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    Young Steele
By Nancy Eddy
      With a frustrated sigh, Mary Shaunessy eyed the box just beyond her reach on the shelf, then said, "Johnny, lad, could you get that box for me?
     "Johnny", as she had called him, nodded, moving toward her. At eleven, he was already taller than she was, and he easily grasped the box. "Where d'you want it?"
     "In the shop, on the back counter," she told him, following from the storeroom to watch as he put it down. "Thank you. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your help, Johnny, -" she said, trying to get into the tape that sealed the cardboard.
     Johnny drew out his pocket knife and slit the tape. "Got nothin' else t'do," he muttered, looking down at the scuffed toe of his well-worn shoes. It was either be here or down the street at the local movie house, watching a film. And Mary had refused to allow that because of what had happened earlier. The bell on the front door of the shop rang, and they both jumped nervously, Johnny lifting wary blue eyes to see who it was.
     "Mrs. Shea," Mary said, sounding relieved, as she moved toward the customer. "How are you today?"
     Johnny finished unpacking the box of wrapping tissues as he covertly watched Mary. She'd been pretty once, he knew from the photos in the flat upstairs. Her once flaming red hair was now dull, lifeless; her once bright green eyes were flat, filled with constant fear. Ten years of living in hell tended to suck the life and beauty right out of a person, Johnny reasoned. His long fingers curled into a fist. If the bastard tried anything THIS time, he'd be ready.
     His attention turned to Mary again, and seeing her smile at Mrs. Shea, he decided that of all the people he had been foisted upon over the course of his life, Mary was the best. She never yelled at him, or called him names, and even tried to help him with his studies.
     Johnny frowned, remembering the reason he was here in the shop on a Friday afternoon instead of in school. Stupid old priest, he thought. Thinking he knew so much. But he hadn't liked it very much when he'd been shown up by a ragged orphan with scuffed shoes and too short pants, now, did he?
     Deciding that Mary was going to be busy with Mrs. Shea for a few more minutes, Johnny took the box through the back room, intending to take it outside to the rubbish bin. But as he reached out his hand toward the knob, the door opened, and Johnny looked up into the face of the devil himself.
     Clarence Shaunessy's dark eyes narrowed as he swayed in the doorway. "What're you doin' at home, lad?" he asked, his deep voice slurred from too much whiskey. When there was no response, he moved forward. "I asked you a question," he said, finally reaching out to grasp Johnny's shirt.
     "Father Connally sent me home," Johnny said quickly.
     "What for now? Stealin' again?"
     "I told you I didn't steal that jacket. I won it, fair and square."
     "That's not the story the other boy told. Said you cheated him." Clarence's peered at him though a whiskey haze. "What'd y'do?"
     "Just told the class that Father Clancy was wrong about something," he said. "The old fool called me a liar -"
     Clarence's fleshy hand made an arch and the backside connected with Johnny's cheek, but the boy stood his ground. "You show proper respect for a priest, lad." His face felt as if it were on fire, but Harry forced himself not to flinch. He'd be damned if he was going to give this pig that satisfaction. And there was also Mary to consider. He'd rather be the recipient of such blows than to let Mary take them. "Stupid little whelp. Should never have agree t'take ya in. Been nothin' but trouble from th' first day. Don't know why Mary bothers with you. 'cept she's got a soft heart t'go with that soft head of hers."
     Johnny heard the front bell, and knew that Mary would be there any moment. "At least it's better than being a drunk," he muttered, ducking as Clarence's hand came up again. When he straightened, he was holding his knife, open and at the ready. Mary entered the room. "Get out of here, Mary. Now."
     Clarence laughed. "That knife isn't big enough t'hurt me, lad. You'll have t'do better than that." He moved forward, only to have Johnny slash out with his blade, cutting into his forearm. "You little-"
     Mary pulled Johnny behind her. "Put the knife away, Johnny," she ordered. "Let's go upstairs, Clarence, and I'll see to that arm."
     Clarence swayed again, and Mary moved to steady him with an arm around his girth. She glanced back a Johnny. "I won't be a minute," she assured the boy.
     Johnny shook his head as they climbed the stairs, wondering why she stayed. He was confused. Sighing, he turned and left by the back door of the shop. He needed to think. And there was only one place where he could think clearly.

     The bleach blonde young woman in the ticket booth gave him a welcoming smile. "Johnny. Bit early t'be out an about, isn't it.? School's not out for another hour."
     "Had a bit of trouble today," Johnny told her with a shrug. He glanced at the posters on the building. "Citizen Kane" and "The Maltese Falcon". "What's my chances of getting in today, Peg?" he asked with a smile of his own.
     Peg sighed. If only he were a few years older, she thought. He's gonna be a real lady killer one day. Too bad I probably won't be around to enjoy it, she finished. "Go on in. If Tom gives you any trouble, just tell him t'talk t'me."
     Johnny grinned, taking the ticket she handed him and entering the only place he felt truly at home. In the dark movie theatre, watching Bogart, and Orson Welles, and so many others, he could forget for a time that he didn't even know what his real name was. Forget that the Shaunessys were only the latest in a long line of foster homes, some worse, few better. Forget that he'd never known his parents. The lights went down as he slid back in his seat, and Johnny quickly forget all about Mary, and Clarence, and the often hellish reality of his own life as he became caught up the fantasy world on the screen before him.

     Mary was counting the money from the cash register when he returned to the shop. She sent him a disapproving glance. "I don't suppose I have to ask where y'disappeared to. What was playing?"
     "Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon," Johnny told her.
     She shook her head. "Bogart. I might have known. I hoped you would stay here to watch the shop while I was upstairs."
     "Where is he?" Johnny asked.
     "Still sleeping it off upstairs," she said. Putting the money in her hand down, she looked at him.      "You shouldn't have pulled that knife, Johnny -"
     "I wish I'd killed him," Johnny said. "Then he couldn't hurt you again."
     She reached out to touch his arm. "Oh, Johnny. He's not a bad man. It's the drink -"
     "That's no excuse, Mary." His eyes shone brightly. "Why don't we leave?"
     "Leave?" Mary asked, shocked by the idea.
     "You and I. We can go to London- or anywhere away from him -"
     "I can't do that, Johnny," she said softly, and when he would have turned away, she stopped him.      "But I think it's time for you to move on, isn't it?" He lifted those blue eyes to hers. "You've been with us for how long now? Almost a year?" He nodded. "Longer than you've been most places, I think. Shop life isn't for you, Johnny. I don't know what is, but you're bound for bigger, better things." She lifted is face. "You've the eyes of a dreamer, lad. You've the ability to be whatever you want to be, if you want it badly enough. And you're smart- even if you try to hide it beneath that 'I don't care' exterior." She drew some money from the till and held it out to him, along with a slip of paper.
     "What's this?"
     "Some money to get you to London. I've an old friend in Dublin who can get you safely across -"
     "And when I get there?"
     "And here's a note," she gave him a sealed envelope, "Father Galloway will find you a place that's safe." She saw his uncertainly about going to a priest. "I want your word that you'll go to St. Matthews, Johnny."
     "I'll go," he told her. "But what about you? When he finds out you gave me the money -"
     "As long as you're away from here, and I know you've a chance for a better life, that's all that matters," she told him.
     Johnny put the money and papers into his pocket. "Tell him that you went upstairs to check on him, and when you got back, I'd taken the money and was gone. That way he can't blame you."
     Mary's smile was gentle. "I packed your bag- it's in the back room -"
     She followed him back, watching as he picked up the small, battered case before turning the collar of his jacket up against the chill. "Will you be all right, Johnny?"
     He looked at her. How to tell her that he'd been on his own his entire life? he wondered. "I'll be fine, Mary. Thank you. And I'll pay you back. Every bit of it."
     "I know you will." She walked him to the door, kissed his cheek before he pulled her into a last, final embrace. The sound of something falling to the floor above lent haste to their movements. "Get going. Be careful."
     "You too. I don't know how I'll ever repay you. -"
     "Just come and see me when you've made a success of it. Because I know y'will," she said. "You've got the touch." She squeezed his hand, glancing behind her.
     Johnny stepped out into the dark alley and closed the door as she turned toward the stairs. Zipping his jacket, he moved down the alley, away from the last vestiges of childhood - for a boy who had never really been a child at all. He was really on his own now. He's promised to go to St. Matthews once he arrived in London, but he'd never promised to speak to Mary's friend Father Galloway. The last thing he needed was another priest telling him what he could and couldn't do. No, he'd make his own way. There was no one else, after all, except for him. No one he could count on.
He approached the ticket counter for the bus to Dublin. "One, please."
     "Return trip?" the seller asked.
     "No," he said, and when the man looked uncertain about selling a ticket to a young boy, he grinned. "Going back to my mother. She sent me down to visit her parents. Wonderful people. They have a farm out-"
     "Get on with it," the man behind him said. The clerk gave him a ticket without anymore questions.
     A little white haired woman was sitting, waiting for the bus to board, and as he sat down, she started telling him about her grandchildren in Dublin that she was going to see. "And what is your name, lad?"she finally asked, drawing a breath.
     He cast his mind about for something. For once, he was going to choose a name. "Michael," he told her with a disarming grin. "Michael O'Leary."