Danny leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling while he thought about his best friend's dilemma. Times like these were when he missed talking directly instead of through email. They would be able to bounce ideas off each other; even just venting out loud sometimes helped.
Dave's family had moved in with his grandmother and, at first, it had worked out fairly well. Now, though, two more families had joined them. His sister had to share a bedroom with four other girls while he slept in the living room with his six male cousins. This meant they couldn't get to sleep until all the adults turned in for the night, but with none of them having to get up for work, they tended to stay up late into the night.
Bad as this situation was, a more pressing problem had arisen; Dave suspected one of his uncles was dealing. If caught selling from the house, his grandmother's house could be seized and they would all be homeless.
Danny thought about how Dave's parents would likely react, but was unsure if Dave's dad would stand up to his older brother. Leaning forward, he typed his reply: Tell your mom.
That evening Danny told his mom about the email. Susan chuckled, "Wise choice. That woman is like a force of nature for what she believes is right. Anything else happen today?"
"Career Day." Danny drew a deep breath, "Listen, Mom, I've been thinking. I know you want me to go to college and it wasn't something I was really interested in, but since Uncle Bill was going to pay for it I was willing to try. Now, though, that's all changed."
"I know. He had to use his savings for medical bills. You understand why I wanted you to go, don't you?"
"Sure. It was so I'd have more options than you did. I get it, but there's something I really want to do instead." Looking her straight in the eye, he continued, "I want to join the Navy."
"Oh! Oh, but..." Susan's brain stopped communicating with her mouth and she ran down.
He waited while she absorbed the information, knowing this was an emotional moment for her. While he had no doubt that she wouldn't try to stop him from making this choice, he really wanted her to be happy about it.
"Why the Navy? I mean, could we live any farther from an ocean?" She raised her hands expressively.
He leaned forward to explain and she watched as his eyes lit up and his face came alive in a way she had never seen before. 'This is it,' she thought to herself. 'This is his passion. What kind of mother would I be if I held him back?'
Spring came and the school year was winding down. With a week left, Danny approached his boss at the pizza place to ask about more hours.
His boss shook his head, "I'm sorry. You're a good worker and reliable, but I've got family that need the work and they figure I owe them."
Danny narrowed his eyes, then nodded, "I'll make a deal with you; you can call me anytime to fill in when one of them lets you down. But, I want to be bumped up to the shift lead pay-scale."
"No, no. I can't do that unless you were running the shifts."
"Really? Then why is Marv getting it? He's never been lead. In fact, he has yet to do a full shift without screwing up orders."
"I have no control over that. Corporate hired him as shift lead and they won't let me fire him."
"Fine. Cut his hours, send him home whenever he messes up, tell him he's on his final warning. You know he costs more then he contributes."
"I still can't have a sixteen-year-old as shift lead."
"Good thing I'm seventeen now," Danny replied with a smile.
His boss threw his arms up in defeat, "Okay! I'll get you the pay bump. But you better be serious about always being on call. I'm going to make you work for it." Honestly, any other employee he would have let walk, but Danny not only did good work himself, but he somehow influenced his co-workers to do better when he was there. Except for the millstone that was Marv, of course.
When Danny finished cleaning up that evening and was locking the door behind him, he felt a presence standing too close. Whirling around, he put his fists up. "Hey, man! Chill, I'm just looking for any leftovers." The voice had a grating whine.
"The leftovers went home with the workers who have kids at home. There were some burnt breadsticks that ended up in the dumpster at the back, but nothing else gets wasted these days." Danny kept a wary eye on the stranger who muttered as he headed for the alley.
As he turned to the bike rack, a quiet voice behind him said, "Danny."
Spinning around again, Danny gasped, "Oh my god, Dave? Is it really you?"
Danny pushed his bike while he and Dave walked to the apartment building. It was a dark night with only every third streetlamp lit (another cost saving effort by the city). Dave didn't seem in any hurry to talk, so Danny had to ask, "What happened? Are you okay?"
"No. Yes. I don't know! It's all such a mess." He kicked the curb angrily and turned away. Danny stopped and waited. Finally, shaking his head, Dave came back and resumed talking. "There was this girl, Clarice. She really liked me and we were hanging out a lot. I was showing her how to lift weights and we liked the same games. It was great until my cousin decided I should pay for Mom getting after his dad about the drugs. He started a rumor that I'm a pedo and I like little boys. Clarice won't even look at me anymore and I got beat up twice in the last week."
Pausing to take a ragged breath, he continued in a low voice, "I couldn't take being in the same house with him laughing at me. I punched him once and he pulled a knife on me. I didn't even dare sleep with him there and now that school is finished he's always around. If I had stayed, one of us would have ended up in the hospital."
"What about your parents? Do they know where you are?"
"Yeah, I told them where I was going." He looked embarrassed, "I told them you were expecting me. I just couldn't take one more day of it."
Suddenly, Dave's stomach growled loudly. Danny exclaimed, "Dude! You're going to wake people up with that."
"I haven't had anything to eat for two days."
"Wait a minute; how did you get here?"
"No way your parents agreed to that!"
"No, I told them I was riding with a friend from school who was heading through here."
Danny frowned as they kept walking; it wasn't like his friend at all to lie like that. He had a feeling a lot more had happened that Dave hadn't told him yet.
"Okay, boys, it's time to talk budget," Susan handed papers across the table to each of the young men. "Let me make it clear that I have no problems with Dave staying here. I'm happy to have him, but we will need to do some adjusting financially.
"Look at the budget sheet and you'll see that what I get from unemployment barely covers the rent and electricity. That's only happening because we cut our electric usage to the bare minimum. It's going to seem extreme to you, Dave, but we don't have a choice. Don't turn a light on unless you have to, only open the fridge long enough to get what you need and underwear and socks get hand-washed, other clothes wait until we can smell them.
"Any money I make from odd jobs plus what Danny brings home has to buy everything else: food, soap, toilet paper, shoes...you get the idea. You probably remember we sold everything of value before you moved away. It's gotten so bad now that the pawn shops are stuffed full of electronics and jewelry. Some of them have stopped taking game systems and televisions. Questions?"
Dave looked horrified, "You can't afford to feed me. I shouldn't have come."
"It's not impossible. I get $97 a month in food stamps and I'll check if you can be counted as part of our family. I do need you to try to get a summer job as soon as possible. Danny still has one week of school so if you can get out there before the local schools are out for the summer, you might have a better chance."
"I stocked shelves at the grocery store last summer; I'll try there today. Then I can talk to the guys Dad worked with and Mom's old church, someone might have ideas."
"Good idea. Please remember to lock the apartment all the time; I had to give up renter's insurance. We may not have much, but I'd hate to lose the food there is." As she started putting away the paperwork, Susan glanced up, "Oh, and tonight I'd appreciate if you could tell us more about your journey and what things are like between the cities."
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