— PART I —
I became a criminal when I was five years old—an idiotic little girl.
My parents and I were walking around in the city, waiting for the Fourth of July fireworks to start. The streets were packed, and I felt like I was suffocating. I clung to my mother’s hand with a vice grip as we navigated the streets. Blinding lights penetrated the air, clogged with smoke and pollution. The shroud of oncoming night made even light look menacing. I remembered covering my ears from the thunder of human activity around me. Since I was so young, all the adults and older teenagers were terrifying, with dark shadows cast on their faces and vicious eyes staring me down. But now I figure it was just my imagination.
Then I was screaming at my parents and throwing a tantrum like the baby I was. What were we even fighting about? I don't remember. Something about a toy I wanted from one of the shops we passed. I didn’t know what possessed me right then, but I took off into the crowd, leaving my parents in my dust.
Mistake number one.
I wound through the streets, running as fast as my tiny legs would take me. It felt that the farther I ran, the darker the streets got. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and drunken laughter. The women around here were scantily dressed, and they were draping themselves around many of the men.
A group of teenagers called out, jeering. I screamed as they tried reaching for me. Their eyes were so full of corruption, hatred, and anger. They were animals. I fled, not taking one look back.
My lungs caught on fire, as if I were drinking lava, but all I could process were the intimidating people covering the streets. If I could remember one thing about that night, it was the fear that controlled me. My stomach was in knots and my fists were clenched. I couldn't stop crying.
I kept running even when I thought it was impossible to move another inch. My calves burned, my chest heaved, and my breath came in short rasps. Running away from my parents finally seemed like a bad idea.
That’s when I met them—the people who changed my life.
I was so disheveled and disoriented, I didn't know where I was going, and I crashed right into a large group of boys. I tripped and fell, but a strong set of arms hauled me to my feet again.
“Are you okay?”
I looked through the tears streaming from my eyes at a boy who was much older than me. I gulped.
“You lost?” another, deeper, voice asked.
The lights shone directly on his face, making him look like the reincarnation of God. I shook my head vigorously when my words lodged in the back of my throat.
“Then where’s your parents?”
“I hate them!” I shouted, finding my voice momentarily. A boy with fire-red hair came up to me. A bit shorter than God-boy, he had a soft face, kind and gentle; but his eyes gave away a very mischievous core.
“You ran away from your parents?” He had a look of confusion on his face that I would never understand. It was a simple question, but there was something else fueling it. Disbelief. I nodded as the hold on my arm loosened.
Suddenly, all of the boys jerked their heads to scan down the road. I realized why when shouts came our way. They didn’t sound very happy. Or friendly. The seven boys looked at each other and ran.
I called after them. “Wait!” But they didn't stop.
As they escaped farther and farther away from me, something clicked in me. I stared after them in longing, wishing to be like them, so strong and alive. Wishing to be with them. Without a second thought, I sprinted after the gang.
Mistake number two.
Fireworks blasted into the air, saturating the ink-black sky with shots of color and light. What happened next was a blur in my memory. I can barely remember a rush of air streaming past my face and my heart beating a mile a minute. Everything flashed past my vision, going much too fast for my eyes to make sense of it. All I could see were the backs of the boys ahead of me. Their sneakers pounded against the pavement, not stopping even when they ran into someone. The boys spun around the crowds with the grace and agility of fleeing gazelles, as if their movements had been well rehearsed. We wound in zigzags around stalls, into alleys, through crowds—anything to lose our pursuers. Luckily, running was my forte, and I was fast. Really fast. Although the boys' legs were much longer than mine, I was able to keep up with them, but just barely.