My feet pounded the pavement as I ran down the street. A warm pizza box bounced in my hands while my Converse crunched pebbles, empty soda cans, and discarded fast food wrappers. I probably shouldn’t be running. It wasn’t my forte. Any second, I was positive I would do a face-plant, and end up losing my first meal in days.
“Come back, you little thief!”
Thief? Okay, so technically I did steal a pizza, but in my defense, I was starving, and this was about survival.
The cook chasing me was bound to run out of steam soon. I hoped. The last thing I needed was to get caught.
Pushing myself, I bolted down Elm Avenue like my hair was on fire, dodging a couple walking their dog. I turned the corner and a gust of wind slapped me in the face. Damn. If this took much longer, my pizza would be cold.
“I’m calling the cops!” he yelled.
Go for it. Good luck finding me. I would take my chances and called bs on his threat.
I knew the difference between right and wrong, and stealing was wrong, but sometimes, you needed to break the law to live, or starve to death. And I wasn’t ready to die.
This wasn’t the first time I’d stolen a meal, and honestly, I doubted it would be my last. When I came across the restaurant earlier, I had stopped and glanced longingly at the filled booths, seeing the happy faces as the patrons stuffed their bellies full of garlic breadsticks, and deep-dish pizza. At that moment, I would have killed for a hot slice of sausage with extra cheese, loaded with tomato sauce. My stomach rumbled (angry with me), telling me I needed to find food sooner than later.
That’s when the plan had been born. Over the last few weeks, I’d become quite skilled at being invisible, and taking what I wanted. Wallets. Clothes. And pizza.
I had scampered down the pizzeria’s alley, seeing the back door slightly ajar. From inside, I’d heard voices and the smells of baked dough, zesty tomato sauce, and Italian herbs. Peeking around the door, I had spotted an open box with a fresh-out-of-the-oven pizza sitting on the end of a metal counter. All I had thought was Jackpot!
My triumph had been short-lived, unfortunately.
Looking left and right, I had tiptoed inside, keeping below the counter. There had been a guy opening one of the many ovens and another spinning a ball of dough in the air. Both of them had seemed too occupied to notice me. Quickly, I snatched the box and backed out the way I had come in.
“Hey!” a voice had called behind me.
I hadn’t bothered to look, and just started running, the pizza box tucked under my arm. It hadn’t been a very thought-out decision, but rarely any of mine were. Stealing wasn’t something I wanted on my record.
Hell. I didn’t want a record at all.
At just a few months shy of eighteen, I would be shoved into a foster home or juvie, and I’d rather live on the streets. My legs burned, and my lungs ached from the chill, but I pressed on, glancing over my shoulder to judge how much distance I had gained. Not enough.
For a cook, the guy was persistent—not that I knew a lot of cooks, just what I’d seen on TV, but most of them didn’t strike me as a long-distance running type of guys.
Just my luck that this chef would be the exception.
Taking the next right, I cut the corner sharply, and the bottom of my worn-out shoes skidded over loose rock. My hands flailed in the air as I lost my balance. Shit. This was it. The face-plant was imminent.
By an act of God, I managed to stay on my feet, keep the pizza in my hand, and regain my composure. Smooth move, Olivia. I took off down Oglesby Street.
“I better not see your face again!” the cook screamed, finally giving up. He stood panting at the corner.
Yes! Victory is mine.
A smile crossed my lips when I hooked a left around the corner, but I didn’t ease up on my pace for another five minutes and refrained from jumping in the air. Being homeless stunk, and I wasn’t just talking about my body odor. Being homeless in Chicago was plain insanity.
An icy breeze whipped through my hoodie, sending a thousand tiny pinpricks over my flesh. I huddled up against a brick wall, the smell of pizza stirring up hunger pangs that assaulted my belly.
I crouched in a corner behind a dumpster in an empty alley near the local college, digging into the pizza box with a sigh of pleasure. I savored the taste of sweet basil tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, burning it to memory. This was a moment I didn’t want to forget.
I swallowed, positive I’d died and gone to heaven.
When was the last time I had pizza?
I couldn’t be certain. Hell, I didn’t even know what time it was, what day, or if I would survive the night. What I did know was I was going to feast like a king and then find somewhere warm to stay before I froze to death. The boogers in my nose already had ice crystals forming on them.
On nights like this, it was hard to forget how my life had ended up so pitifully. It was never supposed to be like this, not for me, but fate had a way of throwing you curveballs.
Like the day I found out Mom was killed in a car crash. After she passed, her loser husband—not my father—had decided he no longer wanted a kid, especially an angry and lost one. Denny had his own life, his own plans, and those didn’t include me. Not that I cared. He was an asshat. I didn’t need him. That had been my mantra since the stepfather-of-the-year had kicked me out two months ago. I’d been on my own ever since.
My real father split when I was a baby. Mom sure knew how to pick them.
I didn’t need a daddy figure anyway.
My mother had been beautiful, silky honey hair that shone in the sunlight, curves that turned men’s heads, and aqua eyes that glittered like the ocean. Everyone had said we looked like sisters, twins even, but our personalities couldn’t have been more different. For all her flaws, I loved her immensely. We had been partners, best friends, and I missed her something fierce. She might have been flighty in love, but as a mother, she was everything a girl could ask for.
I was determined to not be so unlucky in love, which was why I planned to never fall into it. I was protecting my heart. Mine had bled enough.
After Mom’s accident, my life as I knew it was over, but I never imagined it would be this bad. I blamed my stepfather for everything. He didn’t even really qualify as one. The two of us never saw eye-to-eye. Mom had an older sister, but I knew very little about her and even less about my real father and his family. It was just me, myself, and I.
Those first few weeks after Mom passed were the worst. I’d never felt so alone in my life, and if it hadn’t been for my best friend, Staci, I don’t think I would have gotten through it. Staci and I were friends at first sight. Her personality matched her wild wardrobe, which looked like Katy Perry’s stylist had sex with Marilyn Manson’s makeup artist and Staci was the result. Her pink short hair, heavy eyeliner, black nail polish, pink boots, and tight jeans completed her everyday look, and yet she managed to appear adorable.
Staci had begged me to come stay with her, and as much as I wanted to, I knew her mom couldn’t afford to care for me. She had her hands full, working two jobs to support Staci, and her younger brother, Aiden. I refused to burden my best friend. If I could get a job and contribute, that would be another story, which was what I would do first thing Monday morning—job hunt.
And for tonight, I would just try to survive.
As I downed my second slice, a mouse scampered out of its hiding spot, and stared up at me. I swallowed my initial squeak with a bite of pizza. “Hey, little guy, you hungry?”
Breaking off a hunk of crust, I dropped it onto the ground. Pipsqueak scurried over, and grabbed the offering in his two tiny hands, nibbling with an intensity that I understood far too well.
“Not bad, huh?”
Holy shit. I’d been reduced to talking to the local street rodents. At least he had better table manners than Denny. I’d take a dozen mice over him any day of the week.
I polished off half the pizza—my first real meal in two days—my belly felt fully satisfied for the time being. Licking the last bit of sauce from my fingers, I stood up, gathering the other half of the pizza as a blast of wind bit straight into me.
Ugh. This sucks. I cursed Denny to seven different kinds of hell as I shivered my ass off, but I didn’t regret standing up to my stepdad. Screw him. He was a piece of trash.
Winter reared its ugly head, and the bone-chilling wind made me want to huddle forever in my hoodie, and never take it off. Leaning against the wall, my mind wandered to the days when I used to hang out with Staci. I missed her and her off-the-wall sense of humor. She worried about me… the only person who did.
Checking my phone I exhaled. No messages. It was hard not to feel unloved at the moment and utterly alone in the world. I didn’t expect her to blow up my phone every five minutes, but the occasional are you okay? text would be nice.
The coolness of the bricks reached me when I rested my head back, and glanced up at the charming, and historical Brentley University. Remembering the application I had completed to attend this school, it was hard to realize my dreams had been swept away. I had left it sitting on my desk at the house Denny now occupied alone. It was probably crumbled and in the trash now, just like my future.
Throwing my backpack onto my shoulders, I moseyed to the end of the alley, gaining a clear picture of the campus courtyard. It was sad, but I used to sit on the benches, watching the throngs of students come and go from the dorms and classes, picturing myself among them.
Someday, I promised myself. Someday I would go to college, but first I needed to figure out how to finish high school, and I couldn’t forget about that J-O-B.
A gaggle of giggles interrupted my drifting thoughts, and drew my attention to a group of college students whispering in a circle. I rolled my eyes, glad I’d never been one of those annoying girls, but still, curiosity got the best of me while my gaze followed theirs across campus.
Keeping myself partially hidden in the dark alley, I glanced at the parking lot, seeing a sporty black car. Leaning on the sleek vehicle was a tall, attractive man. His legs were crossed at the ankles, as he shot an award-winning grin at his fan club.
Leif Lexington. He had been a senior last year at my school and was smoldering hot with an ego the size of the Sears Tower. The pizza threatened to come back up. Guys like Leif made me sick. So what if he drove a stellar car, had perfect blond hair, and sexy scruff? I found it freaky. No one could be that perfect.
What a douche-sicle.
The clique of girls might as well drop their panties. Cringe.
Leif forked his fingers through his hair, giving it that messy, I-just-woke-up-like-this look that he probably spent hours perfecting. I swore I heard a chorus of sighs, even from my hiding spot.
The gag reflex started in the back of my throat. It was a train wreck I couldn’t stop watching, like reality TV.
One of his groupies got the lady balls to approach him, her heeled boots clattering on the pavement as she strutted to the parking lot. A seductive smirk coated her cherry lips. Leif reached into the back pocket of his tattered black jeans—that probably cost more than the entire wardrobe hanging in my old closet—pulled out a lighter, and a small red box of Marlboros.
How could they think that was hot?
With a flick of his thumb, the flame on the lighter caught, casting a soft glow over his flawless face, while he put a slim white cigarette into his mouth. He cupped the dancing fire with his hand, bending his face to catch the tip as he sucked in, sharpening his cheekbones.
If he could see me now, I doubted he would recognize me. I was repulsed to admit that at one time Leif had briefly dated Staci, which could account for 90 percent of my dislike for the guy. To this day, I still don’t know what my best friend saw in him, but I guess she had wanted to give dating Mr. Popular a shot, just to say she had.
As if his nose was itching, Leif’s sparkly silver eyes whisked to the alley, catching a glimpse of me staring at him. The corners of his mouth twitched. There was something aloof and pompous about the slight tilt of his lips. I jerked back, sinking farther into the darkness, and out of his eyesight.
Color heightened my cheeks. Crap. Had he seen me?
The last thing I wanted was rumors spread about me at school. Leif had a younger brother, and at my high school, gossip spread like cancer.
Worry ran through me. I need to find something better than this. Living on the streets couldn’t be my life.
The girl with mile-long legs reached Leif, taking his attention, but not before I caught the sneer on his lips.
I pressed my back against the wall, arguing with myself. Don’t do it, Olivia. Just walk away. But it was as if I was possessed. Turning against the brick building, I inched forward, taking another peek. Legs laughed at something Leif said, tossing her ebony hair over her shoulder, and then she placed a flirty hand on his chest.
What they were saying wasn’t clear, but it didn’t really matter; their body language said it all. Wariness held me back. Something in Leif’s gaze made me shudder. He was a tad too controlled. Edging along the wall, I moved farther away from the couple, no longer interested in taking a trip down memory lane, and what he had done to my best friend.
My gaze dropped to my phone for the umpteenth time—nothing new. I noticed the date was the winter solstice. In high school, I’d been fascinated with astronomy. The beginning of winter was here… and the beginning of death for everything else. The plants, the trees, all of it would become stagnant, and here in Chicago, winter wasn’t some little event; it lasted months.
A flutter drew my eyes to a shadowed corner near the dumpster. As I grew closer, I noticed it was just a discarded magazine, the pages flapping in the wind. My fingers grazed its pages when I bent down to pick it up. I could use some reading material—a form of entertainment to pass the long night ahead—but first, I needed to find a bathroom. That was one of the things you never thought about before becoming homeless—how difficult it was to do something as simple as pee.
Scooping up the gossip tabloid, a lock of blonde hair fell over my eyes, partially impairing my vision. I stood up and turned the corner, not thinking about where I was going, and smacked into a wall, spilling my pizza. I was always doing crap like that. Being graceful wasn’t one of my redeeming qualities.
Son of a bitch. The last thing I need is a bloody nose.