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His father couldn't beat the dream out of him. He tried. He used his fists. Sometimes he pointed a gun at the boy's head. His father was king, the man of the house, and he pounded the point home.

"He'd say to me, 'You want me to treat you like a man, let's see if you can fight like a man.' "

He was 15 the first time he ran away. He is 20 now, broad-shouldered and street-handsome, wearing requisite baggy cargo pants and wool cap. He has a graduate degree in street survival -- dead-end jobs, jail, nights at shelters, days selling pot. Life has not been good, but he still knows how to dream.

He wants what most of us want.

"A big house with a white picket fence, a dog, my own car," he says. "A place of my own, where you can't get evicted and lose all your things."

You can abandon and beat and even sexually abuse these kids and still not crush their spirit. Even life on the street can't kill a dream.

We will call him Robert, no last name. It fits.

It has been a tough week. Five of his friends are charged with the torture-murder of Jerome Mack. Like them, he crawled out of a shattered family and onto the streets. But he never went, never thought of going, where police say the others have.

Now, on top of everything else, he is haunted. He is nagged by the notion that, had he been there that Sunday afternoon, Jerome Mack would still be alive.

"The way I am with them, I'm the higher voice of all of us, I have the higher opinion," he said. "If I was there, it wouldn't have happened."

He is sitting in a room at the Compass House resource center where they hung out, grabbed a meal, met with counselors. The people here believe Robert would have stopped what happened.

He is no monster. He talks softly, looks into your eyes. He tells a stranger how he was beaten, made to feel small, by his own father. He says it even though it's embarrassing. His mother was kind and loving and had nine years to put all that in him before she died. He went to live with his father, and learned about pain.

"Life got harder than I thought it would after my mother died," he says. "My father would never say anything about how good I was doing. But if I did one thing bad, boom."

Now, every day, he fights a battle inside himself. Good vs. bad. The struggle to take the hard, high road instead of the low, easy way out. It is easier to steal or sell "big trees" -- pot -- than to put on a funny hat and ask if you want to super-size your order. It's an ongoing drama, invisible except to the few who know him.

He is different things to different people: Street thug. Friend. Young guy trying to climb out of a hole. Life put invisible chains on his ankles, on the ankles of a lot of these kids. Almost to a one, they were born to families broken beyond fixing.

Six lives were trashed that day. One person is dead. The other five, if convicted of his killing, will likely spend most of their lives in a cell.

They are gone. Robert is still out there. Saveable. He never got a high school diploma. His record closes job doors. Most guys his age are in college, with plenty of lifelines. When he falls, he can't call home. Nobody sends him a few hundred bucks.

He was doing OK -- working, in his place -- until he stole a car (a loaner, he says, returned too late) and went away for a couple of months. When he got out, it was all gone. No job. No apartment. No money. Square one.

"All my motivation," he says, "was gone."

He's climbing back. Changing, maybe. When somebody gets in his way, he walks away. He punches a wall instead of a face.

He has a new place on the West Side, away from gangs and crackheads. He's not working, but looking. He wants to go back to school. Get his GED. Find a decent job. But what he knows doesn't get you into an office.

The people who work at the resource center like him. They say he's trying. You want him to turn out OK. He has a long way to go, and not much going for him. But some climb out, make it to the other side.

Six lives were trashed that Sunday afternoon. He wasn't there to stop it. He might still save himself.

Today is another day. He can still picture that white picket fence. He can still imagine what Someday might look like.

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