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An Improbable Knight

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Debbie is pretty sure she’s in real trouble this time. If it was just Carlos she could handle him, but he’s got Ramón with him, and Ramón’s not a kid anymore, he’s practically a grown man, and Debbie really does not like the way he’s looking at her. They’ve pinned her to the wall of a narrow alley, the pair of them, and they’re yelling about whatever Danny stole from them most recently--a car, apparently, and when the hell did Danny graduate to grand theft auto?--and they’re pissed the fuck off, and Ramón isn’t looking at her like Danny’s kid sister. He’s looking at her the way an angry man looks at a woman, and Debbie knows how that ends, and she’s going to go down fighting like a hellcat, but she’s going to go down, and--

Her train of thought, such as it is, is interrupted by a loud, high-pitched whine she recognizes as a two-stroke engine being pushed to its limits. It sounds a little but not exactly like Danny’s motorbike, and for a moment she imagines that her brother may actually be riding to her rescue. Then she comes back to reality, where Danny certainly isn’t out riding the alleys on his motorbike because he apparently stole a goddamn car from the Ramirez brothers.

Whatever the sound is, Carlos has finally noticed it. He cranes around to look and swears in Spanish, then nudges his brother, who is still calling Debbie a puta and spitting on her a little.

“It’s that insane kid, man,” Carlos says. “I think he’s gonna hit us.”

Debbie, who can now see around Carlos well enough to spot the beat-up motorbike hurtling toward them, has come to the same conclusion. The red-helmeted rider appears to have no intention of slowing down, and this alley is maybe three feet wide. Ramón is also approximately three feet wide, at least at the shoulders.

It takes Ramón several eternal seconds to do the math, but he does finally get it, and his grip on Debbie’s shoulder wavers fractionally. She drops straight down out of his grasp and looks up in utter disbelief as the motorbike’s rider locks the front brakes, launches himself over the handlebars like Evel Knievel and slams helmet-first into Ramón’s ribcage with a sound that Debbie recognizes as bones breaking. The two of them tangle up and go flying, and the still-skidding bike takes Carlos out at the knees, and suddenly Debbie is free.

The whine of the engine dies, and the silence is deafening. Debbie hauls herself to her feet and assesses the situation. Carlos is unconscious, which is probably a mercy considering the angle of his left leg. Ramón is also down for the count, clutching his chest and wheezing and sort of gurgling. Red Helmet is slowly standing up, wavering a little but apparently not much the worse for wear after doing the single most insane thing Debbie has ever seen anyone do, which is really saying something considering some of the shit she’s seen go down in her fifteen years.

Running would be a good idea, Debbie realizes. But just as her feet catch up with her brain, Red Helmet takes the helmet off, and sweet Jesus, he’s a kid . Like, maybe ten years old if that. He’s filthy, and he looks like he cuts his maybe-blond-under-all-the-dirt hair with a rusty steak knife, and Debbie can count his ribs where his shirt has ridden up, and he looks kind of stunned.

“It worked,” he says slowly, and yeah, he’s young enough that his voice hasn’t even thought about starting to change.

Belatedly, Debbie realizes that his stunned expression is not from the blow to the head, but rather from the improbable success of his plan. He’s clearly certifiable, but under the circumstances Debbie isn’t inclined to look a gift lunatic in the mouth.

“We should go,” she says.

The boy’s gaze has reached his bike, or what’s left of it, and there is real pain in his eyes, but he’s nodding. He wipes his nose, which is bleeding a little, on his right forearm, which Debbie finally notices is bleeding a lot.

“Come with me,” she hears herself say.

He studies her for a long moment, then nods. “Okay.”

The boy follows Debbie home, and her father sends for Doc, who sutures the gash without asking any questions. Doc is an actual doctor, or he was one before he got arrested for writing fraudulent prescriptions, and he makes a neat job of it there under the fluorescent lights of the Ocean family’s kitchen.

The kid’s name turns out to be Lou--no last name, just Lou--and he stares around the room with huge, impossibly blue eyes while Doc works on him. Debbie thinks absently that in six or eight years he’ll be a real ladykiller, assuming he learns the value of bathing regularly by then.

Debbie isn’t surprised when her father offers Lou a place to stay. It’s pretty clear that he’s homeless, and as ludicrous as it seems to look at him, the kid has saved her from, at best, a serious beat-down.

Lou very obviously is surprised. “For how long?” he asks slowly, suspicion clear in his tone.

“For as long as you like.”

“I don’t freeload,” Lou says slowly. “You got anything needs fixing?” Coming from a tiny ragamuffin, the question should be funny. Oddly, it isn’t.

Debbie watches her father study the grease under Lou’s fingernails.

“There are two motorbikes in our garage that don’t run,” he finally says. “I believe we owe you one of them. If you’d like to fix the other one up as well, I’ll sell it, and we’ll consider it your room and board for...the first month?”

Lou considers the offer for almost a full minute, then solemnly sticks out his hand. “Okay. Thanks, Mister Ocean.”

“I do have to ask you one question, and I expect an honest answer. Is anyone likely to come looking for you?”

Lou laughs, and that laugh really should be Debbie’s first clue that maybe Lou isn’t as young as he looks. “Do I look like anybody’s likely to come looking for me?”

“No, but appearances can be deceiving.”

“If anyone’s looking,” Lou says after a moment, “they’re still looking in Australia.”

So that’s the accent, Debbie thinks.

Her father just nods, accepting Lou’s answer. “Alright. Take a shower--a long, hot shower--and we’ll find some of Danny’s old clothes for you to wear. The bathroom is the second door on the left.”

Debbie accompanies Lou back to the abandoned building he’s been squatting in to retrieve his stuff. He asks her to wait outside and emerges a few minutes later with a backpack that only has one strap and appears to have been sewn back together in several places with dental floss. Everything he owns is inside it.

Before they walk away, he pulls a dented can of tuna out of the bag and produces a Swiss Army knife from somewhere about his person. The knife’s can opener makes quick work of the lid, and he sets the can down in the little opening he crawled through to get in and out of the building and turns to meet Debbie’s puzzled look.

“It’s for Mr. Mistoffelees,” he says, as if that explains everything.

“You can bring your cat,” Debbie offers, even as a part of her wonders how on earth this strange boy came to encounter the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

But Lou shakes his head. “He’s not mine. He’s his own cat. I’m just thanking him for keeping the rats off me. But he won’t come get it while you’re here. We should go.”

They go.

It’s not until Sunday morning at breakfast, while Lou is eating his weight in pancakes, that Debbie’s mother gets around to asking him whether Lou is short for anything.

He chews and swallows--he has weirdly excellent table manners for a street kid--and casually drops a bombshell that silences the entire room.


Debbie drops her fork. Her mother drops her spatula. Her father drops his newspaper. Danny drops his jaw, showing off a mouthful of half-chewed pancake.

Lou scowls. “What?”

“You’re a girl? ” Danny blurts, and Debbie can’t even blame him for being rude--Lou has been sleeping on a mattress on the floor of his room for four days.

“Yeah,” Lou says, as if that should have been obvious.

Of all of them, Debbie catches up first. “Wait, how old are you?”

“Thirteen.” A pause. “Unless it’s July already. Maybe fourteen?”

Debbie’s mother drops her head into her hands for a moment. “My God, Lou, why didn’t you say something when we put you in Danny’s room?”

Lou shrugs. “Figured you didn’t want me in Debbie’s room.”

Again, it’s Debbie who gets it first. “You’re gay.”

Lou nods, then suddenly tenses, her hand creeping toward the pocket where she keeps her knife. “Is that gonna be a problem?”

“No,” they all say together, and Lou relaxes.

“But you can’t sleep in my room anymore,” Danny adds.

Lou shrugs again. “The couch is fine. Or a cot in the garage. Whatever.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Debbie says. “I have bunk beds.”

For the first time, Lou looks uncertain about something. “It won’t bother you?” she asks slowly.

“It’s fine. Really.” Debbie turns to look at her mother. “Right?”

“Of course. We trust you, Lou, or you wouldn’t be living in our house.” She pauses. “Would you, ah, would you prefer if we got some of Debbie’s old clothes out of the attic for y--”

“No,” Lou says quickly. “No, Danny’s stuff is good.”

That night, lying on the top bunk in the dark, Debbie finally gets around to asking the question that’s been on her mind since the moment she first saw Lou. “Why did you save me?”

There is a lengthy silence from below. “Two on one isn’t a fair fight,” Lou finally says.

The pair of us versus the Ramirez brothers wasn’t a fair fight, either, Debbie thinks but doesn’t say. She’s still not sure what Danny did to square things with them. But Dad told him not to come home until he’d fixed it, and he’d come home the next morning, so it was fixed. She supposes he gave them their car back. And paid their hospital bills. And realistically, probably threatened them with a visit from Crazy Uncle Mike.

Not that Debbie is likely to need to invoke Uncle Mike’s name again anytime soon, she thinks, smiling up into the darkness. She has a pint-sized Australian Amazon as her own personal bodyguard now. Debbie has never had anyone who was just hers. All of the Oceans belong to each other equally, but Lou...Lou is hers alone. She’s not even sure how she knows that with such certainty, but she does, and the thought warms her.

Aloud, she says only, “Well, anyway, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Lou answers.

And that’s the last either of them ever says about the day they met.