Title: Strange Fruit
Author: Ashantai
E-Mail: ashantai@hotmail.com
Rating: R
Disclaimer: I own nothing and nobody.

Lincoln, Nebraska, USA - February, 2012

"Do you like it there?" the woman asked; the child across from her pushed her greasy french fries around in the ketchup and didn't answer. "Sylvia?"

She shrugged, busy listening to a conversation about ten tables away in the busy McDonald's restaurant. A teenager was breaking up with his girlfriend; what a horrible place to do something like that.

"They seem very happy to have you with them." Syl wished she'd stop talking. It was Friday, she was tired, and she hated these meetings where her social worker pretended to care about her well-being as she ate disgusting fast food. She glanced up at Gail so the woman wouldn't think she wasn't listening. "They told me you get along pretty well with your brother. Jared, is it?"

Syl nodded, and allowed a brief smile to cross her lips to appease the woman.

"Sylvia? Look at me." She looked. "What's wrong?" Syl looked away again, started to speak, then bit her lip. She shook her head.

"I can't help you if you don't tell me what's the matter." After a long silence, Gail sighed, and Syl was overjoyed when she took another sip of her Coke and then picked up the tray.

"Are you done?" she asked; the girl nodded. Gail threw out Syl's uneaten meal and turned to smile at her. Social workers are so dense, Syl thought. She was screaming for help; why couldn't the woman see it?

"Oh, here's your ride," Gail said, looking past Syl to the parking lot. Inwardly, the girl breathed a sigh of relief, not bothering to turn around. Then her caseworker frowned and she walked toward the door. Syl turned to see her talking to someone, a man; Gail was in the way so she couldn't see who he was. Then she waved her over, and Syl stood and walked obediently to where the two were standing. Her whole body chilled as she realized who the man was.

"Your uncle's going to drive you," she said; Syl's heart began pounding with fear and her hands started sweating. After a moment, her teeth were chattering in her head as she gazed up at him and he smiled down at her. Gail looked confused. "Are you cold?"

Syl nodded. Gail handed Syl her coat and she put it on; inside the sleeves, her hands and arms were shaking. It was like one of her seizures, only worse because she was so damn afraid that her heart caught in her throat and refused to budge. She felt like she was choking as her caseworker waved goodbye and her foster uncle led her to his pickup. She climbed into the seat, didn't look at him. He didn't seem to mind as he slid in next to her.

"David and Claire won't be home until late," he told her as he started the car, naming her foster parents. "And Jared's at a friend's house overnight. So David asked me to take care of you for the evening. We'll go to my place."

"That's okay, Uncle Joel," she said in a near-whisper; he insisted she call him Uncle Joel. "I can go home and stay by myself." He laughed, and the sound caused chills to run up and down her spine.

"Thirteen years old... you're such a little girlie," he said in a voice that made Syl shiver. Then he reached out and she began rocking slowly in terror as he laid a hand on her skinny thigh and squeezed. "Besides," he purred at her. "We'll have lots of fun." He massaged her thigh lightly before he drew his hand back, and Syl promptly threw up.

He kept glaring at her the rest of the way to his run-down, cheap old house, and by the time he slowed the truck to a stop she had puked twice more. He punched her in the face the second time and the skin under her eye split open, blood trickling down her face. Then he made her clean the inside of his truck. He stood over her, watched her do it, while she sobbed with no sound. Then he took her inside, and her hands began sweating again in terrible anticipation.

"Get over there," he said, pointing to his large, king-sized bed. It stank of him and, yes, even her; she walked over and sat down on it, still weeping. He took off his shirt, then looked up at her; his face hardened, he walked over and punched her in the face.

"Stop crying!" he yelled as her head did a 180 from the force of his fist. She stopped immediately, an ability belonging only to children who no longer have hope, and laid down, turning away as he started to remove his pants. A moment later she felt his weight on the bed beside her; her body started shaking once more, and as she felt him reach out to grab her clothes and pull them off, she forced her eyes closed and tried not to feel what he was doing.

"Tell us about the Good Place, Ben."

"In the Good Place you're happy all the time. You never have to worry or be afraid. In the Good Place no one ever gets hurt, or yelled at, and you never have to cry."

"I'm in the Good Place, I'm in the Good Place..." she told herself over and over again in her mind as she tried not to register her foster uncle's movements.

"Shut up," he said, smacking her face. She felt a bruise forming; apparently she'd been saying the words out loud.

"In the Good Place everyone is laughing, and there's warm food and comfy chairs everywhere you look. No one is mean; no one wants to hurt you. People are smiling all around you, and the air smells like flowers all the time."

Tears slipped down her cheeks at the peaceful memory; when she was young and safe. Her foster uncle had removed her shirt, she knew, and her bra. Now he was fumbling with the fly of her jeans. Syl began hyperventilating, but Joel mistook it for passion as he always did and closed his sweaty, foul-tasting mouth over her own.

She couldn't breathe! She was going to die here, right now, under this pig of a man, and no one would find her because he'd get scared and dump the body. He was here, lying over her, sweaty and grunting and disgusting, and she would die because she couldn't breathe. All of this was comforting to Syl, but the sad reality was that she could actually hold her breath for nearly eight minutes, and Joel never lasted close to that long.

He'd gotten her pants off, finally, grabbed them in his damp, sweaty hand and pulled them down with her underwear, tossing them aside. He was repositioning himself on top of her; she was shaking with fear at what she knew would come next. Inside, she hated herself. But all she could do was lie there, trying not to feel what he was doing, and wish she was dead, because the will to fight had left her a long time ago.

Just as she could no longer ignore him sliding in and out of her like a slippery, slithering snake, there was a loud crash as the glass of his bedroom window shattered and a tearing sound as the curtains were ripped away from the staples that held them crudely in place. Joel jumped up fearfully, trying to see what it was. Syl thought it must have been a storm that had given her these few more agonizing moments of waiting, and sat up in the bed to see what her foster uncle was cursing about.

But as she took in the scene before her, she realized that it wasn't any object that had been blown through the window, but a person had actually jumped through it. The thought of someone deciding to rob her foster uncle's house just as he was raping her almost made Syl laugh; almost. She watched with detached fear as he scuffled with the intruder, honestly not caring who would win, figuring that whoever did would come and have his way with her anyway.

The thief was much shorter than Joel, she saw through the darkness, but he seemed to be winning. Not too much older than she was, the boy looked familiar, and after a moment Syl placed him. He'd been at the McDonald's with her and Gail, sitting at a back table by himself.

Her foster uncle looked ridiculous, getting the shit kicked out of him with no clothes on. Syl reached for the bedsheet and wrapped it tightly around her naked body, hugging her knees to her chest.

A moment later, her uncle went flying out the two-storey window and landed with a loud thud in the yard below. Syl backed away against the headboard as the intruder slowly turned on her. He was young, and fairly handsome, but that didn't mean she wanted him anywhere near her. She pulled the sheet tighter around her shoulders, knowing she was beautiful and wishing, not for the first time, that she wasn't. The guy walked over to the bed, sat down next to her. She shied away from him; he was breathing hard- was it from the fight or because of her? He reached out a hand to touch her and she jerked away.

"You're okay," he said gently. "I'm not going to hurt you." Syl said nothing, scanning his posture; he was still tensed up from the fight and she found it threatening. She pressed her chin into her knees and tried to keep her body from trembling. "Can you tell me your name?" he asked. She stared at him and said nothing. Her eyes flickered to her clothes on the floor.

The boy followed her gaze and got up and retrieved the clothing. She watched his movements as he returned and set them down next to her. "I'm going to turn around while you get dressed. Don't run. Not yet anyway." Then he turned his back to her and put his hands in his back pockets.

Syl immediately grabbed her clothes and started pulling them on as fast as she could, not taking her eyes off of him. As she reached for her shirt to pull it over her head, she froze as his arm moved. But he was just scratching his neck, and his hand returned to his back pocket a moment later. Syl put on the shirt and hugged her legs up to her chin again.

After a few moments of silence he asked, "If you're done, knock on the headboard." Syl reached out a hand without breaking her gaze from the back of his head and rapped once on the wood. "I'm going to turn around now," he said. "Okay?" Again she knocked on the headboard. He turned around slowly and smiled a little, a brief smile that lasted only a moment. "See? You can trust me." Syl glanced away so he wouldn't see the disagreement in her eyes, a habit she'd had for a while now.

The boy moved slowly to the bed and sat at a comfortable distance from Syl; not too far, not too close. "My name's Michael," he offered. "Can you tell me your name?" There was a short pause. "Or you could signal it somehow... draw the letters if you have to."

Syl narrowed her eyes at him slightly. She shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest, affecting as close to an unfriendly posture as she could, hoping he'd leave. He smiled lightly at her attempt at toughness. "Don't try that one with me," he said jokingly. "My little sister Van is a lot tougher, and it doesn't bother me." At the mention of the name Van, Syl's heart froze and her eyes locked with his once more, hers full of questions. "I have a bunch of sisters," he continued. "Brothers too. I'm the oldest, I take care of them." He continued, "But I can't find most of them."

Again, Syl narrowed her eyes, suspecting a lie. She gave him a look that plainly challenged his statement about taking care of them.

He smiled genuinely at her. "Looking for them is the first step to taking care of them," he clarified. "The ones that I have contact with, I protect from anyone who might want to take them somewhere they don't want to be." Syl's eyes flickered to the broken window, then to the bed, still warm with Joel's violation. The boy read her thoughts and said, "Like here." She glanced away from him. "I'm sorry no one has ever done that for you," he said softly, almost painfully. "But maybe somebody should."

She looked up at him again, her eyes questioning his presence in this room.

"What happened to your parents?" he asked. "Your real ones, not your fosters." Syl's forehead sprouted with lines as she frowned, shrugging a little.

The boy scratched his neck, considering this. "I never knew mine either."

Her body relaxed just a little. Her eyes trailed to the broken glass of the window and she listened for any motion, but the night was dark and still.

He followed her gaze and said, "He's probably dead." His voice was very precise. Then he turned back to her and continued, "I can take you away from here. I'm not going to take you to a doctor. Not if you don't want to see one. But one of my sisters is really good at that stuff. She can take a look and make sure you're okay." He paused. "Does your face hurt?"

Syl's hand reached up and her fingers traced the fresh bruises, and the cut that skirted the edge of one eye socket. She shrugged.

He nodded. "We'd have to go on a little bit of a road trip. My sister, the one I was talking about, lives in New Orleans. Her name's Grix. She's really gentle. Plus I'd be getting you out of here."

Hearing Grix's name made Syl's heart race again, not in fear this time, but in anticipation as hope began to flood through her. She pushed the sheets away and crawled off the bed, certain now that he had lied to her. Slowly she raised her left hand and tapped two fingers on her right upper arm, signaling a request for a commanding officer.

He chuckled. "Michael's not my real name," he admitted with a smile. "So you know military hand signals, huh?" Sarcastically following his earlier instructions, Syl snapped her hand out and slammed it into the headboard once. He chuckled again, then the laughter melted from his face and he took a breath, giving a small nod. "It's me, Syl."

Her eyes closed briefly and then opened again, full of tears. Zack closed the distance between them and laid his palm against her cheek, caressing the back of her ear with his index finger. Syl was used to sexual touch, but this was loving, calming. She turned her face into the touch, raising her eyes to his face and seeing tears on her cheeks. She reached up slowly and laid her finger under one of them, scooping it up on the pad of her finger. Then she put her arms around him and buried her face in his chest, inhaling his scent. His arms wrapped around her shoulders and one hand stroked through her soft blonde hair, parting it for a moment against her barcode. She sensed the last bit of doubt drain from his body as his lips touched the top of her head. "It'll be okay, baby sister, I promise," he whispered. Syl's body shuddered with relief and she clung to him, allowing the feeling to wash over her, craving it like someone who had suddenly found herself in a desert rainfall. She hadn't felt so safe since- she couldn't remember when she'd last felt so safe. He whispered again in a soft voice, gentle, "It's okay now."