Barky looked forward to celebrating his sixteenth birthday by getting high. He grinned at his reflection in the storefront window, admiring the Mohawk he had shaped with a discarded razor in the Shop-N-Stop restroom. With a furtive sweep of the street, he veered off onto a gravel drive behind a strip mall. Satisfied no one could see him, he two-fingered the blunt from his jeans pocket. Soo-weeeet!
Barky hugged the back of the building. He’d covered this route before. The grubby little stores in the strip mall closed at five and it had to be after seven because the street church a few blocks away had gathered. Only the liquor store stayed open. The clerk locked up at ten, tucking the usual stolen bottle of Jack snug under his jacket.
The gray spackled wall cast long shadows. Barky imagined himself invisible, a habit he picked up when he lived at home. A breeze ruffled the tips of his Mohawk and cooled his face. He glanced around before cupping both hands around the blunt. He lit the end, inhaled, held it, closed his eyes and saw himself floating over the rooftops, out of the reach of those clueless pricks who got their rocks off making his life miserable. Nobody messed with him anymore. Nobody dared.
Barky didn’t want to think about home, or his mom. Or that stupid fat jerk she married. He’d made it on the street just fine without them. Who needed a home anyway?
A noise distracted him and he coughed out smoke. His eyes snapped open. He froze. Sounded like a rat. Barky hated rats, terrified they’d find him asleep in some doorway and use his skinny-ass body for an appetizer. This area drew the little creepers when the nearby Dumpsters overflowed and ripe garbage smeared the gravel. Always happened in this hood. He hunted for a weapon and eyed a rusted tire iron near a doorway. He tested its weight and eased toward the noise. He puffed out his cheeks, seeing himself as the Great Terminator of Evil Rodents.
Barky didn’t find a rat. Instead he spied a slender brown hand, fingers curled in a fist. A discarded bulky trash bag covered . . . what? He swallowed a crazy urge to laugh, took a shaky breath instead, and crept closer. He held the tire iron at arm’s length and used the end to lift the plastic to find—
A woman’s dark swollen face.
“Holy crap!” His high fizzled. His stomach clenched and turned sour. He silently screamed at his feet to run, but his shoes stuck to the ground. He forced himself to take another look and wished he hadn’t.
Shit, shit, shit. He’d seen girls after they’d been beaten. This was as bad as it gets. She was dead, he had no doubt. Other guys talked about bodies they’d seen. He always wondered what it would be like to see one up close. Maybe if he lifted the bag up a little more, see what she looked like.
The joint slipped from his fingers as he stared down at her, fascinated and repulsed at the same time. A Latina, he guessed. Blood and bits of wood ensnarled her black hair. One clouded eye bulged. Her lips were ballooned, cracked and bloody.
But when he lifted the bag higher, he gagged. The open wound where her stomach had been was soaked with blood.
Voices drifted from the street. He dropped the bag over the body and plastered his back against the Dumpster. His hands shook. Crap! What if someone saw him? Standing over a woman’s beaten body with a tire iron in his hand? Stupid! Didn’t they always blame the punk kid with the purple hair, the piercings, the tats? One look and they’d splay him on the ground like a slaughtered deer and stuff him in jail.
He tossed the tire iron aside, and heard an echoing thump from the backside of the Dumpster. He froze.
What the hell was that? An animal? Someone else hurt? Bad guy hanging around for seconds? His pounding heart filled his ears. The inside of his mouth turned to sand.
A boy with spiky black hair and a tear-streaked face crawled out into the open and inched toward the plastic bag.
“Oh, man!” Barky groaned. Sweat dripped into his eyes. “You scared the hell outta me.” One look at the kid and he made the connection. Same brown skin and black hair. His stomach flipped and sank. “You gotta be shittin’ me. That your mama?”
The boy stretched an arm toward the body. Huge dark eyes looked up at Barky in mute despair.
Barky hated that look. “Help me,” it cried, which usually meant he was expected to do something. Fuck! Why didn’t he run at the first sight of the body? He should get the hell outta there. The kid made a bad situation real fucking bad.
“Hey kid,” he said. “Cops’ll be here. They’ll take care of you. I gotta go.”
But something held him back. That look. That dumb, sad, helpless look.
What the hell. He grabbed the boy under his armpits and helped him to his feet. His head barely reached Barky’s bellybutton. His ragged clothes hung on his thin, frail body. Couldn’t be more than five or six, Barky guessed.
While he hesitated, wondering what to do, Barky heard the distant wail of sirens. What? How’d they know so fast? Who called ’em?
The child’s eyes widened in terror. Shock tremors vibrated through his body as though an unseen force had rattled him. Barky saw his own panic mirrored in the kid’s eyes.
Barky let him go and took a step back. He shook his head. “I can’t help you,” he whispered. “If anyone sees me here . . . with you—with her . . . I just can’t.”
No choice, Barky told himself as he staggered away, ready to run. He hesitated. Mistake. The kid lunged and captured both legs in a death grip.
“Aw shit, no,” Barky protested. He tried to pry the kid loose. “Jeez, whaddya doing?”
The terrified boy hung on. Sweat poured down Barky’s face. Sirens whooped, coming closer, maybe around the corner. He caught sight of his fallen joint. He snatched it up and shoved the butt into his pocket. Just his luck they’d used that against him, too.
He tried shaking the kid off again, but it was no use. “Probably illegal, too, ain’t ya? You and your mama? Shit and double shit. Why me?”
The kid didn’t answer. Now that Barky thought about it, he hadn’t uttered a word the whole time. Barky told himself he didn’t care. He just wanted out of this scene.
A noise from the liquor store made Barky freeze. Fucking clerk. Had to be him who called the cops. He gazed at the kid who stared back with a pitiful expression. Barky groaned. “Okay, you win. But we gotta split. Now!”
Barky reached down and hauled the kid up into his arms. Struggling against the unaccustomed weight, he half-ran, half-stumbled down the length of the building. Voices rose behind him and materialized into uniforms as Barky turned the corner to the street. He heard feet crunch gravel.
Too late he remembered the tire iron he left behind with his damning fingerprints.