Waking up hurt.
My head felt like it was filled with cotton, my eyes were glued shut, and the rest of me ached like I'd fallen off a cliff or something.
I was so tired, so goddamned tired. I couldn't think straight. Where was I? This didn't feel like my bed. Was I sick?
Someone was in the room. Opening curtains, pulling the covers back over me where I'd kicked them off, moving my hair off my face.
"Shh, go back to sleep."
So I did.
The next time I woke I knew exactly where I was and exactly what had happened.
I sat up fast - too fast. My body screamed in protest and my head spun.
I ignored all that, looking around the unfamiliar room. There was girly stuff, so I figured it had to be Mia's bedroom; Bri had told me about her, and this looked like the kind of shit she'd have. Plus, the books on the desk were a dead giveaway.
I looked down and panicked. I wasn't in my clothes. Someone had put me in a big nightshirt. Someone had seen me - seen me without my clothes.
Shit. Maybe they wouldn't know what it was. I'd used a lot of antibacterial spray and shit where he burned me, and it had healed pretty well. But it still looked bad, and I didn't feel like answering any questions.
I looked up; something was happening. I could hear voices, they weren't shouting or anything but the sound carried.
I eased out of the bed to creep closer to the door.
Dom was speaking. "Her story checks out. Mark and Elizabeth O'Connor and their son Brian supposedly died in Seattle five weeks ago after a B&E went bad. One of the burglars was found dead at the scene, though they ain't sayin' how he died. The papers say the kid sister, Darria, was visiting friends at the time and is supposed to be staying with them indefinitely."
I wasn't prepared to hear their names like that. It felt like a knife twisting through my gut. But I kept listening. It was five weeks already? I must have lost track of a few days somewhere along the line.
Shit. I couldn't afford to do that.
"Why the cover-up?" Letty. I couldn't decide what to make of her. Now that she wasn't right in front of me, I couldn't figure out why I talked to her anyway, when I didn't tell anyone else shit and didn't want to.
"What she said, probably. Feds. They always have a hard-on for mafia hitters, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, Italian, whatever."
There was silence, and I imagined everyone thinking about that. Then a door slammed somewhere in the house, and I realised that not everyone had been down there; someone had just come in.
"Mia, in here." That was Dom. No doubt about it.
One of the guys, Vince I think, spoke up. "You gonna give her some money?"
Dom didn't answer for a minute. Then, "Yeah."
"But where's she gonna go? I think she should stay here." That was Mia.
I stared at the floor. Suddenly I knew I was gonna feel bad about the way I treated her. Fuck.
"She ain't your responsibility." That sounded like Vince again.
"She's just a kid, V!" Mia half-yelled at him, and I knew they were trying to keep their voices down, trying not to wake me up. "I'm not gonna put her out on the streets. Letty, help me out here."
There was silence for a moment. I imagined them all looking at Letty, getting sucked into her eyes like I did. "She can stay here as long as she wants. If she got somewhere to go, we'll take her there."
Letty is a freaking god. She just said that, all low and stern and shit, and not one of them were gonna argue with her, not one of them. I knew it.
"Okay," Dom said. "But I want to know what happened exactly. She didn't tell us everything."
Oh fuck. I missed Letty's response to that because I was backing away from the door and looking around for my clothes, the ones I bought with Bri's money. There, on the chair - my duffle. My clothes were on top of it and I was kind of shocked to see everything washed and folded. Just how long was I asleep?
The scent of clean laundry just washed over me for a moment, and I wanted my mom so bad I almost started crying again. I bit my lip instead and dressed real fast.
What next? The window. Peering out, I almost laughed in relief. This room was over a porch, the kind with the roof you can crawl out on to. I figured I could slide down something when I get to the edge. Perfect.
I took a moment to look around. When I'd freaked out, I was in a garage. This was a house. Where the hell was I? But I panicked when I heard feet coming up the stairs and slid the window open. Climbing out, the roof seemed strong enough so I scooted down to the lower corner of it, turning on my stomach to lower my legs over the side. Sure enough, there was a support of some kind. I'd just have to figure out the rest when I got there.
"Darry?" I looked up to see Mia leaning out of the window. "Shit, be careful."
Damn. I really did owe her an apology. Later. Maybe. I had to swing my legs forward to reach the post I knew was there, and I gripped the wide post as hard as I could before lowering myself along.
It was harder ignoring the nausea in the pit of my stomach that told me I was going to fall and die.
I stole one last quick look at Mia before letting go of the roof and grabbing the post with my hands to slide down. And then my heart just about stopped, because there was an audience waiting for me. I felt so stupid. They'd had plenty of time to go back down the stairs and just sit back and watch my stupid attempt to escape.
At least none of them tried to pull me down. They just waited.
"Where you goin', kid?" Dom asked, conversationally. "You just got here."
I made the mistake of looking at Letty then, and I knew I couldn't bullshit my way out of this. I took a deep breath and sat down on the railing, still clinging to the post. "I heard you talking. I - I don't want to talk about what happened."
Dom nodded, surprising me. "Okay. Come on in, Mia's heatin' up some leftovers." Without looking to see if I followed, he went back inside, the rest of them right behind him.
Now that he'd mentioned it, I could smell something. It smelled damned good after so long eating nothing but junk food. I was almost drooling by the time I got to the table, where I sat between Letty and an empty seat that I figured was for Mia.
Thank god I was raised better than to grab for food, though. I didn't know the first thing about saying grace.
Dinner was nice, actually. They all relaxed when they were eating, talking mostly about some car that they were rebuilding.
And then someone said something about Mexico. Without really thinking about it, I asked, "Why aren't you still there? Bri wasn't surprised when you came back, but he said-"
I shut up then, feeling like a jerk for killing the good mood.
After a moment, Dom answered. "Didn't need to 'cause he didn't turn me in. I went there, came back to get Vince out of the hospital and decided to stay. No point in throwing everything I had here away."
He looked kind of smug when he saw how surprised I was. I honestly hadn't expected him to be so forthcoming. Well, two could play at that game.
"The Supra looks good. I liked the orange better, though." I smirked. That got 'em.
"You know cars?"
I shrug. "Sort of. I don't know a lot of the names and stuff, but I used to help Bri with his." For the first time in what seemed like forever, it didn't hurt to talk about him. It felt good. "Mom and I came to L.A. once, a few months ago, and he came in and gave me a ride in that one."
I paused, savouring the memory. "It's really fast."
I stopped smiling when they all laughed. But before I could get worked up about it, Letty elbowed me. "Relax, kid," she said, and I realised that they weren't making fun of me.
"Sorry," I muttered, feeling like an idiot.
She shrugged and went back to her plate.
"How old are you, kid?"
I looked at Dom, trying to figure out what his game was. "Why?"
"You said you needed money, and you 'sort of' know cars. I just wanna know if you're old enough to work legally to work in my garage. Help out or something."
I wasn't buying it. "I couldn't work for you legally anyway."
"You saying you don't want the job?"
I back-pedalled. "No, I want a job." And I did. I really did need money, and I didn't have anywhere else to go. Suddenly I really wanted to stay here, although I wouldn't tell them that. I couldn't stay here long, and I didn't want any questions when I left.
"What can you do?"
I thought fast. "Bri was starting to teach me about cars. I helped with his tools. And I know first aid kits inside out, Dad's a - was a nurse." I took a deep breath, trying to keep the images out of my head of what happened to him. To them. I couldn't just keep breaking down all the time. I just couldn't. "Mom was an accountant. She was teaching me about bookkeeping. Maybe I could help with that, or - or something."
I knew I sounded too eager, but I couldn't seem to stop myself. Finally I managed to shut up and I just stared at him, not quite breathing.
Vince broke the silence first. "A nurse?"
"Fuck off," I told him, without turning away from Dom. "Dad was a medic in the navy and he could twist your fucking head off, so you just shut up about my dad before I come over there and break your other arm."
The others were still hooting and laughing at him when Dom cocked his head to one side, watching me watch him. He was the one I had to convince.
"I think we can work something out. How old are ya', again?"
I decided to lie. I'm a bit tall for my age and I looked older now, I knew. After everything I'd been through, I could probably get away with adding a bunch of years on. And it's not like I took the time to grab my own wallet before leaving, so there was no ID to say one way or the other.
He didn't even blink. "Try again."
What? Okay, maybe that was a bit of a stretch. "You got me. Fifteen."
I stared at him. He knew. Somehow, he fucking knew. How? Panicking, I pushed away from the table, ready to run for it.
He sighed. "Relax, kid. I did a 'Net search, that's all."
I paused, my mind working. "The science fair article?"
"Wind generator, huh? You an engineer?"
I shrugged, embarrassed. I'd come in second in a high school contest and I got my picture in the paper. They made a big deal of my age because I wasn't even in high school at the time, and no one expected a junior-high kid to know anything about wind-powered generators. And actually, I didn't, but I'd been fooling around with a model wind mill kit my dad had given me and noticed that if you worked the blades a certain way, you'd catch more wind. My science teacher found out about it when I asked if I could borrow some materials from the school lab to build my own, and he was the one who showed me how to write up my results and entered me in the contest. It was kind of cool. Bri even managed to sneak away from an assignment for an afternoon so he could come see me get my certificate. It was so funny, because he was dressed in this ridiculous shiny suit and wore these ridiculous rings.
Bri. God, I missed him so much.
I shook myself out of it. What was I saying again? "If you already knew how old I am, why'd you ask?"
He started to answer, then stopped like he was changing his mind. "Just wanted to see if you'd lie."
I shrugged. "Whatever. I'll be fourteen in a few months. That old enough for you?"
For some reason that question seemed to upset him, but before he could say anything else Mia jumped up and ran out of the room, sobbing something about me not being old enough. I stared after her, a little shocked. She already knew I was just a kid. Why did she act like it was such a big deal? After the door closed, I could hear her slamming dishes around.
"What's her problem?"
No one answered me. In fact, no one would look at me, they were all looking at Letty, for some reason. Whatever. I didn't care. I had more important things to worry about.
"So, any chance I could get an advance? Few hundred?"
Dom's eyebrows went high. I shrugged. Yeah, I didn't think so either, but it would've been nice. To my shock, though, he started laughing. Huge, gut-deep laughs that made me want to laugh too, although I didn't know why. So I frowned instead, because the others were grinning too and I still didn't know what was so damned funny.
"What? I need to find a place to crash. That costs money. If I can't get an advance, whatever. I'll figure something else out." I was making it up as I was going along, and it was the only thing I could think of to explain why I needed the money.
He stopped laughing, and my scowl was nothing next to his. "Screw that. You're staying here." He said it like it was law or something, and something about the way he said that, like he owned me or something, made me angry. Besides, I needed the money sooner, not later, so I was already tense.
"I'll stay wherever the hell I want, asshole!"
I thought his head might explode, he looked so pissed off, but suddenly Letty slapped him upside the head and he backed off, like he'd just remembered something.
Okay, I'd just about had enough of this. There was something going on. I didn't really care what, but it was starting to freak me out. And if I didn't get out of here, I was going to say something I'd regret.
I grabbed my plate and escaped into the kitchen, because I couldn't think of where else to go. Mia was at the sink, scrubbing furiously. She froze when I added my dish to the dirty pile and just watched me as I picked up a cloth and started drying the ones in the rack.
I didn't know why I did it. I just didn't want to leave. I liked it here. This was way better than hiding out in some alley or huddling in someone's shed with my sleeping bag. And if I was going to stay here, I'd probably have to do some chores or something. Might as well start now.
Besides, I was still feeling kind of bad about what I said about her before.
I started getting a little fidgety though, when she kept staring. "What?" I tried to joke. "You cooked. You shouldn't have to wash and dry too."
For a second I thought she was going to start crying again, but she just looked at me with a sad smile. "Brian used to say that."
"Really? Mom would be so proud," I joked without thinking. Really, it just slipped out. I tried not to think about her much anymore. But this was a good memory, like riding in Bri's car, so that was okay.
She laughed then and swooped down to grab me in a hug.
I guessed that was okay too, so I let her.
And I didn't argue anymore about staying there.
A week later and I was starting to get the hang of things. They wouldn't let me near the cars themselves, but I cleaned tools and ran errands and helped Mia out so she could study more. Sometimes she'd take me to the library and let me take books out on her card. I'd read them or watch tv when they went out to do "adult stuff", whatever that was. Probably drag racing. That's what Bri said they did for fun.
At least no one insulted me by insisting I needed a babysitter or something.
I never thought I'd miss school, but I did. I missed my friends and being on the track team and playing violin. I missed feeling like I belonged. But I didn't belong there any more. I didn't really belong here, either, and I wouldn't be here for much longer, but for now this was cool. Dom gave me fifty bucks a week, cash, and I was real careful to save as much as I could. It wouldn't be enough, but I hoped that he'd be more willing to give me an advance if I proved I was good for it.
I went with Mia to get a computer when she needed one, and she let me use it whenever I wanted because I also showed her how to use Mom's favourite bookkeeping program to keep stuff straight at the garage. And Vince didn't get too upset when he caught me using his guitar, a silly looking black and white electric one he left here one night, probably because his arm wasn't ready to play again yet. He kept checking in on me, though, to make sure I was treating it right. After a while he even brought in his old acoustic one and some music books for beginners, and I played that thing for hours until my fingers just about fell off. I sucked, but Vince promised that I'd get better with practice.
Vince wasn't comfortable around me, I could tell, but I he was trying to be nice. He told me once that Bri saved his life. I didn't know what to say. But I did tell him that Bri felt bad, like he'd betrayed them. Bri didn't usually talk to me about his assignments, but this one got to him, and not just 'cause of Mia. He'd told me some stories about this one, about the people he'd become friends with. He'd even asked if I thought Mia would ever forgive him, 'cause he wanted to ask her to marry him.
Vince looked like he'd tasted something sour when I said that, and rubbed his face with his hand. Yeah, he said, she'd forgiven him a long time ago. And then he asked if I liked video games. There wasn't a whole lot of talking after that, although it was fun trying to come up with imaginative swear words to shout at the tv. He laughed as my admittedly lame tries got even lamer, but it was cool.
There were rules, though. When they had customers in, or people over, I stayed upstairs, locked the door, and didn't show my face. I helped out around the house, too, although that was more my idea than theirs. Mostly I just stayed out of everyone's way.
I couldn't get over how touchy-feely they all were. Fighting or goofing around, it didn't matter. For the life of me, I couldn't remember if my family hugged so much, if Bri and I used to roughhouse as much.
They all gave me my space, though.
Man, poor Leon. That jab I gave him with the screwdriver took longer than I expected to heal, even though I picked up some of the best antibacterial stuff at the drug store and made sure he used it. It still left a scar that messed up one of his favourite tattoos and I thought he'd be really mad, but he just said he was sorry for getting in my face like that. So I said I was sorry too and no one said anything more about it. I was kind of impressed with how decent everyone was about it.
Letty didn't talk to me much. But if I was quiet she'd let me help her out sometimes in the garage, handing her tools and shit, and she took me shopping for some new clothes, showing me the cheapest places to go without asking. She liked to sing when she drove around town, and she taught me some new songs because she said pop was for shit. She did have a sense of humour, though, and when I popped in a "banned" CD by accident, she made fun of the songs with me. I'd never laughed so hard in my life as when she did her Britney imitation.
Letty was just cool. I mean, she always seemed to know when I was starting to freak out, and she'd tell me to snap out of it and that was usually enough to calm me down. After a while she showed me where everyone worked out in the basement, so whenever I couldn't sleep or just needed to get stuff out of my system I headed down there. Next to her I felt like some kind of stick puppet or something, and I wanted my arms to look just like hers.
The third week I started running again, early mornings, but I stayed near the house because I didn't know the neighbourhood very well yet.
I liked learning how to sleep through the night again, though I knew it wasn't really me. It was Letty; when I knew she was in the house, I didn't have any nightmares. I knew Letty wouldn't let anything happen to me. I never really thought about it, or asked myself why I knew it, I just knew.
It was enough. For two months, Letty and Mia and Dom - all of them, really - were better to me than I could have expected. It was like the best kind of summer camp, where I could do what I wanted and there was always something to do. And as long as I stayed out of the way, no one bossed me around, either. That was cool.
But it couldn't last forever. Based on what I'd found out, I still needed another two hundred, even on top of what I'd saved and what I had left from before.
And I'd run out of time. I needed it now.
Next: A Child's Farewell