Author: Ashley Poston
She’d been in the forest before, so often she’d memorized the paths, and how long she could run before it caught her. In every dream, she’d hear a low grunt, the slap of paws, the howl―the memory so vivid her muscles tensed.
But not tonight.
The needle-work woods were quiet tonight.
She eased her way through the thickets, looking for another path. One led to a lake, another to a cave, and the straightest path didn’t have an end. Or if it did, she had never reached it before. She turned down that one, lined with thickets and brambles, berries plush for picking and gnarled, corkscrew roots, and went.
There was something she was supposed to be doing. It was a feeling she always had. She was supposed to be doing something, looking for something―someone? But who? The name was so close, she could feel it, warm as sunlight, on her lips.
A clearing came into view up ahead, moonlight spilling upon an old and worn stone. The air had gotten colder, and she shivered unconsciously, drawing her arms around herself. She’d never made it this far in her dream before, because she’d always wake up a few moments after the chase began, just when the claws were at her back and its breath on her throat.
She neared the gravestone, squinted at the inscription.
There was a hush, a hot breath. She slapped the back of her neck and spun around on her heels―
And let out a soundless scream.
Mallory woke up gasping.
Her hands shook, her bones rattled. Not again. That stupid dream―the running, the chasing―don’t think about it, she told herself, don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. She turned over, and reached to pull the covers up over her shoulder, but there were none.
Bolting upright, startled, she twisted her head around. A train compartment. It jostled ever-so-slightly with the steady hiccup of the railroad. The Northface she had covered herself with earlier had fallen to the floor.
Oh, that’s right, she was on a train. Heading toward a foster family. A dead feeling twisted her gut at the thought. Foster family. She’d never seen foster kids before. Or foster parents. Were they cranky old people with gaped teeth and pimples? Were the kids allergic to everything and living in bubbles? Anti-social? Starving in decrepit houses? She’d only ever seen foster kids on Law & Order, and that didn’t give them a very good rap.
“It’s only temporary. We’ll find your mom,” the police had promised. “She’s bound to turn up somewhere.”
Mal knew that was a big, stinking lie. Mom wasn’t bound to turn up anywhere. If she didn’t want to be found, they wouldn’t find her. Mal had come home a week ago to a deserted house. Mom’s clothes were gone. Her jewelry missing. She hadn’t left a note or directions. She hadn’t left…anything. When Mal realized what had happened, what it meant, she felt like an abandoned bag of luggage in the rain.
“In the meantime,” a spry woman with foster care had given her a bag of M&Ms―to console her?―and said, “we’ll place you with a nice family so you don’t feel as lonely.”
Lonely. Right. She’d feel lonely even if they stuck her in an auditorium full of people who loved her. There was no cure for abandonment―she couldn’t even be shipped to another family member, because she didn’t know any. Or didn’t have any. Mom had never said much either way.
The worst part was that Mal never saw it coming. She’d said just that to the police, and to foster care. Her Mom had been cheerful and outgoing that morning, all smiles and kisses right up until Mal left for the school bus. But if she thought a little deeper, she could remember her Mom wandering the house in the dead hours of the night, muttering to herself. Mal would catch her leaning against the kitchen sink on nights with full moons, moonbeams spilling onto her face through the window as she spoke with it. That didn’t frighten Mal as much as the thought that the moon might talk back.
If Mal tried to go to sleep again, she knew she wouldn’t be able to because her legs wouldn’t stay put and her mind would circle like a vulture around the running dream, about her Mom, and about the foster family―the Whites. That was the last thing she wanted to think about. Foster families. But between living in an abandoned house and somewhere else, she’d choose somewhere else in a heartbeat. She’d never been good at making friends, anyway, so the friends she did have at school would wonder where she’d gone for a few weeks, and move on. Mom had uprooted her enough times in her grand tours across the country for her to realize that.
Standing and putting on her Northface, she slid out of the compartment and wandered down the hallway. She thought she’d seen a dining cart when she boarded the train, and she was kind of hungry. When was the last time she’d eaten? Yesterday? That sounded right.
When she finally found the dining compartment, it was almost empty, save for a single man in a booth, flipping through yesterday’s paper and sipping a cup of black-as-sin coffee, and the waiter. She sat down in the furthest seat from the man, and waited for the waiter to come, a tired guy who looked like he needed a few hours of sleep, too.
“A coffee and… do you have any Poptarts or anything? Something sweet?” she asked. After her nightmares, Mom could somehow sense her panic and come into her room with a cinnabun or a cookie she’d baked the day before. The sweetness soothed her. It was strange, but she always chalked that up to just that―being strange.
“We have honeybuns,” he said.
“That’d be awesome.”
“Cream and sugar?”
“Nah,” she replied, “I take mine as black as my heart.”
He chuckled. “I’ll have that right up for you, ma’am.”
Ma’am. He must’ve been from the south. She’d lived in South Carolina for a while―Charleston. Her Mom loved it there, and would disappear to the ocean every full moon, and come back just before sunrise. She did a lot of crazy things, now that Mal thought about it. She’d always just chalked it up to her Mom being, well, Mom. She’d never known anything else. Because of the way Mom was, Mal had never gone to the doctor. When she had the sniffles she’d drink a nasty tea, and when she hurt herself she’d slather a salve over it. When she was sad, Mom would twine dandelions into my hair, and when she was happy they would go on picnics and adventures and explore every nook and crevice in the city they occupied.
Home was just a word to Mal. It meant about as much as she meant to the kids at her old school. As much as she evidently meant to her Mom.