“Lex?” I said the minute she answered the phone. “I need your help.”
Lexi agreed to meet me at the Starbucks. As I ran back toward the alley, a rush of guilt swept through me. I’d told Lexi I’d been at the party all night. That I’d found the girl when the party moved on to the bars.
As I ran, I thought of my mamma. She would have done this for this girl. She would never have allowed anyone in trouble to go without her help.
And I needed this. I needed to see another underdog make it through.
I arrived at the alley and, in seconds, sprinted to the back. But when I got there, all that greeted me was an empty coffee cup, discarded food, and the old blanket that had been cast on the ground.
I whipped my head around the alley, searching every inch for the girl, but the truth was as clear as day: she’d left.
My body filled with disappointment. Bending down, I fisted my hand and slammed it against the empty coffee cup on the ground. I ran my hand down my face, when I saw a ripped piece of paper lying on the blanket, under the dry protection of the sloped roof. Frowning at what it could be, I picked it up. Two simple words were scrawled in blotted blue pen across the middle of the page. “Thank you.”
I stared at those two simple words, and they held me frozen to the spot. These were the only words the girl had communicated to me all night, thank you.
I felt a pit cave in my stomach at the thought of her being out on the streets, on her own. I thought of those huge blue eyes brimming with tears, when I told her I would stay and keep her safe. That she could sleep without fear.
Feeling nothing but defeat, I set off down the alley. I searched for her as much as I could. I looked down every alley, doorway and nearby street. But she’d gone, and I had no idea where. Running back to the payphone, I called Lexi and told her that the girl didn’t need our help after all.
Hailing a cab, I went home. To Austin and Lexi’s mansion. To the comforts that surrounded me, while the girl with the big blue eyes walked the streets, sick and alone.
When I slipped into the cab’s backseat, my head fell to rest on the window, the girl’s handwritten note firmly clutched in my hand.
“Happy birthday!” Lexi sang to Ally as we entered the restaurant. Axel and Ally were already at the table of the private back room, along with Molly and Rome. Ally sat beside Axel, her face all smiles as her head rested on his arm. Axel had his arm slung around her shoulder, and he drew her close to his side. My big brother was happier than I could have ever thought possible. The hard gangbanger that I’d always known had found a profound peace with Ally. I glanced to Austin, holding Lexi’s hand, and saw that he had it too.
I knew they both still missed Mamma. I knew they both mourned her every day. The difference between them and me? They had found peace through love. While I was completely lost.
Generally, I was a positive guy, or at least I tried to be, but I always felt that something was missing in my life. My mind drifted back to the homeless girl I’d sat with three days ago, and my stomach sank. She’d been lost too, but worse, she’d been alone. I’d searched that same alley every day since the night she fell asleep against my arm, but the pretty girl had disappeared. The fact I hadn’t helped her when she was obviously sick weighed heavily on my mind.
I should have done more.
Axel, seeing that we had entered, got to his feet. Ally did too. Molly and Rome were smiling wide. I had just wondered why they were so happy, when Ally suddenly thrust her left hand out for us to see. At first I wondered what she was doing, then I heard Lexi squeal and run forward.
It was then that I saw the diamond perched on Ally’s finger, and my eyes shot to my big brother. Axel was already watching me and Austin, waiting for our reaction. Instead of saying anything, he shrugged and ran his hand through his long hair. It was then I knew he was nervous.
Smirking at my brother, I walked forward and he pulled me in for a hug. “Congratulations, Axe.” Moving closer to his ear, I added, “You deserve it.”
Axel held me tighter, and I heard his low voice ask, “Yeah?”
Smiling at the thought that my brother constantly tried to make up for the past by seeking my approval, I pushed back and nodded my head. “Yeah, Axe. You do.”
Axel cupped my cheek and rasped, “Thanks, kid.”
I had just moved to Ally to congratulate her too, when the sound of smashing glass sounded from the kitchen. I stepped back to see what all the noise was about, when I heard a man shouting.
“What the fuck’s happening in there?” Austin asked from beside me. I shook my head wondering too, when the kitchen doors suddenly burst open. What I assumed was the restaurant manager, pushed through, and in his arms he held a girl. The girl weakly thrashed around, but made no other sound but for her heavy, crackled breathing. Unable to clearly see what was going on, I pushed past Rome and Molly until I caught sight of the manager walking to his office on the other side of our private room… and the blood drained from my face.
It was her.
The homeless girl was in his arms.
My heart pounded in my chest as she weakly fought the manager’s grip. He abruptly turned and her face came into view. My stomach sank again. She was worse. She looked worse than she did a few nights ago, which to me seemed almost impossible.
Her thin legs dragged on the tiled floor, her body too weak to stand. The sight sent me lurching forward. I ran at the manager, taking hold of the girl’s outstretched arm, pulling her from his grasp. As I did, I glanced down, seeing the girl’s glazed eyes staring up at me. Her pupils were dilated, the whites near gray in color. I could see that although she was looking at me, she really wasn’t seeing me. Her skin was scalding to the touch and her forehead was glistening with sweat.
The manager reached out to take her back, but I growled, “Get the hell off her!”
The manager stepped back, wearing a mask of confusion. “She was stealing. I caught her stealing from the back office. I’m calling the cops. They can deal with it. I’m not hurting her.”
A wave of protectiveness swept through me, and I hissed, “Not hurting her? She’s sick. Can’t you see how sick she is?”
The manager glanced down at the girl in my arms, and shook his head. “This is the third time I’ve had money stolen this month.”
I balked. How could this ass not see that she was sick? That she was starving? He was ringing the cops instead of helping her, instead of actually giving a damn.
“Lev, what the fuck’s going on?” I turned to Austin who had just called my name. His arms were crossed over his broad chest and his dark eyebrows knitted together in concern. I saw him cast a glance at the girl in my arms. I registered the confusion in his expression.
“She needs help,” I said. I focused on the girl, whose breathing was too raspy and deep, too shallow. Her face was puffy and her skin was sallow, drenched in sweat. Her eyes couldn’t maintain focus. Just as I brought her face closer to me, her legs lost strength. I had to keep tight hold to stop her from falling to the floor.
Lexi was suddenly at my side. “Levi?” Lexi held her hand to the girl’s forehead. “God, she’s burning up.”
“I told her to leave when I found her in the office, but she kept going, stuffing her jacket full of cash like I wasn’t even there, her back to me, ignoring my words. I’ve had enough. It’s not just her that keeps doing this to us. We can’t afford it,” the manager complained.
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