Kylie gets off the school bus with a group of other kids. She pauses just long enough for a quick look around, then scurries to catch up and walk close to the bigger kids so it looks like they are together. Her breath is pluming out behind her on the cold air with each breath.
They aren’t together and they ignore her. They used to give her odd looks, but after a while they gave up and just pretend she isn’t there. She has done this since she started taking the bus when she was ten.
Kylie hears the sound of a car approaching from behind and moves so the other kids are between her and the approaching car, hoping the driver doesn’t see her. She fights the urge to turn around and look.
“Don’t look, don’t look,” she says silently in her head, “don’t jinx it by looking. With everyone bundled up so much with hats and scarves, he might not even know it’s me if it’s him.”
The car passes by, slowing a little as it passes the kids walking on the side of the road, and keeps going. She lets herself stop holding her breath, relieved. “It’s not him,” she thinks.
Her thoughts turn to her predicament.
“I don’t have to pretend to be with the older kids anymore. It doesn’t matter now that I’m twelve. Twelve is old enough to babysit even. But I still keep up with the older kids because I don’t like walking home alone. It’s not safe.”
She breaks off from the pack of kids, turning up the sidewalk of her house. At the door, she fumbles for her key, finally having to take off her mitten to find it. The cold instantly bites her bare hand painfully. “Like it has a million tiny teeth,” she thinks.
She gets inside and quickly closes and locks the door behind her. Dropping her backpack and lunch bag, she strips off her outerwear. Her scarf is frosted with fuzzy hard frost from her breath. She turns on the TV and plops into a living room chair.
“I wish I didn’t have to come home alone. Even my annoying little sister Becca might make me feel better, even though she’s just a little kid.” She sighs unhappily.
“That’s our big lie. I’ve been coming home alone for two years, since I was ten. I had to lie about being alone before and after school until I turned twelve. I still have to lie about it to everyone, even to Becca. As far as anyone knows, I just started being on my own. It’s a hard secret to keep. Mom says you aren’t supposed to leave kids alone at home at only ten years old. Mom said we could be taken away from her if anyone found out.”
She pauses, feeling lonely. “I have a lot of big lies in my life.”
The weight of the secret has been a difficult burden for her. She has lived for the past few years in fear that someone would find out and she and Becca would be taken away from their mom. They might be put in a foster home or worse.
Kylie is sitting in the living room blankly staring at the images on the TV. At twelve, she’s already an expert at being a latchkey kid.
“Ugh, I’m so bored.” Kylie needs a distraction. She flips through the few channels they have on the TV, finding nothing she wants to watch, and sits sullenly staring at what she considers a lame show for babies. The cartoon characters giggle like idiots as they run pell-mell in brainless circles.
“I miss having more channels. Just having the bare basic channels sucks. Everybody else has the movie channels, HBO and stuff. I wish Mom didn’t have to cancel all the extra channels when money got tight.”
“I hate being poor,” Kylie thinks unhappily.
She sighs again. “There’s nothing to do. We don’t even have a computer that can play games or anything. That old computer that was given to us for free doesn’t have enough memory to do much of anything. Even the simple games are too much for it. Maybe I’ll see what’s up on the chats.”
She starts to get up and decides against it, feeling the familiar pang of dread in her stomach. There are too many trolls online and she isn’t in the mood for it today. She makes excuses, not wanting to feel like they control her life.
“Dumb free dial up internet hardly even works anyway. It takes ages to load a single page. Even the chat sites won’t work if they’re busy. Forget about trying to watch any videos on YouTube or anything. I am bored bored bored.”
Kylie is restless and feeling antsy to get up and do something, maybe go somewhere.
“Maybe I’ll go to the park. It’s not far.”
The idea brings on a rush of anxiety, but she decides it has to be better than just sitting here doing nothing. She tries to push away the anxious feeling. Being home alone doesn’t feel safe either, but it’s safer than going outside.
“It’s only the park. There’s nothing to be nervous about, you nervous nilly,” she tells herself. That’s her own made up word. Taken from the term ‘nervous Nelly’, a favorite saying of her Aunt Cora’s, meaning to be nervous all the time, and mixed with silly.
She puts on her coat, boots, hat, scarf, and mitts and locks the door behind her. Kylie pauses nervously on the front step.
She’s not supposed to leave the house when her mother isn’t home. That rule doesn’t apply anymore now that she’s twelve. Her mother made the rule when she was ten, but now it’s Kylie’s own rule.
Checking both ways up the street before leaving the safety of her doorstep, the snow crunches under her boots as she walks to the park and her breath makes clouds in the air. For a moment, Kylie imagines she is a fire-breathing dragon who can kill anyone who tries to hurt her with a blast of fire from her throat. She puffs big clouds of fog into the air, watching them slowly rise up.
Kylie has the unnerving feeling someone is following her. She checks over her shoulder. Nobody is there but the feeling won’t go away. She checks at least half a dozen more times by the time she reaches the park.
There is no one at the park when she gets there. She can feel the extreme cold through her coat and shivers.
“It’s not a good feeling to be this cold. I wish I had a warmer coat. Maybe I should just go home. It’s too cold out. But there’s nothing there to do.” She hugs herself for warmth.
“I’ll stay just a little while,” Kylie decides.
Kylie finds a partially built snow fort in a corner of the park. She starts adding snow to it, packing and adding it to a wall. She stops, rubbing her hands together, trying to warm them. It does nothing with the mitts on and it’s too cold to take them off. She tries blowing on them. Her cheeks are burning with the cold too. She cups her hands in front of her face, blowing warm air to warm both her cheeks and her hands.
She stops when she hears voices. She looks around quickly then ducks behind the wall, trying to hide.
“Who is it? I hope they didn’t see me.” She thinks quickly. “Maybe it’s no one, some old people. Adults won’t care and probably won’t even notice me. But what if it’s someone from school? Worse, what if it’s someone I know?”
Kylie is embarrassed at the idea of being caught making snow forts.
“Twelve year old girls don’t build snow forts,” she thinks in a panic. But she’s just not ready yet to let go of all the things she did for fun as a kid. As a tween, Kylie doesn’t know how to have fun anymore. “I’m too old for playing and stuff like a kid and what I see teenagers do looks so boring. All they do is hang out and message each other or play on their phones or listen to music. I don’t even have a phone.”
Kylie waits, listening as the voices come closer. It’s a group of girls. The one voice is unmistakable. She recognizes it immediately. With it, she knows the other voices too. She tenses and her heart sinks, her stomach tightening with dread.
“Please don’t see me,” she begs silently, crouching even lower.
The approaching girls have been bullying her for a while and it has been getting only worse with time.
“The mean team,” Kylie thinks miserably, “Amber, Jessica, and Brooke.”
Her heart races. It’s pounding so hard in her chest that she’s scared they might somehow hear it.
The voices stop and Kylie holds her breath, waiting. She can still hear the crunch of footsteps in the snow, coming closer, then that stops too. She listens for the footsteps to go further away. There is only silence.
“Is that the quiet whisper of a coat rustle?” Kylie wants to press herself down lower, to disappear like she never existed. She’s afraid to move. They might hear her.
“What are they doing?” she thinks, feeling a surge of panic rising up in her. “Are they just standing there? Are they gone? Please be gone.”
Kylie wants more than anything to peek but she doesn’t dare.
“It’s fine, they didn’t even see you,” she tells herself, trying to convince herself that nothing is going to happen. Maybe if she tries hard enough to convince herself, if she believes hard enough, it will be true.
It was already too late before she got to the park. They saw her walking towards the park and followed her, keeping their distance and ducking out of sight when she looked back. That’s why she kept having the feeling she was being followed. Her instincts were right.
Their heads pop over the edge of her partially made fort, looking down at Kylie with nasty grins.
“Oh, my gawd, is she building a fort?” Amber squeals nastily.
Before Kylie knows what is happening, Amber’s hands are pushing down on her, putting all her weight into it. Kylie struggles and cries out, feeling the other two girls’ hands pushing down on her too.
The first thought in her mind is “I’ve been seen,” along with the feeling of abject horror at having been seen making a snow fort like a little kid. She wants to dissolve into the snow, having never existed, at the embarrassment.
As quickly as the first thought comes, she realizes she is being attacked and fear surges through her, the embarrassment becoming even worse because it’s them.
They force her down, giggling and mashing her face into the cold snow, pressing so hard the snow feels like it’s biting into her face. It hurts a lot. Kylie can already feel the sharp pain of frostbite on her face from the snow.
The moment feels endless, Kylie struggling hopelessly, unable to overcome the weight and strength of the three girls, her prone position leaving her helpless to defend herself. They push down harder, Amber taking even more joy in mashing her face harder into the cold hard ground.
Kylie screams and flails, trying to break free, the burning pain in her face unbearable. By the time they let the pressure up, Kylie is sure her nose must be broken and bleeding all over the snow, staining it red.
She feels and hears them scrambling over the wall of the fort. They step on her feet and hands, not caring, pushing down with their weight on her back and holding her down while they climb over the low snow wall.
“Get her coat!” Amber cries in vicious delight. “Pull it off!”
They start pulling and tugging at her and Kylie hears the sound of her coat ripping as she fights to protect herself against them, trying to cover her head and roll into a ball.
“No, no, no, Mom is going to be so mad,” Kylie thinks desperately over the ruined coat. Despite the pain they are inflicting on her, she’s more worried over the coat than herself.
“Mom will be furious when she sees it. She’ll tell me that she doesn’t have the money to buy me a new coat.” Insanely, Kylie can only think now of what she thinks her mother’s reaction will be. It pushes away the fear of the girls hurting her.
She wants to cry out for them to stop, but knows it’s useless. “It will only make the attack worse. These nasty girls enjoy watching me suffer.”
Kylie tries to fight against the three girls but there are too many of them. She manages to roll onto her back, to try to kick at them, her arms blocking their blows. This only makes it worse because now her stomach is exposed. She realizes the danger and tries to roll back onto her stomach. They take turns hitting and kicking at her sides and back as she struggles and rolls.
A blow to her stomach forces all the air painfully out of her lungs and she can only gasp for air that won’t come. Every attempt to suck in air feels like it’s pushing more air out instead, like a fist is pushing her lungs up and squishing them from inside.
“How is that even possible?” Kylie thinks wildly. “I’m going to die.” She feels sick and dizzy.
They take her hat and mitts, tossing them back and forth in victory. Amber yanks on her scarf, but the scarf is tied around her neck and it only tightens, strangling Kylie. She can’t breathe.
They get her jacket undone and pull it off while Kylie tries prying at her scarf with desperate fingers, gasping for air, but it’s too tight. They pull on her arms, pulling her hands away from her neck, pulling her coat off. Kylie frantically grabs at the scarf again the moment her hands are free.
One of them is still pulling on the scarf, trying to yank it off her, stretching it out and making it impossible for her to loosen it.
“I’m going to die for real,” Kylie’s mind whirls in a panic. “I’m going to suffocate to death while they torture me for nothing more than their own amusement!”
She is so cold that it hurts, but it’s the lack of air that is the worst. Every breath she cannot take burns like fire in her throat and lungs. Her head feels like it’s swelling larger and stuffed painfully tight with cotton.
Every attempt to suck in air feels still like it is only impossibly pushing air out of her empty lungs, like her stomach and lungs are still being pushed in and up inside her, the breath knocked out of her.
Sounds seem farther away, her ears closing up and blocking it all out. She wishes desperately she’s somewhere else, that she never left the house.
Kylie feels a tug at one of her boots. Crying silently, unable to choke out a single sound past the tight scarf and empty lungs, she kicks out, trying to kick them. Her boot is pulled off, then the other. They’re laughing cruelly. Oh, what great fun this is for them.
Kylie is crying harder now and can’t stop. It makes her head feel like it’s swelling more. “Do they even know I’m crying?” They seem oblivious. “It’s lucky for me they don’t notice, or maybe they just don’t care. No, they can’t know how hard I’m really crying. They would only attack me worse if they knew.”
“Take the rest of her clothes,” Jessica squeals nastily. Amber laughs at this, grinning at the idea.
“Let’s shove snow down her shirt,” Brooke says. Amber gives them the nod.
The girls roll their victim in the snow, shoving fistfuls of it under her shirt and down her pants. It’s so cold against her bare skin that the snow burns like fire.
Finally bored with the game, the mean girls take off laughing.
“Let’s go,” Amber says, scooping up and taking Kylie’s stuff with her. The other two follow, leaving Kylie laying in the snow, wet and cold, her clothes stuffed with snow, and with no coat or boots to get her home.
Kylie feels dizzy from lack of air and fumbles at the scarf with frozen fingers. The knitted wool is already starting to freeze hard, wet and caked with snow from the attack. It’s turning to ice and she doesn’t think she’ll be able to loosen it.
She is terrified. “I’m going to die!” Kylie thinks frantically. Everything seems darker, further away. The sounds of the neighborhood muffled behind a cotton curtain. Even her body feels somehow further away.
At last, Kylie manages to loosen the scarf just a bit, managing to suck in the first shallow breaths of air since the scarf was pulled tight. The air barely comes. She is still winded from the blow to her stomach. The air is sharp and cold and hurts, but she gasps at it anyway, trying to suck in as much as she can. Her stomach still hurts from having the wind kicked out of her and she feels like she is going to vomit.
“Oh my gawd, what if I throw up? I can’t even breathe? Will the puke even come out, or will I drown in it in my own mouth?” The thought makes her feel even more sick.
Sucking in those frantic shallow breaths of air, Kylie gets to her feet, shivering and dizzy and weak. She tries again unsuccessfully to loosen the scarf, then to knock as much snow out of her clothes as she can without taking them off. Her fingers are burning and numb from the cold. She fumbles clumsily at her clothes with little effect.
With only an ice-covered scarf and wet clothes that are already turning hard as they freeze to ice for warmth, she wraps the long trailing end of the stretched scarf around herself as best she can, wrapping her arms around herself too. The scarf is still knotted tightly around her neck, constricting her breath and making her wheeze for air.
“I’ll have to thaw it out to get it undone,” she thinks.
Kylie is so cold it hurts as if she is burning up on fire. She looks for the blood that must be soaked into the snow from when they jammed her face hard into the ground and is surprised there is none. Everywhere, she feels the bite of ice fire.
“Why does being so cold burn so much?” Her whole body is in sharp agony from the extreme cold.
She starts for home. Before she even gets out of the park her toes hurt so much that Kylie thinks they must be frozen solid and ready to shatter at the slightest bump. She walks with extra care, the slightest jarring sending sharp pain ringing through her feet and up her legs. By the time she reaches the corner her toes have become numb and the pain distant.
Kylie stops and looks down, making sure her toes are still there, afraid they really have snapped off. Her feet are nothing but blocks of sharp pain that can’t feel anything else.
“I’m never going to make it home,” she whimpers miserably. She forces herself to walk on.
Unbearable pain fills her feet before she gets more than a few houses from the park, getting worse with every step. They feel like clumsy blocks of white-hot agony. After a while, numbness seeps into her feet again. As much as it scares her, the numbness comes as a relief. She can’t feel her feet anymore and she stumbles, having trouble walking with the bricks for feet that she can’t feel. Even her hot tears are freezing on her face.
That short distance around the corner and up the street home is the longest walk she has ever had to make. She stumbles on.
Kylie feels so very tired. “I don’t know how I can take that next step,” she thinks piteously. The cold is taking over; her body temperature is dropping. She is getting sleepy and weak. Kylie is in the early stage of hypothermia, but her reaction is from the stress and not from freezing to death. That would take much longer than the few minutes that have passed, feeling endlessly impossibly long. She is giving up already.
“Maybe I should just lie down and let the cold take me. Maybe it won’t hurt in the end to die like this.” The pain of her whole body freezing pushes her on. She feels so exhausted and sick and weak that every step feels impossible.
“I -I-I’m not going to make it,” Kylie chatters, her words barely whispering out her constricted throat, rough and weak. She feels more distressed than she ever has in her life.
“I wish I was just dead.”
THE LATCHKEY KIDS IS AVAILABLE ON KINDLE AND IN PAPERBACK ON AMAZON