“All right. You can go. I would appreciate it, however, if you boys would make an effort to arrive on time in the future. Just once I would like to get through the first fifteen minutes of class without being interrupted by you two.”
“What’s her problem?” he says as soon as Ms. Wolischuk leaves the room.
I just shrug and heave my knapsack over my shoulder. I can’t wait to escape. We’ve been in detention for a whole hour just for being a few minutes late this morning.
“So, I didn’t tell you,” Daniel says as we trudge down the hall. “I went to Travis’s party on Saturday night.” Travis is a guy in our homeroom.
“Oh, yeah. Was it good?”
“Yeah, not bad. That new girl was there. You know which one I mean?”
I shake my head.
“Maya. You know who I’m talking about. She has long black hair.”
“Oh, yeah,” I say casually. “So what’s she like?”
“Cool,” Daniel says. “I think she likes you.”
“Oh, yeah? Why do you say that?” I ask. The truth is, I’m thrilled.
“Well, she asked me a million questions about you.”
“Okay?” Daniel bumps my shoulder. “Okay? Get out of here, man! She’s hot, and you know it!”
He’s laughing, and I can’t help grinning a bit too as we head outside. It’s only five o’clock, but it’s already dark. We cut across the yard toward the street, crunching leaves underfoot. I notice there is new graffiti scrawled over the school wall. It reappears just as fast as the janitors can clean it off. Gangs marking their territory.
When we get to the corner, the bus has just left. We could wait for another, but we decide to walk. Ignoring the red light, we cut across the road, dodging traffic.
Some storefronts are boarded up on this side of the street. Others have iron bars on the windows. After ten minutes or so, Daniel and I are nearly at the mall.
It’s a busy place, even on a Monday. Cars are pulling in and out of the parking lot, and people are streaming through the front doors. Daniel and I aren’t headed inside, though. We’re strolling toward the service lane, behind the mall. If we hop over the fence, it’s a quick shortcut to my apartment building and Daniel’s house. We take this route home all the time.
On the fence, someone has scrawled a message in spray paint: See No Evil. It’s good advice. As soon as we turn the corner, I know we’ve made a mistake. I hear someone swearing, then a thud and a groan. Daniel freezes, and so do I.
Down the lane, about thirty feet away, three guys are kicking someone who is curled up on the ground. One of them has an object in his hand, maybe a lead pipe. Is there a pool of something dark on the pavement, oozing around the person’s head? I can’t be sure. One of the lights in the lane is out, and it’s hard to see. I’m paralyzed. I’ve stopped breathing.
Two of the figures are tall. The other one is short, but he seems to be in charge. I can’t see their faces. They’re all in black so they blend into the shadows.
I just stand there, listening to the blood pounding in my head. I’m aware of Daniel beside me, can almost hear him breathing. We’re dead quiet, but the gang must sense us. The short one has been crouching, looking at the person on the ground. Now he straightens up, turns in our direction. In a low voice, he says something I can’t hear. For a second, he steps into the light, and I catch a glimpse of his face. It’s angular and bony. Skull-like. I know who it belongs to. His name is Damien Sykes. Lots of people know him. I just pray he doesn’t know me.
He’s seen us. “Hey! You!” he shouts. Somehow his words break the spell, and we can move. Beside me, Daniel has finally found his feet. He slams into me as he wheels around and takes off in the same direction we’ve come from. I am right behind him. And then I’m ahead of him, because I’m taller and my legs are longer. And we’re pounding back toward the parking lot, dodging honking cars and gasping for air.
“Hooligans!” she shouts after me, but I don’t have time to stop. I am hurtling down the mall’s main aisle, while shoppers either curse or stop and stare. I streak past the smaller shops toward the big discount store at the far end.
“Good evening!” the greeter says as I sprint through the doors. “Slow down, please,” he calls after me.
But I don’t slow down. Not until I am at the far end of the store, as far as I can get from danger and still stay indoors. I am walking up and down the men’s underwear aisle, staring at packages of boxer shorts and sports socks. My heart is pounding while I try to drag air into my lungs.
Where’s Daniel, I wonder. Did he follow me into the mall? The last thing I remember, he was telling me to run. I lost track of him after that. Could he still be outside? Did they catch him? I don’t even want to think about it.
“You all right?” a middle-aged clerk asks me. “You need some help?”
“Ah, no. I’m fine,” I gasp.
She nods, but doesn’t look like she believes me. She retreats a few paces, keeping me in sight.
I pretend to be checking out men’s underwear, but my mind is really back outside. I am remembering what I saw. The sales clerk must think I’m desperate to steal some socks because she’s still watching me. I have finally calmed down a little, and I’m trying to decide what I should do next. That’s when I hear the sirens outside. Someone must have called the police or an ambulance. The sales clerk forgets about me and wanders off to the window.
I choose that moment to turn around and head toward the exit. I push through the mall doors, and the cold air hits me like a slap. At the far end of the complex, I see an ambulance and a fire truck with their lights flashing. Heading in the opposite direction, I set off at a run, and I don’t stop until I’ve reached home.
“Where have you been?” Ethan asks in a whiny voice as soon as I step inside the apartment. “You were supposed to be home by four-thirty.”
I kick off my shoes, adding them to the pile in the front hall. In the living room, my brother is sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, eating peanut butter out of the jar. He’s dropped his knapsack beside him, but he’s still wearing his winter jacket. “Don’t bug me,” I say in a warning voice. I don’t need attitude from a nine-year-old. Not right now.
“I’m going to tell Dad,” he says. “You’re supposed to come straight home and make me dinner.” His brown eyes are big and glassy. I bet he’s been watching TV for two hours straight.
“So I’ll make dinner,” I say, walking over to him. “Stop doing that. It’s disgusting.” I snatch the jar out of his hand and take it into the kitchen.