“Come on Jason, leave it alone!”
Jason ignored the smaller boy as he took careful aim.
“He didn’t do nothin’ to you!”
Jason closed one eye in concentration.
He reached back as far as he could, trying for a real zinger.
The breath exploded from the boy as he threw the stone as hard as he could. It flashed down the sidewalk with deadly accuracy, and Jason grinned at the audible thump it made as it struck the cat in the ribs. The cat, black and sleek, let out a yowl, disappearing into the bushes lining the sidewalk so fast it was practically magic.
“That’s not funny! I’m gonna tell— that cat didn’t do nothin’ to you.”
Jason rounded on Billy, looming over the younger boy in a way he knew was intimidating, though he didn’t actually know the word.
“An’ now he won’t,” he said, trying to sound as big and mean as he could. “A black cat crosses your path, that’s bad luck. He ain’t crossing my path any time soon, or he gets another rock.”
He held up a fist to Billy’s face, so the runt could see it was big, dirty and knuckly.
“An’ you tell on me an’ you’ll get a lot worse than that cat. I’ll beat the crap outa’ you, then hit you with a rock. A big one. Right in the head.”
He stared at Billy, concentrating on not blinking so the smaller boy would know he was serious. Billy, on the other hand, blinked furiously, struggling not to cry. Jason held the pose until the first tear got away from Billy, then raised the hand. Billy flinched, recognizing the gesture that Jason, thanks to his father, was intimately acquainted with: the precursor to a backhanded slap.
“G’wan, get outta here you frickin baby!”
Satisfied, Jason strolled along the sidewalk, hands in his pockets, jingling the change in the right one. He had better than a dollar since he’s taken two quarters from Billy, that frickin crybaby. He meandered a bit, in no hurry, enjoying the thought that Billy had to walk across town to their neighborhood, while he, Jason, could afford the bus.
He turned the corner to find the bus just pulling up to the stop.
He started forward but almost tripped over a black cat that seemed to come from nowhere to cross the sidewalk right at his feet. It scrambled through a fence, disappearing as Jason stumbled toward the bus.
“I got no time, you fleabag,” he shouted over his shoulder. “But next time, two rocks!”
“Thirty-seven cents,” said the bus driver, sounding like an automaton behind the big wheel. Jason reached into the pocket he knew to contain more than a dollar in change — and found nothing but the hole at the bottom.
“No, really, I’m good for it!” he protested as the driver yanked the door open again.
“You kids all think you can just ride for free, don’t you,” the man said. “Not on my bus, kiddo. Out!”
“You suck!” Jason shouted at the departing bus, but his words had no effect. He turned and started walking toward home… and a black cat sauntered across the sidewalk almost a block ahead of him. It moved with a limp, but was still out from under the parked car, across the sidewalk and around the corner of the house before Jason could do more than stare.
“You suck too!” he yelled at it. “That’s three rocks!”
“You yelling on my sidewalk?”
Jason started at the voice, and wheeled around to find the space behind him filled with three boys, all bigger and older than him, all smiling.
They weren’t nice smiles.
“I think he was yelling on my sidewalk,” said the middle boy, the biggest of the trio.
“I think you’re right,” said the boy on the left.
“You’re definitely right,” said the boy on the right.
“Well now,” said the biggest boy, leaning down to look Jason right in the face. “That’s gonna cost you a dollar.”
“I don’t have a dollar, I got no money,” said Jason, feeling a lot like Billy at the moment.
“Well, that baseball cap, that must be worth a dollar. We’ll take that.”
Jason could feel himself tearing up.
“My dad gave me this hat. I give it to you, he’ll give me a beatin’.”
“That’s funny,” they all grinned at him. “We’ll give you a beatin’ if you don’t.”
Jason’s lip had stopped bleeding by the time he got to his street, though one eye was still swollen almost shut. It had taken him longer than he thought to walk all that way, especially since they’d taken his Keds. He was hurrying, even through the blisters. He didn’t want to be late for dinner. That was one thing that was sure to set his old man off, and he’d already be pissed about the hat. Jason looking like this, though, that might make his mom stand up for him. She did that sometimes, but seeing his dad beating on his mom hurt more than taking the beating himself. His dad was crazy, and booze just made him more crazy. Someday, mom would leave, and take Jason with her… unless Dad killed him first.
As he approached the house a black cat limped across the walkway to his front door, vanishing under the porch.
As Jason staggered into a run, tears already flowing down his cheeks, his mother’s screams began. Just as he reached the door there was a gunshot.
Jason spun about to face the yard, eyes and nose streaming.
“I’m sorry!” he screamed at the cat that limped down the walk toward the street. “I’m sorry, alright? I’m so sorry…”
A hot gun barrel tapped his shoulder, stinking of cordite. His father’s voice came from behind, quiet, and dangerously calm.
“You’re late, boy. Where’s. Your. Hat?”