This story is by Taylor Mayes and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The weather cooled softly and slowly that year, fall creeping in like the ocean’s tide upon a beach. The cool, solid wood of the neck of the ukulele rested in Lani’s hands as she crept quietly over the carpet of the old building, avoiding the spots that creaked and groaned under her weight with a practiced grace. Someone was there, probably another street rat that was looking for shelter from the coming storm. Lilinoe watched her silently from across the dark room, her eyes wide and her legs criss-crossed as their littlest sister napped on the ground beside her.
Lani jumped as the door in front of her opened with a quick click. She raised the ukulele above her head, prepared to swing it.
“Psst. Lani? Are y’all still sleeping here?” A familiar voice whittled its way carefully through the small crack of the open door. Lani set the instrument down quickly and yanked the door open.
“Alec!” With a relieved sigh, she threw her arms around his neck. “We hadn’t heard from you in so long, we–I–I thought you weren’t coming back.” She backed away and picked up the ukulele again, and led him to the back of the cool room. He grabbed her wrist as she turned away. “Of course I was coming back, I would have told you if I weren’t.” Lani shuddered, all too used to people leaving and not coming back. She shook his hand away. “It’s been months, Alec.”
He grimaced at her harsh snap, and Mai awoke and sat up. “I’m sorry, I really am, but you three are hard to reach. It’s not like I can send a letter in the mail, you live in an apartment that only still stands because the city’s too lazy to knock it down. No one knows y’all are even in here. I couldn’t send someone with a message with a fear that you’d whack them upside the head with that dang guitar of yours. I was on the run from my parents. Their friend was visiting the city from up in Michigan and she saw me. So, yeah, I’ve been gone for a bit and I didn’t tell you, but I should be back for good now.”
His freckled face had gone dark and stony, an expression that he got a lot when he talked about his parents. Lani had told him about it one day, and he laughed hollowly and told her that she had her own stony, thinking-about-my-crap-life face. Lani had commented that for two fifteen-year-olds, they wore that face all too often.
Lili took Mai’s hand in her own and they walked over to them, sensing the tension that had built like a wall between Alec and Lani. She was eleven, and Mai was seven. They seemed too young for the streets, even though Alec had run away and thrived alone since he was ten and was still doing fine–as far as Lani could tell. He was surviving, which was better than some others did.
She was still worried about her little sisters though, especially Mai, who was only two when the family moved from Hawaii to California, and when her parents died.
Alec scooped up Mai and set her on his shoulders in one quick motion as she giggled with glee. Lani couldn’t help but notice that his upper arms were just a little bit wider and tanner than they had been a few months before, last she had seen him. She shook the thought away. She had to focus on her sisters–with fall approaching, winter was only a few months away.
“Alec, could you watch them while I’m out? We need some food, I have a bit stashed for some cheap burgers somewhere–” Lani ran a hand through her wild, curly hair and twisted it up into a bun as she kissed her sisters on the cheeks. “–you two be good for Alec, okay?” She picked up the ukulele again and handed it to Lili after turning it over and shaking out a crumpled ten dollar bill. “Maybe you can play him one of your songs?” As she stood to leave, Alec touched Lani’s arm. “I’ve already eaten today, please don’t get me anything.” She nodded quickly, her face masking the relief, and walked quickly out.
When Lani returned, the sun was sinking slowly behind the towering skyscrapers of the city, leaving a pink reflection shining off thousands of windows as lights blinked on. The food was warm where it was hidden in her shirt, and it smelled too strong. She glanced back often, and as the light pink faded into a lilac purple, she began to jog the short distance left to where she had left Alec with her sisters.
“Pretty missy, what you got?” A filthy man was standing in front of her, eyeing her greedily. He was blocking the entrance, definitely on purpose. She stepped around him and walked past the building.
There was a soft sound behind her as she walked away. “No. I think you do have something that you’d like to give to Mr. Jim,” he snapped insistently. She turned hesitantly to look at him and felt her eyes go wide.
“No. I’m hungry.” He admired the flame dancing on the end of the match. “Give me the food. That’s enough for more than one person, so who are you protecting?” He placed the unlit end of the match in his mouth, like a cigarette. When he smiled, it was gripped between his teeth. “Obviously no one you love too much, if you’re willing to let them burn so you can eat a little extra tonight.” He laughed, and the end of the match dipped towards the ground.
“No!” She yanked out the food and held out the bag. He was reaching to grab it when a sour note rang out through the air, accompanied with a large thump. As he crumpled forward, the match burned out and bounced once on the ground. Alec stood behind where the man stood, brandishing the ukulele and staring at the deranged man on the ground with a strange expression: a mixture of pride and fear.
The sounds of the city blanketed the silence that fell between them as Lili and Mai crept from behind Alec.
“Is he dead?” It was Lili, as she squatted down to see if he was breathing. Lani yanked her back. “He’s alive,” unfortunately, “but what do we do with him?” Alec was still staring at the body on the ground. “Girls,” he turned to Lili and Mai, “take your food and go into the back of the restaurant on that corner down there. The manager is nice, he’ll make sure nothing bad happens to either of you.”
The man on the ground stirred and groaned and Alec nudged them away. They ran down the street with the food, and before rushing into the restaurant, paused to look back. Lani turned away as the door closed behind them to see Alec picking up a heavy brick.
“What are you doing?” He looked at her with sorrow in his amber-brown eyes and raised the brick over his head. “Alec, no, there’s some other way.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “If we don’t kill him, you, and Lili, and Mai, and even I will be in danger. As long as he lives, he knows how to hurt you most.” He looked into my eyes and took a deep breath. “By hurting those you love.”
“Alec no!” She grabbed his wrist, and he looked down at her with a sadness Lani had never seen before in his eyes as his lips touched hers for a second. Then he pulled away. “I won’t get that heavy a sentence, if any at all. Self-defense.” His breath brushed her cheek as he talked, warm in the suddenly chilly night.
“We’re just kids, Alec. You can’t kill someone. You can’t seriously be thinking about this.” He paused just long enough for Lani to easy his fingers open and pull the brick from his grasp. She tossed it away and wrapped her arms around him as he slumped down. He draped his arm around her back.
“I’m just trying to protect you,” he whispered.
“Then keep yourself out of trouble. I don’t know what I would have done without you today.” Silence settled on the city like the night as they watched the starved, crazy man’s chest as it rose and fell evenly.
“I have an idea.”
He was found the next day, tied up to a lamp post with a note in the messy scrawl of someone who hadn’t had to write anything in awhile duct taped to his forehead.
~Evil dude. Tried to steal from children. Arrest please :)~
When he was searched, a single burnt-out match was the only thing in his pocket.