...

...Why do I feel so exhausted? And... I stretched slowly. Kinda sore. I sighed softly. Another dream, huh. After one of those dreams, my body's always more tired and drained than before I slept. Why is it that I never seem to remember any of them? A growl disturbed the silence of the bedroom. Forget about dreams. What about food? Perhaps there was something in the fridge. Maybe ingredients to make a sandwich. Half a sandwich... a quarter? Possibly one slice of bread... or a circle of ham? There could be a box of cereal or at least one cracker in a cupboard somewhere, somehow. Maybe a can of corn. Or possibly tomatoes. Carrots... beans... something? There could be a jar of half full of pickles? An eighth... or just one pickle? There might be cup noodles in the kitchen. Or perhaps a bag of something, anything. There could be food somewhere in this house. A crumb? My memory might not be impeccable, but even so I knew that there hasn't been anything edible for months. Lovely... Hoping in this situation wouldn't help me in any way. It certainly wouldn't feed me if I thought I had food. This thought track was just making me hungrier. Yes, of course, exactly what I need. I have to get my mind out of the clouds. It wouldn't be worth the effort to check. There hasn't been food since the parents ran out on me. Guess they got tired of watching me after twelve and a half years. Cue the sad, melodramatic crying... It wasn't like I need them. They never wanted me in the first place. They couldn't have made that any clearer. I could get nourishment on my own. If only it wasn't so difficult to get employment. We moved in this town not too long ago when the parents just up and left, carrying off anything of value. I didn't happen to be one of them. Like I didn't see that one coming. No one in this town knew us or cared. It wasn't reasonable to expect them to hire a stranger and a kid to boot. Especially not when there were other people who lived around here all their lives, people that the shop owners and etc. trusted. Even if a job offer didn't pop up any time soon, I can just wait for the school breakfast and lunch. Three meals a day weren't absolutely needed. Two were sufficient enough to tide me over. It had to be. Even if I starve.

I.

Will.

Not.

Steal.

Nor will I ever cheat. I will never be like the parents. NEVER. EVER. Even if I die slowly and painfully. Hell would freeze over, spoons would grow legs and fly across a blood red moon chased by rabid forks before I...

Then, my stomach growled again. Jerking me back to reality and away from angry thoughts. Slowly but surely I calmed down, reverting back to an almost emotionless state. My resolve won't wave. Even if it was summer vacation. I opened a window and slid down a tree. Then stared at the tree, stepping closer and placing a palm on the surface. Bark was edible, right? A worm wriggled its way out of the shelter of the tree. In earlier years, I would've walked way. Now, well, that was a different story. Even that didn't make me lose my appetite. I couldn't bring myself to care. The pangs of hunger didn't stop. They never seemed to stop, working its ever so delightful magic on my stomach, increasing its intensity with every passing day, every passing hour. I was that hungry. It wouldn't hurt to try. Even if I die, it was no big deal. It's not like I would have to pay for my funeral. I just wanted something to fill the gnawing hole inside that seemed hell-bent on chewing out my insides. Bark might appease it. That might was enough reason for me. My hand moved to rip some off. I sat down and munched on it, my teeth having trouble tearing the hard material to bits. My eyes wandered, traveling a few miles off to the newly opened café and suddenly I was in the park across it. My feet had moved without me knowing. The lure, the sight, the smell of the place... A man with warm, amber eyes and chocolaty brown hair framing a gentle-looking face strolled to open the café for business, followed by a somewhat sullen-looking guy. Isn't he chipper? The latter definitely wasn't a morning person. His mood was as black as his hair. Well, I'm not one to talk. I'm not exactly spitting rays of sunshine myself... Those two moved into town recently and decided this dump was a nice place to open a café. So voilà. A café there stands. Oh, the joy... Although, the smell of warm meals and freshly baked goods—oh god... brownies, cakes, and melting chocolate chip cookies hot from the oven—wafting off from that place was enough to set me drooling. Then again, basically anything could make my mouth water at this point. I better move out. At least at the house, I could get away from that frustratingly heavenly scent. And the sights. The glass windows didn't leave anything inside to imagination. Shortcakes laced with hot raspberry sauce and decorated with a rainbow of strawberries, blueberries, and sugary whipped cream. Angel cakes with beautifully sculpted candy angels embedded in it. Tarts with an explosion of colors and fruits. Cake figures, so detailed and delicious-looking. Steaming cinnamon rolls glazed with sweetness, sitting daintily beside macaroons of all colors stacked neatly in rainbow piles. BLTs with a side of crisp, salted to perfection fries and little sliced pickles. Turkey sandwiches oozing with white cheese and cushioned with thin golden potato chips. Ham and cheddar sandwiches loaded with fresh lettuce and juicy red tomatoes.

I stood up somewhat abruptly and strode homeward, the smell of milky sugary lattés, bitter black coffee, hot chocolate, and warm food filling the air around me. My stomach complained, wanting to go back, wanting the food. Its pleading, crying, begging was nearly enough to do me in. I almost turned about, but I've got pretty self-control to spare. I ignored it, walking steadily to the house.

Pastries filled my dreams, always dancing out of my reach─a masochist isn't a word I'd use to label myself, but right now I wonder─when the scent of real food woke me up. I was finally going delusional. How else would I explain the smell of warm, fresh from the oven chocolate chunk cookies in the air? Yes, chocolate chunk, not chip. There hadn't been anything remotely edible here since practically forever. It was from outside. Smelled like it was just outside the door... What the...

The doorbell rang. Auditory hallucinations now, too? Oh, well. I always know I wasn't right in the head. Ding dong. Huh... it sounds pretty real. Guess they supposed to sound real. The doorbell went off again. Okay... let's just check. I pushed myself off the couch and padded to the door. One eye to the peephole, I spotted the new café owners on the doormat, one of them, the gentler-looking one, bearing a tray of the very cookies whose smell was invading the house. Illusions...? They're doing house-to-house selling? Or what? Maybe if I ignore them, they'll go away. I turned around when the doorbell sounded again. My feet didn't stop until I landed face first on the couch, planning to go back to sleep. This would be over eventually. Ding dong. The poor, neglected doorbell went ignored again. I shoved my face into a pillow. The cookies smelled divine. It was driving me crazy. Ding dong. When are they leaving...?

That's when the pounding started, its smacks sending vibrations through the wooden door. Commence the pissed off yelling... "Open the damn door! I know you're in there. I saw movement."

The pounding magically stopped as a much softer voice murmured, "Calm down, Dan. You'll frighten our neighbors."

The first voice answered with a less enraged tone than before but still angry nevertheless, "Let's skip this house. They obviously don't want to meet us."

"Be a bit more patient, dear."

"You're too fucking kind," the first voice muttered.

The gentler voice spoke again, this time not to his companion. "Please don't mind him. Dan can be a bit loose with his temper."

Maybe I'm not completely crazy. They were a persistent lot. Might as well get this over with. The cookies were killing me. The sooner they were gone, the faster I can sleep well again. Well, not well. But at least sleep again. I trudged to the door, opening it, just then remembering to open my eyes, too. "...yeah?"

The cookie holder smiled lightly. "Just getting to know the people we're going to live with. The surly guy next to me is Dan _."

"Am not," said surly guy grumbled, looking away and folding his arms across his chest. Whatever you say...

"Don't worry. He's not always like that. He happens to be a bit of a sweetheart." The cookie holder glanced at his friend with fond amusement. Then, he switched his gaze down to me, eyes still smiling softly. "I'm Gabriel _, or Gabe if you prefer. And you, little lady?"

"Lei." Now that that's done. "Bye." I moved to close the door.

"Wait, do you want some cookies?"

The grumbler slammed a hand on the door, preventing it from closing and glaring at me. "Gabe is trying to be nice to a brat like you and you just─You're the kid that's always staring at our café."

The cookie bearer asked quite gently compared to his friend, "Do you want to work there, honey?"

"Are you out of your mind, Gabe? Why would you hire this snot-nosed kid?"

For once, I agreed with the surly guy. This Gabe person was either an idiot or he wanted something. But what was there to want? So... "Why?"

"I'm sure, since school's out, you should have a lot of free time on your hands. Why not take some of that time and work as a waitress at our place? The customers would take more kindly to a cute kid than this big surly fellow over here."

I shouldn't trust them. It wasn't in me to believe anybody and everybody. "No, thanks."

"The pay's eight dollars an hour and you can eat there, free of charge. Think about it, okay?"

This time I was able to close the door. What the...? Should I? What do I have to lose? My stomach was vouching for the café owners. But people weren't my thing. I prefer being alone. Serving customers all day didn't appeal to me one bit. Gabriel sounded sincere, but I shouldn't trust strangers easily. However, if I don't take on the offer, how else am I supposed to feed myself? There weren't any more offers. I've asked around. No one else would hire me. Gabriel offered free food... My stomach grumbled, singing its hourly melody. It's not like there's any money to buy any. Survival should be my top priority. There was still something I need to do. Who cared about what I want? I'm going for it.

-x-

Inside the café, the scents hit me with a more explosive impact, nearly knocking me off my feet. Everything smelled so good. Spices and sauces. Sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Green onions. Fries. Sandwiches. Sugary, teeth-rotting sweets. Crispy out and soft on the inside biscuits. The variety of smells in the café was just stunning. I was going to drool a pool soon. My fingers, my stomach, everything was aching to just reach out and just devour every edible in sight. But I couldn't. I couldn't. Bad me. Bad. Calm down. That would be stealing, right? I couldn't. Just. Take stuff. I wouldn't. It didn't feel right to. My conscience would torment me forever if I did. I was going to live with myself so I gotta be able to tolerate myself.

"Oh, you're here already?" I glanced up to see Gabriel smiling slightly and wiping his floury hands off. "Take a seat and you can eat while we discuss the details of your job. What do you want, sweetie?"

Huh...? Want? Why did he care? Then, it clicked. Consequently, a bit of warmth─a pleasant feeling, something akin to happiness, something unknown─sparked inside. No one... ever asked... No one... ever offered... It took a while to get it because... getting stuff from people was such a foreign concept. Confusion and something else, something I didn't know, something nice, bubbled up inside me. Why would people just give me stuff? It sounded too good to be true. But then again, it was one of the said benefits of this job. This guy seemed too kind to be real. People like this didn't exist. There were only two categories of people in this world. People who didn't give a damn about you and those who exploit you. Why was this one so difficult to label? His gentleness, his use of endearments, his soft voice, his kindness, all of it... was so foreign to me. Things I'm not familiar with kinda, sorta, made me the slightest bit uncomfortable. This whole job offer thing was still incredibly difficult to believe, too good to be true, but who was I to refuse food? "Anything." Then, I remembered something. A word I heard before but I don't remember when. "Um." A slight hesitation. Something like shyness sneaked its way in me. Probably because I was faced with such an unfamiliar situation. "...pl..." The word kinda got stuck in my throat. "...ease."

He pretended to not notice the awkward use of please, but some emotion stirred in his eyes. It better not be pity. Please wasn't a word I have ever used. I never had to. When I did... the word felt so strange. It didn't feel that comfortable in my mouth. I don't think I like asking for things. Regardless, I will work hard for the food. I'm not just going to take things for free. It doesn't feel right to take things I don't deserve. I just... I just couldn't. "Okay, just a sec, honey."

"You're going to have to get your parents' permission if you want to work, sweetie."

I swallowed the chewed up remains of a chicken club sandwich, a comfortable weight resting in my stomach. "Don't have any." Anymore. His eyes grew a little sad. What's up with him? Then, he smiled at me again as my hands shoved fries in. The last of the fries disappeared as I reached for the fruit salad. It was made of red grapes, strawberries, little yellow and green spherical honeydews, and crescent-shaped mangos piled into a green cantaloupe that was halved, hollowed, and all of the fruit was topped with a single piece of... I chewed the small green leaf. Parsley?

"Then, I suppose you can start when you want to, hun."

I nodded, my hands reaching for dessert. A fluffy, golden brown pastry with a cherry core leaking rosy red juice and drizzled with glaze.

He smiled softly though he still looked a bit concerned. He was a strange one. Well, so was I, I guess. "Slow down, sweetheart. The food isn't going anywhere."

A bit reluctantly taking his words into consideration, I restrained myself and let my mouth and hands move slower.

"Thank you."

My hands nearly stopped. Nearly. I almost choked, too. However, I kept shoveling food in. That... that was the first time I heard that... directed to me. Again, a spark of warmth, an almost happiness, flickered for a moment. Then died down. Or was there someone behind me? My head turned. Nope. Then... Why are you thanking me? I tilted my head in confusion. I don't understand. Regardless, the emotion came back. Even if it was very small, it was unfamiliar, overwhelming compared to my usual emotionless state, confusing me. Something, a fluid of some kind, filled my eyes. What...? Then, a light bulb shined in my head. Tears...? I quickly distracted myself by stuffing food in my mouth. Focusing on food was easier. Safer. It was a familiar, comfortable thing.


Thank you for reading. A lovely present and future to you.