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I am Jason Todd and I am four years old.

Daddy just left. He slammed the door shut and is gone now.

Our apartment—our shitty apartment, Daddy says—is very quiet now.

Mama is sitting on the couch. She is rubbing her shoulder where Daddy pushed her. He pushes her a little too hard sometimes.

You can’t push girls too hard. They’re girls. Boys have to be good around girls. Daddy pushes too hard.

Her other hand is in her lap, but her elbow is sticking out. There’s space. I crawl up on to the couch and push my way into that space. Now Mama’s arm is around me.

That’s better. I hug her, but she doesn’t notice.

So I kiss her shoulder where Daddy pushed her. Kisses make things better sometimes.

She looks down at me and pats my head.

“Sweet baby.” She says.

I smile and hug her again. She hugs me back this time and everything is okay.

Daddy comes back a week later.

“Boy, get in here.” Daddy says.

I run to him. Daddy doesn’t like to wait.

“Me and you are going out, understand? Get your jacket.” He says and pushes me towards his room. Daddy and Mama’s room is the only room with a closet. All of our clothes are in there. My things are littler, so Mama folds them and puts them in the corner where they won’t bother Daddy.

“Where are you taking him, Willis?” Mama says. She is standing in the doorway to the kitchen—the shitty kitchen, Daddy says—and I stop and wait for Daddy to answer because I want to know where we are going too.

“That ain’t none of your damn business, woman.” Daddy says.

“I’m raising the kid, so it is my business!” Mama says back. Mama’s face is angry and red. I don’t like it.

“The boys say we needs a kid, well, I gots a kid! Might as well let ‘im be useful for once in his damn sorry life!” Daddy is mad too. His face is very red. He turns to look at me. “Boy, I told you to get your damn jacket!”

I run to the closet. I can still hear them, I can hear everything in our apartment and the one next door sometimes too.

“What are you going to have him doing, Willis?” Mama shouts.

“He’s just gonna carry somethin’, dammit!” Daddy shouts back.

“Carry what?” Mama’s voice is worried and loud and scared. It’ll be okay. I have my jacket. I’ll go with Daddy and they can stop yelling.

“I don’t have to tell you shit! He’s my damn son! What, you think I’m gonna let him get killed or somethin’? He’s my damn son and I’ll take care of him, dammit!” I walk in and Daddy grabs me by the back of my jacket.

I make a little noise, I don’t mean too, but I didn’t know he was gonna grab me like that. Daddy turns to look at me.

“What, you think I’m gonna hurt you, boy? You scared of your own Daddy? Is that it?” He’s not yelling as loud, but he’s still loud. It is scary, but I shake my head.

“No, Daddy, I’m not scared. I love you, Daddy, I’m not scared.” I say real fast. Daddy lets my jacket go and grabs my hand.

“Good, you ain’t got nothin’ to be scared of, you hear? You’re just gonna carry something for Daddy. And I’ll buy you some damn ice cream or somethin’. You like ice cream, boy?” Daddy says, pulling me towards the door. I look back at Mama.

She hasn’t moved, but her face isn’t red anymore. She turns and walks back into the kitchen.

It’s winter and cold outside, but I say “Yes, Daddy, I love ice cream!”

Daddy pats my head. He pats a little too hard, but that’s okay.

I am Jason Todd and I am five years old.

I have four toys. Two toys soldiers, one yoyo, and one beanie baby dog. He came in a McDonald’s Happy Meal that me and Mama split. His name is Pluto like the planet and he is grey on top and white on bottom.

Pluto is fighting with the soldiers because they think he is a monster because he is so big. They don’t know that he ate too much spinach and it made him grow up way too much.

Mama walks in while Pluto is running away from the soldiers.

“Where’d you get that?” Mama says, pointing to Pluto. She doesn’t give me enough time to tell her before she grabs my wrist and pulls me up. “Where’d you get that? Did you steal it?”

“No, Mama, no!” I shout and try to pull away. “I got it from McDonald’s, remember? It came in our Happy Meal, Mama!”

Mama let’s my go and puts a hand on her head. “Oh.” She says. “I’m sorry, baby. You’re right. I forgot.”

Mama forgets things sometimes, but that’s all right. I’ll remind her.

Daddy is home again. He’s been gone for almost a month.

“Boy, get in here!” Daddy says.

I run. Daddy doesn’t like to wait.

“Yes, Daddy?” I say.

“Where’s Catherine?” he says. Daddy calls Mama Catherine sometimes. I guess that’s okay, since she isn’t his Mama. Just mine.

“She said she was outta her medicine and to stay here. She said she’d be back soon.” I don’t tell him that was almost five hours ago.

“Dammit!” Daddy says, angry-like. He grabs my wrist and shakes me. “Did she take all the damn money with her?”

“No sir!” I say back, trying to pull away.

“Then where is it, boy? Where’s the damn money?” Daddy says, shaking me again.

“I’ll get it, I’ll get it! I hid some so Mama wouldn’t get it! I saved it! I’ll get it!” I shout, trying to pull away. Daddy lets me go.

I run to my room. I haven’t been in there for a while because Mama blocked off my vent. Mama said it was cheaper to heat just one room, that I should sleep with her so we could be warm. Since it was blocked it was the perfect hiding place.

I lay on my belly and stick my arm down in the vent. I feel the sock I hid there and pull it out. I look up and Daddy’s standing there watching me.

I hold up the sock and he takes it and pulls out the money I stuck in there. He counts it out two times before he shoves it back in there and grins at me.

“Good boy, Jason.” He says and pats my head. I smile up at him. “How long has your Mama been gone?”

“Five hours.” I say and he frowns.

“Shouldn’t be takin’ her that long.” He says. “Go get your—”

He stops and looks at me. I am wearing my warm pants and my heaviest jacket, plus socks.

“Shoes.” He says. “go get your shoes. We’re gonna go find your Mama. Hurry up.”

I run to get my shoes. Daddy doesn’t like to wait.

I am Jason Todd and I am six years old.

Daddy comes home less and less now. Sometimes he’s gone for more than a month even.

Mama is getting sicker.

She says “Jason, go get me my medicine.”

And I say. “Mama, I don’t think your medicine is helping you.”

And she says. “I said go get my medicine, dammit! You don’t talk back to me, you little shit!”

I go and get her medicine. She pushes the needle into her arm and smiles after she’s done.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you, baby.” She tells me.

I climb up next to her and curl against her side. “It’s okay, Mama.”

She is quiet for a long time.

“Mama?” I say and, after a second or two, she turns and looks at me. “I don’t think your medicine is helping you. The longer you take it, the sicker you are.”

Mama’s hand lands on top of my head. She tries to pat my head, but does it a little too hard and slow. “Oh, baby.” She says. She sounds like she’s half asleep.

I grab a blanket and put it on her.

There are some ladies that sit on the staircases during the day.

They wear clothes that aren’t very warm, but are very shiny. Daddy calls them hookers.

Sometimes I go down and talk with them when Mama is asleep.

“Hey there, lil J!” one of them says when I walk down.

Her name is Amelia but she says to call her Melly. She grabs me up and wraps her arms around me.

“Hi Melly.” I say. She lays her cheek on top of my head.

“Eww, Melly, stop that! You’ll get lice or something!” one of the other girls says. Her name is Rachael but she says her street name is Rae-Rae and I better not call her anything else.

“I don’t have lice!” I tell her, glaring. I did, once, but Mama shaved my head and now I don’t.

“Leave the kid alone, Rae-Rae. Besides, he’s warm.” Melly says. Suddenly, a man walks around the corner and frowns when he sees us. Rae-Rae stands and Melly puts me down real quick.

“You damn bitches, what the fuck do you think you’re doing? Goofing off in here with some kid? Get the fuck back out there and get some damn customers!” the man says. He shoves Rae-Rae down the rest of the steps. She almost falls, but doesn’t. I don’t like him. You aren’t supposed to hurt girls.

He grabs Melly’s arm and starts to drag her.

“Hey!” I say before I stop to think.

“What? You got something to say, you little shit?” The guy pushes Melly down the stairs too and walks up to me. “That’s real fucking cute!”

He kicks me and I fall, but I don’t yell. Yelling never fixes anything.

“You stay the fuck away from my gals, ya hear, kid?” he doesn’t wait for me to say anything, just walks down the stairs, grabs Melly and Rae-Rae and drags them away.

Pimps. That’s what they’re called. Pimps.

I hate them.

Most of the hookers (that’s a bad word, lil J, call us working girls) are nice to me. They wave when I pass and, if it’s the middle of the day, sometimes they pick me up, sit me in their laps and talk to me.

Melly says her pimp killed her last boyfriend. Aria tells me about the time she stole a lady’s pearls right off her neck while she was kissing her. Roxanne says she doesn’t want to tell no little snot nosed brat nothing but every time I see her she gives me a dollar (you save those, boy. Kids like you always need one more dollar. You better damn well save those, don’t you know where the hell we are?).

Chloe takes me up to her apartment and there is a dirty little kid up there.

She presses five dollars into my hand. “You watch him, okay? You watch him and I’ll give you five more, okay?” she pops her knuckles and looks around the room. “Don’t answer the door for nobody but me, got it? He ain’t got no daddy, no aunts or uncles or nothing. Just me, you only answer the door for me. Okay? Five more dollars when I get back?”

I nod. Mama won’t miss me.

She shakes her head, looks around, and bites her lip. “I’ll be back. You stay here and watch him. I’ll be back.”

Then she leaves.

The little boy is Andrew. He has three Happy Meal toys and we play with them for a while. Someone knocks on the door and I hold my breath. Andrew starts to stand so I pull him back down and put my finger on my lips.

“Andy, open up!” a man’s voice says. “It’s me, Uncle Cooper!” they knock again. “I know you’re home, Andy! Your Mama sent me to get you!”

I grab the kid and run back into the bedroom. There’s a shelf high up in the closet. It looks gross. Who cares? I drag a chair over to stand on and push Andy up on the shelf.

“Stay there. Don’t come out unless I come get you or your Mama does, ‘kay?” I whisper and he nods. I put the chair back and run back to the living room.

“Andy, open up! I know you’re there, you little shit! Open this damn door!” They are banging now. The door rattles. It’s gonna break. I climb out the window, on to the fire escape and close it behind me. I can get back in. I go and sit on the stairs. Out of sight and, if he looks, I’m just another kid.

The door breaks open. I hear him run around, making noise and shouting. No little boy noises though. The guy opens the window.

“Hey, kid, you seen a lil boy come out here?” he asks. His face is red but he’s trying to sound nice.

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t.” I say. “What it worth?”

The guy shoves a twenty at me and I take it, put it in my pocket. “Well?”

“Yeah, little boy, ‘bout this big, ran out here ‘bout ten minutes ago.” I hold my hand up to Andrew’s height.

“Which way did he go?” the man asks and I raise my eyebrow at him.

“Not sure if I saw.”

The man slaps another ten dollars into my hand. I pocket it.

“Told me he was gonna go find his Mama. Went down that’away and turned right.” I say. The man climbs out the window and down the fire escape, following my instructions. I wait til he’s outta sight to go back in.

Andrew’s where I left him but the place is all messed up. Drawers are open and all the clothes are ripped outta the closet. Andrew’s lucky.

“I don’t like him.” The little boy tells me.

Chloe comes back two hours later. We are hiding under some clothes, because the door is broken and anyone walking by could be anyone.

“Andrew? Andrew?!” she calls and we run out. She hugs him very, very tightly and rocks him back and forth, then she hugs me too.

“Thank you, thank you.” She says and presses five more dollars into my hand.

The next week, Mary-Anne tells me Chloe moved away. I go up to her apartment. All three of the Happy Meal toys are still there.

I take them and go home.

I am Jason Todd and I am 7 years old.

Daddy hasn’t been home in five months. Mama said he was in jail.

He comes in while I am not home and neither is Mama. When I come in, his arm is down my vent. When he sees me, he stands.

“Where’s the money?” he asks.

“There isn’t any.” I say and I step back, because he looks very angry. But I have to lie about this. I have to save my money, keep it a secret because Mama and Daddy will spend it all and then there will be no food, no heat, no water, no electricity, no home with no rent.

“Don’t you lie to me, boy!” he yells and walks closer. I back up but I’m not fast enough. He grabs my jacket and shakes me, hard. “Where is it? Where’s all the damn money?”

He doesn’t really know there’s any money. That’s what I tell myself, because he can’t know.

“It’s gone! It’s gone! Mama took it, it’s gone!” I get away and I back up until my back hits the wall.

“You little shit…” Daddy walks closer and his hand is reaching out for me.

I spread my feet out, bend my knees and tuck my elbows. I make two fists with my thumbs on the outside and I hold them in front of me. One good hit and I can get to the door.

And if I can get out, I can get away. I am Crime Alley and she is me. I can hide. Outside, I’ll be safe.

Daddy laughs. “You gonna fight me, boy? You gonna fight Daddy? You little shit.” He turns away from me. I should hit him now while he’s not looking, but I don’t really want to hit him. “If there’s no money, you’re no good to me anyhow.”

He leaves.

And he doesn’t ever come back.

Heather hears about my dad leaving from wherever people hear about things. I heard it called a grape vine once, but things don’t grow in Gotham unless Poison Ivy’s around. And then you wish that they would stop growing.

“Lil J!” she says when she sees me walking pass her corner one day. I stop. Heather is nice to me, so I should be nice back.

She bends over and hugs me. The smell of her drug store perfume curls around me and it smells nice. Like all the girls who call me lil J and need me.

She straightens back up. “Dads suck.” She tells me and I nod. My dad really does suck and Heather’s does too. Probably more than mine. She told me things about her dad once. I guess that’s why she’s on the corner.

“We’re gonna go out and have some fun tonight, though, okay? No room for bad dads. We’re gonna have some fun.” She tells me.

“Aren’t you going to be working?” Nights are much busier than days and I know she needs money. Everyone needs money here.

“We won’t be gone for very long. I told Hossie I’d work late. I want us to go have fun tonight, okay, baby? Let’s go have fun.”

“Okay.” I smile up at her. I wonder what we’re doing?

“Meet me right here at sunset, okay? And you tell your Mama where you’re going, got it?”

Mama won’t be awake and won’t remember even if I tell her, but I promise, so I do.

“I’m going out tonight with Heather.” I tell her. Her eyes are kind of cloudy, so I know she won’t remember, but I tell her. I promised.

A little bit before sunset I put on my warmest sweater over my t shirt and my heaviest jacket. Gotham is always cold and I don’t know where we are going. Then I put on my tennis shoes instead of my boots. I like the boots. I found them in the charity bin at the church down the block and they are a little too big. But they are water proof and you can wear two pairs of thick socks with them.

You can’t run in them, though. Found that out the hard way. Tennis shoes are safer since I don’t know where I’m going.

I run out the door and down to the corner. Heather’s wearing a sweater and jeans, which is nothing at all like what she normally wears. Guess customers don’t want them to be warm.

“Come on, lil Jay, let’s go!” she says. She’s very excited. I hope we’re actually going to have fun and this isn’t some kind of trick.

We walk for a long time, into the nice part of town that’s always lit up with street lights. I feel dirty and gross. The other kids out are wearing nice clothes and everything fits them. There are no stains or holes in their jeans and their hems aren’t fraying at all.

“Keep your head up, baby.” Heather says suddenly. “You ain’t got no room in your head for shame. Don’t ever let them bow your head.” I hadn’t realized I was bowing my head. I look up.

Straight ahead is a new museum. I haven’t been into this part of Gotham in a long time, but I’m sure it hasn’t always been here. The Grand Opening sign is a big clue.

The sign underneath it finally tells me what we’re doing.

Free Admission.

The museum is brand new; a high tech, interactive kids’ museum. Me and Heather run all through it, press every button, pull every lever. It’s more fun than I can ever remember having before.

We end up in a big room filled with people. The grownups all wear suits and carry champagne glasses, but the kids are wearing jeans and jackets, like me, Mine aren’t as nice. I hold my head up high.

“I’m gonna run and grab some of that free punch over there. Will you be okay for a minute?” Heather asks.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Can I have some punch too?” I tell her.

“Of course you can, baby. I’ll be right back. Wait by that pillar there so I can find you, kay?” Heather pushes through the crowd and I walk over to the big column to wait.

Heather’s by the punch bowl when the ceiling shatters. I hear laughter and freeze.

People are running everywhere, screaming and crying. Mamas are grabbing their kids and husbands grab their wives. I see Bruce Wayne, the rich guy from TV, grab that circus boy he adopted and drag him out a side door. Of course they get away. Not me.

Gotham can’t let me have even one good night.

I see Heather. She’s trying to get back over here but I’m the opposite way from where everybody else is running.

A loud bang makes everybody stop.

“That’s better!” The Joker yells out. “I just wanted to pop in for a bit! Everybody looked like they were having so much fun!” the Joker pauses to laugh. “There were smiles on everybody’s faces! I thought I should add my own smile to the mix!” The Joker burst into more loud, crazy laughter as he kicked over the big table in the middle of the room. Underneath it was a big bomb with a smiley face painted on.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” the Joker asks.

“No, it’s crooked!” I hear someone yell. I turn around.

It’s Robin! It’s Batman and Robin!

If I was home, this would be bad. Batman and Robin make everyone shifty. No one wants to get mixed up with anyone else when they’re around because if you talk to the wrong person, next thing you know, Batman has you and wants to know where so-and-so is keeping the hostages and you didn’t even know there were hostages, much less where he’s keeping them.

But I’m not home, I’m here. And the Joker’s here. And if there’s one thing you want Batman for, it’s to get the Joker.

They fight, but everything’s happening too fast for me to tell what’s going on until Robin screams. “Everybody get out!”

Then everybody takes off running again. They run through the doors like a big river of people, tripping over their high heels, stepping on their hems, ripping their nice things up in a panic.

They aren’t smart like me. I knew to wear my tennis shoes and my heavy jacket that doesn’t rip. I knew better than to think I wouldn’t need to run.

But I am small and by myself.

People push me down, push me to the side, pass me by and I have no grownup’s hand to hold, to pull me through the people and keep a tight hold on me.

I am almost very last getting out. I see Robin run and shoot a line into the air, swinging over the heads of the people before me to get out.

I turn around. Where’s Batman?

The Joker’s gone, the laughter’s stopped. But where is Batman?

A black shape tackles me as the world explodes.

Other kids have their Mamas and Daddies to hold them, shield them from the blast, cover their eyes.

I didn’t have anyone.

Batman tackled me.

His chest is thick, like rubber and hard underneath that. His arms aren’t that much better. But his hands are just hands, normal hands covered in thick gloves. One is on the back of my neck and keeps my face pressed into his chest. The other is around my waist. I hear a flapping noise and it is dark.

But I am safe. Batman saved me.

After a long moment, Batman sets me down and stares at me, hard. Robin flips over some of the crowd.

“Are you okay?” he asks, since it looks like Batman won’t and I nod. My face hurts from being smashed and there’s a scratch on my cheek from a man pushing me into a wall, but I’m okay. I always am.

Robin pulls a Batman Band-Aid out of his belt and grins at Batman before leaning over me to stick it on my cheek. “Good as new!”

“Jason!” I hear Heather call and see her running through the crowd towards me.

When I turn back, Batman and Robin are gone.

It was probably still the best night ever after all.

I am Jason Todd and I am 8 years old.

It turns out lots of the hookers (working girls, Jason, don’t be stupid) are like Chloe.

They’ve got little babies they have to leave all alone every night.

Aria is the first one to bring it up. Says something about her baby being sick, about having to work extra hard to buy some medicine for her baby.

“You have a baby?” I ask her, because I didn’t know that.

“My little girl, Adrianna. She’s five years old.” Aria sounds proud, like being five years old is like an award or something.

“Where is she? I’ve never seen her.” I say and she smiles sadly.

“She’s at home. I have to leave my baby home all by herself. Her damn daddy ain’t no account. He ran off and I ain’t seen him since.”

“I could stay with her.” I hear myself saying before I think about it.

“Won’t your mama miss you, lil J?” Aria asks. I shake my head.

“Mama’s sick. She won’t even know.” I say and Aria nods and smiles.

“You’re such a sweetie, lil J!” she hugs me and she smells like drug store perfume. It’s nice.

She takes me back to her apartment and I play with her daughter for the rest the night. She’s got a cold, but I never get sick anymore, which is good, because there’s no one to take care of me. Mama could if she wasn’t sick. She gets sicker and sicker every day.

From there on out, lots of the girls leave their kids with me. They give me money sometimes too. Kids on the street that don’t have no Mamas or Daddys sometimes come and stay too. They sneak in a pretend they are with the other kids. I let them. It’s okay. No one will know and no one will complain.

I press quarters into their hands when I have them. “You save those, okay?” I say, like Roxanne used to say to me.

They nod and are thankful.

I’m glad.

Mother is getting sicker.

I am eight years old.

I am nine when I start to stay out after dark.

We don’t have any money, none at all. The working girls give me some for watching the kids, but it’s not enough. Not when we need food and heat and water and rent. Not when Mama takes any money she finds for her medicine.

Medicine, what a joke. Drugs is more like it. I’m not stupid. I’m not.

But there are people here at night who are.

I steal their wallets and their purses and their dignity. Not that they really had any.

I try to be good. I try to only take from the ones that look like they can afford it. The ones whose hems aren’t frayed, whose shoes have no holes, whose hair isn’t greasy and faces aren’t dirty.

I try.

But I need money for food. And water and rent. Those are the ones I need. Electricity and heat are next, but Mama won’t notice the dark or the cold and we have blankets and jackets. The roof and the water is more important.

I’m so hungry. My stomach doesn’t even rumble any more. It stopped.

Just twenty more dollars. Twenty more and I’ll have enough for rent and water. After that, anything I can find can be for food.

I see a guy and his wallet is practically falling out of his pocket. I sneak up behind him and ease it out. I turn to slip away and he reaches out and grabs me.

“Bad move, kid.” He says and I kick him in the nuts and run.

Around the corner, up the fire escape, through the abandoned apartment down the other side, up another fire escape across the roof to another roof, through the broken access hatch, down into an old office, through a seedy bar. I run and I run and I run. I never look behind me, not ever, you never, ever look back, that’s the rule.

I pause for a breath in the back of a strip joint and there’s no one chasing me. I slip into one of the dressing rooms where Marianne from the corner of 6th and Seville is. She dances here some nights.

Marianne looks at me. “Wha’choo doin’, baby?” she says and blows smoke from her cigarette out the window.

“Runnin’. Lifted a wallet.” I pant. Marianne won’t take it from me, she’s not the type.

“That’s a good boy. What’d ya get?” she leans in and I open the wallet up.

Five twenties.

“Wow.” I breathe out.

“Baby, you hit up someone good! You keep your head down goin’ home, ya hear?” Marianne said. “Here, here, you take my scarf and give it back later.”

Marianne grabs a blue-gray scarf and wraps it around my neck and the bottom of my face.

“Okay.” Say. “Tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there. You get some food, lil J, I can count your ribs, yeah? And don’t let your fool Mama find out ‘bout that cash.”

I nod. “Thanks Marianne.:

“Scat before my boss comes in. You ain’t old enough to be a customer.”

I slink out and hurry home through the back alleys. Tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll pay the landlord. I have just enough for heat too, and a loaf of bread and peanut butter.

I can’t wait.

Money is so hard to come by.

Some people have so much and then some don’t have any at all. Where’s the middle? They have all of it, can’t I have some? Just a little, I don’t need a lot, look how much you have.

Greedy. Everyone’s just greedy.

I’m greedy, I’ll take whatever I can get, all of it, I want it all.

I’m sorry, I really am. I need things though, I’ll take anything, everything. I’m sorry. Just give me something.

There’s a church down the street that gives away clothes. I’ve outgrown my boots so I will give them away. I will miss them, but my feet don’t fit anymore. I tried and tried to keep wearing them, but I can’t fit my heel inside anymore and my toes are squished and….

I’ll give them away. Maybe there are some more shoes that will fit me. Then I will just be trading.

No, there aren’t any, no shoes for me.

My tennis shoes are getting small too.

I have to have shoes, I have to be able to run. This is a church, shouldn’t God look out for me? Shouldn’t God send me some shoes?

Is it because I’m bad and I steal from people? What does God want? I have to steal that money, or there’s no food! No heat, no rent, no water!

We have to have rent and water. We have to not be homeless, if we lose the apartment, I can’t buy another one and Mama wouldn’t be able to. I have to keep the rent paid. And we have to have water. You can only go a little while without water and, if there’s not food, you can fill you belly with water until you can find something. It tricks you into thinking you aren’t hungry and that’s important.

I’m just a kid, I can’t make any money. No one’s looking out for me. I have to steal! What do you want, God?

The preacher sees me over by the donations and now he is walking this way. I hope he doesn’t ask me to leave. It’s warm here.

“Little boy, what are you doing?” he says.

“I’m leaving my boots. They’re too small.” I say. The preacher looks at my feet. Since I’m giving away my boots, I’ll have to walk home without shoes, but that’s okay. At least it’s not wet outside, I’ll just have to make sure not to step on any glass. My socks are already dirty, but I don’t want to tear them too.

“Wait here, please.” The preacher says and he leaves. I wait. Where do I need to go? Nowhere. I have all the time in the world to wait.

The preacher comes back a long time later. I was halfway asleep when he walked over.

He hands me a plastic bag. Inside are boots and a bunch of socks.

“Wow.” I breathe, pulling the boots out to look at them. They look brand new, but there aren’t any tags. I look up at the preacher.

“This is to thank you for leaving your boots here, son.” He says. “Why don’t you try them on?”

I put them on and they are a size or two too big. I put on an extra pair of socks and they fit great.

“Thank you.” I say and the preacher smiles.

“Just promise me you’ll bring them back here when they get too small, okay?” he says and I nod.

“I will, I promise!” I exclaim and he laughs.

“Good boy.” I start to leave and he turns.

“And Merry Christmas, son. God bless.”

I’m shocked for a minute. Is it already Christmas? I shake my head. “Merry Christmas. Thank you!”

I run away before he changes his mind, but he won’t. Christmas! The best and worst time of the year, but I have boots! I have boots!

I listen to Christmas music when I get home. I’ve always liked Christmas music. Somewhere out there, someone is happy and warm and seeing their family. They’re all drinking eggnog and cider by a fireplace. One day, that’ll be me, I know it.

But until then, Christmas music is happy and nice and we never use the radio anyways, so it doesn’t matter if I used up the batteries just a little bit.

I am ten years old and I just lifted my very first set of tires.

I know I shouldn’t be proud. I stole something, I was bad.

But look how much money I made! I can pay the rent! I can pay for water! But, best of all, I can have the heat cut back on!

It’s been so cold out. Mama doesn’t notice, but I sure do. I don’t have enough for electricity this month, not yet anyways, but who needs it? It’s light enough during the day and I’ll just go to sleep when it gets dark. Or go outside. The street lights are always on, nobody pays electricity for them. Or the city does.


If I stole another set of tires, I might have enough for electricity too, though. I need my own tire iron, the hack that had me help him took his with him.

There’s an auto place about 15 blocks from here. If I only eat bread this week, no peanut butter, then I might have enough to buy one. I’ll walk tomorrow and see.

 Stealing tires only works well if you don’t get caught.

That’s okay, though. I learned. I’ll do better next time. My face won’t hurt forever and I learned.

I’m a smart kid, you only need to teach me a lesson once.

 Mama is very, very sick.

I’m going to take her to the clinic.

Mama, Mama, please get up, please. Mama, please, just stand up, just help a little! Mama!

How can I take you if you won’t help? How? You’re too big, Mama, you’re too heavy. Please! Mama!

 I make it to the clinic. I don’t know how. I make it to the clinic.

Too bad they’re good for nothing!

I got her all the way here! Don’t they understand? That was the hard part, they’re supposed to fix her! They’re doctors, aren’t they?

“I’m sorry.” Says the lady doctor. Her eyes are sad. I don’t care.

“I don’t fucking care, you damn hack!” I say, because no one is around to tell me to watch my language. No one will be disappointed if they ever hear.

They won’t hear. They aren’t waking up.

She’s not waking up.


“Do you have anyone…” the lady starts.

“I can take care of myself! Leave me alone! Just fucking leave me alone!” I run away.

It’s not like Mama was helping. It’s not like she paid the rent or bought food or anything. I can take care of myself. It’ll be easier now, since I don’t have to worry about her. It’ll be so…much…easier….

The bed smells like her.

“M-mama.” I choke out.

I shouldn’t cry.


I’m hungry and I’m cold and the landlady knows my Mama’s….gone. She’s gonna kick me out, any day now, she’s gonna kick me out.

I’d like to see her try!

But her boyfriend is big and tough and I’m just…Jason Todd.

I’m a smart kid, I know I am, but smart doesn’t help you when they get their hands on you. I know, I learned that lesson, you only have to teach me once.

I’m so hungry. I can see my ribs, I can count all of them.

Everything hurts.

But the water’s still on. They haven’t kicked me out yet and I paid for that water.

I will go and fill my belly with water until it stops hurting.


“Todd.” I wake up and the landlady’s standing there. Her hands are on her hips and her boyfriend is standing behind here. “Get your shit and leave, kid. I ain’t renting to no snot nosed punk.”

I stand up and ball up my fists. “Why not? I’ve kept the rent paid! I don’t leave no trash lying around outside or stink up the place like Maurice! Why can’t I stay?”

She runs a hand through her dirty hair and frowns. “Look, kid, I know you’re good for it, but you ain’t old enough to rent by yourself. So unless you’re hiding another damned drug addict in here, you gots ‘ta leave, got it?”

“Don’t talk about my Mama that way!” I shout. I can feel my eyes burning, but crying never did anyone no good.

“I’ll talk about her anyway I damn well want to! She’s a damn fool who stole from her own kid ta shoot ‘erself up with drugs and I’ll talk about her how I damn well please!” the lady shouts back. “Now get the hell outta here, kid. Ya don’t live here no more.”

Juan, her boyfriend, takes a step forward and glares. Under both of their eyes, I gather my important things. Jacket and shoes and all of my clothes that will fit into my pillowcase. I take the blankets off the bed and the knives Daddy left under the mattress such a long time ago. I take my tire iron. I take the Happy Meal toy me and Mama got together and stick it in my pocket. I take a picture of Mama from before I was born and stick that in there too. After I’m done, I go to the kitchen. I paid for this water, dammit. I’m gonna get one last drink of it.

Juan stands behind me as I drink and drink until I can’t anymore.

“You done yet, kid?” the landlady asks and I nod.

I walk out of the only place I had to call home. And I know I will never come back.


I think to myself. I think ‘one of the girls will let me stay’.

I think it might be true. I can make money. I won’t eat much. I’ll watch the kids, for free, for free, for free. I’ll get clothes from the charity box at the church. I just need a place. I’ll take care of myself, I always have.

So I ask. And they say ‘just for a night or two’. No one says yes. I can’t blame them. I want to be angry, I want to hate them.

But…but how can I? I know…I know how things are, ok? Fucking pimps and pushers and boyfriends. Just a night or two, then. That’s fine. There’s five of them I trust and eight of them that would house me. The three I don’t trust…I’ll sleep in the room with their babies. They’ve got enough shame not to do nothing their babies might see. They got enough shame for that.

Sixteen nights. Two weeks. I’ll need something to sleep on. I’ll need a corner of the world that will be safe—safe enough. Somewhere small. I ain’t had nothing to eat in 3 day and I can count my ribs. I might as well put my skinniness to use. Find somewhere I can fit and big guys can’t follow.  I’ll need to find somewhere that I can get water. You die without water. You die without food, too, but you have longer. You have time to panic and plot and beg and steal. You have time.

I…there’s a lot to do. A lot to do. Micah and Boo and Les, I used to watch them sometimes. They’re mama’s cousin tracked them down last spring and they got big with food to eat. The landlady threw our mattress out yesterday, but I can’t carry it by myself.

Those three will help me. I protected them from the old man when they stole some fruit from him and I gave them quarters when I had them. They’ll help me.


The place I’m set up in is an old service hatch near the theater. It’s small, really small. If I were a grown up, if I were even as tall as Marianne, I would have to duck. I’ve got things figured out, though. I don’t have to pay for rent anymore, I can use all my money for food and other things.

I have a flashlight and half of my mattress, I had to cut it because it wouldn’t fit. I used one of the knives that I took from home, but it took forever to cut it, hours of just sawing and ripping. But it fits. It’s a little small, but it covers the floor, which is good enough. I have lots of blankets, but I don’t think I’ve taken off my coat in a week. That’s okay. I used some of what would’ve been rent money to buy a lock. It’s not great, but it keeps the drunks out. Anyone who tries will be able to get in, but I won’t leave anything important.

The clinic is down the street. Once a day, I go in to use the bathroom there and drink water. I try to go when it’s busy so they don’t notice me. I’m so tired all the time. I’m sure its because I’m cold. It was so much warmer back in the apartment and when I was really cold, I could curl up next to Mama…..


I won’t cry, I won’t cry, I won’t cry!

I’m fine. I’m doing fine.

I need new clothes so I will go to the church and look in the charity bin tomorrow.


I’m starting to run out of money. I can’t run out of money, not now! But the cops have been all over this place, lately. And whether they’re crooked or not, I’ll still get in some kind of trouble if they catch me boosting tires. Whether it’s getting sent to juvie or something…else.

The crooked ones are the worst. I got caught by them once. Wanted me to do them a favor for not hauling me off to jail. I’m not stupid. I know what kind of favor they meant. Roxanne was nearby and she hollered something at them ‘Hey, boys, I promise I’mma nicer ride than some brat! An’ prettier to look at too!’ and I ran away when they looked at her.

Don’t wanna deal with no cops but…

I can’t…I can’t keep this up. I’m so cold, I have to eat. If I don’t eat, I won’t be able to handle being cold. All the water in the world won’t save me. But I only have twenty dollars left. I have to do something, anything.


There’s a guy down the street that sometimes pays me to help him watch for thieves. Sometimes he pays me with money, sometimes with food. I’ll take either.

“Sorry, kid, I ain’t got the money to bring you on today. Prices went up again. And the protection money’s due soon. I wish I could, but you know how it is.” He says.

It would be great if my stomach would rumble right now, to prove how much I needed him to change his mind. But my stomach learned to stop doing that a long time ago.

“There isn’t anything?” I ask and he shakes his head.

“I’ll give you some advice, though. Stay away from the theater tonight.” The man says, casting his eyes around shiftily.

“Why?” I ask. Maybe there’s a turf war going down tonight. Sometimes they pay street kids to come for extra numbers. That would be great. If I did a good job, one of the gangs might even take me in. Say what you want to about the gangs, but they wouldn’t let me starve if I was one of them.

“I didn’t say nothing, kid. Just stay away from down there if you know what’s good for ya. Now git lost!” the man took a swipe at me. He wants me gone now, so I run off.

I can’t stay away from the theater, though, so there’s no point. My home is near the theater and I’m not sleeping anywhere else just because of some shopkeeper who won’t give me a damn job.


I need money. I need food.

I told myself I’d stay in tonight, since something was supposed to to happen, but I can’t. I need to find some way to make some cash. I have to. I’m so skinny, I think I can see my heart beat through my ribs. I’m hungry. I’m cold. And I’m going out. Someone, somewhere, has to have something I can snatch and sell.

I know that car.

That’s Batman’s car.

……His tires have to be worth a lot more than normal ones.

I’m almost done. Almost….

“What do you think you’re doing?” a voice growls.

Well, this sucks.