This was her last chance. Watching the shadows as the cold wind blew drifting snow against her, Maia crossed the avenue, intent on reaching the back street of Union Center, grateful for the pittance she had panhandled so she had enough to ride across town on the El. Regardless of her fatigue, Maia forced herself to stay alert and aware of her surroundings as this was Bloods territory and whenever two or three are gathered, there was always a gun in the midst of them. Sliding into the shadows, she leaned against the alley wall, watching for movement around the semi-trucks parked in the back of the arena. Maia hoped to find her way past security and into one of the trucks so she could stowaway in Paul Lenci’s tour cargo until it reached its next tour stop in Cleveland.
Over the last few weeks, Maia had come into this neighborhood to devise her plan to escape Chicago and all the troubles she would leave behind with it. Regardless of how much she had panhandled, getting through Union Center’s gates and into that truck was more important to her than eating. Maia’s stomach rumbled as she thought of her last supper at St. Jerome’s soup kitchen the night before. As a pair of shadows moved in the opposite direction, she approached the alley that she had scoped out and practiced her maneuvers.
With her back pressed against the wet alley wall in the shadows, Maia stared down the semi-trucks resting in the loading bay, their windshields frosting over with drifting snow. Stiffening her stance against the wall as if she was made of bricks, Maia shut out the cold from her numbing extremities and wind burnt face. She stood in the blackness of the shadow, waiting for the stubby and chubby security guards to emerge from the loading bay doors. Their guts protruded from the front of them with their bright neon vests stitched with SECURITY on the back of them in reflective white, which made them easy to detect. Tweedledee and Tweedledum, as she referred to them, paced about the loading bay and smoked their cigarettes while they watched for urban mischief. Because of Tweedledee and Tweedledum’s lack of security, she devised a plan to sneak past them and into one of those semi-trucks to stowaway until it reached its last stop in Cleveland tomorrow.
She could stand here for hours as she did the nights before, as the chill of the wall was buffered by her backpack hidden beneath the oversized and stained work coat. Like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the hump always stood out behind her, strained her shoulders as permanent marks embedded in them from where the straps had worn marks into them like when her swimsuit became too small and Cat couldn’t afford another one until they went on sale in July or August when the school clothes were put out on the racks.
Her petite form, which made strangers mistaken her for that of a child, was dwarfed by the long coat that reached her knees, but it kept her dry and concealed the only possessions she had left of her first thirteen years of life. Without her mother, Cat, Maia Lenci had nothing but a name and a secret that was ready to be revealed, and that evidence never left her back. She wouldn’t just silently slink away as Cat had fourteen years ago. At the ascent of Paul’s skyrocketing singles upon the Billboard charts, Saverio refused to divorce his wife, Rosa, for Cat, who was pregnant at the time with Maia.
The adults in her life excused his abandonment with his fear of his wife’s mobster connected family and the budding pop star son’s career. To keep his secret, Saverio set up a meager trust fund with an anonymity clause. If she exposed Saverio’s bastard to the Lenci family before she was an adult, she would lose the trust fund, which didn’t matter and his anonymity clause was defunct now that she was essentially a homeless teen without a forwarding address.
Maia resented Saverio for not being there for her now more than ever, always reminded of his refusal of her although he admitted her paternity, but declined the opportunity to hold her or have a picture taken with her when he came to sign the birth certificate at the hospital, so he could deny it to others and the press if the truth was ever discovered. She had no proof other than her birth certificate. When a gust of arctic wind stole her breath, Maia covered her face to suppress a coughing fit and quiet the loud asthmatic gasp that might expose her to Tweedledee and Tweedledum in the loading bay. Abandoning their march about the trucks, they ducked between them as bluster of cold air inundated them yet again. Maia held her breath and rushed into action, retrieving the box she had hidden behind the dumpster yesterday, hoping that the guards wouldn’t return to their posts and catch her assembling the box with her sore hands that were already numb from the sub-zero wind chills.
Cloaked beneath the box, she sandwiched the box against the brick wall and her back. She slowly sidestepped the length of the wall with her head down against the garbage petrified in hardened ice ground until she was completely in the shadow of the wall. With her low center of gravity, Maia lowered herself, carefully controlling the direction of the box flaps that rested beneath her so that one was under her bottom and the rest beneath her feet to keep the ice off them and the wind from taking off with her box and exposing her to the elements and the guards.
With a broken pencil, she tore peephole, leaving a flap on it so she could open it to see out and shut out the wind when she wasn’t peering out of the thin cardboard. Unfortunately making it larger than she had desired, she realized it was wide enough to see the span of the loading bay. Grateful to be out of the wind, Maia pulled her arms from her coat sleeves and wrapped them around her thin torso, tucking her hands into her armpits that were hardly any warmer than her hands. While she was out of the whipping wind, she battled against it ripping the box from beneath her as the Northeastern front that moved in with a vengeance that night and blew the drifting dirty snow from the alley into her face through her peephole. Trying to keep blood moving through her fingers to ward off frostbite, Maia played imaginary chromatic scales with her fingers, hearing the scales in her ears, imagining the notes upon the page. Glad that it was dark, she resolved not to take the gloves off her hands to check the progress of the frostbite that had already blistered her fingertips. Maia knew that if she kept moving them, her hands would be fine. They were her life and she could not lose them. Missing fingers would make a career as a concert pianist even more challenging, but not impossible.
As far as Maia was concerned, nothing was impossible tonight. She wanted one shot to get into the truck. One shot to be in the same room with her father and brother with her birth certificate, love letters, and trust fund receipts. One shot in the same room with a piano and Paul. If only he could hear her play, see the medals, realize her potential for a music career, he wouldn’t throw her away. But then again, maybe he would. He is a Lenci after all.
Listening to the strained music of the opening act bouncing off the concrete of the Union Center, bursts of sound escaped the opened door of the arena and dissipated all the same when the door shut. Towards the end of the opening act, the crowd’s restlessness burst into the chanting of PAUL! PAUL! PAUL! when applause should have been for a completion of yet another song. Inside the tight quarters of the box, Maia strained her leg muscles to hold onto the flaps. Her cramped feet and legs put pressure upon the sore hips that couldn’t stretch out.
This was her foxhole, she told herself. She thought of Old Mike, one of the homeless veterans she ate supper with at St. Jerome’s Soup Kitchen. Maia would sit for hours and listen to his stories of Vietnam, how patience was vital, how to watch the eyes of your enemy and how to create not just one plan but various plans of escape and attack. Over the last few weeks, she’d ask Old Mike specific questions until he asked her if she was planning some heist. While she denied anything criminal, Maia had admitted that she was just trying to find her way home, but she didn’t know its address.
Tweedledee and Tweedledum shuffled about the trucks, pitching cigarette butts into the dune of snow that edged the plowed and salted loading bay. That ice packed bunker would be her biggest hurdle of getting to the trucks. She’d have to rush to its end, where the buildings’ shadow would camouflage her. Yet, that end of the dune was the steepest, hardened with ice and jagged ends on the descent. Refusing to undermine her confidence to succeed, Maia held onto the adrenaline of the moment. Determined not to get caught by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, whose first call would be 911, she feared getting carted off in the back of a squad car headed to juvenile detention and a court date instead of Cleveland and a showdown with her big brother.
“PAUL! PAUL! PAUL!” chanted the fans in the arena as the music ended. Once more, a burst of sound escaped the arena doors. Maia waited for the burst of wind to pass by her before opening the flap and peeking out of her box to watch as a tall figure approached shook the hands of two guards. He bummed a cigarette off one of the guards and the other was happy to offer him a light. In the brief light of the flame, Maia saw that the giant was Paul Lenci himself. Maia strained her eyes to watch him, her ears fine-tuned on his voice that bounced off the cement awning and floor of the loading bay. Her ears knew his voice as she had watched every YouTube and interview he had ever done on her I-pod she had pawned a month ago. She knew that voice. It was him. It was Paul. On impulse, she wanted to leap out of her hiding spot like a Jack-In-the-Box to get his attention, but Maia knew that revealing herself to him now wouldn’t help her. No, she had to be more calculating than that, so she opted to follow through with her plan that will probably result in a headline or his offer to keep her from ever becoming one.
He towered over Tweedledee and Tweedledum, making them look like gnomes. Unable to see his face as clearly as she would have liked, she could make out the goatee that he sported on the magazine covers recently. Wrapped up in a designer brand pea coat and probably a cashmere scarf about his throat, he joked with the guards as if they were old friends. They’d soak up his every word and inflection of his voice in that conversation, eating it up so they could retell their conversation with pop superstar Paul Lenci for weeks to come.
Paul, unlike other aloof celebrities, seemed kind to his fans. His acts of kindness and philanthropy kept him on magazine covers and in the newspapers instead of on the front page of gossip rags. She wondered if the indoctrination of her into his life would change that. Maia smirked at whether or not if he could stand up to the challenge his ego would easily fail.
Taped on the backside of the photocopy of the birth certificate she kept in her coat pocket, Maia was an article about Paul’s attendance and support for a fashion show that benefited homeless and disadvantaged youth in Philadelphia. “It’s such a tragedy that any child should have to make a sidewalk his bed, a trashcan his table, and an alley his toilet,” Maia underlinedPaul’s quote verbatim. As part of her arsenal of ammunition to test his metal, Maia couldn’t wait to see how he reacted to her situation and how he felt being thrown head first into it with her. She really wanted to know if he truly meant what he said about helping out the disadvantaged youth in that little sound byte or if he was just the hypocrite she expected.
For weeks she resented him and the other celebrities that showed up for that event. The rich dressed up in designer duds, paying the highest prices for a dinner and cocktails to raise money for those who didn’t even have a table upon which to eat their meals—if they got a meal at all. She couldn’t wait to be faced with Paul Lenci, such an admirable man of compassion, and see for herself how he’d react when she told him that his little sister lived on the streets, hid out in church sanctuaries and dodged cops who would have taken her to foster care or juvenile detention before anyone investigated that she was Paul Lenci’s little-lost sister.
“Get in there and get on with it, dude, its cold out here,” muttered Maia watching through the crack in the box where the wind whipped the snow into her face before she could even move to avoid it. Maia rolled her shoulders inward as her hands dug deeper into her armpits, trying to find warmth but not nearly warm enough.
She pushed from her mind the nagging fear of what could happen if Saverio Lenci denied her parentage to his son and his family. At least a DNA test could prove otherwise.
“Paul!” shouted a single voice from the doorway. “Let’s go, its show time.”
“Yeah, yeah, one more drag,” he replied loud enough for Maia to know it was him. He shook Tweedledee and Tweedledum’s hands but his cough made him wheeze until one of the guards escorted him to the door and opened it for him as Paul shuffled inside.
“Serves you right, smoking before a performance. As if you don’t know any better,” criticized Maia, remembering her own pack of smokes in the coat pocket with her lighter. She pushed her arms back where they belonged and shook one out of the packet, slipping off two gloves from the right hand so that she could work the lighter and light the cigarette. Once lit and the first drag was deep in her lungs, Maia slowly exhaled, enjoying the rush of nicotine that would boost her adrenaline, only to follow it up with a coughing fit of her own.
Jimmy and Jonny would kill her if they knew she was smoking. They abhorred that nasty habit and it made her smile in defiance knowing how angry it would make them. Serves them right taking off for France and staying there. Maybe her brother would let her smoke in his house. She kind of liked the way it made her feel when she smoked, especially when her stomach was empty.
After snuffing out the burnt cigarette, Maia rested her head against the side of the box, where the draft of the peephole didn’t attack her face, and she closed her eyes. With thoughts of Cat resting on the couch there in their little brownstone apartment, wrapped up in a blanket and stocking cap, Maia sighed, wanting to be there again in their apartment, her hands upon the keyboard of her piano, playing the soft chorales that Cat loved so much. She wished that she could play upon that old beat up console piano that Mr. Nussbaum had found for her years ago. The avocado green piano had keys with inlay chipped off, and it didn’t stay in tune for long and irritated her musical ear, but it was her piano, unlike the shiny black Yamaha’s in the practice rooms or the baby grand mid-century Steinway she played for her lessons at the University of Chicago.
For years she dreamed of making it big as a concert pianist, and that someday, her new piano would be in her apartment, with her medals and pictures of her and Cat upon it.Her own Steinway would grace her plush living room and had Cat lived, she would have hadher own bedroom there in her apartment. She was certain though that her old piano was in a dump somewhere now. It would never be hers again. Pushing the thoughts of pianos and Cat from her mind before tears burned her chapped face, Maia envisioned the sheet music of Bach chorales and wiggled her fingers to the music that she knew by heart, until she dozed off.
When she woke, Maia realized that the concert was over as she heardthe hordes of fans passing by the alley as they dispersed. The rear ends of the semi-trucks were open, and more security stood guard around the trucks. Not moving within the box, and lighting up the last cigarette from her pack that she had saved for just this moment, Maia kept completely still so that none of the rent-a-cops got suspicious. Roadies brought out large wooden crates and set upon the ground near the trucks.
About an hour later, after the extra security detail had disappeared and no one had walked past for about ten minutes, Maia stood up as quickly as possible, shed the box from her and resumed her position against the wall in the shadows. Her muscles ached. After shaking out each leg a little at a time, she slowly bent and flexed her knees and feet, then gently and quickly straightened until she froze in place when she saw a roadie or security guard round a truck on the lookout for thieves. With a calm breath, Maia’s little puffs of steam drifted from her exhale kept her camouflaged. Her hands and feet stung and burned as she waited almost an hour in the cold wind before she spotted her chance. A roadie called to the others that were packing T-shirts into a crate to come help dismantle a set. They cocked the lid on the crate at an angle so that the snow wouldn’t get inside and left it.
Maia rushed into action, heading straight for the tall snow dune, grasping onto it and getting up over the side, rushing down the side of it, hoping to be fast enough and lifting her feet so not to get her pant legs caught on the jagged ice sticking up like peaks throughout the snow dune. As fast as she could, she rushed, catching her pant leg on a final hurdle, and having to catch herself with her hands before her face fell onto the black ice there in front of it. Her gloves stuck to the ice as she ripped them upward, wiggling her fingers back into place as she ran as fast as she could to the loading bay. She crouched down under the semi-truck and hid her petite body behind a tire as she heard another roadie’s feet stomp in work boots that were loosely on his feet, clomping against the asphalt as he walked across the length of the truck bed before climbing up the rod iron ladder and back onto the concrete landing and into the arena doors.
“I told you there was nobody out there. Let’s get that set dismantled. I ain’t got time for your paranoia,” he barked, when he entered the back door to the arena that shut them all inside. In an instant she rushed to the ladder and got up as fast as possible, making her way to that wooden crate and climbing in as quickly as possible, trying to cover herself with the T-shirts until she couldn’t feel any cold air upon her. Only her foot was exposed, so she dug it deeper down and had to hurry to conceal herself again when she heard the arena door open again and heard two men speaking. Hearing their footsteps approach, Maia stilled and hoped that she wouldn’t be detected. With her face hidden beneath a pile of T-shirts and holding her breath until she could silence it, she pretended that she was Old Mike behind enemy lines as a wisp of cold air assailed her as she froze to freeze when the lid was slightly lifted then dropped down again, stiffening herself so not to be startled and blow her cover. She felt a stack of T-shirts dropped down into the crate, one landing over her face and blocking her oxygen. She dared not move or panic as they stood over it.
“This one is full,” said one male roadie to another.
“Let’s load it up. It should fit right there on top of that stack.”
They covered the crate with the lid and she could feel herself rising like Cleopatra by a couple of young men into Julius Caesar’s court. Hoping that another crate would not be stacked upon it, she closed her eyes as she felt them settle her crate into the crevices of another.
“I wonder what else they crammed in there other than T-shirts,” said the one.
“Who knows? Knowing those girls, they probably raided Paul’s bar in the dressing room.”
“If that’s the case, where did they get the keg from? This thing weighs a ton.” As soon as she was hoisted up and the crate locked into place with the rest, she moved the T-shirt bundle from on top of her face and used it as a pillow as her hands shuffled about searching for anything edible, finding nothing. She’d be there tomorrow, she could eat then, she reasoned. Finally, warmer than she had been all day, Maia closed her eyes and rested, knowing she had a long day ahead of her.
Within hours, a sleeping Maia was startled awake when she heard the truck’s engine rev only to close them again until the crate swayed with the truck’s motion and then closed her eyes and rested again, knowing that she was safe. She was going to make it. All she had to do now was sleep until they arrived in Cleveland, the final concert on this tour schedule. In a few hours, Paul Lenci would discover that he had a little sister—whether he wanted one or not.