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I sit quietly in the corner of my room, which I share with two other people, and listen to the bickering in the living room and the rain on the window. Someone, probably Sam, knocks a kitchen chair over. Maria screams. Madison squeals and yells, “Ow! Mom!” Rachael, small and innocent, sneaks quietly into our room and climbs onto my bed next to me.
“Sam broke another chair.”
“Figures,” I mutter. This is how it is every night. Everyone fighting and me sneaking away from the chaos. Sometimes I go into the woods. Sometimes Rachael comes, too. She’s the only normal one here. She lost her parents in a car crash. That’s the most common story here. My parents were never found. They didn’t want me. Most foster kids dream of running away and reuniting with their family. Not me. I never want to see them for what they’ve done to me.
I look at Rachael. She yawns.
“You can sleep here tonight, if you’d like,” I tell her. She nods her head, causing her brown hair to fall in her eyes. She curls up beside me in the bed. I cover her up with the scratchy, blue comforter with pictures of ugly white clouds. She’s asleep within minutes.
I’m almost asleep when Madison bursts in the door, a snobby expression on her face.
Madison’s fourteen., two years younger than me. She’s a complete brat who only cares about hair and her phone. Maria’s her sister. They’re Rhonda’s real children, and the only ones she actually cares about. That’s why I feel I have to take care of Rachael. I’m more of a mother to her than Rhonda. Us foster kids stick together.
Sam’s a different story. He takes care of himself. He also destroys everything in his path while doing that.
Madison sits on her pink, fluffy, comfortable bed. She takes out her iPhone with the pink silicone cover on it and starts texting, as usual. I wish I could just slap that phone out of her bony little hands. I’ve hated her from the start. She’s constantly calling me names, tattling, or complaining about something involving herself. She sets her phone down on her side-table and falls back on the bed.
I stand up and start getting ready for bed. Madison glares at me as I walk by. I ignore her.
I open the door and step into the yellow hallway. The color reminds me of mustard. I walk into the bathroom we all share.
After I brush my teeth (with my secret toothbrush I keep in my room after I found out that Madison “dropped” my old one in the toilet), I walk into the kitchen to get some food to make-up for the dinner I missed. I hear Sam and Rhonda talking in the other room.
“You better stop causing all this trouble. You’re turning my house into a barn. As if I don’t have enough trouble taking care of five kids. If you don’t turn your attitude around, I don’t think I can take you anymore,” Rhonda says to Sam, softly but firm.
Rhonda’s a lazy foster mom, and clueless. She doesn’t like to see us fight, but doesn’t know or have the energy to stop it.
I grab an apple from the bottom drawer. Sam stomps into the kitchen. Rhonda follows. She barely looks at me.
“You missed dinner,” she says to me.
“Sorry,” I mumble, trying to sneak away.
“You know I like when we eat together as a family.”
“Well, then it’s a good thing Madison and Maria were there, isn’t it?” I say coldly. We’ve been over this before.
“You know I think of you all equally,” she lies.
“Mhmm,” I mumble as I walk out. I walk into my room and lay down next to Rachael. Her empty bed is messy and unmade, the ugly green sheets wrinkled and falling off. Madison has turned the lights off and is under the blankets playing with her phone. I can hear her tapping at the screen noisily. Maria’s probably in Rhonda’s bed. She goes in there every night.
Maria is seven, a little older than Rachael. She has a dark brown bob and big brown eyes. She would probably be cute if she wasn’t crying all the time. Like Madison, she’s a spoiled brat.
I hear Sam’s squeaky door open and close right around the corner. I see the light in the hallway go out from under the crack in the bottom of the door.
I am half-asleep when I hear my name called softly from the hall.
“Dakota,” he calls.
“What do you want, Sam?”
“Come here,” he says, a little impatient. I sigh dramatically, but pull the covers off. I squint to the sudden light as I step into the hallway. I look at Rhonda’s bedroom door, which is shut. I peak into Maria’s room, which, as I predicted, was empty.
Sam’s standing in his doorway.
“Is Madison awake?”
“I don’t think so, what do you want?” I say, curious yet irritated.
“I-I don’t really know. It’s just, I have been having this weird feeling that something bad’s gonna happen. I don’t really know how to explain. It’s like, for the last week, I’ve been really depressed and angry for no reason-”
“I’ve noticed,” I mumble. He ignores me.
“-but tonight, I don’t know, I’m terrified. For no reason, and, and, I, I can’t…” Sam was completely distracted, staring wide-eyed into nothing.
“Sam?” I say, a little worried and extremely confused. “Sam.” I grab his arm and shake it lightly. His eyes snap back into focus. “Sam, what are you talking about?!”
“I don’t know, I’m scared.”
“Why?!” I demand.
“I don’t know!” he yells, a little too loud. “I don’t know,” he says again, quieter. “Something’s happening. Tonight. Something big, and I don’t know what. Help me. Please.” He stares at me with pleading eyes.
This is so weird. Big, tough, I-Can-Take-Care-Of-Myself Sam, coming to me for help. He’s terrified, like he’s certain something’s happening tonight.
Obviously, he’s just insane.
“What do you want me to do?!” I snap. I don’t know why I’m mad at him.
“I don’t know, Dakota. I just-”
“Dakota, Sam! What are you doing up this late?!”
I spin around to see Rhonda standing behind me. Sam jumps.
“Nothing,” I say to her.
“Really. Well, I could hear Sam yell from my room with the door shut.”
“I was just getting ready for bed,” I say, as I reach for my bedroom door.
“No, we were talking,” Sam says to her, with an angry look on his face. That’s Sam, taking every opportunity he can to argue with her.
“Well, stop talking and go to bed.”
“No,” he says firmly.
And then he fell.
Luckily, I was looking at him. I could see his eyes go dead a second before he passed out.
“Sam!” I yell as I grab his arm. But he’s heavy. I just flip him over as he falls toward the hard floor. His arm hits first, then his head and back. I’m still holding his one arm. I let go and look at Rhonda, who’s just standing there stupidly with her hands on her mouth and her eyes wide. I look down.
“Sam?” I say, my voice sounding scared and small. “Sam!” I say louder. I bend down and slap his cheeks lightly. I shake him. I yell. I try.
Rhonda stands there like the idiot she is.
Sam moves his head and opens his eyes.
“Sorry, I-I’m just-tired,” he stutters.
“Are you okay?!” I say. Rhonda’s still standing there, and for some reason it annoys the crap out of me.
“Can you do something for once, or just stand there?!” I snap.
“Is he okay?” she whines. He rubs his head and stands up slowly.
“I’m fine!” he yells and stomps into his room.
“But you-” I start, but he slams the door.
I stand there for a second, trying to figure out what the heck just happened.
“Umm, I guess he’s okay, so…I’m going to bed,” Rhonda says, trying to sneak away from anything responsible she might need to do.
“Tsk. Yeah. Because you are so much more important than everything else.” She just rolls her eyes and turns around. She doesn’t even try to argue back.
I stand there for a second more. Should I go in Sam’s room and see what happened? Or just forget about it? I remember what he was saying before Rhonda came out and decide something’s seriously wrong with him.
I push the door open a crack.
“Umm, I- Are you okay?”
He sighs. “I don’t know. Just go to bed. Is Rachael in your bed?” he asks. He cares about her as much as me, though he doesn’t admit it. He always peeks his head in to check on her when he thinks everybody’s asleep.
“Yeah.” He just nods and shuts his eyes.
“Umm, okay,” I say, and turn around to walk out. I shut the door quietly behind me.
I lay down blindly next to Rachael and pull the blanket over us both.
Something is definitely wrong here. I make a mental note to question Sam in the morning, when we’re both awake and not fainting.
But I never get the chance.
When I wake up, he’s not there. Which isn’t a big deal. He usually leaves before I’m up. He walks to the river about a mile in the woods. Rachael and I saw him there once. Until he started yelling at me for taking Rachael out of the house and going into the woods.
But he doesn’t come back.
I make a sandwich for Rachael and one for me. Peanut-butter and jelly. Madison just calls friends and they pick her up. Rhonda makes Maria what she wants.
I hand Rachael the sandwich and sit in the chair next to her.
“Where’s Sam?” she asks. She cares about him almost as she does me.
“I don’t know,” I say, trying to act like I don’t care. “After you eat, do you want to go to the fort?” I ask her the same question everyday, and I always hear the same answer.
“Yes,” she says with a mouthful of sandwich. She shoves the rest in her mouth and stands up. I walk her to our room and grab her a jacket and her pair of mint-green rubber boots. I grab myself a rain jacket, slip on sneakers, and leave.
It’s raining again. The wind is a little colder. Our feet make sloshing sounds as we walk hand-in-hand toward the woods behind the house. Rachael reaches back and puts her hood up with her free hand.
We walk for about five minutes until we reach our destination; the tallest tree in the forest. Here, we have set up a little fort, with branches to keep the rain out. I remember it was sunny out as Rachael and I dug around, looking for the perfect spot to call our own.
Today, though, we barely talk. The rain outside of our hide-out is too loud. I reach in my pocket and pull out an unopened pack of M&M’s, the peanut butter kind is both of our favorite. I bought it at the store down the road that I can walk to in ten minutes. I rip the package open and pour a few in Rachael’s waiting hands. Then, I eat a few myself and put it back in my pocket.
The rain is stopping, and the air feels dead and humid. At least the wind stopped, although I’d take the cold over the heat any day.
“What were they fighting over last night?” I ask her.
“Same thing. Sam got mad and took it out on everyone else. Also, Maria was mad that Madison had more mac-and-cheese than her.” She smirks a little. She thinks they’re ridiculous, too.
I’m about to say something when we hear leaves crack outside. We can’t see out unless we move the wall we made of sticks.
We both freeze, our eyes becoming a little wider. Sticks break closer to us now. I motion for Rachael to be quiet and not to move. I reach in my pocket and pull out my knife that I stole it from my old foster brother who threatened to use it if I didn’t leave.
I slowly slide out of the fort and look around.
A man with a mustache and a serious expression walking parallel to me stops and turns his head. I stay still on the ground, hoping he doesn’t see me. But he does. He starts walking towards me. I stand up, making it look like I was just sitting on the ground. My knife is at my side.
He’s trespassing on our property. My knife is at my side, hidden from his sight.
“Hello,” I say, a touch expression on my face. The toughest one I could form. “Do you realize that you’re trespassing on our property?” I notice he’s wearing a gold badge.
“Ma’am, may I please ask you a quick question?” He ignores my question completely. His voice is raspy.
“Umm, I guess,” I say, uncertain.
“Have you seen or know any of these people?” He’s still walking towards me, and I feel uncomfortable with a stranger this close to Rachael. I start walking towards him. He’s holding a piece of crumpled-up lined paper. Up close, I see that his badge is more of a patch on his shirt. It has a picture of a strange snake-like symbol on it. The man’s face is normal-looking, but something is about looks off, though I don’t know what. I reach for the paper with the hand my knife’s in. He doesn’t even look at it. He has a tiny scar over his right eyebrow.
I examine the patch on his shirt. It is a snake. The tail of the snake is pointed down and resembles a knife by the looks of it.
I realize what’s wrong with his face. His eyes are grey, and his head is down, causing him to look at me from the top of his eyes. Kind of the way Sam looks.
I look down at the paper, but I’m still paying attention to his every move. It’s just a list of twenty-three names, numbered and written in a messy handwriting.
I freeze. My heart starts pumping. I look up at the familiar man slowly, my eyes wide and my mouth half open.
He notices my expression.
“Miss, are you Dakota Riley?”
I barely hear him over my heart, because I remember who he is. Number Two is Sam, and Number Twenty-three is me.