Roland West, Outcast

Prologue

BURN

 

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WITH FISTS CLENCHED AND SWINGING, fear clashing with rage and determination, sixteen-year-old Brice fought her way through the shadows of a nightmare to wakefulness. Her eyes fluttered open to a dark room. Window in the wrong place. Door shut and on the wrong wall.

Oh wait . . . this was her new bedroom. She was safe. She had nothing to worry about. Not like then.

Drenched in sweat and heart pounding, she threw the covers back and sat up, dropping her feet to the carpeted floor.

Sitting hunched, one arm resting on her thigh, she rubbed her face and sucked in a deep breath. The panic of her nightmare continued to course through her veins.

Inhuman hands latched onto her sister and lifted her up, up, up. Desperate to save her, Brice swung at the hands and tried grasping onto her sister’s legs until she could no longer reach her.

“Mom, help!” Brice cried, tearing from one room to another. Not in her bedroom, not in the living room. Strangers lay strewn on the furniture, Mom not among them. “Mom, where are you?” she shrieked in anger.  

Brice shoved a hand into her hair and grunted, pushing the thoughts back as far as she could. She wanted to move on. And she was tired of the interrupted sleep. Tired of being tired. She could relax now. That part of her life was over.

Three breaths later, something moved overhead. A patch of yellow light danced on the ceiling. It streamed in through the gap between curtains, making pictures on the ceiling. Dipping, twisting, leaping. 

The hairs on her arms stood up and a chill shuddered down her spine.

Brice tore to the window and shoved back the curtain.

Flames licked the branches and engulfed the trunk of the sweetgum tree in the front yard. A trail of flame burned the grass, stretching a few feet, maybe yards, from the tree. Dark smoke swirled above it all, disappearing in the blackness of the night.

 

The all-too-familiar sense of emergency surged inside her. Brice raced into the dark hallway and pounded on the Escotts’ bedroom door. “Fire! Get up!”

A thump came from inside the room. And the rustle of blankets. “What’s that? Fire?” scraped Mr. Escott’s low voice, and then louder, “Fire!”

Brice flung open the door to the boys’ bedroom, then the girls’ bedroom. “Get up,” she demanded. Then she took off, thumping down the steps and through the living room. Maybe she’d catch the person who’d done it.

On the back of the couch lay the jacket her foster mother had given her last week, on the first day of school. She grabbed it and opened the front door to a burst of cool, smoky air and the pungent odor of burning leaves and wood. Her gaze snapped to the yellow and orange flames as she staggered barefooted out onto the front porch. A distant siren sounded. A neighbor must’ve called the fire department already. No need to panic. The fire wouldn’t reach the house.

Stuffing her arm into her jacket, she crossed the porch and her foot brushed something soft and cold. A plant?

As her gaze shifted, she took in a scene that made her heart sink. Plants and flowers lay uprooted and strewn in the yard, near the flowerbed, some on the porch. Garbage made a trail from the side of the garage where they kept the cans to the end of the driveway.

Anger rippled through her, tensing every muscle in her body and making her need to do something. But do what? Brice stomped down the porch steps and to the cold, gritty driveway.

She stopped between a plastic milk container and a wet pile of junk mail and scanned the two streets that came off the Escotts’ corner lot. Why would anyone do this to the Escotts? Brice didn’t much like living with a foster family, but these people were nice. They couldn’t have kids of their own, so they’d opened their home to foster children. Like the two little boys and the baby girl who had lived with them for the past year or so. And like her, a last-minute emergency placement.

What could anyone have against them?

A smoky breeze ruffled the loose fabric of Brice’s basketball shorts and made goosebumps pop out on her legs.

The flames grew higher, totally engulfing the tree now.

The front door squeaked. Footfalls on the porch. A pause. “Brice, are you okay?” Mr. Escott pounded down the steps, his eyebrows slanting, his eyes on her. As he neared, he spread his arms as if ready to pull her into a hug or to safety or something.

Brice stiffened and folded her arms across her chest. “I’m fine.”

He stopped four feet away and ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, giving her a sad smile as he likely remembered her request to not be touched or hugged. “Did you see anyone?”

She shook her head.

“Well, I’m glad you’re okay. No one was hurt.” He made a sweeping gaze of the yard. “Who could’ve done this?”

“And how?” she mumbled. The leaves on the old tree had only started to turn. Someone would’ve needed an accelerant to burn it like this.

Staring out at the tree with a hint of sadness in his eyes, he shook his head. “Stay here. I’ll grab the hose.” He disappeared around the side of the house.

The rest of the family spilled through the front door and drew near, Mrs. Escott holding the little girl on her hip and the youngest boy by the hand, everyone wide awake and staring at the burning tree.

Mr. Escott returned a moment later, dragging the hose. “Not sure the hose is long enough. What a mess, huh?”

Mrs. Escott finally snapped out of it and turned to her husband. “I called the fire department, but they already knew. And Mrs. Abelson. She’s invited us over for the rest of the night, at least until we make sure the house is safe.”

“Oh, good.” Mr. Escott reached for Brice again, as if to guide her to the Abelson’s house next door.

Brice stepped back, her jaw tensing. “No, thanks. I’m fine here.”

Two firetrucks rounded the corner at the end of the street, their lights on but sirens now off. A few neighbors had stepped outside and stood watching from their driveways and porches. Others watched from their windows.

The Escotts stared at Brice for a moment, probably not liking her answer, but she was sixteen and they needed to respect her choices. There was no real danger here.

Mr. Escott glanced at the approaching firetrucks and dropped the hose. “That’ll be fine, honey.” He gave his wife a reassuring nod. “Take the little ones over. Brice and I will keep an eye on things here and talk to the firemen.”

Resignation in her expression, Mrs. Escott turned and started across the driveway. Three steps later, she stopped, and her head swiveled to the garage door. She jerked back but then corralled the children past the garage and into the neighboring yard.

Curious, Brice looked to see what had startled Mrs. Escott. Her breath caught, and a shiver ran through her. Suddenly queasy, she stormed away from the garage and into the cool grass of the front yard, moving toward the tree but not intentionally. She wanted to get away from the garage. Away from the vandalism.

Firetrucks pulled up and firemen swarmed onto the scene, way more than the situation warranted. They probably had nothing better to do.

Brice strode past them, ignoring a few questions thrown her way. Mr. Escott would talk to them. Picking up her pace, thumping through the yard while her pulse beat in her ears, she left the flaming tree behind and plunged into the strip of woods at the end of the Escotts’ yard.

Dead leaves crunched under her steps. Twigs poked her bare feet.

Certain no one could see her now, she stopped and flung herself against the rough bark of a thick tree trunk and hid her face with her arm. Deep pain bubbled inside, threatening to erupt. Not ready to release it, Brice turned toward the house and breathed and watched the firemen unwind a hose. And breathed again. Her gaze shifted back to the garage. She could almost read the graffiti from here.

A toxic mix of guilt, anger, disgust, and insecurity assailed her. She allowed one hot tear to escape. But no more.

The vandalism wasn’t done because someone had something against the Escotts. It was done against her.

The hard, ugly words spray painted in big black letters on the garage door proved it. Harsh labels, offensive names Brice had hoped to leave behind her. Who would’ve done it? She now lived over an hour from where she’d grown up. No one knew her here, not really. School had only started a week ago. She’d barely spoken a word to anyone. Who would know anything about her? Or did they simply hate what they thought she was? They judged her based on her appearance. The way she dressed, the way she walked, maybe. They put her into a category. Rejected her. Gave her a label to make sure she knew what she was. What she was and always would be . . .

Brice, the outcast. 

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