Under Different Stars – Amy A. Bartol

lipping a coin into the air, I watch as it arches toward the cascading water of the fountain. “Home,” I whisper to myself as it breaks the surface, causing ripples to race toward the lapis tiles. “That’s a waste of money,” Enrique says after pulling the earbud from my ear. “Why do you continue to throw your money away when you know that Lou is gonna get it at the end of the month?” he asks. I glance at Lou, who’s leaning against the mahogany front desk of the City Insurance Building, reading the Chicago Tribune, his distended belly straining against his janitorial jumpsuit. He absently uses a rag to polish the desk’s surface that he’s gone over a thousand times already. “He doesn’t get to keep my wish, does he?” I ask, looking back at the fountain before pulling my coat on over my own khaki janitorial jumpsuit. I pull the other earbud from my ear, press “Pause” on my iPod, and tuck my headphones in my pocket. “You can stop wishing for Prince Charming to come and rescue you,” Enrique says with a grin, watching me wrap my scarf around my neck and put on my mittens. “I’m right here, Kricket. Enrique and Kricket Rodriguez . that sounds chill. We can put the announcement in the Trib.

” His teeth look stark white in contrast to his honey-toned skin as he smiles at me. “I think finding Prince Charming is your wish. Mine is still Northwestern University,” I reply, picking up my backpack and throwing it over my shoulder. “Just think how happy my mom would be if I told her I was marrying you. She’d flip out, seriously,” he says half-jokingly. “Enrique, that’s a really tempting offer, but since I’m only seventeen, I’m gonna keep my options open,” I reply, putting my hat on and trying to sweep my mass of blond hair beneath it. “I thought you heard back from U of M,” Enrique says, zipping his coat and putting on his hat. His thick, black hair sticks out beneath it. “I did. The University of Michigan liked my test scores. I just can’t afford it, even with a partial scholarship. Plus, what am I going to do in Ann Arbor?” I ask, trying not to sound disappointed.

“I don’t know anyone there.” “You don’t really know anyone here, either,” Enrique replies. “It’s not like you have to stay for your family.” He nudges me with his elbow. “No . you’re right.” I try to smile to cover the stab of pain his comment causes. “You have no idea how good you have it, Kricket. It must be total freedom not having cousins, aunts and uncles, and parents on your back all the time about what you’re doing,” he says. “Being on your own must be nice.

” My shoulders slouch forward as I try to hide my face. “It’s better than foster care,” I say softly. “I only have to stay below the radar for a few more months. Then, when I’m eighteen, they can’t touch me. No more under-the-table jobs. I’ll be able to get a real job, for real money. You know Bridget, my roommate?” I glance at him and see his nod. “She works at the Mercantile Exchange. She thinks she can get me a job verifying trades on the currencies floor in the spring. If I get accepted to Northwestern, I can take classes at night and work at the Merc during the day.

” “Your ambition makes me feel like I gotta take a nap.” Enrique holds the door for me as we step out of the corporate offices of the City Insurance Building. It’s still dark out at five in the morning, but the streetlights in the loop illuminate the entire area. The softly falling snow looks magical as we walk by the Christmas holiday displays in the downtown windows. “I need to have goals. If I thought that I’d be emptying trashcans for the rest of my life, I’d lose it,” I admit. “You could do a ton of other things. Like . modeling. You’re a giant, sister,” Enrique says, his feet make crunching noises as he walks over the snow on the salted sidewalk.

“Five-ten is not that tall.” “C’mon, you look like a Viking. Those modeling agents would freak for your hollow cheekbones, and I bet they’ve never seen a natural blond walk through their lobby doors.” He stops at the end of the block and waits for the light. “But when they see your freakish eyes, they’ll beg you to sign with them.” “My eyes are not freakish!” Enrique makes a derisive sound. “I’ve never met anyone with violet eyes,” he replies, raising his eyebrows. “If I had eyes like yours, I’d be in New York making some serious cash.” “Yeah, and the minute they enter my Social Security number into their agency computer, the Illinois Department of Social Services will show up and haul me back to some juvenile detention center. No thanks,” I say, feeling a shiver tear through me.

“I’ve spent too many years trapped in their hell. I’m not going back—even if they can only hold me for a few more months. When I’m eighteen, I can do whatever I want, but until then, I’ll sweep up coffee grounds, empty trashcans, and listen to my iPod.” Enrique’s smile fades. “It couldn’t have been that bad—” “No, it was worse,” I counter, unable to keep the edge out of my voice. “Of course it was bad,” he says, looking guilty. “You didn’t know me then. Now you have family. My mom wants you to come over for Christmas dinner next week. She’s making the enchiladas you love,” he says in a singsong voice.

“Mmm, enchiladas sound great. What time?” I ask, feeling my throat tighten a little at the thought of not spending Christmas alone. I was going to spend the holiday with Bridget in our apartment, but she’s going to go to her boyfriend’s parents’ house in Northwood. I know that she’s feeling guilty about leaving me alone. She invited me to come with them, but it’s hard enough for her to try to fit into Eric’s family without having to tote me along too, so I told her that I’d rather stay in the city. “I don’t know. I’ll ask and tell you Monday,” he says. “Wouldn’t you rather invite Michael?” I ask. He shoots me a sidelong glance. “Uh, definitely not,” he replies.

“Why not?” I ask. “They’re your family. They’ll love you no matter what.” “Where are you from, Kricket? Either you’re really naïve or you’ve really never had a family, ’cuz if I bring Michael to Christmas dinner, you’ll be getting a new roommate.” “Families are supposed to love you no matter what,” I say softly, looking into his dark brown eyes. “You’ve really never had a family, have you?” he asks rhetorically. “No . not one that ever lasted,” I admit, stopping beside the stairway to the El station. “You’re lucky, trust me. Anyway, what’re you doing this weekend?” “I’m going to see if they need any help at the bar—they sometimes let me bar-back when they’re really busy.

If not, then I have a date with William.” I smile, watching the plumes of my breath curl and dissipate in the air. “William? You met someone?” he says, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “I did. His name is William Shakespeare. He’s British and has a funny accent,” I smirk, watching Enrique’s slow smile. “You’re gonna read all weekend? You should come out with Michael and me. We’re checking out a new club in Wrigleyville,” he says. “Uh, you know I have that rule.” I hold up my finger.

He frowns. “What rule?” “You know, the rule about people.” “What rule about people?” “The one about never getting involved with them,” I explain. “What about me?” he asks. “You’re involved with me. We’re friends.” “You’re the exception that proves the rule.” I turn away before he can hug me goodbye. “Say ‘hi’ to Michael for me. I’ll see you Monday.

” I hurry for the stairs. “Call me if you change your mind,” Enrique shouts as he walks backward toward the bus stop that will take him to the south side. Giving him a cursory wave goodbye, I climb the stairs to the El platform. I walk under the heating lamps on the platform, grateful for the warmth. Seeing Pete asleep, propped up against the wall of the station, I walk over to him. Bending down, I open my backpack and pull out half of a peanut butter sandwich I have left over from dinner. I put it in his lap, hoping he’ll see it when he wakes up. “You need a shower, Pete,” I mutter under my breath. The train makes the sound of scraping metal as it slows down to enter the station. I straighten, looking over my shoulder.

The platform that was empty only a second ago now has three new occupants. Startled, I stiffen and face the tracks again. Normally, I’m the only one here this early, going north. Plenty of people are headed downtown, but not many are leaving at five o’clock—not unless they’ve spent all night in a nightclub. Putting a hand on the shoulder strap of my backpack, I pull my hat down, trying to hide my face and hair as they come closer to me. Not turning my head in their direction, I strain my eyes to watch their movements on the platform, hoping the really tall one in the middle doesn’t take an interest in me. He’s buf . I assess him quickly. Steroids? I wonder to myself. Tailored clothing—expensive.

Maybe I’ll be invisible to them, dressed in my baggy jumpsuit and coat. Holding my breath as the train comes to a stop in front of me, I approach the doors as they open, stepping into the fluorescent-lit car. Holding on to the metal railing, I take a seat on the bench immediately to the left of the door. Glancing down the aisle to the other door, the three men from the platform enter the car. The tallest one, dressed in a tailored, black trench coat, enters first, and his eyes immediately search for me. Angling my face away from him and putting my earbuds in, I look down, trying to be invisible. I scroll through my playlist, feeling tense. Something’s wrong. I know it instinctively. As a kid, I learned to read the room well as a survival technique.

Alarm bells are going off in my mind. I can tell when someone wants something from me; it’s in the body language. Exquisite black-leather dress shoes stop in front of me, causing goose bumps to rise on my arms. Not looking up, I vaguely hear a male voice speaking to me over my music. Continuing to ignore him, I feel the earbuds being tugged gently from my ears. “There. That is better, no?” a very masculine voice asks. “Can you hear me now, Kricket?” Moistening my lips and feeling my heart pounding in my chest, I slowly trail my eyes over the massive form in front of me. Seeing the expensive cut of his coat and the cashmere scarf hanging loosely from his collar, I can rule out that he works for the DSS. No one who works in social services wears shoes that expensive.

My eyes pause for a moment on his neck, seeing thick, black tribal tattoos covering one side of it. My eyes drift over his slashing cheekbones and sculptured mouth to his black hair; it’s not military cut, but it’s short nonetheless. But I lose my breath when my eyes connect with his. His irises are a lovely shade of violet, a similar color to mine. His mouth twists in an ironic smile. “Ah, Kricket, I’ve found you,” he murmurs, crouching in front of me while pulling my hat from my head, causing my long, platinum-blond hair to cascade around my shoulders. Reaching out, he gently touches my hair, letting it spill through his fingers. Some harsh, ingrained lesson from my past makes me respond. “Who?” I ask, raising my eyebrows. Deny everything until you know the score.

That’s rule number one, my mind whispers to me. “My name is Jane.” I push his hand from my hair. “Jane? I don’t think so. No, you’re Kricket for sure. Your eyes have already told me who you are,” he states, smiling and showing all of his beautiful teeth. “But I’m impressed that you can read the situation—the need to lie—it’s intriguing. What else do you know?” he asks, tilting his head to the side and smirking. I look at his friend standing to the right. He’s completely massive too, with the same black, tribal tattoo on his neck and the same black hair and violet eyes.

Temporarily mesmerized, I gasp as strong fingers grip my chin, forcing my gaze back to the man in front of me. His eyes have narrowed, making him look a little older than I first thought, maybe mid-twenties. “Do not look at him. He’s not important right now,” he says. “Does he know he’s not important?” I ask, my mouth dry with fear. Looking surprised at my response, a small smile breaks through his arrogant expression. “Jax, do you know that you’re not important?” “Yes.” I frown. “If you’re not important, then who is, Jax?” I inquire, watching humor flicker in the eyes of the man in front of me. “Trey,” Jax answers.

“You’re Trey, right?” I ask, feeling my heart racing. “I am.” My fear builds to an unacceptable level as my hands begin to shake. “Why are you important, Trey?” My eyes dart quickly around. There’s no way out of here until the train stops. “I’m important to you because I hold your destiny in my hand,” he replies, watching my response. “You mean Kricket’s destiny, don’t you? I’m Jane,” I reply, trying to look calm. “Your name is Kricket Hollowell. You’re the daughter of Pan Hollowell and Arissa Valke—” “My parents are James and Sally Klume. Sorry, you have the wrong girl, and this is my stop, so—” Trey interrupts me as his hand shoots out to keep me in my seat when I try to get up.

He shakes his head. “I can’t let you do that. My job is to take you back,” he states, not taking his hand from my arm. “Take me back where?” I ask. “To your home.” “Springfield?” I say the name of the first city that pops into my head. “No,” he frowns, looking irritated. “Ethar.” “Kandahar? I’m sorry, but I’ve never even been to New Jersey,” I say, purposefully misunderstanding him. “E-t-h-a-r,” he says, drawing out the word like I’m feebleminded.

I moisten my lips. “Okay, listen to me carefully, so there’s no misunderstanding here,” I say, speaking slowly like one would to a child and looking into crazy Trey’s eyes. “I’m Jane Klume—of the Springfield Klumes—so I’m not going anywhere with you, or Jax, or him.” I indicate the other freak on his right. “I can understand your position. If I were you, I might not want to return home either, but the time for cowardice is over. You need to face your family and pay for your crimes.” My mouth drops open as I search his face. “My crimes?” I ask after my mouth snaps shut again. He’s insane.

Trey nods as both his eyebrows come together. “Desertion, among others,” he replies, tightening his hand on my arm, like he severely disapproves of me. “You’re mental . ” I trail off, seeing the serious expressions on all of their faces. “We’re quite sane,” he replies easily. Slipping my gloved hands into my pockets, I notice the train slowing. The automated voice begins announcing our arrival at the Fullerton station. Trey’s eyes focus in on my hands. Slowly, I pull one hand from my pocket. Opening it, I ask, “Mint?” and extend my hand, filled with cellophane-wrapped red-and-white-striped candies.

He lets go of my arm. “No,” he frowns, looking at the mints in my hand like they’re poison. Pulling my other hand quickly from my pocket and pressing the button, I ask, “Pepper spray?” Jumping up on my seat, I continue to spray Trey, Jax, and the other thug with my can of pepper spray. Seeing them clutch their hands to their eyes as they moan in pain, I fit myself between the handrails on my right and run out the door of the train, dropping the can as I go. I run down the snow-covered stairs and clutch the handrail before jumping the last few steps to the sidewalk below. Looking around frantically, I spot a cab parked across the street. Not looking for cars, I step off the curb, hearing squealing tires as I do. Reaching the cab amid viciously honking horns, I open the door, diving onto the backseat. “Lincoln Park—Diversey and Clark,” I say, panting the cross streets to the driver. “I’m in a hurry,” I add, pulling a twenty from my wallet and flashing it at him.

The taxi peels away from the curb. Looking out the back window, I scan the area for Trey and his buddies. I don’t see them, so maybe they didn’t get off the train. Sitting back in my seat, I close my eyes as I tremble in fear. I Chapter 2 Lumin pay the taxi driver as he pulls up at the corner of Diversey and Clark. I jump out of the cab, looking rapidly up both sides of the street for anything suspicious. Seeing nothing, I hurry past the drugstore, bookstore, and drycleaner. I pull my keys from the pocket of my backpack and open the outer door next to the drycleaner. I make sure the door locks behind me after I step inside. I take a deep breath to try to calm the ache of fear in my chest.

I haven’t been this scared since I climbed out of a second-story window and jumped from the run-down apartment where I once lived. I hadn’t felt the impact of hitting the ground then. It’d been nothing compared to the beating I’d just received. But I remember the fear. I just can’t remember if it was fear that I’d die in the fall . or fear that I’d live. I bypass the elevator because it’s slower than a cab in rush hour and walk to the stairwell. Climbing the stairs to the third floor, I peek out, looking at the door of my apartment near the end of the hall. The hall’s empty. Taking a deep breath, I walk to my door and unlock it.

Pushing it closed behind me, I turn the dead bolt and secure the chain to it. Leaning against the door, I close my eyes, running my hand through my hair and feeling dampness from the melted snow. “Kricket!” Bridget calls from the end of the hall that leads to the one room of our studio apartment. I jump, not expecting Bridget to be up so early on a Saturday morning. “Bridge,” I say, exhaling and trying to calm my racing heart. “What’re you doing up?” I ask, seeing that she’s dressed nicely in a designer skirt and top that we found at the Salvation Army. It looks great on her because she has a bangin’ body. “I’m packing. Eric talked me into going to his parents’ house a couple days early since I don’t have to work this weekend. I’m so glad you’re home.

I need your opinion. Do you think I should take this skirt, or is it too short for the suburbanites?” She tucks her long dark hair behind her ear before holding up a small, black-leather skirt to her slim waist. “Honestly?” I shake my head. “I mean, you’re meeting Mom and Dad . Dad might like it, but Mom. Will. Freak.” Biting her lip, she stomps her foot and whines, “You’re right. Are you sure you can’t come with me?” I shake my head slowly. “You’re gonna be fine.

They’re going to love you, Bridget.” Her fingers twist in agitation. “Yeah, until the long silence comes after they ask me what my parents do, and I tell them my dad’s doing a mandatory twenty for armed robbery,” she replies, grimacing. “Maybe you don’t have to tell them. Maybe you can just say you haven’t seen him lately because he’s upstate,” I reply. Bridget flails her arms. “You see, I need you there. You’re like a diplomat or something.” “You’ll be okay, just keep your eyes open. Watch what his mom does, and follow her lead.

If she eats her soup with a fork, then you eat your soup with a fork,” I advise her. “Just like we used to in juvie.” “Who eats soup with a fork?” Bridget asks, looking confused. “Not the point. I’m just saying, when in Rome . ” I trail off. Bridget’s brow wrinkles. “They eat soup with a fork in Rome?” she asks, and I laugh. “Uh, forget the soup. Just have a good time and relax.

Hipster Eric likes you.” I peel off my jumpsuit and throw it in the hamper. Finding a pair of pajama bottoms in my closet, I put them on. Bridget’s dark eyes narrow, “You should stop calling him ‘Hipster Eric’ ’cuz you’re gonna slip one of these days.” “You really like him, huh?” I ask, seeing her try to hide it. “He keeps asking me to move in with him,” Bridget replies with a faux-casual shrug, watching my reaction. “But you’ve been to his place. It’s completely ridic. I’m not the kind of girl who can live somewhere like that. It’s too .

nice.” She wrinkles her nose, like “nice” is a bad thing. Something in my heart twists. Bridget is my only family. I want her to be happy. She deserves nice—she deserves love. But if she moves in with Eric, I’m completely screwed. I can’t live here without a roommate. “I don’t know, Bridge, I think you’d do all right with ‘nice.’ Enrique thinks he might be looking to move out.

He might need a roommate,” I say casually. It’s only a half lie because he did say that Michael would get him tossed out.

.

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