“Lizzie, wake up. We need to go,” I say, tapping her shoulder. “Lizzie.”
She stirs, rubbing her eyes and pushing the hair out of her face, then sits up. “What do you mean, leave?” she asks.
“Pack your stuff, kid. I’ll explain later,” I tell her. She nods.
The late morning sun spills onto the church parking lot, which is closed off during the week to create a somewhat safe place for homeless people to sleep. Most other people have left by now, off to work minimum wage jobs or beg on the street. I don’t have a job because no one wants to hire a seventeen-year-old who looks like she sleeps on the ground, and I refuse to sit on the sidewalk with my hand out. I know how to get what I need.
I finish rolling my sleeping bag and absentmindedly start stuffing things into my duffel. Sweater, blanket, pajamas. I fumble in my pocket for my iPod and come across a lone cigarette, which I decide to smoke as I work. I need a new pack. It’s a nasty habit, I know, but what the hell? It’s not like I’m an addict or anything. Smoker’s lung or whatever else can suck it.
“Where are we going?” Lizzie asks as she places her stuffed panda gingerly into her backpack.
“I have a friend who has a place we can crash for a few days.”
“You don’t have friends,” she says. She’s right, of course. I met this guy on the street last night and told him I’d find him a new dealer if he let us sleep at his place for a while. But Lizzie is five and she wouldn’t know crack from powdered sugar if someone baked it into a cake, so I leave that part out.
“Well, I have one now,” I say to her, “and what’s it matter, anyway? It’s a place to live, a couch to sleep on, food I don’t have to buy. It’s something.”
She looks at me like she knows I’m lying, then lets out a little sigh and says, “Okay.”
When we get to the guy’s place, he doesn’t answer the door, so I let us in with the key under the mat. There’s no one home, but there’s a folded blanket and two pillows on the couch, which is the only real piece of furniture, and there’s a piece of paper taped to the makeshift cardboard coffee table. I pick up the paper, which reads:
Sorry I'm not here - had to help out a buddy. Be back soon. Make yourselves at home - theres food in the fridge. BTW, my sis will probably be home before i am.
“You didn’t say he has a sister,” Lizzie says.
“I didn’t know,” I reply.
Just then, a key starts to rattle in the door. I automatically reach for the army knife in my back pocket, just in case.
“Chill out, Sophia,” Lizzie says. “You’re too freaked out all the time.”
“So what?” I ask. “Better safe than sorry.”
The door squeaks as it opens, and a girl walks in. She’s young, around my age, and there’s something off about her. It’s almost like deja vu, but I can’t quite place it. I grip the knife at my side tighter.
“Oh, hi,” she says. “You must be my brother’s latest strays. Well, nice to meet you, I’m-”
“Cassie,” I interrupt, surprising myself as much as her.
“Yeah, how’d you know? Wait. Wait a minute. I know you. No freakin' way. Sophia?”
“Oh my god.”
“Um, what’s going on?” Lizzie asks, looking back and forth between us.
“It’s kinda complicated,” I say.
“I don’t care. Tell me.”
“Well, a really long time ago, when I was a kid, I had this friend. We were really close, her and me, and when we got a little bit older, we decided we were in love. But then when you were born, and Mom died, things got a lot harder. We were still really young, like twelve, and I was really sad and angry and confused, so I told this girl that we needed to break up, because I was gonna take you and run away from Dad. She wanted to come with us, but I said no. I needed to do it alone. And I hadn’t seen her since then, until today.”
“Wait, what?” Lizzie still looks confused. “Are you saying that this girl, Cassie, is that girl? That you were in love with?”
“That’s me,” Cassie answers. “And you’re the baby she took off with, aren’t you? Holy sh-… crap.”
Lizzie giggles. “I know what you were gonna say. You’re allowed to swear in front of me, you know.”
Cassie raises her eyebrows at me. I shrug. “I pick my battles. It’s not like swearing is gonna mess her up any worse.”
The door starts to squeak again, and I try to keep my cool this time, knowing that it’s probably Mikey. It is Mikey, who looks like he either got in a fight or run over by a truck, though the latter seems unlikely. I don’t ask.
“Oh, hey, Sophie,” he says.
“It’s Sophia,” Cassie says.
“Well, I see you two are getting on well.”
I glance at Cassie, who shrugs. It’s not really worth telling him about us, at least not yet. I vaguely remember Cass having a brother, who moved out when we were still in elementary school, but he clearly doesn’t remember me. It doesn’t really matter if he knows. I’ll say something if it comes up, but I like that it’s kind of a private thing.
“So, how about some lunch?” Mikey offers.
The rest of the day is a nice, albeit awkward blur of chatting and hanging out and playing with Lizzie. They have a TV, so by evening we’ve turned our attention to a crappy reality show, and the four of us laugh together at how incredibly obsessed the celebrities are with dresses. We order a pizza, and Mikey buys beers for Cassie and me. Eventually, the evening is over, and we all decide to hit the hay.
Late that night, I lie awake on the fold out couch, staring at the ceiling. Lizzie snores quietly beside me. The kid can sleep anywhere, which I’ve always been jealous of. Since I can’t sleep anyway, I carefully climb out of the bed and tiptoe to the balcony. I miss sleeping outside. I step onto the concrete and take a deep breath of the cool night air. It’s not quite cold enough to see your breath, but it’s not warm, either. In other words, it’s perfect.
I jump, startled. I’d been so caught up in my thoughts, I hadn’t heard Cassie follow me out.
“Hey yourself,” I reply. “What are you doing up?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” she says. “You?”
She pulls out a pack of cigs, takes one out, and lights it. “Want one?”
“Sure,” I say.
She lights another off hers and hands it to me. “So, I hear you’re getting my brother a better dealer.”
“I don’t know why he does that shit.” She takes a long drag and sighs it out. “I mean, to each his own, I guess. But personally, I like to feel… in control.” She turns to look at me with a sad sort of half-smile that hasn’t changed a bit since she was eight years old.
“Yeah, I get that,” I say.
She takes a step toward me. “I’ve missed you, Sophia,” she whispers, reaching her arms halfway around my waist.
I can’t breathe quite right, and it isn’t the smoke. “I’ve missed you, too.” I lean closer to her. Her eyes are huge and copper-colored, and my heart is beating faster than normal.
It’s her who closes the gap, placing one hand on the back of my neck and kissing me hard. Then somehow, before I even realize what’s happening, our bodies are pressed together, and my hands are in her hair, and we’re kissing like we’ve been apart a lifetime instead of five years.
She pulls away for a moment and looks into my eyes. “My bedroom,” she says, “is through that door.” She nods to a second door to the balcony that’s propped open an inch or two.
I smile and press our lips together again, wrapping my arms around her neck. I feel her hands move down my back, and suddenly she’s lifting me up. It surprises me, but God, it’s nice to be touched. I missed this. I missed her.
“I love you,” she gasps, as we fall through the door.
“I love you, too.”
When I wake up, the sun is lighting the room through the shades, and for once, I feel really good. I realize after a minute that I’m naked, cocooned in only a flannel sheet. My shirt is in a pile on the end of the bed, and God only knows where the rest of my clothes are. What the hell happened last night? I turn my head to the right and see a mess of curly black hair. Cassie. Jesus, I had sex with Cassie. As I realize this, she rolls over and looks at me, smiling. She’s always been most beautiful when she smiles.
“Morning,” she says, planting a kiss on my bare shoulder.
“Hey.” I smile back. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
It’s quiet for a while, and we just lie there, looking at each other. Finally, Cassie clears her throat and props herself up on one elbow, like she’s going to make a declaration. “You know,” she says, “we’re gonna be okay, you and me.”