I didn't want to go home; I didn't want to listen to the waiting tirade, didn't want to hear the screaming and the threats, didn't want to lie awake while my parents screamed back and forth, on and on, shouting and cursing and blaming me for all this. It was my fault. All my fault. My fault that Mom was tired, my fault that Dad was stressed, my fault that we didn't have enough money or time or peace of mind.

My fault. And I knew it.

So I ran away. I ran to wherever I could. School or a friend's house or even just a branch up in a tree. My problems couldn't find me there. But I always receded home, where the monsters were waiting to suck the life out of me all over again. Of course, that was my fault too.

Now, so was this.

I glanced at my watch out of habit without really checking the time. I already knew that it was 9:00, and I should already be home, and I was grounded for a week, and I should really grow up because I'm just making everything worse, and this was all my fault, all over again. My fault – and no one else's.

I sighed and put on a brave face. I was doomed regardless, but it made me feel worse to cry. I would hold back the tears. I could do that much. I had to keep the fire of hope burning inside of me, deep in my heart, where there were no angry words, no empty pains, no stabbing hurts, no useless struggles. In that secret place, all was silent, and there was a candle burning with a passionate, desperate flame. The flame burned on, despite the futility of it all. The flame burned because it could, and no one could stop it. Not ever. It would continue to burn quietly, with a gentle crackle of living hope.

That candle was my soul. No one could take it from me. It was the essence of who I was – my hopes and dreams and fantasies of a world where things were different, and people got along, and were nice, and helped each other, and encouraged each other, and no one bullied anyone else, and I shone like a great star in the sky, because everything was better, and I didn't have to hide anymore.

But that wasn't reality. And I couldn't complain, because it was probably my fault, just like everything else. Right now, I needed to get home before it really got late, or things would get even worse, and that would be my fault, too. So I swallowed my tears and shielded the candle within me, trying to control my thoughts. With a deep breath, I cleared my mind of all the aches, forcing myself to think about a solution to the problem at hand.

What was the fastest way home?

I immediately (and reluctantly) admitted to myself that the fastest way home would take at least twenty minutes, and I wouldn't be home until 9:30, and then I would really get it when I got there. For a second, I wished that I could just fly home, my wings spread wide as I soared above all the problems entangling me, leaving them far behind.

I shook my head. Such dreams were ridiculous. I needed a practical plan. I needed… a shortcut home.

Pausing to consider this plan, I decided that I could take one of the side streets – most of them were much faster routes to my house. Of course, my parents claimed that they were unsafe, and I would get hurt, and I had better not blame them if I get into trouble, because it would be my fault, because of my bad decisions.

For once, I didn't care. I was sixteen, and soon to be seventeen. I could handle this. Without hesitation, I increased my pace a hundredfold. Suddenly, I was running instead of slowly trudging along.

I quickly caught sight of a somewhat familiar side street that I had noticed once before, so I veered to the right and down the path. The abrupt sense of independence gave me a fiery determination, and I ran even faster, my legs pumping rapidly, my heart racing at a wild speed. For once, I was doing what I wanted to do, simply because I wanted to do it. It felt good, but weird in a strange way, as if I were using a part of my brain that hadn't been used in a long time. Like trying to work out after doing nothing but sleeping for weeks.

I closed my eyes and allowed the warm, comforting sense of accomplishment and autonomy to fill me. My run slowed to a gentle walk; I wanted this moment to last. I found myself thinking, "Maybe things aren't so bad." Somehow, I ended up saying it aloud. Actually hearing my voice speak the words made me feel even better. For a second, I really was flying free on the magic carpet of my dreams, and things really did feel different. Not just different… better. Right. Like how life always should have felt.

I gradually made my way down the street, turning corners when necessary, while I continued to muse. This went on for what felt like hardly any time at all, but it was probably about ten minutes. Maybe even a bit longer. Well… probably a lot a longer, if I'm going to be honest.

That was when I was snapped back to the moment by a sudden noise just behind me. Startled, I wheeled around, nervously balling my hands into ready fists, should someone attack me. (Years of warnings about the side streets had gone to my head.) My entire body tensed as I whipped around to face the anonymous threat.

I needn't have worried.

Before me was a young boy. He looked to be at least seventeen, maybe eighteen, but that was a long shot. He had a long ponytail of dirty blond hair. His clothes were dirty, too – sanded, worn, and stained with dirt, as if he hadn't washed them in weeks. But dirty and unfamiliar as he was, he didn't appear all that threatening. He had apparently tripped – which had caused the sudden noise – and he was slowly, clumsily stumbling to his feet. He seemed almost… tentative. Insecure. Maybe even a little scared.

He smiled. It was an awkward, nervous smile. "Uh… hello."

"What do you want?" I growled, clenching my fists tighter, just in case.

"I... I'm sorry," the boy stuttered. "I… I d-didn't mean to scare you." He backed away, raising his hands in the air. "I… I didn't mean for you to see me."

"You were… following me?" My eyes darted left and right as I wondered if there were other stalkers lurking in the shadows.

"Um… I… yes," the boy confessed, but he speedily added, "You… you looked friendly. Happy. I don't run into people very often down here. And when I do, they're street kids like me. They just want to steal my stuff. And they're never happy. You looked happy."

That threw me off. If there was anything I had felt lately, I certainly hadn't felt happiness. Tonight, I was happy. And it obviously showed. That made me feel joyful and alive inside for the first time in a long time. So I just said, "Thanks."

"You're… you're welcome," the boy replied. He paused for a second, and then asked, "Are you lost?"

"No. Why?"

"I… I was wondering why you were even here. No one comes this way. Too many troublemakers."

"I needed a shortcut home," I confessed.

"You know the way home from here? We're pretty far from most of the houses."

I gulped. "Well, on second thought… maybe I am sort of lost."

Unexpectedly, the boy's face lit up like a billboard. "I could help you home. I know the streets real well. I can find anything or anyone. From people to squirrels to houses."

He said it proudly, like it was his resume or an infomercial or something. It was so out-of-place and strange coming out the mouth of such a dirty, ratty-looking boy that I burst out laughing.

He looked surprised. "Hey! What?"

"Nothing. I could really use your help, that's all."

He grinned. "No problem. The tracker is ready to lead you home!"

"The tracker? Is that, like, your official title or something?" I teased.

The boy shrugged. "I don't know. It just sounds cool. Since I can track down anything, you know."

"Yeah," I agreed. I glanced at my watch. Almost 9:30… I was as good as dead. "We should really get going," I told the boy.

"Sure," he said. "But… um… I still don't know your name."

"Oh!" I realized. "I'm Victoria."

"I'm James."

He stretched out his hand. It was dirty, but I shook it anyway.