by JoAnn Baca
Only God Forgives
My old man is bat-shit crazy.
That was always Mitch’s first thought when he was woken up at what he called the butt crack of dawn. His father’s plan to give him “a better life” by forcing him to live Below was the dumbest idea ever. Nothing about this hole in the ground could be called living, and it certainly didn’t make anything better, not for him.
He grimaced, shivering, before reluctantly throwing the covers off. Even after nearly eight years of living in the Tunnels, he could never quite get warm. As he struggled to pull on the multiple layers required for some semblance of protection against the cool air, he grumbled, “Weird-ass clothes.”
It was going to be another shitty day in this godawful place, he just knew it.
Rennie slapped him on the back – just a little too hard, like the bully he was. Caught by surprise, Mitch nearly fell forward onto his bed. Thankfully, he was able to make it look like a planned feint, and he came up air-boxing.
Why he’d hooked up with Rennie was a mystery. Mitch liked to be large and in charge and with Rennie every bit of control or attempt at domination was met with resistance. Rennie wanted to be top dog. Well, Mitch was top dog, and if Rennie needed another lesson, Mitch was happy to be the teacher.
Mitch patted Rennie’s face with his open hand – also just a little too hard – and smiled, his teeth fully bared. “Mornin’, sunshine!” he growled.
Ike, from behind him, jumped on his back and began to wrestle with him, until the voice of authority stopped all their antics cold. “Everyone up?!” It was a command, not a question, and it came from a deep voice centered just outside the older boys’ dormitory.
The boys inside all responded immediately. “Yessir!”
Mr. Winslow, the kid Winslow’s old man, came into the chamber, squinting and glaring at the mess inside. “Get this place ship-shape now!” he bellowed.
Everyone scrambled to make their beds and finish dressing.
“Breakfast in ten,” he added, before turning to leave. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ike giving him the finger. As he walked out the doorway, Mr. Winslow barked, “Mr. Roosevelt, see me after breakfast. Got some KP lined up for you.”
Ike waited until the older man was completely out of earshot before risking a mutter. “I’d like to meet you in a dark tunnel sometime, you old fart.”
Mitch and Rennie laughed at him.
“Beat ya to breakfast!” Rennie called out, suddenly bolting for the dormitory entrance.
As Mitch entered the passageway, he noticed Vincent, Pascal and the younger Winslow watching him from a safe distance, and actually slowing their pace to give him a wider berth. “Whatcha lookin’ at, chumps?” he said, putting a lot of bravado into his tone. It pleased him to see the younger boys shrink from him, and he snorted in amusement before he turned to follow his pals.
In truth, that kid Vincent scared him a little. He was weird-looking, sure, but even beyond that… Mitch shuddered a bit, thinking of Devin’s face that day before he left the Tunnels, his cheek shredded by the claws on that little freak. And that was Vincent’s brother! Mitch didn’t want to think about what the kid might do to anyone who crossed him that he wasn’t related to.
Well, the only defense was a good offense, as he’d heard lots of guys say when they were caught beating on somebody. Actually, he preferred “might makes right” as a motto. He liked the ring of it more, it was punchier – a word he really liked.
Entering the Dining Chamber was always fun. The other residents tended to give him and his friends a respectful side-eye. Try as they might, even with Father and Mr. Winslow attempting to rein them in, he, Rennie and Ike were what Father called a “disruptive force” in the Tunnels. He grinned, noticing the discomfort of his elders as he piled food onto his tray. If his Pop wanted to keep him buried down here, he was damn sure going to make life as miserable for others as it was for himself.
“Mister Denton, if you please.” Father was standing by one of the tables, his arm extended. It was couched as an invitation, but it was one he couldn’t turn down. Mitch shrugged and allowed himself to be drawn down beside the old guy. He noticed that Rennie and Ike had each been corralled by separate tables of adults. Divide and conquer. The phrase dashed through his mind, a remnant of some otherwise forgotten lesson. If these old farts thought that was going to work…
Gamely, he set his tray down beside Father, ignoring the chatter around the table as he ate. Instead, he let his mind wander, and soon he was thinking of his first year Below, before he had hooked up with Ike, and while Rennie was still living Above with his now-dead folks. Oh, yeah, the good old days…when Mitch had tried to do what his Pop had suggested and fit into the life down here.
Man, it was tough at first, being all nice to everyone, obeying their rules – so many rules. He had befriended Devin even though the kid was a year or so younger than he was. Devin had a spark of mischief in him that had appealed to Mitch, although Devin was pretty darn clever about hiding a lot of his disobedience behind a façade of innocence. Mitch had learned a lot from the boy. But of course, with Devin came Vincent, that gangly overgrown cat of a kid. He was pretty much attached at the hip to Devin, so you got two for the price of one, whether you wanted to or not.
For a while, exploring Below had been enough for Mitch. He enjoyed the physical stuff, the climbing and running, with no adults yelling at him to be quiet or stop taking chances. They ranged far and wide, all on their own…or so it seemed. A few years later, when sentry duty had become a part of his chores Below, he had realized how many eyes had been watching over them the whole time.
He hadn’t minded the schooling so much. That could be ignored without too many consequences. Enduring a few stern lectures was a small price to pay for daydreaming his way through classes and neglecting homework. But after a few years, when the Council had decided that education was being wasted on him and he had to begin training for actual jobs Below…that’s when his attitude had really blossomed into full-fledged defiance.
By then, his old pal Devin was long gone, and he, Rennie and Ike had formed their little pack of “miscreants” – another of Father’s words. Mitch had no time for Vincent anymore; that boy had turned into a little goody two-shoes. Besides, after everyone had seen what Vincent was capable of – slashing his brother’s face – and after the rumors circulated about him cutting up that Lisa girl so bad she had to leave the Tunnels…well, Mitch wasn’t about to hang around with somebody that weirdly dangerous.
Jarred from his reminiscing by all the faces turned in his direction, he grunted, “Huh?” Obviously, somebody had asked him a question. Dang, these old farts were nosy.
Father’s gaze grew stern under beetled brows. “Mary just asked if you were happy about getting your own chamber.”
“Oh.” Mitch made a great show of shrugging his indifference.
“Is that all you have to say? Mr. Winslow and his crew have worked very hard to provide a place of your own for you.”
“Didn’t ask them to,” Mitch mumbled, addressing his scrambled eggs. He didn’t see Father shake his head in disappointment but he hoped his comment had spurred that reaction. Tormenting the old poop was one of Mitch’s chief delights.
“Well,” Mary said brightly, “I made a special quilt for you. I’ll bring it by once you’ve settled in.”
That offer earned her only a shrug, although Mitch would be glad of anything that helped him stay warm in this miserable place.
“Mitch, what do you say?”
Father treating him like a child made him mad enough to want to sock him one. But Mitch swallowed his pride just this once to look up and say thank you to the old lady…who really was too nice for her own good.
She smiled at him, her kindly eyes temporarily making him feel ashamed. “You are quite welcome, dear.”
He broke eye contact and concentrated on shoveling the rest of his breakfast into his mouth as quickly as possible. Within a minute, he had jumped up and excused himself – knowing the old man would demand he do it if he didn’t offer it himself – and dumped his tray.
As he was leaving, Rennie caught up to him. “Ike’s stuck on kitchen duty this morning for that flip-off. Whatcha up to?”
“Gotta get my stuff. It’s moving day!” Mitch wiggled his eyebrows and sneered to indicate he thought the whole idea ridiculous. The only thing worse than living Below was being alone. Having his own chamber sounded pretty crappy. At least he had his buddies close by in the dormitory.
“Lucky.” Rennie was truly jealous, which was, to Mitch, the only good part about having his own chamber.
Shrugging, Mitch set off for the dormitory, not surprised when Rennie didn’t follow. Rennie’s idea of friendship didn’t extend to helping a pal, and Mitch had to admit that, if the situation were reversed, he wouldn’t have lent a hand to Rennie either.
It didn’t take him long to pack up. His personal property extended to two sets of clothing and a couple of stashed Playboys he’d found while scavenging Above. He also had a photo of his mom hidden under his mattress, which he remembered only when he was already halfway out of the dormitory and had to go back to get.
Mary was waiting for him, a folded quilt over her arm, when he neared his new chamber. Vincent was with her, a basket filled with candles in one hand, a lighted lantern in the other.
“Didn’t expect a welcoming committee,” he said, although he was secretly relieved at having company on his move-in day, especially as he had forgotten to bring anything to provide light.
Mary waited while he entered the dark chamber. Vincent followed him inside, placing the lantern on a refurbished nightstand. Next to it was a bare single mattress on a makeshift base. Other than that, the furnishings included only a small trunk at the foot of the mattress. Mitch stared at the otherwise empty chamber in dismay, until voices outside asked for permission to enter, and Mr. Winslow, Old Pascal, and Sarah came in, each bearing something to make his chamber nicer.
Sarah and Mary made up his bed with fresh sheets then laid the new quilt and a matching pillow atop it. The older men brought in a table and a pair of mismatched but sturdy chairs, and Vincent set about putting candles in holders and placing them on the flat surfaces in the chamber.
This was all totally unexpected, and Mitch felt a sudden rush of gratitude at the kindness shown, especially from the gruff and tough elder Winslow. But he had a reputation to uphold, so he merely said, “It’ll do, I suppose.”
Old Pascal and Mr. Winslow shared a look, but Mary merely patted Mitch on the cheek and said, “Welcome to your own chamber, dear.”
When everyone had left, Mitch threw himself on the bed, messing it up to his satisfaction. He looked around glumly. He didn’t even have enough chairs for Rennie and Ike to come over and play cards.
He had set his bag of belongings on the trunk when he had first walked in. What he owned wouldn’t fill even that small chest. Not a lot to show for nearly eight years in this rotten hole.
Unpacking could wait. He had an idea and he wanted to find Rennie.
“Ike’s off duty at lunchtime. We could go after that,” Rennie suggested, keen on the mischief Mitch had devised. This one was an oldie but a goodie.
“Right. Oh…” Mitch had thought of a twist on their old game. “Let’s bring Cat Face with us.”
Mitch knew that Rennie was more than half-afraid of Vincent. But he wanted Rennie to be off his game, a bit intimidated, just to cement his own dominance, so he pressed the issue.
“Look, he’s alone a lot. We used to hang out when his brother was down here, got to be pretty good pals. ‘Course, since he turned into some kinda monster, I haven’t had much to do with him, but when I saw him today, I got an idea.”
Rennie shook his head. “I dunno. He’s got them claws and fangs and stuff.”
“Yep!” Mitch nodded enthusiastically. “Just imagine how much fun we’ll have with those old hobos with him along! They’ll pee their pants, first thing!”
That got Rennie to smile. “Yeah…okay.” He began to laugh. “Yeah!”
At lunch, over tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, Ike heard the plan and voiced his approval. He could barely muffle a chortle when Mitch called Vincent over to suggest he accompany them Above, earning Ike a withering glare from Mitch. But Mitch knew his quarry well. Since Devin had left, Vincent had rarely found anyone to take him UpTop, something he was always desperate to do – and on occasion did do, in the depths of the night. Still, he would require a lot of convincing.
“But…it’s daytime!” Vincent pointed out the obvious flaw in any plan that involved him going Above at this hour.
“That’s the beauty of it!” Mitch exclaimed. “How often do you get to see the sun, or trains up close? And trust me, if anyone sees you, it’d be just a bunch of old drunks. Nobody’d believe them if they tried to tell anyone about you!”
Behind him, Ike and Rennie giggled nastily. They had spent many a pleasant hour tormenting and terrorizing the vagrants who populated the railyard, who were too stoned or weak or old to put up much of a fight. Ike fingered a couple of teeth he carried in his vest pocket, trophies of some truly memorable bum beatings he had inflicted.
Vincent was half convinced already, Mitch could tell. Then he pulled out his trump card. “Devin and I used to do this, before you were old enough to come with us.” It wasn’t true, of course, but Devin wasn’t there to call him a liar.
The younger boy frowned for a moment, considering all Mitch had said. As Mitch had known, however, the lure of going Above – and of being part of an adventure with someone again – would hook this fish.
Vincent nodded. “Okay. When do we go?”
Rennie and Ike whooped until Mitch shushed them. “Let everybody know we’re plannin’ something, why doncha?” he groused.
Ike shrugged cavalierly. “Let’s go.”
Vincent hesitated. “I have a class later this afternoon. Maybe…”
“Blow it off,” scoffed Rennie. “Jeez, what are ya, a baby?”
Mitch could see the desperation to belong warring with Vincent’s burgeoning desire to please the adults Below. That latter instinct, Mitch had noticed, had grown since the Lisa thing – as if Vincent wanted…or needed…to keep proving to everyone that he wasn’t a scary beast that shouldn’t be allowed among them. And maybe he was right to worry. Maybe they all were.
Finally, Vincent nodded.
“Good! Meet us at the trainyard entrance. We’re all taking separate paths to avoid notice,” Mitch instructed him. In truth, he and his guys were traveling together by the most direct route, but forcing Vincent to sneak around was part of the fun.
“What a stupid little turd!” Ike exclaimed, once Vincent had run off to find a roundabout path to the railyard.
Mitch laughed. “Just wait until you hear what I got planned once we get there!”
Mitch and his buddies were already at the grate that led up to the railyard when Vincent arrived. They had pushed back the lock which held it in place, something the community had added to discourage anyone who might get curious about what was under the grate.
Ike crushed out the cigarette he’d been smoking once Vincent approached. If anyone had noticed the smoke rising from belowground, they weren’t interested enough to investigate it.
Mitch clapped Vincent on the shoulder in a show of friendship, and said over his shoulder, “Okay, Rennie, Ike, you hold the grate while me ‘n’ Vinnie here go up, then we’ll hold it for you.”
The grate clattered down with a heavy metal clang once they had all climbed up. Vincent wasn’t the only one to blink in the sudden sunlight.
Mitch squinted and scrutinized the area. About fifty yards away, several railcars were on sidetracks, empty vessels that Mitch suspected held a few of the hobos that always seemed to populate the area. “This way,” he shouted. He bent to pick up a discarded two-by-four with a few crooked nails sticking out at one end, then he slowly jogged toward one car’s open doors.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mitch noted with satisfaction that Ike and Rennie had followed his example, hefting a length of pipe each. He didn’t bother to check on Vincent. His part was yet to be played.
As he got to the railcar, Mitch banged on it with the board he held, then scratched down its side using the nails to create a racket nobody could sleep through.
How many times had they done this? He had lost count after five, and it never ceased to be entertaining. Beating down hobos was a great feeling. Watching grown men cower and then bleed – what a sense of power it gave him. He was looking forward to that feeling again, especially with the added twist of Vincent in the mix.
Mitch’s banging on the railcar eventually roused two bleary-eyed men. They peered out of the doorway after stumbling up to it; vacant-eyed, they gazed down at him in confusion, their heads lolling. Drunk or high. Just the way Mitch liked them.
“Hey, buddy, got a light?” Mitch shouted, pulling laughter from his two friends. When Ike and Rennie got to the traincar, they added their own noise to the din, banging the lead pipes they carried against the thick metal walls of the car, inspiring terror on the faces of the hapless vagrants caught in their trap.
Vincent appeared beside Mitch, a frown on his face. “Mitch, what are you doing?”
“We’re having fun, kid.” He laughed – a mean bark, devoid of cheer.
Rennie sidled up behind Vincent. Mitch licked his lips in anticipation, enjoying Vincent’s confusion, anticipating the look of pain to come. Vincent first…then the hobos.
Before Vincent realized what was happening, Rennie drove the steel pipe into the younger boy’s ribs like he was swatting at a baseball. Vincent stumbled, clutching his side, a low growl developing in his throat that grew louder and more full-throated as he grimaced and stood upright.
Angry shouts emanated from deep inside the shadows of the railcar, echoing eerily. To Mitch, it sounded like more than the two guys he’d seen. Suddenly, half a dozen men poured out of the opening. Mitch noted in that one wild instant that most of them didn’t look particularly haggard or dirty or disheveled or drunk. In fact, they looked pretty damn healthy, and pretty damn tough. And they had knives. Holy crap!!!
The men had obviously been waiting, had even been prepared for a fight. Mitch realized belatedly that the two hobos who had appeared in the doorway were decoys, designed to draw him and his pals in as close as possible, easy marks for a different kind of beat-down than the one Mitch had intended. It hit him suddenly that he and his guys had last played their game only a week ago, perhaps too short a time for a new group of vagrants to occupy the railcar. If some of those guys had put out the word… The streets were full of toughs spoiling for a no-holds-barred fight.
Mitch was backing up quickly, preparing to turn and run, when his attention was momentarily wrenched from the sight of all hell about to rain down on him. Rennie, his back to the mob coming for him and unaware of the danger, was concentrating his attention on taking another swing. Vincent, having recovered from the surprise of the attack, roared like some kind of wild beast and ran at him, lashing out savagely with one claw-tipped hand.
Suddenly, bright jets of blood began spurting through rents in Rennie’s shirtsleeve. He howled in pain and the pipe dropped from deadened fingers. Rennie could only stare in shock at his torn arm, grasping it in an attempt to hold it together. Disabled as he was, he was no match for the men who descended on him with knives.
Mitch didn’t waste another second watching what was happening to Rennie, awful as it was; he turned just ahead of the mass of screaming men and fled back towards the iron grate.
Ike had been stunned into immobility for just a second longer than Mitch, his reaction time a fraction slower. Mitch could hear Ike’s feet slipping on the gravel as he, too, began to run. But he was slower to gain speed, and began screaming for Mitch to wait for him. That wasn’t going to happen. Suddenly, Ike uttered a shriek that abruptly cut off. Mitch was shocked into increasing his speed, heedless of anything but getting to the safety of the Tunnels.
On his right, he saw Vincent racing towards the grate as well, moving faster than he thought humanly possible. Vincent reached it well ahead of him and, in a startling display of strength, yanked the grate up by himself. Mitch dove through the opening, rolling and coming to his feet. He would have kept on running but Vincent shouted at him, “Help me!”
Why he stopped, he could never understand. But he turned and saw that Vincent’s arms were shaking, his ability to hold the grate up faltering. He could never slip under it without help. And the men were almost upon him, running full tilt.
Mitch imagined for a flashing moment returning to the Tunnels alone. The entire afternoon’s misadventure, when it became known, could be attributed to Rennie or Ike. After all, nobody knew about their plans, or that Vincent was joining them, and Mitch didn’t have a mark on him. He could just sneak back to his chamber and profess ignorance when asked. If any sentries tried to say he was with the others, he would just say they were confused, or liars. Who could prove he was here?
Besides, if Vincent somehow survived this, there was no way he wouldn’t come for Mitch. And what he could do with those claws terrified him. The image of Rennie’s mangled arm loomed large in his mind’s eye.
It was probably the only selfless act he had ever performed, and he cursed himself for being crazy enough to do it, but Mitch shot his arms up straight, yelling, “Come on!” He took on the entire weight of the grate as Vincent scrambled under it. Adrenaline must have given him what strength he needed, for he had never been able to hold the grate up by himself before.
As soon as the younger boy’s feet touched ground, Mitch let the grate go. It crashed down and Mitch threw the lock just as a couple of howling men appeared above him, yanking on the grate, straining to pull it up.
Not waiting to see if they managed to break the locking device, Mitch grabbed a dazed Vincent and together they hurtled headlong through the tunnels, taking the turnings at full speed, bouncing off the stone walls, pushing through several hidden doors…not stopping until they were close to the Hub. When they finally felt safe, they stopped, breath labored, stitches in their sides, and stared up at each other as they rested their hands on their knees.
“Got to… tell Father,” was all a nearly breathless Vincent could say. He held his side, and Mitch could just imagine the bruises there, and Father’s explosive anger when Vincent explained how he had gotten them. But Vincent didn’t seem focused on tattling about his injuries, as Mitch expected.
“Rennie…Ike… Are they…dead?” Vincent asked in a whisper, as if unable to believe the words coming out of his mouth. Tears coursed down his face, making wet tracks in the fuzz on his cheeks. Mitch would have laughed but he couldn’t quite summon the nerve. Instead, he shrugged.
“They knew the risks.” It was a harsh assessment, but true – at least in Mitch’s eyes. He was stronger and faster than they were, so he had survived. He couldn’t spare any sympathy for them. Even if it had been a trap, they should have stayed sharp, been prepared. “You would be too,” he added for good measure, “if I hadn’t saved your life. Remember that.”
Vincent stood up straight and wiped his eyes. “We need to tell, to explain. Bad things happened, and everyone needs to know where we were and what we did. We need to take responsibility.”
Those last words sounded like his Pop, always going on about “responsibility” and “owning your mistakes” – what a loser, like anybody really did that in the real world. Now here was this idiot, wanting to confess when he didn’t really have to. Because there was a way out of this mess, if they would just stick together on their story.
Mitch’s mind was spinning. If he thought he could get away with it, he’d threaten the boy within an inch of his life to stay quiet. But that ship had sailed once the claws had come out.
“Look,” he said, huffing, “I’m going back to my chamber.” He took a couple of deep breaths to calm his still-racing heart. “You do what you want, but me? I’ve been nowhere, done nothing.”
“But everyone needs to know! And not just because of Ike and Rennie. What if those men find their way here?”
Clearly, Vincent was too upset to think clearly. This kid was going to blow it for him. It appeared there was no way he could convince the boy to suck it up and pretend nothing had happened today…even though he’d get in trouble himself.
“Suit yourself. But don’t expect me to back you up on anything you say.”
Vincent shakily held up one hand, his lisp strong, reflecting his emotional turmoil. “I’ve got Rennie’s blood on my hands. That will convince Father I’m not lying.”
Mitch tried one last gambit. “Think, kid. You want yet another rumor to get started about how you couldn’t keep your claws off someone?”
The words stung Vincent hard, as Mitch had hoped they would. He had the kid’s number now. Maybe he could use this threat to keep him under his thumb, even make a little lap dog – lap cat? – out of him.
Mitch smiled cruelly, upper hand in sight. “Think real hard.”
Conflicting emotions passed over Vincent’s face as Mitch waited for the only outcome possible: self-preservation.
In that, though, he was disappointed.
“I’ve got to tell. Even if you won’t back me up. Even if…even if I’m banished.” Vincent stared daggers at Mitch. “And if I am, you would be, too.”
Mitch blanched. It was true. The kid could just possibly get a pass – he was younger, and the Council hadn’t seen the crazy look in his eyes or the way he had lashed out at Rennie. They probably would never even see Rennie’s body or, if they did, they wouldn’t know which wounds were inflicted by Vincent, which by the men with knives. But Mitch – older, the ring-leader – would be held to a higher standard, and the deaths of Ike and Rennie would be laid at his feet, for sure.
Vincent began to turn away from Mitch. In that brief moment, Mitch realized what he had to do. He lashed out with a hard punch to Vincent’s temple. The boy went down in a heap, out cold. Mitch didn’t spare him another glance, he just turned and hightailed it for his own chamber.
The bag he’d packed was still sitting on the trunk where he’d left it. It wasn’t much to show for eight years of life, but at least he’d have a change of clothes, and a few bucks he’d managed to cadge over time by returning bottles UpTop. Mitch grabbed it and was running as if hell-bent, past startled Tunnel folk, past sentries, up to the entrance leading to his Pop’s small apartment. He left the gate gaping wide, heedless of anyone finding that access point. He didn’t stop until he was at his father’s door, banging on it with all his might, screaming, “Pop! Pop! Let me in!” at the top of his lungs.
Nobody was home.
Any neighbors around during the day were not nosy enough to open their own apartment doors to find out why someone was screaming in their hallway. It was comfort enough to know the madman wasn’t at their own door.
Mitch put his shoulder to the flimsy wood and shoved with all his might, feeling parts of the door splinter and cave in. He got his hand inside and undid the lock.
The clock above his father’s stove showed him he had maybe half an hour before the workday was done and weary people would begin stumbling back to their apartments from work. His father was probably at a soup kitchen getting dinner; he would likely be back soon, too. But maybe it was for the best that he was out. Mitch wouldn’t have to argue or explain.
Quickly, he rifled through drawers and his Pop’s clothes, and he dug through any container he could find that might hold money. He managed to pocket $32, which wasn’t much, but was more than he had when he came in.
Worried that he was staying too long – it was always possible some neighbor might decide to call the police – he desperately scanned the meager contents of the apartment for anything that might be useful. He bagged a flashlight and some extra batteries, the thin blanket off his father’s bed, some crackers and a small jar of peanut butter. After stuffing his haul into his bag, he stood for a moment in the middle of the tossed apartment, staring around.
Suddenly, everything that had happened that afternoon hit him – his best friends were dead…nobody Above or Below would have him anymore…and he had no idea what to do next.
He opened his mouth, took a deep breath, and screamed his frustration into the universe.
Then he ran.
Out on the street, Mitch wished he’d thought to grab a jacket from his father’s closet. Night was coming soon and the cold would settle into his bones. Where should he go? The streets of the city had never looked more intimidating.
He was completely alone. That thought – alone – made him shiver.
He slipped into a bodega and shoplifted a few items, paying only for the drink that the bodega owner had seen him take out of the cooler.
Sitting on a bench, he ate while he considered his limited options. The railyard was out, obviously. He couldn’t chance being recognized by any of the men from that afternoon – maybe they were gone, but maybe they weren’t. The park? Weird stuff went on there, especially at night. The docks? Hmmm. Maybe. They would be mostly deserted now, and there were lots of warehouses; he could slip inside one to sleep. And heck, they were always looking for guys with strong backs to work there, right? There were worse places to go.
Having decided on a plan, he made his way to the harbor. It was fully dark by the time he got to the first of a series of warehouses and docks that seemed to stretch to infinity. Mitch was feeling pretty good about his decision as he scaled a fence and disappeared within the massive complex.
Pallets were scattered all over, and corrugated metal containers were piled high. Stray packing materials blew around his ankles, nearly tripping him. Massive cranes loomed overhead, winches and chains creaking eerily in the wind. Sea birds dive-bombed and cawed loudly as he tried door after locked door. Finally, he noticed lights on in one warehouse. He approached it carefully, drawn to the evidence of people and yet somewhat fearful. The sound of raucous laughter filtered toward him as he neared the building, a weirdly comforting human sound amidst the strange machinery surrounding him.
He risked a glance inside through a smeared, dirty window and saw a card game in progress, a few guys in overalls with greasy hands playing poker while others watched a television set that was on behind them. Mitch, mesmerized by the TV after years of being without one, stared helplessly. What was on the screen was much better than any Playboy he had even seen.
He couldn’t seem to tear himself away from the spot. He only belatedly realized that he was a sitting duck, standing there in the shadows, watching. He knew he had no one but himself to blame when he felt someone grab him by the neck from behind.
Fighting proved fruitless; the guy was too strong.
“Hey! I found a nosy little dock rat!” the man shouted.
“Not a rat,” Mitch mumbled. “Just need a job.” He tried to look like the tough guy he was but the effect was ruined by the man who easily force-marched him into the warehouse.
The card game stopped, and someone turned the sound down on the television.
“What you got there, Jake? A snoop?” A well-dressed man came out of an interior office to size Mitch up. He apparently wasn’t too impressed by what he saw. “Shake him down,” he ordered Mitch’s captor.
“Hey!” he cried as the big man turned out his pockets; Mitch’s meager supply of funds spilled out onto the dirty concrete floor.
“Oooh, big spender,” the Jake guy commented before stuffing the bills into his own pocket.
Mitch’s bag was dumped out, but there was little inside to intrigue the men, who merely laughed at Mitch when he tried to protest. Batteries spun away and into dark corners. One of the erstwhile card players reached down and intercepted the flashlight that had rolled near his foot. He looked at the cheap plastic casing then tossed it away. Mitch heard it smash on the cement floor somewhere out of sight. The crackers were crushed underfoot by another man. Peanut butter was oozing out of the now-broken jar.
“Get rid of him,” the well-dressed man said. Then he pointed at Mitch. “And don’t come back here snooping around. Got it?”
Mitch nodded dumbly, dismayed by his sudden change in circumstances. Below he had been near the bottom of the food chain, but he’d had all he’d needed to get by. Even when he left the Tunnels behind, he at least had stolen enough from his father to see him through for a few days while he considered his options. Now, he’d be lucky to emerge from this place with his life; he certainly had little else left.
Derisive laughter followed them out the door as the big man, Jake, manhandled him towards the warehouse entrance. Without a word, Jake dragged him outside, and hustled him down to a loading dock. It was dark there, so Mitch didn’t see the fist that flew into his face, nor could he brace for the kick that cracked two of his ribs once he’d fallen to the ground. And he certainly never realized there was a four-foot drop behind him until he had been shoved off the edge of the loading dock, the fall dislocating his shoulder. His bag came sailing over the edge after him, its few remaining contents strewn across the ground around him. He was dimly grateful that he had landed on cement and not in the water.
A cold, harsh wind was gusting off the river, scattering his belongings along the docks as he lay in a haze of pain, unable to even try to retrieve them. Losing consciousness for a while was a blessed relief, but eventually the agony of his injuries dragged him back to groggy awareness.
It was nearly midnight by the time he struggled painfully into a bit of shelter under a parked truck chassis, the only cover near enough for him to crawl to.
He was freezing, broken, abandoned, alone. He had nothing left…only his battered pride and a fierce determination to someday pay back in pain twice as much as what he had been dealt.
Someday…he would get those guys.
Someday…it would be his turn to show no mercy.
Because he’d never forget.
And only God forgives.
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