“My feet hurt,” Joe whined. I pulled him through the streets like I always had to. It wasn’t like we were that far away. Our next delivery was just a few blocks off and then we could go home. Sometimes I wondered if hiring a six-year-old as my colleague helped or hindered me. But he was my brother and it wasn’t like I had a lot of options.
“Chin up. If you make it from here to fifth street, we’ll get Chinese tonight.” Chinese takeout was his favorite meal. I liked steakhouses better.
“Can’t you just hotwire a car and get this over with?” Joe asked and lagged behind. I yanked on his arm and he almost crumpled like a pathetic toddler.
“The more we do that kind of stuff, the more likely it is that we’ll get caught. This stuff sells,” I explained. I held a bottle of stolen cocaine in my hands, shaking it for emphasis and the pills bounced around inside the bottle. “If we go to jail because we get caught for stealing cars, we can’t sell this, we can’t make money. Understand?” I asked. I patted his cheek and he folded his arms in protest, stomping his feet as we walked on.
“What does it matter! What we’re doing is illegal anyway!”
“Who’s the boss? Me or you?” I stuffed the drugs back in his backpack. Across the street, I saw a bright red convertible and started to regret my recent decision to stop stealing cars. I could tell that it caught Joe’s attention too.
“If we walk quickly and get to the deal, we can walk back to any restaurant you want. I promise.” I did my best to avoid eye contact with the car, but it was like I could already feel the wind in my hair as I drove. I always wanted a convertible. After I thought about it, the walk was a long one. Joe could tell I was having a bit of a crisis.
“I bet it rides so smooth and if we sold it, we could get all the Chinese we wanted.”
“I don’t know anyone that wants to buy a car from us,” I told him but started walking to the bloodred Thunderbird with the chrome trim. Hopping inside was the easy part. Joe handed me our hotwiring kit from his backpack and I got to work while he kept a lookout.
“Bruce, I don’t know if this was a good idea. You always say that cars should be brown, but this car is so red…”
“Oh, come on!” I yelled. “When have I ever let you down. You know I’ll always protect you.”
The car purred to life and Joe cheered with a clap. I sat more comfortably behind the wheel but heard the chilling cock of a gun and froze. I immediately thought of my brother and pushed him down into the footwell, faced the sound and saw a stern face behind a gun. He was dressed in a well-fitting suit with a hat to match. His black skin was dripping in sweat and he was out of breath. What was he doing hiding under a blanket in broad daylight? He was thin but muscular. If my dad were here, he’d probably be capable of beating him up, but I personally didn’t stand a chance.
“Dammit, Joe! Why didn’t you look in the back!” There was a small nook between the trunk and the seats. He was still halfway under the blanket.
“I didn’t think of it,” he retorted under my foot. I was still pushing him down.
“Why do I have to think of everything,” I muttered.
“What are you doing in my car?” the man asked. I couldn’t think of one rational reason to hide in a car just to catch car thieves, though for someplace like Bayland, maybe it was a trap set by the police.
“What are you doing hiding in a car?” I asked and he cracked a smile.
“It’s my car. I don’t think that’s any of your business. Give me one reason I shouldn’t blow your puny little brains out.”
“We’ll pay for it,” Joe said and I kicked him.
“Pay for it? How can two worthless little criminals pay me for trying to steal my car?”
“Word of advice. Don’t leave pretty cars out and so easy to take.”
He put his gun back in his pants pocket as he chuckled.
“Absolutely adorable. Which gang do you belong to?”
So he was a cop. Well, even if I was in a gang, I still wasn’t a snitch.
“The Patricks. You can find them at their mansion right off the harbor. I can give you their address if you want,” I said and reached in my pocket for my pocket organizer. I hated the Patricks gang and if I could add a hiccup in their day, I would.
He laughed again, this time jumping out of the car and holding out a hand to help me out. I didn’t take the hand, but I hopped out and ordered Joe to do the same.
“You wanna know how I know you aren’t a Patrick? Pat the Prick only hires his family and you aren’t ugly enough to be related to that mother fucker.”
I smiled at the insults directed at my enemy. He didn’t seem like a cop.
“How much are you making a day jacking cars in broad daylight?” he asked.
“Um… like…” I couldn’t think of a number that was both impressive and reasonable.
“Or do you even do this daily?”
“My daily profit is around two hundred to three hundred dollars.”
“No!” Joe interrupted, “we make millions!” We both ignored him.
“How old are you? Both of you.”
“I’m thirteen and he’s… none of your business. We’re fully capable of taking care of ourselves.” Joe was six, but I wasn’t giving away the personal information of my brother.
“Where are your parents? Someone needs to hold you accountable.”
I didn’t answer him. I only sucked in my cheeks and looked down at my feet.
“I see. Not that I normally hire children, but you kids seem crafty. I’d hardly like to make enemies out of street rats. How would you like to work for me and make closer to millions?”
“That depends on how close to a million we’re talking. What’s our first paycheck going to look like?”
“For both of you combined? Let’s start with five thousand.”
Five thousand! That was enough for Joe and me to live on our own comfortably in retirement. Joe pouted and stomped his foot.
“No! One million dollars!”
The man laughed and held my brother’s shoulder. Normally, I didn’t allow anyone to touch him, but I was beginning to think that he was the most generous and kind man in the world so I allowed the contact.
“You’re adorable but as much as I like you, I don’t think he’s cut out for this job. I’ll take you,” he pointed at me, “but I won’t take him.”
“We’re a package deal. He’s my brother. I’d rather stay where I am than go with you without him.”
“Fine. You two can stay together. Don’t make me regret my decision.”
“You aren’t even going to ask our names?”
“Bruce, right? And who’s the little guy?”
“Joe!” Joe stated proudly and stomped his foot again.
“Well, my name’s Martin. You’re officially part of my Gang. Don’t let the word ‘officially’ go to your head. I can kick you out anytime I want. Hop in the back. I’ll drive.”
I scolded Joe almost silently for not being more careful when I hotwired the car. He cried and I patted his back. At least he was apologetic.
We were driven to a big stone house outside of the city. It had a large fountain directly in front of it that spewed water straight up to the sky. Joe jumped directly into it, making Martin laugh again.
Drenched in the water, Martin picked him up and carried him toward the big stone house with me walking by his side. Joe fought his way out of his arms, wanting to go back to the fountain.
“Boy! I’ve got to give you the tour. I’m not going to stand here forever. What’s wrong with him?”
“He was dropped down the stairs when he was a baby. It’s a miracle he’s survived but he’s dumb as a rock.”
“No, he’s smarter than a rock. Don’t go saying stuff like that to him. Who would throw him down the stairs?”
I walked with him but debated giving him my whole life story. A man with a shotgun let us in while Joe continued to splash in the fountain. The house was simple though I expected luxury to match the car. It smelled like someone was cooking fish. Not a favorite smell of mine.
“My stepmother. She didn’t like crying babies so she threw him down the stairs to shut him up,” I said. I did my best not to get overly emotional at the memory.
“Anyone who hurts kids like that doesn’t deserve to live for very long. That’s just my opinion.”
“Oh, she’s dead. My dad was overseas and she choked on her own vomit.”
“Good God, why aren’t you with child services?”
“Because I know I can take care of my brother better. They’re just going to do something like throwing him down the stairs like that bitch, Betty.” I sighed and he patted my shoulder, taking me to an open kitchen. Sun shined in from windows without glass and a woman in a red headwrap was washing her hands. Martin greeted her, hugging her from behind and kissing her cheek.
“You’re gross! Get out of my kitchen!” she yelled and slapped his arm with a conflicting smile on her face as she turned to face him.
“Felicia, you’ll never guess what I found today,” he said and twirled her around to face me. Her hand caught a necklace close to her collarbone as she peered at me. Against each other, her ebony skin was a lighter shade than Martin’s. She looked like a typical housewife with an ironed dress and fluffy apron.
“You didn’t! Martin! You put this child back with his mama!”
“I can’t. She’s dead. I think you’ll like the littlest one.”
He took her by the hand to look out the door at my brother still having a grand time in the fountain. Dogs on chains barked at him, but couldn’t reach him. By now, he’d taken his shirt off and rolled his pants up to his thighs, tying the bottoms into knots. So long as he was having fun and I could keep an eye on him, it was fine.
“His ribs are sticking out like he’s a half-dead dog,” Felicia remarked as if I couldn’t hear her.
“You know we could never have our own,” Martin said, still holding her and whispering in her ear. I felt like I was being invasive but also felt as though my invitation to stay depended greatly on her opinion of us and if she didn’t want me around, I should be the first to know.
“Besides,” Martin added and looked at me. “They know how to hotwire cars. Imagine what else they can learn to do. Kids of our own? Come on, baby.”
“Why are you dressed like that?” she asked and I looked down at my clothes. Bayland School for Boys required a very specific dress code. I liked the suit and tie with shorts look and didn’t bother changing when school hours were over. Joe hated the way his clothes felt. He just started but he’d get used to it.
“I go to a private school. We both do.”
“I don’t want to pay for any school,” she whined. I was done for now.
“I’ll pay for it. I’ll carry my own weight around here. I’ll do anything you want.”
“I quite like the sound of that…” she eyed the room, looking for chores. “Get that boy out of that nasty water,” she ordered and Martin obeyed, then turned to me. “Help me in the kitchen. We’ll see if you can actually pull your weight.”
She was the chattiest person I’d ever met. She repeated many times while I helped her that she’d been married to Martin for years, but he’d never pulled anything like this.
“At the very least, he could’ve brought me actual babies. You’re a teenager and he’s a silly little pup,” she said and shook her spatula at Joe who was drying off with a big, fluffy towel.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be a baby, Felicia,” I said while washing their dishes.
For no reason at all, Joe started crying on the kitchen floor and Felicia picked him up, holding him close to her chest as if he were a baby. I wasn’t sure, but I thought my brother could’ve for once had a stroke of brilliance.
“What’s wrong with my little Joey? Is he hungry? What does he want to eat?”
He pointed to some grapes that she cut in half and fed to him. As if he couldn’t chew whole grapes on his own. I went back to scrubbing the pan I was working on, only slightly jealous that my brother got to be held and fed fruit while I cleaned.
That night, Joe didn’t get the promised Chinese takeout and instead only got fried steak and potatoes.
“Felicia, my dear, this dinner is excellent,” Martin said. I nodded to agree, still wanting to stay on her good side. She still seemed mad and didn’t respond to him.
“This is a lovely home you have. How long have you two been together?” I asked. Felecia ignored me and Martin sighed. Maybe they didn’t want to talk about it.
Joe took his fork and spoon, making antennas with them and pretending he was a robot.
“Boop-beep, bop-boop,” he said and poked me with his utensil antennas.
“Joe! Where’re your manners!” I yelled and yanked them from his hands. I was trying to impress our hosts while he was apparently trying to make a fool out of both of us.
Not unexpectantly, Joe burst into tears and Felecia picked him up out of his chair, rubbing his back and humming a song. Martin rested his head on his elbow and watched her sway around the room with my brother who at least appeared to be asleep. It still made me anxious to see him in someone else’s arms. I didn’t exactly trust her not to hurt him.
“God, I love that woman,” Martin said and bit his lips. She bent down to kiss him and then continued swaying while I kept a close eye on her. When she went upstairs, I followed her. She laid him down on a guest bed and tucked him in.
“This is where you two will be sleeping. You don’t mind sharing a bed, do you?” she whispered and pet his head.
“No,” I whispered back, not the least bit tired. I actually preferred sharing a room. It meant that I could keep a close watch on him.
“He’s a real precious little pup, ain’t he?” she asked. I nodded, supposing that I agreed. I wasn’t sure how I felt about her continuously calling him a “pup”, though. I remembered how my stepmother adored him when it was convenient for her. When he became annoying or needy, she would become aggressive and even violent.
“Do you hate us?” I asked and she took a deep breath.
“Quite honestly, I don’t know you well enough to decide. I still want a baby… so, so badly. You don’t know how badly I want a baby. But just looking at him, it’s like he’s still a baby somehow.”
“He’s not a baby. He’s six.”
“He’ll do. His pretty little face smiles and my heart just melts. Does he do that to you?”
“No. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Goodnight Fore boys. Sleep well.” She left and turned off the light, but I still couldn’t sleep. I walked around the room, looking for something to entertain myself, but there wasn’t so much as a book. No memorabilia. Nothing to look at in the moonlight given by the floor length windows. The room was bare aside from the bed with the homemade quilt, Joe quietly snoring inside.
I heard laughing coming from downstairs. It sounded like it came from several men. I could make out Martin’s voice, but several other voices were unknown. Bored out of my mind, I snuck downstairs, seeing a few giggling girls rushing past the hallway, but they didn’t seem to notice me.
I stood at the corner and listened.
“You should’ve seen his face when he saw I had the gun!” Martin said, followed by laughter. Was he talking about me?
“I’d’ve shot him where he stood. No one steals my car and gets away with it.”
“Nah. I think they’re victims to the system. Someone should look after them. Besides, Felicia likes the little runt. He’s stupid, but he’s cute.”
I furrowed my brow at the insult. Only I could call him stupid. I would never expect Martin to say things like that behind my back. What an asshole! I stepped out to catch him red-handed.
All I found was him and a bunch of men playing poker with women on their laps. I didn’t see Felicia anywhere, but Martin had a girl on each knee and the betrayal I felt only deepened. I stood there and didn’t know what to say. Martin spoke for me.
“I thought you were in bed?”
“I can’t sleep,” I admitted and he patted the girls until they got off of him.
“Want to play?” he asked and kicked someone else out of their chair. All sense of betrayment rushed away as the feeling of inclusion rushed in. I smiled slightly and took my seat next to Martin. He handed me what he said was five thousand dollars, an advance on my paycheck and I stuffed it in my pocket.
“No, no, that’s what you’re going to use to play. Everybody go easy on him. This is his first time.” When he shuffled the cards, they seemed to flutter obediently in his hands. I’d have to get him to teach me to do that, too. Before the night was over, I won over eleven thousand dollars. I marveled at the most wonderful game in the world that could turn money into more money in a single night. How could there be a better investment?
“Don’t go thinking that they’ll go easy on you after tonight, Bruce. I don’t want you owing things you don’t have. It doesn’t normally come to that sort of thing here, but if it does, you’re banned from the game.” He lit a fire in the fireplace and I laid down in front of it. It was a nice house. I wasn’t even aware that housing like this existed in Bayland.
“I get it,” I said, recounting the money just for the sheer pleasure of it.
“It’s not just about money, Bruce. It helps build relationships and communication with my men. It’s important when you’re doing things like stealing a car for example. You and your brother, it’s easy to convey ideas to him. Easier than a stranger, yes?”
“Yeah… I suppose.”
“Well, cards help make that bond stronger. That’s why I do it every night.”
“Who were those girls?”
“Oh, Candy?” Martin said as if there was only one. “She’s no one. Just someone from the club looking for a raise. The guys always bring them. It doesn’t make Felicia happy. I guess that’s why she always goes to bed early. It’s more of a social thing. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
I didn’t believe him. From the time that our mother left after Joe was born and our father remarried, he’d bring a new girl home almost every night. I doubted Martin was any different.
“You said your dad was overseas. Where is he now?”
“I hope he died in combat.”
“Hey! You don’t mean that! It doesn’t matter what he’s done, if he’s serving the country, he’s a hero.”
“I don’t care.”
“What branch of the military, son.”
“Marines. Lieutenant Nicholas Fore. He’s almost as bad as that bitch, Betty.”
“Betty… Your stepmother?” he asked. He was correct, but I didn’t answer him. “What exactly happened? You can tell me. No one is going to get mad at you.”
I put my money down and perked up when I heard footsteps come down the stairs. Joe shuffled to me with his thumb in his mouth and curled into my arms as if he belonged there. I shoved him a little, but he only whined and held onto me tighter.
“You two are close. It’s nice. I’m glad he’s got you to take care of him.”
“I’m not close to anyone!” I yelled and pushed him off of me. He fell and whined some more. “What’s the matter with you!”
“It’s dark in there! I can’t find Felicia.”
“Don’t you go waking up Felicia. She goes through enough already without having you waking her up in the middle of the night,” Martin said, close to yelling. I gave Joe a stern look and he sat on the floor. Surprisingly, he’d given up on crying. Martin picked him up, carrying him and I followed him to the guest bedroom where he tucked Joe in like Felicia did.
“How long can we stay?” I asked.
“As long as you can work for me and help Felicia out around the house, you can stay.”
“Why doesn’t Felicia work outside the house?” I asked.
“First of all, the main reason I work is so she doesn’t have to. Second, she’s not built for my kind of work. I’m sure that if she wanted to, she could find something for herself, but I think she prefers staying here.”
On that note, he left. I still wasn’t tired. Even though I had found a new, potentially safer environment for me and my brother, it still felt like I hadn’t accomplished enough in the day.