Updated date:

A Better Life, Part 2

I have worked with troubled youth for over twenty years. I have seen the damage that abusive family relationships can inflict on character.

The evil of this world twists its way into the blackened void of a willing man's heart, coaxing him to harm the innocent, therefore strengthening the demon that persuades him.

The evil of this world twists its way into the blackened void of a willing man's heart, coaxing him to harm the innocent, therefore strengthening the demon that persuades him.

Hunger

About a week later, the two boys hopped out of the back of an old beat-up pickup truck at some intersection on Hollywood Boulevard. They thanked the old man as he went on his way. Michael dusted off his pants and adjusted his glasses before looking around.

“Do you think this is the right place for us to be?” Jason looked at some buildings lining the boulevard.

“I suppose so.” The traffic and the people made Michael nervous. “Where do you want to go first?”

“I am thirsty, and that truck ride was hot and stinky.” Jason looked west from the intersection. “We could try to find a park or something. They might have a water fountain that we can use.”

“That truck smelled because of the fertilizer the old man hauled.” Michael took one last observation at Sunset Boulevard with its busy flow of cars and trucks. “California is not like Texas, for sure.”

“It was nice of the old farmer to bring us to Hollywood.” Jason started moving to the west, expecting his best friend to follow.

Michael began to have doubts. “We had to pay him. How did you get all that money, anyway?”

“You remember those bikers we hitched a ride with in New Mexico?”

“Yeah.”

Jason turned and smiled. “That one old guy who liked to fall asleep drunk was loaded.”

Michael stopped and gasped. “You stole that money?”

“It is not like he is going to miss it.” Jason shrugged his shoulders. “He kept gambling it away every night, anyways. Not all the money was from him.”

“You stole from someone else?” Michael thought back to the bikers that seemed to be shady characters. “Are you crazy? Those men will kill you.”

“No, I did not steal from the others. Denver, the man who gave me those weird red pills…”

Michael started pacing behind Jason again. “I told you not to take them. You acted strange all night that night.”

Jason half laughed. “I did do some stupid things, but then I do not remember what all I did after a while. I woke up the next morning and a hundred dollars was under my head.” He looked back at Michael with hope he did not reveal too much. “Do not worry. I do not like what those pills did to me the next day. I will not take them again.”

“That is a good thing.” Michael agreed, though he could not understand why he felt Jason held something back from him.

“I still have about thirty dollars left.” Jason hoped to divert Michael’s attention away from how he attained the money. He did not want to remember the night with the pills. Let us find a McDonald's or Burger King to get something to eat.”

******

The boys were unable to locate either one of the fast food chains before their hunger overpowered them. They tried to but food from several vendors on the street, but they were chased off because they were filthy and looked like vagrant children. One man finally allowed them close enough to purchase a couple of his sandwiches and a soda apiece but forced them to eat on the other side of the street. After that, the boys began to formulate a plan to find out where the movies were made.

“I do not know where to start looking.” Jason scratched his head as they sat on the concrete bench at the bus stop. “I guess we could ask somebody.”

“Are you kidding?” Michael looked down at his clothing. “Nobody will even come near us. We are dirty and we stink. I am tired, too.”

“We could go rent a hotel room on that other street.” Jason took out what little money he had left and counted it. “I have eighteen dollars and twenty-seven cents left.”

“That should be enough for one night,” Michael guessed. “We can wash our clothes in the bathtub and set them out to dry overnight.”

“Then we will look like actors and people will talk to us!” Jason stood up and took Michael by the hand, his spirit and strength renewed by hope.

Despair had sapped all the free-spirited emotions from the boys by the second night. They huddled together in the recessed doorway of a darkened alley in a seedy part of the city they wandered into days before. Michael was becoming homesick. They were penniless and despondent.

“I hate this city.” Michael whispered for fear of discovery.

“Why did those Mexican kids chase us?” Jason took out the picture of Daddy from under the blanket. “We did not even do anything to them. They wanted to kill us.”

“Do you miss your mother and Randy?” Michael tried to squeeze his eyes into focus as he watched Jason touch the image lovingly.

“It is a picture of Daddy.” Jason looked down at Michael. “You cannot see well in the dark without your glasses, can you?”

“No.” Michael shivered and hugged closer to Jason’s body for heat. “How can it be so hot during the day and so cold at night?”

“It is not that cool, but you are burning up.” Jason placed his palm Michael’s forehead. “I think you have a fever.”

“That chicken we ate last night tasted funny.” Michael shuddered with a chill coursing through him.

“Mine did not.” Jason put his arm around his best friend to comfort him.

Despair

Despair had sapped all the free-spirited emotions from the boys by the second night. They huddled together in the recessed doorway of a darkened alley in a seedy part of the city they wandered into days before. Michael was becoming homesick. They were penniless and despondent.

“I hate this city.” Michael whispered for fear of discovery.

“Why did those Mexican kids chase us?” Jason took out the picture of Daddy from under the blanket. “We did not even do anything to them. They wanted to kill us.”

“Do you miss your mother and Randy?” Michael tried to squeeze his eyes into focus as he watched Jason touch the image lovingly.

“It is a picture of Daddy.” Jason looked down at Michael. “You cannot see well in the dark without your glasses, can you?”

“No.” Michael shivered and hugged closer to Jason’s body for heat. “How can it be so hot during the day and so cold at night?”

“It is not that cool, but you are burning up.” Jason placed his palm Michael’s forehead. “I think you have a fever.”

“That chicken we ate last night tasted funny.” Michael shuddered with a chill coursing through him.

“Mine did not.” Jason put his arm around his best friend to comfort him.

******

Duke noticed the boys only by chance. He had forgotten his wallet back at his apartment and had to find a place to turn around. When he turned into the alley, his headlights caught the two pathetic little figures huddled together in among the trash. He paused for a moment as he considered the location. The streets in that district were deserted at that hour of the night, rife with gang violence during the day.

Rescue

Jason stared wide-eyed into the headlights. Terror ran through him as he considered what the car represented. The lights blinded him. He did not hear the car until it had already turned into the alley. He could not tell if it was a police car or not. He did not want to go to jail. The police would take him back to them.

The car door opened slowly, and Jason heard the person step out of the car. “Hello?”

“Slowly take your hands out from under the blanket.” Duke advanced with caution toward the two, making sure there were no witnesses.

Jason lifted his hands into the air. “My best friend is extremely sick. He cannot move much.”

“Remove the blanket so that I can see that he does not have a gun.” Duke knew that the headlights partially obscured him from the boys. “What is your name, son?”

“My name is Jason, and his is Michael.”

Duke guessed by Jason’s accent that the boys were from Texas, and from their clothing, probably a rural area. He pulled a napkin from his pocket and covered his mouth and nose. The sick boy had soiled himself and reeked of vomit and excrement. He was likely dehydrated and suffering from food poisoning, but salvageable. He looked at Jason and recognized an abused child quickly, likely a runaway from an abusive home.

“Get those nasty clothes off of him.” Duke turned away from the front of the car to go back to his trunk. “I have some towels and a couple of bottles of water for the gym in the morning. We will clean him up and then put him in the car.”

It was their third night in Hollywood that Duke had found the boys. He drove them into an older industrialized part of Los Angeles not far from where he found them. The building where he took them appeared to be an abandoned warehouse with boarded up windows. Nearby was a railroad crossing.

Duke carried Michael up a flight of stairs to the fourth floor, while Jason followed behind. A new steel door, heavily adorned with locks, seemed odd to Jason in a building so ancient. Even the hinges did not squeak with rust when Duke pulled the door open so that they could go in.

The interior was well lit, and nicely decorated. It was all one vast room with the smaller room in back. It seemed almost like a home. There was a kitchen with an island bar in one corner. An open stall shower stood in another corner. Behind it was a smaller partition that hid a commode. Duke laid Michael down on a sectional sofa, which crowded most of the remainder of the spacious room.

“We need to get some water in your friend, quickly.” Duke went to a cabinet and pulled a bottle of water out. “I will get you a bucket from the other room in case he gets sick again.”

“This is a nice apartment.” Jason took the bottle and opened it.

“It is the latest thing these days.” Duke paced back toward the boys with a bucket. “They take old warehouse buildings and turn them into lofts.” He studied Jason over. “Let me take care of your friend for a bit. Put your clothes in the washer and take a shower to get cleaned up.”

“We do not have any clean clothes to put on.” Jason felt ashamed of his condition in front of the man, who was obviously rich.

“I have some clothes that should fit you. My son will not mind.” Duke went to a closet and fished out two sets of pajamas. “He will not be out for summer visitation until next month and has probably outgrown these anyway.”

“Thank you.” Jason stood up and took the offered items. “I have not slept in pajamas in a long time.”

“You are welcome.” Duke sat down to tend to the sick boy. “Wash all your clothes and his, too. I just cleaned this apartment last night, and I am a neat freak. The washer and dryer are in that cabinet right over there. So where are you boys from?”

Jason opened the cabinet and the washer. “West Texas.” He emptied the remnants of Michael’s clothing into the washer. “Lorena.” He had left the blanket and Michael’s soiled clothing in a dumpster in the alley at Duke’s request. “We rode a train at first.” He stripped down and put his clothes in, though he felt awkward exposed in front of the man. “I wanted to run away, but Michael wants to go back.” He stepped into the shower and pulled the curtain closed.

“I follow.” Duke lifted Michael’s head and put the water bottle to his lips. “Take a sip, young man. You are dehydrated.”

Michael opened his eyes halfway, though exhaustion blurred them. “Poppa? I ate some weird tasting chicken.”

“That explains what made you sick.” Duke smiled. “I am not your Poppa, though.”

Michael struggled to sit up. “Who are you?” He tried to look around. “Where is Jason?”

“Your young friend is in the shower.” Duke looked the boy over carefully now that the lighting was better. “You do not seem to have any injuries. How did Jason come to those injuries on his face?”

Michael took another drink of the water. His mind was still clouded from dehydration, but he had enough sense about him to process an answer. “His Momma threw a glass bowl at him. His step-father used to be a petia trishon in Dallas and sewed him back up.”

“She threw a glass bowl at him?” Duke suppressed a chuckle at Michael’s pronunciation of ‘pediatrician’.

When Jason had finished his shower and had started to grab a towel, Duke waited with Michael in his arms. “I need you to help wash your friend.”

“Okay.” Jason expressed his feeling of awkwardness.

“I am a grown man,” Duke explained. It would not be proper for me to be in the shower with him. Those bottles of water could not clean him up enough. He is still filthy and that could make him even sicker.” The man placed a stool in the shower for Michael to sit on. “Do not worry about the floor. I will put some towels down to soak up the water. I will watch from over by the bar just in case you need help.”

Jason never realized how much he cared for his best friend until that moment. He felt more concerned about the health of his best friend and turned the water back on. On some nights, in the hotter parts of summer, when they spent the night together, they had often stripped down to their boxer shorts. They had never been totally exposed to one another.

“Pull him against you and keep your arms around him to keep him from falling off,” Duke suggested. “There is still significant grime on his back.”

Michael knew what the other boy was thinking as he leaned into his chest willingly. He could hear the beating of the heart, pounding rapidly from trepidation. He wanted so desperately to reach up and hug Jason, to let him know that everything was going to be okay.

Jason scrubbed diligently and then leaned Michael back against the wall to wash his legs. Duke stood up and offered a large bath towel to wrap the sick boy in, then helped Jason to dress him in the pajamas. After that task was done, he carried the boy into the bedroom and laid him on the bed. Jason quickly put his pajamas on and followed them.

“Can I sleep in here with both of you?” Jason asked.

“It would not be proper for me to sleep in here, but you can.” Duke helped Jason get onto the bed next to Michael, and then tucked in both boys. “I would not dream of separating the two of you. You boys must have been through hell coming out here and need a bit of luck. You can tell me your story in the morning.” He stood up to leave the room. “Get some sleep. If you need some help with him, I will be sleeping on the couch.”

The lights went out and Duke left the room. Jason folded his arms behind his head and glanced up at the ceiling. Iron beams and concrete formed up its structure. There were four high-set windows along the back wall. They were the only openings other than the main door that he noticed. Michael stirred and tried to turn to him.

“Where are we, Jason?” Michael’s voice was a weak and distant whisper, as if coming through a thick fog.

“We are in some rich guy’s apartment.” Jason whispered through his own sleepy haze. “You should have seen his car! It has spinners!”

“I want to go home to Momma and Poppa.”

“Maybe Duke will let us call in the morning.” Jason turned into Michael.

“It is okay…” Michael sounded as if he was about to go back to sleep, but he had enough strength to give Jason a slight hug, “…you seeing me.”

“I thought it was going to be weird.”

Michael sighed deep before he could speak again. “I know you are not gay…” His voice trailed into the deep recesses of sleep.

Jason smiled to himself and returned the hug. He had been afraid of how Michael would react. As he fell asleep, he began to dream of a red canoe, Daddy, and now Michael on a camping trip in Oklahoma.

It was mid-afternoon when Jason awakened and sat up in the bed. A train sounded its whistle at some distant railroad crossing. Music that sounded like it belonged in a rich man’s house came from the other room. He glanced down at Michael and felt of his forehead. The other boy still had a fever. Randy, who had used to be a pediatrician in another part of Texas, would have given medicine to him already.

Jason crawled out of bed and wandered into the other room. Duke closed the computer he was working on at the bar and looked up at the boy. He smiled and stepped off the stool to approach some bags on the counter.

“Good afternoon. You look like you have slept well.”

“I did.”

Duke pulled a bottle out of the bag. “Your friend got sick again this morning, so I went to the pharmacy and got him some medicine. We need to give him a dose of this. It will help him feel better.”

“Thank you.” Jason took the bottle gladly.

“Take a spoon.”

Jason smiled and took the medicine to his friend. After the boy had managed enough to sip from the spoon, Jason returned to living area where Duke was sitting on the couch. He put the medicine on the counter and then approached the man, who offered him a seat beside him.

Deception

“So how long have you boys been on the road?”

Jason took a moment to count the days. “Nine or ten days, I guess.”

“I understand. That must have been some adventure for both of you riding the train.”

Jason shook his head with an exaggerated motion. “It was boring, and I slept most of it. Michael took care of me because of this.” He pointed to his face.

Duke reached up to pull Jason’s hair out of the way of the cut. “This must have hurt. You are lucky it was not infected. It looks like the bruising is starting to fade. Does it still bother you?”

“It still hurts a little, but the painful headache is gone.” Jason lifted the pajama top to show his chest. “This is what hurts the most now. I lost the bandage Randy wrapped it with. My mother slammed the door in to me here.”

Duke sat back with an expression of shock. “What type of mother does this to her child?”

“It was because I did something bad and deserved the punishment.” Jason lowered the fabric. “Do you suppose we can call Michael’s mother? He wants to go back home.”

“Sure.” Duke stood up to take the phone out of his pocket. “Oh crud! I left my cellphone at the office.”

“Where do you work?” Jason could not imagine what type of job a rich man had to work.

“I work in Hollywood.” Duke noticed the boy’s eyes light up. “I work way over on the other side of the city. Is that where you boys were going?”

“Yes, sir,” Jason replied. “I wanted to work for a television show. Michael was going to go home after he helped me get here.”

“I do not believe this!” Duke smiled with excitement. “I am a producer looking for child actors to star in my movies.”

Jason could not believe his luck had changed. “Really?”

“To think I almost passed you boys up!” Duke sat back down by Jason and looked him over. “How would you like to star in one of my movies?”

“Me? A star?” Jason grabbed onto Duke’s arm. “What do I have to do?”

Duke pushed back the hair on the side of Jason’s face. “Well, to start with, we will have to wait for this wound to finish healing. You have a photogenic face, but you will look much better without it.”

“Is it going to leave a scar?” Jason reached a worried hand up to touch the welts.

“If it does, it will endear you to your fans.” Duke put his arm around Jason’s shoulders. “You understand, I produce gritty, true to life dramas. I recognize in you exciting potential.”

Jason was mesmerized. “Can I stay here until I have my own place?”

“I am going to help you as best as I can.” Duke stood back up. “You are welcome to stay here for now. I am going back to my office to get my cellphone, so we can call Michael’s mother. It will take me a couple of hours.” He ruffled the boy’s hair, and then thought of something. “We need to make a screen test for you.”

“What is a screen test?” Jason was intrigued.

“It is kind of like a short movie that producers use to showcase the talents of actors they discover.”

“What do I need to do?” Jason stood up and walked toward a mirror above the sink. “My hair is all crazy.”

“You do not need to worry about how you look.” Duke stood up and walked to the bedroom door. “Like I said, I produce gritty real-life dramas. For the screening, I want to re-create the moment I first found you and Michael…when you were in the alley. He must be part of the screening, too.”

Jason stepped into the room and was pleased to discover that his best friend seemed to be feeling better. “Did you hear the good news, Michael? Duke is a producer and wants to put me in his movies!”

“I need you to take your pajama top off to start.” Duke opened a cabinet and pulled out a tripod and camera.

“Why do I have to take off my shirt?” Jason thought the request was odd, but he complied with the request.

“Sometimes you have to embellish a scene to make it work for Hollywood. I need you both to look like members of a gang.” Duke set up the camera and focused the lens on Michael’s prone form. “Get up on the bed with your little friend. The scene I want to create is two boys from rival gangs that were once best friends in grade school. There was a big fight between the gangs. We will pretend Michael has been stabbed and is dying in your arms.”

“Do you want me to get behind him and hold him like I held him in the alley to keep him warm?” Jason crawled around behind Michael to support him.

“You are a natural at this!” Duke gave Jason a ‘thumbs-up’.

“What do I need to say?”

“Do I need to do anything?” Michael tried to help sit his body up and lean into Jason.

Duke stepped back from the camera after turning it on. “We are going for the emotional expression of the moment. The others will want to observe your feelings at the moment. Michael, you are dying after having lost everything in your life. Look up at Jason and try to touch his face once last time. That is it. Now Jason, you are holding your long-lost friend and you know he is dying. You notice blood soaking his shirt, so you must remove it slowly and carefully. You do not want to cause him any more pain. Go ahead and pull his shirt all the way off because you are going to have to use it to stop the bleeding in a minute. Michael, I want you to breathe slow and deep as he pulls off your shirt. These are your last breaths of life. Try to hug your friend as those moments are ending. Jason, I want you to simply set the shirt aside for a moment and try to find the bullet wound. It is dark in the alley, so you must grope for it. Use both hands if you must. Excellent! You finally locate the wound just below his belly button. Michael, it is time for you to collapse and stop breathing. Jason, you have one hand to hold over the wound to stop his bleeding and the other you will have to catch his face from falling away from you. You can completely relax, Michael, because you have recently died in your best friend’s arms. Jason, turn his face to you and try to beg him to come back to life. When you realize he has died, bury your face into his neck and weep for him.” Duke moved back to the camera and turned it off. “That was pure gold. You are going to make loads of money.”

Now that he was moving around more, Michael could sit up while Jason extricated his body. “Jason is going to be in the movies?”

“I think both of you have potential.” Duke unmounted the camera, removed the SD card, and put everything back into the cabinet.

Michael thought he saw some other equipment in the closet. “Can I call my Momma?”

“Of course, you can.” Duke slipped the card in his pocket. “I have to go back to the office to get my cellphone. I will get some pizzas while I am out. Does that sound okay?

“I am getting hungry,” Jason admitted.

“The two of you can watch videos or cable while I am gone.” Duke gazed out through one of the windows. “Geez. Look at that. It is already late afternoon…and Friday on top of that. I will not be back until after dark. Will the two of you be okay here that long?”

“Yes, sir,” Jason felt proud of the day’s accomplishments.

Michael crawled out of bed and staggered behind the other two. “You promise to let me call Momma when you get back? I promised to help Jason get to Hollywood. Now, I can go home.”

“Of course. I will come back just as soon as I can.” Duke pulled the heavy iron door open. “I am going to lock this door behind me. There is a gang of kids running around this neighborhood and breaking into peoples’ homes.”

“Thank you for helping me.” Jason followed Duke up to the door. “Can we have soda with the pizza?”

“I do not drink it, but I will bring you some.”

Duke stepped out into the passageway and shut the door behind him. As the bars and locks slid closed with solid clicks, somewhere, in the back of his mind, Michael began to sense the danger, but he sounded too meek to voice it. It seemed fine when they first met the man, but the sense of foreboding grew steady on him. It first started with the strangeness of the immediate surroundings. What unnerved him the most, was the way Duke seemed to know about everything Jason wanted, who took it all in…hook, line, and sinker.

Sub-plot

Michael walked over to the door and tried to open it, but there was no way to get to the outside locks. "I do not trust that man."

"Aw, come on Michael!" Jason strolled around and admired the loft apartment. “This is my chance to be in the movies and have a better life!"

"You want a better life?” Michael took Jason by the hand a led him to the couch. “Do you remember about what I told you my Sunday school teacher told me about Jesus?”

“How could Jesus love me?” Jason shook his head. “I am stupid, and I keep getting into trouble. I make Mother mad all the time.” He looked away to the blank television screen. “Randy makes me feel dirty when he does those things to me.”

“That is Randy and your mother. That is not you.” Michael reached up and turned Jason’s face back to his. He smiled to express his genuine feelings. “You are not an ugly, stupid, dirty person. I have seen the real you the last couple of days. God loves you, Jason, for who you are right here,” he tapped the boy in the center of his chest, “…not for what other people have done to you. Finding Jesus is the only way to a better life."

"Can we give it one more night? I am so sleepy I can hardly move, and I am so hungry that I can eat two horses." Jason wiped the tears from his eyes.

Michael sighed in frustration. He looked at the bruises around Jason chest. "Does it still hurt?"

"It hurts just a little." Jason winced as he stretched.

"Okay. We stay here tonight." Michael conceded with reluctance. "But I want to leave in the morning. I am going to find a way to get outside. I am going to see if I can find a telephone out on the street. I might get out of one of those windows in the room."

“Do you not feel sick, still?” Jason stood up and grabbed one of the barstools.

“I do,” Michael admitted, “but I want to call Momma to come get me.”

“Let me go out and call her, then.” Jason carried the barstool into the bedroom.

“Those windows are too high and narrow,” Michael pointed out. “You would end up breaking any healing that might have occurred with your ribs.

Jason leaned the barstool against the wall and held it steady.

“Let me get my regular clothes and shoes on, first.” Michael scanned around the room. “Do you know where he might have put them?”

“Maybe they are in the dryer, still.”

Both boys went into the living room and opened the utility closet. They did not find their clothes in the dryer or the washer. Jason began to look around the living room and in the kitchen area. Michael searched the cabinets near the shower. They both went back into the bedroom and began to search through the closets and cabinets, and even looked under the bed.

“Maybe he took them to the laundromat,” Jason suggested. “They were nasty.”

“What about our shoes?” Michael thought of the dangers of going outside on unknown surfaces.

“I guess he took them to wash them, too.” Jason glanced toward the last closet. “Maybe his son has some shoes in the bottom of the closet.”

“That is where he kept the camera.” Michael went over and opened it.

“That is weird.” Jason stared at the different machines with the wires and cables running into them. “There is nothing in here.” He stepped back with a frown. “Duke told me last night that his son had left some clothes here. These pajamas belonged to him.”

“Help me get out of the window.” Michael pulled Jason away from the closet. “I have to go to a telephone before it gets too dark for me to see.”

“You do not have your glasses!”

“I will manage. You cannot break your ribs again.”

“Why are you so scared?” Jason went back and steadied the barstool. “Please be careful!”

“I will come back. I promise.” Michael stepped up on the barstool.

The boy pushed out against the window. It was stiff with rust and yielded little against his strain. There was not much room in the opening, but it was enough for him to squeeze through. He was right in guessing that Jason would have further injured himself getting out. Michael observed the fire escape and quickly scrambled down, hoping that he had enough time to find a telephone booth and deliver his call home.

Reveal

Jason climbed up on the barstool, which shook precariously under his unsteady legs. He watched after Michael until he disappeared. He tried to turn around to climb back down, but the barstool went in one direction, and he went in the other, landing solidly on his back on the floor. Pain ripped through his torso and took away his breath.

Jason lay there crying for several minutes. He stared up at the ceiling for the longest time, watching a moth fly around one of the canned lights. His interest turned to the light itself and that is when he noticed it aimed toward the bed. Further study of the ceiling led to the cameras, four of them, that focused on the bed from different angles. Cables connected the cameras to the closet.

Jason forced his body to roll over, and he pushed himself into a standing position. He approached the closet with caution. He pulled the door open wider and stared at the machines. They each had a label. Four belonged to the bedroom cameras. Two machines stated ‘sofa’. The last two showed a ‘shower’ label. Inexperienced in life and unable to comprehend the truth, Jason smiled as he pushed the door closed, and then sat on the bed to wait on Michael’s return.

Panic

After searching for over an hour in every direction, Michael found a payphone about a block away from the warehouse, He realized, dressed only in pajama bottoms that had no pockets, that he did not have any change for the call. He picked up the receiver and dialed ‘zero’ to place a collect call. He was relieved when his mother answered the phone. He watched for cars as he desperately tried to tell her that he thought he and Jason were in danger.

Michael nearly cried in terror. "Momma I'm scared. I want to come home, but I cannot run away. Jason broke his ribs. He cannot climb out of the window. Duke will be coming back soon. I believe he will hurt Jason. I must get back to help my friend. Please send the police.” He paused as he listened to his mother’s pleading.” Okay, I will talk to Poppa..." As he listened carefully to his father, he checked up the street, hoping to hear the sirens of help approach. "Okay."

Michael set the phone down and left the phone booth. Despite the pain from the blisters on the soles of his feet, he hurried back to the warehouse. He started climbing back up the fire escape. When he climbed it up to the third floor, he saw a car turn around the corner of the street and approach. The bright headlights splashed over him. He knew that Duke spotted him. He tried to climb quicker. The opening he had made in the window seemed to be much smaller now as he tried to squirm back into the building.

Action!

The second shower was both refreshing and relaxing. Jason began to worry when it had taken so long for Michael to come back and occupied his mind with getting ready to start is new life. A child star needed to be clean, by the way. A clean flannel robe waited for him when he stepped out of the shower. He put it on and went around the room examining the cameras again until Michael returned. He still could not grasp the luck that he had stumbled upon someone to help him achieve his dreams.

“Jason!” Michael screamed. “Duke might come back any moment!”

Jason raced back into the bedroom. “I am sorry.” He picked up the barstool and held it against the wall. “You are wrong about Duke. He does make movies. There are cameras in the ceiling.”

Michael scraped his belly as he fought his way in. “We have to leave. I reckoned he spotted me. Get your clothes on! We have to get out of here!" He could barely speak as he pulled the window shut. "This man is bad news. Poppa says he might try to hurt us. The police are coming to take us home."

"No!" Jason spoke in terror. "I cannot go back to them! I just cannot!"

"You could stay with us." Michael pleaded as he picked up the barstool.

"No." Jason stood up and walked into the living room as Michael followed. "This man is going to be nice to me. I know it. Look at this place. How can something evil come out of this? You go back home. I am better off here. I will be the star of his movies."

Just as Michael was about to argue his point, the rattle of keys sounded just outside of the door. He set the barstool down in its place and stepped away from it in a hurry. The locks released one by one and then the door opened. Duke walked in bearing three large pizzas and two sodas. He went over to the bar and set them down next to Jason. Michael contemplated grabbing his best friend’s hand and bolting for freedom. As if sensing the sudden fear in Michael, Duke quickly returned to the steel door and locked it shut.

"I am surprised you are up and about, Michael." Duke pulled three plates from a cabinet in the kitchen. “Are you feeling better?”

Michael glanced at Jason, hoping that he did not raise suspicions. "I..."

"That medicine you gave him helped," Jason interjected in time.

"Oh." Duke said cheerfully. "Well, you can relish some pizza and soda now."

Jason felt conflicted as they sat down to eat. He wanted to believe that he could trust the man. He valued Michael’s opinion, too. The man watched both carefully. He sensed the sick one was wary of him. The scarred boy was a bit different, but it did not matter. He reached over, ruffled Jason’s hair, and received a smile in return.

Duke turned to Michael with a stern gaze. “Jason has already had his shower. I need you to take yours now.”

Michael glanced quickly at Jason and then back to the man. “I am okay.”

“You smell like a sweaty boy of the streets.” Duke stood up over the boy. “Take your shower, now.”

“Where are our clothes?” Michael stood up and moved out of striking distance.

“I had to throw them out. They were filthy, like the dirty little street scum that you are.” Duke gestured to the shower. “I have a robe for you by the shower.”

Jason detected the threat underlying the man’s voice. “Go take a shower, Michael. Do not ruin this for me.” He could not understand the sudden change in Duke’s attitude.

“Jason and I will be in the next room discussing his movie contract.” Duke took Jason by the shoulders and guided him toward the bedroom.

Michael was glad they left and took the shower quickly. Being naked in the man's sight gave him a strange feeling. When he finished, he re-dressed himself in the pajamas and then put the robe on for extra privacy. It bothered him to be without underclothes. The pajamas seemed inadequate. He stepped over to the sectional and sat down. About fifteen minutes passed before the door opened from the bedroom.

Suddenly, Michael's heart failed him when he saw Jason exit ahead of the man. His best friend could not even look up and his eyes were red from crying. His robe hung opened and his hair looked all messed up. The joyous sparkle in his eyes was gone, replaced by despair. A single tear rolled down his cheek. He swiped at it and chanced to look up at Michael, but quickly averted his eyes.

Duke followed out behind him, zipping up his pants. "Why are you wearing those nasty pajamas?"

Michael watched Jason as he crossed the room to the bar. Something vital had changed in his best friend. It reached deep into the core of his soul. His eyes had gone distant, looking far into a past riddled with humiliation and disgrace. There was blame for his own downfall, a sort of willing consent to a guilt not his own cause. Michael could see the longing for all the torment to end. He felt a need to cry for his friend, but he suppressed the tears, afraid to show any weakness in front of Duke.

"Come, I want to show you my room, Michael." Duke ran his hand through Jason's hair. “Maybe you can be in movies, too.”

"No." Jason pushed the hand away, and then said in a shaky voice. "Not him. It has never happened to him before. You can do me again if you want. Just do not touch him."

"But you both have to work for this pizza. Not just one of you." Duke grabbed a handful of Jason's hair and pulled back sharply, causing a screech of pain from the boy. “It would not be fair to you. Besides, the new ones are more fun.”

"Let him go, you big bully!" Michael grabbed Duke’s arm in a vain effort to free Jason. His eyes flared with anger. "We did not want your crummy old pizza!"

"But Jason liked it. He has done it before." Duke still had Jason's hair pulled tight. He winked at Michael as he took a sip of wine from his glass. "Do not worry. It only hurts the first couple of times... You will get used to it after a while."

"No!" Jason cried. "Do not do it to him. He is the best friend I have ever had." He struggled to keep from having his hair pulled out. "You can do me all you want. Just please let him go."

Michael was so angry at the treatment of Jason that he walked right up and kicked Duke in the knee as hard as he could. "Leave him alone!"

"Well now! You are the young fighter!" Duke slammed Jason's forehead into the bar, knocking the boy senseless. "I love a fighter. Some of my clients love fighters, too. They will pay a decent price for you." He grabbed Michael up and carried him kicking and screaming violently into the bedroom. "Yes sir! The bigger the fight that you put up, the better it will be. I will break you. I always do. Then maybe you and your little friend can perform a couple of movies together."

Revenge

Duke shut the door behind him. It took a while for Jason to get back to his senses. He could hear Michael screaming from the adjacent room. The boy was sure putting up one hell of a fight. Nonetheless, he would not last long against Duke. The man was bigger, meaner, and much stronger. Jason knew that. Adults always seemed to outlast the kids. He had to stop it before Michael became another victim of the sick man.

Jason stood up to his feet, wavering just a minute. His head hurt from striking against the bar. He used the bar to support his unsteady legs. He looked around the kitchen for something that could kill Duke. There were so many cabinets and drawers. He did not have time to hunt through them all. Something in his mind told him to look in the door on the right side of the sink. It was there that he found the giant knife.

Jason stared at his disfigured reflection on the blade for a minute, knowing that he planned to commit murder. It was just cause for what they endured. He grabbed the knife in turn to go to the bedroom. With his free arm, he opened the bedroom door. As he went in, he let the robe slipped off his shoulders. He turned his hand aside so that he could easily hide the knife out of sight, keeping his arm close to his side.

Michael lay on the bed face down. From the blood on the pillow and sheets, Jason could tell Duke had beaten the boy severely. The boy whimpered with no strength left for him to resist. The man positioned himself and glanced back over his shoulder to Jason with a wink.

"Come to join us?" Duke smiled a wicked grin. He could not see the knife.

Michael looked at Jason with wide, terrified eyes, hot tears streaming down his cheeks. "Do not let him..."

"Ssshhh." Jason spoke in a calming tone. "It is better if you do not fight him. It will all be over sooner if you do not fight him."

Michael finally broke down and cried aloud, viewing the situation as hopeless. He did not want this. He could see no way out. The man was too heavy as he struggled beneath him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jason, his best friend, climbing up on the bed to join in. He felt betrayed. He did not want to be beat again. It hurt too much.

Maybe Jason was right. Maybe it was better to give in. Would God forgive him? Would his parents be able?

Jason, still crying, seemed different. He exhibited an emotion Michael had never witnessed from his friend before. Rage filled Jason's eyes full of fury.

What is that in his hand? Oh. my God! It is a knife! He is going to kill Duke! But that is murder! Do not kill him!

"No Jason! No!" Michael cried out, but it was too late of course.

Before Duke could attempt to hold Jason back, the boy had climbed up on the bed behind him. The knife thrust deep into the man's back. It penetrated a vital airway with a crippling stab. In a reflexive manner, Duke attempted to knock the boy away from him. He fell off the bed instead, twisting Michael's leg under his arm with most of his weight. The boy cried out in pain as the bone splintered up out of his calf muscle.

Jason pulled the knife out and still had it in his hand when Duke threw him aside. Immediately, he ran to the man, who already struggled to breathe, and kicked him. Duke grabbed his crotch as pain exploded into his gut. He uttered several expletives at the boy with the gall to attack him. Jason did not stop there and kicked the man in the head and then in the ribs. Then he sat down on top of the man.

"That was what you get for beating up my friend!" He pushed the knife slowly into the man's neck and then pulled it back out. The fiery blood that jetted from the severed artery coated him in thick red paint that burned away the last fragments of his childhood. "…and that was for me."

Jason stood up and backed away from the man, the shock of what he had just done hitting him a few seconds later. He dropped to his knees, casting the knife as far from him as he could. He began wailing and did not stop until long after the man had coughed and sputtered for his last breath of life. It was then that he looked up at Michael.

Escape

It was a miracle that the compound fracture avoided severing any arteries. Nevertheless, Michael was far from safe. He started going into shock and Jason knew little about what to do for him. All he knew was that he had to get his best friend to a hospital quick. He picked the boy who faded in and out and carried him to the steel door. He went back into the room for Duke’s keys, nut he dared not look at the man’s body.

The sooner they were out of the apartment, the better. The stairs were nearly impossible to manage. Jason quickly grew tired and had to let Michael lean against him. He let his best friend set the pace. He kept talking to the other boy to keep him alert. It took them nearly thirty minutes to get down the four flights of stairs. By then Michael was too exhausted to go on.

Jason carried Michael the rest of the way out of the building and up to a streetlamp. After he set the boy down, he looked around for somebody to come and help them. The streets stood empty in that dark part of the city. All he could hear was a train whistle somewhere in the distance. Even further than that, he heard police cars. It seemed to be many them. There must have been a fire, a robbery, or something else going on downtown. There were too many sirens to be something trivial.

"Jason..." Michael coughed, "I am cold."

They had left their clothes up in the warehouse. The boy looked up at the lone window with the light on. He could not go back up there…not where all the carnage that he had created was. Why did he have to kill the man? They could have both run away in the morning. He glanced around at an old moth-eaten blanket stuffed into a rusting garbage can. He fished it out and wrapped Michael in it.

Jason suddenly realized they might both make it. "That should keep you warm. The police and the train appears to be getting closer."

"My leg... It hurts."

"Do not talk. Save your strength." Jason looked over at the pay phone down the street. The receiver was hanging down as though someone had just left it and ran off. "I am going to try and call the police. They will get you an ambulance."

"It is... Okay." Michael rubbed his eyes to try to get out the blurry vision that would not go away. “When I called home...an FBI man was there... He said it would take a while... He wanted me...to leave the phone...off the hook, so they could...trace the call... I hear them coming."

Jason felt a momentary relief. "I wish I were a clever as you. I guess I never would have had the problems I had. I never would have gotten us into this mess. I am sorry to let all this happen to you, Michael."

Jason drew in a deep breath as he decided what to do next. The train was getting much closer. He gazed back at Michael, who had just slipped into a numbing sleep. It was time to let go.

"I cannot go back to that town. I am going to find God. I am going to get a better life." Jason gave Michael a gentle kissed on the cheek. "I love you like a brother, Michael Hansen. You have always been my one faithful friend. Goodbye."

Jason stood up and watched the red and blue flashing lights reflected on the buildings down the street. The train approached closer. He regarded Michael one last time, then, with a determined mind, he turned to the steel and gravel tracks and began moving. He could feel the steady rumble of the train through the ground beneath him as it made its way through the warehouse district. Nothing could stop him from his task.

One police car arrived, and the officer exited to take a brief assessment of the situation. His first reaction was to Michael, and he tragically focused his attentions on that boy first. He did not notice Jason until it was too late to stop him. The boy stepped out onto the tracks just as a locomotive rounded a blind curve not more than thirty yards from him.

The engineer saw the boy covered with blood step out onto the tracks. Immediately he pulled back on the emergency brake, even though he knew it was too late. Sparks shot out from under the steel wheels as they ground against the rails. The boy did not even try to move out of the way and seemed entranced by the approaching harbinger of death. There was a police officer running toward the boy to save him, but no hope existed for a miracle. Tears welled in the engineer’s eyes as he witnessed the child’s fate.

Jason stared up into the bright headlights, ready for his pain to end. The center of the headlight grew brighter until it consumed everything around him. The terror he experienced from the terrible vibrations on the tracks could not sway him from his resolve. He heard the police shout at him in the last instant. He sensed the initial impact as the cattle prow cut his legs from under him. The crushing explosion of pain in his upper body as he slammed against the scorching steel lasted only a few seconds.

Then the boy floated to some other destination, where a bright, sunny meadow waited with a broad, clear pond. In the center of the pond was a red canoe. The man paddled the canoe to where Jason stood waiting. When the man drew close, Jason cried with joy when he recognized Daddy! The boy jumped into canoe and hugged the man with all his might. Together they paddled out to the other side, at last helping the boy find peace and a better life.

THE END

You might also like Pull the Trigger

  • Pull the Trigger by E C Dollgener
    After enduring the brutal initiation into the gang, Joel is faced with an even more terrible choice to make with a young life at stake. He seeks the approval of his estranged brother, but at what moral cost will he sacrifice?