atalie crouched by the unsteady piece of cardboard, leaning her upper body through the gap. Not feeling comfortable with a head-first fall that far, she backed out, turned, and stuck a foot through. Jason held her hands and she let her weight dangle. Squirming, she wriggled backwards until gravity took her through the gap. The sudden slip caught him off guard and he lost his grip. A box of old computer parts made for a lousy landing, and she spilled over backwards. Pain paralyzed her as her elbows and the back of her head hit the ground at the same time. She lay still as dancing lights sparkled above her. A moment later, she curled on her side moaning, with her arms wrapped around her head.
“You ok? You cut?” whispered Jason.
When the room ceased flashing, she sat up. Shifting from side to side, she ran a hand along each leg to check her jeans. Aside from being filthy with dust, she found only a small tear. “Yeah, just cracked my fucking head on the floor. Thanks for letting go, dick.”
“Uhh, sorry. I’m going out front with the others. Just find the door and let us in. Hurry!”
Natalie stood, looking around at a small basement. Shoplifting had been one thing―now she found herself inside a house which did not belong to her. This was serious. This was juvenile hall. Boxes of old junk sat stacked atop some kind of game table, ping-pong, air hockey, whatever. She took a tentative step around the pile, making uneasy faces at a washer and dryer that looked older than her. Exposed wood overhead had wires set off on tiny porcelain nubs caked with dust. She stopped breathing, terrified someone upstairs would hear her. Minutes passed without a sound.
Nobody is home. Come on, you can’t just stand here. You just broke into someone’s damn house.
She flicked her arms, pulling her sleeves down over her hands. Beyond the ancient appliances, a wooden stairway led up to a narrow door. Holding her hands over her face, she crept to the bottom and peered up at the speck of light coming through the keyhole. The sight of the door hit her as a reminder she’d broken into someone else’s house; the urge to throw up flipped over in her gut. The police warned her once for shoplifting and arrested her twice after that. Fortunately, her father had some sway with the department and they were sympathetic.
“Next time, I’m gonna leave you there overnight… or longer,” screamed Mom in the back of her mind.
Next time… If I get nailed here, I’ll do more than one day.
The night she got arrested had been terrifying enough when the police only took her home and yelled at her. At least they took the cuffs off before Mom saw them. The idea of going to juvie almost left Hot Pockets on the stairs in front of her. She’d gone too far to dwell on that, already standing in a stranger’s basement. The time to say no came and went about five minutes ago. Come on, Nat. Who calls the cops to say someone stole their cocaine? Wait, some people are that stupid. Swallowing hard, she eased her weight into the first step. One by one, she weathered the horrendous, loud creaks on her way to the ground floor.
Manipulating a brass doorknob with sleeve-covered hands frustrated her just short of the point of screaming. No way in hell would she touch anything with her bare hands. They must be going crazy outside, wondering what the hell I’m doing in here. She squeezed harder, the navy blue wool slid over without grip. She grumbled. I look like such a tool. Street punk in a Macy’s coat, really. Natalie wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there. Whining, she squeezed the knob again, twisting her entire body around in a concerted effort to turn it.
When it opened, she stumbled into a tiny kitchen. The scent of recent Mexican cooking wafted through the air, concentrated around dishes piled in the sink. She nudged the basement door closed with her boot and cringed as it clicked. Ignoring another door that led out to a cramped yard, she edged past a plain oval table toward the interior. As if tiptoeing over a minefield, she scrunched her shoulders and went through an archway into a dining room.
On the wall to her left, a blinking green light made her turn. The flashing came from a white box with a small LCD screen bearing the words ‘Fault 00C.’ That doesn’t look like a thermostat. Oh, shit! Shit… shit… shit… From the back of the dining room, the front door was visible past a stairway along the right-side; most of the rest of this floor consisted of open area divided by a wide arch, as if someone knocked out the wall between living and dining room and left a few inches of it as a marker. As soon as she saw the exit, she sprinted for it. A throw rug on polished hardwood took her feet out from under her, and she rolled sidelong into a bookshelf.
Her collective of friends on the front stoop enjoyed a communal wince at the noise; a few whispers of ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ made it through the paralytic pain. Fear of Traci being wrong, that someone was still here and she’d woken them up, got her to her feet. Fear of the flashing light got her moving. She unlatched the door, pinching it through her sleeves. Kevin yanked it open and dragged her out onto the porch.
“For a little bitch, you make a shitload of noise.”
“Sorry.” She sounded snottier than she intended. “Who puts a fucking Oriental rug on hardwood without a pad? Shot right out from under me.”
Yeah, I sound like a street kid.
He hauled her down two steps. “You stay right here. You see anything weird, you come running in and warn us. We go out the back.”
Her eyes grew wide with urgency. “Hey, there’s―”
Kevin shoved her out of the way, sending her over the porch railing. The stone to the gut knocked the words right out of her, and nauseous guilt kept them gone. Jason patted her on the butt and winked. Before she could breathe again, the lot of them had disappeared inside, pulling the door closed behind them. Trembling, she pushed herself up off the railing and meandered onto the sidewalk, cupping sleeve-covered hands over her mouth to warm icy fingers. A lone taxi drove past; she turned her face away before the headlights hit her.
She tasted meatball Hot Pockets again.
What am I doing? Dad can’t make this go away. Even if Rosario is a drug dealer, this is still B&E. From fear, she could resist the shakes. From cold, she could resist the shiver. From both, she succumbed.
Would he even bother to try?
A thud came from the second floor window. She drew a sharp breath, tasting the basement dust from her coat. At least she muffled the yelp. Natalie leaned against the stone railing, gazing at the shadows adrift in the windows. This sort of thing felt much more exciting on TV; being in it sucked.
Nat… They wanna give you drugs. They wanna get you messed up so you drop your pants and they all take a turn. They are going to get you put in jail. She managed a snarl, thinking about her mother. Her nerves came under control, and she stopped shaking. Serves you right, Mom.
Glimmering red and blue lights invaded the dark one block down. Her legs went to jelly. Silent alarm. She took a step back, thankful the building they chose was right next to an alley. Before the police car nosed around the corner, she bolted into the night. Natalie did not think about where she was going―she had no idea.
Blind with panic, she ran from alley to alley and into a street. She raced past more apartments and one or two people out wandering at that hour. She ran until she collapsed in a wheezing heap on a bus stop bench.
Her lungs burned. Steam wafted from her hair. Fire rippled through her legs. She leaned forward, hugging her knees and coughing. After a few gagging breaths, she sat back and wiped her eyes. Natalie’s heart stopped when a policeman shone a flashlight on her face.
“You alright, kid?”
She slumped forward and hurled all over her boots.
He patted her on the back, noting the smudges of black lipstick on her face. “What happened? Did someone try to take advantage of you? What were you running from?”
Natalie stared at him mute, petrified at the guilt that had to be radiating from her eyes.
“Calm down, kid. Take a few breaths. Tell me what happened.”
She shrank into herself. “N… Nothing, officer. I got into a fight with my boyfriend. He kicked me out of his car when I wouldn’t fuck him.” She cringed at throwing that word at a cop. “I… uhh, don’t know where I am.”
“Did he assault you? Make you do anything you did not want to do?”
No… yes. “He just kissed me.” She dabbed genuine tears with her sleeve. “I didn’t wanna go all the way, so I ran.”
The officer nodded. “Do you need a ride home?”
“A ride to my Mom’s…”