Chapter One

Right then I wanted to run into his strangely long and awkward arms, tell him to run, run fast, get as far from the neighborhood as he can before it's too late. For it's every kid for himself here.

But I didn't move, have never been the rash or outspoken one among my small gaggle of friends. Couldn't even shout a warning. Instead I stayed rooted to my townhouse's raised deck, nursing my bottled water. And I watched from a distance as the black clouds, that seemed carry sorrow and destruction heavy like rain rolled in from the horizon, settled over the handsome dark brown hair of the new boy from across the street.

Three other kids his age had sprung up within the hour of the moving truck's arrive; two were on basic Huffy BMX bikes and one in rollerblades. Even from here, maybe forty yards away, I knew who those kids were at a glance and knew what they would be saying, asking, telling.

The one in rollerblades was Anna, a girl nearly two years younger than me. I hated her with a fierce passion. She was short, lean and golden blond, with the expensive highlights to make her hair seem absolutely radiant. Normally she could be seen strutting around the neighborhood in a halter top, short jean cut-offs, neon flip-flops that matched the shirt, and much less. Today's outfit, if you could call it that, wasn't varied by much—with a lime green swimsuit bikini top, big white Hawaiian flowers printed allover it, with the cutoffs and flipflops.

Her beauty, although nearly flawless, was not what bothered me about Anna, however. With my reclusive attitude, and having so few kids close to my age in the neighborhood, I couldn't afford to judge others by looks alone. Rather I judged those I chose as allies and enemies by character. I can't stand people who are cruel for no other reason than it pleases them, entirely self-centered, just flat-out stupid.

What bothered me most about Anna was that she was all of the above—a compact package capable of cruelty, stupidity, and arrogance. I could perhaps put up with Anna if she were only stupid, or only cruel; she has got all three traits of which I hate. Anna is living, rollerblading proof that humanity is not at all a "higher species."

As for the boys on the bikes, one was Brian and the other Blake. Both of them can be tolerated; they are dumb in the way a toddler is, inexperienced. Brian is smaller, slighter than Blake, but that doesn't make Blake a big and burly guy. Blake is only fourteen, like me, and I doubt has hit puberty yet. Right now Blake's just normal-sized and clumsy. He moved here in the fifth grade, was even in my class, but lives far enough across the neighborhood that we don't hang out that often. Meanwhile, twelve-year-old Brian could nearly pass for Anna's geeky twin brother. Brian's always been cute in a younger brother sort of way—but he doesn't spend the necessary time on his appearance as Anna does so he's nothing like a knockout.

I can just hear them saying things like, "You don't look like you're from around here." And asking, "How long is your family planning to stay? Got any brothers or sisters?" And telling, "Watch out for Lyca; that's her across the street. Her mom tried to kill her last year…"

I pushed all thoughts of the past and present that might be discussed across the street out of my head, and instead focused on studying the new boy.

He was fair-skinned with chestnut brown hair that looked thick from this distance. From here I couldn't tell much other than he had good fashion sense, dressed in faded dark blue jeans with a tear a the right knee, a tee shirt that could have been white but beneath the cerulean sky had just a hint of blue, and a navy-colored baseball cap with a logo I was too far away to make out. He was skinny, taller than both boys and Anna. He appeared most interested in the perky blond rollerblader, which wasn't at all surprising. Every word Anna spoke, every gesture she made, he paid close attention to as though expecting a quiz on it later. Just like every other boy in the neighborhood.

It was fair enough, I guess. Anna had hit puberty by age nine and since then blossomed handsomely. In addition, she had the fakest, most amiable attitude out of all the girls residing in the neighborhood—and there were only six of us including Anna and me within three years of one another. The cruelty was only underlying, like an afterthought, disguised by false friendliness until it was too late.

As though sensing my gaze, my thoughts about her, Anna abruptly spun on her rollerblades to look directly at me. Her back had been to me before. The boys rotated until they as well could watch me as I watched them. I felt a heat rise in my face. Even the new kid was staring intently, as if expecting me to do something interesting like break into song and dance. Anna lifted a hand high over her head, waving at me, meanwhile her motor-mouth going into overdrive as she told things to the new boy like, "See how she is? Lyca hates me, and for no reason! She's so obnoxious. Watch, she won't wave back or anything!"

And I wouldn't wave back, wouldn't do anything. I sipped my water, returning their intent gazes unemotionally, though my face was hot to the touch, until they lost interest and turned away again. She could have called me over, a challenge just between Anna and me. However, the truth remained that Anna, just as the rest of the neighborhood, was scared of me. You couldn't have paid her enough to challenge me alone, invite me anywhere.

Once they had turned away, I turned also and retreated into my grandmother's townhouse. Grandma Lu was my father's mother and we had lived with her long before my own mom went completely nuts. Dad had vanished from my childhood when I was eight, gone along with our family's steady income. Only later, the following year as I entered the fourth grade, would I learn that he had been incinerated in a piloting accident. There had been no body recovered, so there had been no funeral. Mom told relatives he was cremated, which was close enough to the truth. With Dad out of the picture, Mom's behavior became erratic. She couldn't keep a job and spent the rest of her time, and our remaining money, burying herself in hobbies that varied from stamp collecting to bicycle repair, gardening to scrapbooking, and finally sobbing inconsolably in her bedroom with the door locked tight, not caring if I heard. It was also about that time that mom started sleeping around.

As her hobbies differed our money dwindled, until we lost the house and everything that went with it.

I remembered, suddenly, as I stood over the sink refilling my water bottle, my ninth birthday, standing out on the lawn in front of the old house, watching and not comprehending as bulky men removed our precious belongings, taking with them all the material possessions that were left of my dad. Mom dropped me off at Grandma Lu's the next day, disappearing herself, until the next week when I opened the door to start on my way to my new school and stumbled over her, passed-out on the entryway steps. Grandma Lu was the only member of our extended family still willing to take us in at the time. I think she was mostly desperate for the company, anyone that might help fill that hole her lost son had left. Otherwise I just couldn't grasp her reasoning.

Up until last year Grandma Lu seemed comfortable with the arrangement; we left her to her own devices and she left us to ours. Then she went to Europe with a group of old ladies, a little club of some kind where the members wore red hats and purple clothes; the trip should have lasted three weeks. She left me in charge of the townhouse, since I was the only one there more often than not anyway.

Around the second week that Grandma Lu had been vacationing is when Mom tried to burn the townhouse down, with me still in it. Grandma Lu took an early flight home, finally receiving the several messages the doctor had left at the hotel she was supposed to be staying at that week. I had memorized all the numbers she had left at home for me, written on a pad of paper posted to the refrigerator labeled In Case of Emergency. Each number had had the name of the place and the dates they would be spending nights there. Guess I had thought ahead.

She arrived twelve hours later, almost two days after the actual damage had been done to her home and to me. Mom had already been arrested on account of arson, and was still in questioning for attempted murder in the first degree. From there, Grandma Lu took care of everything. She got me out of the hospital, slowly nursing me back to health, meanwhile pressing charges against my mom and claiming custody of me and fending off the press that wished to interview me: How does it feel to be the child of a madwoman; Has she abused you previously; What happened, really. The custody battle was what surprised me; ever since Dad died I had been ignored, and when I wasn't ignored I was shunned or punished, and I had grown accustomed to it. In some twisted way, Mom managed to blame me for her husband's loss, and I believed her. Until I learned of my grandmother's fight for custody of me, I had thought she considered me much the same; I was obviously a burden. The court wanted to hand me over to a nice little foster family miles upon miles away, where I would have a foster brother and sister, even a dog, and the judge and lawyer assured Grandma Lu that the family was really eager to have me. And yet… she kept fighting for me until she finally won. Blood over water will almost always win out in a child custody battle.

I shook my head, ridding myself of the past. It was over and done with; people still talked about it, kids still taunted me about it, but I wasn't in danger anymore, and I was home, finally.

Still, I couldn't help observing the third-degree burn scars on my hands as I turned off the faucet, couldn't stop the phantom pain from surging through my veins, boiling as though I was a victim of the inferno allover again. I almost cried out, but heard Grandma Lu moving around upstairs and let out a soft hissing breath. It took another thirty seconds before I recovered full control of myself.

"Lyca?" she called from the top of the stairs.

"Yes, Gran?" I replied, quieter. She might act deaf sometimes, but I could be watching television in the basement when she was four floors up in bed, and she would come clattering down the wooden stairs, complaining about my being loud, my being young, and with her trying to get some shut-eye. And, really, at this hour! But it made me smile because she was just being Grandma Lu, reminding me that I do exist.

"Have you seen the Family Album?"

I hardly had to think of where I'd last spotted the old photo book; I had been flipping through it last night. "In the basement," I said, "under the coffee table. Did you want me to bring it to you?"

"Yeah," she hollered. Grandma Lu may be almost ancient, but she still has the lungs she was born screaming with. The entire foundation seemed to tremble with her deep, loud, feminine voice, and I smirked whenever I heard her long Southern drawl and French accent mixing. I'd been told my dad had talked like that, too, having grown up in Louisiana—Grandma Lu is native to Nova Scotia, her French is fluent, but when she was just a baby her family was exiled to the States, which made them and my dad Cajun. Mom was from the North; Minneapolis, Minnesota to be precise, making me only half-blood. "And while you're at it, put on some tea and bring your poetry! You can read to me while I research the old Family Tree."

Although I wanted to, I didn't question Grandma Lu's motives for wanting to research anything about the family. My mother's side had always acted unpleasant toward me, and Dad's I had never come into physical contact with except for Grandma Lu. We lived in the North now, in a suburb close to Mom's hometown. I had always assumed Grandma Lu moved up here following her third son because Dad had had so much praise for the Twin Cities; the people were mostly friendly, yet reserved. It was the landscape, however, that really won his heart over. There were the Great Lakes, and other such small bodies of water, thousands of them in fact, and rolling hills of endless green, paused every so often where a small development had sprung up, and the three great rivers, and finally the many woods. Most of all, however, Dad loved to see the capital city at dusk, all lit up, or so I had been told. All the sparkling lights against square, rectangular, and sometimes cylindrical silhouettes of skyscrapers, creative architect's dreams, like distant constellations. Not so very crowded, like Down South, but petite and precise on the horizon, bordered on either side by natural flatland, or smaller housing developments where the homes took on more original shapes and colors than those in the suburbs, like a modern picture waiting to be framed. We lived in a neighborhood of plain townhouses, which was surprising since Grandma Lu and even Dad had seemed to adore nature and the outdoors, but far, far away, on the perspective line, there was the capital city and its twin in perfect view.

Before Grandma Lu could shriek at me a second time, I retrieved the old photo scrapbook and her copy of William Blake's Selected Poems from the basement, which doubled into our library, and returned to the kitchen to put on a kettle. Yes, we used a kettle, an antique one in fact that Grandma Lu explained to me was an heirloom from Nova Scotia, descended from her mother's side. While waiting for the water to boil, I scanned William Blake's Selected Poems, until I found what I was looking for.

There was only one real memory that remained of my father in my mind's eye: we sat together in the wicker rocking chair beside the crackling fireplace, still petite at seven-years-old, still weightless on his lap. He had in his big, strong and capable hands this very book, salvaged under my shirt while the strange bulky men removed everything else from the old house. I was half-asleep by then, dusk quickly falling outside as my bedtime approached. No longer can I remember his face, his voice, but as I read the poem in the kitchen from which I received my name, I could almost feel his thick beard scratching at me; against my cheek as he kissed me; on top of my head as he rested his chin and scanned the page and secured the flannel wool blanket around me.

"Lyca!" Grandma Lu screeched from somewhere upstairs.

"Coming, Gran," I called back and closed the outdated book, saving my page with the little ribbon on top. I caught myself studying my scarred hands again and forced the hot memories away before they could overwhelm me again, instead going to tend the shrieking tea kettle.

-

A/N: My first fic, so be kind.