This could be fixed. This wasn’t as bad as it could have gone.
What was she supposed to say?
It made her heart hurt. It bothered her, because they were stupid and shortsighted and it threatened to ruin everything.
That, and what they’d done to the food.
She had to calm down. Being upset only made things worse. She was angry, even pissed, but as that feeling faded, a door between her and her stupid-ass idiot parents, it left her with an ugly, all-too-familiar feeling in her middle. That didn’t help either.
“Kenzie,” Victoria said, behind her.
Kenzie turned around. Victoria hung back, near the door of the workshop. Kenzie stood in the middle of everything.
This could be fixed.
“What’s going on?” Victoria asked. She made her voice so gentle, so caring, that it made all the anger and hurt from elsewhere feel worse.
“I can explain.”
“Okay. Before you do, I have to ask… are you okay?” Victoria asked.
Kenzie smiled and nodded.
Victoria was a threat. Not an enemy threat, but a problem and a danger. If she talked to others, said the wrong things, then everything could blow up out of control.
“Are they okay?” Victoria asked. She put a hand on the doorknob, opening the door a crack.
Mom and dad were still at the table. Kenzie saw only a glimpse of them, and her phone burned a hole in her pocket, promising a clearer, more immediate view of them. She was so used to checking, and she had to work to convince herself there wasn’t a need right now.
They weren’t important now that the damage had been done.
She needed to fix the Victoria problem her parents had made, first.
“They’re okay?” Victoria asked, again.
“That’s a really easy question with a hard answer,” Kenzie said.
Victoria didn’t move.
“They’re not going to get hurt or anything, they’re okay like that,” Kenzie elaborated. Her heart was racing. “But um, if I was going to start explaining, I’d start by saying they’re not okay. There was this time, um, I was talking to Jessica and I said they’re bad people. It’s not that they do bad things, because, duh, they do… it’s more that they’re bad at being people. I said that to Mrs. Yamada once and she liked it.”
“Bad at being people how?”
“Stuff’s missing, I guess. Like it is with me, but different stuff. Um-”
Kenzie’s instinct was to reach for something. This could be fixed, but fixing couldn’t happen on its own. Left on their own, things broke down and one problem became a hundred million problems.
Fixing needed tools. She had lots of tools. It was enough that considering the possibilities made her thoughts a mess. What camera? What perspective or images? What data? What combination came together and made everything mostly okay again?
“I’m on your side,” Victoria said. The statement interrupted Kenzie’s thoughts.
“I know,” Kenzie said. “I wouldn’t have invited you over if you weren’t.”
“Would it help to step away? Go for a walk, maybe?”
Kenzie shook her head. Her workshop was hers. Her tools were close by, and it made her feel more secure.
Kenzie jammed her hand into her pocket. Victoria stepped away from the door, toward more open space, like she did any time she wanted to be able to use her wonky forcefield.
She was spooked and weirded out, which was totally, one-hundred percent okay. Kenzie knew as well as anyone that her parents could be spooky and that the whole thing could be weird.
“It’s okay,” Kenzie said. “Nothing bad. It’s cards.”
Kenzie drew the case from her pocket. It had held a chepa sewing kit once, but it was the perfect size to hold three of the memory cards with a foam backing.
“You had that earlier today.”
“Yup,” Kenzie said. She held it out, giving Victoria her best reassuring smile. “Here.”
Victoria took the clear case with the three long cards within. “For the diary?”
“There’s no paint on these.”
“That’s because I know how it all goes,” Kenzie said.
Pencil scratched on paper. Her headphones were on with music playing and the tiny television on the corner of her desk had a show on that was probably meant for older kids. There was violence and fighting, so she tried to not pay attention to it.
“Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…” the music on her headphones pumped, the tune happy and poppy. The girls in her class had been talking about it. She liked most things so she used that sort of thing to decide what she listened to, on the off chance she could talk to them about it.
It was good. Normally she would have sang along to it, but she was distracted.
There was safety in numbers. The pencil scratched on paper, finishing another long division problem. She moved on to the next, because as long as she was doing this, she wasn’t being a pain, and she could mostly ignore the feeling in her belly.
She could smell dinner.
It was harder to not be a pain and stay out of the way when she had to go to the dinner table.
Pencil to paper, tongue pressed between her lips. The seven didn’t go into the one, but it went into the fourteen… she counted, eyes going to the ceiling. Her head bobbed with the sound of the music, even though she wasn’t paying attention to the words.
Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. The seven went into fourteen twice.
The door to her room opened. Dad leaned in and said something, and she hurried to pull her headphones down, hands wrapped around them, with fingers covering the parts where the sound came out.
Dad looked annoyed.
“Dinner is in a few minutes,” he said.
“You’re doing homework?”
She nodded again.
He stepped into the room, and she looked down, sliding the book across her desk.
“Division. Do I need to check your work?”
She shook her head.
“Speak up, Kanzi. You have a voice. Use it.”
“No. I did today’s homework already. I was doing some work from later in the book.”
“Wash your hands and get ready for dinner.”
He went back toward the kitchen, and his movement was marked by a waft of cigarette smoke, pungent. It smelled better than dinner.
More bad feelings squirmed through her belly.
She tore the notebook paper out of the pad, then popped open her binder, slotting it in at the end. It was easier to stay in her room and be quiet, and better still if she was doing homework, because it was hard for anyone to complain about her doing her homework. There wasn’t enough work to do to fill whole afternoons after school and before bed, so she’d started to work ahead. A lot of it was dull or confusing, but after a while, she’d started to make a game of it. It was her hope that she could finish the entire third grade math textbook before Christmas.
Binder closed. Books put away in her bag for school tomorrow. She turned her music and television off, then turned off the light in her room.
The bathroom was empty, the coast clear. She closed and locked the door, then got one of the metal wicker baskets from the shelf, moving the hand towels inside to the edge of the counter before putting the basket down upside-down on the bathroom floor. It worked like a stepping stool, giving her the height she needed to reach the taps, which was harder to do since the new counter and sink mom and dad had put in.
Sleeves pushed up, hands thoroughly washed and dried, sleeves rolled down. Towels went back in the basket, which was dusted off before it went back on the shelf.
Then, because she was looking for reasons to delay sitting down to dinner, she gave the bathroom what mom called a once-over. She saw the glint of drops of water on the counter, hurried over to the basket to get one of the hand towels, and dabbed them up before folding the towel back up and putting it in the basket.
Her nose wrinkled as she walked down the hall, past the kitchen, and through the corner of the living room to the dining room. She made sure nobody saw.
The table was one that could seat six, mom had been proud of that when she picked it. It was old and gleaming and nice, but there were only three of them for the very big table. Her dad had chair at one end, her mom had a chair at the other, and she had a chair in the middle, each of them off to either side, where she had to turn her head to see them. She took her seat, fingers clutching the end of her skirt, toying with the pleat.
“Creamy Parmesan Chicken Gratin,” her mom announced, as she set down the plate.
Despite her best efforts, Kanzi couldn’t keep her nose from scrunching up as she gave the dish her best dubious look. It looked like vomit with a crust on top.
It smelled like vomit with a crust on top.
She stared down at it while mom set down the plates for dad and then herself, before returning to the kitchen to get something.
“Eat,” dad said.
She got her knife and fork and held each clenched in one fist, waiting until her mom returned.
“Eat while it’s hot,” her mom said, before sitting down. She began to pour drinks, while Kanzi set to working on her dinner.
It was like when nachos were overcooked in the microwave, and the cheese boiled and got super hard. The difference was that she still wanted the nachos when they were overdone. The dinner knife refused to cut the hard crust. Pressing down on the hard portion made the runny goop in the middle ooze out onto the plate right in front of her chin, and the smell was worse.
Her dad was having trouble cutting up the food too. She opened her mouth to say something, and between the smell and the feeling that had been worming through her belly for the past hour, a barfy feeling surged up. She stopped herself before it became actual leaving-the-mouth barf.
“Hurk,” she couldn’t stop herself from making the sound.
Her mom’s chair scraped on the floor. Kanzi’s shoulders drew forward her head down, while she tried to breathe as little as possible.
“I worked really hard on dinner,” her mom said. One hand rested on the back of Kanzi’s chair, the other on the table by her plate.
“Just eat, Kanzi,” her dad said. “You don’t have to eat it all, but eat.”
“I would like her to eat it all,” her mother said. “I slaved away in the kitchen for hours, with the expectation that my daughter would appreciate my work.”
Kanzi gripped her utensils. She made a renewed effort to cut her food. Her knife slipped and scraped against the plate, producing a screech. She was startled enough that she dropped the utensils. The knife clattered to the plate, while her fork fell, clattering to the floor.
“There’s no gratitude.”
“I’m sorry,” Kanzi told her mom.
“We give you everything. Nice clothes, nice food, a hairstylist, a nice big house, and there’s no appreciation.”
She looked to her dad for help.
“Listen to your mom. We need you to try harder when it comes to these things.”
She moved her chair back, so she could go down and get her fork off the ground. Her mom reversed the course, pushing the chair in, hard.
“Where are you going? What did your dad just say, Kanzi?”
“He told you you need to try and your first thought was to get up from the table?”
She’d wanted to get her fork. That was all.
She was cornered. There was nothing she could say or do when mom got like this. She could only try to listen.
“Eat the dinner I made for you,” her mom said, and her tone was dangerous.
She didn’t have a fork to eat with. She couldn’t cut it, and she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to eat it if she did cut it.
Her mom’s hand found the back of her neck. Her face was pushed down onto the plate, into the creamy chicken whatever.
“We said we wouldn’t discipline her physically, Irene.”
Her grip tightened at the back of Kanzi’s neck. “What do you want me to do, Julien? It wasn’t a cheap or easy dinner to put together.”
“I know,” he said.
Kanzi’s shoulders drew further together, and she huffed out a breath, the breath forming a briefly-lived trough in the runny cream at the bottom of the plate.
“My mother never cooked for me,” mom said. “I had an au pair. I would have loved- loved- for my mom to put in that effort!”
With the second utterance of ‘loved’, her hand moved, moving Kanzi’s face with it. The movement brought face against the raised lip of the plate, making the far end of the plate come up. Food moved.
Another movement, face sliding against slick plate, another push against the lip at the edge of the plate, bringing the other end up.
This time, though, it came down sharply, striking the table. It cracked, and Kanzi felt a shock of pain at one side of her face.
Her mom released her.
“I can’t. I just can’t! I can’t!” her mother proclaimed.
“It’s fine. Plates can be replaced. If she doesn’t want to eat it hot she can eat it cold.”
“I didn’t work hard at it with the idea it would be eaten cold, Julien! What’s the point of introducing our daughter to a variety of cuisines if she’s going to throw it back in our faces like this?”
Kanzi’s face hurt. She pulled her face away from the broken plate, and looked down in bewilderment, because the dish had changed. It wasn’t just the fact that the plate had broken and the placemat below was visible. The dish had been a beige-yellow-brown before and now there was a shock of crimson running through it.
“Oh my god, Julien,” her mother said. “She’s bleeding all over the table.”
Kanzi flinched as her dad’s chair scraped. Her mom flopped down into her chair while her dad approached. With a brusque movement, he turned her face up so he could see. With her napkin, he wiped away what she figured was the worst of the vomit-food. The napkin was crimson when he pulled it away, which made her heart leap in her chest.
She’d never bled before. She’d been grabbed hard enough that she’d had bruises, but mostly it had been shouting.
“Take care of it,” her mom said.
“Just seeing how deep the cut is.”
Kanzi’s mother started trying to cut the food on her own plate. She gave up, throwing knife and fork down with enough force that they traveled a third of the way down the table. “If you’re going to do that, don’t do it at the dinner table.”
“Press your hand down there,” he said, moving her hand into place. Kanzi did, and felt the sting of pain at her cheekbone.
His hand was firm, grabbing Kanzi by the arm, taking her into the living room, down the hallway, and into the bathroom.
“I don’t know, Julien,” her mother said, from the hallway. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do.”
“I don’t know about you,” he said, voice pitched to be heard, “But her antics and this mess has caused me to thoroughly lose my appetite.”
“Yes,” Kanzi’s mother said.
“Let’s step away. I’ll take you to Screwball, we’ll have burgers and shake, like way back when.”
Kanzi’s eyes widened. Screwball was a place with the best burgers. They had ice cream floats that were Kanzi’s favorite thing.
“And you’ll stay,” he said, his voice quiet, just for Kanzi, and stern.
She felt a kind of outrage well in her chest at that. Stay?
“You’ll only agitate her if you’re there, and you really, really could have done better tonight.”
The outrage faded to about half of what it had been, mixed with confused, choked guilt.
“Keep that there,” he said, pressing a wad of white bandage down to the part that hurt. “Hold it until the bleeding stops. Then I want you to clean up and put yourself to bed.”
She didn’t dare reply. Her heart was pounding, the bright crimson of blood she kept seeing in places startled her in a way that stabbed right to the middle of her heart, and tonight felt like one of those nights where there was nothing she could do that was right.
She only nodded.
Julien huffed out a sigh, going back to the hallway.
Kanzi remained where she was, seated on the lid of the toilet, a bandage pressed to her cheekbone. Still, inoffensive, quiet, up until the door slammed.
If they came back to mess, they might get mad.
One hand pressed to the bandage, she started to clean up. The smell of dinner still made her want to hurl, as she cleaned up the plate and began to clear the table, so she grabbed one of the towels from by the oven, holding it so it pressed against the bandage and covered her nose and mouth, keeping the smell from being so strong.
It was slow, with one hand keeping the bandage and towel in place, but she cleared the table. All the food went together, and she put it in tupperware, before putting the tupperware in the fridge. She cleaned up the pots and bowls as best as she could with everything stuck on.
The sound of a car outside made her stop, frozen in worry.
Not them. She carried on. Everything put away, but the sink was hard to clean things. She took things to the bathroom, so she could use the bath and shower spray on really hot. It worked, even though it meant a lot of trips.
Everything she washed went on the drying rack. More things went away, as best as she could figure. She’d had to do this before, though it hadn’t been quite this messy or even a hundred millionth as smelly.
On one of her trips, she stopped, and she stared down at the trail of dots on the floor. She checked, and saw that even with the towel and bandage pressed down, the blood had run down her arm to her elbow, dripping off the point. There was some on her clothes.
The blood was scary- almost worse to have to face than the dinner.
She made herself fix it. Wet towels from the basket in the bathroom. The blood didn’t get soaked up so much as it streaked, and more kept dripping down. She used a new towel to stop it.
It was a feeling like drowning. First being cornered, now drowning.
She cleaned everything up as best as she could, her heart pounding, head swimming, and then went to her room to get herself ready for bed.
She changed into the pyjamas with the ducks, brushed her hair twenty times on each side with the brush, and retreated to bed, every light off, covers pulled tight around her.
The house was quiet. The only sounds were inexplicable creaks and grunts from the house itself, a drip of water from one of the sinks.
Her heart wouldn’t stop pounding. Her face wouldn’t stop hurting, even as she pressed the towel hard against it.
Sleep wasn’t a possibility. Her normal bedtime was nine, and it was only eight, according to the clock on the wall. She watched the hands of the clock.
When the clock was close to nine, she heard another car. She tensed.
This car pulled into the driveway. It was them.
Her heartbeat raced. She pulled tight at the covers, paralyzed, and closed her eyes. If she pretended to be asleep-
Her mother’s voice was faint. Something about the mess on the floors.
The volume rose, as if one thing after another was being found, each making things worse. Each made her draw tighter and tighter into herself.
“The towels!” her mother’s voice wasn’t that far way. The bathroom was only a few steps from Kanzi’s bedroom door.
The door opened, and her dad was there, and as she squinted, pretending that her eyes were closed, he didn’t even look normal. His face was cold and scary as he marched toward her.
He grabbed her by the arm, hard enough it would bruise, and hauled her out of bed, out of the bed that was sleepless but warm and safe, into the hallway, the noise, and madness.
Kenzie looked between the still scene and Victoria.
“That’s them,” she said. “I might have gotten some details wrong.”
“I’m so sorry you had to deal with that,” Victoria said.
“Isn’t it funny?” Kenzie asked. She smiled. “We’re supposed to get powers when stuff like that happens, but I couldn’t even get that right.”
“You did nothing wrong. You didn’t deserve any of that,” Victoria said.
Kenzie shook her head. “I guess not. Not all of it.”
“Do the others know about this? You’ve told Mrs. Yamada?”
Kenzie drew in a breath, then sighed. “Yes and no.”
“What’s yes and what’s no?”
“They know what my parents were like. They haven’t seen these diary dioramas, you’re the first. But I’ve told them the stories. Ashley started being nice to me, after I did. I did tell them that things are better now, because I have powers and my parents are scared. Which I guess is true.”
“I feel like you’re telling people a lot of things that are only technically true.”
“Real truths are hard if they’re all-the-time truths,” Kenzie said. “Sometimes it’s nice to pretend things are better than they are, you know?”
“Yeah. I know.”
Kenzie hesitated, then she reached up to her hairpin, with the hearts. “I haven’t shown anyone this except Mrs. Yamada, and a few others who had to see because of circumstances.”
She double-tapped the hairpin. There was a faint tingle as things shifted. The projection at her face dropped away.
Victoria approached, bending down. “Kenzie-”
“-Really truly, I hope you don’t mind my saying it, but the scar is barely visible.”
The projection was down. The hairpins had one job, to cast a projection on one area of Kenzie’s face. Her hand moved up to her cheekbone, and found the groove. It was about an inch long.
“I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t shown me,” Victoria said.
“I notice,” Kenzie said.
“Okay. You do what you have to do, but I want you to know I don’t think that’s bad at all.”
Kenzie fidgeted, messing with the remote control.
“Before, when the power was cut off to your devices, you told me there wasn’t anything.”
“I looked over my shoulder so you only saw half my face. I didn’t want you to see it and think differently of me.”
“I know that now. I didn’t know for sure then.”
“Okay,” Victoria said. She paused. “What happened between then and now, with your parents? Can I ask?”
“A lot happened,” Kenzie said. “Can I show you? It’s a lot extra.”
“You can show me.”
Kenzie fidgeted with the remote, before switching the diary diorama to the next scene over.
The boys kept talking to each other, looking her way and laughing.
Twice now, they’d sent someone over to talk to her and ask her questions. The first time, she’d ignored it. The second, she’d given a fake answer, but the fake answer only seemed to egg them on.
Lunch was almost over, and she wasn’t sure what to do. So many other kids acted like school sucked, oh, school was awful. Even the television shows acted that way. But it wasn’t. School was nice.
Except when the boys were bothering her.
Oh, no. Janesha was talking to the boys now, and where Janesha went, other girls followed.
It sucked because Janesha was super stylish with new clothes every week, and Emily was really, really pretty with super black skin- not just brown, but so black it looked unreal. She mixed it up with electric blue braces, and her mom let her wear makeup, and she always looked freaking amazing, even though her clothes weren’t all that.
Kanzi would have liked to be their friends, but instead they were hanging over there with the boys, looking over at her every once in a while and laughing.
She was really tired, her face still hurt when she touched it, her arm hurt where her dad had grabbed her, and she was hungry because neither her mom or her dad had made her breakfast before sending her to school. They were still mad at her.
She wanted it all to be over with and she didn’t want it to be over, because once the school day was over she had to go back home.
It was Emily’s little sister that the group sent over.
“Kenzie, right?” the little girl asked. She was barely out of kindergarten, and she had beads in bright primary colors worked into her hair at regular intervals.
Kenzie nodded. “And you’re Lizzie?”
“Liz. Um. What happened to your face?”
Kanzi forced a smile onto her face. “A bear.”
The little girl looked skeptical. “A bear?”
“My mom and dad told me to go put the garbage out, and I did, and there was a bear on the street, going through trash cans. Bam, slash, it got me. I ran and went inside.”
“You told Leon it was an axe murderer.”
“Because I didn’t think he’d believe me about the bear.”
“There aren’t any bears in the city, though.”
“Exactly,” Kenzie said.
The little girl looked confused. She turned to go report to the others.
“Liz,” Kanzi said. “I really like your hair.”
Liz gave her a weird look.
“You and your sister are always super stylish and cool. I wanted to let you know that.”
Liz had been walking, but now she ran back to the others.
Today sucked. It really, really sucked.
The teacher called for everyone to go in for afternoon classes before Liz made it back to the group. Kenzie joined the crowd that was re-entering the building.
Liz reached the others, and there was a pause.
Then laughs. There were a lot of things Kanzi couldn’t seem to figure out, like making friends, or how to deal with her mom, or even why saying something nice could lead to her being called weird, but she got this, at least. She could tell the difference between people laughing at her, instead of with her.
Her hand went up to her cheekbone, covering the rectangle of bandage there, and she ducked her head down, walking along the wall so nobody was walking to her left.
She’d gone the entire morning without any teachers noticing, but her behavior as she made her way into the classroom had Mrs. Johnson notice. Before she could duck into the classroom, a finger tapped her on the head a few times, before pointing.
She waited in the hall.
“Everyone settle down! I’ll be with you in a moment!” Mrs. Johnson ordered.
The door shut.
“Kanzi, honey,” Mrs. Johnson said. “What happened to your face?”
It was the fourth time she’d been asked. She tried to find the words, like the jokes she’d told the other kids. She tried to find the white lies she’d had to come up with when she’d had the bruises or when she’d been super tired and cranky, or when she’d had homework she hadn’t done despite being a super good student, because she hadn’t had the chance at home.
It didn’t even have to be a convincing lie. She could tell the teacher anything, even the bear story, and because the teachers didn’t care enough to press her, they had other kids to look after. They’d accept it and go on with their day. Then she could go on with her day, and things would keep on being normal.
Even the axe murderer story would work.
She could probably even make up an even sillier story. A silly animal, like an elephant. And a funny weapon, like a… lawn dart. She could tell Mrs. Johnson and laugh, and Mrs. Johnson would roll her eyes and take her back into class with a smile on her face.
All words failed Kanzi, and she broke into tears instead.
The chair was too big for her, and the blanket was scratchy. It was the wooly sort that could be used to scrub dishes, warm but not nice. Someone had given her their jacket, earlier, a shiny badge on the front breast, and it bunched up in an awkward way behind her. She would have sat forward to try and rearrange it or fix it, but then the blanket on her lap might have fallen to the ground.
She’d talked about a lot of things, sometimes telling the same story over and over again, until she’d gotten annoyed with how forgetful they pretended to be. Then she’d gotten to the point where she had started to doze off, and they’d left her alone. The problem was, she’d started to doze but she hadn’t made it all the way there. Now she was just tired and half-asleep without really being able to be full asleep.
Adults milled around her, and every time someone showed up, she was nervous it would be one of her parents, and that she would be in trouble.
When the superhero showed up, she thought it was a dream, because she was half asleep and it was a man with wings built into his blue and red costume, connecting wrist to ankle. He had a weird cape thing, too, and a mask with a headband built in.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she responded.
“Can I sit?” he asked.
She nodded with a fierce sharpness.
He took the seat next to her. She shifted position, grimaced, and he seemed to notice. He helped with the bump at the small of her back, and then he took the blanket, refolding it, draping it across her lap in a way so most of it wasn’t on the ground.
“Snack?” he offered. He produced an assortment that were probably from the vending machine.
She touched and then took the bag of chocolate covered pretzels.
“I’m Aerobat,” he said.
“I’m Kanzi.” She opened the bag.
“You know, superheroes like me go out in costume every night. A big part of what we do is try to help people in trouble. So as part of that, we’ll visit police stations like this or we’ll go to hospitals.”
“I’m not that important,” she said.
“You never know,” he replied. “Can I try one?”
She held the bag out for him. He took a chocolate covered pretzel.
“Mm, that’s good,” he said.
She took one herself, tried it, and nodded. “Very good. Thank you.”
“Part of what we do when we reach out to people who need help is we try to let them know that if they ever need help, they can call us. Especially if it’s because of powers or weirdness.”
He had a resealable baggie. Inside, there was a business card with a propeller icon, like the one on Aerobat’s chest, there was a sheet of stickers, temporary tattoos, a white pen with a logo on it, and a trading card.
She held it against her chest with both hands.
“The other thing we try to do,” he said, “Is we ask people if there’s anything we can do to help. Is there anything you need, Kanzi?”
She had to think about it.
“Could I have a hug?” she asked.
“Oh, kid,” Aerobat said. “I would really love to give you one, but there’s a whole thing going on elsewhere, and we’re being told to limit physical contact until it blows over.”
He hesitated before venturing, “What do you say I hold your hand, instead?”
She nodded again.
His hand was huge and warm. There was a bit of gravel in the fabric somehow, but he didn’t seem to notice. It dug into her finger a bit, but she didn’t want to point it out, in case the guy let go and left.
A little while passed before a woman approached. She was white, short, and not especially thin.
“Hi, Mrs. Yaris.”
“June’s a friend,” Aerobat said. “It’s her job to make sure you’re safe and happy. You and a lot of other kids. She’s gotten good at it.”
“I wish,” Mrs. Yaris said. Her tone softened as she looked at Kanzi. “I manage.”
“I don’t really get it,” Kanzi said.
“What do you think happens next?”
Kanzi shrugged. “The police had a lot of questions for me. I think my parents are going to get a ticket, like when my dad speeds, then I’ll go back.”
“Part of what I do, Kanzi, is I make sure that the young people assigned to me are comfortable and safe. When we don’t know for sure if the situation is a good one, we temporarily assign people to homes.”
Kanzi digested that.
“What do you think?” Aerobat asked.
“Please,” Kanzi said, barely audible.
“Her teachers sing her praises, she hasn’t been in any trouble, and her grades are stellar.”
Mrs. Yaris was doing most of the talking. Kanzi hid behind the woman, looking up at the men.
One was bearded, thick black hair in a topknot. His chest was barrel-shaped, with the hooded t-shirt he wore straining across it. A tattoo, black ink on black skin, was only barely visible. Letters. She only saw ‘wall’ at the end.
The other man was skinny, with a button-up shirt done up all the way. He had a receding hairline, a line of beard going from lower lip to chin, and lips that didn’t quite meet, just a bit of teeth showing when his expression was normal.
“Kanzi,” Mrs. Yaris said. “This is Keith and Antonio.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Kanzi said.
“Go on in. Make yourself at home,” Mrs. Yaris said. “Keith, Antonio, you have my number. It’s emergencies only, or else my phone would be ringing off the hook.”
“We have your number, we have the number for child services, the hospital, if we need it, we should have everything,” the big guy said.
“I know this wasn’t quite the timeframe you were hoping for.”
“I’ll manage,” the skinny guy said. “Thank you for everything.”
Kanzi was wide eyed as the adults carried the bags. There were three big black garbage bags with her stuff inside. Clothes, old school stuff, projects, and art she liked. She had her toothbrush and all the other bathroom stuff.
The house was smaller than hers, but it was nice enough. The outside walls were plastic and the plastic had been bent back in one place, and the garden was a bit messy, but there weren’t any super-major issues.
On the fridge was a grid that looked kind of like a Calendar, but there were three rows of about ten spaces. A pocket on the bottom had a bunch of laminated symbols and faces inside.
She picked out one. It was an angry face, like the sort that sometimes appeared on phones, red faced with flame rising around it.
“That,” the big guy said, “Is our mood tracker. It’s to help us figure out how the others are doing. I can reach in and I can take… let me find it. Here we are. Excited. And I put it by my name up top.”
The big guy was Keith, then.
The other guy was talking to Mrs. Yaris.
Kanzi fished around in the pocket. She found one with ‘z’s floating around its head.
Tired. She was tired, after everything.
“Perfect,” Keith said. “Maybe we’ll do something easy and simple tonight, and if you’re tired you can go rest. That way you being tired won’t be so much of a problem. See how it works?”
“Anything you need, you can talk to us, okay? Antonio is busy with a project for work, so he’ll have days he has to focus on that, but outside of those times, we’re here to help you.”
“Okay,” she said. “What do I do, then?”
“You… do your best at school, and you’ll help out here and there around the house. We have a chore wheel, by the mood chart here, see? Every day we’ll turn it one notch clockwise, and everyone has a new different chore by their name.”
“Goodbye, Keith!” Mrs. Yaris called out.
“Goodbye!” Keith boomed out the reply. He was loud in a way only big people could be, and he smiled as he lowered his hand from the wave.
Antonio returned. “Do you want to see your room?”
It was a room. The garbage bags went onto the end of the bed, and aside from them, there wasn’t much at all.
“We were thinking,” Keith said. “Sometime today or in the next few days, we could go shopping. You can buy whatever decorations you want for your room, even paint, and we’ll make this space yours.”
“I’d like something for the fridge and living room too,” Antonio said.
“Ooh, good idea,” Keith said. He looked like some of the boys in class when they were excited over a favorite game, but he was being really nice about things.
“I might not be here for long,” she said. “If my parents get out of trouble, I might go straight back to them. Maybe you shouldn’t buy me things.”
“It’s worth it,” Keith said. “Anything that helps, anything you need, just let us know.”
She could tell. Mrs. Yaris had told them something.
It wouldn’t be that her parents were getting out of trouble anytime soon. If it was, she wouldn’t be put here like this and these two men wouldn’t be talking about things so far in the future.
It would be a while before she saw her parents again? If she saw her parents again?
A light, fluttery feeling settled in her chest, and she almost didn’t recognize it. She wasn’t sure there would be a smiley sticker in the pouch to represent it.
A careful, uneasy relief.
She was worried, fidgeting.
The shopping bags were unloaded. She’d carried a big one. Keith was the chef, but Antonio had managed the shopping list. He was bossy but Keith seemed to like it so that was okay. He wasn’t nearly as bossy with her and that was one hundred percent okay with her.
Cheeses and vegetables and fruits and meats.
“Do you want to help?” Keith asked her.
“Here, take this, put it in that cabinet over there.”
She did. Onions, in the lower cabinet by the fridge.
“Give this to Anton-”
Meat, taken to Anton. Anton put some in the fridge and some in the freezer.
She wrung her hands together.
“Did your hands get sticky?”
She shook her head.
“Can you put this cereal in that cabinet over there?” Keith asked. “Excellent. We’re getting this done lightning fast.”
She resumed wringing her hands. She fetched a few more things, and then came face to face with Keith, who was kneeling on the floor.
“Antonio,” Keith said. “Can you hand me the mood tracker?”
Antonio pulled the thing from the fridge; grid and pouch and all.
“The day before yesterday, you seemed upset. Then we went out to eat, and everything was good, wasn’t it?”
“The day after, we had spaghetti, and you were quiet. We watched a movie, which you seemed to like.”
“And today, it feels similar. You’re quiet and you’re bothered.”
“You don’t have to say what, but maybe if you dug around in this pouch, you could find a good face to represent the feeling you’re dealing with right now.”
She hesitated. Then she dug. She found the face- one of the ones she had almost convinced herself she wouldn’t ever use. It was an ordinary face, coffee brown, with a blue tint around the top that faded away by the halfway point. Sweat drops, eyes open wide with no pupils, and two tiny hands at the sides pulling at the cheeks.
She saw the looks on their faces, and she regretted her choice. Concern and something bigger. Something that made them pull away.
“Thank you for letting us know,” Keith said. “It’s usually around dinner, huh?”
She shrugged. “Usually. Dinner was always a big thing.”
“Well, we can’t eat out all the time, you know,” Keith said.
“I know. My mom always suspected people of spitting in her food, if she didn’t make it herself or see it being made.”
“I don’t think that happens very often,” Keith said. “I wouldn’t worry about it. But this stresses you out big time, huh?”
“What if,” Keith said, “You decide dinner?”
“Isn’t that more stress, having to make choices?” Antonio asked.
“We’ll have something that is almost always delicious, that we can’t do wrong,” Keith said. “We have the ingredients for cast iron pizza, right?”
“We do,” Antonio said.
“We have pepperoni, we have peppers, we have mushrooms, ham, chicken, pickles, and everything under the sun,” Keith said. “What do you say, Kanzi? You can decide what we put on the pizza, we’ll make it as crispy or as soft as you want, you tell us what to do and we’ll do it.”
She smiled. “You bought chocolate sprinkles and chocolate sauce.”
“I think we could try that,” Keith said.
“I think we should eat something healthy,” Antonio said.
Keith stood, crossing over to the fridge where Antonio was. He wrapped his big arms around the skinny man’s body. “One tiny pizza, with chocolate sprinkles, chocolate sauce… marshmallows?”
“Yes,” Kanzi said, very seriously. “Definitely.”
“As a treat, for after the pizzas with healthier ingredients,” Keith said, his face an inch from Antonio’s.
“Deal,” Antonio said.
Keith gave Antonio a kiss. Kanzi smiled.
“Let’s get everything put away, and then we’ll start experimenting,” Keith said. “Can you put the mood chart back up on the fridge, and then I’ll give you the dairy to give to Antonio so he can put it in the fridge.”
The chart went back up on the fridge, and the spaces were empty, because the magnets hadn’t been holding them up.
She saw Keith looking at her out of the corner of her eye, and reached into the pouch to pick a smiling face.
She didn’t feel a hundred percent of the way back to smiling, but she kept that picture of a smile, putting it on the chart.
Keith tried to hide it from her, but she saw the clenched fist, the happy little fist-pump, before Antonio gave him a hug and blocked her view.
A gentle shaking stirred her from her sleep. Her eyes popped open.
“Oh hey,” Antonio said. He stood over her bed. Her bedspread had the space opera pattern they’d picked out while shopping two months into her stay. A lava lamp in the corner was casting out illuminated shadows across the room.
Keith slept in her bed, the book he’d been reading before dozing off dangling from the one finger that was wedged in between pages. Kanzi had dozed off after Keith, and now lay in bed, her head on his arm.
“I wanted to wake up my husband, so I could bring him to bed. He sleeps like a log, doesn’t he?”
Kanzi nodded. She smiled.
“I woke you up before I woke him, I’m sorry,” Antonio said.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been around quite as much,” Antonio said. “I got promoted a year ago and I’m still trying to get up to speed with my peers.”
“I don’t mind. I’m figuring out a lot of things too.”
“Neither of us have any experience being parents. Keith at least has some experience babysitting. I hope we’re doing okay.”
“You’re doing perfect,” she said.
“I don’t think we are, but I’m really happy you think so. If you need anything at all, I hope you’ll tell us. We want to do right by you.”
How could she even tell him? Just the fact that he said that was so super duper important.
“I need something,” she said. “Two somethings.”
“I don’t want to be Kanzi. I’m so tired of people getting it wrong.”
“That’s… a really complicated thing, actually,” he said. “There are rules. Things as simple as you getting a haircut get really complicated when we have to check a lot of the time.”
“Because I’m not yours.”
“Because-” he started. “I don’t know. But it’s eleven at night and I’ve been up since five. We could discuss that another time.”
“Okay,” she said.
“I’ll ask in the meantime, make sure it’s okay. What’s the other thing?”
“Can you not take him away? Please?”
Keith slept in a slumped over way, his ass on the bed, his feet on the ground, his back and head against the headboard and pillows. His arm had a faint mark where her face had smushed up against it. Antonio reached over to touch Keith’s face.
“Please,” she said. “Please please please?”
“I’ll compromise with you. Fifteen minutes. I’ll come back and I’ll take him to bed. If he sleeps like this, he’ll have a bad back in the morning, and then he won’t be able to do anything with you.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
Antonio reached over to give her a pat on the head.
He left, dimming the lights on the way out, so the lava lamp was the only light source, and left the door ajar.
She’d never felt so relaxed and safe as she did right this moment, but the fact she felt so okay worried her. An inexplicable, terrible fear welled up inside her, worse than the ‘dread’ smiley that only ever went up on the fridge as a joke, when it was Antonio’s turn to cook.
The more she loved these moments, the more afraid she was of losing these moments. The love was uneasy, tentative, like a baby horse taking its wobbly first steps, gradually getting better at it. The fear was a feeling like someone had a big fat crayon inside her, scribbling madly, defying the lines the color was supposed to go inside, except it wasn’t color. Just… black.
She let her head rest against Keith’s arm.
“He doesn’t have a face,” Victoria remarked.
The still image of Keith lounging against the bed, the children’s book precariously at one fingertip, was incomplete, the face left unrendered. Everything else was as realistic as anything, from backhair to cuticles to pores. The face was an artist’s palette, a mixture of colors in vague patches, not the artist’s canvas.
“No,” Kenzie said.
“Because,” Kenzie said. “He asked me not to.”
“We’re the worst foster parents.”
Kenzie mouthed the word ‘no!’, silent, her eyebrows drawing together in anger.
They liked to sit on the swing near the barbecue. If she situated herself right in her room, then she could eavesdrop. It was nice, a lot of the time, because it meant she could hear them being goofy with each other, or if they were stressed out about money she could avoid asking for things.
“We’re terrible,” Antonio agreed. “You in particular.”
Kenzie, upstairs, shook her head.
“I admit it. I’m far, far worse than you. You at least had the decency to be a workaholic.”
“I’m not a workaholic, Keith.”
There were murmurs, then laughter between the two.
Concerned, Kenzie sat by her window, knees drawn up to her chest, remaining silent.
“I’m too fond of that girl. She’s wickedly smart, determined, everyone remarks about how she’s as cute as a button, and she reads for fun. If I could get you pregnant-”
“You’re trying your hardest.”
“-Ha ha. I’m serious. I’d want a kid like her. I’d be the embarrassingly proud dad if my kid was half as great as she is. I am psyched to wake up every day and spend time with you two. I want to do that more.”
“Keith, you can’t.”
“We can talk to people about options. They haven’t mentioned the bio parents much, but they were incarcerated, and it seems like some bad stuff went down. We could figure out what the requirements might be, make sure we’ve crossed our ‘Q’s and dotted our ‘i’s, right? We’d be the absolute worst foster parents if we took the first foster child to pass through our doors and then half a year later, started asking about adopting them.”
“The absolute, unequivocal worst.”
Kenzie’s eyes were wide.
She had no idea what she was supposed to do with this feeling, but she knew she had to do something.
“Ahem,” she said.
The teenagers continued talking. Her attention was on the one at the end of the bench who was alone and silent.
“What?” the teenager asked. He turned his head and gave her a once over. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Remember when the grade nines spent time with the grade threes, and the grade fours were with the grade tens, and so on?”
He turned his head her way and gave her a deeply aggrieved look.
“The buddy you were assigned told me that you’re really good with computers.”
“I’m okay. Why?”
“I need help with my phone.”
“Fuck off,” he said.
“I’ll do anything,” she said.
He looked at her. “You’re too young to be useful to anyone.”
“I’ll give you my lunch money.”
“How much?” he asked.
She fished in her pocket, counting change.
“That’s not going to do it,” he said.
“I get a dollar and twenty five cents every weekday except pizza day Wednesdays, where I get two dollars and fifty cents. I can give you some money every day until we’re square.”
“Twenty bucks, and it can’t take any longer than this lunch period to do.”
She nodded fiercely.
“Come on. Library,” he said.
They left the schoolyard and entered the school building, hanging a right until they were in the library. The library was one big room, and it had windows that overlooked the very spot where they’d just had their conversation.
He plunked himself down in front of the computer. “Phone?”
She handed over her phone.
“And what do you need done?” he asked.
“I need it so I can search the web.”
She watched as he clicked the icon. The internet browser didn’t turn up internet, but instead it was a page with a talking car, suggesting some safe, pre-vetted search terms.
“You got helicoptered,” the guy said.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“They’ve got a program running on your phone. Controls the internet, messaging, contact lists, it also transmits your location, so they know where you are at every second.”
“Okay, that’s fine, but I want to be able to search the web and look for stuff.”
“You’re a little young for porn.”
“Eww. No, no interest, thank you mister. Not that.”
He turned his head to look at the clock. “I can give you a fix. It’s going to require that you change your background.”
“I like my background.”
“Look,” he said. “Here’s my fast, quick, and dirty solution. We change the background to blue and gray. We install a web browser obscure enough that these programs don’t know to control what you see… and downloads are also blocked.”
“Yep,” she said.
“File transfers usually aren’t,” he said. “Let’s try downloading onto the school computer… then using my cable, we move one file…”
It took a minute.
“There. You have a browser now. Do they check your phone?”
“All the time. They pay a lot of attention to what I watch, what I listen to, what I’m searching for online…”
“That’s horrifying,” the teenager said.
“It’s great, because they care.”
“If they check, we have to be careful. What we do here is make it so the circles behind every icon are dark gray. Then with our freshly web surfing program, we click, hold… and we get options. We give it a custom icon, the space invader pixel monster, and we change the color to dark gray.”
She watched as the icon changed from a folder online to an old game sprite. The sprite became invisible against the background provided.
“Click that space and the web browser will pop up,” he said.
She bounced on the spot, before giving him a hug.
“Okay, fuck off. And give me my money.”
She forked over the money for the day.
She had the access she’d wanted. A world of information now at her fingertips. She went straight to the bathroom, taking a seat on the toilet, so she had some privacy.
The typing was laborious, especially since she knew she didn’t have much time. Just a couple of days ago, she’d overheard about them possibly taking her for keeps. She needed to lock it in, somehow. It felt wrong that she wasn’t doing anything on her end, while they were doing something so monumental.
She entered her first search term.
how do i show somoene i love them
She looked it over, fixed the typo, and then submitted.
She read, studied as hard as she had ever studied math or sciences. When she wasn’t in class learning or doing, her phone was out. There were too many roads to go down, key phrases, like ‘making relationships last’.
Kenzie’s foot scuffed the floor of her workshop.
“Oh, Kenzie,” Victoria said.
Yep, she got it.
“In my defense, I was nine, and I was really, really oblivious,” Kenzie said. She smiled. “I wanted to do my part and make something really awesome happen, so the coolest, most awesome person in the world might adopt me.”
“It was going to happen either way, if it was going to happen.”
“So I’ve been told.”
There was a long pause. Neither was eager to press the button or move the diorama over to the next scene.
Victoria checked on the dining room. Neither had moved. Kenzie was tempted to resume surveillance, but still, it didn’t matter.
Surveillance was like the safety in numbers, from way back in the day. A thing to dive into, so real life didn’t seem so real or important.
“If I’d color coded these, the next scenes, set of you can probably guess, would be pink.”
“I’m going to skip it. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I definitely don’t mind.”
Kenzie hit the button twice. The image flickered, holding the first for only a fraction of an eyeblink.
Then the aftermath. Kenzie winced.
Kenzie backed away, eyes wide. Her eyes went wider as she saw Antonio enter the room from the adjunct bathroom. Her fingers clutched her nightie.
“Are you okay?” Antonio asked her.
“Yes,” she said, but she looked at Keith, saw him freaking out, and backed up a little more.
“Keith, you’re scaring her.”
“I’m a more than a little scared myself! She woke me up and I thought it was you.”
“Baby,” Antonio said. “Sit down on the bed. Deep breaths, okay? She’s the priority, remember? If you get freaked, she’s going to be freaked.”
She was freaked. Definitely freaked. Everything had turned sideways and she wasn’t one hundred percent sure on why.
Keith sat back down on the bed.
“I’m going to take her back to bed. We’re going to have a chat while you catch your breath. Okay?”
“Come on, Kenz,” Antonio said. “Let’s get you put back to bed.”
She was shaking as he took her hand. She let him lead her down the hall to her room, glancing back to see Keith with his head hanging, eyes wide and alarmed.
“Oh boy,” Antonio said.
“Oh boy is right,” Kenzie said, her voice about as small as she felt. “I didn’t know- I don’t know how this happened.”
“A lot of people, they go to this because it happened to them.”
“It didn’t happen to me.”
“Then where on earth did you get this idea from?”
She was back in her room. Her phone was over there. She could point it out, explain it, but-
“Kids talking at school.”
“Oh Kenzie, hon. There’s no need. Personal space is personal space, and that’s just for him and me, because we’re married, understand?”
She nodded, firm. Her heart was still pounding, and she had a sick feeling in her middle.
“I think- and I’ll ask Keith, but I think it would help everyone if we talked to an expert on these things. What do you think? Can’t hurt, right?”
She shook her head. “Can’t hurt.”
“I think I’ll look into that first thing tomorrow, then. Can I give you a hug?”
She nodded. A hug was the best thing in the world when she felt as horrible inside as she did now. It almost made the horribleness melt away.
He kissed her on the forehead. “Scoot down. I’ll tuck you in.”
She scooted. He tucked her in.
She didn’t sleep.
“My favorite person ever wouldn’t make eye contact with me,” Kenzie said. Her legs kicked where they dangled from her chair. Her toes scuffed the ground. “The next appointment Anton -that was his nickname in the house- that he could get, it was a week from the incident.”
“What happened?” Victoria asked. “It didn’t help?”
“They weren’t talking in the usual spots where I might be able to eavesdrop, and for the first time since I got there, Keith was going to work instead of working from home. It meant they were talking on the phone, everyone was more distant, and there was this big meeting with a therapist and child services to talk about things, coming at me like a big train.”
Kenzie flicked through scenes. Diorama images of her with the phone. Her with the baby monitor that Keith and Anton had kept in case they ended up fostering a baby.
“I just wanted to know what was going on. So I downloaded the same app they used to lock down my phone and watch my browsing. I put it on their phone and I hid that application like the teenager from school hid the icon on mine. I didn’t control his browsing, but I did make it so I could watch their texts.”
She’d set herself as parent, and consequently, the helicopter app let her monitor where Keith was.
She opened the door as he pulled into the driveway. He seemed startled to see her there so suddenly.
“Hey, Kenz,” he said.
There wasn’t the same heart in the words that there had been in the early days. No hug at the door.
A hand on the shoulder, instead.
She’d read the most recent messages. She knew what weighed on his heart.
This is the kind of thing where if it goes wrong, we can’t ever foster or adopt.
It’s not going to go wrong. We’ll explain.
Anton, I’m really worried.
This is the kind of thing where we need to be upfront with services for her sake and to cover our asses. Honesty is the best policy.
They wouldn’t ever adopt her, they wouldn’t adopt anyone. They were some of the best people and parents she’d known and they’d lose the ability to ever be parents. Because of her.
She’d considered running away, but she worried that would make things worse.
Cornered. Trapped. Drowning.
Everything was off. Things at school were off, because she was trying to put on a veneer of normal when she felt anything but, practicing being ordinary and casual so she would be ready today, and people thought it felt forced, which only made her feel the need to practice more. It was a feedback loop that had led to her being called creepy.
She wanted to scream and throw things and she wanted to curl up into a ball and eat her feet and keep eating until she was nothing.
“I brought snacks,” Keith said. “I don’t know if that’s appropriate, given what we’re doing.”
“I don’t know either,” she said.
“All you have to do,” he said, “Is you tell the truth. I’m not going to ask you to say or do anything more. Yeah?”
He smiled. He reached over and mussed up her hair. She tried to fix it.
“Help me get the snacks out?”
She hurried to get the bowls for the chips and the chocolate covered peanuts.
Antonio showed up a few minutes later, and decided a smaller number of snacks would be more fitting for the occasion. Too much, he opined, was a party, and this wasn’t a party occasion.
The child services workers arrived, with the therapist in tow.
“I’ll talk to her alone? Then we’ll trade off?” the man said, looking at Mrs. Yaris and the other woman.
Kenzie tossed the remote up into the air, and then caught it.
She looked at the still image. Herself and the therapist. She’d found a picture of the therapist in a book and used it to render a composite, which helped make things accurate.
“What happened?” Victoria asked.
“I studied,” Kenzie said. “Keith and Anton were looking up resources and I read all the resources, best as I could, to try to figure out what I needed to say to fix things.”
“They thought you were coached.”
“Yup. They thought I was coached, and they decided to separate us temporarily. New house, new foster parents. That’s the point where I had to take a bad situation and make it a hundred times worse.”
“That’s my thing! That’s me. Anyone else, they like someone and then they have this stopper inside them. They think, oh, they love this person, they love them a lot, so they’ll do this thing and that thing and give them this gift and bam, that’s enough. Bam. But that’s not me. When I love people it overflows and it makes a heck of a mess. I don’t know where to stop things, and when things start slipping away, I reach out harder.”
She hit the button.
“Kenzie, there are ten, twelve reasons you shouldn’t be here right now. You can’t keep doing things like this.”
“I wanted to see you.”
“Kenzie,” he said. He knelt down in front of her. He put his hands on her shoulders like he was trying to minimize contact, only palms touching fingers and thumb splayed out. “I would love to see you. The best chance at getting back to normal is to take a break, stick to our routines, and avoid making waves.”
His coworkers were looking. She swallowed hard.
“You’re supposed to be in school.”
“There was an assembly.”
“And you’re not supposed to be here, and it just raises questions.”
She reached, grasping for some kind of answer or way to try to fix things.
“Kenzie,” he said. “At the bookstore two days ago. Was that you?”
Her mouth opened, then closed.
“No,” she lied, under her breath.
“How in the world did you know to find me there?”
“Luck,” she said, her mouth dry.
“How did you know I was here, and not working from home?”
She shook her head, mouthing a word that, if she’d been asked, she couldn’t have said what it was.
She saw the look in his eyes. Wariness. Fear.
It wasn’t a new look. It had been there from the time she’d entered his room, and it had gotten worse every time she’d opened a door, knowing he was there. The statements she’d tried, to make it sound like they were on the same wavelength. Over and over they’d had the opposite effect.
“Andrea,” Keith said. “What do you have on your plate?”
Kenzie’s teeth chattered.
“Could I get you to do me a massive favor? I need Kenzie dropped off at school.”
“I think I can do that.”
“I’ll get you the address.”
She watched him leave the room, and she saw the look in his eyes. He was gone. She might see him again or talk to him again, she could get every detail, read every instant message, see every webpage he visited, but he would never be her dad again.
Every point of light in the room flared, a kaleidoscope, a lens flare across her field of vision. Even the edges of the desks where the sunlight drew highlights on glossy black finish became impossibly bright.
The images sorted, and she saw world turned upside-down, with land instead of sky and vice versa. The land looked like food coloring did when dropped into water, but it was solid and stable.
The parts of the world closest to her were inhabited, marked with messes of glass and machinery that stuck to surfaces and walls. The institution, the infrastructure, the weight of the army- all, when she zoomed far enough back, were part of a singular monolith of a gravity that sucked all energy from her, leaving her gasping.
“You alright?” Andrea asked.
Kenzie shook her head.
“Come on, baby,” Andrea said. “Let’s get you where you belong.”
“Home?” she asked. “Or- my foster home?”
Andrea looked back at Keith, and Keith nodded.
The elevator was distracting. The gold watch on Andrea’s wrist- it had a crystal display. Energy, light, lenses, geometry- everything had a meaning and that meaning was like the safety in numbers.
She wanted to ask a thousand things about Keith and Antonio and she bit her tongue instead. Something was wrong. She’d been broken to begin with and something had outright cracked.
Andrea dropped her off at the new foster house, and Kenzie hurried inside without a word.
She almost hyperventilated, as she went straight to her room.
Her phone. She pulled it out, slammed the door behind her, and went to her bed.
In the background, she could hear Andrea talking to her foster mom.
She found her bag, and she dug the card out of her bag. only one temporary tattoo left, and a business card with a number on it.
She called, head bowed, phone pressed to her ear so hard it hurt.
“This is Aerobat.”
“This is… you held my hand. You gave me your card. Please help me.”
Before I use this power to do something I regret even more.
“I didn’t want to do something I regretted,” Kenzie echoed the line of thought from the memory, that seemed so vivid as she stared at the diorama. “Which, you know, I did do. I got lonely or scared, and I tried to get in touch. I scared them more, which is why no faces. They don’t want me simulating them or using them in pictures. I figure it’s the least I could do.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“The funny thing is, you know, I’m mostly better. I’ve been working on things. I have a hard time with boundaries but I can learn some good basic rules to stick to and I stick to them really hard. I’m figuring out the team, I love you guys, I’m kicking ass, I’ve got some great projects on the go.”
It would just make her start crying like a baby, and she needed to get Victoria on her side, make sure that the wrong things weren’t said and that things didn’t get out of control with the group.
If she could just explain her side, Victoria would see, and then things could go back to normal.
Just like going to see Keith at work had been a way to just show him he cared, to reconnect, and then have things be like they’d used to be.
Or how saying just the right things to the therapist would make that whole incident go away.
“Is that the end of the slides?”
Kenzie clicked, even though she didn’t want to see. She smiled at the scene.
It was Keith and Antonio. Antonio had given her a gift. A bag with pink on it, because he hated that she, like so many other foster kids, were packing her things up in black garbage bags.
A goodbye, before she left for San Diego.
“They-” she started. Her voice cracked. “Um. They have two kids now. A boy and a girl, nine and thirteen. Foster kids that they adopted. They made it through Gold Morning. They’re out there somewhere, and I don’t look too hard.”
Kenzie’s legs kicked. She smiled at Victoria.
Victoria froze, staring.
Had she slipped? Kenzie tried to think if she’d said or done the wrong thing.
“Kenzie-” Victoria said. “Kenz, that’s got to be the worst thing in the world.”
“There are lots of horrible things in the world,” Kenzie said. She looked down, smiling. “It’s not my favorite thing, though.”
“Then why are you smiling when you’re talking about something so upsetting?”
Kenzie started to answer, then stopped. Too easy to be flippant.
She needed Victoria on her side. That meant being honest.
“I always smile when I’m upset or bothered,” Kenzie answered. She swallowed hard. “That’s just how I am. It’s easier than crying, it doesn’t bother people as much.”
“What do you do when you’re happy?”
“I don’t smile, I guess,” Kenzie said.
Victoria seemed momentarily lost for words. She was, no doubt, recalling a hundred past events.
“But!” Kenzie bounced a bit in on her stool. “But I have my parents back! And I know you’re going to say stuff. I get it. It’s weird. They’re a little messed up.”
“It’s a lot messed up.”
“Okay,” Kenzie said. “Yes, but –but– I have this entirely under control.”
“I have a hard time believing that.”
“I’ve had it under control for over a year now. I went looking for family and I found them. They pretended at first that they didn’t know who I was, but the people in charge of the gates had some good ways to quickly check stuff.”
“Something like that. I was more focused on other stuff, like the family reunion. Anyway, I came to live with them, they had to take care of me because I’m their daughter, and they were pissed. When they’re pissed, they do stupid, stupid things, and I got those stupid things on camera.”
“You subjected yourself to abuse to get blackmail material? Please tell me nobody else knew about this and condoned it.”
“Nobody else knew about this and condoned it. Mostly they just think my parents are scared. They did their thing and told my parents to be good or else, but they don’t know about the video footage I got. I originally planned to get two week’s worth, but I didn’t have the guts. I ended up making it five days of footage of them, and I’ve gotten more since.”
Victoria leaned checked that the parents were still at the table, then spoke in a low voice, “You know police aren’t really able to prosecute much, right?”
“They’d prosecute some of this stuff.”
Victoria drew in a deep breath.
Kenzie cut in. “I know what you’re going to say! Really truly, it’s not that bad. I showed them the recordings and I told them they could go to jail or they could live with me and follow my very fair, very sane rules. They can quit at any time. If I die and it looks suspicious, the recordings get released and their lives are over.”
“Kenzie,” Victoria said, and now she sounded horrified. “You can’t do that.”
“But isn’t rehabilitation the main thing we’re trying to do? Isn’t that the whole freaking point? This is better than prison, because it’s targeted. They’re like a dog that was spoiled rotten and doesn’t know how to be loyal or good, and a dog that was kicked and beaten a lot, that’s learning to be nice to people again. They love each other too, and I think that matters.”
“They’re mostly there! They are. They just hate my guts. They hope I’m going to die. They’re way more rehabilitated than they would be if they were anywhere else, and if the badness in them seeps out aimed at me every once in while, and they try to give me a mild case of lead poisoning, I’m okay with that.”
“No,” Victoria said. “No, no, and fucking- fuck no.”
“It’s what we do! We put ourselves on the line and we fix the bad guys!”
“No,” Victoria said. “The moment you get a concussion, you’re going to be vulnerable to them trying something. Or whatever. It’s- there’s no way this is healthy for you. Living like this, watching over your shoulder, you’re going to utterly destroy yourself.”
Kenzie swallowed, and then she said, “I’m doing okay so far.”
Victoria shook her head. “You can’t live like this. You can’t live that close to people that ugly, and not be affected by it. It’ll eat you alive. We’ve got to get you out of this house.”
Kenzie looked down, then looked back toward the door, where her family was on the other side.
“Then I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Help?”
“Absolutely,” Victoria said. “I’m going to call some people. You- call Ashley. She’s one of your favorite people, right, and she gets this? She figured stuff out or she had guesses.”
“She got a lot of it.”
“We’ll figure this out,” Victoria said. “And I’m not going anywhere.”
Kenzie nodded, her expression solemn.
“Can I give you a hug, or-”
More than anything, Kenzie wanted one, even a one-armed hug.
But Victoria was a friend and the rules were that she didn’t hug friends. That threatened to cross boundaries.
“No,” Kenzie said. And she wished with all her might that Victoria would hug her anyway, because that wouldn’t break the rules if Kenzie wasn’t the one doing it. It would make things feel so much better.
There was no hug. Victoria listened when she said no.
Victoria got out her phone. Kenzie got hers, checking on her parents on her way to dialing the number. Ashley.
Ashley picked up on the other end, “How bad was it?”
A goofy grin crept across Kenzie’s face, that she couldn’t wipe away or get rid of, for what felt like minutes.