2. The Gladiator
The darkness of a cool summer’s night covered the capitol city of Oregon like a blanket. Andrew anxiously searched for a safe, warm place to sleep. He remembered seeing a pile of cardboard boxes near a dumpster in the alley behind a store. He circled back and felt a small sense of satisfaction when he found it. He spotted one roomy box he thought he could fit nicely inside for the night. It was not a warm, comfortable bed, but it would have to do for now. He’d climb in and pretend he’d flown toCalifornia.
Then someone whistled. Not again! The three gangbangers grinned at him like hungry feral cats cornering a defenseless mouse. One of them carried a bat in his hand. Andrew saw an escape route and took off running. Footsteps slapped in hot pursuit behind him. He ducked around the corner, dashed across the street, and found another alley to hide in. He crouched down behind some discarded lumber. The quiet was too good to be true. His heart pounded as if it would burst through his chest.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” a voice cajoled. “Give it up, Fool.”
The mocking tone and cadence had Andrew dreading it could get worse. He’d never confronted gang members before, not even at school. He’d seen enough violent movies to know they would kick his ass if they found him. He hunkered further down and held his breath for dear life.
The sounds of dragging footsteps got closer. He willed himself to shrink and disappear.
Suddenly Andrew felt himself being pulled from out of his hiding place. The tallest, heaviest gangbanger grabbed hold of Andrew’s backpack and yanked him backwards.
“Hey, Fool! I asked you before—you bang?” one of them bayed as Andrew sprawled in the litter at their feet.
“Hey, Fool,” another said. “What you got in your backpack? You gonna share with us?”
The other two snickered. Andrew twisted himself so he was sitting on his butt. He reeled when one of the boys kicked him viciously in the lower back and snarled, “Just stay put!” Through the pain he saw the third guy with a foul grin on his face bouncing his bat against his palm with a menacing thud. How worse it could get? Andrew feared he would crap in his pants and puke at the same time. He could feel his guts roil. Oh shit, I’m gonna have liquid squirts!
“You boys looking for combat experience?” a deep voice boomed from the darkness. A man, well over six feet tall, stepped into the light. He wore a long dark coat on his imposing body topped with a baseball cap on his head. He slowly approached the group. In one hand he held a long length of two-by-four; in the other, he wielded a metal garbage can lid. The picture of an urban gladiator, he slammed the two-by-four against the garbage can lid, making it ring out and startling everyone.
“Flee thee away, you lost souls,” he shouted.
The giant man hoisted the lid like a shield and flayed the hunk of wood like a sword.
“What?” the guy with the bat grinned maliciously, not fleeing.
“You, Bat Boy,” the gladiator snapped, gesturing toward him. “You gonna use his head for slugging practice?”
“What’s it to you, Fool?” Bat Boy hefted the bat and snarled.
“Ballsy of you, huh? Three big boys playing all hard, picking on one lone guy younger and smaller than you. Yeah, real ballsy of you.”
The gladiator andBatBaystood about five feet apart and glared at each other. Andrew noticed pure hatred in the gangster’s eyes. It reminded him of how his dad often looked—drunk and mean. The other two closed in on the gladiator, combat ready, but no one made a quick move. It was a standoff until Bat Boy feigned a strike at the big man who in turn raised his two-by-four with an ominous roll of his shoulders. Bat Boy studied the huge man for several more moments, then nodded to his compatriots. The three gangbangers turned on their heels. Bat Boy aimed the bat at Andrew with a leer as if to say he wasn’t done with him yet. Then they sauntered into the night.
The gladiator dropped his weapons to the pavement. “Here, let me help you up, Little Man.” He reached out a hand the size of a ham. Andrew crabbed backwards out of reach.
“C’mon, Little Man. I just saved you; I’m not going to hurt you. Up off the ground you go. A man is supposed to be dignified and stand on his own two feet, not cower like a whipped dog.”
The man reached down and grabbed Andrew under the arm and easily hoisted the boy onto his feet. Andrew’s knees knocked underneath his weight. He felt as if he might throw up.
“There you go, Little Man. That’s better. Did those lost souls hurt you? I’m Sam. What’s your name?”
It took a few seconds for Andrew to stabilize himself and find his voice. When it did come, he wished, not for the first time, that his squeaky voice had already changed. “I… I… I‘m okay, I guess. Uh, I’m A…A… Andrew.” The embarrassment of stuttering like an idiot was nothing compared to the throbbing pain in his lower back. He rubbed it gingerly and figured he had a bruise the size ofTexasforming.
“Pleased to meet you, Andrew,” the big man said, sticking out his hand, “Looks like you were in a bind there. Glad I chanced by when I did. What are you doing in this alley, anyway?”
Andrew stepped away from the big man, avoiding the outstretched hand. He muttered something.
“I can’t hear you, Little Man,” Sam said. “You need to speak up.”
Andrew tried again, “I… I… I was—was looking for a place to s-s-sleep.” He felt something burning inside he couldn’t put a name to it—like when his father would rage, calling him a worthless piece of shit. Like that, or when bullies or teachers would torment him in school. Andrew wanted this giant to leave him alone.
“A place to sleep, huh? Running away, are you? Let me give you some advice, Little Man. Sleeping here is a bad idea. Those lost souls may be back for you. Come, you can crash at my place.” Sam started walking out of the alley, then looked back, “C’mon, Andrew. I won’t hurt you. My place is just down by the river a ways.”
Andrew knew he was in a tight spot. What if this gladiator is a perv? He talked weird. Who can you trust? But there weren’t many choices. Andrew was exhausted and hurting. Finding another place to crash in the dark seemed overwhelming now, especially with those fools prowling around like a pack of hyenas. He decided to accept Sam’s offer.
Andrew almost had to run to keep up with the big man’s long, hasty strides. They went downCommercial Streetand hung a right onOak Street. When they crossed the railroad tracks Sam pulled out a mini-LED flashlight. They stumbled through the brush and around blackberry brambles. Eventually they reached the river bank and pulled up near an enormous oak tree whose branches extended way beyond the trunk.
“Welcome to my humble riverside manor, Andrew,” Sam said with a sweep of his arm.
Andrew panted from the brisk walk. Sam briefly illuminated his “front yard” with his flashlight, revealing a dark green tarp draped over a rope and staked down like a tent under the tree. Some branches had been leaned against the side like camouflage to obscure the tent from being easily seen. Sam crawled inside the tent, nearly filling it with his bulk.
“Come on in, Little Man; take a load off,” he said, lighting a lamp.
Andrew gulped and squatted down at the entrance of the tent. He didn’t want to admit even to himself that this was not his idea of a safe place to sleep. Yet he was tired, hungry, and it would feel good to rest. He shrugged off his backpack, gazed around, and noticed a couple of duffle bags stacked against the side of the tent. Several cardboard boxes served as cupboards. Sam rooted around in one of several plastic shopping bags nearby. What was Sam searching for? A weapon? What if he pulls out a gun or a knife? What if he pulls out drugs? Should I take some? Should I refuse? What if he gets mad? Maybe I’d smoke a joint, but no hard stuff. If he tries anything funny, I’ll scream bloody murder and run like hell. Huh! Yeah, just like I screamed bloody murder when those fools jumped me.
Andrew was startled out of his thoughts when Sam waved a can of soda in front of his face. “You still with me, Little Man? Here, imbibe a soda. I’ve got some chips around here, too.”
Andrew took the soda and guzzled half of it before taking a breath.
“Thirsty fellow, weren’t you?” Sam smiled. Andrew nodded and finished off the soda with a loud belch. Sam handed him a bag of potato chips.
Sam sipped his soda slowly, scrutinizing the scrawny boy wolfing down the chips. The kid with lank brown hair hanging down over his eyes looked skinny in his jeans, the knees fashionably torn. The black hoodie had also seen better days.
“Andrew, when was the last time you ate something?”
“Dunno,” the boy replied through a mouthful of chips. “This morning maybe.” The day felt endless to him.
“So, what’s your story?” Sam asked.
“What?” Andrew said, buying time, not sure how much to tell a stranger.
“What’s your deal? Why aren’t you home getting ready for bed?”
Andrew decided to blurt it out and get it over with so the man would stop asking. “I ran away from home. My dad beats me.”
Silently, Sam watched Andrew eat for awhile.
“Okay, Andrew,” he said eventually. “You take the tent. I’ll sleep outside. If you need to use the can, it’s just down on the other side of those bushes to the right.”
“Can?” Andrew flashed Sam a bewildered look.
“Yeah, you know, john, head, toilet. Can!”
Andrew bowed his head hoping to hide his ignorance. He crawled out of the tent, got up, walked beyond the bush, and then veered towards the water. He peeked over his shoulder to make sure Sam wasn’t watching, then he relieved himself into theWillametteRiver.
Returning to the tent, Andrew saw that Sam was constructing a sleeping pallet of blankets for himself on the other side of the tree. For now, at least, all was okay.