street traffic

Benjamin Frandsen was awarded Honorable Mention in Drama in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.

Tiny General



The shiny hardwood floors display over 100 high school science projects, each manned by its student creator. Parents, attendees, and even the young scientists (mostly African American) now direct their attention toward A SMALL STAGE featuring a large BANNER that reads: GARFIELD HIGH SCHOOL FINALS. Beneath the banner, each in front of elaborate science projects, stand three students, two of whom tower over the third, who looks too young to be in high school.

The emcee, PRINCIPAL DAVENPORT, holds the microphone up to the second contestant, DARIUS JAMESON (17), who stands about 6’2. Darius’s project involves a complicated maze of wires with light bulbs at each corner.

DAVENPORT Okay, Darius, your project title and purpose, in 30 words or less.

The principal extends the microphone to a nervous Darius.

DARIUS The, uh, title is “The Path of Light” and it’s . . . showing how sometimes light acts like a wave and sometimes it acts like a beam.

The crowd shows their support with CHEERING and APPLAUSE. Davenport smiles and moves on to the diminutive third student.


He’s black, 12 years old, slender, and well-dressed. His bearing and demeanor seem unnaturally serious. An extreme intelligence shines through his eyes with unnerving force. His small frame makes his mid-sized drone seem much larger.

DAVENPORT Now let’s hear from Garfield High’s youngest student, freshman Marcus Tipton. What have you got for us?

Gesturing to the drone, Marcus speaks quickly, almost robotically.

MARCUS I hybridized a Pixel 2 smartphone’s high-res digital camera, a satellite zoom, and a drone with fully articulating grasping arms.

The principal starts to ask another question when a girl SHRIEKS from across the room. Several students climb frantically up onto a display table to flee from a scurrying rat, which is being chased by a chubby, bespectacled Asian kid.

ASIAN KID Patches! Hold still!

A WAVE OF SHOUTS follows the rodent around the room.

DAVENPORT Stay calm, people. We just need to—

Marcus bumps the school’s patriarch out of his way.

MARCUS (businesslike) Step aside.

With deft fingers, Marcus HITS NUMBERS ON THE DRONE’S KEYPAD, setting its propellers WHIRRING to life. He pulls out his smartphone and guides the drone skillfully towards the rat.

Students and teachers scramble out of the way as the drone’s talon-like hands reach down and snatch up the rat.

Amidst the sea of OOHS and AHHS and shocked faces, the drone BUZZES back to Marcus, hovers over him, and drops the rat into his left hand. With his free hand he uses his phone to land the drone. The crowd ERUPTS WITH WILD CHEERS AND APPLAUSE.


Marcus sits in the backseat. A first-place trophy about the same size as his upper torso sits seat-belted in next to him, as he fiddles with his smartphone.

Up front, bobbing his head to the RAP MUSIC playing on the car stereo, sits his brother RASHEED (17)-friendly, awkward, autistic. Their lovely mother, TARIQA (30s), frowns at her youngest son in the rearview mirror.

TARIQA What did I tell you about playing on that thing while we’re driving, young man? Give it here.

She extends her hand imperiously. Marcus screws up his face in a scowl, ignoring her. Annoyed, she reaches back to grab his phone . . .


A gleaming new Dodge Challenger rockets toward the Tiptons like a bat out of hell. As the car zips in and out of traffic, narrowly missing other vehicles, several drivers HONK angrily.

The driver, TYBERIUS WALKER (30s), grins, unperturbed by their protests. But his smile never reaches his eyes-cold eyes like a shark’s, dividing all the world up into what is food and what isn’t. He swerves around an 18-wheeler into oncoming traffic . . .


Tariqa struggles to snatch Marcus’s phone from him but he won’t let go. Finally she tears it away, the sudden jerking motion causing her to veer into oncoming traffic.

In his fast-approaching vehicle, Tyberius sees Tariqa’s car barreling right for him in his lane. But instead of trying to avoid it, he STEPS ON THE GAS and accelerates.

At the last second, Tariqa notices the Challenger hurtling toward her. She yanks the steering wheel and misses the other car by mere inches. But the unplanned change of direction causes the old sedan to lurch sideways-and the vehicle flips . . .


The occupants hang upside-down, horror-stricken looks on their faces. Tariqa immediately spreads her arms in a vain attempt to press both sons into their seats.

Marcus’s face washes with terror, guilt, and tacit apology. He turns and locks angry eyes with Tyberius, who smirks back at him, amused by the havoc he caused.


The vehicle CRUNCHES roof-first into the ground, rolls twice, SHATTERING THE WINDOWS, and comes to a GRINDING stop, right-side up. Rasheed lies unconscious, his head bleeding. Tariqa, motionless, doesn’t stir when Marcus prods her bloody side.

Finally she opens her eyes and looks from Rasheed to Marcus.

TARIQA (barely audible) You take care of your brother. You always were the strong one.

Her eyes close for the last time. Marcus’s lips quiver, but he doesn’t cry.


About 20 friends and family in funeral attire mill around the house with somber expressions. TAMMY TIPTON (late 20s) sashays in wearing a skin-tight outfit and huge, gaudy earrings. She scans the room.

Standing alone, staring at the floor, Marcus glances up as Tammy approaches. She looks high on drugs, and keeps licking her lips.

TAMMY (saccharine-sweet) Marcus, don’t you look handsome in your little suit.

She frowns at his blank look.

TAMMY (CONT’D) It’s me, your Aunt Tammy. Yo’ momma’s half-sister? I’m gone be staying with you and Rasheed awhile.

He eyes her doubtfully. Overhearing the exchange, an older man

(HERB RIVERS), the only Caucasian in the room, steps closer.

RIVERS Tammy was it? I’m Herb Rivers with Quality Mutual Insurance. Are you the boys’ guardian?

TAMMY I’m fixin’ to be. Why?

RIVERS Ms. Tipton had a $25,000 life insurance—

TAMMY You can just make the check out to me.

Rivers CLEARS HIS THROAT uncomfortably.

RIVERS No, actually, I can’t. She listed Marcus as the sole beneficiary with instructions that the money was to be used for the care of both boys equally.

Tammy wrinkles her nose. Her porcelain veneer cracks, revealing the ghetto-bred attitude underneath.

TAMMY So the check in Marcus name? He 12 years old.

RIVERS Indeed.

Smiling again, she lays a hand on Marcus’s shoulder. He narrows his eyes at her suspiciously.


Tammy struts in the front door, ZIPPING up her zebra-stripe mini skirt. Her bright red halter top and shiny, white knee-high platform boots complete the prostitute package.

SUPER: “Two weeks later.”

Her boyfriend T-BONE (30s) sits lazily in the couch, a crack pipe held loosely in his lap. She automatically slides into the seat next to him and takes his crack pipe.

TAMMY Where the lighter at?

Marcus rolls his eyes, pulling out his smartphone. Rasheed’s full attention is focused on the TV screen as he plays the new Halo X-Box game, so he doesn’t notice the lighter on the coffee table next to him. T-Bone abruptly boxes Rasheed’s ear, hard.

T-BONE Boy, you don’t see the goddamn lighter sitting right in front of yo’ retarded ass?

Appearing as if out of nowhere, Marcus hovers over T-Bone with a dangerous gleam in his young eyes.

MARCUS (icily) I told you that if you touched him, you were gone. That was the second time. Pack your things.

T-Bone lurches to his feet and raises his hand as if to backhand the boy, but Marcus holds up his phone to display a video. T-Bone pauses mid-strike.

T-BONE What the hell that s’posed to be?

MARCUS It’s you, you worthless crackhead, wanna-be gangsta. Meeting with the connect right out front. See? You can even see your gun.


T-Bone in front of the Tipton home, wearing a wife-beater and baggy jeans with a 9mm pistol tucked into the back of his pants. A Latino, similarly attired, hands T-Bone a small baggy and accepts some rolled-up cash in exchange.


T-BONE I will beat the bark off yo’ little Erkel ass. Gimme that damn phone!

MARCUS Too late for that. I emailed that to your parole officer an hour ago. Only question now is whether you want to take this little head start I’m giving you and get the hell out now, or wait until they come scoop your “retarded ass” up.

T-BONE You bluffing.

He wraps his fingers around Marcus’s neck and starts to squeeze . . .

Tammy stands by with a smirk on her overly made-up face.


PAROLE OFFICER (O.S.) Come on out, T-Bone! I know you’re in there!

T-Bone releases Marcus, runs out the back door—and right into the waiting arms of a patrol officer. The cop promptly cuffs his hands behind his back. T-Bone’s face boils red with rage.

T-BONE Oh you gone see me again, you little son of a bitch!

Marcus flashes an eerie smile and gives T-Bone a condescending fingertip wave as the Parole officer begins searching the house.

MARCUS Looking forward to it.

Full of anxiety, Rasheed sits on the floor with his arms wrapped around his knees, rocking himself.

As T-Bone’s Parole officer takes a cursory glance around the house to search for contraband, Tammy glares daggers at her youngest nephew.

TAMMY (sotto) Things ’bout to get real rough for you ’round here.

MARCUS If they do, you won’t be here to see it.

Marcus pulls up something on his smartphone and shows Tammy.


Tammy in an alley, taking money from a john, then dropping to her knees and unzipping his fly.


TAMMY You got-damn little bastard.

MARCUS Orphan, actually. Which brings me to the point. Here’s how it’s going work. Tomorrow we’re going to the bank to cash that $25,000 check.

TAMMY (confused) They ain’t sent the check yet.

Marcus shakes his as if at a foolish child.

MARCUS Of course they did. It arrived in the mail a week ago. You think I’d let you get your greedy hands on that without having some leverage first?

She takes a threatening step closer to him.

TAMMY You took the check out the mail?

MARCUS Try to keep up. Once we’ve cashed the check, you will take $5,000 for yourself. Then you will have 10 minutes to grab everything you own and get the hell out of our house.

TAMMY How ’bout I just slap that smug little look of yo’ face and gangsta that phone. Problem solved.

Marcus sighs impatiently.

MARCUS It’s in the cloud.

TAMMY The what?

MARCUS The video is saved somewhere else. Once or twice a month a lady from CSS is going to be coming by to check on us. I’ll know ahead of time before she visits.

TAMMY How the hell you gonna know—

MARCUS Their firewall is pathetic. Above your pay grade. All you need to know is whenever I text you, you drop everything and trot your slutty ass over here. You change into something presentable and tell CSS we’re all one big happy family. If you fail to do that, or if you ever show your face here except to play parent for CSS, this video goes to your parole officer—and to that sugar daddy of yours on the hill you conned into thinking you went straight.

Tammy purses her mouth in a half snarl, about to say something when Marcus holds up his phone with the video of her “performance” still frozen on screen. Her mouth clamps shut as she struggles mightily to cage her fury.

Marcus strolls over to Rasheed and lays a comforting hand on his shoulder.


Tammy drags her last suitcase to the open hatch of her old Honda, heaves it inside, and SLAMS the hatch. She glances back at Marcus on the front porch, hovering protectively over Rasheed, who sits grinning and waving guilelessly at his aunt.

Her angry countenance cracks briefly as she flashes Marcus a grudging smile of respect. She pulls out a fat envelope, removes $5,000, and saunters over and hands Marcus the rest.

TAMMY How the hell you gonna take care of you and Rasheed?

Marcus adopts an air of superiority as he unflinchingly meets her gaze.

MARCUS Took care of you, didn’t I?

She spins angrily on her CLACKING high heels and heads to her car.

TAMMY (mumbling) Oh this little negro is too much.

He stares without blinking at the Honda’s departure, and then taps his brother.

MARCUS C’mon, Rasheed. We’ve got work to do.


—Marcus and Rasheed carrying in grocery bags of household cleaning supplies.

—Marcus holding open a trash bag for Rasheed as they sweep all the drug paraphernalia and garbage off every surface.

—Rasheed vacuuming in the hallway while Marcus scrubs the bathroom with Comet and a scrub pad.

—A UPS driver hauling several large boxes including two 52-inch flat-screen monitors into a clean house.

—Rasheed installing security cameras while Marcus installs computer equipment and then installs the monitors side by side on one wall.

—Rasheed opening up a cardboard box to see the new X-Box game unit. His face lights up and he scoops Marcus up in his arms and jumps up and down with delight.


As his older brother plays a VIDEO GAME on one mounted screen in the living room/command center, Marcus studies the split-screen images of their house seen from the “eyes” of their outdoor security cameras.

Marcus counts out what’s left of their depleted stack of cash. Glancing at the game Rasheed’s playing, one where he’s flying a military helicopter over enemy territory, Marcus grins mischievously.

MARCUS We ate into our stack of chips with all this, bro. We need to make some money. I’m going to need your help.

Rasheed PAUSES his game and looks at his little brother curiously. When he speaks, it’s slow, deliberate, modulated

RASHEED How does Marky need Rasheed’s help?

The younger boy tilts his head conspiratorially toward the monitor Rasheed’s using to play the game.

MARCUS How’d you like to fly a mission for real?

After frowning a moment, Rasheed suddenly jerks his eyes toward the small table in the back of the room where Marcus’s drone sits perched ready for action. Rasheed GIGGLES, every tooth visible.


as it flies over South-Central L.A. streets and the sparse late night traffic. The only foot traffic comprises gangbangers, drug dealers, and prostitutes. The drone’s high-powered zoom capability allows it to record at high altitude, undetected.

MARCUS (O.S) Get closer to that dude in the alley. Who wears a suit . . .

The drone veers left towards the alley where a scantily clad hooker leads a man in a suit into the alley.

Without preamble, she starts unbuckling his belt, he closes his eyes and points his familiar-looking face skyward.


Rasheed expertly maneuvers the drone and its controls as the video feed plays on the flat-screen monitor. The two brothers gape at the screen in disbelief.

MARCUS Principal Davenport?

(to Rasheed) Are you recording?

RASHEED Rasheed is recording. (frowning) That is not Mrs. Davenport.

Marcus’s expression makes it clear his wheels are turning.

MARCUS No, and he would probably do just about anything to make sure she doesn’t see this.

EXHALING LOUDLY through his nose, Rasheed shakes his head.

RASHEED Dirty. Our neighborhood is dirty now, Marky.

The younger brother nods in agreement.

MARCUS We need to clean it up, bro.

Recognizing something in his little brother’s voice, Rasheed eyes him curiously-a silent question. Marcus stares back at him, serious as a heart attack.

MARCUS (CONT’D) Somebody’s got to. But for that? We need money. I’m going to need your help. Are you in?

RASHEED Rasheed is with Marky always. Always. But T-Rex runs all these Streets. He kills people, Marky.

After patting Rasheed reassuringly on the back, Marcus takes a deep breath. He stands up straight, coming to a decision.

MARCUS I know. He’s the one who killed Momma. (muttering; guiltily) One of them anyway.

Marcus takes a deep breath and comes to a decision.

MARCUS (CONT’D) Fly over the hundreds.

While Rasheed adroitly guides the drone, the monitor shows a bird’s-eye view of South-Central L.A.’s streets: 100th Street, only a few straggler graveyard workers walking home. When the screen displays 101st Street . . .

MARCUS (CONT’D) Hover over 101st. Go up high and keep watch.

Grinning happily, the older brother complies.

RASHEED Rasheed is Overwatch!

MARCUS (chuckling) Damn straight. Climb up high, Overwatch. We’re going to hit this dinosaur where it hurts.


A black SCRAWNY DEALER (20s) dressed in new black Jordans, dark jeans, and a puffy black North Face jacket stands, hands in pockets, on the corner.

A lowrider Impala pulls up and stops. The passenger’s-side window rolls down and two black men (20s) look out expectantly.

The dealer steps closer.

SCRAWNY DEALER I got that black.

PASSENGER Gimme the zones.

The Scrawny Dealer’s eyes widen for a brief moment.

SCRAWNY DEALER Aight. Hold up a second.

He runs a short distance and ducks into a doorway and reaches into a small duffle bag and pulls out two small plastic baggies of powder. He trots to the car and exchanges the baggies for a sizable wad of cash.

When the lowrider DRIVES OFF, the dealer hurries back to the duffle bag. Glancing around to make sure he isn’t being observed, he peels a $50 bill off the wad and tosses the rest of the cash at the duffle bag.

CLOSE ON – WAD OF CASH sticking part way out of the duffle bag.

ANGLE ON – JEEP CHEROKEE pulling up with its STEREO BUMPING. The electronic window ROLLS DOWN and the STEREO VOLUME INCREASES as the Scrawny Dealer leans into the vehicle to service them.

In the background, behind the preoccupied dealer, a drone flies down to street level and darts into that doorway, lowers carefully to the duffle bag, its WHIRRING SOUND drowned out by the THUMPING CAR STEREO.


Rasheed manipulates the drone’s controls like an old pro, using the grasping arms to grab the rubber-banded stack of cash poking out of the duffle bag, all of the visible on the 52-inch monitor.


The Jeep Cherokee REVS OFF as, behind the dealer, the drone WHIRS OFF unseen with the cash. Clueless, the Scrawny Dealer returns to his corner.


Marcus LAUGHS, delighted.

MARCUS Yeah! You did that, bro!

RASHEED (proudly) Overwatch, did that.

MARCUS Think you can do it again?

Rasheed grins widely.


—The drone BUZZING away from the Scrawny Dealer’s stash spot, money grasped in its mechanical “hands.”

—And again.

—And again-only this time the dealer sees the tail end of the theft and FIRES SEVERAL SHOTS at it.


As it veers sharply to avoid the bullets, then escapes unscathed.

It soars over South-Central, passing the streets far below, until it descends on the Tipton house where Marcus waits on the roof, arms outstretched.


Driving fast between two matching white Cadillac Escalades,

Tyberius’s Challenger SKIDS to a stop at the Scrawny Dealer’s corner.

Two beefy, nicely dressed black men get out of the lead car, guns out and at their sides as they flank their boss like presidential bodyguards.

Two men get out of the rear SUV and each go to an opposite corner, keeping a protective watch. The Scrawny Dealer immediately panics when Tyberius gets out of his car. Tyberius approaches, arms spread and smile wide.

TYBERIUS Black Bean. Sup with it?

The Scrawny Dealer (Black Bean) holds his hands up and backs away looking petrified.

BLACK BEAN Hey, yo T, I’ma find out who’s taking the money. You gotta believe me, that thing buzzed in like a damn hawk and—

Tyberius puts his arm around Black Bean’s shoulders—a seemingly friendly gesture, but Black Bean cringes.

TYBERIUS This ain’t about you losing my money to someone with a high-tech toy.

A glimmer of hope lights the frightened man’s eyes.

BLACK BEAN It’s not?

TYBERIUS Naw. Whoever they is, they just smarter than you. Ain’t yo’ fault. But this is.

He nods to his closest bodyguard.


The bodyguard pulls a tablet out of his jacket and holds up a video taken from the small alcove stash spot Black Bean’s been using. Judging from the angle, it appears to be from a camera mounted high on the wall


Black Bean, glancing around the stash spot to make sure no one sees him, then peeling off the $50 bill for himself.


The scrawny man flinches as if someone is taking a swing at him, though no one is.

TYBERIUS You stole from me, Bean.

Black Bean struggles to squirm away, but Tyberius’s arm clamps down like an iron vice.

TYBERIUS (CONT ‘D) Even my close friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.

All in one lightning motion, Tyberius shoves Bean and whips out a chrome, long-barreled .45 revolver and has it pressed between the man’s terrified eyes.

TYBERIUS (CONT’D) You stole from me. And that, as Momma used to say, “Ah jess cayn’t abide.”


BLACK BEAN No, no, no. T, it was only a 50.

I was gonna put it back tonight, man, I swear to God I was!

TYBERIUS Only one way to pay back something like that, bruh.

BANG! HE FIRES a bullet that turns the back of Black Bean’s head into a fine red mist. He turns to his protective detail.

TYBERIUS Take care of this. Toss this thievin’ bag o’ bones out right onto the sidewalk on 83rd. Let them eight-trays take the heat for a change. We need to find out who’s sending these baby ghetto birds to steal my paper.


While Rasheed plays his video game on one monitor, Marcus uses the remote to channel surf on the other. The channels are flying by, until something catches Marcus’s attention.

MARCUS Oh, snap!

RASHEED (excited) Marky is on TV! On TV!


A pretty REDHEAD news anchor flashes her perfect teeth.

REDHEAD Yesterday a video of California’s youngest high school freshman goes viral.


Marcus’s drone swooping down on the escaped rat as female students stand atop a table, SHRIEKING.

REDHEAD (CONT’D) (V.0.) Marcus Tipton, described by teachers as a genius, apparently built this drone he calls the Talon in a workshop in his garage . . .


MARCUS Rasheed, we need to go. Start packing.

RASHEED Packing what?

MARCUS Everything. And hurry.


In a lavishly decorated living room, Tyberius lounges on a plush couch, glaring at the screen, which is airing the same TV news segment, now CLOSE ON – MARCUS’ FACE.



Marcus locks angry eyes with Tyberius.


TYBERIUS Okay, little boy. You in the big leagues now. You earned the right to die like a man.

He FIRES a bullet through the Marcus’s face on the TV screen.


TYBERIUS (CONT’D) Somebody get me another goddamn TV!