The dumpster reeked of mold and urine. Ryland cringed at the thought of touching the lid, let alone diving inside for the day-old bread that he’d watched the man in the white apron chuck into it a few minutes ago. He used to think caviar and snails were the worst thing he’d ever have to eat.
The sharp hunger pains wreaking havoc on his belly quickly overcame his disgust. If it meant the cramps and aching would go away, he’d have eaten the bread out of the toilet at this point.
It was harder than he’d thought it would be to open the lid. Even when he stretched up on tiptoes, he couldn’t quite get the heavy black plastic cover to stay open, and it fell more than once, nearly catching his fingers. He couldn’t afford a hospital bill, and each time he had to yank his hands back, he grew even more nervous. Finally, though, he got it to stay.
But then it was a struggle to clamber up onto the narrow edge.
It smelled worse up here, with the added bonus of him being able to see the ruptured garbage bags hip deep in the bottom, spilling out rotted food and sticky, oozing trash. Ryland didn’t want to even begin to guess what it was.
The loaves of bread, thankfully, were resting at the top. Riley could only hope the plastic wrappings had kept them safe for consumption. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d gotten food poisoning since running away, but surely there was a limit to how many times he’d get lucky enough to survive it. He wished his fancy private school had taught him important things like that, rather than who the third President of the United States had been.
His real question was how he could get the bread out without actually getting into the dumpster—since once he was in, he was pretty sure he was going to be stuck there. Trash pickup had been two days before, leaving the dumpster just empty enough he’d never be able to climb out. Maybe if he was taller…or stronger.
Then again, if he’d been either of those things, he wouldn’t have had to run away.
Finally, Riley decided to just lean forward and hope for the best. It was, unfortunately, nowhere near close enough to reach anything. Before he could come up with a better plan, though, an angry man yelled from far too close. “Hey, you! The fuck do you think you’re doing in there? Get your ass down!”
Well, Ryland got down all right—very quickly and not entirely in the way he’d intended. But at least he had the rotund angry man to break his fall. The man grunted, but before he could grab Ryland with his flailing hands, Ryland was off, running toward the street at a dead sprint.
His heart thudding, he didn’t stop moving until he reached the Walmart parking lot and the sound of footsteps had been lost somewhere behind him. His breath was ragged, and his chest was on fire, but he was—well, not safe. He was never safe on the streets, but at least he wasn’t about to be beaten by a baseball bat or anything.
Ryland stared wistfully at the grocery doors but turned away. For the past three days, he’d been camping—if it could be called camping without a sleeping bag, tent or campfire—in the back of the lot, tucked between two piles of discarded pallets.
The blacktop was hot and hard, the semis spewed exhaust, thick and foul, whenever they drove in and out, and yesterday, he’d almost been impaled by a forklift. But at least here, nobody had stolen the last bit of change from his pocket, and he was yet to have woken up with a stranger’s hand down his pants. The other homeless people he saw stayed on the opposite end of the parking lot, probably because it was farther from the building.
Riley crawled under his usual propped-up pallet, knowing it was too early to sleep but too tired to do anything else. Maybe things would turn around after a short nap.
* * * *
“Dude, you gotta wake up.”
Rough hands forced Ryland awake, and immediately, he looked around for the fire or whatever emergency was causing the stranger to shake him like a nearly empty bottle of nail polish.
“Go away,” Ryland said around a yawn when he didn’t see anything worth worrying about in the darkened lot. It had to be nearing midnight.
“The cops are clearing us all out. Unless you want to spend the night in a holding cell, it’s time to go.” The stranger sounded serious enough that Ryland finally pushed himself to his feet and followed, his mind foggy. It didn’t seem to matter how long he slept lately, he still always woke exhausted.
The stranger who’d woken him was younger than Ryland thought, he realized as he followed him across the parking lot and onto the sidewalk, skirting the flashing lights near the doors. Fifteen or so, Ryland guessed. Only a year or two older than Ryland, and almost as scrawny. The kid had floppy ginger-blond hair and crooked glasses, a hole-ridden backpack over his shoulders.
He also had a scowl on his face when he turned the corner, grabbing Ryland’s arm and pulling him to a stop in the shadows of a boarded-up restaurant. “Are you new?”
“New to what?” Ryland asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he yawned again.
“The streets,” the strange boy answered, a pitying look on his face that made Riley scowl. “’Cause sorry-not-sorry, no throwaway I know would be able to sleep through those sirens.”
“How’d you even know I was there?” Riley asked instead of answering, unwilling to admit that he wasn’t cut out for life on the streets. He was going to make it, he had to. He refused to go home.
He was genuinely curious how the kid had known he was there, since he’d thought he was doing such a good job staying out of sight. The forklift operator hadn’t even spotted him, and he’d nearly run Ryland over.
“I keep an eye on things. Saw you been going back there for the last few days and got curious. Where’s your kit?”
“Kit?” Riley asked, confused.
“Blanket? Backpack? Change of underwear? Where’s your shit, kid? Did it get stolen?”
Ryland felt his face turn scarlet, heat burning his cheeks. “Uh…yeah,” he lied. “It got stolen.” He would prefer not to admit that he’d left his backpack behind on the bus by accident. He’d been too worried about getting as far away from his dad as possible, as quickly as possible, to remember to grab it from the overhead compartment.
“And I suppose you need to eat, too,” the stranger said, phrasing it more like a statement of fact than a question. Ryland’s stomach growled immediately at the thought of food, too loud to deny.
The older boy sighed, shifting his backpack on his shoulders. “Fine. You can tag along with me, but you better pull your weight. You gotta pretty face, but it won’t get you far if you don’t learn how to use it.” The stranger started walking, seeming to trust that Ryland would follow—or not really caring if he didn’t.
Ryland jogged after the older boy. “What’s your name? I’m Ryland.”
The stranger stopped and sighed even louder, spinning on his heel to glare at him. “No, it’s not. Not on the streets. You can be Billy or Johnny or Riley…but not Ryland. You leave your real name back at whatever home you left, unless you don’t got no one looking for you—or I suppose unless you want to be found real quick.”
“Riley… My name’s Riley,” Ryland—now Riley—corrected. He felt lighter as he said it, like the new name made him someone fresh, someone new.
“Nice to meet you, Riley. You can call me Sage.” He held out his hand to shake, squeezing Riley’s tight when he did. “First rule of the streets is don’t trust no one.”
Which…was a bit odd, coming from someone Riley was following blindly to an unknown location.
“So how do I know I can trust you?” Riley asked.
Sage grinned, wide and vicious, his blue eyes glinting under the streetlamps. “Exactly.”
* * * *
The streets were scary, but not so much anymore, not since Riley started staying with Sage. The older boy had taken him under his wing—pseudo adopted him after that first night. He didn’t realize how grateful he should be until he learned that Sage didn’t usually pick up strays.
Riley didn’t know why Sage was letting him tag along, but he slept easier now that he wasn’t crashing alone. The basement of the flop house wasn’t exactly safe, but no one messed with Sage, and by default, that meant no one messed with him.
Which was probably why the thought of Sage leaving him for the afternoon had him in a panic. As soon as Sage said he was heading out to make some money, Riley had freaked, clinging to Sage like a barnacle.
“Where are you going?” Riley asked, hating the sour notes of fear too easy to hear beneath his words.
Sage adjusted his tiny black shorts, tugging the waistband lower to widen the strip of pale skin between them and his hot pink crop top, but he didn’t shove Riley off. “I’m going to get us something to eat. I want you to stay here.”
Riley protested, but eventually Sage got fed up. As soon as he raised his voice, Riley backed down, letting him go and dropping down on Sage’s sleeping bed in silence, his heart pounding. He shouldn’t make Sage mad, not when so much of what he had right now—a too-hot place to sleep that kept him out of the sun, a soft sleeping bag to lie on, food—came from him.
Sage sighed and crouched down in front of him, his expression gentling. “I’m sorry I yelled, kid.”
Riley liked it when Sage called him that. It was like he was acknowledging that Riley didn’t have to have everything figured out. He could make mistakes, and Sage would help him.
Sage continued talking, “But where I’m going isn’t particularly nice, and I can’t watch my back and yours at the same time.”
Riley nodded, but his stomach dropped at the thought of Sage going somewhere dangerous. So, he waited until Sage was out of the room to stand up and creep along after him.
Sage never had to know Riley was following, but if he got in trouble, Riley wanted to be able to help.
It was late—that time of night when the restaurants were closing down, but the bars were just getting busy and the sidewalks were just crowded enough to give Riley cover. He stayed just close enough to keep the neon pink shirt in his view.
When they got where they were going—the corner of Twelfth and Chicon—he didn’t understand, not at first. It didn’t seem dangerous. The white bricks behind Sage looked freshly painted, a brilliant contrast to Sage’s bright clothing.
Riley didn’t dare get any closer, knowing that if he did, he’d risk getting spotted. Instead, he stayed by the bus station, trusting in the shadows to keep him out of sight. Then, he watched.
He didn’t understand why Sage kept walking up to cars that slowed down, rolling his hips and trailing his fingers over his skin. He’d lean into passenger windows, exchange a few words, then the car would drive away.
He didn’t understand, until he did, but by then it was too late. Sage climbed into the car, and it drove away, turning into an alley a few streets down. By the time Riley, out of breath from running, sprinted around the corner, Sage was climbing out of the backseat, his hair mussed as he pulled his shorts up.
Sage’s gaze met his and narrowed.
Riley swallowed around the lump in his throat, cringing when Sage mouthed, “Go home.”
He looked angry, but more than that, Riley thought there was a hint of shame hiding under the expression, which made him feel so much worse. It was the only reason he ducked back around the corner, his heart pounding, and headed back to the squat.