Invisible Kid

Invisible Kid
Sentenced to life in prison at 16, Adolfo Davis hoped a Supreme Court ruling would give him a chance at a new beginning. But nothing about freedom turned out as he expected.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 114


Maddy Crowell has written for Harper’s, The Guardian, and The Point. She lives in New York City. Hear more about “Invisible Kid” and the Atavist redesign on the Creative Nonfiction podcast.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in April 2021.


INCARCERATION

1.

Sometime after he had given up hope and then recovered it, Adolfo Davis began writing letters from his prison cell. Around 1999, he bought paper and pens from the commissary and wrote one letter after another, three times a week. He wrote on his bed, a squeaky metal frame with a lumpy loaf of a mattress, under the ugly glare of a fluorescent light bulb. There was nothing much to look at in his cell, just gray walls and a burnt-orange door made of steel, with tiny holes drilled through it. Muffled sounds from the hallway helped him figure out what time of day it was, when it was mealtime, which guards were working.

“My name is Adolfo Davis, and I’m trying to get home and regain my freedom,” he would write. “I didn’t shoot nobody. Please, help me get a second chance at life.” He sent a letter to nearly every law firm in Chicago, and after that, to every firm he could find in the state of Illinois. Most of the time, the letters went unanswered. Occasionally, he received a curt apology: “Sorry, we are at capacity.” Or simply: “We can’t, but good luck.”

Adolfo was in his early twenties when he started writing the letters. He had a boyish smile, a light mustache, and a disarming charisma that could fold into stillness when he felt like being alone. In 1993, at the age of 16, he’d been convicted as an accomplice to a double murder that took place when he was 14. He claimed that he was there when the killings happened, but that he didn’t pull the trigger. For that he was serving a mandatory life sentence, without the possibility of parole.

Prisons in Illinois were teeming with cases like his—Black men who’d been locked up as teenagers. Few would ever be freed. Over the years, Adolfo watched friends become optimistic and then have their hopes dashed by the courts, by politicians, by their own lawyers. He once saw someone make it to the front door of the prison after a ruling was issued in his favor, only to be sent back to his cell when a state’s attorney made a last-minute phone call to a judge.

Sometimes Adolfo felt like he was trapped at the bottom of an hourglass, the sand piling up around him: Every falling grain meant another day of his life lost. Except that he wasn’t sure exactly what he was missing. He’d been free in the world for only 14 years—about as long as it takes some woolly bear caterpillars to become moths. What he remembered best was the small slice of Chicago’s South Side where he grew up. He remembered selling drugs on street corners, and coming home to find no food in the house. He remembered being evicted 11 times in 12 years, and sleeping in apartments crammed with other kids, aunties and uncles, friends. He remembered doing wheelies on his bike, showing off to the other kids in his neighborhood. He remembered getting up early on Sundays to get a Super Transfer—a bus ticket good for an entire day—and riding downtown, where skyscrapers towered above him. He and his friends would spend the day shining shoes or breakdancing for money.

The letters continued into Adolfo’s thirties. At some point, he began to wonder if he’d be writing them for the rest of his life. He would if he had to, because despite the terms of his sentence, the only thing that sustained him was the thought that he might eventually be released. So he kept writing; the months bled together, and the years did, too.

One day in 2009, Adolfo got a letter from the officials at Illinois’s Stateville prison, where he was incarcerated, notifying him that a lawyer would visit him the next day. Her name was Patricia Soung, and she was from the Children and Family Justice Center, a legal clinic run by Northwestern University, in Evanston, just outside Chicago. Adolfo had no idea what her visit was about, but he felt a sudden buoyancy.

When he met Soung, he could tell right away that she was, as he later put it, “an alpha”—professional and direct. Yet she seemed to care about him as a person, too. She and her team were working on juvenile-justice cases in Illinois, she explained, and they’d come across his. She wanted to take it on pro bono. Was he interested?

In more than a decade of writing letters, Adolfo had never sent one to Soung or the Children and Family Justice Center. This offer of possible salvation came entirely out of the blue.

2.

At the time when Adolfo met Soung, the United States was the only country in the world that sentenced children convicted of certain crimes to life in prison. In Illinois, as in many other states, adolescents as young as 14 could be transferred to an adult court, allowing prosecutors to circumvent a juvenile-court system that was considered more rehabilitative than punitive. If a child was convicted of a double murder in adult court, the mandatory sentence was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—judges were barred from taking into account the circumstances surrounding the crime to lower the sentence. The year Adolfo was arrested, 2,500 other adolescents across the country were serving mandatory life sentences.

Individuals convicted of certain crimes before they were 18 could also be sentenced to death, until a 2005 Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, abolished that option on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision was based in part on the idea that adolescents had an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and were “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure.”

A coalition of activists and lawyers decided to use Roper to try to bring an end to mandatory life sentences for minors. The group was led in large part by Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama lawyer who saw an opportunity in the ruling: If the Supreme Court agreed that adolescents’ brains were fundamentally different from adults’, he reasoned, then why should a child ever be sentenced as an adult? Stevenson began searching the country for test cases—people serving life sentences who’d been locked up as kids. He had nearly 2,000 to choose from.

Stevenson zeroed in on 35 cases, spread over 20 states. They mostly involved the youngest adolescents condemned to die in prison. Stevenson filed an appeal in each of the cases, and two of them eventually reached the Supreme Court. In the first, Miller v. Alabama, a man named Evan Miller was 14 when he beat his neighbor and then set fire to his trailer, killing him, after a night of drinking and drug use. In the second, Jackson v. Hobbs, Kuntrell Jackson, also 14, robbed an Arkansas video store with two older teenagers, one of whom killed the store’s clerk.

In 2012, the Supreme Court delivered a monumental five to four decision in favor of Miller. It ruled that it was unlawful to hand a child a mandatory life sentence that failed to take “into account the family and home environment … no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.” As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it during oral arguments, “You’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope. I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”

Adolfo Davis at age 15

The ruling was groundbreaking in that it compelled judges to consider a child’s background in determining sentencing. But it also left open the question of whether the decision could apply to older cases, ones that had already been litigated. Soung’s team at Northwestern wanted to use Adolfo’s case to set a precedent, cementing that the Miller ruling could be applied retroactively. In 2014, they brought his case before the Illinois Supreme Court, and to Adolfo’s amazement the judges ruled in his favor: Based on Miller, he could appeal his life sentence. The decision didn’t set him free, but it cleared a path for that to happen.

Suddenly, Adolfo’s story garnered national attention. He found himself on the front page of The New York Times—a photo of him in an oversize brown prison uniform appeared above a story about his case. “A Murderer at 14, Then a Lifer, Now a Man Pondering a Future,” the headline read. Journalists from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and WBEZ contacted him, asking him to share his story. “‘I’m just praying for a second chance,’” one headline declared, quoting Adolfo.

By then he was 38. He’d spent nearly a quarter-century—most of his life—behind bars. With every letter he sent and every prayer he whispered, he’d been waiting for this moment. The possibility of release softened the harsh edges of prison, made them tolerable. At the same time, he was wary of what might happen when his case went back to court. The system had always been against him. Why should anything change now?

His resentencing hearing was scheduled for April 13, 2015. When the day finally arrived, Adolfo felt too jittery to eat breakfast, but he tried anyway, forcing spoonfuls of lukewarm eggs into his mouth. From a friend in prison, he’d heard that his assigned judge, Angela Petrone, was tough; she’d been a  prosecutor before taking the bench, and tended to give the state the benefit of the doubt. Adolfo feared that the outcome would not be good.

His attorneys understood that fear. They, too, knew Petrone was often conservative in her rulings. Still, any sentence other than life in prison would open the door to Adolfo someday being free.

“Are you ready?” Soung asked when Adolfo sat down at the defense table in the courtroom, dressed in slacks, a light-pink shirt, and a purple tie. It was the first time he’d worn civilian clothes in more than 20 years. Adolfo nodded. His face was calm, but every cell in his body seemed to quiver.

A team from Channel Seven, one of Chicago’s largest news stations, showed up to report on the hearing, along with writers from several major newspapers. It was a big case in Illinois. The courtroom was packed, and activists from around the country were watching closely. To the defense team, the question was not whether Adolfo deserved punishment—his conviction would stand no matter what—but how much time was enough, given the challenging environment he grew up in and his age at the time of the crime. For the prosecution, the hearing was a fresh chance to prove that Adolfo deserved to spend his life behind bars.

The state prosecutor, James P. McKay, was familiar: He had argued the case against Adolfo 22 years earlier. A white man in a black suit who moved restlessly around the courtroom, McKay spoke first. “It took a jury all of three hours to find [Adolfo] guilty,” he said in his opening statement. “Make no mistake about it, this defendant was not a 14-year-old naive, scared, merely present lookout, despite what some people out there want the world to believe. Make no mistake about it, Judge, this defendant was a shooter. The ripe old age of 14, this defendant was a shooter, an executioner. They might have been young, but they were violent.”

While McKay spoke, Adolfo exhaled softly. It was going to be a long day.

3.

Adolfo Davis was born in 1976 and raised in various neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, including the Back of the Yards. The area got its name for its proximity to the former Union Stock Yard and Transit Co. It had once a major meatpacking hub, but the industry dried up in the decades following World War II, and by 1990, after many of the neighborhood’s Slavic immigrants moved away, Black and Latino families had moved in.

Adolfo’s mother, Karen, was only around in physical form. As Adolfo remembers it, she “loved drugs more than her children.” When he was a toddler, his grandmother Fannie became his legal guardian. Fannie had migrated to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1950s, but she found life in the city just as challenging as it was in the South: She tried to support her 11 children, and then their children, but she never earned enough money to feed everyone.

At school, kids teased Adolfo for smelling bad and for wearing the same clothes every day. He would beat up anybody who made fun of him. He got into so many fights that he was kicked out of middle school without ever learning to read or write. To cope with feelings he couldn’t understand, he discovered new ways to harm himself, pouring alcohol on his head and setting it on fire, or burning himself with his mother’s cigarettes. He once played Russian roulette with a friend’s loaded gun. For fun, he and some older boys in the neighborhood scaled roofs and jumped the gaps between buildings, with the street 30 or 40 feet below. At night he wet the bed and suffered from insomnia, sleep terrors, and hallucinations. “I stayed out of the house as much as I could,” he recalled. “I just felt like I didn’t ever want to be born. All the time, I’d look at other kids who had good mothers or fathers, and I wished I had what they had.”

To get money for food, Adolfo and his brother walked to a Shell station five blocks from their house and pumped gas for a few quarters. Because that didn’t always earn them enough, they learned to steal what they needed. One day, Adolfo was shivering with hunger when he saw another child, a girl, step out from a corner store with a sandwich in her hand. Adolfo tried to snatch it from her. She fled with the sandwich but dropped three dollars’ worth of food stamps and 75 cents in change. Adolfo picked it all up and treated himself to a large soda pop, hot dogs, and fries. A few days later, he was arrested for robbery. The police took him to a station, with plans to release him that night. But nobody came to pick him up, so officers sent Adolfo to the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center, also known as the Audy Home. He was nine.

When he got to Audy, for the first time in his life, Adolfo was given three meals a day and a room with a bed to himself. After he was released, he tried to get himself locked up again anytime he grew tired of worrying about where his next meal would come from. Audy became his home away from home. From 1986 to 1990, he was taken to a police station on 20 occasions, and he was sent to Audy in half of those instances—anytime the charge was relatively serious, like when he stole a car.

His frequent arrests caught the attention of the Department of Family and Children’s Services. When a probation officer visited his home in 1990, the officer noted that he had a “mother reeking of alcohol.” According to a DFCS report, the home had “cockroaches climbing on the walls,” no kitchen table, and as many as 15 children inside. The caseworker recommended that Adolfo be “removed from his home environment.” But nobody ever came to get him after that visit. 

Adolfo found a family in the streets instead. The two warring gangs in his neighborhood were the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples, which at one point had been a single gang—the Black Gangster Disciples—before splitting into factions. The Gangster Disciples, or GD, dominated Adolfo’s block. Founded in the 1960s by Larry Hoover and David Barksdale, the GD was one of the largest street gangs in the country, claiming up to 30,000 members. In its heyday, according to Illinois state prosecutors, the GD generated up to $100 million a year in drug sales. The gang was believed to be responsible for hundreds of murders in Chicago in the 1980s, at the peak of the crack epidemic. It recruited young boys from all over the city.

One day when Adolfo was 11 or 12, he was walking with a friend, Eugene Bowman, when a group of older teenagers approached them and asked if they wanted to make $250 a week. All they had to do was stand on the corner and keep watch for police cars. If they saw cops, they were instructed to shout code words—like “1151” or “Suzy!”—to raise the alarm. He and Eugene accepted the offer immediately. Soon after, Adolfo got a tattoo of his new gang’s symbol on his forearm—a six-pointed star with devil horns, with a “G” inscribed in the center.

For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged somewhere. He didn’t have to worry about being fed, or about loneliness. Gang members took care of him; they gave him food and brought him into their homes. As he got older, he was handed a gun that he was never taught how to use, and introduced to designated street corners where he was supposed to sell drugs.

Then one night, everything went terribly wrong. It was October 1990, a particularly dangerous time in Adolfo’s neighborhood. There was an ongoing war over drug territory, and someone from the Black Disciples was rumored to have tossed a Molotov cocktail at a GD leader’s house. Adolfo, who’d turned 14 two months earlier, met up with Eugene Bowman and Allen Caffey, another gang member, who intended to retaliate by stealing drugs from their rivals. The three teenagers, all armed, caught a taxi to 56th and Calumet, a notoriously contested area where they knew about a drug house controlled by the Black Disciples. When they reached the house around 1 a.m., they saw someone walk out. They pointed a gun in his face and told him to show them where the drugs were kept. When someone opened the front door, shots flew.

The details of what happened next are murky. A prosecutor would later argue that all three boys—Adolfo and his two friends—fired their guns. Adolfo says his gun was knocked from his hand as soon as he entered the apartment. Four men were shot. Two of them were killed instantly, including Keith Whitfield, a teenager who used to eat lunch with Adolfo on the roof of his building. Adolfo felt numb. He fled the scene just as sirens began screaming in the distance.

The next day, October 10, 1990, the fact that four men had been shot, and two killed, on the South Side barely made the news. In the Tribune, it was lumped together with several other weekend deaths under the headline: “Columbus Day Weekend Adds 13 Chicago Killings.”

4.

The shootings occurred as the tough-on-crime era was getting into full swing. Four years earlier, President Ronald Reagan had signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which allocated funds to build prisons and introduced the idea of a mandatory minimum sentence for selling drugs. The presidential election in 1988 saw the release of the infamous Willie Horton ad, which peddled racist stereotypes and helped sink Democrat Michael Dukakis’s bid for the White House. By 1994, there were over a million people incarcerated in the United States—three times more than in 1980.

The same year, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included the three-strikes statute requiring “mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole for Federal offenders with three or more convictions for serious violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes.” Adults weren’t the only targets of new legislation. In 1996, Hillary Clinton gave a campaign speech for her husband in which she warned of a threat facing the nation. “These are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators’: no conscience, no empathy.” (Clinton apologized for the remark in 2016.) By the end of the decade, all but four states had passed laws that made it easier for children to be tried in adult courts.

Two days after the murders at 56th and Calumet, the police showed up at Adolfo’s grandmother’s house looking for him. He wasn’t home, but when Adolfo saw his grandmother later that evening, she told him that he needed to go talk to the police. He didn’t think much of it: He hadn’t shot anyone, so why should he worry? Because he was a minor, the police said that his mother had to accompany him to the station. Though she was intoxicated at the time, she obliged.

As soon as they entered the station, according to Adolfo, he was taken to an interrogation room and handcuffed to the wall, and he wasn’t read his Miranda rights. (During his trial, police officers disputed this: They claimed Adolfo was read his rights, and that he was not handcuffed. No evidence exists to corroborate either account.) Because he couldn’t read or write, Adolfo recalled, the police offered him a statement they’d drafted and told him that if he signed it, he could leave. They read it out loud to him. Adolfo’s mother urged him to sign so they could go home. He did. “I never thought that signing that paper meant I wouldn’t be back home for 30 years,” he said.

Adolfo remembers being removed from the interrogation room. His bail was set at $100,000, which his family couldn’t pay, so he was taken to the Audy home until his trial, which was held three years later.

At Audy, Adolfo’s grandmother came to visit him at least once a week. They played cards together, and she snuck him candy and snacks. She never asked him what happened the night of the killings, but Adolfo could feel how much it weighed on her. She was the only person he felt loved him, and he had let her down. A new pain began burning inside him. He felt like he was a burden to her, to everyone.

One day not long after his 15th birthday, when his grandmother had just left after one of their visits, Adolfo climbed onto the bed in his cell to peek out the window. He saw her crying at the bus stop outside. It was too much. He attached the sheet from his bed to a pipe above him, tied it around his neck, and jumped. Even though he was only five feet tall and little more than 100 pounds, the pipe collapsed under his weight. He sat on the floor crying, thinking, I’m so stupid I can’t even kill myself. He was placed on suicide watch.

When it finally came time for his trial, in March 1993, Adolfo joined his state-appointed lawyer, Mark Kusatzky, at the Cook County courthouse. “Guns, gangs, drugs, and murder, that’s what this case is about,” the prosecution’s opening argument began. “And more simply, that is what Allen Caffey, Adolfo Davis, and Eugene Bowman were about.”

About a dozen witnesses spoke—detectives who’d been at the scene of the crime, forensics experts, a doctor, a firearms examiner, police officers who’d interrogated Adolfo, and two men who’d survived the shooting that night, Alfred Weeden and Lamont Baxter. Both of them pointed Adolfo out to the judge and said he’d fired a gun. Bullets from the weapon Adolfo was said to be carrying were never recovered from the shooting, but in the end, whether he fired a weapon or not hardly mattered. According to Illinois law at the time, if someone was convicted of participating in a double homicide, even if they didn’t actually kill the victims, the mandatory sentence was life.

Adolfo was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder, and home invasion. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. On the trial transcript, his name was misspelled in the case title: The People of the State of Illinois v. Addolfo Davis. Nobody had bothered to correct it.

5.

In 1994, Adolfo was transferred to Stateville Correctional Center, an imposing maximum-security prison spread over 2,200 acres of land and surrounded by 33-foot walls. Adolfo was still small in stature, and he was not yet 18, making him one of the youngest people incarcerated at Stateville. The moment he walked in, he saw a prisoner wearing a Chicago Bulls collectors’ cap and a Duke University hoodie, with a flashy chain gleaming on his chest. The man was mopping the floor. Adolfo couldn’t believe that someone in lockup was allowed to dress like that. When he approached, the man asked Adolfo if he was in a gang.

“GD,” Adolfo said. The guy held out his fist to bump. He was GD, too. Soon after, Adolfo met a GD kid he grew up with, who showed him around and introduced him to more gang members. There were hundreds of them. Adolfo was surrounded by family.

The rivalries from the streets seemed to be exacerbated inside the prison walls. There were dozens of gangs: the Black P Stones, the Latin Kings, the Almighty Saints, the Spanish Cobras. Stateville was virtually lawless. Adolfo smoked weed, partied, drank, got a 20-year-old pregnant, and was involved in so many fights that he was repeatedly sent to an isolation unit. While he was in isolation one day, a guard humiliated him by trying to take away his belongings. As revenge, Adolfo hid a can of tomato paste inside his laundry bag. When the guard came to unlock his door, Adolfo swung the bag straight at the man’s face, splitting his cheek. Another time, when he was 19, he hit a rival gang member in the face with a pipe. He assaulted guards and other prisoners so often that finally he was sent to Tamms, a supermax prison.

Adolfo arrived there in 1998, with his hands and feet shackled. Located 350 miles from Chicago, Tamms was the farthest Adolfo had ever been from home. He was taken to a 70-square-foot room that held a toilet, bed, and sink. He was kept in his cell, alone, for 23 hours a day. It was there that he finally began to experience the full weight of his sentence. “Time felt slow, slow, slow,” Adolfo said. “It wasn’t getting no better. When you’re in prison, you’re stuck there all day. Nothing to do but stare at the walls. You try to sleep all day, but you wake up and it’s the same day.”

At first he felt suicidal again. Then angry. He began writing poetry—he’d learned to read and write early in his sentence—that came out in floods of rage directed at his mother. “How could you bring me into this world / When you knew you wasn’t ready?” one early poem inquired. Another went: “I wish I could have died at birth, / so I would have never seen your face, / and you could have felt the pain / that you have given me.”

Adolfo had few visitors. Over the years, friends and relatives showed up in spurts, but just as Adolfo became hopeful that they would be a steady presence in his life, they’d stop visiting altogether. In 2002, he was removed from Tamms and sent from prison to prison across Illinois—a dizzying experience. In 2010, back at Stateville, he began to have one regular visitor, someone he knew from his earliest days in detention at Audy: Father David Kelly, a 54-year-old priest who ran an organization in the Back of the Yards called the Precious Blood Ministry.

Kelly, who moved to the Back of the Yards in 2001 and never left, was a revered figure in the neighborhood. Precious Blood was just down the street from one of Adolfo’s childhood homes, though he wasn’t aware of it at the time. It was meant to be a place where young boys could intern at the woodshop instead of dealing drugs—where they could be mentored by older men and women who had served time in prison and were eager to help others avoid the same trajectory. In some cases, Precious Blood helped kids with bail and temporarily housed men and women who’d recently been released from prison.

Adolfo’s days in prison remained long and empty. The hope of getting out became his only lifeline.

When Adolfo was on trial, Father Kelly had showed up. He later wrote letters to Adolfo, and Adolfo wrote back, telling him about his days and what he was thinking. Sometimes Adolfo sent Father Kelly his poems, which Kelly put in a Precious Blood newsletter and shared with kids in the neighborhood. When Kelly began visiting Adolfo regularly at Stateville, they met in the visitation area, which had vending machines full of snacks Adolfo didn’t often get to indulge in: chips, soda, hamburgers, popcorn, Twinkies. As they ate, Kelly asked Adolfo about his life, about what he might still do with it, even from behind bars. They talked about what it would mean for Adolfo to become a positive force in the world. Sometimes, Kelly arranged phone calls with younger boys in the Back of the Yards so Adolfo could tell them about the things he wished he’d done differently at their age.

With time, Adolfo learned how to pace his days. He started playing chess with a friend, who went by the nickname Rip, across the courtyard from his cell. He’d step up to a window the size of an air vent in the corner of his cell and signal his move with his hands. Rip would repeat the signal through his own window to confirm, then they’d both jump down and move the pieces on their respective boards. A single game could take up to seven hours. Rip was agonizingly slow. When they had a chance to meet in the courtyard for an hour one day, Adolfo asked him why he took so long to complete a move.

“I’m praying,” Rip explained.

Rip, who was also serving a life sentence, was a Muslim. One day, he brought a copy of the Koran to Adolfo. Adolfo found its teachings to be a revelation. “There was a peace to it, a unity, a patience,” he said. He started praying five times a day, and one night, after cleansing his entire body, he recited the Shahadah, the Islamic declaration of faith, alone in his cell. “There is no God but Allah,” he whispered. “Muhammad is his final messenger on earth.” He felt tranquility. 

But even with faith, Adolfo’s days in prison remained long and empty. The hope of getting out became his only lifeline. The legal climb was a slow crawl—even after Soung offered to help him get a new sentencing hearing, it was difficult for him to keep his spirits up. And then one day, unexpectedly, Adolfo fell in love.

It was Valentine’s Day in 2012, and he was making a routine call to his cousin in Chicago, who was getting a haircut at the time. Adolfo heard a woman’s voice in the background, and he asked if he could speak with her. When the woman came on the phone, Adolfo found her voice warm and open and strong. She didn’t ask him why he was in prison. She didn’t seem to judge him. Her name was Everlena McCoy, and they soon began speaking every day. They talked for hours about her life, her kids. He told her about his days, and his childhood, and how it was hard for him to trust anyone.

When Everlena visited him in prison, she nervously towed her three small children along with her. She was the most beautiful woman Adolfo had ever seen—tall and dark, with a big, toothy smile and brown eyes that narrowed when something didn’t wash with her. He got up the courage to propose on the anniversary of their first conversation. He had nothing to offer her, he said, getting onto his knee in the visitation area, except a lot of lonely nights. She didn’t care. “Yes!” she said. “Oh, my God, yes!”

When Adolfo was in court for his resentencing hearing, Everlena was there. Maybe he could offer her more after all. It no longer felt impossible that they’d be able to share a real life together.

6.

Adolfo’s hearing lasted from eleven in the morning until ten that night. His lawyers called nearly a dozen witnesses who’d known him in prison, each of whom testified about his reformed behavior. His entire life, people had said bad things about him—that he’d never amount to anything, that he was a murderer, a criminal. Prison guards had reiterated this, beating him down, sometimes physically. Now people were insisting that the opposite was true, that he was a person who mattered. In a strange way, it was like watching a eulogy being delivered at his own funeral.

Father Kelly was called to the stand.

“Do you remember your first interaction with Adolfo?” Soung asked him.

“I do, because it was a serious case. People were talking about it, but also [about] how young he was when he came in,” Kelly said, referring to the period when Adolfo was in juvenile detention. “I, you know, felt that, I felt his youth.”

Adolfo watched the judge’s body language closely during the trial. He felt like she hardly ever looked at him, and often seemed bored or annoyed with the defense’s witnesses. McKay, the prosecutor, would interrogate the witnesses during the cross-examination, which Adolfo found confusing. At times he felt like he’d woken up in 1993, and he was on trial for murder again.

Everlena anxiously watched everything unfold from her seat behind Adolfo, in the first row of the crowded courtroom. After the hearing concluded, all they could do was wait for the ruling. Days passed, then a week. It was excruciating. Everlena remembered how excited Adolfo had been before the hearing, how when he called her, he swooned over all the things they could do together if he got out. But neither of them felt like the hearing had gone well. The judge hadn’t seemed interested in the witnesses who’d praised Adolfo, and McKay had worked hard to prove that he’d pulled the trigger in the murders.  

Everlena McCoy

A few weeks later, everyone returned to court to hear Judge Petrone’s decision. When she began delivering it, she failed to notice that Adolfo wasn’t in the room. Soung interrupted her—Adolfo was in the bathroom and would be there in a moment, she said. When he arrived, Petrone started reading again from her 18-page ruling.

The judge had considered the factors brought before her—Adolfo’s age at the time of the crime, the circumstances of his childhood, his actions during incarceration—as required by the Miller ruling. “Defendant’s acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of 14. This sentence is necessary to deter others,” she said. “It is necessary to protect the public from harm.”

Petrone resentenced Adolfo to life in prison, on all counts, without possibility of parole. It was a heavy blow to advocates’ efforts to apply Miller in a way that meaningfully changed the lives of people convicted of crimes as children. It wouldn’t be the last: In April 2021, the Supreme Court affirmed that judges are allowed to sentence minors to life without parole, so long as it is a discretionary sentence and not a mandatory one. The same month, an Alabama judge resentenced Evan Miller to life without parole.

After hearing Petrone’s decision, Adolfo dropped his head onto the defense table. Later, he sobbed in a corner near the courtroom where nobody could see him. The character witnesses, the media fever, his own transformation, and most of all his hope—what had it all been for?

7.

Soung promised Adolfo that her team wouldn’t stop fighting for him. She’d moved to California by then, so she passed his case to a new lawyer—an energetic public defender named Heidi Lambros, who urged Adolfo to appeal his resentencing. He was reluctant; being sentenced to life without parole a third time was almost too brutal to imagine. Then again, what choice did he have? To accept that he would die in prison? Everlena insisted that he keep pressing forward.

In December 2016, Lambros filed a 67-page brief with an appellate court, arguing that, at the resentencing hearing, Petrone had effectively discounted Adolfo’s youth at the time of the crime. “Not [only] did Judge Petrone ignore Miller’s constitutional imperative,” Lambros wrote, “she showed contempt for Miller, finding that its central precept—that adolescents have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking’—was based on pure ‘speculation.’” Yet again, Adolfo waited for his case to inch its way through the justice system.

A few months later, Everlena was driving home from playing bingo when she got a call from Lambros. “The state’s attorney’s office is willing to make a deal,” the public defender said.

The same year Lambros filed the brief, Kimberly Foxx had been elected Illinois’s state attorney. A product of Cabrini-Green, one of Chicago’s public housing projects, Foxx had come into office determined to undo the consequences of the policies passed during the tough-on-crime era. While Foxx could not overturn Petrone’s decision, she could offer Adolfo a deal. What Lambros had called to tell Everlena was that Foxx had agreed to reduce Afoldo’s sentence to 60 years. Because of his good behavior, he would only need to serve 30—and that meant he could walk free in 2020.

Everlena was giddy. “Yes, yes, yes, you can accept that deal!” she told Lambros.

Everlena drove home and anxiously waited for her fiancé to call, which he usually did around 5 p.m. When he heard the news, Adolfo dropped the phone and started weeping. “Hello?” Everlena said. “Hello?” She thought he’d hung up on her.

After a long pause, Adolfo picked the phone back up. “I’m doing it, baby,” he said to her. “I’m finally getting out.” He said that he had to call her back, though—he didn’t want the other prisoners to see him crying.

Adolfo spent every day after that phone call preparing himself for—and fantasizing about—his release in 2020, which was then nearly three years away. He worked out every morning and dreamed of being able to walk freely outside, to stroll down city streets, feel the cool air blowing off Lake Michigan, see the seasons change. He imagined writing bestsellers; he would embark on book tours and sit on panels to tell people about the wrongs of the criminal justice system, how prison could break you if you let it. He wanted to sell his poetry as well as the artwork he’d painted behind bars. He wanted to transform the Back of the Yards, to show kids that there was another path. He wanted to buy a house. He wanted to feel what it was like to ride a bike again.

Just before Adolfo was released, Father Kelly called him with a warning. “You need to get counseling first, when you come out. You have these visions of how things are going to be, as though everything will fall into place,” Kelly said. “The outside world is not how you think it is.”

Adolfo Davis
Adolfo in April 2021

FREEDOM

1.

On March 21, 2020, Adolfo put on a black Nike track suit and a pair of Air Max sneakers. He packed up the only things he owned: a few family photos and a folder full of legal papers. Then he walked through the metal door leading out of Jacksonville Correctional Center in central Illinois. A lieutenant told him good luck after handing him a disposable face mask. “Thanks,” Adolfo muttered. He didn’t turn around.

There were piles of crusty snow on the earth, which in the distance was peppered with farms and factories. A vast white sky went on for miles. He hadn’t seen anything but a square of it, from the confines of a prison courtyard or a transport van, in three decades. He sucked in the cold air. Finally, he thought to himself. Finally!

Everlena was there to greet him. He held her hand, enjoying a strange sense of privacy as they walked, very slowly, away from the prison. Adolfo was terrified of going too fast—he worried that the warden would call him back, or shoot at him, if he moved too quickly. He felt paranoid that the whole thing was some sort of ploy, that he’d suddenly be returned to his cell, like that fellow prisoner he’d known years before who never made it out the front door.

His sister Traci was waiting in the visitors’ parking area. When he reached her, he pumped his fists toward the sky. She started clapping and crying. They pulled each other into a tight hug.

“Something is about to happen,” Adolfo said to nobody in particular as they drove away. “This can’t be real. Is this real?”

Everlena laughed. “It’s real,” she promised.

They had a nearly four-hour drive ahead of them, past alternating patches of auburn and white fields. Traci pulled into a gas station, where Adolfo picked out three different kinds of Gatorade, a Skor bar, and a Snickers. There were so many more candies and flavors than when he was a kid. If he’d had enough money, he would have bought everything on the shelf.

They drove around the edge of Springfield, the state capital, heading north. They scrolled past flat plains and exit signs with the symbols for gas stations, McDonald’s, and Subway. Eventually, Chicago’s skyline emerged. The city began to flood through the darkening car windows. Adolfo blinked. He thought he was dreaming: An advertisement on a billboard was suddenly alive, dancing and flashing colors. The streets, by contrast, were deserted.

Just one day earlier, Governor Jay B. Pritzker had announced that Illinois would be under complete lockdown for the time being. All nonessential businesses were shuttered overnight, and all parks, paths, and lakefront trails were closed. Adolfo had heard about COVID in prison, but he didn’t know what to believe. Now, driving through the city’s empty streets, the pandemic seemed very real. Still, Adolfo found it oddly comforting, like the city had been vacated for his arrival—like it was all his, for just a little while.

They exited Lake Shore Drive, entering the South Side. This was home. They turned west on 55th Street and drove past Washington Park, where Adolfo used to sell drugs. He stared at it. Someone had built a diving board over the public swimming pool, but everything else looked exactly the same.

That night, at Everlena’s house, Adolfo lay in bed, jumpy and exhausted all at once. He’d played the possibilities of what this day might be like over and over in his head. Now he stared at the ceiling, scared that if he fell asleep, he’d wake up back in prison. He turned onto one side, then the other; he fidgeted, trying to get comfortable. Finally, around dawn, he shut his eyes. The world dissolved from view.

2.

A lot about the world had changed over the previous 30 years. Cell phones were sleek and pocket-size, and they functioned like personal computers. Cars were fancier and glided all but noiselessly through Chicago’s streets. Politics seemed to be changing, too. America had elected a Black president—twice. Adolfo remembered the night of the 2008 election, how he had stared at Barack Obama’s face on a prison TV screen and thought, Maybe he will make a difference for us.

But the years went by, and prison stayed the same. Adolfo felt let down. He’d heard about the Black Lives Matter movement before his release, and he wondered whether it would make a difference. Would Black kids raised on the South Side of Chicago have a future to look forward to, something better than what he had?

When he got his license, Adolfo drove past his old haunts. He went alone, blasting the watery vibrato of jazz-gospel singer Tevin Campbell on the car’s speakers. Houses he remembered being lived in were boarded up or had shattered windows. Pipes were broken, and paint peeled from apartment buildings. Whole blocks that were once home to grocery stores and arcades were now entirely empty, their lots overgrown with weeds and littered with cigarette butts. Kids younger than 14 were out selling drugs, even during the pandemic.

A spot he kept returning to was the last apartment he’d lived in with his grandmother: a three-story brick building down the street from a corner store. A sign hung from it, geared toward investors who might want to purchase the property: “100% NO MONEY DOWN! NO CREDIT CHECK.

“It’s like in prison, you have to look strong, smile, and keep your back straight, but on the inside you’re dying,” Adolfo said. “That’s how I looked at that building. The foundation was still strong, but inside, the spirit was dead.”

At first, Adolfo didn’t believe Everlena when she told him that he couldn’t walk leisurely around the neighborhood. “When people don’t know you,” she explained, “you’re like a target. They’ll think you’re from a different place, a different gang. They’ll shoot you if they don’t know you.” She instructed him to hide the GD tattoo on his forearm. He covered it with a bandage whenever he went out, and waited for tattoo shops to reopen so he could get it removed. Sometimes he wondered if he’d been safer in prison.

Gun violence in Chicago was surging. By July 2020, more than 1,300 people had been shot and 320 killed. In one two-week span over the summer, nine children were murdered. Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, declared that the city’s violence needed to be treated as a public health crisis. Activists said it wasn’t enough.

In July, ten blocks away from where Adolfo and Everlena lived, a car drove past a funeral procession for a deceased gang member, and shots were fired indiscriminately into the crowd of mourners. Fifteen people were hit, and all of them were hospitalized. Tamar Manasseh, who founded the anti-violence group Mothers Against Senseless Killings Chicago, said she’d requested that law enforcement increase nearby patrols ahead of the funeral. “I told the police they were going to shoot up the funeral, AND THEY JUST DID!!!” Manasseh posted on Facebook. “Please tell me how this happened AFTER the police had been notified that it would?”

Adolfo and Everlena talked about what it would be like to leave Chicago, to go somewhere safer than the South Side, where they could walk the streets without looking over their shoulders. The daughter Adolfo had never met, the one conceived early in his prison sentence, was now 24 and living in Las Vegas. Maybe he and Everlena could go there. They threw out other options over dinners: Iowa, Georgia, Missouri, maybe the suburbs, or a smaller town in Illinois—places where they could get a modest house and live a quiet life. But a nagging feeling kept Adolfo from making any real plans. He felt haunted by the lack of progress he saw, watching kids on street corners and hearing about friends of friends being shot.

“I spent thirty years depending on other people to help me live,” Adolfo told Everlena one day. “Now it’s time for me to give back.”

Father David Kelley and the Precious Blood Center

3.

The Precious Blood center is a tired-looking orange-brick building that spans half a city block. But when Adolfo started going there, it felt different than the surrounding neighborhood. Posters reading “Black Lives Matter” hung from the chain-link fence next to peace signs. A full-length basketball court was available at all hours for kids to practice. There was a peace garden—a labyrinth of stones neatly configured into a giant swirl—and a vegetable patch where volunteers grew tomatoes, zucchini, herbs, and carrots.

It felt like a sanctuary. But as Father Kelly liked to remind people, “It’s not a bubble at all.” There were no locked gates separating Precious Blood from the rest of the community, a decision intended to send a welcoming message: Come as you are. Gang members were not prohibited. “That’s the point. That’s who’s invited. That’s who it’s for,” Kelly said. “This would be a huge failure if it were an oasis that kept people out. The whole idea is to bring them in.”

Kelly had promised Adolfo a job at Precious Blood when he was released. What began as an internship became formal employment in May 2020. Adolfo spent most of his time figuring out how to log into Zoom seminars, where he shared his story with hundreds of strangers. “Sitting in prison, thinking about my life, I think, man, I was messed up,” he said during one panel with the Iowa-based Fountain of Youth, a community-building nonprofit. “How did I make it this far? God put me through all that to put me here right now. Yes, it hurt. That’s why I dedicate as much time as I can to show the young that, man, it’s gonna hurt. But they got people who genuinely care for them, who have their back.”

Sometimes kids who hung around Precious Blood would watch Adolfo speak. A teenager named Curtis Dixon even took notes when Adolfo starting talking about how nothing had changed since he was locked up. Curtis hadn’t realized how neglected their neighborhood had been, and for how long.

Everything about Curtis reminded Adolfo of his own story: Curtis was raised in the Back of the Yards by an overworked mom with four kids. He grew up not knowing who his father was. At home the power went on and off. There was no heat in the winter, no furniture to sit or sleep on, and food was sometimes scarce. They were evicted four times in four years. “We basically raised each other,” Curtis told Adolfo. 

When he was in third grade, Curtis started “going outside,” which meant hanging out with older kids. When he turned 14, he dropped out of school and began getting into arguments with his mom. When he was 16, he got his girlfriend pregnant. Not long after, he left home. By the time Adolfo met Curtis, he’d moved into Precious Blood, where he was trying to turn his life around. He had dreams of one day owning a boxing gym. He spent his days running on a treadmill, lifting weights, and practicing his jabs. Curtis felt as if all the pent-up anger inside him came leaking out when he exercised, like air escaping an overfull tire.

Father Kelly monitored Adolfo closely, making sure he was taking care of himself. Once, Adolfo attended a three-day training program for what’s called Truth Circle, a restorative-justice practice adopted from Native American rituals and intended to promote healing and foster relationships within communities. (At Precious Blood, staff often employ the technique when bringing families together—for instance, when one family has had a loved one killed or injured by a member of another because of a gang rivalry.) The training took place in a darkened room, with soft music and candles. Adolfo joined a circle of about 15 people seated around a patchwork quilt that held various objects: shells, stuffed animals, a miniature cauldron. A woman named Pamela Purdie led the session. “Whenever people ask me what I do, I tell them that I create safe spaces,” she told the group. The training was designed to teach people exactly what that meant.

Purdie asked if Adolfo wanted to stand up and tell his story. Adolfo spoke quietly, like he wasn’t sure what the volume of his voice should be, how much was too much. He said he’d just gotten out of prison and that he wanted to help new generations of boys and girls on the South Side. “We have to teach them how to focus, how to be from here to here,” he said, raising his hand from a low position to a higher one. “We have to show how to return them to citizens and get they lives together.” The people in the circle around him offered silent nods.

Purdie asked the group to leave the room and, in private, to each draw a picture of the place where they felt safest in the world. Everyone disappeared, but Adolfo remained where he was, toying with his phone. When the group returned to the room, carrying drawings of beaches and forests and homes, Adolfo was asked to share first. He held up his name tag.

“My safe space is me—Adolfo,” he said, pointing to his heart. It was something he’d learned in prison: The only security and comfort he had was himself.

4.

Adolfo didn’t know where to concentrate his energy. He moved restlessly from one kid in need to another, one crisis to the next. It felt like every day, he heard about a new shooting, sometimes within a short distance of Precious Blood. The pandemic torpedoed the above-board economy the neighborhood still had; small businesses were constantly going under, and more people than ever were out of jobs.

After George Floyd was murdered, Adolfo helped pick up broken glass in the neighborhood. He couldn’t grasp why everyone seemed so focused on one man’s death when people were dying violently every single day. He felt like some of the deepest problems in Black neighborhoods were ignored. He wasn’t convinced politicians were the answer to making a difference. The real work had to come from within communities. “If we don’t do it for ourselves,” he said, “nobody else is gonna do it for us.”

One day, Adolfo had an idea. He wanted to organize a bike ride through Back of the Yards. He would call it Pedal for Peace. He hoped that it would be the start of a movement in the neighborhood to bring an end to gun violence. He brought it up with his colleagues at Precious Blood, and everyone was enthusiastic. Together, they mapped out a six-mile route through the neighborhood and set a date in September. Adolfo designed T-shirts that read “Pedal for Peace,” and a local bicycle shop donated a few dozen used bikes and helmets.

On the morning of the march, Adolfo awoke early, picked up Everlena’s eight-year-old niece, Niya, and brought her to the basketball court at Precious Blood. She’d never learned how to ride a bike, so Adolfo spent an hour trying to teach her. Niya pedaled for a second and then fell, repeatedly, until it was decided that she’d ride in the Precious Blood van, which would be at the front of the procession.

Niya was annoyed. “Why are no girls riding?” she asked Adolfo, her face framed by long braids. The court was starting to fill up with mostly young boys from the neighborhood, many of them not much older than her. They rode in restless circles, doing tricks with their bikes. “Do we have more boys than girls in the world?” Niya continued.

Frances, a black terrier owned by a member of the Precious Blood community, had trotted over to Adolfo by then. Francessss, Adolfo cooed, opening his palm to reveal some of the dog treats he always kept in one of his pockets. He scratched the dog’s side.

“This is what I was made to be doing. This is it.

The event’s scale didn’t resemble the high-profile racial-justice protests that took place over the summer: Around 50 people showed up. Adolfo recognized nearly every face from the neighborhood. A lone police officer arrived in a squad car to lead the group, and kids on bikes started pulling away from Precious Blood. The facility’s van followed, bearing hand-painted signs that read “Spread the Love,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Pedaling for Peace.” The siren of the squad car echoed through the still streets, and people came out onto their porches to see what was happening. A few cars honked in support as the group crawled forward. Younger boys riding their bikes with no hands urged the police officer to speed up. They were having fun.

Adolfo alternated between the front and back of the procession. It went down 51st Street, jolting some neighbors awake with cheering, cut through a corner of the 60 acres that make up Sherman Park, and looped back to Precious Blood. By then Adolfo was sweaty and glowing. “This is what I was made to be doing,” he told his friend Joe Joe, bumping his chest with his hand. “This is it.

5.

The exhilaration wore off quickly. Life on the outside was harder than Adolfo anticipated, and unexpected things pulled him down. Bills kept flooding in; his weekly paycheck seemed to empty into a black hole of rent, groceries, internet, and electricity. He tried to start his own business selling books of his poetry and T-shirts printed with his paintings, but he only sold a few. COVID made it hard to see his friends and family. Under the pandemic lockdown, unable to visit loved ones, Adolfo sometimes felt like he was still a prisoner.

Anytime someone asked how he was doing, he’d nod his head, which was often shaded by a slightly askew baseball cap. He was “cool” or “good,” he said. He seldom let on how he was really feeling, even to Everlena. The bike ride had been a high point—it made him feel like he could marshal the goodness and energy necessary to help his neighborhood. But afterward nothing seemed to change, and the number of shootings in Chicago increased one by one.

Adolfo and Everlena had hoped to buy the house they were living in, but with his low credit score and her out of work because of COVID and a 2018 brain aneurysm, it didn’t seem possible. Adolfo began looking for a second job, and he got one with Amazon, packing boxes from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., three nights a week. The work wore him down, until he could barely function. He had to quit. A few months later, he took a job as a night-shift security guard. Still, he felt like it got harder to save money, not easier.

Everlena worried about him. When she tried to guide him through something that had passed him by when he was in prison—for example, how to know which emails and phone calls were spam—he sometimes snapped at her. When she gave him driving directions, he occasionally did the opposite of what she said, just because. He seemed to never sleep, to never stop moving. At a barbecue he hosted in their backyard, Adolfo disappeared just as it was getting started. He’d run out to wash his car, or his stepdaughter’s car, or maybe to the grocery store. Nobody knew for sure. An hour later he returned, just as abruptly as he’d left. “What are you doing?” Everlena asked him.

“Washing the car,” he shrugged.

“Why?” she asked, laughing.

“He treats me like I’m his warden,” she explained to a friend at the party. “He’s been in there since he was 14. He still has that mentality that he’s locked up and I’m trying to be his warden. It makes me want to say, ‘Well, just mess up all you want.’”

Adolfo started using his Facebook page to express himself. Often this took the form of video confessionals as he drove, his phone recording his face from beneath the steering wheel as he mouthed the lyrics to songs or talked about his childhood. One day, instead of sharing a video, he wrote:

I love what I do. But inside I am still dealing with a lot…My life has been a journey I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I am still trying to figure out reality from dreams. I am tired but I have to push through it. I have no choice because I have to pay bills. I never had the opportunity to just enjoy life. My life has been an ongoing struggle and fight just to exist. But nothing has changed. I just want to not have to fight to exist anymore and not have to be the strong one all the time. I’m tired.

More than 50 people responded, sending virtual hugs and words of encouragement. One commenter quoted Angela Davis: “Freedom is a constant struggle.” Another wrote, “God gives the toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.” Friends who’d been incarcerated warned him of the “adjustment period” and the “ill affects of the cell.” He needed to be patient.

Father Kelly noticed how thin Adolfo was stretched—he’d go from running errands for family members, to giving kids at Precious Blood a ride to wherever they needed to go, to delivering clothes to a homeless shelter every day after work. It was as if Adolfo was afraid that the only way to make his life work, for everything to come together and make sense, was to keep his foot on the accelerator. “It’s OK to say no sometimes,” Kelly told him one day. “You have a 14-year-old’s vision of how things were going to be, as though everything was just going to fall into place. But if you want to do this work, it’s not a sprint. You need to be asking: How many days am I going to be able to do this?”

Adolfo nodded. He knew he needed to slow down, he just wasn’t sure how. He worried, too, that it might keep him from becoming the role model he wanted to be. Telling his story didn’t feel like enough. Just being there didn’t, either. What if slowing down meant helping fewer kids than he wanted to help, or none at all?

6.

To clear his head, Adolfo took long bike rides out by Lake Michigan. One day, he invited Curtis Dixon to come with him. It wasn’t long after Curtis’s 18th birthday, which had taken him by surprise—he never thought he would live to be an adult. Now that he was one, he didn’t have a clue what came next.

Adolfo picked Curtis up in the morning, treating him to a McGriddle sandwich and orange juice from McDonald’s. Then they coasted out of the neighborhood, heading northeast, toward a part of Chicago Curtis had only ever seen a few times in his life. He’d never realized how easy it was to leave the streets he knew, how limitless the city could suddenly feel. After about 30 minutes of pedaling, Lake Michigan extended out to the horizon, a lapping green sea buoying sailboats like they were toys. Heavy spring rains had caused water from the lake to spill onto the bike path. “It’s slippery!” Adolfo called over his shoulder to Curtis. “Be careful!”

“I got this!” Curtis shouted back, holding his phone with one hand, filming the lake, and the handlebars with the other.

Just then his front tire skidded out from under him. The entire left side of his body was wet and covered in dirt. Blood dribbled down his elbow. Adolfo stopped and came running back to help. Curtis brushed the fall off, and before long they were riding again. They pedaled past a bank of yachts, deposited in a marina that was off-limits to the public.

“Hey, how much you think one of these cost?” Curtis asked Adolfo, slowing to examine the boats.

“These yachts cost over a million dollars,” Adolfo said, speeding up. “Maybe five million!”

When they got closer to downtown, Adolfo thought of all the times he’d come here as a kid, stealing money or shining shoes so he would have enough cash to eat. This part of the city looked different than he remembered it, fancier and more modern—a result of the hundreds of millions the city had spent reconstructing its lakefront for North Side residents and tourists.

In Millennium Park, home to the modern pavilion at the center of the downtown facelift, Adolfo led Curtis toward the Bean, the famous 110-ton stainless-steel mirror shaped like a massive legume. They stared, as if in a fun-house attraction, at dozens of versions of themselves—some close, some far away. They stood in silence, watching each other’s distorted bodies and the cityscape behind them.

As the afternoon sky mellowed into early evening, they hopped on the South Shoreline train to go home. With Adolfo in the lead, they boarded in the wrong direction. Realizing their mistake, they switched trains. Adolfo stood at the window. He pulled out his iPhone to record the city as it passed, blurry behind the grime on the window. Curtis stretched comfortably in his seat, watching Adolfo film the world with childlike joy.

The train rocked through the city, and the skyscrapers became smaller and smaller, until they were just receding specks in the distance. Finally, the South Side greeted them, looking the same as it had earlier that morning—and, to Adolfo, almost exactly how he remembered it as a teenager, back before he spent 30 years imagining how things might be different if he ever managed to return home. What had changed was his reflection in the window.

The train pulled into the 51st Street station. The doors opened and, side by side, the two men stepped forward.

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