“You want to leave me over some bullshit like this? Okay then, go! Leave!” Frances began pushing Allen until his legs were outside the door. Then she collapsed on the floor and cried until she had no more tears. She didn’t expect that he would try to come back. He was about as mad as she was. It wasn’t her fault; she was trying her best. She couldn’t help the fact that her book had suddenly blown up; that she was now as busy as he was. It wasn’t her fault they didn’t get to spend as much time as they used to together. The problem with Allen St. James is that he was spoiled; being the man with the money meant that he didn’t have to wait his turn for everything. He was always ushered to the front of the line, always the one who kept people waiting. She’d stood by his side these ten years, ever since they were two teenage kids who found themselves on the street with no one to rely on but each other. Allen’s parents had been killed in a plane crash coming back from the island of St. Maarten where they’d been celebrating their twenty year anniversary. Fourteen year old Allen had been left with an uncle for the duration. When the dust had settled and the lawyers had departed, Allen was left with a hundred and thirty million in assets and stock options and a battle on his hands from his father’s former partner on who owned what. As a result of the prolonged and ugly nature of the case he was left at the mercy of a man who cared nothing for him. He ran off at fifteen, opting to live on the streets rather than continue subjecting himself to his uncle’s abusive behavior. He would have been dead inside a week if he hadn’t encountered Frances on his second day.
He was hunched over behind a dumpster, having been robbed of all his belongings but not yet hungry enough to sift through the garbage for food. Frances was just coming off her shift; she worked as a collector for a local bookie and had just finished her rounds. Sure she was a small girl but she was also fast and she knew how to use a baseball bat to lethal effect. She didn’t have to mostly; the customers she collected from knew her, knew who she represented; and knew what would happen to them if they tried anything weird. It was illegal sure, and she spent approximately half her time dodging the cops but it beat turning tricks for a living.
Normally, she didn’t try to get too involved with other street kids; they tended to want to suck you into their sorry existences – whether it was sex or drugs or both. It was a downhill destination and Frances wasn’t having any of it. She had a plan, and she was getting out, going straight and legit. She was going to be a writer. She already wrote; had pages and pages of short stories beneath her bed. She wanted to get a locker to store it all in; she knew that the bunker where she stayed wasn’t safe from vandals. Still it was as secure as she could make it and it would have to do for now. Something about this kid made her stop though. He wasn’t the usual type of street kid. She couldn’t quite put her finger on why though. Maybe it was that his face was just too clean; or his hands were free of tracks…anyway, whatever the reason; she stopped and stared at him.
“Whassup witchu?” she asked him. He looked right miserable slumped as he was between the dumpster and the brick wall that housed the neighborhood soup kitchen. It wouldn’t be open for at least another four hours. He looked up at her with the most extraordinary gray eyes she’d ever seen.
“Leave me alone,” he said dully, sounding defeated by life already.
Frances hesitated; she really should do as he said and keep walking. Her bed was calling.
“You need help man?” she asked instead.
He stared at her speculatively and she wondered what he was seeing.
What Allen was seeing was a petite dark haired light skinned black girl with green eyes and the most unkempt hair he’d ever seen on a female. It was long almost reaching halfway down her diminutive frame and looked like it had about zero acquaintance with a comb. She looked like a strong breeze could blow her over in spite of the baseball bat she was holding in her tiny hand. She couldn’t be more than ten years old and here she was asking him if she could help him?
“I got a bunker if you need somewhere to sleep,” she said, he couldn’t tell if her complexion was naturally glowy or she was blushing. Surely she wasn’t suggesting…
“You really shouldn’t invite strange men to follow you home you know,” he told her chidingly.
She laughed. He raised his eyebrows in disbelief as she stood there laughing at him, a deep rich honeyed belly laugh that seemed to come right from the center of her being. He frowned at her, wondering what was so funny.
“Are you coming or not?” she asked still smiling.
Allen was tired of the cold hard ground. He would be glad of a softer surface to lie down on, maybe somewhere warmer. Maybe she had some food she’d be happy to share with him? He didn’t like to take advantage of a kid, but he was cold, hungry and tired.
“Sure, I’ll come,” he said standing up.
He followed her through convoluted alleyways until she disappeared into a doorway he wouldn’t have seen if he wasn’t specifically looking for it. He followed her tentatively, wondering for the first time if this was a trick of some sort. The inside of the building was dark and dank; with the far off whiff of sewage permeating the air.
“Stay close,” her voice floated back to him from some point ahead. He hastened his footsteps to keep her white reflector jacket in sight. It was the only thing he could see in the black hallway. He heard a door open and then she switched on a light and he could see into the room. It was tiny, with a mattress on the floor, another baseball bat, a cardboard box with items on it that might be knick knacks or treasured family heirlooms for all Allen knew. There were also two pairs of shoes resting neatly side by side next to the bed; a pair of Nike sneakers and a pair of black boots. Allen’s eyes traveled to her feet; she was wearing another pair of sneakers, threadbare and old.
“You can have the floor,” she said gesturing to an empty corner of the small room. He crossed to it as she flopped onto the mattress, fiddling with something Allen couldn’t see. The whir of a machine suddenly filled the room with sound and Frances placed a small box like gadget next to her mattress. The room warmed slowly.
“Electric heater,” she said burrowing into her duvet and curling up. “Goodnight.”
Frances seemed to drop off to sleep and Allen was surprised at her ability to just relax her guard in front of a total stranger like him. Surely she knew better than that! Sure she had her baseball bat next to her but still…he looked around searching for something to use as a pillow. There was a pile of clothes nearby and he pulled the whole thing closer and placed his head on it. It was soft and the room was warm. He folded his hands on his chest and went to sleep.
He woke to the smell of food permeating the tiny space. His stomach growled in response to the stimuli and he sat up almost before he’d even thought about it. Frances was fiddling with two paper plates containing French fries and cheeseburgers.
“Good morning,” she said without looking up.
“Morning,”, he replied eyes on the food.
“Bathroom is down the hall if you want to freshen up,” she said. Allen struggled to his feet.
“Thank you,” he said padding across the room and opening the door. The hall wasn’t so dark, a sliver of light illuminated the way to the bathroom. Allen hoped it wasn’t too gross; he put his shoes back on and walked cautiously down the hall. He pushed open the door, instinctively holding his breath. The bathroom though, was surprisingly clean. Clearly someone took the trouble to keep it that way. Allen used the facilities and then washed his face and hands and went back to the room.
“What is this place?” he asked. “Do you live here by yourself?”
Frances just looked at him with an inscrutable glance. “You didn’t give your name,” she said.
“Allen. Allen St. James. And you are…?”
“Frances Hilton,” she said.
“Oh. Any relation…?” he asked half joking.
“Sure. I’m related to the hotel mogul; it’s why I’m living in this palace.”
“No need for sarcasm,” he mumbled sitting down next to her and taking the plate she handed him. He tucked into the food concentrating on eating. He needed to find a way to pay her back for the food and board. Maybe he could offer to be her bodyguard?
“How can I repay your kindness?” he asked.
Frances said nothing just continued to eat; only darting an eloquent glance in his direction as if to tell him to shut up. He continued to eat in silence, taking her lead.
“So why did you run away from home?” she asked after they’d eaten. Allen jumped; somehow, he hadn’t expected that question.
“How did you know?” he asked.
“You’re no street kid,” she said, her eyes on the shoes she was lacing.
“Wow, is it that obvious?” he asked wryly.
“Kind of is, yeah,” she replied straightening up and looking at him. Allen shrugged.
“Okay then, yeah I ran. I don’t feel like talking about it though, if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind. You mind pullin your weight?” she asked.
Allen was cautious about agreeing to things blind but she’d proved legit so far. “Sure, I’d like to. Just tell me how.”
“Come with me,” she said heading for the door.
Karl Valence, her employer and local bookie was only too happy to take on another collector. Business was good and kids were cheap. Besides, Allen looked like a capable individual if a bit soft. At fifteen years old, he was already six feet tall and well built. Karl decided to pair him with Frances; she was a tough cookie but small. If she had ‘enforcement’ with her he could expand her scope of collection. She was a remarkably effective collector; never left without getting her cash. Karl had his eye on her.
Allen and Frances worked well together; they complemented each other quite well and Karl was happy with the work they did. Allen had been reported missing by his uncle though, because you couldn’t be the guardian for someone if they weren’t present and accounted for and his uncle had been cut off until Allen was found. A reward had been put out for his recovery; and one of the clients they collected from recognized Allen. He wasn’t about to pass up a two hundred thousand dollar pay day so he called the number given on the poster. Two days later, police showed up at their bunker and tried to take Allen away. He refused to leave Frances behind despite her reassurances that she would be just fine. Allen’s uncle was not on board with having another mouth to feed but Allen went around him and spoke to the administrators himself. His three months on the street had taught him to stand up for himself and he felt like Frances was the only real friend he’d ever had. At least the only friend who wanted nothing from him. All she had done was look after him and helped him without asking for anything in return. Allen owed her.
The administrators proposed a one off pay off to Frances but Allen felt that would be too tacky. Besides he was pretty sure Frances would refuse it. His counter proposal was that they could take her in. The administrators were reluctant to do that and insisted on doing a background check on her. Allen was fine with that, if only because she’d kept her history pretty close to her chest and Allen was curious. It was a typical story though; her mother was a crack addict who over dosed one day when Frances was ten years old. Frances was home at the time and waited for two days for her mother to come home. When she didn’t, and Frances got hungry, she ventured out to look for her and for food. For a few days, she surfed the dumpsters, and filched fruit at the market. She avoided soup kitchens because they might want to know where her guardian or parent was. Even at ten years old, she knew what could happen to her and she wanted no part of foster homes and she didn’t want to leave her mother. She went back to the apartment to sleep and check to see if her mother had returned; until the landlord threw her out for not paying rent. Then she was out on the street, alone and penniless. She was a survivor though and quickly found an abandoned building to live in. She joined up with Karl Valence not long after. The administrators were worried that Frances would bring her shady past into Allen’s life with her and tried to dissuade him from his plan to give her shelter. Frances was fine with just going back to her crib; she had lived on the street for four years; she was used to it.
“Shut up and eat your breakfast,” Allen said the first time Frances tried to suggest she mosey on out and head back to the bunker before someone else discovered it.
“Why? Would you want to do this to yourself. You don’t really know me-“ she began to say.
“You didn’t know me when you took me home with you,” he interrupted her.
“Yeah well…” Frances smiled and shrugged one shoulder. “You wouldn’t have survived a week on your own.”
“True,” Allen agreed smiling back.
“You don’t owe me anything,” Frances said.
“Sure I don’t. Do you not want to stay with me?” he asked.
“What’s not to want?”Frances asked spreading out her hands to indicate the lavishness of the room they were breakfasting in.
“Well then? Stay.”
“Cool,” Allen said happily.
“What shall I do while you’re in school all day?” she asked.
Allen frowned at her. “You’ll come with me,” he said, like it was a foregone conclusion.
Frances frowned. “I don’t think so. I don’t really have any formal education; I’d have to go to the first grade or something.”
Allen looked perturbed. “Oh…well. We could hire a tutor,” he suggested.
“Hey, don’t stir yourself on my account, I’ll be fine.”
Allen said nothing but the next week, he went to discuss with his administrators the possibility of getting a tutor for Frances. They told him that as guardian, his uncle would have to sign off on that. Allen knew his uncle was resentful of Frances’ presence in their household, he called her a gold digger to her face and was rude to her when Allen wasn’t around. Still, Allen had learned to stand up to him, stand his ground; so he knew he would get what he wanted. He had his uncle’s number now, knew how to handle him. So he went in with a proposal; he would agree to endow his uncle with ten million dollars as soon as he attained his majority if he didn’t stand in the way of Frances staying with them, and signing off on anything they needed him to. If he refused, Allen would leave him on the street as soon as he was legal. His uncle could hardly refuse.
Frances got a tutor and Allen’s uncle signed off on her staying with them. She wasn’t in the system which meant nobody was looking for her. She would have to get into the system at some point, if she wanted to be a productive member of society so Allen had his lawyers working on that.
Frances turned out to be pretty bright and soaked up knowledge like a sponge. Her tutor was very impressed with her progress and informed Allen’s uncle as the legal guardian that he most likely had a genius on his hands. Since Michael St. James couldn’t care less how bright Frances was, he just grunted and handed the tutor his check for the week.
Allen was a popular boy in high school. He had street cred for running away from home…And bringing back a street kid to live with him. He was also an orphan, a rich one at that, which added to his allure. He had no problem getting dates but he didn’t really have a steady girlfriend. He didn’t feel like anyone really understood him…except maybe Frances. She was his best friend and confidante. She made no effort to fit in with his school friends, tending to go off on her own with a book. But she always had time for him. His friends thought she was a strange girl, whose hair could use a trim maybe, possibly a stylist. Frances thought it was a huge compromise that she combed it everyday so she wasn’t about to sit in a salon chair and allow herself to be transformed into some stranger just so Allen’s friends could feel that she was less strange. She was strange, she accepted that; she didn’t see how it was anybody’s problem but hers. she figured she was making a major concession combing her hair every day.
When Allen was eighteen he met a girl; she was new in town, worked at the coffee shop where he stopped off every morning on the way to school. She was tall and blonde; beautiful in a fragile sort of way. Even though she was almost five foot eleven, there was something delicate about her that awakened Allen’s protective instincts. The first time they met, her boyfriend was bothering her at work, and her supervisor was inclined to let her go because of it; he had no time for that sort of drama in his establishment. Allen stepped in, defended her and saved her job. He also gave her (ex) boyfriend a black eye. It was the beginning of a tumultuous relationship.
Frances didn’t like her on sight; she felt that Kristen was too clingy, needy and manipulative for Allen’s good. She didn’t try to step between them though – she knew it was none of her business much as she wanted to tell him to kick her to the curb. She kept to herself instead, especially when Kristen was around. Kristen didn’t like her either; she viewed her as too much of a threat since she lived in Allen’s house and was his best friend. She tried her best to drive a wedge between them as subtly as she could. She came over during the weekends to see him, and when she found them together, she got sulky. She tried to complain to Allen about Frances ‘always’ being around like she was cock blocking them. Allen didn’t see it though; he was used to Frances always curled up somewhere nearby with a book. It comforted him to know she was there. And she didn’t really stop them from doing anything. They could make out if they wanted, or even get to third base, Frances didn’t so much as look up. She’d seen her fill of sexual acts on the street; she had told him that she had no interest in voyeurism as a result. Allen wondered sometimes if she’d maybe experienced more than witnessing sexual acts because she seemed to have absolutely no interest. It worried him sometimes, how aloof she was from the whole teenage romance scene but then she didn’t go to school; maybe she just hadn’t met anyone she was interested in. Still, Allen preferred not to leave her completely to her own devices and he didn’t see why Kristen couldn’t just get along with her.
Matters came to a head when Kristen reached a point where she felt comfortable enough to issue an ultimatum. Frances or her. She accused Allen of wanting his cake and eating it too; implying that the reason he wanted Frances around was because he was sleeping with her. He assured her that wasn’t the case and that was when she said, “Choose between us.”
She was very surprised when Allen chose Frances. She was even more surprised that it was not an agonizing decision; as soon as the ultimatum was issued, Allen and Kristen were done.
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