“I give in. It’s a box of pizza. This thing could last me like half a week. If I have two slices per day, I can make this last for four days! I store the box behind the dumpster along with the rest of my meager possessions. This includes a pair of shorts, for when the weather gets hot, and a jacket, for when the weather gets cold.”
“Ellie.” The sound of my name jerks me out of a stupor. I’ve been thinking in silence for a while. “Ellie!”
It’s Jason, the guy who is maybe, sort of, kind of my friend. I mean, he’s 15 like me, and he comes to see me a lot.
“Oh, hi!” I say.
He puts a box of pizza in my hands. It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon. He must be out of school, which has only been in session for a month. I’m sitting behind the pizzeria.
“Here,” he says.
I push it back.
“No, you keep it,” I say.
“I’m serious,” he insists. “Take it.”
I give in. It’s a box of pizza. This thing could last me like half a week. If I have two slices per day, I can make this last for four days! I store the box behind the dumpster along with the rest of my meager possessions. This includes a pair of shorts, for when the weather gets hot, and a jacket, for when the weather gets cold.
I’m currently wearing my jeans and a black t-shirt. These are the clothes I wear all of the time. My long jet-black hair is pulled back in a ponytail.
“Oh, and something else.” Jason pulls out a book. I gasp and take it. Since sixth grade, when we met, Jason has always given me the books he’s done with.
This one is very long, and by the description given by Jason, it’s very intense. I’ve never heard about this one. It’s called The Book Thief.
I start to read it an hour later, once Jason has left. It’s amazing. I really hate that I have to do it, but as I read, I grab my money box and my cardboard sign that says, Please help. Need money to live, and plop down on the sidewalk. I hate staring at that little box and just waiting for people to come.
When my growling stomach tears me away from the book, I look up and see the money box has money in it. Not a lot, but for me, every penny counts.
See, ever since I was nine, I’ve had to save money. It all started when I was ten. Dad was never part of the picture, and Mom was all I had. Even before she started coming home later and later, I hated home because it always felt half-empty. First I thought it was work, but then she started drinking. She was out until midnight or later. Until one day, she didn’t come home at all.
They told me it was a car crash. She had been drinking and driving.
I was only ten years old, but I had already lost both of my parents.
They wanted to put me in a children’s home, but I didn’t want to go. Twelve years old is too old for a tantrum, but I threw one that day. I ran away.
New York City was filled with homeless people, so I figured one more wouldn’t make a difference. I hate it, but I have to beg for money.
It’s getting dark, so I grab a slice of pizza out of the box and wolf it down. Then I put on my jacket and settle in behind the dumpster to read more.
Books have always been my one distraction from thinking about things I really don’t want to think about. When I’m reading, it’s like I don’t have to worry about me anymore. Instead, I can worry about the character’s problems. It’s much easier because I know that there’s a solution hidden somewhere in those pages.
After a while, when the only people walking across the streets are people who look somewhat suspicious, I know it’s time to go to sleep. Living behind a pizza place has its benefits. For example, I have a plentitude of empty pizza boxes. Every night, I build a little shelter out of cardboard and hide behind it to sleep.
I close my eyes and drift into nothingness.
When I wake up the next morning, there are three people there. Not one of them is Jason. I can see them through the cracks in the cardboard.
“Why is there a pile of pizza boxes out here?” one of them says. It’s a man. He’s a little bit, uh, heavy, and he has brown hair.
“Dad,” a girl says. This one looks a little older than me. She has long brown hair and does not take after her father in body type. “I think there’s a person in there.”
The third person, a little boy with brown hair, pipes up. “Why is there a person in there?”
“They must be homeless, Ben,” the girl says. Ben ponders this.
“Can we see?” Ben asks. I sit there, frozen, not daring to move.
“Sure, Ben,” the man says, “but be careful.”
I close my eyes again and pretend to be asleep as they carefully remove the cardboard to reveal me.
“Hey,” the girl says. “Hey, kid,” she shakes me.
“Huh?” I say groggily, pretending to wake up. “Who are you?”
“I’m Sienna,” she says, “This is my father, Tony, and my little brother, Ben. We own the pizza place.”
“I’m Ellie,” I say.
So these are the people who have, unknowingly, been letting me sleep behind their store.
“Nice to meet you, Ellie,” Sienna says. “Why don’t you come inside? We can have a more proper introduction.”
“Okay,” I say suspiciously, getting up. I still am not sure if they won’t report me to a foster home.
Inside, it is deliciously warm. Nothing like the crisp, autumn air I’m accustomed to in the alley.
“So,” Tony says, once the four of us are seated at a table.
“So,” I repeat.
“How long have you been living behind there?” Sienna asks me, getting straight to the point.
“About five months,” I admit sheepishly.
“Five months?” Tony exclaims. “How have we never noticed you before?”
“Well,” I say, “I spend a lot of time behind that cardboard… thing… you saw.”
“Impressive,” Sienna remarks. “Well, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you can’t live there forever.”
“Why not?” I ask, even though I know the answer.
“Ellie, you’re, what, thirteen?” Sienna asks. I nod. “So, you’ve got to be smart enough to know why you can’t live there forever.”
“I know that, but I’ve been doing pretty well on my own,” I say, “and, besides, there’s nothing to go back to anyway!”
That last part just slipped out.
“Ellie, what exactly happened to make you homeless at twelve years old?” Sienna asks.
I clam up. I slide down in my seat a little, even though it’s babyish. I fold my arms.
Sienna raises her right eyebrow.
“Ellie, you’re not a baby. You can’t stay homeless forever. I bet you’re not even going to school. You can’t grow up without an education. You probably live off of pizza, if anything, which can’t be healthy.” Sienna starts throwing these at me, while Tony just sits watching, and Ben is off somewhere doing who-knows-what. “I have to give you somewhere more permanent to live.”
I stare at her, not exactly knowing what this means.
* * *
A couple hours later, I am sitting on a bed in a room in The Kellerman Children’s Home.
So much for living behind Tony’s Pizzeria.
Sienna gave me a backpack to put my extra stuff in, but when I got here, I shoved all of it in the little dresser they gave me. Except for The Book Thief. I keep that on my bedside table.
The bed’s really comfortable. Well, I haven’t slept in a bed for a year, so anything is comfortable. It has a blue blanket and a pillow with a white pillowcase.
I’m still sitting there when another person comes into the room. She looks around my age, with curly, brown hair and the biggest brown eyes I’ve ever seen in my entire life. She’s wearing a black tank top and a flowy, pink skirt.
“Hi,” she says, sticking out her hand. “I’m your roommate, Liv!”
“Hey,” I reply, shaking her hand. It’s been awhile since I was around other girls my age. This is going to take some getting used to.
She sits on her bed and hugs her pillow, which is identical to mine.
“It’s been so long since I’ve had a roommate,” Liv exclaims. “This is going to be fun!”
“Yeah,” I say. “Fun.”
At The Kellerman Children’s Home, everyone from the crying babies to the moody teenagers eats in one big room, which is extremely unpleasant. There are so many tables and a buffet with food that is worse than the food I got when I was homeless. It smells disgusting. The air is filled with quiet chatter and occasionally a wailing baby. That night, I eat dinner as fast as I possibly can and rush back to my room.
I grab The Book Thief and suddenly a thought floods back to me. Jason. He doesn’t know where I am. Tomorrow, he’ll probably come to that little alleyway and find nothing. Just a bunch of cardboard. I guess he’ll think I’m gone for good. I stare at the cover of the book and let my thoughts crash through me like a tidal wave. I stare at the cover of that one finger pushing over a domino. That’s how the world works, I guess. When one thing happens, it sets off another thing, which sets off another, which sets off another, and it keeps going. When I was a little kid, my dad left, and that set off my mom’s drinking problem. That set off that horrible night where I waited anxiously for her to come home, and she never did. That caused me to run away, which caused me to be homeless, which meant I lived behind a pizza store. It all eventually led to Sienna discovering me, and putting me here.
And now, here I am.
When Liv eventually comes back into our room, she finds me lying face down under the covers. She is obviously able to take a hint and leaves me alone.
I live in The Kellerman Children’s Home for two weeks. In those two weeks, I become steadily more horrible to be around. Liv leaves me alone for the most part, and I think she really does try not to hate me, although I wouldn’t blame her if she did.
They enroll me in seventh grade at the school near here. I only missed the last two months of sixth grade and the first month of seventh grade so I’m pretty much all caught up.
I spend most of the school days absentmindedly staring out the window. The leaves on the trees have turned the most spectacular shades of orange, and yellow, and red, and I love looking at them. I occasionally break out of my trance to do actual schoolwork or write something down. I take as long as I can to get back to the Home, because I hate being there and having the freedom of walking from school is luxurious. All the kids get the option to either take the bus or walk, and I chose the latter eagerly.
Today, I take the long way, like usual. I’m walking around, looking around, not exactly looking where I’m going, when I realize where I am. I must have taken a wrong turn a couple blocks back, because I’m standing… right in front of Tony’s Pizza.
I stop short. There it is, that little alleyway where I hid for all those months. I decide that it can’t hurt to look at it again. I cross the street and walk into the alley. It’s like I never left. The cardboard structure is intact. That last box of pizza Jason brought me is sitting there. The pizza is gone, though. Rats must have gotten to it. I slide under the cardboard and I’m back to when I lived here.
All of a sudden, pizza boxes are ripped off of me, and I’m staring into Sienna’s face, angrier than I’ve ever seen it.
“I knew it,” she hisses. “I knew you would come back.”
“I wasn’t coming back to stay, I just — ” I protest, but she cuts me off.
I get to my feet, and we go into the store. This is just like last time, except this time, it’s only Sienna, and she’s fuming. Meanwhile, just like last time, I’m terrified.
Once we’re sitting, I say, “I wasn’t coming back to stay, I was walking past on the way back from school, and I just wanted to be back here again!”
“Why?” Sienna asks. “Here you had nothing. There you’re taken care of.”
“Please don’t make me go back!” I sort-of yell. “I’m miserable there. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I just want to be back where I know what my life is and how it goes!”
“I’m taking you back there,” Sienna insists, despite my desperate plea.
A lump materializes in my throat, but I swallow it down.
I’m back at The Kellerman Children’s Home. By now, Liv must be bewildered. I’ve spent most of my time here moping. I haven’t talked to her at all.
I am curled in a ball under my covers when Liv pokes me.
“Go away, Liv,” I say.
“It’s not Liv,” whoever she is says. I poke my head out of the covers. Long, blonde hair and green eyes. Sienna. I pull my head back.
“Ellie, I understand why you’d be mad at me.”
“I would be mad at me, too!” she continues, ignoring me.
“Go away,” I say it louder this time. Sienna keeps talking.
“So I’m making it up to you.”
I slide my head out. “How?”
“After talking with my dad and Ben, we’ve all decided that the only option is to let you come live with us.”
“What?” I pinch myself. When it is definitely not a dream, I jump out of bed.
“Yeah!” Sienna tells me. “And technically, my boyfriend and I would be your legal guardians.”
I can hardly believe my luck.
A week later, I move out. It’s the happiest day of my whole life.
“Hi, Ellie.” A man with black hair wearing jeans and a sweatshirt introduces himself. He’s Sienna’s boyfriend. “I’m Josh.” Following this are so many jokes that I can’t remember all of them. By the end of it, I am rolling on the floor.
I will have no problem living with him.
So it started with my mom. Then homelessness. Then Sienna and Tony and Ben. Then The Kellerman Children’s Home. Now this.
And somehow, this crazy, messed-up, life of mine ended up okay.