A little thanksgiving treat: a sneak peek at the first three chapters of STILL, my new NA paranormal romance, to be released at the end of February!
It always started like this, a pulse inside me, like a warning before the tide surged, roared . . . and froze everything.
Twenty-year old Emma just landed in Rome, to find the father who walked out of her life more than a decade ago and was too busy eating pizza to call. Traveling with her is a secret she’s carried alone since childhood: sometimes, around her, time stops. People and cars freeze, rain hangs still in the air and there’s only her left in the silence.
To make things worse, instead of her dad, Em runs into a past she’d rather forget in the person of Lily, her step-sis. Kind, beautiful, Harvard honors student Lily: the perfect daughter Em never was. As the two of them reconnect, Em starts to pick up some creepy vibes from Katharos, the mysterious archaeological foundation Lily works for—and more specifically the ancient stone table they’re digging up near the coliseum…
Faust, the blind hobo Em keeps running into, might be the key to piercing Katharos’s secrets. Actually, he might even have something to do with that pesky time-freezing thing. With Lily’s life on the line and no one else to turn to, Em chooses to trust this unlikely ally, but behind his charming smile and lunar antics, the guy comes with some serious fine print…
Officially, this is not my story. It’s not my face you saw on CNN and Rai News after it was all over. I didn’t lose my mother at a young age; as far as I know, she’s still alive, probably doing fine. My paternal grandfather wasn’t a world-class historian, and I didn’t enroll in Harvard at seventeen to follow in his footsteps—I was never really good with books and studying. Just didn’t have the brains for that.
But I was there. I went to Rome to visit my dad at the time—booked a round trip ticket and six nights in a budget guesthouse with my tips from Tuna Town. I know, I know . . . Keep your jokes; I’ve heard them all. We had the cheapest tuna rolls on Broadway, though, and fresh most of the time. Anyway, I hadn’t seen my dad since I was seven, so it might sound like the adventure of a lifetime. It could even have been my story: this girl who decides to burn her meager savings on a trip to Italy to find the mysterious genitor she hasn’t heard from in thirteen years. There’s a tearful reunion, they sort out their issues, and she moves to Rome at the end—to start a new life and all.
I’ll get to that part, but let’s start with the afternoon right after I landed. I was sitting on a bench in a tiny park square tucked by the Piazza di San Marco—little more than a patch of grass under a few parasol pines. With my ripped jeans, my old Eastpak, and a can of beer tucked between my knees while I munched on a two-euro slice of margherita, I probably looked like your average gutter punk to the untrained eye. The October sun was warm in my hair—a messy bun dyed a washed-out turquoise. I liked that color, even if my blonde roots looked a little greenish.
Washing down the pizza with a slow sip, I watched over the rim of my can as buses came and went from a station on the square. Tons of buses, white and red, vomiting families of tourists coming to visit Roman ruins and that castle thing overlooking the piazza. It kinda looked like a Greek temple, with columns everywhere, white marble, and a statue of a guy on a horse in front of it. Old stuff, very nice. I took a couple of pics, mostly to pass the time because I couldn’t muster the courage to hop on a bus and go knock on my dad’s door.
I had his address saved in Google Maps; well, I hoped it was his, anyway. I’d found it not long after discovering his Facebook profile a few weeks ago, but he hadn’t replied to my friend invite. Maybe social media wasn’t his thing. He must be in his mid-fifties after all, which, to my twenty-year-old self sounded like some sort of pre-mummification stage. I set my beer down on the bench and took out my phone to check my Facebook feed for the hundredth time. I chewed on my nails. No new notification.
A few taps and a tiny profile pic of a fifty-something guy with graying blond hair appeared. Big grin, a tan, and sunglasses—taken during a vacation, I gathered.
Lombardi . . . the last name I had never worn. The name of a quiet Italian dude who’d sometimes visit our Brooklyn flat on Sundays and take me to Coney Island for the afternoon. We never did any rides, just strolled up and down the Boardwalk and shared a hot dog. He didn’t know what to say to a six-year-old, so he’d be like, “Guarda, gabbiani!” Look, seagulls! Meanwhile, I’d eat my half of our hot dog in dignified silence because I already knew what a seagull was. I would have wanted to hear about his job instead, or if he’d left Rome because of all the slavery there, like in Gladiator. And maybe, if I’d been brave enough, I’d have told him about the secret weighing in my chest and keeping me up at night, but I was too shy—too awkward for any of that.
I had no idea, back then, that Italy was even farther than Florida, and that this occasional Sunday dad of mine didn’t have legit visitation rights because he’d never filed for paternity in the first place. I didn’t know there’d be one too many fights with my mom over alimony, one too many threats of suing his lazy ass, one last Sunday, one last hot dog, and that I’d never see him again after that afternoon, when the seagulls paused in their flight above our heads for a short eternity.
Whatever. Tough shit, I guess. I chugged another gulp of beer and listened to the city’s noise, the cars, and the laugh of strangers, getting reacquainted with what little Italian I’d learned from my dad as a kid, like a song I wouldn’t remember well, but whose melody lingered. The notes threaded with Roman voices to fill the gaping holes in my vocabulary, and I could tell that those two women worked in a hospital, or that the guys sitting in the grass were checking their phone to see how to get to Quartaccio—wherever that was. Not bad for a high school dropout with a record 0.6 GPA. I gave a snort when I noticed an ad on the side of a bus with the words test di admissione. College, the final frontier . . .
I manspread wider on the bench with a bitter sigh and craned my neck to look up at the azure sky. Maybe I should message him again, and say “Hey, I’m here in Rome”? But what if he thought I was a stalker and he freaked out? What if he didn’t want to be found? Okay, that one was far-fetched; he was on Facebook, after all. And yet goose bumps bloomed under my hoodie in a familiar mix of shame and dread. It was kind of too late for that, but I was starting to realize I’d fucked up—again. I’d pictured myself starring in my very own Lifetime movie and blown $700 on a stupid impulse. Now I couldn’t even find the balls to call him and simply ask, “Do you remember me? Do you want to see me?”
“Okay,” I announced, to no one in particular—scared a couple of pigeons though.
I slammed my beer on the bench. Night wouldn’t fall for another couple of hours, at least. Museum tickets and tourist stuff were expensive, but I could always take a stroll around the piazza to clear my thoughts—the forum with the old Roman ruins was right behind that palace with the horseman. No need to pay for a ticket to check it from the street and snatch a few pics. I grabbed my backpack and beer. I frowned down at the almost-full black can. Honestly, that shit tasted worse than a Natty Daddy you drink alone for breakfast, and I didn’t want to be the girl who drowns her sorrow in grandma’s rubbing alcohol.
But I didn’t like to waste either. I decided to leave it up for whoever wanted to grab it—a bit of street solidarity never hurt. I’d barely shrugged on my backpack before this old guy with dirty track pants and gaping sneakers popped up behind me. Bumdar alert: dude hadn’t even bothered removing the cardboard sign around his neck—a few lines in Italian hastily scribbled with a Sharpie. I made no attempt to decipher it; his toothless grin spoke for itself. I flourished my hand toward the can with a wink.
He took the can and toasted me with it, chewing out a few words in a raspy singing voice. It took me a couple of seconds to make sense of the jumbled syllables—he wanted to know what a nice girl like me was doing in Rome.
My lips parted to reply. No sound came out. A loud and familiar beat in my chest muted my voice. His. Everyone else’s.
Oh God. Oh no . . .
It always started like this: a pulse inside me, like a warning before the tide surged, roared . . . and froze everything. The bum had raised my beer to his lips; golden drops remained still in the air above his open mouth. The tourists stood paralyzed mid-stride. The children’s grins were empty masks; their legs were coiled, ready for a jump that wasn’t coming, like birds about to fly away. The cars and the buses had stopped. Over the suffocating silence, all I could hear was the blood drumming in my ears, my neck. I staggered back, buried my face in my hands. I didn’t want it anymore—this hideous disease I could tell no one about.
It’d been weeks, perhaps even months since the last time, and like always, I’d almost allowed myself to believe it’d never happen again. How the fuck do you sit down in front of a shrink—or worse, your social worker—and tell them that you’re doing great, except when time stops, and everyone and everything is frozen but you? Don’t worry, though, it’s been like this since I was a kid; I’m used to it. I mean, sure, I freak out a teensy bit when I wake up at night, and I see a drop of water hanging midair from my kitchen faucet, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Nothing the right kind of meds and a straitjacket can’t fix, right, Doc?
It wouldn’t last. It never did. I massaged my skull and kept my eyes screwed shut, repeating the words in my head like a mantra: It’s almost over. It never lasts. Never. Just long enough to make me freak out in the middle of Central Park among frozen joggers and their dogs. Wax statues everywhere whose clothes wouldn’t wrinkle when I tried to touch them, water that wouldn’t wet my hands, and the silence, the silence drilling into my eardrums. I breathed through my nose. In. Out. Slowly, ticking endless seconds in my head until the hallucination passed.
Reality rushed back to me in a deep exhale. A car honked somewhere across the piazza, and the bum chugged down the rest of my can with a reassuring gurgle. A fat kid bumped into me; I was so out of it that I was the one who kept apologizing over and over as I stumbled away from the bench and toward the sidewalk. I needed to get away from the noise, the people. Right now. Scratch tourism; my new plan was to run straight to the guesthouse, check into my room, and stay curled in the dark until tomorrow.
Fighting the urge to climb on the first bus I saw, I resolved to ask for directions instead. Because my day hadn’t been shitty enough yet, might as well stack some cringeworthy social interaction in a language I hadn’t spoken in over a decade on top of it. I waved awkward fingers at a sweaty driver who sat slouched behind his wheel. “Quale . . . Autobus . . . Appia Alba?” Which . . . bus . . . Appia Alba?
My stuttering efforts were rewarded with a compassionate wince before he motioned at another station across the park with a doughy arm. “Si può prendere l’ottantasette.” I remained stuck in place, my jaw hanging limply as I slowly processed his instructions. “Ottantasette,” he repeated, before thankfully adding, “Eighty-seven.”
I gave an eager nod. “Grazie mille, signore.” Thank you very much, sir.
Well, things were looking up. If the bus didn’t freeze on its way to my guesthouse, I might even consider the trip a small victory. I strode toward the station at a brisk pace, passing the bum I’d given my beer to earlier. Dude had collapsed on the bench, using his cardboard sign to shield his leathery face from the sun while he napped. I thought of that old Phil Collins song: “Just Another Day in Paradise,” but I wasn’t really sad for him because I knew there were good and bad days on the streets, and to him, a sunny afternoon and free beer probably made for a good one.
Lost in my own thoughts, I didn’t pay attention to the elegant silhouette catching up with me until a soft voice said, “Em? Is that you?”
Two words: Oh, and Shit.
I took a step away from the pristine cardboard cutout of Audrey Hepburn smiling at me in her neat trench and navy cigarette pants. She tilted her head, and it made her sleek jet ponytail bounce prettily. I gulped a breath that stayed stuck in my throat. What were the fucking chances? I mean, flying 6,000 miles away from New York all the way to Europe, I’d been ready to deal with a lot of weird shit, starting with bidets and tourist scams. What I had not counted on was running into my step sister. To be honest, I thought I’d never see Lily again, or maybe someday she’d walk past me down Broadway, and she wouldn’t recognize me—wouldn’t even remember me.
“Em?” She tried again. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah . . . Um. Wow. You’re, like . . . in Rome too?” I tried to sound nice, but I couldn’t filter the dismay from my voice, and Lily picked up on it.
Her lips quivered into a nervous smile. “I live here. I’m doing a gap year before my MA.” She paused, blushed a little. “I met someone. His name is Dante. He works for an archeological foundation here in Rome. I helped them on a research project, and they offered me a grant to translate an incredible piece they’re excavating”—she quivered with excitement as she added. “on the Palatine!”
I gave an absent nod. Far as I knew, the Palatine was this big hill full of ruins and you could get a combined ticket to visit the whole thing along with the coliseum for twelve euro, which was an okay deal compared to the Sistine chapel and Vatican—sixteen euros? Get out! But I figured that Em didn’t care about that. I pursed my lips in appreciation—of what, I wasn’t sure. “Sounds really cool. It’s great that you still study . . . History.”
I hoped we were done with small talk and she’d just leave now, because I had officially run out of things to tell her. All I knew was that she’d enrolled in Harvard four years ago. I still remembered the day my mom had called to give me the great news. Normally, she’s d only call when she received my report cards from Saint-Henry—A unique institution empowering differently abled learners since 1904! Their words, not mine. Mom had said, “Lily has been accepted into Harvard”, then she’d asked, “and what are you going to do?” I knew my card was full of orange dots because Saint-Henry thought it would discourage geniuses like me to receive actual grades, so I hadn’t replied. My mom had sighed and hung up, like always.
I didn’t realize I’d zoned out until Lily tilted her head again like a pigeon. “Em?”
My head snapped up. “That’s me. Well, um . . . I guess I’ll be on my way.”
“Em, wait.” Her pale hand reached, as if to catch me before I flew away, and dropped back at her side just as soon. “You didn’t tell me . . . Are you here to see your dad?”
“Yeah. Just left him,” I replied, looking straight in her big brown eyes.
Her face lit up. “That’s amazing! I’m so glad you two patched things up. So, are you doing anything else today?”
My poker face wavered, but forced a smile on my lips as I kept lying my ass off. “I was going to visit—” stuff. “The coliseum.”
“Oh my God, are you serious? Actually, I was on my way to pick up Dante at our site. It’s not far from the colosseum, near San Bonaventura.” She winked. “Come with me, I’ll give you a tour no ticket can buy.”
Okay, I had no idea what she was talking about, but two facts stood out from this slow-motion train wreck. Apparently only peasants called it coliseum, and I had lied my way straight into a pinch. My eyes darted around, scanning the Piazza, the buses and the couple of police cars blaring their sirens to pass them faster. There was no convenient excuse in sight, and my brain cells were running on empty. I shrugged helplessly.
“Okay, follow me, then!”
Congratulations Em. You played yourself.
We walked down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a huge avenue lined with old brick buildings and ruins on each side. I took some pics of the ruins and columns you see on all the postcards while Lily basically gave me a course on Ancient Rome, the imperial forums—sorry, fori—how politicians and merchants gathered there to do their business, the baths, the basilicas . . . Honestly it was a little too much info at once what with all the names and dates, but I didn’t interrupt her: I liked the distance it put between us that she was ranting about stuff I didn’t really care about.
We’d just passed the massive stack of arches of a basilica and Lily was telling me about emperor Constantine and how he kicked the ass of another emperor named Maxentius to take the throne and after Maxentius drowned in the Tiber, Constantine grabbed his basilica too because these people obviously had no chill. She stopped in her explanations all of a sudden, and I knew my luck had just run out.
“What about you? I’ve been talking for ten minutes straight, and I realize I haven’t given a chance to tell me more about, I don’t know, your life.”
I retreated behind yet another shrug. “Well . . . I just work, and I guess that’s about it.”
“At a restaurant on Broadway.”
The flash of compassion was easy to read on her doll face, but even with her fricking Harvard degree, she couldn’t see when it was time to drop the bone. “So you’re a cook?”
“I work the dining room.” I figured it sounded classier than just telling her I was a waitress.
“Oh. Okay.” There was a lot loaded in that single oh that I prayed we wouldn’t discuss . . .
“Money’s okay,” I quickly added. “I got my own place too.” A shoebox efficiency in the Bronx, but I was pretty proud of it nonetheless.
Lily’s mouth rounded in admiration—but I couldn’t tell if it was sincere. She said, “That’s great!” and reached for my hand, but I snatched it away discreetly. Undeterred, Lily went on, her voice a notch quieter. “I’m happy for you, you know. I know it’s not always been easy . . . I’ll be home for Christmas, maybe we could organize something with mom—”
“I already got plans,” I snapped, a sudden pressure welling in my chest. I hated the way she said it, “Mom.” Her mom. Not mine. I was never good enough to deserve the honor.
Lily took a sharp breath and fished for her phone in her black Dior tote. “Okay . . . I’ll give you my number, anyway.”
I pulled out my own phone and gave it to her. Her fingers skimmed across the glass screen, creating a new contact. Lily. When she was done, she handed it back to me with a hopeful smile. “Text me so I have yours?”
I clutched the scratched yellow plastic of my minion phone case hesitantly. She noticed the design; it made her smile. There was this part of me who’d rather get full-body herpes than give her my number, warring with my other half, the one who’d have sold a kidney to spend Christmas with them. To belong somewhere. I watched my pride fly away and flip me off, chewed the inside of my cheek, and texted her. “That’s mine.”
After I was done, Lily pointed to the coliseum—colosseum—in the distance. I wasn’t sure why, but there was something vaguely threatening about its worn stones and the multitude of empty arches. A dead building, long-gutted from its insides. Creepy. It looked even more massive up-close; I felt like an ant in the shadow stretching across the square all the way to the avenue: colossal stuff indeed. I followed Lily around a mile-long queue of tourists trampling the pavement impatiently, fanning themselves with colorful leaflets.
“It’s often difficult to get in, especially at this time of the year,” Lilly noted. “But I can use my Katharos pass to take you for a private visit after hours. Tomorrow night, maybe?”
Nope. “Katharos?” I asked, to change the subject.
“The Katharos Archeological Foundation: that’s where I’m interning. They’re very active here in Rome. They finance expensive excavations, publish books about their finds, and they raise funds to protect sites from developers.”
“Cool.” I shot a doubtful look at the red varnish of her loafers. “So you’re digging and, like, dusting stuff?”
She shook her head and laughed. There was no bite to it, but I still felt dumb. “No, no. I help analyzing the pieces we find. I draw them, and then I do research to see how they fit in our current state of knowledge about a given period. I do translation too: I want to do a thesis on old italic script, and the Foundation is interested in that because they have these wonderful Etruscan pieces and the texts on them haven’t been fully translated yet.”
As we kept circling around the coliseum, the crowd became scarce, save for a little cluster of old people bickering around a souvenir shop. Lily stopped in front of a single arch standing a hundred feet away from the arena as if it’d been randomly dropped there. It was the size of a building, and there wasn’t a single square-inch that hadn’t been sculpted with guy in skirts, horses, column, latin text . . . you name it. I took a pic because everyone else was. Lily watched me do with a proud grin.
“It’s the Constantine arch. He had it erected to commemorate his victory over Maxentius.”
“The guy he took the basilica from? He had a huge problem with him . . .”
Lily chuckled. “They warred for six years for the purple.”
“Emperors wore purple togas, to symbolize their power,” she clarified.
“Oh, okay, I get it.”
“You see the stylistic differences between the top and bottom half?”
“Yeah.” Not at all . . .
“It’s because the arch is kind of a collage: the artists reused pieces from Trajan and Hadrian’s period and added their own, but the late Roman style was already veering away from the classical Hellenistic one. It was less realistic, less refined. Constantine’s arch is a perfect surviving example of that stylistic dichotomy, and some would argue, of the decline of the empire at that time.” she droned, nodding with a frown of concentration.
Someone shoot me please. “Yeah, it’s . . . very different.” It’s the same bearded guys in skirts. Everywhere.
I drew a quiet breath of relief when she walked us away from the dreaded Arch of Constantine the psycho who wanted everyone to know who packed the biggest one. We made our way in blessed silence toward a green hill side where pines shadowed ruins emerging from the ground. A little further down the trail, a tall scaffolding fitted with building wrap shielded a big chunk of the site from prying eyes. I stared up at the stone profile printed on the wrap and the sober black logo over it. I saw a K jumping around a couple of A, and an O too. I figured it must that Katharos Foundation Lily had mentioned earlier.
A pair of beefy guards in dark suits guarded the entrance to the site, but Lily flashed them her pass and a smile they didn’t return, and we were in. Honestly, the wrapping looked more exciting than the piles of dirt and the construction trucks it concealed. Lily motioned for me to follow her. “Come, it’s this way.”
I didn’t want to take her hand, but when she threatened to twist her ankle for the third time on protruding rocks, I let my hand dangle near hers in a silent invitation. She laced her fingers with mine, a smile on her lips. As we got closer, I stuck to my first impression that there wasn’t much to see around here, except . . . a big hole. Construction workers with blue helmets bustled around a pit some fifteen feet wide and so deep I couldn’t see the bottom from where I stood. I watched them set up pickets and yellow tape around the hole and yell stuff to each other in Italian under the attentive eyes of a black guy who looked all business in a classy gray suit and camel coat. At his side a younger dude with a navy sweater and jeans ran two hands in his curly brown hair, looking awestruck. Lily waved at him excitedly. He didn’t see her, his eyes wouldn’t move away from the hole, wide and unblinking. A shiver snaked through my body, and I couldn’t place why his fascination made me so uneasy.
Alerted by Lily’s squeal, the younger guy’s chin jerked up. He turned to acknowledge us with a ridiculously white smile. Why wasn’t I surprised that Lily’s boyfriend looked like an Armani ad on top of digging top-secret archeological holes? She ran to him like in a movie and hugged him. It made my chest tighten a little because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d hugged anyone, so I averted my eyes and pretended to be super interested in the excavator gathering a big pile of rubble away from the hole.
He tipped his head to look at me over her shoulder, and she whirled around. “Dante, this is Emma Nielsen, my step-sister. Em, meet Dante Monti.”
He waved at me with a good-guy grin. I waved back. Again, awkward five seconds. The black guy walked up to them to whisper something to Dante’s ear, his face completely blank. If he noticed me, he gave no sign of it. I took a few cautious steps toward the hole to get a better look, because I had no idea what to do with myself, but also, admittedly, because I was a little curious. It went much deeper than I expected, at least a hundred feet. Ropes hung all the way down from several reels, and a few workers equipped with climbing harnesses were busy removing dirt from some sort of large circular stone plate half-buried in the earth among broken columns and cracked slabs of rock. With each brush of their gloved hands, symbols appeared that looked like letters, but nothing I could so much as decipher.
“It’s old italic,” Dante noted, a suave Italian accent laced around each word. He shifted closer to me with Lily latched around his arm. “It’s . . . a completely unique piece.”
“Because it’s not written in Latin?” I ventured, trying to sound smart.
“Yes.” My lips quirked in fleeting pride as he went on. “It’s probably Etruscan, which is unheard of, since my Roman ancestors assimilated the Etruscans until there was almost no trace left of their civilization.”
“And that it was placed inside a Roman temple; it’s just insane,” Lily added in an awed breath.
I gave a slow nod and silently thanked Dante when he thought it useful to provide just a teensy bit of context. “Under normal circumstances, you would never see anything Etruscan in a Roman temple, especially not a written trace. But the table was part of a small shrine to Cronus that collapsed in the fifth century during a landslide.”
I stared down the hole at the concentric lines of characters covering the stone disc. “It was a table?”
“Not made for eating though,” Dante said with a chuckle. “Rather, a ritual artifact.”
“What kind of ritual?” I asked.
“We’ll know as soon as we’re done translating the inscriptions,” Lily chirped. She beamed at Dante. “I’ll get to assist the best experts on the subject.”
He winked at her and fricking bopped her nose. God those two were so sweet they made my teeth hurt . . .. “And I get to work with the next Professor McKeanney. We would never have found the table without Lily’s research.”
Professor McKeanney? I looked at Lily. “Like your grandpa?”
Her gaze grew wistful. “I’m not quite there yet: I’ll need to get my PhD first. But I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him: I just used his final notes and filled in the blanks.”
“But we couldn’t make sense of them, and you managed,” Dante countered.
Her smile returned. “He must have been leaning over my shoulder.”
Ah, the legendary grandpa. My mother loved this story: she always managed to slip it into any conversation that Lily was the granddaughter of a super famous professor of archeology no one had otherwise ever heard of. Apparently, Lily’s grandad had been some kind of Indiana Jones, but without the whip, or the adventures. But he had written tons of books, taught at Harvard, and they’d even set a memorial plate after he killed himself. Sad stuff: Lily’s mother had been stabbed to death by a thug near Battery Park when Lily was two. Police never found the guy, and Lily’s grandpa went crazy trying to find his daughter’s murderer, until he gave up and put a gun in his own mouth.
My stomach coiled unpleasantly at the realization that he had done it here, in an apartment in Rome. My eyes darted at Lily, resting her head on Dante’s shoulder while they discussed their mystic Ikea table. It must be weird for her to be back here, right in her grandad’s footsteps . . . after all that.
She turned to smile at me while Dante droned on. Like a bucket of icy water suddenly dropping over my head, I heard my mother’s voice again. Can’t you be a little less selfish? Lily lost her mother! How would it feel for you to lose me, Em? I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth. I knew how it felt. Like you’re stripped bare and you belong nowhere.
“Ehi! Torna qui!” Hey, get back here!
All heads flipped to where that gravelly shout had come from, mine included. On the other side of the hole, some hobo with a beer in hand staggered dangerously close to the edge. Blatantly ignoring the guards and workers yelling for him to get back, he let his body tip forward, even closer to the pit, reaching through thin air with a weird cane made of gnarled wood.
Dante smacked his tongue and muttered something in Italian under his breath, before he told me, “Sorry. They’re everywhere in the center because tourists keep giving them change.” He crossed his arms and sighed. “How did he even get in here?”
Lily watched with big sad eyes as two guards hooked their arms into the hobo’s to pull him away from the hole. He dropped his beer in the grass and managed to reach for his face to readjust small round sunglasses. I scanned him, like an old habit even though he posed no threat to me at the moment. Long worn coat, wrinkled and patched up. Corduroy pants, threadbare at the knees, but not really dirty. Dark t-shirt, nice steel toes showing through his busted boots. Dude hadn’t shaved in at least a couple of weeks, and the mess of sandy curls on his head could use a cut—or just a comb, really. My eyes narrowed as they dragged him toward us. Mid to late twenties, probably. No red blotches on what was otherwise a fairly good mug, save for that mask of exhaustion the street eventually paints on all features. One of the guards pulled on his t-shirt so hard he nearly tore it off. I frowned. No beer belly; that six-pack was either a great contouring job or a fine case of meth abs . . .
I smelled a fauxbo. Dammit I hated those. Wannabe artists and trust-fund babies, most of the time, who played bum all night before returning to their SoHo loft at dawn and sleep the booze off there until noon. Even so, anger zinged up my spine and directly to my head when a burly guard punched him in the stomach hard, just for show. I leaped in front of them without thinking. “Hey, hey! Easy! Dude . . . He’s just a bum.”
They froze and shot an anxious glance at Dante and the black guy. Neither moved to stop me. Dante flashed me a stiff smile I gathered meant he didn’t want a scene in front of Lily—whose eyes were so wide they’d roll out of her skull any moment now. The guards released their hold long enough for the hobo to brace his palms on his knees and gasp out a trickle of saliva, that he wiped with the back of his hand.
I bent toward him gingerly, picking up a whiff of booze and something sweet like candy. “You okay?”
He raised his head at me, and I nearly stumbled back in surprise. His glasses had slipped askew and I could see that the eyes looking into mine were empty: his gray irises encased milky white pupils. Blind. I glanced down at the cane he still gripped tight in his right hand—figured.
He grinned, revealing incisors that didn’t look like he’d spent years in the gutter, even if they overlapped a little. I fought the urge to step away when he reached for my face and grazed it briefly. I shivered from the contact. He spoke, the faintest accent lingering in his raspy voice. “I love being drunk around pretty girls.”
Okay, a fauxbo and a C-grade pick-up artist. I shook off the fleeting pang of compassion I had allowed to dwell in my chest as I hauled him up. “Get out the fuck of here . . . seriously.”
He whirled around, bowed to me on unsteady legs and lumbered out of the site with dramatic wave of his hand. My lips twitched involuntarily. There was something about people who no longer gave a flying fuck, a spark that regular folks just didn’t have.