Tonight, the sky was so black that the few stars not stifled by the city’s crashing chaos burned brightly in the air. Colin hadn’t seen a night like it before, but Grandpappy liked to claim it always was like this. “The city used to breathe and beam,” he would claim to his closest living relative. “Every moment living here was an infinity of opportunity. Course, it ain’t like that anymore. Nothing is.”
If Colin was to be honest, he’d always thought his grandfather was a little crazy. Worn down by years in a world that he no longer understood, Grandpappy had always been an unpleasant mix of tired and angry that made Colin more than a little afraid of his own twilight years. But, despite everything, he’d been Colin’s family. When they’d taken him away to the home, it gutted Colin. When they’d moved Colin a few blocks over, away from the busy city road where he’d spent his childhood to this gutted, gentrified, soulless neighborhood, it had burned. He belonged in a dingy apartment, rusty pipes screeching and floors screaming with every step; He belonged where he could see Tom running deliveries across the street and where he could hear Ms. Gina scream at her husband at 2 a.m. because he forgot their anniversary, again.
Where Colin didn’t belong was Washington Carver Lane, the rows of refurbished townhomes and sickly sweet smelling lawns standing out like a cancerous growth upon the natural skin of the city streets. It wasn’t that he thought the DeFrancesco’s were self-righteous hipsters, or patronizing white saviors, or any of the other things Grandpappy would’ve called them. It was just that they didn’t understand where they were; they didn’t care about the city or its soul. They’d allowed a living, breathing piece of Sundown City to be bulldozed so they could have a neat, clear lawn that they could’ve just as easily found in the suburbs. No, Colin didn’t belong among the DeFrancesco’s, and he certainly did not belong at. St. Scholastica’s School for the Gifted, studying alongside Barry.
Bartholomew DeFrancesco was the natural son of Colin’s foster family, and the boy he was expected to now consider his adoptive brother. Colin didn’t mind Barry, but they were just too different. Colin wanted to sit crosslegged on the school rooftops and sketch the city beneath him; Barry wanted to ace his midterms and get the girl and attend a prestigious college next fall. Colin had no idea why anybody would think he belonged at a school for the gifted— he got C’s, and B’s at best in on grade courses, and he didn’t excel in the Music, Art, or Athletic departments. He wasn’t a collection of skills and facts like Barry- he was just a guy.
So he’d snuck out tonight— just for the night— because it was March 3rd, and every three years on March 3rd the Midnight Gang met. Grandpappy had taken Colin along the last time the gang of graying men had met, so he could soak in some of their stories and understand, as Grandpappy put it, “the spirit of brotherly love.”
“Now, that term’s due for an update, son, cause here in the 21st century we know that we all stand together, man, woman, or anyone else,” Grandpappy had told him affectionately in the dilapidated diner, Annie’s, their meeting place for almost fifty years. “But the spirit remains intact- just a little smarter. People weren’t s’posed to be a solitary animal. They need their fellows.”
That was how it had been in 2015, at least, but in 2018 the spirit seemed long dead. With a breath-like sigh, Colin ducked past the warning signs and into the sleeping construction site established where Annie’s had once stood. Carefully, he edged past the unfinished foundations for the generic high-rise to come, searching for a sign, any sign, that the place Grandpappy had loved so much still existed.
“What is this place?” Barry breathed, running a pale hand through his clean-cut blond hair as he followed Colin closely. Yes, he’d tagged along, but no, Colin didn’t mind. Barry wasn’t loud, and he rarely messed with things he didn’t understand, so Colin figured he couldn’t be of any harm.
“Sunrise Condos, opening 2020,” Colin read aloud to him ruefully, his mouth splitting into a small grin. “Maybe our president will be less of an ass by then, huh?”
This earned a dry chuckle from Barry, and the two shared a rare feeling of camaraderie. Still smiling, Colin carefully stepped over a stack of wooden boards and turned a corner towards where the kitchen had once been. He wondered if it still smelled of bacon grease and better days.
Yet, as the new space came into view, Colin was greeted by an expected sight. A girl, about his age, perched on a stack of wooden pallets, a silver piercing dangling from her nose and several more from her right ear. She was smoking something, probably illegal, from a cigarette she held between two fingers. As she glimpsed Colin, she took a final drag and put out the cigarette against the leather of her jacket.
“Hey,” she stared, unblinking, at Colin. “Can I help you?”
Colin felt a rush of anger- these were the lowlifes who brought the developers to the area with their crime, the ones who let the mayor and city planners feel good about the gutting they did. The kind of people who the Midnight Gang would have never let hang around.
“No,” Colin replied shortly, and turned to leave. The girl snickered, hopped to her feet, and followed.
“Wow, I don’t bite,” she laughed, probably high. “Well, I do, actually depends on the context.”
“Really not caring,” Colin glowered, keeping on moving.
“I’m Asp, by the way,” the girl continued. “It kind of seems like the universe wants us to hang out.”
Colin laughed shortly “I sincerely doubt the universe wants anything from–” He paused, breath catching, as he returned to the area he’d been in earlier to see Barry was no longer alone. Across from him, looking a bit embarrassed, were two kids he knew well: the most popular couple from his old school. Lily Qian, just as done up and decked out as ever, and her boyfriend, Sean Shuster, still in the varsity football jacket that made him look stereotypical and dorky. Sean was grinning, a bit too widely, and with a start Colin realized he was drunk.
“Hey, Colin,” Lily turned towards Colin and he started a bit. He’d sort of assumed neither Lily nor Sean ever learned his name. “Mind if we crash here for a bit?”
“You know each other?” a flustered Barry frowned.
“A bit,” Sean slurred. “C’lin went to school with us.”
“Drunk,” Asp nodded approvingly, perching herself against a sturdy looking beam as she observed the newcomers. “Nice.”
“Wait, who’s she?” Barry sputtered.
“Look,” Lily continued, ignoring the interruption. “We were at a party, and Sean drank too much, okay? And he’s not supposed to drink that much because now he wants to ruin his own life.”
“I jus’ wanna stop pretending, Lils,” Sean smirked, as if Lily was being very silly. “I’m not ruining… not ruining nothing.”
“You told me in no uncertain terms not to let you go around spilling your guts when you get like this,” Lily reminded Sean, adamant. “It was part of our deal.”
“Ooh, a deal,” Asp raised an eyebrow. “Sounds scandalous.”
“Not really,” Lily replied shortly.
“Yeah,” Sean laughed. “I go out with Lily so nobody knows I’m into dudes.”
Colin’s eyes widened and Asp clapped her hands together, delighted. “Ooh, very CW. I like it. And what do you offer Vera Bradley here? Popularity? Arm candy?”
“I protect her,” Sean burped, and Lily elbowed him, looking furious.
“Protect her?” Barry raised an eyebrow. “From what?”
“Nothing important,” Lily crossed her arms. “Jesus, Sean, the whole point of coming here was so you wouldn’t go around–”
There was a sudden snapping sound, and a little scream, and before Colin could even react Asp was on her feet and flying towards the noise. She tugged the little girl out of the way, and the pile of wood came crashing down.
“Woah, kid,” Asp pursed her lips. “You okay?”
“Yeah, seriously,” Barry hurried over to inspect the child, likely hoping to use the first aid training he’d gone on to Colin about. Sean, Lily, and Colin exchanged looks, and reluctantly followed.
The small child nodded. She was maybe nine years old, looking dirty and dinged up. She was shaking, shaking so much Colin thought she’d bring the whole place down. Asp clutched her protectively.
“What happened to you?” Asp frowned, all business.
“I… I can’t tell you,” the girl choked. “He’ll hurt you–”
“Nobody’s hurting anybody,” Lily knelt down next to her. “What’s your name?”
“M…Maya…” the girl admitted.
“Look, Maya… you can trust us,” Barry assured the girl. “What’s wrong?”
“Mister… mister Smithy…” Maya stuttered. “My… the…. One who bought me.”
“Bought you?” Sean repeated, dumbfounded, and Asp’s eyes went hard.
“Yeah, we’re going to the fucking police,” she stood up. “And then you’re pointing me towards the bastard and I’m tearing him a new–”
“Please, don’t,” Maya shook her head. “I can’t… I don’t… I don’t want to go.”
“Go?” Colin frowned. “Go where?”
Maya paused, bashful and embarassed. “It’s just… the dark. I’m afraid of it. Cause last time I was out in the dark, was when they…” She trailed off, and the five strangers shared a look.
“How about we shtay here for the night, huh?” Sean almost tripped as he lowered himself to the ground. “We can get you help in the morning.”
“The five of us will keep you safe…” Lily placed a gentle hand on Maya’s shoulder. “Promise.”
For Colin, March 3, 2018, was the night that changed the shape of his world. This was the night that Colin met his best friends, and the day he found his new sister.
And this was the day a new Midnight Gang found themselves huddled together in the dark, drinking in the city and the unexpected family of each other.