Meet Alem Reed - black hair, brown eyes, and a bad temper. After getting kicked out of five high schools for fighting, Alem’s goal of getting a high school diploma was destroyed; that is, until he is asked to attend a secretive new school. However, when he discovers that the new school is filled with creatures that aren’t human, (and view you as a potentially delicious snack) tough boy Alem needs every fight skill, dry comment, and ounce of wit he’s got if he is going to survive his senior year.
By three o’clock on Sunday afternoon, the mini-mart was empty. I sauntered in, eager to meet my end of the bargain and put the deal behind us. Mr. Chang was waiting for me, as I suspected.
“Alem, be careful. Call for me if some of the boxes are too heavy for you. My son used to do the restocking at this time when he was around, before he left for college. He would always complain about the weight of the boxes.” Mr. Chang said while cleaning the invisible dirt from his shelf.
“Uh hum.” I waved him off and rolled my eyes. Mr. Chang was sixty-three years old—how was he going to help me? I’m afraid he would break his back if he tried to lift some of the boxes that I’ve seen lying around the market. I strolled down the aisle that led to the back door. When I turned the knob, I was struck with sheer disbelief. “Damn, that's a lot of boxes,” I muttered to myself.
I pulled my hair back in irritation. I knew that Mr. Chang would work me hard, but I also know that there are laws against child labor. “What the hell is he selling?” I asked myself. Instant soup and soda cans couldn’t possibly fill all of these boxes. I went to the nearest pile of cardboard and tried to pick up the smallest box first. I heard my elbows crack and my lungs wheeze as I dropped the box and wondered what was inside. Glaringly, I dragged it outside and set it beside the frozen desert section.
“How's school?” Mr. Chang asked as he tossed his cleaning rag and picked up a Korean newspaper.
“Fine.” I replied instantly. There was no way I was going to tell him that I had been suspended, especially considering it was barely two weeks into the new school year. He wouldn’t listen to the reason. He didn’t approve of fighting and he wouldn’t understand that I got suspended even though it wasn’t my fault. There was no use in telling him that it was the other three idiots who decided to pick on a kid half their size. Neither would telling him that Mr. I-Have-A-Stick-The-Size-Of-Chicago-Up-My-Rear was unfairly biased change his opinion either.
“Good. That’s very good.” Mr. Chang said totally buying my lie that everything was fine at school, as he flipped another page of his newspaper. “You're a smart kid. You'll do well in college.” He was getting bolder in his college hints, but little did he know, I wouldn’t be going.
“Uh hum,” I said and went in the back to get another box. Just then, the doorbell rang as I looked suspiciously at another box before attempting to pick it up. When I did try to lift it I nearly lost my breath. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what was making these boxes so heavy. I glanced out at Mr. Chang. He was talking to the male customer that just came in. I glanced back at what seemed like a million cardboard boxes and I sighed. It was going to be a long afternoon.
I was tired, sweating, and fidgeting from nicotine withdrawal, when I tumbled out of the backroom and glared at Mr. Chang. The evil old fart.
“All done, Alem?” He asked mildly.
I bit back the first three insulting remarks that came to mind, and replied instead, “Yeah, I'm done.”
He just smiled at me, rather innocently, but I swear he is a sadistic jerk. He reached under the counter top and pulled out a carton of smokes. He looked around, carefully, and then tossed the carton to me. “Here you go.” He said. The guilt was written all over his face.
Just like that, all of my anger towards the boxes and Mr. Chang melted away. Mr. Chang was such a cool guy. Catching the cigarettes, I looked down at the sweet reward for my hard sweat. “Ah, my precious cigarettes, I love you guys oh so very, very much.” Then Mr. Chang threw me some lighter fluid. “Ah, lighter fluid: a cigarette’s mortal enemy. I love you too.”
I was about to cheerfully wave goodbye when Mr. Chang's face suddenly became oddly conflicted and nervous. Immediately, I was warned and I scanned the area for a potential threat. Mr. Chang was a straight-up guy, somewhat like me, and if he seemed unsure, then something wasn't right.
“Wait, Alem, before you go...” I watched in complete and utter astonishment as he reached into his wallet and handed me a crisp fifty-dollar bill. I repeat: a fifty-dollar bill. “Uh hum,” he said, clearing his throat. “I forgot your birthday.”
I stared at him and he shifted his feet. My birthday was seven months away. What game was he playing? He was lying, and he knew that I knew, that he was lying. Our deals had never involved money before. What had changed? I opened my mouth to say something but stopped. I saw the emotion that flickered across his elderly face and I suddenly understood.
It was pity. He pitied me, which is why he gave me the money. I got the urge to leave, but fortunately, I managed to mutter my thanks before leaving. “Thanks, Mr. Chang.” Then I walked out of the store as fast as I could. Maybe it was rude but I didn't care.
It was early evening. There was very little light left in the sky, but I stubbornly kept walking. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew that I did not want to be anywhere near our apartment, which was directly on top of Mr. Chang’s mini-mart.
So, Mr. Chang pitied me. The thought made my throat burn. I had liked the old man well enough before, but now I nearly hated him for that. I don't need his pity. “Damn it, I don't need any pity at all!”
This got me thinking. Granted, I don't have much, and I'll admit that. I get most of my clothes from the old vet's store down the street, and I only have two pairs of shoes—a pair of old, black combat boots and a dirty pair of white sneakers. I don't get many haircuts either, because frankly, they cost too much. As a result, my hair is like a bird's nest gone wild. Among my few personal possessions, is a three-year old CD player, which just happens to be the most expensive thing I own. In short, everything I own could fit into a small duffel bag, like the one you might carry to the gym.
My dad isn't the greatest but he's trying to keep it together in order to put food on the table for me, at least that’s what he says, and I know he tries the best he can. Heaven knows that I've put more than enough stress in his life, with my constant fighting and getting kicked out of so many schools. I don't get an allowance and there isn’t money to spend on myself because we just barely make ends meet. My mom isn't around anymore, but that’s another story.
Given all of these circumstances, I do not need, or want, Mr. Chang’s pity. I refuse to accept pity from him. Considering the very few people that figure into my personal life, Mr. Chang being one of them, I cannot accept this type of melodrama. “Damn, Mr. Chang, damn him—he should have known that I don’t need this from him!”
I froze. Behind me, the sick sound of a metal bar hitting soft flesh instantly distracted me from my mental tirade. It was so loud that for a second, I thought that maybe I was the one who received the blow. Once I realized that I was fine, I slowly turned to see what had happened. To my surprise, I saw the very same kid who was getting beat up on earlier that week at school. I gripped my cigarette pack tightly and gnash my teeth.
It was definitely the very same kid, although now he was clucking his stomach in severe pain. The new question was, “Who were his offenders?” It was a familiar scene, only the bullies were not the same guys, Blondie and his henchmen, from school. These were three very different idiots, but they were attacking the same kid that I had saved from becoming a pancake just four days ago. I rubbed my forehead and sighed.
This scrawny little kid must attract bullies like a magnet and I’m beginning to suspect that he does this on purpose just to annoy me. His appearance practically screams defenseless. If you’re a kid who wears glasses and/or has freckles, adding a pocket protector isn’t going to help your image as a nerd. Nerd equals prey. Hell, even I wanted to beat him up. No one should look so pathetic; it should be against the law.
I sighed again and glanced at the fifty-dollar bill that I clenched tightly in my hands. Exhaling noisily, I stuffed the bill in my back pocket. I saved him once, why not do it again? Plus, we weren't on school grounds. I couldn’t possibly get in trouble at school this time. However, it better not become a habit.
I wandered over towards this new group of punk bullies, assessing my surroundings with a critical eye. The kid was already lying with his back flat on the floor. One of the punk bullies was rifling through his things, while another one was stepping on the kid's stomach with his left foot. The last guy was leaning with his back to the wall watching this take place as if it were a normal occurrence.
Catching them by surprise, I over-exaggerated my tough guy voice, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I nearly yelled and then I cracked my fist. With the bitter taste of Mr. Chang's pity fresh on my mind, this pitiful scene was too much. I had to force my own pity aside, because the strange feeling that I had witnessed this exact scene before overwhelmed me. The anger I felt at that moment was stronger than I had felt before. I might not be the most sympathetic of characters, but I know when things are just plain wrong. I didn't know this kid, and frankly, it wasn't any of my business, but this kid needed help.
I didn’t have much of a plan, but I knew that I was going to hurt those guys. Badly. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I roared louder.
The three punks looked up in surprise, but when they saw that it was just me, they were unimpressed. “Who are you?” Their leader sneered. His yellow teeth twinkled in the pale light.
I just glared and cracked my fists again. “Leave the kid alone.” They guffawed, turned around, and ignored me. The fact that these guys were ignoring me threw me off. No one had blown me off like that in a long time. One of punk bullies grabbed the kid’s neck and shook him hard; his face had cuts and blood on it. His glasses hung lopsided on his face, but what really got to me was that he couldn’t breathe. That’s when I snapped.
“That’s enough.” I growled.
Turning to face me, one of the punk bullies smiled a crooked smile and picked up the metal bar. “Are you trying to start something with us, man?” In his hand, he held the same metal bar that they used to hit the kid earlier. Just seeing it made my skin itch. “I think you’re trying to start something with us.” The guy grinned and then suddenly, like a horse rushing out of his stable after a long stormy night, he raced towards me. A cursory glance at his buddies’ faces revealed their amusement at our standoff. It was clear that they were unaware of my greatness and thought this would be an obvious win.
As my attacker rushed at me, I didn't bother to move out of his way. Judging by his unsteady gait, I gathered that he was already off balance and I nearly laughed. Once he entered within my reach, I quickly crouched down and landed a swift roundhouse kick to the guy's chest. He grabbed his stomach in agonizing pain and fell to the floor. Still heaving, he stared at me in astonishment.
I smirked; I know my kicks hurt. In fact, he was lucky that I used my foot. If I had used my knee, I would have broken a few ribs. This idiot wasn’t going to get up anytime soon. Rule number one when fighting: Never make the first move.
Stomping on the bully's gut, the other two froze beneath my icy glare. “For the third time, what the hell do you think you're doing?” I barked and stalked closer towards them.
Their leader growled at me, “You bastard! I'll kill you!” Then he too, oblivious to the number one rule when fighting, rushed at me with his fists high.
This was pathetic. Were they serious? Where did these guys learn to fight? I sidestepped my attacker and tripped him and he flew by me. Before he went down, I punched the idiot in the back of his head. My fist came back to me slightly wet. He wouldn’t be getting up anytime soon, either.
Next, I turned my focus on the last of the bullies and cracked my neck. This dude still had his hands on the kid. I raised one eyebrow. Then I said slowly, “Are you deaf? Should I repeat the question?” At that point, I felt, and probably looked, capable of murder because this guy started to tremble. I folded my arms in front of my chest.
“The boss thought we could get some money, so we…” he stuttered, then trailed off, and in doing so, he dropped his victim to the ground like a dead fish.
“So you… decided that you would get some money from this kid?” I asked, pointing to the injured young teen. Speechless, the punk bully nodded.
I sighed and without bothering to warn the guy, I delivered a bone crushing punch to the guy's stomach. As he keeled over in pain, I finished him off with an upper cut to the ribs.
Stepping over the scumbags, I fixed my eyes on the injured kid. He looked back at me suspiciously, as if I were going to unleash my fury on him next. He must not have remembered me from last Tuesday at school, when I saved him from Blondie and his henchmen. Dandy. Just Dandy. It’s nice to know my sacrifice was appreciated. I rolled my eyes.
I reached into my right jeans pocket for a cigarette before I remembered that I had already finished that pack and threw it away. I walked back to my stash and opened a new box. The first guy that I kicked moaned and tried to get up. I walked over to him and stomped on his stomach to inform him that getting up right then wasn’t a good idea.
I turned to face the kid and sarcastically pointed to the open alleyway. The kid got the clue and quickly grabbed his stuff. He shuffled to his exit and I blew a puff of sweet smoke into the blank night sky. It was getting late. Then I followed him into the alley. “What's your name kid?” I asked.
“Michael.” I stared at him. “Michael McGry.” The boy mumbled hastily.
I nodded. What a dorky last name. “Be more careful. This is the second time I had to save your ass.” His eyes lit up and my face started burning. I faked a cough and tapped my jeans in distraction. “I better not find you getting beat up again. This is getting tiresome.” I inhaled again and quickly turned to leave.
“Hey, wait!” I ignored him.
“Wait, man!” McGry yelled. I sighed and turned back around. “Thanks,” the boy said quietly.
I scratched my head and felt my face getting hot. I turned away. “What the hell are you thanking me for? I didn't beat up those jerks because of you, I simply hate assholes.” I lied. “Buzz off, kid.”
Then the kid did a stupid thing. He grinned.
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|Reviewed by Donna Chandler
|An intriguing preview. I was held with each word.