The Cost Of Knowing.

The Cost Of Knowing.

A little house with a white picket fence around it. A bright red door with a cheerful wreath hanging from the knocker. A fridge full of food, and a heater that stays on even when it isn’t needed. I sigh in contentment. It drifts into a sound of despair.

The screech of tires on pavement and the inertia that follows knocks me from my fantasy.

I wipe the fatigue from my face and push myself out of the bright yellow cab. I slam the door behind me harder than intended and frown at the overpriced transportation. I shiver as the rain pours down harder. My hair is already sticking to the back of my neck. I shove my hand into my pants and pull out the leather wallet, looking up at the driver to find out what the damage is.

“Twenty bucks.” He says, leaning out of the window. The rain doesn’t seem to bother him much, but it’s starting to seep into the thin jacket I’m wearing. I grimace at the price, but I am resigned. I don’t have much of a choice here. I open the wallet and pull out the cash I have left, counting out the bills until I reach twenty. I hold the cash a little tighter for a moment, wondering how much trouble I’d be in if I ran instead of paying.

I shake my head and stick the other eight bills back in my wallet, handing over the requested cash. There isn’t much left from my last job, but I should have just enough to get by until I can scrounge up more money. There isn’t much left after paying off the bills I racked up trying to get here. I can only hope that Los Angeles will bring me better luck than Las Vegas did.

The man grabs the cash from my hand and starts to count it out, as though I might rip him off. I am patient as I watch, but he stops at the first bill and looks up at me. He glances down at the green bills again. From here I can see the prominent one-zero-zero written out on the top bill. He seems to have lost interest in counting them, but I know there are twenty in all, and an extra one for a tip. It’s all I can afford, but he was kind enough to turn his music down during our drive here.

The cabbie continues to start at me for another moment and I stare back until he looks away. He grips the dollars tighter, shaking his head and muttering something I can’t quite hear over the heavy rainfall. I think about offering to count it for him, I know how hard it can be to do math in your head.

Before I can say anything he pulls himself back into the car, his seat belt clicking into place. Then he turns to me with a massive smile and I give a little wave. The volume of his music goes all the way up again as he puts the car in drive and then he is gone.

I spin around, my carrier bag slapping against my thigh as I stare at the distant building. In the darkness there aren’t many details to see, but I remember this place from the images on the library computer. It looks just like it did in the ad, with an ornate gate protecting the mansion and the land surrounding it. Even from here I can see the driveway is empty; just the way I like it.

Hiking my pack further up my back, I push forward up the slope towards the front door where I’ll no doubt find a key hidden under the mat. They almost always leave a key under the mat, no matter where I am, or who I’m robbing. Rich people just don’t seem to think this will happen to them, or perhaps they’re too rich to care. Either way they are victims of their own stupidity and I smile at the idea that I’m the one who gets to teach them a lesson.

They deserve it, considering how selfish they are with their wealth.

I pull back the scratchy brown mat with curved black letters spelling out WELCOME, a clear invitation. The key resides just beneath the right upper corner, and I slip into the house without a hitch. Inside I am greeted with vaulted ceilings, immaculate decor, and priceless artifacts sitting out for all to see. I’ve hit the jackpot.

Dropping my bag and pocketing the key, I slip through the darkened hallway and up the winding flight of stairs. The second floor carpet appears soft. I slip off my shoes to twist my toes into the fluffy strands that blanket the hallway. Then I shuffle forward, instinct telling me where the master bedroom is. The last door on the left creaks open under my command. On the other side an opulent king sized bed with crimson silk sheets is revealed. The wealthy have all the luck, and such good taste.

I walk past the bed, uninterested in its promise of sleep. Instead I make my way to the bathroom where a massive shower beckons. It has been too long since I’ve had a proper shower Too long since I’ve been in an elegant home ripe for the picking and ready for my loving caress.

By loving caress I mean blind robbery, of course.

I strip out of my still soaking clothes, turning on the steaming hot shower. I pull a fluffy towel from the linen closet and press my face into the plush fabric. I sigh, all my worries fading for a moment. Setting it on the counter, I step into the hot spray and everything I’ve been through the past two weeks washes away. My hair darkens under the stream of water, sticking to the spot between my shoulder blades. I pull open the fancy shampoo that the house’s owner likely spent a fortune on, and press a generous amount to my skull. Scrubbing it in, I breath in the smell of eucalyptus.

I spend a long time rinsing away the grime and filth of the past weeks. The water does not get cold and my exhaustion fades with each passing minute. This is nice. I’ll miss it once I’m back on the road. If the calendar in the study shows how long the owners might be gone, I might just stay a few days and enjoy this taste of the high life.

Shutting off the water once I’ve had my fill and my skin begins to wrinkle, I wrap the towel around my body and shuffle back into the bedroom where I find the door to a walk-in closet that holds both male and female clothing. I’m lucky to have found a house with a woman around my size. The last place I stopped didn’t have anything that might fit me in any of the rooms. Everything was twice my size, and mostly silk.

Pulling a snug pair of jeans from the bottom shelf, I find the back pockets covered in rhinestones and a large letter M. I shrug and set them aside. Rummaging through the rest of the clothing, I find a matching set of bra and underwear that are close to my size, and a white tank top that feels like heaven as it slides against my skin. Putting everything on, I also snag a light blue button up from the man’s side of the closet. The leopard print, silk, and fake fur that the wife’s wardrobe is made up of doesn’t suite me all that much.

Grabbing my dirty clothing and damp towel from the bathroom, I head back down the stairs. My bag of stolen, soiled laundry is soon in hand and I head towards where the laundry room usually is. I find it with ease. These places don’t usually have a lot of difference. I toss in my change of clothes, and everything else in my pack that hasn’t been washed in weeks. Starting up the washer I move to the study with some hope. The calendar on the wall is chalk, and it has a huge star on yesterday’s date.

An arrow points through two weeks and ends on a frowny faced Saturday. Two weeks I can stay here, if I want. I won’t stay that long of course, but I’ll enjoy the quiet and the luxury while I can. Then when I’ve grown restless once more I’ll leave, and I’ll take it all with me. Hopefully something will be worth enough to get to the next home, the next score, the next town where I might strike the mother-load and actually have enough to settle down.

I wander into the kitchen and pull what I can from the freezer. There’s never anything in the fridge, for those who plan to be gone long. They’re smart when it comes to keeping their house from stinking, even if they don’t have a clue how to keep me from stealing everything out from under their nose. I pull a loaf of bread from the freezer and a cannister of peanut butter from the cupboard. There is a squeeze bottle of honey in there as well, formed like a bear. I soon have two sandwiches on my plate, begging for milk. Milk spoils fast. There won’t be any, so I don’t bother to check.

Instead I move to the den where I find a large screen television and a set of remotes sitting out in plain sight, just waiting for me. I shake my head at the routine predictability of rich people, settling in on the couch and turning the television on low. I change it to the news, curious to know if anyone has caught on to my pattern, and also curious to know what’s been going on in the world for the past few weeks. War, death, discrimination. Nothing new, and nothing about me.

I’m digging into my second sandwich when I hear it, when my heart drops and I rush to shut off the screen. Voices, the sound of keys, laughter. God, I am so dead. I could leave of course, but the back door only opens onto a pool and the side of a cliff. There’s no way to get out of this, to avoid prison, and at this point I’m too old for another round of foster care. I’m wearing her clothing, and his. I’m eating their food, using their washer. There’s no way out.

I grab the last half of my sandwich, refusing to starve through the next few hours. I move from the couch and out into the foyer. I’m not going to hide, there isn’t any point. Instead I lean against the bannister, preparing for the surprised scream and the shouting and the havoc. That, I cannot wait for.

It’s my favorite part of getting caught.

The front door creaks open and reveals something I didn’t expect, someone I didn’t expect. A young boy peaks around the door, wide blue eyes staring me down with blond-brown curls cascading around rosy cheeks. The door opens wider to reveal three others, a man who looks a lot like the little boy, a woman holding the boy’s hand, and another man with darker skin and eyes that match the woman’s.

“Oh.” She says, eyes wide. She isn’t dressed the way the wife who lives here dresses, and she doesn’t look upset. I hold my ground as I wonder if these people are here for the same reason I am. “Sorry, do we have the wrong house?”

“Don’t be stupid.” The darker skinned man replies, holding up a set of keys. “We got in just fine.”

“Maybe they over-booked?” The second man suggests, all of them still staring at me as I munch down on my sandwich and return their stare. “Did you schedule to stay here for the week as well?”

I nod, not daring to speak. A misunderstanding I can play off, and I can get out. If only my clothes weren’t in the wash. They shuffle further into the house and out of the rain, looking awkward and out of place. They don’t look like they’re going to leave though. I finish off my sandwich, fingers still sticky. I suck in a breath and let it out slowly, considering them.

“They’re gone for two weeks. I guess they thought we wanted different weeks.” I tell them, pulling whatever I can from the conversation to get myself out of this. This I can do. I’m used to bullshitting my way out of trouble. “Look, once my clothes are dry I’ll just go.”

“Don’t you think we should call ‘em?” The darker man asks, dropping the keys to the table and kicking off his shoes. He’s very at home walking into another person’s house, I note with a frown. I’m used to doing it because I’m not a great person. I take from others to fulfill my own wishes. He just takes what he wants because he already has the money to do so. I hate people like him.

“Didn’t they tell you?” I reply. “No cell service for the first two days.”

“Says you.” He shrugs, dropping his hands into his pockets. A damp black curl falls into his whiskey eyes. I look away, then stiffen my spine and look back.

“I said I’d let you guys have the place.” I defend, trying to understand what this guy’s problem is. From their perspective this is a scheduling error and I’m letting them have their way. There’s no reason to fight me on it at this point.

“That’s not fair to you.” The woman says, guiding the little boy to take off his coat. “I’m sure you’ve paid just as much as we have for your vacation. Maybe we can work something out?”

“Are you suggesting we pay her to leave, Tessa? We shouldn’t have to pay extra for a place we already paid too much to stay in.” The darker skinned man turns on the woman, who is still holding the little boy’s hand. He’s still watching me with wide eyes, and I stare him down as I wait for this little band of vacationers to figure out what they want. Doesn’t matter to me in the long run, I’ll leave today and come back next week to rob the place, or they’ll leave and I’ll do the job tonight.

“It’s not fair to her either, she’s paid just as much as we have.” Tessa replies, her honey-whiskey eyes narrowing at the man I’m assuming is her brother.

“She can get a refund.” He scoffs. My dislike of him rises that much more as he turns to me. “You can get a refund.”

“There is another option.” The blond man, who looks to be the eldest of the bunch, steps in. “This house is big enough for all of us.”

“No.” The word slips between my lips faster than I can slip out of a pair of handcuffs.It echos through the room from the wiskey eyed man. There seems to be one thing of which we can both agree. The woman, Tessa, sighs.

“Marco.” Her voice holds a warning tone, and he throws his hands up before stomping further into the house and out of sight. She turns to me with a soft smile. “I’m sorry about him, he hates long plane rides.”

“He hates everything.” The the little blond boy says in a knowing tone, speaking for the first time. He tugs his hand out of Tessa’s and bolts further into the house as well, following after the moody Marco. I turn back to my captors, recognizing them for what they are. They’re trying to make me stay when I’ve offered to leave. They are a risk to my freedom and a hindrance to my plans. Moreover, they’re rich and acting way too nice. I can’t help feel suspicious.

“Listen, I’m just fine with leaving. It’s like he said, I can get a refund.” I speak softly, trying to placate their sense of kindness and generosity. These are the kind of people who blow money on renting out mansions for their vacations and then throw a little extra at a charity to make themselves feel better. They are my opposite, and as much as I wish I could live that kind of life I know better.

“But you can’t get back the price of the flight, I’m sure.” Tessa says, shaking her head. “No, Wren is right. You’ll just have to stay.”

“I really don’t think-”

“It’s settled.” The blond man says. “Lawrence Preston, by the way. Sorry we ended up in such a mess. This is my wife, Theresa Preston, and my little brother Jacob who so rudely ran off before introductions.”

“To follow my brother, Marco, who is clearly a bad influence and an even worse house guest.” The whiskey eyed woman raises her voice at the last bit, but no response comes from her brother. She turns back to me and continues. “You’ll get the master bedroom of course, it’s only fair.”

“Really, no.” I say, shaking my head. They’re pinning me here, and I have a feeling I won’t be able to leave until they’ve fallen asleep now. “I have other places I can stay.”

“But no place as nice as this, I bet.” Lawrence says with a hearty laugh, hugging Tessa to him as they move further into the room. “And no place that will have my lady love cooking up the best dinner you’ve ever had.”

“Momma, can we have spaghetti?” The younger Preston boy re-enters the room. His pleading blue eyes are impossible to deny. Even I couldn’t say no, if he turned them on me. The kid looks like an angel. He would probably be really useful in some of the cons I’ve wanted to pull, but haven’t had the resources for. Namely, a partner.

“Course we can, kiddo.” Marco has also re-entered the room, a bowl of cereal in his hands. There is milk. He has found the fridge fully stocked and used the one thing I’ve been dying for all evening. I might have to steal his wallet before I leave, just to make things fair. “We’ll have it for breakfast too, so when you throw up on the rides it’ll look like you’re puking your guts out!”

“That’s disgusting.” Tessa says. I hear the washer buzz, and I move as quickly as I can through the crowded hallway to get to it. The sooner my clothing is dry, the sooner I can leave. I’m not left alone though, not given a chance to figure out my escape plan. Marco, with his bowl of milk drenched cereal and his pretentious smirk, follows me into the laundry room.

“Made yourself quite at home already, eh?” He says through a mouthful of food. I grimace at his lack of manners, and his existence. Rude, incorrigible, and drinking the milk I wanted. I can’t stand this guy.

“Can you please move?” I ask, hands full of wet clothing. Most of it is name brand and should probably be washed at a drycleaners. I’m not really sure what brands they are anymore though, and I don’t plan on making the effort. It’s clothing, and I didn’t have to spend a dime to get them so I won’t spend a dime to keep them. If they end up ruined they were too much work to have. There will always be another house with another fancy blouse or silk bra to shove in my bag.

He doesn’t move for a moment, standing in the way of the dryer. I suppress the urge to growl at him. I’m certain that his people, people who come from that kind of world, don’t growl. I have to blend in. I have to keep them from knowing I’m not one of them. Just long enough for them to go to sleep, and then I’m out of here.

Of course, leaving after one day will lead them to calling the owners. Everyone will be on high alert for the thief who almost got away with it. I let my greed, my need for luxury and a little bit of rest, come before the job. I’ve lost the chance to take what I want. All that’s left now is to take what I can carry before I go. I wish there were another way. I’ve pretty much painted myself into a corner on this one.

After a moment he steps aside. I shove my clothing into the dryer, turning it on high so that it will be done sooner. There are a few delicate things in there, but if they don’t make it I have a whole master bedroom full of leopard print and rhinestones to choose from. Finished with my goal, I move back into the hallway with purpose. Mostly that purpose is to ignore the man behind me.

“Look, I’m sorry.” He says. I don’t turn around. Of course he’s apologizing. Rich people do that, even when they don’t mean it. “I didn’t even get your name.”

“Makayla Toni.” I throw out. It’s an alias that hasn’t been burned yet, and a far cry from my real name. I don’t really remember my real name, or at least I try not to. That name is associated with drug abuse, physical abuse, and abuse of the system. So many families, all the same. They didn’t want me. they wanted the money I could bring them. Now I only bring money to myself, and as soon as I can pull enough together I’ll be able to settle down in some nice place. A red door and a heater that doesn’t need to be shut off. That’s the dream.

“Kayla.” He says, rolling the name around in his mouth. It’s not really my name, but it still feels like he’s dirtying it, ruining it. I was wrong, that name is burned now too. “I like it.”

I walk away, moving up the stairs towards the master bedroom. I can start in there, searching for money and jewelry. If they planned for guests though, I don’t think there is going to be much. Maybe those Louis Vuitton heels will go for something, and I know I saw a watch on the dresser. If it’s worth anything it’ll go into my bag as well.

My plan to strip the room is paused as my stalker follows me up the stairs and into the room without so much as a by-your-leave. He’s still munching on his cereal, and watching me move around the room. I don’t look too long at anything, I don’t want him to think I’m looking for anything particular. That can wait until he’s left. If he ever does.

“Marco Moretta, by the way.”

“Pleased to meet you.” I say, distracted. My eye has caught on a set of pearls. I can’t know for sure if they are real until he leaves. I really want him to leave. “I’ve had a long day.”

“Me too.” He says, clearly not getting the hint. “Flew in from New York, do you know how long that flight is?”

“No.” I slip into the bathroom again, but don’t have the time to close the door before he’s following me again. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. The way he’s watching me and the way he’s followed a woman into a bathroom sets my nerves on edge. I don’t actually need to use the restroom, but he doesn’t know that and he’s still following me.

“This place is damn nice.” He says, pointing his spoon at me. I glare, pulling a brush from the counter. I start in on my still-damp hair, trying to untangle the natural curls. It’ll leave my hair more wild than before, but if I don’t brush it then there will be knots for days.

He turns and I have a brief flash of hope that he’ll leave. Instead he leans up on the tips of his feet and moves backwards, planting his ass on the counter like he belongs there. I wish I could feel that sense of belonging in a place like this. I am an intruder though, unlike him.

He stays quiet, finishing his cereal and placing the bowl on the counter as he watches me drag the brush through my hair with a wince every once in awhile as it snags on a tangled portion. I should have used the conditioner, but I’d been too busy enjoying the hot water. Eventually the brush makes it’s way through all of my hair without catching anywhere. I set it aside and consider the poofy blonde curls for a moment before reaching for a hair tie.

“Braid it.” I startle, having forgotten for a moment that I’m being watched like a hawk. I shake my head, not because it’s a bad idea but because I’ve never been good at that stuff. Those are things your mother teaches you. Mine never had the time between hits. I can sort of figure it out from seeing other women do it, but my hands are clumsy and my patience is thin.

I move to pull it into a bun and he jumps from the counter, moving to stop me. I start at the touch of his hand against mine. It’s been a long time since I’ve let someone touch me, and although I’m not really letting him do this it’s still a disturbing feeling. I am surprised by his calloused hands. Rich people don’t work hard. They have people to do that for them.

“Let me.” He says. I debate, wondering how much more unpleasant he might be if I fight him on this. I consider how likely it is that he’ll leave me alone if I let him do what he wants. Hope swells within me that his curiosity will be sated if I let him do this. I nod, lowering my hands.

I stand very still as he reaches out for the brush. The feel of another person’s hands in my hair is unfamiliar, but not unpleasant. I’ve watched enough television, I’ve slipped into enough homes with huge screens and access to thousands of channels. I know that people are supposed to enjoy having their hair played with. Despite who is standing behind me, I find that the theory stands true.

His hands are deft, practiced. They move faster than I can watch. He is firm, but gentle, and before I know it there are two braids running from the top of my head and down to my shoulders. They are tied off with hair ties found in the drawer. As I stare at my reflection I find that I like the look. It’s the first time I can think of that I’ve looked completely put-together. My eyes go up to his through the mirror. The same honey-whiskey as his sister’s, but instead of her kindness I see mischief and confidence. I hold his gaze, too stubborn to say thank you and too grateful to leave without saying anything. He stares back and twists the end of a braid in between his fingers.

“Momma says dinner’s almost ready!” A voice calls from the doorway, and we both jump at the angel-child’s interruption. “Wow, you look really pretty.”

“Why thank you!” Marco says, striking a pose and taking away the awkward feeling of being complimented. I have to wonder if he saw my panic, or if he is simply that self absorbed. Probably the latter.

“Not you, silly!” Jacob says with a laugh, his blond curls bouncing. He turns from the room, rushing back down the stairs with loud feet. I hear a bit of a stumble that makes my heart jump into my throat despite not even knowing the kid. I can hear Tessa downstairs, yelling at him to slow down and be careful. I’m glad there is someone out there to care for him. It’s not something I had, and I remember learning the hard way that running down stairs is dangerous.

“Dinner?” Marco asks, startling me again. He laughs as I jump, shaking his head. He grabs his cereal bowl and begins to head out of the room. When I do not follow he turns back with his lips pressed together. “You will never have spaghetti better than my sister’s.”

I want to tell him that I’ve never had spaghetti before, not that I can remember. I want to say the words just to make that surprise flash in his eyes. I don’t. I relent, following this strange combination of incorrigible and undeniable down the stairs. He puts his dish in the washer like a well trained rich kid and moves to take a seat at the table. Everyone else is sitting, and I’m left to sit between him and the little boy, across from Tessa.

“Dig in.” She says, no demand for prayer like I’ve seen on television. The boys go for it. I sit back and watch. Despite having just eaten, Marco piles his plate high with noodles and red sauce, leafy greens, and crispy bread. He doesn’t eat it though. Instead I watch him snag the plate in front of me and replace it with his own.

I frown down at the food he’s offering. Food that Tessa has made, and that I haven’t earned or paid for. I’ve stolen a thousand meals without regret, but this feels different. Uncomfortable.

It isn’t until everyone else is eating, Marco having filled the empty plate that he stole from me, that he turns back to find my plate untouched. He continues to dig in, watching me stare at the food. The urge to run fills me. I’ve always wanted food like this. I’ve always wished for nice meals served to me on glittering dishes. It isn’t the same as stealing half-assed sandwiches and microwave meals. It’s home cooked, and offered without strings attached. It’s what I’ve always wanted. Now all I want is to vanish.

“Eat.” I turn to him, his fork pointed at me this time. I want to say I’m not hungry. I’ve already had two sandwiches after all. They were nothing compared to the dish before me. The food smells like heaven, but still I’m hesitant. I look up to find Tessa watching me with concern. I remind myself I have to fit in if I want to get out without any suspicion.

I pick up the fork and sink it into the pasta, swirling it around. I think of a movie I once watched in a cold room with broken toys and the smallest television I’ve ever seen. I didn’t see the whole thing. I came in when the woman with a tail gained legs and stayed long enough to see her using a fork to brush her hair. I hadn’t understood it, and still don’t. I don’t even know what the movie was called, but I know how that girl feels.

I pull the pasta up to my lips, steam rising off of it. I wait until it’s cool enough. I know better by now than to burn my mouth just because my hunger outweighs my patience. It usually does.

It’s salty, and sweet. Acidic, and the taste of tomato covers everything. The noodles are soft, better than I could ever have made. They’re long too, and I have to suck them up to get everything into my mouth. I reach for the napkin to my right on instinct. I’m going to make a fool of myself with the red sauce no matter how careful I am. The button-up I’m wearing will no doubt end in a stained mess. I’m glad I didn’t have to use my own money to buy it.

Tessa has gone back to her own meal, but Marco is still watching me. I continue to eat, shoulders hunched under his gaze. I try the salad next. It’s better than any pile of leaves I’ve ever eaten. The bread has an overwhelming salt taste, but it goes well with the sauce and I use it to scoop up the excess after watching Lawrence do the same. We eat in quiet. The only real noise comes from the scrap of forks on plates and the sounds that come from Jacob as he imagines his food to be a battlefield.

He goes quiet as well, after a while. He’s covered in red sauce with a noodle in his hair. He’s staring at me, just as Marco was before. He looks confused. I return his gaze, popping a bit of bread into my mouth as our staring match continues.

“I know you.” His voice is soft, tinged with childish awe. I jerk back, my fork dropping to the table. There is no way this child can know who I am, no matter how my hands are shaking. Everyone’s eyes are on us.

“Do you?” I ask.

“Mmm Hmm.” He nods, making a face at me. “I don’t remember where though.”

“Well.” I reply. There isn’t anywhere we might have met. There are too many years between us and too much lifestyle to account for. Unless he grew up in difficult foster families or waited in cramped offices for the next family, I doubt he’s ever seen me. “Maybe we were on the same plane sometime.”

“I’ve only been on two planes.” He says, shaking his head. He has a thoughtful expression, It’s too serious for such a young boy. He glances over at Tessa with a toothy smile. “Momma took us on both of them.”

“Jake, why don’t you go up and take a shower. You don’t want to go to bed looking that way.”

“I don’t wanna go to bed.”

“Disneyland.”

That one word causes the child to jerk up straighter, push his chair from the table, and rush through the hallways towards whatever room he’s picked for himself. I turn back to the table and they all have sad and contemplative expressions. I push around at my food, feeling just as out of place as before. These people have their own stories, their own secrets. I’m only here to intrude. I hope they have the sense to tell the owners once I’ve left. I can just imagine them trying to explain about the thief who took a pearl necklace, a pair of shoes, and all the silver I can carry.

“We’ll fix this.” Tessa says, and I look up to find her watching her husband with a sympathetic expression.

“I hope so.” He replies, moving away from the table. He grabs his empty plate and Jacob’s, moving to the kitchen with them. Tessa follows soon after.

“Jake’s had a rough life.” Marco’s voice doesn’t startle me this time. I wonder if it’s because I’m getting comfortable, or because he’s not trying to scare me. “So has Wren. They grew up without much, and even less after their pops died. Took three years for Wren to get Jake back after they took him into the foster system. Even when he tracked the kid down he didn’t have the cash to adopt him.”

“That sounds.” I pause. That sounds like heaven. A big brother looking for you for years and fighting to get you back. “Difficult.”

“I’d say.” His laugh is bitter. “Poor Jake, never been to Disneyland. Never been anywhere. Tessa and I, we’ve been everywhere. Her work drags her around the world and she drags me. Wren and Jake have no idea what it’s like out there.”

“Me either.” I reply without thinking.

“You don’t travel?” He’s surprised, and I have to wonder how I’ve managed to pull off the too-rich-to-be-questioned persona so well.

“I meant Disneyland.” I laugh, trying not to shift my eyes away. I know the tells of a liar by heart. I’ve had them pointed out to me by police and foster parents and thrift store clerks. “Of course I’ve traveled.”

If by traveled you mean hitchhiking from mansion to mansion robbing everyone blind to make up enough money to settle down and live a normal life. I cannot wait until I’ve got enough. I’m so close. Then again it feels like I’ve been really close for a long time now.

I haven’t actually looked at the prices of houses lately. I’m sure a few dozen Rolex and black market diamond earrings will pay for a small place if I pawn enough and avoid too many costs. Everyone tells me how expensive things are, how difficult it is to pay rent or mortgage. I’m sure if I save enough I’ll be able to manage it without needing a job. Jobs require diplomas, and kids like me don’t get those.

“You’re kidding.” He scoffs. He looks more light-hearted than when he’d been thinking about the little angel boy never having been to Disneyland. I guess it’s only a tragedy when you’re a child and a funny anecdote when you’re an adult. “Well you have to come with us then.”

“No.” I say. I feel like I’ve had to say that a lot lately. Then again, I’ve had to talk a lot more than normal too. I don’t think I like it.

“Don’t fight me on this.” He says, shaking his head. “I will win.”

“It’s got to be expensive.” I say, biting my lower lip. I shouldn’t talk about money, not with these people. Still, I’m working towards a house, a steady life, and a day of sitting in little carts being flung through the air on probably-not-safe tracks isn’t worth giving up that dream.

“And staying here isn’t expensive?” He asks, pinning me with his gaze. “Look, if you’re so damn worried about it, I’ll pay the ninety bucks for you to go.
No one should miss out on the magic of Disneyland.”

Only ninety?” I ask, trying to hide my surprise at how they can all afford to go. The cab was an excessive luxury, and the twenty bills I spent on that was more than I ever should have. I see now why every single foster parent agreed Disneyland was a waste of money and time. I feel guilty for ever having asked to go as a child.

“For a day ticket. We’ve got a week pass, but if you aren’t sure you’ll like it I’d say stick with just one day and see how it goes.” As he speaks I realize I’m considering his offer. My laundry has been done for a good while, I should be gone by now. Instead I’m still sitting here, picking at the food on my plate and discussing amusement park ticket prices. This must be what it feels like to be normal. To have enough and still have money left over. “What do you say? Ready to meet your favorite princess?”

I don’t know what that means, but I don’t dare let anything else slip. I nod. I haven’t made a decision though. I still have a chance to leave before dawn. I could sneak out with the valuables and never look back. Or I can take this man up on his offer to try something I’ll never have the chance for again. I nod again, this time more certain. I can rob the place blind tomorrow night. It isn’t going anywhere, after all. In the meantime, I can take advantage of this man’s money and generosity.

“Awesome!” He stands, taking both our plates to the kitchen. I grab my freshly cleaned clothing and head back up the stairs to my room. A couple hours of sleep will make everything better. Maybe when I wake I’ll be able to come to my senses and leave this place.

I slip under the covers, leaning over to fix the radio alarm clock to four hours from now, and snuggle into the silk and feather-down. I close my eyes and the entire world fades away before I can even take stock of the day. They open again, to find Marco standing over me with a wide grin.

“Rise and shine, buttercup.” He says. I groan, turning to look at the clock. It’s way past when the alarm was meant to go off. It’s also way too early for any normal grown man to be looking that cheerful. “Time to meet the day.”

“Go away.”

“Are you not coming with us?” He sounds upset, like I’ve taken his favorite teddy bear or turned off his favorite show. He also sounds dramatic, like he’s faking it. “Cotton candy, The Mouse, the rides. The rides!”

“What?” I’m still half asleep, half dressed, and half ready to commit my first murder.

“Come on, don’t tell me you’ve decided not to go!” He shakes his head. “You have ten minutes to be out of bed and dressed, downstairs and ready to leave.”

He disappears, the door slamming behind him. I groan, laying back on the bed. He’s woken me though. I can’t sleep now that I’ve heard all of his excitement. The word infectious comes to mind.

I struggle out from under the comforter and into the walk in closet. I find another tank top, and a pair of shoes that say TOMS on the back. I have to wonder if that’s the man’s name, and why his shoes are so small. I grab a pair of shorts from my own pile, ones I got from a brownstone manor back in Louisiana. My hair is still braided and only needs a little straightening. Some of the strands are falling out, but I don’t dare undo the work that’s already been done. Heavens knows I couldn’t fix it myself.

I grab my pack, keeping about half of my clothing in there in case I have to leave on short notice. Taking everything will look suspicious. Still, I’m not willing to leave empty handed. I glance back at those pearls as I leave, berating myself for not having checked their authenticity yet. It’s the first thing I’ll do when, no if I get back. Right now, I have a part to play and a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I find that Marco, Tessa, and Jacob are standing by the door. Tessa is leaning over, her long brown hair hiding her face as she squeezed white gel onto her hand and spreads it over the rosy-cheeked child’s nose. She does not look up when she shoves the bottle into my hands. I take it, looking down at the label. New! Sport Performance, it reads. The number 100 is in large text below the words Broad Spectrum Sunscreen.

“Better put some on.” Marco says, his own hands full of the white liquid. “Doesn’t matter how tan you are, a full day of sun can ruin that lovely skin of yours.”

I nod, squeezing the foul smelling stuff into my hand and following his lead to place it everywhere my skin is visible. I’m grateful to find that it vanishes like lotion, even if the smell lingers. Marco steps forward, taking the bottle and moving his hand closer to my face. I do my best not to flinch. I allow him to rub it across my nose and cheeks. I’m vaguely aware of Tessa wandering off as he continues to touch every part of my face.

His fingers brush against my lips and my eyes fly open, not having realized they were closed. It doesn’t matter. He’s already turning away to add another layer of the sunscreen to Jacob’s ears. I shake my head and remind myself that soon I’ll be gone. Very soon.

Tessa returns, her husband in tow with a large mug that steams into his face and smells very much like coffee. I can’t help the distaste that covers my face. It brings back memories of the ashy, earthy substance I tried once at a foster home. It wasn’t good. I almost choked on the flavor. Wren raises his brow and offers the mug to me. I shake my head and he shrugs, taking another sip with a pleased groan.

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it the way Tessa makes it.” Marco says. I have a feeling that’s a running theme around here, that Tessa can make anything taste good. I furrow my brows and Lawrence offers the mug again.

Tentatively I take it, sensing how hot the liquid is. I am careful as I take a sip, and it still burns as it goes down. It tastes amazing compared to the cold, sludgy stuff I tried as a child.

“See?” Marco asks as I hand the mug back. A car horn honks from the drive and startles me. Everyone moves to leave, too busy and too excited to notice my panic. I follow, finding a yellow cab sitting just at the end of the steps. We pile in, Lawrence taking the passenger seat beside a man who appears a lot older and professional than my last driver.

Buckled in, I enjoy the feel of traveling without walking. It is novel for me to trust my travel companions not to be serial murderers who pick up hitchhikers just to kill them. The drive is short, and quiet. It’s clear that Marco is the only one who is really awake. He’s talking about something called a Magic Morning and I wonder what drugs he’s on. I remain quiet, tugging at the hem of my shorts and anticipating any problems that might arise.

“Kayla. Oh Kayla.” I glance up, realizing that’s my name. That’s the name I gave him. He’s staring at me and I shake my head.

“Sorry, what?”

“Let’s go!”

That’s when I realize the car is stopped, that we’re the only two sitting inside. I sigh, moving out of the cab and into the pre-dawn light. Marco closes the door behind him, and Lawrence is paying the man who drove us. Jacob is holding Tessa’s hand again. The other hand rubs across his eyes as he yawns.

I feel the urge to yawn myself, and give in. I watch Marco follow suite, and then Tessa. It makes me even more tired. I fight the urge to yawn again. I follow the group towards the gates, taking in the many colors and flags that decorate the outside. There are a few other people milling about, but not many.

“Preston Family.” Lawrence says to the man in the booth.

“Added an extra last minute?” The man asks. Lawrence nods. “Alright, everything seems to be in order. Here are your tickets, and have fun.”

I follow the group through the rotating gate, glancing around at the strange things that I find on the other side. There is a set of flowers that look like a creature smiling at us. Jacob points to it, identifying it as a famous mouse. I pretend to understand. I am out of my depth and ready to turn and run.

“…Mountain.” Marco is saying again, very insistent.

“Jake’s never even been on a coaster, and you want to start him on that?” Lawrence is shaking his head, still sipping at his coffee.

“We split up then.” Marco says. “Rides with long lines is the reason you get a Magic Morning pass. I’ll take Kayla, and meet you back here in thirty minutes or so.”

“Stop.” Tessa commands, and they both freeze. A flash of light hits my eyes and I close them, rubbing them with the heel of my hand. Once the spots have vanished I look up to find Tessa smiling down at a massive camera hanging around her neck. “Perfect.”

Before I can ask about it, Marco is grabbing my hand and dragging me down a pathway as though he’s been here a billion times. He probably has. I follow obediently, allowing Marco drag me off to an unknown attraction. We stop at the front of the line and another group falls in behind us. We’re let on quickly, strapped in, and then the world falls dark and fast and full of lights. We rise and drop without warning. I cannot help but grasp the man beside me out of panic, screaming.

All too soon, and after far too long, we come to a stop. Marco is laughing, looking down at my panicked expression. The urge to punch him comes to me again. He waves to the operator. Before I can protest we’re going through it all over again. This time I know what to expect though. There is less terror and more thrill. I think for a moment that he’s going to ask to go again, but he nods towards the bar and we’re released.

I stumble out of the ride and he catches me, laughing again.

“Oh man.” He says, breathless. “Nothing better than a terrifying roller-coaster to start off the day.”

“I’m going to puke.”

He laughs again, and seems to do so through the rest of the morning. As the park fills with others an hour later, we finally meet back up with his family. They’re also having more fun than they should by being flung around in a little cart. Marco has kept a firm grasp on my hand as he weaves his way through the crowds, and does not let go once we’ve found the trio we’ve been searching for.

“Breakfast.” Jacob demands, and we all follow suite. It isn’t long until there are other things and other rides he’s demanding. Everyone seems content to let him lead the show. He runs up to different costumed people, and Tessa takes pictures before demanding that we all join in. There are more rides than I could ever think to try in one day. I slowly start to understand why they’ve gotten a week pass.

It isn’t until we’re taking a lunch break that I realize I haven’t paid for a thing. Food, candy, pictures, souvenirs. All paid for by someone else. Guilt creeps in I know that I shouldn’t be taking so much from these kind people. I can’t tell them to stop though, without it seeming strange.

When the meal ends, Lawrence leaves a single bill on the table. I stare down at it, wondering how he thinks that single bill will ever cover the meal we’ve had. The waiter seems satisfied with the single paper stamped with a one-zero-zero, as though a single dollar will cover a meal for five people.

When we don’t leave, when we don’t rush from the restaurant like the gluttonous thieves we are, I feel the panic rise. They remain in their seats, as though waiting for someone to come back and demand they add more bills to cover everything. I’ve pulled this trick a hundred times, putting a single bill down for meals that are meant to cost twenty five or more. I’ve always felt guilty about this, knowing that a single bill is nothing compared to what I owe. It’s all I can give though, and this world is difficult enough without food costing so much.

I saw the receipt, I saw the fifty six dollars we owe. I have to wonder why they allowed the bill to rise so high if they only had a single bill left. They all look relaxed, picking at the leftover food on their plates. They’re smiling, laughing, planning where to go next. They don’t even care that we’re about to be thrown out. Even now I can see the waiter returning, that black folder he’d delivered the bill in is still in his hands. He wasn’t happy with the dollar. I move my hand to my wallet, where I still have eight dollar bills. Maybe he’ll take what I have and let us go.

Before I can pull it out of my pocket though, he’s setting the black folder down again. He leaves without a word. Lawrence opens it and pulls out another set of green bills with many other numbers. It doesn’t add up. I don’t understand how he can put down a single bill and end up with a dozen others. We ate a full meal and he end up with more money than he had before. Is this the trick that made these people rich?

I don’t have time to ask about it before we’re standing again. Leaving to continue our day of fun in the sun. Tessa is handing out water bottles and Jacob is darting off towards a station that holds mouse ears. Lawrence follows him, handing over more green bills and getting a few in return. I don’t understand. I can feel my confusion turning to tears of frustration and I want to find someplace to hide. I feel Marco’s hand in mine again and I tug it away. He holds tight. I look up to find a furrowed brow and concerned frown.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” I bite out.

They don’t need to know about this. They don’t need to know that the only way I make that much is by taking money from others, pawning off possessions of others just to get by. They think I’m one of them, one of the rich and elite. I’m not though. I don’t understand their magic trick to get more money. I don’t know how to live by their rules.

I force a smile on my face, ignoring the tears at the corners of my eyes as I ask where next. He leads me away from the trio trying on those ridiculous ears. We stop in front of a man with jars behind him and stuffed animals hanging overhead. More green bills are passed and then Marco has a few red balls in his hands. He steps back, throws the balls as hard as he can, and knocks down the jars. He makes it look easy. The man with the jars looks upset. He waves to the stuffed animals though, and Marco asks me which one.

I glance up at the large ones, but I can’t take those with me. I point to the small blue and yellow fish that had been in the same movie I’d been thinking of last night. Soon it’s in my hands. I hug it to me, wondering if it can make me feel better about the unfairness of being born poor and unlucky.

Marco takes my hand again and as soon as we’re close enough Lawrence is placing a set of ears on my head and Tessa is taking another picture.

We keep going, but my heart isn’t in it anymore. I want to be gone. I want to be away from these people who have such a beautiful life and an unbreakable love for each other.

I want to be on my own again. I don’t want to worry about where a little blond boy might run off to, or where a whiskey eyed man might lead me next. The darkness falls sooner than I expect it to. Then there are fireworks. I can’t enjoy them anymore than I ever have. They’re loud and sparkly lights in the sky. They signify celebration. I don’t have anything to celebrate.

I shiver, and soon find a jacket wrapped around my shoulders. I look up to find Marco watching the sky as though he hasn’t given me the only thing keeping him warm. As though he hasn’t given me the most incredible and most conflicting day of my life. He wraps his arm around me and I let him. I will not deny him the little warmth he might get from it. I think I hear the snap of the camera again, but it’s hard to tell with the fireworks and the exhaustion.

I let myself be lead from the park, matching Jacob in my stumbling through the streets towards the gates. Marco keeps me upright. I hold tighter to the cloth fish he won for me. We catch another cab and I fight the need to sleep.

I must have lost that fight. What feels like minutes later I find myself being woken. I drag myself out of the back seat, watching the rest of the group make their way into the house.

I should go now. I should try my luck with that money changing trick that Lawrence does and use the cab to get as far away as I can. Before I can decide the yellow car is driving away. I’m too tired to walk down the hill, let alone escape the man who is still holding my hand. I let him guide me into the house instead. It’s quiet in the hallway and the door snaps shut behind us. Marco isn’t leading me to my room though, he’s staring at a painting in the hallway.

“This one is really valuable.” He says after a while. I glance up at him, wondering why he’d care about that. Why he’d be telling me right now. He looks back at me, meeting my eye. “More valuable than the pearls upstairs. I’d take them both.”

“What?” I’m awake now.

“When you decide to run.” He says, shaking his head. He sounds sad. “I can see it in your eyes.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I deny. I pull away from him and he lets me.

“It’s not that hard to figure out.” He says with a roll of his eyes. “Well, it would be if I haven’t seen the signs before. Do you know how many wallets Wren stole today? More than you did, that’s for sure.”

“I, um. I don’t. What?” I stutter, still holding that stupid fish as tightly as I can.

“Makayla Toni.” He says, rolling the name around in his mouth. “Not your real name, you don’t respond to it. Jacob knew you from somewhere as well. He’s a bright kid. He figured it out after a while, woke up and rushed in to tell me last night. You made a big difference for him, you know. Stopped another kid from beating the crap out of him in Detroit.”

“I don’t remember.” I say. I do though, now that he’s brought it up. The kid was covered in dirt, his curls a real mess and his clothing ripped up. Those eyes though, are unmistakable.

“Mmhmm.” He says, and I know he doesn’t believe me. I feel more trapped now than I ever did before. I get the wild urge to toss the stuffed fish at him and run. It might aide in my escape. Probably not, though.

“Just don’t take the television, okay?” Marco says after a moment. “I need something to keep me entertained. This painting will be good though, and the keys to the Bentley are hanging on the garage wall, if you haven’t noticed. Should be worth a few hundred thousand. They usually are.”

“Are you asking me to leave?” I ask. I know he is, but I want him to say it. I want to be sure that he’s done being kind to me. I want to be on my own again.

“I don’t have to.” He sighs, running his hands through his hair. “You could stay though, you know, if you wanted to.”

“I can’t.” I reply. There’s no fighting the truth, not when he’s shoving it in front of me. “I want enough to get a house, to stop wandering for once. I can’t do that here. There isn’t enough.”

“Isn’t enough?” He scoffs. “Hun, that car will get you enough for a dozen little houses.”

“No.” I shake my head. That doesn’t sound right. I’ve sold a Bentley before, I’ve held the cash in my hands. A pile of dollar bills barely covers a few meals, let alone a fridge to keep it in.

“Um, yes?” He says, leaning against the low table that holds a few candles and a wedding picture. “How much you have now?”

“Eighty-two.” I say, wrapping my arms tighter around my fish.

“How many zeros after that?” He asks, as though the zeros will matter. Zero means there isn’t anything. No matter how much I fight that line of zeros keeps getting longer. Every time I check the accounts I’ve set up under various names the number gets just close enough to reaching a good point when I lose it all. Another zero is added and I’m back at square one.

“Nine, I think.” The debt is too much, I try not to think about it often. He whistles, eyes wide. I wince. I know it’s bad, but he could be nicer about it.

“Damn girl.” He’s shaking his head. “How long you been at this?”

“Twelve years.” I say with a sigh. I’m tired. I just want it over. I wish I could get to that little house on a hill and no worries left. The American dream. I don’t understand how other people do it. I suspect the secret of Lawrence’s money changing trick might be part of it. I’ve never had anyone to teach me how to do that.

“That’s a long time to be conning. You’re only what, nineteen? Twenty?” I nod. He shakes his head. “Sweetheart, if you want to settle down just do it.”

“I can’t.” I insist. Clearly he doesn’t understand. They hand out single bills and get so many more back. It doesn’t work like that for me.

“Well, with that much cash I’m pretty sure you could buy ten of these places and still have enough left to end world hunger, but suit yourself. We don’t have a place either, but I think that’s just because Tessa likes the travel and Wren can’t sit still. Keeps things interesting.”

What he’s saying doesn’t make sense. He’s turning away though, pointing back at the painting and then door to the garage. He vanishes around the corner and I’m left alone with my thoughts. I make my way up the stairs to the room I’ve claimed as my own. He thinks I’m going to be gone in the morning. He thinks that I’ll take everything but the television and vanish. They know something though. They have some secret to making money work for them. I can’t leave until I know the truth.

I climb into bed, holding that stuffed fish to my chest, and fall into a troubled sleep.

When I wake the next morning I am the only one up. Yesterday I would have taken this as my chance to finish the job. I don’t take it though, heading into the kitchen instead. I put together another sandwich instead, this time with a glass of milk. Then, I head into the den. I find Jacob already there, the television running a program with almost no sound. He looks around at me with a wide grin and moves from the floor to the couch next to me, snuggling in.

“Thank you.” He says, and I have a feeling it’s for more than just the bit of sandwich I offer him. I nod, the cartoon flashing in front of me without any explanation. I wonder for a moment if this rich family has saved any new episodes of my favorite show, but they don’t seem the type to obsess over a pair of reckless brothers hunting demons. I lose track of the cartoon very quickly and turn to the little boy instead.

“How much do you know about money?” I ask. He gets an upset look on his face, but turns the television lower.

“I hate homework.” He says. “Tessa says I have to learn it though. I’m having trouble with decimals and fractions, but Marco says it’s easy. He keeps trying to convince me that fractions and decimals can be the same thing, but I really don’t get it.”

“What about zeros?” I ask, sliding my shaking hands down the legs of the jeans I’m wearing. I don’t want this child to think I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I really have no idea what a decimal might be. “Zeros mean less money, right?”

“Are you trying to trick me?” He asks, pouting and folding his arms. “Cause you can’t trick me. Marco tried to trick me like that once. Mamma made him stop though.”

“You got me, that was a trick question.” I say, putting my hands up. I still don’t get it, and I don’t understand how this little boy has more knowledge regarding money than I ever have. I grab my wallet from the pocket I shoved it in this morning and pull out what’s inside. I watch the boy’s eyes go wide as I spread it all out. “Here’s another trick question, how much money am I holding?”

I have eight dollar bills with a one-zero-zero printed on each corner. The answer should be eight dollars. It isn’t. I continue to quiz him under the pretense of a test, separating the bills and demanding to know how much is there. Finally I ask the question, the thing I feel I might be missing.

“If I gave you one of these bills, what would you get with it?” He pauses to think about that, taking one of the bills in his hands and staring at it. Finally he comes to a decision.

“I’d buy Momma a pretty bracelet.” He says. “And if there’s anything left I’d buy some candy.”

Anything left.

Just like his brother, this little boy assumes that this one bill can get him so much. He thinks he can get more bills in return. He doesn’t think that he needs to hand it over with guilt, trying to get away with not paying the full price. He doesn’t feel the need to run when he scams someone by paying less than the number of bills they’re asking for. I feel that sad frustration rising in me again, along with a realization. I can’t believe I’ve been missing this, that for the past twelve years I’ve been fighting to survive when it appears I’ve had so much. Everything I’ve wished for, for so long, has been right here in my hands.

This time I can’t hold back the tears.

“Are you okay?” Jacob asks just the same way Marco had yesterday. It’s starting to be difficult to breath. I’m feeling an overwhelming amount of heat in my cheeks. Tears are sliding down my face and I have no way of stopping it. He doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t have to. I understand now, I can see the kind of fool I’ve been. It hurts, deep in my chest.

“Yeah.” I nod, gasping out the word. I put all but the one bill back into my wallet.

“Momma cries sometimes, but she says they’re happy tears.” Jacob offers and I smile. I’m not happy, I’m a far cry from happy. I feel like I’ve been scammed. The whole world has been laughing at me as I fought my way through things that could have been easier.

If Jacob’s math was right that cabbie took more than twenty dollars from me. Twenty hundred-dollar bills, and an extra as a tip. I’ve been over-paying my whole life and not a single person ever thought to stop and explain or give back what wasn’t theirs. The entire world has betrayed me, forced me to live in poverty. The foster parents, every one of them telling me I wasn’t worth the money they received and lying to me about the value of every bill they were given. Anyone could have explained it, and yet they didn’t.

I know now. I have a feeling I need to know more. What decimals are, and fractions. How to exchange those bills without being stolen from. I need things that this eight year old takes for granted, and it hurts. I can feel myself letting go though, even as the pain settles around my heart. I am so much more free, now that I don’t have to be afraid of the things I want. I hand the remaining bill to the little boy and the joy on his face is indescribable. He’s so happy to have something I thought had no value. I feel another wave of tears coming on.

I can hear someone in the kitchen. I wipe my tears away, taking a deep breath. Gathering my dishes I move into the kitchen with Jacob trailing after me. Lawrence is there, making his coffee. Tessa is at the stove making breakfast. I put the dishes in the washer and start it up, moving to sit at the table where Jacob is playing with his new money. I look up as Marco wanders in. Our eyes meet. He looks surprised to see me. He smiles though, and settles in at the table.

“Uncle Marco!” Jacob shouts, louder than needed in the small space. “Ms. Kayla made me do homework about money and tried to trick me. She gave me a hundred dollars though, when I got it right. She’s awesome. Can we keep her?”

I’m startled by the question. Tessa turns to smile at me, and Lawrence is sipping at his cup with a satisfied expression. Marco gives me a knowing look and I blush, wishing he couldn’t see through me so clearly.

Hope flares in my chest though, at the idea of keeping these people near. I’ve spent years fighting for things I thought could never happen. Wishful thinking has kept me warm through the winter nights and pouring rain. Now that I can have the things I’ve dreamed of for so long, I want more. I need more. I need him to say yes. He continues to hold my gaze as he answers.

“Yeah, kiddo. I think we can.”

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