Author's Note: So this is actually a prequel to something else I wrote. Since this isn't the core story, I don't go into details about where or when it is. At the same time, I don't find those details to be especially important in the prequel as in the core story. I'm still trying to find the rhythm to this, so please bare with me on this first chapter as I feel my way around.
"Alright I'll explain it again so you don't have any excuses this time. You have to touch the letterbox, go across the street and touch the street light before going back to the manhole cover. Got it?"
"Yeah, yeah, just bowl already!"
It was late evening; the street lamps were flickering to life just as the sun settled down for the night. The street was crowded but not with window shoppers or couples. Young men, some shirtless and most shoeless, were scattered along the asphalt anxious and alert. A few spectators had stopped occasionally to view the street game up close; the majority were tourists and soon moved on to find other things. It seemed so boring, so unimportant to those who passed by. Yet for those who played, it was the secret to their happiness.
The bowler was the one who had explained the runner's path with such irritation. He pointed angrily at the batter and said, "That's what you said last time! Then you ran me over and after you were thrown out you complained I hadn't explained it properly!"
Shelton, the batter, smiled and said, "Because you didn't."
"Come on, Abe!" one of the fielders, Jacob, shouted. "Just bowl!"
Abraham, better known as Abe, didn't hesitate after that. He cocked his arm back and let loose before Shelton was even prepared. The hi-bounce spaldeen ball whizzed by his head; it was moving so fast and cut so close to his face he swore it moved his hair. The kid situated behind Shelton barely managed to leap up and grab it.
"The hell was that!" he screamed at his pal. "Are you trying to knock me out?"
"Just making sure you're paying attention," Abe smiled as the ball was bounced back to him.
"Tch," Shelton spat in annoyance. "Just watch. I'll send one down to the bakery!"
"That's four blocks down!" Abe argued.
"Are you scared or something?" Shelton grinned.
Abe huffed. He pitched again; this time it was a slow, one bouncer which met Shelton at an ideal location. Shelton swung the stick with all his might, fantasizing a long ball smashed several blocks down their dirty street. Instead, he nicked the top of the ball; it bounced right in front of him and rocketed above Abe.
"Shit!" Shelton cursed once he realized it would be tough to beat out. He sprinted at full force towards the letterbox. From the corner of his eye he saw a fielder, Pascal, grab it before it bounced again. Shelton kicked the letterbox and made a sharp turn toward the street lamp.
"You're out, Shelton!" Abe yelled. "It was caught on the first bounce!"
"You didn't mention that!" Shelton laughed as he sped past the shocked Abe.
"Dammit, pass it here!" Abe ordered to Pascal. The ball was passed off right as Shelton made the turn toward the manhole cover. Abe set and threw harder than he had all day. It was like a bullet; it moved so fast through the air not a single person saw it after it left Abe's hand. Shelton didn't even have time to react; he felt it graze his ear as it traveled past him.
To the horror of the kids on the street the ball cracked a police officer dead center on the back of his head. It hit so hard that when it bounced back it smacked Shelton right in the nose – before he reached the manhole cover. Instead of celebrating the fact he had just thrown Shelton out, Abe and the others froze. They didn't want to rush over and ask the officer if he was alright for fear if he was angry he would give the kids a beating. Yet they weren't dumb enough to run off; they had learned the hard way that most officers would chase you down and give you a harder beating.
The officer turned around to face the scared kids. The first thing he noticed was Shelton holding his nose and cursing under his breath. He saw the ball which had landed in between the two of them and went to pick it up. With a close eye he inspected the ball and rubbed the back of his head, surprised such a thing could hurt so badly.
"I thought I told you kids to keep this in the alley," the officer said with a sigh.
The boys sighed as well – as sigh of relief. They were barely able to recognize him without the sunlight, but his voice was unmistakable.
Abe approached him slowly and respectfully. Once closer, he could make out the short nose and thin lips. "Sorry Mr. Joncker," Abe said. "I could barely see where I was throwing."
"That's alright, Abe," Joncker said as he handed the ball back to him. "Quite an arm you have. I'm pretty sure I'll have lump on my head tomorrow." He laughed as he rubbed the spot again. The kids loved Joncker; he had always listened to their stories and helped them out where he could. Unlike others in uniform he didn't abuse his authority or look down on them. For some of the kids, he was the only father figure in their life.
"What are you doing still working your beat, Mr. Joncker?" a young man named Hendrik asked. "Shouldn't it have been over hours ago?"
"Well they've got me switching shifts," he explained. "Some of the newer guys aren't adjusted enough yet for the night shifts. I've got another day with the sunset beat before I switch to nighttime."
"I bet your wife is mad," Jacob commented.
"And lonely," another added.
"We could take care of that, Mr. Joncker," one joked.
He shared in the laugh and said, "Come on, kids. I don't think you could handle a woman like my wife. You're just too inexperienced for her."
"Is that a challenge?" Shelton asked, finally speaking again. He managed to smile despite the blood dripping out of his nostrils. Joncker reached into his back pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. It was offered to Shelton and the youngster graciously accepted it. After wiping the blood off of his face he tried to give it back to Joncker.
"You can keep it," Joncker said. "I've got to get back to work and I don't think it's done bleeding yet. Make sure you kids are off the street by curfew, alright?"
"Yes, sir!" the kids chirped.
As Joncker disappeared down the street the kids went to gather their equipment. A dozen were there one second; the next, it had dwindled down to six. They had scattered once the sunset completely. It was dangerous on the street at night and they had no way to protect themselves; others had to be home by a set time decided by their guardians; a select few needed to get into bed for school or work. The ones left had no home, no work or school. Nighttime for them was not scary, it was exciting.
"We're going to head down to the park," Jacob said to Shelton and Abe. "You guys interested?"
"Right now I'm starving," Shelton admitted. "I'm going to grab something to eat. I'll see you guys later. Hungry, Abe?"
"Dying!" he cried. It was almost true; he hadn't eaten in at least two days. It had been so long since his last complete meal he couldn't even remember what it was.
"Alright man," Jacob said. "Same place as usual tomorrow?"
"Yeah," Abe nodded. "Corner of Cabral Street and Hudson Street. Make it by six. Maybe we can catch them on their way to work in the morning."
They parted the group with a friendly wave and started on their bike ride towards their usual grub spot. It was a well-respected restaurant, frequented by the country's rich and the curious tourists willing to dish out top coin. If they had walked in and ordered something, even a glass of water, they would not have been able to afford it. Instead they stopped by around closing time and grabbed whatever leftovers were available. The head chef was the owner's brother; both had blessed with boys with their friendly ways, otherwise some of them may have starved.
They arrived just as the doors were being locked by a waitress. She spotted them and said, "Hurry on inside, you two!"
"Thanks Isa," Abe said to her as they slid their bikes to a halt just at the entrance. They locked their bikes up outside; typically, that would result in theft, but it was a nice part of town with little crime. Confident their rides were secure, they hurried inside.
"Is it Abe's group?" the chef asked as he exited the kitchen. He peeked around the corner to see the two boys. "Just two tonight? Make yourselves comfortable. Get them a glass of water, Isa."
"Sure thing," she smiled.
The boys did as they were told and found a seat at a table. Abe wiggled his toes, happy to be off of his bare feet for at least a little while. Shelton, meanwhile, laid his head down on the table and nearly took a nap.
"I'm hoping we can get enough tomorrow to get Jasper some shoes," Abe mentioned off hand. Shelton looked up at his friend; Abe wasn't facing him and stared off to the side with a smile on his face. The smile came from just the simple thought of getting a pair of shoes for the youngest member of the group. Abe suddenly turned to Shelton, dropped the smile and asked, "Think the others will be okay with that?"
"Probably," Shelton said with a nod. There was more to his thought then just that.
He knew that if Abe had asked the others to pitch in for Jasper, they would do it. Not because they felt obligated to help Jasper, but because Abe had asked them. As competitive as he was with street games, Abe was the most passive, compassionate member of their group. He was the de facto leader because of his kindhearted nature and easygoing smile; he was not the oldest or the most experienced of the boys, yet his natural leadership skills and thoughtfulness had others looking up to him. Even Shelton, as arrogant as he could be, had deep respect for Abe. If there was ever anyone Shelton would take a bullet for, it would have been him.
"Ready for some steak?" the chef asked. The kids perked up as he appeared from the kitchen. In his hand were two full meals, expertly balanced in his hands thanks to his background as a server. Behind him, Isa carried two glasses of wine. "Some couple complained their steak was too raw and left the whole meal, even their drinks!"
"Whoa!" Abe exclaimed when his plate was placed in front of him. He had never seen so much food in his life. "Thank you, Mr. Mulder!" he said before he dug in with great vigor.
The two ate their food without conversation; to have such a complete meal was a rarity and they weren't going to waste the moment with petty talk. The steak wasn't even very raw, the potatoes were fluffy, the soup had the right amount of spice, and the vegetables had been steamed to perfection. Why someone would complain about such tasty food was beyond either of them.
With their bellies full they departed from the restaurant with a big thanks and bigger smiles. The chef said, "You guys got lucky tonight. It'll probably be back to scraps tomorrow." That was fine with them.
As they unlocked their bikes, Abe asked, "Hey, Shelton. Do you think it would be alright if I stayed at your place tonight?" Shelton glanced over at Abe and saw that he was again not looking in his direction. It was embarrassing for Abe to admit he had not place to stay; even worse it was difficult for him to ask for a favor.
"Sure," Shelton said. Abe's face lit up, but he still didn't look to Shelton. "Hopefully my mom doesn't do anything weird again."
Abe nearly busted into laughter at the memory of his previous visit to Shelton's house. His mother, a prostitute, was unaware Abe had arrived at her house with Shelton. Asleep when they arrived, she was surprised to find a young man dwelling in her house the next morning. Before finding out who he was, she attempted to seduce him. She only stopped once she found out he was without any money.
"Honestly it wouldn't bug me so much if it wasn't your mom," Abe joked. "I feel like I'm indirectly being molested by you."
"Ah, sick," Shelton cried. "You have a twisted mind."
Abe could only laugh at the insult.
Despite his lack of nutrition, Abe had some strong muscles. Even though Shelton was very healthy, Abe was able to beat him out easily when it came to riding their bikes. How he managed to keep up his muscles without the proper nutrition Shelton didn't know. What he did know, however, was that keeping up with Abe was a difficult task. He had to push himself in order to keep a respectable pace. It didn't matter that they rode bikes together every day; Shelton just couldn't match Abe's speed.
He figured it had something to do with their size. They were of similar height but weight was another story completely. Shelton wasn't fat at all, but he was naturally built heftier. His body was better suited for manual labor. Abe, on the other hand, was thinner and probably wouldn't last a day digging ditches.
In fact, they were different in most ways. Their age and height were really the only things similar; Shelton was a tick taller and Abe was a few months older. However, Shelton appeared much older than he really was; many figured he was in his mid-twenties when the truth was he had just turned seventeen. This was thanks to his mature face more than anything, with pronounced cheekbones and a square jaw. Abe was unmistakably still a growing teenager with his pug nose and childlike features. They didn't even share the same hair or eye color. Shelton had matted brown hair and sky blue eyes which made the ladies swoon; Abe had cheerful brown eyes which betrayed his emotions and a short black mess atop his head.
To these two all those differences meant nothing. They were brothers in spirit and nothing could ever change that.
They charged into Shelton's neighborhood at full speed. It was then that Abe slowed down and allowed Shelton to lead. They weaved in and out of the alleyways and around the night strollers and drunks. All around them were the same ugly apartments, just remnants of a once economically strong city. It was in the middle of this that they arrived at Shelton's home.
It was a two story building that looked more like a hotel then a home. The door was a beaten up steel slab with an old-fashioned manual lock; the paint was stripped off the walls almost completely, revealing an ugly grey. There were three windows facing the street; two on the second floor and one on the first which looked into the kitchen. Not a single lamp was on, not even the front porch light.
Shelton tried the door only to find it locked. "Dammit," he cursed as he wiggled the doorknob.
"Fine!" a drunken man from across the street yelled. It caught Abe's attention. "I'll just fuckin', you know, I'm…" the drunk stammered. He stumbled out of the apartment and nearly fell down. "Fuck you! Stupid whore!"
Abe's eyes never left the drunk as he tripped down the road. It was a natural reaction. It wasn't that a drunk was something to stare at; it was that you had to be aware of things around you. No one could be completely trusted in this part of town. Very few people in the entire city could be trusted.
"Is that you Shelton?" a woman's voice called from inside.
"Yeah!" he yelled back. "Open the damn door! What are you closed or something?"
The door lock clicked and it swung open. A lady stood in the entryway, barely clothed. "Appointment only now, you know that," she yawned. She noticed Abe and said, "Good evening, Abraham."
"Good evening Miss Hutchins," he smiled. "Sorry for disturbing you so late."
"I really should charge you for coming in," she said to him.
"Right," Shelton snorted. "He should charge you for having to deal with such a terrible sight. Put some clothes on!" She ignored him and moved aside so they could enter. The two walked their bikes in and left them by the entryway door; there wasn't a high chance any clients would be running off with their bicycles.
"I thought you were the old man from across the street," Hutchins said. "He's been screaming all night about his dumb bitch for a wife."
"Is that different from any other night?" Shelton asked as he began to tread up the stairs.
"Your mom has a client up there," Hutchins told him. Shelton halted at the top of the stairs, turned on his heel, and began to walk down. "It's Mr. Bakker again. I think he's obsessed."
"Good," Shelton grinned. "He's rich and is a professor. I could get into a university."
"You didn't even finish primary school," Abe mentioned.
It went unheard, however. He stood at the base of the stairs, his bag slung over his shoulder. That bag carried everything he owned; a change of clothes which were dirty and a heavy jacket for when it got cold outside. Despite having visited Shelton's home several times, he still felt like a stranger there. It was awkward for him. He watched as Hutchins and Shelton went into the kitchen; he heard the faucet turn on but no water came out. The string of curses that came out of Shelton's mouth was very impressive.
Abe finally entered the kitchen. Shelton was under the sink, messing with the pipes; Hutchins was sitting at the table, flipping through an old newspaper. He opted to take his bag off of his shoulders and sit down. The chairs weren't the most comfortable, but it was much better than a dumpster somewhere.
"I can wash your clothes for you," Hutchins offered. "I have to take care of Shelton's, too, so it wouldn't be a problem." Abe didn't even take the time to say thank you. He ripped off his dirty shirt and pants, placed them on top of his bag, and handed the whole load over. Dressed only in his underwear he didn't feel the slightest bit of embarrassment. Who would if it meant you could finally have clean clothes?
Shelton stuck his head out from under the sink as Hutchins left. "Hopefully she doesn't expect you to pay. It's not like you have any money," he teased.
As much as Shelton argued and picked on Hutchins, she was much like an older sister to him. Several women lived in his house, all of them prostitutes; most were fairly young and for some reason incredibly shy around Shelton. Perhaps they were embarrassed of their situation. Hutchins and Shelton clicked however. She was a fiery young woman only a few years older than Shelton but with plenty of life lived. Whenever it was needed, many times without asking, she had helped Shelton. Whether it was with advice or money, she was always ready to give to him. Yet she was not weak willed and never gave in to pressure.
Shelton may have been an only child, but he understood what it meant to have a brother and sister.