It was a huge relief for the boys to see Maria in a much better mood. They weren’t too sure what happened the night before, and when asked about it, Ace would casually handwave an excuse or discreetly change the subject. Ace figured that if Maria still had not told any of the others at that point, she didn’t want them to know, and would inform them herself when she was ready. Besides, there was no way he was about to openly admit that he had been hit by a girl.
Thankfully, the others didn’t press much farther. After all, if Maria was happy, why bring up whatever it was that upset her?
Despite the now heavily rationed meals and stricter watch she kept over the boys, they were all delighted at the amount of time Maria was now spending with them. The self defense lessons that Maria had promised were going steady, and she was much more willing to participate in their games. She was even opening up more, and showed the boys some pastimes of her own. They had been allowed to try making prank calls by themselves, as promised, and were also introduced to graffiti. Or at least, the most primitive of graffiti, which came in the form of a box of markers that miraculously still worked. The boys immediately went all out, scribbling on every surface imaginable. The “graffiti” ranged from mindless scribbles to stick figures, to scenic depictions. The markers were also used in some of the children’s games, so they could easily keep score instead of arguing with each other who was actually winning.
As it was, Ace was currently scowling at the purple tally marks he scrawled on the side of a beaten-down car. The lessons in very basic combat had made the boy a bit cocky in his abilities to intimidate others. When he failed to make an impression on the other boys, he resorted to the neighboring stray cats. As the marks on the side of the old, beat-up car indicated, even that was a pitiful amount. Needless to say, Ace was getting frustrated.
“Hey tough guy, I got somethin’ for ya.”
With a light huff, he capped the marker and turned to face Maria, who was practically snickering to herself. “How’s it goin’?” she asked innocently, but the playful mockery was evident.
Rolling his eyes in an equally playful manner, Ace crossed his arms and stated in a matter-of-fact tone, “I’ll have ya know I jus’ now scared a buncha cats at the same time. I jus’ didn’t add them to my score, yet.”
“Uh-huh,” came a deadpan reply that sounded anything but convinced. Maria reached into the pocket on her dress. “Figured I’d give ya these, to help ya out with that ‘tough guy’ gig.” She tossed something to the boy, who clasped it in both of his hands once in reach.
Opening up his hands, he peered at the object in mild confusion. He glanced back up to Maria, prompting her to continue with a smirk.
“If ya wanna act tough, ya gotta start by lookin’ tough. Try ‘em on.”
With a grin, Ace slid the sunglasses over his eyes. He could already tell they were too big for his narrow face, but he hoped he would grow into them one day. Turning back to the car, he inspected his reflection in the passenger window. His grin grew wider; the sharp angle of the sunglasses and the dark coloring seemed to transform his eyes into a permanent glare. He felt more intimidating already!
With this newfound confidence, he quickly spun around to face Maria again, got into a more formidable stance and released his most fearsome growl. His performance was cut short when the shades slipped down his nose and ruined the effect.
Maria tried her best to stifle her laughter, but failed miserably. She burst into cackles while the boy’s face flushed with embarrassment. He smashed the shades back up to his eyes with a, “Humph!” and pouted until his caretaker had finished recovering.
“Well, it’s a start. But ya still got a long ways to go!” she managed to get out before falling into another laughing fit.
Normally, Ace would have retaliated, but kept quiet this time. This laughter coming from Maria embodied genuine happiness, as did her smile; that same smile he saw not too long ago. At first it brought him uncertainty, but now its warmth was infectious, and Ace couldn’t help but giggle alongside her.
He decided he liked it when Maria smiled like that.
Despite Maria’s best efforts, Big Billy still made attempts to steal food in his sleep.
Maria designated herself to guard the closet every night to prevent their diminishing supply from disappearing all at once. But as the days passed, they could see Maria becoming more sluggish and her mood bordering on hostile, not to mention constantly nodding off when there was a lull in activity.
So when the night came that Maria was struggling to stay awake even before everyone else had fallen asleep, Ace knew something had to be done.
As he crawled out of bed, he noticed the other boys – minus Billy, who was now slumbering peacefully – staring at him with concern. He wasn’t the only one who had noticed the situation. He motioned for them to follow him, and they quietly approached Maria. The girl’s eyes had just fluttered closed, head lolling forward.
Smirking, Ace gently shook her shoulder. “Hey, Ma-”
With a startled cry, Maria jumped to full alertness and swung her golf club at the offender.
Ace bit back a scream and clutched his head as pain seared through it. “Aggh...geez!”
Maria was brought to full consciousness, and realized her mistake. “Sorry, I thought ya were Billy,” she mumbled.
The boy looked at her incredulously, pain forgotten. “H-how do ya even get us... Ugh, nevamind.” He grabbed the golf club from her lazy grasp. “Just go ta bed.”
“Can’t,” she yawned, “Gotta keep Billy out.”
“Maria, lookit’cha,” the boy pressed. “You can’t even stay awake. At dis rate, Billy’s gonna get into the food anyway.” He pulled back to keep the golf club away from Maria, who was now reaching out to steal it back. She growled in frustration, but was too tired to do much more than that.
“He’s right, Maria,” Arturo piped up. “You need to sleep, too.”
Snake fidgeted a bit before adding his two cents. “Y-you’ve been grumpy latelyss, and I think it’sss because you’re not sssleepings...”
Ace nudged his caretaker. “We’re gonna keep watch tonight, all four of us. So go ta bed.”
As much as she wanted to protest, the promise of sleep grew to be too much to resist. Maria groaned in defeat and slowly stood up. Before leaving for the couch, she lightly prodded a finger at Ace’s chest. “If any of that food’s missin’ tomorrow, you’re gonna get it.”
The fanged youth smirked at her slightly slurred threat and waved her off. “Yeah, yeah.”
The boys had to hold back giggles as they watched the girl flop unceremoniously onto the couch. With Maria’s makeshift weapon in Ace’s possession, the four boys contently huddled together in front of the closet door, patiently waiting for Big Billy to stir.
Ace found Maria sitting on a dilapidated swing set, gaze fixed on the street that stretched into Townsville. She hadn’t been seen all morning, much to the boys’ dismay. It wasn’t until midday when Ace decided to look for her.
He took a seat on the swing next to her, which looked like it would fall apart at any moment. “Hey.”
Ace tried to piece his next sentence together carefully. “Um, we checked da food stash...y’know, for breakfast...”
It had been about a month since the incident at Malph’s, their last food run. Maria had been overly cautious with their safety, and forbade anyone to even go near the outskirts of the dump, for risk of being seen. She had rationed what was left of their food supply as best as she could, to make it last as long as possible. It was now dangerously low, barely enough for said breakfast.
“I know,” she sighed, discreetly clutching her empty stomach. All too often she pretended that she had already eaten so that there would be food for one more day. “It’s about time we go get more.”
“Yeah,” Ace agreed, relieved that not only was she not angry at him bringing up the issue, but that they soon could eat regular portions again. But it wasn’t enough to distract him from exactly what Maria said. “...’We’?”
She nodded. “I remember what happened the last time ya guys came with me.” Ace looked down guiltily. “But I’m more worried that something will happen to you and I won’t be there to help. Honestly, the safest ya guys will be is with me.” She glanced back at the street. “But I’m also worried that they’re still out there, lookin’ for us...”
Ace gave a small, reassuring smile. “Well, it’s been a month...I’m sure it’ll be fine.” He inwardly cringed at how unconvincing he sounded.
Maria sighed again. “It’s gonna hafta be.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a creak. Maria suddenly found herself on the ground with a broken swing seat and a pain in her bottom. Ace couldn’t help but laugh, which caused Maria to laugh as well. They only laughed harder when the same thing happened to Ace.
Yes, perhaps everything would turn out okay.
Everything was not okay. It was far from being okay.
They had finally reached their destination: a moderately sized grocery store, only slightly bigger than Malph’s. The outside appeared to be in better condition than that of the tiny convenience store, implying that more people shopped there. However, Maria knew that despite this, the store was in a poor location—it was even further isolated than Malph’s! Even though Maria was uneasy about getting caught and putting her charges in danger again, she was confident that they would be able to raid the building without confrontation.
What they didn’t expect, though, was to find cops on patrol in the area; very well-hidden cops, at that. The green children were stunned as they watched the authorities form a wall that blocked their path to the store, said wall slowly advancing towards them. At the front of the wall was Kurt and Gregory, the former’s head was heavily bandaged to the point where his left eye was covered, and his nose was clearly swollen through the bandages. Other than that he wasn’t worse for wear.
“That’s them!” Kurt roared, finger thrust menacingly in the kids’ direction, all the malice in that motion making up for the harsh nasally tone in his voice due to his injury. “Those are the little freaks that attacked and robbed me!”
Surprisingly, a few of the cops looked a little dumbfounded. One even leaned in towards Gregory and said, “Sir, you never told us that they were kids.”
“Does it matter?” the blonde cried out before grabbing Kurt by the shoulders. “You all saw what they did to this poor old man!”
“Who the hell’re you calling old?” the injured man growled. “And get your hands off me!” He fiercely swatted Gregory’s hands away.
“He’s right,” the lead officer chimed in. “Even if they’re children, they’re still monsters, and need to be handled as such.” He raised his nightstick in the air as a signal to move out. “Let’s get ‘em!”
So there they were, running for their lives from a mob that seemed to grow by the minute. Soon it wasn’t just the police chasing the green kids; citizens who overheard the commotion were quick to grab whatever they could to defend themselves and joined the fray. If there were monsters on the loose, they would personally make sure that they were gone from their fair city.
All of the kids could feel their lungs burning, desperate for more air than what they were being given as their bodies overworked themselves to stay ahead of the mob. Ace kept an iron grip on his sunglasses, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to see as clearly if he kept them on. Big Billy was heaving as he forced his legs to keep moving; even he knew now was not the time to pause and catch his breath, no matter how desperately he wished to do so. Little Arturo was clutching onto Billy’s shoulder, his tiny legs proved to not be fast enough to outrun the citizens. Despite the redhead having a secure grip on the boy, Arturo clung for dear life, afraid that he would somehow fall off. The mob that was steadily pursuing the group was all he could see, and did nothing to ease his fears. Snake was hissing in pure terror as he sprinted away. Even when being chased off by bullies and frightened strangers in the past, he had never felt so scared like he did right now. Grubber was practically running on all fours, mouth agape and tongue lolling about, allowing as much air into his lungs as possible.
Maria was ahead of them all, frantically guiding the boys to safety, and hopefully out of the citizens’ reach. They needed to lose this mob before they reached the dump; it was their only sanctuary. If Townsville found it, they would have nowhere to hide.
“Follow me, guys,” she called over her shoulder. “We’ll lose ‘em in here!” She immediately darted into a thick patch of trees that seemed to have no end, but Maria knew better. This area was only ever used as an emergency escape route, and she knew just the path to take that would put a safe distance between them and their pursuers.
The boys instantly followed her movements and fought even harder to keep up with the girl. They smiled through their heavy panting as they heard the angry shouts dwindle in volume, the much bigger bodies unable to fit through the dense shrubs and narrow openings between the trees, forced to seek an alternate route. As of now there was only an officer and a couple citizens still hot on their tail, but that was nothing a quick detour through the winding alleys couldn’t fix.
However, luck was not entirely on their side tonight.
The exposed roots, fallen branches, and clingy bramble snagged and tore at Snake’s shoelaces until they were completely undone. The boy was not aware of this until the group had just exited the heavily wooded area, where his face suddenly collided with the ground.
Little Arturo’s head snapped up as he heard a yelp from his friend. He was slightly relieved to see the reptilian boy spitting out some leaves, but was otherwise fine. The Hispanic child’s face paled and his heart dropped to his stomach as almost immediately a man burst out of the woods and sprinted over to Snake. Unable to physically help him, Arturo cried out in fear, “Serpiente!”
Upon hearing the frantic call for Snake and the terrified squeal that happened almost simultaneously, Maria immediately stopped in her tracks and whipped her body around to face behind her. Without even assessing what was about to happen, Maria sprinted as fast as she could towards the downed boy.
Snake could only look up in horror as the man planted his feet in front of him and raised the crowbar sharply into the air. He trembled at the realization that he wouldn’t be quick enough to escape the attack. Whimpering, Snake clenched his eyes shut and curled into a ball, waiting in dreadful anticipation for the fatal blow that was about to be inflicted.