I hate that look.
The look of pity and disgust that always crosses their faces whenever they see my neighborhood. It's only there for a moment, but I hate it.
The only thing I hate more than that look is my neighborhood itself. I'd never admit it, but it disgusts me too. The dingy buildings with half the windows boarded up, the streets stained with brown clumps of tobacco and strewn with pieces of trash, the lingering smell of alcohol and uncleanliness that lingers even on the freshest day…
I can hardly blame my friends for making that look, but it's my home and no one can hate it but me.
People make assumptions about this part of the city; think we're all hooligans who will steal your car – and your money – just for the heck of it. Like we all really wear hoodies and do drugs and carry switchblades in our pockets.
As a matter of fact, my block is pretty civilized, with the exception of a few old drunks who go crazy now and then. Maybe a couple of kids will smoke behind one of the buildings, or build a bonfire or something, but nothing out of control. We keep to ourselves and don't stick our noses where they don't belong and, of course, we always stay away from the abandoned gym.
I grit my teeth and allow my palm to be high-fived painfully. "Hey Owen."
Now, like I said, my neighborhood is good, more or less, but Owen and his posse are the less. They're always up to something and almost never apart. Even now I could see the rest of them skulking a few feet away.
"What's up, my bro?"
Owen shakes his head, his long hair shaking with it. "You're not gonna catch the fight? Shame, man."
I hesitate. I used the homework excuse the last two times he asked me. Any more and I risk being targeted as a wimp. "I've still got time."
"All right!" He does a fistpump and turns around, jerking his head at his gang. "It's too bad you couldn't make the last one. It was pretty awesome. You got money, right?"
I nod. Money's necessary around there. Even if I don't bet on the fight, I might need to bribe someone not to talk.
"Good. You never know, might meet a girl and need to buy her something." He winks and a grin stretches across his baby face, giving him that innocent look that always gets him out of trouble. "I hear Cheryl's gonna be there."
I pretend to look interested, but the girls who go to the fight aren't my type. Nothing about the fights is my type.
"I thought Cheryl was with Bruno." Cogan, the biggest, most intimidating member of Owen's gang falls into step with us.
"Nah, man, that was over months ago..."
I tune them out and concentrate on what I'm going to tell my uncle. As a rule, he's pretty laid back, but he doesn't want me mixed up with Owen any more than I do. Sometimes, he's a little too overprotective. He really loved my mom and dad; he doesn't want to lose me too.
"...at the party. Hey, Dash, why weren't you there?"
I give a little start. "Um...Track meet."
Owen nods, buying it for now. "It was pretty wild. You would have had fun."
I doubt it.
I don't exactly know why Owen likes me...I avoid him as much as possible. Maybe because of my speed – I'm not called Dash for nothing. It could be that he needs someone to be able to run fast away from whoever he pisses off. Whatever reason, he's always super-nice to me, even occasionally sticking up for me in school.
"So, which one do you think is gonna win?" Owen asks me, determined to keep me in the conversation at all costs.
"Oh, you know me. Whichever one can run the fastest."
They all laugh. It really wasn't that funny, but they've got to at least pretend they like me. If Owen says jump, these guys say how high. It's kind of weird, since he's a good six inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter than the smallest of them.
"Okay, stay cool." We've reached the gym by this point and Owen knocks on the door. They still use secret knocks, but they change it about once a month.
After he's done, the door opens and we step inside the dimly lit hallway. There's maybe two flickery light bulbs illuminating the stained tile floor and rough brick walls. There's also a smell...one of old rubber and mildew. My nose automatically wrinkles and my lip curls.
"Great, isn't it?" Owen nudges me and winks.
I roll my eyes and shove his elbow away, grinning. I have to grin – being Owen's friend is bad enough without being his enemy.
We make our way through the small corridor towards the dull roar of the crowd. The fight hasn't started yet, as the halls are deserted, but spectators still show up early, not wanting to miss a moment.
We enter through one of the side doors and fight our way through the fidgety crowd toward some of Owen's buddies. As promised, Cheryl is there, along with three or four of her friends. They're all skinny bimbos with fake smiles, and the very fact that they enjoy the fights is enough to turn me off.
"Heyyy." Cheryl smiles at Owen. "I was wondering when you were gonna show up. It starts in two minutes."
"I'm always fashionably late." He sits down next to her, casually placing a hand on her leg. Say what you will, the boy is smooth. "You know Dash, right?"
"Oh yeah! You're the kid – "
I know what she's about to say, so I cut her off. "Yeah. Hi."
They can see that I'm not interested in talking, so they make some minor bets and laugh at each other's choice. I tune them out, staring into the arena. I know I shouldn't be here and already my stomach's twisting...
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!" The loudspeaker roars and the crowd screams. I smirk a little. These people are the exact opposite of ladies and gentlemen.
"FOR YOUR VIEWING PLEASURE – " I snort. "WE PRESENT TO YOU TWO OF THE MOST FEROCIOUS, FASTEST AND FURIOUS FIGHTERS OF FIRE!" Oh, real clever. "WITHOUT FURTHER ADO – LET THE BATLE BEGIN!"
Two doors open in the ring. Out of one gallops a horse – well, it looks like a horse, but its mane and tail seem to be made out of fire and it runs much faster than any horse I've ever seen. Owen jerks his thumb at it and winks at me. "Bet you're rooting for that one, huh?"
I force a laugh.
The other door opens to reveal what looks like a cross between a tiger and a dog. Its fur is standing on end and it does certainly look ferocious...but like all the other creatures in the fights, you can see signs of abuse and cruelty.
I guess they fight, but I don't watch. I can't watch. I stare at my feet instead, trying to block out the squeals of pain and cheers of the mob around me. The temperature is starting to rise, probably from the fire the animals are shooting at each other, and I feel more and more uncomfortable every minute.
All at once, the hoots from the stands turn to gasps and screams. I lift my eyes to see everyone, including Owen and his gang, standing up and falling over each other to get to the exit. As I look around some more, I see why.
A police officer is standing in the protected box above the arena, holding a megaphone and probably shouting something. I can't hear him over the collective roar, but I know what this means. Already I can see other cops grabbing people at random and putting them in handcuffs.
I curse and stand up. I knew I shouldn't have come! They arrest anyone even remotely involved with these animals – after all, they're not even supposed to exist – and getting arrested was not my plan for the day.
I usually rely on my speed to get me out of tight situations like this, but it's impossible to run in the flood of people. I squirm around some and push past others, trying my best to get to a door, any door. I've long since lost sight of Owen, but that's more of a relief than anything.
Finally, my fingers close around a doorknob and I stumble out into an alley that's strangely deserted. I hunch over for a second, trying to get my breath back and my heart to beat normally...
...when I hear a faint whimper.
I raise my head, slowly.
It looks like a puppy. It looks almost exactly like a puppy, except it has four tails. It probably had more at one point, but the others are missing, leaving odd spaces between the ones that remain. It's bruised and starved, like all the other creatures, and bleeding from one paw.
We stare at each other for a minute. Then it whimpers again and tries to run away. It doesn't get far, though, before its bad paw gives out and it collapses.
My breath is back now and I should leave, but...
The puppy looks at me again and lets out a short, weak bark.
Don't do it, man, don't do it...
I hear footsteps behind me and suddenly, there's no time for thinking anymore. I scoop up the puppy, stuff it in my jacket and take off.
Whoever it was never even saw me. I'm not called Dash for nothing.