You had to get up pretty damned early to steal from a bakery.
Maxi yawned and watched her breath mist upward, carried in the mild eddies of the alley’s current. A door banged, and she shrank back against the bricks, making sure the giant Dumpster hid her completely. She caught a glimpse of the prep girl’s bouncy ponytail and flour-dusted hand over the top of the metal bin as she tossed a black trash bag over the edge, singing under her breath. The door banged again, and the alley went back to silence.
“Where the heck is he?” Maxi grumbled, digging her fists deeper into the pockets of her thin hoodie.
Seconds later, Jeremy slid out of the wall next to her. “Hey.”
Maxi jumped but managed to swallow her yell out of long experience. “Jesus, Jer, don’t do that.”
“Sorry.” He hung in the air in front of her, looking contrite. And empty-handed.
The ghost shrugged. “Not enough juice. I got the hot chocolate half made before I petered out.”
“Damn.” Maxi bounced on her heels. “It’s just too cold out.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Adrienne sniped, fading into sight next to them. “Not laziness or anything.”
“Whatever,” Maxi ground out. She refused to bicker with the cynic. Laziness had nothing to do with it. The cold made her body sluggish, providing just enough energy for the ghosts to be visible to her if they chose to be. For what Jeremy was supposed to be doing, he needed faster, hotter blood flow or adrenaline or something. Running would do it, but she didn’t like calling attention to herself, and a teenager running in jeans and a hoodie drew way more attention than skulking in the shadows did. Plus, it was freaking cold.
“Go ahead, argue with her.” Drew, her last ghost, had decided to join the party. “That’ll get things flowing.”
Maxi sighed. “No. I’ll run. Be right back.” She blew out a hard breath and took off toward the main street. She wasn’t dressed for running, but the second-hand jeans weren’t too tight. Her feet would hurt in the cheap sneakers, but it was a small sacrifice to get the gourmet cocoa and special pastry Jeremy had been trying to get. Plus, she’d feel a little warmer in the February chill.
She jogged around the block, the ghosts streaming out behind her for several strides before they popped out of sight. They had to stay within about fifty feet of her and hated when she dragged them along. No one else could see them, but they complained about the indignity anyway.
When she got back to the alley her breath whooshed out in big gusts, her lungs searing with the cold. Her wavy dark-blonde hair stuck to the sweat on her neck, and her face prickled from blood flow meeting barely-above-freezing temps.
“How’s that?” She bent and braced her hands on her knees. “Enough?”
Jeremy knocked on the bricks and grinned. “Perfect. Be right back!” He phased out and glided back inside the bakery.
“Walk around,” Drew told her. “Cool down properly. And stretch, if—”
“I got it.” Maxi wandered in circles, propping her hands on her hips. The thirty-one-year-old hedge fund manager had been obsessed with fitness. Since it had killed him, he tended to be a little mommyish about Maxi’s. To keep him satisfied, she touched her toes and stretched her hammies.
A few minutes later the back door to the bakery drifted open, seemingly of its own accord, and Jeremy sauntered out carrying a white bakery bag and steaming go cup.
She beamed at him. “Thanks, Jer.”
“My pleasure.” He phased into sight as she took the food from him, then ruffled her hair, because he could. “I hope she likes it.”
“Me, too. Let’s get back before it gets too cold.”
“I made it extra hot. The prep girl went to the bathroom, so I had time to use the steamer.” He sounded very pleased with himself.
Drew and Adrienne stayed silent on the six-block walk back to the house, but Jeremy paced beside her, chatty after his energy meal. He didn’t care if Maxi tuned him out. None of them did, really. Constant togetherness got old, especially after sixteen years. Then there was the crazy factor. Maybe in a big city talking to thin air wouldn’t get a second glance, but small-town people tended not to like having nutcases around.
The streets were starting to wake up, though the sun still had another hour before it rose. Cars idled in driveways once she’d left the downtown area, warming up for the commutes to Boston an hour to the east, or one of the nearby suburbs. A couple of people nodded as they jogged past her.
When she’d snuck out at five, the Owens’ house had been dark. Now, an hour later, lights glowed from two upstairs bedrooms and the kitchen downstairs. Her foster father, Butch, would have left for work already. The mom, Diane, was making breakfast in the back, and the kids would be getting ready for school.
Maxi circled the yard by the hedges, out of the squares of light on the lawn, and snuck up to the French doors she’d left unlocked off the family room. The porch creaked under her feet, but Maxi didn’t worry about being overheard. Moments later, she’d dashed up the stairs to the second floor and banged into the room she shared with Grace and Charlie. As she’d expected, Grace was hogging the bathroom in the hall, the Owens’ own boys pounding on the door, yelling at her to get out. Grace was five months older than Maxi, who’d just turned sixteen, and considered herself the boss of the gang. The boys, ten and nine, so didn’t agree.
Neither did Maxi, but it was hard to care much.
Charlie, the third foster kid, sat on the floor between the twin beds crammed into the front bedroom, tying her Converse knock-offs. Maxi noted the rubber flapping off the heel of the right one, and the three-times-broken laces on the left. She should have gotten her shoes, instead. But that was a bigger theft than overpriced breakfast food.
The little girl’s head jerked up, her mouth open in an O, as the door hit the wall. Her startled expression morphed into a delighted grin. “There you are!” She tugged her laces tight and bounced up. “Grace is so pissed you disappeared again.”
Maxi shrugged. “Desperate times.” She handed Charlie the go cup and bag. “Happy birthday.”
“You remembered!” Charlie set the cup down carefully, then flung her arms around Maxi. “Thank you!”
“Don’t thank me until you know what it is.” But Maxi hugged her back, the only person she ever really touched these days. How could anyone deny an eight-year-old starved for affection? She closed her eyes and gave an extra squeeze, soaking in Charlie’s excitement.
“I’ll love it,” Charlie assured her, eager to please. But when she sipped from the cup and tasted the sweet chocolate, her eyes got big and color dotted her normally pale cheeks. “Ohmygod, it’s hot cocoa!” She drank deeper. “This is the best I’ve ever had!”
“Cool.” Maxi sank onto the edge of her unmade bed and dragged her backpack out from under it. “Check the bag. Diane’ll be calling us down in a minute.” She unzipped her pack and made sure her homework was there—there’d been times, in other foster homes, when it hadn’t been—and that her few important possessions and gotta-run stuff were still concealed.
Charlie squealed and pulled out the pastry. “A scone?” she breathed as if it were an iPod or something. Her eyes got shiny and she set the scone carefully on top of the bag. “You got me a scone.”
Maxi shrugged. “It’s not a big deal, squirt.”
“It’s my very favoritest birthday present ever,” she insisted, breaking off a corner and slowly settling it on her tongue. “Mmmmm.”
The noise in the hall got louder. Maxi jumped up. “Quick. Hide it. Grace is coming.” She scooped the scone into the bag and shoved the whole thing into Charlie’s Snoopy backpack. She couldn’t hide the cup or it would spill, so she stood in front of the desk it sat on, while Grace swanned into the room with a scathing sweep of her eyes meant to encompass both girls and their surroundings.
“What the frick are you two up to?”
Maxi shook her head warningly at the younger girl while Grace made a show of flinging a glitter-threaded scarf around her neck. Every time a box showed up from the church, Grace took all the cool clothes for herself. Yet another privilege of “being the oldest.” She didn’t even seem to notice the other two didn’t answer her, and a moment later, she sauntered back out into the hall and danced down the stairs to the kitchen.
“That was close!” Charlie turned to retrieve her cup and hugged it to her chest. “She’d have taken it for herself.”
Maxi slung her pack over her right shoulder and patted Charlie. “I wouldn’t have let her. You stay here and drink that. It should be cool enough.”
“It’s perfect.” Charlie sipped. “Just right.”
Maxi chuckled. “You’d say that even if it was ice cold.”
Charlie’s grin showed her missing lower teeth, a vulnerable look that always made Maxi a little uneasy. The girl was so damned innocent. She’d been in foster care three years, but somehow managed to stay happy and untainted. Maxi had seen enough people prey on that to know it was only a matter of time before Charlie got hurt. But it wasn’t like she could tell her to stop smiling. That would make Maxi the bad guy.
“Okay, then, you drink that, eat your scone, and I’ll run interference for you downstairs. Watch the clock, though, you don’t want to miss the bus.”
“No problem.” Charlie concentrated on her drink while retrieving the bakery bag with her other hand. Satisfied, Maxi headed off into hell.
* * *