As the sun began to rise over London, the city awakened from it's sleep. Children marched to school, as Adults sipping coffee hurried to important meetings.
Ben frowned as he watched a couple walk with a small girl in a school uniform. Her bright, neon pink knapsack bobbed back and forth with every step she took.
He leaned up against a telephone pole, keeping a styrofoam cup at the ready. As they walked close to him, he eagerly showed it to the couple. They paid him no mind and continued trekking.
Ben sighed. He dumped the few coins that he had begged from passersby into his hand and put them in his pocket. He dropped the styrofoam cup and made his way through an alley.
Several homeless adults watched him, whispering as he stumbled through the dim morning light. Feeling uneasy, he walked more quickly. He was too busy watching behind him that he ran right into a tall figure with an "oof!"
Ben fell backwards, and then propped himself up with his elbows, and looked up at the man. He was obviously homeless, his long, leather jacket was worn and discolored. His hair was a tangled, greasy mess under a baseball cap.
"Haven't seen you around here, boy," He rasped in a strong, scottish accent. "How much have you gotten so far?"
Ben knew he must have seen him begging. He said nothing, he was too nervous. He inched backwards, and tried to pull himself up using the handle of a dumpster. The man pushed him back on the ground, and drew a large, rusty knife.
"Give it. Give it all to me." A quiver ran through Ben's spine as he reached into his pocket as the dark figure held the tip of the knife to his throat. He was just about to pull his hand out with the small bit of change he had gathered, when suddenly...
There was a loud "WHUMP!" and the man was thrown to the side, the knife clanged against the concrete and slid up against a wall.
Where the man was standing only a few seconds before, there was now an older boy, wielding a baseball bat with two hands. He was wearing a red, hooded sweatshirt, and the blond hair on his head seemed to stand on edge. His chiseled features were damp with sweat and morning dew.
"Reggie!" Ben cried. "I-"
"Thank me later," Reggie responded. "Can you walk?" Reggie said as he pulled Ben to his feet. "I'm fine. Lets-" A loud groan emerged from the man Reggie had beaten, as he tried to get up. Reggie kicked the man in the ribs, and he fell flat against the pavement.
"Don't you let me catch you messing with my boys, you hear?" Reggie growled. "Remember us." Reggie and Ben triumphantly left the alleyway.
"Wait until the other guys hear about this!" Reggie bragged. "No one messes with us," Reggie said in an "I'm on top of the world" voice.
"Yeah, you should have seen his face! He was about to get paid and then... Bam! Right where it hurts!" Ben elbowed Reggie in the ribs. "Speaking of getting paid," Reggie grunted. "How much did you get?" Ben shrugged and held out several coins to Reggie.
"You mean I just beat someone's arse' for less than a pound?" Reggie barked. "Sorry," Ben broke eye contact. "I didn't ask for you to help anyway."
"We're family, remember?" Reggie answered. "We're all family. Now come on, we're going to miss breakfast."
The dilapidated warehouse somehow felt like a mansion to Ben. They had made rooms in it out of crates and other random items, one for each of the Family, as they called themselves. The Family was a group of 8 homeless boys. They were led by Eddy, the oldest at 16, but everyone calls him Uncle Eddy. Most of the boys had come from orphanages, but weren't happy there. A few picnic tables, that they had stolen from a park down the street late at night, had several bowls of oatmeal and fruit, which were most likely stolen.
Eddy always gets to eat first, out of respect. Phil and X-Ray cook the meals, so they go next. Then after that, its first come, first serve. Reggie and Ben were just in time to be last for breakfast, all that was left over was a bowl's worth of oatmeal, so Reggie and Ben split it.
It was bland and tasteless, but it was edible. It was all he'd eat until the evening, when they all hung around the fire pit and Eddy would tell stories, and they would all listen as if rooted to every word he said. But Reggie was the center of attention this morning as he explained the scuffle with the man.
"And so I saw Ben lying on the ground, so I just did what any of you would do, and I whacked him right out of the way, I did!" Reggie puffed his chest out proudly. "It's true," Ben playfully punched Reggie.
Everyone clamored at once to Reggie and Ben, filling the warehouse with echoes of indistinct questions.
"Simmer down," Eddy put his feet up against the table, and satisfyingly put his hand on his stomach and burped. "Reggie put his life on the line to keep Ben out of harm," Eddy ruffled Reggie's hair. Tonight, we can celebrate that. I want everyone back at eight. We're low on money for food, you all know that." A few boys still followed Ben and Reggie as they filed out from breakfast. Reggie vividly described the knife and the way he kicked the man afterwards.
All around the city, the boys begged for food and money. Some received tributes from sympathetic citizens. Some were shooed away and scolded at. Some stole clothing off of clotheslines and fruit from display cases in grocery stores.
It was 7:30, the sun was beginning to set. Ben and Reggie had been inseparable since the incident earlier that day. They made their way back to the warehouse and kept warm next to the fire which Eddy had already started. The pots of soup and vegetables bubbled over the fire in a camping pot. Dinner was set, and it was only a matter of time before it disappeared. Eventually, the folding chairs and benches were full, except for one seat. It was 8:30. Everyone always waited for the last person before they did anything.
"Where's Carl?" Someone whispered. "I don't know, I haven't seen him all day. He was here this morning, right? Maybe he just got lost."
Eddy came out of his room and sat down at the empty chair, and slapped a newspaper on his lap, looking troubled. "I think I-" He stammered. "I think I know what happened to Carl." He thumbed through the newspaper until he found the article he was looking for. He cleared his throat and read aloud.
"Law makers in London have just passed the "No Child Alone" act which focuses on the bringing in of homeless children to shelters and orphanages. Police are on the lookout for begging children and children who are out in public during school hours. Studies in other cities around the globe have shown that this dramatically decreases the amount of homeless children on the street. The law has gone into effect yesterday, and Police say they've collected 14 Children as of today."
Everyone was speechless. The youngest boy, Charlie, cried. "I don't want to go back," Charlie bawled as he hugged his twin brother, Derrek. "We won't go back. Right, Uncle Eddy?"
Eddy was silent. At last, he managed to choke out a sentence. "No," his face turned serious. "I promised I'd take care of each of you. The world may have turned it's back on us, but we're all in this together. We're a family." The boys longingly looked at Eddy.
"Does this mean we can't go out and beg anymore?" Ben sighed.
"Yes, I'm afraid it does," Eddy replied. "How are we supposed to get food now?" X-Ray called out. "We can't grow it ourselves, and we can't buy it."
"That's true, X-Ray," Eddy Mopped his brow. "I need to go think about some things, I'll see you all in the morning. Ben and Reggie, gather up whatever money we have, then go and buy enough food for breakfast tomorrow."
"We're on it," Ben fretted. One by one the boys gave them whatever they had. It was barely enough to buy food for one meal, but they did it all the same.
It was some time after 10 o'clock when Reggie and Ben sauntered through the dark streets. A 24-hour convenience store five blocks from the warehouse was their destination.
"Too bad we didn't get to celebrate my awesomeness," Reggie jeered. "Awesomeness?" Ben raised an eye brow. "Is that even a word?" Reggie shrugged. "Whatever. Let's just get this food so I can go to bed." The neon sign of the Convenience store glowed off in the distance. They were but 2 blocks away now. Suddenly, Ben stopped. A police car was parked at the side of the road under a streetlight. Ben was able to see inside of the police car under the eery, orange glow. To Ben's horror, the policeman returned his glance, and opened the driver's side door.
"Ben, why'd you stop?" Reggie snorted. Ben didn't reply, he grabbed Reggie by the collar and broke into a run. "You there! You kids! Stop right now!" The police officer called after them. "Run!" Reggie barked.
Ben made heavy foot falls against the concrete, scraping his arm as he turned a corner against a brick wall. Reggie was right behind him, and the Police Officer was bellowing into his radio as he chased after them.
The pair hopped fences, and kicked trash cans over to slow down their pursuer. "Ben! The docks! Run to the docks!" Reggie shouted. People had opened their windows to see what all the commotion was about. They raced out of the alleyway, which faced the river. There were many motor boats, sail boats, and even small row boats tied up to the dock. The dock had a path that went up to the pier, where a carnival that was filled with life during the day sat dead and quiet. A lone, red painted row boat was tied up at the front of the barnacle encrusted pier. "Reggie, the rowboat!" Ben cried. "Gotcha!" Reggie bolted ahead of Ben and began sawing at the rope with his pen knife. Passersby anxiously watched the two runaways as the Police Officer was nearing the dock. Reggie frantically sawed at the rope. It was very thick and strong, and there was no time to untie it from the wooden post.
"Stop right there!" The constable held his police baton at the ready. Ben spun around. The menacingly large man barred their way off of the pier. "Run!" Reggie screeched, and took off in the opposite direction down to the end of the pier. Ben hesitated for a moment, and then broke into a run. The officer kept pace with them, until they were up on the pier. They were heading to a dead end, there was nowhere to run. Ben had difficulty following Reggie, as he was weaving between closed shops and kiosks.
Reggie tried to hop over a bench, but his foot got caught under the arm, and yanked him him backwards. He howled with pain, clutching his ankle.
"Reggie! Get up! Get up!" Ben pleaded. "He's right behind us! Do you want to go back to the orphanage?" Reggie wiped the tears out of his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead reached into his pocket and held something out to Ben. It was his pen knife, Reggie's most prized possession.
"Take this," He grunted. "Get back to that boat and paddle your way back to the Family. If I can ever get out, I'll try and find you." Ben stared at him, incredulously.
Ben heard approaching footsteps. "I'll never forget you, Reggie." Ben snatched the pen knife, and jumped to his feet. He took one last look at Reggie, and then climbed on top of the guardrail on the side of the pier. He peered into the dark, lapping water, held his breath, and made a 5 meter jump into pure darkness.
He was surprised when he hit the bottom of the canal. It wasn't deep, not at all.
He pushed his way to the surface, and took in a big gulp of air. He frog-kicked his way back to the docks. Then, he heard the siren of an ambulance. Before long, the flashing red lights had stopped at the end of the dock, just as he had pulled himself onto the deck of a boat. Water rained from his clothes, and it was hard to move in them. He stripped himself of his sweatshirt and hung it around his neck. Cautiously, he climbed out of the boat and onto the dock. The ambulance was clearly waiting for something.
"Reggie," Ben thought. "They're getting Reggie." His shoes oozed water with every step, making it difficult to walk quiet. At last he reached the small, wooden dinghy. He was a little close for comfort to the ambulance, when a police car pulled up next to it. Ben stopped, luckily, there weren't any lights by the red row boat, so he quietly stepped into it. Two police officers were talking to the driver of the ambulance. Ben couldn't make out what they were saying, but he had no time to wait around. He picked up the rope and started where Reggie had left off. After a good minute of sawing at the rope, he was able to pull it apart, and the current of the river slowly drifted him away from the dock. He grabbed an oar, and paddled himself away in the moonlight.
"They Just took him?" X-Ray gasped. "Why didn't you do anything?"
Ben looked at his shoes. "What could I do? I would end up in the same place as Reggie if I'd have stayed. Plus, I was unarmed." He shook his head. "They're just going to get us one by one! Then, what?" Charlie grasped Ben's arm. "Ben!" Eddy beckoned. "Coming," He replied. Ben shook charlie off, and sat with Eddy at one of the picnic tables. "Ben... We've lost two people today," He complained. "And to make things worse, we're out of money," He glanced at the boys still sitting by the fire pit in the middle of the warehouse. "We can't beg, we can't get jobs, we can't go out during school hours, " Ben added. "How can we make money for food now? We don't even have anything for breakfast tomorrow. All the money was on Reggie, and they took him."
"That's true," Eddy remarked. "But there is one way we can still make money. I was hoping it would never come to this, but this was always my back up plan." Eddy reached into a large duffel bag next to the table, and withdrew a plastic bag filled with a fine, white powder. It was Cocaine. Ben's eyes widened.
"No! It hasn't come to that," He uttered. "We're not drug dealers. When you brought me into the Family you said we only did what we had to do to survive."
Eddy firmly held Ben's shoulder. "You're right, Ben, I did say that. And this is what we have to do to survive. I know people who sell this for cheap, I went ahead and bought a kilo of this two years ago. It's an emergency fund."
Ben looked at Eddy with disbelief and disgust. "I'm leaving if we get into that!" Ben shouted. So loudly did he shout, the other boys looked looked over their shoulders and watched.
"Ben, if we sell all this, we'd have enough to eat for a year. We don't have a choice," Eddy reasoned. "Be my guest, you can leave, and go find somewhere else to live. Maybe an orphanage, a shelter, an abandoned building. But what will you do for food? For friends? Company?" He zipped the bag up.
"You and I are the oldest in the family now. And since we're the oldest, we have to take care of the younger ones." Ben was silent. He thought for a moment. And then reluctantly agreed to help Eddy.