Leila ran, crying, out of the apartment, ignoring the questions that were called after her by worried neighbors. Her entire body was aching and each step hurt. Each step was worth it, however, because it took her further away from him. Even though Leila was only seven years old, she knew it was dangerous to wander around Chicago by yourself. She didn’t care though. She was done caring.
Her tears were frozen on her cheeks before they could drop off. As they dried they pinched her skin and it became harder and harder to keep her eyes open. She turned blindly, passing from corner to corner, unaware of where she was really going. When her legs finally gave out from exhaustion, she sank down against a brick wall. Though her legs were sore and tired, her eyes never seemed to run out of energy. She sat there crying and crying; crying out of pain and confusion and hurt and loss.
]After what seemed like forever, her tears subsided and Leila was left with a hollow feeling. Maybe tears are what make us feel and she had cried out every feeling she had left. She had cried out everything that made her human.
Now that she wasn’t focused on crying, Leila noticed something. Or rather, she smelled it. It smelled like… like a home. Not her home, of course, her home always smelled like alcohol and cigarettes. But this… this smelled like what a home should smell like. She pried open her eyes and gazed around, finally noticing that she was hopelessly lost. That fact almost made her start crying again, but the smell provided more comfort that stopped her tears.
She was in a small backstreet littered with abandoned buildings. Paint was peeling off the buildings and many of them didn’t have doors. But not all of the buildings were abandoned. Tucked away in the middle of the desolation was a small building, lit up with Christmas lights. Leila stood up, her knees shaking, and she walked towards the cozy looking building. The closer she got the more the smell intensified. Leila kept going until she was pressed right up against the glass. She looked up at a fading sign that said ‘Neverland’s Treasures’. After staring at the sign for a while trying to remember when she had heard Neverland before, she returned her gaze to the inside of the little shop. There were a few people inside, sitting in comfy looking chairs, gripping mugs of a steaming liquid. The light inside was slightly dim, but very inviting. Leila stayed out in the cold debating whether or not to go in when a young woman happened to look up and see Leila in the window.
Immediately, the woman stood up, placed her mug down on a table and rushed to the door. She opened it and knelt down next to Leila.
“Honey,” she said, and her voice was so warm and soft. “Honey what are you doing out here? Come on, inside now.” Without so much as a word from Leila, the young woman ushered her inside.
“Gaby,” she said, looking at another girl. “Gaby grab me some blankets, will you? Aaron, get her a cup of some hot chocolate. I haven’t any idea how long she was out there. Now, honey,” she said, turning to gaze back to Leila, “I want you to have a seat right here, okay?” She let go of Leila, trusting she could find the aforementioned seat by herself.
Still in shock and confusion at what had just happened, Leila went and sat down in a huge, comfy arm chair. A woman came and draped a blanket over her before going over to a small kitchenette to help some guy.
The young woman who had ushered Leila into the building returned and sat down on a loveseat across from Leila. “What’s your name, honey? What were you doing out there? Gaby, Aaron, how’s that cocoa coming?”
“Got it for you right here, Marley,” that guy, must have been Aaron, said, coming over. He knelt down in front of Leila and presented her with a steaming mug of hot chocolate. “Careful, it’s hot,” he said with a smile. Leila gathered her hands under the blanket and used the blanket as a barrier between her hands and the mug. She gave a little smile to Aaron. His eyes lit up and he returned to the kitchenette.
“Honey,” Marley said, in a soft tone. “What’s your name?”
“Leila,” she said into her hot chocolate.
“And what were you doing out here? It’s the day before Christmas, surely you’d be home waiting to open your presents?”
Leila ignored this question, instead answering with one of her own, “Who are you?”