Tira wanted three things in life and she had little chance of gaining any of them. She wanted to be financially independent. She wanted to go to
and study the ancient ruins. And she wanted her sister to stop using drugs.
The last desire brought memories of this morning’s quarrel. The money squirreled away to see them through the rest of the month was gone. “Luci, why?”
“You don’t understand,” Luci screamed.
True. She didn’t understand why her sister needed to escape into a drugged stupor instead of studying and working to step onto the road leading from the slums. Tira’s hands stung with the memory of slapping her sister. And the words she’d shouted as she slammed out of the apartment echoed in her thoughts. “I hate you. I wish you were dead.” A shudder rumbled through her body. She hadn’t meant those words. As soon as she reached the apartment she would tell Luci.
With a sigh she turned back to the museum display. The Egyptian artifacts awed her. For a short time she allowed the beauty of the objects to carry her into dreams of pyramids and temples, of gods and pharaohs and of digging in the earth to uncover treasures of the past.
The dream hovered beyond her grasp. Her chances of gaining a position on a dig in
were slim. Positions were avidly sought by students who had chosen the right
colleges and the right professors. Those choices had been beyond her
financially. She sucked in a breath. Instead of adventure, when the summer
ended, she would take her place in front of a classroom teaching history at an
inner city high school.
A glance at her watch said dreamtime was over. She had to reach the apartment in time to change for her evening shift at a restaurant several blocks from the cramped fifth floor efficiency she shared with her older sister. Once again, flash moments from the morning’s quarrel exploded in Tira’s thoughts. She’d been so upset she’d missed her morning martial arts session at the local center.
Tira cast her dreaming self aside and donned the role of practical sister. She hurried to the exit and stepped from the past into a steamy August day. Heat shimmered from the sidewalk. The air hung heavy and filled with the odors of the city and the noises of traffic. She strode along the crowded area taking advantage of every opening.
Ten days to dream. Ten days to walk the halls of the museum. Ten days to study the artifacts that had become her lodestones. She breathed the aromas of real time, spices of cooking foods, metallic scents of passing traffic and the odors of people, some pleasant and some not.
Several blocks from the apartment building the crowds thinned. In an alley she glimpsed furtive movements in the dark shadows. She hurried past. On the corner across the street a group of gang members gathered. She sucked in a breath and held her head high. For all her twenty three years she’d avoided the gangs. As she strode past she heard the usual crude remarks about her body and her attitude.
Get a life, she wanted to scream.
When she saw the ambulance and two cop cars in front of the building where she lived she halted so abruptly she stumbled. A hand caught her arm. Tira saw the gray-streaked beard of one of the winos who slept in the doorways or the alley. “Get your hands off me.”
“Don’t go home,” he whispered. “Lose yourself in the crowd and keep your head down.”
She saw a keen intelligence in the man’s dark eyes. Who was he? He wasn’t as old as she had imagined either. “Why?”
“Your sister’s dead. Cops’ll be looking for you. They heard about the fight.”
Tira’s stomach clenched. She blinked away a rush of tears. Though hearing about her sister’s death wasn’t unexpected another dream shattered. There would be no rehab for Luci. “Junkies O.D. every day,” she said.
“She was murdered.”
A chill slithered down Tira’s spine. A rush of acid burned her throat. What? Why? Who? Keeping her eyes on the ground she inched away from him.
“Murder. Murder.” The murmured word spread through the crowd gathered on the sidewalk and stung like attacking wasps.
The EMTs wheeled a gurney from the building. When Tira saw the body bag strapped to the frame her nails bit into her palms. Despite the heat of the day she felt chilled. A wave of guilt made her knees buckle. She stuffed her fist against her mouth to keep from crying aloud.
What now, she wondered. The apartment was a crime scene. Until the cops finished their investigation she wouldn’t be allowed inside. An officer stepped from the building. “More along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.” He stepped from the stoop. “Anyone seen her sister? We have some questions for her.”
“Most evenings you’ll find her waiting tables at Louie’s,” someone said.
Tira hunched her shoulders. As people dispersed she slunk away. All her life she’d avoided trouble. Even if she wasn’t a suspect she knew too much about Luci’s friends and suppliers to be safe. She needed to hide and think. Where could she go?’
As she retraced her steps she noticed the home boys had vanished from the corner. Show’s over or just about to begin, she thought. She feared she was destined to become the star in a life or death drama. She continued the slow amble away from the apartment building.
Every instinct urged her to run but that would attract the attention she didn’t want. As she passed the alley someone grabbed her arm and dragged her into the shadows. The man who held her arm and the other at his side were large and scary but not as menacing as the slender man who joined them.
Tira fought to control rising panic. She felt as though she would faint. Center. She had to escape. All she needed was an opening. Her muscles tensed in preparation. “What do you want?” Had her voice remained calm or had fear coated the edges?
“My drugs. My money.”
“I know nothing about either.”
The slender man laughed and the sound chilled her. “She was your sister. She told you everything.” His smile turned feral. “Her last words were, ‘Tira knows.’”
Anger flared and slashed the fear and grief holding her immobile. “And you believed her?”
His silent companions edged closer. One held a knife. The other reached for her. She sucked in a breath. She whirled and kicked. The toe of her sneaker caught the knife holder’s arm. Her sudden movement pulled the second man off balance. She grabbed his arm and knocked him into the knife man. They landed in a tangle.
Tira ran. As she darted around the corner something whizzed past her. She didn’t stop to learn what. Where to go? Just ahead she saw the steps leading to the subway. She pulled her Metro card from her pocket and bounded down the steps. A shout sounded. She kept running. At the gate she swiped the card, ran onto the platform and into a waiting car. A bell dinged. The doors closed.
As she peered through the smudged glass she saw one of the thugs reach the platform. She breathed a sigh of relief. For the moment she had escaped. Where would the rattling car take her?
Was there a way to get the things she needed from the apartment? The drug dealer’s men would keep watch. Who could she ask? Not the cops, who either believed she had killed Luci, or wanted information she didn’t have. She barely knew the neighbors. She and Luci had moved into the building in June. Could she sneak into the building after the cops left? Doubtful. If she asked, her few friends from college wouldn’t be willing to enter the scene of a murder.
She sank on a seat. Once again tears threatened. Why had Luci lied? Tira swallowed convulsively. When she understood the reasons for the betrayal she could grieve. Now wasn’t the time.
For seconds or minutes Tira blocked the groping fingers of fear. At the moment she was safe but she couldn’t ride the subway forever. She considered her options. She had some change, her Metro card and the twenty she always kept for emergencies. Not enough to rent a room. Going to work at Louie’s was out. Until her first pay check from the teaching job arrived she was broke.
Think. Plan. Where was the nearest homeless shelter? Sure they could be dangerous but she could protect herself. She wiped her hands on her jeans. Even if she could hang out for ten days she couldn’t begin her first day as a teacher wearing dirty jeans and a sweat-stained tee shirt.
On the seat beside her she noticed a crumpled piece of paper. Curiosity stabbed. She smoothed the wrinkles and read the words twice.
Life got you down? Have unsolved problems?
Looking for escape? The answer is in your stars.
A counselor is available night and day.
Dial 1- 800 – 555 – ASTR
Tira frowned. She could answer yes to all the questions. Had the paper been left for her to find? She smiled at her magical thinking.
When the car stopped at the next station she grasped the paper and rose. She followed people to the street. Should she take a chance? Did she have a choice? Across the street she saw a coffee shop. She had to consider her options.
She jogged to the small restaurant and entered the dingy place with the paper clutched in her hand. A flutter of nervousness settled in her chest. What to do? Call or not call? Go to the cops? Find a shelter? She sat at the counter and ordered coffee. As she sipped the bitter brew her thoughts raced. The answer to the last two options was a definite no. She frowned. If the answer was in her stars they certainly hadn’t brought her a sliver of luck. Would making the call produce a change?
Tira swallowed the last of the coffee. She would make the call. If the paper was a hoax she would devise another plan. She stepped outside and opened her cell phone. In the fading light she read the number and dialed.
“Can I help you?” a woman asked.
“I can answer yes to all your questions.”
“Do you need help?”
“Yes.” She wasn’t sure what this woman could do. By accepting the offer she would be off the street and buy time to plan.