Piper sank slowly onto an old pillow. Shaking, she lay her head in-between her knees.
"Piper, c'mon. You know it isn't what it could have been," I pleaded.
"But it was terrible." Her voice trembled with emotion. I hardly recognized her. A few months ago we had been living the life in an apartment. Then like a magic trick-POOF! Done. Kicked out to live on the streets with the rats.
"Piper, it was better than our last run," I tried again, crouching down beside her and wrapping my arms around my knees, as if making myself into a tight ball would fix everything; the pain, the hurt, and the loss.
"Jack, I...I wish we had so much more than this, and-" she sighed, standing up.
"And what? Don't you think that I would like something more than living off of trash?" I retorted, also standing up.
"No, Jack, I'm sorry," she said softly.
I ran my hands through my lice-covered hair. "Me too." I had lost all patience with her, and needed to take a deep breath like she had taught me to. We almost got killed because of her! Or two.
"I'll stay here next time, and clean up. Maybe we can get an orphanage or something," Piper hinted.
"No! No orphanages," I said quickly. Orphanages would split us up, and ruin our lives a lot worse.
"Just saying. We would get a lot more food, you know." She held up her hands to signal me to cool down.
"Promise me no orphanages," I pleaded.
"Jack..." she whined, staring me in the eyes with a look that almost made me give in. Until I remembered.
"Promise me," I repeated.
"Okay, I promise, Jack. No orphanages. For this week, at least," she mumbled, hugging me. Again I didn't recognize her. Her face was covered in a decent amount of grime, her hair was knotted and tangled, and she too had lice.
I could only imagine what I looked like. Me, Jack Graves, famous pickpocket, the expert. Once Jack Graves, the normal boy.
"What's for supper?" I asked, flopping onto the sagging, ripped couch.
"Let's see," Piper mumbled, going through the bag at my feet as she sat on the mattress. The bag of what might-be, could-be edible food. "How about an apple?" she held a bruised apple up to my face for inspection.
I slowly pushed the apple down away face as she continued to search the bag. "Uh, you eat it," I said, somewhat generously.
"What, is it poisoned?" she laughed.
I felt my face redden. "No, I just want you to have it."
"Ok, buddy. Here's a roll." This too she shoved in my face for my approval.
"Thanks. Can you hand me the knife?" I asked.
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, sure. Where is it?" Piper mumbled.
I pointed to the old nightstand. "Up there." She handed it to me and continued to look through the bag.
"What are you going to eat?" I asked, scraping the mold off of the roll.
"The apple, silly!" she giggled, still digging around.
I wiped the dirt of the best I could on my already dirt-covered shirt. "Then why were you still looking?"
"Counting how much we have left." She bit into the apple with a non-satisfying smush, then spat it back out and nearly threw up.
"Whaa...?" I asked, stopping mid-bite.
She showed me the apple. "Rotten." She chucked it into a nearby trashcan and pulled another roll out of the bag. I handed her the knife.
Later, I knew I had to get her busy, or sleepy, in order to get away. "You can have the couch tonight," I offered. "I can sleep on the mattress." Why was the couch better? Less lice and bugs.
"Why?" she asked suspiciously as I gazed up into the now twinkling first few stars.
"I feel like letting you use it, that's all. After all, it was kind of my fault today during our attempt to rob that guy, and I feel kinda bad for yelling at you."
She smiled and flopped onto the couch, then pushed me off onto the mattress. "I accept your apology," she yawned.
When I was sure she was asleep, I quietly crept out from the tarped alley. I stole across the street and waited. The only sound I could hear was my heart pounding. A voice inside my head said to not to. Most likely my heart, since another part of me said keep going.
I slipped around a corner, where I told the boys to meet me. They were there, with a man. The man had an expensive attire, a pocket watch chain somewhat visible from underneath his coat. He had on shiny shoes with scrapes and scratches, most likely from the tussle with the boys.
He had a cut on his cheek he attempted to wipe at with a dirty handkerchief, and his right eye was turning black and blue, and was already slightly swollen.
He was still conscious, luckily. "Boys, don't do this. You won't get away with this," he croaked.
"I think we will," Reggy sneered.
"Yeah, wait till the Boss shows up. He'll have somethin' to-" Tom began to boast.
"Shut up, Tom! The Boss is here!" Reggy punched him in the stomach. I smiled. They had noticed me.
"Hello, boys," I said from the shadows. "What've we got here?"
"Hello, Boss," Tom said, still holding his stomach.
"Hey, Boss. What's the orders," Reggy grinned. It wasn't a question, it was more of a statement, now.
"Let him go," I said simply.
"What?" Reggy snarled. "After all our hard work? C'mon, you know we need his money more than he does."
"Let him go," I said calmly, and walked off into the night after seeing the man get away safely, hoping I had done the right thing. I also watched to make sure Reggy and Tom were going away. I heard Tom yelp as I saw Reggy box his ears, the bully.
Somehow, I managed to fall asleep after the episode, my pockets as empty as that man's could have been. The next morning, I took Piper with me down to the McCarthridge orphanage.
"Piper," I whispered. "Piper. Wake up." I shook her shoulder slightly.
"Mmhmm," she groaned into the old couch.
"We're going to that better place you were talking about. C'mon, get up, let's go."
Her eyes jumped open, she sat up and smiled the biggest smile. "Really?" There were tears in her eyes, of pure joy and happiness.
"Yeah, sure, let's go!" I smiled, feeling more confident about myself and the orphanage situation.
She brushed off her shirt and pants several times. I managed to grab our dog-eared family Bible, Mother's locket, Father's broken pocket watch, and Uncle's ivory comb (our most prized possessions), and then we left.
We walked down the streets, barefoot. Our shoes we had long grown out of and thrown out. It wasn't quite dawn yet, so luckily no one was out.
Later, when we neared the town where McCarthridge's was, there was a crowd of busy shoppers. It was almost twelve, so many people would be out for lunch. I resisted the urge to pick a man's pocket, and was bluntly shoved with Piper over to a wall.
"Get outta here, punks!" the man shouted.
"Take my hand and don't let go," I said to Piper, ignoring the rude man. We brushed our way through the crowd after a few more street rat insults were hurled at us.
There at the edge of town loomed our fate. The big building seemed haunting and gloomy, almost making me want to turn around and leave, but it was too late to turn back now.
The laughter and cheerfulness of the children out back made the choice seem twice as better, though, and I took a deep breath, and burst through the iron gates with confidence.
We entered the building and walked boldly to the desk, where a middle-aged woman sat, typing away at an old typewriter.
"Goodness!" she exclaimed.
We were swept away and bathed several times. The coats of filth and grime washed off and the knots in our hair were brushed and combed out. When we had finished, we didn't even recognize each other.
The lady who had been at the desk, or Ms. Hastings, sat us down to get their background information to get them settled.
"And where exactly had you been living?" she asked, writing furiously on a pad of paper with things written down here and there.
"Uh," I exchanged looks with Piper, who winced. "In an old alley."
Ms. Hastings took her glasses off and set them down on the paper. "You mean to tell me that you two have been living on the streets, for three years?"
Piper nodded. "It took a lot to convince him to come here."
Ms. Hastings wrote down the last few things on another line and set her glasses on her desk. "You will be very happy here. Tell me, how did you decide to come here?"
"Uh, you don't want to know," I said uncomfortably.
Ms. Hastings and Piper laughed. "You two go together like two peas in a pod!"
Piper smiled. "Finally, someone agrees with me!" Ms. Hastings laughed, but I moaned and walked off.
"Women!" I yelled.
Ms. Hastings giggled. "Yes, I think you two are going to be quite happy here."
Piper smiled back as I peeped my head back around the corner. "Me too."