The night grows cold against my skin. The water of the fountain is unmoving at the bottom pool, leaves floating on top. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this. But I haven’t showered since I left. I take off my left shoe, then my right. I slip off my socks and my coat. I shiver as my hands find their way to the bottom of my shirt. I look around the park, making sure I am alone. The tree leaves rustle as the wind blows by. Not another soul, nobody but me and the freezing water. I slide off my shirt, shivering as I do so.
My body has become incredibly skinny these past two weeks. I haven’t eaten too much, only one or two meals if I’m lucky. The outline of my ribs stands out under my skin. I slide out of my pants. I hate this part the most of all. My legs shiver and knees crack as I throw my pants over my backpack. I pull out a bar of soap and a small bottle of shampoo from my backpack. I stand in the darkness in front of the fountain with nothing but my underwear.
I dip my left foot onto the water. It is freezing cold. I pull it out almost by reflex. Is this really what it has come to? It’s only one night, I tell myself, only this time, only tonight. I dip my foot once again, this time pushing all the way to the bottom. The water reaches a little below the middle of my calf. I push my other foot forward. My left foot slips. For a second, my heart stops. Then I hit the bottom of the fountain. The cold water covers me as if I was sitting in a wading pool.
My teeth chatter. I have to do this fast. I reach over for the bar of soap and scrub my body. My breath turns to a white cloud as I gasp. I wash my arms first, then my legs, my feet, and my face. I lean back into the water, submerging my body completely. I hold my breath and push my face under the water. The coldness pinches me like needles.
I jolt back up, gasping for air. My teeth are chattering so much I am afraid they might break. I pull the shampoo from the edge and run some through my hair. The strawberry smell makes me cringe. It is artificial, extremely strong, but that might just be what I need. A tear escapes from my eye, but I am not completely sure if it was because of the shampoo. I close my eyes, brushing away the tear with my hand. I can’t think about what I am doing right now. I can’t if I want to remain whole. As I stand up once again and step out of the fountain, I count the seconds. One, two, three, four…
I stay in the park until the sun warms my skin once again. A couple passes by me as I dry off my hair. They look at me before returning to their conversation, not noticing me again. I am invisible to them. I zip closed my sweatshirt. I unzip my backpack and pull out my wallet. My new clothes and sweatshirt were cheap. I bought them at a goodwill store, didn’t cost me more than $20. I’ve been trying to save money by eating at soup kitchens, but they are hard to find when you don’t know where to look. I have a grand total of $600 left. In two weeks, $200 have disappeared from my wallet. I don’t remember where or how, but once they were there and now they are not.
I pull out a stack of twenty dollar bills to count them. The wind blows against my body, blowing away one bill. My hands shake for a second. It may just be $20 dollars, but every dollar matters now. I push the money back into my wallet and slam it into my backpack. I zip my backpack and chase the twenty dollar bill. The wind blows again, blowing the bill further and further away. I run behind it, the park blending into one streak of green.
I step on my shoelace and fall to the ground. The cement scratches my hands. I muffle a moan with my lips. Two long brown boots step toward me. A hand reaches out to help me. “You ok there?” She asks. The voice is rough yet melodious.
I grab her hand. Her nails are painted black. “I’m fine, really.” I mumble as I stand up. I finally get a good look at her. Her hair is orange, the color of a sunset or maybe a sunrise. Her lips are tainted with a dark brown lipstick. A tattoo of vines and orange flowers runs along her right arm. She is carrying a cardboard box with something written on. She’s holding an empty cup with her other hand.
“Where were you going so fast?” she asks.
“I was-” I mumble shaking my head, “I was chasing a bill. It’s just that money is really tight right now for me.” She shakes her paper cup in response. Something jingles inside it. I take a look at the inside. A few discarded coins shine with the light of the sun. Some dollars bills intertwine in between the coins. I look at the cardboard once again. Tilting my head, I can make out the words written with a black marker. Struggling artist, I need help, any spare change will do.
“We’re in the same boat, girl.” She sights, “What’s your name?”
“Nicol.” I reply, “and you?”
“Amber.” She states. Her name fits her like a glove, “Wanna have some coffee?”
I shake my head, “Can’t afford it.” I can’t waste money in things like coffee now.
Amber raised an eyebrow, “Who said anything about paying?”
I sit in the coffee shop, a large cup of hot chocolate in between my fingers. The name of the restaurant is inscribed in the mug, le pain quotidien, the daily bread. Amber eats a salad as I sip from the chocolate, the heat trickling down my throat. “So, Nicol.” Amber starts, “tell me your story.”
I bite my lip thinking back to what I did, how I ran away. Nothing I am ashamed of. But if I have to talk about him, about them, I won’t. I can’t. “Well,” I mumble, “I’m from Avalon, New Jersey. I left home two weeks ago, spent a week in Atlantic City, then came here.”
“Where are your parents?” she asks. I don’t answer. She looks down at her salad, “don’t have any do you?”
I shake my head, “No. I don’t.”
She doesn’t speak for a moment, taking a bite of her salad. “My parents died in a car crash when I was ten.” She mumbles, “I was put in foster care, but my foster parents were horrible. I ran away as soon as I turned eighteen.”
“How old are you now?”
“Turning twenty-one in two months. You?”
“Sixteen.” I reply, “I’ll be eighteen in eighteen months.” I think about my words for a second. Eighteen months until I turn eighteen. And then nobody can force me to go back.
“I would have guessed you were younger.” She replies, “What happened to your parents?” I bite my lips. I don’t want to explain what happen, I’m not brave enough to say the words. Amber can read my expression. “Don’t want to talk about it?” I shake my head. Amber takes a sip of her water before responding, “Too soon, huh?” I nod. “Don’t worry, I get it.”
I take another sip of my chocolate, watching her delicate fingers grasp the cup of coffee. “Where do you live?” she asks. I don’t answer. I wonder what she would say if she knew I didn’t have a home. “Silent one, huh?” She assumes, “Are you a runaway too?” I nod. “And you didn’t tell me where you live because you don’t have a home.” She guesses. I nod, she is good at reading people. Or maybe she has met her share of runaways to spot one without saying a word. “Where do you usually sleep?”
“Wherever I fall,” I mumble, “the subway most nights.”
Amber shakes her head, “That’s not safe. Some places are full of creeps that won’t hesitate to do stuff while you sleep. I’ve got a few places around the city that I know are pretty safe. Wanna come along?”
“Really?” I ask. Can I trust Amber? I met her just a few hours ago. I shiver at the idea. But what is the other option? Roaming the streets alone, trying to defend myself in a foreign city when the simple feeling of skin against skin makes me shiver. I can’t survive alone, not for long anyway.
Amber smiles and nods. She takes one last bite of her salad, emptying the plate. “It would be really kind if you would let me go with you.” I comment.
“Well, then.” She nods, “Let’s get going.” She scans the room, watching every move the waiters make. Her eyes are so precise, moving faster than any I’ve seen. “When I say go, we go. Don’t look back. Ready?” I nod. She clasps the table with her nails, following our waiter through the restaurant with her eyes. “Go.” She murmurs. She throws her backpack into her back. I mimic her, holding my backpack tight as I speed walk to the door. My heart beats faster each second. This is not the first time I’ve done it, broken the law, but this time a cold flash runs through my veins. This is wrong, but I’m still doing it.
We reach the outside of the restaurant without looking back. We walk without saying a word a block, then another, and another. We finally stop as a large group of people walks toward us. We blend into the crowd before stopping at the corner of the block. “First time skipping out on paying?” Amber asks. I nod. It didn’t feel like sneaking into the subway did. It felt wrong. “Pretty good.” She comments, “You’ll get used to them in no time. It’s something you have to do to survive. You know, when you don’t have much to spend.”
I listen but fail to process her words. It wasn’t necessary. I don’t know if it will ever be. I don’t want to do it again. “Come on, Nick.” Amber calls me, “the place is a few blocks down.”
We stand in front an old, broken down store. The dusty banner hanging over the windows read “out of business sale”. I look through the windows. There is nothing more than a few white blankets spread across the floor. The windows are barred with gray bars, almost like a prison. Amber pulls out a pin from her hair. It has a strange shape, bent in places a pin is not usually bent in. She sticks it in the door of the store and fiddles with it for a second before pushing the door open. She holds the door open and nods at me.
I walk into the store. The air is filled with dust floating around, shining like stardust against the sunlight. Amber enters and closes the door behind her, locking it again. She rushes through the store to the back wall. She runs her hands through the wall and presses against it. I didn’t notice it before, but there is a thin line, as thick as a hair, running through the wall marking a large rectangle, a door.
Amber slides the door to the side, revealing a small room with nothing more than a few blankets and discarded boxes of Chinese takeout. The room is just big enough for three or four people to fit inside comfortably. This must be the storage room. Amber walks into the room. I follow her. She takes off her sneaker and places it in between the door and the wall, keeping the door open just enough for the natural light to flood the room. Amber collapses next to the wall, taking off her backpack. I take off my backpack and sit next to her.
Using a store as a house, that is ingenious. “How did you think of this?” I ask, “Staying in stores.”
Amber shrugs, “I saw this guy do it once and I was tired of sleeping in park benches so I thought I’d give it a try. Took me forever to figure out how to pick a lock, but eventually I managed.” She pulls out a bottle of water from her backpack, the price still on it. “So, you’re from the infamous Garden State. What’s it like?”
I think back to my neighborhood, my school, the people I watched every day with pleading eyes and they saw right through me. “Tranquil,” I mumble, “quiet, as if someone was afraid to break the silence. What about you. Where are you from?”
“Richmond, Kentucky.” She tells me, “Nice place, there was always something to do. I would have stayed if it wasn’t for them, my foster parent I mean. I wanted to go far, to a place where I knew I wouldn’t see them again. I’ve always wanted to be an artist, you know? Have my paintings hanging at the Met one day. And people say New York is where artists live. Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Larry Rivers, all amazing artists that lived in New York. So I thought that was my chance to live the life I had been dreaming about. It was a gamble and I admit, it was pretty rough a couple of times, but it was the best decision I’ve made in my life.”
I am afraid to ask about her foster parents, but the curiosity bugs me. If it is too much like the place I ran away from, I might shut down, block out her words so that the memories don’t haunt me. But maybe, just maybe, she can help me fight them. “Why did you run away?” I mumble.
“You want details, huh?” she nods. She stays silent for a few seconds before continuing, “My parents and my aunt died in a car crash when I was seven. They were all the family I had, and from one second to the other, they were gone. My older sister and I were placed into foster care. The couple seemed nice at first, Ellen and Jason; they treated us nicely for the first few years. But then there were monetary issues and they decided to solve it through us. They ‘rented’ us to their friends. I usually cooked and cleaned for them while my sister would go up to the bedroom with whoever rented us, disappear for a while, and then come back with a blank look on her face. It took me years to figure out what they were doing.
“After years of that, the marriage was falling apart and the money problems were only growing. My sister started to steal from them, just a little every day. She would sneak out at night and come back smelling like smoke. It got worse and worse until the day she snuck back in, fell asleep, and never woke up. After that I was alone.
“The ‘bedroom maintenance’, as Ellen would call it, became my chore. It was only for a few months, though. I was a few months away from turning eighteen, only a few months. The moment I turned eighteen they weren’t my legal guardians anymore. So the day of my eighteenth birthday, I gathered my stuff, stole some money, ran away, and never went back. Best decision I have ever made.” She takes a sip from the bottle, almost emptying it.
Her situation, it’s so similar yet so different. But it wasn’t her parents that used her. It was strangers. For me, it was the woman who gave birth to me and the man who claimed to love us. “Still don’t want to talk about it?” Amber asks. She’s talking about my past. I should tell her. She opened up to me. I should do the same. But the moment I open my mouth, no words come out. I try to force myself to say something, anything, but I can’t. “Don’t worry,” Amber reassures, “it’s cool. Took me a while to say it aloud too.”
“Why didn’t you tell anybody?” I ask.
“I was afraid child services would place me with another family that would treat me worse.” She confesses, “I didn’t want to jump from bad to worse. At least if I could control what happened, I knew it wouldn’t get worse.”
She offers me her bottle of water. I take it away from her frail hands and take a sip out of it. “Tell me something about you, Nick.” Amber requests, “what do you for fun?”
I shrug, “read fantasy books, comic books, watch superhero movies.”
Amber raises an eyebrow, “Like the Avengers?” I nod with a smile. She smiles back nodding, “Chris Evans?” I release a small giggle and nod back. She laughs with me. For a second, the barriers between us are gone. We are reduced to two giggling friends. I put the bottle of water on the floor.
Amber points with her head, “that’s a nice bracelet.” I look down at my left wrist. I almost forgot about it. I’ve been wearing it for so long, it’s become like skin. The strings of the bracelet are intertwined in a thick braid. Two clasps hold the braid around my wrist. The blue color is slightly faded but it still prevails.
“Thanks,” I whisper, “I got it for my eleventh birthday. Haven’t ever taken it off ever since.”
“Nice.” she replies.
I take a look at her hair, the orange shining in contrast with her black vine tattoo. “Nice tattoo.” I comment.
She raises her left arm, “Thanks. Got it a few months after I ran away. People would try to take advantage of me so I got it to make me look tougher.”
The light in the room gets dimmer by the second, turning from a bright white to a dim orange. Amber pulls out a box of granola bars from her backpack and a flashlight. She turns on the flashlight and opens a granola bar, tossing it to me. She pulls another one out and starts to eat. “Dinner.” She mumbles. I unwrap my granola bar and start biting small pieces out of it.
After we finish eating, Amber turns off the flashlight and takes out a jacket from her backpack. She folds it in eight and rests her head on it. She covers herself with a white blanket. “I’m going to sleep.” She whispers, “You can go to sleep whenever you want.” I watch her as she closes her eyes, the light shutting down as if they were light bulbs. “Night, Nick.” She mumbles.
“Good night, Amber.” I whisper back. I watch as her chest rises and lowers in a perfect rhythm. Can it be that I made a friend? Maybe not a friend, not now, but an ally, someone to lean on. I hadn’t had someone to lean on for so long, a warm feeling rushes through my skin the second I think about it.
I take off my sweatshirt and fold it into a pillow. I pull out my blue blanket and wrap it around me, lying down on the floor. I zip close my backpack. I rest my head on the pillow and close my eyes. I can’t sleep for I don’t know how long, too afraid of the nightmares awaiting me. After a while tiredness beats me and I fall asleep.
The nightmare is not as bad as I had expected. I sit immobile on the top of a shelf. My legs dangle from the top covered by a small tulle dress. His hand reaches over and touches my face. He traces the outline of the hole in my face, a crack that looks like porcelain. He places a piece of black glue on the broken edges. He murmurs something that I can’t hear, almost like chant. A tear falls down my face. “Don’t cry.” He orders. The mumble becomes clearer and clearer, “I am sorry, I am so sorry. I am sorry, I am so sorry.” He pics up a broken piece of porcelain and presses it onto the hole, covering it. I shed another tear. My tear runs down my cheek and turns black when it touches the remains of the glue. “Don’t cry.” He yells, “Don’t you cry.”
The dream ends, and for the first time, I sleep through the night.
I wake up with dry tears over my cheeks. The room is completely dark. I look at my watch. It is 7:32 a.m. It shouldn’t be this dark. I look around in the darkness for the light coming from the door. But the light is not there and neither is the door. “Amber?” I mumble sleepily. Silence replies. “Amber, are you awake?” Nothing again. I stand up and wave my hands in front of me. My breathing becomes heavier. I don’t like darkness, not at all. I find the wall, cold against my hand. I trace the wall with my hands. I feel a small gap, almost invisible. It must be the door. I push the door. It stays unmoving for a second and then pushes back, moving away from the wall. I slide the door open.
When the light enters the room, I notice I am alone. Amber is gone and she took all of her stuff. I take off my flat and place it at the edge of the door, keeping it open just enough so that the light floods into the room. My backpack is open. I don’t recall leaving it open. I kneel down and search through the backpack. My clothes are there, toiletries, a bottle of water, my period pad bag, and a can of soup. Bus something is missing. I dump the contents of my backpack on the floor, searching through them again and again, but it is nowhere to be found. Could she have taken it? I haven’t taken it out since yesterday, and I am sure I put it back. I know I put it back. My wallet, my $600 dollars, gone. Amber stole from me.
My heart races as I breathe even heavier. I am so foolish to think she was a friend. Why did I trust her? Why? After so long, you would think I would have learned that trust does not exist. I don’t learn, do I? He was right. I am an incompetent, stupid little girl. I shouldn’t have run away. I search through the contents scattered on the floor. I find my pad bag and open it. In between two pads I spot it, my plan B. The shiny golden chain stands out against the green wrappers. I pull them out.
I count them. Ten golden chains, three pairs of earrings, and two rings. It was all I could steal from her before I ran away. She used to tell me it was real gold, but her lies are so many I have no reason to believe this one is true. However, it is my only lifeline now. I stick the jewelry into my pocket. I have to sell them today. It is the only way I’ll get to eat today.
I pack my backpack, zip it, and throw it against my back. I walk through the door, pull out my shoe, and place it back onto my foot. I take one last look at the little store, the first roof I’ve had over my head since I ran away, the place I got betrayed, like I always do. I exit the store, not looking back.