The small boy darted through the alleyway, trying to make his way through to the slums. the sunlight was hazy and orange, coming through a layer of smog and dust, lending strange shadows to the buildings and streets. The back streets of Chicago were dangerous at the best of times, and a ten year old boy was an easy target for pickpockets and thugs, but he was used to avoiding the worst of the trouble. He looked over his shoulder to check for followers, and when he turned back ahead three boys had stepped into the alley, blocking the path. They were at least four years older than him and twice his size. He sighed inwardly, these boys were unavoidable. No matter how hard he tried, they always found him. Knowing what was they would ask for and the consequences of refusing, the boy pulled out a single dollar from the heavy backpack that swung on his shoulders. Trembling with fear and heavy with resignation, he handed it over before the boys could say a word. All this passed in what seemed like complete silence, though the city thrummed with noise, cars honking, people yelling, advertisements playing, he heard none of it over the pounding in his ears. The largest boy reached forward to take it, still silent. Maybe today will be the day, He thought, unable to smother the small flicker of hope. Both boys stared at the dollar, tension shimmering in the air. “The sales were down today. Nobody needs to buy newspapers from the paper boy if they can just see the news on the internet.” The smaller boy said, feeling a glimmer of pride that his voice did not waver. The larger boy gave his a hard stare, something like false sadness on his face. “I thought we were over these little games kid” he said with that same phony pity in his voice, “I thought we were friends.” Despite the situation, the smaller kid had to suppress a snort, had never been close to anything that could be considered even friendly, yet he said the same thing every day. I thought we were friends. “Search him” he snapped to the other two boys, who had been standing as still and silent as statues. They rushed the smaller boy, who knew there was no escape, as the familiar helplessness enfolded him, the two boys yanked his backpack to the ground, ripping it open and spilling newspapers everywhere. They tore at each one until a ten dollar bill fell to the ground. Snatching it and laughing, they left the kid to clean up the ruined newspapers, salvage what he could, and trudge the rest of the way home. He found his way to his apartment, a dirty, tiny two room on the ground floor in the slums. Shrugging off his backpack at the door, he made his way to his mothers room. The room was empty except for a small wood bed frame with a threadbare mattress, on which his mother lay threadbare curtains hung over dirty windows, blocking out the light and making him squint to see her. He gazed at his her with tenderness, though she was sick and frail looking on the dirty bed, he remembered the mother than ran and played with him, that taught him how to read and bandaged his scraped knees as a child. Widowed when the boy was only five, she had provided for him the best he could until she had fallen ill two years ago. Now, he did his best to provide for her, though there were not many ways to earn money when you were as young as he was. She looked back at him with tired eyes, until her thin frame shook with coughing and shivered with cold, though the room was warm. He reached for another blanket and lay it over her. He took care of her, and she loved him, the only one in this world who did. “How was it today?” she said, her thin voice quavering. he smiled at her and reaching down to his shoe, he pulled a five dollar out of his sock. “Well enough” he said, “We will have food to eat tonight” he said, not mentioning that he should have brought home triple that amount, he did not want to make her worry. “My brave boy” she whispered her voice almost failing, “You work to hard for me, when I should be taking care of you. You are so strong for your age.” He smiled, but it was filled with sadness. He wanted more for his mother, for himself. He stayed by her bed until she fell asleep, then crept quietly into the kitchen to rummage around their measly pantry for dinner, then fall asleep on the single couch in their tiny living room. He did not know then that they had only days left together, that his mother would die of sickness in the night, with him crying by her bedside, whispering her last words in his ear. he cried for days, helpless, always he had felt helpless, unsure what to do now that he was alone in the world.
10 years later
The same boy, now a tall, thin man of twenty, walked through the slums again with his head down. He had finished his work for the day and been almost paid well for it, a fifty dollar bill was tucked into his sock, where he still hid his money. He had found a friend in those long years, and they lived together now, paying rent together in a tiny apartment nearly as dingy as his childhood home. It was a good companionship, he and his friend lived together comfortably, saving their combined money and planning for they day when they would be able to move into a real house. He was almost happy, though the hopelessness of his situation still nagged at the back of his mind, for he had no education and earned very little money saving even less. He could not shake the feeling that this fragile happiness would soon shatter. Shaking himself out of his dark thoughts, he made it home, as he walked inside his friend greeted him warmly. They ate dinner together, watching the news and discussing the days events, before falling asleep in the apartments two twin beds. This was the way of his life and he had accepted that.
His eyes flew open, certain he had heard a noise in the silence. He looked around and saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. His friend, fully dressed for travel with a backpack in his hands, was shoving both of their belonging in it as quietly as possible. He watched, waiting to see what his friend was up to, too tired to comprehend what was really going on. Then his friend reached under the false floorboard where they kept both of their life savings, it was a measly amount and he wondered abstractly how he ever thought it would be enough for a house someday, but it was the most money he had ever owned. Putting his money in the bag, his friend reached for the door with one last glance around the room, starting as he noticed his roommate sitting upright, gazing at him with confusion. Both of them froze, and as the seconds ticked by, confusion made way for comprehension, then for a blazing anger. “You’re leaving” he said, it was not a question but a statement, filled with a mix of emotions, anger, sadness and betrayal. “Yes” his friend stated, determination audible in his tone. “I hope buy my own place, for I am soon going to get married.” He paused, “I never told you I was seeing someone, and for that I am sorry, but I never meant for it to be serious, and then I did not want you to spoil my plans” Anger filled the betrayed roommate, he was being left alone again, with his money and most of his belongings stolen by the one person he trusted. He made to lunge off the bed at his former friend, but halted as his friend drew a gun on him. He was not even aware his friend owned a gun, and had no clue where he would have gotten it from. Frozen with fear and betrayal, he listened as his friend spoke “You were a fool to entrust everything to me, I am not made for this kind of life. I am going to make a better place for myself and my fiancee in this world, but I cannot do it with my money alone. So I tricked you with dreams of hope and happiness, tricked you into earning my money for me. For this I must thank you, though I no longer need your help. Good bye, Friend” That final word echoed in the betrayed friends ears, bringing memories of a different time I thought we were friends. Rage blocked out all reason, and he jumped at his friend, heedless of the gun, naively thinking his friend did not had it in him to shoot. A deafening noise filled the apartment, and he was suddenly the ground, too in shock to feel pain. This is it. he thought, that ever present helplessness pressing down on him in full force. He looked up at his friend, and was surprised to find his own shock mirrored in his friend expression. His head slowly cleared, and he realized that he did not feel any pain. He looked down at his chest in wonder. A small hole was torn in the chest of his pajama shirt, and yet he was unharmed. His friend looked fearful, trembling where he stood, still holding the gun limply at his side. He raised it and shot again, once, twice, three times, emptying the chamber, and yet nothing happened, he remained unharmed, still feeling no pain. Anger and triumph built in his mind, until he felt he could no longer contain it. His mothers last words echoed in his ears, Always have a heart of steel my son, so that none may ever break it. The building emotions shot out from him, his hands glowing with yellow light, and struck his former friend. When the light faded, there was nothing left but ashes, falling to the ground with the scattered cash. bills floating around the room like a storm of broken promises. He looked down, startled to find that the ground around him had changed, looking shiny in the dimness. He leaned down and hesitantly touched it, and realized everything had turned to metal where he stood, the floor reflecting the rising suns glow, metal dollars forever crumpled into twisted shapes. Steel he thought, I have survived bullets and turned the ground to steel. A grin spread across his face, an evil glint appearing in his eye. He would never be hurt by any weapon, by any emotion again. Have a heart of steel his mother had said. A heart of steel. Steelheart.