I hear the bass pumping out and into my soul like the pulse of the night, and I follow the scent of sex and alcohol down the streetlight lit cul-de-sac to where the music’s blaring. Another house party. They’re popular this time of year. Parents are away at their summer villas and bungalows, and teenagers get left alone to do as they please. Even if their parents know they will throw parties, they don’t care. They have the money to repair damages, to pay off lawsuits, to bribe police officers. As long as they get away from their surly kids for a couple of days or a couple of months, who gives a shit? I would make a killing tonight, and that’s a good thing. I’m down to my last couple of dollars again, and I wouldn’t mind a night in a hotel—a nice one at that. Hot water, thick towels, pillows for days. All I need is a good score.
These rich kids never watch their money. They aren’t careful because they don’t have to be. They don’t know an outsider is in their mix. I don’t look the part of homeless former ward of the state street punk, at least not yet. I know how to keep my hair just so, and my face clear, my teeth white. I never did get into anything like meth or hard drugs like that. I know how to shop—five-finger discount, baby. I know which brands are the best, and even if they’re only from secondhand stores, I know how to alter certain stuff so it looks designer. It’s always enough to fool my victims.
The party house has teenagers draped along the banister of the wraparound balcony and cars parked haphazardly on the meticulously groomed lawn. There’s a lot of older kids today—eighteen, nineteen, twenties—but that only makes me more hopeful. The older they are, the more money they generally have. Maybe I won’t even have to go inside, I think, already trying the door handles to some of the cars.
The third one pops open in my hand like a gift from the gods, and taking one swift glance up at the house, I slip inside the driver’s seat like I belong there. It’s early still, eight or nine o’clock. No one’s looking to go home anytime soon so it’s a pretty sure thing that I’m safe for now. Still I keep an eye out as I rifle through the compartment between the two front seats. I feel some bills, quickly stuff them in the oversized pocket of my baggy cargo pants. Even if they’re just ones, if I can hit ten or fifteen more cars, I might get enough for a shitty room somewhere. A nice room if I manage to hit a wallet.
The partiers are being safe tonight. I only get one more car before I realize I’ll probably have to try my luck inside. I count my score so far as I linger outside the front porch—six bucks, pathetic. Alright, Jaden, I tell myself with a sweeping gust of encouragement. No more fucking around. Time to hit the big bucks.
Unfortunately, for all the cars outside, the house isn’t too full. Maybe because it’s so big; six or seven bedrooms at least. Hell, I might just hang the night here—though I prefer the privacy of a room no one is going to barge in on and start having sex in.
There are kids on the couches talking, some of them kissing or taking bong hits. The place stinks like spilled beer. I grab someone’s drink from off the coffee table, vodka and orange juice. Not bad, must be the pricy shit. I slug it down. With a little bit of a buzz going on I gain some confidence. Before I know it I’m zeroing in on a target.
He’s drunk off his ass, belligerently arguing with another dude who’s trying to convince him to not to drive home drunk. But the wasted idiot doesn’t want to leave his car here. What an ass, I think to myself with a giant eye roll. Really, he deserves to have his wallet stolen, which is sticking out just a tad from the back pocket of his overly tight jeans.
Sauntering over, I make like I’m trying to get around them, and then accidentally-on-purpose bump into the drunk guy. Like a magician, my goal is to distract from what I really want to do by calling attention to anything else.
“Whoa, sorry,” I say, sweetly and surprised at the same time. “Wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”
The guy takes a second to register the situation, and then I feel his eyes focus in on me, as well as he can through his foggy beer goggles anyway. Either way, right off the bat he’s smitten. Low tops are always the best choice when trying to cause a distraction.
“Hey, is ‘k,” he slurs out. “Wasn’t paying attention myself. But you got my attention now, and let me tell you—you are beautiful.”
This is when his friend steps in, already slightly annoyed like he can see this getting out of hand quick. “Alex, c’mon. Leave this young lady alone. It’s time to go home.”
“He doesn’t have to leave me alone,” I say quickly, sidling up to Alex even though his friend is trying hard to get in between. “I think he’s kind of cute.”
The friend is looking at me suspiciously. Alex is still drooling and swaying sort of cockeyed from side to side. I know I have to make my move fast. His wallet is just inches from my grasp. Sure, I could get him to go upstairs to a spare bedroom with me, except I already know pretty well how fast a situation can get out of a hand when a guy twice your size expects sex while you only want a nice little hunk of change and no sex.
“I like the way you think,” Alex stammers with stars in his eyes, like he can’t believe his luck. He puts his arm around me then, rubs his hand aggressively up and down my back, squeezing and groping with no real rhyme or reason.
“Al, c’mon… enough…” goes his friend as he tries to take him by the arm and pull him away from me.
But Al won’t have it. He’s pissed now, and he lashes out suddenly, me still somewhat attached to his hip.
“Why do you gotta be such a cock block, Justin,” he’s protesting. The whole time I’m thinking this is it, this is it, this is it. My mind buzzes wildly like it always does when I’m about to go in for the kill. I put my own hand on Alex’s ass. I act like I’m just accidentally brushing against it during all the chaos of Alex trying to fight his friend, but what I’m really doing is pushing the wallet up and out of his pocket. Almost have it, almost have it. Now all I have to do is catch it as it slips out, and I’m outta here.
Only Alex jerks at just the wrong time, and the wallet smacks onto the floor. Despite everything going on, the party and the loud music, all three sets of our eyes land on it there: mine, Justin’s, and Alex’s. Somehow, miraculously, I’m closest to the wallet, and all within a nanosecond, I realize I have two options. I could either play dumb and do nothing, or play helpful and do something. With a gust of inspiration and the hope I can outrun these two jackasses, I light on the latter so quick it’s almost like there really wasn’t ever any other option at all.
“Oh, is this yours?” I ask as I’m bending down to pick it up. “It must have fallen out of your pocket.”
I straighten up and gesture like I’m going to hand it to Alex. He’s already reaching for it, waiting, mumbling something in an abashed way. Derp, derp, how did that happen. And then I move so fast I only get to see the stupid look of shock on his face for less than a fraction of a moment before I’m turning on my heels and I’m running. I weave in and out of drunk college kids, spilling drinks and ducking under arms. Where was the door again? How did I get in here? Fuck it, I’ll take the back way, disappear through the yards of the neighbors. Hopefully no one has a dog.
I’ve made it outside, the night air feels crisp and cool against my skin, overheated from adrenaline and the warm house. I’m still running. There are still people everywhere. I guess they’ve all been hanging out outside this whole time. Fuck, they have a pool.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. Pools mean fences. Where’s the gate? I can’t see anything through so many bodies, the only light coming from colorful Japanese lanterns that hang from the lemon trees like yellow alien orbs. And now there’s someone in the crowd yelling, “Stop, thief!” Oh, shit. I knew they’d be after me. I have to climb the fence.
I try to conceal myself behind a clump of bodies, grab a pool chair and drag it over to the fence. Before I know it I’m perched at the top; it’s a steep drop but my endorphins are high. I can take a little pain, and then I’ll be gone, swirling away like smoke into the darkness.
I collapse to the ground for just an instant, but then I’m up, scrambling, running. There’s a thick clump of trees in the distance, flowering and fragrant, I’m almost there. That’s my cover, my safety, my checkpoint. Keep running, Jaden. You have this. You have it.
And then I hear footsteps behind me, pounding and swift. “Stop right there,” yells a voice I recognize. It’s Justin. Alex’s friend. Fuck, what’s with this guy? Why is he being so loyal to a guy who was being such a drunk-ass idiot to him? Makes no sense. Keep running. He won’t catch you. Once I hit the trees, I’ll veer off, confuse him. He won’t catch me, he can’t. I’m too close.
Yet I feel his footsteps gaining on me, even though I thought there was a pretty big gap between us. And then I hear his breathing, not even heavy, but steady and quick. I know it’s over, but I won’t give up. I could pull the wallet from my pocket, throw it in his face. But I don’t, I keep running. I let him tackle me, fall up against me at the same time his arm circles around my chest, bringing me to the ground with him on top of me. And then I’m kicking mad.
“What the fuck?” I scream. “Get the fuck off me! Get off! What the fuck is your problem?”
“What’s my problem?” I feel his weight lift off me, even though he continues to hold me down with my hands pinned to the small of my back while I writhe in the prickly grass and dry California desert dirt. “What’s your problem? You just robbed my little brother. Or should I say, tried to rob.”
Little brother. All of a sudden, the earlier scene in the house starts making sense. Justin wasn’t Alex’s friend, but big brother watching out. Funny, they didn’t really look all that similar, Justin tall and athletic with a shock of blond hair, while Alex had been short and stocky and dark, Latino maybe. Maybe someone else at the party had called him to come pick up his drunk-ass little brother. Maybe this is a common theme in their lives.
Whatever the dynamic between the two of them, it certainly is ruining my life right now. I was this close to a motel room and a decent meal, assuming Alex had a bit of cash on him, and now I’m probably going to spend the night in lockup. I can already tell Justin’s the type to want to teach me a lesson and make sure justice is served.
“Just get the hell off me and I’ll give you his stupid wallet back,” I spit, trying a couple of more times to buck my way free, but Justin’s grasp holds tight. Even if I do manage to escape, I don’t know how I’ll manage to outrun him again, considering how fast he gained on me before.
Justin must know I’m not going anywhere, because he lets me go long enough for me to push myself off the ground and into a sitting position. Glaring at him through the wavering gray light of the streetlamps in the distance, I rifle around in my pockets until I land on a wallet. Nonchalantly, I pull it out and toss it at his knees, which he’s on still from when he was holding me down into the ground. Now I just hope he doesn’t search through the wallet. Maybe that way he won’t notice it’s one I’ve been carrying around for a few weeks, all the credit cards already canceled and the money all spent. I had dropped the driver’s license in the mail at least, whatever that was worth. Maybe my good karma would pay off, and Justin would soften toward me now by letting me go.
Or maybe not. Before I have a chance to protest, Justin snatches my arm at the same time he snatches the wallet and then hauls me to my feet. Then he shakes me a little bit, and all of a sudden I get the direct sense he’s about to beat the shit out of me. I remember this story my girlfriend Carly told me once, how her boyfriend Billy got caught robbing a house by the owner. Turned out that homeowner was like a black belt in karate or some shit and beat Carly’s boyfriend within an inch of his life. When the police arrived, the dude made it out like Billy attacked him first, even though Billy had surrendered when caught. The police proceeded to practically give the homeowner a medal.
Then all of a sudden I’m not sure what’s happening. Justin is yammering on and on and my head is spinning from the mixture of confusion and relief after not being punched in the face. Finally, I realize it seems like I’m being lectured.
“What do you think you’re doing, anyway? Going around stealing wallets? Picking pockets like some kind of Charles Dickens street urchin. You think this is cool or something? You think it’s funny? Do you realize most people work hard for the money they have? And look at you, well dressed, well groomed. I bet you have a real nice Lexus parked outside that house, don’t you? One Daddy bought you for your sweet sixteen. So you do this for thrills then? The adrenaline rush? Huh? Huh? Answer me!”
He’s shaking my arm again, which causes ripples to wave through my whole body, even chattering my teeth a little bit. I’m slow to realize he wants me to respond to him in some way or another. What had he been saying? I got kind of annoyed at the part where he thought I was well off, only stealing for kicks, and stopped paying attention henceforth. Maybe he just wants me to agree with him. People usually like that. Whatever the case, I have to stay on this guy’s good side before he pulls out his cell and starts dialing 911. I still have his brother’s wallet, which might still get that night in a motel.
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” I pull away from him slightly, but he won’t loosen his grip. Still, I need to play it cool. “Whatevs.” I scrounge around in my pocket, not looking at him, pull out an old half a cigarette, and manage to light it with one hand since he still has control of my other one.
“And you smoke,” Justin scoffs, almost a chuckle. “Of course you do. Because you’re just too cool for school, aren’t you? Trying to play it like you’re hard when you’re going to go home to your pink princess canopy bed under a ceiling custom painted with stars. How old are you anyway? Fifteen, sixteen? Your parents think you’re at an all-girls slumber party, don’t they?”
“I’m eighteen, but whatever,” I draw out apathetically. It’s my curse, I’ve always looked younger than my real age. Makes it impossible to sneak into bars, to buy a pack of cigarettes since I lost my student ID a few months back, and it’s not like I have the cash to get a new one when I have room and board to worry about constantly. Makes smoking a pretty inconvenient pastime, to be honest.
I can feel him studying me real close in the glow of my cigarette cherry as I take a deep drag. I blow the smoke into the night even though I want to blow it in his face. He still won’t let go of my arm.
“Eighteen,” he repeats. “So more than old enough to know stealing is wrong. I mean really, how immature can you get? Do you still steal lip glosses from the drugstore, too?”
He’s pulling me a bit closer to him, trying to turn me to face him, but I won’t. He is right. I did still steal lip glosses from drugstores, along with anything else that struck my fancy. Not that I’m not about to let him know that. In fact, I’m torn between telling him everything. Like how I aged out of the foster care system six months ago and have been homeless ever since, that I have no parents, no money, no one to turn to. But I also don’t want to give him the satisfaction of letting him see me lose my shit. After all, he still has my arm, but I still have his brother’s wallet. In my book that means I’m still winning.
“Listen, Justin,” I say, an edge to my voice now, using his name like a curse. “If you’re done with the ethics lesson for tonight, I really should be getting on my way. Wouldn’t want to keep my parents and my pink princess bed waiting, now, would I?”
Deftly and suddenly in an attempt to catch him off guard, I go to jerk away, but he just grips me tighter, smashing me against him so our chests bump and our faces are inches from each other, eyes interlocked. I’m sure my own gray irises look black in the moonlight, but his are light—green maybe. Or blue. If he weren’t being such a prick, I would almost consider him attractive.
“You’re not going anywhere,” he says, and my heart sinks as I realize he’s about to call the police. I become hyper aware of my surroundings all of a sudden, the strange insects cackling in the trees and the hum of the party in the distance. I even find myself wondering what happened to Alex—probably passed out on the kitchen floor by now. In the morning this would all be a blur.
But then he repeats himself, and there’s an add-on this time. Some kind of ultimatum, or a threat; it takes me a moment to process which, since this is all so out of the norm for me. “You’re not going anywhere unless I hear you make a promise to yourself that you’re going to cut this bullshit. No more stealing wallets. No more acting like some kind of Billy the Kid wannabe. You have your whole life in front of you. Don’t blow it. You got that?”
I’m so shocked, I’m stuttering, and I never stutter. I’m usually quick with my words, cutting even, witty and acerbic. But now I don’t know what to say. All I see is a Get Out of Jail Free card waving in and out of the thin air in front of me, and I take it. I reach out and grab it. It’s too good to be true.
“Uh, uh, yeah, sure. I promise. I really do. No more stealing wallets. You’re right. It’s stupid.”
And I manage a sloppy cheap little smile as I feel his grip on my arm lifting, trying not to let it turn to a smirk as I think of the fresh wallet in my pocket, ready for me to ravage it. To rip it apart. And then Justin is letting me go and turning around and we’re separating, walking in different directions. When I’m sure I’m far enough away that he won’t notice me running, I’m off, stride after stride until I reach sidewalk again, safe and anonymous under streetlamps in front of a Safeway.
I pull out the wallet, I count out the bills, I shake my head and I suck my teeth. All that bullshit for thirty lousy bucks. Dammit, Jaden, you gotta work on how to pick ‘em. All that trouble and I won’t even be able to scrape up enough for the mangiest most flea-ridden crime-smeared place in town. Looks like I’ll be in my spot in the bushes in the park again. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred. Better luck next time.