By Moses Starkweather
(discovered by Frank Larnerd)
Not all men’s adventure books of the mid-1980s were Reagan-era paranoia combined with liberal doses of gun porn (and borderline actual porn). Some authors used the freedom of the genre to make social commentary and show the grit and grime of the world they themselves lived in. The Cruel series was short-lived but has been cited as an influence on many writers’ work, including discoverer FRANK LARNERD.
“Give me your money.”
The kid was probably twelve or thirteen, skinny with light brown skin, Puerto Rican or Cuban maybe. He wore a green Dan Marino jersey that was at least two sizes too big and hung nearly halfway down his thighs. Under the kid’s right eye were the remnants of a purple bruise.
He made a stabbing motion with the gun and repeated, “Give me your money.”
I had seen the kid earlier that day. He had been in the back of the arcade, hanging out with three older kids I recognized: teenage trash from Staten Island who took the bus across the Verrazano Bridge to sling herb and harass the girls from Fontbonne Academy.
They wore matching black bandannas tied around their legs. In Park Hills they might have been big shit, but to me they just looked like angry assholes hungry to shit on the world.
I had kicked out the oldest kid twice before. Once for dealing dime-bags and the second time for kicking the coin door of a Defender machine. I’d heard someone call him “Sello” once.
I pushed my way through his two friends to where Sello was playing Ghost’n Goblins. They were teenage vultures dressed in red vinyl jackets and leaking zits. Both of them were in their late teens. One looked like Charlie Brown, bald with giant jug ears; the other was bucktoothed and wearing 3-D glasses.
Sello was hunched over, his fingers bouncing from button to button on the game’s control panel. He was an ugly fucker, fat-lipped and greasy looking. A Marlboro dangled from his lips as he cursed at the monitor.
“Goddamn bunch of bullshit! Did you guys see that? I swear this game is fuckin’ broken.”
I got close and bumped him with my chest. The game gave out a mournful tone as Sello lost a life.
He flew up, snapping. “Watch it, bitch!”
I leaned in closer and let his eyes take in my 255 pounds. I’m six two, but a foot taller with my mohawk. I flexed my arms and leaned into his face.
“I told you to stay away.”
Sello took a step back, giving me a yellow grin.
“It’s fresh. Ask the man.”
He nodded behind the counter where my Uncle Milo counted out tokens to two kids in day-glo shirts.
I stepped in closer, so that Sello’s chest touched mine.
“Get the fuck out, before I tear off your face and use it to wipe my ass.”
“It’s cool, man.” said Sello’s friend with the 3-D glasses.
“It’s not cool,” Sello snarled. “The Threats run with Mr. Bread now. Just ’cause you’re built like Hulk Hogan doesn’t mean you’re bulletproof. Remember that.”
I had heard about Mr. Bread. He was supposed to be a heavy, making a name for himself dealing junk and breaking arms down in Park Hills.
I showed Sello my crazy face.
“Let’s get out of here,” Sello said. “This place smells like shit anyway.”
When they left, the kid in the Dan Marino jersey hung his head and followed.
Five minutes ’til closing, the kid came back by himself. Not playing anything, just standing off to the side, watching the demo on Bega’s Battle loop over and over.
At eight, I flipped the switch behind the counter, shutting down the games. I let the last few kids duck under the retractable security gate and when I turned, the kid in the Dan Marino jersey had a gun on me.
It was a .38 revolver with a dark metal finish. In the kid’s hand, it looked big and heavy. Good thing my uncle had already gone upstairs. If the kid had pulled a gun on him, Milo might have killed him.
“Here,” I said and tugged on the chain attached to my wallet. “I’ve got twenty bucks.”
I opened my wallet to show him. When the kid looked, I kicked him in the chest with my combat boot.
The kid flew backward and bounced off a Dig Dug machine, slamming into the floor. Pained sucking sounds came from his throat as he tried to draw in breath. I grabbed the gun off the speckled carpet and jammed it in the studded leather belt I was wearing.
With one arm, I grabbed the kid by his collar and jerked him off the ground so we were eye to eye. His face was panicked as silent tears floated down his cheeks.
“You still want to rob me?”
He shook his head and I set him down. I let him cough and wheeze for a minute until he got his breath back.
“Do you know who I am?”
The kid nodded, “Sello said they call you Cruel.”
“He tell you why?”
“He said you pulled off a Russian guy’s toes. Tony T said it was ’cause you broke Jimmy Future’s legs with a shopping cart full of cinderblocks.”
I couldn’t help smiling.
“Sello, Tony T? Those your friends? They put you up to this?”
“The Threats,” the kid said. “They said it was my initiation.”
“Why would you want to join those assholes?”
The kid shrugged, “Protection, I guess.”
“They hassle you?”
“Not really. But they’ll kill me when they find out you got their gun.”
“What’s your name?”
“Come up stairs for a sec.”
I showed Hector to the stairwell that leads to the apartment above the arcade. Inside, Milo was asleep in his La-Z-Boy, a half-eaten TV dinner and several beer cans sat beside him. I tossed a brightly colored afghan over him and switched off the television. I put a finger to my lips and Hector followed me down the hall, past dozens of Milo’s Vietnam photos, to my room.
The kid stood in the door, while I pulled out my earrings and laid them on the desk. I took a moment to fluff up my mohawk and pulled the gun from my belt.
“What’s wrong with it?” Hector asked, nodding at the game cabinet I had in the corner next to my weights.
“Sometimes, if the brightness is set to high, a monitor gets discolored so that you can still see the game even after it’s turned off. Take a look.”
Hector approached the arcade machine and gently traced the ghostly maze with a finger.
“How do you fix it?”
I opened the desk’s top drawer and shook out the bullets into it. Then, I pulled some hollow points from a rectangular box I had hidden behind some socks. One at a time, I squeezed the bullets in the gun’s cylinders. After that, I grabbed my jean jacket and slipped the gun into the inside pocket.
“What are you gonna do?” Hector asked.
I snatched my nunchucks off the bedpost and put them in my back pocket. “I’m gonna give Sello his gun back.”
Hector followed me across 99th Street and up two blocks to the bus stop.
While we waited, the kid asked, “What time is it?”
“Eight thirty,” I said. “Why? You got some place you need to be?”
Hector shrugged. “It’s my dad. He gets super pissed when I’m late.”
“You should have thought about that before you decided to rob me. You can go home. After I talk to Sello.”
Ten minutes later we were rolling over the Staten Island Expressway. Hector sat beside me, his refection shimmering in the bus window as he looked out to Gravesend Bay. His image looked ghostly and grim.
I slipped my headphones under my jaw and popped a Misfits cassette into my Walkman. Closing my eyes, I let the music wash over me.
Before Milo came back from ‘Nam and took me in, I lived with the Junkman. It wasn’t a real house, it was a foster house, two double-wides welded together next to a maze of ruined cars. The whole place was surrounded by tall chain-link fences topped with razor wire. It kept people out, and us in.
The Junkman had rules for everything: how to eat, when to use the bathroom, when to sleep. He didn’t allow us to look at him, or speak without being spoken to. If you broke the rules, you sat in the chair.
Stevie was one of the kids I shared a bunk with. He was quiet with hound dog eyes, but really tough. Of all the kids the Junkman kept, Stevie was the only one who never cried. He was the one who taught me how to turn off the pain. On the night I ran away, it was Stevie who called me “Cruel.”
Hector and I switched buses on New York Avenue, catching the last bus to Clifton.
“What time is it?” Hector asked as the bus barreled through the evening traffic.
“Maybe nine thirty.”
“Man, I got to get home.”
We got off the bus at Hylan and walked past the darkened store fronts. The kid didn’t talk. After a few blocks, Hector pointed at a brown six-story apartment complex.
“221. Right up the stairs.”
“I can’t,” Hector said. “I got to get home.”
I moved the revolver out of the jacket and into my belt. “Alright. But if you’re lying, I’ll come find you.”
“I promise. I ain’t lying.”
I nodded and watched him disappear down an alley.
Cutting through the parking lot, I noticed a Corvette with a custom New York plate.
It read: BREAD.
Inside the building, the floor was littered with trash. Wrappers, dirty diapers, and spoiled take-out covered every inch. Graffiti marred the walls with wisdom like: “Jamaykan queens can’t tame me” and “If you can’t fuck a 10, fuck five 2’s.”
I followed the narrow stairwell to the second floor and listened outside of apartment 221. Living with the Junkman had taught me how to walk without making a sound.
Inside, I could hear Pat Benatar howling over laughing voices. I reached up for the bare light bulb that lit the hallway. My fingertips sizzled, but I ignored the pain and unscrewed it. Without the light, it was dark except for the dim glow of street lights beyond the frosted windows. I put the light bulb in my jacket pocket.
I knocked on the door. I didn’t worry about a peep-hole; there wasn’t one.
The apartment door opened a crack. Behind the chain, I could see Charlie Brown’s ugly bald head. The darkened hallway had the same effect as a police lineup; in the dark, I could see him, but he couldn’t see me.
I kicked the door as hard as I could.
The door chain splintered off the wall and the edge of the door flung back, striking Charlie Brown between the eyes. He flopped backward and crumpled on the floor, unconscious.
Sello and the kid with the 3-D glasses sat on a ratty couch. On the coffee table in front of them were bags of white rocks and tall stacks of ones and fives. On my right, the TV showed Pat Benatar shaking around like a hobo with a case of the DTs. I didn’t see Mr. Bread anywhere.
I stepped over Charlie Brown and put a boot on the coffee table.
“I brought your gun back, Sello.”
The greasy fuck grinned. “Why don’t you hand it here?”
I kicked over the coffee table, spilling their shit everywhere.
“Why don’t you come and take it?”
Sello brushed himself off and said, “I’m gonna let my man take care of that.”
Something smashed into the side of my face. I staggered back, bumping against the TV, making the picture jump. I saw another white blur and pain exploded through my skull. I dropped to my knees. Blood poured down my face and over my eye, but I could still make out who hit me.
He was big, tan and adorned with flashy gold chains. The seams of his expensive track suit strained against his massive shoulders. He was 6’4″ and a solid 300 pounds. To me he looked like a Rottweiler with a pompadour.
In his hands was a toilet tank lid.
I said, “It’s nice to see you Stevie,” as he hit me again.
When I came to, I was on my knees. My head pounded like a low-rider’s blown speakers. I tried to move but found that my hands had been tied to my ankles behind me. 3-D and Charlie Brown’s hightops were missing their laces, so I figured that’s what they used.
In front of me was the toilet lid, a dark splash of blood smeared one end.
On the couch, Sello and his boys finished stowing their shit in green duffel bags. Stevie sat on the couch’s arm, dabbing at drops of blood on his sleeve with a wet rag. My nunchucks hung around his massive neck; the revolver was stuck in his waistband. Once he noticed I was awake, he threw the rag down.
“I knew we’d meet up someday,” Stevie said. “I almost didn’t recognize you. Your hair looks fuckin’ stupid.”
I spit a tooth onto the carpet. “Fuck you, Stevie.”
“People call me Mr. Bread now.”
“Why?” I said. “You fucking the Pillsbury Doughboy?”
Stevie kicked me with his giant Air Jordan and dark spots swam through my vision. I fell on my side and felt the light bulb in my pocket pop.
“They call me Mr. Bread ’cause I make money. This town is mine. See these little pussies? They’re mine, too! That shit you spilled, that was mine. I was gonna turn that rock into six grand. Now I’m gonna take it out of you.”
Charlie Brown laughed as Stevie grabbed my Mohawk and pulled me upright. Smiling, he held out his hand to Sello.
“Give me your blade.”
Sello passed him the switchblade without a word. Stevie held it up so I could watch it snap open.
“You still like to play?”
He dug the blade’s point into my skin and carved a long line diagonally across my chest. He watched my eyes for any sign of pain. I didn’t show him any; he had taught me too well.
“Damn, Mr. Bread!” 3-D said.
Stevie sliced me again, peeling a large, bloody X on my chest. I didn’t try to move away. I didn’t even blink. I just took the pain and pushed it inside.
When we lived with the Junkman, Stevie was the tattletale. When we were punished, he’d stand to the side and watch us cry. Once he was big enough, he started helping. At first, the Junkman had him do little things: holding down kicking feet or snapping Polaroids.
After a while, the Junkman had Stevie doing all the punishments. That way, the Junkman could sit back and watch.
One day, Stevie showed the Junkman where I hid the sock of loose change I found in the junkers from the yard.
The Junkman said, “You stealing from me?”
I looked at the floor. “No, sir.”
“Everything here belongs to me. It might look like trash, but it’s mine.”
The Junkman grabbed my face and held it so I was forced to look at him.
“People think you’re trash, but you’re my trash.”
He sat on the edge of the bed and took a long drink from his bottle. Stevie sat next to him, smiling. I tried not to look at the barber chair, or the ashtray and its mound of blackened matchsticks.
The Junkman said, “Take down your pants and get in the chair.”
I did as he told me. The barber chair’s seat felt cool and sticky against my bare legs. The bed creaked as Stevie got up and stood beside me.
Using the Velcro straps, he tied down my hands and feet. I didn’t fight back. If you fought back, it was always worse.
With the palms of his hands, the Junkman began rubbing his thighs over and over. Stevie lit a match and held it to the wire hanger.
“I’m a kid just like you,” I whispered.
Stevie smiled and said, “You’re nothing like me. You’re weak.”
I didn’t cry and I didn’t scream. It was like I floated outside myself, taking all my hurt and pain and shoving it down where it couldn’t hurt me anymore.
Still, it was a long time before it was over.
That night, once everyone was asleep, I snuck out into the junkyard. I limped past the towers of flattened cars until I stood by the yard’s rear fence. Beyond it, I could see the trees of Otsego Park sway in the midnight breeze. I sat for a long time, just trying to think. When I decided to go back inside, something hissed at me from the darkness.
Five feet away, half hidden in shadow was a steel run-through trap. Inside were two large brown rats, half-starved with their tiny rib cages showing beneath their fur.
All that pain I had pushed down began to bubble up.
In an hour, I found three more traps around the yard. One was empty but the other two had one rat a piece. It was pretty easy to get them all in the same trap.
I salvaged a box cutter and an empty twelve-gallon bucket from behind the office. A Ford provided its seatbelts. A piece of upholstery from a Chevy’s interior, some rusty nails, and I was ready.
The moon was high in the sky as I set the bucket and rat trap outside the trailer door. I sat on the cinderblock steps and took off my filthy Chuck Taylors. Then, I eased the door open and crept inside.
I was careful not to make a sound.
Once in the bedroom, I carefully tied the Junkman’s feet to the bed’s legs with long strips of seatbelt. I moved to the head of the bed and got his left arm tied down. Circling to the other side, I heard the Junkman cough.
He turned his head and called out into the darkness, “Stevie? Is that you?”
I walked to the side of the bed and the Junkman touched my arm.
“Do you want to sleep with Daddy?”
I grabbed the Junkman’s hand and slipped it into the final loop of seatbelt.
“Hey! Hey!” he shouted.
The bed lurched and creaked as the Junkman struggled. I double-checked my knots, and then took his keys off the dresser. He cursed me as I shut the bedroom door and went into the trailer’s living room.
The rest of the kids were awake and gathered there. Their faces sleepy, their bare legs scarred with angry burns.
“There’s a fire,” I said. “We have to get out.”
They were scared, but they followed me to the front gate. I took the Junkman’s keys and sprung the lock free.
I said, “Run!” and slung open the gate.
They all ran, except Stevie.
I ignored him and walked back to the trailer. Outside the door, I collected my things and followed the Junkman’s shouts to the bedroom.
He struggled, but I sat on his chest and squeezed the bucket over his head. I had cut a hole in the bottom and nailed the upholstery over it. An X-shaped cut ensured a tight fit; the nails kept it in place.
The Junkman’s voice echoed from inside the bucket. “You little shit! I’ll fucking kill you!”
I ignored him, opened the trap, and dumped the scrambling rats into the bucket. Before any could escape, I slipped on the lid.
After that, I climbed in the barber chair, watched and listened.
Once the Junkman had quit moving, I grabbed the box of matches from the nightstand. I pulled one across the strike strip and watched it flare to life.
I could still hear the rat’s claws scrape against the inside of the plastic bucket, along with their hungry gnawing.
I threw the match on the bed. It burned faster than I thought it would.
When I left the trailer, Stevie was on the steps. He was rubbing the palms of his hands over his thighs. I sat next to him and slipped on my shoes.
He looked up at me, his eyes wet and angry.
“He was my best friend.”
I stood up. Flames licked at the trailer’s windows as smoke drifted up into the starless night.
“Fuck him,” I said.
As I walked to the gate, Stevie called out me.
I didn’t look back.
Stevie hadn’t changed. Sure, now he was built like a tank and had seven hundred dollars in gold chains, but behind his eyes, I could still see that little boy.
He leaned down and grabbed my ear.
“I’m gonna make you scream.”
I strained against the shoelaces, but it only made the knots pull tighter.
As Stevie scraped the blade through my flesh, my fingers brushed against something smooth on the floor.
I cupped the shard of broken light bulb between my fingers and sawed at the shoe laces. I didn’t scream, not even when Stevie stopped cutting and tore the top of my ear free.
He held it up, admiring it.
I felt the blood as it streamed down my neck and over my chest. The piece of light bulb cut into my fingers, but I kept sawing.
Stevie said, “Doesn’t that hurt, bitch?”
I felt the shoelaces pop loose and said, “What’s that? I didn’t hear you.”
He leaned closer and grabbed my other ear.
I slammed my fist into Stevie’s balls as hard as I could.
He staggered back, his mouth hanging open, his hands cupping his nuts. I grabbed the nunchucks off his neck and bolted for the door. My cuts burned and I felt a little faint, but I pushed myself up the stairs. Below me, I heard Stevie shouting and the rumble of pursuing footsteps.
At the top of the stairs, I crashed through a door marked “Roof.” The sky had grown dark with gray rippling clouds. In the distance, a universe of lights glowed across the bay. Beneath me was a six-story drop to the parking lot.
“Nowhere to go, asshole!”
I turned around. Stevie had the .38 in his hand. Beside him were 3-D, Charlie Brown, and Sello.
I held up my hands as Stevie pointed the gun at me. He pulled back the hammer and licked his lips.
Hollow points are nasty bullets. They’re designed to explode, spreading like shrapnel, inflicting massive tissue damage.
It helps if you put them in the right gun.
When Stevie pulled the trigger on the .38 there was a loud bang and a flash of flame. He fell to his knees, the fingers he had left dangled by strands of skin.
I twirled the nunchucks like a buzz saw and flung myself at them, inflicting maximum damage.
After a while, my arm got tired.
On the roof around me, Sello and his gang moaned, clutching at broken arms and fractured ribs. Stevie had gotten it worse.
His face was a wheezing red pulp and his limbs all extended at odd, broken angles. I dragged him to the ledge and pulled him up on my shoulders. My cuts roared with pain, but I pressed him over my head and howled.
Stevie fell face-first into his Corvette, crumpling the roof and blasting the glass from the windows.
In the distance, sirens cut through the night. I walked past Sello and his gang and limped down the stairs.
I kept in the shadows and staggered north. At Victory Boulevard, I climbed a fire escape of a clothing warehouse and waited for the next train to rumble past. Twenty minutes later, I was on the other side of the island.
In the morning, Milo picked me up and brought me back to the arcade. He didn’t ask any questions, just sewed up my cuts and made me chicken noodle soup.
I spent a few weeks in bed, until Milo accused me of being a lazy hippy. My ear is fucked up and I’ve got some nice new scars. But honestly, it only makes me look more wicked.
The pigs never came to question me, so I figured Sello and his gang had kept their mouths shut. Besides, they had enough problems with the cops finding shit in their apartment.
I kept expecting to see Hector again. I thought he’d tell me how he had learned to stand on his own and how life was better, but he never came back to the arcade. I had almost forgotten about him, until one Sunday a couple months later, I was on 98th Street grabbing a slice from Rose’s Pizzeria.
Right down the street was Sello’s friend in the 3-D glasses. He saw me and crossed the street, but I followed. After a half a block, he wheeled around and held up his hands.
“Jesus, man. What do you want?”
I said, “Where’s that kid Hector?”
3-D looked down at his shoes, absent-mindedly rubbing at the arm I had broken.
“He’s in ICU at Saint Vincent’s. Can’t talk or move. They say he’s got brain damage.”
I grabbed him with both hands and shoved him against the wall.
“Was it Sello? Was it you?”
“It wasn’t us, man! We were trying to help him!” 3-D squeaked. “He fell. Hit his head or something.”
“My homeboy said it was Hector’s old man. Said he’s a total hard ass. My homie told me people heard Hector’s dad screaming at him for coming home late. I know Hector was afraid of his dad. That’s why he wanted to join the Threats. Sello said that if he passed initiation, we would take care of things for him.”
I let 3-D go.
He shrugged his shoulders. “The pigs don’t give a shit. Why should they? Just another beaner to them. Hector’s father didn’t even get questioned.”
I put a hand over my eyes and pushed the darkness deep into my gut.
“You OK?” 3-D asked.
I had him follow me back to the arcade and told him to wait outside. I threw some duct tape and road flares into a backpack. At the bottom of the stairs, Milo asked where I was going. I told him I was going to do some repairs, fix something that was broke.
When I came outside, 3-D was still waiting.
I asked, “You know where I can find Hector’s dad?”
Frank Larnerd is currently a student at West Virginia State University, where he has received multiple awards for fiction and non-fiction. His first anthology as editor, Hills of Fire: Bare-Knuckle Yarns of Appalachia will be released in the fall of 2012 from Woodland Press. Frank lives in Putnam County, West Virginia.