Stealing Embers – Julie Hall

A crash breaks the silence of the early morning. With a jolt, my eyes pop open and I’m on my feet, bag slung over my shoulder before I’m fully awake. My shoes slap the pavement beneath me as I sprint for the open end of the alley. Sparks of light flicker around the periphery of my vision. Real or imaginary? Casting a glance over my shoulder, I catch a garbage truck depositing a dumpster on the ground. The lid bangs against the metal side and echoes off the buildings lining the alley. The lights pulsate with each loud hit, then fade when the noise settles. The shot of adrenaline coursing through my system leaves my heart racing, even as my mind dismisses any real threat of danger. Slowing to a stop, I lean against the side of the building and press a hand to my chest, willing the beats to slow. I’m safe. I’m safe. I’m safe, I chant while practicing deep breathing. The air nips at my heated cheeks and cools the moisture already collecting around my hairline. Closing my eyes, I focus on the sensations that ground me in reality. The stale smell of rotten food and garbage.

Rough brick beneath my fingertips. The fuzzy build-up and bitter tang on my teeth from my short night’s sleep. I am here, and I am awake—at least, I hope so. Opening my eyes with painstaking slowness, I silently pray the spectrum world won’t fill my view. I let out a loud sigh of relief at the graffiti-spattered wall across the alley. The ground is littered with trash and random detritus: a shoe, a discarded bike tire, the carcass of a dead rat. This may be the first time I’m excited to see a rat in any form. Rats don’t exist in the spectrum world, so the furry corpse is further confirmation I still exist in reality. One. Two.

Three. Four. Counting my heartbeats is one way I calm myself down—a strategy for slowing the release of adrenaline into my system. I live in fear of adrenaline rushes. They are my main trigger to seeing the world I’ve been told doesn’t exist. I do whatever I can to avoid them—including isolating myself, which isn’t usually an issue since people are naturally uncomfortable around me. Over the years, I’ve honed my senses to be aware of the world around me, but I’m screwed during the few hours my body demands sleep. If only sleeping with one eye open were possible. I’ve had more instances of slipped reality in the past year than the last ten combined. One of the many negatives of homelessness is that you always live life a bit on edge.

Still, that doesn’t outweigh the one big, fat positive that comes from living on the Denver streets: Becoming a runaway saved me from being locked up in a psychiatric hospital. I’ll accept a wide variety of suffering to hold on to my freedom. The first groans of an awakening city disrupt my thoughts. The beeping from the garbage truck that startled me awake stops when the driver shifts from reverse to drive and thunders on his way. Cars rumble by, their morning exhaust creating plumes of smoke in the air. Rusted metal security gates creak and clang when store owners roll them up to invite business for the day. Muffled shouts ring out from down the block and a dog’s sharp bark echoes from an apartment above. I miss the darkness already. Pushing off the cold wall behind me, I check my hat to make sure everything is safely tucked away. My hair grows too fast and I haven’t so much as trimmed it in the last year.

The strands are dirty and matted, the platinum blonde hue covered in several layers of grime. Hiding my hair has nothing to do with my insecurities and everything to do with downplaying my femininity. I don’t need to make myself any more of a target than I already am. People see me as weak. I’m not, but making it through the day without altercations is important if I don’t want to accidentally slip out of this reality. My other option is to cut it short. It’s something I’ve considered more than once, but I’ve already given up so much. I can’t stomach losing something else. Instead, I’ll keep it hidden. Satisfied my head is properly covered, I tug the beanie down over my ears and plod to the corner of the building.

Keeping my body pressed against the brick wall, I peek at the rousing world outside the dingy alley. The sun is only just beginning its daily ascent. The sky holds fast to the gray and blue screen of night, but the darkness will soon be chased away by the budding light. The corners of my mouth turn down at the evidence of the growing day. I prefer the night. Shadows are a comfort in a way the glaring daylight will never be. Hunger fists inside my gut at the same time my stomach lets out a pathetic grumble, reminding me it has been too long since my last meal. I don’t need as much food or sleep as a normal person, but three days without a bite is stretching it a bit far, even for me. Slinking into the alley, I consider my options. I usually rely on a combination of dumpster diving, charity, and occasionally the odd job to feed myself.

I can’t afford to go to a mission—they ask too many questions and filling my belly isn’t worth getting tagged as a runaway minor. Begging isn’t a viable option because loitering in a public spot is too much of a risk as well. Shelter isn’t a problem . until winter. Things get dicey during Colorado’s arctic months. Last year, I had to break into more private properties than I cared to keep track of, just to escape the frigid temperatures. When I turn eighteen, I’ll breathe easier. Becoming a legal adult means I can’t get thrown back into the system—or worse. My last foster family wanted to commit me to a psychiatric hospital. To escape that fate, I need to age out.

I only have to endure this degrading existence for six more months. Leaving the city in search of a more peaceful life is the dream. Settling somewhere in the mountains would be nice. Somewhere far enough from prying eyes so there are no witnesses to my strange episodes in the spectrum world. Even better if I can build a home right into the rocks to protect me from my living nightmares. Until then, it’s safer to hide among the masses—in plain sight, but basically invisible. Just six more months, I remind myself. The reassurance feels good, so I say it again— this time aloud. Talking to myself has become an odd sort of comfort. People look through you when you’re homeless—something I’d counted on when I ran away from my last foster family.

Becoming invisible was an essential part of my survival, but what I didn’t figure into my plans was exactly how dehumanizing that would feel. Chitchatting with myself reminds me that I’m still a person, albeit a strange one. My gut twists, telling me that my most urgent need is sustenance so I can stay alert for a few more days. I mentally run through my anemic list of possibilities. There’s a grocer on 6 th Avenue that throws away their expired food once a week, but that won’t be for two more days. It’s early, I could stop by Denver Bread and see if they need help hauling in their morning delivery of flour in exchange for a few bucks or even food. Fresh bread is delicious and hard to come by these days. People don’t throw fresh loaves in the trash for vagrants like me to fish out. There are a few downtown restaurants I could hit up. Newberry and Sassafras are close, but don’t open for several more hours.

Anita’s opens early though. It’s been . hmmm . two weeks? That could work. Pulling the straps of my backpack tight, I dart out onto the sidewalk at a fast jog, heading toward the greasy spoon diner twelve blocks away. This distance is barely a warm-up for me. I can run for hours before getting winded. It’s just another one of the oddities I hide from the world. The city passes me by as I keep a steady pace. A few cars drive by, but the sidewalks are almost completely empty.

It’s too early for Denver to be overrun. In a few hours, pedestrians will fill the walkways, hurrying to and from work. Midday, tourists lay claim to the city’s streets and sidewalks until they are flooded by commuters rushing to catch the rail or stuffing themselves into their cars to camp in stop-and-go traffic for hours. The cycle repeats itself daily, a cylindrical juggernaut that never changes. One that I’ve learned to use to my advantage. As I turn down Fifteenth Street and head toward the river. I try to remember what day it is, seventy-two percent sure it’s Tuesday. That’s important because Karen works Tuesdays. She’s liberal with the restaurant’s leftovers, so I try to only go to Anita’s during her shifts. Picking up speed, I barely take note of the buildings flying by.

The skyscrapers in the business district are a blur of gray that I’ve never found visually appealing. Resisting the urge to close my eyes, I focus instead on the crisp morning air hitting my face. When I was younger, I used to run full speed and pretend I was flying. The longing to do so again creeps up from time to time. My hands twitch with the desire to rip off the wool hat concealing my hair and let it stream free. My scalp itches under the mass of hair and thick yarn. I like to feel the tickle of the breeze running its fingers through my strands. The early fall chill hasn’t quite set in yet, so it’s too early to be wearing the tight-fitting hat, but taking it off is out of the question. My sigh is swallowed by the wind. Rounding another corner, I spot Anita’s.

The squat one-story restaurant is sandwiched between two twenty-story apartment buildings. The red Spanish-tiled roof and yellow stucco façade is out of place between the sleek buildings flanking it, but it’s been a neighborhood staple for over half a century, so it isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Shaking off thoughts about my hair and replacing them with the anticipation of a hot meal, I go to the side of the building and peek through a window that gives me a partial view of the kitchen. Wearing a pair of high-waisted skinny jeans and an Anita’s t-shirt, Karen is standing in front of a wall stacked high with dry ingredients and cans. She holds a clipboard in one hand, while the pencil clutched in the other bobs through the air as she takes inventory. The hint of a smile moves my lips when I see her. Five months ago, Karen spotted me curled up between dumpsters behind the restaurant. With cover on three sides and an easily scaled fence in the back, it was a great sleeping spot. I must have looked pretty pathetic because she’s been feeding me breakfast a couple times a month ever since. I always arrive before the restaurant opens and refuse to set foot inside the establishment.

It’s too easy to get cornered in public buildings. If it came down to a chase, I’d rather be outside, where my chances of escaping are significantly higher. Knowing my quirk, Karen always brings a plate out to the alley. She’s good people, that one. I don’t stop by every week because I don’t want her anticipating my visits. What if she gets overly worried about me one day? Her concern might compel her to call the authorities, not realizing how much harm that would cause me. I appreciate her generosity, but I’m not willing to risk my freedom on the kindness of a stranger. Watching her perform her pre-opening ritual, I gently rap on the glass that separates us, careful not to make too much noise. She raises her chin and swivels her eyes to me on the second tap. A warm smile blossoms on her face that reaches her crystal blue eyes.

I wave and stretch my smile to match hers. When she motions with her hand, I nod my understanding and go to the back door. I don’t “people” well, but my awkwardness hasn’t deterred Karen yet. Whether she’s pushing her unease aside, or it truly doesn’t exist, I’m not sure—I’m simply grateful for it. Leaning against the alley wall with my arms crossed, I watch the sky change colors. As the blue lightens, the shadows shorten. I’m ready for the door when it bangs open, so I don’t startle. Karen walks through backside first, her hands occupied with a tray. My eyebrows pinch together as I take in several overflowing plates as well as a glass of orange juice and a mug of coffee. The meaty scent of maple-glazed bacon tugs at my taste buds, and my mouth waters.

I’m like Pavlov’s dogs when it comes to bacon; I lose complete control of my salivary glands. When Karen moves past me I catch sight—and smell—of eggs, berries, toasted bagels with butter and jam, and hash browns as well. This amount of food is excessive. “Do you mind grabbing those crates and turning them over, Lizzie? I thought we could sit and have breakfast together this morning. Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day and I have some time before the other employees arrive.” Karen thinks my name is Elizabeth, and calls me Lizzie. My name isn’t either of those, but giving out my real one isn’t something I do anymore. Grabbing the overturned vegetable crates, I right them so we can both sit. Karen sets the tray down on a cardboard box that hasn’t been broken down yet. I regard her and the food with a small measure of trepidation.

With glossy-black hair that hangs several inches below her shoulders, Karen is a beautiful woman. In the past, she’s eaten with me a time or two, but when she did she kept her distance, knowing I was skittish. She usually stands with a shoulder leaned against the building, munching on something small while sipping coffee, as I eat leftovers from the night before. Since I only ever stop by before business hours, the cook is never in. Leftovers are more than fine with me. I learned a long time ago not to be picky. Not having to dumpster dive for food is a luxury I don’t take for granted. Today though, she’s brought a feast—and I’m suspicious of the change. Did she make this food while I was waiting for her? Surely it would take more than a few short minutes to conjure up so many dishes. Catching me silently eyeing the bounty, her smile kicks up a notch.

“Believe it or not, I was a cook in another life.” I suppose that’s the only explanation I’m going to get. I don’t welcome questions myself, so asking them in return feels hypocritical. The crease between my eyebrows smooths as the sweet tang of pulp-filled orange juice slides down my throat. I savor the taste of the sugary goodness as if it were a sip of fine wine. “This is too much. I couldn’t eat half of this if I tried.” That’s not entirely true. I may not eat often, but when I do, I can really pack it in. I usually pace myself, because a girl who eats like a linebacker tends to raise a few eyebrows.

She swats a hand through the air as if to brush away my words. “Just eat what you want and leave the rest. I felt like making sure you had a full belly today.” My smile tightens as I nod and reach for a strip of bacon, wondering if she’s become a little attached to me. If that’s the case, this is going to have to be my last visit to Anita’s. I can’t risk Karen getting used to having me around. Besides, I don’t do attachments. I’m not used to them, and the few I’ve made over my lifetime have always broken apart in painful ways. Nope. The only person I want to be around is myself.

I’m a loner by design. Why else would I have been dumped on a doorstep as a baby? If my own parents hadn’t wanted me, why should anyone else? Someday I’ll find a place to live where no one will bother me. Somewhere no one will judge me. That’s life goals, as far as I’m concerned. “So, what are you up to today?” I shrug. It’s not as if I lead an exciting life. “I thought I’d stop by the Waldorf for high tea later.” I wink as I chew my bit of egg to let her know I’m teasing rather than being smart with her. “Oh, yes,” she replies, playing along, “I hear their spread is absolutely divine.” “I can’t imagine it holds a candle to this feast.

” Is that French toast? I’ve only had that dish once before. When I was about eight or nine the foster family I was living with decided to celebrate my birthday with a sugary breakfast. That was one of the better days. Brushing aside melancholy thoughts, I bring a piece of syrup-soaked bread to my mouth. Heaven. “This is delish.” “Thanks.” Her smile reaches her eyes and her whole face lights up. I love that about her—how one facial expression conveys so much emotion. “It was actually my grandmother’s recipe.

” “Mm-mmm,” I mumble as I stuff my face with a third bite of the treat. “So, I was wondering something.” Karen presses her lips together as she regards me. Something about the sudden stiffness to her posture causes a rock to form in my stomach. I swallow hard and chase the food with a sip of orange juice while I wait for her to continue. Years of intuition tell me my meal is over. “I’ve never seen you without a hat. Would you mind if I ask what color your hair is?” It’s a harmless question, but a red alarm starts screaming bloody murder inside my head. My intuition has been right too many times to ignore it now. Standing swiftly, I grab my bag and backpedal, never taking my eyes off Karen.

“Lizzie, what are you doing?” A worried line appears between her eyes as she stands too—her height rivaling my own almost-six feet—and takes a step forward. She holds her arms up in front of her, palms facing me in the universal gesture for “calm down.” Is she trying not to scare me off? Too late for that. “Thanks so much for the breakfast. And for everything. But I should probably get going.” I don’t stop my steady retreat, but she halts. That leeches some of the paranoia out of my system. She isn’t coming after me. That’s good.

“Was it because I asked about your hair? You don’t have to tell me, I was just—” A crash inside the diner has both our heads swiveling to the back door. A normal person would assume it’s the cook or one of the wait staff. A normal person wouldn’t shoot an accusing glare at the person kind enough to feed her. A normal person would smile warmly, sit down, and eat as much of the amazing breakfast as she could fit in her belly. I’m far from a normal person. “Emberly, this isn’t—” That one word causes my adrenaline to spike ten times stronger than my morning wake-up call. Emberly. She knows my name. My real name.

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