Sleep Rough

09/19/23

Leo woke, instantly alert. Distant car sounds. Closer, the wide, dirty river. The sounds that didn’t belong came again: soft, shuffling steps.

He stared into darkness, cardboard walls close around him. Instinct screamed keep still, keep quiet. He reached for Lucy to see if she was awake. Instead of warm body, there was only cold cardboard. Lucy was gone.

Damp breezes rustled the refrigerator box’s flaps, sending shivers through Leo. If he was this cold, Lucy must have been gone a while.

Fighting fear, Leo poked his head into the moonlit alley, calling softly, “Lucy?”

Nothing. No response. No danger. But no Lucy. She rarely went far on her own, even when nature called, but she did like watching starlight dance across the river. Stargazing was one of the few pleasures they had left.

“Enjoy it, sweetheart,” Leo muttered, pulling layered clothing tighter against the cold. He was almost asleep when something caved in the side of the box. “Get out’a there!” someone squealed around high-pitched laughter.

“What the hell?” He scrambled from the box, fear surging again.

“Stay put,” a second, calmer voice said. Leo’s head turned as a light flared, leaving blue-green spots dancing across his sight.

Half-blind, heart thumping, his head swiveled between the two of them. For an instant, anger replaced fear.

They were kids—fifteen or sixteen, one tall, gangly, the other shorter and almost fat. The taller boy carried a baseball bat. The other held a cellphone in his left hand, its recording light glowing. His right mechanically flicked a lighter’s striker-wheel.

“What do you want?” Leo asked, failing to keep the stammer from his voice.

The skinny one laughed viciously, and turned towards the cellphone. “Hear that, viewers? Hobo-boy talks like a real person!” In a sing-song voice, he shrieked, “What do you want?”

Viewers? Leo thought. They’re streaming?

Leo had heard of homeless folks beaten, their possessions destroyed, even burned alive. Fresh fear stiffened aching limbs.

Shifting the phone to Leo, the stocky one said, “Listen up: the viewers voted and my boy Stark here’s idea of bringing back ‘Bum Fights’ won.”

“Please don’t do this,” Leo said. Even panhandling, he never begged. “I never did anything to you.”

“Shut up. You got something on the line here, you know. Don’t disappoint us, and we’ll let your girlfriend go.”

“Girlfriend? You mean Lucy?”

Stark pushed his face in front of the cellphone. “He’s so fucking scared he forgot her! Minute ago he was all ‘Lucy! Luuuuu-ceeee!’”

“Our friend has your girl. Play nice, we let her go. You don’t…” He shrugged elaborately.

Leo’s heart skipped as a light went on inside his head.

“You in or do we work on Lucy?”

Leo climbed to his feet. “Just lemme talk to her a second. Okay?”

Stark raised the bat, but the other boy waved a hand and said, “Do it from here.”

“Thanks.” Leo took a deep breath, cupped hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Lucy! I love you, and remember to stay on guard! Hear me? Guard!”

“Enough shit!” Stark cried, lashing out. The bat cracked against the wall, making Leo wince. Laughing uproariously, Stark raised his weapon again. A deep-throated howl split the night.

Both boys froze. Feet pounded, coming rapidly closer. The cameraman, closest to the street, turned as a hundred pounds of brindle-coated Italian mastiff leapt through the gloom, thrashing and snarling, knocking him to the ground. He screamed, the sound even higher-pitched than Stark’s laughter.

“You tipped your hand,” Leo said quietly, “trying to bring Lucy into it.”

Terrified, Stark dropped the bat like it was blazing hot. Sobbing wordlessly, he ran past his bleeding, writhing friend. The show was over. Stark didn’t want to play anymore.

A sharp whistle brought Lucy to heel. She trotted to Leo, who ruffled her ears and kissed the top of her head, carefully avoiding the blood. He picked up the fallen phone, dialed 911, and dropped it next to the wounded, half-conscious boy.

“Let’s go get you cleaned up, girl,” Leo told the dog as he gathered their belongings. They left the alley without a backward glance. No matter what else they lost over the years, they always had each other.

~ fin ~

brandon-barrows

Brandon Barrows is the author of several crime and mystery novels, mostly recently THE LAST REQUEST from Bloodhound Books. He is a three-time Mustang Award finalist and a Derringer Award nominee. 

Find more at www.brandonbarrowscomics.com and on Twitter @BrandonBarrows