It started out as a lark. God knows, we needed a laugh or two. Someone had found a bottle of liquor, gin or vodka or something. I don’t know; I don’t drink. Paulie climbed up on the fire escape and pulled the ladder after him.
“Chicken fight,” he said, grinning. “Take turns. First one up gets a drink. No one gets up, I drink it myself.” He took a swig to show us he was serious. There was a chorus of protests, but in seconds John was up on Andre’s shoulders, his brother Will on Junior’s, and they were off, shoving each other around the alley.
Martin and I stood in the middle of the crowd and watched. I wasn’t any good at chicken fights, not against the boys, no matter how much Martin wanted that drink. Besides, we had an agreement: he wasn’t about to leave me alone, not with these boys. We barely knew them. So we stood together in the middle: not so close to the front that we’d draw attention, but not so far back that they’d think we didn’t trust them. Josie crouched by the wall in the back, pulling petals off a plastic flower she’d picked up somewhere.
The whole match took place in near silence. No one wanted to bring the Rovers down on us. The only sounds were the scraping of rubber on gravel, the panting of the fighters, and occasional insults from Paulie. Even those were hushed.
The boys started laying bets. John was bigger than Will, but Andre was taller than Junior. Junior, though, he was smart. He didn’t just rush at Andre; he danced around, dodging broken boards and bits of rubble, trying to get Andre to trip. Finally Andre stumbled over a chunk of concrete, flailing one arm while holding onto John’s leg with the other. John leaned back, trying to keep his balance. They stayed upright, but in those few seconds Junior dashed for the fire escape.
Andre pelted after him. Will had one hand on the railing and Junior was trying to lift him up. John grabbed his brother’s arm and hung on. They stood there like that straining and pulling, while the boys egged them on in harsh, laughing whispers. It was all pretty funny.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you, anyway?” I heard a voice behind me. I turned to look, and froze. A couple of the boys had pinned Josie against the wall, and a hard-eyed boy had her chin in his hand. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her mouth, too.
“She’s like a little bird,” he said to one of his friends. “All fear and hollow bones. Don’t gimme that deaf-mute act, birdie, I heard you talk before. All I asked was your name. Be polite and answer me, huh?”
A sudden, deafening wail split the air. The bottle shattered in Paulie’s hand. He stared at the blood and the spilled liquor for a long moment before dropping to his knees and covering his ears with his forearms. Junior and Andre were already down. John must have hit his head when he fell; there was blood, and he wasn’t moving. The boys were all shouting now.
I grabbed Martin’s hand. “We’ve got to get her out of here,” I hissed between gritted teeth. “Listen!”
Underneath Josie’s keening and the confused yelling of the boys, there was a muffled howling noise. The Rovers. The boys heard it a split second after I did, and the alley erupted into chaos. Paulie swung down from the fire escape and grabbed John, slinging him over one shoulder.
“Fucking freaks,” he spat, glaring at us. “If I’d’a known, I’d’a killed you. Fuck it. Let the Rovers do it.” He staggered off down the alley. Will stumbled after him. The rest of the boys bolted in opposite directions. Best bet is always to split up.
We never split up, though, me and Martin and Josie. I kicked the hard-eyed boy aside. He whimpered and covered his head. Let the Rovers have him, I thought without sympathy.
“C’mon, honey, it’s okay, we got you.” I tugged Josie’s arm gently, pulling her after me. “Hush now, we gotta run.” She blinked at me. The shrill noise stopped, which only made the Rovers’ howls that much more terrifying.
“She never even opened her mouth,” Martin said as we ran. “Did you see? She never did.”
I nodded. It’s not like I hadn’t been expecting it. Like calls to like, after all.
This story is mainly an experiment in trying out a new voice and is related to two other pieces: