Chapter 1 of The Fire Flower:

“The Unexpected Visitor”

Jo stomped her feet on the mat before slamming the door of the shabby little farmhouse behind her and plopping her books on the kitchen table. She was drenched from her walk in the early March rain.
Mississippi must have the wettest water in the world. She shook her pale reddish blonde hair ‘til it hung down the back of her broad shoulders. Jo Swenson was of Danish decent, tall and beautiful, and by no means petite. Her baby blue eyes only added to her beauty, but she felt large and awkward, and it showed in the teenager’s demeanor. She devoured the chocolate cookies her mother left for her on the table.
She could hear her mother, Joanna, and her stepfather, Dwayne Hues, arguing in the next room. Jo never really liked her stepfather. A dark thin man, in his late 30’s, Dwayne had gone to Viet Nam a wild and angry man. He returned with a supposed partial paralysis in one foot, and now he was a wild, angry, and bitter man, with wounds too deep to heal. Jo could have felt sorry for him, had he not been so cruel to her. At the sound of her mother’s tears Jo rushed to her defense.
“What’s going on here?”
“It ain’t none of your business, you big cow!” Then he glared at his wife as he bellowed, “And where I’ve been ain’t none of yours. I git little enough pleasure in life, without having to listen to your whining!” His breath wreaked of whiskey.
“Mother, why do you put up with this? This is our house, not his.”
“Yeah, always throwing it up to me. Hell, it ain’t no wonder I am the way I am.” He glared at her as he clenched his crooked teeth.
“You’re blaming me! No way, man!”
“Why don’t you get your big butt out of this house, and don’t come back! You ought to have a husband by now ‘stead of living off me and your maw!”
Jo’s mother sank back timidly. Though she looked like an older version of Jo, she was weary and aged well beyond her years.
“Jo, honey, please leave. We’ll work it out.”
Jo pointed her finger in his face. “There better not be a single mark on her when I return, or I’ll take care of you myself!”
“Oh, yeah!” He slapped Jo and busted her lip. She knocked him down. Joanna looked terrified, and her eyes pleaded with Jo to go.
“Okay, okay, I’ll go.”
Jo stormed out the back door, grabbing her coat and toboggan on the way. Tomorrow he would be sober, and he really wouldn’t remember a thing. He’d be apologetic to her mother and, as always, she’d forgive him. But he’d still be harsh to Jo. Just one more year and I’ll be out of here. As the blood rolled down her chin, she finally allowed herself to cry.
Spring was just around the corner, but a brisk chill still lingered in the damp air. All the creeks ran fuller than normal this year and were not yet warmed by the heat of summer. Jo strolled along the stream that ran down the back of their 10 acre farm. This was her place of escape. Jo lost all track of time, dreaming of moving to the city or maybe going to college, though that didn’t seem likely. She had to leave, and she couldn’t be totally self-supporting and go to school, too. Maybe she could go part time at night. As these thoughts rolled through Jo’s mind, she began to feel better. Dusk began to settle over the scene; she’d have to go back soon.
She whirled around, startled by the sound of crying behind her. She turned to see what looked like a small child in the swollen stream. The child flailed with its back to her. It wrestled to get free of a fallen branch that had snagged the hem its hooded coat. Jo threw off her coat and cap and jumped into the stream. She retrieved the terrified child without so much as turning it around to see if it were a boy or girl. When she reached the edge of the stream the child squirmed quickly, burring its face in Jo’s chest and sobbing.
“There, there, little one, you’ll be all right now. It’s okay.”
Jo rocked back and forth, back and forth ‘til the child’s sobs subsided. As she patted the child on the back, two tiny six-fingered hands patted her arms. Jo slowly lowered her gaze to view a frail alien creature with cat eyes, snow-white curly hair, and a pale blue complexion. Jo gasped in fear and gingerly moved the child away from her body, setting the child softly on the ground. Jo almost fainted as she stood to her feet. Regaining her composure, she backed up, turned, and ran. But the child began to sob again; its fear of being left alone echoed in its cries. Suddenly, she stopped and turned around; she could see the child’s small arms, stretched out and pleading. She put her hands over her mouth, closed her eyes, and shook her head. Opening her eyes, she took a deep breath and ran back to the helpless creature. The child shivered from the cold. Jo scooped it up into her arms.
“It’ll be okay. I’m not going to leave you. I don’t know how I’ll take care of you, but I can’t leave you here alone; I just can’t.” The child shook harder than ever.
“Oh my, you’re as cold as ice.” She reached into the coat she had thrown on the ground earlier and pulled out a small bag of sweets.
“You want some candy corn?”
“Kahrn?” the creature replied.
“Well, you can talk.”
She handed the child the first piece of candy and motioned for the child to put it in its mouth. The candy was an instant hit. The child motioned with its hands for more. Jo struggled to get the wet clothes off the child, who kept begging for more “kahrn”.
“I think I should have waited a bit for the treat.” Finally, she wrapped him in her coat, for now she knew he was a boy.
“I figured you were a little boy ‘cause boys are blue and girl are pink, right?” The child began patting Jo’s hair.
“My name is Jo.”
“O,” the child replied.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“S,” he echoed. Jo smiled and the boy nodded enthusiastically.
“A-ma-ta! A-ma-ta!” he yelled as he hugged her. “A-ma-ta!”
“Okay, Amata, we’ve got to find some place to keep you where you’ll be safe.
Only, I don’t know how someone could have left you here alone. You’re precious, Little Boy Blue, no matter where you come from.”
She picked him up and kissed his forehead. They started to walk. Strained by the experience, Jo began to feel weak. Suddenly a bright light shined in her face.
Voices that she could not understand yelled loudly, “Eeh shee te ahl mor ahn; eeh shee te ahl mor ahn!” Someone took the child from her arms. Silence followed, though the bright light remained. Jo felt dizzy; she fell and hit her head on the root of a tree.
Jo woke up in the hospital, shivering. It would some time before she knew the truth of how she got there. She moaned in pain. A doctor, a nurse, and her mother, Joanna, stood at the foot of her bed. The white-haired Dr. Stoddard smiled.
“How you feeling, young lady?”
“I’m freezing and I ache all over, but my head hurts worst of all.”
Using his light, Dr. Stoddard looked into her eyes. Then he told her to watch his fingers as he asked her a battery of cognizance questions. He listened to her chest. Finally he looked up at the nurse, giving her verbal instructions as he wrote in Jo’s chart.
“She doesn’t seem to have a serious concussion, but there’s a lot of congestion in her lungs and she’s running a temperature. Better keep her here for 48 hours; give her the standard penicillin treatment. Sometimes complications from a blow on the head don’t show up immediately; it’s best to keep a close eye on her.”
“Can I have something for this headache, please?”
“Of course, but not yet. If your head’s still clear in the morning, we’ll get you something strong. You just relax; everything’s gonna be fine.” He turned to walk out the door.
“Mama, what am I going to do about school? Tests are this week.” Without turning around Dr. Stoddard continued to speak.
“School can wait. You rest!”
“Yes, sir.”
“That’s more like it.”
In the hallway, the handsome, ever so earnest, young Deputy Larry Tidwell paced the floor. He ran his fingers through his wavy blonde hair and stared at the floor with his intense blue eyes as he waited for the doctor.
“How is she?”
“She’ll be fine.”
“Maybe, but she didn’t get those bruises on her cheek from no fall. I know a hand print when I see one. Hell, I never could stand to see people beatin’ on their kids. I’d like to get to the bottom of this.”
“Well, I wish you luck. It’s hard to nail them sometimes, even with a doctor’s testimony. Believe me, I know. How did you say you found her? I’m not sure I understood you the first time.” The deputy shook his head.
“It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. We saw these lights shining down from some trees next to the side of the road. As we got closer, we could see the girl lying on the ground. When we moved in, the lights went out. I sure would like to know who was up in the trees shining those lights. When we turned our flash lights on, they were gone.”
“Well, she’s got a friend somewhere.”
“I reckon so.”

Copyright ©2005 River Songs. All rights reserved.