1. The Girl in the Lightening
￼I hovered at the edge of the stairwell to the basement, anxiously bouncing on the balls of my feet, hands shoved deep into my pockets.
My dark brown hair was tucked under the hood of my sweatshirt. I ran my dark brown eyes over the stairs, watching nervously as my foster father, Mr. Mitchell, descended the steps slowly, baseball bat in hand.
There wasn't anything down there, but I needed to get the older man out of the way. And seeing as how Mr. Mitchell was six feet tall and had about a pound of muscle attached to his arms and legs, there was no way I, with my frail arms and skinny legs, was going to win in a fight.
Naturally, I moved on to the next best thing: outsmarting him. That I could easily do. So, I quickly thought up the best plan I could at three in the afternoon: 'I heard someone breaking into the basement! Come quick!'
The Mitchells ate it up like a bunch of pigeons pecking bird seeds from the ground at the park.
It wasn't really that they were bad people or that I particularly disliked them. They just weren't my family. I didn't belong there, and I wasn't about to stick around anywhere I didn't fit in.
I could see Mr. Mitchell's balding head as he continued his descent down the steps, shadows looming over him from the corners. Above, the dim light lit the path for him, revealing the washer and dryer down below.
I shifted my weight from foot to foot as Mr. Mitchell reached the bottom of the staircase, bat raised cautiously, eyes searching furiously for the intruder; I craned my neck to see what was happening, acting worried for my foster father's safety.
"Do you see him?" I asked, making sure to stumble over the words the slightest bit. Just to make it seem real.
"No," Mr. Mitchell called back up. He turned, and I could see the baffled look on his face. "Avery, there's no one down here. Are you sure you didn't just hear the wind blowing or something?"
"No, no!" I insisted, shuttering just for good measure. "It was a person! A man! I saw him by the window! He was trying to bust it open!"
"Okay, okay!" Mr. Mitchell raised his hands in a reassuring manner. He lowered the bat and sighed heavily, taking a short look around. "Well, it doesn't look like anyone got in. He must have left."
"No, he's in there!" I said again, hoping my voice sounded shaky enough to be believable. "I heard glass shatter. Check the window."
Mr. Mitchell looked like he wanted to call me crazy, but fortunately he decided to humor the poor, insane foster boy and rounded the corner where the window was.
As soon as he had disappeared from sight, I slammed the door shut.
Quickly I moved to the hinges, placing my hands over the golden colored metal; it melted together under my palm, making it so that it would be impossible to swing the door open again -- at least for a few minutes.
I planned to be long gone by the time Mr. Mitchell got out.
I heard Mr. Mitchell clammering up the steps a moment later, pounding on the door and calling out in confusion and frustration.
Slowly, I backed away from the basement door, and as I rounded the corner, I ran into Mrs. Mitchell. She frowned, asking what was going on.
I shrugged in response, putting on a desperate, pleading face. Make large, dramatic gestures at the basement door, making a big show of it, I said, "I -- I don't know what happened. It just got stuck. It won't open. I don't…"
I shrugged again, helplessly as Mrs. Mitchell hurried around me, rushing to help her husband. She started tugging frantically on the basement door while Mr. Mitchell pushed from the other side.
It was futile, but it was enough to distract them. I started to back away again, grabbing the keys to Mr. Mitchell's truck from the glass bowl on the alcove in the hall on my way to the front door.
Once I was sure that no one was going to stop him, I turned and bolted out the front door. I hurried over the front lawn and climbed into the truck parked in the drive; in a matter of seconds, I was packing away from the Mitchell's house and driving off down the road.
The house I pulled up to several hours later was in complete disarray. Its lawn was overgrown, a rusty swing set plopped randomly in the front yard, one of the swings hanging on by a single rope.
In the drive there was a long wooden shaft that had fallen from the roof of the building, gathering bugs and rotting away.
The framework of the house itself was singed and looked as if it were going to collapse at any second; the windows on the second story were busted, pieces of sharp glass littering the grass.
I could see the kicked in door from where I stood in the drive. It lead into a pitch black room, shadows obscuring my view, making it impossible to see anything that might've still been in the house.
But I knew there wasn't anything in there, and, despite the less than ideal appearance of the place I couldn't help feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.
Because this was the house that I'd spent the first eleven years of my life. The place where my parents raised me and the place where they'd died.
I wasn't sure what the circumstances were behind their deaths; but I did know that the house had burned down, and they hadn't quite made it out in time.
My cousins, Paige and Aaron, and their parents had been there that night too. In fact, the only reason Aaron and I had been able to get out alive was because Paige had dragged us out by the scruff.
Later, I found that it was impossible to recall all the details of that night. Like, I couldn't remember what room I'd been in when it all went down. I barely remembered my cousin dragging me outside. And I only vaguely remembered sitting with the firemen and police officers later that night, monotonously recounting the story for them.
That night was a big blur, fuzzy, like someone had placed a sheet of film in front of my eyes to obscure my memory. I did remember one thing, though.
That was the first time I realized I couldn't get burned. I remember, at some point when my cousin was yanking my arm from its socket to get me outside, I'd actually stepped through one of the flames accidentally.
One of the paramedics had frantically ripped my shirt open a few minutes later to tend to the wounds, but when he did there was nothing there. Not even a flesh wound.
A week later I found out I could summon flames in the palm of my hand; sometimes, if I consentrated hard enough, I could even screw with the temperature on the thermostat or melt things like I'd done to the hinges of the basement door back at the Mitchell's.
Paige was the first person I'd told about what I could do. (Besides, that paramedic, but he didn't really count.)
She'd promised to help me figure it out before we'd all gotten separated and put into the system. We didn't have any other family. Our grandparents had all died years prior, and any aunts and uncles we might have gone to didn't want us.
Paige would have been twenty now. She would be working to adopt me and her brother Aaron, who'd be ten now. We'd be back together again soon. At least, that was the plan.
I was supposed to meet her at the house on my seventeenth birthday -- October 17th. We were supposed to go down to the adoption agency together to make it official.
Except, I didn't see Paige anywhere. The wind rustled the overgrown grass, whistling eerily. The house loomed over me, the windows of the second story sneering down like a pair of demonic eyes.
I shuddered, averting my gaze. I was careful not to let my eyes drift back to the house, even though I could still sense its presence as if it were another living entity, a demonic creature risen straight from hell.
In my mind's eye, I could see the first flames of the fire that night. It came from nowhere, as if summoned from mid air. Just like…
I raised one hand, my palm engulfing itself in little orange flames. They danced over my hand for a brief moment, flickering and waving.
I watched them, my fingers gradually growing more shaky the longer I stared at the flames. The air around me was cold, bitter in spite of the heat from the small fire.
I shivered and shook my hand rapidly, both to extinguish the flames and to stop the shaking. I reached in my pocket, hands trembling despite my lame efforts to calm my nerves.
It didn't take long to find Paige's number. We'd been texting back and forth for the past three hours, just to make sure everything was in place. It had been awhile since I'd heard from her, though, so I quickly, sent out a text, feeling as if ice were prickling the back of my neck.
￼where are you?
I looked up, leaning against the truck and bouncing my foot anxiously as I waited for her response. I tried to avoid letting my gaze drift to the house behind me, because every time I did I was abruptly brought back to that night, that fire…
My hands wouldn't stop shaking, even though the weather was fairly warm for October weather in midwest Indiana.
The swing set creaked once as the wind pushed the swing back and forth; I jumped at the sound, letting out a small yelp. (At least my cousin wasn't around to hear that. She'd never let me hear the end of it.)
I let out a heavy sigh, leaning against the truck again, heart hammering away at my rib cage like one of the Seven Dwarves working at the mines.
There was a copper taste lingering in the air, like that weird metallic sensation you'd get right before a storm hit. But when I glanced up, the sky was crystal clear. There wasn't a cloud in sight, just bright blue and burning yellow from the sun.
Still, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being watched. A quick scan over the lawn told me no one else was around. Unless, of course, someone was inside the house…
I glanced into the blackness of the house, shivering as the ice on the back of my neck traveled down my spine.
Nope, I thought, definitely not going in there.
It didn't look as if anyone had lived there since that night. I couldn't stop myself from thinking maybe they'd sensed the horrors that lingered there too, that maybe any potential buyers also got creepy visions and nightmares even though they were awake.
The more likely explanation was that they were just put off by the fact that people had died there. Or maybe they just didn't want to put in the work to fix it up.
Neither scenario was much of a comfort. I still got flashbacks, and my hands still trembled as if I had tremors. My heart still raced and it was still just has hard to breath as that night.
I took deep breaths and closed his eyes, trying to get ahold of myself. When my phone buzzed several minutes later, I couldn't answer it fast enough.
￼This was a bad idea. You're better off without us.
I frowned. "What?" I was in the middle of a response, asking her what the heck that was supposed to mean, when my phone suddenly started acting up, glitching.
Long multi colored lines appeared, horizontally, on the screen before changing to static, like on a television. Then, the screen turned completely white.
I grumbled in annoyance, hitting the thing a few times. "Seriously?" My efforts to get the phone back to normal were fruitless. It was completely fried.
I sighed and sank to the ground, throwing the phone across the yard with a huff. Leaning my head back against the truck's door, I groaned. "Now what?"
"You could come with me back to the Mitchell's to apologise for the grand theft auto."
I leapt to his feet again at the sound of the voice, startled, but I relaxed a little when I realized it was just my social worker Mr. Zimmerman.
He did not look happy. His arms were folded over his chest, and his face was scrunched up in a scowl, like he'd drank some curdled milk. The neatly pressed suit he wore only added to the please do not screw with me vibe, and I knew I was a goner.
I wasn't sure where he'd come from, or how he'd known where I was, or even how he'd gotten here so fast. The Mitchell's must have only just called him.
"I'm sorry," I said quickly. Maybe if I played the sympathy card he'd let me off easy. "I was just --"
"Meeting your cousin?" Mr. Zimmerman cut me off with a raised eyebrow. "Yes, so you've told me the last eighteen times you've ran away from a foster home." Okay, or not.
I shrugged, not really meeting his eyes. I leaned against the truck again, feeling my legs give out from under me. Something about this place made it hard to stand up right, and that copper taste still hung in the air. "I already have a family."
Zimmerman hummed softly and muttered something under his breath that sounded like, "A family that doesn't even want you."
My head snapped around to glare at him. I opened my mouth, ready to defend my cousin's actions when I remembered the text Paige had sent me just before my phone glitched itself to death.
You're better off without us, she'd wrote.
I looked down again, the fight deflating out of me in an instant. Paige had flaked out on me or just straight up ghosted me the last few hundred times we had tried meeting up.
There was always an excuse. She'd unexpectedly got busy. Or she'd forgotten. Or she couldn't slip away from whatever she was doing.
Zimmerman was right, I knew he was. I just didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to believe that Paige would just abandon me like that.
My throat was closing up, and suddenly I forgot all about the metallic air and the creepy vibes loominating from the house. I forgot that my phone was toast and that I'd probably picked up a virus from one of the apps I've downloaded.
Zimmerman gave me a sympathetic look, the disapproval disappearing for a moment. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be so frank, but I don't see why you keep chasing after someone who never even bothers to show up for you."
He waved his hands, as if gesturing to some grand audience that I was supposed to see. "Meanwhile, you've got people who actually want to have you as a part of their family." He gave me a look that sort of reminded me of Ursula from The Little Mermaid as if he were thinking, Oh you poor unfortunate soul.
"It doesn't do any good to keep chasing them away, Avery. You've had it good compared to some other kids in the system. You've been fortunate enough to be placed in some very good homes, some of which even wanted to adopt you before you…"
He paused, scrunching his face thoughtfully, as if searching his brain for a word that wouldn't be offensive. "Acted out," he decided.
"Okay," I said blandly. I had already heard this speech a million times before, and I already knew how much better I was than other kids. I'd been reminded about it enough times anyway.
It wasn't like I was going around whining to people about my problems. I just didn't need a foster family. At least, I had thought I didn't…
Zimmerman let out a breath of air through his nose, nodding curtly, apparently deciding that his message had sunk in. "There is a man, James Smith. He wants to adopt you."
I frowned. "Huh? That quick? He doesn't even know me. Doesn't he have to be my foster dad for so long first?" It was unusual to have two foster families back to back. At least it was strange for me, anyway. Normally, I'd spend some time in a group home between foster families. "Where did he even come from?"
Those were just a few of the many questions rolling around in my head. I didn't really think it'd be appropriate to ask the others out loud. Like, why does it feel like I'm some kind of trinket you'd buy in the store? And Why can't I just catch a freaking break?
"They've... pulled some strings," Zimmerman said slowly.
"They've?" I asked.
"It's a... unique situation. You'll see." He waved for me to follow him to the black sadan he'd parked next to the truck. "Come on, and don't worry about the truck. The Mitchell's will send someone to collect it."
I sighed but followed, figuring I didn't have much of a choice. As I was getting into the car, I spotted someone from across the lawn -- a girl with long dreadlocks draped over her shoulders.
I frowned as Zimmerman pulled out of the driveway of my old house, and I watched the girl, wondering if she'd been there the whole time because I hadn't noticed her. Then, just as the car rounded the corner, I saw a flicker of movement in the sky. A bolt of lightning shot down, directly hitting the girl.