Rayla discovered the jacket in the back of a Salvation Army sale. Its camo green had faded to a dingy brown. Good enough for 50 cents. She tried it on, shoving her gloved hands into the pockets.
She touched someone’s fingers.
“Oh!” A few yards away, a woman jerked her hand from her coat pocket. Blue eyeshadow smeared her eyelids and a ‘let me speak to your manager’ haircut puffed the back of her head. She swiveled her gaze around and landed on Rayla, suspicion curling around her lips.
Rayla twirled, acting the cutesy kid playing dress up. Not the streeter, not the criminal stitched together out of spite and grocery bags for a bra. She forced herself to smile, not meeting the woman’s eyes, unaware, innocent. Sweat beads broke out on her forehead.
The woman swiveled her cart to trundle down the next aisle. Rayla yanked the jacket off and dropped it back on the pile, her breathing quick as a cricket in a skillet.
She hadn’t touched anyone since—not since—curled hands, cold like the fish in a supermarket, cold and stiff and he won’t let go, why won’t he let go—
It was okay. She was okay. She had her gloves on. She hadn’t touched the woman skin to skin. She regarded the coat as if it had bitten her.
If this coat allowed her into strangers’ pockets, she wouldn’t have to live off the crumbs of Gremmer’s good moods anymore. She could escape 10th street. Leave the Lightfingers. Find her own place.
She peeked inside the left pocket. Just a normal, everyday pocket with an itty-bitty hole, enough to poke a pinky through, enough to annoy you when you stuffed a granola bar in there and it crumbled away.
Just useless enough to give away. Just useful enough to have a secret.
She took it.
Rayla tested it out at the mall first.
Lots of people, lots of quick experiments. She’d avoided pickpocketing throughout her life on the streets. She’d settled for begging, dumpster diving, and working token jobs in the restaurant kitchens who’d hire anyone to clear a table. Gremmer had tried to make her pickpocket like the others, but she’d always refused.
Pickpocketing demanded bare skin.
Gloves impeded the fingers, thickened them too much to slip into a pocket. But she couldn’t pass this power up. In the mall, it cost her half an hour of agony, peeling off the protective shield, sweating through them till she might have floated in a bathtub, she was so salty.
Fingers trembling, she focused on a teenaged girl with skinny jeans. Easy target, with the wallet in her back pocket outlined like a neon bar sign at night. Rayla tugged it through to her coat.
Skinny Jeans perched her hands on her sides and said something to her friend, who laughed and hip-bumped her. They both strolled away.
Okay. Not as hard as I thought.
A middle-aged woman had a credit card sticking out of a tiny front pocket. One of those pockets that offended the term because there was more room in a rat’s ass. Rayla tried to slide the card down along with the cash hiding behind, but the woman pursed her lips, gripped the card, and about brushed Rayla’s fingers.
Rayla jerked her hand away. The floor at the back of the clothing store displayed a diamond pattern, and it blurred into three diamonds, then six. Her breathing hitched and she swayed, her lips drying out. Could she handle this? She couldn’t handle this. Could she?
She forced in a breath.
One, two, three.
One, two, three.
She could do this. She would do this.
She ended up netting three credit cards and two hundred and eleven dollars. The credit cards she tossed, because ATMs had cameras and she didn’t need that noise. But the cash!
She waltzed into the Lightfingers’ squatter house on 10th street and asked to see Gremmer in what he called his study, a dingy room with a fireplace, a sagging door, and rats in the walls.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
He crouched in front of the fireplace, cooking a hot dog on a stick and crooking his neck just enough to acknowledge her. “You’re leaving now?”
In a month, Gremmer planned for the Lightfingers to spring a trap on Wek’s crew, the gang that ran the other side of town. At seventeen and eighteen years old, Gremmer and Wek had an old rivalry. “I won’t be much help with that, anyways. You’ll want your meatheads, not your dishwashers.” Just useless enough to give away. Just useful enough to have a secret.
“I want my thinkers dealing with Wek. And you’re a thinker. You’ve always been a thinker. Look what you’re trying to do now.”
“I just want to move more. Get out more. I’m fidgety, that’s all.”
Gremmer tapped the hot dog stick against the grate. He looked like any lanky teenager doing that, and that was his power. Looking weak while being strong. The opposite of her. “Where would you go?”
His even, composed tone made her swallow. She stayed five feet away. She’d learned his range and quickness of temper early on.
“If you’re going over to Wek’s side of town, I swear, Rayla –”
“I ain’t. I’m going out on my own.”
“The proper way to say that is, ‘I won’t.’”
“Good ol’ Gremmer. Teaching us poor urchins poli-tivity. It’s almost like we’re an orphanage.”
His face reddened and she grinned. The redness made him seem younger, younger even than her fifteen years.
Gremmer retracted the hot dog stick, then rose with that quickness of his, that sudden strike, and stepped close.
She danced back just out of range, away from the possibility of touch.
“Grammar. It’s Grammar, damn it. Know what? I’ll be glad when you and all your sass is gone.” He extended his arm and waved the hotdog on the end of the stick at her face. “But it’s almost winter. You can’t survive on your own. What are you not telling me?”
“I’ll prove I can do it. I won’t make any trouble for you, and you’ll have one less mouth to feed.”
“One less mouth to mouth off, you mean.” Gremmer leaned back and crammed half the hot dog in his mouth.
She took that as a yes and fled. She had a strange sense of self-preservation, in that sometimes she didn’t have one. She had to use the coat’s power, as much as it disturbed her, and escape that place where she just wanted to ‘mouth off.’
She settled into the abandoned car lot. No one had claimed the spot—it languished outside of town, too far away from any juicy streets where people were generous with their guilt.
She caught herself staring at hands, at the way they waved outside car windows like nonchalant flags, at the way they tapped at screens. As if they wanted the screen to tap back. The way a hand reached for another when crossing the street, as if lonely, as if they needed to bond before traveling through danger.
She survived her first winter month well enough. Almost too well. Two Lightfingers, a boy named Taz and his younger sister Joy, trekked over to the car lot and asked to join her. Taz had had a bruise on his cheek and didn’t mention its source. He didn’t have to, the way Joy hid behind him, the way he stepped a little in front of her, the way he held her hand like a precious stone.
Not wanting to send them away to challenge the cold, but also afraid of Gremmer’s ire, she hid them and kept them fed. She had enough money to do that now. She had enough cash stashed away to keep a squirrel warm in the winter. Cars drove by on the freeway, and she reached in her jacket and succeeded most times in snatching something.
A wallet. A Dum-Dum sucker. A ticket to a play that she couldn’t attend. Some loose change. A few times, a hand, which had thrown her into terror and a kind of confused longing.
She found out the rules of the magic portal. She could use the ability with other pockets, but the jacket worked best. And she could use each pocket just once on the same person.
Rayla gave Joy the Dum-Dum, and the tiny pig-tailed girl had tried to hug her with gloveless hands. Rayla stepped away, her breathing quick and shallow.
Joy cried and hid behind the old school bus, her grubby fingers smearing dirt on her wet face. Rayla wanted to comfort her, but how did one comfort from a distance? How could she help the girl without using the warmth of her arms, or a soothing whisper against her ear, or the brush of fingers through her hair?
Taz wrapped his sister in a hug and told her a story about a mouse who lived in a dump with her brother mouse, and how the two animals gazed up at the stars every night to remember the bigness of the world. She stopped crying and dozed on his lap.
Later that night, Taz trailed over to Rayla. Like most streeters, a wizened greyness glinted in his eyes like a dull coin spent too often, and yet not enough.
“It’s okay,” Taz said. Maybe he saw the wild animal in the way she held herself apart. Maybe he thought she was ‘touched in the head’ as her aunt had said. “It’s okay. We just miss hugs and stuff, you know? She does more than me. But then there’s this.” He pointed at the fading bruise on his cheek. “We’re scared, too.”
“It’s not you, or her,” Rayla said, and tried to continue, but her lips refused to move.
It was her father’s sunken grey cheeks, and how he had gripped her hands and said, “don’t worry, Ray, you’ll be—”
But then he’d gone still, and she’d held his hands for hours more, waiting for the rest of the words, but in her semi-conscious state she hadn’t felt his hands stiffen into gnarled arthritic lumps, hadn’t felt them tighten around hers until hours later, and she couldn’t slip free, and they wouldn’t let go, and he’d gone all still and cold and small, and though she had screamed herself hoarse for anyone, anyone, to come, to not leave her in the room with the body that was not her father, not really, anymore, begging him to let go—
She ripped off her gloves to wash her hands over and over and over in the ice bucket they kept for water.
Taz stood by like a sentinel and did not laugh.
Gremmer didn’t keep away long. He had certain ideas about wealth, namely that Rayla earn it for him.
“You’ve held out on me, Rayla, and now you’re trying to hurt my reputation. You owe me.”
“I paid you the cut when I worked for you. And I don’t anymore.”
“The hell you don’t! I never said you left the crew. I just let you go a little farther away than 10th street.”
She lifted her chin. He’d brought Melo and Halz, the two densest seventeen-year-olds in the Lightfingers, in muscle as well as brains. Their knuckles reminded her of tree bark, knotted and bent. Did Gremmer see her as a threat? She’d wanted to escape him, not challenge him as crew leader. “You said, ‘one less mouth to mouth off,’ which means you cut me off. I’m not yours anymore, Gremmer. And I’m not trying to compete with you.”
Taz and Joy hovered behind the old school bus, along with Ves and Iri and—and that ten-year-old with the nose ring. She couldn’t remember them all. Seven or eight had stolen over from Wek’s old crew once Gremmer had thrown Wek in the river.
“Heard you don’t take cuts from your kids,” Gremmer said. “You let ’em just live here free of charge.” He swung his head as if he could cut through the school bus with his gaze. “It’s sweet. Really. But you don’t have what it takes to feed ’em all, and you know it. They’re little leaches. They’ll suck you dry.”
Rayla shifted her weight from one hip to another. “First you say I’m so awesome I’m holding out on you, and then you say I don’t have what it takes. Make up your mind, Gremmer. Are you trying to sweet talk or scare me?”
Gremmer hissed. He wore skinny jeans, the kind without pockets, and didn’t have a coat, even though spring’s chill lingered in the air. He kept his fingernails clean and cut short, not ragged like other streeters, and his long fingers remained pale, not red, even after all the kids he had killed. He strolled closer. “I could just take that jacket, you know.”
“You think your little angels wouldn’t talk?” He snorted and spoke in a high-pitched voice. “‘Rayla has a power! Rayla can pickpocket with magic! Rayla, Rayla, Rayla, who gives us candy and shits sunflowers!’ Well, guess what? All those times you said you couldn’t steal? You owe me for those, you little liar. And you owe your cut from all these other jobs.”
His arm shot out towards her. She dodged and danced just out of reach. Gremmer stopped and cocked his head.
“It’s not like you could—or would—fight me,” he said in a soft voice. “Too dangerous, right?” He held out his hand and waggled those pale fingers.
No, no no no—how had he—
“It’s not hard to figure out,” he said. “You don’t do handshakes. You wear gloves. I’ve known for years. And I let it slide, didn’t force you to pickpocket. But now, well. Now it’s different, isn’t it?”
She couldn’t lose the jacket. She couldn’t let him steal it. It kept her away from him, and not just her anymore. Taz and Joy, and those other kids, they’d all sought protection from her jacket’s powers.
He was right, though. She couldn’t fight him. The Lightfingers had doubled their numbers after the raid, and though a few streeters had crept over to her car lot, they all had at least one of the three streeter problems: scared, sick, or young.
“Who’d you have in mind?” She twisted the frayed ends of her jacket strings back together. She’d do this one job for him, then split out of town. Leave altogether, along with the kiddies. She couldn’t let this continue, he’d keep asking and rope her back under his control. He’d steal the jacket from her, once he figured out how it worked, and she’d provoke him because she couldn’t keep her damn mouth shut . . . she could see it all now. And now Gremmer knew her fear of touch. And he could move so fast. Oh God. She set up a strong front of words, but weakness cowered in the corner of her mind and begged for safety.
“I need you to get something from Wek.”
“What?” Her thoughts twisted. “But you—I thought you tossed him.”
Gremmer cut his gaze to Melo. “We did. But the weasel had an expensive ring on, and these two shats didn’t think to grab it before they tipped him over the bridge. He’s under all that ice, and we can’t get him and not get in trouble with the cops, you feel me? After the raid we’re laying low, keeping up appearances. But you could just waltz by and snatch it and not even break a sweat. Just reach through his pocket to his hand with your magic fairy coat.”
He wanted her to pickpocket a drowned person.
No, no no no! She couldn’t—she wouldn’t—
Taz’s bruised face flashed in the back of her mind. And Joy, reaching to hug her, with her little pigtails bobbing around. Joy, crunching the hell out of her Dum Dum sucker with outright glee.
If Gremmer snagged her jacket now, she couldn’t keep the kids safe and fed. She wasn’t just providing for herself anymore.
She was a crew leader, like it or not. These kids had picked her to lead them.
Like hell she’d let Gremmer hurt them.
“Fine.” The word scraped her throat. She’d do this and get her and her crew out of town, away from Gremmer forever.
He stepped closer and held out his hand with a smirk. She growled at him.
“The proper way to say that would be, ‘I’ll do what you say, Grammar.’”
“You have such a way with the ladies. We love being told what to say. How to say it. All the time.”
He grinned and shook an imaginary hand.
She left the car lot and bought a book. She actually traipsed in and handed the register lady money.
It had a glossy cover, so it could pass as fancy, maybe. She picked it because of the picture of sand on it, not even pretty, multi-colored sand, but the wet, grey kind, and the title read, “Agriculture in the Desert.” She couldn’t think of anything more boring than that, and people tended not to bother anyone who read boring books. Afraid it would rub off on them or something.
She’d wanted to just snatch the kids and scram to another city. But Gremmer had eyes on her: Melo, one of his muscles, had shadowed her since the confrontation the day before.
She threaded through the downtown streets, keeping her jacket hood pulled up around her face. The surrounding buildings spiked into the sky, and she shivered in the dawn winter chill. Not too many people were bustling around yet, and she’d planned it that way. Hiding her out-of-placeness downtown required a certain skill, where the shop windows displayed the purses with the gold triangles around the brand names, and the men strode around like someone pulled on their legs to go faster.
Pickpocketing downtown could be a gold mine, but streeters tended to avoid it on account of how they stood out like five sore thumbs on a foot. Wek had run his crew here by blending in with the high-price folks and scamming them by acting swanky. He’d always had smarts. Just not ruthlessness like Gremmer did.
She stopped at the apex of the bridge and plopped down on a metal bench, sliding her backpack off and holding her book up like a shield. Melo was sitting crisscrossed at the edge of the bridge on a thin blanket, holding a guitar backwards and pretending to play.
She concentrated. Tried to reach. Imagined Wek’s face, who she’d met just once. He’d had thin lips and high cheeks, right?
Nothing. The portal didn’t connect. Her fingers brushed the bottom of her jacket pocket.
How long would it take to find him? Could she find him at all? She’d pickpocketed people driving by in cars, but she’d always seen at least a flash of their face, a side profile or a shadow.
Police boats chugged around on the water, the uniforms on it dragging a net. Some reporters crowded on the bridge in tweed skirts and those puffy coats. They posed for photos with the water in the background and gestured with hungry hands, like the murder had excited them.
She tried to concentrate on a different area of the river. Maybe she had to pinpoint his location first.
An older lady in long sleeves settled down on the bench next to her. It took everything in her not to bolt.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school, dear?”
Rayla curled her right hand around the book while she tried to find the magical link in her pocket with the other. “I’m studying.”
“Ah, about the desert, I see. Did you know that cacti can live for two years without water? Fascinating, isn’t it?”
Just her luck. She’d run into the one person in the universe who cared about sand.
“They even look dead for months and months, but they—”
At the word ‘dead,’ something flashed in Rayla’s vision, and she connected, her fingers touching cloth and freezing water. She thrust her hand in further, up through the pocket, and even part of her arm.
Cold, stiff fingers—
“Oh, dear!” the lady said. “Is something wrong, honey?”
How long had she gone still like that? Tears of terror strung down her cheeks like beads on a necklace. Let go. Let go. Please—she yanked her hand away, back through the portal.
Empty handed. Wet. No ring.
The lady reached out with her bare hand, manicured, the kind of hand that played piano, and who the hell didn’t wear gloves on a winter morning? Rayla jerked away by instinct, as if she were a puppet and someone had pulled her strings.
She would lose the jacket if she didn’t find this ring for Gremmer. And the kids. And her freedom. She tried her jeans pocket in desperation, forced herself to connect again to the magic, to think of death, and coldness, and she was in that room once more, her father’s not-real body lying there, her at its side. Her aunt had found her in the morning, all out of tears, a ball of horror and sweat, her hands caged in her father’s grip. Her aunt tried to pull her away. Called her ‘touched in the head.’ And she had run.
There. The fingers, a little curled, as if clenching into a fist, and the ring on the pinkie. She gritted her teeth, bit down hard on her lip and grabbed it. But the fingers had bloated, and the ring wouldn’t slip off.
Her mind stilled and stiffened. She couldn’t pull back through the portal. She couldn’t move her fingers—
A gloved tap on her shoulder. Taz stood there next to her with Joy. When had they got there? Had they followed her?
The lady switched her gaze between them, back and forth. Rayla hadn’t had the money yet to fix her crew with hole-less clothes, and dirt smeared their faces. “Oh, dear,” the lady said, and a little line creased her forehead, and her hands fluttered like birds re-settling on a cable wire.
“Boss,” Taz said. “We were worried.”
Joy held her hands behind her back. “We wanna stay with you. We’re not going back to Gremmer, right? You’ll keep us with you?”
The warmth of the way Taz held his sister, and the sunrise in Joy’s cheeks, that faint blush of hope, brought her out of the mental grasp. She yanked hard, and the ring ripped off, and she pulled back through to her side of the portal, in her pocket. And for just a moment, she remembered how her father would toss her high in the air, laughing, and how he had caught her before she fell. And he’d told her in that cold, sick room, “Don’t worry, Ray, you’ll be fine without me.”
The lady stuck her hand in her purse. “I’m so sorry, can I help you children? Where are your parents?”
Rayla sucked in a deep breath through her nose and faced the sand-cactus lady. “They’re dead. But I think that it’s okay, now, you know? My dad said I’d be okay. I think I’m like that cactus. I look kinda dead, but I can come back when it rains.”
The little line in the lady’s forehead wrinkled into three more lines. “Oh, dear,” she said. ‘Oh, dear. I’m so sorry.”
The lady probably wouldn’t call the cops yet, but she would if they kept clustering there looking homeless and parentless and just less in general. Rayla gripped the ring. Some of the finger had come with it and she didn’t want to touch it, but she didn’t think she had the strength to open the portal back up and push it away. And she couldn’t very well toss it over the side with the lady right there.
Melo waited on the edge of the bridge with the backwards guitar, and he must have figured out her success, because he gestured her over to a side street.
If she gave the ring to Gremmer, he wouldn’t let her leave, he’d steal the kids, and the jacket, and everything she’d built.
This wasn’t just about her, anymore. It was about the streeters who looked up to her, who depended on her. She wanted to give them the safety and security she’d always craved. She could face that truth now that she’d faced her dad’s words.
“Go home,” she said to Taz and Joy. “I’ll take care of this.”
Gremmer waited with an expectant grin. “Did you get it?”
She tossed him the ring.
“Nice, nice,” he said, flipping it over in his palm. “Supposed to be real gold, you know. Damn Wek. Well, now he doesn’t need it.” He looked back up at her, then behind her. “Now.”
Someone slammed her into the wall, pinning her arms back. Melo. She screamed, and someone tore the jacket off her.
No, she needed the jacket! It helped her—it forced her to—
Melo released her, and she shuddered, waiting for the terror to wash over her. But it seemed tempered, somehow less cold.
“I knew it! You’re touched in the head!” Gremmer said. “You should be in the madhouse. Who’s afraid of hands, anyway?”
She rubbed at her arms and glared at Melo, who held her jacket. “The proper way to say that would be, ‘I’m an idiot who can’t do anything for himself.’”
Gremmer’s hand flashed and smacked her so hard her head whipped. “You think you’re smart?” He slapped her again. “I’ll teach you to be smart! This just kills you, doesn’t it?”
The slap hurt, but it didn’t chill and still her into terror. She remembered the warmth of her father’s hands in hers, leading her across the street to the park. She remembered the sunrise in Joy’s smile, eating the sucker. She wouldn’t let him steal her crew from her.
The jacket hadn’t given her the power. She’d known that for a while now. It had helped her, but she didn’t need it anymore. She could bridge the spaces by herself.
She jammed her hand in her jean pocket, reached through the portal, and yanked hard on his balls.
He screeched and wheeled away from her, cupping himself. Melo tried to grab her arm again, but she snatched Wek’s finger she’d stuffed in her other jeans pocket and waggled it at him. “Don’t try it, I’m warning you!” He backed off, his face twisting with revulsion, his eyes flicking to his cowering boss.
She bent down in front of Gremmer and waved the frozen finger in his face, like he’d once waved the hotdog in hers. “I’m leaving the city. Don’t come after me, Gremmer, and don’t come after my crew. I’m a fucking cactus and I’ll slice your damn hands off with my magic if you try to touch me again.”
She fled the city that day with the kids, along with a few more who’d run away when they’d heard how she’d beaten Gremmer. Gremmer didn’t try to stop them.
They bus-hopped cities for a while until she’d pickpocketed enough to rent a house for the twelve of them. Joy even started going to school, and Rayla patted her on the head before she left each morning, a light, gloved touch. Rayla and Taz and the rest of them all had a ritual: each night she had them tilt their heads up towards the stars to remember the bigness of the world. To know that, if they felt stiff or cold or just wanted to feel the rain in another city, they could leave if they chose to.
She still preferred a wide berth, no handshakes with strangers and long sleeves with gloves.
But she watched the streeters now and reached in her pocket, gloveless for an intentional, small amount of time, to slip them something. Some money. A Dum-Dum sucker. Socks. Sometimes they caught her hand before it slipped away, and they’d start with sudden fear. They’d wait a moment, like an animal eyeing an open door, hesitant even if it saw food inside.
Often, though, the smallest ones clutched her hand with a sudden, primal grip. She held their little fingers as long as they wanted, letting their skin drink in the contact, the touch, the warmth. The streets starved and dehydrated people in more ways than one, and they were cactuses in a desert. She just wanted to give them some rain.
© Emmie Christie