Zoe Ohale squatted in the shade, her back against the brick wall of the pawn shop. In front of her was the market in the parking lot on Antares Road between the pawn shop and discount clothing store. She could feel the sweat running down her temple but it was too much bother to wipe it away.
She was here because there was food here, especially if she was quick. It had been four years since her mother had died and had to learn to live on the streets. Now sixteen, Zoe knew all too well what it was like to be hungry. Today she hoped a distracted stall-keeper would be her opportunity to pick up a loaf of bread or a piece of fruit. Both, if she had any luck at all.
Standing up, Zoe wandered along the stall fronts, casually looking over the goods in each stall. Her goal was the baker, halfway down the row. There was always a big crowd at his counter and the odds of him being distracted were high. She edged up to the counter behind a large bodied woman with a baby on her hip. With the baker at the other end of the counter and using the woman and baby as a shield, Zoe slipped her hand between the plastic tent wall and the counter to a table with a wicker basket of rolls. She’d slipped two out and into her pockets before the baker came to help the woman with the baby. It was easy to fade back and move on before the baker got to her.
Across from the baker, a woman had her produce stacked in bins. Zoe was reaching for a tomato when a girl, not much younger than her, came screaming past the stand, four teen boys in pursuit. She crashed into Zoe, nearly knocking her off her feet. The boys grabbed the girl and began shoving her between them.
Zoe yelled as she rubbed her arm where the girl had hit her. “Stop that.”
“Mind your own business,” the biggest boy said as he held the girl by the arm. “She ratted on us. Now she has to pay.”
The other shoppers melted away. “Not four on one.” Zoe stepped toward the group. “She’s half your size.”
“I didn’t rat on them.” The girl’s face was dirt streaked. Her brown hair was a tangled mess and her clothing hardly more than rags. “The owner caught them breaking into his store and they saw me hiding in the alley. So they blame me.” She tried to jerk her arm out of the biggest boy’s hand. “Not my fault they were noisy.”
Zoe stared at the biggest boy, apparently the leader. “That true?”
“She must have ratted. Why else was the owner there after hours?” The other boys were nodding. A couple reached out and smacked the girl in the back and the arms.
“Quit that,” Zoe took another step forward. “Ever hear of vid?” She asked the leader and pointed at the roof of the discount store across the parking lot. “Look up at the corner.”
All four boys turned to look. “Most places have vid installed. That’s how the owner knew. He must live near the store.”
The leader scowled and shook the girl again. His cohorts stared at him. “Maybe. But she ran. Why’d she run if she didn’t snitch?”
“Because four of you were chasing her.” Zoe rolled her eyes. “Turn her loose.”
The leader glared at Zoe then at the girl. He shoved her away from him. “Don’t hang in our turf again or you’ll get what’s comin’ to ya.” He motioned to the other boys and they hurried off.
“Oh, thank you.” The girl grabbed Zoe’s hand and shook it. “You saved my life. I’m Lindy.”
“I’m Zoe.” She shook Lindy’s hand. “No problem. Take care.” Zoe turned to leave. She wanted to try and snag some more food.
Lindy looked around. “Uh, you don’t mind if I hang with you for a minute, do you? In case those guys are waiting around the corner?”
Zoe shrugged. “Just stay out of my way.”
The crowd in front of the vegetables had returned. Zoe edged between an elderly woman with a string bag and big guy that looked like a workman on his lunch break. She snagged an apple and a tomato and slipped out of the crowd. Lindy caught up to her as Zoe walked along the stall fronts.
“That was pretty slick. I’m always too scared to try that.”
Zoe eyed the girl. It was obvious that Lindy wasn’t doing well. “How come you’re on the street?”
“Parents overdosed a year ago. I wasn’t eligible for foster care or the orphanage,” she said in a low voice. “They kicked me out of our apartment with whatever I could shove into my backpack.” Her voice quavered.
“Same here.” Zoe was still angry about it. “You have a gang?”
“No,” Lindy shook her head. “I’m afraid to ask.”
“That’s how to survive. Get in with a group.”
“Are you in a group?”
“Yeah. It’s not much but we look out for each other.”
Zoe knew what was going through the girl’s head. Could she join the group? Lindy didn’t bring much to the table. She couldn’t shoplift, it looked as though she didn’t scavenge, and was skin and bone. She did run fast, though. That was something. “Look. You can come hang with my group. See if you fit in.”
A wide smile brightened Lindy’s face. “Thank you,” she grabbed Zoe’s hand and shook it until Zoe had to forcibly remove it.
“You’re welcome.” She already regretted making the offer. “It’s not up to me, but hang around the edges. Don’t be a problem. They’ll probably let you stay.”
Lindy danced up and down. “Great, thank you.”
Zoe introduced Lindy to the gang. She stayed a year, learned how to survive and left for another group where her boyfriend belonged.
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