by Krista Walsh
Please note: Some strong language is used
Alexis kicked an empty soup can along the street. Her hands were shoved deep in the pockets of her grey jacket, hood pulled up against the rain. The jacket had once been green, faded over years of too much use. It had been hers since she was ten, and even then it hadn’t been new – a hand-me-down from her big brother Jake. Back then, the sleeves had fallen well past her fingertips; at least now she could say it almost fit.
“C’mon, Jake, will you just tell me where we’re going?”
“Shut up, loser, we’re not going anywhere,” he replied over his shoulder. A friendly wink took the sting out of his words and he fell back to throw an arm around her. “Why? Have somewhere you gotta be? Saying you don’t just want to spend the day with me?”
“I spend every day with you, loser,” Alexis replied in the same vein, letting a rare smile shine through the grime on her face. “S’why I know you’re planning something. We never go this way.”
They couldn’t afford anything this way. The commercial area of the city had become more of a wasteland than anything else over the last few years. Dilapidated signage, broken windows, glass-strewn streets – that’s pretty much all you’d find around here now.
Jake bumped against her and jerked his head towards one of the three shops still open along the street – a second hand clothing store, a second hand furniture store…and the grocer.
Alexis’s stomach grumbled at the sight of it. How long had it been since she’d eaten? Last night? No, yesterday morning. A sandwich of stale bread and slightly off lunch meat. It hadn’t done much to satisfy her then and now she felt it even more.
He leaned in close to her ear, his breath warm on her cheek. “What do you say, little sister? Feel like something more than wormy apples for dinner tonight?”
His meaning sunk in and her brow furrowed. They’d done it before: she’d go in and chat up the chubby grocer behind the counter while Jake went through and picked up the small items they needed. That was before, though, when there were still enough grocery shops that they could make the tour, never hitting the same place twice in a week. With only one left around here…and they’d just come last week…
“I dunno, Jake. This guy doesn’t seem as stupid as the others,” Alexis hesitated.
“You going to make me go in on my own?” he pushed, the teasing in his tone only slightly louder than the guilt-trip he was trying to pull. “You know I’m useless by myself.”
Her stomach grumbled again, conscience and hunger warring inside of her. As usual, her stomach won.
“Fine, but go for the boxed stuff, all right? He’s less likely to care about that then the fresh food.”
“Deal,” Jake grinned and took pulled her ahead.
The streets were crowded with people rushing to get out of the rain. Not that many of them had anywhere to go. Doorways were crowded with people who called the streets their home, and those with actual homes to go to hurried into shops to stare longingly at the food they could barely afford.
Alexis and Jake pushed through them all, Alexis feeling like a salmon swimming against the tide. In this city, she always felt she was going the wrong way in a crowd, pushing against instead of going with the flow of the world.
Outside the door, Jake zipped his jacket over his ragged t-shirt to appear more like he belonged in the store and Alexis mimicked him, running her fingers through her shoulder-length blonde waves and pulling it back into a ponytail. For a moment she was grateful for the rain; it washed some of the scum from her cheeks and made her hair look less like a grease-pool. How long had it been since she’d showered?
The door pushed open with a cheerful jingle, a complete contradiction to the glower of the shopkeeper behind the counter. Alexis put on her brightest smile and approached him. Jake followed behind her.
“Good morning,” she greeted.
The man – Chuck, his nametag read – grunted and responded to her smile with a sullen nod, eyes narrowed. Every time he was like this and it made Alexis’s stomach tighten. We won’t make it, not this time. He knows what we’re doing. But so far they had been lucky. She had to believe their luck would hold one more time.
“Crazy weather we’re having, huh?” she started, making sure to stand right in Chuck’s line of sight. “You’d think it was August or something with all this rain, not February. Where’s the snow?”
It was mindless babble, but weather was a good place to start. Usually. Today, Chuck just grunted. “Either way all it does is drive people into my store who can’t pay for anything,” he spat, eyes fixed on the mirror in the corner, angled to see the whole shop. Alexis was familiar enough with the place to know there was a blind spot near the granola bars in the back, right where Jake was headed. She knew when he disappeared from view because Chuck’s gaze moved back to her and she breathed a small sigh of relief. Now time to focus his interest.
“Have anything new come in this week? And, you know, cheap?”
He snorted. “Cheap? No. Got some apples come in, forty bucks a pound.”
Alexis let out a loud breath. That was double what she remembered her parents paying as a kid. “That’s a bit out of my price range. What about tomatoes?” They were local and sometimes she was lucky.
The bell at the door chimed again as someone else came in and Chuck’s eyes jumped to the door. Out of habit Alexis turned to glance over her shoulder and her heart raced to see two uniformed officers – one tall and skinny, the other short and fat, just like a bad nursery rhyme – strutting in towards the fresh fruit section. One of them hitched up his belt, weapon obvious in the holster at his hip. She worked to keep her face free of the terror inside of her, not wanting to show Chuck that the cops made her nervous.
“Not for a month,” the shopkeeper answered, returning his focus back to the tomatoes.
By now Jake should have grabbed whatever he was going for and another level of tension eased in Alexis’s chest.
She gave a disappointed shrug. “I guess that’s it for me this week then. You think you could keep some tomatoes aside for me next time they come in? I think I could pay for one.”
But Chuck was not one for sympathetic pleas. He crossed his arms over his chest. “You come in when there’s food, you can pay, you get it. I’m not saving anything for maybes.”
Alexis opened her mouth, whether to thank him or curse him she couldn’t be sure, but Chuck cut her off with a loud yell.
“You! Stop! Thief!” He pointed over Alexis’s shoulder and she whipped around to see Jake drop the fruit in his hands and run towards the door.
“Alexis, run!” he shouted at her, but her feet were glued to the ground. “Run!” he repeated, and this time his urgency moved her to action. He reached the door before she did and the first gunshot fired, the second a moment later. The jingle of the bell was lost in the ringing of Alexis’s ears. She screamed as Jake crumpled to a heap in the doorway, bits of brain and hair sticking to the glass of the door, a second pool of blood spread out beneath the second hole in his chest.
Her brother’s blank eyes stared ahead, met hers and as if from his ghost as he left the world, she heard him again in her head. Run.
So she did. She jumped over Jake’s body, shoved through the half-open door, blood from the glass smeared across her palms, and began to run. But just like before the crowds were moving against her, pushing her backwards into the waiting hands of the cops, who grabbed her wrists and wrestled her arms behind her back, snapping the cuffs on so tightly in pinched.
“Only thing worse than a good kid turned thief is a pretty one like you,” one of the men hissed in her ear – the fat one, Alexis guessed by the smell of bacon on his breath. His words suggested sympathy, but the way his nose brushed against her hair as he inhaled her scent made Alexis gag.
Her eyes scanned the crowds for someone who would help her, but it was like she wasn’t there. Everyone’s eyes focused blankly ahead, or on the ground. No one wanted to notice one more injustice they couldn’t fix. Their emptiness filled Alexis with bitter fury and she lashed out, struggling to get away from the strong grip on her arms. Jake was dead – these bastards had killed him, and now they put their hands on her?
She kicked and pulled, struggled and screamed, but the tall one only laughed at her efforts and landed a blow across her cheek so hard she saw stars.
“That’s enough of that,” he said, perfectly shaped nail poking in her face. “You come along quietly or you end up like your friend over there. Those are your options. I’ll give you five seconds to consider them.”
Alexis wanted to spit in his eye. She wanted to reach her knee high enough to get the pig right in the jewels…but she was starving. Her anger grew, but her rebellion died and she glared murder at his boots.
Tears stung her eyes and she bit down on her tongue so hard she tasted blood. Jake was dead. It meant she was alone, but it also meant he didn’t have to live in this festering shithole of a city anymore. She would be happy for him for that. Even if she had to bite most of her tongue off to stop the tears from falling.
“Good girl,” the tall one approved, and squeezed her skinny arm tight enough to leave bruises. Alexis dragged her feet between them as they pulled her along the street.
“Get out of my way!” a shout reached them from ahead.
“How about you look where you’re going, asshole. Move!” came the angry reply.
The street congested with a growing cluster of oglers as the fight started and the cops exchanged a glance over Alexis’s head. The fat one let go of her to push through the crowd.
“All right, all right, let’s break this up, huh?” he called, grabbing one man by his collar to pull him out of the way.
The curses and shouting between the two people grappling on the road got louder as the fat cop reached them and grabbed one of them by the hair. In an instant chaos broke out as both fighters turned on the cop and started yelling and kicking him. Alexis wanted to cheer them on.
“Frank, help!” the fat cop yelled to the tall one. Frank maintained his hold on Alexis and began to move towards his partner.
Somewhere in the mass of crowd, something grabbed Alexis’s hand. She turned behind her to see a boy about ten give her a wink and smile, and nod for her to follow him. It didn’t take much to escape Frank with his focus so scattered, and in a moment she was running with the boy away from the crowds down the length of the deserted street. He took a hard left into an alleyway and only there did he stop to let Alexis catch her breath.
The boy disappeared behind her and a moment later she heard a click and her hands were free. She rubbed her wrists to get the numbness out of her fingers.
“Thank you,” she said.
The boy shrugged, as if he hadn’t just done something like save her life. His mop of brown hair fell into his eyes and covered the splash of freckles that covered his pasty skin. “We saw you needed help. Someone has to stand up to those coppers, right?” he squeaked.
“We?” Alexis asked.
The boy’s smile widened, showing two missing teeth, and he glanced back towards the crowd. Alexis followed his gaze, her own eyes widening in understanding.
“Mosh and Bull,” he said. “That’s their thing.”
It took her a moment to realise he was referring to people. “Mosh? Bull? Strange names.” The boy shrugged again. “What’s your name?”
“Pipsqueak,” he answered. “Who are you?”
“Alexis,” she replied, and watched as Pipsqueak shook his head in disapproval. Maybe he thought her name was too boring.
“Squeak? You down here?” a familiar voice hissed from the edge of the alley. Pipsqueak let out a strange mouse-like call and a hulking shadow moved into the light. Alexis leaned closer against the wall, suddenly feeling that coming into an alley with a stranger, even a child, hadn’t been the wisest idea. She wished Jake was with her. He would know what to do.
Her chest tightened and once again she shoved her tongue between her teeth.
“You get her?” another voice asked.
“You got eyes, don’t ya?” Pipsqueak answered, climbing up on boxes of garbage and sitting down on top, letting his feet dangling over. “She says her name’s Alexis.”
“Strange name,” the smaller of the two – and not by much – replied. Black hair dripped with rainwater and blood ran from his nose, his t-shirt torn across the chest, yet an impish smile was on his face with no hint of discomfort or anger at his recent fight. “Mosh,” he said, using his arm to wipe his face.
“Bull,” said the other massive boy. These two looked to be around Alexis’s age, but easily twice her size. For being the larger of the two, Bull didn’t seem to have done much better in their skirmish. His left eye was already nearly swollen shut.
“Are you guys all right?” she asked, concerned.
Pipsqueak joined the other two in a laugh at her expense and Mosh clapped a hand on her shoulder that nearly brought her to her knees.
“Sweet of you to worry, but we’ve got this covered,” he said. “Glad we could help. Try to stay out of trouble, all right? These cops, they have no mercy.”
Bull nodded his bald head, eyes grim. “Damn right. Think they own this place now. Forget there are still more of us than of them.” His expression softened. “I’m sorry about the guy you were with.”
“My brother,” Alexis said. “I’ll be fine.”
Jake would have been proud to hear the strength in her voice. He had trained her pretty well in what she needed to do to survive. She would be all right on her own.
“We’d better get going,” Pipsqueak said to Mosh and Bull. “Jack’ll be angry enough about what happened.”
Mosh groaned, lips twisted into a grimace. “Probably right. Better go and face the ringleader before his brain explodes.”
Alexis blanched and Mosh’s eyes widened. “Sorry,” he said. Alexis waved him away.
The three boys all gave her a nod as they walked past her, heading towards the opposite end of the alley – what appeared to be a dead end. She watched them, trying not to think about what she was going to do next.
Mosh, the first of them to reach the end, paused and turned back around. “You have someplace to go?” he called to her.
Alexis wanted to say yes, to not seem pathetic and helpless. But the truth was she really didn’t. She shook her head.
“Better come with us then,” he said. Pipsqueak’s jaw dropped and he looked from Mosh to Alexis to Bull. Bull grunted his agreement and pushed against the wall until something moved and he disappeared into it.
“Jack’s going to kill you,” Pipsqueak muttered.
Mosh shrugged. “He’s welcome to try. Worst that can happen is he kills her, but he’d at least make it quick.”
Alexis stared back at him, considering. He was right, a quick death by Jack would be better than a slow death by starvation, or rape and torture by Frank and his fat friend. So she followed them to the end of the alley.
Mosh stood by to let her go first and Alexis stepped through what turned out to be a makeshift doorway in the brick. Bull stood on the other side, waiting for them to pass and go down the crate-and-stone steps to the cement floor below so he could seal it shut again. For the second time Alexis wondered if she had made the wrong decision. Sure, these guys seemed normal and helpful, but where the hell were they taking her? Secret passageways behind buildings? Bricked up doorways?
Bull pulled the heavy door back into place and the cramped space was thrown into darkness. Unable to see, Alexis’s heart rate sped up again and her palms grew sweaty, feeling like she wanted to claw her way out of the nothingness. There was a click and light returned to the world as first Bull and then Mosh flicked on their lighters. Bull led the way, followed by Pipsqueak. Mosh gestured for Alexis to go next and he followed behind her.
“It took about ten years to build this place,” Mosh explained, reading her thoughts. “We’ve got exits all over this city.”
“Go ahead and tell her all our secrets why don’t you?” Pipsqueak snorted.
“Hey, little man, you volunteered to help with his. Keep your yap shut and don’t play the innocent bystander, all right?”
“If you guys don’t want me here, I’m happy to go,” Alexis snapped, tired of them fighting over her. She was used to not being wanted, but they didn’t have to rub it in her face.
“Ignore Squeak,” Mosh answered, eyes narrowed at the smaller boy. “He’s just afraid of getting spanked by Jack.”
“Who is Jack?” By what she’d heard of him so far, he sounded like a grumpy parent.
“The Jack of all Trades. He leads the way around here. Picks us, trains us, sends us out on errands.”
“You don’t like him?” It was a safe guess, based on Pipsqueak’s fear of Jack’s reaction to her being there.
“Are you kidding?” Mosh grinned. “We’d be nowhere without him. Don’t let Squeak’s cowardice fool you. Jack can be scary, but he only wants to protect us. Our secret is what keeps us safe.”
Alexis tried to keep track of the maze they were in as they walked, but after the fourth left-then-right, she gave up and accepted that she’d probably never see the sky again.
Another right turn and the tunnel opened up to a larger, more cavernous corridor. The flicker of lighter fire glinted off metal below and Bull grabbed the back of Alexis’ jacket as she nearly stepped over the edge of a five-foot drop. Her hand flew to her chest to stop her heart from bursting through her ribs.
“Subway tunnels,” he explained, nodding to the abandoned tracks, and she backed away from the fall.
“Thanks,” she gasped, and he, too, only shrugged in reply.
The squeak and scurry of rats made Alexis cringe. The transit system had shut down before Alexis was born, most of the tunnels and street accesses sealed. Large signs were posted outside of old depots warning people to keep out of the tunnels, warning that they were monitored 24/7. Clearly, that was a lie.
As they wandered farther down the tunnels, Alexis was able to see the domed ceiling more clearly, and echoes other than the sound of their boots on the pavement reached them. Voices.
Mosh and Bull extinguished their lighters and let the light of larger fires lead them around the next bend to what was nothing less than a little city. Tents, blankets and campfires scattered the area, forts built out of crates, rope, and plywood balanced on stairs into bunk towers for more people to find places to sleep.
Alexis gaped and she shifted closer to Mosh, staring in wonder.
“What is this place?” she whispered.
Mosh grinned. “This is home. I told you: Jack finds us, he trains us, he keeps us safe. This is where it all happens.”
“Trains you to do what exactly?” Alexis asked, her mouth watering at the smell of meat cooking over a fire. Her gaze fell on some sort of browned and crispy bird. Her stomach grumbled.
“Who’s the chickie?” demanded a girl no more than fourteen on the other side of the fire. She was tending to her dinner with lemon and the tanginess added to the flavours already building in Alexis’s mouth.
“Name’s Alexis,” Pipsqueak answered, sitting down next to her and making a grab for a leg. “Brother just got shot by the coppers topside.”
Alexis focused on the turning bird. She felt Mosh brace, as if prepared for her to attack, but as far as she was concerned, they hadn’t said anything. Her tongue started bleeding again.
“Huh,” the girl replied, swatting Pipsqueak’s hand away. That was the end to her reaction of the boy’s news. “Bring me the spices I asked you for, Squeak? If you did, you can share.”
Pipsqueak gave his gap-toothed grin and pulled a plastic bottle from his pocket. “Swiped it before the fight. I want a wing.”
“And a leg for Alexis,” Mosh spoke up, hearing Alexis’s stomach.
The girl’s eyebrow twitched. “What’s she done to deserve it?” she asked. “I never seen her hunt.”
“And if Jack had said the same thing when you first got here? Where’d you be, Fly?”
She grunted, her brow twisted. “Whatever.”
“This is Firefly,” Mosh introduced as he pulled a leg off and handed it to Alexis. She brought the greasy flesh to her lips and sank her teeth in glory. When had she last had fresh meat? Months? She moaned in pleasure as she chewed.
“Nice to meet you,” she said after swallowing. “You’re an amazing cook.”
Firefly’s eyes narrowed, but Alexis caught a glint of pride within them. “Damn right I am,” the girl replied, minus a bit of the hostility. “Jack lets you stay here, you bring me stuff to cook with, you get free share – same deal I got with Squeak.”
Alexis nodded her understanding.
“If Jack lets you stay,” she repeated, amused. Her eyes jumped to Mosh. “Word’s out.”
“Of course it is,” Mosh sighed. “People here got big mouths.”
“Bring us food, at least then those mouths’d be full,” Firefly pointed out.
Mosh turned to Alexis who by now was ripping the last of the meat off the bone. “Come on. It’ll be worse if he thinks we’re avoiding him.”
Alexis thanked Firefly again, received another shrug, and then she and Mosh headed off, Bull staying behind with Pipsqueak and Firefly.
They hadn’t gone far when another voice stopped them.
“So it’s true. Mosh, when are you going to learn to stop bringing home strays?”
If the smell of cooking dinner had made her mouth water, this man’s voice turned her legs to butter. A heavy Scots accent rumbled through lips surrounded by unshaved bristles. Auburn hair swept low over his forehead and blue eyes sparked in fun. His arms were crossed over his chest and he leaned against the wall, one leg propped up behind him.
“Tell them to stop being so cute and I would. But come on, look at her.”
Alexis’s face flushed under the new guy’s closer attention, but she stared back, shoulders squared. He was older than she was by a few years. Probably a bit older than Jake, too – early twenties at least.
“You Jack?” she asked, thinking it likely based on his reaction. She was startled when he let out a guffaw and pushed himself off of the wall.
“Me? You must be joking, lass. I’m not a hard-assed demon like Jack.”
“This is Maverick,” Mosh introduced. “He’s second in command around here.”
“Aye, that’s about it,” Maverick agreed. “And who are you?”
“Alexis,” she said.
His eyes narrowed. “That’s a good name for a hardened lass, but you don’t strike me as the type. You’re the damsel in distress and no mistake – blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. I wouldn’t worry about Jack throwing you to the hounds. He’ll find good use for you round here.” He matched the new glare on her face with a grin. “You two follow me, and I’ll give you the tour before I take you to Jack. More to learn about this place than you’ll ever have time for, but this’ll teach you what you need to know.”
He gestured grandly to the wide staircase going up to the higher level. “Well, Damsel, welcome to the Shadows.”