It was a Monday evening when the car ran out of gas again. The boy gritted his teeth when he heard the motor start to cough and clutched the armrest as the car drifted to a stop beside a seedy old hotel.
“How can the tank be empty already?” he demanded. A ripple of panic shot along his nerves.
“We’re going farther every weekend,” said the driver. “So we’re using more gas. Your paycheck doesn’t cover it anymore.”
“Can’t we stretch it out somehow?”
The driver grunted. “You’re saying that now, but you’re the one begging for longer rides every weekend. Anyway, there’s always money to be found; you just gotta learn how.”
The man pointed toward the run-down building. “See that old wino sitting in front of that hotel? He just cashed his welfare check, he’s got himself a bottle and he’s looking for some young thing like you to keep him company.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “No way!” he screamed.
“Calm down,” his friend said in an easy tone. “You don’t have to do anything nasty. Just act friendly, have a couple of drinks together. He’ll pass out and you can lighten his wallet for him. You’ll be doing him a favor. He’ll have to stay sober this month.” The man chuckled.
“Listen, if you think it’s so easy, you go keep him company. He’s not putting his hands on me.” The boy jerked on the door handle. “I’m outta here. I hate you and your crazy schemes.”
Right then Cruncher clamped his jaws around the back of the boy’s head and squeezed. Serious pain shot through his head.
“Listen kid, this is MY car. I’m the driver; I make the rules. You got that?”
The dog started shaking the boys’s head from side to side just like he’d do with one of his bones. “You’ll do what I say. Got that?” the man repeated.
“Yeah, yeah,” the boy yelped and Cruncher let go.
“Now get out there and get us some gas money,” the man ordered. “Rob a bank, steal old ladies purses, roll a wino, find some sugar Mama, or Daddy. I don’t care. Do what you gotta do, but bring us back some cash. Now. And be quick about it or I’ll send Cruncher out to find you.” The man handed him the gun again. “Here. You might need this.”
Desperately the boy grabbed the gun. On an impulse he aimed it at the driver but the man just laughed in his face. “Go ahead. Then you’d be alone in this car with Cruncher. He’d tear you to pieces. I told you he’s here for my protection.”
“I hate you,” the boy muttered. “I hate you, I HATE you.”
“You may hate some of my ideas, but you love the rides. So really you love me, right?”
The boy had no answer. He got out of the car and stumbled along the street. By the time he’d scraped together enough cash to fill the tank a couple more times, he hated himself just as much as he hated the driver.
As he made his way back to the car again he passed what looked like a skeleton wrapped in rags, sitting on the sidewalk with its back propped against the wall of a diner. He glanced at it in passing, then turned away.
Then a voice came from that pile of rags. “Hey, guy. Need a girlfriend? I’m available.”
He whirled around. Yes, it was alive. A girl – or was it an old lady? – was sitting among those rags. She was emaciated and looked like she’d just crawled out of a volcanic eruption; everything about her was grey. As her face came into focus he could see that she really was young.
“I’ll do anything for you. Anything you want, for twenty bucks,” she said in the most lifeless voice he’d ever heard.
He felt sorry for her, but what should he say. He thought of the old “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” but she’d probably think he was mocking her. So he settled for, “Who are you? Been here long?”
“Too long, buddy. You probably won’t believe this but I had a good name once, came from a respectable family even. My parents are crying their eyes out right now because I’m here.”
“Oh, man,” the boy exclaimed. “How’d you end up in this mess?” Then he regretted his words. Who was he to talk? He lowered himself down beside her.
“I was in college. I started hanging out with the party crowd and loved it. I had a lot of friends. Then one day this guy in a big fancy car drove up and offered to take us to beautiful places. Some got in, but some were chicken – afraid of the huge dog he had in the back seat. I shoulda been, too. I guess. But I thought I was too smart to end up like this.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Sounds like the trip I took, too.”
“I thought so. I can see it in your eyes.
He looked at the rags around her. Would he be sitting there someday, too? “Ever tried to run away?”
“A few times.” She moved the ragged blanket and he saw her legs, full of scars. “That dog always finds me and chews me up.”
The boy shuddered and shook his head in sympathy. He wanted to say something, but what? What answer did he have?
“Right now I’m waiting for the driver to come back and pick me up, but my Mom calls and comes around sometimes, begs me to come home. She doesn’t know how hard that dog can bite.”
The boys reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of twenties. “Here. Get yourself a room,” he told her. “Get cleaned up and buy yourself a meal.” But he knew she wouldn’t.
“You’d better get back yourself,” she said, “Before your dog comes after you.”
He jumped up. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“Maybe,” she replied, but there was no hope in her voice. None at all.
The boy cried all the way back to the car.
To be continued…