Max and his new crewMax had been waiting outside the school for Zoe when Diane intercepted her. What the heck was Diane Rockway doing hanging around Zoe? Probably using her to do her homework for her or something. He stood casually against a building, chewing on a toothpick, about a block and a half away. He just wanted to talk to her. Make sure she was all right.
Then two things happened. The door at Reynolds busted open, and a kid was hauling butt, coming directly toward him. Seconds later, Diane was screaming after him. “Get back here with my money, you little twerp! Don’t just stand there, Zoe, go get him.”
Max stepped forward and grabbed the kid by the scruff of his neck.
“Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!” the kid tried kicking him. Max held him easily at arm’s length. The kid was feisty. Max could give him that. He continued to hold him while Zoe and Diane made their way over.
“Give it back. He stole the money right off the check when Zoe and I went into the bathroom, the little thief,” Diane said, pointing her finger in his face.
Max shook the kid. “Did you steal her money?”
The boy was crying. “You don’t know anything. She’s rich. I can tell. She don’t need it like I do. She’s probably never gone hungry a day in her life.”
“Wo, wo, wo, hold up,” Max said. “You got a lot to learn, kid. Just because she’s got money doesn’t mean she don’t have problems.”
“What, like a broken nail?”
“No, I’m pregnant, you little twit, so my parents cut off my allowance, because I’m refusing to get rid of it, so that 40 dollars you just stole is the little bit that I got left.”
The boy settled down fast and became quiet. “You got a baby in there?” he pointed at her stomach. “If I give you your money back, you won’t put it in foster care, right?”
“What’s it to you? You’re going to give me my money back no matter what I do. It’s my money. It belongs to me.”
“Give Diane her money back, kid. You don’t need to be a witch about it Diane. The kid’s obviously hungry.”
“Me? A witch? Aren’t you the trailer trash that bullies everyone and spends more time out of school than in it? Total Loser with a capital TL.”
Max’s face blossomed red and he stepped toward her, but the kid got in front of him, and grabbed his shirt, causing him to side-step and fall to the ground so he wouldn’t crush the kid. Max felt the cold air on his back, and hurriedly pulled his shirt down. Zoe’s gasp and their silence thereafter told him they’d seen everything. The belt welts and bruising on his back.
Max stared at them, fists clenched, daring them.
It was the kid to speak first. “Your old man do that?”
“You know what?” Max said through gritted teeth. “I don’t need this. I’ll see you around, Zoe,” he looked at her apologetically, and turned to walk away. He didn’t have to worry about it getting around school. His old man didn’t want him going back to school anyway.
“Hey, wait for me,” the kid said in his high voice.
“Don’t follow me, kid. Go back home to your parents.”
“I don’t have parents. I do got a place, though. I ran away from foster care, and I’m never going back.”
“You’re an orphan?” Diane asked. “Why did you run away? You’re just a kid.”
“I’m 10,” he said proudly. “I stopped being a kid a long time ago. I got an idea. You see, this place is abandoned. No one knows about it. It’s like a whole house. We could live there, you know? You won’t need to get beat up any more,” he said to Max, “And you can keep your baby and stuff so it don’t wind up like me,” he said to Diane. Then he looked at Zoe, “And I don’t know what your deal is, but you’re like gothic, so you gotta have problems.”
“I’m not gothic. I just have black hair,” Zoe said.
“I like your hair. I think it’s really nice,” Max said.
“Thanks,” Zoe said oddly.
“I can show you the place. It’s like 15 minutes from here. It’d sure be nice to have some friends.”
“I’m in,” Max said. “I’d do anything to get away from my old man. If the kid’s got a secret hideout, I want to see it. There’s no harm in just checking it out. That way we all know where it is, just in case. Zoe, you coming?”
“I . . . can’t,” she said biting her lip. “The kids will be getting off the bus, and my Dad expects me home to make dinner.”
“You have to cook? You’re 12,” Diane said.
“Mom left. Someone has to do it. Dad works all day and pays the bills.”
“Diane?” Max looked at her expectantly.
“Do you want to see this place or not?”
“There’s no reason. I’m going to keep throwing a fit until I get what I want, and I always get what I want.”
“What if this is the one time that you don’t?”
“Fine, my parents are probably still throwing their hysterics anyway.”
“I got like two bucks on me. You need to cover the rest. We’ll get a pizza for Zoe’s dad. She needs to see this place, too.”
“Zoe doesn’t have a situation like the rest of us. What does it matter if she’s a part of this or not? Is there a situation, Zoe? Is there something you’d like to tell the peanut gallery?” Diane said.
“No, really guys, it’s okay. Dad only allows pizza occasionally on Sunday nights when he has his friends over. I really need to get home.”
“Not everyone broadcasts their issues like you do, looking for sympathy, Diane,” Max said protectively. “There’s a lot of people that suffer in silence and don’t talk about their problems.”
“And I suppose there’s a lot of people that don’t deal with their problems, then beat on everyone else cause they’re being beat,” Diane quipped.
“You’re the money mouth that went and got herself pregnant, probably for attention, and it just didn’t work out the way you wanted.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“And you don’t know anything about Zoe, so shove it. Either we’re doing this, or not. You’re either in or out, but if you’re in, you gotta help out.”
“Guys, stop. I got an idea. You come with me,” the kid pointed at Max. “You got a watch?”
“Yeah,” Max said.
“We can all meet up tomorrow morning before school starts. That’ll give us the whole day.”
“You mean skip school?” Diane said.
“I can’t go back to school anyway,” Max said. “My old man wants me to get a job.”
“It’ll be like an adventure. We’ll need supplies and things,” the filthy kid said.
“What kind of supplies?” Diane asked.
“I don’t know. You’re the girl. Whatever girls need, I guess.”
“This could be fun. You’ll need to come too, Zoe. I don’t want to be the only female,” Diane demanded.
“I don’t know. I’ve got a biology test tomorrow, and I haven’t missed a single day of school this year.”
“Come on, Zoe, learn to live a little. You’re so blah. You need some personality. You’re like a 12 year old body acting like a 40 year old. Bor-ing.”
“Please, Zoe, just this once,” Max pleaded.
“Fine, 8:30 tomorrow. But I have to be back by 3:40.”
“We better get going before it gets dark,” the kid said to Max.
“Umm, excuse me. You forgetting something? Like, my money?”
“Oh, come on, Diane. The kid needs it more than you do.”
“You can have my leftovers, but I still need to pay the restaurant bill or my Dad’ll find out I’m not at my study group.”
Max chuckled. “See, we’re not all that different. My old man thinks I’m out looking for a job.”
“My old foster care thinks I’m at a group home,” the kid added.
Everyone turned to Zoe, and she almost smiled. “Library.”