Faster, crashing through the underbrush of his younger days. Faster, his unsure feet clattering on the rocks underfoot. He wiped the blood from his knuckles, battered raw and delicate. He tripped, bashing his knee against the riverbed, and stumbled back up.
He pointed his head at the ground and ran on.
“Chad, get your ASS back here, you little bastard!”
Nate. Chad felt the bruises around his neck. It was always Nate. Nate loved reminding Chad that he was lucky to have a roof over his head. Chad’s mom had moved in with Nate a few months back. Nate hadn’t known that Chad would tag along.
“Better come take your licks like a real man, you ungrateful little SHIT!”
“I’ll give you one more chance, Chad! After that, we’re calling child services! You got any idea how bad off your momma is these days? They won’t leave you alone once they see her!”
Chad stopped, panting, bent double in the river bed. The shouting was closer. He moved behind a clump of trees cantilevered from the bank, their grasping branches scraping his cheek. He strained his ears listening for something, anything. A second’s head start was all he needed.
He waited. Nothing came.
The wind blew gently through his hair; leaves brushed his arms and legs like caressing hands. Chad closed his eyes and breathed deeply, exhaling weeks of pent up anger and exhaustion. The clouds carried the sun away. Dusk swept through the sky.
A few feet away, surrounded by masses of underbrush, leaves crunched under a weighty boot. Chad snapped awake. The crunching stopped. To his left, ferns swayed against the wind. A dirty, ragged boot stood planted in the ground. Chad looked at the boot. Slowly, he looked up.
A face wrinkled like a discarded paper bag leered back at him, its nose bent precariously sideways, purple bruises surrounded by a sea of red. The man’s eyes were happy.
“Ain’t out of the woods yet, are ya?” Nate sneered. Flecks of spit splattered across Chad’s face. Even with the several feet of open air between them, Chad could smell the acrid stench of moonshine on Nate’s breath. “What you did back there, yer gonna regret it,” Nate said. He smiled viciously.
Chad turned to run, but Nate grabbed his shoulders and held firm. In the distance, sirens wailed, speeding in the night. Headlights swept through the woods.
“That bitch mother of yours had it coming, brat. You shouldn’t have tried being the hero,” Nate said. He pointed at his face. “You think I appreciate this, do you?”
“I’m sorry,” Chad whimpered.
“Your momma got on the phone when I left, you know,” Nate said. “Called someone, wanted help finding you. It’d be a real shame if they were too late.”
Chad stared at Nate pleadingly. If the cops found them like this…well. Chad was strong, and Nate was a little man, but aggressive all the same. Chad didn’t want to hurt him, but if he didn’t protect himself, the cops wouldn’t be there fast enough to help. And they always sided with the smaller guy, or with the grown up, and in this case both.
“DO YOU THINK I FUCKING ENJOY THIS, YOU LITTLE SHIT?” Nate screamed, raising his fist high. He cocked it back past his ear. Chad held his breath, raised his hands, braced for impact. He was practiced at this. Experience, after all, was the best teacher.
The blow landed square in his ribs. Chad doubled over, and Nate let him fall to the ground. Nate bent over Chad, laughing. Chad looked up into the drunken maniac’s eyes as Nate raised his boot high, ready to bring it crashing down. Flashlight beams swept through the woods. Shouting closed in around them. Nate turned to look.
Chad sprang up, tackling Nate to the ground. Something snapped and Nate yelped in pain, tumbling backwards into the ravine’s detritus and debris.
“You bastard,” Nate said. He reached into his coat. Chad saw a glint of metal. Suddenly, he was staring down the barrel of a pistol.
Chad fell on him, wailing and kicking. He tore the gun away from Nate, tossed it far off into the brush. His fists slammed again and again into Nate’s face, and he felt the sickening crunch of breaking bone. He stood, Nate laying still beneath him, and exhaled, shoving his bloodied hands into the back pockets of his old jeans.
A man in well-starched blue stumbled on the scene, saw Chad, saw Nate. Saw the blood.
Cold steel clasps slid around Chad’s wrists.