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9-year-old C. S. Cowell had a vision.

He wanted to co-write a series with his USA Today Bestselling Auntie (Shannyn Leah).

Together, they got lost in their own world, and when they stepped out, they’d created Imperium, home of the unknown Superheroes.

  COMING SOON


Earth is my Body

copyright 2022by, USA TODAY Bestselling Author, Shannyn Leah & 9-Year-Old C.S. Cowell

Sample Chapters one and two

Chapter One

I BURNED DOWN the bandstand at City Park. 

Now every cop in the city is looking for me.

I pull my hoodie down further to hide my face as I scroll my phone. I’ve gone viral. Or at least shoddy screenshots of my face and video footage of me running away from the bandstand before the building roared up in flames has gone viral.

I shouldn’t even be downtown right now, but I only get free Wi-Fi at Timmies. 

Tim Horton’s if I have to spell it out for you.  

And if you’re still confused, it’s the Canadian equivalent of an American Starbucks.

Are you still with me?

I gotta get out of town before the cops catch up with me and I land in juvenile detention.

My life-line is an old comic. An old ultra rare comic — rarest of the rarest — and I have to pawn it off and buy a one-way bus ticket out of town. I’ve been waiting all morning for the comic book store around the corner to open. What kind of business opens its doors at eleven? Lazy businesses that’s who.

The clock on my phone clicks to eleven.

About time. I am on a deadline.

Easing around a street corner, my beat-up converse manoeuvre my skateboard onto Umpire Rue. The quiet Toronto side street is lined with three-story high brick buildings.

I cruise under canopies crowning the business entrances and swerve around sandwich boards scribbled in brightly colored chalk.

I slow in front of a store I’ve skated by a hundred times, but never entered.

Perry’s Comics.

You’d think I was a fan of comics, you know, owning this ultra rare comic.

But nope.

I’m not.

Truth be told, I hate comics and I hate superheroes even more.

I kick my foot against the tail of my skateboard. The front lifts up and I pop the board into my free hand.

My lips curl upward as I catch sight of my coal-black cat Ollie, jump from the striped canopy above the comic store. Sleek and stealthy, she hops on my shoulder and nuzzles my neck with a soft purr before hopping to the sidewalk.

Smart cat this one is. She never leaves my side.

The discoloured comic book in my free hand terminates my smile. Not because of its somewhat questionable condition. The corners are a bit worn and bent. It’s no longer bright white — if it ever was. But the pages are intact and readable. All in all, I’d say it’s in good condition.

Anyway, I’m frowning because the comic is one of the only two things I have from my parents. 

Parents I’ve never met.

Parents who could be dead or alive.

I don’t know. No one ever told me.

An aggressive hiss draws my gaze down to Ollie. She’s curling around my feet. Her back is arched like the cats on Halloween decorations and ears popped up on high alert. This is her defense warning.

“Hey girl, what’s wrong?” I bend down and scratch behind the ear missing a chunk from frostbite. She spent one cold winter outside before she found me. Now I sneak her into the foster homes with me.

But no more.

We are on our own.

“I know. I don’t want to sell it either. But we don’t have a choice. We need the money.” I talk to her like she’s a person, because she responds as if she understands me.

A growl curls Ollie’s lips and exposes her razor-sharp teeth. At the same time, a gust of wind catches hold of the comic. It yanks it from my grasp like a forceful hand wrenching it free.

The strange thing is, the flowers in the planter hanging by my head aren’t swaying. I don’t feel a breeze. The wind has its sights solely on my comic.

Which is crazy, I know. But sometimes crazy, unexplainable things happen to me. Things adults claim are impossible. But are they impossible? I question everything adults say, because I don’t believe adults.

“Ollie, the comic!”

I drop my board and hop on the deck in hot pursuit of my flyaway comic.

I’m not a comic connoisseur, but even I know the more damage to the pages, the less valuable it becomes. And the old thing has lived in my back pocket my entire life. It’s already experienced its fair share of mishandling.

Ollie sprints past me. Her hind legs drive her body across the sidewalk after the airborne comic swooshing the open pages through the air.

A passing horn blasts when I almost run into the car’s side door. My body jerks back. My feet skid my skateboard to a halt.

Close call.

It wouldn’t be the first bone I’ve broken or first skateboard I’ve smashed. But I don’t have time for either today. I’m on a deadline, remember? Cops, jail, court, and juvie.

I hold my breath as the comic swoops under the vehicle’s metal frame. The pages dip into a puddle of water before fleeing out of sight.

Ollie leaps on a sandwich board beside me and lunges in the air. Four paws skid on the trunk of the car before she disappears over the other side.

I told you, she’s a smart cat. Knows the life and death situation of the comic.

I rush behind the car. I don’t get three steps on the road and another car blasts its horn. Brakes squeal and grind. I jump around to face the noise and my hands land on the hood of a car. The grill presses firm against my legs.

The driver sticks his head out the window. “Get off the road!”

I hit the roof of the car and raise my arms in a questioning motion. “Watch where you’re going!” I know, it’s my fault, but whatever.

“Hey boy, are you okay?”

Boy? Who is calling me a boy?

The little old lady in an oversized red hat standing on the sidewalk, that’s who. Open your eyes, grandma, I ain’t no boy. I’m sixteen. Practically an adult. Even though I hate the word adult. Cause I hate adults.

The old woman is pointing her wrinkled finger at me, drawing attention to me. I hate attention.

Ignoring them, I hop on my board and chase after the comic and my stray cat.

Across the street, I kickflip my board over the curb and land clean on the sidewalk. I shift my weight, balancing as I veer around people shouting at me to slow down or get off the sidewalk. 

The comic slaps flat against a garbage can twenty feet away.

We got it!

Ollie pounces and her sharp teeth latch onto a corner. The stubborn comic doesn’t move or jostle.

What’s on the side of the garbage can? Superglue? Or some other liquid I don’t want to know.

Ollie’s guttural growl travels down the sidewalk. She fights with the comic, much like she plays with her prey before devouring it.

Finally, the sopping wet pages drop off the city’s garbage can and splat on the sidewalk.

I can dry the pages, right? One of those public bathrooms with a hand dryer should do the trick.

Another gust of wind takes hold of the comic and rips it from Ollie’s teeth. A chunk of jagged papers hang from her mouth.

I cringe.

There’s really no fixing that. Super glue? Tape … maybe … not likely.

The value just plummeted. I’m sure of it. But still, it’s the rarest of rarest, so my top dollar maybe lowered to an okay dollar. I mean, I can get out of the city on okay.

I ride past Ollie and slap the side of my leg. “Come on, girl.”

She’s preoccupied spitting out the paper. She’s a hunter and mice are her specialty. She gags at the paper like she’s chomping on oysters. Which she might enjoy more, but not me. I can’t stand seafood.

I take the next corner fast and crash straight into a utility cart wheeling a stack of boxes. The man who’s pushing the cart lets out a stream of nasty words as I topple into the crashing boxes.

A box corner digs into my side. One falls on my head. I skim down another box before my side slams onto the concrete ground. Immediate pain vibrates through me. I roll over in time to see my skateboard glide down the road right behind the wheel of a forklift. Thankfully the machine is stopped and idling instead of lifting a skid out of the back of a transport truck.

A horn honks. Lights flash. A backup alarm sounds and the forklift reverses.

No mercy.

The massive machine crunches my board. Right down the center. The wheels … the frame … crushed, just like my soul.

My comic book floats down and settles inches away from my hand. Muddy, wet, a ripped corner the size of Ollie’s missing ear. I swear it’s mocking me for trying to sell it. I don’t care. It’s going straight to the comic store for as much as I can get for it.

A cracking boom like a gunshot echoes. My arms automatically cover my head.

A second pops.

A third cracks.

“Get outta here!”

I peek out of one eye to see the man in overalls trample over my comic as he chases a gang of laughing kids. A trail of firecracker’s pop behind them. One bounces on my comic. The lit fuse climbs closer to the gunpowder shell. I hit it away, but not before a spark flickers on my book. Fire leaps from the thin spine.

“No. No. No.” I spring to my feet and gently stomp the flames.

Overalls man shoves me aside and twists off the lid of an unopened bottle of Powerade. I reach to stop him, but he’s too fast. The liquid splashes over my shoe and soaks the comic.

Fire.

Puddle.

Powerade.

Is there any saving it at this point?

The man shakes every last drip out of the bottle. “Get your board and follow your friends before I call the cops,” he growls, making it a point to step his dirty boot on my comic one last time before he begins picking up the strewn boxes.

Friends. I don’t have friends. What are those? 

Hopping around foster homes builds a hard and untrusting person. That’s me. Hard and untrusting.

And from the look of my comic book I snatch off the ground, I’m also broke.

I toss the remains of my board in the garbage can that hates me. For no good reason, I might add.

After a quick stop at a McDonald’s restroom to somewhat dry the wet pages and long on foot trek, we’re back at Perry’s Comics.

“I’ll be back, girl.” I leave Ollie pawing a hole in a flower pot. 

Taking a deep breath, I push open the large wooden door framing a glass panel. Hinges creak and the annoying bell above chimes my arrival.

I pick up a comic from a table by the front window and flip through it. I lie to myself that I’m actually curious about comics.

I’m stalling.

Remember, my comic book is a treasure to me, but survival is more important, right? 

The pages of the new, pristine comic are bright and colourful blocks of pictures. Nothing like the comic book I have stuffed under my arm. My comic book has a dark moody vibe, similar to the small shop.

Floor to ceiling bookcases sweep the walls displaying comics, collectibles, and more. The only wall without a bookcase is the back wall where a large superhero mural is painted. Masked and caped crusaders pose with their chins up, chests out, hands on hips, and legs shoulder-length apart looking confident and brave.

If I had half their confidence and bravery, I’d have already pawned my comic instead of stalling like the young boy who ran away from Alfie Mack and took the blame to avoid a beating.

Alfie Mack was the worst foster bully I’ve ever encountered.

Scrubbing a bathroom floor with a toothbrush - one of my many grueling punishments — is better than a second broken arm, right? 

A single person skims through comics at a stand in the middle of the store. The young guy is every definition of what I believe a comic worshipper would look like. Bright red T-shirt with a superhero motif. Matching hat. I think the spiked hair peeking out of his hat, the same lime green color of his beard, is a bit overkill. But hey, what do I know? I’m not from Planet Nerd.

The wood floor creaks beneath my torn, and now stained red sneakers. I make my way to the checkout counter. I’m going to rid myself of this stupid comic and never step foot in a comic bookstore again.

The old man sitting on the stool across the counter, head down, is sketching in a notebook — not computer or iPad — but an actual sketchbook. 

He isn’t exactly what I envision for the owner of a comic store. His twisted salt and pepper grey hair almost touches his waist. Glimpses of a long moustache curl up at the edges and his beard is neatly trimmed.

He’s buff. His biceps practically burst out of his T-shirt's sleeves. Geeks are Gathering is printed across the front. Good, then he’ll know how much money my comic is worth.

I slap the comic on the old weathered countertop. “I’d like to sell this.”

The tip of the older man’s pencil lifts from the paper. That’s the only indication he’s paying attention. His head doesn’t shift. I can’t see his eyes, but his bushy grey eyebrows rise slightly.

“You have an oldie here.” His low voice is smooth and calm. There’s a familiarity about it that relaxes me in a way I can’t describe. A safeness washes through me.

So. Freaking. Weird. I told you, weird stuff happens to me all the time. That, or I didn’t realize I whacked my head off the concrete when I fell over the boxes.

I push any further thoughts aside and straighten like the mural on the wall.

Chin up.

Chest out.

Trying to acquire an ounce of that confidence.

I feel like an idiot and slink back down. I don’t need to stand a certain way to feel confident. I do what I want, when I want, and I want to sell my comic — sort of.

“A Percival (last name).” I say proudly, when in actuality, I don’t have a clue. One of the foster boys went on, and on, and on when he saw my comic years back.

I list the pointers I remember him telling me. “This comic is an ultra rare edition of the oldest comic book series, Imperium.” Lame name if you ask me. Foster geek kid told me Imperium in Greek means power or empire, or something along that line. He blurted out a few myths and legends I don’t remember being in the series too.

Big whoopity doo.

Except I’m trying to make a good buck, so I need to talk this cartoon paper up.

“It’s part of the first comic book series ever written —” Remember, I’m BS’ing. “—it’s worth big dollars.” I lean my elbow on the counter, still talking to the old man’s head. “Could you imagine your comic book store offering this rare comic? Fans will come from all around the world for a chance to even see it. Real collectors will pay through the roof for it.”

I don’t mention the foster kid quoted me tens of thousands of dollars. That sounds extreme. But is it that valuable? Possibly, before today’s windy adventure.

Mmm-hmm.” The older man stares at my comic for what feels like forever.

I stuff my hands in the front pocket of my Thrasher hoodie and lace my fingers together to give them something to do while I wait.

Will it be twenty-five, fifty, one-hundred dollars? Dare I think one-thousand dollars …?

I need that kind of money.

Finally, Mr. Grouchy Geek’s — that’s what I’ve decided to call him — wrinkled, but leathery large hand, pushes the comic back to me. “In all the years I’ve owned a comic store — and it has been plenty — never have I seen a comic in this utmost wretched condition.” He dismisses me by resuming his sketching.

I slide the comic book back over the knots and holes of the wooden countertop in his direction. “It’s still a rare, never before seen, edition.”

His bare elbow slides it back. “A never, will be seen, edition since you decided to use it as a cleaning rag.” And he goes right back to drawing. I can’t make out his stupid comic sketch because I’m seeing red. 

I need to sell this comic. 

I need the money.

“Listen old man, get on your computer and research The KOB edition of Percival (last name). You won’t find it. It’s priceless and I want a good buck for it.” 

That gets his attention. The pencil drops out of his hand and rolls across the paper. He slowly lifts his head to look at me.

About time.

Great customer service, buddy.

The bluest eyes meet mine. Blue like the sky on a cloudless day with a ring of olive green around the pupil.

“Listen brah —” I roll my eyes at his mocking slang. “It’s unnecessary for me to research your comic or any comic in this store. I know the value. This one is worthless.”

Two storey’s up, I swear the large old industrial light hanging from thick chains and wooden beams flickers with his heated words.

This doesn’t halt my persistence. “Percival (last names) comics are the oldest series and my parents left this to me —”

“Then I suggest you treasure it forever.” His eyes softened. And if anything, I don’t like pity.

“Maybe you should research your comics better. You’re missing out on a thousand dollar opportunity here.”

… maybe? I’m not exactly sure, but I sound like I know what I’m talking about.

“How do you know? Have you had it professionally graded? Or are you a collector?”

“Both.”

That’s two lies.

I’m a liar.

But so are adults. It’s only fair game.

He folds his arms over his front, much like the superheroes on the wall mural. “Is that so? How long have you been collecting?” 

“Long enough to know a rare comic when I see one.”

“Long enough to evaluate the condition of said rare comic? It has no appeal and massive damage.” His lip curls with disgust at the comic before looking me straight in the eyes. “Without opening it, I can see severe water damage. The spine is burnt and split. As a CGC grader, my guess is most of the pages inside are unreadable and missing much like the entire corner. The condition is poor.”

“But valuable.” 

“Listen boy —”

Boy, boy, boy. I’m almost an adult!

“It’s the first and only appearance of Ace VanCort!” I desperately blurt out more key points. “Grandson of the king and heir to the kingdom.” Don’t judge me for my comic slang. I really don’t know the meaning behind any of my words. What kingdom? Imperium? What do they do in the kingdom? Something with superheroes. And who really cares about some baby killed by the big mean villain? Nobody. Let me rephrase, nobody who isn’t living on Planet Nerd.

I flip open the comic. “And the pages are readable. Not yellowed either.” 

Mr. Grouchy Geek arches a single eyebrow. “Red is an interesting color.” 

That blasted Powerade!

“There’s only one copy in existence and this is it.”

He stares me down with unreadable scrutiny that looks like he holds all the secrets of the world. Secrets adults keep from kids. Secrets and lies. Those two go hand in hand with adults.

Finally, he speaks. “The one thing to take away from the Percival (last name) comics, is that there’s a hero in all of us.”

What does that mean? And why does it sound familiar? It’s soothing and angering at the same time.

A memory flashes in my head. A hand pats my chest above the scar embedded over my heart. The man belonging to the hand is saying those exact words.

Another memory invades my mind. I’m young and lying on the green grassy front lawn with a broken arm. My foster parents are shouting at me Superheroes aren’t real. I’d been convinced I could fly and jumped off the second story balcony.

What five year old boy doesn’t think he can fly? Or run the speed of light? Or become invisible, because, well, why not? The world is hard and invisibility would come in handy. Like the many times Alfie Mack hunted me down to consistently give me a black eye, bruised arm, or wedgie.

I hated wedgies.

I hated slick-haired Alfie Mack. 

More than that, I hated the man feeding me lies about a superhero being in all of us. 

Just like Mr. Grouchy Geek.

I grab my comic, scraping my knuckles off the wood. “Superheroes aren’t real.” My snarl escapes my tight lips, low and deep like Ollie’s growl.

I march away and stuff the comic book in my back pocket. The store owner makes a sound of displeasure at my neglect.

I grin.

On my way out, I slyly help myself to a pack of candy, sticking the package under the front of my sweater before I shove open the front door. The stupid bell jangles at my aggression.

I trudge back down the street, skip through a couple alleyways, kicking pebbles and empty pop bottles until my anger simmers.

Ollie’s at my feet. She strays off — never very far — to sniff out fresh rat lunch, claw at garbage bags, and hiss when she feels threatened. If I were an animal, I would I hope my animal senses would steer me clear of Ollie the Hunter.

Not worth anything.

Ha! 

There’s a hero in all of us.

Ha!

He’s the biggest liar I’ve met today. 

My damp socks squish in my shoes. I gotta get a new pair.

I shove open the door to Underground Market, a vintage clothing store. My hand drags along the wobbly metal railing as I descend the canted narrow stairs. At the base of the stairs, the basement is home to the vintage shop. Recessed lights line the short ceilings. Circular racks of clothes hold loads of vintage T-shirts, sweaters and coats. The place has that musty second-hand smell.

I duck my head low and head straight to the wall of shoes in the back corner. Converse, Nike, and Reebok’s in good to bad condition are shoved in wooden cubbies numbered by size. 

A pair of high-top Nike sneakers are jumping out at me.

I causally do a turnaround. The guy with thickly lined black eyes stands behind the counter scrolling his phone. A girl whose hair is braided with a bandana is folding jeans on a plywood and milk crate display.

I take the white sneakers with the black check mark on the side out of the cubby. Casually, I slide off my wet and stained shoes, slipping them into the empty spot.

I’m bent over tying my last lace when black Doc Martin boots stop beside me.

Busted.

I could run. I could pretend I’m just trying them on. Sheesh, how did my shoes end up in the cubby? Of course I have money.

Lies, lies, lies.

I straighten, a half dozen lies on the tip of my tongue. The dip in the middle of the guy’s shaved black hairline gives him a vampire vibe. It could also be the black lipstick or the hand full of large gaudy silver rings and long pointed fingernails.

A cell phone is thrust in front of me. “Is this you?”

The blurry image taken from a computer screen is one-hundred percent me stealing my last pair of shoes — the ones back in the cozy cubby.

Look, I brought them back. How thoughtful of me.

I shake my head. “No, I don’t think so.”

His pierced brow lifts. “You don’t think so?”

“It’s kinda hard to make out.”

“This person walked out in a pair of our sneakers.”

“You guys should invest in better security cameras.” I shrug, stepping around him. “But seriously, who’s going to steal used runners.” My legs quiver as I walk away.

I make it past two circular racks when I hear, “Stop that kid! He’s wearing a pair of our shoes!”

Loud footsteps scuttle behind me.

I yank over the next T-shirt rack and it crashes between me and emo guy. T-shirts slew over the floor.

Folding denim girl is waiting in the aisle beside her perfectly folded table of jeans. I dash to the right of the table; she dashes to the right. I swerve left; she swerves left. When I reach the plywood and milk crate table, I jump straight in the middle. My new shoes trek over the neatly folded denim, knocking the heaps over. I kick a pile in her direction. She raises her arm and blocks the denim bullets.

This is my chance.

I lunge to the stairs and take them three at a time to the top.

Outside, Ollie’s stretched out on the back of a bench, bathing in the sun.

I whistle, running the opposite direction. I wish I had my skateboard right about now. But I know where to get one.

Not even a block later I slow to a backward jog when I see Emo boy has given up. I flip him a pair of middle fingers before I take off running again.

I know the city’s side streets like the back of my hand. I’ve lived here my whole life and the streets never change. The only consistent thing in my life.

Under a bridge, I scope out a skatepark spray painted in bright graffiti. The park is packed for the early hour with skateboarders, scooters and even a couple BMX bikers. I’m not surprised. It’s the first day of summer. I’d be ripping the ramps too if my future wasn’t in immediate danger. And if Emo boy and bandana girl call the police, an updated photo of me will be circulating. I have to find a buyer for my comic. But first I need a ride around town.

I spot an abandoned skateboard. And by abandoned, I mean sitting at the edge of a bowl while its owner chugs a drink with a group of friends.

Friends.

What’s with throwing the socially expected friendships in my face today? I’m happy with my cat. Ollie’s a stray who doesn’t belong anywhere or to anyone, just like me. We hop around from foster home to foster home facing the stark truth that adults have no clue what they’re talking about.

I climb the incline.

Ollie follows.

I keep an eye on the group of friends. They’re too busy joking and laughing to notice me twist the solo skateboard in the opposite direction and ride away. Slowly at first, as to not draw attention. Then I pick up speed. The board is in sweet condition. Scuffed at the edges, but brand-new grip tape.

I cruise down the thin pathway and curve onto the sidewalk when I hear commotion behind me.

“That guy stole my skateboard!”

“Hey you!”

“Yeah, you better run!”

Running would be foolish. I have a new ride. And I’ve got twenty feet on them.

I push off the ground to pick up speed. The area’s not busy so I’m not forced to dodge pedestrians. Unfortunately, it also gives the shouting crew behind me the same easy ride. I gotta lose them. I kick-turn onto some street I’m not paying attention to and lucky me, I spot a small pet store on the corner building.

I whistle at Ollie and slide to a stop. Yanking open the front door, we both step through the entrance ignoring the all pets leashed sign.

Ollie splits once we’re inside, slinking to her own groove around glass cases with cute fluffy bunnies. Birds chirp from cages on one wall, and fish swim in large aquariums on the opposite wall. Cats laze in cages down the center of the small store and at the back I hear dogs barking.

I’d take them all home, if I had a home.

I dash to the right of the door as the skateboarders soar past rattling the glass windows. I’ll give them a few minutes before we head back outside.

“Good morning.” A girl with bright red and yellow hair, the same color as the parrot perched on her shoulder, hands me a flyer. 

“Good morning,” the parrot mimics. “Good morning.”

“Cat, dog, bird, fish or reptile?” Her name tag says, Chloe.

“What?”

“Fish or reptile. Fish or reptile,” the bird mocks.

“Who are you shopping for?” Chloe strokes the bird’s feathers.

“My cat.”

She points down the aisle straight in front of us. “Let me know if you need help with anything.”

“Sure.”

I walk around the pet store, not looking at anything specific, wondering what we’re going to do now. No money means we’re flat broke living outside on the streets. Which is better than living in a foster home, but neither are as bad as juvie, which is exactly where I’ll go if the police find me before I split town.

I hear Ollie chirp. She chirps when she’s got her sights hooked on her next meal. I’m not worried. All the animals are caged and out of her reach.

“Cat,” the parrot squawks, ruffling its feathers. “Cat, cat, cat!”

“Ollie, no.” I don’t see her, but she’s gotten quiet. That means her mouth is hanging slightly open and her body will be rigid and ready to pounce. I’ve seen her stalking her prey a hundred times.

The girl looks around. “Who’s Ollie?” 

I don’t have a chance to answer. Ollie attacks. She pounces from behind stacks of food bags. They topple to the floor, splitting open and spilling on the floor.

Ollie swats at the bird. It flies off the girls shoulder and Ollie’s paw hits the girl’s bare arm.

“Ouch!” She covers her arm, spinning on her feet and reaching for Ollie with her free hand. Ollie moves at the speed of lightning and bounds for her next meal.

“Ollie! No! Stop!”

“This is your cat?! Didn’t you see the sign!? All cats must be leashed!” The shrieking pierces my ears.

Should I point out her bird isn’t on a leash?

Not likely the right time.

The bird dashes in sporadic directions while Ollie pursues her, leaping on displays and shelves to try and make height. The bird swoops up through the open beams above. I chase Ollie and the girl chases me in an insane game of cat and bird — also known as cat and mouse.

Ollie stops by a stack of cat food and her hind leg knocks a single can onto the floor. It rolls to my feet. Ollie twists her head back and glances down at it and up at me. Then she leaps for the bird and misses. 

Misses!

My cat.

No way.

The girl rushes past me, screaming and freaking out. She should be thankful Ollie swatted instead of digging her sharp teeth. But my cat knows exactly what she’s going.

I put all the pieces together and pick up the can of Taste of Wild cat food. I can’t help but smile realizing my cat’s plan all along. I tuck it in my pocket.

Brilliant cat.

At the door, I whistle and Ollie breezes past me without bird lunch dangling from her mouth.

“Don’t come back!” The girl yells as I shut the door.

Touchy.

I toss the can in the air and catch it.

Brilliant.

I turn around and a fist connects with my face. 





Chapter Two 

SITTING IN THE alleyway, nose bleeding, and skateboard rightfully returned to the owner, I pry open the can of cat food.

I jerk my head away from the nasty potent fishy smell. “That’s disgusting.”

I gag.

A few times.

I flash the can at her. “This was your choice of meal? The bird would’ve tasted better than this.”

She paws at my arm. I set the can on the ground and she greedily devours the wet slimy contents.

“Maybe I retract my comment about your brilliance.” I lean against the cool brick wall, close my eyes and run my hands over my cat's black coat of hair. 

Happy fricken birthday to me.

Oh yeah, it’s my sixteenth birthday. I know, you’re wishing me a happy birthday. It comes naturally to people so I’ll forgive you. But save your breath. The only good thing to come out of my birthday this year is it falls on the first day of summer break. Not that I’ve been attending school this week, considering there’s a warrant out for my arrest. I also haven’t been back to my foster home — not that my foster parents would care. They’d turn me in faster than anyone on the street. I know, because I’ve been living — hiding — on the streets.

Across the alleyway the back door of Snickerdoodles Bakery opens. A plump man clambers out, wiping his hands on the apron tied around his waist. His hair is white as flour and a middle as round as a cupcake top. He sure takes his time loading boxes of desserts into the van. Every time he disappears inside the bakery, voices rumble out and he takes his sweet time gathering another armful. Enough time for me to grab one of the pink cardboard boxes inside the truck.

Some call it stealing, others call it scamming, I — Aaron Cook — call it survival. Plus it’s my birthday, and what’s a birthday without cake? Besides every other one of my birthday’s. 

The van dips when the older man climbs inside, juggling a handful of boxes in his arms. He hums some old tune I don’t recognize and loudly belts out a couple lines of the song before resuming his hum. 

“Come on Ollie.” I inch closer around a garbage bin to crouch beside a stack of wooden skids leaning against the wall. I shake off the grimy litter sticking to the bottom of my new shoes which are pretty sick if I do say so myself. 

Ollie dawdles a slow slinky strut beside me. Her tail smacks my face like she’s scolding me for my idea. I shoot her a glare, but only her rear end sees it. Probably better than her fishy breath.

The van groans when the driver climbs out and waddles into the bakery. The screen door slams shut behind him and the voices begin.

This is my chance! 

I leap to my feet and bound around the van heading to the back doors. I keep an eye on the bakery’s exit while I pass the van’s front windows. 

The sun glints through the passenger’s side reflecting off an object straight into my eyes. I blink and squint until the white circle light blinding me subdues.

That’s when I see them. 

I stumble over my feet to a quick stop.

Ollie bangs into the back of my leg and hisses her displeasure. Gosh she’s grouchy this afternoon. “Was your fishy lunch not up to your standards?”

I know it’s a bad idea, but how can I stop seeing the foolish worker left the keys in the ignition. They’re just hanging there, glinting in the sunlight and begging me to use them.

I don’t doublethink it. I whip open the passenger’s side and jump in the van. Sweet, sugary warm cinnamon, fruit, and chocolate scents fill my nostrils. I can almost taste the desserts. Cupcakes, brownies, tarts, and cake.

My mouth waters. I click my tongue against the roof of my mouth. “Come on, girl.”

A displeased looking Ollie hops in. She whips me with her tail, a second time, before she curls up on the passenger seat. She sticks her rear end, once again, in my direction.

“Chill girl, I got this.”

She replies with a low snarl.

I run to the back of the van, passing pink boxes lining both walls. I yank the first door shut. As I reach for the second, the bakery’s screen door flies open and ricochets off the brick wall.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” The man’s face twists bright red like a cherry on top of a cupcake.

I thought it was obvious. “Stealing your van.”

“Get outta there!”

I’m faster than him and swing the door shut, locking it. The entire van shakes when he thumps into it. His fists pound the metal outside.

I jump back. A smile steals my lips.

“We did it, girl.”

I’m rewarded with another snarl. “What is your problem today? I’ve spent the entire day trying to save us both.”

“Get out! I’m calling the police!”

Like it matters at this point. I’m already wanted. What’s another charge slapped on my name? Besides, at least I’ll have actually done it this time.

Call the police! We’re calling the police!” He curses like a mad man, banging on the closed doors with his fists.

Then he stops.

Ollie meows a warning and I hear her paw at the door.

I rush to the front and hit the lock button seconds before he yanks on the handle.

“Thank you.” At least she still has my back. 

The man’s face is beet red through the window and his veins pulse out the side of his neck.

“Get out!” He repeats, yanking on the handle like it’s going to magically pop open. I guess his parents didn’t tell him magic doesn’t exist.

I put my hand to my ear. “What’s that? I can’t hear you!” My other hand touches the keys and the man’s round beady eyes watch me closely.

“Don’t you dare.” His muffled threats don’t scare me. Not much scares me anymore. Except heights. Don’t like heights. And maybe Alfie Mack. I haven’t seen him in years, but the memory still scares me a little bit.

I twist the key and the engine rumbles to life, drowning out the man’s explosion of verbal anger. 

I throw the gear into drive and press the pedal to the metal — that’s a saying I’ve heard somewhere. The tires spit up pebbles and dust behind me. The van jerks forward and my foot slips off the pedal. My body whacks the steering wheel and I bounce back into the seat.

I groan, sure a bruise is materializing on my chest.

Ollie howls.

“I’m not happy about this either.” I rub my middle.

The man retreats. He’s not putting up much of a fight if you ask me. He trips over his own clumsy feet and crashes into blue recycling bins. The muted, but clear, sound of shattering empty glass and plastic containers smash on the ground.

Ollie’s howl intensifies. She digs her claws into the material seat.

“Hold on, girl.”

I ease my foot down on the gas pedal. We spring forward down the thin, crowded alleyway with too many objects. I swerve to the right, missing garbage cans, but sideswiping a stack of boxes. The flattened cardboard flies through the air like weightless feathers. The tires bounce over the curb, but nothing deters me. Adrenaline rushes through my entire body like I’m on fire, but in a good way. And not like setting a bandstand on fire. Which I didn’t do, in case you haven’t figured it out yet.

I steer out of the alley and onto a busy street.

“Woohoo!!!” I shout and slap the steering wheel. Finally, something is working in my favor! It’s about time.

I know exactly where I’m heading. Ever heard of Robin Hood? He steals from the rich and gives to the poor. 

Today, call me Robin Hood.

Everyone on Skid Row is hungry, including Lexi. Her mom will be off somewhere blitzed, as usual. She leaves her daughter alone all day — and most nights — to fend for herself. 

She’s only six. Just lost her first tooth and she’s never been to school.

Her mom proves that even if you have a parent, it doesn’t mean they care. It doesn’t mean they’ll protect you. It doesn’t mean they love you.

If Lexi can survive on the streets all these years, so can I. And to celebrate the beginning of my new life, which happens to fall on my birthday, what better way than cake? It’s an all-around cake day and I’m Robin Hood delivering to the less fortunate.

And since I can’t afford to buy a ticket out of the city, thanks to Perry at Perry’s Comics, this metal box rolling down the street is my perfect getaway vehicle.

“Stay in the right lane. Abide the traffic laws. Stay the speed. No one will suspect a thing. We got this.” My monotone voice is either for my own encouragement or Ollie’s. I decide on the latter.

I reach over and pet Ollie’s head. She makes a hissing warning sound just before we roll over another curb. We bob up and down.

“Not that close to the right. Both hands on the wheel.” My monotone voice is back and I clamp my hands around the leather steering wheel.

I didn’t say I was a good driver. I don’t even have my license.

Sirens wail behind me. A quick glance in the side mirror, I catch glimpses of flashing lights approaching.

My heart stops beating. Sweat pools around my grip on the steering wheel.

At the next corner, I crank a hard left. The van jerks at my zealous pressure. Tires squeal. I feel the passenger’s wheels lift and my side of the van dips.

I’m going to flip this beast!

Horns blast.

I forgot to check oncoming traffic. Cars in the other lane brake to stop without colliding. I round the corner. The vehicle thumps back onto all four wheels. Vibrations rip through my body. I scramble to straighten the wheel. All the while, the sirens are growing louder, closer. Houses touch the road on both sides leaving no space for sidewalks. The narrow road only fits one vehicle. I slam on the breaks at a chain link fence with a dead-end sign. 

Nooo!” I hit the steering wheel.

The sirens are right behind me.

Juvie, here I come.

I could run.

I should run.

There’s no time. The cop cruiser, sporting flashing red and blue lights, speeds past the side street I’m parking on.

Past.

They missed me. They missed me.

I listen until the sirens are nothing more than a distant hum. 

I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.

“Close call,” I tell Ollie. “But we are getting out of this city one way or another.”

Reversing is a struggle, but I manage.

The tents aren’t the only indication we’re approaching Skid Row. Fires burn in the middle of the street, even being the first weeks of summer. Heaps of dirty clothes hang over shopping carts and piles on the ground. There are bicycles everywhere, undoubtedly stolen with fresh, but sloppy, coats of spray paint.

I’m careful to maneuver around people I recognize. Most are dressed in layers of dirty, ripped, and stained clothes in sizes either too big or too small.

“The pixies are angry today.” Dizzy Pix — that’s what we call her — looks angry and agitated today. What else is new? She’s always bickering with imaginary pixies and there’s no talking her out of it.

I stop beside her and roll down my window. “Why are they angry today?” I’m not trying to bait or tease her. Pixies are her only conversation. Isn’t ignoring her worse than speaking her language?

“I don’t know.” She whips her head to the left and the right. “I didn’t do anything today. Go away.” She grabs her scarf and wrestles with herself. “Let it go! Blasted pixie! Go. Scram!” And begins her wild tyrant of screaming and shouting about pixies stealing her stuff.

Her stuff.

She literally owns nothing except the clothes on her back, and no one would want those.

Trust me.

I wave at Prince. No one knows his name, but he wears a different tattered hat every day. Pink, purple, green, think all the colors of the rainbow. Baseball, top hat, garden hat — the options are endless. The catch is, they always have a broken plastic crown attached. I don’t know how he manages to get his hands on such a variety, but I’d bet it involves dumpster diving.

His eyes are caked in layers of glitter, which might be where he gets his nickname from. He certainly doesn’t wear fancy royalty outfits, or much of anything. Today a blanket is wrapped around him like a Greek toga. He’s friendly enough. Quiet like a child, but he likes to flip everyone the bird.

He purposely comes to a standstill in front of the van and lifts his arm. Up goes his middle finger. His hands are filthy with weeks, months, possibly years of caked-on dirt under his nails and in the crevasses. A bout of laughter follows like he’s just done the most hysterical thing. I can’t help but smile. He moves on to the next unprepared victim to walk in his path and up goes both fingers.

I slowly steer down the dead-end road and find an empty lot. Old man Carl died in his sleep a few nights ago. Once word got around, people looted this spot until every last piece of him remaining disappeared. Like he wasn’t here in the first place. That’s how easy it is to forget people in Skid Row. I vow to never forget.

“We’re lucky no one claimed old man Carl’s spot.”

Ollie doesn’t respond.

I park, wedging the van between a tent with rope tied to the building to prop it up, and a house made out of skids sheltered with blankets.

“The cops won’t find us here.” I pet Ollie and she coils against my hand. About time she gives me some sort of reaction.

“A coat of spray paint and new plates and no one will recognize the van. I’ll gut the inside, find a mattress and we’re out of here. We’ll drive the countryside and live off the land. Maybe by the water. Up north or easy.” Ollie’s purrs intensify.

I swing open the back doors and curl my hands around my mouth. “Food! Come and get it!”

Robin Hood at his finest. 

Some are wary, untrusting, and cautious while others rush over. I pass out random boxes. Some have plastic windows on the top and I can see tarts, cupcakes and donuts. Others will be a surprise, but nobody complains.

Lexi wanders over, squeezing between the crowds now gathered. She clutches a tattered old rabbit in both arms.

“What is this?” She’s wearing the mermaid pajamas I stole from the second hand store last week. They were in decent condition, but now have stains on the front and rips on the edge. Her hair is tangled and a smear of dirt across her face. Still, she looks the cleanest.

“Cake. It’s my birthday.”

She smiles wide. “Happy birthday, Aaron.”

“Thanks.”

“I thought you were leaving.”

“I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.” I hop out of the van and lift her inside. Her blonde curly ringlets bounce up and down. “Pick any box and it’s yours.”

Her face lights up like sunshine from the inside out. She runs her fingers along a row of boxes on a shelf her height, finally deciding on a small square box without a window.

“It is going to be a surprise.” Her giddy tone echoes as she sits on the floor and drapes her feet over the edge of the van. “I like surprises.”

She lifts off the lid. Her blue eyes beam at the sight of a pink cake with a layer of glitter icing. It would be perfect for Prince.

An elbow digs into my side, but I don’t turn around. “Hold on, there’s plenty for everyone.”

Lexi sticks her whole hand in the center of the small cake and scoops out a palm full of icing.

I laugh. It’s a rare occurrence, but it feels good when it happens.

She licks the icing on her fingers like a lollipop. I’ll bet she’s never had cake before. Pink icing smears around the outside of her mouth. 

“Good?” I hold back another laugh. 

She vigorously nods, her now pink stained tongue, licking another dollop of icing.

A throat clears behind me.

I rustle the hair on top of Lexi’s head. “Enjoy.” I grab a box and turn around facing the impatient person behind me. “Here you gooo...” my words falter at the sight of the officer.

Busted.

Heated eyes stare me down. His lips curl in a disapproving scowl. He has the same stance as the superheroes in the mural at Perry’s Comics: chin up, chest out, thumbs looped in the front of his belt, and legs shoulder-length apart.

Confident and brave.

Nothing like my trembling insides, but I remain somewhat cool and collected on the outside. At least, I think I am.

I hold up the box with a slick smirk. “Cake?”

He ignores my snarky comment. “Nice set of wheels, Aaron.”

Yeah, he also knows me by name. I’ve been in and out of his station a few times. That’s a lie. A few dozen times. I don’t have to look at his name tag to see he’s Officer Perez. On duty, he strolls the streets of Skid Row keeping the peace. I planned to have the van transformed or hidden before I ran into him. I’ll add that to my failure list today.

“It needs a little paint.” I shrug.

His serious demeanour doesn’t break. “It’s been reported stolen.”

“You don’t say.” I rub my chin.

He nods his head in the direction of the cruiser parked at the end of the road. “Let’s go.”

After the cruiser, comes the police station. After the station, court appearance and juvie. Who needs the hassle?

“I’m good here.”

He reaches for me. “Aaron Cook, you’re under arrest ...” He starts reading me my rights. A waste of time. I know them all by heart. Ordinarily nothing happens. I’m arrested, booked, and let go with the promise never to do whatever I’ve done again. Slap on the wrist. Community service I never attend.

Blah blah blah.

But today I’m facing serious arson and theft charges.

I hold up my hands and take a step back. “Come on, Perez, look around you. Does this look like a crime? Wouldn’t depriving people of food be a crime? Wouldn’t you consider me a saint? Feeding all these hungry mouths.”

“How do you want to twist the bandstand?”

“It wasn’t me.”

“Poor defense.”

“I didn’t start the fire.”

“Tell it to a judge.”

A female officer I hadn’t noticed steps into view and peers around me. “Who’s that?”

Lexi!

I reach to shut the doors. Foster homes are worse than the streets. I know, I was raised in them. Foster parents who hit, scream and hand out gruelling punishments. Not to mention the foster kids who bully, steal, and give their fair share of wedgies. It’s the reason I never take off my necklace and always keep my old comic book in the back pocket of my pants.

Officer Perez catches the door and my wrist at the same time. “You’re with me.”

“Lexi, run!” She looks up, her tongue swiping icing off her lower lip. Only now she notices our visitors aren’t from the row. She’d been engrossed licking the remaining icing off each individual finger. There’s icing everywhere. Her mouth, her hands, her pajamas and streaks of pink color a patch of her curls. 

Her smile drops and fear seeps into her blue eyes.

The female officer closes in on her. “Lexi, is that your name?”

Don’t let their sweet talk fool you. Cops are liars too. It’s all kind and I’m on your side until they have the information they need and turn on you. 

“That’s a pretty name. My name is Lisa Fisher.”

That sounds like a fishy name to me.

Lexi’s icing-covered hands leave residue on the floor of the van as she slowly scoots backward.

Good girl.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m not going to hurt you.” Officer Fisher sits on the edge of the van with that confidence and bravery that seems to be going around. “Do you like cake? What’s your favorite? Mine is chocolate.”

Mine is double chocolate, but it isn’t any of Officer Fisher’s business.

I see Lexi’s suspicion waning. She’s too young to understand adults lie to get their own way.

Lies, lies, lies!

“Lexi, don’t listen to her. Run!”

The cop yanks me away. “Enough out of you. You have a full day ahead of you.”

Thankfully, Lexi takes my advice. She springs to her feet and sprints to the front of the van. I hear Ollie’s shrill squeak from her cozy locale as the side door bangs open.

“Keep running! Don’t look back!” I shout.

The female officer's boots slam on the ground. She points a warning finger at me. “Get him out of here!” She darts around the van in pursuit of capturing Lexi.

I yank and twist, to free myself and help Lexi. This is all my fault. If I hadn’t attracted big attention with my new digs, she wouldn’t have been out in the open. If I had skipped town, they wouldn’t have seen Lexi.

Officer Perez has a solid grip on me. “Calm down. She’ll be okay.”

But she won’t. Not if they put her in the system.

 The crowd slinks away from the scene, hiding and cowering in their homes. No help from them.

Thanks a lot. I just spoiled you with fresh cake and you can’t even attempt to help me escape?! Real nice.

I don’t make the officers job of dragging me down the road easy. Not because I don’t want to go — I don’t, but that’s not why — I need to make sure Lexi escapes. 

I jump. 

I wretch. 

I dig the sole of my shoes in the ground.

My eyes search every space for movement, high, low, side to side. Finally, I see Lexi dip under blankets and scamper around tents. My eyes zoom in on of the female officer gaining on her.

“Faster Lexi!”

It’s too late. The officer clamps her hand on Lexi’s arm.

It’s over.

My body deflates in defeat while my mind is racing. 

Anger. 

Fear. 

Pain. 

My left cheek stings and my vision blurs like the first time I’d been hit in my foster home. My body shivers like the times I’d been locked in the cold basement sleeping on the cement floor with no blankets. My stomach hurts like the year I barely ate one meal a day. My anger, fear, and pain jumble together leaving it impossible for me to separate them.

I don’t know how, but I free myself out of Perez’s deadly tight grip. I run and take a garbage can down on the way, to slow officer Perez. I thrust a cart in his path. I approach Dizzy Pix and grab her shoulders, spinning her in front of the cop.

“He controls the pixies,” I tell her. “He can stop them but doesn’t want to.”

“The pixies are everywhere!” Dizzy Pix launches for Officer Perez.”

I run to the cruiser and spot the female officer forcing Lexi into the back seat. She slams the door shut and all the horrors of my life flash before my eyes.

Wedgies.

Broken arms.

Slick-haired Alfie Mack.

And the lies. All the lies. 

A thundering sound vibrates below my feet. The police must’ve heard it too. Officer Perez slides to a stop thirty feet away. All gazes drop to the roads surface as the rumbling sound grows louder and louder with every passing second.

The pavement begins to shake. Shaking pavement? How is that possible?

Rapid cracks spilt the road, forming a web from my sneakers straight across to the Perez’s shiny black boots.

The makeshift fire pit, smack dab in the middle of the rumbling web, bounces up and down. Flames leap in random directions. Dizzy Pix is slowly creeping away when a wayward flame forced her to leap out of the way.

“Get back!” Perez’s words barely make it to my ears when the ground explodes. Thick chunks of pavement blast the fire pit into the air. Glass shatters from the buildings on either side of us. Screams of terror ring out. 

I raise my arms and cover my head from the flying debris. I peek through my arms and see dirt, rocks and soil ripping from the deepening hole and flying straight up like the earth is being sucked into the sky.

Then everything stops. Mid-air. Seconds tick by like hours as I stare, dazed, at the line of earth levitating in front of me.

“Take cover!” In those short seconds, Officer Perez ushers bystanders away. Somewhere in the back of my head I know he’s saving people from the earth and pavement that will be coming back down. Where else would it go? It has to go somewhere. 

“Get in the cruiser!” Officer Fisher shoves my middle with one hand and ducks my head with the other as she shoves me in the front seat of the cruiser. I prop myself on my elbows as I hear a rainfall of debris falling from the sky. I jump and Lexi screams when chunks dent the roof. Louder and larger than any hail or ice balls during a thunderstorm. Through the window, soil slams onto the ground fabricating dust clouds. My eyes somehow adjust to the blackened dust. I twist for a better view watching chunks of pavement, large enough to kill a person, plummet from the sky. The officers, the homeless, they’re all in danger. A tent or skid won’t help them now. I’m not so sure this cruiser will protect me and Lexi.

I spot a huge chunk of concrete headed straight for Officer Fisher.

I jump out of the car — an idiots move, I know. My feet stumble. My voice cracks. I’m not fast enough. The pavement doesn’t slow and gravity pulls the huge rock down fast above her.

“Nooo!” The word rips from deep down in the bottom of my stomach and tears up through my chest in a deafening, painful growl.

I squeeze my eyes shut, anticipating the crunching death of the people around me.

Silence answers.

More silence.

Absolute silence.

I open my eyes, again, anticipating the worst: crushed bodies trapped under rubble, knocked out, or worse … dead. Blood, guts, brains everywhere.

Gravity shocks me.

Through the clouds of soil billowing up, the pavement chunks are floating. All around us. Officer Fisher lifts her arm and her fingertips graze the bottom of the rock inches from her head. Her fingers sweep through a line of soil that swiftly relocates to its original place, supporting the rock - holding it above her head.

I shake my own head.

This is impossible.

As I peer at my surrounding, it’s happening everywhere. The main source snakes up from the hole in the ground, thick and swirling like a tree trunk creating dirt branches spreading under the pavement chunks, big or small, holding them like flourishing leaves.

I’ve got a concussion. I’m hallucinating. Or I’ve passed out and I’m dreaming.

“Stay inside!” Officer Fisher shoves me back in the front seat and slams the door shut.

I upright myself into a sitting position in the drivers seat and press my hands flat against the window. I watch her rush around with Officer Perez getting everyone out from under the pavement. And when they’re done, as if the dirt tree knows we’re all safe, everything collapses with a deafening clatter.

Dust billows too thick to see anywhere or anyone. But they were all on the sidelines with enough distance to safety. Right? I hope so.

A small sound comes from the back seat and I only then remembered Lexi.

“You did that.” Her whisper must be louder than I think because how can I possibly hear her through the thick glass dividing us?

I look in the rear-view mirror and her shock mirrors my own.

“I didn’t do whatever this is. Blame it on some sort of underground explosion. An earthquake.  A gas line.”

That creates dirt trees ...? 

I have no idea, but the distractions give me an opening to save Lexi.

I swing open the door initiating a plan to rescue her from the back seat and run.

Run as far away as we can.

Run as fast as we can.

I stop short.

Dust invades my nostrils and stings my eyes. I’m paralyzed for a second, coughing, choking, and rubbing my blinding eyes. I hear metal crunch beneath my sneakers. How I can hear a crunching sound through the loud screaming, shouting and panic arising around me is questionable. I lift my shoe to find keys dug into the ground.

For the second time today, they’re calling me. I have my doubts they belong to the cruiser. I snatch them regardless, slip back into the driver’s side and the single key slides perfectly into the slot. My shaking hands turn the key in the ignition and the cruiser rumbles to life.

A surprised laugh escapes me. I can’t believe it worked.

Again. 

Just as I’m about to slam the door, Ollie leaps over my lap.

I twist in the seat and touch the glass dividing me from Lexi. Her hands press against mine. Colourful icing smears the glass. She’s not scared, even when she thinks I’m responsible for some big explosion. Does she think I did it with my mind?

That’s impossible.

I push all these childish thoughts aside — that’s what they are, childish.

“We’re going to be okay.”

“I know.” I’m glad one of us is confident and brave. 

“Buckle up.”

She scoots back and pulls the seat belt around her front. 

The dust is lifting and I spot Officer Perez making his way toward us.

Crap! 

I have no time to buckle up. My hands are still trembling when I throw the gear into reverse and peel backward onto the street.

A car honks. A truck steers around me.

I stay on side streets and they go by in a blur. Once I have some distance between us and Skid Row, I need to find an empty alley, ditch the car, and get away by foot.

I turn on another side street, thinking this is my chance.

It’s not. I’m back on Umpire Rue.

“Where are we going?” Lexi sounds excited like we’re going on vacation. I’ve never been on vacation, but they look fun in movies.

“You’ll see.” I glance at her. She’s licking the icing residue off her lips and watching out the window at the new scenery. I doubt she’s ever left Skid Row or been in a vehicle. “It’s a surprise.”

“I like surprises. Will the lady find us?”

“No. You’re safe. We’re safe.”

I look out the front windshield. A man dressed in black stands in the middle of the road. Unmoving. I can’t see his face under the hat he’s wearing, but he faces my direction.

I wildly press down on the horn, giving the man a chance to move, but he doesn’t budge.

“I’m going to hit you!”

“Don’t hit him!”

I’m going to hit him.

My foot begins to press down on the brakes, when the scar on my chest lights up like a fire is burning from the inside out.

I clutch my heated front, never having felt such a profusely throbbing pain. I’m momentarily blinded by a wave of nausea. I yank the stone of my necklace away from my scar, breaking the chain in the process. It slithers to the floor at my feet. The piping hot sensation shooting through my body instantly eases, but a stinging persists over my scar.

I look up. The man’s still on the road, still facing me, still unmoving. Like a mad man. 

Only I wouldn’t know his current state because I can’t see his face, his eyes, nothing. But his quaky outfit says plenty. The black flowing jacket sweeps the ground. He’s wearing a pantsuit — sort of. Elastic cuffs are tight around his mid-calf. Boots laced up. The wide belt tied over a shirt hanging long enough I can’t decide if it’s a shirt or dress, has an unusual symbol over it. I’m mesmerized by the stones piercing the top of a crest with a cat behind a purple cloud or fire.

Ollie’s meows pierce my thoughts. I’m too close to the man now. Slamming the brakes alone won’t stop the cruiser from hitting him. I yank the steering wheel to the left and the cruiser spins in a circle.

Lexi screams.

Ollie screeches.

I scream.

Unbuckled, I slide from side to side on the seat, gripping the steering wheel for dear life. 

We spin in a circle.

Another circle.

The tires squeal against the pavement, clouds of dust swirl outside mixing with screams of fear.

I catch sight of the building just before the cruiser swings one last time and the back end slams into a business front. The impact thrashes me in every direction. My head slams against the window and pain envelopes me in a dizzy state.

I need to run.

We need to escape.

I can’t risk juvenile detention or Lexi being put into the system.

My hand reaches up — it feels like slow motion — and touches a warm area on my head. Blood drips off my fingertips.

I’m hurt.

A wave of blackness washes through my body and all I remember is I need to rescue Lexi.