Seven Years Ago
Keep your head down.
The black hood draped over my tousled hair hides a majority of my face from the pelting rain. No matter how quiet I try to walk, the soles of my beat-up Converse slap against the wet pavement like a herd of sumo wrestlers running by.
Don’t let them see you.
The midnight sky is void of any stars, blanketed by unfriendly grey clouds that only block the moon from giving any light. Most of the streetlights are out, and the few remaining are too dim to give off any decent light.
My shitty night only becomes worse when the cold fall air nips against the wet skin caused from the downpour cascading around me, soaking my clothes and reminding me that I can’t even afford a fucking umbrella.
Everybody warns people away from this part of town after the sunset, but I had no choice. I missed the bus, and had to walk to Clinton from the city. My cell ran out of minutes days ago, I have no money to use a payphone, and I knew my parents were both working one of their two jobs, so they wouldn’t be able to come get me.
When I turn the corner, I hear distant footsteps behind me. My body going rigid as they near, I pick up the pace with a heavy weight building in my gut. Fear.
My socks are soaking wet from the holes in my shoes, my sweatshirt and Teag under it are clinging to my body, and the strong wind is making it hard to walk in a straight line, much less see through the storm.
The steps behind me start getting faster, like they’re coming for me. I hear plenty about the people who live around here, and I have no interest in getting to know them. But without knowing where to go or hide, it becomes inevitable that I’ll meet whoever occupies the rundown buildings lining the abandoned street.
My arm is yanked from behind, causing me to jerk backward. I turn to see two guys a little older than me grinning like they won the lottery. They’re both dressed in dark colors—black ripped jeans, black T-shirts, and leather jackets—and tattoos jut out and wrap around their necks.
“Look what we got here, boys,” the blond one says, circling me. My eyes follow him, fists clenched at my sides.
The dark-haired one steps closer. “What are you doing in our territory?”
Jaw ticking, I stay quiet, not giving them the satisfaction of knowing about the terror building behind my secluded eyes.
Never show your fear.
The same guy shoves my shoulder, causing me to stumble backward. “You deaf or just fucking stupid, kid? When we ask you a question, you answer.”
I let out a short breath, eyes darting at the sight of two more men stalking out of the shadows of the alley across the street. They’re drawn to my helplessness like a shark to blood.
“I don’t have anything you’re interested in,” I finally tell them, voice hard.
They laugh. “Why don’t you give us your wallet and let us be the judge of that.”
I know damn well they’ll be disappointed with the pennies and milk card I have stashed away in the wallet that’s only held together by duct tape.
“I have nothing to give you,” I reiterate, stepping forward. “I’m just going home.”
“Home,” a new guy repeats, coming at me. His eyes travel down me, taking in my attire like I’m sporting Calvin Klein rather than thrift shop hand-me-downs. “You live on the other side of town, right? Definitely not from around here.”
The blond asshole grabs my arm, his tight grip making me cringe. “Give us your wallet, kid.”
I look around me, knowing there’s no way I’m getting out of this easily. The four guys surrounding me are twice my size, and have way more fighting experience than I do.
Begrudgingly, I hand it to the blond.
Tearing it open, an angry expression immediately crosses his greasy face. His glazed eyes snap to mine, throwing my wallet into a mud puddle at his feet.
“This a fucking joke?”
I try yanking my arm from his grip to no avail. “Just because I’m from the other side of town doesn’t mean I’m rich, fucktard.”
Before I know what’s happening, I’m on the ground, pain shooting up my back from landing over the broken curb. I groan, struggling to sit up, but a boot lands heavily on my chest, keeping me down.
“That any way to talk to us?”
They all strut forward, and I know what’s coming next isn’t going to be pretty based on the hard expressions on their faces.
Never talk back.
Maybe if I actually listened to my father’s rules, I wouldn’t be like this. Or maybe these guys wouldn’t give a shit if I gave them my money willingly and I’d still end up powerless.
The first kick comes from the dark-haired one, his work boot connecting with the side of my ribcage. I cry out, hands shooting to the area of impact. I scream out a curse as another shoe lands on the other side of my ribs, and I ball up on instinct hoping the blows won’t be so bad.
Never back down from defending yourself.
Dad must have known that listening to the other four rules wouldn’t be so easy for me, so he came up with the fifth. Forcing myself to fight back, I sit up right before a third guy takes his turn. With pain shooting through my body, I shakily get on my feet, fists clenched in front of my face.
They laugh again, bellowing at my crumpled stance. “Tough guy,” one of them muses.
“They never win,” another adds.
Not knowing what else to do, my fist flies forward with all the energy I have, connecting with one their jaws. He stumbles back from the jab, but I can’t imagine it hurts as much as my hand does from the punch.
Another strenuous line of curse words escapes my mouth as I cradle my swollen hand.
Trying to run, I make it as far as a few feet before I’m back on the ground with shoes and fists flying toward me at once. Every crack, pop, and strike from the contact makes me cough and groan. A bitter, metallic taste fills my mouth as one of them kicks my face, stinging pain over my cheekbone and lips radiating through me. My eyes water, body goes weak, and limbs become numb.
I tried, Dad.
I let out strangled breaths as I look up at them through swollen lids. “You’re going to regret this someday,” I rasp when the strikes become less frequent.
Amusement carves into their faces, mixed with disbelief over my bold statement.
“Somehow, I doubt that, kid.”
“I’m going to make something of myself,” I say aloud, a cemented promise not to them but to myself and whoever would listen.
To the universe.
Never again will I be powerless, poor, and unprotected. I’m going to be bigger than anybody in this town knew, making sure everybody saw the steel skin that would make me untouchable.
Right before the final blow, the leader chuckles, eyes scoping out my defeated body as it rests in angles it shouldn’t on the grubby ground. “Yeah. And I’ll be the fucking president.”