Crimes of Fire
The bloodcurdling screams of my nightmare woke me with a start, and on instinct, my hand reached out to search the rough sheets for my little sister. I found nothing but a cold, empty bed.
Where was Jilly?
I sat up and peered around our tiny room in the Belton home, our most recent foster hell. The chair bracing the doorknob had been removed, and shafts of morning light mottled the ugly shag carpet in the hallway.
Jilly must have gotten up to use the bathroom. Still, knots twisted my insides. I locked us in here at night for a reason. And for the very same reason, I slept in jeans.
If only I could remember how that fire started at our last foster home. The Radcliffs wanted nothing to do with me after that and sent us packing. I’d love for the Beltons to do the same. Of course, we could end up somewhere worse.
I flung the covers off and marched into the hallway. The stench of stale cigarettes permanently lingered. Leanne’s perfume, as I liked to call it. The bathroom door was closed, easing some of the tension in my chest.
“Jilly?” I knocked. “Are you hungry? I can see if there’s any cereal left.”
My seven-year-old foster sister was a bright star in the dark, treacherous ocean of my life. She didn’t know the evil in this world because I shielded her from it. Every drop of malice had been reserved for me. I was already ruined. I’d make damn sure not one sinister finger soiled her innocence.
Silence. Nothing stirred on the other side of the hollow wood.
“Jilly?” I opened the door to an empty bathroom. My breath quickened. Where was she? I wrenched the ratty, puke green window curtain aside to see a silver and red monstrosity parked in the driveway.
My stomach bottomed out. Frank’s big rig. He was home.
I bolted down the stairs, my bare feet slipping on the worn carpet. Leanne, our foster mother, lay passed out on the second-hand brown and yellow couch in the living room. A half-empty gin bottle balanced on the edge of the pocked coffee table. Frank’s worn leather wallet sat in a puddle of spilled liquor.
Any other time I’d pinch a few bucks for food. Not now. Empty stomachs had fallen to the bottom of the priority list along with everything else.
“Leanne, where’s Jilly?” I spoke loudly enough to jolt her awake.
Bloodshot eyes peered from narrowed lids. “What the hell are you going on about, girl?” She pushed herself up and reached for a half-smoked cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. Old makeup smeared her face. “I told you to leave me alone on Saturdays.”
“Where. Is. Jilly?” My hands curled into tight fists by my sides, shaking with the effort it took not to grab her snarled, overly bleached hair and rip it from her stinking head. Waves of sweat and alcohol wafted off her so strong my eyes stung.
“I told those social service people I only wanted one.” She flicked the lighter a few times until it sparked, re-lighting the cigarette. The tobacco crackled and popped. “A healthy teenage girl to help me around the house.”
My lip curled in disgust. That was social services for you. Might as well call it maid service. But that wasn’t the only reason Leanne wanted a healthy teenage girl. Frank wanted a healthy—and pretty—teenage girl.
“You were so stubborn.” She stabbed the cigarette at me. “You just had to have that little brat with you. She’s not even your real sister.”
Blood didn’t matter in a world like this. I was fourteen the day the Radcliffs brought little four-year-old Jilly home. I had plans to run away. Again. Calvin and his son always found me and hauled me back kicking and screaming. Not this time, though. I had a bus ticket out of this shithole town of Southvale, Virginia.
But the moment I saw that tiny thing with a mess of russet curls and fearful brown eyes, my plans changed because I knew what awaited her at the Radcliff home. It would have broken her to pieces, destroying her inside and out.
So, I stayed and vowed to make sure Jilly was safe. Always. If I could save her, maybe some part of my own soul might remain intact. My effort wouldn’t come crashing down today.
I leaned into my foster mother’s face, choking back the gags from her stench. “Where is Frank?”
“Hell if I know.” She pushed me back. “Get out of my face, you little shit.”
I stumbled into the coffee table and knocked over the bottle of gin, sending the remaining liquor across the already stained carpet.
Leanne shot up from the couch, wavering on her feet. “You did it now, girl.” She grabbed my arm and yanked me forward. “You better hope there’s another bottle in this house or I’ll have you go down to the corner and—”
I wrenched my arm free and shoved her. In her intoxicated state, she easily tumbled sideways and hit the floor. “Where is Frank, Leanne?” I flicked my hand toward his wallet. “You want liquor? Go get some. I’m sure there’s plenty of money.” I bared my teeth. “You can even tell him I stole it.”
It didn’t take long for the opportunity to register in her foggy brain, and she scrambled for her husband’s wallet. “He said something about going into the basement.”
Blood drained from my body as the room spun. I felt sick.
No, no, no, no. Not the basement. I knew what happened in the basement.
Not sweet Jilly.
I tore off and nearly tripped over the toppled gin bottle. My stomach threatened to empty everything in it onto the creaky stairs as I fled to the door. I pounded on it, my skin soaked in sweat.
“Jilly! Open the door.” I rammed into the door until my shoulder tingled with numbness. Pain or nothingness, it didn’t make a difference. I’d bust in there even if I ripped my arm clean off in the process.
Air no longer fed my lungs. Terror and panic had me in a death grip. I had to stop this. I had to protect her. She didn’t belong in the dark with me.
“Frank, let me in right now!” My voice cracked as a burn slashed my throat. “I swear I will make you suffer.”
I stood back, gathered all the strength in my small, unassuming seventeen-year-old body, and threw myself at the wood separating me from my little sister.
Cracks echoed and I thought it was the sound of my bones breaking until I hit the floor on the other side and saw the door slam into the brick wall. Pieces of the doorjamb rained down.
I gawked at the demolished frame with a slack jaw. How…?
Rough cursing dropped me back to reality. I scrambled up, finding my little sister in the middle of the dingy room holding her arms against her chest. Thankfully, her duck pajamas remained unmarred. I ran to her and dropped to my knees. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Tears finally broke free to run down her pale cheeks. “I-I’m sorry, Sloane. I just wanted some pancakes…”
That monster lured her down here with pancakes?
My hands ran over her thin arms. She shivered so much. “Did he touch you?”
Jilly shook her head. “N-No.”
My muscles turned to stone as I scrutinized her, searching for lies or even shame in her denial. Air finally filled my lungs when I saw none.
“What in the hell are you doing!” Fingers suddenly tangled in my hair, wrenching me back from my sister. “You stupid girl. You broke my door.” Frank’s muddy brown eyes blazed so brightly they seemed to be lit by fire. His hand shot back and came down on my face, knocking me to the ground.
Pain exploded across my cheek. Starbursts popped in my vision, drowning out the dank basement. Jilly’s cries were the only things keeping me from losing consciousness.
Frank appeared, his heavy boots framing my shoulders. Greasy, sweaty hair the color of dirty wheat curled around his face. His lips twisted into a sneer as a peek of yellow teeth flashed. Drugs and alcohol—and being an evil bastard—had aged him from thirty-seven to fifty-seven. “How dare you break into my room.”
“I know what you were going to do, you sick son of a bitch,” I spat. “I told you to stay away from my sister.”
He grabbed my shirt to yank me toward his face. “Well, since you’re here now, you can—”
I rammed my knee into his groin as hard as I could. Frank roared and doubled over, falling on top of me. “Jilly, run to Ms. Trudy’s house.” I shoved my foster dad off as he moaned over his manhood. “Don’t leave until I get you.”
She stared at me, frozen. Tears streamed down her cheeks, wetting her pajama top as her gaze flickered to Frank and then me. “What about you?”
“I’ll be fine.” I didn’t matter. “Go, Jilly! Now.”
My sister finally thawed and scurried out the door as fast as her little legs could carry her. I rolled over only to have a massive fist pound against the side of my head.
I collapsed as a chorus of ringing thundered in my ears. A metallic tinge settled on my tongue.
“Sloane is a bad girl.” Frank’s hot, rotten breath melted over my neck as he leaned over me. His scent of alcohol, sweat, filth, and smoke filled my nose. “You know what happens to bad girls. They get punished.”
A vicious beating was coming my way. It didn’t matter. As long as I’d stopped this asshole from hurting my sister, every hit was worth it. But when Frank’s fingers curled into the waist of my jeans, I reacted.
I whipped around and kicked him in the face, sending him stumbling into his desk. He held his hand to his nose as blood poured between his fingers. I quickly scrambled up.
“That’s it!” He spat into the dirty brown carpet and smeared blood on his jeans. “I’ve had enough of you. You’re not worth the trouble.” He lunged forward and twisted his hand in my hair, yanking my head back again. “I can get a pretty penny for you.” He ran his knuckles down my cheek, and I fought the urge to gag. “With them pretty violet eyes of yours and this red hair, I can make a whole truckload of money selling you to the highest bidder.”
“Go to hell,” I hissed. This wasn’t the first time Frank threatened to sell me to human traffickers. I had no doubt he’d come across some on his trucking route, but he wouldn’t have the guts to really do it.
“I’m serious this time.” His laugh sent chills tattooing down my spine. “I’ve been flashing your picture around. They’re very interested.” He brought me closer until his lips touched my ear. “And then I’ll make sure Jilly stays scared and quiet.”
His threat spilled acid across my skin, violently burning and sizzling. The wicked gleam to his gaze told me he’d make good on it this time. I’d be gone somewhere in another hell while my sister was stuck at the mercy of this monster. Every terrible thing I’d seen and experienced in my seventeen years in the foster care system would fall upon Jilly.
No. That wouldn’t happen. And if need be, I’d die making sure of it.
Something inside of me snapped. I didn’t mean metaphorically, like I was moments away from turning into a psycho killer. I meant literally. A barrier had ripped apart, flooding my veins, my muscles, and every cell in my body with fire.
I’d felt such a sensation only a few times in my life, always at my darkest moments. Tiny slivers of molten lava slipped through a stone blockade, and then it would happen—something unexplainable.
I’d set Calvin Radcliff on fire one day when he had me out in the shed…
The firefighters said his lawnmower must have overheated. It didn’t, but I didn’t say anything and neither did he. That had been my and Jilly’s last day at their home.
A girl at school had also attacked me when I was thirteen. She followed me into the bathroom and locked us in before holding me down and pressing a lighter to my face. She didn’t want me to be prettier than she was.
Darcy was a real psycho. My burns healed quickly but hers did not.
I never knew what was scratching just under my skin. It remained quiet until a time came when I wasn’t sure I could take the pain. I wasn’t worried about myself this time, though. I could take all the pain Frank had to dole out, but he had threatened my sister for the last time.
Sizzling echoed before the sharp scent of hot electricity mixed with smoke permeated the room. It didn’t take long for the change to register with Frank. The snarl melted from his lips, replaced by a confused dip of his brow.
His head whipped around, and he cursed when he spotted the flames engulfing his laptop. “Son of a bitch.” His grip on my hair loosened as he turned to grab a blanket from the couch then threw it on his desk to snuff out the fire.
Instead of dissolving away, the flames ignited the blanket, like fingers reaching through the crocheted material and grabbing hold. Smoke billowed and swirled into Frank’s face. He coughed and stumbled back. His attention shifted in my direction while I stood there watching.
His head cocked to the side. “You did this, didn’t you?” He flicked his hand to the burning desk.
A denial dangled from my lips when the light fixture above us exploded, raining glass. Frank stumbled away while I used my arms to shield my face. When I glanced back, flames seared across the ceiling.
“I will kill you, Sloane.” Frank sprinted toward me again just as a piece of drywall came crumbling down on top of him.
My heart rammed into my throat, blocking my airways. Smoke filled the room. Sweat spilled over my skin, hot and cold at the same time. The fire spread quickly, pouring more heat into the basement.
I shook my head. I wanted it to stop. Please stop. My hands quaked as I held them up, trying to figure out how to stop it.
It was no use. The wall inside of me had been demolished. Whatever this was, it was here to stay.
Frank screamed as a flaming chunk of wood crashed into his back.
He’s a bad guy. He’ll hurt Jilly.
I turned to run, but another piece of drywall fell, blocking the doorway. I coughed as more smoke filled the air, thick and choking. My eyes stung.
The blackening walls spun and I stumbled, hitting my knees. I was going to die in the basement. My gaze landed on Frank to see him passed out with half of his shirt burned off from the fire.
He would die too.
I sucked in a jagged breath and thought of my sister. Jilly would be safe from him, but what about the next monster that came into her life?
I struggled to stand, but the lack of oxygen to my brain had me crashing back to the ground. Tears blurred my vision and spilled down my cheeks. Sirens shrieked outside. Someone had called the fire department. An invisible hand fisted in my gut as I took in the damage already crawling over the basement. They would be too late. And Jilly would have no one.
Something crackled over me, an intense electric buzz. I gritted my teeth as the sensation multiplied until my body was ripped apart from the inside out. Oh, shit. I clutched my chest as a blood-curdling scream wrenched free and the world faded. Was I dying?