Panic, Love and Lies
"Are you afraid to die? Or should I just shoot you right here?" King's gun leveled to my face and I heard the safety click off.
"Dude, King, take it easy," Beetle pressed herself close to King as if to comfort him. Her large toffee eyes were pools of worry. "You don't mean to shoot him, do you?"
King didn't take his eyes from mine. "You know what he did, Bee. He messed with my territory. Went against our rules. He's as good as dead, even if I don't shoot him."
I balled my hands into fists. "You're territory?" I knew it was stupid to speak but this was unforgivable. "Love isn't a possession!"
Beetle winced; her eyes expanding, telling me to shut up. Of course Love was a possession; even the air was when it came to our gang. My gaze dropped to my bare feet. King and Prince had taken my shoes from me earlier, then chased me here, to the trolley station.
"King, don't do it, don't shoot him. He didn't know Love was your girl." I wondered how Beetle was saying that. She had been King's girl before Love came along. I could see by the way she was touching him that she wanted to be his again.
"Are you afraid to die?" King repeated. His words were flat, hard, daring me to answer.
So I did. Looking him in the eye I whispered, "Yes."
A WEEK EARLIER:
The sirens of the cop car blared loudly, the shine off their silver cruisers unbearable along with the sweltering spring Memphis heat. My Nikes pounded the street, shattering beer bottles still full of their now-flat brown liquid.
"Come on, come on," Prince breathed beside me, running fast, hunched over like Disney's Hunchback character in that movie with the hottie who only wore fabrics that were see-through. "Dude, they're going to catch us."
I glanced at the twelve year old, making sure he was keeping pace with Beetle and I alright. From his hand a strand of pearls swung rhythmically. "No they aren't. Not if we keep running. Come on, just a bit further."
"Across the river," Beetle said, slowing as we came to the railroad tracks that stretched across the Mississippi. "If we get to Arkansas they'll have to stop the chase and radio over. By then we'll be out of sight."
I looked at her, bewildered for what must be the millionth time by her knowledge. Why she hung with street kids like Prince and I, I didn't know. Bee came from a wealthy family who owned an estate in Nashville. When she came to Memphis to visit her abusive aunt she met King and Dollar and joined the gang, not once looking back.
Her coke-bottle body was already shimmying its way onto the tracks. "Ouch!" she exclaimed, touching the metal with the palm of her bronze hand. "It's hot!"
Prince looked at her with a boyish lust though even he knew she was off limits. When King chose a girl, he chose her and wouldn't let go. It was a fact, just like Swift and Buttercup had been before they had, in turn, been rejected by him. Both girls were no longer part of our gang.
I climbed onto the tracks after Prince and started running down the narrow space, praying a train wouldn't come.
When we jumped off on the other side, feet touching the stringy grass of Arkansas, all of us gave an audible sigh of relief. I gave the bag on my waist, filled with jewels, a jingle for good luck.
We started through the meadow, hair buffeted by the lazy warm wind that blew off the river. A house in the distance, built on stilts, drew us like hummingbirds to a dish of sweetened water.
"The Stilt," Beetle sighed, playfully bumping my side with her hip. "Home sweet home, huh?"
"At least the cops don't think to look for us in it," I said stiffly, not wanting to show Bee how much I enjoyed her gentle touch. Her large gold hoop earrings shook as she giggled.
From above us in the Stilt I heard King call, "Hey, Panic, you take care of my girl? Bring her back alright?"
For some reason the way he said my name felt like an insult. "She's with me, boss, along with a bunch of little shinys that'll please you."
A soft thump was emitted as King jumped to the ground. His skin, charcoal black, same color as mine, showed a thin shine of sweat. His eyes were wide. "You got um?"
I held up my bag and Prince wrapped his pearl strand around his neck and pretended to hang himself with his hand, head falling on his shoulder and tongue flopping from his mouth.
"Good—no, great! Come on up, we'll be eating rich tonight!" King climbed back up the loudly protesting ladder until he had vanished into the house. I followed, Prince and Beetle in my wake.
The Stilt's shadow was cool though it still had to be well above eighty-five. Several other kids lounged in the darkness, their shallow eyes eying us like they were hungry vultures.
I sat, enjoying the looks of envy on the kids' faces. The bag beside me gave a happy chuckle as the jewels clicked together. Prince was presenting the pearls to Dollar who checked their value by scratching them against his teeth.
"And you, Panic. You'll be getting our dinner." King's eyes shot towards me.
"I have to go back?" My voice, I knew, was begging. Going back meant crossing the tracks again. Going back meant the probability of getting caught.
King's leathery lips folded into a smile, his head giving a short nod. He pulled Bee to him and laughed.
Thirteen burgers in the bag, seven orders of fries taunting me, I left the fast-food restaurant and crossed over to Beale Street. Though it was only eight the street was already crowded, music mixing into an unintelligible mess as the street performers grew too loud.
"Mmm, something smells good." I didn't realize I had been addressed until the girl was at my side, running her hand across my shoulders. I stiffened but knew better then to take advantage; prostitutes' prices were higher then I could pay.
"Bringing food back home, that's all." I said, trying to shake her. Her low cut V-neck dipped enticingly low and her eyes, bright blue, blinked with a baby-like disappointment.
The pout in her voice wasn't masked. "But I'm hungry!"
"Sorry," I said, turning and, against everything my body wanted, walking away. "No can do."
She was beside me again in an instant. "I'm Love," she grinned.
"I got no home. My gang kicked me out." Love pulled her hair back into a pony-tail and immediately looked more street-wise. Her biceps, I noticed, bulged.
"Your gang?" It was a mistake to question her.
"Yeah, the Southside Serpents." She lifted her skirt a little so I could see the snake that wound around her thigh and out of sight. I swallowed.
"Maybe I can help," I said, putting my arm around her and tugging her close. An expensive perfume wafted off Love and attached itself to my clothes.
Her lips touched mine and before I could protest she said, "Good. I need all the help I can get."
King lowered the gun. For a moment I thought he was going to let me go but I could see in his eyes that this was far from over. "You are? Didn't think about that when you were with Love, did you?"
I could taste her kisses on my lips; feel the delicate touch of her robins' egg eyes. It was the truth. I didn't think for a moment that Love was lying to me—that she had never been a Serpent but been King's little secret all along. How surprised they must have been when I brought her to the Stilt! But neither of them had said anything. Not hinted, not once.
"Come on, it's not fair, King! He met her on Beale and had no idea she was yours! You didn't say anything and neither did Love!" Beetle jumped away as King turned to her, gun aimed at her chest.
"Shut your mouth or you'll be in more pain than Panic," King jerked his head towards me.
Bee lowered her eyes.
King turned back to me. His lips formed a smile.
"I like you being afraid," he whispered and raised his gun to my face.
For those who bother to review. Love y'all! Inspired by my trip to Memphis (though nothing like this happened).