It's Not Charity This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

July 21, 2016

            Elliot stumbled, the unexpected weight of another teen making him top-heavy. He pitched and yawed, before once more standing erect, knocking the unexpected hitchhiker off of his back. "Ge' off," he mumbled, not wanting to start this again. It was hot today, hotter than normal in Florida, and Elliot couldn't wait to get home.

         But the other youth wasn't to be deterred today. "Hey, Elliot, where ya' goin'?" the boy, who Elliot knew was named Jack, said good-naturedly. "How's yer fancy, shmancy school?"

         Jack was just as old as him, at fifteen, but he was smaller and far stronger. His arms were as thick as Elliot's own neck, and his body was rounded like a barrel. Despite his size, he had a grip like a boa constrictor; you didn't get away unless he let you go. Compared to Elliot's own beanpole body physique, Jack didn't even need his crew to help him against Elliot; they were just there to watch Jack mess with him.

         Elliot shrugged, hefting his backpack further up onto his shoulders. "It's fine, Jack," he said, looking away from his conversational partner. He tried to quicken his pace, but the other seven kids of Jack's gang were already beginning to surround them. "What do you want?"

         "Ah, ya' know," Jack said carelessly. Unfortunately, Elliot did know. The gang leader continued, "Just 'e weekly toll, fer keepin' yer jinglin' pockets safe from 'arm."

         Elliot sighed. He tried explaining again and again, but the shorter teen never got it. But, once again, Elliot would try. "I'm not rich, Jack," he said, looking away from the stout high school student's c***y smirk. "I'm just there on scholarship. I'm not rich."

         "But ya' still got some dough, eh?" Jack countered, slithering around Elliot to face him. "I mean, what else are ya' givin' us e'ery week?"

         Elliot looked around, desperate for anyone. But the street was barren, road cracked and used. There was a big empty plain on their side of the street, with a Walmart on the other side, but any noise cast across the void got caught by the wind. On the other side of the street was a fancier neighborhood, hidden safely behind thick brush and trees. The streets were quiet, besides for the occasional car that ran by, or the voice of one of the teens.

         "My snack money," Elliot said, resigned at last. "My really meager allowance for the week." Elliot looked up the sidewalk. He was halfway home, but he knew he couldn't sprint it. Despite being tall and stringy, with the gait to match a gazelle, he didn't have the stamina the gang members had. Asking a passerby wouldn't help, if one even passed; they just lowered their eyes and kept walking. He was on his own.

         "Tha's fine, tha's fine," Jack assured him, like parents explaining their child's pet fish was only 'sleeping'. "We'll take what we can get." The other gang members started pressing up closer and closer, greedy grins on their face. Elliot sighed, closing his eyes, resigning himself t–

         "What do you kids think you're doing?"

         Elliot's eyes snapped open, as his and the others' heads whipped around. Standing between further down on the sidewalk was an old man, maybe a few inches shorter than Elliot himself. The man wasn't old as in how your grandfather sits in his chair, staring out into space. He was old as in a grizzled war veteran, who saw the horrors of hell itself and lived to tell the tale. The kind of old man you respected, but also feared.

         Well, you did if you were smart. The same couldn't be said for Jack. "Oi!" the teen said to the elder, "jus' keep movin'. Nutin' fer old fossils like yerself ta' get involved wit'."

         The man didn't move. Wizened, old gray stared down young, c***y brown. The old man backed down first, closing his eyes, releasing a breath and running a hand through his salt-and-pepper gray hair. "Why don't you and your little club buddies," the man said, pointing at Jack and his cronies, "take a hike? Leave the kid alone."

         "Oh?" Jack said. He casually took out a knife, walking around to face his (currently) verbal opponent. Elliot watched in morbid fascination as Jack started flipping the butterfly knife in a slew of fancy tricks. The metal knife rattled, like a snake's tail. "Are ya' sure about tha', mister?" The bully's lips curled into what should've been a smile, but looked more like a sneer. "'Cuz you look like yer lookin' fer a world o' hurt."

         "Back in my day," Elliot's savior commented, with a wave of his hand, "kids knew to respect their elders. Nowadays, though," the man stood up just a tad straighter, feet shifting, noticed only by Elliot, "it seems we need to beat it into them."

         "Big talk, geezer," Jack said. The snake struck at the sheep, but the docile animal pulled off its wool and revealed itself to be a wolf in disguise. The old man twisted out of the way, grabbing his attacker's arm. Jack tried to pull away, leaving his arm taut and straight for the 'geezer' to bring his palm down on the teen. Elliot resisted the urge to cover his ears, but did let out a wince (just like some of the other gang members, watching in horror and amazement) as a nerve-grating snap! filled the empty, hot Floridian air.

         The man dropped Jack, who scrambled back, knife forgotten at his victor's feet, clutching his arm. "Yer...yer..." Jack mumbled, staring at the man. "Yer crazy! Let's get outta 'ere!"

         Jack and co. picked their jaws and bodies off the ground and began to run away, like snakes retreating from a predatory hawk. But they didn't get far before Jack turned around and shouted. "We'll remember 'dis! Watch yer back, Elliot!" Jack stared back at the tall teen, eyes promising pain. With the threat complete, Jack skedaddled.

         Elliot stared off in their direction, unaware of his company until it tapped him on the shoulder. Elliot jumped nearly a foot in the air, startled. "Hey," the old man said, gray eyes looking with absolute seriousness into Elliot's blue eyes hiding behind his glasses. "Where do you live?"

         "A-a-about five minutes th-that way," he said, pointing home. He wasn't about to lie to the man who disabled one of his bullies, as well as scared the rest of them off. The man nodded. "Let's go," he said, gesturing for Elliot to walk.

         "Go?" Elliot asked, stutter lost in confusion. "Yeah, go," the man confirmed. "I'm not leaving you until you get home, with those gang kids still up and about."

         "O-okay," Elliot nodded, stutter back. They began walking back to Elliot's home, Elliot carefully matching the old man's slow gait. The younger of the pair smoothed his dirty blonde hair down, introducing himself, "I'm Elliot."

         "Maxwell," the man – 'Maxwell,' Elliot told himself – said. Maxwell looked over at the young adult, asking, "Why do you let yourself get pushed aound by them? Why not pick up some self defense?"

         Elliot shook his head. "Momma says not to get into fights," Elliot said, shifting his bag again to get it comfortable. "I just give them what they want, and they leave." Elliot looked over at his grizzled hero.

         "Your momma?" Maxwell clarified. "What about your old man?"

         Elliot scowled, and looked away. "My father left us when I was two. Haven't seen him since, nor has he sent anything of any kind."

         Maxwell frowned, even more wrinkles appearing on his age-hardened face, but let the talk of parents rest for now. "There's a difference between fighting and defending, kid," Maxwell said. "Sure, it's good not to fight people, but you gotta defend yourself when the time comes."

         "But Jack has a knife!" Elliot exploded, arms spread wide. "I'm not some experienced war veteran like you are."

         Maxwell laughed. It started as a chuckle, that grew into a laugh, and evolved into a full-out bellow. "I ain't no war veteran, kid." Maxwell wiped the tears out of his eyes. "I'm a part-time carpenter, who does a little gardening in his spare time. I've never even touched a gun in my life. The deadliest thing I've ever held is the meat knife I have at home."

         Elliot stared at the man, his chuckles dying down, but still alive. "" Elliot couldn't understand it.

         "It's like I told you. Just learn a little bit of self-defense. A little experience beats no experience," Maxwell said. Elliot wished such a thing would be so simple, but like most things in his life, it wasn't.

         "It's not that easy," Elliot said. Maxwell waited patiently for the teen to continue. Elliot absentmindedly pulled up his jeans and adjusted his shirt, before continuing, "My mom and I don't have much in the way of money. We're barely keeping up with the bills. I don't have any spare cash to go pay for lessons." Maxwell put a hand to his chin, adopting a typical thinking pose. After a few seconds, his eyes lit up, and he turned to Elliot with a conspiring grin,

         "Well, then come work for me," Maxwell said, peaking Elliot's interest. "You come do chores around my house for me, and, in return, I'll pay you and give you lessons on defend yourself from those buffoons."

         "I don't want any charity, Mr. Maxwell–"

         "Call me Max."

         "Max," Elliot corrected himself. "If we wanted charity, we'd go to church."

         Max shook his head and put his arm around the teen. The pair stopped walking to face each other, the youth facing the elder. Max held Elliot like a father held his son; two arms holding two shoulders, gazes boring into one another. "It's not charity," Max said. "I don't like seeing people get stepped on and kicked around. Reminds me too much of my youth."

         "Do you mean it?" Elliot eyed him, hope trickling into his tone.

         "Of course." They resumed walking, but closer to each other than before. "Don't think of it as charity work; think of it as one friend helping another."

         "So, we're friends?" Elliot clarified, a smile playing at his lips. Max smiled for real, and stuck out his hand.

         "Maxwell Angor."

         "Elliot Bishop."

         Maxwell clapped Elliot first on the hand, and then on the back. "Let's get you home, kid."

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