Dear friends, it is with great wonder and joy that I bring you the first part of my novel: edited and maybe not quite how I wanted it to be read. I’ll have to wait and see. ;) All those characters in my novel are either created by myself or property of some big company whose fees I’ll never be able to afford. (Hence, this novel shall never be professionally published. A pity? Perhaps. I never wrote it with the hope of being published. I wrote the novel because it needed to be written.) To all I’ve included in this book, you receive my highest thanks and respect, especially to my villains; thanks to you I have no therapy bills to pay and a very firm grasp on the English language arts. ;) This book was created for those who seek to live in a fantasy world… it may have its perks, but it can be more than you bargained for. Remember that someone will always have it worse off than you, so there’s really no reason for self pity, is there? And now, in progress since my 7th grade year (1992), this humble dragon’s little novel…

"And all I can do is read a book to stay awake, and it rips my life away, but it’s a great escape…." --Blind Melon, "No Rain"

"For the Son of man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them…" –Luke 9:56 (inscribed in the front cover… I didn’t put it there, but you never know.. it could come in useful!)

The Adventures of Kiersten:

Part I

Chapter 1: How It All Began….

Kiersten gazed out her apartment window. A fourteen year old girl, with long brown hair and soft eyes, she didn’t look like someone who could lead her way out of a paper bag. It certainly wasn’t any ambition of hers. When asked about what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d say several different things… a writer, a cartoonist, an astronomer, a paleontologist. They were all subjects she took a liking to, and she figured that something in one of those subjects would be the perfect job for her future. Kiersten Lyn Radosevich knew right where her life was headed. Yessirree. No doubt about it.

She and her ailing mother lived in a large apartment complex in New York City. From the third floor of the eight story building, she could see just what every other third-floor window of the building could see… lots of other third-floor windows, complete with fire escapes and laundry lines. In essence, it was boring.

"I know! I’ll go see if Libbi and Erica are around!" she thought, rushing out the door to see if her best friends happened to be un-busy. Kiersten dashed across the hall and knocked on the door. Erica came rushing to greet her.

"Hi!" she said. "It’s about time you came over."

"Sorry. I was preoccupied."

"Oh, cut it out. You know I hate it when you use big words like that. I’m only in second grade."

"Can you play?" Kiersten blurted out, looking slightly sheepish afterward. *That sounded LAME!* she thought. When you were in the eighth grade, you did not "play," even when addressing a second grader who thought "playing" would be perfectly fine. You "hung out." Erica never caught the slip.

"Yeah, as soon as Libbi and I finish cleaning our room. Say in fifteen minutes?"

"Works for me. See ya then! I’ll be down in front.." she said, gesturing with her hands to imply the front steps of the brownstone.

Her compatriot nodded and waved, closing the door. "Bye!"

Kiersten rushed down the three flights of stairs and out of the building. She circled around the corner to the fire escape. She had no intention of waiting fifteen minutes and then some for her friends to clean up their room… which was always a disaster area. She eagerly jumped onto the ladder and climbed up the rattly metal steps. Tapping on their window, she ducked.

"Hi! What’re you doing out there?" Libbi exclaimed.

"I came to help you clean your room," she said, removing the screen from the open window and putting a leg inside.

"Don’t let our mom know you’re in here. She’d throw a fit!" Erica said. "By the way… how’d you get the screen off from the outside?"

"Oh, there’s a little rip in the corner. I just pulled on it and the whole screen lifted up. Just a trick of mine."

"You two gonna talk or clean?" asked Libbi, picking up junk off the floor.

"Okay, okay, I’m comin’, I’m comin’!" Kiersten said, clambering the rest of the way through the window.

Just then, the girls’ brother walked through the door.

"Ben, don’t you ever knock?!" said Erica, throwing a stuffed animal at him while Kiersten darted underneath the bed.

"I thought I just heard Kiersten. Where’d she go? Out the window? In the closet? Under the bed??"

"Ben! Leave the girls alone and clean your own room!" the trio’s mother called from the other room. Ben, rolling his eyes and complaining to her loudly, turned and stomped out of the room.

"Phew! That was close… too close!" Kiersten whispered, coming out and hurriedly stacking toys on a shelf, aiming the few that didn’t fit at a toybox Erica was in front of and shooting them in, narrowly missing her friend’s head.

"ACK! Watch it!!"

"SHHHHH!!"

"There… room’s clean. It’s a good thing we don’t have too much to clean up!"

"Yeah… we don’t get a lot of stuff anymore since dad lost his job here."

"Don’t worry," said Kiersten. "You’ve always got me."

"Not for long. We’re moving back to Texas," Libbi said forlornly.

"What! You’re moving?!"

"Yup. To El Paso."

"El Paso?!?" Kiersten whined. "When’ll I ever see you?"

"I dunno… Two or three years…" Libbi sighed back.

"Shhhh! I’ll talk to you outside. Bye!" Kiersten dashed out the window and down the fire escape, and not a moment too soon. Ben came into the room followed shortly by his mother.

"Okay," he said smugly. "Where is she?"

"Who?" asked the girls.

"Kiersten! Who else?!" Ben began searching every nook and cranny of the girls’ room. "Where’d you put her?"

"Ben, honey, are you sure you heard Kiersten in here? She’s down there on the street. Now stop lying to me or you’ll be grounded for the rest of this week. Understand me?" Ben moaned a yes to her. "Good."

"Can we go outside now, Ma?" Erica begged with hopefully gleaming eyes.

****************************************************************

Libbi and Erica ran down the stairs to meet Kiersten out front. She was talking to a couple of their other friends, Devon and Lisa. Lisa made some wisecrack which made them all burst out in giggles.

"Hi Dev!" cried the girls, bouncing up.

"Oh, hi, Libbi! Hi, Erica!" the shorter of the two blondes answered. "How’re you guys?"

"Fine.. How’s your parents’ divorce going?" asked Erica.

"Terrible," she said, putting her chin in her hand. "They’re arguing over me like a piece of property. It’s awful! I hate it!"

Lisa puffed annoyedly, knowing the feeling. "My parents still don’t know whether to get a divorce or not! What is this? Our lives are falling apart. Dev and me have family problems…"

"…we’re moving…" Erica inserted unenthusiastically.

"…and Kiersten is the only one in her family that hasn’t been sick with that weird genetic disease…"

Kiersten looked distanced from the conversation, as if trying to remember something. "Morning dose.. last night… medication, medication…. Ohmygosh!! Mom hasn’t had her medication all day!!" She bolted up the steps as fast as her unprepared legs would carry her, swearing them up and down. The rest of the troop of girls raced up after her, nearly trampling Ben, who thought he’d found an ideal place to eavesdrop on them. Getting caught in the panic of the moment, he followed as well.

****************************************************************

Kiersten’s mother was in bed, eyes closed, face expressionless. Kiersten had taken a pulse just like the doctors had showed her, and found nothing. Her eyes were welling over with tears, as she pleaded with God that this wasn’t true. "She must’ve died while I was outside… why didn’t I remember to check on her? It’s all my fault…."

"It’s not, Kiersten," Ben said, gripping her shoulder. "It was just her time, was all. You can’t compete with that."

"Yes I CAN!" she demanded, slamming a fist down on the bed.

A thick silence invaded the room, hanging for a few minutes before someone spoke. "Who are you gonna live with now, Kiers? You said that your grandparents all died a long time ago and you don’t have any aunts or uncles…"

Kiersten just stood with a lump in her throat. Lisa’s comment was just a little too blunt to be addressed at the moment.

"If you go, you know… run away, Kiers… we’re going with you. I’d rather be a runaway than have to go back to Texas again. Right, guys?" His sisters nodded, trying not to show how upset they were.

"Count me in. I’m sick of being fought over!" Devon declared.

"Don’t leave me behind!" cried Lisa. "I won’t have anyone to help fend off my bratty little brother and my turtle’s not all that much fun to play with! I’m coming with you!"

After a long moment, Kiersten wiped her eyes and calmed herself down as best she could. The last thing she ever wanted was to be placed in a new family. No matter how nice that could be, it wouldn’t feel right. She could tell that right now. She nodded, acknowledging the entire group’s desire to pack up and leave. She covered her dead mother’s face with the blankets, sobbing once before determining not to cry any more. Her mother had been in a lot of pain, and now, it was over for her.

"So, looks like we go," she sniffed. "We can gather our stuff together now and move to the outskirts… you know, that old deserted neighborhood."

"The condemned one?" Lisa queried, not looking thrilled.

"Yeah. No one’ll ever think of looking for us there. Bring just what you need. None of that junk McDonald’s calls ‘toys,’ Erica. Libbi, ask your mom if I can spend the night, wouldja? I don’t wanna stay here with –ulp- Mom… this place is freaking me out. I gotta get outta here… Could y’all help me pack my stuff while I go through and look for the cash?"

"I’ll help you.. you know I’m a cravin’ coward, Kiersten," Erica volunteered.

"Whatever," Kiersten said, choking back another tear.

After scouring just about every inch of the apartment, Kiersten was still determined not to give up. They’d checked every cabinet, cupboard, and drawer in the place, the linen closet, the laundry basket, under the beds and in the mattresses (thanks to an old movie Erica had seen, they’d slashed those to pieces to check). They had turned up nothing but the money from Kiersten’s mom’s purse, which was little more than $100.

"I know it’s gotta be here somewhere…" Kiersten pondered aloud.

"You don’t suppose that was all she had? Maybe the rest of it’s in the bank, like any other normal person?"

"Nah… Mom didn’t trust the system. One day while I was in school, she closed out all her accounts and brought them home."

Ben turned his head. "All? Accounts??"

"My dad used to be in the stock market. But instead of us moving into a big house or anything, he liked the way we were living, so he just put the extra in the bank. Mom and I could have anything we really really wanted, but anything we didn’t need, we didn’t get."

"How much did he make, for Christ’s sake?"

"Well, the bank will insure an account for up to $10,000. Mom came home complaining about how many banks she’d been to that day, so I assume dad had accounts all over the place. Any time mom needed to get some money, she’d go to whatever bank we were near, like it didn’t matter. Truth be told, I have no idea how much we had when dad died…" Kiersten paused, as if that thought pained her even more.

Erica, meanwhile, was wandering through the master bedroom, trying to solve the puzzle. The money wasn’t anywhere obvious, and Kiersten’s mother, if she really had as much as Kiersten said she did, wasn’t out to display her wealth in any fashion. The woman didn’t have a fur coat or designer dress in her closet.

Sighing, she sat down on the bed, almost forgetting the presence of the corpse there. Tired of looking, she was ready to give up. She flopped back on the torn mattress, gazing up at the ceiling, when something caught her eye. "Kiersten, your roof is fallin’ apart…" she called.

"That’s okayyyy… I’m moving out anyyywaayyyy…" Kiersten sang back annoyedly.

Erica mock-huffed and waved a hand at her friend, then went back to staring at the ceiling. Water damage didn’t do that to sheet rock, she thought. Not without staining it anyway. Neither did termites… because she’d had termites at her old house in Texas. Disgusting little things. Puzzled as ever, she stood up on the bed. She was too short to reach the ceiling even by jumping, but someone of about Kiersten’s mom’s height…

"Kiersten? Can I borrow a step stool for a minute?"

"In the kitchen.."

Erica dashed through the apartment to fetch the stool. It was still a little small… but that chair over in the corner looked like it would do the trick. Dragging it behind her back into the bedroom, she resumed her place on the bed, but now had an object to pry the lump in the ceiling open with. The first impact left a gouge, the second did more than a little damage and the paneling finally gave way…

The rest of the gang piled into the room at Erica’s startled shriek only to see her getting pummeled with bag upon bag of $100 denominations. "HaaAaaAAAllLllPpPP!!"

"Woohoo! Erica hit the jackpot! And I do mean hit!" Ben hollered.

"Think this is it, Kiers?" Lisa asked cynically.

"Well, that or Mrs. Johnston upstairs is running a counterfeiting ring…" She stared at the pile of ziplocks, each with roughly $2,000 in them, toppling on Erica, who was trying to shield herself from the deluge. "We’re gonna need a box." She glanced up at the mass still wedged in the ceiling panels. "A big box."

Ben pondered for a moment. "We could buy a mansion with this… heck, we could BUILD a mansion, hire eight butlers and 782 maids!"

Libbi glared at him. "Why would you need that many ma… no, nevermind, I forgot who I was talking to here…" With that she strolled off in search of said box.

"We’d still have to go to school though," Erica sighed.

"Plus," Kiersten added, "we have to save the money for food and stuff. And I know how much food you guys go through in a night.. you’ve been over at my place enough!"

"Speaking of which, we need to scope out the place and make up a shopping list of everything we need."

"Dev’s got a point. It’s about 3:00 now… you guys can tell your parents that we’ll be out to see a movie and hang out and stuff… and then that you’ll be spending the night over at my place. Meanwhile, I’ll get out my camping stuff. We can spend the night out there checking everything out, come back about 1:00 or so and collect our possessionés and nobody’ll ever hear from us again."

"Sounds like a plan to me. Kinda sad though…" Lisa sighed.

*****************************************************************

"Well, here’s the old barricades. Kiersten, why did they put up roadblocks here anyway?"

"I dunno. Probably to keep people from getting themselves lost in an old, abandoned… creepy… dark… roach infested neighborhood… *ulp* I’m not so sure about this anymore…."

"Oh, come on! This has to be our place, you guys! Nobody’s been here for years! Not even the hobos come here!" said Devon, trying to keep everyone’s hopes up.

"You see my point," Kiersten replied, hitching her duffel bag back up onto her shoulder.

"No point in standing here though. C’mon…" Libbi headed in past the barricades, intentionally bumping into her brother on the way in, extracting a startled yelp from him, as well as several insults aimed in her direction.

*****************************************************************

Upon exploring the neighborhood, the group discovered just how much territory had been abandoned. It truly was on the outskirts of the city… it had taken them long enough to get there on foot, especially carrying all their gear. There was nothing on the northern end, save a city limits sign. A few hills blocked the horizon from view, providing a bit of cover to the east as well. The west end seemed to be deserted for at least ten blocks, and another three east from the main street they had entered from. Tired of walking the entire distance, they decided to camp on about the fifth block in and just estimated the rest of the development to be another four to the north, telling themselves they’d check it out sometime later.

At one point, Kiersten wondered aloud why this place even existed. The buildings looked fairly old and eclectic.. an atypical suburb. Even more puzzling was the fact the buildings were still standing. Not that they were THAT old, of course, but rather that once a building had been condemned in NY, it was usually knocked down almost immediately and a McDonalds or 7-11 went up. How an entire area like this could have survived 10-plus years was beyond any of their knowledge.

Scouting out the houses on the block they’d chosen, they found them all to be furnished, if in somewhat of a disarray. In fact, there were still cars parked in the driveways and garages. "Now this is really odd… what could have made people just abandon everything they owned? They’re not dead or anything, apparently, or we would’ve found something…" Lisa wondered.

"Maybe something went wrong and they had to be evacuated on the spot," Libbi suggested.

"And they were kept away? For 12 years?" Ben asked skeptically. "I’ve heard soap opera plots with more grounds than that."

"Well, do YOU know what happened, Mr. Know-It-All?"

Kiersten stood up from her spot on the sidewalk and dusted herself off. "Enough deep stuff for now… down to making that list. Let’s see… three TVs, a couple CD stereos, some video games…"

"Kiersten, what about the food?"

"Still hungry? Erica didn’t finish all her french fries on the way over. Maybe she’d let you have some."

"No…" growled Lisa. "I mean for when we move in!"

"Oh. Yeah.. uhmm… how many microwave pizzas can you guys eat in a night?"

*****************************************************************

The idea of having to walk back into town to get food didn’t go over too well with anyone’s feet, but seeing as they would rather walk than go hungry, the troop drew up a long list of requests, including marshmallows (at Kiersten’s constant prodding and hovering over Lisa’s shoulder) several different places on the list. "Anything else?"

"Yeah," Kiersten added. "Marshmallows!" Lisa rolled her eyes, but scribbled it down on the list again anyway.

"Let’s do it. Ben, Libbi, Dev, you guys stay here and set up camp, and the rest of us will fetch the chow."

"Can do, mon capitan!" Ben saluted. "Just hurry up with the sugar, we’re wearin’ out here."

*****************************************************************

Nestled warm in her sleeping bag, waking Kiersten wasn’t the easiest of tasks. "Aaauuugghhhmmmnn… not now, mom… I’m having a great dream…"

"Kiersten, wake up!" Devon encouraged, shaking her. "We gotta get our stuff! It’s a quarter after two!"

"Huh? Where am I? Oh.. oh yeah. Right." With a long stretch and a couple yawns, she struggled to her feet and then was ready. "Let’s hit it."

*****************************************************************

The band of kids started toward their old homes, writing goodbye notes on the way which they would later slip under the door of Kiersten’s old home. The ‘ever alert’ Kiersten gave instructions as they went.

"Well, excuse me if I’m not used to being woken up at two in the morning, Ms. Narrator! What did you expect? I’m not exactly as cheery as Richard Simmons at this hour!"

Nevermind. Get on with it.

"Thank you! Some people… Anyway, here’s what we do. Libbi and Erica left their window open. We can climb up the fire escape, and I know how to get the screen off, so we can get in through there."

"Ahaa! I knew it! I knew you were in there yesterday afternoon! I knew it!" Ben gloated.

"Mmmhmm.. You all just follow my leave. Take the clothes, valuables and personal effects. Then we’ll move on to Lisa’s. She has a key to the door, but they have an automatic lighting system she’ll need to get past and deactivate before we can get everything out. Devon’s got a key too, but we’ll need to get past her parents. I guess we’ll figure that one out when we get there, so I can get the lay of the land first. She’ll be last, but we want to be done with everything before people start waking up to go to work, say, 6:00. After that, well, we’ll just have to leave everything and come back tomorrow night or something. Sorry, Dev."

"No problem," she growled jokingly.

Kiersten looked at her friends with a hint of smugness, then took a running leap for the bottom rung of the fire escape ladder. She had pulled her knee up to the rung when she felt a sudden heavy pull against her other leg. Fighting to keep her grip, she could do nothing about Erica scrabbling up her like a rope. "Ow! Hey, watchit, watchit!! OW! Jeez… thanks a lot, Erica…"

"Sorry.. can’t jump that high," she grinned. "Beat ya up!"

"Yeah, we’ll see who gets beat up all right…" Kiers mumbled under her breath, pulling the rest of her battered self up. She turned to help Libbi up onto the metal flat. "You two go on up and start packing… you know how to work the screen. Just start putting everything out on the escape and we’ll pass it down. Ben, You’ll have to bring everything of yours into the girls’ room. Dev, you come up to the next set of steps so we split the distance. Lisa, you get to catch everything," she winked.

"Dooooon’t worry, Iiiiiiii will…" she teased back.

Between the two girls, they had their room stripped of its posters within a few minutes. Half an hour more, and they had all they wanted in boxes. "It’s times like these, I’m glad we don’t have a lot of stuff!" Libbi said, shoving another box out the window to Kiersten. "Good thing mom decided to get boxes for moving yesterday…"

"We’re on a regular luck streak.." Erica replied, trying to lift her ceramic piggybank off the shelf. It turned at an odd angle and nearly fell, jangling loudly. Kiersten was in the window to catch it in an instant. She fished through her pocket and turned the bank over and instructed Erica to take off the rubber plug. "What’re you doing?"

"Marbles… cotton balls. Stops stuff from makin’ noise. My dad taught me that."

"Cool. Wish I’d gotten to meet him."

"Yeah…" she sighed, dismissing her sadness for later.

At that moment, Ben came into the room, pushing an enormous box before him.

"What the heck is that?" Kiersten exclaimed. Ben’s sisters merely rolled their eyes.

"It’s my comic book collection."

"Why’d ye put it in one box?"

He shrugged. "Smallest I could find."

Kiersten struggled with him to lift it up. "Ugh… it’s heavy!!" she panted as he let go of his end, leaving her to balance it.

"Duh," was his answer.

Somehow she managed to get it quietly out the window and onto the landing. Shoving it to the stairs took some effort, and Devon didn’t even bother catching it, just letting it sail past her feet, turning itself over a few times on the way. After warning Lisa to get out of the way, she shoved it down the next flight with a crash and let it drop to the ground.

Ben, who’d gotten back into the room just in time to hear the WHUMP of its landing, looked skeptically at Kiersten. "I don’t know if I should give you this or not…" he said, handing her another, lighter box.

"Why? What’s in here?"

"Everything else." Kiersten gave him a dull stare. "What?"

"That does it for here too," Libbi whispered. "We ready?"

"Give things one final look-over… there’s not gonna be any coming back after we leave." The girls and their brother nodded and checked for anything they’d left by accident. Ben returned with what looked like a rifle slung over his shoulder.

"A GU--" Kiersten barely stopped herself from shouting. "A gun??"

"B B gun. Doesn’t do much damage, but it’s enough for a little defense. If we need it."

Kiersten thought about that, then nodded approvingly. The team headed back down to street level, replacing the screen as they went. The street, however, was the next problem that presented itself.

"Kiers, this box ain’t gonna push halfway to the barricades," Lisa stated. "We need some transportation, and I don’t mean carrying it on the handlebars of my bike, either."

Kiersten thought silently for a few minutes. "Ben?"

"Yeah?"

"You’ve got a skateboard, dontcha?"

"Yeah, wh—No. Absolutely not. No way, no how, uh-uh. No."

"They’re your comic books. YOU find a way to carry ‘em or we leave ‘em," she smirked.

Ben sighed, digging out his prized possession and hefting the box onto it with Libbi’s help. Everyone else piled the rest of the boxes on top.

"Hey! I didn’t say you could.."

Devon smiled sweetly. "Ben, dear, there are five of us, and one of you. Give it up." He sighed a response and began pushing the teetering mass forward while the girls kept the boxes in check of falling on either side.

Kiersten, wandering along behind the group, couldn’t help but feel sorry for her friends’ brother, even if he was a little dork sometimes. "Hey, Bendover, need a hand?"

"Thanks," he replied, "got two of m’own…"

Ignoring his sarcasm, she took a corner of the comic-filled box and shoved it along in front of her. He looked up gratefully. Her gaze went from sympathetic to co-conspiring in an instant, and read "Let’s show these guys just how fast we can go!" The two were off and pushing before the other four could react… and nearly before Erica could get out of their path!

"AUGH! Would you idiots watch what you’re doing?!"

"Where are you going? Kiersten?"

"Hey! Wait for us! Kiers!! Can I have a turn?"

*****************************************************************

It took them an hour to get back to the marking barriers of their new stomping grounds, but by some miracle, there weren’t any casualties along the way. Even the piggy-bank, which almost suffered a fatal spill going around a corner, made it safely to its new home. A short stopover to unload, then the runaways headed for Lisa’s.

They were almost halfway there when Kiersten realized the time. "Holy Schazoly… we’ve got an hour and a half to get everything!"

"Oh, perfect. So MY stuff gets left on top of Dev’s now…" Lisa whined.

"Maybe not… if we split up, we may be able to make it. Ben and I will go with Lisa. You two go with Dev and clean her place out. Don’t get caught, and be on the road by 5, no later. Got it?" She was answered with nods all around. "Good. See you back at the.. the place."

*****************************************************************

"This is it, Lise," she told herself. "No mess-ups this time. Do or die time…" She stepped away from the mailbox, measuring her paces carefully. "Two east of the mailbox… four paces straight ahead… one west…" She looked over her shoulder questioningly. "Ben, what on earth are you doing?"

"You said paces… I’m pacing," he smiled goofily.

Lisa shook her head and went back to the matter at hand.

"Hey, at least he didn’t say ‘pesos!’" Kiersten called to her. Ben swatted at her for the poke at his ethnicity. She stuck her tongue out at him.

"Dorks…" Lisa muttered. "Step, duck, between… duck… or was this step? No, duck! Back under… limbo, swivel, reverse swivel…."

"Thrust and perry! Perry and thrust!"

"Stop distracting her!" Kiersten said, concernedly, whapping him. Lisa was almost through the gauntlet of sensors. Ben bounced next to her impatiently.

Lisa sighed pure relief as she reached the front steps and fished out her key, unlocking the door and turning off the system. Ben and Kiersten bounded inside.

*****************************************************************

"Crud!" Devon said, shutting the front door as quietly as she’d opened it. "They’re home early…"

"So what’s the problem?" Libbi asked impatiently.

"Dad’s sleeping on the couch!" *Go figure,* she added silently. "How can we get my stuff now?"

"Is your window cracked, like usual, Dev?" Erica questioned.

"Yeah, should be. What does that have to do with anything?"

"Because I know a way in. Gimme the key!" Hopping the fence into the backyard, Erica stealthily made her way to Devon’s bedroom. Taking the key out of her pocket, she jammed it through the screened window, making a little vertical slit, then a horizontal one. With Dev looking on and Libbi peering over the fence and acting lookout, she slid the screen easily up and out, giving them a free pathway into the room. "And you say I never learn anything," she whispered.

"Way to go, Erica!" Devon cheered her quietly and collected her belongings.

"Gotta move, Dev! Ya got fifteen minutes!"

Dev was in a silent frenzy, tossing clothes into a bag and her favorite stuffies and books into another. "Moving, Libbi, moving!" she sang out quietly so as not to wake anyone in the house. Grabbing the last of her mementos from the dresser, she was ready. "Go! Time to scram! Hasta la vista, folks!" she waved to her parents nonchalantly and hopped the fence to freedom.

*****************************************************************

"It won’t move! Lise, you’re sure you only got the important stuff in this??"

"Yeah, I’m sure! I got everything!"

Kiersten stared. "Everything, like what?"

"Well.. uh… maybe I don’t need some things…" Lisa began unloading half of what she’d already packed.

*****************************************************************

At two different points of the city, two groups of kids raced through the streets toward the same point. All of them knew they had to hurry, or else risk the possibility of being seen or caught by someone who would recognize them.

Devon raced along ahead of Libbi and Erica by a few strides, only intent on getting back past the barricades. She didn’t have time to stop when the man stepped out in front of her. She plowed into him, tried to turn around on a reaction, and fell backward over his boot onto the hard sidewalk.

She tried stammering out an apology, but, in an adrenaline-fueled panic, looked up at him, gathering that an apology wasn’t what he was after.

"Bit early for girls your age to be out, isn’t it, missy?"

"Uhm.. I.. umm…. Libbi, Erica, run!" she cried in a clear-headed moment, grabbing her bag and scrambling away from the potential molester. The girls immediately did as they were told, bolting away. Devon, at a disadvantage from having the wind knocked out of her by the fall, wasn’t quite as lucky. The man was on top of her in an instant and grabbed a handful of her hair, twisting it to the root. Dev shrieked as her head was snapped around as if on a tight leash, shrank as far away from the man as she could when he caressed her cheek with his tongue. Libbi and Erica screeched to a halt and turned back, unsure of what they could do. They stared on helplessly.

"Let’s have some fun, girly… you and me…" And he began pulling her into the alley he’d sprung out of.

"Hold it." A bead was trained on the rapist’s left eye, the one furthest from Devon’s head and least risky. "Let her go." The man paled and loosed his grasp on Devon’s blonde locks enough for her to run, which she did immediately. "Put your hands up and march yourself back into that alley, you heap of filth."

As the assailant turned his back, the mob of kids set off in a dead run, not stopping until well past the barricades.

"Told ya… the bb gun.. would come in handy…" Ben puffed, out of breath form the long run.

"Thanks, Ben…" Devon panted gratefully. "I owe you one."

"You’re just lucky Lisa wanted to take the scenic route back," Kiersten said, waving a warning finger. "That’s about the first good thing to come from being totally lost…"

Lisa huffed, insulted. "I knew exactly where we were!"

"Sure…sure ye did…"

"We’re going to have to be very very careful out there. if we ever get caught, by anyone, we’re going to be in real trouble," Kiersten intoned. "No one will take unnecessary risks, understand? I can’t lose you guys. You’re my family now."

She was met with consenting and respectful looks from the other five.

"Well, enough of that," she breezed, waving off the saccharine moment. "We made it.. now all we have to do is get everything situated. There’s enough houses here for an army…"

"…Not that we’ll invite ‘em, of course," joked Ben.

Erica piped up. "I’m staying with Libbi!"

"You are not!"

Ben laughed. "I’d better stay with you two, in that case!"

"Hey, where was my say in this?" Libbi said, putting her hands on her hips.

"Well, you know how much trouble you two always get into. I was just saying…"

"QUIET!!" Kiersten let out a sigh. "We’re going to have to have some order here. First, Libbi and Erica, you two can share that green house there. Ben, you’ll get this one across the street, and Lisa, next door to him. I’ll be here, next to the girls, and Dev, you get this red one on the other side of me. Any complaints?" Silence ensued. "Good. Now that that’s settled, what do we do for rules?"

"We’ll need some sort of lookout," Devon said through mutters of disappointment at the necessity of rules. "We’d need to know if someone was coming, not that they ever would come here unless they were really looking for us. We could do 2 or three hour shifts and switch off, and I don’t think we’d need anyone up at night."

"There’s an idea. Sound good to you guys?"

Ben volunteered a hand. "I could build a treehouse or something when we finish scouting the place out… there’s gotta be enough lumber with all the full garages around here…"

"Ben, yer a regular handy-man," Kiersten smirked at him. "Dev, you think you could arrange a schedule board? Thanks."

"What about meals? I’d like to eat together instead of just with Erica all the time…"

"HEY!"

"No offense, sis, but face it, it’d be funner with all of us instead of the two of us night after night."

Erica caved. "I see yer point. Different house each night, maybe? I could make a schedule for that, but everybody would have to plan their own meals and stuff."

"Good, Erica. I think we’re gonna have to do a little clean-up before we can actually move in, though. Looks like the inside of the houses got hit by a tornado."

"Auntie Em! Auntie Em!" agreed Ben, nodding.

Lisa looked rather dismayed. "Personally, I hate cleaning. Especially by myself… do you think we could tackle a house a day or so? Have you seen ‘em? They’re a wreck! Coated with dust, stuff fallen over… what in the world happened here?"

Kiersten merely shook her head. She had no idea. "It’s weird, but I’m not complaining. I get a fully furnished house all to myself, and all it really needs is cleaning. And a good stereo system, but ya know…" That extracted a few chuckles. "After the houses, we can take care of the yards and the road. Kind of a… community cleanup thing." She gazed over at the house designated as Ben’s. She dreaded that kind of task…. "Guess I’ll go back into town and get a bunch of cleaning stuff. Dust-mops and rags and things. Y’all get some rest and eat some breakfast. No, Erica, I’ll pick up a donut or something while I’m out," she grinned, declining the french fry Erica had picked up out of the dust. "The food from last night should last though Thursday or so. We can go and get more when we need it. See you guys later." Her feet hurt as she walked back down the main block, she was tired, she missed her parents, but for some reason, Kiersten Radosevich felt completely alive and more free than she’d ever been.

*****************************************************************

"Yuck… I HATE washing dusty dishes!" complained Libbi, handing a wet plate to Lisa, who dried it with approximately the same attitude.

"The bathrooms ain’t much better!" called Kiersten from the hallway.

"You girls! Sheez! Quit complaining and clean! We’ve got four more after this…"

Lisa rolled her eyes. "We don’t need reminding, Bendover…"

"How come Devon gets first watch?" whined Erica.

A snort came from Ben’s direction. "Ask her, she made up the schedule!"

Kiersten rolled her eyes. "She’s the one scouting everything out for us. If you wanna walk some more, be our guest, dear. She’ll have cleaned as much as the rest of us by the end of the week. Ughkk.." she gagged, "I hate this cleaner…"

Just then, Devon burst through the door of the green house. "Well, well, speak of the devil!" Ben quipped at her.

"Oh, hush, Ben. Hey guys! Guess what I found?"

"Noah’s ark, I bet…" Kiersten coughed.

"Even better, Kiers! We’ve got our own private lake! From what I can tell, there’s fish there too!"

Kiersten’s attention was riveted. "Walleyes? Pike?" Devon shrugged and said she didn’t know. "Neato-frito! Glad I kept my old fishing rod! That’s the emergency food supply, I guess!"

"Eck… fish…" said Erica.

"Dev, either grab a rag and wipe something down or get back to bein’ lookout!" Ben threatened, winding up his damp rag for an ideal rat-tail.

"Okay, okay, I’m goin’, jeez… Erica, you get next watch in about an hour. There’s a good spot on Kiersten’s roof… the ladder’s propped up against the side and all."

"Don’t plan on stayin’ there!" Kiersten warned.

"Only until Ben gets some free time on his hands to build our tree fort! Ha!" retorted Devon as she ducked out the door. She ducked her head back around the doorframe. "That reminds me, Kiers, we ought to move everyone inside, so we don’t need a campfire. Someone in the city’d be bound to see us and then *zap*, off to juvy for us. And between the tow houses, there’s enough beds for all of us. We can sleep indoors again tonight!"

"Wow… I’d’ve never thought of that. Way to go, Dev! You ought to be my second in command, or something!" Kiersten laughed.

"Aye, mon capitan! Thank you sir! ‘Tis my duty, sir, to serve you well, sir!"

Kiersten cracked up at the display and shoved Devon out of the storm porch before returning to tub-scrubbing.

Lisa, without anyone’s attention, glared as she rubbed another plate dry.