The man’s expression quickly transformed from malice to shock as he felt the crowbar jolt to a stop, having been forcefully held from its target by the kink of a battered golf club. He was even more shocked that the scrawny girl at the end of it was even able to prevent such an attack. Her arms were quaking with the strain; all of her remaining strength had gone into her glare. Dark eyes glinted like those of a wild animal.
“Don’t you dare touch him,” she snarled. With all her might, the man was shoved backwards.
Snake had finally gathered the courage to peer up at his attacker, only to see Maria push the man away and assume a defensive stance in front of him. Knowing a brawl was about to take place, he quickly scrambled away and to the others, nearly tripping on his shoelaces again. Ace immediately caught him as the reptilian boy stumbled within reach. They all slowly backed away and watched anxiously as the man lunged toward their caretaker.
Maria leaped back, the crowbar just barely missing her. She swung her golf club in sharp retaliation, getting a good whack at the man’s knee. He yelped in pain, but held his ground and attacked again.
The fight continued on like that; ducking and dodging strikes while trying to land their own. So far Maria had managed to block and evade the other man, which impressed the younger kids. It was just like the sword fights in pirate movies! Well, minus the swords...
However, as the fight went on, more citizens and cops began to emerge from the forest, finally making their way through. They also joined the fray, making it harder for Maria to fend them all off.
It was only a matter of time before one of them finally got in a hit. Maria choked out a yelp as an umbrella made contact with her shin. She felt her head forced down to the side as she was struck by an officer’s battalion; it most definitely broke skin. The boys cried out as she clumsily fell to her knees, but didn’t stay down for very long. Wobbling a bit as she stood up, Maria caught sight of a few more adults bursting through the patch of trees. Dread settled in her stomach. At this rate they would never be able to outrun this mob before reaching the dump, and she couldn’t possibly keep the boys safe at the same time.
“Alright you wily demons,” an officer bellowed, readying a net. “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”
It needed to be done. With her mind made up, she turned her head to look at the boys behind her. “You guys go on ahead.” She was immediately met with protest.
“An’ stay here by yourself?” Ace cried out. “Are ya crazy?”
“You can’t stop all of ‘em! Just run!” Arturo pleaded.
“Big Billy not leaving without Boss!” the redhead stated with defiance.
“Ya can worry about me later; just get back to the hideout!” Maria shot back, trying to hide the desperation in her voice. She smacked at a citizen who tried to get in a cheap shot while she had her head turned. “Ya guys know where to go. I’ll catch up later, jus’ don’t let any of ‘em follow ya back!”
They were reluctant, but knew arguing was futile at this point. Arturo and Grubber each took Billy’s hand and quietly began leading the hesitant redhead away. Snake’s shock from his previous ordeal still rooted him to the ground, so Ace used it as an excuse to stay with Maria.
“I told ya to go, so get movin’!” Maria demanded once she saw two of the boys remained.
“I ain’t leavin’ you behind, Maria!” he shot back.
She beat back another attack. “Now is really not the time to fight me on this.”
“You can’t beat all of ‘em by yourself!”
“That’s not the p-”
“I’m gonna help you fight them!”
“You can tell me what ta do while-”
He cursed the timid side of him for shutting up at the outburst. His gaze was now transfixed on Maria’s eyes staring right back at him. They were flooded with an unshakable determination.
“I got this,” she said with a grave firmness, “now get Snake and get outta here!”
Ace couldn’t win this one, much to his dismay. He gave a weary sigh and tugged on the other boy’s shoulders. “Let’s go, Snake.”
Snake broke out of his trance when he felt himself being moved. “But...Maria-”
And with that, the two fled the scene, desperately hoping that their caretaker knew what she was doing.
Maria’s grip on her weapon tightened in attempt to ease the intense shivering in her legs. She wiped at the blood that had trickled down the side of her face. The boys, regrettably, were right. All she had truly fought in the past were young alley punks and the occasional stray dog. Kurt was the only grown adult she took on, and even then she struggled until Billy stepped in.
She had no chance of leaving this ordeal victorious.
As she heard the chief order a few of his men to pursue the other green children, she turned to face the still growing mob. Despite the odds, this was no different to her from the past encounters. It was all so her boys would be safe, and as long as she was still breathing, Maria intended to keep it that way.
Readying her golf club, dark eyes glinting dangerously again, she charged towards the mob with a fierce battle cry of determination.
Nobody would be getting near her family.
None of them were certain exactly how much time had passed, all they knew was that it felt like an eternity.
Despite being exhausted, hungry, and chased by a few very persistent cops, the boys shook off their pursuers and made it back to the dump safely. They all barged into the shack and took refuge in the closet and behind furniture until they stopped trembling and wheezing for air.
Now they were huddled together behind the ratty couch, watching and listening for the door to open and have Maria march in triumphantly.
But as time crawled at an agonizingly slow pace, their hope began to wane. Every minute piled on more anxiety. Every second was one without Maria’s presence.
“W-w-why issn’t she back yet?” Snake stammered quietly.
“We should go look for her,” Arturo whispered.
They all agreed in silence, but were still too scared to move. After several more torturing moments, Ace worked up the courage to persuade everyone to head out.
The group was overly cautious when venturing back into Townsville, keeping alert for any citizens that may still be searching at this hour. Everywhere they went was eerily quiet, and something akin to dread hung heavily in the air. It didn’t help that none of the boys uttered a word during their search.
The silence was finally broken by Grubber, who – with a panicked raspberry – alerted the others to a figure on the ground just outside of the small forest they had escaped from.
The rest followed the grotesque boy. Their stomachs lurched as they got closer to the bruised and mangled form that was indeed Maria. She was lying on her side, back turned to them and completely still. Her golf club had been snapped in half, the pieces thrown haphazardly to the side. Patches of red grass formed a small trail behind Maria’s feet, which ended at a larger red patch.
“Maria!” Ace cried out as he dropped to his knees. He turned the girl onto her back, and they all saw the full extent of the damage. Bruises of all shapes, sizes, and colors marred her green skin. Blood oozed from her mouth and temple, as well as various cuts on her body, tainting the bright blue and pink of her dress. Her wrist was bent at a weird angle, and despite merely resting on the grass, Ace could tell it was broken.
Suddenly there was a cough, followed by raspy, labored breathing. Maria could only manage to open one eye, as the other had swelled shut from a particularly nasty bruise. But that didn’t deter the boys; Maria was still alive.
“...I guess I don’t got this,” she said with a weak laugh, which only lead to a coughing fit. More blood began to trickle from her lips.
“Maria! Oh man...” Ace’s voice wavered slightly as he tried to not let panic settle in. “We...w-we gotta getcha to the hospital!”
A spark could almost be seen in Maria as she processed what was said. “No, don’t-”
“Billy, you’re gonna hafta carry her, but be gentle!”
Taking that as his cue, Billy hurried over and began to scoop the girl into his arms, but she weakly pushed the large hands away.
“Ya can’t...Don’t do it.”
Confused by her refusal, the largest child tried to talk some sense into Maria as best as his simple mind knew how. “Maria’s hurt. Gotta help Maria.”
Ace began to try to lift Maria himself. “Don’t be stupid! You gotta get to the doctor!” Arturo hurried over to help the other boy the best he could.
“Why’re ya bein’ so stubborn?” Ace shouted, desperation getting the better of him. “We’re tryin’ ta help you!”
“If ya take me there, they’ll find you again!” Maria shot back, the strain making her choke and wheeze. Once she recovered, she continued in a quieter – but stronger – tone. “The doctors won’t help. They’ll call the cops on ya, if the cops aren’t waitin’ for ya there already.” She winced as Billy laid her head back down on the grass. Even if they weren’t wanted by the police, her past experience with hospitals proved that even doctors were less than enthusiastic about a “monster” being in their presence. “It’s a lot safer for you boys if ya don’t go.”
Arturo stared in disbelief. “But...what about you?”
Maria gave a pained smirk. “Don’t worry about me.” The smirk softened into a more genuine smile now. “Listen, I want you all to do somethin’ for me while I’m gone.”
“...What’re ya sayin’?” Ace asked weakly. Maria’s tone made it seem like she was simply going on another food run, but Ace was certain that’s not what she meant by “gone”.
Snake, however, was fully aware of what was happening, the memories of his sick mother rushing back to him. Tears sprung into his eyes as he let out a choked whimper.
Maia’s gaze shifted to focus on the fanged boy. “Ace, you’re in charge, now.”
“I’ve seen whatcha can do...I know ya don’t think it, but...you’re gonna be a great leader someday.” She smiled again. “I trust that you can handle it.”
Her eye tiredly wandered over to the hunchback boy. “Grubber...ya got a lotta weird skills. Like, really weird.” A cough. “But that makes ya really cool...I hope ya can put them to good use.”
Grubber replied with a half-hearted raspberry.
“Snake...I told ya this already, but you’re braver than ya think. Don’t be afraid to say or do whatcha want. And be proud of how ya look, ‘cuz you’re with others just like ya... Work on that for me, okay?”
Snake was too busy fighting back tears to respond.
Next was the large redhead hovering over her. “Big Billy, it’s ridiculous how strong you are,” she chuckled softly. “But that means nothing can stand in your way...Keep everyone safe for me, okay big guy?”
Not quite understanding why he was given this request, Billy nodded to at least show his acknowledgement.
Then, finally, was the shortest child.
“Arturo... I remember when it was just the two of us...” She felt her eye mist with tears. “If it weren’t for you, I dunno where I...or any of us...would be right now. So...Thank you.”
With a teary smile that looked more like a grimace, Arturo gave an affirmative nod and placed a tiny hand on hers.
Maria then took an overall look at her boys, her family. “Remember,” her fading voice now addressing the entire group, “I wantcha to stick together. ‘Cuz the only ones you have are each other...” She paused to struggle for air. “And...if ya get in trouble, just run. Don’t try to be a tough guy. I want you all to promise me that,” she rasped, breathing becoming shallower. When met with silence, she forced herself to be assertive at the risk of choking again. “Promise?”
There was a collective, “I promise.” They were sorrowful and shaky, but it was good enough for Maria.
With an airy sigh of content, her face relaxed. She opened her good eye again (which she barely had the strength to do now) and assessed them all once more. Ace felt her unfocused gaze shake his very foundation as he fully realized the situation.
When the girl spoke again, her voice was just above a whisper. “Y’know...I’m glad ya came back for me.” Tears threatened to escape past a small, grateful smile. “I...I always hated being alone...”
Maria’s eye closed, smile fading as her head lolled softly to the side.
Almost immediately, Snake burst into tears.
Grubber moved in to console the boy despite barely holding himself together.
Arturo bowed his head and made sure his sniffles weren’t too loud.
Billy remained focused on his caretaker, wondering why she decided to go to sleep out here of all places.
Ace could only stare at Maria’s body in shock.