Action & Adventure

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Crack! Crack!
The sound of gunshots rips my eyes open and sends rats scurrying across the abandoned warehouse.
“Try in there!” Men’s shouts make me spring up from the dirt-coated concrete floor, where the kids and I have been dozing in a corner.
Fifteen pairs of sleep-deprived eyes widen and turn to me in the near-total darkness. Small, grimy hands reach out to grip my arm, but no one makes a sound. Not so much as a whimper. I have trained them well.
“Follow me! ” I whisper. I grab my backpack and roll through the hole in the crumbling brick wall beside us. The night’s fresh, salty air fills my lungs as I get to my feet and head for the bay. I twist around once, just in time to see the last child crawl through the gap seconds before the watchmen’s powerful flashlights shine there. In the pre-dawn stillness, the soft pounding of the youngsters’ feet behind me gives wind to my own.
Not a night passes that I don’t have a backup plan. It is why my contingent of street kids and I are still alive. Tonight, I’m aiming for the empty dumpster beside the shipyard, no more than a two-minute sprint away.
But I worry about them all fitting inside. The size of my group has become unwieldy.
“Too many of us, ” pants Freddy, my second-in-command, not for the first time.
At eleven, he’s the oldest and most street-savvy of them all - ready, we’ve agreed, to take command of his own pack soon. My group is dangerously large because, unlike other teen leaders, I don’t beat my charges. And when bruised, battered, homeless boys show up after defecting from other clans, I don’t have the heart to turn away these mirror images of my six-year-old self.
“Take half the boys tomorrow, ” I tell Freddy as we reach the dumpster. “ Or all if I get whacked. ”
His lips curl into a grim smile.
The slight squeak as I lift the dumpster lid is drowned out by our pursuers’ continued shouts. I cup my hands to hoist the youngest boy up by his foot, like I once saw a rich man lifting his child onto a saddled pony. With the older boys helping, they’re soon all up and over. Freddy throws himself on top of the squirming pile, shushing them as I lower the lid.
“Get him! ” a guard shouts, and I know it is time to dart away, to direct the armed posse elsewhere, like a mother bird with a faked limp.
Crack! Crack! Heart flipping and ears ringing with the noise of bullets whizzing over my head, I leap onto the deck of a docked yacht and scurry to the far side. They won’t risk damaging it by shooting at me now.
I grab a life ring and toss it, hoping the splash will make the men think I have leapt into the bay. But when I lift my head, I’m blinded by lights flaring inside the yacht. Shit.
A shadow stomping up the companionway turns into a large man who grabs me by an ear. The searing pain drops me to my knees. He’s going to tear it right off.
“That’s him! ” a voice on shore behind a spotlight shouts as my captor pulls me into view.
“The rest are in the dumpster! ” comes a victorious cry farther back. “ Fish in a barrel, boys! ”
Heart-piercing screams make me sink the rest of the way to the deck. As I lie limp and numb, the faces of the kids I have been protecting for months swim before me.
“Don’t know who you’re chasing, ” the big man’s deep voice addresses the guard on shore. “ But this here boy is with me. My first mate. Nothing to do with whoever you just got. But good on you for keeping the streetkid population down. Have a nice evening. ”

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