Note: this was originally for the Secret Society prompt, but this one worked too, so I guess it’s for...both?
I sit in the backseat of Mom’s car. I’m so excited! Mom FINALLY enrolled me in school. I’m sick of being homeschooled—two hours of Mom lecturing me and the rest of the day being stuck with ‘homework.’ We’re already at home! It’s the same as regular schoolwork that Mom makes me do, except it’s for when Mom has to deal with her company’s latest intern (a dumbo named Jack) and doesn’t want me bothering her. She hides all the electronics in her room so I can’t cheat, not that I would. I want to go to college, and they don’t let cheaters into college.
We pull up at the school and I practically squeal, leaping from my seat and pulling my backpack on. Hannah Kingsley is going to SCHOOL! Today’s gonna be the best day ever!
I have no clue where I am. The building had so many hallways and kids were going in all different directions and I just wound up here. It’s dark and I stepped in something sticky earlier.
I walk cautiously with my arms out, squinting. My hands find a door handle, and I hear noises on the other side of the wood.
Chalk on a board.
I think to myself, this sounds like a classroom! I turn the handle and enter a dimly lit room full of children. They sit at a round table. The oldest girl, a little older than me, is at the chalkboard. They don’t notice me at first.
“Is this Miss Woodson’s class?” I peep up. All heads turn to me and eyes narrow.
The kids are aged between around four to around fourteen. They’re all dressed in old coats, ripped jeans, and other dirty attire. One girl has a scar across her cheek, one has a deep gash in her left leg, and a little boy no older than seven has half of his fingers missing on his left hand. The whole scene made me tear up.
“I…I’m sorry…I’ll leave…” I manage, then run out the door. The oldest, the one at the chalkboard, grabs my hand just as I’m leaving.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
Her black shoulder-length curls frame her pale complexion. She wore a surprisingly clean blue sweatshirt and black leggings. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was Snow White.
My face turns sheet-white as I attempt to tug my hand away. The girl holds her grip, giving an unimpressed eyebrow raise.
“Please…please let me go…” I plead, whimpering quietly into the imposing stare of the girl. My eyes blur with tears.
The girl’s gaze seemingly softens for a moment, but is back to its stoney figure in no time. “No one can know about us. You need to swear to secrecy.”
“I swear! I swear not to tell! Let me go!”
The girl doesn’t loosen her hold. “Not good enough.”
A boy around ten behind her looks concerned. “Hay—”
“Not good enough,” the oldest girl repeats. The ten-year-old quiets.
The girl tugs me into the room. It had tables, chairs, a chalkboard, everything. “What is this place?” I ask.
The girl nods her head to two kids, each about twelve. They shut the door with a click and form a blockade so that it’s almost impossible to leave. The girl releases her grip and I pull my hand away, rubbing it. She motions to a red plastic chair and I sit.
“Name,” she demands.
“Hannah...” I say weakly.
The girl looks at me head-on. “I’m Hayley,” she begins. “I’m the leader of KAFC—”
“You’re the leader of Kentucky Fried Chicken?!”
She shoots me a withering glare. “KAFC. Not KFC. KAFC stands for Kids Against Foster Care. Each and every one of us has had a terrible experience with foster care. Yours truly was forced to sleep outside with no protection from the weather and wasn’t allowed to go to school. I’ve escaped before, but my foster father caught me. He gave me this:” Hayley sweeps her dark hair to one side and points to a faded scar on her right shoulder. It was in the shape of a broken heart. Below, in jagged, bold letters, it read, ‘UNGRATEFUL’. Hayley sighs. “He burned it into me with a metal rod. I’ll never forget his face. It was…hungry. Mr. Pessil was the worst person I’ve ever met, and definitely the worst person I plan to meet. Four years ago, I think it was. I ran away again and met Ray here,” she motions to a boy about thirteen, “in an underpass by the town’s soup kitchen. We shared our lunches for weeks. Then I met Chelsea” —a girl waves— “on the sidewalk. You’d be surprised how many homeless children there are around here. We’re all runaways from foster care. Even little May, she’s only four, ran away from some bad homes. It started with just me and Ray and Chelsea, but then Maya, then Grayson, then Lee, then Maddy, then Austen, then Rita…” Each kid waves when their name is called. “Our group just keeps growing. It would be wonderful if our group didn’t need to grow, but kids are still being abused by foster parents. Our goal is to provide food, shelter, and hope to kids who run away from foster care.”
I sit, looking anywhere but into Hayley’s intense blue eyes. Something tells me that if I do, I’ll start crying. And who knows when I’d stop.
I awkwardly tap my feet on the marble tile floor. I wish I could disappear on the spot.
Someone finally speaks. “So...what should we do with her?” An eight-year-old boy in a trench coat inquires. I don’t like his tone—he’s talking about me like a feral animal that needs to be handled carefully. And he’s talking about me to someone else—while I’m in the room.
Something inside me snaps. “Excuse me, but shouldn’t you be talking to me about this, too? Y’know, cuz I’m the person you’re talking about?! You wouldn’t be able to throw me out on my rear. I know too much.”
Hayley squints at me, not without her usual tinge of hatred, a midnight-black curl falling to her face. Flicking it away, she raised an eyebrow. “You swore you wouldn’t tell.”
“I swore that I wouldn’t tell what I knew then,” I say, feeling defiant. “Which was that there were a bunch of dirty kids with a freakishly strong ringleader in some abandoned classroom of the Spring Hill Junior High. What I didn’t swear not to tell was that there was an organization of foster kids called the KAFC. What I didn’t swear not to tell was all your names, all your appearances, basically all that you’ve told me since then. So yeah. Sure. Throw me out. We can talk when a social services truck comes to pick you up.”
For a second, Hayley looks like a deer caught in the headlights. A tiny girl in a pink parka runs to Hayley and cries into the leader’s sweatshirt.
Hayley comforts the girl quietly, then turns to me and whispers, “You wouldn’t.”
I give my best innocent look with a good dose of smugness. “And I won’t. As long as you treat me like a human instead of a testing rat.”
Hayley looks like she had something to say about that, but if she does, she gives no other signs of it. Sizing me up skeptically, she murmurs, “OK...”
I wait for her to continue, but she just clicks her tongue and turns away.
She signals to a few girls standing in the corner, but her back is turned so I can’t see. They have matching parkas. One a green coat, one has red, and one has yellow.
I hold my chin up primly, waiting for them to treat me like a princess.
Suddenly the colorful coat trio is all over me. Blue Jacket duct tapes my arms and legs together, Red Jacket pats my side down presumably for listening devices, and Yellow Jacket just stands there giving me the side eye, occasionally pinching me.
I stare at them in horror, but I quickly regain my posture despite the circumstances.
“It’s ironic that you have a yellow jacket,” I comment, “cuz you sure do sting.”
The side eye is upgraded to a full-on glare. I look away.
Hayley, atop a roller chair, glides over to me. With a knowing grin, she reclined into the leather. “Sure, we won’t throw you out. But we also won’t let you out. So, your choice. Swear to secrecy on anything and everything I or anybody else currently inside this room has told you, or stay here with duct tape binding your scrawny little appendages until your skin falls off.”
Sheesh, I think. She played the death card! She’s pretty rough.
The look on my face must be giving away my fear, because Hayley barks a laugh resembling a cackle. Little May doesn’t even flinch. Who are these people?
See, I don’t really want to tell you this part. It’s basically one of those clichéd what-have-I-done-I’m-so-eternally-sorry reflection moments, so skip right ahead of you want. If you’ve read at least three children’s books, you know how this is gonna go. But if you really want to hear the sappy regret, read on. Just maybe prepare yourself to stop reading.
Suddenly, I’m hit with a hot mess of thoughts.
What am I SAYING? I think. These are kids who have been through so much! I wouldn’t even be able to grasp the hurt they’ve felt because of this madness, and I have the nerve to threaten them! Who am I?
And with that, I break down in sobs.
I’m sitting in a red plastic chair in some unknown corner of my school, my hands and legs tied up with duct tape, and a homeless girl pinching me every two seconds. But they, they’ve been through so much more than being tied up and pinched. They had to run away, fend for themselves, and survive in Spring Hill, Florida! I think doing algebra is rough, but they consider themselves lucky to get a second meal per day!
Hayley seems to enjoy watching me bawl, but gradually she sobers up. She looks at me nervously, but not like she doesn’t know what to do. Like she knows what to do, but is skeptical about whether she actually should.
Eventually, Hayley gives in. Rolling her chair over to my side, she gives me a hug.
We just sit there. Me crying into my duct-taped hands, Hayley holding me, all a big mess of snot and tears and emotions.
Suddenly, I look up at Hayley. Swiping hair out of my face, I tell her, “I want to join you guys.”
Hayley looks at me quizzically. “But you’re not a foster kid.”
“But I’m a kid. And the acronym isn’t ‘Foster Kids Against Foster Care’, it’s ‘Kids Against Foster Care’.”
The leading girl looks to her group. “Should we?”
A chorus of nods and smiles sweeps across the small crowd of children. Hayley grins.
“Welcome to the team!”