The shrill screech of a stray cat startled fifteen-year-old Patrick Newell. He turned as it hissed in the darkness of the alley, casting an eye over the gloomy urbanity behind him as he tried to remind himself why he'd chosen this shortcut. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged his coat higher onto his shoulders as though it could hide him. Let's just get this over with.
He walked on. Exiting the alley, he looked from side to side at the multistory brick tenements with their arched windows and steel fire escapes. To calm his nerves, he entertained memories of walking the same streets with his parents years earlier–shops–theaters–ethnic restaurants. But the city had changed over the years. It had become more dangerous and the businesses had fled.
He chose a direction. The in-window heating units in many of the apartments hummed as he made his way down the sidewalk, pulling his quilted coat even closer as a biting wind carried the musty smell of recent rains and the odor of the few remaining take out joints. Steam rose from grates in the concrete and the street lights flickered causing his shadow to appear and disappear in random places.
“Hey, mister. Gimme a dollar.”
A shaggy blond-haired man wearing a grungy tank top and sagging red jeans stood from a crate near the mouth of an alley.
“C'mon. How 'bout it? Just one dollar.”
Patrick crossed the street and glanced back to be sure the man hadn't followed him. The bum stood with his hand out but hadn't moved far.
“What are ya, hard o' hearing? You don't speak English?”
Patrick ignored him and walked on intently. Just two more blocks. A street light flickered and a cast shadow retreated. He looked to the rooftop above him. Hmm. Nothing. He quickened his pace. The southeast side wasn't a place to linger.
“Hey. Didn't you hear the man?”
Patrick stopped in his tracks. A man wearing a yellow #43 basketball jersey and black board shorts stood in the center of the sidewalk, blocking his path.
“I–I don't want any trouble.”
“Oh, that's okay. We don't want any trouble either. We just need a little money.”
“Yeah. Just some spare change.” A third guy in a leather jacket and durag stepped out of the alley behind the guy in the jersey.
“Sorry.” Patrick turned to go back the way he'd come. “I don't have any–any money.”
“Aww. That's too bad.” The shaggy blond-haired man had crossed the street and now stood blocking the way he'd come.
Patrick swallowed hard and took a tentative step into the street, backing away from the three thugs as they closed in. Panic rose through him, making his bones feel as though they were vibrating. Ugh. Some shortcut, Patrick. Way to go.
“Aren't you a little young to be out so late? Maybe we should walk you back to your mommy.”
Patrick turned and ran.
He kicked a soda can as he crossed the street and entered an alleyway. The can rattled across the coarse concrete and ricocheted off a brick wall. He felt it crunch beneath his shoe as he pounded over the pavement, his blood pumping so fast he could hear it.
“Get back here!”
Trash cans filled beyond the brim lined each side of the alley. Patrick turned and pulled one over, spilling used takeout containers that stunk of grease and plastic drawstring bags torn open by cats and rats.
He turned a corner and powered toward a stack of pallets and used tires leaning against a fence that divided an alley. Behind him, he heard the trash can clatter as it was kicked aside. He turned and looked. The thugs cleared the corner and stopped.
“Oh, you made us run. Now you're really gonna pay.”
Patrick backed toward the dead end. Could he climb the pallets and step over the fence? The thugs were older and bigger. With a good head start, he'd be able to get away. He bolted to the side and jumped onto a two-high stack of tires, gripping the pallets above and pulling himself up. The uneven column of roughly-hewn boards wobbled beneath his weight. He stuck his arms out like a surfer to keep his balance and tried to turn toward the fence, but the slightest change sent the pallets forward. He leaned back to even the distribution of his weight and froze. What did he do now? He couldn't jump. A fall from this height would mean broken bones, not a clean getaway.
“Ohhh look at this. We got a monkey.”
One of the thugs stepped onto the tires and reached for his foot.
Patrick pulled away, feeling the cold air on his sweaty foot as his shoe came loose in the thug's hand. He spotted a fire escape. The ladder was a good ten feet from the ground, but he was already at least eight feet up. He jumped and grabbed it, nearly letting go as his weight pulled the spring-loaded ladder toward the ground. Clank! He regained his hold as it hit the ground, and scrambled up, reaching the first-floor landing and hoping he'd hear the ladder retreating to its upward position. Instead, he heard the sound of footsteps on the rungs below. The thugs were climbing after him.
He got to his feet and ran to the staircase, grimacing as he felt the sharp angles of the ribbed steel beneath his socked foot. He climbed the stairs and rounded the next landing. He peeked over the railing. Even with his movement slowed by pain and uneven footing he was a good ways ahead of the thugs, the closest of which had only just cleared the ladder. He pushed himself harder, his lungs on fire and his breath coming in gasps. He reached the fourth landing and looked up. One more to go. He turned onto the last staircase and pulled himself up by the railings as heavy footsteps on the metal landings below continued.
Patrick looked over the edge of the building onto the roof as he pulled himself up and hopped over. Industrial-sized air conditioning units dotted the roof. He dodged around one, trying to hide from view as he looked for an exit. The thugs wouldn't dare follow him inside, would they? Inside he could draw attention to himself and other people would hear him. Inside he would be safe. He zigzagged around the units until he spotted a single doorway under a slanted roof at the opposite end. He took a relieved breath and ran to it, pushing the lever down and pulling at the same time. The latch didn't budge.
“No no no! C'mon!”
He tried it again and again, but it was locked from the inside. He turned and placed his back against the door.
“Uh oh.” The jersey-wearing thug reached the edge of the roof and hopped up. “Look who's outta places to run.”
Patrick looked from side to side at the nearby buildings. It was at least a fifteen-foot jump. Even with both shoes on and a sprinting start, he'd never jumped that far. He'd fall to his death for certain.
The last two thugs climbed over the edge of the roof and the three spread out, coming at him from different angles.
“What do you want? I don't have any money. I'm just–just a kid.”
“We don't want your money anymore. Now we just want to hurt you.”
Patrick ran to one side. It wasn't a planned run or even a conscious decision; it was just panic. Maybe he was faster. Maybe he could make it back to the fire escape and — he felt a powerful shove and his feet came out from under him. The world around him spun and he landed hard against the edge of the roof, his shoulder and neck taking the brunt of the impact.
“Ohhh yeah! That's what I'm talking about.” The hoods laughed and slapped hands.
Patrick closed his eyes, pain ricocheting around his skull. He groaned and writhed, willing it to stop.
“Now we're havin' fun. Now we—”
“Don't you men have something better to do?”
The clear and authoritative voice registered unique in Patrick's ears. There was a pleasantry about it among the throaty growls of the thugs. A girl? When had a girl arrived on the roof? He opened one eye and then the other, looking about.
“What have we here boys?”
The thugs turned, their attention focused on something behind them. Patrick followed their gaze until his eyes settled on–he blinked. A petite, distinctly female shape stood next to the fire escape. He stared. Instead of a face, there was a dark hole created by a hood. And instead of the normal contours of a human body, he saw sharp angles created by some sort of armor. Who—
“Looks like two for one tonight.”
“Why don't you boys run along before you hurt yourselves.”
“Funny. You're the one who’s gonna be hurtin'.”
The thugs advanced and the shape moved, dodging a punch and countering the attack with a knee to the stomach and a chop to the neck. The shaggy blond thug collapsed and the shape returned to a neutral stance. She turned with the other thugs as they tried to surround her, her movements graceful and careful.
The jersey-wearing thug charged, attempting to grab her around the neck, but she ducked away and delivered a kick to the back of his knee, a kick to his side, and finally a kick to his face. Patrick watched in awe as the force of the attack spun the thug to the ground.
The shape returned again to a neutral stance. “Your turn, slick.”
The leather jacket thug reached into his coat. “You're dead now!” With a mechanical click, he popped open a lever knife and charged, slashing and jabbing. The shape ducked and weaved, countering each attempt with smooth and evasive technique. When they reached the edge of the roof, she grabbed him at the wrist and punched a pressure point under his arm. He tried to move away from the pain, but she twisted his arm behind him, forcing him to drop the blade. She let go and he stumbled away. Picking up the knife, she tossed it over the side of the roof. Patrick heard it clang repeatedly as it bounced down the fire escape.
The thug removed his leather jacket and bounced on the balls of his feet, raising his fists. He advanced with a right cross. The shape ducked and turned, grabbing his arm as she backed into him and dropped her weight, throwing him over her shoulder. He landed in a heap against the edge of the roof, his legs over his head, and a painful grimace on his face.
The shape straightened and looked at the fallen thugs. Two writhed painfully and one was out cold.
Patrick lifted himself into a sitting position against the edge of the roof as she approached.
She stopped a few feet from him. “Are you alright?”
He'd forgotten his pain. His mind was focused on her. Now that she was still and standing closer he could make out bits of dark red and a symbol that looked like a star. “You... you... ”
“… saved me.”
Macy Davis smiled as she looked over Patrick Newell's shoulder. He was doing it again. He was daydreaming as he used a red ink pen to shade in a drawing of his crown creation; Stellar, a hooded crime-fighter who happened to be a girl—or a woman. Macy wasn't sure which.
A shadow fell over the desk and Macy tensed. “Hardly, Mr. Newell,” a sandpaper-like voice said. Patrick shot upright in his seat. Macy cringed. “But I will most certainly fail you if you don't put away that silly drawing and pay attention.”
“Yes, Spade—Mrs. Spader.” Patrick closed his notebook and shoved it into a backpack at his feet, glancing in Macy's direction as he did.
Macy's heart leapt and her smile widened.
“And the same goes for you, Miss Davis. I know he's cute and probably even charming, but it won't matter in ten years’ time when you're both unemployed because you're uneducated. So, wipe the puppy dog grin off your face and put your tongue back in your mouth.”
A derisive snicker passed through the ninth grade science class as the teacher returned to the front of the classroom. Macy retreated into her seat, feeling like an ant beneath a magnifying glass.
“Now, as I was saying, your test tomorrow will be the final examination in our overview of Geology and will include questions on the dynamical, structural, physiological, and historical elements and the rock structures each produced. Spend your evening studying them and you'll do fine. Spend your evening doodling or canoodling and you won't.”
Another snicker passed through the room and Macy felt even smaller. She glanced at Patrick, careful not to move anything but her eyes. His head was down and he was picking at a notch on his empty desk with the red ink pen.
A silent moment passed. Macy was afraid to even think about what was coming next. Wait, what time was—the bell rang and the sound of chairs scraping against tiled floors filled the room. Wishing to avoid the sideways glances and cocky sneers, Macy waited as most of the class filed past.
“Well, that was mortifying.”
Macy looked up apologetically as her best friend, Keri Cartwright, arrived at her desk. “Tell me about it.” She gathered her things and stood, watching as Patrick did the same and quickly left the room. She followed him out with her eyes, sighed, and shouldered her backpack as she walked with Keri toward the door of the dim basement classroom. They passed stacks of disused chairs and custodial equipment and climbed the stairway to the much better-lit ground floor. Macy turned for the exit.
“Uhh, this way.” Keri motioned to a bathroom marked with a pink, dress-wearing silhouette that looked like something that would be found in an elementary school.
Macy looked down the hallway in the opposite direction as students filed toward the exit. If they hurried, they could make it onto the bus and have their choice of seats. If they waited they'd have to sit near the front and endure the childish pranks and guffaws of two dozen junior high schoolers.
“C'mon.” Keri was off.
Macy sighed and followed, passing the pink silhouette as a few other girls exited, their sideways glances and small smiles saying they'd seen or just been told about what had happened in Spader's classroom. Nothing traveled faster at Alum Ridge High School than news of a freshman's embarrassment.
“Ugh.” Keri fussed with her face in the mirror. “The lack of any natural light for half the day murders my skin tone.”
Macy stood nearer to the entrance. She cared what she looked like, but not as much as Keri. To her, fashion was seventh-tenths comfort and three-tenths appearance. She stepped over to get a look at herself in the mirror. Who was she kidding? It was all about comfort. As hard as she tried to be more like Keri and the other girls around school, she just wasn't.
Her face was rounder than she would have liked and her chestnut brown hair was naturally straight. But not silky, smooth straight, just plain straight–boring straight. And her Alum Ridge Rangers t-shirt, faded jeans, and flip flops only added to the atrocity. She looked down. She hadn't even painted her toenails for a month—at least. The turquoise paint that had matched so perfectly with the sundress she had worn on the first day of school and had sworn was going to be the mark of a new her for high school was now as chipped and faded as the paint on the bathroom wall.
She frowned and looked back at Keri. Keri's black hair was short—probably mimicking a pop star or actress Macy hadn't even heard of yet—and had an on-purpose kind of chaos to it that accented her angular face and set off her big brown eyes. Her blouse, which was almost certainly homemade, was a soft pearl color that popped against her coffee-colored skin and had a small bow tied around her midsection to accentuate her slender waistline. Her designer jeans followed the natural curves of her legs in just such a way that the slight flare at the bottom punctuated her perfect size sevens and their matching, recent paint job.
Keri glanced away from her reflection to Macy's. “Oh, girl.” She turned and gave a pouting face. “Why don't you just talk to him already? You've only known him since what—the first grade?”
Keri turned back to the mirror. “Well, if that's not grounds for a relationship I don't know what is.”
Macy groaned to herself. This is why she had kept her feelings a secret for the better part of six months. But Keri was right and she knew it. She had been torturing herself since the last semester of eighth grade when she had somewhat suddenly realized she found Patrick Newell attractive. His slightly oblivious smile, his brown eyes, and sandy blond hair had struck her in a way that had previously been reserved for Tylar Marsden, a dreamy, strapping English martial artist and actor she was sure to never meet.
“I know. But I freeze up and stutter like an idiot when I try. And you know I've tried.”
Keri grinned as she put away her makeup. “If stuttering 'H—hi—Pa—Patrick' in the hallway as he passed by a few times counts as trying, sure. But if The Spade calling you out has one upside, it's that he now knows you were watching him.”
“Oh, yeah. Great. Just what I need–to be thought of as some creepy stalker chick.”
Keri held her hands up like a zombie and mimicked an Igor voice as they exited the bathroom. “H—hi—Pa—Patrick.”
“Jerk.” Macy elbowed her playfully. “Let's see you do better. Oh, that's right. I forgot. No one at Alum Ridge seems to be good enough for you.”
“I'm waiting for the right man to come along.”
“Ohhh a man, huh? I'm pretty sure that's illegal–for him.”
They entered the now-empty hall and made their way toward the next. Like most of the public schools built in the first half of the last century, the original interior of Alum Ridge was pretty unimaginative–three squares …