The old man’s pocket had been unexpectedly sticky.
That’s what had landed him in this stupid mess. Or it could have been stupid Herbert firing him from that fry-pushing, hamburger-flipping dump (not that he’d ever liked it, but in that snarky realm of hindsight, he sort of needed the job).
It could have been that, or it could have been him kicking his suitcase shut on the day of his sixteenth birthday, saying, “I love you,” and walking out the doorway into the negative expanse of the city.
It could have been the cockroach in the boiler, his thirst for independence, his ability to say no, or his lack of understanding on how far a sixteen year old with two hundred dollars could go.
It could have been that he was hungry. He distinctly remembered the Discovery Channel saying humans could go days without food as long as they had water—he’d been draining water fountains. Water and no food sucked. It could have been because of the lack of food that he found himself walking over to Herbert’s Hamburger Palace, ready to swallow his pride and beg on his knees if he had to, and two blocks away, he stumbled to a halt, dizzy heat rolling over his skin. He leaned against a blue mailbox, his breathing shallow. His knees shook.
Zack couldn’t actually see the old man’s face. The old man was bent over, peering into a shop window that displayed watches. The back pocket, left side, of his jeans stuck out.
It dully occurred to him that he was staring at some old guy’s ass as if it held all the answers in the universe.
In a way, it did have all the answers. There was most definitely a wallet there, and Zack figured that even he could outrun him, if it came to that. He took three steps forward and held out his middle and index finger, ready to slip the packet of leather out of the pocket and bolt.
His fingers made it past the thicker rim of fabric. And a little further. And a little deeper. Then they stroked the wallet, but it was surrounded by stickiness, like the old man freak’n melted a starburst in there, and Zack grimaced and gave a another tug, tiptoeing behind the man and trying to look inconspicuous.
But the wallet was all sticky, and the old man turned around, and Zack didn’t think old people could move like that, Strong hands grabbed both his wrists, and fiery eyes, like cat eyes, raked up and down his body.
Zack was too terrified to be creeped-out and too weak to do anything but stutter “Crap,” and “Please don’t take me to the police.”
The old man dragged Zack’s emaciated form down the sidewalk like a dog with a chew toy.
They passed the post office, the clock tower, the courthouse, and Zack almost passed out on the pavement when his captor paused in front of the new police station.
The old man frowned at Zack, and continued forward, past the police station and into the doors of the 32nd Street Dojo. He ignored the pleasant hello from the receptionist, and they continued to a lonely office at the end of the hall beside an empty trophy case.
Suddenly, they were in the office. The door slammed shut. The old man shoved Zack fell into an uncomfortable metal chair in front of the desk. The old man locked the office door, and as he was settling into an armchair, Zack finally got a good look at his captor.
He reminded Zack of a squirrel that got caught in a lawnmower. Whiffs of battered, grey hair stretched up from his head, and despite his age and leathery wrinkles, his eyes glowed.
Great job, Zack. You had to rob the psycho.
The old man dropped the office key into his breast pocket and picked up a pen.
“Name?” asked the old man.
“Full name please.”
“Zachary Brown.” The old man snorted in response and continued writing.
“My name is John Carlson.”
“Okay,” said Zack.
John Carlson opened a desk drawer and placed a Snicker candy bar on the desk. Carlson absent-mindedly fingered the candy bar.
“I would like for you to be a student at this dojo. If you become a student here, you will lessons and chores after-school, you will study, you will be given meals. If you refuse or you do not worship my every breath, I will go to the police, and I will make my claim much worse than you deserve.”
Zack wasn’t stupid. He knew what blackmail was. He also knew what candy bars were, and how the Snicker slogan related to hunger, and he knew that if he didn’t say yes, he might just pass out on the man’s floor on a count of his stomach swallowing itself, consequences be dammed.
“It’s karate, Zachary.” Carlson peeled the wrapper off the candy bar and took a noisy bite. Zack actually fell forward in his seat as he heard the peanuts crunch in Carlson’s mouth.
“Okay. I will do karate then.”
Zack smelled chocolate, nougat and peanuts.
He looked up from the floor, and there was Carlson, holding out the candy bar across the desk. The day he had left home, the first thing he bought for himself was a candy bar from the vending machine outside Herbert’s Hamburger Palace. He took the candy bar from Carlson, turning the smooth chocolate over in his hand.
The old man smiled.
“Go ahead and eat the whole thing. Classes will start in an hour.”