Emerald Fire will go on sale Monday, April 23rd. If you haven’t read Book 1, Sapphire Ice, yet, you can find it at several locations here.
THAT afternoon, Maxine Bartlett had watched two policemen drag her sister, Robin, kicking and screaming, away. Maxine could remember with perfect clarity Robin’s blood soaked clothes, the blood on her hands, the ferocious look on her face, her blonde curls damp with sweat born of fury, one shoe kicked off in her struggle with the police. They’d separated the girls, bundling Robin into the back of a police car and Maxine into the back of an ambulance. For the first time in her fourteen year long life, Maxine no longer had Robin beside her. She felt completely alone.
And absolutely terrified.
Maxine clutched the broken strap of her backpack tightly while she stared down at the hole in the toe of her sneakers. She let her straight black hair dangle down in front of her face while she kept her head bowed, effectively shielding her from the outside world. Despite her many questions, no one would tell her anything.
The visit to the county hospital in the heart of Boston had humiliated her. A rushed female doctor poked and prodded and scraped and assured that “this won’t hurt a bit” right before hurting Maxine quite a bit. The whole while, a female nurse with bored and somewhat distracted eyes and an absent touch chaperoned the ordeal, snapping occasional Polariods each time the doctor requested one. Someone brought her some new underwear and a pair of scrubs that hung loosely on her long skinny body. The clean scrubs looked starkly bright against Maxine’s darker skin and straight black hair.
Five long hours later, a harried social worker arrived and collected Maxine. She introduced herself politely and Maxine instantly forgot the woman’s name.
So here she stood – her fourth foster home in just under two years. She could hear other kids playing somewhere out of sight. She wondered, briefly, if anyone her age lived here. She took time to wonder, yet again, where Robin was and what was happening with her – or to her.
She zoned in on the conversation the nameless social worker was having with foster mother number four, catching the last part of the sentence. “…watch her closely for any kind of symptoms, since she refused any prophylactic measures. She has two sisters, and is looking for information on them. I’ll see what I can find out.”
Maxine flinched and shifted away as the foster mother tried to lay a hand on her shoulder. She felt heat flush her cheeks when she realized what she’d done and tried to relax. The woman didn’t reach out again. Fine by Maxine.
“… any other injuries? Does she have stitches or anything that will require special care?”
“Just bruises. No broken bones or open wounds, thank goodness. I’d say she’s lucky except, of course, he hurt her in other ways…”
Maxine wished she could drown out their voices. She missed her music, her earphones. She wondered if her Walkman made it into her backpack or if it got left behind. She’d investigate what got packed later.
“Do I need to worry about the other children?” foster mother number four asked.
The social worker flipped through the file in her hand. Maxine knew it was all about her and felt the flush on her cheeks spread to her ears and down her neck. “There’s no telling, honestly. Her mother died violently, her sister obviously displays violent tendencies, her last home environment was less than ideal…”
Maxine lowered her head and let the curtain of hair encase her in solitude once more. She kept her head bowed and tried to make her hair completely hide her strongly native American features.
She let her thoughts drift away again, not wanting to hear them talk about her anymore. She imagined herself on the docks listening to the sound of the water slap against the side of the boats harbored there. In her imagination, seagulls squawked overhead, flying against the bright blue sky. She could smell fish and wet wood and salt water and felt the bright spring sun shining down on her black hair.
Her second grade class had gone to a seaport museum once. Maxine fell in love with the docks then and used those few hours she spent there years ago as her refuge – her solace against the horrible outside world.
In her mind’s eye, she imagined that her sisters Robin and Sarah stood on either side of her, each holding her hands, as they looked out over the expanse of the sea. The breeze blew Sarah’s little curls against her pale cheek. Maxine wondered if Sarah was still really tiny or if finding a good foster home had helped her put on some weight. Almost two years had gone by since that fateful night, and she’d looked like a six year old instead of a nine year old. None of them had ever really eaten well, and Sarah’s body just couldn’t handle the lack of nutrition.
Robin stood strong and tall against the wind, a force to be reckoned with at the ripe old age of seventeen. She acted as Maxine and Sarah’s protector, their defender, and their caregiver. Without her, Maxine didn’t know what would have happened to them.
All of a sudden, Robin’s face started to lose detail. Then she faded away altogether. Where was Robin? What would happen to her, now? Would Robin vanish just as Sarah had vanished from her life?
If she could find the right song, if she could figure out the right music to pump into her ears, it would make all the bad thoughts go away. She wanted her earphones. She wanted the bad thoughts to go away.
Their mother had used a lot of drugs, which really meant she had used a lot of men to get drugs. When she tired of them or they tired of her, she’d move on to the next man, dragging her daughters along in tow. Robin knew of the dangers, through experiences she would not talk about, and taught her sisters how to hide in closets, how to be quiet as mice, how to go unnoticed in a room filled with used syringes and empty gin bottles, smelling so much like old copper and cheap pine cleaner.
Robin would put her arms around her sisters in the dark and sing under her breath, sometimes. She didn’t like music so much but it soothed her younger siblings. What did Robin used to sing when things got really bad? She couldn’t remember.
The sisters survived it. Their mother didn’t. While the sisters hid in the closet and their mother argued with the man who would be the last in a long line of boyfriends, an unseen killer burst into the apartment and murdered them both. When the police came, they took Sarah to a good home and took Robin and Maxine to the first of several foster homes. The two older sisters clung to each other and vowed to get Sarah back one day so that they could stay together and face the world as one.
Now they were all separated. Maxine didn’t know what to do without Robin there to guide her, so she clung to Robin’s hand on that imaginary dock. She breathed in the scent of the ocean. They continued to talk very loudly about exactly what had happened to her just as if she weren’t standing right there next to them. She tried to hum really loudly to drown out the noise of whats-her-name the social worker and newest foster mother four million miles away from the place in her thoughts.
Startled, Maxine returned to the little house in the suburbs of Boston and realized that the social worker had departed. Maxine stood alone in the foyer with new – newest – foster mother. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and blinked. “Yes?”
“Maxine, I’m Juliette. Do you like to be called Maxine?”
Maxine shook her head.
“Well, I have to call you something. What do you like to be called, sweetie?” Juliette asked.
“Max. Or Maxi.” The words came out slowly, as if she had to form them out of a sticky dough and let the dough rise first.
“Max it is, then. You can call me Juliette or Jules. My husband, Steven, will be home from work soon. You’ll meet him then.”
Maxine nodded and tried to swallow around the fist of fear that had closed on her throat. What would Steven be like?
“Max, Steve is a very good man. He was named for the disciple, Stephen, in the Bible. Do you know that story?” Maxine shook her head. “Well, that’s okay. I’ll tell you the story later if you like. Or maybe he can tell you.”
Maxine could feel her lip quivering and she tried to make it stop. She didn’t want to show any weakness or uncertainty. She couldn’t afford it. She had to remain strong until she could find Robin. She made herself a promise that she could endure anything that happened until she found Robin again.
“There are four other children here. Three girls and a boy. I expect you will get along fine with my girls. But you know, little boys are different. He’s going to be sad that you aren’t a boy. When we got the call this morning, he was hopeful.” Juliette smiled, but Maxine was still thinking about the husband, Steve, Stephen, from the Bible, who was due home any second. “They’re in the play room, for now. I thought maybe you’d like to help out for a little while instead of meeting them just yet.”
Maxine tried to keep her face composed, and forced a whisper out. “Help you do what?”
“I have a studio in the garage. I’m cleaning out some of my old paintings so I’ll have room to store my new ones. Why don’t you give me a hand and we’ll talk and get to know each other better.”
The idea of paintings caught Maxine’s attention. She loved paintings and loved to draw. She felt the fingers of apprehension loosen their grip around her gut and shifted her backpack to her other hand. “Sure.”
Juliette smiled and gestured grandly. “This way to the garage,” she said. “We’ll keep the scrubs on you for now, because there are some dusty corners in there. I have my husband stopping at the store on his way home to get you some decent clothes. Just enough until you and I can go to the store tomorrow morning. As soon as he gets here, you can go take a long bath and stay in the tub just as long as you want. Just for tonight, it’s okay.”
Maxine slowly nodded her understanding.
Jules put a hand on Maxine’s shoulder and searched her eyes. “You wash every single inch and scrub really good. And when you get out of the tub, you put on your fresh new clothes, and then I am going to give you a manicure and a pedicure. Do you know what that is?”
Maxine guessed she was just keeping her away from the other kids because of her “less than ideal” previous home, but she was okay with that. She wasn’t quite ready to face other kids without Robin by her side, anyway.
“You want to do my nails?”
Juliette smiled. “The girls will help. We can all get to know you and you can get to know us a little better. And tomorrow, you will wake up feeling fresh and clean and you can start a brand new day in your new home.”
They walked toward the garage and Maxine knew home was with Robin, not here with Juliette and Steven. But she wondered what waking up feeling fresh and clean would really feel like.