They last saw each other months ago, when a friend treated them to dinner at Portofino's on Eastway Drive.
Danquirs Franklin and Juwon Lewis laughed and joked around like they had as kids, like the "blood brothers" they have always declared themselves to be.
But at the end of the night, social worker Gretchen Anthony dropped them off in different worlds: Juwon at an apartment in a crime-plagued neighborhood; Danquirs at his grandmother's house, where he has always lived.
Anthony met the 18-year-olds after one, then the other, joined her caseload at Midwood High, an alternative campus for kids at risk of dropping out. Inside the school and out, she spent hours helping them. She kept Juwon out of jail, and has dreams for him still.
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In her 10 years of working with Charlotte schoolkids, she's rarely seen two as closely bonded as Danquirs and Juwon.
They grew up under the same roof, their families sharing matching halves of a duplex in the blue-collar Villa Heights neighborhood northeast of uptown.
They staggered through the same early challenges. Mothers hobbled by crime and drugs. Fathers who stepped back instead of up. Schools where they felt like misfits.
And yet, at childhood's end, they couldn't be more different. Their diverging paths tell a deeper story about how fragile hope can be, and why one of every two African-American boys entering ninth grade in North Carolina won't graduate four years from now.
Danquirs is making peace with his past. He's a high school senior with hopes for college.
Juwon? He's just hoping to survive.
Danquirs: Crack before birth
"You could say I was a crack baby." Danquirs (pronounced Dan-quar-i-ous) glances down, made self-conscious by his own words.
He's sitting on his grandmother's couch. He's 6 feet, 4 inches tall, 185 pounds, all arms and legs. On the wall above him hangs a Last Supper portrait, his Phillip O. Berry High basketball team photo and a science certificate he earned last year. For "academic tenacity," it says.
"He had cocaine in his body when he was born," explains his mother, Deborah Franklin. "I did drugs all nine months I was pregnant.
"But God helped him. He overcame it."
His grandmother, Mary Boyd, raised him. His mother, ashamed, mostly stayed away.
She made most birthday parties but missed his fifth. He stood in the doorway, waiting. It snowed that day.
"I knew it was his birthday and I needed to be there," she says, "but the cocaine said, 'Just one more...'"
Sometimes, he'd see her walking past his grandmother's house at 1917 Parson St. and tell himself she was just any old street person. But she wasn't. He wanted her in his life. Her absence enraged him.
He threatened her with a steak knife when he was 7; he thought she'd moved his PlayStation. He cussed her so disrespectfully when he was about 12 that she slapped his glasses off his face, then flew at him with all the fury her wasted 80-pound body could muster.
"I wasn't even high that day," she recalls. "He tried to show off in front of his friend."
That friend was Juwon, who ran for help.
Juwon: 'Surrounded by drugs'
Juwon came over so often, Mary Boyd treated him like a second grandson.
When she took Danquirs to Midtown Square or SouthPark mall on Saturdays, she took Juwon, too. They'd go by the dollar store so the boys could get action figures. They'd block her hallway for hours, playing with them.
It didn't take much to make them happy. She still has pictures of them wrestling, playing basketball, making "bunny ears" behind the head of Danquirs' unsuspecting cousin.
Life in their households wasn't the same, though.
Danquirs' grandmother filled her home with Bibles and angel figurines, hoping to protect him from the sins that claimed his mother. She took Danquirs to Sunday services at St. Paul Baptist, where she volunteered as an usher and cook.
She ordered him to stay out of trouble and reached for her switch when he didn't.
Next door, Juwon's mother and grandmother cycled in and out of jail, mostly on drug and theft charges, court records show. Neighbors and family friends say drugs and strangers were as much a part of 1919 Parson as the furniture.
Juwon, perhaps protecting his family, says he didn't know much about that.
"I was too young. Soon as you walked in, they'd be like, 'Why you all in grown folks' business?' It was more like they were trying to feed us, keep a roof over our heads."
He lived with his mother, grandmother, brother and sister early on. His brother grew up, his sister ran away, and he was the only kid at home. Juwon says his father wasn't around, and that he and his mother argued a lot. He loved his grandmother. She called him "Lil' Man." People call him "Man" today.
When his mom and grandmother were locked up, he stayed down the street with "Aunt Betty," his grandmother's friend.
"He done had a hard time," Betty Kanipe says. "All his life, he's just been surrounded by drugs."
Juwon: A frustrated student
One of Juwon's early memories of school: getting in a fight at Greenway Park Elementary, hitting an intervening teacher with a plant, running from the principal, and getting expelled.
He was in second grade.
He says he struggled with reading. The cackles of his siblings made him even more sensitive about it. At First Ward Elementary, he attended "BH" classes - schoolspeak for behaviorally handicapped.
He knew they were "special" classes. And he hated it. So on bad days, when a teacher gave him work to do, he'd throw it on the floor.
He'd get suspended. And at home, he says, he'd get whipped. He'd come back to school, stare at the same impenetrable words, and feel his anger swelling.
Former First Ward Principal Shelton Jeffries watched him struggle. But he also saw something else: a nimble, sharp mind. Juwon, the principal recalls, was in a class of eight troubled boys, led by a teacher certified for gifted students. Jeffries walked in one day during a discussion on conflict.
Is conflict bad?
One by one, the boys, who'd been schooled to avoid fights, said yes.
Juwon, speaking last, said no. In a calm, reasoned argument, he suggested that without the Allies' willingness to confront evil, Nazis would rule the world today.
Jeffries listened, captivated. He'd always believed if you give disadvantaged students what they need, they can handle any lesson.
Watching Juwon that day, he believes he saw proof.
Danquirs: Turning mean
Danquirs spent his early years at Greenway Park, Villa Heights and Olde Providence.
He was the quiet kid. He did his work, like his grandmother told him to. Think about your future, not your past, she said. And don't let anybody bad-mouth your mother.
He longed for more time with his father. But his parents had an on-and-off relationship. Dennis Joel figured his son's grandmother should raise him.
Joel let Danquirs - and Juwon - visit, and he bought his son the video games he loved. The pipefitter had three other kids by his late wife; Danquirs still felt like an afterthought.
At J.T. Williams Middle, Danquirs turned mean.
He resisted class work. He argued with teachers. He got kicked off the football team for hitting another student.
Joel says his son felt shame over nasty things people said about his mother. "This is what I heard, anyway."
Danquirs never talked to him about it.
He enrolled in Midwood in fall 2007, after he scored too low on his eighth-grade, end-of-course math test.
Danquirs hated it. It wasn't really a high school - more like a place to ship kids too old for middle school. He didn't know anyone, didn't want to talk to anyone. He thought about quitting. But he couldn't disappoint his grandmother.
That winter, his mother struggled too. Scrawny and sick, she went for help after drug-using friends said she looked like she was dying. Doctors said her heart was failing, and installed a pacemaker. If you want to live, they told her, stop using. She promised her mother she'd go to treatment if she could come home.
After 28 days at south Charlotte's McLeod Center, she returned to 1917 Parson.
Danquirs thought she'd take over the house. They argued and fought like siblings. His grandmother took a stick to both of them.
At school, he improved. When he felt too angry or sullen for class, Gretchen Anthony, the school's social worker, let him hide out in her office. My guardian angel, he calls her.
He finished Midwood in spring 2008. His next school, Berry, would be tougher.
Juwon: His world collapses
As Danquirs' outlook improved, so did Juwon's hopes for himself.
He'd been having a relatively quiet eighth-grade year at Carmel Middle School. And his grandmother, in prison since 2002, was nearing the end of her sentence on drug and habitual felon charges.
Aunt Betty says Juwon dreamed that he and his grandmother would find a new life in a new house on a quieter street.
But Pearlie Mae Lewis, a diabetic on insulin and blood pressure medicine, fell ill. She died in May 2008.
In interviews, Juwon speaks matter-of-factly about her death. But Aunt Betty says it hit him hard.
"He got a kind of quietness about him. He didn't want to be around other people. To me, it was like he was angry because she'd died and left him."
To Danquirs, it seemed as if his friend's world had caved in; he was wandering, lost.
Danquirs' grandmother says she told Juwon to finish school, find a good job and a better life.
He tried. But like Danquirs, he scored too low for regular high school. He arrived at Midwood right after his friend left.
He couldn't stand the blue-and-white uniforms, or the rules that made it feel like a prison. He kept breaking the dress code. He smart-talked teachers, cussed them if they pressed him. Danquirs heard about his troubles and stopped by Midwood, asking the staff if he could help. But he knew how stubborn Juwon could be.
In September 2008, several months after arriving at Midwood, Juwon got busted for disorderly conduct and resisting a police officer. The following February, police arrested him on charges of carrying a concealed weapon, marijuana possession, resisting an officer and loitering for drug activity.
Mecklenburg Department of Social Services investigated, but didn't put him into foster care. He would have aged out in less than a year.
His absences piled up, and Midwood officials struggled to keep tabs. But whenever they thought they'd seen the last of him, Juwon would turn up. Some days, he lingered after the final bell, as if he had nowhere else to go.
Anthony, the social worker, has seen plenty of thug kids. By Juwon's age, she says, they yearn to quit school and hit the streets. Juwon, she sensed, was holding back.
Anthony started picking him up for school in the mornings. Sometimes she'd find him at friends' houses. Sometimes he'd be at a weekly-rental motel off Sugar Creek Road, where he said he was living with his mother, Tonya Lewis.
(Lewis has been convicted of larceny, selling or delivering drugs, shoplifting and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, records show. After agreeing to talk for this story, she couldn't be reached for more than a year.)
When Juwon came to school, he could be happy-go-lucky one day, quick-tempered the next. Some days, he looked listless, exhausted. He fell asleep in algebra class once while a photographer was taking his picture.
"Man," he said, "I ain't learning s--"
Danquirs: A turning point
Danquirs was having his own troubles that fall at Berry.
Emily White, his English teacher, noticed it took him longer to finish assignments.
"I just don't get it," she recalled him saying, again and again.
In his second or third week at Berry, she gave her composition class an assignment: a five-paragraph essay on the definition of "justice."
Danquirs produced this:
Miss White. Can't write.
She began meeting with him Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, two hours and 15 minutes of intense tutoring twice a week. His writing improved. At home, he began teaching his mother to read.
At one point, White asked him to describe his first memory. He wrote about how he cried when his mother left him.
When she read his essay to the class, Danquirs' classmates rose to their feet, cheering.
Juwon: A statistic
On Nov. 11, days before his 18th birthday - and legal adulthood - Juwon dropped out.
CMS marked him as officially "withdrawn" from West Charlotte High. He had gone there, he says, because he wanted to experience a real high school. But the absences again piled up, and this time Anthony wasn't there to help.
That same month, Aunt Betty says, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police came to her house. They wanted to question Juwon about a string of break-ins. The next month, she says, about a half-dozen officers woke her up, pounding on her door again. This time, they said something about a car crash.
Juwon lived elsewhere, but the visits rattled her. You're with a bad crowd, she told him. Don't come here anymore.
Asked later if Juwon might still turn things around, she shakes her head.
"Nah. Man gone. To me. I'm about to be scared of him."
Two boys: An epilogue
Juwon has become nearly impossible to reach. In January, at Anthony's request, he came to her new office at Garinger High and sat down for the last time with the Observer. Told about the police visits and Aunt Betty's comments, he turned defensive and indignant, denying involvement in any break-ins or car accidents.
"I'm not trying to catch (criminal) charges," he said. "My name is getting carried in a lot of s---."
He said he wanted to stay in school, but he'd been working on soul and hip-hop mix tapes with friends who had access to a studio. Late-night recording sessions made him late for school. He couldn't say what time classes begin each day at West Charlotte.
"I stopped because I got confused," he said.
What now? Anthony asked.
"I'm on a pause, trying to figure out what to do."
Was he being pulled to the streets?
"I'm not drawn to the streets because I'm already there," he said. "The streets were always there. It's not like they went anywhere."
Danquirs has started his senior year at Berry.
He goes in with grades inching up to Bs and Cs. He hopes to attend UNC Asheville or Livingstone College.
He's healing the breach with his mother. She sells Avon and tapes Bible scriptures to his bedroom door. One reads:
"Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it."
She says God saved her so she could see her son succeed.
"I'm proud of her," Danquirs says. "She's come a long way."
On Father's Day, Danquirs and his half-sister visited Dennis Joel. They gave him a T-shirt with their pictures on it.
"He has a respect for older people," Joel says of his son. "He don't do no smoking or drinking. I'm very proud of him. I tell him that every day."
They all worry about Juwon.
Anthony, who has helped keep him out of jail, still hopes he'll land a job, maybe finish his high school work at Central Piedmont Community College. Or perhaps he'll finally leave Charlotte for Job Corps, the federal job training and education program she's been urging him to enter.
This spring, when she took the two boys to dinner, she noticed how Juwon, just two months older, showed a big brother's pride in Danquirs. Juwon wanted to know how he could catch his friend's games with Berry's basketball team.
"You can tell they'll always be friends," she said. "They'll always be close."
In spirit, perhaps. But life is pulling them apart.
One boy had a strong grandmother, a woman who taught him that life might not always be fair, but hope is always worth holding onto. The other lost his grandmother, and perhaps much more.
As tough as Juwon looks on the outside, Anthony still believes he wants a better life. Maybe, she says, it's because early on he glimpsed it - with his grandmother, with Danquirs' family.
Maybe that glimpse is enough to keep him from the brink.
"All kids are worth the effort - even Juwon," she says. "I know it sounds like he deserves to be behind bars, but he's not that kind of hardcore criminal-minded kid. All he wants to do is find a job."
Last November, Danquirs' grandmother made banana pudding for Juwon's 18th birthday. When he came to pick it up, she noticed he'd grown taller, more man than boy now. If he mentioned that he'd dropped out of school, she doesn't recall it.
"I told him, 'Be sweet,'" she says. "He said, 'OK.' I told him to come back and see me. He gave me a hug and a kiss, and went on out the door.
"That's the last time I saw him."