The Romeo King of Green Street wiped his hands on his grimy pants and plopped down in front of the meager fire to warm his bones. It was the damp that bothered him the most, made his joints feel like rusted springs and his head like it was stuffed with moldy cotton. But summer would come soon enough, and God bless it when it did.
The camp had been quiet all day, save the sound of the critters in the bushes and the birds in the trees. Soon enough the others would return, and then Romeo’s performance would begin.
They called him Romeo because he had been a stage actor once with the Shakespeare Theater down in Ashland. They called him King because he beat Big Bubba with a tree limb until he bled from his ears. That was the way of it in the camp. One man runs the family until another man takes his place. Romeo had taken Big Bubba’s mantle by sneaking into his tent while he was sleeping and clubbing him twice before he even woke up. There was a good chance Big Bubba hadn’t even known who hit him.
Next morning, Big Bubba was gone and Romeo’s reign began.
Scab was the first to come back to camp. He rode in on his banged-up Schwinn, hopped off and leaned it against a tree. Then he pulled a bottle out of the backpack cinched to the handlebars and handed it to Romeo. Romeo took the bottle, twisted the cap, sniffed the contents and then took a swig.
“Well now,” Romeo said, tucking the bottle between his legs. “That’ll pass.” Scab nodded, scratched himself, and then shuffled back to his bike. He pulled his own bottle from the backpack and sat in the grass.
Violet wandered in ten minutes later.
“New pants?” Romeo asked.
Two paper grocery sacks hung from her fingers. Violet rummaged through one of the sacks and pulled out a dented can of green beans. She handed this to Romeo.
“They left the door open on the Goodwill donation box again,” Violet said. “Right there for God and everyone to see. Still had the tags on ’em. You believe someone would give away a perfectly good pair of jeans with the tags still on?”
Romeo looked at the can of beans in his hand and grunted.
“Some church lady with big tits gave it to me,” Violet said. “Even got out of her minivan to hand them over. People were honkin’ and cussin’.”
“What else you got in there?” Romeo asked, lifting his chin toward the bags.
“Couldn’t look me in the eye though,” Violet said. “They never can.”
Romeo pointed at the grocery sacks.
Violet licked her blistered lips. “There’s not much, Romeo. Just some dented cans.”
“Let me see ‘em.”
“We gotta eat too. Rooster’s sick, so I’m pulling down for both of us.”
“Let me see.”
“You got your token. Take the beans and let me be.”
Romeo stood and Violet took a step backward.
“Let me be,” she said, but she bent down anyway and handed both sacks over.
“It’s not a token,” Romeo said, poking his hand into one of the sacks. He pulled out a box of Cap’n Crunch and set it down next to his beer. “I take care of my family, don’t I?”
Violet tossed a glance at Scab, but found no help there.
“It’s a tribute,” Romeo said. He handed back the sacks, then disappeared inside his tent. When he returned, he held an old pistol in his hand. He aimed the barrel at Violet’s right eye. It wasn’t loaded, but she didn’t know that.
“Come on, Romeo,” Violet said. “Don’t gotta be that way. You took what you wanted, now let me be.”
“A dented can of green beans,” Romeo said. “Is that all I’m worth?”
“You know it ain’t like that,” Violet said, almost in tears. She looked at the tent she shared with Rooster, and shame crossed her face. When she spoke again it was in a hush. “I’ll give you somethin’ later on if you just let us be. Somethin’ you like.”
Romeo considered this and withdrew the pistol. His face brightened. “Alrighty then,” he said, tucking the pistol into the waist of his jeans.
“Wass goin’ on out dere?” Rooster’s voice was hoarse and full of phlegm, his last word cut off by a nasty hacking cough that shook the tent walls.
Violet picked up the grocery sacks. “Nothin’ darlin’,” she said. “Right as rain.”
“Best be getting on to your husband,” Romeo said. He watched her scurry like a mouse to her tent.
“Ain’t gotta be that way.” Munchy’s voice.
Romeo spun on his heel to face the man, the hairs on his neck prickling. He reached for his pistol, but settled when he saw Munchy wasn’t talking to him.
“You’re a prick,” Lou mumbled. “A moon dog.”
They came down the river trail, Munchy first and Lou hot on his heels. Rainbow walked at a distance behind them, her arms wrapped around her narrow chest.
“Told ya I was sorry, Lou,” Munchy said. “Stop being a baby.”
Romeo threw a dead branch on the fire. “What you guys fighting over now?”
Munchy was tall and lean and had skin the color of Georgia mud and a beard like steel wool. He wore a green stocking cap, smashed down over his ears, and boots he had taken off a dead man. When he looked back at Lou, he grinned sarcastically, and his big teeth seemed to glow in the low light.
“Lou’s got his panties in a bunch ’cause I took a twenty while mindin’ his corner,” Munchy said.
“Twas my corner!” Lou said. “And you ain’t give me that twenty back. Belongs to me.”
“You weren’t there,” Munchy said.
“Don’t see how that matters,” Lou said. “It was my corner.”
“You were in the bushes,” Munchy said.
“Taking a piss!” Lou said.
Lou was wiry and mangy like a starving dog. His face was red and pock scarred, and when he yelled at Munchy the cords stood out on his neck.
“Settle down,” Romeo said.
“For three hours?” Munchy spun around to face Lou, but his grin broadened.
“Why did you leave your corner?” Romeo asked.
Lou opened his mouth and then shut it again. The fire danced in Romeo’s eyes, as if his soul were on fire.
“Takin’ a piss,” Lou finally said.
“Gimme the twenty,” Romeo said, holding out his hand.
Munchy pulled it from his pocket, wadded it up and threw it to Romeo. “Don’t care much anyway,” he said. His grin disappeared.
“Assholes,” Romeo said. “You’re not even like children. You’re like monkeys.”
“Twas my corner,” Lou said.
Romeo had forgotten all about Rainbow.
“Cold over there,” Romeo said.
He watched her for a moment. Two weeks ago when she had first appeared at camp her hair had been streaked with pink. Now it was almost entirely black.
“What do you think?” Romeo asked her.
Rainbow shrugged again, and dropped her eyes. She was a mystery; quiet, hidden, like her face was a mask. Romeo wanted to take a peek at what was inside, touch it, taste it, dismantle it.
“What do you have for me?” Romeo said, turning to Lou.
“That was my twenty,” Lou said.
“You owe me double tomorrow.” Romeo stoked the fire with a stick and returned his gaze to Rainbow.
Rainbow pulled a package of white socks from inside her coat and tossed it to Romeo. Romeo caught it with one hand, surprised.
“What’s this?” he said. He laughed. “Take note, you sons of bitches. Outdone by a girl.”
Romeo broke open the plastic packaging and separated a pair of socks from the rest, and tossed them back to Rainbow.
“Socks fit for a queen,” he said, and in the glow of the fire his grin looked carved like a jack o’lantern.
Violet gave him what he liked in the middle of the night, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Rainbow.
By early morning light, he had decided it was time for her to earn her way into camp.
He built a fire and then rattled Rainbow’s tent. She was already awake.
“Today you’re with me,” he told her. There was no one else awake yet. Sunday was their day off.
Rainbow sat down at the fire. Her hair hung in her eyes but he could feel her looking at him.
“I’m going to show you the best corner in town.” Romeo said, flashing his best stage smile. “It’s time you learn from the best.”
Rainbow nodded and Romeo searched for any sign of fear she might be hiding. He saw none, and he wondered about that.
“Don’t have to be afraid,” Romeo said.
“I’m not,” Rainbow said, and went back to her tent.
The man in the cowboy hat stumbled into the Green Street camp babbling like a fool. Lou let the man sit down by the remnants of the fire Romeo had left that morning, and they all stood watching him with queer fascination.
“You think he’s stupid?” Violet asked.
“Stupid?” Lou said. “You mean like soft in the head?”
“Yeah, like that. Mentally disturbed.”
The man in the cowboy hat waved both hands in the air and shouted at something unseen. Lou nodded.
“Yup,” he said. “I think he’s off his rocker.”
“You think he’s dangerous?” Violet asked. She shot a glance back at her tent. Rooster was sleeping, but last night he had stopped breathing. It had only been for a few seconds, but it was long enough to make her worry.
“Nah,” Lou said. “He’s harmless.”
The man in the cowboy hat stood up and jammed a long finger at the sky. “You don’t tell me!” he yelled. “I tell you!”
“He kinda looks like Superman,” Munchy said, grinning.
“I think he’s dangerous,” Violet said.
“Romeo ain’t gonna like him much,” Scab said. “You’re a fool for letting him stay.”
“Shoot,” Lou said. “He’s alright.”
The man in the cowboy hat spun around three times and then sat back down, crossing his legs Indian style. He beat on his chest with the flat of his hand and howled.
“I like his hat,” Lou said. “I think I’ll take it from him.”
Lou stood and walked over to the man. He snatched the hat of the man’s head and turned back toward the others, half smiling, holding the hat up for them to see. When he turned back around, the man was back on his feet, his face only inches from Lou’s.
“Aaah!” Lou said, taking a step back, drawing a snigger from Munchy. “What’cha doin’ there?”
“I’m not an Indian,” the man said, reaching out and pulling the hat out of Lou’s fingers. “I don’t make trades.”
“I was just foolin’,” Lou said.
The man put the cowboy hat back on his head. He turned his right hand into a gun, sticking his index finger out and cocking the thumb, and then he pointed it at Lou. He made a puffing sound with his lips.
“Pow!” he said, and then he shot Lou with his hand.
“You’re all kinds of messed up,” Lou said.
The man in the cowboy hat smiled. He blew smoke from his finger and then he put his imaginary gun into an imaginary holster on his hip. He sat back down and began to hum the Bonanza theme song.
“What are we gonna do with him?” Violet asked.
“Get rid of ‘im,” Munchy said. “Before Romeo kills him.”
“He won’t do such a thing,” Violet said.
“He’ll put a bullet in the man’s head,” Lou said. “And then he’ll keep the hat.”
“He let Rainbow stay,” Violet said.
“Rainbow has something that Romeo wants,” Munchy said. “Tits and a warm hole. This guy ain’t got any of that.”
“Pervert,” Violet mumbled.
“Hey!” Lou yelled. “What are you pointing at?”
The man’s face was tilted toward the trees. He clicked his teeth together and began to count.
“I think it’s nice to have someone else around,” Violet said.
“Shoot,” Lou said. “He’s a fruit loop.”
From Violet’s tent, they could hear Rooster cough. The sound was horrible, and Violet once again thought about last night. Truth was she would have left the camp a long time ago if not for Rooster. He was too sick to move, too sick to do anything but die.
“Well,” Lou finally said. “This asshole can’t stay.”
The man in the cowboy hat had turned his back to them all, so he didn’t see Lou approach him.
“Up you go,” Lou said, tugging on the man’s arm.
“You should be in bed,” Violet said.
Lou turned and saw that Rooster had come out of his tent. His skin looked like sour milk and he had vomited in his sleep, the contents of it now crusted down the front of his shirt and in his beard. His hair hung long and nappy. His arms were trembling. Violet rushed to him and put a hand to his face.
“My god, you’re burning up.” She turned to Lou and the others, eyes wide. “He’s burning up!”
“Jesus help him,” Lou said. “Ain’t nothing we can do.”
“Don’t look good, Rooster,” Munchy said. “Maybe it’s time to see a hospital bed.”
“They ain’t gonna see him,” Violet said. “You know what happened last time.”
“Please.” The man in the cowboy hat pulled out of Lou’s grip. His eyes were red and wet with tears. “Please.”
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Lou said.
“Please,” the man said. He was bawling like a baby now, snot bubbling from his nose. He stumbled forward, wiped his nose on his sleeve, and then howled. “PLEASE!”
Violet pulled Rooster closer as the man in the cowboy hat approached them. His face was all puffy now and slimy with snot.
“All go away,” the man said. He put his hand on Rooster’s chest. “Please.”
“Let go of my friend!” Lou said.
“Quiet, Lou!” Violet snapped.
Rooster started into one of his coughing fits, but the man in the cowboy hat didn’t move.
“You gonna help him, aren’t you mister?” Violet asked.
“Don’t be stupid,” Scab said.
“Please,” the man in the cowboy hat said. He closed his eyes and he sucked in air. Rooster began to scream.
“He’s hurting him!” Lou yelled. “He’s hurting Rooster!”
“I don’t think so,” Munchy said.
The man in the cowboy hat pulled his hand away from Rooster’s chest. He stumbled backward, and then he fell. His mouth snapped open and he puked up something that looked like crude oil.
“You see that?” Lou said.
“We all seen that,” Munchy said.
Rooster had stopped screaming. His eyes rolled back into his skull and he would have fallen if Violet wasn’t holding onto him.
“What’d you do?” Lou asked. He kicked dirt at the man in the cowboy hat.
“Stop it!” Violet said. “Look at Rooster.”
The sores around Rooster’s mouth were gone. The veins along his arms and neck were no longer visible, his skin no longer translucent.
“Sick man okay now,” the man in the cowboy hat whispered. His stomach made a gurgling sound and he threw up again in the dirt. “Sick man happy.”
“Oh my god, Lou,” Violet said. “It’s a miracle.”
Rooster put a hand to his mouth, and when his eyes rolled toward Violet his face lit up, as if he hadn’t seen her in a very long time. “Baby,” he said. “Baby, that you?”
“It’s me,” Violet said, wrapping her arms around Rooster and wetting his shoulder with her tears. “It’s me.”
The man in the cowboy hat crawled back to the fire. He drew his knees to his chest and slowly rocked back and forth. His lips were stained black. He tilted his head to the sky and started to hum again.
“It’s a miracle,” Scab said. “And Romeo’s gonna be pissed.”
Romeo found himself in a situation.
“I just don’t want to,” Rainbow told him.
He wasn’t going to beg. He had her pinned behind a dumpster, and he could take her by force, but he didn’t want that either. He wanted to smash her face in, destroy the blank pools in her eyes that stared back at him, reflecting his own face. But he wouldn’t do that either. He let her go, wiped the spit off his lips, watched as she stood, dusted herself off, and turned away from him. In one quick moment of defiance she had taken his crown.
Romeo kicked a rock and then he stormed out of the alley. She would follow him, he thought. All the way to Green Street. And then he would humiliate her in front of the others. They didn’t love her and they never would, not like they loved him. He would tell her to leave and they would agree, and then she would be gone.
He turned down Green Street and once he was on the camp trail his thoughts were cut short by the sound of a man howling like a coyote.
“What the hell?” Romeo began to run.
Lou and Munchy stood next to each other, watching the man in the cowboy hat holler and flip his hat into the air. When Lou saw Romeo he hit Munchy on the arm.
“Romeo,” Lou said, rubbing his chin. He whistled and rolled his eyes. “You’re just in time.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Romeo asked.
“For the show,” Lou said, and pointed at the man.
“I can see the man,” Romeo said. “What the hell is he doing here?”
“Birdy birdy,” the man said. He flapped his arms, stepped up on the tree stump and took a leap.
“I think he’s trying to fly,” Lou said.
“You all gone mad?” Romeo said. He could hear Rainbow clearing the trail behind him but he refused to acknowledge her.
“Maybe,” Munchy said.
“Birdy!” the man with the cowboy hat bellowed.
“Who let the freak into camp?” Romeo asked. He could feel the heat rising up his neck and into his cheeks.
“He’s visiting,” Scab said. He was sitting in the grass, next to his bike.
“Get rid of him!” Romeo shouted.
“Can’t,” Lou said.
“Cuz he’s a hero.” Lou nodded toward the edge of camp.
Romeo turned in that direction and saw Violet and Rooster coming up from the river. Rooster was walking without any help, and Violet was laughing.
“Somebody better tell me what’s going on,” Romeo said.
“Birdy!” the man with the cowboy hat said. He jumped off the stump, landed, and saw Romeo for the first time. His mouth fell open and his eyes went wide. “Aggggg!”
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Romeo asked the man.
“Agggg!” the man said and fell on his knees. He bowed his head to the ground so that his face was almost in the dirt.
“You’re scaring him I think,” Lou said.
“Now hold on a minute,” Romeo said. He approached the man slowly. “Just hold on.”
Romeo put his hand on the man’s shoulder, and when he turned back to Lou he was grinning.
“Maybe I was wrong,” Romeo said. “The man’s kneeling. See? He’s kneeling before his king.”
Lou rubbed his chin but said nothing.
Romeo patted the man’s shoulder. “It’s alright. I won’t hurt you now. What you did for me was nice. A nice gesture.”
“Not for you,” the man said, and bowed his head lower, kissed the ground.
“What’s that you say?” Romeo said.
“Not for you. Not for you. Not for yooooouuuu!”
The man shook his head violently. Then he pointed. Romeo followed the man’s finger and saw it was pointed at Rainbow. She stood along the bushes, next to the trail opening, her arms wrapped around her chest, her black hair in her face.
“Queen,” the man said. “Queeeeeennnnnn!”
Romeo hit the man then, connected clean with the square of his jaw, and the man flew backward with a bark.
“Get rid of him,” Romeo said, looking from Lou to Munchy. Neither of them moved. “I said get rid of him!”
“Romeo,” Lou said.
“I’ll do it,” Romeo said. There was a bomb in his head. He could hear it ticking, and soon it would explode. The man was trying to get up off the ground and Romeo gave him a shove. The man fell on his ass and Romeo kicked him in the knee. “Like that, asshole? Does it hurt?”
“Leave him alone,” Rainbow said.
The sound of her voice made Romeo pause. He pushed hair out of his eyes and glared at Rainbow over a hunched shoulder. “Fuck you,” he said. “You’re next.”
Romeo kicked the man in the ribs, heard something crack. He kicked him again, the fever in his head now a wild fire. The man bawled, tears dripping from his eyes like rain. Romeo rolled the man onto his back with his foot, and then put a knee in the man’s gut.
“Leave him alone, Romeo!” This time it was Violet.
Romeo hit the man in the face.
“LEAVE HIM ALONE!”
Romeo looked up at Violet. She stood next to Rooster, his arm around her.
“Stop beating that man,” Violet said. “He’s special.”
“Thought you were sick,” Romeo said, looking at Rooster, ignoring Violet.
“I was,” Rooster said.
“That man made Rooster better,” Violet said.
Romeo looked at Munchy and Munchy nodded.
“Seen it with my own two eyes, boss,” Munchy said.
“Special,” Romeo said. “That what he is? Special?” He grabbed a handful of the man’s hair and slammed his head into the dirt. “Don’t look special.”
“Look at Rooster,” Violet said. “He’s better. On account of what that man did.”
Romeo wiped his face with the back of his hand. “It’s a conspiracy. You’re all messin’ with me.”
“It’s true,” Rooster said, nodding. “He — “
“Liar!” Romeo shouted. When the king shouted everyone in his court trembled. “You’re messing with me, Violet. All of you.”
“That man saved Rooster’s life,” Munchy said. “Look at him, Romeo.”
“You’re dead!” Romeo yelled. “You’re all dead! You’re messing with me. Stop messing with me!”
He slammed the man’s head into the ground again.
“I’m special,” Romeo said. “You all forget that. I’m special!” He pulled a knife from his pocket.
“Romeo,” Munchy said. “Don’t do that.”
But Romeo wasn’t listening. He popped the blade.
“Teach you a lesson,” Romeo said.
Something hit him then. Something hard. Romeo reached toward the back of his head where the pain was blooming, and his fingers pulled away slick with blood. He twisted around and saw Rainbow standing behind him, a large rock in her hand. There was blood on the jagged edge of it.
“Whaaaa?” he started to ask, but then she hit him in the face and he dropped the knife.
“You’re dead!” Romeo said. Blood poured from his nose, making his shirt and hands slick. He found the knife lying in the dirt and reached for it. Something hit him in the eye. He blinked, and something hit him in the arm. He turned toward Violet and Rooster, saw Violet’s arm go back, saw something fly through the air, and barked as it hit him in the neck.
“Stop it!” Romeo yelled.
The others gathered around him. They all held rocks in their hands.
“Mutiny!” Romeo said. He picked up a handful of dirt and tossed it at the air between him and the others. Another rock zinged him in the mouth. This one came from Lou.
Somewhere he heard a grown man crying, and then he realized it was him. Desperation rose from his chest like fire. He wiped his eyes and focused on the knife, then lunged for it. His fingers wrapped around it and all he wanted to do was slice the world open, watch it bleed. He spun around with the knife, growling, and Rainbow smashed him in the ear with her rock. Romeo gaped, stunned, and she hit him again and again until he fell, and his kingdom fell with him.
The rock Rainbow held in her hand was slimy with Romeo’s blood. She dropped it, suddenly sickened by it. She turned to the others, eyes wide.
“All hail the queen,” Lou said, dropping his own rocks.
“My god,” Violet said.
Rainbow knelt by the man Romeo had beaten. She picked up his cowboy hat and placed it on his head.
“I know you,” he whispered.
“Nobody knows me,” Rainbow said.
One by one they came before her and knelt in the dirt. She still had Romeo’s blood on her hands, and they were trembling.
Violet was the last to come. She touched Rainbow’s face gingerly, and then she too knelt. She was laughing, though, as she said the words. Laughing because the world was funny. Laughing because nothing made sense anymore.
“All hail the queen,” she said.
And the queen began to cry.
SEAN EALY has been published in Under the Bed Magazine, Fabula Argentea, Rose Red Review and Menda City Review. Years ago, he discovered an ancient Hermes typewriter in the garage, and has been lost in the words ever since. Native Oregonian and avid Red Sox fan, you can find him on Twitter @SeanEaly.