he hadn’t noticed while dropping down the building face. Owen was unharmed, though the grime from the alley was caked along the side of his face from where he’d bounced off the wall. The big man shifted his weight and looked up, as if collecting thoughts he’d lost a long time ago. He was the first to speak.
“I met your father twenty years ago, at a summer jam downtown. Parkour and Freerunning were still relatively young back then, with the idea of PKFR just starting to take off. I remember I didn’t think much of him then. He was only seventeen or eighteen. And he seemed too…dreamy. Too wild and unfocused. He had great potential but it seemed like, like everything was a game to him. A fun game to pass the time.”
“After that I kept seeing him at jams and gym sessions. He was always early, always stayed late. Always smiling and grinning. It was like he had two settings: too much or nothing at all. Sometimes he sat around, watching, eating up everything with his eyes. Other times he never stopped moving, always kept jumping and bouncing, like a spring.”
“After a year we started to spend time together outside the jams, as friends. He was a lot younger than me but it was like we shared the same wavelength. We argued about what was Parkour, about flips, the competitions, about women and life and everything. But in the end it never mattered what we believed. We just knew we were friends.”
“He was about…twenty-two I think, when he entered his first Pro/Am. I didn’t like it, thought he was wasting his time and giving the art a bad name. But he was good at it, at least other people said he was, and it gave him money so he could practice all the time. He seemed happy. After he won his first National, he started getting offers. Things like commercials, demo deals, all sorts of stuff.”
At this point Owen shifted his weight again, sighing deeply. Something was weighing heavily on his mind.
“We started to drift apart after that. We were still friends, still talked, but not like before. I kept training, staying out of the spotlight, and he kept getting bigger and bigger. He had a wife and kid, he was a brand name. I didn’t resent him, wasn’t jealous. But I worried what it was doing to him, physically. As the years went on he started to slow down, started to hurt more, and I saw him less and less. Eventually a whole year went by I never heard a word from him.”
“Then one day he sends me an email, out of the blue. He says he has big news for me and wants me to come hang with him while he’s filming this commercial in town. I figured I might as well, so I went. Turned out it was some non-profit organization, real low budget, and he was doing it as a favor. We were on top of a skyscraper, getting shots of him balancing on the rail along the edge. I told him he was nuts, he didn’t have to do that, but he just…smiled. Just smiled that damn goofy smile, him and that fire hair of his. And up he went.”
Now Owen dropped his head, looking down at the black ground.
“It happened so fast. One minute he was there, next he wasn’t. No one was prepared. No one thought he could fall. I was the first to react and I ran to the roof edge. The wire safety net that they’d bolted into the side had given way and was barely there; only a single cable held it up. He was hanging onto the corner with only one hand.”
Owen slowly lifted his right arm, fingers outstretched, as if reaching for something.
“I remember…reaching out my hand, trying to grab him. And he was reaching out his hand, trying to grab mine. We were…we were only a foot away…so close. And then…then I heard a crack, like a gunshot. I felt something slash against the side of my head. I fell back, and things went dim. And the last thing I saw…was Jim. Falling away. His hand still reaching for mine…”
At this Owen trailed off and dropped his outstretched arm into his lap. Rusty had been silent the entire time, listening. So that was the story. That was Owen’s past.
Rusty finally spoke. “The slash was the cable snapping…which is where you got that scar on your head from.”
Owen nodded slowly. “I…I’d been practicing for moments like that…my entire life. And in an instant…it was over. Right when someone needed me…when he needed me…I wasn’t fast enough. I failed…and he died.”
“That’s why you train so hard. And cut yourself off.”
Owen leaned forward and placed his head in his hands. Rusty could see the glint of tears falling from his face. Strange, Rusty thought, he wasn’t even breathing hard.
Quietly, Owen said, “It’s the why for everything. I have no money, no family. Only Kirra and you know who I am. And even she doesn’t know why I am.”
The pair sat silently for a long time, listening to the sounds of The Slum at night. Rusty saw Owen differently now. It was a radical change that he was wrestling to understand. Just an hour before, Owen had been his former teacher, a strict but passionate friend, and at the same time, the source of so much hatred. He had been invincible, untouchable. Now, for the first time, he really looked like an old man. A lonely, hurt man, unable to escape a terrible dream. Unable to escape a bad dream…just like Rusty.
At last Rusty stood up, brushed off his pants, and prepared to leave. Owen stayed seated but called up to him. “Rusty, what will you do now? Will you still compete?”
Rusty stopped, his back to his former teacher. He clenched his cold fingers together and said, “I…I don’t know. I have one more person I need to talk to…before I decide.”
Owen grunted, agreeing. He knew who Rusty had to see.
“Be gentle with her. She’s even tougher than I am.”