Define Selfish

Chapter 3

Callie Jacobs

New York City

Day 15

Every time Callie sees a cop she feels like bolting. Instead, she crosses the busy street, flips the hood of her 'borrowed' sweatshirt up and pretends that she isn't picturing Stef Foster or remembering what it felt like sitting in the hospital waiting room hoping she wouldn't die.

So many people…Callie bites her tongue to keep from lashing out as strangers jostle her on all sides. She hates this city and she knows she'll never make it to the shelter in time. Five o'clock is the deadline. Hoping that it won't be full by then is stupid and Callie isn't stupid. She takes a second to glance up at the sky and accidently but unavoidably bumps into some poor sap on the street—the feel of foreign fingers in her pocket makes the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Callie jerks away, instinctively—it's not like she has much for a pick pocket to score, but it feels like a violation. They happen every day. It's something you get used to.

She hasn't bothered to replace her backpack. Living in shelters doesn't demand a high volume of personal possessions—the less the better. Callie doesn't even keep a tooth brush; she uses her finger when she can get her hands on some toothpaste. There's no need for a hair brush anymore either. The runaway sold her pony tail yesterday for thirty dollars. It's the first step. Selling her hair seemed ok—better than some of the alternatives and no matter how often she reminds herself that she's going to have to do whatever it takes to survive, it was a relief to do something so blameless first. Callie's got this. She's doing all right and she doesn't have any additional reasons to hate herself—yet. That safety net will be short lived, it has to be—but for now, it's nice to know she has thirty dollars to her name.

Aimlessly walking the streets is getting old. Callie has seen a lot, learned some but she's still working on a plan. There's always something you can do and Callie is nothing if not resourceful. Right now, she's hungry. The only familiar food place she's found on these streets—that she can afford—is a Dunkin Donuts. A girl who is a little older than Callie works at the counter and gives her free coffee at closing time. They're going to throw it out anyway.

Callie decides to duck in early and see if she can drum up a sandwich. She has money now and a part of her wants to prove to her new acquaintance that she's not a free-loader.

"Hey girl, you're early today."

Callie makes a face and nods, "Yeah, can I get…" Chicken, she'll go with chicken, it's always the cheapest, "…barbeque chicken on a croissant?" Ordering makes her feel like she's doing pretty damn well after all. The five dollar bill in her fist is nothing, until the girl behind the counter tries to take it. Callie swallows the bile in her throat and forces her fingers to let go. She's buying a stupid sandwich at Dunkin Donuts—shouldn't she be doing something else, something more important with her money?

Too late.

"It'll be out in a couple minutes—here, I'm going to start putting some of this stuff away, why don't you take your coffee and grab a seat?"

"Thanks." Callie grabs the luke-warm cup from the counter and slides into a seat with her back to the wall, eyes on the front windows. She sits that way for a minute without drinking, eyeing the exits. She knows what she's going to have to do next. First she's gotta find a public restroom to commandeer and clean up a little before she heads to the slums. There's a homeless camp down there. It's not the best accommodations, definitely not five-star, but in this city there's some safety in numbers when it comes to police. Callie doesn't really have anything worth stealing; it all comes down to discovery now. She's got nothing to lose.

The touch of the coffee cup against Callie's lips is actually a surprise. She doesn't know what her body is doing half the time these days. She takes a sip and tries not to make a face at the cold sludge. Caffeine is caffeine. She didn't particularly like the way the Fosters made their coffee either.

Masochism makes Callie relive her first morning at the Fosters' house. She can still taste that coffee. It was like water. She'd learned not to bother unless Stef was the one brewing.

"Here you go…"

Callie jumps and looks up as a sandwich lands in front of her.

"I'm locking up in five though, sorry."

"Ok." Why bother with unnecessary words? Hunger is automatic. Callie's stomach growls as she picks up the sandwich, trying to ignore the employee's curious look as she takes a bite. Her mouth is watering before the food reaches her tongue. She already knows what it's going to taste like and has the sneaking suspicion that this sandwich is going to come back to haunt her the next time she's starving. BBQ Chicken: the dying man's last request. Callie fights back a grin, instantly putting herself in lockdown. Hysteria could be her worst enemy.

What would they think if they could see her now?

Callie's raised eyebrows are the byproduct of an effective mood killer, all satire aside. The sandwich slowly finds its way back to the table and Callie's appetite dies. Her hair is ragged and dirty, clothes sweat soaked and gross, her face has thinned a little and she probably smells bad. Suddenly Callie doesn't think she can stomach barbeque. She forces it though. The teen has no idea when she'll eat next.

This sandwich is definitely going to haunt her.

The wrapper crumples in Callie's fist before she tosses it in the trash and pushes through the glass door, onto the sidewalk. She's not coming back here. Not even for free coffee.

Still, Callie hasn't thought of an answer. She has no idea what the Fosters would think if they could see her now. It's only taken two weeks to fully understand that she never really knew them at all. Jude is one thing and even her foster siblings—Callie's always been observant and she made her peace with being so sensitive to others—it's hard to understand something when you haven't lived it and Callie's experienced all sorts of hell so her foster siblings' problems weren't complete mysteries. Neither were Talya's, in fact, Talya was damn near transparent. It's the Moms that Callie can't grasp. They have something, they represent something; they are something that Callie can't remember knowing. The only common ground between she and them is Jude. Beyond that, Callie pretends that there isn't anything to understand. She won't try to understand their position as parents let alone the part they've played in her life. It's simpler to think of them as two dimensional, paper images. She can shred a piece of paper and it won't feel a thing. The most it can do is give her a paper cut. Yet Callie can't seem to forget that paper doeshold power—more than she'll ever possess. What's on a page can be powerful enough to send a girl like her back to Juvie, or guarantee a boy like Jude a lifetime of love.

The Mom's are just that—they aretwo dimensional pieces of paper. They're just like the file that won't die. Callie could tear it up, burn it, but what it had to say would still brand her for the rest of her life…

It's Lena that sticks in Callie's mind, the next page in her file to be shredded.

"Ok…Callie, we're on your side. You can take it down a notch, ok."

Sometimes she forgets that Lena is the one who brought her home—Lena was hope. She gave Callie a chance when she could have just let her go to a group home. It's a hard thing to acknowledge after all is said and done and after opening up so much…but, Lena was the first person Callie trusted after Juvie and what Lena did for Jude—still does, Callie reminds herself—is enough to make Callie grateful for her.

Callie can read Stef a little easier. She's not such a mystery; being able to predict a person's behavior is always comforting. Callie has an idea of what Stef might think. That's probably why every time Callie thinks about her foster mothers she thinks about Stef coming to bring her back. Not now. Now she can't get Lena out of her head.

The faster Callie walks, the quicker her heart beats and the higher it rises in her throat. It feels like she's being chased.What would Lena think? Does she hate Callie for what she's done to her family?

Callie's sneakers flop faster until she's running down the street, weaving in and out, between the evening commuters. She drops down into the jammed street without stopping to look and cuts across to avoid a squad car.

Maybe Lena wouldn't think anything—and maybe she doesn't have anything to say to Callie anymore. Callie's hood flies off as she runs. She can't breathe.

There is no one chasing her. Callie forces her body to stop and she bends over, hands on her knees, sucking in air through her nose. It burns. Tears drop from Callie's eyes onto the sidewalk and someone bumps into her, upsetting her balance and sending her shoulder into the transom of an open street deli. Her palms flatten on the rough concrete of the wall and she stays that way, back to the world, furiously trying to regain her composure. This can't keep happening. It has to stop—now.

Stef Foster. Callie lets the names come and murders the reactions, strangles them before they can dig in. Lena Adams. Callie isn't quite so quick—because the amount of fear that the name triggers is unexpected. Pain is one thing but fear…Callie shakes it off like a dog, determined. Brandon. Callie's nails scrape against the wall as her fingers curl into fists. Mariana. She refuses to gasp for breath again. Jesus. The muscles in Callie's chest strain.

Jude.

The seasoned teenager sinks to the ground and curls up against the building. No one notices, no one stops. It's so easy to get lost here.

There's a ringing in her ears that blocks out the sound of the city and delivers a cloud of welcome fog. Her shoe slips on the sidewalk and it takes a second for Callie's eyes to focus on her stretched leg and the strange feet that step right over without pausing. An ache in the side of her head, where Callie's temple rests against the wall demands attention.

They're all rats in a maze here. Callie's one of them, but…

The ache builds and the teen's eyes water in pain.

Even rats in a maze are smart enough to look for a way out.

No one can see over the walls—or under them, vermin included. So how do they find the exit? All these people, what do they know that she doesn't?

Callie's other leg lowers to the sidewalk. Her vision is clearing—her stomach painfully churning, it's that barbeque taste in the back of her throat—but there's a Laundromat across the street; she can see it between the moving hedge of legs. A moment of clarity isn't the right description, but it's certainly a moment of something as Callie stands, forcing a path through her fellow prisoners, eyes on the prize.

All she knows is that everyone is stuck in this maze with her. She can't see the way out, not yet—maybe she'll never find it—but Jude is in here with her and she needs him to know that she's going to find the exit if it's the last thing she does.

The door of the Laundromat doesn't ding or chime when she opens it; Callie barely notices the tile floor straight out of the 50's or the whirring stacked machines. No one looks twice at her but she does. Callie sees her reflection in the plastic bubble front of a washing machine. It's empty, except for her image. She's so dirty.

Callie kneels, unnoticed, staring; thinking…trying to figure a way out. Her eyes glance to the sides, no one cares; she'd have to pull a gun to get their attention so she only hesitates for a second before decisively standing and yanking her outer tank top off. The next step is her jeans. Callie stands in a pair of spandex shorts and a camisole with her shirt and pants hanging from open hands before she remembers that the washing machine won't open on its own. She pulls the bubble open almost angrily; too much energy making it impossible for her to stay calm. Her hands shake while she pulls off her sneakers and socks, an afterthought tossed in for good measure. The door slams closed—someone must have noticed her by now—and Callie waits.

Change. She needs quarters. Embarrassed, Callie pulls the door open again and roots in her pants pocket for what's left of her money. She walks, barefooted toward the folding tables and the only person in here wearing a loosely titled 'uniform'. The aged Vietnamese woman is watching all right—ignoring Callie's bare feet in dignified silence but eyeing the girl like she’s the devil incarnate.

"I need change."

Silence. The woman walks around her table and away, leaving Callie to watch in masked confusion until she returns with a roll of quarters.

Ten dollars…Callie doesn't want a whole roll, but maybe she'll need it. Either way, the laundry woman's glare is more like a challenge. Callie has a feeling this is one that she can't afford to turn down. She needs those quarters to help her get out of this labyrinth—so Callie hands over ten of the remaining twenty-five dollars and opens her mouth to speak again.

"Is there a bathroom?"

A nod of the head is all Callie's worth, but she looks toward the back and notices the restroom sign on her own.

The quarters disappear too quickly. She needs there to be some left.

Watching her clothes spin is oddly satisfying but Callie forgoes the brief fascination and heads for the bathroom to wash up, passing the world's 'last pay phone' on her way.

A bright red exit sign shines above the back door next to the bathroom and Callie walks passed it without looking. She'll find the way.


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