His brother's foot smacked loudly against the wall as he hoisted himself out of the first-floor window. Thump. Mike Echols, 16, heard it. The brother, Chris Gee, 15, heard it. What they feared was that their father, Eddie, in the next room watching television, had heard it, too.
They had decided to run away from the two-bedroom apartment on 143rd Street in Harlem and their neighborhood of boarded-up townhouses and dilapidated apartments with kids their own age on corners selling drugs.
It was a week before Christmas 2004. They had each packed two small duffel bags with their most precious belongings. They called their aunt and asked her to pick them up. When her car finally appeared, they slowly, quietly, unscrewed the iron bars from the window. First, Mike climbed out. Then Chris.
Chris's feet quietly hit the ground, but the noise had given them away. The brothers ran to the waiting car as they heard their father opening the front door of the apartment building. Mike climbed in the front seat. Chris got in back. The car pulled away as their father reached the street. Chris turned and watched through the window as his father's face receded into the New York night.
That was the start of a 26-month journey that led the brothers to the Seneca Valley High gym Tuesday, Chris wearing the blue-and-gold uniform of the Gaithersburg High boys' basketball team and Mike in the white and green of the host team. Along the way there were stops at a Montgomery County foster home, a homeless shelter and a group home, not to mention eight suspensions from school and an expulsion. But all that was forgotten on Tuesday, because seated in the second row of the bleachers in Seneca Valley's gymnasium was the reason for their odyssey: their mother, Laverne Echols, attending her first high school game for either of the boys. As they prepare to play in the first round of the state playoffs tonight, they said this is the first time they go to sleep each night looking forward to the next day.
Said Chris, now a 17-year-old sophomore, "This is the happiest I've ever been."
A Difficult Beginning Laverne Echols says she started smoking crack three years before she gave birth to Mike in September 1988. Chris was born 11 months later. As she tumbled into addiction, Laverne drifted apart from the boys' father, Eddie Gee. Before she entered her first rehabilitation clinic in 1994, she kicked Eddie out of the apartment they shared. He moved frequently, living with whichever friends or relatives would take him in. With neither parent able to provide a home, Mike and Chris began an eight-year stay in foster care. Eddie visited on the weekends, but soon found his own apartment, and regained custody in 2002 when the boys' foster family moved to North Carolina. The boys were not happy with the move.
"We were living the good life before we went with him," Mike said. "We got things we needed. We went to Disney World. We were doing good in school."
About a year after the boys reunited with their father, Eddie said, he lost his job as a manager at a midtown bowling alley. He became depressed, occasionally drank heavily, and the boys said he was sometimes physically abusive. They said Eddie would disappear for weeks at a time, leaving the refrigerator empty, forcing the boys to find their meals at friends' apartments. Eddie does not deny the boys' account of their time with him.
"Basketball was the only thing I could focus on," said Chris, who added that he and Mike were on schoolyard courts everyday, even in the snow. "That was the only thing I could do to forget about everything else."
In 2003, Laverne had moved to Gaithersburg, where two of her sisters lived. She surpassed a year of sobriety and wanted to show her sons the new person she had become, so she invited them to move in with her. Their father had yet to find a job, and the boys said they knew it was time to leave on that night, the evening of Dec. 18, 2004.
"I felt betrayed," Eddie said of watching his sons run away. "I had just lost my job and I didn't handle it right. It took a big toll on them."
Mike said it was an opportunity "to start a new relationship with my mom. I hadn't really known her."
Laverne had given birth to a daughter, Naniah, in February 2003, but she was not used to being a mother to two teenage boys, and she acknowledges she didn't handle their arrival well. She had little patience for their sloppiness and admitted it was difficult for her to control her anger.
The boys reacted differently. Mike would let Laverne's rants roll off his back. Chris, however, absorbed the words, and bottled them up before unleashing them with angry tirades in school. He enrolled in eighth grade at Forest Oak Middle School in Gaithersburg in January 2005 and drew three suspensions in the next five months. He was expelled two weeks before the end of the school year.
As he sat in the principal's office receiving his expulsion, Chris said he remembered thinking: "My mom and my dad made me into this. I didn't do this myself."
"I couldn't take my anger out on my parents, so I would take out my anger at teachers or other students," he said.
Laverne, still struggling with anger management, kicked the boys out of their apartment on Aug. 11, 2005. She called the police, and an officer arrived, trying in vain to calm her. Laverne charged at him and was promptly tasered, arrested and charged with second-degree assault on a police officer. (The charge was dropped after she completed a month of probation, which included drug testing and three anger-management classes.)
Mike and Chris were sent to the Carroll House Men's Shelter in Silver Spring for the next month. Then came a six-month stay at the John C. Tracey group home in Rockville. They moved into a foster home in Germantown for the next two months.
Each stop, the boys said, felt like a game of survival. They struggled to keep up with their schoolwork. There were too many chores, some of them starting before sunrise. There was never enough love. Never enough support.
Getting Better Chris finally found a support system when he joined Mike at Gaithersburg High at the start of the 2005-06 school year. On the first day of class, Chris was assigned to get his class schedule from Marlis Carter, his guidance counselor.
"She turned on the computer," Chris said, "and I started crying."
"What's wrong?" she asked him.
"It's a long story."
"I have time."
"Do you have a real long time?"
Chris told Carter the entire story of his and Mike's life. It was the first time he had shared the details with anyone. It took four class periods and lunchtime to complete the tale.
"I couldn't tell anyone my story because I couldn't trust anyone," Chris said. "But with [Carter], I saw joy. She was the happiest person I'd ever seen. I looked into her eyes and felt I could trust her.
"I wanted someone on my side who I can love. I needed it real bad. She told me how I needed to try to block out the past. This was the first time I could be happy to look ahead to the next day."
Carter said the lack of a stable home life had stunted the boys' ability to attach themselves emotionally to anyone but each other.
"That's why Mike and Chris are so important to one another," Carter said. "They are very close. They are also very good at hiding their emotions."
In the rare moments Mike and Chris displayed their emotions, they were often ugly demonstrations of aggression and anger. After making the varsity basketball team as a freshman, Chris was demoted to junior varsity because of repeated outbursts. In his first two years at Gaithersburg, Mike was suspended from school five times for similar episodes, including the last month of the 2005-06 basketball season.
"I was worried," Mike said, "because without basketball, I just wouldn't be motivated to go [to school]. Basketball kept me in school. I think back to New York, and basketball would get us out of it. It would bring us away from all the trouble in the house."
When the boys left their foster home in Germantown last May, Mike told Leanna McKenzie, a social worker for Montgomery County Child Welfare Services who has handled the boys' case since Oct. 2005, that he wanted to try living with his mother again. Laverne had moved to Germantown, and if Mike moved there, he would have to change schools and enroll at Seneca Valley.
"I needed the change," Mike said. "Things weren't working out for me [at Gaithersburg]. I missed my bed. I was homesick. I just wanted to be home. I wanted to try to work on a relationship with my mom. I know I'm going to need her in the future and she's going to need me."
Laverne and Mike both knew they had to make changes to avoid what happened the previous time they lived together.
"I didn't think it was a good move at first, because I didn't think he was ready," Laverne said. "So I gave him an ultimatum: I told him he can't have that I-don't-care attitude anymore. I had to make sure my mouth wouldn't get me in trouble. I couldn't just say whatever came to my mind first.
"I wanted Chris to come back, too, but I gave him that choice."
Chris said he wasn't ready to return. He lived with friends for the next six months until a classmate, B.J. Marshall, told his mother, Bonnie, about Chris last November.
"It was so heartbreaking, knowing someone of his age was going through all of this," Bonnie Marshall said. "I didn't want to see any of it get the best of him."
She met with Laverne and offered to take Chris in. Within a week, they met with McKenzie and signed the documents transferring custody of Chris to Bonnie Marshall.
Chris knows living with the Marshalls might be the perfect springboard to rejoining his mother and older brother. He said he feels he has a place in their household, and has a chance to absorb the love of a happy family.
Chris said he can bring those emotions gradually into a relationship with Laverne. He said he plans on spending some weekends with her, eating dinner together or going to a movie or church.
When he and Mike stopped by Laverne's apartment last Friday, Chris stood in the doorway. Laverne sought him out and gave him a big hug. She told him she missed him and loved him, and said she is ready to talk about bringing him back when he's ready.
"I was like, 'What's going on here?' " Mike said. "This is new. This is good."
Chris said he's noticed a marked change in his mother's attitude.
"It's actually getting better," he said. "One of our parents cares about us now."
That was evident when Laverne arrived in the stands Tuesday night, with Carter and McKenzie sitting beside her, all cheering on the boys. Before the introduction of the starting lineups, Chris darted across the width of the court, gave Laverne a kiss and thanked her for coming.
"It's a good feeling," Laverne said.
Mike and Chris wound up guarding one another during the game. In the second quarter, Mike, who at 6 feet 2 is about two inches taller than his younger brother, drove from the top of the key and floated in a soft left-handed layup.
In the second half, it was Chris's turn, and with Mike right in his face, he made a three-pointer. A few minutes later, Chris pounced on a loose ball at midcourt, and drove for an uncontested tomahawk dunk that brought a jaw-dropping smile from his brother, who sat on the opposing bench. Mike got the last laugh: Seneca Valley won, 76-66.
After the game, they called Eddie, with whom they occasionally speak, to tell him about the game. Mike and Chris said they were both disappointed Eddie didn't make it down, but they know they have a project to finish before they reconcile with their father.
"I want to focus more on my mom because she wasn't in my life that much," Chris said. "I didn't know her that well, and I want to learn about her."
Tonight, Laverne will be in the stands watching Chris when Gaithersburg hosts Wootton in its playoff opener. Even though Mike is also in action, as Seneca Valley travels to Linganore, he's okay with mom missing this one. Choosing which one of her sons she's going to watch play is a new kind of dilemma for Laverne -- a pleasant one.
"They need to work on their relationship," Mike said of his brother and mother. "It's important for them to be together.
"A year from now? We should all be back together. Starting over. No arguing."
"We need to get back together. It doesn't feel right without Chris."