A fire. An accidental psychic. A chance for two foster kids to stop an interdimensional civil war.
Growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Oklahoma City, Jenna Two Horse and Calvin Little have led a hard-knock life. In foster care for as long as they can remember, they’ve learned to survive without relying on anyone else.
But when their younger foster brother is threatened, Jenna and Calvin discover “survival skills” that defy imagination. As they explore their new skills, they stumble upon facts that force them to question everything she thought they knew about the world — and themselves.
Without meaning to, Jenna and Calvin get caught between two powerful men with conflicting agendas. Will they pick the right side of this fight? Or will they end up as collateral damage in an interdimensional civil war?
Playing With Fire is a young adult science fiction / fantasy adventure novel. If you like great fight scenes, creepy villains, and sci-fi superpowers… but you also like a good coming of age story filled with three-dimensional characters struggling to find their place in the world, you’ll love this book.
This book is set in the same universe as R. A. Marshall’s Guardians of the Portal Trilogy, but Playing With Fire marks the beginning of a new adventure.
The first part of this novel includes references to childhood sexual abuse and explores the characters’ response to that abuse.
There is absolutely nothing explicit or graphic. I would rate the book PG-13 for content and occasional strong language. However, sensitive readers and adults previewing this book for kids should be advised.
Excerpt: Chapter 1
I always knew there was something creepy about Mrs. Z’s son, but until Runt joined our merry little household, I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it.
Runt’s name wasn’t really “Runt,” but that was my thing — I never called anybody by their real name. When you’re in foster, people in your life come and go so quickly that it’s easier not to learn their names. When they disappeared on you, it didn’t matter as much. I lived with Mrs. Z for three years before I stopped calling her “Number Five,” and I still preferred calling Calvin (my other foster brother) “Arson,” but that was mostly because it got a rise out of him.
Whenever I called him Arson, he’d shake his head emphatically, sending his black curls bouncing side-to-side, and he’d say, “I wish you’d stop calling me that, Jenna. I told you I didn’t start those fires.”
I knew he was lying. I could see it in the way his pupils got bigger for a split second before returning to their normal size. Most people would’ve missed a subtle clue like that, but not me. I’d grown up surrounded by liars and cheats; I handled them as easily as rich kids handled smartphones.
“My social worker says it’s always better to admit the truth than to hide behind a lie,” I told Calvin sagely the last time I’d backed him into his lie. Then I pitched my voice high in imitation of my latest Child Protective Services case manager, whom I called Headache, because that was what her shrill voice and her constant preaching gave me, and said: “‘The truth will set you free. That’s the word of God, darlin.’”
Calvin snorted. “Whatever, Twinkle Toes.”
Twinkle Toes? How was that even a dig? He’d been trying to think up a good nickname for me for four years, and the best he could come up with was Twinkle Toes?
But anyway. Back to Mrs. Z’s son.
His real name was Joe or John or Jake or something. I started out calling him Jelly Boy, for the excessive amount of hair gel he used and his slight pudge, but that turned into Jellyfish because he was so damned fishy. Then Jellyfish got shortened to Fish, and somehow Fish became Slick, and Slick became Slick Rick, which Calvin changed to Slick Dick.
And that suited him, because he was. A dick, I mean.
Slick was in his mid-twenties, maybe, dark hair, never-seen-the-sun white skin, meticulously clean and neat, with clear fingernail polish on his nails. Which was weird. He lived in the Plaza District, the closest thing the OC (my name for Oklahoma City) had to a Group Home for Hipsters, and he obviously thought his address cemented his Mr. Cool-thing even further. He’d always find a way to bring it up in front of Calvin and me, which made me wonder why he was trying so hard to impress a couple of teenage foster kids. Didn’t he have children his own age to hang out with?
Calvin and I made fun of him behind his back all the time.
“So yeah, I live in a loft in the Plaza District,” I’d say, mimicking him.
“You’re so cool!” Calvin would say in falsetto, clasping his hands and batting his big brown eyes like a lovesick girl.
“You wanna come over to my place and party sometime?” I’d answer in Slick-voice. “My friends come over all the time. We got sooo high together last weekend — it was awesome.”
Which he’d actually told us one time. So impressive.
“Ooooh, can I? I can’t wait to come over!”
Thankfully, Slick had figured out he was too old to keep living at his mother’s house, so in the four years that I’d been staying with Mrs. Z, we didn’t have to deal with him that often. Mrs. Z was my Number Five foster mother, and she was better than Numbers One through Four put together and then some, but still, I would’ve beat Arson to the job and set fire to Mrs. Z’s house myself just to get the Great State of Oklahoma to take me away if I had to see Slick every day.
Slick was a straight-up Mama’s Boy. He came over at least once a week to “check on her” — which really meant he came over to eat her food and bore Calvin and me to death with his stupid stories.
But I always felt like there was something else going on with his weekly visits, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something that gave me a crawly-skin feeling. Slick had this way of inspecting us foster kids that I didn’t like, something that made my gut tighten when he showed up and kept me from relaxing until he left.
Then Runt showed up.
Five years old and full of fight. A black kid with too many short white scars on his arms, if you asked me. Already been through a Number One and some time in one of the group homes; Mrs. Z was his Number Two. He gave her trouble from the very beginning, but that was to be expected, and Mrs. Z knew it. Mrs. Z was a saint. Holier than Mother Theresa and Gandhi and Nelson Mandela put together. She could have fostered the Devil Himself and turned him into an Angel by the end.
In fact, that was what I’d called Runt at first, Lil Devil, but then he ran off from Mrs. Z’s house one afternoon. We combed the neighborhood for him for hours — Calvin and Mrs. Z and me — and Mrs. Z was panicking like I’d never seen her panic — but the Lil Devil had tricked us all. He hadn’t gone anywhere. He’d been hiding out underneath Mrs. Z’s front porch the whole time.
I’d come back to the house on my own to do another sweep around the yard — it was a gut feeling — and could see him between the old, weathered lattice work, rocking back-and-forth like a real five year-old instead of a Devil.
I’d been about to pull a “Ha! Caught you, you little…” when I saw him under the porch, but I stopped short when I heard him crying. “Keke,” the Lil Devil Runt moaned to himself. “Keke, Keeekeeee…”
I’d been there. We all had. I’d cried for my grandmother for weeks and weeks and weeks after she died and the state took me away. I’d been even younger than him, but it still hurt if I thought too much about it.
I didn’t want to embarrass the kid, so I let him stay there under the porch and cry it out for a while. When he pulled himself together and crawled out, I acted like it was a big surprise and I nabbed him and dragged him back inside the house.
I called him Runt instead of Devil after that.
Mrs. Z told me later that Runt had an older sister, Keke, that he got separated from when he was taken away from his Biologicals. I wondered if I had a sister. The good thing about not knowing much about my Biological Family was that if I did have any brothers or sisters, at least I didn’t miss them.
I tried to tell Runt how lucky he was to have Mrs. Z. “She’s only your Number Two. You should be happy about that. She’s my Number Five. Trust me, you could do a lot worse than living with Mrs. Z.”
“Screw you,” Runt had answered.
Yeah, that’s how we all were at the beginning, when we still had some sort of Orphan Annie fantasy playing in our heads, where the sun’ll come out tomorrow, we’d go home to Mommy and-or Daddy, who would’ve have magically changed in the time that we’d been gone, and everything would be okay. We’d be normal kids who played Little League and did back-to-school shopping and had fancy video game consoles and went to school in new clothes that didn’t smell like a dumpster.
Thing about Orphan Annie? She was a fictional character.
The afternoon I finally nailed Slick for what he was started out like any other weeknight. Calvin and I sat in the living room, doing homework. Runt was upstairs, being obstinate and antisocial, as usual, and Mrs. Z bustled around the kitchen, baking something that smelled amazing. As usual.
The backdoor behind the kitchen rattled open, making Calvin jump and whirl around (because Calvin’s a very jumpy guy), and Slick waltzed in. His mother gave a surprised little, “Oh! You scared me,” but then she gave him a hug and went up on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek.
I gave Slick a quick, sideways glance from the couch. He looked pleased, maybe because he’d scared dear old Mrs. Z, or maybe because he smelled whatever was baking in the oven.
“Hi, Mom,” he said. “Whatcha baking?” He tipped open the oven door to see what was inside, and she gave him a playful swat on the backside with her dishtowel.
“Don’t,” she said. “It’s a surprise for our new little boy.”
“A surprise? For a foster kid but not for your own son?” His tone was light and teasing enough, but I rolled my eyes. There were only two types of natural children of your foster parents: The ones who treated you like second-class citizens and the ones who treated you like second-class citizens. Slick fell into the first category.
“He’s still adjusting to being here, but his birthday’s coming up soon,” Mrs. Z said. She lowered her voice to tell him Runt’s story — or Raymond according to her — and I tuned them out and went back to my homework.
They must have talked about him for a while, because I finished the first question on my history assignment before I heard Slick say loudly, “Mom, how many times have I told you to stop feeding every stray kitten who shows up on your doorstep? Once you start, you know they never leave.”
Eww. Just eww. And I’m sure he said it extra-loud intentionally so that we could hear. I looked over at Calvin to see if he’d heard Slick, but he was chewing away at his eraser and staring at his algebra book.
“Well, if you think he’s going to be here for a while, I suppose I should at least meet him.” Slick sighed, as if meeting another one of Mrs. Z’s fosters was a huge burden on him that he nevertheless nobly accepted.
“Raymond!” hollered Mrs. Z, which startled Calvin enough that he dropped his math book on the floor. Papers spilled out in every direction. I chuckled. “Come on downstairs! There’s someone here who wants to meet you!”
“NO!” yelled Runt.
Now Calvin was paying attention. He smirked at me.
“Five bucks says she can’t get him to come downstairs,” he whispered.
“You’re on,” I said, slapping his hand. “But you better actually have five dollars somewhere in that disaster zone you call a room.”
Undeterred by Runt’s bad attitude, Mrs. Z stuck her head into the living room and shouted towards the stairs, “I’ve got a treat baking for you in the oven — don’t you want to see what it is?”
There was a pause this time, a moment of hesitation. Then: “I don’t want a treat!”
“You don’t? It’s chocolate!”
“I hate chocolate!”
Yeah, right. What five year-old hates chocolate?
“You’re the one who’d better have five bucks somewhere,” Calvin said to me.
The shouting match was giving me a headache and distracting me from my homework. I was making an honest attempt to pull my grades up this semester, mainly for Mrs. Z. She always told me I was a smart, smart girl, and the only reason I’d failed two classes the year before was that I wasn’t “applying” myself — but all this yelling was making it impossible to concentrate.
I sighed and closed my book.
“Mrs. Z,” I said, “do you want me to try to get him to come down?”
“It’s okay, Jenna. I don’t want you to have to stop doing your homework.”
“I already stopped.”
“Well… Alright, then. See if you can coax him on down here.”
I raised an eyebrow at Calvin.
He frowned. “That’s cheating.”
“Better go get my five dollars, Arson.”
I stood up, stretching and adjusting the stocking cap on my head.
“Why do you always wear your hat inside?” Slick asked.
I reached under the cap, pushing a few strands of long, black hair behind my ears.
“I get cold easily.” I wasn’t going to tell him the the black-and-orange Oklahoma State hat had belonged to my biological grandmother, my true Number One.
Slick chortled. “Cold? In my mother’s house? Not possible.” The way he said “my mother’s house” made it very clear whose house this was — not mine. But Mrs. Z didn’t notice the insinuation. Because she didn’t notice stuff like that. In almost four years of living with her, I’d become convinced that she wasn’t capable of thinking bad thoughts about anyone. Unlike me. I was having a pretty bad thought about Slick right about then.
“You know what I think?” he continued. “I bet you wear it because you think it makes you look gangsta.”
Gangsta? I bit back a comment pointing out that he wouldn’t know what a real “gangsta” was until he got carjacked by one.
“Oh Joel,” Mrs. Z said with an indulgent smile. “Don’t be silly.”
I didn’t respond — Mrs. Z would have been proud of me if she’d realized how I’d just controlled my temper. I turned away from Slick so that I could focus on the task at hand. Runt was coming downstairs, one way or another.
I knocked on Runt’s door, waited a sec, then pushed it open gently.
He sat up on his bed, wiping tears from his face furiously. “Go away, ho!” he shouted, throwing a pillow at me. I deflected it with my hand and closed the door behind me, leaning against it.
“Isn’t your birthday coming up soon?” I asked. He didn’t answer. “I think Mrs. Z’s baking you an early birthday cake. A chocolate one.” I paused. “Have you ever had a birthday cake before?”
I wouldn’t have been surprised if he hadn’t. I knew I’d had a birthday party at my Biological’s when I was four because I had a faded old snapshot of the event, but I’d been too young to remember it and didn’t have a birthday cake again until my Number Three, when I was seven or eight.
Runt huffed and laid down on his bed, pointing his back towards me. “Birthdays are a big deal with Mrs. Z. She celebrates your birthday all week. She gives whoever’s birthday it is a present every single day — so you get seven presents. And it all starts with the birthday cake.”
“I don’t care about a stupid birthday cake,” he grumbled.
But come on, the kid was five. He was bound to crack sooner or later.
“The last present you get — which is on your actual birthday — you get to go to the store with Mrs. Z and pick out anything you want. Last year, she got me these boots.” I tapped them together. “I thought they’d be too expensive and she’d say no, but I really needed new shoes. I think they’re pretty badass, don’t you?”
He turned around, examining my black combat boots. Then he rolled back over.
“Them are ugly-ass boots.”
I should’ve seen that one coming. I swallowed my annoyance and focused on the five bucks Calvin was going to owe me.
“What do you want for your birthday? I can tell Mrs. Z for you if you want.”
“You like Legos?” No answer. Maybe he didn’t know what Legos were. I searched my memory, trying to think of what the little boys I’d met over the years liked to play with. “What about cars? Trucks? Arson said he used to —”
“Trains,” Runt said.
“Trains,” I repeated. “Yeah, trains are cool. What kind of —”
“I had a train once, at my Mama’s house. It was blue.”
“I bet Mrs. Z would get you a blue train like the one you used to have, if you asked real nice.”
“I don’t want another blue train!” he wailed, sitting up and fixing his demon eyes on me. I braced myself for him to leap out of the bed and attack me, but he didn’t. Instead, he deflated suddenly. “I just want to go home. I want my…” but he didn’t finish the statement. He probably didn’t know who he was supposed to want. His Mama? Maybe she was the one who’d given him all those little white scars. Her, or some bad-tempered boyfriend.
Runt sat cross-legged on the bed and propped his elbows on his knees, letting his face fall into his hands.
“Who do you want?” I asked quietly. “Your sister?”
He looked at me sharply. “How’d you know ’bout my sister?”
I shrugged. I wasn’t going to let him know I’d heard him crying for her under the porch.
“Mrs. Z told me. Listen, Run — Ray, you might not want to hear this, but the truth is, it might be a long time before you go back to your Mama’s house. And a long time before you see your sister again. I know that sucks, but Mrs. Z, she’s a good person. She’ll take good care of you. Me and Arson, we’re really not that bad, either. It’s a lot better being here than at a group home. Believe me. But you have to stop acting so tough all the time, okay?”
He gazed at me, processing what I’d told him, weighing it out in his kindergartener’s brain. “Why you call Calvin ‘Arson’?”
His question was still soaked through with attitude, but it was progress.
“It’s a nickname.”
“What’s it mean?”
“Nothing. Just that he likes to play with fire.”
He looked back down at his lap. “My sister Keke says you shouldn’t play with lighters or matches.”
“She’s right. You shouldn’t.”
“Why does he do it, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Didn’t nobody ever teach him better?”
I sighed, starting to lose my patience. “I told you I don’t know, Runt. Why don’t you come downstairs and ask him? And maybe your birthday cake will be done cooking by then.”
The Lil Devil finally caved and I got him downstairs, nudging him ahead of me into the kitchen, where Slick was chattering away to his mother, no doubt bragging about his stupid loft in the stupid Plaza District. I grinned at Calvin as I passed him, holding up five fingers to remind him of the five bucks he owed me.
Slick stopped talking when Runt came into view — right in the middle of a sentence, his mouth hanging open. I got that gut-clenchy feeling I had with him sometimes.
“Raymond!” Mrs. Z said happily. “You came down right in time. Your birthday cake is almost ready to come out of the oven.”
“Is it really chocolate?” Runt asked timidly. For once he sounded like a normal little boy, not like a demon child raised by a pack of wolves.
“It is chocolate,” Mrs. Z said, and a broad smile lit up her face as she knelt down close to him, taking his hands in hers. “And Ray, there’s someone special here I want you to meet.” She gestured at Slick behind her. “This is my youngest natural son, Joel. Joel, this is Raymond. Raymond Miller.”
Usually, Slick looked the new fosters up and down from a distance, then gave a curt nod and carried on with whatever he’d been doing the moment before. To my surprise, this time Slick actually stood up at the sound of his name and stepped over to where his mother crouched next to Runt. Then he put on the biggest, toothiest, dumbest smile I’d ever seen him wear and beamed down at the kid.
He reached out a hand. Runt took it, tentatively, and Slick pumped it up and down.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Raymond Miller,” he said genially. “I’m so glad you’re staying with my mom. And I think you and I will be good friends.”
What the hell?
I glanced over my shoulder to see if Calvin had seen this bizarre-o scene play out, but all I could see was the back of his head as he leaned over his math book. I looked back at Slick, who was still hunched over, talking to Runt, wearing that same idiot’s grin. Then it all clicked into place.
Stay in foster long enough, and you learn to spot a perv a mile away. We girls especially had to deal with it — my nickname for my Number Three “dad” had been Happy Hands, and when his wife finally caught him going after me, I was out of their apartment and back in the group home in less than forty-eight hours. They told the state I was “too out-of-control,” and I didn’t have the guts to tell my CPS case worker the truth.
I’d pegged Slick for a perv the first day I met him, but he’d never tried to mess with me, so after a while I’d figured maybe he wasn’t a perv after all, just a dorky dickhead. But I’d been right all along. Except he wasn’t the kind of perv who was into teenage girls. He was the kind who liked boys. Little ones.
As I stood there at the edge of the kitchen, trying to process what I’d just figured out, a sudden, disorienting image filled my mind. I was looking through Slick’s eyes at a computer screen, drumming my fingers on the desk impatiently while I waited for a video to download. A video that excited the Slick-me and nauseated the Jenna-me. Then the vision disappeared again, as quickly as it had come.
What the hell had that been? I blinked, dizzy.
My stomach soured, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat any birthday cake that night.