Show Your Strength

Orphaned soon after his fifth birthday, Thomas doesn’t remember his parents. All he has of them is a story told to him by his caseworker every time he moves from one foster family to the next. His parents were driving the car with Thomas and his older sister, Samantha in the back seat. They were going around a curve in the road when the car suddenly spun out of control.

Only Thomas survived.

“Why did you call me?” His case worker, Chris, said as soon as he picked up the phone. “What did you do this time?”

“It’s not me this time. I swear,” Thomas said. “These people just can’t take it anymore.”

“Can’t take what?”

“No idea.” Thomas cowered further into the corner, trying to shield his words with his hand so his current foster parents wouldn’t hear him. It had been 11 years since the accident, and he was on his twentieth family. “Their words, not mine. You’ll have to ask them yourself. I just overheard them talking downstairs. I don’t think they know I’m home.”

Phil and Jeanine were nice enough people, but everything that went wrong in the house somehow got blamed on Thomas. Microwave shorted out. Thomas. Car tires were all flat. Thomas. Circuit breaker flipped in the middle of the game. Definitely Thomas. Forget the fact that he had been visiting with a friend twenty miles away when it happened.

It was still somehow his fault.

“Fine,” Chris replied. “I’ll be there in an hour. Maybe you should get out of the house for a bit. They may be more willing to talk to me if you’re not around.”

“Sure. Whatever.” Thomas eyed the door to his bedroom, swearing it had moved slightly.

After hanging up with Chris, Thomas called his girlfriend, Beth. They were going to meet at Paul’s Diner, which they had figured out was almost exactly halfway between their houses. An exercise they repeated every few months.

“So what’s going on?” Beth asked as the waiter took their menus away. “You seemed pretty anxious about something over the phone.”

“I think Phil and Jeanine are going to get rid of me.”

“No shit?” Beth said, ignoring the glass of water and straw the waiter placed in front of her. She didn’t notice, but Thomas saw the dirty look the waiter gave her language. “Why do you think that? It’s only been a few weeks. That’s almost shorter than the family who used to make you throw away and use a different bar of soap every time you bathed.”

“I don’t know why. I haven’t done anything. I was in my room with the door open and I heard them talking.” Thomas removed Beth’s straw from its paper wrapper and plopped it into her drink before doing the same to his own. “I couldn’t make out everything, but I heard something about ‘can’t take him anymore,’ ‘everything has gone wrong,’ and ‘Thomas’ fault.’”

“Well fuck them,” Beth said, sliding her glass toward her, leaving a trail of condensation on the table, but not taking a sip. “Maybe this time Chris will get you a family that has a little bit of their heart left.”

Thomas stared out the window at the cars driving by. So many people living their perfect little lives. No one even remembered his parents anymore. If no one in town did, and not even Thomas did, then was there anything left of them other than the three headstones in the cemetery out behind the town church?”

“What?” Beth asked.

“What? Oh, nothing,” Thomas replied.

“No, you said something.”

“No I didn’t.”

“’Light the fire.’ That’s what it sounded like. What’s that supposed to mean? You going to burn the church down?” It almost looked like a fire had been lit in Beth’s eyes.

“Been watching the black metal documentary again, haven’t you?”

“I don’t see how that’s relevant.” The waiter brought their plates and set them down on the table, placing the check between them. The paper was folded and looked like one of the little pup tents a past foster family, whose names Thomas couldn’t even remember, had bought for him to camp in the backyard on nice nights. No sooner had the plates been set down than Beth reached out, ignoring her own food, and snatched a fry from Thomas’ plate.

“Sure it’s not.”

“Whatever. Hey, maybe this will be the last time you change families. You’re almost 17. Only a little over a year until you age out.”

“With any luck.” Thomas took one of Beth’s fries and, ignoring the burning in her eyes at his defilement of her plate, took a bite.

A few hours later, Chris was sitting on a bus with Thomas. The discussion with his foster parents had not gone well. So not well that Chris thought it was best that Thomas never go back there. Ever.

“I know it’s not ideal, but it’s going to take me a few days to get you another placement,” Chris said, swaying with the movement of the bus as it turned a corner. “For tonight, at least, I’ve got a pull out sofa you are more than welcome to.”

“Oh baby, you spoil me.”

Chris opened his mouth to respond, but his phone rang before he could say anything. Looking at the screen, he turned his body away from Thomas as much as he could on the cramped bench and answered.

Thomas pulled his own phone out and thumbed the button that opened the messaging app.

New family, his thumbs entered faster than lightning and he sent the message off to Beth. He didn’t expect a reply any time soon since he knew she had left her phone at home when she went to meet him, like normal, and had been planning on going to the strip mall a few blocks over to meet some friends when she and Thomas had parted.

“Listen,” Chris said, turning back toward Thomas. “That was my boss. We’re going to have to go to my office. She wants to talk to you.”

“Oh great, I can already see this going really well.” Chris ignored the sarcasm and hit the button that signaled the driver to stop.

Twenty-five minutes later, Chris turned the lock on the door to where he worked and held it open for Thomas. It was after seven at night, so they seemed to be the only ones there. Only the emergency lights were on, and they were few and far between, so the room was almost entirely shadow.

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