A familiar voice drew Cyrus’s attention, and he turned to see a young, skinny boy walking up the street. His shirt and pants hung off his body like oversized rags, and a grin broke his dark face open from ear to ear. Cyrus glanced over his shoulder, flipped his shaggy blonde hair out of his eyes, and peered through the window into the store. Then he turned back to the kid.
“Aren,” he said, raising his brows, “what the hell are you doing? You’re gonna get me in trouble!”
“I won’t stay long,” Aren said, and though he crossed his slender arms around his chest, his smile didn’t fade.
“Does Darius know you’re here?”
“Yeah,” Aren said, but there was a sheepish glint in his eye. Cyrus raised a brow, and the boy groaned. “Okay, no, but I had to tell you!”
“Tell me what?”
“I got a new job!” Aren came over and sat next to Cyrus. He’d recently turned twelve—the same age Cyrus had been when he’d lost his mother and his home—and already Aren had been through so much more than Cyrus had at that age, including work. “That mean jewelry guy wants me to help guard his stand! I’ll get paid in actual money!”
“Wow, man,” Cyrus said, and he playfully shoved Aren’s shoulder. The boy laughed. “Great job! When do you start?”
“Tomorrow,” Aren said. “And Darius says—”
Suddenly the door to the Stop n’ Shop flew open and a woman rushed out, carrying a sobbing child in her arms. A thick, angry man followed after them. His beady eyes landed right on Cyrus. Cyrus swore and jumped to his feet.
“What the fuck are you doing?” the man snarled. He took one look at Aren and flailed his arms like he was shooing off a stray dog. “No loitering! Get on! Get out!”
Aren quickly got to his feet and scurried away. The man turned back to Cyrus and pointed in the door. “Some stupid kid overflowed the slushie machine—get in there and clean the mess up.”
“And how many times do I gotta tell you, don’t feed those homeless rats! They’ll start hanging around and scaring off my customers. Now get in there and clean.”
A spark of rage and a little bit of fear woke up in Cyrus’s gut. He was one of those “homeless rats.” If Lonnie found out, Cyrus could lose his job and everything he’d worked for.
He bit back his anger and hurried through the door. There was a mess all right. Lime green slushie lay in a sticky slick across the grimy tile. Cyrus quickly walked around it and hurried to the back. He folded the uneaten part of his sandwich back into its wrapper, stored it in his employee locker, and grabbed the mop and bucket from the closet. When he returned to the front of the store, Lonnie was back in his chair behind the counter. He watched Cyrus come out from the back with an ugly frown on his face.
“Next time I catch you feeding another rat, I’m docking your pay,” he said. Lonnie’s balding hair made his forehead look huge, and he raised his brows high upon it. “You understand me?”
Cyrus gritted his teeth and his hands wrapped tightly around the handle of his mop. He wanted to swing it at Lonnie. Hit him over the head…
But instead he took a deep breath and mumbled, “Yes, sir,” as he dunked the mop into the bucket. Head down, just like he’d learned to do when he’d been working on the Williamsburg Street Market.
“Keep your mouth shut, Cyrus,” Darius had always told him. “Words can hurt, but they’re just words. If you’re not in danger, walk it off. It’s not worth the fight.”
Cyrus couldn’t afford to lose this job over wounded pride. So he wrung the mop head out and shook the loose water before he slapped it back onto the tile and smeared it around the spilled slushie. Bright green lines seeped into the brown grout. He could see Lonnie watching him from the corner of his eye.
“God, I fuckin’ hate kids,” the man muttered at last, and he reached under his table and pulled out a dirty magazine he only read when the store was empty. He kicked back in his chair and opened the front page. “Always making a fuckin’ mess, and they’re so god damned loud. I wish we could just round ‘em up and lock ‘em somewhere till they’re useful.”
Cyrus’s anger flared into his chest again. His mind filled with thought of the kids back at the abandoned bar they’d turned into a home. Of their mess, dirty blankets and broken toys strewn across the floor, and the sounds of them laughing and playing and crying.
It’s not worth the fight, he had to remind himself. He needed this job. He needed the paycheck, or some of those kids would go hungry this winter.
A bell chimed at the front of the store, and Cyrus glanced up as his boss hastily shoved his smutty magazine back under the counter. A couple of young men walked through the door, hoods pulled over their heads, hands shoved deep in their pockets. They didn’t start browsing the aisles. Instead, their eyes darted around, scoping the place out, counting how many people were in the room. When they realized it was just Cyrus and Lonnie, they shared a look.
Lonnie didn’t seem to catch on, but Cyrus sure as fuck did. His grip tightened on the mop handle, and he started to walk around the shelves, toward the back of the store, where he could get a phone—
“Don’t fucking move.”
Cyrus froze and turned around. One of the men pulled a pistol out of his pocket. The other one shut and guarded the door.
“You—” the guy with the gun brandished it in Cyrus’s direction. “Mop boy—get behind the counter.” When Cyrus didn’t move, too caught up in fear to register what the fuck was happening, he shook the gun again. It was all Cyrus could focus on—the round barrel pointed right at him. “Now!”
Cyrus scrambled over. He dropped the mop and immediately tripped right over it, sprawling onto the ground before hopping back to his feet and rushing to stand beside Lonnie. The guy with the gun looked between them. His hollow, acne-pocked cheeks pulled tight against the hard muscles in his jaw. “Don’t try anything funny. Just open the register, and fill up the fuckin’ bag.”
He pointed his gun at Lonnie’s round face as he threw a black backpack onto the counter. Lonnie didn’t move right away. His hands shook in the air, and he’d begun sweating so badly Cyrus could see it pooling on the white t-shirt beneath his armpits.
Lonnie squeaked and jumped into frantic, clumsy action. He quickly dipped down and opened the register. The drawer popped out with a soft ping!, and Lonnie began to grab handfuls of bills and shove them into the backpack. Cyrus’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He swallowed hard to loosen it as he peered up at the pock-faced guy and at his accomplice standing guard by the door.
“Hurry the fuck up, man,” the guard said, looking back at what was happening by the counter. When his mouth opened, Cyrus saw he was missing a handful of teeth. Then movement over the guy’s shoulder caught Cyrus’s eye, and his jaw fell open. A woman was approaching the store with a curious, suspicious frown. The guy by the door saw the look on Cyrus’s face and quickly turned back around. He swore and grabbed a knife out of his pocket. The woman paused on the other side of the glass. She looked from his face to the weapon in his hand…
Then his eyes went glassy, and he took a step back. She opened the door and walked into the store.
“What, exactly, is going on here?”
Her high-pitched voice cut through the silence as she wandered in. Slowly. Confidently. Her plain, brown hair fell in drab waves down the back of her shoulders and her eyelids were so heavy she might have looked bored, except for the venomous, angry look she threw toward the two armed men. Cyrus’s eyes widened as he looked back at Lonnie, who just turned to watch the woman with the same shocked expression on his face. The pock-marked gunman moved to target his weapon on her, but the woman shook her head, held up a hand to stop him, and he dropped his arms.
“How dare you come into my part of town—”
“Do not interrupt me when I’m speaking,” the woman said. Immediately, the man’s mouth slammed so tightly shut it looked glued together, and his scarred cheeks went tight again. The woman went on, her brows furrowed angrily over heavily-lidded eyes. “Now answer my question. What is going on here?”
The gunman glanced to his accomplice while Cyrus and Lonnie exchanged a quiet, dumbfounded look. At last, the guy with the pistol turned back to the woman and shook his head. Suddenly, he was very meek.
“We were just trying to get some cash—”
“I-I just,” he stammered, and he scratched the back of his head. Cyrus noticed he had open sores there. “We needed the money.”
The woman frowned. “For what?”
“Food,” the guy said. A lie. Now that he was paying attention, Cyrus saw the track marks on the guy’s arms and noticed just how hollow his face was. “Rent. We just need to—”
“God, you make me sick,” the woman cut in, and she took another step into the store. The man by the door slinked backward, closer to the counter, and the gunman’s eyes darted down at his feet. The woman went on. “You are the problem with the world today. I’m working to make this place strong, and people like you come in here with this entitled attitude, like you deserve more without having to work for it, and you ruin everything I’ve accomplished…”
“Listen,” the guard said. He carried the same signs of addiction. Hollow eyes. Twitchy hands. Sores around his face. “Lady. Please, don’t call the cops…”
“The police are the least of your worries right now…”
“We’re sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“Of course it won’t,” the woman said. “I’ll make sure of it. Is that clear?”
“Good,” she said. “Now get out and go jump off a bridge.”
The man at the counter quickly walked away—shoving the gun in his pocket and abandoning the backpack on the counter—and moved toward the door. His partner followed suit. Placidly. Almost mechanically. The two of them strode out onto the street, turned east, and disappeared into the crowd.
Cyrus and Lonnie stared after them. Cyrus’s mouth had fallen open, and for the first time in several minutes, he gulped down deep, lungfuls of breath. He looked back to the woman. She walked further into the shop and let out a quaint, perturbed huff.
Lonnie turned to take her in, too, and his attitude shifted.
“Go on,” he snarled at Cyrus as he quickly pulled the backpack of money under the counter and out of sight. “Finish cleaning up that mess.”
Cyrus happily bowed out. He walked past the woman as she came through the store, apologizing as he lifted the mop out of her way and shifted the bucket. She walked past him, and Lonnie cleared his throat.
“Well,” he said, squaring his shoulders and puffing out his squishy chest. “Those boys’re lucky they listened to you, sweetie. I didn’t want to have to hurt them…”
“It’s such a shame,” the woman said, annoyed. Her voice was so high it was almost uncomfortable to listen to. “These kinds of people. They come into nice neighborhoods like this and ruin it for the rest of us.”
“Ya got that right,” Lonnie said. He leaned over the counter and flashed a gross little smirk he thought looked sultry. “You handled yourself real good there. I like a woman who doesn’t tolerate bullshit.”
Cyrus couldn’t help it. He rolled his eyes and let out a little sigh—
“Hey, you get to mopping!” Lonnie snapped, pointing a fat finger in Cyrus’s direction and throwing a hot, angry glare. Then he cleared his throat and turned back to the woman. She’d come even closer, almost to the counter, and Lonnie flashed that stupid smirk again. “Sorry ‘bout him. Just turned eighteen, and this is his first ‘real’ job, so he don’t have manners yet. Now, what can I do for you, hon?”
The woman turned to take Cyrus in. Her flat lips fanned out in a forced smile before she turned back to Lonnie. Cyrus put his head back down and focused on his mopping.
“I’m just walking around the neighborhood,” the woman said. Her tone filled with a sweetness that felt like a front she put on with customer service to get what she wanted, and she pushed her lips out in a small, deflated pout. “Looking for a few regulars who canhelp me keep troublemakers from moving in and ruining this part of town. How often do you come in to work?”
“I practically live here,” Lonnie said, like that was something worth bragging about. He inched forward on the counter, propping his elbows on the laminate surface. “I own this fine establishment, and I’m right there with ya. Rats like that gotta go.”
The woman laughed, and Cyrus felt that anger flutter to life again, so he looked down at his work and started mopping earnestly. Anything to distract him from the disgusting display going on at the front of the store. He was almost done. The floor didn’t look particularly appealing, but at least the slushie was cleaned up. Then he could go hide in the back and count inventory, alone.
“That’s wonderful,” that high voice cooed. “Then I’m going to need your help…”
She didn’t say anything then, but just leaned in and focused on Lonnie’s face. The man’s eyes narrowed a little, and he reached up and scratched one of his temples with a wince—
Then he nodded and said, “Yes, sir.”
Cyrus’s brown eyes narrowed.
The woman nodded, and the smile on her lips widened a little more. “Good man,” she said, patting Lonnie’s hand. He gave her a dazed, confused little smirk. Then she turned and took in Cyrus. His heart skipped a beat as she began to walk his way. He stood up a little straighter, moved the mop handle in front of himself like he could hide behind the fucking thing. The woman stopped just shy of five feet away from him and looked him over.
“And you,” she said, “You work here?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Excellent. Then I’ll want your help, too.”
And she stared at him for a long, awkward moment. A nagging ache started at his temples. God, he hadn’t realized how tense the robbery made him. He rubbed the sides of his head and shook the feeling away.
“So, uh,” he said. “What do you need?”
The woman’s smile faded, and her eyes widened. She looked him over and shook her head.
“You said you wanted my help?” Cyrus asked. “With what?”
But she just kept staring at him, confused. Then she gestured to the floor by his feet.
“You missed a spot.”
He glanced down to see the clean tile underneath his dirty sneakers.
“No I didn’t—”
His temples ached again, worse this time. He winced, closing his eyes, and when he opened them back up—
There was green slushie everywhere.
Cyrus’s mouth fell open and he stared at the ground.
“What the hell…”
He looked back up to the woman. She smiled again and gave a soft laugh with that sugary, high-pitched voice.
“Good,” she said. “Glad to see we’re on the same page. Now, I’m going to need your help—”
Suddenly tires screeched to a stop outside. Lonnie reached under his counter. He pulled out a bat and moved toward the door with a similar mechanical cadence the thieves had when they’d left.
And the woman’s sweetness dissolved like she’d been doused in hot water. She looked away from Cyrus, out the door, and whispered, “Fuck.”
He looked up, too, but he couldn’t see anything. Thick smoke overwhelmed the street outside. It crashed into the windows. Whorls of gray haze churned like dirty water against the glass—
Then a tight, painful surge wrapped all the way around Cyrus’s head and his vision went gray. He closed his eyes to blink it away…
When he opened them again, he was outside. Swirling colors, muted, like he was seeing them through smoke, clouded his vision. A humming drone of shouting and crying and wailing sirens filled his ears in a dull, echoing chorus. His muscles moved—he didn’t move them. His arms propped above his head, his fingers wrapped tightly around the wooden handle of his mop, as though he was about to swing it down. Cyrus shook his head, or he tried to, but searing pain tightened around his skull like a vice.
His eyes slowly came into focus. There was smoke. Tons of it. Furling all around him, full of movement and screaming and—
She materialized in front of him like a dream, striding into focus as she stepped through the smoke. The first thing he noticed was her eyes. Chilling and black, they centered on him. A furious, driven look tightened her striking face—thin lips pressed into a line, her long, black hair flying about her head in wild wisps. Dusty patches smeared her rich, black clothes, while dark red streaks coated her porcelain skin. Her arms were bare except for two black, fingerless gloves. In her hands, she clutched a pistol.
And that pistol pointed right at him.
But she didn’t shoot. For an agonizing moment, while Cyrus’s muscles refused to move, and the band around his head grew tighter and even more painful, they stared at each other. Her lips gently parted, and her dark eyes widened in wonder. The gun was steady—pointed right at his chest.
He opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn’t get the words out.
His vision started to go gray again—
She shifted—drew her weapon away from his chest and leveled it at his left thigh.
And she pulled the trigger.
The bullet tore through his muscle and sent hot, jolting rivets of pain up his leg, into his spine, and his mind—
The band around his head snapped, breaking over him in an ice-cold rush, like someone had poured a slushie into his brain. It washed over him in a bone-chilling sensation, from the base of his skull, and he sank into unconsciousness.
* * * * *
The world rocked and rumbled, and Cyrus groaned. His eyes fluttered open, but he couldn’t focus. All he saw was a blur of gray and movement. His body vibrated and bounced, getting pulled left and right, and a pair of hands came down to steady him. He shifted again, and sharp pain flew through his leg. He cried out.
“Get me a sedative,” a woman’s voice said. Deep. Dark. Her hands pinned him down, holding onto his shoulders with a tight, urgent grip. More movement. More pain.
Cyrus screamed again, and the woman took the opportunity of his mouth being open to pour something down his throat. It tasted awful, and he choked on it, but almost immediately, a numbing relief flushed through his body.
“He’ll be fine,” a different woman said. His pain began to subside. He hardly noticed as someone jabbed his bicep with a sharp needle and injected something into his muscle. “An ambulance would have picked him up.”
The whole room jolted to the side again—and Cyrus realized it wasn’t a room. It was a car. To his left, a blonde woman in body armor pulled her helmet off and put it beside an open med kit by her knee. She braced herself as the vehicle turned again.
“He broke free.” The deeper voice again. To his right. “I saw it. He came back on his own...” Cyrus tried to turn his head, but his muscles felt heavy and uncoordinated. He barely managed to catch her out of the corner of his eye. A blur, somehow both light and dark at the same time. His eyelids fluttered. It was getting so hard to keep them open…