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I received Mowry's newest novel, (Way Past Cool) from his first major publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, as I was searching for a young adult author to speak at an American Library Association program addressing issues in multicultural publishing called "Connections -- YA Publishers, YA Librarians, YA Readers: Linking Multicultural Needs". In reply to my invitation, I received a plump, heavily taped package from Mowry's Oakland address. Inside were his two most recent books, and a two-page single spaced letter -- a most graceful decline of my invitation. It explained that he was too poor a speaker to accept, while eloquently addressing each of the panel's issues.
Like his books, Mowry's letter moved me to tears. In it I saw a private, sensitive man, compelled to mirror in writing his alien world for outsiders to see, but unwilling to visit our reality, where four hundred librarians would simply spell discomfort. Were some of those librarians -- afraid to promote his gritty, violent, four-letter word-spattered books to the youth for whom they were intended -- part of the problem?
In his letter, Mowry agreed that such librarians may be...
"one of the main reasons why there are very few books for 'my' kids to read and relate to. I say one reason, because it is pretty obvious that to be young, male, and black in this society is to be an endangered species... Point of fact is that these kids are not supposed to be able to read...
....the issue goes much deeper... into the reality that there is an active and growing war on black males in this society. The Rodney King rebellion was actually us shaking the bars of our cages. One of the most deadly attitudes being drummed into our kids is this idea of "bad" and "cool", and that it's not "cool" to read...
As I see it, we need black publishing and black distributing especially for our inner-city youth... books and reading material of every sort and subject, written for, and about black kids, and this we don't have."
Most of the writers of the nearly thirty articles and reviews Mowry sent me are also deeply affected by his testaments. Way Past Cool stirred a Los Angeles Times reviewer "to a real anger. It's proof that literature is far from dead. Unless you are emotionally dead yourself, you simply cannot read about fourteen-year-old kids who are discussing Captain Kirk one minute and talking about dirt naps -- their term for being killed -- or buying a new Uzi the next."
If Mowry himself had not sent me his second book, Children Of The Night, an original paperback from a small African-American publishing company, I would never have seen it. Enter Mowry's alternative universe, a West Oakland neighborhood where thirteen-year-old Ryo is luckier than many because he has a mother, Tracy, who loves him and surrounds him with other caring adults to compensate for his lack of a father. Tracy must work endless hours in Brownie's cafe, with little time off to spend with Ryo. During meals at the cafe, kind-hearted Vietnam veteran, Brownie, and his regular customers offer Ryo advice and support, marveling at his intelligence and common sense, which set him apart from his neighborhood peers.
Of course Ryo cannot remain unaffected by his surroundings. Hanging out with his best friend, his "homey" Chipmunk, a fat boy who still manages to be an ace on a skateboard, Ryo begins to see no way out. Dressed in shabby clothes, he endures the sneers of rich white "squid kids" at the mall while window-shopping a skateboard he cannot afford. Far beyond recreation, a board is a safe way to navigate the dangerous streets. "There's all kinds of ways to be hungry," Ryo thinks. "An' money seem to be the only thing what fill you up." There is only one way to get the money to escape from his city cage with his mother -- by working for drug dealer Big Bird.
Sensing Ryo's talents, sixteen-year-old Big Bird grooms him for inside work, giving special treatment that includes a ride in Big Bird's Piper Cub airplane, which is beyond Ryo's wildest dreams.
Despite his bedazzlement, however, Ryo soon becomes disenchanted with Big Bird's "rock house", which speeds boys as young as eight into crack addiction. How else, though, can Ryo earn a hundred bucks a day toward his dream? It takes Chipmunk's death in a drug run to propel Ryo to destroy Big Bird and so save himself.
Mowry believes that the pivotal age of thirteen is when most ghetto children fist begin to see "what it is,"the dreadful reality around them. Through the voice of cafe owner Brownie, Mowry rails against the traps confining these boys, tired of "having nothing, being nothing, and seeing nothing ahead". While mourning for Chipmunk and the other lost ones, the reader roots hard for Ryo, hoping he will be one of the survivors. Our hope is kept alive by Suntop, a nineteen-year-old pimp who hangs out at Brownie's. A fan of Elf Quest graphic novels, Suntop believes in magic, swearing that he makes magic happen, sometimes through his ladies the "Elf-Princesses," who bring happy moments to his dark world.
When Ryo turns to Suntop for comfort after a crack-crazed friend is shot, the seventeen-year-old "Elf-Princess." Firefox, is part of Suntop's cure for Ryo's blues. Ryo's sexual awakening with Firefox is a ritual coming-of-age, giving Ryo the power to make a stand.
Though Mowry strongly depicts drug lords as evil predators on the weak and innocent, Suntop's prostitutes and magic rituals -- really a form of positive thinking -- are just as clearly a force for good. Such values are part of what makes this inner-city world so foreign to the rest of us; we must be careful to judge that world by its own rules, not ours. As Brownie says, the problem is "people not believin' what's goin' on in places like this... as long as they can keep it in places like this."
Cathi Dunn MacRae, senior editor of Voice Of Youth Advocates (The Wilson Library Bulletin - September, 1992)
Children Of The Night
© 1991 - 2012 Jess Mowry
Children Of The Night is my actual first novel (many people seem to think Way Past Cool was the first). It's a story about Ryo, a 13-year-old West Oakland boy, and his homey, Chipmunk, who are sick of being poor and having nothing. Together they make a decision to work for a young crack dealer named Big Bird.
Like my story collection, Rats In The Trees, Children Of The Night portrays Oakland, California innercity kids in the late 1980's. This was a time when it was common for some crack-dealing 12-year-olds to have thousands of dollars in their pockets; a time when younger and younger kids were getting guns and using them on each other; a time when (just as now) a large segment of the U.S. white population were applauding (though usually not openly) the "self-cleaning ovens" of the innercities.
I find it interesting that a self-proclaimed "white, middle-aged reviewer" for The Washington Post, who had "never hung with the homeboys" (why, then, was he reviewing one of my books?) chose to dis me and my work by "exposing" the fact that Children Of The Night was published by Holloway House, a "Black-exploitation publisher," as if this book was something I should be ashamed of.
I am not in the least ashamed of this book. I am disgusted with the sloppy printing, proofing and editing done by Holloway House, but what does it matter who published the book as long as its positive messages got out there on the shelves?
To me, the statements made by this self-described "white, middle-aged reviewer, who had never hung with the homeboys," are typical of a book reviewer with his own agenda... and I assume the agenda is that black kids are not supposed to know the truth about the odds stacked against their survival, and that anyone who tries to tell this truth is to be disrespected, discredited... if not disposed of.
But, despite the poorly-done printing I'm still proud of the (printed) book. As far as I'm aware it's still in print and may be ordered through your local book store or from Amazon. It also seems to be widely available at "ghetto liquor stores," and I'm certainly not ashamed of that either. Here at least is one of my books in an affordable format that can be easily accessed by the kids I wrote it for.
Jess Mowry - 2012
"Read my lips, kid! Get the fuck outta here and don't come back till you got the money to buy something!"
Ryo looked up at the surf-Nazi. The dude was about seventeen, thin, and tanned to the max, muscles hard under his skintight O'Neil tank top. His short hair was bright blond, but his eyebrows and the smudge above his lip were black. The dude flicked the tiny swastika earring in his left ear and gave Ryo a smirk. "Oh, and have a nice day... boy."
Ryo turned away from the counter, walking slowly to the skate shop door, carrying his thrashed old Chris Miller by its front truck. He didn't bother with the walk -- Brownie still called it showing pride -- or telling the punk to eat a shitburger or something. What good would it do? Might as well flip-off a dog. He felt the dude's eyes on him as he stepped into the mall's huge main corridor, then the dude turned to another big skinhead kid who'd been leaning on the counter, and snickered.
Ryo heard the other kid laugh. "I got nothing against 'em, man... figure everybody should own a couple."
That was so fucking old! thought Ryo. Besides being retarded.
The surf-Nazi snickered again. "That one's been in here three times this week creaming his jeans over the Steadham deck. Even wanted to stand on it once!"
"Well," said the other kid. "That's a radical ride. ...Hey, what're you scared of, man; like the little shine's gonna rub his color off on it?"
More laughter. Ryo wondered if those kind of people ever thought up new nigger jokes?
"Nah, just his smell. You check how dirty he is?"
Laughs. "How can you tell?"
"He probably just dresses that way when he comes up here so I'm supposed to feel sorry for him. Believe it, man, his mom's got those welfare bucks up her chocolate wazoo!"
Ryo stood for a minute on clean polished tile. People, mostly white, bustled past, some giving him curious or hostile stares -- like what are you doing here, boy -- all careful not to brush against him. Ryo looked back at the Steadham deck in the shop window, fingering his own street-scarred plank and wondering if those assholes even knew Steve Steadham was black. The mind-picture of that skinhead shredding on a nigger's board was kind of funny in a way; Suntop always laughed when Ryo told him visions like that. Ryo studied the deck a long time... black or white, it was a totally hot ride, and this goddamn squid place was the only shop he knew of in Oakland that had it. He sighed and turned away, walking toward the food court where Chipmunk would probably be.
Welfare! He'd heard that stupid word all his life... maybe one of these days he'd figure out what it was! Mom worked in Brownie's cafe sometimes eighteen hours a day and she always seemed tired. If Welfare gave away money, how come she never got any? There was a big mirror in a shoe store doorway, reflecting a display of radical Nikes and Cons. Ryo glanced at them, then down at his own ragged Cheetahs, their toes wrapped with electric tape... Oakland lace-savers. He saw himself in the mirror, too, knowing he didn't belong here, even if most of the people's faces weren't already saying that. It wasn't totally because he was black. He knew that. The surf Nazi was just an asshole, and assholes came in all colors.
Suntop would say it was the mark of the beast, and laugh.
But, it was really money.
The mirror shone a bright reflection of an average-height thirteen-year-old with a thoughtful snub-nosed face that smiled easy... though it wasn't anywhere close to smiling now. Ryo was about the same color the surf-Nazi wished he could be, his body tight and wiry, looking like the small kid-muscles had been added after his skin was already fit. He had lots of bushy hair... Brownie still called it an Afro, like it was something special and didn't just grow that way all by itself. Ryo's eyes were a clear amber, like those of a wolf... only, since there weren't any wolves in Oakland, most of the other dudes called them dog-eyes. For a few years at school Ryo had almost ended up with that name, but another kid who wasn't liked as much got it instead. Wolf-eyes would have been okay, even sort of cool, but only important dudes ever got to pick their own street name.
Nah, he thought, being black didn't have anything to do with those hate looks. His faded Def Leppard T-shirt was full of holes and way too big... it had been the only one left at the store where mom bought his clothes. His jeans were a year too small, and faded, both knees history, while the rest showed almost as much honey-brown skin as denim. He glanced around. Squid-kids, even the few black ones, could dress this way here, no prob.
Money meant you could dress any way you damn well wanted. Or, like Brownie had once said: "You gotta be rich to dress poor."
The next place was a toy store. Ryo's nose wrinkled when he saw skateboards in the window for $24.95. Old people and dudes who didn't ride could never figure the difference between a toy board and a real one. Jeeze, mom had almost bought him one of those last Christmas! He'd explained what is, cool as he could, not to hurt her feelings, and she'd understood. Toy boards were for little kids. A real board became part of you... maybe like wings were to birds? A good ride put you above all the street shit somehow; flying must be like that. Hell, a dude could no more shred on one of those toys than expect to get off the ground in those model airplanes!
Ryo moved closer to the window and looked at the models. He had a few at home. They were hot to build, especially when you took the time to do everything right. He saw his reflection in the glass and frowned. But, they cost, too... everything cool in the world coast a lot.
And that only made you forget there were cool things. ...For a little while.
Chipmunk was in the food court all right, double-cheeseburger in one hand, jumbo Coke in the other, his battered Roskopp balanced against one leg. Chipmunk's name had been easy because he really did look like Theodore. Ryo stood by a pillar, watching people's faces. They were giving Chipmunk the same looks and plenty of space. Chipmunk was the fattest kid Ryo had ever seen who rode. He was intense, too, even if he panted and sweated and bitched a lot going uphill. Seeing him with his shirt off, you figured, no way, until he pulled some radical move like a one-handed three-sixty around a no-parking sign; then the posers and squids shut up fast. His two front truck bolts were upside down, nuts on deck. He did that to feel where his front foot was because he had trouble seeing it. He had huge boy-boobs that got bra jokes at school, and his belly bobbed whenever he moved, hanging way over his jeans in front -- he had to lift it up to piss -- and his deep belly-button was overlapped by twin scallops of fat so it looked like a big friendly smile. His jeans were always half off his butt, he had more rolls than a bakery truck, including under his blubber-bulked arms; and his Guns 'N Roses shirt looked painted on over them.
Ryo sighed, still watching faces, and making one at another mirror across the corridor. It seemed like half the kids in here were as fat or fatter than Chipmunk, but nobody stared at them. Maybe these people figured you were supposed to have money to be fat... like, what was the word? Entitled.
Ryo noticed the clerk in a book store giving him hard looks. Why? Did he think Ryo was going to boost a dictionary or something? Everybody knew poor nigger kids couldn't read! Ryo gave him one back then walked over to Chipmunk, calling, "Yo, niggerboy," loud. These fools expected ghetto so why disappoint them.
Chipmunk grinned. "Shhhh! I was tryin' to keep that a secret. ...So they still got your new deck?"
Ryo shot a glance back up the corridor and frowned. "I just now decided I don't want the goddamn thing."
Chipmunk cocked his head. "Huh? Hey, yours is history, dude! That crack gets bigger every time you ollie!"
Ryo shrugged. "Maybe I'll find some other store that's got the Steadham for a better price."
"But, I thought it was on sale here this month for thirty-five?"
Ryo shrugged again. "Might as well be thirty-five zillion! I'll never have no fuckin' money!"
Chipmunk held out the half-chomped cheeseburger, but Ryo shook his head. "Thanks, but I ain't hungry."
Chipmunk stuffed the whole thing in his mouth so he really did look like one and talked around it. "We could troll for 'luminum cans again."
"Oh, get real! You know the wineheads always score 'em first!" Ryo glared around. "C'mon, let's go! All this perfume an' shave lotion's givin' me a headache! ...'Sides, there's too many fuckin' mirrors in here!"
"Nothin', man, c'mon."
Chipmunk chugged his Coke and burped. "Oh. Like in them vampire movies? So, what's the prob, Ryo? Can't you see yourself in 'em?"
"Oh, shut up."
"Who pissed in your Frootloops? ...Um, does your hand hurt?"
Ryo flexed the fingers of his left hand, then shoved it in his pocket. "No! An' don't keep askin' me that all the time! ...An'... I'm sick of seein' myself in all these fuckin' mirrors... an' gettin' stared at like I'm some kinda animal, okay? Shit! Don't it bother you?"
Chipmunk dropped his cup into a trash can. "Nah." He patted his belly, making it ripple. "Maybe I'm just used to it more. Anyways, know what? My mom took me to the zoo one time. All them animals be starin' right back at the people like they never saw nothin' so lame!"
"Them animals be locked in, man. Nobody gives a shit what they think!"
"Well, if a panther got out they'd care."
"If a panther got out they'd shoot it!" Ryo spun around and headed for the front doors, knowing everybody would get out of his way. Poor niggers kids were all on crack or something.
Chipmunk caught up to him out on the sidewalk. "Wait up, man," he panted. "Um, we could go see Big Bird. Turtle said..."
Ryo made a face. "Turtle's always sayin' somethin'! Dude never shuts up no more." He sighed. "Big Bird. Wonder how he got his name?"
"Well, just one run for him an' you'd have the Steadham."
Ryo didn't answer. There was a sign on a pillar, NO SKATEBOARDING. Subject to confiscation! He decked and rolled, cutting around people, not caring about the nasty looks he got. Maybe that was the secret, just not to care anymore? Then you could stand in the street and holler all day like the crazy old niggers and not give a shit.
Behind, he heard the rattle of Chipmunk's worn Bullets. There was a grocery soldier down the walkway, glaring. "Hey! You kids!" Ryo flipped him off and cut into the parking lot, almost hoping the dude would chase him. Confiscate, hell! That might work for squid-kids whose moms could just buy them another board! There was thunder overhead as a jet climbed from the airport, silver and gleaming and going somewhere. Ryo crouched, kicking hard, racing it and knowing how stupid that was.
Sweat glistened on Chipmunk's round face when he finally caught up again. "C'mon, Ryo! Tell me what's the matter, man! You been talkn' that deck for weeks now!"
Ryo slowed, watching the jet leave him behind. "Forget the stupid deck, man. ...I'm just tired of bein' dogshit, that's all. Okay?"
"Well, like I said..."
"I know. Big Bird."
They rolled around back of the mall buildings. Chipmunk didn't say anything else. Ryo liked that. There were times when a dude could be totally cool just knowing when to stay quiet.
There was an access alley with a line of Dumpsters. Ryo pointed. "'Least we know where all the new Dumpsters start out... before they get all thrashed an' end up down where we live."
Chipmunk called, "Hey! Check this!"
Ryo kicked a one-eighty and rolled back, studying the big black-and-yellow sticker on the Dumpster's freshly-painted side. "'Do not play on or around'."
"Wonder how come they don't put those on ours?" asked Chipmunk.
"'Cause nobody gives a shit what happens to us!" Ryo turned away. "'Sides, they probably figure we couldn't read 'em."
Chipmunk leaned his board against the Dumpster and lifted a lid. "Wonder what kinda stuff squids throw away... Hey! Check this!"
Ryo stood on tip-toes while Chipmunk held the lid. "Yeah! Cons! New ones!"
Chipmunk nodded eagerly, arms over his head, not caring his jeans were slipping off. "Look! There's a pair about your size, man! The kind you like!"
"Yeah!" Ryo snagged one, then scowled. "Aw, shit!"
Ryo held the shoe in front of Chipmunk's face. "Somebody cut it to hell with a knife!" He threw it back and pointed. "All of 'em, man!"
Chipmunk let the lid drop with a bang and yanked up his jeans. "Shit, why anybody do that? I mean, they was already in the garbage?"
"So we won't get 'em, duh!"
Chipmunk thought for a minute, bending way over to study his own ragged Nikes. "Yeah. I remember now, Brownie tellin' Jon they do that with toys at Christmas, too."
They rolled toward the street. Ryo jerked a thumb at the other Dumpsters. "Believe it, man, anythin' else in 'em... jeans, shirts, whatever... they fuck 'em all up! The squids figure if you can't buy nothin' you sure as hell ain't gonna score it free out their trash!" He spat. "You don't got money, you're dogshit. Simple, huh?"
Chipmunk grinned. "I knew that."
Ryo almost smiled back.
In the alley mouth were four white squid-kids in bright baggies and Airwalks. They had almost new boards and were all smoking Marlboros like that was something special. Ryo tensed: four! And they looked hard... for squids. But the biggest, a blond boy about Ryo's age, smiled and held up a palm. "Peace, brothers."
Ryo and Chipmunk tailed, keeping one foot on their boards. Ryo's expression was guarded... anybody, any color, who called you 'brother' usually wanted something. "Yeah?" he asked.
The blond kid lowered his voice .. like there was anybody around. "Um, you brothers got some crack you could sell us?"
Ryo suddenly felt madder than hell, though he wasn't sure why... Brownie called that rage. His nose got that funny crinkly feeling like just before you were going to cry, and his voice came out choked and husky. "No," he said, decking and kicking away.
He heard the dude say, "Well, excuuuuse me, home-boy! and the others snickered.
"Bet they woulda paid a lot, man," Chipmunk said, following. "Even Big Bird's dudes never get to sell up here."
Ryo wiped at his eyes, staying ahead so Chipmunk wouldn't see.
The afternoon sun baked the sidewalk. Ryo tailed and pulled off his shirt, tying it around his waist. Chipmunk did the same, his belly and boobs bursting into the sunlight as if glad to be free, his rolly body sheened with sweat, glistening ebony. Ryo studied him a moment, then smiled. "You're cool, dude, you know that?"
"A lot of fat kids never take their shirts off."
"Oh." Chipmunk looked down at himself and shrugged. "Fat squid-kids, you mean. Hell, everybody can see I'm fat whether I'm even wearin' a shirt or not. So, why should I melt... like I'm 'barrassed or somethin'? Anyways, you can't never let people figure somethin' scares you, or that's what they always gonna go for. Like Suntop says about talkin' to demons."
Ryo grinned. "Better watch it, homey."
"Somebody figure a panther got out."
Chipmunk grinned, too, wiping sweat off his face. "Sure be cool to ride a bus home."
"'Cept you ate all our bus money, huh?"
"I was hungry, man. You know I never feel good when I'm hungry. 'Member when I was little an' my mom couldn't find no job? I was always hungry. ...Know what? I figure, wasn't for your mom always bringin' us stuff from Brownie's, I probably be takin' a dirt-nap right now."
Ryo smiled. "For sure I remember. I knew you since first grade, man. Used to be able to count your ribs."
"Well, I just never wanna be hungry again." Chipmunk looked across the street where there was a McDonalds. "Um, wanna hear somethin' lame?"
Ryo cocked his head. "What?"
"Sometimes I dream about just goin' in there an' scarfin' down quarter-pounders till I can't eat no more. Stupid, huh?"
Ryo grinned. "With cheese?"
Ryo laughed. "Okay. When I get rich, we'll book in there an' you can stuff quarter-pounders with cheese till you can't even fit in them little plastic tables no more. Just like Shane."
"Yeah right, dude. I be holdin' my breath."
Ryo's grin faded. He turned away and sighed, "There's all kinda ways to be hungry, man. An' money the only thing fill you up." He glanced down the sidewalk where there was a bus bench. "Hey! C'mon. I got a idea."
They rolled to the bench. Underneath were some beer and wine bottles. Ryo knelt and pulled out two, a Bud longneck and a California Cooler that was still half full.
"Let's see that cooler," said Chipmunk.
Ryo handed it to him. Chipmunk sniffed.
"Jeeze, man, you ain't gonna drink that?" asked Ryo.
"The alcohol kills any germs. AIDS, too, I think." Chipmunk took a small sip. "Ain't bad. Want some?"
"Don't you wanna get buzzed?"
Ryo laughed. "Man, way I feel right now, I'd like to be drunk on my ass so's I wouldn't gotta think about nothin'! ...But there ain't enough to buzz both of us. Go for it."
"Thanks." Chipmunk chugged.
"Maybe we can score some beer."
Chipmunk killed the bottle and wiped his mouth. "How?"
"Remember that old perv in the park? He said he'd give us a sixer if we let him mess around."
"With you, man. Pervs don't want fat kids."
"So, I'll let him do it with me. Shit! You're my best friend. You do stuff for me all the time."
"Wonder what kinda shit pervs wanna do?"
"Play with your dick, I guess. Maybe jack you off."
"I wouldn't be in the mood."
"Think of the beer."
Chipmunk laughed. "He probably couldn't find my dick. I almost can't myself 'less it hard."
"Oh shut up."
"Well, if you do, get the sixer first. ...Um, Big Bird's got beer."
"Big Bird don't sell beer."
"I know. But Joey said that sometimes he'll give you a couple of sixers when you ask him for a job. If you don't want the... other shit."
"'Job,' huh? That's a cool word for shit. ...An' I told you before, don't talk no more about Joey."
"Well, it is a job, ain't it? Sorta? An' the only kind dudes our age can get."
Another jet climbed for the sky, and Ryo lifted his face to watch it. Chipmunk looked up, too. "Wonder where it's goin'?"
Ryo shrugged. "Like my mom always sayin', outta here, ain't that enough?"
Chipmunk turned to Ryo. "'Member when we was little? You was always talkin' about bein' a pilot when you growed up. How come you don't talk about that no more?"
Ryo's nose got crinkly again, and he stared down at the sidewalk. "'Cause that's when we was little! All little kids dream about stupid shit like that. Shit that can't never happen." He spit on the concrete. "You wanted to be a astronaut, remember? Some kinda space dude like on Star Trek. Now you're too fuckin' fat! ...Shit, we might as well make believe we gonna be Elves, like Suntop!"
"You sayin' he ain't one?"
Ryo sighed. "I don't know." He moved close and punched Chipmunk's arm. "Don't even listen to me, man. Like you said, I'm all bummed out today. Pretend I'm cracked an' don't know what the fuck I'm sayin'. Like Turtle." He grabbed Chipmunk and jiggled and tickled him until the fat boy was giggling.
"Well?" asked Ryo, stepping back. "You get a buzz off that cooler stuff, yet?"
Chipmunk considered. "Hit me."
Ryo took a fast swing at Chipmunk's belly, but the Chipmunk caught his fist. "Nah. When you're fat like me, it take a lot to get you buzzed."
Ryo laughed. "Yeah? So how come I seen you on your ass with just a sixer?"
"Beer's different. This cooler stuff's for pussies."
"Puss, puss, puss!""
"Hey, I could eat myself, huh?"
"Gross!" Ryo made a face. "Lucky I didn't hit you, never find my fist again."
"Wanna go to your place an' jack-off?"
"Thought you wasn't in the mood?"
"You got me in it huggin' me."
"It wasn't a hug, just a jiggle-tickle."
"That work, too."
Ryo glanced up the street. "Here come a bus. That's the number almost get us home, too."
Chipmunk yanked up his jeans. "Yeah. But how...?"
Ryo snagged the empty Bud bottle. "Follow me an' carry that cooler."
The bus hissed to a stop, diesel smoke swirling. Ryo waited until an old lady with a walker eased slowly out the back doors, then slipped past her before the doors could close, holding them open for Chipmunk. The lady was white, but she turned and gave Ryo a sly little smile. Ryo grinned back: good people came in all colors, too... even if there weren't very many of them.
The driver, young and white, saw the boys in his mirror and twisted around for a better look... two ragged black skate-punks with bottles. He watched as they slid into a seat. Ryo threw back his head and pretended to chug from the Bud bottle, acting drunk. Chipmunk caught on and did the same. The driver shrugged and turned away. The company didn't pay him enough for trouble like that. Some of those kids carried guns!
The bus lurched into traffic, the driver cutting off a Honda and flipping the finger when it honked. Chipmunk poked Ryo in the ribs. "Hey! This a total escapade, man! How'd you figure it?"
Ryo shrugged, staring out the window and feeling a little sad. "Somethin' Jeremy told me to try a long time ago... before he got all fucked up. ...Anyhow, we just actin' like dogshit niggerboys, the way everybody expect us to." He stayed quiet for several blocks, then finally sighed. "Guess we might as well see Big Bird."
Chipmunk whispered, "There's a big dude in the doorway with a Uzi."
Ryo shrugged. "That's Claw. I kinda know him. He even used to come over to my place once in a while when we was little an' him bein' older didn't matter. He was still in school halfway through last year, remember? Next grade up from us. He's pretty cool. Rides a Punk-Size Alva. Don't seem like he's started doin' none of Big Bird's shit, yet."
"I heard Big Bird gets rid of you if you do that."
Ryo shrugged again. "Never said he was stupid."
"But you said a lot of other shit about him. Jeeze, couple times I figured you was gonna get your ass smoked by his dudes at school!"
"Like gettin' my ass smoked is somethin' new?"
"Ever seen Big Bird?"
"Uh uh," said Ryo. "He's never on the street much, an' he didn't go to our school. Word say he's fifteen, but nobody knows where he come from."
"Maybe the East Side?"
"Shit, man. Anybody new around here, everybody says they must be from the East Side... 'specially if they're bad."
"Well, it is bad over there, ain't it?"
Ryo smiled. "Like Jon would say, what's this, the Green Pastures?"
The boys stood by a power pole, gazing up the street toward an ancient three-story brick building. The sun was almost down, turning orange as it sank across the Bay over San Francisco, and it was getting hard to see. Ryo watched a kid about his age ride up to the steps on a board, tailing in that casual sloppy way that said you were good enough not to give a shit. He wore a bright yellow nylon backpack and had his shirt tied around his waist, hanging down behind to cover the gun.
"Figure we'll get guns too?" asked Chipmunk.
"He might not even want us, y'know?"
"It be hot to have a gun. Nobody'd ever fuck with you."
"Yeah? Till you eat shit an' land on it... like I done with that stupid knife last summer."
"Nobody's scared of knifes no more."
"'Least till they get cut," said Ryo. "But one of the dealers was tellin' me you gotta give the gun back when your run's over."
"Joey got to take his home."
"Joey's dead, goddammit! So quit talkin' about him!"
Chipmunk looked down at the dirty sidewalk and nodded slowly. "Sometimes I forget that." He stared up the darkening street. "I see some dude ridin', an' it look so much like Joey. I even tried to catch this one kid..."
Chipmunk wiped his eyes. "Puss, puss, puss, huh?"
Ryo turned to him. "It's cool, man. I'm sorry. Sometimes I still think I see Joey, too. One of these days I'll ask Suntop about that."
"Wonder what happened to his board?"
"His mom probably threw it away."
"What a waste, man."
"Who'd wanna ride a dead kid's board?"
"Yeah." Chipmunk dug a half-squashed Marlboro pack out of his pocket and offered it. "Um, you still wanna see Big Bird, don't you?"
Ryo took a cigarette. "Part of me wants to an' part of me don't."
Chipmunk fired his Bic and they smoked awhile in silence, leaning together against the splintery pole, shoulders touching. Ryo blew smoke and looked at his board, checking the crack. "Gotta score a new deck somehow."
Chipmunk nodded. "You had that one a long time, man. Rode it hard. Nothin' lasts forever."
"I'm startin' to notice that."
"Funny, but I can't even remember what you rode before."
"Thrasher old Variflex. Flat deck." Ryo studied his board in the fading light, the downside covered with stickers for the stuff he'd wanted, for the stuff he'd had to use instead, his music, his station... stickers over stickers, but always enough of the old left showing to remember. "It was that old one of yours. Before you scored that Roskopp."
"Oh yeah." Chipmunk blew a ragged smoke ring. "Seems like forever, don't it? Like, I can't even remember a time when I didn't know you." He met Ryo's eyes for a moment. "Don't die, man. 'Least not before me, okay?"
Ryo punched his arm. "That's a lame thing to say. ...But I hear you. Thanks, man." He glanced up the street again. "Wish there was some other way to make money."
Chipmunk smiled. "Wally an' Beaver raked leaves."
Ryo frowned. "You even see a tree around here? Things was a lot different for kids in them days." He took a big hit off his cigarette. "Ever see a black dude on Beaver... even once?"
"Uh uh." Chipmunk flicked ashes. "I heard there was this thing over at that kid-Center place, sellin' candy or somethin'."
Ryo scowled. "Get real! Talk about chump-change!" He pointed to the skate-kid with the pack. "There's Turtle..."
Chipmunk nodded. "Teenage Mutant Ninja."
"Nobody calls him all that. I got him in second period. He told me he scores a buck for just four hour's runnin'. That's almost enough for the Steadham, Indy 169s, Powell bearin's, an' Bullets." Ryo made a face. "Candy, my ass!"
Chipmunk nodded. "I hear you about your two parts, man."
Ryo looked up the street once more. A little kid had come out of the doorway and almost fell down the steps... would have, if the dude with the Uzi hadn't grabbed his arm, shifting the gun in its sling and steadying the kid for a moment. Chipmunk leaned on Ryo's shoulder. "Is he cracked or what."
"Or what," murmured Ryo, watching as the kid came down the sidewalk.
"Check the size of them Nikes, man. Big as moon-boots on him! Probably fit you."
Ryo's eyes narrowed. "You ain't sayin' what I think you're sayin'?"
Chipmunk looked surprised. "'Course not, man!"
The kid was about eight, ragged jeans sagging low, either too big to begin with or he'd lost a lot of weight lately. His Hammertime tee was so huge it looked like a poncho on his skinny shoulders. He was almost past before he even noticed Ryo and Chipmunk. He stopped, swaying a little, looking up at the bigger kids with eyes red and wild. Snot glistened on his lip and his voice rasped out dry as dust. "Um... you dudes got a dollar?"
"No, kid," Ryo said softly. "You better go home."
The kid wiped at his eyes with the back of a hand. "I don't wanna, man. C'mon! Just a dollar, huh?"
"We ain't got a dollar," said Chipmunk. He held out his Marlboro pack. "Want a smoke?"
"Liar!" the kid spat.
Chipmunk glanced at Ryo and shrugged, pocketing the pack. "You better go home."
"Thirsty," said the kid.
Ryo nodded. "Yeah. I bet."
The kid cocked his head like he was trying to read Ryo's tone, and moved up close. "If you give me a dollar, I can do somethin' for you, man."
Ryo smiled at Chipmunk over the kid's head. "Yeah? Like what?"
Chipmunk giggled. "Maybe like Suntop's story... about the rat an' the lion."
The kid tugged at Ryo's zipper with his little hands. Ryo's smile cut off and he slapped the kid's hands away. "Go home, kid, goddammit! We just told you we ain't got no money... an' we don't want that kinda shit!"
The kid jerked back, almost falling. "Liar!"
Ryo sighed and turned away. "Just go the fuck home."
The twilight was deepening fast, and the kid stared down the empty street. "Um... which way?"
Ryo knelt, taking the kid's shoulders and pointing. "That way, I guess. Just keep walkin', dude. Can you remember that? Keep walkin'! Don't sit down nowheres! Pretty soon you'll be home."
The kid moved down the sidewalk into the dusk. "Keep walkin'," he chanted. "Keep walkin'."
Chipmunk watched him. "Hope that was the right way."
"That's the way he was goin'. He'll be okay in awhile." Ryo flexed the fingers of his left hand.
"Yeah. Little kids are tough, man."
Ryo dropped his cigarette down and ground it out. "Fuck, I hate this place!"
Chipmunk pointed toward the building. "You still wanna go? I gotta be home by nine."
Ryo dropped his board and decked. "Guess we never gonna be nothin' 'less we do." He glanced back to where the kid's small shadow was fading into the darkness. "I don't wanna end up like that!"
"Yeah. Like Joey. He just sat down an' forgot to breathe."
Claw stood back in the deep-set doorway, Uzi slung over one big shoulder on its web strap. Ryo had noticed that some of Big Bird's dudes made a showtime thing out of carrying their guns, but Claw didn't seem to give a shit. He was fourteen, tall and dark, with a solid-muscled body. Everybody knew he had money, but all he ever wore were faded cut-off jeans, hard-skated Airwalks, and a thin gold chain that looked fragile against the bricks of his chest. He had flat-top, fresh road-rash on one elbow and knee, and his wide face was friendly as Ryo and Chipmunk tailed and climbed the steps. "What's up, shredders?"
Ryo saw Claw's Punk-Size leaning against the wall. It was old and scarred, but had new trucks and wheels. "What do you think of the Steadham, man?"
Claw grinned, eyes warming, teeth big and white in the shadow. "Thinkin' 'bout scorin' one." He considered. "'Course, the Lance Mountain street model's pretty hot too, if you like that style an' shape."
Chipmunk said, "You could afford both, couldn't you, man?"
Ryo frowned, but Claw only shrugged. "Still only ride one at a time, dude. Start switchin' decks an' pretty soon you can't do nothin' right on none of 'em."
There was a little silence. Chipmunk looked at Ryo. Claw just waited.
"Um, we need to see Big Bird," Ryo said, finally.
Some of the warmth faded from Claw's eyes and he might have sighed. "Got the dogshit blues?"
"Or what!" said Chipmunk.
"I just need enough to score a new deck," said Ryo.
Claw checked Ryo's board. "I see what you mean. Shoulda used a Cell-Block on that rear truck. Might not of cracked."
Chipmunk held up his board. "He had one, but he give it to me."
Claw smiled. "Yeah, you'd need it more." He shifted the Uzi like it bothered him and turned back to Ryo. "I loan you the money, man."
Ryo thought for a moment, but shrugged. "I probably couldn't pay you back for a long time."
Claw nodded. "It ain't only that, is it, man?"
Ryo turned away for a minute, looking out at the dirty street where one light flickered dim and yellow, casting twisted shadows against grimy brick. The evening breeze had started, carrying the smells of tar and garbage and piss. He remembered the kid's little hands on his jeans, and what the kid had been ready to do for a goddamn dollar. ...And the hate looks at the mall. "No, man. It's a lot of stuff."
Claw nodded again, the darkness making him look older, putting lines in his big-kid face. "Thirteen that way, dude. It when everythin' turn dogshit on you... or maybe you just wake up an' see that everythin' always was. ...Like, when you finally figure out why that old dude in the park always nice to kids." He spit at the street and shifted the Uzi. "Fuck. I hate this time of day."
"Why?" asked Chipmunk.
"'Cause this time of day make you think a lot."
"You don't wanna think?" asked Ryo.
"No more than I gotta."
"You do anything?" asked Chipmunk.
Claw stared at the street once more. "Beer an' my board. Even doob send my head where it don't wanna be." He shook his head like he was trying to clear it and made a grin. "Gettin' old, I guess. Used to always figure that somethin' came next. Now I'm not even sure there is a next thing."
"Um?" asked Ryo. "You ever goin' back to school?"
"Why? I'm makin' a hundred times more just standin' here watchin' dumb-ass kids fall down these steps than I ever could with a goddamn piece of paper say I be smart enough to work in Burger King or wash cars. Maybe it time you did wake up."
Ryo looked confused. Claw's face softened and he dropped a hand on Ryo's shoulder. "Like I say, man, it ain't the right time of day to be talkin' this shit." He gave Chipmunk a smile. "Don't be takin' this wrong, dude, but I can't figure how you even ride."
Ryo moved closer to Chipmunk. "He rocks."
Claw nodded. "I know. I seen him on the street. But, Big Bird might not think so."
Chipmunk stood a little straighter, though he had to lean backward to balance his belly. "I'd make a good runner, man! ...I even shot a gun once!"
Claw grinned and backed away, holding up his palms. "Don't climb on me, dude. I don't run the zoo!" He glanced at Ryo. "You won't have no prob." He started to turn toward the door, then looked back at Ryo. "This what it is?"
Ryo fingered his board for a moment and studied the crack again. "Yeah."
Claw rapped on the peeling door-panel. "Yo! Care-Bear!"
Inside, a voice answered. "Yeah?"
"Couple dudes wanna see The Bird. I know 'em. They cool."
Locks clicked and the door swung back a crack. A chubby dude about Claw's age peered out. Ryo heard faint rap music... sounded like Too Short.
"Well," said Care-Bear. "Bird gots a mess right now. Told Jamie he didn't wanna see nobody else tonight. He's goin' somewheres again tomorrow. Tryin' to get everything clean."
"These good dudes," said Claw. "Might get pissed off an' we'd never see 'em again."
Care-Bear shrugged. "Okay, I'll check." The door closed and locks shot into place.
"Got a extra smoke?" asked Claw. "I'm out."
"Sure!" said Chipmunk, digging for his pack. He held it up and gave Claw a grin. "Um, don't be takin' this wrong, but what you do with all your green?"
Ryo poked Chipmunk in the roll where a thinner dude's ribs would have been. "That ain't a cool thing to ask!"
Claw laughed as he took a cigarette, leaning down as Chipmunk fired his Bic. "Maybe it sound lame, but it mostly go in the bank now." He sucked smoke and shrugged. "For sure I gots myself a pretty hot apartment... CD stereo, VCR... all the shit everybody around here dream about. But, I don't know what the fuck else to buy."
"Don't you party?" asked Chipmunk.
"Used to. Then it seem like that's all my friends wanted to do anymore." He frowned and blew smoke. "My ex friends." He thought for a moment and turned to Ryo. "I give you my address, dude. Book over sometime an' we get drunk an' talk boards, okay?"
"Sure, man!" said Chipmunk. "That's a way bad gun you got!"
Claw was still looking at Ryo, but slipped the Uzi off his shoulder. "Check it if you wanna."
Chipmunk's eyes got big as he cradled the Uzi. "What kind of guns do runners get?"
Claw rubbed his shoulder where the strap had been and leaned against the wall. He picked up his board and spun a wheel. Ryo thought he looked a lot happier that way. "Dudes your size, probably some little automatic like a Bersa. Ain't showtime like a Ten, but a lot easier to pack on a board."
Chipmunk looked disappointed, but Claw added, "They might be small, but Big Bird gives you somethin' called a safety-slug. Makes a mega-mess outta people. Like dicks an' decks, man." He held up his Punk-Size. "Size don't always matter."
Chipmunk puffed his bobby chest. "Mine's big enough... it just kinda hidden, is all."
"Same go for guns, man."
Chipmunk handed back the Uzi. "So, why's it called a safety slug if it's so bad?"
"Only rips people apart. Don't go through walls an' schools. Lotta cops use 'em." Claw turned back to Ryo. "You still buildin' them hot airplane models?"
"Nah. Costs too much for all the paint an' stuff to do 'em right. Figure if I can't make 'em the way they should be, I don't wanna make 'em at all."
"But, you still into airplanes?" asked Claw. "I 'member you was always checkin' out airplane books at the school library, an' last time I came over... shit, been most of two years now... you had all them pitchers on your wall."
"I still got the pictures," said Ryo. "But, it's kinda like what you said a while ago... I don't know what's supposed to come next."
"Your mom still workin' at Brownie's?"
"Yeah. ...How come I never see you in there no more? You used to always have coffee in the mornin's, even after you stopped goin' to school."
Claw looked away, into the street. The one dying vapor-light only seemed to make things darker. "Brownie don't want me there no more."
"Why?" asked Chipmunk. "I never heard him say nothin' bad about you."
Ryo realized that Brownie hadn't said anything about Claw in a long time. He was about to ask why, too, but locks rattled and Care-Bear opened the door. "Wait a second. Got some leavin'." He held the door open against a spring, and Ryo and Chipmunk stood aside as three boys came out, the oldest about twelve, sniffling and wiping his nose, eyes red and the skin around them strangely dry... almost like old peoples'. The littlest was half-dragged by the middle kid, mouth open, breathing in sips. Ryo didn't know any of them and for some reason was glad. The two bigger ones giggled and whispered a lot as they disappeared down the dark street. The littlest just stared around and let himself be pulled. Ryo looked up and saw Claw gazing after them.
"C'mon, dudes," said Care-Bear. "Big Bird's real busy, but he see ya anyways." He stood back, shifting his Uzi as Ryo and Chipmunk entered.
"Got a lot more?" asked Claw.
"Shit, man, you see 'em all come in."
Claw shrugged. "I don't see 'em at all no more."
"Not many more. School night."
Claw touched Ryo's shoulder as he passed. Ryo stopped and Claw pressed a little torn-off piece of paper into his hand. "Here my address, man. Book over anytime." He suddenly crouched, face level with Ryo's, and lowered his voice so nobody else could hear. "Come see me, huh?"
Ryo nodded. "Sure." The light was too dim to read the address, and he slipped the paper into his pocket. That was kind of funny, he thought, a big cool dude like Claw sounding lonely. He turned and followed Chipmunk inside.
Care-Bear closed the door behind them and snapped the locks. Ryo stopped and checked it out. While the door's outside was just weathered old wood, the inside was huge steel plate. "Is that bullet-proof?"
Care-Bear patted the steel. He wasn't really much taller than Chipmunk and probably weighed about the same, but where Chipmunk was all soft and rolly, Care-Bear's extra weight was more like stuffing so he really did sort of look like one. "Wouldn't stop most of what the street dudes carry, but okay for what the cops got. They in for a surprise, they ever come try an' bust it. ...Claw say you was cool, remember?"
Chipmunk nodded hard. "We are, man."
"We know what happens to kids who talk," added Ryo. Everybody did.
Care-Bear smiled. "An' sometimes to kids' moms." He pointed up the hall to a dark stairway. "Top floor. First door on the left. You'll see Jamie up there." He cupped his hands to his mouth and bawled, "Jamie! Two comin' up!"
"Okay!" another kid-voice called down.
Ryo looked up the hallway. There were no lights in the ceiling, no bulbs in the sockets even, except for a small one by the front door, but light shone from a room toward the far end, and the rap had changed to metal... sounded like White Lion... their lead singer had a strange sad voice. Care-Bear caught Ryo's look. "Keep outta that room, dudes. You never get to the top floor by startin' in there. " He snickered. "Little joke."
Ryo frowned. Brownie would have said, 'very little.' "Yeah." He touched Chipmunk's arm. "C'mon."
Turtle was coming down the stairs, minus his backpack now, carrying his new Corey O'Brien. He had new Cons -- the mega-expensive black high-tops -- new baggies with different colored legs, and new Corey 0 shirt.
"Hot graphic, man," said Chipmunk.
Turtle grinned, puffing his chest and smoothing the stiff new tee. "Took you dudes long enough to figure what it is! Bein' dogshit sucks, huh?" He dug a hundred-dollar bill from a pocket and held it out. "Check this!" He looked at Ryo. "Just like I tellin' you at school, man, four hours work! Fuck! My dad hardly make this in a week haulin' trash!" He glanced toward the front door where Care-Bear was watching. "Um, we ain't really supposed to just hang in here an' talk, okay?
"You doin' the talkin'," said Ryo.
Turtle dug in his pocket again. "Want a cracker? They help you ride like Denver the dinosaur!"
Ryo shook his head. "Nah."
"Don't let none of Big Bird's dudes catch you cracked when you s'posed to be workin'."
"Well, Jeeze," said Chipmunk. "If you only run for four hours, can't you wait?"
Turtle patted his pocket. "These things are atomic! You don't wanna wait! Hey, an' there's this new shit called ice..."
"C'mon now," called Care-Bear. "No little kid shit in here."
Turtle moved off. "Later, dudes. See me for some advice on runnin' anytime."
Ryo and Chipmunk climbed the stairs. "How come you didn't ask him about his gun?" said Ryo. "Or how many dudes he shot?"
Chipmunk made a face. "Quit bein' a scrote, okay? 'Sides, he never shut up long enough. ...You check out all his new gear?"
Ryo shrugged. "I could smell it. Kinda like a old kid in new threads. For sure it be cool to score some good clothes... 'cept I wouldn't wanna look like a poser."
Chipmunk nodded. "I hate brand new jeans. They're all scratchy."
Ryo smiled. "I do, too."
Except for the music drifting up the stairwell, the building was quiet. The air smelled like dry old wood, cigarette smoke and kid sweat. There was only a single small bulb at the second-floor landing, and the hallway stretched empty into blackness. Ryo peered into the dark. There wasn't even any trash, or stuff sprayed on the walls like in his building. "Jeeze," he whispered, as they continued up. "Figure Big Bird got this whole place to himself?"
The air was stale and hot, like it had been trapped inside for a zillion years, and there was the shit stink of crack. "With his green?" said Chipmunk. "He probably owns the whole place!"
At the top of the stairs was another dark empty hallway. Two doors toward the far end showed cracks of pale light underneath, and there were chemical smells, some half-familiar, some not, but Ryo was pretty sure what kinds of things they made. Beside the first door on the left, a white kid stood with an Uzi... Ryo figured he was white anyway. The one overhead bulb was blood red and the dude's skin glowed like a cartoon demon. Maybe that was supposed to scare little kids? He looked about fifteen, but seemed to be getting a beer-belly... big, tight, and round like Brownie's. He wore metal stuff, studded riot gloves, huge studded belt sagging low, spiked wrist cuff and a choker. There was a chair beside him, but he stood, looking a little nervous, shifting his feet and rubbing at his crotch. His eyes shone laser-violet under the ruby light and were as hard as any of the kids' around here, but he smiled and nodded. "Hi, I'm Jamie."
Ryo thought about Skeletor, wondering if this whole thing was showtime to make him think like that. Some little kids really believed in that stuff. Ryo wasn't sure about vampires and werewolves -- maybe in Transylvania -- but for sure there weren't any He-Mans or Thundercats for real... and Skeletor never looked like he'd swallowed a basketball.
Jamie ordered, "Shirts off an' arms out. Turn around slow."
Ryo and Chipmunk did, laying down their boards and dropping their shirts on the floor.
Jamie studied Chipmunk, then squatted in front of him and lifted his belly blubber to look underneath. Chipmunk giggled. "That tickles, man."
Jamie smiled. "You gots room for a forty-four mag under there." He groaned suddenly and stood up, a hand to his crotch, glancing first at the smaller boys and then up the hall. Finally, he leaned toward Ryo and dropped his voice. "Claw said you're cool. Can you dudes do me a favor?"
"Um, sure," said Ryo.
Jamie squirmed, not looking like a demon anymore, just a tired pot-bellied white kid. "I gotta piss... bad!" He unslung the Uzi and shoved it at Ryo. "If anybody... anybody... tries to come up them stairs without you hearin' Care-Bear say so first, shoot 'em, okay?" He sidled up the hall a ways, glancing back. "How hard can that be?" He disappeared into the darkness, big Nikes silent on the bare boards.
Ryo cradled the Uzi and looked at Chipmunk. "You know how to work this thing?"
Chipmunk moved close. "Well, I heard at school that this little switch thing here... see? A, F, an' S? S means safe, F means semi-auto, an' A, like it's on now, means full-auto ... five-hundred an' fifty bullets a minute, I think."
"Shit! I'd hate to have to pay for all them!"
"Oh, an' you also gotta keep this handle thing squeezed or it still won't shoot... kinda a extra safety in case you drop it."
Ryo studied the gun, heavy, black, and important as hell. "My hand almost won't fit it!"
"I heard some little kids just tape it down with 'lectric tape."
"Yeah. That work, I guess."
"Want me to hold it? Claw gimmie his, remember?"
"Better not. Jamie give this one to me."
Chipmunk nodded. "Yeah. Maybe I'll get one of them." He moved back to the stairwell and gazed down. "What if Turtle came up now an' Care-Bear didn't see him?"
"That ain't funny, man!"
"I wasn't tryin' to be. ...Wonder what time it is?"
Ryo shifted the Uzi carefully, still not sure what was safe to touch on it. "Probably around eight. I thought your mom works at the hospital all night? She wouldn't know if you wasn't home by nine, would she?"
"No. But, it's a promise thing I made her. ...You gotta be home by nine, too, on a school night."
Ryo nodded. "Wonder how long this's gonna take?"
"Jeeze, Ryo, you can't tell a dude like Big Bird your mom wants you home by nine!"
Ryo frowned. "I know that, dipshit!" He fingered the Uzi again. "Your mom still spank you?"
"No. Does yours?"
"Not no more. But I still get grounded."
"Yeah, me too. ...Well, if you could call your mom at Brownie's maybe you could say you was stayin' overnight with me?"
Ryo nodded. "Yeah, that would work. She'd be kinda pissed 'cause I waited so long to tell her, but nothin' nuclear. ...But I don't like lyin' to her."
Somewhere up the hall a toilet flushed. The boys grinned at each other. "Looked like he really had to go, huh?" said Chipmunk.
"Like a racehorse." Ryo glanced at the door. " Um, put my shirt on, okay? That way you won't look so... well, y'know?"
"Fat?" Chipmunk suggested. "You don't gotta be that cool. Not with me."
Ryo's eyes flicked to the door again. "If Big Bird don't want you, I ain't gonna work for him neither."
Chipmunk gave Ryo a hug. "You're so cool." He snagged Ryo's shirt, wiggling into it. "Shoulda thought of this on the street. Almost covers my belly, don't it?"
Ryo shifted the Uzi. "We gotta start thinkin' about a lot of stuff from now on, man. We ain't little no more."
The soft slap of Jamie's Nikes echoed in the darkness as he came running back. "Shouldn't of chugged that sixer today," he said, grinning. He took back the gun and slung it over his shoulder as Ryo picked up Chipmunk's shirt and shrugged it on.
"Thanks, dudes," said Jamie. "Fuck! This get borin' as hell! Nothin' to do all day but stand here an' check out kids!"
"All day, man?" asked Chipmunk.
"Yeah. An' I gotta stay late tonight 'cause Calvin ain't here no more."
"Where's Calvin?" asked Chipmunk.
"Takin' a dirt-nap."
"...Oh. Um... he get shot or somethin'?"
Jamie made a face. "Dumb-ass got cracked to the max last week at his own crib an' fell down the fuckin' stairs! Busted his stupid neck! Mostly only runners get shot. I get bored to death."
"Know what time it is?" asked Chipmunk.
Jamie shoved back the cuff of one glove, glancing at a huge black watch. "Eight-forty. ...Why? You dudes figure there's someplace more important you could be?" He frowned and jerked a thumb toward the door. "Listen-up! You get one chance in there. Maybe you don't know it, but you wouldn't even of got up them stairs except for Claw sayin' so, 'cause he figured you could handle it." He spit down the stairwell. "Most kids go for the rock room, an' that's as far as they ever gonna get. You wanna end up niggers all your lives?"
Ryo glared at the white kid, but Jamie only laughed. "Chill out, man. I grew up here, too, an' niggers ain't always black people." He pointed to the door again. "Check-out the graphic on Claw's board sometime... that little kid in a graveyard at night. One of them tombstones says, Dead 4-ever on it. Think about that, man. Four-ever. That's what you gonna be if you blow it in there... or might as well be anyhow."
Ryo looked at Jamie, then at the door, his anger draining, leaving only a sadness, like the faint sound of White Lion below. It was true. A kid only got one chance here, and color didn't matter. There were a few white kids around, and Ryo couldn't remember ever seeing them get treated any different. Money was the only thing that mattered.
"I hear you," said Ryo.
Jamie nodded and knocked on the door. "Funny thing, man. I was up at a mall one time, talkin' to some white dudes. They couldn't believe I lived here. They figured I must get beat up all the time." He shrugged. "Hell, this is home, man, but I still hate it. ...Um, don't say nothin' to Big Bird about when I had to go, okay?"
"'Course not," said Chipmunk.
Jamie stood aside as locks clicked. "Good luck."
The room smelled like money.
A tall skinny boy, about fourteen and wearing only jeans, waved them in with the muzzle of his Uzi. His name was Greyhound, and he was totally, totally black. He was also one of Big Bird's dudes who seemed to get off on carrying his gun; like he wanted to be sure everybody knew he had one. Ryo considered; the dude had scared away most of the aggressive indie dealer-kids who hung by the school gates -- kids who sold for Big Bird just smiled when you said no, offered Kools, and waited -- so maybe that wasn't all bad?
Ryo checked the gun, pretending not to. It was also a full auto. The TV said that semi-auto assault rifles were the weapons of choice for drug dealers and gangs... but the TV lied about a lot of things.
Greyhound was super thin, every rib stark, every muscle almost painfully defined, jeans riding so low that curls of hair showed. He almost never talked, and when he did it was slow and different, like Buckwheat on The Little Rascals. Some kids said he'd run from a long ways away. There were a lot of little scars on his arms and chest. Ryo glanced down at his own left hand; there was something like that between his fingers. The summer before he'd gotten totally drunk and passed out with a cigarette there.
Greyhound closed the door behind them and shot the heavy bolts. His obsidian eyes were distant like they usually were, but a flash deep down said he remembered Ryo. He gave Ryo a faint smile that looked like it came from a distant place, too, then sat in a big old chair by the door, Uzi in his lap, and picked up a Ninja Turtles comic, tracing the words with a long bony finger and silently moving his lips.
Then, Ryo saw the money, and for a few seconds that's all he could see, and a glance at Chipmunk found the same reaction. They both stood and stared, mouths open like little kids.
The room was small, maybe twenty feet square. The half near the door was almost in darkness, and the air was cool... that good friendly cool that made you want to hang inside the mall on scorcher days... except the grocery soldiers wouldn't let you. All over the floor were bright nylon backpacks like Turtle had been wearing. They were different colors, and stuffed with money, some open, green and black bills sticking out. There was more money on the floor, stacks of it, kid-money, wrinkled and sweaty and torn. Some of the stacks had big rubber bands around them.
"Fuuuuck!" Chipmunk breathed.
Ryo just went on staring. The smell of money filled his nostrils and beat at his brain. It was like a sex thing -- dirty, filthy, fascinating porn -- and Ryo felt heat flash between his legs.
Two small boys sat on the bare boards surrounded by the money. They were maybe six or seven, one thin, one baby-fat, wearing clean new jeans and rock-graphic tees, their big puppy-feet in new Nikes. Both had Walkmans clamped to their ears, Cokes on the floor beside them, and a big bag of cheese-puffs plus Pudding Snacks cups. They weren't playing. Both wore looks of little kid concentration and carefully stacked the bills, trying to straighten and flatten out most of the wrinkles. Their little fingers gleamed black and shiny from the money.
Ryo's mind started to work again, and he saw that the kids weren't really counting. They were just putting all the same size bills together by matching the pictures or something, black side always up. There was a mountain of ones, those in the saddest shape. The kids didn't even bother trying to stack them. There were also some big brown metal wastebaskets, like at school, only these were filled with coins.
A kid snicker came from across the room; funny, not smart-ass. "'Kay, dudes. Put your eyes back in your heads now, or I charge you for the peek."
Ryo pulled his eyes from the money. After that, there didn't seem to be anything else in the world worth seeing! Light shone bright from the other side of the room, a big bulb under a metal shade like a green Chinese hat, above something like a shop class workbench. The bench stood beneath two windows that were blank and boarded except for a big air-conditioner sticking through and purring out the cool air. There were things on the bench; small colorful things. Ryo knew what they were but his mind skipped past them because he saw Big Bird and forgot everything else... including the money.
Big Bird sat in one of those black swivel chairs; the kind the school office had. His feet were up on the bench, and he was leaning back with his arms behind his head.
And he was the most beautiful boy Ryo had ever seen!
Everybody said Big Bird had to be at least fifteen, but his shirtless body was small and wiry and could have been twin to Ryo's, except that it glowed almost golden like coffee full of cream, smooth skin tight over every curve of muscle, nipples on his chest like tiny buds. Perfect. He had a small snub nose and long shiny Michael J. hair, big hands with long thin fingers clasped behind his head, and his feet in new black-and-white Cheetahs were as puppy-like as the little boys' on the floor.
And that only made him more perfect.
His jeans were the expensive soft faded kind you saw at the mall. He wore a massive gold chain around his neck and two others on his slim wrists, along with a huge black watch that wasn't plastic. Around him even the air seemed to glow warm and golden.
Ryo sighed out a breath, a small sound in his throat, his nose going crinkly again while his loins warmed. He remembered am old movie about a boy prince; and that's what Big Bird was!
Ryo's throat tightened, but now his heat faded. Big Bird was so beautiful, but it wasn't a sex thing... you just didn't think that way about a prince! Ryo felt sudden shame... if only he'd seen Big Bird before he would have never talked, or even thought, bad stuff about him! Yeah, Joey was dead, but how could that have been Big Bird's fault? Joey had been just another stupid kid; just like Ryo felt now... a dirty dogshit kid who sweated and smelled. Ryo fought back tears. It was wrong to even come here. Big Bird could never want him for anything! He saw the same look on Chipmunk's face, and suddenly felt sorry for his friend because, being fat, he probably felt worse. Ryo put a hand on Chipmunk's shoulder, ready to leave.
Big Bird's eyes were black and bright, lashes long and soft. He was studying Ryo and Chipmunk with a smile that said he knew everything. Slowly, the smile widened to a grin, teeth big and white and perfect, too, as he waved a hand at the piles of money. "Hell of a mess, ain't it?"
Ryo felt like he'd just woken from a dream... the kind of feeling you got lying on your bed on a hot afternoon when there was nothing to do but smoke a doober and everything got gold and soft. But then the dream feeling would fade, and the sharp edges come back to things again. Ryo blinked. Big Bird was a beautiful kid, but still just a boy. Beside him, Chipmunk found his voice... nothing kept that dude blown-away for long. "Shit, I could handle a mess like this!"
Perky. Ryo smiled a little. That's what his mom said about Chipmunk. It was a funny, old-sounding word.
"Or what," added Ryo. His voice came out husky, but he told himself that Big Bird was really too pretty to be perfect.
Then he saw the airplanes.
There were models all over the bench, and they'd all been built totally right and perfectly painted. Ryo scanned the room and saw airplanes everywhere now; rows of them on rough board shelves, others hanging posed from black threads overhead. They were all different types and sizes, from little private planes to the 747 to one even bigger that Ryo recognized as the Spruce Goose. For a minute or two Ryo drifted in soft golden space again, forgetting both the money and the beautiful boy. Sure it had taken tons of money to afford all these models, plus the paint, glue, and brushes, and the zillion other things that cost and you needed to do them right... only a stupid little kid believed that "everything required" really came in the box! But it had also taken time -- lots of time -- and you had to be totally into what you were doing to build them that good!
Ryo stared around, mouth open again. No two models seemed alike at first, then his eyes found a couple, and then a few more, different scales, made by different companies, some balsa, some plastic, but all of one little plane; the Piper Super Cub.
Every one was painted bright sunshine yellow; almost golden yellow. And that was the perfect color for a Super Cub.
Ryo was still staring when Chipmunk's finger found his ribs. "Hey, man! Big Bird's a busy dude! We wastin' his time!"
Right then Ryo didn't care. Money bought the models, but money couldn't put them together. For sure you could pay somebody to do that for you... but, why?
Big Bird had pulled his feet from the bench, drawing up his legs in the chair, chin on knees like a little kid. He was watching Ryo, and his eyes seemed to glow. Ryo remembered Chipmunk's eyes looking like that after making a skate move that could have gone on a magazine cover.
Ryo met the gaze of the perfect kid. "These are hot, man! Totally hot!"
Big Bird's smile was happy and real. "Thanks, dude. Most kids around here ain't into this stuff."
Most kids around here can't afford this stuff, Ryo thought. But he didn't think Big Bird had meant it that way.
There was a pack of Player Navy Cuts on the bench, like Ryo had seen in the window of a mall tobacco shop. Big Bird fired one with an old-fashioned metal lighter, then held out the pack. "Want one?"
"Sure!" said Chipmunk, walking over, belly bobbing, swinging his board in the casual way he always did. Ryo came, too, but held back a little, knowing he'd been sweating all day and would probably smell bad to a clean kid like Big Bird.
Big Bird gave him another smile. "The fuck, man. You scared of me? I don't bite." He pulled out a cigarette and offered it.
Ryo felt his face flush as he took the Player from Big Bird's perfect fingers, tensing a little as they brushed his own scarred ones. He noticed other smells now, besides the money; plastic, model paints, and that mustard-lemon stuff they put in glue to keep kids from sniffing it. Ryo scented Big Bird, too, surprised because he did just smell like a clean kid, not the perfume and pussy junk the way some of the street pimps or dealers did. Stupid, thought Ryo, Big Bird could sweat just like any other boy, and smell bad, too. ...But he'd still be perfect.
Ryo bent close as Big Bird fired his lighter, which didn't work the first time. Their eyes met over the flame, and Ryo suddenly knew he could like this dude. Not because he was Big Bird and perfect, but just because.
The picture on the Player pack was sort of cool, and Ryo studied it. Big Bird caught his look and, after firing for Chipmunk, smiled and stuffed the box into the front of Ryo's dirty jeans, not seeming to notice Ryo's grimy skin. "Like 'em, man?"
Ryo sucked smoke, tasting. "Kinda somewhere between a Camel an' a Lucky. They're okay."
"Do they cost?" asked Chipmunk, holding his carefully.
"Nah," said Big Bird. "Not a lot more."
Ryo looked at the airplane Big Bird was working on. "I gots the Super Cub at home," he said, just like talking to any other kid. "That same Minicraft one."
Big Bird cocked his head. "Yeah? Did you have a hassle tryin' to hold the instrument panel in place while you was puttin' the fuselage halfs together?"
"Yeah, that really pissed me off, till I figured out whoever wrote the 'structions didn't know his ass from his elbow. You gotta put the panel in after the halfs go together."
"No shit? Fuck, I shoulda figured that out! ...You paint yours?"
"Yeah. Yellow, man. That's the only color for a Super Cub, just like some Hell's Angel said black's the only color for a bike."
Big Bird leaned back in his chair and let smoke trickle from his nose. An eyebrow arched. "You ain't just sayin' that?"
"...Huh? No, man."
"Um..." said Chipmunk.
Big Bird smiled. "Sick of bein' dogshit, dudes?"
"Yeah!" said Chipmunk. Ryo just nodded.
Big Bird gave Chipmunk a long look. "You really ride that board?"
"He is," said Ryo. "Straight up."
Big Bird blew smoke. "Always thought skatin' looked kinda fun. Never got a chance to learn." He smiled again. "Too busy, I guess."
"Well," said Ryo. "It ain't really hard. I mean, check out all them little kids doin' it."
Big Bird's smile changed slightly, then he scratched his armpit like any other boy. "Oh well. Got me that new Nissan 4X4 you probably seen in the street." He looked back at Chipmunk. "Ever run for anybody?"
"No... but I shot a gun, once. A big forty-five."
Big Bird turned to Ryo.
"I never even done that."
"Some doobers," said Chipmunk. "Only, they was to friends, an' I just made back what I paid for 'em."
Big Bird smiled again. He snagged a little rock bottle off the bench and tossed it to Chipmunk. "What you think of that, man?"
Chipmunk studied the bottle. Ryo looked, too. The crystals were all different bright colors. Pretty.
"I call it Trix," said Big Bird.
Chipmunk giggled. "Too funny!"
Big Bird shrugged. "Don't cost no more... food colorin's cheap... an' the little kids figure it's totally fresh an' there always be a market if you start kids young."
Chipmunk suddenly looked uncomfortable and set the bottle back on the bench. "Um... I don't think I wanna sell, man. Not to little kids, anyways."
Ryo watched Big Bird's eyes, half-expecting anger, but the beautiful boy only seemed to be thinking. "Wanna do somethin' for me right now?"
"Sure!" said Chipmunk, brightening again.
"Go out an' tell Jamie I said to snag a case of beer. Give him a hand."
"Sure!" Chipmunk gave Ryo a grin and headed for the door. The little boys glanced up as he passed, then went back to stacking bills. Greyhound put down his comic, picked up the Uzi and opened the door. Chipmunk stopped and looked back at Big Bird. "Um, you know what time it is, man?"
Big Bird grinned. "I tell a lot of people what time it is."
Ryo shifted his board in his hands, not sure whether to laugh, and feeling slightly stupid. "I gotta call my mom before nine."
Big Bird glanced at his watch, a pilot's chronometer with multiple dials... real and expensive. "Eight forty-seven." He shifted his gaze to Ryo. "Can your homey call her for ya?"
"...Yeah." Ryo turned to Chipmunk. "Tell her I'm gonna be stayin' with you again tonight, but we'll see her at Brownie's for breakfast. ...An' make sure she knows we ain't gonna cut school tomorrow."
Chipmunk flashed a thumb.
"Jamie'll take you to the phone," said Big Bird. "I don't got one in here 'cause the cops might bug it." He called, "Jamie!"
The white boy looked in. "Yo."
"What's in the rock room?"
"Only a few left."
"Tell Care-Bear to run 'em out. Zoners in the alley... but tell him to be more careful with 'em." Big Bird glanced back at Ryo. "What's your friend's name?"
"Jamie! Take Chipmunk down to the market so's they let him use the phone, an' get a case of Bud."
"Okay." Jamie smiled at Chipmunk. "Got yourself a bodyguard already."
Greyhound closed the door and locked it, then sat down again, face close to the comic because of the shadow on his side of the room.
"So, what's your name,?" asked Big Bird.
They shook the kid shake, and Big Bird didn't seem to notice Ryo's dirty hand. Big Bird picked up the model off the bench. "How much you know about Super Cubs, Ryo?"
"Motherfuckin' little dealer-punk pull a gun on me!"
Brownie's huge hand clamped on the boy's thin wrist and twisted. The kid screamed, and the .22 pistol clattered to the floor like a cheap tin toy. Brownie snagged a double handful of the kid's Too Short T-shirt and yanked him up to eye level, shaking him like a flour bag full of chicken parts while the kid's big Cons kicked air two feet off the faded linoleum and he howled like a piss-wet puppy.
Brownie's mind tracked other things, too... it had been a survival skill in the jungle, and no less now in West Oakland. He saw the three smaller boys bolt for the door, shoving each other to get out fast -- no honor among rats -- eyes wide. No problem there; two of them he knew, pretty good kids, but losers or meat or marks, or whatever the bad boys were calling them this week.
Fools, popped into Brownie's mind. Maybe that wasn't so dated... one of those screaming heavy-metal songs that Ryo liked, by Def Leppard or some other sort of wounded animal, still had lyrics about fools. Well, God didn't protect fools; fools were protected by bigger fools!
There was another song on the Seeburg now, rock or rap, lately it was getting hard to tell the difference, black and white kids all pissed as hell because the world was a big ball of shit and they'd just discovered that fact. This boy had paid for it. Big of him. Music to deal by... or die by.
Brownie wondered if you could have said the same for Jimi Hendrix or Isaac Hayes or -- he glanced at old Jon -- Cab Calloway.
"You busted my fuckin' arm!" squalled the kid.
It was about closing time. The narrow little cafe, higher than it was wide, was empty except for Jon at the counter in an ancient peacoat and frayed watch cap, a style you seldom saw on sailors anymore, nursing his last cup of coffee and latest Lucky. He'd half turned on the stool when the shit hit the fan, his muddy old eyes noting all without much interest as if they'd already seen every movie twice and didn't much care to see one again. Now he turned back to watch the flickering screen of the small black-and-white Sony above the battered Hamilton shake machine, where well-fed white people were talking about a kinder, gentler America.
Holding the cursing kicking kid at arm's length -- the little snot hadn't considered bells yet, but probably would -- Brownie crossed the room in three steps and slammed the boy against the wall, pinning him there beneath a fly-specked Coca-Cola clock with one hand and cocking back the other into a fist about the same size as the kid's whole head. The boy weighed eighty pounds, maybe, Brownie three times that, with only about twenty rolling over his greasy white apron. The boy saw the future and went limp as laundry, eyes getting big and filling with tears. "No, man! I'm only a kid! Please! I'm sorry!"
"An' the boy stood on the burnin' deck," murmured Jon, eyes on the TV.
Distracted, Brownie scowled. Jon had a million dusty sayings and rusty sea stories. This one brought a picture to Brownie's mind of that classic movie, Moby Dick, and Ahab's little black cabin boy, Pip. The Great White Whale hadn't given a shit that Pip was only a kid... one wooly little head buried beneath the waves forever by tons of blind rage. Brownie had never liked that scene; he suspected it had made him cry... when he'd been about this boy's age. But he didn't like the present one either. Poor little Pip had been innocent; wrong place, wrong time, sorry, kid. But this boy had a gun, a paper sack full of crack packets, and a wad of bills big enough to choke a goddamn whale. Some children in Saigon had taped razor blades on their fingers to slit the GIs' pockets. Sometimes the kids had been new at the game and took a slice of soldier, too. Maybe they weren't exactly innocent but at least they had hunger for an excuse, and Brownie had never wanted to do to them what he was going to do to this kid.
But he still didn't like it. Brownie thought about rage. Seemed for all his forty-three years he'd been hearing of people who did things in a "blind rage" and regretted it afterward... often in prison. Maybe, if he lived long enough, he'd figure out what blind rage was. A part of his mind always seemed to stay cool, see clearly, and sometimes even laugh at the stupid things he felt he had to do. It was like seeing both sides of a story; more of a curse than a blessing in this world, and definitely not a survival skill.
"Minute ago you figured you was a man, boy! You gonna do man stuff, you goddamn well gonna hurt like a man!"
"Mmm, mmm, mmm!" said Jon. "Two ton of cocaine comin' off that ship!"
Brownie was distracted again, thinking that it wasn't little black boys who were shipping cocaine by the ton into the country. ...And hadn't he heard somewhere that, contrary to popular opinion, most of it was going up the noses of rich white folks?
The huge fist hung in the air exactly the way bricks don't. The kid stared up at it, open-mouthed. Jon sipped coffee and watched TV lies. Tracy had come in from the back with a new box of Slimy Snakes to set beside the cash register... fluorescent and squirmy and way too much like leeches for Brownie's liking; the kids loved them like all kids loved disgusting things.
"Don't you dare!" Tracy warned.
The part of Brownie's mind that laughed could picture a box of Slimy Snakes flying his way in moments... comin' in fast over me. The thought made his skin crawl. The other part considered acceptable casualties, and growled, "Never you mind about this."
Tracy drew up all five-feet-four and 120 pounds, and Brownie saw the boy's eyes flick to her with the faintest spark of hope. Maybe the boy knew Ryo from school. If so, he'd know that Tracy liked kids, even though she didn't take any shit from them.
The laughing part of Brownie's mind snickered at the scene. He tried to keep his rage clean and fired and focused on this little sack of slime squirming against the wall. Tracy couldn't possibly know how much the thought of being showered with those goddamn worms scared him!
Tracy poised in fighting stance on the toes of her shabby Nikes. "Don't you go tellin' me to nevermind like you was the wrath of God! You bust that boy's face all up, what good's that gonna do anybody?"
Brownie gave her an eye-corner glance. Tracy was twenty-eight, slim, dark and pretty in the most blackly beautiful way, even in faded jeans, gray Raiders sweatshirt, and grubby old apron stained from another sixteen hour day. She looked tired, and her feet probably hurt, and the grill grease fumes had dulled the shine of her hair.
Brownie recalled that, on slow days, she'd sometimes shoot baskets with the street kids at the rusty old hoop he'd nailed to the power pole out front. That goddamn box of Slimy Snakes was just about the right size for a slick slam-dunk. He wondered if he could stand being covered with them again.
Again? The last time they hadn't been made out of candy.
Brownie looked back at the boy's face; he was staring at Tracy like a lost pup, and it wasn't showtime either. That made it worse. Brownie's mind snickered inside his skull, and he felt all that good righteous rage draining away. These kids got so little love that even a whiff of it on a breeze could knock them on their asses.
He remembered Jon saying that the most expensive perfume was made from something slimy a sick whale coughed up... "hamburger grease" or something like that. ...Or did they use that anymore? People cared about whales these days.
It was a Def Leppard song on the jukebox, Brownie realized. Ryo's favorite "white song" -- the one he'd asked Brownie to get -- screaming kids who sounded like somebody was ripping out their souls the way the Alien made babies. Brownie couldn't understand the words much more than he'd been able to make out the Stone's Satisfaction, but Armageddon It was the name, buttons B-7. Only, it seemed more like those boys were howling out, "I'm a teddy bear."
The kid hung limp, tears running now, dripping warm on Brownie's hand. The tears weren't showtime either. Kids in this part of town learned early that nobody gave a shit if they cried, so why fake it? His shirt was all bunched in Brownie's fist, baring his honey-toned middle, jeans slipping down under a round little-kid's tummy. If there was any hair below it didn't show. Worse, Brownie saw with surprise that the kid was cute; chubby cheeks and big golden eyes. A goddamn killer teddy bear.
Brownie's mind laughed again. "Gonna boonie-rat boogie a teddy bear?"
He remembered an old picture book of Ryo's and visualized Teddy Ruxpin toting an AK-47. Well, this boy was too cute... too well-fed to be innocent in this neighborhood. Like a goddamn little leech!
"Danimit, Tracy! He pulled a gun. ...In here!"
For a second Brownie thought she was going to smile, though her eyes seemed to turn a little sad. "In here," she repeated.
Tracy had grown up in this neighborhood. Ryo's father hadn't been seen since the boy was four months old. Stereotype? Maybe. But that's why there was a word. Tracy had walked Ryo to school a million times when he was small, and home again, too, so he wouldn't get beat up or have his lunch money stolen. The money got stolen in school, anyway. She had tried all the usual talks when Ryo started smoking around age eight, knowing they wouldn't work, and listened to his cough late at night... there are few sounds more lonely than a child's cough at night. She ignored the occasional beer on his breath, the cheap kid-weed once in a while, and sometimes still cried when she saw his burned fingers. She'd cleaned up his mess and spanked him the first time he came crawling up the stairs drunk on his little ass, then did it again two weeks later. She did all the million other things any good mother did, and a lot more that mothers in other places could never imagine. But most of all she loved her son, and it showed. Ryo was a good boy... just not very innocent.
Yet, day by day, she could only watch helplessly as the city beat him down.
Brownie's rage flared again. For thirteen years he'd watched Tracy struggle to keep her son good, and it scared him to realize how easy it would be for some huge mindless monster, furious because it had a harpoon up its ass, to kill the boy without a thought.
Or that one little teddy bear with a cheap piece of tin could do the same.
Tracy sighed, balancing the wormy box on her fingertips. "Then you can take the little puffball out back an' shoot him, like everybody else seem to want to do these days. Just don't go makin' a bloody mess in here for me to clean up."
The kid's golden eyes got bigger. To his generation that was no joke.
On the wall, by the door, the pay phone rang.
"Saved by the bell," murmured Jon.
It rang again, and Tracy moved toward it, sideways, watching Brownie all the while. the worms still poised to throw. "I mean it now! I'm tired."
Mean what? The kid's eyes asked.
Who ain't, thought Brownie. He knew he'd lost, but liked Tracy's way of winning. He studied the kid without much anger left, knowing he'd seen him before. ...Maybe, God forbid, with Ryo. Trouble was, there were so many kids like this they all seemed to blur together. Brownie sometimes wondered why the kids chose to hang out at his cafe. It was definitely no McDonalds, and even Ryo had said once that the tunnel-like room with its lofty ceiling lost in shadow, three dim milky-globed lights dangling down from ten-foot chains, tall wooden booths like dark little caves, and the half-dozen scarred-up, gimpy-legged tables, seemed like something out of an ancient black-and-white movie. Brownie had to admit that zoot-suited cats or Bogart in a trench coat would have looked right at home beside Jon, probably swapping stories about the Murmansk Run in the last war anybody wanted to win.
Brownie's burgers were beefed with soy filler because billions hadn't been served, and came on heavy plates likely enough to be chipped. His shakes were as thick as thin profit permitted, and his fries turned out in a lot of shades besides gold.
But then, so did the kids, and in here Brownie treated them all as innocent until they proved otherwise. They'd share the cheapest burger or one skimpy order of fries between three or four, and could nurse along Cokes until the fizz was all gone. A few would eat ketchup when they figured nobody was looking, or make a sort of tomato soup with warm water from the bathroom. Maybe the neighborhood was sick, but Brownie figured the disease was hunger and hopelessness. Drugs and violence were only the symptoms, but probably more profitable to declare war on. Sometimes Brownie wondered what ever happened to the "War On Poverty." It seemed to have been given up about the same time as Vietnam.
The kids would snicker and giggle and smoke cigarettes in the safe dark caves, scrawl anger and hope on the bathroom walls, stock up from the rubber machine, and run every kid-scam ever dreamed up to try to score a beer.
Maybe they just came to act like kids for a change?
But the dealers came, too, new ones every week, or just good kids who were tired of running from the Great White Monster; of having nothing, being nothing, and seeing nothing ahead. If being black and poor automatically made you guilty, why pretend to be innocent? The kids had eyes, they watched TV. The message was clear enough. If you were white and already rich and stole a million dollars or were caught with a half ton of coke, you were slapped on the wrist and served six months in a country club. Be black and poor with a dime bag of crack, and you got twenty years. Kids weren't stupid.
This boy had probably been one who saw the joke, and that was like a little death to Brownie... a little death that meant nothing and changed nothing, but still was a battle lost.
Behind him, Brownie heard Tracy pick up the phone. He could still feel her eyes. Well, what could she do if he went ahead and damaged this kid a little? Quit? Not likely. Throw those goddamn Slimy Snakes? He didn't want to think about that... lose your dignity around here and you lost a lot.
Brownie swung the kid around and threw him to the floor. The boy skidded into the base of a booth, his head hitting the dark old wood with a watermelon thunk. Good!
"Chipmunk?" said Tracy.
The boy grabbed his head with both hands, cursed, and curled into a ball, ready for the kick. Brownie spit on the floor... it was his goddamn floor!
"Is he hurt?" Tracy asked, sudden fear in her voice.
"Get the fuck outta here, you little shithead!" Brownie bawled.
"...Oh," said Tracy, and Brownie could feel her relief. "Well, do you have to ride those boards at night?"
When the kick didn't come, the boy's eyes flicked to the little gun.
"Don't even think about it, sporty," Brownie advised.
"Well, he should have asked me sooner," said Tracy.
"Out, little shithead! An' don't never let me see you in here again!"
The boy scrambled up and backed warily toward the door, still clutching his head. Blood glistened on the side of his face.
Tracy's voice went skeptical. "Oh, yeah. I'll just bet 'he can't walk too good right now!' You neither, likely as not!"
The boy was close enough to the door now, and his tears were those of helpless rage. He stood, big Cons spread, and spit on the floor. "You dead, man!"
Jon blew smoke at the shake machine.
Well, thought Brownie, it had to be mopped anyway.
"...All right. School in the mornin' remember! An' I better not be hearin' none of that 'I don't feel good' stuff! You tell him that, too."
Brownie moved slowly to the counter; slowly because he didn't want to spook the boy... yet. The kid watched, tense, big golden eyes measured the distance to his gun.
"All right. You boys be careful now. Sleep good."
Brownie snagged the M-16 from behind the counter, enjoying the look on the boy's face. "Who's gonna be dead... boy?"
The kid was gone.
Jon held his cup toward Tracy. "A smidge?"
Tracy hung up the phone, took the cup and shot Brownie a frown. "One of these days the cops are gonna come bustin' in here an' find that nasty thing!" She slipped behind the counter to the dented aluminum urn and topped off Jon's cup.
Brownie slid the gun back under the counter. "It's mine, goddammit. They give it to me to fight the enemy an' that's still what I use it for." He pulled an ugly little cigar out of his shirt pocket: Ryo called them monkey dicks and wouldn't touch one even if he was dying for a smoke. Of course, despite the official warning sticker, Brownie's cigarette machine was open to anybody tall enough to reach the coin slot... and anyone else could pull a chair over. Considering what was available to kids on the street, Brownie couldn't see where smoking was any significant threat to their health. He fired the cigar with a battered old Zippo and blew a smelly cloud at the ceiling. "Hell, try an' get a cop down here!"
Jon aimed his Lucky at the TV. "Now, look at that! OPD come bustin' into somebody's apartment, keep a whole family with little children on the floor for two solid hours while they go through the place like a bunch of gorillas smellin' bananas, turn out it the wrong buildin', an' you think they even apologize?"
Brownie scowled at the screen, remembering whole villages where 'mistakes' had been made. Those people hadn't gotten an apology either... those who were left to apologize to.
He watched as Tracy set out the Slimy Snakes box for display. He forced himself to pick one out and eat it... a nasty orange one. It tasted pretty good... once he couldn't see it any more.
Jon turned on his stool and pointed to the little gun on the floor. "Now, what you gonna do with that?"
Brownie wiped his fingers on his apron and scooped up the gun. "Piece of cheap shit! Hardly even real!"
"Bullet still come outta that little hole goin' pretty fast."
Brownie smiled. "Yeah." He flipped the pistol in his palm. "Kid wasn't one of Big Bird's." He slapped back the slide. "Shit! Wasn't even cocked! Little dumb-ass ain't gonna stay alive much longer around here!"
He caught Tracy's look, and shoved the gun into the pocket of his baggy white pants. "I'll take it down by the Bay on my way home an' throw it far as I can." He sighed out smoke. "Seem like I oughta remember that little shit's name... know he been in here before."
"Stanley. Stanley an' his monster."
"Ryo calls him that," said Tracy. "It's the name of one of those old-time comic books that Suntop collects. Anyway, little golden-eyes is named Stanley."
"Didn't he used to hang out with Ryo an' Chipmunk?"
Tracy began to straighten things up. "A long time ago. Last Ryo said anything about him it was asshole."
"Oh. Well, that's good."
Jon's eyes shifted between Brownie and Tracy and he smiled. "Ryo's a good boy. Know better than to 'sociate with trash."
Tracy sighed. "I know, Jon. Trouble is, there don't seem like much call for good boys around here." She switched off the urn. "An' he's at that age where he's startin' to see that himself. ...Stuff like havin' to wear last year's jeans while punks like Stanley got brand new ones every week. An' he needs a new skateboard."
Brownie tried for a joke. "Next you be sayin' you just don't know what to do with him."
Tracy's head came up, and her eyes were suddenly fierce. "Do with him? Oh, yes, I know what I should do with him! I should tuck him under my goddamn arm an' run just as far an' as fast as I can the hell away from here!" She grabbed the big plastic garbage can and wrestled it from under the counter, then dragged it angerly into the shadows at the back of the room.
To where? Brownie thought, hearing the iron-plated alley door clank open. And you couldn't get there from here. Not without money.
Ryo tried to remember the specs from the back of his model's instructions. He was pretty good at recalling stuff like that, even though he'd built the airplane just after school started last fall. It was a small one, 1-48th scale, and had been hard to do with his fingers still stiff. It had also been the last airplane he'd been able to afford... maintaining a board took money, and you always seemed to need more money the older you got. He'd figured the Super Cub would be the last plane he'd build. Maybe models and stupid dreams were only for little kids?
"Um... The PA 18-150," Ryo began, feeling like he'd been called-on in class, and also that Big Bird wouldn't like him if he fucked this up. "150 horsepower Lycoming engine. ...Um, wingspan thirty-five feet. Twenty-two feet long. Top speed, 130 miles a hour. Ceiling, 19,000 feet. Take-off in less than 500 feet. ...Um..."
Big Bird laughed; a beautiful perfect kid-laugh. "Aw, hey, that's cool, Ryo. Check yourself, man! You sweatin' like you figure I'm gonna smoke your butt! Don't wet yourself, man; who in hell else around here would even know that much? Shit! The only thing most kids can tell me is what kinda gun they got, or this week's street prices, or the newest rap!"
He blew out smoke and mashed his cigarette on the bench, snagging the half-finished airplane and gazing at it. "Gross weight, 1750 pounds. Empty weight, 930. Useful load, 820 pounds. Standard fuel capacity, thirty-six gallons. Cruising speed, 115 miles a hour. Fuel consumption, nine gallons a hour at seventy-five percent throttle. Fuel range, no reserve, 460 miles. Clean stall speed, forty-seven miles an hour. Full-flap stall, forty-three. Sea-level rate of climb, 960 feet a minute..."
Ryo's mouth was open again. Big Bird saw it and laughed until he had to wipe his eyes. "An', oh," he finally added, "That's thirty-five feet, two inches, an' another seven inches on the overall length."
"Fuck!" said Ryo. "Are you smart or what!"
Big Bird gave him a long look, then opened another Player Pack and shook a cigarette out to Ryo. "It the same with anythin' else, man. You know about stuff you like... stuff that interest you... what you think is important. Bet you could tell me all kinda shit about skateboards."
"Guess so." Ryo glanced at his board. For sure they were cool, and made you a lot freer, and riding these streets was hard. But boards mostly just got you where you needed to go. Only squid-kids hung at the mall and talked about all the differences in wheels and trucks and decks, and you had to ride them all to know that stuff.
And that took money.
He looked at the new cigarette, then at the one still in his other hand with at least two more good hits left.
"Kill it, Ryo," said Big Bird. "They'll make more." He fired his lighter. "So, you really paint yours yellow? Like mine?"
"Well, not exactly like that. There ain't but two colors of yellow in them Testors paints."
Big Bird put the airplane back on the bench. "I make my own. You take 1114 gloss yellow, an' a little 1169 flat yellow, an' then just a drop of 1127 orange."
"Jeeze, that's three bottles just to make one color!"
Big Bird cocked his head. "I keep forgettin' you don't got no money. 'Course, there's no reason you'd wanna paint yours like mine anyways, huh?"
"Well, I kinda like that stock yellow. ...Um, why you askin' if I really paint mine that color?"
Big Bird frowned slightly. "Dudes tell me all kinds of shit."
Ryo considered. "Yeah. I guess they would, huh?"
"Kids around here do anythin' for money. I could get one to give you a dirt-nap for twenty dollars, man."
Ryo knew that. Any kid knew that. He glanced over at Greyhound, who was lost in his comic. "You could do that now for free."
Big Bird leaned back in the chair and gazed at Ryo a long time, eyes slitted against the smoke. Ryo started to feel like a dirty little boy again.
"Make a motherfuckin' mess," Big Bird said, finally. "So, what you need money for, Ryo?"
It sounded stupid at first, but Ryo knew Big Bird wouldn't ask stupid questions. If somebody asked you something you didn't understand, maybe it meant you were stupid and not the question? He remembered a thing Brownie had said. "You mean, how much is enough?"
Big Bird nodded. "You pretty smart yourself, dude. You know that?"
Ryo figured he was wasting Big Bird's time, but he held up his board and pointed to the crack. "I need a new deck. They thirty-five on sale, plus tax."
"So, you wanna dirt-nap two dudes for me?
Big Bird's eyes were still slitted, and now they cooled, seeming to see right into Ryo's mind. His voice got soft and scary. "You know that's bullshit, don't you, Ryo? Thirty-five dollars? You might just be tryin' to be nice, only nice don't get you nowhere, man. Just makes you look stupid. You want thirty-five dollars, go sell cookies for some kid center, or wash some pimp's car. I think you already figure that out."
Ryo nodded slowly. "Yeah. Guess I did."
"An 'don't try an' be fake-nice to me, Ryo. I don't need my ass kissed."
Ryo looked hard at the perfect kid. "I wasn't!"
Big Bird studied Ryo a minute or two more, then smiled again. "Yeah. I'm sorry, Ryo. You're right. You wasn't. Sometimes I forget there's still good people around here." He gazed back at the Super Cub, golden and beautiful. "Bet you gots a cool mom, huh?"
"She gets pissed at me sometimes."
"Like when you don't call before nine?"
"That ain't bad. Shows she gives a shit about you." Big Bird crushed out his half-smoked cigarette. "You way too smart for a runner, man."
"Huh?" Ryo really felt confused now. "Why? I don't know that much about airplanes."
Big Bird laughed. "I think I could like you, man. You' gots a lot of good stuff in your head, you just don't know what to do with it yet." He snagged another Player, fired it and blew a perfect smoke ring. "Watch. man." He looked over to the little kids on the floor and cupped his hands to his mouth. "Yo! Chuckie!"
The bigger boy looked around, pulling off his headphones. Big Bird crooked a finger. "Come here, dude. Bring some money."
The boy got up, his chocolate-brown chub peeking from under his shirt, and stared around at all the piles and stacks and backpacks full of money. "How much, Big Bird?"
Big Bird glanced at Ryo and grinned. "A lot."
The little boy considered for a minute, hands on hips, and his serious look was funny to see. Finally, he squatted and scooped both arms full from the pile of ones.
Big Bird laughed, watching Ryo's face. "That's cool, dude. Forget it. You an' Ripper can go home now... but be back right after school tomorrow, okay?"
Chuckie nodded. "Sure, Big Bird." He dropped the money and yanked the earphones off the other boy. "Time to go home, man."
Ripper got to his feet, chugged the rest of his Coke and gave a huge little-kid burp, smiling shyly at Big Bird. The boys started for the door. Greyhound looked up from his comic. Big Bird leaned forward and put his golden hand on Ryo's shoulder. "You still watchin'?" He glanced back at the kids. "Yo, dudes! Want anythin'? Anythin' at all? Anythin' in the whole fuckin' world?"
The little boys stopped and looked at each other, putting their heads together and whispering. "Um, Cokes?" asked Ripper.
"An' Ding Dongs," added Chuckie.
Big Bird laughed and gave Ryo's shoulder a squeeze. "Greyhound!"
But Greyhound was already up. He went to an old fridge in a corner and snagged two Cokes and a whole box of Ding Dongs. He gave them to the boys, smiling his distant smile, then opened the door.
"Thanks, Greyhound! Thanks, Big Bird!" Chuckie and Ripper called together. They left, giggling and whispering about little-kid stuff.
Big Bird leaned back in the chair and raised an eyebrow at Ryo. "See what I'm sayin', man? You can't have dudes doin' things they too smart for."
Ryo was almost sure what Big Bird meant. "I guess I hear you. ...Only, you wouldn't really give them kids anythin' they wanted?"
Big Bird shrugged. "I ain't givin' "em nothin', man. They workin' for it." He smiled. "'Course, they ain't asked for a 'Vette yet." He blew another perfect smoke ring and ran his finger along the Super Cub's wing. "Little kids ain't greedy, man. They only want what they can use. An' they don't lie much neither, 'least not to other kids. The fuckin' world teaches 'em about that kinda shit later on. Right now Chuckie an' Ripper gots everythin' in the world they need to make 'em happy... new clothes, them Walkmans, all the food they want. Four months ago Chuckie was nothin' but skin an' bones... check him out now! An' Ripper's mom didn't give a shit what happened to him... now she know she better! An' nobody fucks with 'em on the street or on their way to school!" He sighed, letting smoke trickle from his nose. "One of these days they'll figure out what is. But there's always plenty of kids, man, an' just gettin' more all the time."
Ryo nodded, gazing at the piles of money. "But, can they really count all that?"
"They don't count none of it. Check the colors, man... the backpacks, an' them rubber bands? Every runner gots a different color. We know what stuff that color goes out with, an' what it brings back. No use makin' things harder for kids than they already are. Most of 'em gots enough probs figurin' bus change. Ripper an' Chuckie just do the mess-work... sort the bills by matchin' the pictures or however the hell they tell the difference." Big Bird yawned. "Sure it's a little sloppy, an' a few hundred always gets lost every week, but what the fuck, Ryo, we all only kids anyways, huh?"
He waved at the money. "Ones be a prob. Had forty fuckin' pounds of 'em last week. But them goddamn coins be the biggest pain in the ass! Gotta send dudes all over town to get rid of the stupid things! Thought about just not takin' 'em no more, but that's all a lot of little kids got."
Ryo nodded again, remembering when he'd been eight or nine. "But, you still gotta count it sometime?"
"Greyhound does that at night. Late. He don't sleep too good."
Ryo looked over at the strange thin boy sitting quietly in the dimness with his comic book and Uzi. Big Bird caught Ryo's look. "Figure he's some kinda space case or retard? Or done too much dope?"
Ryo didn't say anything. There were a lot of kids who looked like Greyhound, crouched in doorways, staring at nothing.
"Aw, that's cool, Ryo. I know you wouldn't wanna hurt a dude's feelin's. Maybe that's part of why I think I like you. ...Greyhound!"
Greyhound looked up.
Greyhound slung his Uzi and came over. Ryo couldn't read his face, or his distant eyes, but he saw a lot of little lines that only old people should have. Big Bird smiled and waved a hand at Ryo. "This's Ryo. He's a cool dude."
Ryo felt a warmth when he heard that; like some of Big Bird's goldenness had washed over him. For a second, something warm flickered behind Greyhound's eyes, too. He suddenly looked more shy than strange. His voice came out rusty, like he didn't use it much. "Greyhound," he said. "I... um... seen you roun' the school."
"What's six times eight?" Big Bird asked.
"Foty-eight," Greyhound answered.
"Twelve times twelve?"
"Hunner' an' foty-fo'."
Big Bird grinned at Ryo. "Wanna try?"
Ryo felt shy himself. "Um, nah. That's okay. I probably wouldn't know if he was right or not. I mean, I'm sure he would be... but, nobody I know can do that!"
Big Bird nodded. "Good school, huh?"
Big Bird frowned. "They don't want us smart, man. Scares the shit outta 'em. Keeps you off the streets for a few hours a day anyways." He smiled again. "But, ask him anythin', Ryo. Go for it."
Greyhound was just standing quietly. Ryo's mind went blank for a moment, then something stupid popped in. Before he could think, he asked, "How come manhole covers are always round?"
It was so lame, he expected Big Bird to laugh, but the golden boy only looked interested. Greyhound's expression never changed, though his eyes got more distant than ever. Finally, he murmured, "Seem to me... they be shape any way other... could turn 'em so's they fall down the hole."
Again, Ryo's mouth fell open. "He's right! I never even figured that!"
Big Bird looked up at Greyhound and smiled again. "He don't talk, so he mostly thinks, I guess. Good dude, Greyhound."
Once more, there was a warm flicker behind the tall boy's eyes before he turned away.
"Um?" said Ryo. "See you around, man?" He held out his hand.
There was a glint of surprise in Greyhound's shadowy eyes as he faced Ryo again and saw the hand. For a minute he just stared at it, the lines on his face seeming to deepen. Ryo noticed that Big Bird had gone totally still, not even breathing. Ryo's gaze flicked back to Greyhound, and he saw that the tall boy was looking at his left hand now, and there was more pain in his eyes than he'd ever seen in anybody's. It seemed a long time. The air conditioner purred. Then, slowly, like it hurt him, Greyhound put out his big bony hand, almost twice the size of Ryo's, and they shook the regular old-people's way. Greyhound's hand felt ice-cold. Yeah," Greyhound murmured. "See. You. Ryo."
Ryo tried not to look at all the little scars on the tall boy's arms and chest. His own fingers seemed to hurt again. Greyhound went back to his chair.
Big Bird let out smoke with a sigh, studying Ryo with a strange look. "I definitely think I like you, man."
"Greyhound don't wanna be touched. He won't even shake with me."
Ryo lowered his voice. "Is there... somethin' wrong with him?"
"Nothin' this fuckin' world didn't do!" Big Bird sucked smoke and stared at the shadowed ceiling. "I think he run away from somewhere... Mississippi or someplace like that. Come all the way out here on a bus. That's why I named him Greyhound, not 'cause he look like one.
Ryo didn't think he looked like one.
Big Bird's eyes glinted hard. "Found him about a year ago in a trashy white neighborhood in Hayward. Some of them dogsuckin' skinheads had him. Probably caught him on the street." Big Bird spit on the floor and Ryo jumped.
"Sorry, man," said Big Bird. "Ever hear about them kinda dogfuckers? The 'new KKK'?"
"Sorta. Me an' Chipmunk got chased by some skinheads uptown one time."
"You goddanm lucky they didn't catch you, man! Anyways, these fuckers had Greyhound chained to a bed in this little room. No clothes. Not even a fuckin' blanket! He had a plastic bucket to shit an' piss in" Big Bird's voice was low anyway, so Greyhound couldn't hear, but it got even lower now. "They done a lot of stuff to him, man. A lot of stuff!"
Ryo's fists clenched until his stiff fingers hurt. There were whispers at school about kids locked or chained in rooms, like Suntop's stories where lonely spirits cried in the dark. They said, sometimes, really late at night when the streets were still, you could hear them.
Big Bird was watching Ryo. "They're dead, man. ...An' it hurt a lot first."
"Good!" Ryo wiped at his eyes, gazing over at the tall quiet boy who knew the answers to anything. That was something else it meant when you were just shit; things could happen to you and nobody would care.
"He's gettin' better," said Big Bird. "At first I didn't know what I was gonna do with him. He didn't talk at all, didn't never wanna go outside, still sleeps on that little cot in the corner. It's like that's all he wants in the world. ...Plus his gun, for sure, an' them books. Bought him a lot of Game Boy stuff, an' he good at it, but he rather read for some weird reason... real books, too, not just them comics." Big Bird's eyes softened as he looked over at Greyhound. "Wish I could get him to eat. ...Oh, I mean he does, otherwise he be dead. But he don't like to."
Ryo looked a question.
"They put his food in the same bucket."
Ryo's cigarette had burned short. He felt it suddenly hot between his fingers, and threw it down, stomping it out. Big Bird gave him a curious look.
"Sorry," said Ryo, squatting to pick up the butt.
"Leave it, man. Greyhound sweeps. He likes to." Big Bird smiled again, and the golden glow seemed to spread out from him. Maybe if he got to be friends with your fat homey he'd learn to eat again?"
Ryo smiled, too. "If Chipmunk can't teach him about eatin', nobody can. He ate this whole entire coconut cream pie one time!"
Big Bird grinned. "That the kinda dude I need, Ryo. Dude what want the whole entire thing at once." He stroked the Super Cub's wing again. "I wanna do some thinkin' about you an' your friend. Chipmunk might make a good runner if he don't get so fat he can't no more from makin' all that money, but I need smart dudes, too. For smart stuff." Once more he studied Ryo. "You still ain't sure yet, huh?"
There was a knock on the door. Greyhound looked across at Big Bird, who held up a hand. "Let 'em wait." He turned back to Ryo. "Can you meet me somewhere at eleven tomorrow mornin'?"
Ryo thought about school. Then about money. "Yeah."
"Okay. You know that carwash about six blocks over, by 880?"
"Eleven, Ryo. On time. An' bring a jacket if you got one." Big Bird gave Ryo a last long look, then slid from the chair. Ryo was a little surprised because Big Bird wasn't much taller than he was.
Big Bird went to the door, Ryo following, then stopped and seemed to think for a minute. Turning, he put a hand on Ryo's shoulder. "Hang in here a second, huh? I gotta tell Greyhound somethin' private. ...Hey, an' I figure thirty-five an' tax, plus bus change, maybe McDonalds, an' somethin' for Chipmunk, come to about a buck, man." He grinned. "An' also for that advice on the Super Cub's instrument panel."
Greyhound had opened the door and stood waiting. Ryo caught a glimpse of Jamie and Chipmunk in the red-lit hallway. Chipmunk had a case of Bud. Big Bird spread a palm toward the money. "Snag it from somethin' what ain't been sorted or stacked yet, okay?"
But Big Bird only smiled again and walked out. The door closed softly behind Greyhound, leaving Ryo alone with the piles and stacks and backpacks of money. He went slowly over and stood for a minute or two, looking and smelling. Among the scattered fives, tens, and twenties, were a few fifties, most cleaner and less wrinkled than the smaller bills. Ryo stood there as minutes passed, gazing at all the money and thinking. For some reason he remembered Suntop saying that a vampire couldn't come into your house unless you invited him. That was stupid. But, he recalled something else... when an airplane was trying to take off, there was a place in the runway called the point of no return. When you reached it you either had to fly or die. Ryo thought awhile longer, then snagged two fifties that were closest.