Feeliní Cheap This Morning
by Robert Walton

art by GAK


     Fresh bread.  The smell is strong.  It hits my nose like a punch.  I can almost feel the warmth.  Itís close.  Close, crusty, fresh.
     How stupid do they think I am? Pretty stupid.
     I donít care.  I been around this Ďhood for a long time.  Iíll be around awhile longer.  I got to admit I donít feel too great today.
    Pretty cheap.  Been feeling cheap all morning.  Donít matter.  Iíll seewhat 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.  Iíll 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. Ratpiss.  Old garbage.  No guide-smell -- no toilet water.  Only toilet water.
     Time to move.
     Forty yards.  My feet have eyes down here.  I guess Iím proud of that. I know this sewer.  Itís 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 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 donít look so good right now.  Itís 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 nothinís 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 ainít no McDonaldís within miles of here.  Nothiní but street kids around here, not many of them since the last sweep.  The gangs donít even recruit here no more.  Itís just a kill zone.  A kill zone for them and the ricos.  Not the cops.  They donít care.
    A kill zone with buns.  Sure.
     Sit tight, though.  Those buns are worth sittiní tight for a morning. Something might turn up.
     Iíll 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 nibbliní.
     Street-kid huntiní has been going on for years.  Started in Brazil.
    Pretty crude at first.  Itís a real sport now.  This kidís a Judas Goat -- whereíd 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.  Peekiní out that door across from me.  His assortment of cousins are probably hidiní underneath those black windows.  I know what heís gonna try.  Oughta know better.  Must be real hungry, him and his cousins.
     There he goes.  Zip.  Behind the truck.  Heís fast, gotta give him that.  Even auto-fire wouldnít have got him.  Fast wonít help him none with part two, though.  Itís fifteen feet from the truck to the buns. Dead open.  Heart of the killing zone.  That little Goat is chowiní down on her bun.
     Fong holds up one finger.  Fifteen kids jump up from behind the windows.  Theyíre screaminí and throwiní 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.  Theyíre screaminí 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.  Itís my turn now.
     Twenty-five feet from me to the buns.  Ten feet past that to the space Iíve made under the truck.  Donít think.  Dive.  Dive, roll, run.
     Run, stupid.  Youíre coming from an unexpected place at an unexpected angle.  Itíll take time for the gunner to pick you up.  Time for him to track you, aim, fire.  About two more seconds.
     Grab the bag away from Fongís dead fingers.  The Goat, sheís in front of me.  Damn!
     Thereís a bullseye growing on my back.  Green and yellow flashing lights.  Push her out of the way.  Push her OUT of the way.
     Fongís dead eyes look up at me.  Fool, fool, fool.  FOOL.
     I grab the Goatís 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 wonít.  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.  Whyíd I bring her along?  Sheís nothiní to me.  Just a little kid.  The guide picks her up, she gets killed some other day.  The guide leaves her, sheís dead meat out here. Fongís boys would cut her throat and cook her in a minute.  Why did I grab her?
     Iíll think about it later.  Got to keep moviní.  I grin.  Got me a bag of buns.  Got me a Goat.  Got me a way outta here nobody knows about.
     Itís quiet out there now.  I can see one of the decoys leakiní on the street.  A rock-throwerís hanginí head down out of a window, too.  Iím all the action thatís 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 theyíre 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.  Itís good to know society values children.
     Iím all the action thatís left.  And Iím leaviní.  Crawl to the curb side of the truck.  Pull the Goat along behind me.  Another storm drain.  Iíve 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 Ďtricity 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.  Gimperís sittiní 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; heís almost a whiteboy.  He nods, "Whoís 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 donít 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?"
     "Sheís just a kid."
     "Yeah.  About four.  Useless."
     I donít answer.
     "Why didnít you leave her?"
     I look at Gimp,  "Sheís just a kid.  She deserves a chance."
     Gimper spits on the floor, "Nobody deserves nothiní."  He looks at me. "You know that."
     I know that.  I know it.
     A minute goes by.  Gimper finally says, "Itís 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.
     "Mendozaís coming back.  He see you this morning?"
     He did.  I nod.
     "You wanna leave?"
     I do.
     "Go ahead.  Iíll talk to him.  Might have to take him over to Ventura and 7th.  Some stuff over there he might want."
     Mendozaís 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, "Whyís he cominí back?"
     "Itís 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 donít go far.  Restless.  Canít sit.  Canít stand.  Canít walk around.  Yeah, and still feeling pretty cheap.  Shouldnít let Mendoza bother me so much.  Should go back and watch out for Gimp and the Goat.  I should.
     I do.
     I always move quiet.  Quiet as a spider.  Slip back into our place like cobwebs falling.  Good thing.  Mendozaís already there.
     Gimp is on the floor.  Blood is dripping from a big cut on his forehead.  Heís out, but I can see heís still breathiní.  He tried to help the Goat.
     Goatís on the bed.  Mendozaís standiní in front of her.  His back is to me.  I hear him unzip his pants, watch them drop to the floor.  I pick up the two-by-four leaning against our door.  I step closer to him.  He unpeels his underpants from the bottom of his belly.
     Gimper was wrong.  People deserve to be treated right, with respect. And there are some things nobody deserves.  Not the Goat.  Not even me.
     God damn Mendoza.  made me feel cheap this morning.  Gonna do it to this four-year-old kid now.  No way.
     Mendozaís underpants drop down around his ankles.  Nowís the time to hit him.
     I do.
     I crack that two-by-four across his shoulders and neck.  he goes down, but I know heís not out.
     I grab Goat and pull her toward the sewer entrance.  Mendoza staggers to his feet, sees us duck through.
     Heís after us.
     No choice now.  Gotta go for the refuge.  Goat canít run fast.  I wonít leave her for Mendoza.  Sheís scared now, pulliní against me some. Luckily the refuge isnít far.  I pull her through the puddle and up on the nest of tires Iíve made.
     Maybe Mendoza wonít see the turn.  Itís dark in here.  Canít fight him.  Heís too big.  Lard top to bottom.  But thereís muscle under the lard.
     I know.
     Heís here.  Six feet away.  My eyes lock with his.  Thereís red in them.  Heís gonna kill this time.  Heís sweating.  The smell of his sweat turns my stomach.  Always did.  Better say something.
     "Mendoza, leave us alone."
     He smiles, or maybe heís just showiní his teeth.
     "Weíll go.  Wonít bother you no more."
     No answer.
     I add, "Sorry I hit you with that board."
     Big mistake.  Shouldnít have reminded him.  He clenches his fists, lifts his arms, comes for us.  His foot splashes down in my puddle.
     No choice again.
     I been holdiní a wire wrapped up in a piece of inner tube.  The wire is hot, 12,000 volts hot.  I stick it in the puddle.
     Fried Mendoza.
     I pull the wire up outta the puddle and put it back in the tube I got nailed to the back wall.  I look at Mendoza.  Heís face down in the puddle, steaminí and poppiní a little.  That worked pretty well.
    I look at the Goat.  Her eyes are wide and her breathinís kind of hoarse.  I pat her on the head, feel soft curls flatten beneath my palm.  She wonít look at me.
     I speak to her, "You wonít feel cheap this morning.  Come on, Goat. Letís go."
     We rise, step around Mendoza, "Gimper and me are gonna take care of you.  Gotta another bun for ya."
     She takes my hand.
 

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