Jeff rents the second floor apartment of a dirty red brick building not five minutes' walk from their normal meeting place in the park. It's off the main road, down an alley and around a few turns and every time they round a corner Johnny can tell that their surroundings were getting worse. It is a far cry from the suburbs.
The building itself is not much to look at; rust-colored bricks cracking and dingy with age, shadowed by the buildings that surround it. Uniform bars cover the grimy windows like some sort of prison cell block for the lower class innocents. The metal door is startlingly new compared to all the other dumpster-scented adornments, its numerous locks are shining brass in the dim light and Jeff has to dig out three keys to open them.
Inside the building, things are not much better; tiles are cracked on the floor and some of the ceiling panels are loose, threatening to drop on their heads and cause injury. Two doors line the bottom floor and Jeff explains that one is to the laundry room, and the other is the landlady's apartment. The doors are identical and he refuses to tell Johnny which is which as he leads the younger boy up the rusting, creaky stairs. He also explains that one of the two apartments above his are empty, but, again, refuses to say which one.
Jeff's apartment is small. Well, tiny, would be a more appropriate word. It is barely large enough for one young man to live comfortably, much less two and Johnny is truly surprised that Jeff is willing to share the cramped space. He is also surprised by how well furnished the place is; though there aren't any matching pieces or really nice furnishings, Jeff has all the comforts of home, most of them lifted from yard sales or junkyards or Ikea in the small hours of the night.
And then there's the books. There are dozens, if not hundreds of the little paper blocks scattered about the apartment and lining a wall of shelves that rested where Johnny believed a TV would have gone if he thought for a second that Jeff watched television with any sort of regularity. Johnny tries to ask if he can read some of them, but his question dies in his throat as he tries to figure out where to start.
Jeff clears his throat and glares at him impatiently as if the amount of awe Johnny is showing toward the new living space is entirely uncalled for and he should just get a grip, but Johnny finds his eye drawn to the few pieces of abstract art hanging from the walls and can't help but to think about killing Jeff just to take his apartment. The older boy scowls at him, "I wouldn't even think about it if I were you," he warns, as if reading Johnny's thoughts.
Johnny needs to work on how easy he is to read.
"You can sleep out here," Jeff says now that he knows he has Johnny's attention. He gestures curtly to a pair of beanbag chairs and a low-lying coffee table that marked his living room. Johnny nods. "And yes," Jeff continues with a roll of his eyes, "you may read my books, but if I catch you dog-earring a page or folding a cover God himself won't be able to save you."
Johnny nods again, knowing the threat will hold true.
"I don't know where to start," he laughs after several minutes of filing through the bookshelves after both of them had settled in. Jeff doesn't respond at first, opting to treat Johnny more like furniture than a guest or a roommate, so Johnny bumps up his statement with a question, "What do you recommend?"
"Kafka's pretty easy to swallow," Jeff shrugs, "depends on what you want to read, really. I've got a little of everything."
It was true. Johnny is sure Jeff could run a bookstore out of his apartment and make no small amount of money, and yet he doesn't.
"Ever consider selling your books?" Johnny asks, scanning the titles for this 'Kafka' thing, "upgrading to technology?"
"Staring into light gives me headaches," Jeff snorts, "sensitive eyes and all." He rounds the short counter separating the kitchenette from the rest of the apartment and pulls down a thin book bound in fake leather dyed a dark blue. The words "Metamorphosis" and "Franz Kafka" are emblazed in gold on the front along with a tiny cockroach, and they shimmer at Johnny enticingly as Jeff holds it out to him. "Here. Knock yourself out."
Johnny settles in to read, and Jeff returns to treating him like furniture. Occasionally, Johnny will peek over the cover of his book and try to assess what Jeff is doing, a desperate attempt to read the other as well as Jeff reads him, but finds that every time he looks Jeff isn't doing much of anything. A chore here or there or shelving some of the loose books, sometimes Jeff will disappear behind an opaque paper partition that separates what is probably a bedroom from the rest of the space or behind the bathroom door. He never says anything and makes very little noise the whole time. In fact, once Johnny is about halfway through Metamorphosis he's forgotten Jeff is there and nearly jumps out of his skin when the older boy suddenly appears beside him.
They only hit one house that night, but it's in a nice part of town; a part that normally has security systems, motion sensor lights, and nosey neighbors. Johnny wonders just how long Jeff has been scouting the place when they slip into the backyard under cover of darkness.
The kids go first. Three of them, between the ages of nine and fourteen. Then the parents; Jeff takes the mother, Johnny the father. His stomach knots when he hears Jeff whisper "go to sleep" when the woman wakes up to a hand over her mouth and her husband bleeding to death beside her.
The whole house is cleared in ten minutes. Or so they think, until the sound of movement from the living room sends them both sprawling under the bed for cover.
"What the hell?" Johnny hisses, hand tense around the knife leaving streaks of blood on the plush, cream-colored carpet.
Jeff is silent for several moments. "All the beds are accounted for." He crawls out from under the bed and moves to the door like a shadow, peering out into the hallway.
He shakes his head, "Looks like we weren't the only ones with designs on this place."
Johnny rushes up to meet him, making significantly more noise and receiving a harsh smack to the back of the head in punishment.
A vase breaks in the living room, and the whole house falls silent.
Several tense seconds pass.
Johnny can hear himself breathing and wonders if it's as loud as he thinks it is. He casts a nervous glance to Jeff who is just staring out into the hallway with a focus that could light something on fire had he been gifted with heat-vision. The younger boy can feel his blood run cold.
Johnny looks at his partner in crime fully, "No, let's take them too. They're burglars, no one will miss them."
"No. We shouldn't risk it."
There is a loud shushing down the hall. Footsteps approach.
"Shit," Jeff grabs Johnny roughly by the shoulder and tosses him in the closet. He disappears before Johnny can turn around.
"Fucking bastard," Johnny breathes drawing the door closed, but leaving a crack large enough that he can see into the rest of the room.
Two men dressed in all black walk in shortly after he shuts the door. Johnny rolls his eyes. All black? Are you serious? They probably have ski masks stashed in their pockets too for fuck's sake. They seem nervous, glancing around and sniffing the air. They smell the metallic odor of blood Johnny's nose has become immune to, but cannot see the bodies yet in the darkness. Johnny can tell that as soon as they do, they will run.
There is apparently a third member of their group, and Johnny can hear him screaming in terror just before the others reach the bed. The other two bolt to help their companion and Johnny seizes the opportunity praying it's Jeff the guy outside is screaming at and not some lose dog or other such nonsense. He breaks out right behind them, pulling down the trailing member of the pair right as the man enters the hallway.
The carpet muffles the whump of his fall and the knife in his throat stops him from screaming.
And Johnny feels justice along with blood on his hands.
Something inside him, something hungry and feral, demands more and before the guy is even dead at his feet Johnny chases after his companion. It roars, the savage beast, and Johnny has to fight the urge to roar with it when he finally gets close enough to strike.
This takedown is not so silent.
All of Johnny's tiny frame plows into the grown man sending them both toppling over into the glass coffee table with enough force to leave them covered in sparkling dust and surrounded by shards. The first stab is with Johnny's knife, but the blade gets stuck and he winds up using rogue pieces of glass to finish the job. He's still stabbing the guy when Jeff appears in the doorway.
He doesn't want to stop.
And Jeff is right next to him now, demanding in a quiet, firm voice that they leave.
Johnny doesn't listen.
There is a knife at his throat.
Everything is still.
Slowly the boy comes back to himself. The static in his ears recedes, his vision clears. The hunger dies. He just sits there; breathing slowly and feeling the hot blood begin to cool in the frigid January air. It is only then that Johnny realizes the front door is still open. He feels the razor edge of Jeff's blade scrape at the skin of his throat, dangerous, and the younger brings his hands up plaintively.
"I forgot myself," he whispers, staring at the bloody mass before him.
The blade digs deeper and the boy can feel his skin pull tight beneath it. "I cannot afford to tolerate disobedience." Jeff's unnatural voice growls in his ear, "I thought I was clear on that point."
"You were," Johnny replies, afraid to nod.
His skin splits beneath the blade regardless, a burning sting, but Jeff doesn't cut deep. "Do you hear that?"
Johnny winces, "Sirens," he sighs hearing their high-pitched whine rapidly approaching.
"We should have been gone ten minutes go. Move it."
And Jeff is gone. Johnny has to rise quickly to fall into step behind him; he can feel the warmth of flowing blood staining his shirt collar as they dive out the bedroom window and dash back into the city, narrowly avoiding the prying eyes of neighbors and the occasional vicious guard dog.
When they reach the denser collection of buildings that mark the transition from suburb to city, they stop in a dark alley and exchange bloody sweatshirts for something less horrific and obvious. The walk back to the apartment is a quiet one.
"You pull that shit again, I will kill you," Jeff says, hurling his backpack across the apartment as soon as Johnny locks the door. "I am sick of scraping capture because you cannot keep your head together."
"My head is fine," Johnny argues back, only to regret it immediately.
"I wanted to leave. You argued with me."
"And you threw me in a closet," his voice is shriller than he would like it to be. "They're dead, they can't report us anyway."
"Doesn't change the fact that I can't take you anywhere," Jeff growls, turning his back on Johnny and the conversation.
He wants to stick his blade right between the older boy's shoulder blades. He feels sick to his stomach, and the static buzzing returns. "That isn't true," he shoots back, trying to drown out the noise.
Jeff glares at him over his shoulder, "You have yet to prove me wrong."
"That isn't fair. This was a fluke-"
"A fluke handled poorly," Jeff sighs, "We leave next time."
Johnny wants to say there won't be a next time, but just settles on agreement knowing that trying to argue may end with him getting another dagger to the throat. Absently, he raises his hand to his neck and prods the cut; it's scabbed over, but tender. It'll take a day or two to heal.
Jeff disappears behind the paper partition and tells Johnny to go to sleep, tightening the knot in his stomach. In the dim light the younger boy can see his roommate's silhouette collapse heavily onto his oversized futon, shift a bit, and then lie still.
He sighs and plops himself into one of the beanbag chairs. It takes some shifting, but he finally finds a position comfortable enough to sleep in. The quiet in the apartment allows him to drift off much more quickly than he ever could at home with his mother screaming and slamming things.
The static in his ears is deafening when Johnny's mind jerks violently to wakefulness. He feels a chill settle around him, so cold in makes his hands ache and his teeth chatter. His hold body shivers. When he finally gets a hold on himself, he opens his eyes.
He sees Jeff leaning over him, black hair blending in with the shadowed ceiling, but his pale face catches the light and Johnny can see every detail impossibly clear. The freakish teenager is wide eyed and staring, torn mouth pulled impossibly wide and showing bloodied teeth as he stands, bent at the waist just letting the flowing blood drip. His tongue clicks behind is teeth and his head tilts curiously, but disturbingly slow with the motion. Johnny can hear the vertebrae in his neck pop. The whole thing couldn't have taken more than a couple of seconds, but it feels like hours before Johnny can snap his eyes shut and scramble away.
He pulls a knife out of his boot and swings it behind him as he falls to his knees in an attempt to get away. The blade cuts only air.
Carefully, Johnny opens his eyes expecting to see Jeff still in place, staring at him.
He sees nothing.
Sweating and shaken, Johnny rises to his feet. His eyes scan the living area looking for anything out of place. Eventually his eyes settle on the partition.
Jeff's silhouette is still there.
His nerves leave him shaking as he goes to make doubly sure, but Jeff is sound asleep, his head tucked protectively under a pillow, shielded from the pale grey of pre-dawn light pouring in the dingy window at his bedside.
Johnny stumbles back to his hair and sits back down, staring into the shadows.
He only stops shaking once sunlight has filled the room completely.