The stress coursing through Kayla Cruise’s veins was making her chest ache, and there was a strange warm sensation in her fingertips. If she had looked down she would have noticed the whisper of flames, golden sparks leaping from her skin. An icy breath of wind fluttered through her long dark bangs and extinguished the fire. Kayla squinted as the grit from the train tracks blew in her face. She turned her body, so the wind was at her back, and hunkered down deeper into her jean jacket.
Suzie Larson’s cruel words echoed in her head, Kayla Cruise will always lose. How childish was that? Kayla sniffed. Unfortunately, all her best comebacks occurred to her long after a fight. A lot of good it would do her now. She hated seeming weak, but her words just locked up inside her when confronted. The only things the bullies loved more than her silence, were her tears.
Thing is, Suzie was right. Kayla was always on the losing side of an argument. Her foster parents didn’t believe her when she told them their son was beating her. Even when they caught him in the act, they still blamed her. Kayla’s body ached from the bruises hidden under her long-sleeved t-shirt. The scratches on her face and neck meant nothing to the Wilson’s. In their eyes, their natural born son would never lie.
Kayla had hopped onto the school bus when it came this morning. Gloria Wilson made sure of that. She was all smiles for the bus driver, like the perfect mom. Which was bullshit, the only thing she was perfect at was hiding her vodka bottles. Except two weeks ago, when Gloria thought she was alone in the house, Kayla caught her gathering empty bottles in a brown paper grocery bag.
Gloria’s look of embarrassment turned to rage. “You say one word about this to anyone, and I will have you sent back to juvie for theft.”
“I never stole anything from you,” Kayla insisted, her face flushed with resentment.
“You have a record young lady. Who do you think they will believe? A fine, upstanding Christian woman who cares for poor unfortunate orphans or a twelve-time loser foster kid? You’re lucky we took you in. A street rat like you belongs in a shelter. Heck, I doubt even the homeless would take in an evil deviant like you.”
Kayla didn’t want to believe it, but even lies hurt. Being sent back to juvie terrified her. There was no safe place on the inside. Nathan didn’t have one scratch on him, but Gloria could easily convince Kayla’s social worker that she was fighting and stealing again. Agnes Burbalm seemed to get a kick out of seeing the worst in her.
She’d like to see how well Nathan would do in juvie. Kayla chuckled. He’d probably piss himself the first time he met an honest-to-god bully. The guards got a kick out of fights, so he’d get banged up pretty good before anyone would bother to break up the brawl. As entertaining as it was to think of Nathan that way, the guilty pleasure didn’t last long. She hated to see people get hurt, it didn’t matter if they had it coming to them. No kid deserves a beating.
Kayla didn’t realize she was crying until the moisture, dripping from her chin down her neck, made her skin itch. She rubbed angrily at the traitorous tears. Kayla shivered as a cool breeze chilled the skin on her face. She had the strangest sense that someone was watching her. She stood up and looked toward the woods, but couldn’t see much through the thick brush. It was probably just an animal.
She sat back down on the tracks, torn between finding a place to sleep for the night and going to see her social worker. Living on the streets was a close second to the fear of getting sent back to lockup, or the prison of another foster home. Kayla’s tears came on stronger. She was tired of being abused. Tired of fighting all the time. She was just so damned tired. The thing that got to her most was she never lied to anyone and never stole anything. She didn’t start fights or ever cheat on a test. Yet she was labeled a troublemaker and her bullies got off without so much as a detention.
The tears continued to flow, as she thought of her current situation. She couldn’t stay out here all day, and the woods were too thick for her to find a place to sack out for the night.
A train went by on the opposite track, blowing her short black hair around, and her bangs tickled her face. She wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to jump on one of those trains and ride until she saw a place that looked like a home. A real home. She stuck a ragged fingernail into her mouth and began to chew on it. She wondered if she would even know a real home if she saw one. Probably not. She was not meant for a home. Not a real one anyway.
Kayla winced as she stood. Nathan really got her good this morning, kicking her hard once he knocked her to the floor. She was curled in a ball, biting her tongue to keep quiet. She’d never give the prick the satisfaction of hearing her cry out in pain. She kicked the rocks from her black Converse and followed the train track in the opposite direction from her current home.
Without a doubt, she’d be reassigned. Ms. Burbalm would look her hard in the eyes again, warning, “You will wind up back in juvenile detention if you don’t quit this nonsense.” Her social worker was another in a long line of adults who had let her down.
Her next placement would be her thirteenth. Lucky her! The burning in her fingers intensified, as her anger rose. Her fingers were putting off sparks like fire crackers. Sparks turned to outright flames, and to her horror, a small child appeared in the flickering fire. The girl was not burning, she was laughing, and that made Kayla freak out more.
“Breathe honey, it’ll be okay.” A soft southern voice broke through the sound of blood rushing through Kayla’s ears.
A woman with long flowing red hair appeared from the woods. She was like a faery character come to life, straight from the pages of Kayla’s sketch pad. Though rather than a loose, green dress with a gold chain circling her waist, this woman wore regular clothes, though no less mystical. Her white peasant blouse billowed in the wind, accenting her lush figure. The jeans she wore looked like they had seen better days. Her favorite. Kayla’s eyes widened when the thought popped into her head.
“You’re just getting a sense for me honey, no need to worry. I let you see me and hear my thoughts to show you how much I trust you,” her southern accent was soft as a summer’s breeze.
Kayla’s Who the fuck are you? came out as, “What do you want from me?” Her heart was racing, as distrust radiated from her body. The flames licking her fingertips became a ball, and she knew somehow that she could throw it to protect herself. Is this a ghost, or apparition, or something like that?
“Agatha has always been irrational when it comes to you. Never listens to a word you say. The mean, silly old fool.”
The woman’s eyes were a soothing green, but Kayla didn’t trust her. People were only nice to her when they wanted something, and what they wanted from her had rarely been a good thing. “How do you know my social worker?” she asked, while looking down the train tracks.
“I’ve had my eye on you and have overheard the things she’s said about you.” The woman seemed to glow, like a halo of white around her body. Her face was kind and she seemed sincere. This woman is crazy, and she’s glowing, what the hell is up with that? The rails were vibrating. A train would be here soon. She stepped off the tracks and started walking away from the weirdo.
She didn’t get far.
“Trust is earned Kayla, and I can’t make you trust me. I wouldn’t dream of doing that to you. Old Burbalm should have been retired years ago.”
“She’s not that old,” Kayla countered.
“Actually we’re close in age, but she’s burned out. She has been for a long time. She treats children like the papers she shuffles around on her desk. Their lives are no more important than a scrap of paper. The only paper she really cares about is her paycheck.”
On second glance, the red haired woman was older than Kayla originally thought. Crow’s feet crinkled the corners of her eyes, and she had smile lines beside her mouth, both were signs of a happy life. Kayla knew that many times bad things came in pretty packages, and that some adults weren’t to be trusted. There was no tellin’ how she’d earned those laugh lines.
“She’s done a disservice to you, you deserve better. Bless your heart.”
The band of stress around Kayla’s heart lessened. She glanced at her fingers. She hadn’t even felt the flames go out. “What do you want from me?”
“Why, to give you a home, honey.”
The words sent shockwaves through Kayla’s system. She wanted it so bad she could taste it, but she also knew that wanting anything that badly could be a trap. This time she turned around and started running. She had to get away from the train tracks and back into town. She ran so hard, sweat soaked the collar of her t-shirt and stung her eyes. She didn’t hear anyone following her, but pushed on. She kept running until she came to the ravine and there was nowhere else to go.
Kayla found a bridge to hide under, and then rested her head on her book bag. It was hard and unforgiving, but what in her life wasn’t? She wouldn’t sleep, that was too dangerous. Kayla let the shadows cast by the bridge swallow her up and she was grateful it wasn’t too cold.
The picture of a laughing child, the one from her flame vision, came back to her. She was a plump and enthusiastically clumsy toddler. Her long, red curls flowed behind her as she raced around the yard, squealing with laughter. Kayla smiled at the sight, the toddler’s joy soaking into her skin.
Without warning, a dark arm snatched the child up. The vision ended with the little girl bawling, as the raven haired woman shoved her into the sleek sedan that was idling by the curb.
Kayla stood, her heart racing. She had to save this child. Kayla knew, deep in her heart, that the strange woman from the train tracks was the key. “How the hell am I supposed to find her?”
Social worker, she works with Burbalm! Comforted slightly by having a plan, she picked up her pace. “I had to go there anyway.”
Filled with a sense of purpose, she broke into a jog, going deeper into the heart of town. When she turned the corner, she spotted the bus. Kayla sprinted, making it there just before the doors snapped shut. Hope flickered in her heart. Maybe my luck is changing. It had to change, that little girl needed her.