IN THE United States, you can go almost anywhere on a bus. The possibilities are astounding. If you have enough money, you can go all the way across the country.
I had plenty of money. When my mother told me to leave, she’d handed me an envelope full of cash. Left over from my father, according to her. I hadn’t even known he’d left us any money. Mom always claimed she married Gene because she couldn’t afford to support me alone anymore. Nothing like lying to your only son.
It didn’t really matter now. I wouldn’t have to deal with her or Gene again. Their home wasn’t mine anymore. For the moment the bus was the closest thing I had to a home and had been for over a day.
I sat in the back of the bus—right next to the restroom—and stared out the window. Two days earlier I’d been warm in my own bed under the quilt my grandmother had given me when I was four. I’d slept with that thing every night, except for the few times my mother had weaseled it away from me to wash it. Even then I’d put up a fight about not having it.
I didn’t have it now. I had to travel light. I didn’t know where I’d end up or how long the trip would be. Mom hadn’t given me much time to pull my stuff together anyway. She’d wanted me gone before Gene came home from work. I didn’t blame her for that. I doubted I would have been safe if I’d still been there when he arrived.
I hoped Mom had said good-bye to my sisters—Caroline, Brianna, and Ellie—for me. Three kids in four years after she’d married Gene, because he said having kids was part of God’s plan for married couples. She’d been pregnant more than three times. Gene hadn’t let up on her until she’d lost three babies in a row.
I tried to get along with my little sisters, but I’d never been interested in all the stuff little girls liked. Plus I was pretty sure Gene had tried to turn them against me. But sometimes we’d had fun together, and I would miss them. Caroline was six. She might remember me. At five, Brianna might too. Ellie was only three. She probably wouldn’t.
I stared out the window at the passing scenery alongside Interstate-whatever-the-heck as a couple of tears trickled down my cheeks. My sisters would be fine, of course. Gene loved his little girls. Maybe if I’d been the girl my birth certificate said I was, he would have loved me too.
Probably not. I wasn’t his. He only loved what was his.
“Are you okay?”
I blinked and rubbed my face. An older woman stood in the aisle. Guys didn’t cry, so I couldn’t let her see those tears. Never show weakness. One of the first lessons good old Gene had taught me, even before I’d told everyone I was a guy.
“Yeah. Fine. Been a long day, and I’m kind of tired.”
“Where are you headed?” She leaned against the back of the seat beside her. “And is there really someone in the restroom? I’ve been waiting forever.”
“I’m going to visit some friends.”
I was lying, of course. I didn’t have any friends. But visiting friends sounded better—and safer—than saying I didn’t have a fricking clue where I was going. Mom hadn’t given me time to figure it out. Just the money and a reminder of where the nearest bus station was.
“What about the restroom?” the woman asked.
“Some woman went in there a few minutes ago. I think she’s pregnant.”
As soon as I said it, I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. The woman who’d entered the restroom hadn’t been showing or anything. She was skinnier than I was. I only knew she was pregnant because I—well—because I did. A silver haze floated around her belly, but I couldn’t mention it. Normal people couldn’t see it, and I had to act normal. Seeing things and “just knowing” were part of what had gotten me kicked out of my home.
“Oh. Then of course she might take a while.”
The woman reached over and knocked on the bathroom door. A muffled voice answered. “Just a second.”
Leaning against the seat, the woman sighed. “I hope she’s done soon. I can’t wait too much longer. I’m old, you know.”
“You aren’t that old.” The neon number “60” flashed into my head. She had fewer wrinkles than my mom, though, and only a little gray hair mixed among brown.
“You’re young,” she said. “You think everyone over twenty is old. How old are you, anyway?”
“Sixteen.” I was old enough to travel on my own, which was what she was actually asking.
“You look younger. What’s your name?”
I tried to come up with a reason not to tell her. She wouldn’t be able to track my family down without my last name, and she’d probably forget whatever I told her anyhow. I hoped.
“Kellan.” I’d picked the name because it was close enough to the girl’s name on my birth certificate.
“Nice to meet you.” She held out her hand. “I’m Shelly.”
I cringed away from her touch. Physical contact always gave me too much information about the other person, and I already knew more about her than I should have. “I don’t mean to be rude. But I don’t shake hands.”
She nodded. “Wise. Fewer germs that way. Your family’s meeting you at the other end?”
“My friends are, yeah.” I had way too much practice in lying to be tripped up so easily.
Lying had become a fact of my life after Mom married Gene. Some truths weren’t safe to share.
The restroom door opened, and a pale younger woman walked out. She glared at the older woman, who patted her on the shoulder and went into the room. The younger woman staggered down the aisle to her seat.
I turned back to the window. I didn’t want to interact too much with other passengers. Too much risk of them remembering me. I doubted anyone would come looking for me, but with Gene, you never knew.
I preferred not to talk to people. They asked too many questions sometimes, the way Shelly had. I didn’t like answering questions. I’d been raised not to lie, and even though I’d learned to do it when I had to, I always felt bad when I was dishonest. But this was a case where the truth might not be safe.
When the older woman left the bathroom, I pretended to be asleep so I wouldn’t have to talk to her anymore.
I was careful not to actually fall asleep, though. I didn’t want the nightmares.
After way too long, the bus pulled off the highway and drove to a tiny building across the street from a shabby motel. Not the best place to stay unless you had a car, which obviously I didn’t. Once I ended up somewhere, I would have to take care of that if I had enough money.
According to the ticket I’d bought, this was my stop. The name of the town had sounded interesting to me, and my instincts told me it was the right place to go. But staying in one place wasn’t part of my plan yet. It was too soon.
After what had happened, Gene probably thought I was the spawn of Satan and might be relieved to have me gone. Maybe he was even afraid of me. In that case he wouldn’t be looking for me. But his church was pretty big on the whole eye-for-an-eye thing, and I didn’t know if they’d want me to pay for what I’d done. Until I felt completely safe, I couldn’t afford to stop anywhere for long.
Maybe I’d just been drawn here to find someone or something that would help me get to the place I really belonged.
The motel looked pretty cheap. I hadn’t given much thought to where I would sleep, because I hadn’t intended to stay. Buses ran all night. I’d planned on buying another ticket to some other town, but now I couldn’t stand the idea of being on another bus without a chance to shower and be horizontal. One night in a motel wouldn’t hurt. I could give them a fake name, and I’d be paying cash.
I left the bus and waited for the driver to take my roller bag out of the luggage compartment. The only other person who got off was my buddy, Shelly. I groaned. She would ask more questions, and I was running out of answers.
“I thought your friends were going to meet you.” She studied me with one of those looks really strict adults give to kids. She’d either been a mother or a teacher. Possibly both.
“They got stuck in traffic. They told me to wait in the motel over there, so that’s where I’m going.”
“I can give you a ride.” Before I even opened my mouth to refuse, she shook her head. “Never mind. Your generation is suspicious, and you have every reason to be. Don’t ever take a ride from someone you don’t know. Not even someone who appears as harmless as I do.”
“I wasn’t planning to.” I snatched my bag from the bus driver, who glared at me. “Thanks for your concern. I have to go.”
“I can wait with you.”
I froze. If she did that, she would find out no one was meeting me. But I didn’t have to accept the suggestion. I didn’t even know why she’d made it. So I asked. “Why?”
She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, then shook her head. “Never mind. Just a thought. Take care, young man.”
“Thanks. You too.”
I turned and walked away, trying not to hurry. She didn’t even know why she’d said she would wait with me. I hadn’t figured she would. I was a kid and she was used to protecting kids, and that was probably the closest to a reason either of us would figure out. I appreciated the thought. I just didn’t want anyone to look after me. That was supposed to be my mother’s job, and she’d dropped the ball when her husband told her to. Since she didn’t care to do the job anymore, I would take care of myself just fine. I hoped.
She watched me walk across the street. Her gaze weighed me down like a rock on my back, but I didn’t turn around.
The clerk at the motel gave me a weird look when I asked for a room for the night. I knew I appeared younger than sixteen. Especially with short hair and boys’ clothes. They accented how skinny I was, and the haircut made my eyes seem huge. Mom had accepted me as transgender but refused to let me have the hormones that would have probably filled me out more. Gene had told her it was against God’s plan, because God didn’t like having his creations “artificially altered.”
When I finally settled, I hoped to find a doctor to give me the hormones and a therapist who knew something about transgender people. Mom had sent me to mental health therapy against Gene’s wishes, but she’d gotten the “therapist’s” name from our pastor, and the therapist knew more about religion than mental health. She had accepted that I was a guy even if I had a girl’s body, but the only thing she knew about being transgender was what she’d heard on the news, so she hadn’t been much help. Most of our sessions had been about how I could get along better with Gene, which would only have worked if he’d tried to get along better with me.
The clerk probably would have asked way too many questions if I hadn’t yanked out a bunch of cash. Money talks. It also shuts people up. He gave me a keycard for a room on the second floor, mumbled something about the specials at a restaurant half a mile away, and left me alone.
My stomach growled as I hauled my stuff up to my room. I had to find something to eat. Food had been the last thing on my mind while I was on the bus, but now I was starving. My last meal had been the cinnamon roll and hot cocoa I’d bought before boarding early in the morning. I hadn’t even thought about bringing food with me. Obviously I wasn’t used to traveling.
My room was kind of shabby, but I didn’t care. It had a bed. The night before, I’d slept on a bench in the bus station. Some security guard or cop or something had tried to kick me out until I put a stop to it. I shouldn’t have used my psychic powers to make him leave me alone, but I hadn’t seen a choice. If he’d made me leave the station, I wouldn’t have had anywhere safe to wait for the bus.
The second I lay down, I didn’t want to move. The bus station might have been a safe place the night before, but it hadn’t been exactly comfortable. I hadn’t slept well at all, and I’d refused to sleep on the bus. Now I could barely keep my eyes open.
My stomach growled again, reminding me of the whole eating thing. No matter how exhausted I was, I had to make a choice. Either I fell asleep and woke up even hungrier than I was now, or I left the bed and walked up the road to the restaurant the desk clerk had mentioned. It was farther than I wanted to walk, but I needed food.
I shoved the key card into my pocket along with enough money for a meal, made sure the rest of my money was safely stashed, and headed back down to the desk. The clerk dropped his phone on the counter and glared at me. “Everything okay with the room?”
“Yeah, it’s good.” It could have used some paint and a cleaner bedspread, but I wasn’t exactly in a position to complain. “You said something about a diner down the street. Which way?”
“Left out of the drive.” He tilted his head to one side. “You have enough money to eat?”
“I paid you, didn’t I? That kind of implies I have money.” I really, really didn’t like the way he was looking at me now. Hungry in a completely different way from how I felt. The same way a vulture would look at a dead body.
“I can help you out if you’re hungry,” he said. “You probably don’t have too much cash, and you only paid for one night, which means you’re moving on. Unless you don’t have enough to pay for a second night here. I can help with that too.” He licked his lips.
“I have enough.” My heart racing, I took a couple of steps back.
“Just offering to help you out. You’re pretty young to be on your own.” He stood and leaned on the counter.
“I’m older than you think, and I’m all set, thanks.” Another step back.
I was heating up now. He wasn’t much of a threat. Too skinny and too out of shape to do much if I ran. But I felt threatened. The same as I had a few days earlier when one of Gene’s friends put his hands on me.
He wouldn’t put his hands on anyone again. I was pretty sure they’d been completely burned off. That was why Gene and others from his church might come after me. Gene’s friend might have died. I hadn’t stayed around long enough to find out. I’d hidden in my room until Mom came and told me I couldn’t stay any longer. It wasn’t safe.
She hadn’t only meant it wouldn’t be safe for me. She was afraid of me now. Afraid I’d burn her and the girls too. And I couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t. I would never have done it on purpose, of course. The heat and fire only happened if I was very frightened or furious. I had to learn to control it better, and I didn’t even know where to start.
The same thing might happen to this guy if he tried to touch me, and he wouldn’t be the only thing to burn. The motel was an older wooden building that would probably go up like a matchbox. I shook and wasn’t sure if it was from fear or from trying to keep the fire under control. The clerk’s thoughts rang through my brain, words and pictures of what he wanted me to do to earn the money he’d offered, and my stomach twisted so hard I almost puked.
Thank God, he stopped being pushy and sat down again. “Whatever. Half a mile up the road. Good luck.”
I didn’t know why he’d backed off. I was just thankful he had. I’d read about kids who ran away and had to deal with people who wanted to buy them. Who offered them money or food or something in exchange for sex. For some stupid reason, I’d believed it wouldn’t happen to me. I should have known better.
Mom should have too. She’d sent me out of the house with no warning, no preparation, and no idea of how to stay away from creeps like this guy. So much for protecting your kids.
I stepped outside, and the cold air sliced through my thin T-shirt. My hands were still hot, but the rest of me had cooled down, and I was too hungry to figure out how to use the heat to warm myself. My jacket was back in my room, and the thought of going back for it made my stomach churn again. I ran down the hotel drive. Moving faster helped.
The diner was a dinky little place in the middle of a huge parking lot. Paint peelings surrounded the base of the building. Inside, though, the booths, counter, and seats were clean. My mouth watered as I inhaled the smells of burgers, fries, and other food.
I avoided the stools at the counter. Until I was sure I had myself under control, I didn’t want to sit too close to anyone.
“Hon, you have to order at the counter.” The waitress who spoke didn’t look much older than me. She was pretty cute, with blonde hair not quite in a bun, glasses, and a bunch of piercings.
Gene would have prayed for her soul. In his church, piercings went against the “no changes to what God has made” rule.
Her calling me “hon” as if she were way older kind of bugged me, but I pretended not to care.
I had no choice about being close to other people if I wanted to eat. The few seconds I would take to place my order probably wouldn’t hurt anything. I went to the counter, where she handed me a menu. Our fingers barely brushed, and I shivered. Not only was she even cuter up close, an electrical jolt hit me.
She was psychic. Like me.
She jumped a little and talked fast. “Take your time figuring out what you want, hon. You new, living here, or just stopping off the bus?”
“Staying at the motel?”
I nodded. “I didn’t see anywhere else.”
“It’s the only place in town. Watch out for Len. The guy at the desk? He can be kind of….” She trailed off and glanced around, then lowered her voice. “A few kids around here have said things about him, you know? He got grabby with me once until I stabbed his hand with my earring. He didn’t appreciate it much. He’s left me alone since then.”
She said it all in a perfectly neutral voice, as if it weren’t any big deal, even though it should have been. The guy worked at a motel where people probably stayed with their kids. Someone should have locked him up before he actually hurt anyone. “Why isn’t he in jail?”
“No one’s ever officially reported anything. I don’t know if he’s actually done anything. He’s tried, but everyone who’s talked to me either fought him off or threatened to tell on him and he gave up, so I don’t think he’s actually hurt anyone yet. He only works nights over there, so avoid him tonight and you’ll be all right. You’d probably be fine anyway.” She glanced around again.
I recognized her expression. I’d seen it in the mirror a few times. Except for the part about the creep groping her, she wasn’t telling me anything she knew for sure. It was all premonitions and “just knowing,” and she worried about how people would react if they realized it.
“I’ll be all right. Thanks for the heads-up.” I opened the menu and read some of it, even though I already knew what to order. Her fast talking and the way she looked at everything except me implied I’d kind of freaked her out. I wanted to give her a break from talking to me for a couple of minutes. “Burger with onions, please. Fries and a cola.”
“You got it.” She took the menu from me, and her face relaxed into an almost-smile. “You can go sit back down. I’ll bring the food over to you. You going to have dessert? You look pretty hungry.”
I doubted I looked hungry. I’d learned not to, since denying me food was one of Gene’s typical punishments when I broke the rules. She “just knew” how hungry I was, the same way she “just knew” the other stuff she’d said. I let it go, deliberately choosing not to answer her question, thanked her, and went back to my booth.
Outside, cars went by with their headlights on, since the sun was almost down. People on their way home from work, heading back to their happy little families and happy little lives. Some of them probably loved their kids and would never dream of kicking them out for something they couldn’t help. Some of them would even fight for their kids if anyone tried to mess with them.
My eyes watered, and I pressed my hands against them. I wasn’t going to cry about being kicked out. Not ever. My mother didn’t deserve to be cried over. But when I remembered all the fun times we’d had before Gene had shown up in our lives when I was nine, and the times she’d told me she loved me and accepted me no matter who I was, I couldn’t help a couple of tears.
I hadn’t even heard the waitress walk over to me. Or sensed her. If I was going to take care of myself, I had to pay more attention. I forced a smile and turned away from the window. “Yeah. Just really hungry. And thinking too much.”
“It happens.” She set down a huge glass of cola and a wrapped straw. “I figured you’d probably want this while you’re waiting for your food. So you’re stopping off the bus. Where are you heading to?”
“East.” The word popped out without me even thinking about it, and right away I knew it was the right answer. I’d already come east from home to this place. West would either take me home or to California. I couldn’t go to the first and had no interest in the second.
“You have family back east?” she asked.
“Hey, Sadie, more coffee,” one of the guys at the counter called.
I bristled a little. He could have at least been polite to her.
Sadie didn’t seem to mind. “Be right there, Jimmy. Hold your grapefruit.”
The guy laughed, and so did most of the other people at the counter. Sadie shrugged at me. “Sorry. Have to go to work. God forbid these guys don’t get their caffeine. I’ll be back in a few with your food.”
“No problem.” I was glad she’d been distracted. It saved me from figuring out how to avoid answering her question.
My stomach growled so loudly everyone else must have heard it. The little packets of jam on the table looked pretty darn good, and I picked one up. It would have been better than no food at all.
Before I could open it, Sadie set a plate in front of me and smiled, then walked away. The burger smelled way better than jam, and I had to force myself not to wolf the whole thing down.
I took my time eating, partly because I didn’t want to make myself sick by chowing down too fast and partly because the sooner I finished, the sooner I’d have to go back to the motel. My stuff was there. I’d barely been able to get it out of my mother’s house, and I wasn’t about to lose it now because of some creep with grabby hands. Before I went back, though, I had to make sure I was calm enough not to burn the place to the ground.
Sadie started toward my table a couple of times. Each time, someone at the counter or one of the other booths called to her to bring them something before she had a chance to say anything to me. The constant interruptions would have been funny if I hadn’t wondered whether I made them happen somehow. I’d done it before. Wanted someone to do something, or not to do something, so bad I could almost taste it, and then it occurred. I hoped I hadn’t really made them do anything. I didn’t want to have power over anyone. Too many people with power abused it.
I finally finished eating. When I stood up, Sadie came over. “I’ll take care of the plates and stuff, hon. You should get out of here. Your food’s covered.”
“I have money.”
“You need to go.”
I looked into her eyes to argue again, and an invisible force shoved me into her head. Suddenly I saw what she saw. Someone was hunting for me. More than one person. They weren’t close yet, but the longer I stayed in town, the more likely they’d find me. And the longer I stayed in the diner, the more likely someone would remember me and be able to tell my pursuers where I was.
My heart pounded. The people’s faces weren’t visible in the image I picked up from Sadie. I had a pretty good idea, though. Gene and his buddies must have decided on the eye-for-an-eye option after all.
They wouldn’t give up until they found me. Which meant I wouldn’t be safe anywhere. The farther I went from home, the less chance they’d succeed, but I would never be completely safe.
I didn’t want to think about that. Right now the only thing I could do was leave the diner and hope they didn’t show up before I hopped on a bus.
“Thanks,” I said again.
She didn’t have to tell me not to come back to the diner. Her wide eyes said it perfectly. The town was small, and people noticed strangers. Too many people had already seen me. If anyone asked about me, they would answer.
I walked back to the motel. I wanted to run, but people might have noticed.
Mr. Creepy was still at the desk, of course. He was playing another game on his phone. Maybe I could sneak past him.
No such luck. “How was your meal?” he asked without looking at me.
“You were right. The food there was good.” I kept moving toward the stairs. Why couldn’t this have been one of those motels with the outside stairs? “Thanks for the tip. Have a good night.”
“Hang on a minute.”
He came out from behind the counter, leering. Every bit of my brain screamed “danger,” and my hands heated up again. Just his twisted mouth and the gleam in his eyes was enough to tell me what he had on his mind. I saw more with my mind. The disgusting images that jumped into my brain, of him making me do things I would never do in real life, turned my stomach. A nasty taste rose into my throat. I kept my gaze on him and backed toward the stairs.
“You’re pretty young to be traveling on your own,” he said. “You should have someone watching out for you. A friend.”
“I’m all set, thanks.” My foot hit the bottom step, and my heart raced. I stepped up. I still wasn’t far enough away from him. If I tried going up the stairs, he might try to grab me. “Look, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’m going up to my room for the night. I need some sleep so I can leave first thing in the morning. So I’d really appreciate it if you left me alone.”
“There are only two other guests in the motel tonight,” he said.
I would have assumed he was changing the subject if I hadn’t sensed the warning behind the words.
“What are you so afraid of?”
His dead-fish breath filled my nose, and I could count the zits on his too-pale face. Only a few inches separated us. My heart beat so fast a doctor wouldn’t have been able to count my pulse, and my hands were hot as hell. If I touched this guy, he’d be ash in half a minute.
If he touched me, I might not be able to help it.
“Back off.” My voice shook. “I’m not interested, okay? Just go back to your game and leave me alone.”
I stepped up onto the next stair, still facing him. He grinned. “You realize I have access to all the rooms, don’t you? Why play games? You’re a runaway, right? I know what they do to keep themselves going. It won’t be your first time, right?”
“Yeah, actually it would be, and I’m holding out for someone who isn’t a complete… stranger.” Calling him a creep wouldn’t have helped. “I’m going upstairs now.”
I narrowed my eyes. I got people to do what I wanted when I didn’t try. I had to make it work now. Unless it actually had been all coincidences, in which case I was screwed. “Go back to the desk and forget I’m even here.”
He grabbed my wrist.
Smoke poured from where he touched me. The smell of burning flesh filled the air.
He screamed and let go to stare at his red blistering hand. “What the fu—”
“Watch your language.” This time my voice didn’t shake a bit. “I’m too young to hear those words. I’m going up to my room now.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” He stared at me, wide-eyed and even paler than he’d been moments earlier.
“Put some cool water on your hand. It might help.”
It wouldn’t. He would need medical attention, if he managed to figure out a believable explanation for how he’d been burned. He couldn’t be stupid enough to tell the truth. No one would believe him.
I backed slowly up the stairs. I’d scared the crap out of him, but it didn’t mean he’d given up. I didn’t dare turn my back on him.
He stared at me until I’d gone high enough on the stairs I couldn’t see him anymore. Probably even after that.
I didn’t feel good about scaring him. I’d scared myself too. If he hadn’t backed off, and if I hadn’t been trying so hard to keep control, things would have been a lot worse. Another second or two and I would have lost it.
I couldn’t take this kind of chance again. Even if it meant I spent the rest of my life on buses, I had to stay away from people.