Rabid’s fingers itched from the pills as he picked up the comic book, but it was better than withdrawal. He flipped through the latest issue of Superman, his other hand scratching its own fingers. The toad-faced beanpole they had staffing the Louisa Mini Mart was eyeballing him through the bulletproof glass, but fuck it: it was better than withdrawal. Rabid had a lot of names to describe the agony of opiate withdrawal—thorny bones, fire balloons, having kittens—that would win a laugh from his foster family. They thought it was cute.
At thirteen, Rabid was done with cute. He tugged his lips into a scowl, rubberized by the Oxycotin, for toad-face. Stocky and sweltering with tattoos and a patchy shaved head, Rabid radiated what he was—a young gangster.
Tight as he thought he was, Rabid didn’t notice the taller kid sidling up beside him to the magazine rack.
“Go ahead and ball with the dog.” Rabid growled at toad-face.
“What’s that?” said the kid behind him.
Rabid’s heart missed a tick and stuck on a higher tempo. The itchy fingers went cold. He turned on the kid, assaulted with nightmares of being caught with a gun barrel in his face—just like his adopted dad, Pook, went out.
“You want to say that again?” The kid said.
Rabid slouched in his sagging shorts with relief. The kid was his age or younger, with no ink on him. He was no soldier.
That meant Rabid could just flick him away and relax.
“No,” Rabid muttered. “And you ain’t going to make me.”
He could get back to his reading now—or, at least, the pictures. In this issue, Rabid was delighted to see, Supes was getting it right: He had manned up and decided to control the world, using his super speed and strength to stop all crime and any crime before it happened. Now that was love for the game in Rabid’s opinion: No fear. No mercy. No holding back. You had to protect your own with all you had, or some punk would always step up to take it.
A bump from the kid’s chest broke Rabid’s literary reverie.
“Why you fronting?” The kid had embers in his eyes now, the kind of glow Rabid knew all too well from the bowls of crack pipes.
“Why you coming at me?” Rabid gave the kid a glance from his Keds to his corn rows. Was he a soldier after all? Some new Grubs recruit, or Florida District trash from the Funk crew? There was no telling—without tattoos, the kid dressed like any other Desire boy: Black shorts, white tank top. Rabid thought he recognized him from math class, but the pills made any other connection too buttery to figure.
“Well, what’d you say to me?”
“What’d I say when?” Rabid didn’t want to smash with this fool. He just wanted to read his comic. He ached for the four-color refuge of Superman’s quest for ultimate justice. And his foster mom, Lexi was cooking smothered chicken for him tonight.
“Right now, dog.”
“I ain’t your dog.”
Fear was crackling up from his gut, though. Something had to be done.
“Then why you all up at me?” The kid’s face went wild, all its strings twitching.
“Damn, fool, step the fuck off before I split your wig.” Rabid hoped the fear didn’t show in his voice. He concentrated on shoveling anger over it.
“What?” The kid screeched. “It’s fool now?”
Rabid squinted, trying to get a grip on what was cooking off in the kid’s eyes. Was he flying on pills? Or was it the pills Rabid had taken that were making him see all that mad light?
Was it time to throw down?
“Look, motherfucker,” Rabid shot a cautious glance at the kid’s hands. They were twitching, hungry. “You don’t want to try to take a piece when you ain’t big enough to sit at the table, you feel me?”
The kid flinched back. Rabid figured the blaze in this boy for fear. Good. Fear he could handle.
A moment later, the kid’s hands shoved him. The comic went sprawling.
“I got a foot on your ass and about ten pounds on your balls, bitch.” The kid said but it came out like a record spun too fast. Rabid’s mind was spinning, too.
“Just walk on out of here.” Both said in unison.
“You first!” Rabid tried to put the gravel back in his voice from where the shove had scattered it.
“Imitating me?” The kid whined.
Was it fear? Anger? Both? Rabid shook with the realization that it was past mattering.
“Cocksucker!” Rabid yelled. “I just want you out of my face!”
“You don’t want to fight with me!” The kid wailed over Rabid. “I just up in here trying to read Superman, bitch!”
“The fuck you think I was doing?” Rabid got his fists up just in case. His heart was pumping ice and he strained—bore down from his thick neck to his Fruit of the Looms—to get angry; angrier than he was afraid. He had to. It was that or end up with Lexi and Lars and all the rest of his family bawling over his broken bones in the Bywater ER.
“Getting up in my face!”
This was about his family. Rabid had to protect them. He had to use the only superpower he had—fury.
“I’ll knock your dumb-fuck face to the back of your head,” Rabid yelled, “you don’t act the bitch you is and scamper out of here with your tail between your legs!”
Rabid whirled inside. The Oxycotin speeded the carousel. His family’s faces watched him like a gallery.
The kid pulled back a fist and, strong as they looked, those faces flinched.
It got Rabid mad. The kid’s knuckles bounced off a head already driving for his throat.
Rabid’s brow caved in the kid’s throat. The kid toppled with a gasp.
Splayed on the floor like a paper doll, the kid bucked, his whole body snatching for air. His hands snatched at Rabid. Rabid snatched what was on hand; next thing he knew, Rabid was swinging a coffee pot from the Mini Mart dispenser for the kid’s head.
“You had to get crazy on me, bitch?”
The glass exploded on the kid’s shoulder with a pop that startled Rabid. Fear clawed its way through the cracks. Ice raked his mind. He smelled blood and his young body shook with the terror that it could be his.
No way he was letting that happen. No way was this kid going back to his crew or his family or the cops to rat on Rabid. No way was he going to put his family—himself—in risk like that.
“How crazy is this shit now, huh?” Rabid snarled at the kid’s airless eyes as he shoved the broken glass still lancing from the pot handle into the kid’s neck.
Crazy didn’t cover what Rabid saw next—brown skin opening like on Lexi’s smothered chicken, blood spurting out like in the Saw movies, the sight of strangely pale strings inside the kid’s neck popping. Rabid felt terror on him like an animal. He did the only thing he could—he shoved harder.
The kid didn’t stop gurgling and spurting. Even after Rabid hit bone. Even after he took a breath that lit up his mind with what he’d done.
“Oh you fucking bitch.” Rabid whispered.
Rabid stepped off of the kid with a gasp. He looked down at the mess. He twitched along with it.
He had to get away. The pills’ usual quiet was all burnt away. He had to get to where quiet lived on pantry shelves and patched couches—had to get home.
Rabid turned to see toad face cringing behind the glass. He saw the fear glowing from the man in four-color intensity. He saw what the man saw now: his clothes jeweled in blood spray. His body machined hard. His face even harder.
Rabid knew then he would either love that reflection or let it haunt him the rest of his days.
He forced himself to grin inside. His face was too stiff to move. It felt invulnerable.
“I’ll serve you up a cup of the same, you call the cops in on me.” Rabid yelled through the glass. He lunged for it, feeling he could break on through. “I wake your motherfucking kids up with my homebrew, toad-ass!”
Rabid fought the pull of the pills to side-step the counter at the last second. He bounded out the door. It chimed goodbye.
His heart chimed in reply.
This was it, Rabid thought as he bounced down Pleasure Street toward home. Terror still wailed like a baby in his veins—a baby with his voice—but he smothered it with resolve. He had no choice.
He had a family to protect. He knew he would protect it with blood. It was a lesson he always knew he would have to learn, growing up in Desire. Now the first issue of his own comic book had arrived.
Hero or villain—it depended on who won the fight. Rabid would not hold back.
“Put the stove on, Lexi!” Rabid yelled at the snarl of wild yards and the broken teeth of crumbling tenements that grinned all around. “Your boy’s coming home a man!”
MATTHEW C. FUNK is a social media consultant, professional marketing copywriter and writing mentor. He is the editor of the Genre section of the critically acclaimed zine, FictionDaily, and a writer for FangirlTastic and Spinetingler Magazine. Graduate of the Professional Writing MFA at USC, Funk’s online work is featured at sites such as A Twist of Noir; Thrillers, Killers and Chillers; Flash Fiction Offensive; ThugLit; Powder Burn Flash; Pulp Metal Magazine and www.matthewfunk.net.