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“Get your hand away from that!”
Punk jerked her hand back, frowning at the vendor before pasting on her most innocent expression. "What? I'm just looking.”
The vendor scrutinized her. "The likes of you don't have any money. Stop hanging around the Farmers' Market."
Punk sighed and turned to leave. As soon as the food vendor moved on to another, more promising customer, Punk whirled around, grabbed the two items nearest her, and ran.
"Thief!" the vendor shrieked.
But by that time Punk knew she couldn't be caught. She knew how to handle pursuers. She ran across the street, dodged a honking car, and disappeared into an alley. No city person would dare follow her there. Not after the partially true rumors that passed from person to person.
She ran a few yards down the alley, then pressed herself against a wall, listening. She let out a sigh and shoved the apple and bread loaf into her hoodie pocket. A successful venture, thanks to the careless vendor. She sighed again, but this time from irritation. She hated stealing. But how else was she supposed to keep herself and Grace alive?
"Well don't you look familiar?"
Punk spun around. A boy stood before her, probably about eighteen. In fact, she knew his age. Only a year older than her. His short black hair stuck to the side of his head, smoothed forward, as he always had it. He stood a few inches taller than her, but was lanky as a young colt.
Punk crossed her arms. "Reaper."
The boy grinned. "What are you doing on Pack territory? Last I remembered you left with that wimp."
"I'm just hidin'." Punk rolled her eyes and stepped towards the opening of the alley. "I'm leavin' now."
Reaper grabbed Punk's arm and pulled her back. "Are not. There's a price for using Pack ground."
Punk pulled away from him, swatting at his hand. "I paid a big enough price two years ago, I think."
"Oh yeah?" Reaper raised a lip in irritation.
"Yeah. Whatcha gonna do about it?"
Reaper's countenance darkened. "Pay up. Whaddya have in your pocket?"
"Nothin' fer you."
"Food from the Farmers' Market probably." Reaper sniffed, then held out a hand. "Give it."
Punk leaned forward and narrowed her eyes. "No."
Reaper leaned in to match her. "If you don't, I'll call the Pack," he stated, then straightened and raised his chin, sure this would get the job done.
Reaper blinked and scowled. “You're really stubborn, you know that?”
Punk rolled her eyes. “No, I didn't.”
Reaper shook his head. “You insist on being stubborn?”
Without another moment's hesitation, Reaper threw his head back and let out a howl.
Punk felt her skin crawl. She hadn't heard the howl up close for ages. She glanced over her shoulder at the opening. Too far. Anyways, she couldn't run. It would ruin her reputation.
The Pack came. Boys, a few girls mixed in here and there, on all fours, baring their teeth and imitating all actions of a dog. A few dogs were even among them. They appeared all around, hemming in any way of escape.
"Now," Reaper crossed his arms now, "Give it here, or you'll regret it."
Punk crouched, assuming the typical defensive stance of the Pack. "Take a flying leap," she snarled.
Reaper growled and flung himself forward. Punk sidestepped him, ducking out of the way of his swinging fist. She brought her elbow up and smashed it into his back as she twirled around.
Reaper stumbled, but found his feet in time to rotate and send his fist towards the side of her head. She saw the blow coming, knew she couldn't avoid it, and so turned to take it with the back of her head. She lurched forward with the impact, hit the ground, and rolled to her feet, remaining in a crouch low enough to brush her fingers over the ground.
"Still have your edge," Reaper commented. "I'm surprised. After baby-sitting for so long I figured you'd have gone soft."
Punk glared. "The only soft thing is in yer nose."
Reaper turned red. One of the Pack members started forward, but he motioned the eager boy back, keeping his eyes on his prize. "Come on then, deserter." He threw himself at Punk and they both went over. They rolled. Punk bit into Reapers arm, and he howled, smacking his hand into her ear. She yelped at the sudden pressure, releasing her hold, but neither drew back.
Punk kneed her opponent in the gut and grabbed a hold of his ear, jerking it to the side and exposing his face. She punched.
Blood seeped from his nose and he socked her in the jaw.
She took the blow, but didn't loosen her hold on his ear. She had been trained by the Pack, and the Pack never let go of an opponent if it would give them an eventual advantage.
Reaper lunged forward, knocking Punk backwards. She tightened her hold on his ear and let the momentum of his lunge flip her over the rest of the way, landing her on top of Reaper. A gap formed in the fighting circle as her roll threatened to knock anyone in the way off their feet. She released Reaper's ear and charged away, swallowing her pride. She needed this food, and more importantly, Grace did.
"Punk! Get back here, you saucer-sipping cat!"
Punk skidded to a stop halfway down the alley, whirling around and letting her fist fly. It caught Reaper in the side of the head, and he went plunging into a wall.
"Don't call me that, you high steppin' slack." She threw herself forward again as the Pack howled in protest, leaping forward to defend their leader.
She knew these alleys. Of course she did. She had, after all, spent nine years here.
"Get back here!" Reaper demanded.
"No doin'," she muttered. An opening appeared before her as she took another turn. Just a little further...
She crashed sidelong into a wall, world flickering as her head made contact. She hit the ground hard. Someone held her head down by a fistful of hair and crushed her wrist under a knee.
"Forgot about that little alley, didn't you?"
Punk cracked her eyes open and glared up at Reaper.
He smirked and shifted his weight, sending a knifing pain up her wrist as he leaned on it. She clenched her jaw, refusing to give him the satisfaction of hearing her make a sound.
He sneered at her and reached a hand into her pocket, withdrawing the squashed loaf of bread. "Looks good," he commented, tossing it to one of the Pack members.
"Get yer own bread!" Punk cried, struggling. "Leave me mine! You have plenty!" She snapped a knee up and hit Reaper in the back. He fell forward, slipping off one of her wrists. She grabbed his head and jerked him to the side. He toppled over and she bulldozed through the thin Pack line between her and freedom.
As she broke into the Square, she slowed her pace and looked over her shoulder. The Pack didn't pursue. The sun, though beginning to set, still shone, deterring the Pack from moving in the open.
She turned and trotted away. She needed to get home, even with only an apple. She slipped a hand into her pocket to feel the bruised fruit. It would be better than nothing.
She checked to make sure she didn't have any followers, then turned into an alleyway. It wound on for a while, then she took another alley, keeping her ears open for pursuers.
After three more turns, she came to a pile of old wooden crates and trash bags. She went to a corner of the pile, tugged a crate out, then pushed a bag out of the way and crawled through the opening it made. Before getting up, she pulled the items back into place.
She turned. Here was home, hidden behind the pile of trash. Two hammocks made of old blankets hung a safe seven feet in the air from a rusty fire escape stairway. Wood, sheet metal, tarps, and bricks lay on the stairs over the hammocks, protecting them from the elements.
Punk climbed up the corner pipe and swung her legs into her hammock.
"Grace?" she whispered.
The other hammock shifted and the golden head of a three-year-old popped over the edge. Big blue eyes stared at Punk. “You're back!” she squeaked.
Punk smiled and nodded. “Here.” She handed Grace the apple.
“All mine?” the girl wavered, turning it over in her hands.
“Yes, all yours.” Punk chuckled.
Grace bit into it, then studied her provider. “Did you eat?”
“Yes, yes. I'm fine. You eat that up so you'll grow big and strong.”
“Like you.” Grace grinned.
Punk nodded as the girl consumed the apple, seeds, stem and all. A chill wind whistled down the alley, slight, but telling of the approaching winter.
Grace huddled down under her scraps of cloth. "Thank you," she breathed.
I just wish there was more. Punk's belly knotted, with hunger, for she hadn't eaten for two days, but also with worry. She watched as Grace fell asleep, then frowned. Hard times were coming. Winter. It had been hard enough to get by last year on her own. But now she had Grace to take care of, and she would need plenty of food so she would be healthy in spite of her disability. Punk sighed, and she herself couldn't go hungry forever.
“When are you going to find your name?” Grace interrupted.
Punk smiled. “One day a long time from now, I'll be walkin' down the street, and I'll meet a woman that looks just like me...” she continued into an intricate story, the answer to the traditional question Grace asked whenever she wanted a bedtime story.
“And then my dad'll kill the monster, and we'll all move to a house in the mountains and live happily ever after.”
Grace grinned. “I'm happy I know my name already.”
Punk nodded, laughing. “It is a good thing. Save you a lot of trouble.”
“Good night.” Grace yawned and rolled over.
Punk leaned back in her hammock, staring at the protective covering on the stairs over her. She had been taken from the hospital the day after she had been born. The woman that had taken her never said any more than, “It was for your best.”
She let out a heavy breath. It would be a great day that she found out her true name, and didn't have to go by the nickname that had been bestowed upon her by the kidnapper, or whoever the woman that had taken her was.
Her stomach rumbled and her thoughts turned back to finding food. Tomorrow would be trash pick-up. She would have to to scrounge McDonalds's dumpster. Something she hated to do for fear of food poisoning, but something that would be necessary.
She sighed and nestled deeper into her own fabric scraps.
As she attempted to sleep through her hunger pangs, she listened to the barking of dogs, the hum of cars, and the creaking of the stairs. The city's lullaby.
The trash truck bounced away with all the rotten things that had been in the dumpster.
Now it was a matter of patience. Wait until an employee brought a bag of trash out, then make the swoop.
Punk shivered in the early morning air, feet growing wet and cold in the dew. Food poisoning was not the only danger of dumpster scrounging. The fence around the dumpster made a good trap if someone wanted to get even with you, and the Pack had a score to settle now. They always did with someone, and nowhere could be better to pound someone than behind the dumpster. The fencing created no escapes and no interruptions. Punk had experienced the terrors of this from both the receiving end, and the bestowing end.
The sun rose higher, drying the moist grass and caressing Punk's face. She smiled and leaned against the fence to enjoy the warmth.
Footsteps scuffled on the blacktop. She straightened and peered between the cracks of the fence. Yes, an employee, a black trash bag bouncing against his leg. He hefted the bag into the dumpster with a grunt, swung the door shut, and left.
Punk slipped around front of the fence and darted inside. She checked the premises, then heaved herself up to balance on the rim of the dumpster. Still no danger appeared, and she dropped to the bottom of the dumpster, wrinkling her nose at the smell.
Thing number three she didn't like about dumpster scrounging. The smell.
She tore the bag open from the top. A sausage biscuit, an egg, a few hashbrowns, all in various states of consumption. She snatched up sausage biscuit half and stuffed it in her mouth while she picked a few more things out. Partially eaten egg, barely touched hashbrown, sausage patty with only one bite taken from it, bottles with different amounts of milk in them. She consolidated it into one cup, then stuffed her other prizes into her hoodie pocket. She scrambled out of the dumpster, sipping on the milk.
The door creaked. She froze, half out of the dumpster. An employee? Reaper? A Pack member? Or maybe just the wind. Nothing happened after another moment, and she discounted it as the latter.
She pulled herself the rest of the way out, landed on the ground, then froze and listened. Hearing nothing, she edged for the door.
A man's head poked in.
Punk jerked back and swung at it. It disappeared.
"Wait!" the owner of the head called. "I have an offer to make you!"
Punk remained on her side of the fence. "Oh, really?"
"Yes. Would you like a job? It pays well."
"What kinda job?"
"Come out and I'll tell you."
"Would you rather dig around in dumpsters for the rest of your life?" the voice demanded.
Punk scowled. "Get away from the door."
Feet shuffled, telling her that the man had obeyed.
She kicked the door wide open to make sure no one was hiding behind it, then darted out. Her eyes locked on a lone man, dressed in black slacks and a button up shirt. He had hair the color of dust, neatly trimmed. Typical city slacker.
Punk stepped away from the door of the dumpster fence and crossed her arms. "You want somethin', Slacks?"
The man scrutinized her. "Yes... Or rather... I figured you wanted something. Money, right?"
Punk leaned against the dumpster fence, running a hand along its rough side. "Maybe. Whatcha want for it?"
"I need your ears."
He looked the kind that would be fun to tease. "Well ya can't have mah ears." She ran a hand over the specified body part. "I like 'em where they are."
The man scowled. "I need you to listen to something, then report back to me and tell me everything that was said."
"Oh really now. What, where, when, and how much?"
"Tomorrow. I'll show you where. And you'll be paid plenty."
"How much?" Punk wasn't about to leave the amount up in the air. She'd learned the dangers of that long ago.
The man let out a breath through his nose. "Twenty dollars."
Punk tossed her head. "Seventy."
The man's face reddened. "Thirty."
"Fifty." She twirled a piece of chin length hair. "Thirty for the job, ten for the danger, ten for keepin' me quiet. 'Cause I assume ya don't want me blabberin' the job all over th' town."
"Do you always talk like that?" The man frowned.
"Sure. You gotta problem with it?" Of course, she could go from street talk to city slicker English in less than a minute, but she didn't feel like doing the man any favors.
"Well." The man's frown deepened. "Fine. You will have your fifty dollars."
"Great. Where do ya want me to meet ya and when?"
"Here. Tomorrow at noon."
She shrugged. "All right then. See ya, Slacks." She turned and strolled away without another word. She knew his type. They expected respect, and usually got it. They expected people to act their best when they were around, to try to impress them.
Punk glanced over her shoulder. He had already gotten over his surprise it seemed, and headed to his car. Good. She picked up her pace and jogged the rest of the way back home, excited to present Grace with her triumph. It was about time the girl had gotten a good meal.
She stopped at the entrance of her alley to check for anyone watching, then darted down it.
“Grace!” she called as she crawled past the trash heap and ran to the hammocks.
Punk jumped and pulled herself into her hammock before poking Grace's hammock. A yawn broke the stillness as she sat up.
"Look what I have for you." Punk pulled the bag of food out of her pocket and held it out.
Grace's eyes went big. "All that?"
Punk nodded and Grace didn't waste any time in gulping the stuff down. “You got some, right, Punk?” she asked around a hashbrown.
“Sure did.” Punk laid back in her hammock, eyes half shut and stomach comfortable.
"Where did you get it?" Grace said around her mouthful.
"McDonalds. It's a restaurant," she added as Grace looked confused.
"Oh." She went on eating in silence for a while, then asked, "Why don't we go there every day?"
Punk shook her head. "Because after today it'll get nasty and smelly. It is only good today."
Grace's shoulders slumped, but she kept quiet.
"But," Punk continued, "I got a job today."
Grace turned her head. "What's that?"
"It means I'm gonna do something for someone, and I'll get money. You can buy food with money."
"Really?" The girl's eyes sparkled.
Punk nodded, smiling. "Yep. So I'll be gone tomorrow for a while, okay?"
Grace nodded. "Far?"
"I don't know. Maybe." Punk ran a hand over the edge of her hammock. Far meant that Grace couldn't call her for help if trouble came. It meant if someone found her, she might never see her again.
But a job meant money. Money meant food. Food meant survival.
The question that bothered Punk?
Was it worth the risk?
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