© Jay Ward
Crusader Rabbit was first published in Zyzzyva Magazine in 1990. Also published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, 1991: Shooting Star Review, 1992: Cowboys, Indians and Commuters, 1994, Penguin Books (Australia): Children of the Night, 1995, Little, Brown & Company: Cornerstones, 1996, St. Martins Press: The Penguin Book of the City, 1997, Penguin Books (Australia): Follow That Dream, 1998, European Educational Publishers Group: and Free Within Ourselves, 1999, Doubleday.
This story in included in Warriors, available on Kindle.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. This work, either in its entirety or as a sample excerpt, is made available here as a courtesy, and its availability here does not constitute release or surrender of any rights by its author. If you find this work being offered, either as a download or to be read, on any other site but this one, it is there without the author's permission and in violation of international copyright laws.
© 1990 Jess Mowry
"You could be my dad."
Jeremy stood, waist-deep in the Dumpster, knee-deep in garbage, arms slimed to the elbows from burrowing, and dropped three beer cans to the buckled asphalt.
Raglan lined them up, pop-tops down, and crushed them to crinkled discs under his tattered Nlke, then added them to the half-full gunny sack. Finally, he straightened his back and studied the boy in the Dumpster. It wasn't the first time. "Yeah. I could be."
Jeremy made no move to climb out, even though the stink of what he stood in seemed to surround him like a bronze-green cloud, wavering up like the shimmering heat-ghosts from other Dumpsters along the alley. The boy wore only ragged jeans, the big Airwalks on his bare feet buried somewhere below, and his wiry dusk-colored body glistened with sweat.
Not for the first time, Raglan thought Jeremy was a beautiful kid... thirteen, small muscles standing out under tight-fit skin, big hands and feet like puppy paws, and hair like an ebony dandelion puff. A ring glinted gold and fierce in one ear, and a red bandana, sodden with sweat, hung loosely around his neck. His eyes were bright obsidian, but closed now; the bruise-like marks beneath them were fading, and his teeth flashed strong and white as he panted.
Raglan could have been a larger copy of the boy, twice his age but looking it only in size, and without the earring. There was an old knife slash on his chest, a deep one, with a high ridge of scar.
The Oakland morning-fog had burned off hours before, leaving the alley to bake in tar and rot-smell, yet Raglan neither panted nor sweated. There were three more Dumpsters to check, and the recycle place across town would be closing soon, but he asked, "Want a smoke?"
Jeremy watched through lowered lashes as Raglan's eyes changed; not so much softening as going light-years away. Jeremy hesitated, long fingers clenching and unclenching on the Dumpster's rusty rim. "Yeah... no. I think it's time."
His movements were stiff and zombie-awkward as he tried to climb out, garbage sucking wetly at his feet. Raglan took the boy, slippery as a seal, under the arms and lifted him over the edge. The boy stank, but that was mostly from a long day of digging. Together, they walked back to the truck.
It was an old Chevy, three-quarter ton, as rusted and battered as the Dumpsters it hunted. There were splintery plywood sideboards on the bed. The cab was crammed with things, as self-contained as a Land Rover on safari, or a space capsule. Even after two months it still surprised Jeremy what Raglan could pull out from beneath the seat or the piled mess on the dashboard... toilet paper, comic books, or a .45 automatic.
Raglan emptied the gunny sack into an almost-full garbage can in the bed, then leaned against the rear fender and started to roll a cigarette from Bugler tobacco while Jeremy opened the passenger door and got his scuffed old Big Bird Band-Aid box from under the floor mat. The boy's hands shook slightly, but he tried not to hurry as he spread his things on the running board; a tiny rock-bottle, but with gray-brown powder in the bottom instead of crack crystals, a puff of cotton, candle stub, flame-tarnished spoon, and needle, its point protected by a chunk of Styrofoam. 0n the cab floor by the shift lever was a gallon plastic jug from Pay-Less Drugs with a label that read, "Fresh spring water from clear mountain streams." Raglan filled it from gas station hoses and the water always tasted like rubber. Jeremy got it out, too.
Raglan finished making his cigarette, fired it with a Bic, handed the lighter to the boy, then began to roll another as he smoked. His eyes were still far away.
Once, as he worked, Jeremy looked up. "I know your real name. I seen it on your driver license. Why's your street name Raglan?"
Smoke trickled from Raglan's nostrils. He came close to smiling. "My dad started callin' me that. It's from an old-time cartoon, when he was a little kid. Crusader Rabbit. I never seen it. The rabbit's friend was a tiger. Raglan T. Tiger. Maybe they was somethin' like the Ninja Turtles... had adventures. It was a long time ago."
"Oh." Jeremy sat on the running board, his back against the side of the bed. He wrapped a strip of bicycle inner tube around his arm. It was hard to get it right, one-handed. He looked up again. "Um..."
"Yeah." Raglan knelt and pulled the strip tighter. His eyes were distant again, neither watching nor looking away as the boy put the needle in. "You got good veins. Your muscles make 'em stand out." The boy's eyes moved from the needle, lowering, and his chest hardened a little. "I do got some muscles, huh?"
"Yeah. But don't let 'em go to your head."
Jeremy chewed his lip. "I used to miss 'em... my veins, I mean. An' sometimes I poked right through."
"Yeah. I done that, too. A long time ago."
The boy's slender body tensed a moment, then he relaxed against the bed with a sigh, eyes closed. But, almost immediately they opened again, searching out Raglan's. "It only makes me normal now."
Raglan nodded, handing Jeremy the other cigarette and firing the lighter. "Yeah. On two a day, that's all, folks."
Jeremy pulled in smoke, holding it a long time, then breathing out rings. "Next week it's only gonna be one." He held Raglan's eyes. "It's gonna hurt some more, huh?"
"When do you stop wanting it?"
Raglan stood, snagging the jug and taking a few swallows. Traffic rumbled past the alley entrance, exhaust fumes drifting in from the street. Flies buzzed in clouds over the Dumpsters, and a rat scuttled past in no particular hurry. "When you decide you want somethin' else, more."
Jeremy began to put his things away. The little bottle was empty. It would take most of today's cans to score another. "You must be my dad, man. Why else would you give a shit?"
Raglan dropped his cigarette on the pavement, snagged the sack off the sideboard and started toward the other Dumpsters. "I don't know." He could have added that when he'd first found Jeremy, the boy wouldn't have lived another week. But dudes Jeremy's age would think that was bad... almost something to brag about. Why? Who in hell knew. Raglan didn't remember much about being thirteen, but he remembered that.
There almost wasn't much use in checking these last Dumpsters; this was the worst part of town, and poor people's garbage was pitiful... everything already scraped to the bone, rusted or rotted or beaten beyond redemption, and nothing left of any value. Jeremy followed, moving like a kid once more.
A few paces ahead, Raglan flipped back a lid so it clanged against the sooty brick wall. Flies scattered in swarms. For a moment he just looked at what lay atop the trash. He'd seen them before, but they were something he'd never gotten used to. His hand went to Jeremy's shoulder, holding the boy back. But Jeremy saw the baby anyway. "Oh... God." It came out a sigh. Jeremy pressed close to Raglan, and Raglan's arm went around him. "I heard about them. But I never figured...“ Jeremy’s eyes found Raglan's. "Why?"
Raglan's eyes were distant again, seeing, but not seeing the tiny honey-brown body, the perfect little fingers and toes, a beautiful boy. "I don't know."
Jeremy swallowed once. "What should we do?"
Raglan's eyes turned hard. He was thinking of cops and questions, then of a call from a pay phone. There was one at the recycle place. That would be best. Time was running short. The Chevy's tank was almost full, but there was food to buy, and Jeremy's need, and the cans were the only money. Still, he said, "What do you want to do?"
Jeremy looked at the baby. Automatically, he waved flies away. "What do they... do with 'em?" He turned to Raglan. "I mean... is there a little coffin... an' flowers?"
Raglan took his arm from the boy. "They burn 'em."
"The ones they find, Sometimes they just go the the dump an' the bulldozers bury 'em. You been to the dump."
"NO! Goddamn you! Shut up!" Jeremy's fists clenched, then a hand darted to the pocket where he carried his knife.
Raglan was quiet for a minute, eyes looking somewhere far beyond the brick and concrete. Finally, he put his hand on Jeremy's shoulder again. "Yeah." He walked back to the truck. Jeremy watched him while guarding the Dumpster, waving flies away.
Raglan paused at the tailgate. There was an old canvas tarp behind the cab. 0n foggy or rainy nights he spread it over the sideboards to make a roof. He could tear off a piece of that... Raglan remembered a night, the week before. They'd parked the truck down a dark and silent side street near a scrap yard. It had been foggy, and the canvas made a tent to spread their blankets beneath. He'd gone with the jug to find water for coffee in the morning. It had been close to midnight when he'd gotten back, and he'd stopped a short distance from the truck. The springs had been squeaking softly to a certain rhythm. He'd smiled in the misty darkness, recalling the boy's look earlier that day when they had driven past a couple of thirteen or fourteen-year-old girls playing in a sprinkler. They’d been wearing only short cutoff jeans and wet, tight, T-shirts. Raglan had waited until all was quiet in the truck, scenting that wet earthy smell on the night air... the smell of life.
Salty sweat burned Raglan's eyes now, and he blinked in the savage sunlight blasting down between the buildings. The canvas was oily and stank. Going around to the cab, he pulled one of his two black T-shirts from behind the seat.
The old Chevy was a city truck, an innercity truck that made its moves in blocks, not miles. It burned oil, the radiator leaked, and its tires were almost bald. There were two bullet holes in the right front fender. But it managed to maintain a grudging 55, rattling first across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, then over the Golden Gate, headed north. It had a radio-tape deck, ancient, and minus knobs -- stereos without knobs almost never got stolen -- but Jeremy didn't turn it on, or play his favorite tape. He stayed silent, rolling cigarettes for Raglan and himself, and sometimes looking back at the little bundle in the bed. Even when Raglan turned off the freeway near Novato, onto a narrow two-lane road leading west, the boy only stared through the grimy windshield, his eyes like Raglan's now, though an open countryside of gentle green hills spread out all around them.
It was early evening with the sunlight slanting gold as Raglan slowed the truck and searched along the roadside ahead. The air was fresh and clean, scented with things that lived and grew, and tasting of the ocean somewhere close by. There was a dirt road, no more than twin tracks with a strip of grass and yellow dandelions between. It led away toward more low hills, through fields of tall grass and golden flowers of wild mustard. Raglan swung the truck off the pavement, and they moved slowly to the hills in third gear. Jeremy watched the fields rolling by, then turned to Raglan. "You ever been here before?"
"A long time ago."
"I never knew there was places like this, for real. Without no people an' cars an' stuff. It's... pretty."
The road entered a little cleft between the hills, and a tiny stream ran down to meet it, sparkling. For a while the road followed the splashing water, then turned and wound upward, and the truck growled in second gear. The road grew fainter as they climbed, then finally just ended at the top of the hill. Raglan stopped and shut off the engine. A hundred feet ahead, a cliff dropped sheer to the sea, which boomed and echoed on rocks far below.
Jeremy seemed to forget why they'd come. He ran to the cliff's edge, as any boy might, as close as possible, then just stood, looking out across the water.
Raglan watched, leaning on the hood.
The boy spread his arms wide for a moment, head thrown back, then looked down at his dirty jeans and shoes. Raglan watched for a moment more as the boy stripped to stand naked before the sea and sun. Then, Raglan went to the tailgate. There was an old square-headed cement shovel and an Army trenching tool he used when he cleaned up yards.
Jeremy joined him, solemn, though his eyes sparkled. Raglan said nothing, though he smiled a moment before taking up the shovel and the little bundle. Jeremy put his jeans back on and followed with the trenching tool.
The ground rose again nearby to a final hill that looked over the sea. They climbed to the top. Raglan cut the thick sweet-smelling sod into blocks with his shovel, then they both dug. The sun was almost gone when they finished. Jeremy was sheened in sweat. He picked some of the wild mustard and dandelion flowers and laid them on the little mound.
Far out on the water, the sun grew huge and ruddy red as it sank. Raglan made a fire near the truck and Jeremy got the blankets. Raglan produced two cans of Campbell Soup and a pint of Jack Daniels from somewhere in the cab. When it was dark and still, they sat side by side near the fire, smoking, and sipping the whiskey The sea boomed softly below.
"Is this campin' out?" asked Jeremy.
"Yeah. I guess it is."
Jeremy passed the bottle back to Raglan, then glanced toward the truck. "We don't got enough gas to get back, huh?"
Raglan gazed into the flames. "Maybe there's a place around here that buys cans."
"Um, so you never seen that Crusader Rabbit... don't know what he looked like?"
"I think he carried a sword, an' fought dragons."
Jeremy stared into the fire. "It's gonna hurt a lot, huh?"
"You are my dad, huh?"
Raglan put his arm around the boy. "Yeah."