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Authors: Mandy Mikulencak

Burn Girl

BOOK: Burn Girl
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Burn Girl

Mandy Mikulencak

ALBERT WHITMAN & COMPANY

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

FOR MOM

CHAPTER 1

TWO WEEKS AGO—FOUND AND LOST

I'm positive Mom wanted me to find her body. I'd been taking care of us both for so many years that she trusted I'd know how to handle things. She'd say, “Arlie, if something ever happens to me, don't let the police or ambulance boys find me in a compromising position.” Translation: flush any remaining drugs down the toilet, make sure she had on clean panties, and tidy up the motel room. By the time I had to carry out her wishes, I knew exactly what to do.

What she hadn't prepared me for was life without her. I wasn't afraid to be alone. Mom had a way of making me feel lonely even when she was right by my side. The scariest thing was that I was no longer invisible. Her death cast a spotlight on us both, and hiding wasn't an option.

I was numb when I dialed 911.

“I'd like to report a death,” I said. “My mother's.”

Two police cars arrived within minutes. The Animas View Motel could have been on their speed dial. Assaults and drug busts were frequent, deaths not so much.

Sticky, sleety rain cloaked the cruiser where they told me to sit and wait. Its heater, turned on high, was as suffocating as their questions.

“Are you all right?”

“Do you have any idea what happened to your mom?”

“Is there anyone we can call?”

No, no, and no, I could've answered, but I stayed mostly silent while two officers poked around the room and Mom's body. They'd left the motel-room door open, but I couldn't make out their movements from the squad car.

The cop babysitting me was chatty without asking too much. I was a minor. We both knew an adult had to be present.

“I could get you some cocoa or juice from the motel lobby if you like.” She turned sideways in the driver's seat.

“It's not that kind of motel and you know it.” I pressed my cheek against the ice-cold window, fogging it with my breath.

“My name is Reagan,” she said.

I didn't need to know her name. She wasn't my friend. I wasn't hers. I closed my eyes and wished for sleep—the feverish, flu-like kind where the world drifts away.

“What time did you say you found your mom's body?” Her good-cop tone was chipper, like she'd just asked what flavor ice cream I preferred.

I'd already lied and told them I'd stayed at my best friend Mo's house last night and only found Mom early this morning. The truth was that I'd spent the entire night in a chair in the corner of the motel room, too exhausted to run and too afraid to ask for help, even from Mo. Her parents would have just judged me more than they already did.

But when I woke at dawn, a strange and unsettling thought picked at my brain: what if I just let someone else make the decisions now?

“There will be a counselor available when we get to the station,” the officer said. “I can imagine this is all very hard on you.”

This. Is. All. Very. Hard
. I picked apart each word as if she were speaking a foreign language. She had no clue.

The two investigating officers were now outside on the balcony. One laughed at something the other had said.

“What are they laughing about?” I shouted at the female officer. “And why are they done? They've been in there less than fifteen minutes.”

“They're not finished, Arlie,” she said. “An investigative team will be here soon. And I'm sure they're not laughing about your mom. I'm sorry they're being insensitive.”

She opened her door and shouted to the other officers that she was taking me to the police station.

“We can't go yet.” I slapped my hand against the passenger-side window. I had just realized that when I flushed the drugs, I'd probably destroyed the very evidence that could prove whether she'd left me on purpose. “What about the coroner? Will there be an autopsy?”

“The funeral home will pick up the body,” Reagan said. “In the case of suicide or overdose, the coroner doesn't usually come to the scene.”

Suicide. Overdose
.

“Social services will find you somewhere safe to stay tonight,” she continued.

Somewhere safe
.

Whatever they'd gleaned in a few minutes led them to believe I hadn't been safe before.

“So I'm going to a foster home?” It'd been six years since the last time I was in foster care, but I wasn't surprised that's where I'd end up tonight. It's not like they'd let a sixteen-year-old stay in a motel room—especially one where someone had died—just because it was paid up until the end of the week. And staying with Dora, our friend who lived a few doors down, wasn't an option either. Social services would say the motel wasn't suitable for children.

“Yes, a foster family will be identified. You're sure there's no one else we can call?” the officer asked for a third time.

I looked up at the room—a tiny, sad place I'd tried to make a home for us, but failed.

“No,” I said. “I'm ready to go.”

CHAPTER 2

My sessions with a court-appointed therapist played out the same way each time I saw her. I stared at the clock while Jane asked questions that didn't have right or wrong answers. She'd often bring the conversation back around to my mom's instructions and ask if I believed her suicide was selfish. I wasn't ready to believe Mom killed herself, but who was going to believe me when the police officers had scanned the room for a whole five minutes before making up their minds?

I'd despised how disconnected they'd seemed. As if Mom hadn't been a real person and we hadn't been a real family. They couldn't wait to seal up the room and make me someone else's problem. Yet I was just as angry at myself. By carrying out her wishes—flushing her drugs, erasing all traces of her life—I'd ensured the truth would never be found.

“Arlie, you're not paying attention.”

I appreciated that Jane didn't use a soothing, singsong therapist tone with me, the type designed to make a person feel cared about or special in some backhanded way. I wasn't special, and I didn't need to be cared for. I was here because some caseworker who didn't know me had decided I couldn't possibly be okay if my mother was dead.

“I'm listening,” I said.

“I asked if you're adjusting.”

“To high school? It's only been a couple of weeks.”

I sat cross-legged on the overstuffed love seat, the one spot in Jane's office where I could stare out the window at Perins Peak, the highest ridgeline visible from downtown Durango. When we first met, I avoided looking directly at her. She probably thought I was embarrassed by what had happened to my face. The truth is that I just didn't want to look at her. Her stare suggested she knew something about me that even I didn't know.

“Do you like your classes?” She paused for an answer. “Have you made any other friends?”

“Yes to the classes, no to the friends. Don't need them.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Some people aren't worth knowing.”

Ever since the accident that left my face disfigured seven years ago, I had refused to attend school. Mom had felt so much guilt that I could've done anything I wanted. I may not have been in the school system, but I'd still run into students at the library and Boys and Girls Club, even on the hiking trails around town.

Most had made up their minds about me a long time ago, and I about them. Just this week, someone had written “fire freak” on my locker with lipstick. It had to have been Brittany, a junior who'd taken it personally that I dared to grace the steps of her beloved Durango High School.

“Maybe you should give it some time,” Jane said.

“Yeah, maybe.”

She looked over the top of her glasses, delicate things that were probably Danish or German. Everything about her seemed European, or what I imagined a European to look like: tailored knits in black or dark gray, brightly colored silk scarves, ballet flats.

I wondered what I'd look like in such sophisticated clothing. Most of my wardrobe came from the thrift store, but I also gravitated to black and gray, straight lines, nothing too flashy. The dark, muted clothing and my black hair made me feel like a moving shadow, capable of disappearing at any moment. Except, of course, from Jane's office.

“Did you bring your notebook?” she asked.

I rummaged through my backpack to find the hardcover sketchbook that doubled as my journal. “Aren't journals supposed to be private?”

“They are. And you get to decide what you want to share, or if you want to share at all. I just think it puts you more directly in touch with your feelings if you read something you felt strongly enough to capture on paper.”

I ignored the obvious therapist angle and turned toward her, my feet squarely on the floor. A bookmark held the place where I'd started a new list yesterday. Lists were easier than writing pages and pages of feelings, although Jane would've been thrilled if I had.

“Names I'm Called by Insensitive Shitheads,” I began.

“Interesting title.”

I resisted the urge to throw the thing at her. I had to keep it together in front of Jane to prove I didn't need to be there.

“It's my list,” I said.

“I wasn't judging. Go on.” She removed her glasses and settled into the back cushion of her chair.

“Ash-hole, Fire Freak, Arlie Krueger …”

“Krueger?”

“You know, Freddy Krueger. The dude in
A Nightmare on Elm Street
with the burned face and long knives for fingers.”

“How do those names make you feel?” Jane leaned forward as if I might have something profound to share.

I closed my journal and leaned forward to mimic her stance. “I've looked like this almost half my life,” I said. “The names aren't even original. Well, the Krueger bit is.”

“If you say so.” Jane didn't acknowledge my half-assed attempt at a joke. “Must be a reason you wrote about the name-calling this week.”

“Had to write about something,” I said. “Doesn't mean it bothers me.”

Sometimes, I figured there had to be right answers to Jane's questions—answers that could possibly bring these forced appointments to an end. I'd learned over the years what adults wanted to hear and had gotten good at it.

“Little girl, are you living in that car with your mother?”

“Oh no, officer. We've moving to Florida and just pulled over to rest. Been a long drive.”

At least Jane didn't hand me a bunch of bullshit, and she wouldn't stand for mine. I trusted her because of that.

“Sleeping better?” she asked.

“I'm sleeping some, but if you're asking about the nightmares, I still have them.”

“About your stepfather?”

“Who else?”

Lloyd. The real-life boogeyman I couldn't hide from no matter how many miles and years separated us. Mom and I left Albuquerque six years ago, and she was fanatical about making sure he didn't find us.

“He'd hurt us if he found us,” she'd say. Only later, when I was older, did I realize that both she and Lloyd were wanted for manslaughter. The meth lab he'd constructed in our apartment kitchen had exploded, killing Rosa, our elderly neighbor who took care of me almost every day. Throw in child endangerment and manufacturing of a controlled substance, and both Mom and Lloyd had plenty of reasons to stay hidden.

Of course I blamed Lloyd for the accident that burned my face and took away the only person who cared if I was fed or got to school on time, but placing blame was a tricky business. After all, Mom chose Lloyd and the drugs over me.

“He makes me crazy angry,” I told Jane. “Not just because of what he's done, but because I still have to think about him. That I have to talk about him now.”

“Why do you think your mother believed he'd hurt you?” Jane asked.

“She never said exactly, but he wasn't a nice guy. Especially to her.”

“Do you want to see him again?”

The question caught me off guard. He and Mom disappeared after the accident so the police wouldn't find them. I spent the next year in the hospital and burn rehab, and then in a foster home before Mom finally resurfaced, saying she was sorry and promising she'd stay clean. She wanted us to move to Durango. We stole away in the middle of the night so my foster family wouldn't know. She didn't mention then that she was still wanted by the law and that we would be mother-daughter fugitives.

“No,” I finally said.

“He's your stepdad.”

“And that's supposed to mean something?”

“He's the only family you have left,” she said.

I bit back my anger. “He's not my real dad. I've told you that before.”

BOOK: Burn Girl
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