01 - Home Sweet Home

Author's Note: The first three chapters are character development. If you want to jump right to the action then you might want to start with Chapter 4. On the other hand, this is a character-driven story so if all you want is action, then this might not be the fanfic for you.

As Lori Jett pulled into the driveway her stomach started to hurt. She sat there and stared at the house for a while but she'd have to go in eventually. Resignedly she grabbed her backpack off the passenger seat and got out of the car. As she approached the front door her stomach got tighter but she pushed on ahead.

She opened to the door to Crystal shouting, "Where have you been? You were supposed to be home ten minutes ago!"

Lori said nothing as she tossed the car keys to the other girl and headed for her room. "I'm telling mom!" the girl shouted after her. "And I'm telling her how you threw the keys at me. You could have cut me!" When she didn't get a response she finished with "Weirdo!" and slammed the front door.

"Bitch," Lori mumbled as she closed the door to her room.

She dropped the backpack onto the floor and shrugged out of her jacket. She caught sight of herself in the mirror and stopped to look. She was a thin girl--not slim like the beautiful girls at school, but bony and flat-chested. She told herself she hadn't grown into her look yet, but she was already 16 and didn't have much hope for her future. Her face was not pretty, though she had to admit the short spiky hair didn't really help. Maybe she should grow it longer.

Lori snorted and turned away from the mirror. She didn't want to be one of those girls, the ones who morosely stared at their reflections until they ended up cutting themselves or starving themselves. She had bigger problems than the face staring out of the mirror.

She flopped down into her desk chair and stared at the calendar. Nineteen months. Nineteen more months until she could get out of this hell hole. She'd tried telling the social worker how awful things were, but as long as her foster parents weren't beating her or raping her the state didn't care. Lori had thought about making up stories but even she had to admit that wasn't fair. She didn't hate her foster parents or even Crystal enough to put them through something like that. So she just counted the days and learned to cope.

She unlocked the drawer that kept her coping mechanism. Jack and Mabel hated that locked drawer and interrogated her about it over and over. It was the one thing Lori wouldn't budge on. It was none of their business. She pulled out the contents and set things up on the desk. Then she clicked the lighter to life and lit the candles.

Candles. Who would have thought she'd have to hide candles? Hell they weren't even scented.

She stared at the flame and relaxed. The tension went away and her stomach ache faded. She watched the flame dance slightly and the wax drip down the sides. She held out her hand, close enough to feel the heat from the flame. She never knew why fire calmed her, she just knew that it did. It was perfect in its beauty. The energy, the light, the power there was both comforting and humbling.

But they didn't understand it. They called her a pyro and a firebug. OK she had burned the couch a little that one time but she'd paid for the repairs. And she fixed that one spot on the carpet before anyone realized anything had happened. Why couldn't they just let her have this one thing? But no. Crystal got everything but she was their real daughter. Lori was just the charity case they took in so they could brag to their friends.

Suddenly Lori remembered her prize. She fished it out of her pocket, looking around guiltily even though nobody was home. It shone in her hand, the light from the candles reflecting off the small gems. It was a small fire starter she had stolen from the magic shop, just a cheap trinket. She could have bought it but she liked the guilty thrill of taking it. Besides, she reasoned, it was so cheap the store wasn't out much money. Nobody really got hurt.

It worked kind of like a real lighter. You pushed that gem there but rather than sparking flint it triggered some kind of minor fire magic. She held out the fire starter to one of the unlit candles and pressed the gem.

Lori swam out of the darkness, drawn by the noise. She could hear voices and other sounds. Lights poked at her closed eyelids and she could feel something on her face covering her mouth. In a panic she jerked awake and pulled the thing off her face.

"It's okay," a man's voice assured her. "Just leave it." A hand put the thing back.

Lori realized she was lying on the ground. Someone was leaning over her in some kind of uniform. A paramedic? Why was a paramedic leaning over her? She reached up again to touch the thing on her face and realized it was an oxygen mask.

She sat up and the man tried gently to push her back down but she waved him off. She pulled off the mask again. "What's going on?" she asked trying to make sense. She saw people and cars--police, ambulance, fire. Where was she?

Finally her brain managed to process what she saw. She leapt to her feet and stumbled, suddenly dizzy. The paramedic caught her and lowered her to the ground. "Take it easy," he said. "Just rest for a bit." He tried to put the mask back on and she pushed it away again.

"What happened?" she demanded, still groggy and confused.

"There was a fire," he said. That was an understatement. The house was in ruins. The entire structure had collapsed and firefighters were spraying water on the smoldering rubble. "A firefighter found you inside, passed out from smoke inhalation. You're very lucky you weren't burned."

Suddenly a woman shrieked, "My house!" Lori looked over to see Mabel pushing her way through the police cordon keeping the crowd back. "My house!" she said again. She caught sight of Lori. "What did you do?" she demanded.

"I don't know," Lori said, starting to cry. "I don't remember."

"You were playing with your candles, weren't you? You horrible little brat, you burned down my house!" She lunged at Lori but a police officer intercepted her.

"Ma'am, are you the homeowner?" he asked quickly. "Could you come this way and answer some questions?" Mabel glared at Lori but followed the officer.

Another officer knelt next to her. "Could you answer some questions?" she asked. Lori nodded mutely. "Can you tell me what happened?"

"I don't know," she repeated. "I was in my room. I...I was burning some candles, but that was it. Just two candles."

"Did you leave the room? Fall asleep? Leave the candles unattended in any way?"

"No!" Lori insisted. "I just remember I was going to light another candle and then I was here."

"Were you doing anything else?"

"No, just watching the candles."

The officer hesitated. "Understand these are purely routine questions we ask everyone in cases like this, but were you drinking alcohol at all?"

"What? No!"

"Any drugs? Pot? Anything?"

"No, I don't touch that stuff." She started to feel dizzy again.

"That's enough," said the paramedic.

The officer nodded and said, "We'll probably still need to talk to you later. Don't worry," she assured Lori with a smile. "It sounds pretty routine. You'll be fine."

A few days later she was down at MCPD answering more questions. Mabel was there looking angry and so was Jack with his "I'm so disappointed in you" look. Lori didn't want them there but, since she was a minor, a guardian had to be present during questioning. Thankfully Crystal was at home so Lori didn't have to look at her smug face.

"Are you sure you are telling me everything?" the officer asked again.

"Yes!" Lori insisted angrily. "I was lighting some candles and then I woke up outside."

"Ha!" Mabel sneered. "Admit it. You did it on purpose. You wanted to get back at us for some imagined wrong we've done."

"Mrs. Emerson, please let me direct the interview," the officer said tiredly. He turned back to Lori. "The fire marshal's report says this was not a candle fire. There was some kind of explosion."

"An explosion?" snapped Mabel, leaping to her feet. "You brought a bomb into my house?"

"Mrs. Emerson," the officer said sharply, "please let me handle this. If you interrupt again I will have to ask you to leave." Mabel sat back down with a sniff.

"As I was saying," he continued, "the fire marshal's report said there was some kind of explosion. There didn't appear to be an accelerant used--you know, gasoline or anything like that. But there was definite evidence of some kind of concussive force. Was there anything nearby that might have exploded in the heat? Aerosol cans for example. They explode if they are thrown into a fire."

Lori hugged herself tightly and couldn't stop the tears from flowing down her face. "No. Nothing like that. It was just some candles. I swear."

The officer opened a manila envelope and shook an object out into his hand. He laid it on the table in front of her. "Do you recognize this?"

She looked at it. It was a twisted lump of metal but it seemed familiar somehow. She picked it up and turned it over in her hands, catching sight of some of the gems. "Yes. It's a fire starter."

"Is it yours?"

"Yes. I stole it from the magic shop." She thought admitting to that would convince him she was telling the truth.

"Stole..." she heard Mabel start, but a glare from the officer shut her up.

Lori continued. "I was using it to light the candle. That's the last thing I remember."

"Were you doing any magic rituals? A lot of people your age experiment with magic."

She shook her head. "No. I just pushed the gem to light it."

He pushed back in his chair and studied her for a while. "And you are telling me everything? Holding back is just going to make things worse."

She gave him a pleading look. "Yes. Everything. I swear."

He nodded. "All right, I believe you. I'm not sure what happened, but maybe this device was just defective in some way. It's amazing you got out alive. You didn't even get your hair singed."

Lori started to feel relief, but then Mabel leapt up again. "You believe her? What are you, stupid? She admitted she was using that...that stolen thing. She's a thief! Arrest her."

"Honey," Jack started. "Calm down. He's just..."

"Calm down? Calm down? She burned down our house! We lost everything in that fire. What if we'd been home? She could have killed us. Is that what you want? We have to wait for one of us to die?" She turned to the officer and said, "I demand you arrest her. What do you call it? Arson! Yeah, she burned down our house. She admitted it. Send her to jail where she belongs."

"Don't tell me my job!" he snapped.

"Well she's your problem now. She's not coming with us. You deal with her!" Mabel stormed out, Jack hurrying after her.

Lori's relief had crumbled. She looked at the officer helplessly. He smiled at her. "Don't worry about it. You'll be fine."

She might have been, but Mabel kept screaming at people until someone listened. Some hotshot assistant DA who wanted to set himself up as tough on juvenile crime prosecuted the case. Mabel and Crystal flat out lied to the authorities about her past, making up stories about past fires and saying they had never reported the incidents because they feared for their lives. Jack hemmed and hawed and sputtered but never contradicted what they said. By the end even the public defender seemed to think she was guilty. He convinced her to plead guilty to second degree arson and take the 30 days in jail.