Central Coast Writers Winner 1st Place, Fiction


Feelin’ Cheap This Morning
By Robert Walton

Fresh bread. The smell is strong. It hits my nose like a punch. I can almost
feel the warmth. It’s close. Close, crusty, fresh.

How stupid do they think I am? Pretty stupid.

I don’t care. I been around this ‘hood for a long time. I’ll be around awhile longer. I got to admit I don’t feel too great today.

Pretty cheap. Been feeling cheap all morning. Don’t matter. I’ll see what happens with this fresh bread.

The gunner will be up high. Field of fire. The guide will be lower. Got to be a guide. Low. I’ll be lower. Sewer rat again.

Good old sewer.

Dark. Count to fifty. Slow. Let the eyes get used to it. Cold down here this time of year. Sniff the air. Think about it. Mold. Rats. Rat-piss. Old garbage. No guide-smell -- no toilet water. Only toilet water.

Time to move.

Forty yards. My feet have eyes down here. I guess I’m proud of that. I know this sewer. It’s mine.

Pay attention, fool. These guys might be good. Could be a trapper-keeper down here. My bud Gimper got caught in one when he was little. He was lucky. It cut his foot clean off.

Check the scum. Left. Right. Middle. No marks. My little scum patch is virgin. Nobody's been down here. Up the ladder. Slow now. Get used to the light.

I fixed this storm drain myself. Easy out. Easy in. Great view of the street.
The street don’t look so good right now. It’s gray out there -- clouds, smog, muck, whatever. Winter. The stores across from me are empty, of course. Black holes for windows and doors. Give me the shivers even though I know nothin’s in there. Dead dog smells deader than ever. Gimper got some good meat off that dog. Quite awhile ago. Its eyeballs are gone. Old truck looks the same -- rust, no wheels, no windows.

Ah.

There it is.

The bread.

Buns. Great big bag of hamburger buns. Torn open. Three or four rolled out. Very artistic. Even some golden arches on the bag.

Very stupid. They want me to think a delivery truck come down here? A truck come down here and dropped a big old bag of buns right on my doorstep? There ain’t no McDonald’s within miles of here. Nothin’ but street kids around here, not many of them since the last sweep. The gangs don’t even recruit here no more. It’s just a kill zone. A kill zone for them and the ricos. Not the cops. They don’t care.

A kill zone with buns. Sure.

Sit tight, though. Those buns are worth sittin’ tight for a morning. Something might turn up.

I’ll be damned. Here it comes. A Goat -- raggedy blue sweater, raggedy pants, no shoes, short hair, big eyes. The Goat bends down, picks up a bun, starts nibblin’.

Street-kid huntin’ has been going on for years. Started in Brazil.
Pretty crude at first. It’s a real sport now. This kid’s a Judas Goat -- where’d I hear that? -- meant to get all us stupid kids out after those buns. Not this stupid kid.

That stupid kid.

Fong -- Fong from two streets over. Peekin’ out that door across from me. His assortment of cousins are probably hidin’ underneath those black windows. I know what he’s gonna try. Oughta know better. Must be real hungry, him and his cousins.

There he goes. Zip. Behind the truck. He’s fast, gotta give him that. Even auto-fire wouldn’t have got him. Fast won’t help him none with part two, though. It’s fifteen feet from the truck to the buns. Dead open. Heart of the kill zone. That little Goat is chowin’ down on her bun.

Fong holds up one finger. Fifteen kids jump up from behind the windows. They’re screamin’ and throwin’ rocks. Fong holds up two fingers. Two decoys, one from either direction, zigzag down the middle of the street in the general direction of the buns. They’re screamin’ too.

No fire yet.

Fong, you fool.

He goes for it. Flashes his speed. Turns it into a leap. Leaps into a turn. Lands. Grabs the bag.

A hollow-point removes the middle of his chest and his spine. Have it your way, Fong.

The decoys continue zagging and zigging as he falls. Fire shifts to them. One shot crashes out. Another. It’s my turn now.

Twenty-five feet from me to the buns. Ten feet past that to the space I’ve made under the truck. Don’t think. Dive. Dive, roll, run.

Run, stupid. You’re coming from an unexpected place at an unexpected angle. It’ll take time for the gunner to pick you up. Time for him to track you, aim and fire. About two more seconds.

Grab the bag away from Fong’s dead fingers. The Goat, she’s in front of me. Damn!

There’s a bullseye growing on my back. Green and yellow flashing lights. Push her out of the way. Push her OUT of the way.

Fong’s dead eyes look up at me. Fool, fool, fool. FOOL.

I grab the Goat’s hand and pull her along with me. I shove her into the hole underneath the truck. I duck. A round shatters against the solid steel of the truck bed. Hot lead peppers my neck. I roll into dark cover.

Safe.

Safe and lucky.

Got the shakes. I should. Lucky -- I hate lucky. Smart keeps you alive. Lucky won’t. The gunner missed when I ducked. Lucky. I shoulda been long gone before he had a chance to aim. Why?

Something moves next to me. The Goat. Why’d I bring her along? She’s nothin’ to me. Just a little kid. The guide picks her up; she gets killed some other day. The guide leaves her; she’s dead meat out here. Fong’s boys would cut her throat and cook her in a minute. Why did I grab her?

I’ll think about it later. Got to keep movin’. I grin. Got me a bag of buns. Got me a Goat. Got me a way outta here nobody knows about.

It’s quiet out there now. I can see one of the decoys leakin’ on the street. A rock-thrower’s hangin’ head down out of a window, too. I’m all the action that’s left.

Soon, the guide will come out and scalp the dead ones. I hear fancy-pants ladies up in the hills like to wear scalp-patch headbands. Makes people think they’re Baaaad. The street price for kid-hair is fifty. Up there it must be a thousand. A lot more if a vid of the killing goes along with it. Bet that turns the boyfriends on. Hey, no child left behind.

I’m all the action that’s left. And I’m leavin’. Crawl to the curb side of the truck. Pull the Goat along behind me. Another storm drain. I’ve fixed this one up, too. Mr. Gunner would have me cold if I stuck my nose out. Nope.

Down the drain. So long, Mr. Gunner.

We got a good place in a basement, Gimper and me. Three ways out. No obvious way in. Lights, fridge, everything. They used to cut the ‘tricity except when there was a hunt. That was a bigtime tip-off, so now they leave the juice on down here all the time. All you got to do is tap into the main.

Lights are on. Gimper’s sittin’ on the bed. I say, "Hey, Gimp."

Gimper looks up. His pale face shines almost like another light. My skin is much darker than his; he’s almost a whiteboy. He nods, "Who’s that?"

"A Goat. I picked her out of a setup."

"What you gonna do with her?"

Good question. I look down. I look up. I don’t look at Gimper.

"Well, I thought she might stay with us for awhile. Look, I got some buns, too."

He ignores the buns, "Stay with us? Why?"

"She’s just a kid."

"Yeah. About four. Useless."

I don’t answer.

"Why didn’t you leave her?"

I look at Gimp, "She’s just a kid. She deserves a chance."

Gimper spits on the floor, "Nobody deserves nothin’." He looks at me. "You know that."

I know that. I know it.

A minute goes by. Gimper finally says, "It’s been six months since Joey got killed. We could use some help around here. Maybe she could clean up, or something."

"Yeah," I keep my eyes down.

"Hey,"

I look at him.

"Mendoza’s coming back.

"He see you this morning?"

He did. I nod.

"You wanna leave?"

I do.

"Go ahead. I’ll talk to him. Might have to take him over to Ventura and 7th. Some stuff over there he might want."

Mendoza’s the big Coyote around here. He deals in street kids -- servants, slaves, bio-replacement sources, you name it. He usually checks with us every couple of weeks. I ask, "Why’s he comin’ back?"

"It’s Christmas. Santa comes twice a year." Gimper shrugs, "Hey, he pays for info. I got some. Missed him this morning."

"Yeah," I nod, "you did."

"So go ahead and split."

"Gimper," I look at him, "take care of the Goat, will ya?"

Gimper looks down, "Sure."

I go, but I don’t go far. Restless. Can’t sit. Can’t stand. Can’t walk around. Yeah, and still feeling pretty cheap. Shouldn’t let Mendoza bother me so much.