42. Running

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Henry couldn't fall back asleep. Not after that dream. The same dream he'd had about Sarah two nights ago. With a grumble, he pulled himself up and just sat there on the edge of the bed. A pressure pulsed in his chest, pushing the breaths out of his lungs, and filling his head with a flurry of anxious thoughts.

Moonlight shimmered through the dusty window into the cramped box of an apartment, revealing clothes and clumps of dirt and dried grass scattered over a scraped-up wood floor. Henry squinted through the faint light at the alarm clock tick-tocking on the nightstand. Damn! Four-thirty.

Moments later, Henry threw on an old gray t-shirt and a tattered pair of shorts. Then he washed down a hard piece of brown bread with a glass of tap water.

And so Henry found himself bounding down the steps of his crumbling apartment building before jogging up the center of the street, dimly lit by a waning crescent of a moon. Growing up on a meager farm, Henry thought he'd seen poor. But here surrounded by the cavity-laden tenement buildings, packed together like overcrowded teeth, Henry had no doubt this was the spittin' image of poor.

Metal garbage pails lined the sidewalk, filling the air with the stench of rotting meat, eggs, and vegetables. Henry's heart sunk as he watched an elderly black woman picking through the trash. She was homeless, for sure, her clothing a wilted patchwork, crusted with dirt. But she wasn't alone. A small horde of homeless had infiltrated the garbage, seeking treasure in whatever form they could find. None of them paying any mind to Henry or the rap of his shoes against an asphalt road veined with cracks.

Struggling to catch a breath, Henry felt like he was plodding along. After the Rooks shut down, he'd lost any desire to train or exercise. And despite the rigorous Pioneers practices, he was still trying to get back into playing shape.

Entering the lower end of the Black Business District, the five- and six-story tenements gave way to two-floor mom-and-pop establishments. All around, Henry noticed the brighter colors of the building fronts, the red and green awnings, and the many flashy signs. He ambled past Tyson's Pub. Beer and Wings Special every Thursday! And one block later, he passed Ritchie's Diner, home of the best fried chicken in Hester, and maybe even in the whole dang country.

Henry kept jogging until he came to a big black marquee with glowing white letters: Diamond Club. On the window, a blue-and-white poster advertised Amateur Night. Henry had only met Edward Benedict once when he owned the Rooks, and Henry wasn't impressed. He couldn't put his finger on it, but something about the man reeked worse than his overpriced cologne.

After crossing Jim Crow Bridge, Henry reached Union Steel, and his gut churned with a mix of emotions. He knew the company didn't treat blacks fairly. Yet, now he played ball for them. He wanted to feel a sense of pride in his new team, but he just couldn't overcome the guilt.

In the work yard outside the mill, a half dozen coloreds in denim overalls were shoveling a huge pile of coal, loading spadefuls onto the back of a truck. Their boss was white as bone with broad shoulders and icy blue eyes. Henry's jaw fell open. It was the crazy man from the exhibition game.

Henry burned with anger, realizing how this scene resembled stories about slave camps where blacks toiled in the fields under the rule of ruthless white supervisors.

"Shovel faster!" the crazy man shouted. "You lazy idiots!"

Henry stared at the somber faces of the colored men. Shoveling coal with broken spirits. They didn't even have the energy to hold up their sagging frames. Then he saw Reggie Blake and Malcolm Blair. Former Rooks. Skeletons of their once robust selves.

But where was Maurice?

Henry continued running until he came upon a sign for the "Union Steel bunkhouses" where many of the mill workers lived in subsidized shacks. Beneath the words, twin arrows pointed to opposite paths through the woods to the black and white houses.

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