Carol Pahl 2002
"Give me the money, shrimp! Give it to me!" The larger boy kicked his shiny new boot in the belly of the small boy writhing in the dirt. School books and a well wrinkled paper sack lay nearby, abandoned on the ground.
"Can't," gasped the victim. "Don't got no more."
"You always got a dime. Now give it to me." He reached his hands into the pockets of the grimy, patched jeans, searching for the small coin. "Hah, said you didn't have one today. Better pay me again tomorrow or you'll really be sorry," he proclaimed as he held the coin between his immaculately groomed fingers. He kicked the textbooks, sending pages of homework into the wind before stomping and grinding his foot on the small lunch sack. "Sucker!"
JD hugged his belly, willing the pain to end before he could stand. Regaining his breath he crawled to the soiled book and shook the grains of soil and sand from between the pages. His precious homework danced along the gutter until it absorbed too much water to continue its flight and sunk in a muddy puddle.
He finally recovered his strength and stood upright, ignoring the sharp pain in his side. His mouth felt like cotton and he didn't have enough saliva to spit the grit from his tongue. Maybe he could skip school and the teacher wouldn't notice the grubby sixth grader in the front row was missing, but then that would mean that Niles P. Rhodes won the battle.
The bigger boy tormented him since the second day of the new school year. JD was stronger then. Scavenging garden produce provided more food than the meager offering in the local garbage cans. He'd earned some money during the summer months but no one would hire a kid his age during the school year. The money only went so far and today was the end of his coins. Two weeks ago Niles Rhodes resumed his attacks and for the last week JD was the one who ended up in the dirt. He didn't have the strength to fight.
JD grabbed his smashed lunch and wiped the mud off the paper. He stepped out of the alley and trudged toward the four-story brick building. He would rather remain outside, under the blue sky than sit on the hard wooden seat, studying, but he promised his mother he'd get as much schooling as possible and that meant finishing sixth grade.
The final bell of the morning announced the noon break and the students lined up to go to lunch. Those who carried lunch boxes or sack lunches went to the end of the line while those who paid for a hot meal jockeyed for a choice spot in the front. The students followed the teacher to the lunchroom where the delicious food aromas teased the hungry children.
JD grabbed his growling stomach when his nose smelled the hot food, and he stared at the painted concrete floor, hoping no one else heard his noisy gut.
"No milk again today?" asked the lunchroom assistant, waiting for the child to pay his dime. Up until the last couple of weeks the boy always bought two cartons of milk.
He shook his head and walked to the far corner of the lunchroom, the table for the brown baggers. He watched his fellow classmates stuff their meals into their mouths while chatting merrily with each other, not worrying about the large crumbs littering the dining room floor. His small hand removed the flattened hunk of a dry heel of bread and he took a tentative bite, savoring each chew and spitting out the small hunks of gravel and sand that he missed removing.
"Niles, how'd you get a second desert again?" asked one of the boys clustered around the bully. "Seems like you got an extra every day this week!"
He looked at the forlorn classmate eating alone in the corner and smiled greedily. "I got me a bankroll, boys." He stuffed the chocolate cake, covered with thick fudge frosting into his mouth, smacking his lips as he licked each finger. "Got me a system that pays just fine."
JD finished his piece of bread and carefully refolded the wrinkled and torn sack as if were a precious length of silk yardage, his dirt stained hands in view of the lunch room monitor. He put the recycled bag into the pocket of his baggy pants, ignoring his stomach's impatient growl and waited for his class to be dismissed, not realizing the woman behind him mentally taking notes about the lonely child.
"JD, would you come to my desk?" asked Gloria Potter, sixth grade teacher at the Abraham Lincoln school. Snickers drifted through the room, silenced by the teacher's scathing glare.
The boy shuffled to the teacher's desk, wishing he could melt into the wooden floor. Mrs. Potter was a fair teacher but she explained the previous day about the penalty for students not meeting the homework deadline. JD worked until late into the night to complete the research paper but he didn't dare squeal on the perpetrator who destroyed the report.
"Yes, ma'am," he whispered, expecting the worst.
"I need to you to take this packet of papers to Mr. Conklin. He'll give you some others to return to me."
JD took the papers and left the room before his stomach growled again. He ignored the complaints coming from the classroom and started the long walk to the principal. The man believed himself intimidating but he didn't scare the sixth grader.
Knowing he couldn't dawdle, JD took the direct route to the administration offices. Taking a quick glance down the hallway, he risked a side trip, stopping at the white porcelain water fountain. The fresh water filled his empty belly before he continued his task.
"John Dunne, Mrs. Potter asked me to have a talk with you. She said you're falling behind with your homework. Do we need to get your parents in here for a conference?" The chubby man looked down at a folder open on his desk. "Maybe we need to do that anyway. Seems like no one came to the last parent teacher conferences."
"No. you can't call her. Ah she can't come. She's busy," JD stammered.
"Doesn't she know that if she doesn't meet with the teacher your grade is lowered? I also got a report on you from Mrs. Davis, the lunchroom monitor. She said your hands were filthy at lunch and that you were glaring at the other boys. You can't fight with them just because they eat school food and you don't."
JD tried to stop shaking in fear and grabbed the chair bottom to stop himself from dashing from the room.
"Senor Buck. I need a favor." Inez Recillos, proprietor of the local tavern asked the local policeman.
"For you, darling, anything." His eyebrows moved suggestively.
"Nunca, Buck. Nunca! I've got a critter moved into my storage shed. I can tell things are disturbed but nothing is taken. I hear it at night, trying to get into the garbage cans. Will you get rid of it for me?" The attractive bartender planted her hands on her shapely hips.
Buck sighed and smiled. "I said I would and I will. What time do you hear the racket?"
"Never till after closing time. Must be around three in the morning. You can watch from the shed, scare it off before it returns again."
"Wouldn't it be better if I killed it? Then you know it won't come back to bother you." The gregarious officer swallowed the rest of his soda. "I'll come back tonight, when I'm off duty. Sure I can't share your bedroom, and we can listen for the noises together?"
"You're incorrigible, Senor Wilmington. I'll see you tonight before closing, show you where I think it's getting in." She pushed him toward the front door and smiled behind his back. For all his insinuations, he remained her champion, her unsung hero who would risk life and limb to protect her.
True to his word, he returned shortly after midnight accompanied by his partner Chris Larabee. The men joined Ezra Standish who sat behind the one table covered in green felt. The wood grain could be seen peeking through threadbare spots in the fabric. "Care for a game of chance gentlemen?"
Gradually the patrons paid their tabs and filtered out into the night until only the trio sitting in the back corner remained. Inez walked around the room collecting the empty bottles and glasses. She returned from the kitchen with a wet rag to scrub the sticky wood tabletops. Single light bulbs hung from the ceiling and as she finished an area she would stretch up to turn off the lights.
Buck watched the woman, her shapely figure revealed as she went about her closing chores. Buck loved women, loved being with them, loved loving them but watching the dark haired beauty stimulated something unusual in him. He would do anything to protect her from the cruelty in the world. As she approached the final table he barely heard her whispered comment. "It's time, Senor Wilmington."
"Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me. I promised Inez I'd help her with a special project tonight. See you tomorrow." He deliberately insinuated that he'd be spending the night at the tavern, in someone's bedroom, not the truth that he'd been sitting out in the cold night waiting for a doomed animal.
Inez showed him the hole dug under the back wall of the storage shed, large enough for a normal sized dog but too small for a man to enter the building. He accepted the blanket before settling down to wait on a good sized wooden crate. The wait was fortunately short. Just before three Buck heard the sound of something or someone lifting the lids from the metal garbage cans. He silently opened the shed door and saw a slight shadow leaning over the edge of the furthest trash can. In the poor light Buck couldn't identify the person but it definitely wasn't an animal bothering the bar's garbage. He continued to watch as the person rummaged through the second can. The shadow expertly returned the lids being careful to prevent any noise. Moving in the darkness only Buck's keen eyesight tracked his movement. A few minutes later as the officer watched, a dirty arm placed a greasy sack in the shed before a dark-haired, shaggy head popped through the opening.
Holding his service pistol in his right hand, Buck lit his official flashlight and shined the beam of light onto the small face, startling the intruder and sending a wake of shock through the policeman.
Recovering first, the intruder disappeared only to return second's later to grab the dirty sack. Buck froze in horror. The face belonged to a child; Inez's intruder was a child! Realizing the trespasser might escape he ran outside and panned the beam around the back yard, listening for any sounds that might reveal the boy's location.
Light from an upstairs rooms poured into the yard seconds before the proprietor stuck her head out the window. "Did you get it Buck? Did you kill it?"
He shook his head without looking up at his scantly dressed friend. "He's still around here somewhere. Get inside."
Inez didn't argue and returned to her room. She shut off the light leaving Buck blinded to see in the darkness.
"Damn." He heard a slight rustling but before he could catch the intruder with the light, the shadow disappeared leaving only the retreating footsteps clumping as the boy ran away.
"Can I come out now, Senor Buck?" came a whispered plea from the back door of the bar.
"Sure sweetheart." He turned the flashlight on the well worn path to guide the woman's footsteps.
"Did you see it? Will it be back?"
He holstered his side arm and put the free arm around the woman. "Weren't no dog or other critter. Was a street rat, a young one. Damn! I almost shot a child. A filthy child's been raiding your trash, hunting for food and living in your shed. Don't know when but he'll be back. Damn. Children shouldn't be living on the streets, scavenging for food in the middle of the night. Should be home, tucked in bed, not worrying about finding his next meal in someone else's garbage. Damn. I could have shot him!"
"Make it easy on yourself, shrimp. Hand over the money, all of it," the bully demanded.
Standing bravely while shaking in his holey shoes, JD steeled himself for the beating. He hoped to get to school before Niles found him but looking for a new place to sleep meant he overslept. His worse nightmare stood before him!
"Don't have all day, Dunne." Rhodes anticipated the smaller boy's attempt to escape and he grabbed the skinny arm. He jerked hard and pulled the limb behind his captive's back. "You pay me every day or so help me, I'll hurt you so bad you'll never show you're ugly face in school again."
JD yanked his arm from Rhodes grasp and kicked out, aiming for the other boy's shin. The bigger boy brought his fist around and punched the smaller boy in the face, causing blood to explode from one nostril. He grabbed JD's arm and pulled it hard behind the boy's head. A loud snap echoed in the narrow alley and JD's face paled as the pain rocketed through his brain. Niles looked in horror at the misshapen limb.
"Leave him alone!" The shout broke through the bully's dazed brain and he dropped the limp figure, running away before the owner of the voice caught him.
A long haired teenager dropped to the ground beside the fallen child. "Take it easy, Kid. Let me help you. Get you to someone who can fix that arm."
"It hurts," JD whimpered, trying not to cry as the horrible pain rocked his body. He started to shake as his body tried to shut down.
"Come on. Get up. You can do it. I've seen you roaming the street. Name's Vin."
"I'mmm JJJJJD. Gottttta git ta school."
"They'll send you to the hospital. You'll have to explain what happened. Point a finger." The older boy helped JD stand and began guiding him away from the scene. He gathered the dropped text books and stuffed them into his knapsack.
"Let's get you to the healer. He can help you."