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Short Story

LIVING
copyright 1999 by Donna Conger

Sabrina waited by the vending machine near the supermarket door.
 
A bagger passed her, pushing a cart loaded with groceries. An elderly lady talked at him and he nodded politely, but looked disinterested. Another bagger walked by, staring straight ahead. The cart of groceries belonged to a frazzled mother of three. Even with the bagger's help, she could barely keep her brood in line. Both would be back within five minutes. The store was huge; it was easy to do what she'd come to do, but she still had to be sure. She had to be finished before they returned. She'd been standing in the same spot for several minutes. That wasn't uncommon for patrons. But she'd been here before. When they returned, they would put two and two together. Being tagged for loitering wasn't something she could risk.
 
She waited another minute, then went into the store's restroom. She slipped into a stall and sat. While she waited, she focused on her watch. The second hand did two revolutions. Eight o'clock. Time to go.
 
She emerged from the stall, washed her hands for the benefit of patrons entering the restroom, and then slipped back into the store. She spotted him immediately; a small boy near a game machine. He inserted a quarter and began to play. Sabrina went to the candy racks, picked up a Snickers bar, then filed into a line behind four others with heavily loaded carts. She should have gone through the express lane, but the contents of the carts were what she was counting on.
 
Kent worked the controls deftly. No one, not even his sister, watched his magnificent performance. Kent lifted his eyes slightly, making a flickering contact with Sabrina's eyes. Then she gave the signal, a disinterested cock of her head.
 
Kent flew into a tantrum. A few heads raised at the sudden shrieking, then swung about trying to locate the sound. Sabrina feigned confusion too. Then she locked onto Kent when he began to shout real words so that the crowd would begin to understand and fall into their plan.
 
"It stole my prize!" the seven year old cried. No one knew what to do with the blond haired, fair skinned child near the game machine. Some adults looked as if he needed to be comforted. Others looked as if they wanted to give him a spanking.
 
Sabrina didn't want to be the one to have to say it. She waited, hoping Kent wouldnt spend too much time in this part of the routine, the part that would bring his distress to a peak and prompt a decent person to stop him before he hurt himself. But no one approached him. They all watched from afar.
 
Typical, Sabrina thought with sarcasm. Don't get involved.
 
Kent suddenly whirled around. "Mommy? Where's Mommy?" Kent looked into the eyes of adults and employees, melting anyone close by with sad, puppy dog brown eyes. That did it. Sabrina had to hold back a smile. A bagger went to Kent's side and placed a hand on his back. Kent was sobbing. In between sobs, he babbled about his lost prize, the cheating game, and losing his mother.
 
"That poor child," the woman in front of Sabrina remarked. Kent would not be comforted. Sabrina moved forward. The lady at the front of the line was watching Kent intently. The checker was tossing glances over her shoulder as a handful of employees rushed to help Kent. Good. Sabrina wheeled around the back of the counter, breezed past the register, and with the skill few burglars knew, plucked up a bag of groceries then quickly headed out the store. For effect, she rolled her eyes, glanced Kent's way, and shook her head.
 
Once outside, Sabrina whipped around the building's corner, waiting with cool calculation before moving onto her next lay-low spot. Kent would be along shortly at the rendezvous. She allowed herself to laugh at the patrons reactions, and she thought, a fitting payback that suited her needs.
 
The candles burned brightly in the kitchen, casting a golden glow against Kent and Sabrina's faces.
 
"Ham," Kent said between bites. "Man, are we living," the boy said.
 
"I picked that line especially for us," Sabrina said. "It was a challenge, but you, my little actor, did it for us. You deserve an Oscar for today's performance."
 
Kent shrugged. "I do my best." They laughed.
 
Five days later, Kent and Sabrina pulled the same job at a large store several blocks from their house. As Sabrina walked out of the store with a bag of cupcakes, milk, apples, and cheese, a store manager watched her carefully. She noticed, and broke out into a sweat. He said nothing to her, but she had the feeling that he was memorizing her face. That had never happened before.
 
Her prickly feeling turned to anger. What business was it of his? It was her life! Who cared anyway? Certainly not her parents! They were never there for them, and had never been. If she wanted to rip people off, she would. They could afford it! Besides, she chose her victims carefully. The lady buying the contents in her free groceries was overweight. She'd just buy a new bunch of stuff. Meanwhile, Kent and Sabrina would treat themselves to some goodies.
 
Sabrina stopped at their place, stuffed the groceries into the refrigerator, and then went to take care of an errand. She wished she could wait outside in the sunny April day. But she had to wait in line, for an hour, no less. When it was her turn, she showed her bravest face to the clerk, presented papers with signatures, and all other applicable forms.
 
"I'm here for that assistance my mother applied for," she said. The clerk pulled the papers.
 
"Your application's been approved." Sabrina smiled. "But your mother will need to come and sign the release for the housing checks to begin."
 
"She works," Sabrina said. "All the time." Sabrina fought back a grimace.
 
The clerk looked at Sabrina's jeans and sweater, neatly combed blond hair, and modest earrings. "Yes, our records show that your mother is working, but I doubt it's all the time. Get her down here, will you?"
 
"I'm fifteen. I have her permission for everything. Can't you release it to me?"
 
"No, I can't."
 
"Why?"
 
"Because you might not be responsible with it."
 
"I will be. I'll sign whatever you need me to."
 
"No."
 
Sabrina buried her frustration, glared at her then turned away in a huff. She had the quirkiest feeling that she was being followed home. Sabrina looked over her shoulder a couple of times. No one was behind her. She hurried. It would be good to sit down, put her feet up, watch TV, and munch on some good snacks. She made a dinner of macaroni and cheese after doing her best to clean the floor and walls.
 
They were eating when she heard the tapping sound. Sabrina froze. Kent kept eating.
 
"Did you hear that?" she asked. Kent shook his head. Sabrina rose. Then there was rattling and banging outside the walls. Kent dropped his fork. Without warning, three policemen burst into their kitchen. Sabrina and Kent looked up, stunned.
 
 The officer's mouths fell open. "Oh my God," one said. Sabrina dropped her head as they took in the sight of candles burning contently. But the candles burned on a table of an old door with chipped paint. It sat on legs made of bricks, housed in a room that served as kitchen, bedroom, and livingroom. Wires hung from the ceiling. A long plug hung from the wall, and an old black and white television sat on a crate. Next to the television was a double sized mattress on a series of boards, a worn but thick blanket and two pillows. The officer's eyes traveled across the crammed kitchen--with stove, refrigerator, and counters, the condemned restaurant left little room to move about. It had only been recently condemned. The electricity was still on and the room was warm, except for the draft drifting in through the entrance. Boards, at one time nailed tightly to the restaurants back entrance, now hung lamely from the doors frame, letting in the cool California night air.
 
"Wha . . ." another officer began. Sabrina lifted her eyes. The first officer cleared his throat. "We had some complaints from store managers. We, uh, followed you after your latest caper and we thought . . ."
 
"That we had a home and food?" Sabrina finished. "No. Our mother is a prostitute. Sometimes she disappears for weeks. She's got a bogus job, but, well, she left us with nothing. This is how we've survived."
 
"Foster homes--?" an officer asked.
 
Sabrina rose, put her hands around Kent's shoulders, and spoke. "Legally our mother has us. The state won't help," Sabrina said. "I'm sorry about the stealing. But I had to. We were starving. This was the only place I could find for us to sleep." She looked into their eyes, pleading with her stare. "Help us stay together," she said quietly.
 
Each officer looked at each other. One nodded. "Come with us, please," he said with a warm smile.
 
"It's going to be all right," Sabrina said, and hugged a smiling Kent.

Illustration: Teens hanging out