BJ sat on the blanket on the floor with her little seven year old brother Todd and looked at the last of their food. There was a half empty bag of white corn tortilla chips in front of him and he was pulling one chip out at a time, chewing it up slowly. She’d told him if he ate slowly, it would trick his stomach into thinking it was fuller than it was. She had read it somewhere.
She was scared. It had been two weeks since their friend Ian left for a meeting with the gang they provided stolen cars for and he hadn’t come back. What little money they’d had left she’d stretched out for as long as she could and now there was nothing left.
She could approach the gang and ask for help, but feared what their response would be. Ian hadn’t allowed her direct contact with them: she could help him steal the cars that he gave to the gang for payment, but not be around them. He had told her he didn’t trust them: he hadn’t given her details, but she figured it out herself. They knew she existed, but not where. Being twelve and on the streets, BJ new what happened to girls who didn’t have a protector and she had no desire to be raped or forced into prostitution by the older boys. She had no idea what’d they do to Todd and didn’t want to think about it.
At the thought, she fingered the knife she had on her belt that Ian had given her. He’d spent the last several months showing her how to use it so she could better protect herself and Todd.
She took a drink of her water. They’d scrounged some bowls, plates, glasses and utensils from the dumpsters behind nearby restaurants. They didn’t care if they were chipped or bent. The house they had hidden in the last few weeks was empty but still had running water. She knew they couldn’t stay forever: eventually, someone would realize the water bill wasn’t being paid and come out to turn it off. If that person saw them, they’d call the police and her and Todd would end up back in the orphanage, where scary men came in the middle of the night and children disappeared.
She didn’t want to think about the orphanage and why she and Todd had been in it. The very idea of having to go back to it made her sick to her stomach.
Todd stretched his hand towards her with a chip in it. She absently took it, put it into her mouth and chewed.
She did have one option that she hadn’t shared with Todd. It was risky.
Ian wasn’t happy working with the gang, but they hadn’t had much choice if they wanted to stay out of the orphanage. One night, while looking for cars to steal further away from their hideout, he’d come across a garage run by a group of drag racers. He’d started hanging around, watching them. Eventually, one of the men had pulled Ian over to talk to him and Ian had somehow become an unofficial mascot.
Thinking the association might be a way to get out from under the gang; Ian had brought BJ and Todd with him one day and introduced them to the group. They group had been amused by BJ’s interest in cars and Todd’s interest in their computer designs.
The man in charge had called himself Carzilla, Car Z for short, and even though the name was scary, he’d seemed nice enough. If she stole a car, would he be willing to act as a go-between with the gang for a cut, or would he be the one to contact the police on her?
“Todd, I need to go talk to Car Z,” she said and her brother smiled one of his rare smiles.
‘Can I come?’ he signed. He enjoyed watching them work on their cars as much as she did.
“Not this time. I need to talk business.”
Todd cocked his head at her as he chewed. ‘I can give them my helpless look,’ he offered. He then showed her the look, which made her smile. Todd was a cute boy with his blonde hair and gray eyes and was very good at looking innocent. Just because he was mute and seven didn’t mean he didn’t pay attention to everything happening around him. He had taken to the boxing Ian had taught him and memorized the knife moves Ian had taught her.
They had used that cuteness to their advantage when they’d first been on the streets. All Todd had to do was bat his eyes and point at the white scar on the front of his throat to get a few coins or even a dollar bill handed to him. Until someone wanting to help beyond giving him some change called social services, that was.
“I don’t want to corrupt you,” she told him, not wanting him to do that ever again. They’d been on the streets long enough for her to know Todd’s cuteness attracted just as many crazies as her being a girl did.
‘What does ‘corrupt’ mean?’ he asked.
“Look it up in your dictionary.” Todd stuck his tongue out at her. Even though they were living day to day, she had insisted on sharing what she had learned in school with him and required him every day to find a new word in the dictionary she had scrounged and study it. She did the same and corrupt had been the word she had studied two days earlier.
“I’ll be back in an hour or so. You’ll be okay?” She asked, actually not comfortable with leaving him alone. Every time she’d left him alone since Ian disappeared, she’d been afraid something would happen. “You know how to hide if you have to.”
Todd nodded and showed her he did. He concentrated and BJ felt her eyes unfocus as he blended in with the blanket and walls to the point she had trouble seeing him. It was an ability they both had and it had saved their lives several times in the last two years.
BJ wasn’t sure how they did it, but making themselves camouflaged with their surroundings had started out as game when she was eight and Todd three. They used to hide in plain sight from their parents and were only given away by their giggling.
“I’ll be back as fast as I can,” she promised and pointed at the bag. “Don’t eat all that. It might be dinner.”
Todd reappeared and very carefully rolled the open end of the bag together to close it, placing the bag in the box off to his right, where they kept their food in case they had to get out fast.
BJ leaned over and kissed the top of his head. Todd pulled back and gave her a yuck face look. He stuck his tongue out again and mimicked making a gagging noise.
“I’m your big sister. I can kiss your head if I want,” she said and left the house after making sure no one was about to see her.888
BJ hid outside the garage until she was sure all the customers were gone. Car Z did a Pimp Your Ride business that helped to finance his drag racing interest. Ian had insisted they never let the customers see them. Some weren’t the kind of people they wanted to mix with.
She entered through a side employee entrance door and looked about. She immediately spotted Car Z’s niece, Luca, sitting on an empty oil drum across the garage, swinging her legs. The other girl was BJ’s age, with dark hair, a tanned complexion and big brown eyes. She saw BJ and jumped down.
“Where you been?” Luca asked, walking over to her. BJ wanted to groan. She hadn’t wanted to see Luca. Luca had no idea what she and Ian had to do to survive. She thought they just lived nearby and were bored like her, so the garage was a fun place to hang out.
“Busy,” was all she could think to say.
“Where’s Chas and Bobbie?” Luca looked towards the door. They had all used fake names in the garage. Ian was Chas, Todd was Bobbie and she was Annalisa.
A pang of fear and growing grief tugged at BJ’s heart. Knowing the chances of Ian returning after two weeks was slim, but having to face it in the presence of someone else, made it more real.
“Chas is sick and Bobbie is keeping him company,” she responded and cleared her tightening throat.
“Had to get away from the guys, huh?” Luca winked and linked her arm with BJ’s. “You outta see the car Uncle Z’s been working on. It’s so cool.” Luca pulled her through the garage to one of the work areas and stopped in front of an old sedan that was painted with a neon shade of purple and sparkles.
BJ forced herself to show interest as Luca told her about all the add-ons going into the vehicle. She even ‘wowed’ the purple leather interior. The owner definitely had a thing about purple.
“Is Car Z here?” BJ finally asked, her nervousness reaching a crescendo. “I need to talk to him.”
“Yeah. He’s in his office.” Luca led the way and BJ followed, trying to find something to do with her shaking hands. She didn’t have a choice, she kept telling herself. She had to take care of Todd.
Car Z was in his office and he looked up from his cluttered desk when she and Luca walked in.
“Hi Anna. How are things going?” The big man asked. He had a shaved head but bushy, brown eyebrows and wore T-shirts that were too tight for his muscular chest.
“Not well. Can I talk to you?” she asked, wringing her hands I front of her. Z frowned.
“Are Chas and Bobbie okay?” he asked, noticing they were absent. She looked at the cement floor. “Luca, would you give us a minute?” Z asked, rising from the desk. Even his legs were muscular, straining the seams of his jeans.
The other girl frowned unhappily. “I wanna hear,” she said petulantly, but Z gave her a stern look.
“Luca,” Z admonished. The girl snorted and left the room. “And close the door!” Z called. She stormed back over and slammed the door behind her.
Z walked around the desk and guided BJ to the nearest chair. He sat down beside her. BJ kept her eyes on the floor. Now that she had his attention, she was afraid to say what she’d come to say.
Z had never talked down to them, never treated them like children. He reached over to lift her chin. “What’s wrong?” he asked gently.
She suddenly felt like she was going to cry. She could feel her eyes burning. Ian really wasn’t going to come home.
“Anna, you can tell me,” Z said as the tears spilled over.
“Chas went to meet with the gang and didn’t come back.” She reached up to wipe at her tears.
“Two weeks ago.”
Z sighed heavily, his jaw tightening. “I told him to stay away from that crowd. I told him they were bad news.”
BJ sucked in a deep breath and shuddered. “They helped us.”
Z’s stare tightened. “Only as long as it was in their best interest to do it.” He released her and rose, looking down at her with concern. “There’s been some crazy shit going on with that gang the last few weeks. Some outsiders are taking territory. Rumor has it Caesar disappeared.”
BJ was shocked. Caesar was the leader of the gang. “Who’s in charge then?” She wiped the rest of her tears away. It was a good thing she’d come here instead of seeking out the gang, if Caesar was no longer in charge.
“One of the new people.”
“Do you think Ian got caught up in that?” BJ felt as if ice water was running in her veins at the thought. Z nodded. If Ian had been present during a takeover, he would have been obliged to assist Caesar along with the rest of the gang.
“Are they still trading stolen cars?” she asked, throwing it out there. Z frowned, crossing his arms over his wide chest as he regarded her.
“Why?” he asked hesitantly. Now that she’d opened the can of worms, she dove in. She knew there was a chance she would lose any respect or concern he might have had for them or he would call the police or social services. She squared her shoulders.
“We used to supply them with cars for money. We’re broke and I’m afraid to approach them myself.”
Z’s blue eyes widened and he stared at her, opened mouthed, until he could find his voice.
“You kids have been stealing cars and selling them to that gang?” he asked in shock. BJ nodded. “Are you crazy?”
“We didn’t have a choice!” she insisted. “We were starving!”
Z turned away, his whole posture that of a man needing to hit something. His hands fisted and opened at his sides as he paced the room, not looking at her. BJ cringed, afraid he was going to turn the anger she could tell was brewing on her.
“Jesus, Anna.” He turned back to her, reaching up to rub his hand over his shaved head. He walked over and crouched down in front of her, putting him at here eye level. “I don’t want you having anything more to do with that gang.”
“But we’re out of money and food!” She felt her eyes stinging again.
“What were you expecting me to do when told me this?” he wanted to know. She hitched in a breath and shrugged.
“I was going to ask you to be a go-between. I can steal a car and you could take it to them for me?” She knew it sounded horrible and he didn’t look impressed with her idea.
“How many cars have you stolen?” he wanted to know. BJ had to think for a moment.
“We’ve stolen seventeen,” she said and he covered his eyes with his hand.
“Anna, God.” He shook his head and lowered his hand. “I can’t do that.”
BJ stood, feeling as if she’d just been kicked in the gut. He wasn’t going to help them. She stepped away from the chair, her heart racing with a mix of fear and sadness. She had so much counted on his being willing to take the car to the gang for her. She stepped backwards.“Anna.” Z reached for her and BJ ran. She heard Z yelling for Luca to stop her, knew he was on her heels. She did the only thing she could think of: she blended with her surroundings to escape.