“Why do you keep slumming it, Your Highness?” Zach slurred, leaning against the doorway that led from the breakroom to the hall where the dog cages were locked a little more securely than they’d been a few days prior. “Ain’t you got no place to do yo’ community service on yo’ side a town?”
Gus sighed and ignored Zach, scooping another hunk of waste from the inside of one of the cages, no longer gagging every time he smelled dog poop.
“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you, mister high and mighty.” Zach pushed away from the doorframe and sauntered forward. “You here cause the courts say you gotta be here? Or because you banging Phoebe?”
“Don’t talk about her that way,” Gus said, emptying the shovel into the waiting trash can. “She deserves your respect, and mine.”
“You ain’t never shown her no respect since the day you met her,” Zach pointed out.
Gus wanted to correct Zach but there was some truth to his statement. “I’ve learned to show her respect. I’d suggest you learn that as well.”
“I ain’t learnin’ nothin’ from you, pretty boy,” Zach said.
“You might want to learn to stay sober while you’re at it,” Gus grumbled, heading into the next stall.
“Like you did? Almost killin’ yer own best friend?”
Gus held perfectly still, his shovel mid-air, trying to calm down the anger and guilt that crept up his spine. “Yeah, exactly like that.”
“Since I ain’t got no fancy car, that shouldn’t be a problem,” Zach said. “But let’s get back to our discussion about you screwin’ Phoebe.”
“Look, dude, I am not sleeping with Phoebe.” Gus stood to his full height, glaring down at Zach.
“I didn’t say nothin’ about sleepin’ with her,” Zach said. “Not the same thing.”
“I am not involved in a physical relationship with Phoebe,” Gus said. “I respect her.”
“Only because she ain’t givin’ it up,” Zach said. “Admit it, you would if she’d let you.”
Gus didn’t know how to answer that. It was true the night he’d met Phoebe that was exactly his intention. But things had changed. he’d learned to respect women, people in general. He’d learned to respect himself.
Turning away from him, Gus headed into the next stall. Scooping another hunk of waste, he came out to find Phoebe standing there with her arms folded across her chest, a scowl on her face.
“Aren’t you going to answer him, Gus?” Phoebe asked.
“I…” —Gus cleared his throat, suddenly nervous. “I respect you.”
“Why do I find that hard to believe?” Phoebe flipped her ponytail over her shoulder and stomped away, back toward the breakroom. Zach followed her.
Something about Zach’s demeaner had Gus nervous and he quietly set aside his shovel and crept toward the door, not wanting to intrude on a private conversation, but knowing Phoebe didn’t welcome his advances.
“Hey babe,” Zach slurred. “Now that we got you away from yer little prince, maybe you and I can finally get down ta business.”
“Get your hands off me, Zach,” Phoebe said, sounding more terrified than Gus had ever heard her.
Gus chose not to wait around for her to fight off Zach; he stepped into the break room. “I believe the lady has made it clear she does not want you to touch her.”
Zach stumbled back a little. “Why don’t you get over here and make me stop touching her.”
“If you insist.” Gus didn’t hesitate. He crossed the room and popped Zach in the nose, causing him to double over in pain. Within a few seconds Zach came back at Gus with a vengeance and again Gus pushed him back. Before either of them could throw any more punches, Phoebe stepped in between them.
“Stop it!” Phoebe held out her arms as if to stop traffic. “Get out of here! Both of you! Leave. Now.”
“Fine.” Zach took a step back. “You ain’t worth it anyway.”
When Zach stumbled toward the front door, Gus didn’t really think Phoebe meant for him to leave as well.
“I said get out!” Phoebe demanded.
Gus raised his hands in surrender and backed toward the front door. He didn’t have anywhere to go since his brother wouldn’t be picking him up for several hours. He ducked into the guys bathroom to clean the blood off his face and hands, frustrated that he’d reduced himself to violence. That wasn’t like him.