Crash III: There's No Place Like Home (17 page)

Though not sure what viable meant, Michael got the gist of it—toe the line or else.

The man shut and locked the door again.

For a moment, no one moved. Other than the occasional shifting shadow, it remained still. Surely the other boys were doing the same as Michael—watching the bodies in the middle of the room and waiting for something to happen.

***

A few minutes passed and nothing happened, although something was building beneath the surface. It turned the air almost static with repressed action.

When someone moved on the opposite side of the room, the place came to life. As one, the boys converged on the bodies, colliding in the middle as a mess of flailing limbs and yelps. Michael held back.

The wet cracks of punches sounded out along with the occasional expulsion of air from a winded diaphragm. Swearing, grunting, struggling.
 

With his mouth hanging open, Michael watched; whatever they were doing, he wanted no part in it.

***

In less than a minute it stopped, and the boys walked away, some more gingerly than others. Many of the bigger boys had items of the dead kids’ clothing; shirt, shoes, socks, trousers. Suddenly, it made sense. The warehouse was cold—bordering on freezing—and any extra layers had to make the stay a lot more comfortable.
 

When Michael looked at the bent, broken, and naked bodies in the center of the room, his breath left his lungs. One was larger than the other, older and with the chest hair of a man. A beard wrapped around the lower half of his face. Thick enough to cover his jowls, it looked soft like he’d never grown one before. The other one, the smaller one, had just wanted to find somewhere safe. Maybe they were safe now.

Michael bowed his head and muttered, “Rest in peace, boys.”

One Fucking Eye Open

Michael watched the brothers as if they’d move at any moment. The arrival of the two corpses had wound up the atmosphere in the warehouse tighter than before; to look at the wrong person could prove fatal. At least dead boys couldn't start fights with him.

The hard floor drove aches through his bum and up his back. Everything still hurt from the beating. Before he could dwell on it any further, the screams started up.
 

The warehouse contained many rooms, all of them connected by a maze of dark passageways. The cacophony of suffering reached such a crescendo at times, the place virtually vibrated with the sounds. Screams, cries, and moans from men, women, and children. All of them crashed into the door to the warehouse, the sound of desperation squeezing through the gaps beneath and around it.
 

Watching the huge, metal door, Michael shivered. If he didn't get away soon, he'd be the next one screaming.

The crack of the bolt sliding free broke through Michael's spiraling thoughts.

The door creaked open, and the tall form of a boy fell forward, shoved into the room by a strong hand in the back. The boy moved with a zombie-like gait.

Michael shifted closer to the door. He needed to get out, and maybe this was his chance. Maybe the guard would be too busy with the boy he’d just brought back. Maybe—

The door slammed shut and the bolt shifted across.
 

The light was poor, but not so poor that Michael didn’t recognize the newest arrival. It may have been a battered, bruised, and more fragile version of the boy, but the rat had returned, nonetheless.

The boy pointed at Michael. “You.”

The accusation seemed to stir something up in all of the boys. Although Michael remained focused on his lopsided accuser, his senses tingled from the attention awakening around him as many of the boys got to their feet.

The rat looked around and stood slightly straighter as if lifted by the support of his peers. When he moved toward Michael, he resumed his undead shuffle. He stopped a few feet away, panting as he spoke through labored breaths. “That… should have been… you tonight.”

The boys in the warehouse closed in, and Michael stood up. He couldn't take another kicking on the floor.

Spittle rode the rat’s words, his eyes watered, and he shook as he repeated, “That should have been you.”

As the crowed surrounding him closed in even tighter, Michael shook his head. “Fuck you.”

When two boys lurched forward, the leader put a restraining arm out. He laughed and stepped closer to Michael, looming over him. “Not this time, lads. He wants another kicking. Another kicking means he won’t be taken to Julius anytime soon. Regardless of how you feel about him, I expect each and every one of you to make sure he’s given the best care. We want him nursed back to health in record time. After all, Julius needs a new pet after Chaz was killed last week.”

Leaning so close to him that Michael could smell his rotten breath, the boy said, “You’d best sleep with one fucking eye open. The second you lower your guard, you’re fucked. We’re going to damage you in ways they won’t see when you’re fully clothed. You’re going to get the scars that we all carry. Sooner or later, everyone gets them. You may not be pretty enough for Julius yet, but you’ll do for us. No one gets to escape their fate in this place even if we’re the ones that have to deliver it.”

The stink of body odor added to that of the boy’s halitosis. When he pulled away, Michael started to breathe again. The rest of the room pulled back with their leader.
 

Michael remained on his feet and leaned against the wall, the cold brick penetrating his layers of clothing.
 

After a while, he sat down again and pulled his knees to his chest.
One, two, three, four. Eyes, throat, nuts, shins.
 

The time for him to put into action what George had taught him was fast approaching. Whatever happened, these boys weren’t getting the jump on him.

Scrambles

It felt like days had passed, but how could Michael tell? Living in the permanent gloom of the warehouse and not even able to see the other side of the room, it could have stretched to weeks by now.

The lock snapped free with its usual loud crack and he looked over at it. The opening of the door provided the only measure of time… or consistency at least. He clung to it as some kind of signal for each passing day but had no idea how regularly they visited the boys.
 

The hinge groaned as it always did, and Michael squinted into the darkness to see what came in.

A large shadow shot into the room and landed on the floor with a thud.
Another one followed it through seconds later.
 

Not again!
 

But instead of bodies, they were sacks.
 

The door slammed shut with a loud clang and the bolt snapped across.
 

Just looking at the two sacks gave claws to Michael’s hunger pains. The food would be stale, but it was still food. A rumble rolled through Michael’s guts, and he licked his dry and cracked lips.

Five tall boys on Michael’s right got to their feet and walked to the middle of the room. Everyone else held back. It played out the same way the last time Michael was here. The small and the weak only got fed what the bigger boys didn’t want. Often, the bigger boys wanted everything.

Another group of boys stood on Michael’s left. Larger in number, but smaller in stature, they waited. They knew their place.

Once the five tall boys got to the middle, the group of smaller boys on Michael’s left rushed forward. They screamed and whooped as they descended on the pack. This was new.
 

The first boy to reach the bullies in the middle took a hard whack to the jaw. The wet slap echoed around the cavernous room and it drove the boy backwards, dropping him to the ground.

But that didn’t stop them.

Three of the smaller boys jumped on the one who’d thrown the first punch and chaos descended. Grunts, screams, and shouts came out of the tangle of bodies.
 

When both sacks split and the food spread out over the floor, half of the smaller boys rushed over and started gathering it up. They ran it back to their corner before coming in for more.

When a tube of breadsticks rolled out of the fight, Michael darted forward and picked them up. He pulled the small tube to his chest and drew back into the shadows.

***

No more than a minute had passed, and the group of smaller boys on Michael’s left had re-formed around their stash. A couple of them dragged the boy back who’d been knocked out at the beginning. Talk about taking one for the team.

The five hulking frames of the larger boys cleared up the rest of the food; but only four of them took their supplies back to their side of the warehouse. The one who had been to see Julius remained.

He stepped over the naked and broken corpses of the brothers and pointed at Michael. “You!”

Michael shook his head and hugged his tube of breadsticks. He didn’t reply.

“Don’t think I didn’t just see what you took, boy. Give the food back now!”

Michael got to his feet and put the tube of breadsticks in his hoodie’s pouch. He needed to front this out. George had said it was all about front. If he let them bully him now, it would set a precedent. He shook his head and stared at the boy. “No.”

The four big boys stopped mid way through carrying the food over to their side of the room. Once again, everyone’s attention fell on Michael.

As the bigger boy walked toward him, Michael watched his limp. Whenever he put pressure on his left leg, he noticeably dipped to one side.

“I ain’t fucking around,” the boy said as he jabbed his finger at Michael again. “You’d best give me my fucking food back now.”

“It isn’t your food.”
 

The boy continued forward.

Michael shifted side to side as he looked at him.
Eyes, throat, nuts, shin.
 

When the boy was close enough, he swung a kick at him, catching his left shin.

The boy dropped instantly and rolled on the floor, screaming so loudly it hurt Michael’s ears.

Michael then charged forward and kicked him in the back, forcing a hollow cough from him.
 

The pain from the beating he’d taken vanished, and Michael moved more easily than he had in days. While gritting his teeth, he drove another kick into the boy’s back and then another.
 

The boy wheezed hard as he contorted on the floor, but Michael didn’t stop, raining down kick after kick after kick.
 

No one came to the boy’s rescue. ‘Friends’ abandoned you quickly in this place. Spittle rode Michael’s words as he leaned over him. “I don’t want to fight you. I don’t want this. Just leave me alone.”

When Michael stood up straight again, rocking with heavy pants, the older boy shuffled back. Silence descended again.

Then it started. The gang of boys on the right—the bigger boys—threw jeers at Michael.
 

“Don’t think it ends here, batty boy.”

“You’re going to pay for this, you little fucker.”

“We’ll be waiting.”

They talked a good game, but they didn’t seem to back it up. Michael had won, and they knew it.
 

The taller boy got to his feet and walked toward his crew. He limped worse than before.
 

As he moved into the midst of them, they folded around him and the glances in Michael’s direction dropped in frequency.

Returning to his space against the wall, Michael leaned against it and slid to the floor. He flipped the lid off the tube of breadsticks. It was like the celebratory popping of a champagne cork.
 

The expected crunch never came. Stale or not, at least it was food.
Michael continued to watch the bigger boys. I may have won the battle, but they would no doubt jump him sooner or later. He needed to get out of there—fast.

Power Shift

Someone nudged Michael and he turned to see two boys at his side. Cold dread smothered him. How could he fight them both if they wanted their way with him? The last time he was here, he heard it happen to some of the smaller boys. Everyone else ignored it. They'd obviously ignore it happening to him.

Instead of replying, Michael glared at the slightly older boys. Whatever they had planned, it wasn’t going to happen. No fucking way! They’d seen what he could do, and he’d do it again and again to save himself.
 

One of the boys shifted closer.

Michael continued to watch the boys and remained mute. The smell of the warehouse sat on them. It was a mixture of waste, dirt, and sweat. Michael, no doubt, reeked of it himself.

When one of the boys held out a shaking hand, Michael stared at it.

The boy’s voice shook. “I’m Tim.”

Although the boy kept his dirty hand held out, Michael left it hanging.

Tim dropped his hand and looked at the floor. “Look, we came over here because you’re the first boy to stick up to Ben and his gang.”

Some of the bigger boys stood up and looked over.

Tim lowered his tone even more. “We have to fight them when food comes in, but we’ve not seen anyone do what you did to Ben. We—”

“Wanna join us?” the other boy said as he leaned forward, cutting Tim off.

Without replying, Michael looked at the pair. Tim had a kind face, an ease in his soft posture. The boy next to him, on the other hand… he had a twitchy and jagged demeanor as if permanently on edge—almost like he was one step away from descending into madness; although, any amount of time in this place could do that to anyone.

Desperation stared at Michael through wide eyes, and Tim placed his hands together as if in prayer. “We could really do with all the boys we can get on our side. We can’t keep getting picked on by those guys.”

Before Michael could reply, one of the bigger boys stood up and pointed over at them. “I’m not too happy with what’s going on over there, Ben. It seems like our pink track-suited friend is having a little get together with the other boys.”

Both Tim and the other boy backed away from Michael.

Michael watched Ben. If he needed to fight him again, he would. Would Tim’s group join in this time?
 

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