roken glass crunched underfoot; every third step, her foot slipped to one side or the other almost sending her to the ground. Natalie stumbled through the alley behind the others, struggling to keep the pace demanded by the hand around her wrist. The clamor of boots on the wet pavement made her feel as if the eyes of the entire city fell on her. Something bad was in the air tonight, something worse than ripping off the corner store or pinching a Beemer for a joyride. Wet brick and fire escapes, highlighted in moonlight, passed overhead; she ran through the shadows to a part of the city she had never been.
In time, the pack slowed to a quiet walk and came to a halt just shy of where the glow of streetlamps invaded the alley. Natalie covered her mouth with her left hand, both to shield herself from some awful smell in the air and to quiet the sound of her breathing. The others leaned against the wall of an old brownstone. Each time a car went past, she froze as if the driver might hear her over the sound of his engine.
What the hell am I doing here? Mom is gonna lose her damn mind if I get caught.
Jason, despite his size, had a boyish face that made him seem less like a criminal than the rest. If there was any of this lot of misfits she trusted, it would be him. Most nights, he had a harmless, urgent look to him that felt at odds with everything the others were doing. Tonight was no different. This was, however, the first time he had squeezed the feeling out of her hand. She tugged at her arm, wanting to sink into the cover of darkness against the building.
He thinks I’ll run.
Kevin, white-painted face aglow in the streetlights, shot a hard look at those assembled. Natalie cringed inside, trying to evade his glare. The last time he had that glint in his eye, he almost stabbed some kid from Long Island. He peeked out of the alley, looked around, and came back pacing.
“Yo, where’s Etan?” Cory emerged from a sunken stairwell on the sidewalk, as calm as if he owned the basement apartment. He paused at the top, a red glowing dot brightened in front of his face for an instant before he entered the alley through a cloud of cigarette smoke. “He was supposed to be here.”
Everyone tensed at his sudden appearance; a few knives got put away when they realized who it was. Natalie shivered. Cory had a deep voice that sounded ten years older than he looked, the kind of voice they use to sell stuff on TV. He took another drag, laughing the smoke into a cloud. The collar of his long, dark coat flapped up against the back of his neck in the breeze; his eyes stood out against his dark face. He was either going for Wall Street or Blade.
“He’s in fuckin’ Jersey, trying to score some rocks. We need a cash infusion.” Kevin tapped his fingers on his arm as if prepping a vein.
Natalie flattened against the wall, heart pounding. She looked at Kevin, at his shitty impersonation of The Crow with spiked hair. Jason had the face paint too, but he skipped the overdone bit around the eyes. Cory frightened her more; he never liked her, too young, too white, too Jewish.
Jason pressed her into the cold brick, kissing. The smell of his makeup teased her anxiety into full-blown nausea. Neck, cheek, lips. Hand on her shoulder, down her side. She stood stiff as a mannequin, palms flat against cold stone.
“What’s wrong with you, Nat? You need some E? Relax, girl. It’s not like Rosario’s gonna call the police coz we hit his stash.”
“No… If my mo―” A loud wooden bang from the street made her jump. She buried her face in Jason’s chest, trembling.
“Jay, man. You don’t got the green, man. That scrawny little JAP can smell your poverty.”
Natalie gave Cory the finger. “Fuck you, Blade.”
Her trembling lofted audible in her voice. Again, the group laughed.
“No thanks,” said Cory. “If I’m gonna bite on jailbait, it’s gonna have a shape. Ain’t suckin’ on four-to-ten for some flat-ass white bitch that thinks she’s street.” He whirled on Kevin, pointing two fingers. “No tits, no ass… shit, she wouldn’t know what to do with this monster.” He gestured at his crotch.
For an instant, she thought he went for a gun and gasped. Then she wanted to die of embarrassment.
Cory made a dismissive ‘pff’ sound, sidestepping. “Shit, man. Why the fuck you even bring her here? Bitch is gonna be nothin’ but trouble. She ain’t even real.”
Kevin leaned at him with a scowl. “You were a scared little punk ‘fore you stole that Brooks Brothers coat.” Cory glared. “Etan wants her to get her hands dirty. Gave her a choice of bendin’ over or pull a job, and she’s stiff as a rod. She ain’t wanna put out, she’s gotta do something serious.”
“You think I had to steal this?” Cory pulled at the lapels of his coat as he stepped up on Kevin. “None of you motherfuckers knows a damn thing about distribution.”
Natalie folded her arms and shivered into the wall, ignoring the continuing argument. I’m no whore, I’m not gonna be another Traci. I’m not like Mother. I can do this. Just stealing drugs from a drug dealer, not like anyone’s gonna get hurt. Maybe they’ll respect me if I―
Jason ran a thumb over her bottom lip, no doubt removing a smudge of his black lipstick. “Relax, kid. No one’s home. We’ll be long gone before the cops even know what happened.”
Natalie met his gaze, calmed by the image of a gothic prince staring down at her. The look her mother would give her if she showed up with face paint and black lipstick would make just about anything worth it. All she had to do was find the nerve to actually do it. “Cops got me twice at the mall already, if this goes―”
“It won’t.” Jason winked. “Traci babysits for them, knows they’re out of town this week and right where they keep the shit. Dude’s got two pounds. Word is he’s the source for his whole damn brokerage.”
Jason laughed. “And they got the money to get the good shit.”
Kevin stepped over and wadded her shirt into a fist, then lifted her on tiptoe. “Look, kid. This is big-girl time. You wanna go home to your mother, do it now before we get started.”
She punched him in the gut.
His lip curled into a grin. “Cute.”
Her boot scraped on glass as she shifted her weight.
“Any part of your leg comes within six inches of my junk, your face and that wall are gonna be good friends. We copacetic?”
Natalie glared. “Yeah… asshole.”
He let go; she stepped back and adjusted her shirt.
“Dude, what’s your problem?” Jason got between them.
Kevin shifted his eyes. “Just a bad feeling. She won’t put out, won’t touch any shit, got trashed on two drinks, and almost coughed herself puking when she tried weed.”
“What the hell is wrong with you? She’s no cop.” Jason laughed. “She’s a kid.”
Natalie stepped up on Kevin. “Why do you think criminals always get caught? Coz they get fuckin’ high and then do stupid shit.”
“Cut her a break, she’s thirteen.” Jason pulled her back.
“Traci knew her way around a dick pretty good at that age,” said Ernesto, the grin of a fond memory on his face.
Corey made a dismissive wave. “Yeah, but that bitch from Jersey, not uptown like this J―”
“Something’s fucked.” The tip of Kevin’s finger hovered at her nose. “She’s just usin’ us to piss off mommy and daddy. She don’t wanna be here, just wants to be seen here.”
A boy leaning on the other wall stepped into the light. “Etan said it was time to―”
“Alright, everyone just shut up.” Kevin spun with enough force to flare his leather trenchcoat. He pointed at her again, then the street. “Since you’re still a child, you get the easy job.”
Natalie bristled. Indignation did little to trap the butterflies in her gut.
“Your skinny ass is goin’ through the window and lettin’ us in.”
“It’s clear,” said Lucas, from the street.
The others moved around front, leaving her and Jason alone in the dark. I’m gonna throw up. She shivered, huddled against the wall as he attacked a street-level window. The taste of freezer-burned meatballs and cheese came back. Natalie cringed each time his boot hit the glass, every crunch felt like it hit her in the stomach. Jason scraped his foot across the bottom to chase away the last of the shards and covered the lower edge with sheets of cardboard from the dumpster.
“You’re up, kid.”
Natalie wiped a line of bile from the corner of her mouth, and approached the window where she sank into a squat by the small opening. The butterflies got bigger as she peered into a half-basement full of dusty things covered in cloth. With one shaking hand on the cardboard, she slid her head through the gap and looked around. The floor waited about six feet down. It was dark, scary, and the opening was a tight squeeze, even for her.
“You sure you wanna do this?” Jason held her hand.
She peered into his eyes, closed hers halfway, and kissed him. No. “Y… Yeah.”