He doesn’t see it, at first. It’s not disguised, per se, but it takes up so much of the alleyway that for a second he thinks it is the alleyway. But no, there’s a roof above – corrugated iron, plastic, wood – a ramshackle of whatever materials were to hand. Daylight still streams through cracks, and somebody has made a vague attempt to brighten up the inside of the passageway. White paint decorates the darker materials, only just beginning to flake around the edges.
The ground, however, is exactly the same as outside. Water pools beneath the cracks, and though Varner steps over them with ease, Seytson finds himself grimacing and on his toes. One is too large to jump. He still attempts it, but his legs are shorter than the young man in front, or he simply isn’t as used to this sort of thing. He lands at the far edge of the puddle with a splash that sends muddy water inside the legs of his trousers. His curse doesn’t muffle the snort of laughter from in front.
They continue on, footprints marking their route through the passage. Something looms ahead – a darkened area that he supposes is where they’re headed for. Varner is a considerable distance ahead by this point. Seytson can see him silhouetted against the darkness.
The passageway is getting narrower, he notices, and the white paint has stopped. He thinks maybe the painter gave up before reaching this far, but in amongst the dirt are white flecks. It’s just all peeled off, that’s all.
Varner has stopped at what Seytson assumes to be the end of the passageway. His hands are shoved in his trouser pockets, and he slouches against a wooden doorpost as he waits for Seytson to catch up. “Wipe your feet,” he instructs, as soon as the younger boy is close enough to hear his unraised voice.
Seytson looks down. Just in front of him, barely visible against the muddy floor, is an old doormat that looks like it might add more dirt than it will remove. Nonetheless, he does what he’s told.
When he next glances up, Varner’s head is peering through a grubby curtain. There’s a step in front that seems to be a porch of some sort. It’s the dead end of the passageway, enclosed on two other sides, with the curtain on the other. Seytson brushes his boots against the dirty bristles of the mat once more for good measure, then steps up next to Varner, who lets the curtain fall.
Varner mutters something under his breath, then turns past Seytson to face the other wall. It’s a small space, and he has to contort himself against the far wall to save either of them being knocked off as he reaches over.
Seytson is frowning at him in confusion when he realises. The other wall is not a wall, but a door without a handle. An old, wooden thing as might be found in a shack or similar.
Varner knocks once before entering.
The room is bigger than Seytson expected, but not nearly as big as it ought to be. Children of all ages are sprawled across the floorspace, amidst blankets and cushions. Some of them have small toys, teddy bears or rag dolls; others lie asleep. At first, Seytson thinks that none of them are paying any attention to their visitors. Then he realises from the sweep of their gazes that they’re all trying very hard not to look. He takes the cue not to look at them, either. He doesn’t know why. He just accepts it as one of those strange rituals that he doesn’t understand. Varner doesn’t seem bothered by it, or to have even noticed. Maybe he’s just well-versed at playing the game.
There’s a wooden staircase at the far end of the room which Varner heads straight towards. It’s a rickety thing, a dated design with slats that are all too easy to trip up on or fall through. Seytson tries to ignore the beams’ heavy creaking as he climbs behind Varner.
The upper floor seems bigger, though he’s not sure how that works. There are several open rooms, each crowded with similar faces. The rougher looking ones stare out at them. Seytson tries his best to avoid their eye, though not before he sees Varner glaring at them in return. He’s becomingly increasingly convinced that this is some sort of turf war. None of them hold Varner’s gaze for long.
Some way along the corridor, another staircase – more of a ladder, really – heads up into the ceiling. If there is another floor up there, it can’t be large. About the size of the attic in his father’s house, maybe smaller. The supporting beams look like they could collapse at any moment. Still, at least the floorboards beneath his feet seem secure enough.
The door that Varner knocks twice on is the one closest to the base of the ladder. Other than that, nothing marks out. This time, they wait for an answer instead of simply entering. For some reason, this makes Seytson nervous.
After a while, and much grumbling that can be heard through the walls, a man yanks the door open. It squeals on its hinges. “Geez, can’t you just bring home stray cats instead?”
For a moment, Seytson wonders whether the man is Varner’s father, or brother. He has a similar shock of messy brown hair, and despite being taller and more obviously muscular, he’s also of slim build. But behind the stubble and worn eyes, he has a young face. He looks like he’s still the brighter side of thirty, and while being Varner’s dad is still a possibility, Seytson doubts it. Varner was casual when being asked about his parents before, and there’s nothing casual between these two. At least, not on Varner’s side.
“Then they wouldn’t be strays anymore.” Varner scowls at him.
“They’re strays so long as they don’t have collars.”
Seytson is about to point out that the man’s reasoning makes them all strays, when he realises that everybody in the immediate vicinity is just that. Stray children with nobody out looking for them. He’s almost the same.
The man shrugs against the doorway. “What makes you think we’ve got room, V?”
Varner quirks his mouth to the side, but doesn’t answer.
“Jazzy bought in three this morning. Three. We don’t have room.”
Their eyes meet in defiance for some time before Varner speaks. “I saw. And you know as well as I do that we’ll have the space by the end of the week.” For the first time, Varner’s tone falls to something close to a plea. “C’mon, Jinx. It’s not like we aren’t cramped anyway. Skip always used to bring-”
“No, he didn’t.” It’s difficult to say whether it’s the words, or Jinx’s expression, but Varner falls silent immediately. “He did it once.”
“That’s not what Ixie said.” There’s a sullen note in his voice.
“Don’t lie to me, V. Ixie never knew Skip. Who told you?”
“Ixie did,” Varner insists. “Maybe she heard it from somebody else.”
Jinx looks at him for a moment. Whether or not he’s still suspicious, he lets the matter drop. “Well, she can’t have heard that much.”
Varner’s scowl deepens. “You never talk. The rest of us talk, Jinx. Everybody knows about me. You never say anything.”
“Your little friend here know, too?” Jinx smirks and shakes his head. He gives Seytson a cursory glance, but his focus is still on Varner. “I never say anything to you. There’s a difference.”
“Why not?” It’s not like it’s something I can’t handle. It’s not like it can be worse than-”
“Just shut it, V.” The force has dropped from Jinx’s voice, leaving him sounding tired. He waves a hand in Seytson’s direction. “So what’s your story, kid?”
Seytson watches in silence as the man pulls a pack of cigarettes from his back trouser pocket and sticks one in his mouth. He’s going to wait until he lights it, but Varner motions him to speak. “My dad was a lawyer. He conned a few people. They came after him. After me.” He attempts a nonchalant shrug. The less details they know, the better.
“A lawyer?” Jinx raises his eyebrows, then frowns. “Look, kid, we’re not witness protection. If guys come chasing after you, we aren’t gonna hide you. You’ll be lucky if none of us hand you straight over, frankly.”
“I know that,” Seytson says hurriedly. “I just don’t want to stay at home in case they come after my family.”
Varner smirks. “If they’re after your dad, won’t they go after your family anyway?”
“My parents are separated, and they’ll be watching my dad’s house. Either I lead them straight to the people I care about, or I run away.” He shrugs again. “No real choice.”
“Ah.” Jinx still hasn’t lit the cigarette. He rolls it around with his tongue. “So you drag us into danger instead of them.” He snorts at Seytson’s awkward expression. “Don’t worry about us, kid. We take care of ourselves.”
Seytson’s mumbled thanks is overshadowed by Varner’s triumphant grin. “So he can stay?”
“Yeah, yeah. You can keep your little stray.” Jinx lets out a sigh. “But you’re the one responsible for him. Any rule-breaking, any fights – I’m not involved.” Seytson isn’t entirely sure he’s happy with the way he’s being treated as the older boy’s pet, but he thinks it wiser not to complain.
“Go find him a blanket,” Jinx continues, making a shooing gesture with his hands. He pauses, then smirks at Varner. “Or share. Your type?”
“You’re sick,” Varner replies, without malice. He catches Seytson’s attention and jerks his head in the direction of a room at the opposite end of the corridor. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?” Seytson asks, as soon as they’re out of earshot of Jinx. He has the niggling feeling that the man is still watching them from the doorway.
Varner grins. “Home.”