*Edit: This chapter has been updated as of July 30th, 2013. Changes won't have a major effect on the storyline but more has been added and re-reading the chapter might be a good idea.
Definition of Home
All her life Rae Talon has had the ability to see the spirits of the dead. Because of this power and due to various circumstances, she now lives with her relatives and is constantly subject to all kinds of abuse and bullying from both schoolmates and family. When her relatives finally can't take it anymore, she becomes the only orphan in an orphanage run by a unique family. Will she ever get used to her new life and feel accepted? And thus begins the journey to find her definition of home.
"Get away from me, you freak!"
The shove sent Rae sprawling to the floor and her books flying down the hallway. She lifted her head and watched the girl who pushed her stride away. She could just barely hear what she was saying—not that she wanted to hear it.
"So gross, do you think it's contagious?" the girl said to her friend.
Rae noticed other students in the hallway staring at her and muttering easily predictable things to each other. Many of them caught her eye as she watched them and quickly looked away, continuing with their own activities, but to expect that things would pass so smoothly would be naive.
"W-what are you looking at?" his voice shook as he tried and failed to act tougher than he sounded. "Stop staring!" The student frantically looked from side to side and picked up one of her textbooks that had stopped near him, and then squeezed his eyes shut and randomly chucked it at Rae with no apparent intention to control his strength before disappearing around the corner.
The corner of the book struck Rae's cheek and she brought her hand up to her face to touch the offended spot. There was no blood but she knew that a painful bruise would form before she got back to the house. She slowly stood up and picked up her things, taking up a tortoise's pace to her locker.
Throughout the years Rae had effectively categorized the entire school's students into three types by their reactions while in her presence. There were those who avoided eye contact and kept away from her without a word. The majority of the school population was of this type. Others blatantly stared and spoke loudly to each other, voicing their disgust, but never did anything physical. Lastly the minority of the students made up the third type. Displaying stereotypical bully behaviour, they had fun sneering and taunting her. Sometimes they took her things or damaged them, and never hesitated to trip or hit her. Though technically the minority, there weren't few who acted this way. They justified their actions with claims that it was to "protect" the rest of the school body, though this was arguable. They only committed these foul acts when there were no members of faculty around, the cowards.
After packing her backpack, Rae exited the school building as quickly as she could, eager to get away from people for just a while. This was her favourite part of the day, walking back to the house by herself. There were few cars that passed by; that was one good thing about living in the countryside. It took about half an hour on foot from the school to the house and vice versa. She could get some quiet and there was no one to interrupt her thoughts. She always took her time on the road back. The trip between the house and the school was her heaven, even if she was shivering with cold in the chilly February air.
While the bullying at school never really escalated beyond defamation, she couldn't say the same about the abuse she faced when she was with her relatives. Not that physical punishment was administered on a regular basis, but they treated her roughly and had no care if she got hurt in the process.
To most people it probably seemed like a bad mood was the only reason for the painfully tight grips on her arm and swift strikes across her face, but Rae knew their actions really came from fear. They yelled at her a lot and frequently assigned her labour, all the while starting the same lecture about how this was just an opportunity for her to show her gratitude for them taking her in. Then they would find fault in her chores and give her more. It was the same cycle, over and over again. It was really starting to sound like Cinderella to Rae. Maybe she was living Cinderella's life in a parallel world—but then the ending of the fairytale wasn't to Rae's taste, and if she thought about it she was quite different from Cinderella, so maybe not. Either way, she was still being used like a dispensable servant.
Rae had no home; she would never be able to call that house her home. It would always be known as "that house". School wasn't exactly her cup of tea either. If she could, she would rather not go, but in her opinion, school could be considered better than hanging around her relatives. She sometimes found herself wishing that school wouldn't end yet just so she wouldn't have to go back. Rae often thought about running away, but a fifteen year old under strict surveillance and without an allowance didn't have that option. She wanted to get a job soon. Maybe she could buy a bit of freedom if she had some money.
Rae stopped and turned towards the direction of the cat's cry. It was a small calico, standing on the side of the road, watching her. They gazed at each other for a minute or two before the cat walked toward her. Rae hesitated and looked around for people before crouching down to tickle the cat under its chin.
"Hey there, little guy. Are you lost?"
Rae laughed lightly, "You shouldn't be hanging around here anymore, you know that you're already dead, right?" The calico just rubbed its head against her palm. "I wish I could help, but I don't know the way to kitty heaven either."
Rae studied the bright glow outlining the cat's figure. "Are you going soon?"
The cat walked a distance away, and then looked back at Rae. Rae understood that it wasn't a good idea to stick her nose into these things. The severity of her situation was, after all, largely due to the fact that she meddled unnecessarily and got herself caught by others. It sort of worried her actually. She wasn't really so deprived of companionship that she was looking to ghosts now, was she? In the end she followed the cat spirit off the road into the tall grass and trekked along the road, the girl avoiding cold and muddy puddles. Screw her inability to leave it alone.
After some minutes, the calico finally stopped. It looked to some place obscured by the grass. Rae parted the tall stalks of vegetation and spotted a small furry body. It was the cat's corpse. Its fur was damp and matted with blood. There were clumps sticking together here and there from both the blood and mud. It was most likely hit by a speeding car and thrown off the road.
"So you wanted someone to find your body, huh?" Rae rubbed the spirit behind its ears. "I can't give you a burial, but…" Rae took off her backpack and reached inside, pulling out her sketchbook seconds later. She made a quick sketch and the previously blank white paper now held a portrait of the calico surrounded by carnations. She placed the drawing next to the dead body.
"I can't find you real, nice flowers in this season. I hope it's okay. Sorry I can't do any more than this."
The cat's spirit rubbed against Rae's leg and the glow around it brightened as the spirit's image itself steadily grew transparent. Tiny balls of light blew around the spirit, as if to guide the calico onto the next leg of its journey, and then approached to linger around Rae as well. "Are you going to take me somewhere too?" The girl whispered. "Somewhere… Someplace that isn't here…" She watched this spectacular sight that only her eyes could see, and just as the calico was about to disappear completely, there was a luminous flash and the spirit was gone.
Rae quietly prayed for it. "Would you have just left like that even if I didn't find you, even if you had to leave unsatisfied and sad…? I hope you'll be happy in your new home." She continued her own depressing trip back to the house.
From fifteen years of observation, Rae had learned that the brighter the glow was around a spirit, the closer it was to departing this world. For Rae, that glow was the only way for her to tell the difference between the dead and the living. However, sometimes a spirit's lingering feelings could be so strong and so far from being fulfilled that there would be no glow around it at all. Many times this had caused Rae to take it to be a living being and make the mistake of speaking to it. Of course to passersby it would seem like a girl talking to nothing, but that was reason enough for strange rumours about her to sprout wings and migrate.
Since Rae was born, she could see the spirits of dead animals, and oddly, humans only if their lingering feelings were strong enough (For which Rae was thankful. If she saw dead people everywhere, all the time, she wasn't sure how she could live the rest of her life.). Nobody was suspicious of her until, of course, she learned how to talk. As a child, she never understood why people gave her strange looks. There was no question that sooner or later, even her own family would grow to fear her. When she finally figured out why she was so different, she tried her best to act like a normal person again. Nevertheless, despite understanding, it hurt that no one believed her.
Rae stood at the door of her relatives' house, preparing herself for entry and whatever was to come. It had become a daily ritual. She took a deep breath and opened the door, and was immediately met with an onslaught of loud complaints from inside the house.
"Where is that girl? She's late… Again!" It was her aunt's voice. "She better not be causing more trouble. The rumours ruin the reputation of the entire family and it's all her fault. That…that monster's fault! I'll be glad when we can be rid of her."
Rae stood frozen at the entrance, feeling too sullen to move. Just then her aunt stepped out of the kitchen and saw her, jumping a mile as she did.
"Rae Talon! I-I've told you countless times to let us know when you're back. It's rude not to make your presence known in someone else's household." That's what she always said but Rae knew that the truth was that it made her uneasy not knowing when the spirit sensitive girl was in the house.
"I'm back," Rae stated simply. Her aunt frowned, refusing to let Rae get the last word.
"Why did you take so long to come back? I've told you several times to come back immediately!" She gasped when she looked down. "And what's with those shoes? They're completely covered in mud!"
Her aunt moaned in displeasure and after a moment's hesitation, reached out and grabbed Rae violently by the wrist, dragging her into the dining room, barely giving her enough time to kick off the dirty shoes.
"Sit down," she barked. "Your uncle and I have something to say to you." She stalked out of the room, to get her husband no doubt. Rae's relatives acted with so much authority around her to mask their anxiety. It made her laugh and bristle at the same time.
She pulled out a dining room chair and sat down, wondering if they would notice the bruise on her cheek. They had never paid attention to her injuries, but Rae discovered that she could not throw away even a sliver of hope. Even if acknowledgement meant they had to scream about her incompetence to stay out of trouble. Even if her relatives were the last people she wanted to care.
No more than a minute later, her uncle and aunt entered and sat down across from her. They stared at her, disgust visible in her aunt's eyes. In her uncle's eyes she wasn't even there. Her uncle spoke first—not surprisingly, it wasn't about her tender cheek.
"After my sister ran away and left her responsibility—" at this he looked straight at Rae. "—for me and my wife, you've been living here. It's been eight years since then. Eight years that we've had to deal with you and the misfortune you bring."
He glanced over at his wife, and something was exchanged between the two before they both turned to glare at Rae. "You know that we have our own son to think about as well."
"It won't do for his classmates to look at him with pity."
"You're lucky he's a capable and respected young man and won't be bullied easily, but that may only be a matter of time."
"We're tired of being subject to crazy gossip that doesn't even have anything to do with us."
Someone took a deep breath. "Frankly speaking, you are a nuisance and you must leave."
Ah… Of course, that's it.
"Of course," continued Rae's uncle, "we're not throwing you out into the street, no. That would be illegal." As if the abusive attitude they directed at her wasn't illegal already, she thought. "Be grateful, we picked out a place for you to live. You will be going to an orphanage in the city; the head of the orphanage agreed to handle the high school transfer for us, thank God. You'll be leaving on the bus at eleven tomorrow morning." He paused, took a breath, "Well, why don't you think of this as a chance to get out and see the world? If you consider it carefully this isn't such a bad turn of events."
After they finished their talk with her, they sent Rae upstairs. Much to her dismay, there was her cousin, hanging about at the top of the stairs. He had such a demeaning smirk on his face that Rae wanted to wipe it right off with her fist. No doubt he had been gleefully listening in on their conversation with that same dumb expression, the jerk.
Rae didn't want to butt heads with her cousin right now. She just wanted to spend the rest of her time in this place alone. However when she tried to get into her room he sidestepped to block her way.
"What do you want, Derek?"
He bent over to peer into her face. "What's up, you crying?" His invasion of her personal space irked her and she wanted to turn away, but stayed in place to deny him the satisfaction.
"Who's crying? Let me in my room."
"Not so fast, kid." Kid? He was only two grades above her! "So tell me, are you despairing right now? Feeling regretful? Sorry?" Rae was pissed.
"Sorry? For what? For existing?"
There was that sneer again. "So you're not as stupid as I thought. Well, I'm feeling a little sorry too. Sorry to see my fun leaving for the big world all by herself."
Won't be bullied easily my ass, thought Rae. He is the bully.
"How about it?" said Derek. "Want me to send you off tomorrow?" There wasn't a shred of sincerity in his tone. There was no way that Rae was going to let him torment her until the end.
"Why bother? It's clear that you want me out of your life as soon as possible." She pushed her way past Derek and left him outside her room with, unbeknownst to her, a look of anger and conflicting feelings.
Rae discovered that her room had already been cleared out. There wasn't a single personal belonging of hers that was forgotten. It was like even the empty room was telling her that she was being thrown out. Leaning against her bedroom door she murmured to herself, "I don't want to hang around in this Hell for another day either."
Not even a change of clothes was left. How nice of her aunt to not think about hygiene. They were more eager for her to disappear than she thought. With a sigh, she flopped down on the bed. At least the clothes she was wearing now were fresh out of her closet that morning. She was fine with sleeping in her street clothes; the only thing she was irked about was the fact that she had no clean underwear and socks to change into. Personally, she didn't mind it so much since it was only for a day, but she was going to meet people tomorrow. It's only one day, she told herself. Rae grimaced anyway.
With this time to herself, she wondered whether she was happy or not with this turn of events. She was certainly glad that she could get away from everything and everyone from her childhood, but she was moving to the city. That was one place that she wasn't familiar with, and unfamiliar things made her uncomfortable. Not to mention that she was "officially" going to be an orphan. Rae wasn't feeling much about her future as a castaway, but she still wondered what the people at the orphanage were like. Since she was accepted it would mean that at least the owner knew about her circumstances already. She could only hope that she would be able to keep a low profile, especially about her abilities.
Night fell quickly and after dinner Rae took a shower before going to bed. She stood in her bedroom with wet hair and a towel hanging around her neck, and looked out the window when the moon caught her attention. It was a clear night for winter and the stars visibly dotted the sky. She determined that the only thing she would miss about this place besides the small population was the view at night. She hoped she would get to see the stars in the city too, though she doubted that it could ever be as beautiful as the countryside.
She snapped out of her trance when the reading on the digital clock changed in the corner of her eye. It was late. She might as well go to sleep. Leaving the curtains open tonight, she threw herself on the bed without bothering to dry her hair. She took one last look at the moon and the stars, saying a silent farewell before she closed her eyes, bathing in moonlight, and let sleep wash over her.
Tomorrow, Rae Talon would take her first step into a new phase of her life.