Author note: Inspired by an abandoned teddy bear I found in the woods behind a Bi-Lo. It intrigued me enough to inspire this.2

It was cold outside, of course; but as it was South Carolina rather than New York, for instance, or Minnesota, it was bearable, though far from comfortable, to be outside. Ali was used to it. It was Kaylee she was concerned about, that she checked on frequently, anxiously. Although she could feel the child's heartbeat against her bare skin, she held her fingers under Kaylee's nose every ten minutes or so, feeling that the baby was still breathing normally. Why she thought that simply sleeping outside in December would stop a ten-month-old's breathing, Ali wasn't sure of, unless she froze to death. But it certainly wasn't' that cold out, not tonight, and most likely it never would be. And Kaylee was tough… this was far from unusual sleeping conditions for her.3

Still, Ali checked, compulsive, needing to reassure herself. She knew that her heart was racing, found it fairly incredible that Kaylee could sleep while her head was pressed against it, undoubtedly hearing each of its too rapid beats at least unconsciously. She held the baby more closely against her skin under her shirt, which she had half unbuttoned to make room for Kaylee's head, and pulled her jacket and Kaylee's baby blanket more closely around them, hoping that she would stay warm enough. 4

Ali's backpack under her head, usually a sufficient pillow, seemed very uncomfortable tonight, and Ali squirmed slightly, staring up at the length of the trees surrounding her. Lying down or sitting up, she Kaylee, Kaylee's bag, and her backpack just barely fit in the small clearing beneath the trees at the very outskirts of the small wooded area she had found behind Bi-Lo, when she first walked back there a few days ago. She had never stayed there with Jackie, for there wouldn't have been room for both of them. But Jackie was gone now, and Ali had come here a few times now at night, when there seemed few other options. Tonight, Christmas Eve, was one of those nights.5

Ali tried not to think about the next day's date, about the fact that it would pass in a manner very similar any other day of the year to her- with no particular significance and certainly no greater joy. It would, in fact, probably be worse. While everyone else would be enjoying gifts and food, friends and family, cooking lavish meals and eating them in their nice heated houses, she would be walking around with Kaylee just to stay warm, to stay on the move. She would have to walk past all the bright lights and glittery decorations, the blow up Santas and snowmen and wicker reindeer, the Nativity scenes and signs advertising peace, good will, and reduced prices strewn everywhere she turned her gaze. She could look but never take part… and she would be spending her Christmas alone.6

No, she told herself quickly, fiercely, shaking her head, fighting back against her own troubled thought. I will NOT be alone. I'll be with Kaylee. I'm never alone, as long as I have her… as long as I keep her safe. 7

An action that seemed harder and harder to accomplish, the more time passed.8

Ali sighed, her breath stirring a lock of the baby's light brown hair, but the child did not move. Kissing the top of her head, very aware of the pine needles and their lack of softness under her, Ali stared upward into the dim night sky, knowing she would be unable to sleep for some time. It was so quiet, the only sounds audible her own heartbeat, the soft noise of Kaylee's breath.9

Turning her head, she came eye to eye with the bear she had bought for Kaylee earlier today, a bear Kaylee had thus far shown little interest in. Kaylee seemed content with playing with her own fingers and toes, or better yet, Ali's, but Ali had felt a need to buy her something for Christmas, something that was a toy, a simple, useless gift rather than clothes or food or something like that. It was a cheap bear, with a thin leopard print dress and matching hat, but it was the newest looking one in the Goodwill, and it was only 75 cents. Ali had known she would have to pay cash for whatever gift she got Kaylee… she wouldn't have felt right giving it to her if she had stolen it, not when it was supposed to be for Christmas.10

Turning her head away, vaguely unsettled by the bear, though she wasn't sure why that was, Ali sighed, continuing to keep her eyes open, struggling to keep a tight rein on her chain of thoughts. Though she did not know what her opinion was on religion and God, she prayed anyway, asking for protection for herself, for Kaylee…for Jackie.11

So this was what it was like, to care so much you had to make yourself stop… this was what it was like, to know you really were a mistake. 12

Merry freaking Christmas.13

She knew she couldn't stay the night she woke to find her stepfather's face inches away from hers, his hands gripping around her throat. It hadn't been the first time he hurt her, or even that he had threatened or attempted to kill her… but this was the first time that it sank in to Ali that one day, when he tried to kill her, she might not be able to stop herself from dying.15

From that time on she fought him off, threatening him with the knife she had just barely managed to snatch out from under her pillow. Ali had thought and thought over all her options. She could not stay, that much was clear, nor would her stepfather leave. Her mother would never choose her over him, a fact Ali had resigned herself to long ago. There were no relatives she could go to, no friend she was close to or trusted enough, and she could not tell- she would not further incite his anger, give him reason to kill her all the more quickly if he were to be released from police custody, with no sufficient evidence against him. She would not submit to foster care or alternative schools, placing herself into the homes of strangers, who might turn out to be even worse than her stepfather was. And at sixteen, Ali was not old enough to be able to legally live on her own, nor did she have a boyfriend she could marry or move in with. 16

She had finally decided, less than an hour before she was supposed to wake up and prepare for school, that her only option was simply to go. To make her own way however she could, with whatever means necessary…but to do it alone, and to do it in secret. 17

She had pretended to prepare herself for school, but in her backpack she had stowed clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, tampons, all the money she owned, all the snacks she could filch without being caught, an extra pair of sneakers, and a flashlight. And when she had started to walk to her bus stop, Ali had simply turned in another direction and continued. 18

She had expected it to be hard, but expectations were a far cry from experience. She had figured she would have to lie low, keep from being discovered, sticking to the city rather than rural or urban areas most of the time. But with no car, and a desire not to spend money transportation, the only way Ali could get anywhere was by walking- which not only didn't get her far, but was dangerous. She lived in fear of being discovered, recognized by someone she knew while out…the police, classmates, acquaintances, teachers…but most of all, her stepfather. Ali didn't know if he was actively looking for her…she only prayed that he was not, that there had been no reporting of a missing child, no public awareness of her leaving. She was over 16, it was legal for her to quit school… she only hoped that her quiet ways had finally paid off, and no one hardly noticed her absence. Maybe her stepfather didn't even care about her absence… maybe he was glad that she was gone. 19

Beyond trying not to get caught by anyone she knew, Ali didn't want to be noticed by anyone in general. If anyone were to see her wondering about alone and realized that she was in fact entirely alone, with no one who would miss her absence and nowhere to go, anything could happen to her. She could be mugged, raped, even killed, and no one would know, no one would care…there would be no way for her to retaliate, to assure that justice would be served on her behalf. Ali intended to do all she could to make sure no such measures would ever be needed, let alone fail to carry out.20

She knew she might not always be so lucky. She had been attacked once, when she was sleeping outside on a fire escape. Ali had awakened to find a man straddling her, a knife held to her throat, and she had known he could kill her, that he might even rape her first. He had stuck his hand down her pants so that Ali felt his cold fingers inside her, grubby, grasping, and she had not said a word. Using all her strength, she had brought her knee into his groin, shoving him off of her so that his head hit the metal railing. Then she had fled, jumping off the fire escape and running as if her life depended on it- which it very well could have.21

Ali knew that what she was doing- the way she was living- was crazy. For a 16-year-old girl to give up her education, to give up her future- give up everything- to live on the streets, to make it on her own day by day…no one would think that a person would choose this, that they could survive in that way for long- or that they would want to. 22

But they could, and they did, more often than most knew, until they were out there themselves. Ali knew now that there were others like her, and she understood… there was no other option for her that was preferable, at least not one that was apparent to her. This was the way it had to be, for now. She wasn't sure what her future would bring, or even if she had one… her life had been simplified enough that its meaning was simply to survive- each day, each moment. Sometimes Ali even liked that. It beat the pretense of her former home, the attempt to pretend that she was normal and happy, that her family was loving and healthy. Here, at least, she could simply be invisible. Here, anyone who tried to harm her, she would probably never see again, would never hear them speak their love for her in the same voice that had threatened to end her life. 23

She had learned the ropes of being homeless fast- she had had to, if she were going to survive. She had learned quickly for instance, that staying in homeless shelters was a bad idea. Not only did it draw attention to the fact that she, a young girl, was homeless, it also made her conspicuous, memorable to the other homeless and to those who worked there… and that marked her as a target. The other homeless staying there might not make a move towards her at night, but when she left, if they found her again out on the streets… they might attack her, take what little she had, rape her, as had almost happened before. Ali couldn't risk that. Instead she stayed nights wherever she could find, as long as she were alone and undiscovered. In the woods, in cemeteries, in people's yards or garages, if it was rainy and she felt particularly reckless, in parks… she tried to change it up, to not develop a routine, for fear of discovery. Occasionally Ali had even hidden in the mall after closing and slept on the short beds in department stores, making sure to awaken before people arrived to open the store.24

Ali did whatever she had to in order to get what she needed. She hung around malls and grocery stores often, taking multiples of free samples and drinking water from every drinking fountain she passed. In grocery stores she stole candy and cookies, in gas stations she palmed crackers and Twinkies and was thankful that all the walking she did each day kept her from gaining weight. She stole clothing, slipping them on under her own, and in that way gained new bras, underwear, t-shirts, and leggings, as well as socks. When this wasn't enough, she became quickly accustomed to stealing purses, ditching all inside but money, Chapstick, and other items of personal use to her. At first Ali had felt guilt for all of this, but now, it was routine, something she did because she had to, not for any moral or immoral reasoning. There was no other option if she were to continue to survive.25

She did what was needed…but however desperate she got, she refused to have sex or do any sort of sexual act with anyone for food or money. It was her one standard, the only thing she would never allow herself to do, the last bit of morality and self-respect she clung to. She was a thief, but never would Ali allow herself to be a whore.26

And so she continued on in her life alone, struggling, doing all she could to normalize her existence. She took free showers in a center that provided them, no questions asked, and she spent her days in stores, in the public library, in public, free museums and parks, trying to pass time, to seem as if there was purpose and reason to the things she did and saw. She denied to herself that she was lonely, that her life was harder now than it had been even in her former home. She denied that she felt much of anything other than hunger, cold, heat, thirst, and physical pain.27

But Ali could not live in such an isolated state for long, and perhaps she had known that subconsciously, had needed more than she realized to reach out to another. For why else would she have welcomed Jackie and Kaylee in her life- why would she still have Kaylee now?28