He’s only seventeen!? Seventeen with a prostitution tattoo on the back of his shoulder and a mouth too skilled to be even somewhat new to giving sexual pleasure. He was a year younger than Manny, then. And apparently, he was in foster care. The coincidence that Angel happened to be in Leon’s charge was astronomical. But what Manny found bothering him more was what he was only gradually beginning to realize: Angel was prostituting himself under the radar, from within the foster system, and without Leon’s knowledge. Leon had referred to Angel’s involvement in unsavory things as a past. Not an ongoing present. An ongoing future.
It was simple, then, wasn’t it? Manny could get Angel out of this life of threats, abuse, and sex by simply telling Leon it was going on. Strong-willed and able as he was, Leon would certainly put it to an end. And yet, there was still one small part of it Manny could not wrap his head around. “You—you’re a foster parent?”
No, there was more than one part, Manny realized as he watched his uncle give him a smile and walk into the kitchen to cook breakfast. There was also the coincidence. The unlikelihood. That outfit Angel had been wearing when he answered the door…the one that he still wore under that jacket. It didn’t add up.
Manny’s eyes shifted and settled on Angel’s huddled figure. The pretty boy stood beside the wall, arms wrapped around himself, half swallowed by the oversized hoodie he wore. He was staring at the floor, but his pretty eyes lifted when Kraggen moved in her kennel. The large dog let out a small woof, and her stubby tail began wagging. The canine yipped excitedly as Manny approached. “Hi, Kraggs.” Manny slipped his hand into the kennel and scratched the dog’s neck.
Leon in his pajamas. Angel in that tight, sexy outfit. Manny shook his head slightly at the dog’s eager face. It didn’t add up. When Manny had hosted Angel in his dorm room, the pretty boy had been wearing tight but relatively ordinary clothes. It was not like Angel had a compulsive desire to show off his pretty body. Angel had almost been shy about taking off his pants to show Manny the abrasions on his legs. He had wanted to borrow Manny’s clothes while he washed his own.
Sounds of sausage and bacon sizzling in a frying pan drifted out from the kitchen. Within minutes, the entire two-bedroom apartment seemed to be filled with the smell. Manny sat down on the sofa and folded his hands between his knees. Then, almost nervously, he let himself look at Angel again.
The boy met his eyes for only a moment before turning away. Manny’s gaze lowered. Leon would not lie to him, he felt certain. But something else was going on. Was Leon already aware of Angel’s business and didn’t care? That seemed unlikely. Leon was not one to let even minor things slide. It was no minor thing that Angel did not seem to possess much aversion to pleasuring random strangers.
Maybe Angel was just stubborn, and Leon was doing the best he could with the pretty boy.
Yes, Manny already knew Angel was stubborn.
Leon finished cooking breakfast and brought three paper plates full of food into the living room. He handed them out, then sat down on the sofa.
“I’m vegetarian, I can’t eat any of this.” Manny and Leon both looked up when Angel spoke. His words were quiet and steady, eyes fixed on Leon.
Leon passed his tongue between his teeth and silently returned Angel’s stare for a long moment. Then, turning back to his own food, “That’s bullshit, Angel. If I cook fo’ you, you eat what’s there.” Angel gave the man a dark stare but said nothing more. Leon turned to his nephew. “How’s school, Manny? What made you come down here?”
Manny glance involuntarily at Angel, then quickly lowered his eyes. He did not want to ask for money with Angel in the room, he realized guiltily. Not only was this money to pay Angel’s pimp, but Manny was not sure he wanted Angel to know how broke he was. Especially in the face of what the younger boy did to earn his own money. “It’s fine. Classes are going well.” He quickly raised a forkful to his mouth.
“That’s good, that’s good.” Leon nodded. “Well, listen, Manny. Of course you can come by any time you want, but maybe call ahead next time, know what I’m sayin’?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Manny readily agreed.
“Nah, it’s nothin’ to apologize fo’,” Leon assured him. “It’s jus’ that I ain’t always here, and sometimes I really gotta rush out in the mornin’s, know wha’ I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah. It’s probably best to call ahead just to make sure you ain’t comin’ all the way down here jus’ to find I ain’t here.”
Manny nodded again.
The rest of the meal went in silence. Several times while Leon wasn’t looking, Manny caught Angel sliding food up the sleeves of his jacket. The sight made Manny lose his appetite for his own. But unsure he should say anything, he kept quiet.
When everyone was done eating, Leon tossed the paper plates onto the trash. He tied the garbage bag, then hoisted it out of the bin. “I gotta take this out,” he told the boys before he exited the apartment.
Manny had been half intending to go after his uncle and use the opportunity to ask for money in privacy. But the moment the door was shut behind Leon, Angel pushed away from the wall and threw back his hood. “What the hell are you doing here?!” His words were hushed and almost frantic.
But Manny only barely heard the question over the shock that hit his nerves at seeing Angel’s face out from under that hood. The glance he got of the pretty boy at the door earlier must not have been enough time to notice. But now, the cut on Angel’s lip and the dark bruise on his beautiful jawline seemed blaringly obvious. There were marks on his neck. Marks along his collar bone. A lighter bruise on his cheek.
“Man, what the fuck?” Angel breathed. His beautiful eyes were fiercely lit, demanding an explanation from Manny. The boy stepped suddenly towards the dog kennel. As shamelessly as if he were fully aware Manny had seen him slipping food up his sleeves, he began to retrieve it. The practice must have been familiar to Kraggen. The Great Dane wagged her tail wildly as Angel approached, then readily ate the sequestered meat pieces the boy tossed to him. Tossed, because Angel stood a safe three feet from the kennel, as if afraid to get any closer.
“He’s…he’s my uncle,” Manny breathed finally.
Angel’s rapid removal of food scraps from his sleeves abruptly froze. He turned slowly to face Manny. There was something different in his eyes, something Manny had never seen before. It was cynical, disbelieving—but also fearfully aware. Angel’s gaze scattered. He made a small gesture towards the door. “He’s your uncle?”
“Yes. Leon Devatré is my uncle,” Manny confirmed, his face drawing into a hesitant frown.
Angel’s face seemed to pale slightly. His pretty eyes widened, and his lips closed into a straight line. Then, in a whisper, “Please don’t tell him we’ve met.”
“Uh—ok,” Manny quickly agreed. It didn’t matter if he had been thinking about telling Leon. It didn’t matter if doing so might be good for everyone. None of that mattered in the face of a request made with those sweet, hazel eyes. The way Angel’s eyebrows lifted nervously as he made the request.
Angel turned away. He flicked his sleeves out, sending a small shower of food particles into the dog kennel. Then he pulled up his sleeves over his elbows.
The abrasions on his arms already looked much improved, Manny immediately noticed. For as short a time as they had been properly bandaged, disinfecting them had certainly done them some good. But as Manny’s eyes lowered along Angel’s exposed forearms, his heart began to race and stop again. There was something new there also. But the rings that ran like bracelets around Angel’s wrists were not mere bruises. They were gashes: chaffed incisions cut into Angel’s skin. The wounds were dry and scabbing, but must still be wrenchingly painful.
Angel seemed to hesitate when he looked up and saw Manny staring fixedly at something. Moments later, he was pulling down his sleeves again, slipping his hands into the fabric and completely concealing the injuries.
“What happened?” Manny breathed, his quickened heartbeat becoming painful in his chest. But he already half knew. Handcuffs. The marks looked like they had been caused by metal handcuffs. Not just handcuffs on their own, but handcuffs Angel had been pulling against—perhaps with all his strength.
Angel did not answer the question. He turned his back to Manny and returned to the wall on the opposite side of the living room.