(Author's note: This story wasn't intended to be read in chapters, but as a whole. However, since I know not everyone can read a 15,000+ word story in one sitting, I've uploaded them in increments for your satisfaction. Forgive me if they do not all end or begin artistically! Anyways, this is a story I wrote several months back. I haven't done anything with it, but I didn't want to let it rot in my story folder. It was one of my favorites to write. So please read, review and enjoy! :) )

This wasn't my ideal way to die, and yet there I was. The flames grew angrily, now so bright that it was painful even to keep my eyes open. I felt the heat searing my legs and hands, heard the horrifying sizzle as it burnt away my hair; the noise of it was high in contrast to the deep roar of the fire. While holding back a scream, I thought back to the day where all this had started, back to the period of time just after my short-lived homelessness… My two years with Eloise. I could have laughed bitterly at the comparison between who I was then, and who I am now. A twelve year old boy who had no idea what awaited him on the other end of that mysterious drive. And now here I was, about to be burned to death at the young age of fifteen. Simple as it sounded, I couldn't help but wish for a better way to go. A car crash would have been fast, and drowning seems so much more peaceful than perishing by flames. Dying of old age laying next to the one I loved had to be the best, though. Some people just didn't know how lucky they were.

The flames were closer now, closing me in against the iron walls. I heard the laughs, shut my eyes, and prayed to God that this would be the last time I ever had to feel pain like this again.

"Where are we going?" I asked Eloise for the thousandth time as we drove along a long country road. I didn't know exactly where I was going because she refused to tell me, no matter how many times I asked. She gave me a small smile through the mirror, and then looked ahead without saying a word. I stared out the window of her car and watched as the fields and farmland flew by. It was a beautiful sunny day, the pastures were lush and green and the sunlight shone against the gleaming coats of the livestock. I tried counting the cows a few times, but lost track before long.

"Lots of farms and land here, huh Jonah?" She said at last. It wasn't exactly an answer to my question, but it was at least something.

"Uh-huh." I nodded and continued gazing out the window. I almost felt giddy for wherever we were going, or whoever we were going to see. It was two years since my parents passed, and I'd lived most of those two years with the woman who was driving the car, Eloise. She was in her sixties, and was nice as could be. She had curly caramel-colored hair that went to her shoulders, and today she had it pulled up into a bun on the back of her head. She wore makeup, but not enough to make her look clownish like a lot of ladies did. She was sort of pretty, in a womanish way. Sometimes I wondered if she ever had a husband, but I never dared to ask her.

She took me into her house shortly after my parents' death without hesitation. And she treated me like her own ever since. But although she was really nice, like a grandmother to me, I always got the feeling that she didn't really want me around. I'd overhear her on the telephone sometimes, trying to contact adoption companies or families who wanted a twelve year old boy. She didn't know that I heard those, so she probably didn't guess that I knew we were going to see somebody who might take me in.

Up ahead, I noticed an old wooden sign that rested on the side of the road that read, "The town of Goatswood welcomes you." I wondered if we would just be passing through Goatswood, like we had several other towns. But then Eloise looked at me through her mirror and smiled, though an unusual expression crossed her face at the same time. Was it nervousness?

"This is the town." She told me and looked away, out the windshield. She wouldn't meet my eyes again.

I felt a bit of excitement rise up in my chest. I got lost in my imagination as I stared out the window, thinking of all of the great possibilities for this family. Maybe it was a young couple who couldn't bear a child of their own, but wanted one. Maybe it would be a governor, with a great house and plenty of money. Or a perhaps a farm, with more animals than I could count. I smiled at that, as the idea of maybe owning my own dog or even a horse entered my mind. But before I could think much further, we pulled into the driveway of a grand Victorian house. I stared at it as I blindly fumbled with my seatbelt, trying to guess what family might live inside it. Eloise came around and opened my door for me and I slid out, craning my neck to see more of the beautiful house. It was a built of tan bricks, must have been at least three stories high, with a great wide porch that covered the whole front of the house. There was lots of land around it, and I secretly hoped that there was a barn somewhere behind it. I wandered a few steps toward the side of it, peeking around to try and see anything. But it just seemed like it was a big empty yard. Not even a fence.

I walked back toward Eloise, who was looking around with that same odd expression she had the whole drive there. I was about to ask her what was wrong, but then my eyes caught a small sign in the front yard that read;

"Aickman's Funeral Home: 215 Green street, Goatswood – Phone 390-J "

I felt like a crater had opened up in my chest as I read the first words on the old sign. Funeral home. Eloise took notice to my distress and pat me on the back.

"Don't worry, darling. He's a very nice man and I'm sure he'll love to meet you. We'll be leaving before you know it." She leaned down to meet my eyes and I tried to believe her.

We approached the house at a slow pace, because I couldn't get my feet to move much faster across the long lawn. When we reached the stairs, she went ahead of me and clicked up them in her high heels. I climbed each one with care, increasingly nervous as I thought about what kind of people might open the door. I almost expected it to be a dead person.

Eloise pulled back the brass knocker on the front door and banged it a couple times, then stepped back and waited. I stood next to, or maybe a little bit behind Eloise and stared at the door. I heard approaching footsteps for a few seconds, and held my breath as they paused at the door. It swung open, and there stood a tall old man. Under a fedora hat, he had gray hair with the smallest hint of brown in it, and a completely grayed beard and mustache that weren't too tidily kept. He was wearing a brown suit with a matching tie, as if he were about to go out somewhere. The thing that caught my eye most, though, was the pair of round spectacles that barely covered his eyes. I struggled to see them past the thick glass, but with the daylight reflecting off of them, it was impossible.

Eloise nudged me in the side with her elbow, and I remembered my manners. "Hello, sir. I'm Jonah. It's a great to meet you." I made myself smile politely and reached out to shake his hand. I almost wished that he wouldn't return the shake. But he did, and I quickly noticed how rough his hands were, and how the skin peeled. As if he'd been bathing them in chemicals. I remembered the man at the pharmacy's hands being like that. "From developing photos," he'd told me when I inquired. Mr. Aickman gave me a firm nod that matched his shake, and I pulled my hand back to my side. Eloise smiled tentatively at the man, but he did not smile back. His eyes scrutinized her as if she were a dog who'd just gone in the house.

"Ms. Eloise Burns. What a surprise to see you here." He said, his old mouth twitching once, as if he were trying to remember how to smile. I looked at Eloise, and she smiled brilliantly.

"I'm sure it is. Young Jonah and I began driving this morning, and I decided to give you a visit. I wonder if there is there somewhere Jonah could run to. I'd like to speak to you in private, Mr. Aickman."

Mr. Aickman regarded me once, looking me up and down as if I were an animal to be auctioned, and then he nodded at Eloise. "Of course. Jonah, son, why don't you go and play in the backyard? We'll only be a moment."

I didn't like the sound of that, but I nodded. "Sure." They both walked into the front door, and I turned around as they shut it behind themselves. I walked down the steps and took a turn toward the back yard, trying to nurture the very last hope I had that there might be something back there. Maybe if he only had a cat that stayed outdoors. But the yard was empty, just as I'd thought before. Just a wide plain of yellowing grass with a few oak trees here and there. He had some old medical equipment piled next to a cellar door, and a small back porch with a roof over it. I felt myself become more and more disappointed. No family, no other children, no animals. He was only an old man who owned a funeral home, living in that big house all by himself. I began to wonder if I was wrong about where Eloise was taking me. Maybe she just needed to talk business over with this man and didn't plan to leave me here at all.

I glanced toward a window on the back of the house that must've led to the kitchen. I could see the top of a refrigerator, and some cupboards. And through a doorway that must have led out of the kitchen, I saw the silhouettes of Eloise and Mr. Aickman. I wished I could see their faces, so I could know if they were speaking of serious matters, but even when I squinted, they were just black shapes against the large window in the next room.

After a few minutes of wandering around, I discovered a very old swing on one of the oak trees. It was a thick brown rope that was fraying, put through a hole in the center of a wooden plank and tied into a knot. I pushed down on it to make sure it was still sturdy enough to hold my weight, and then I climbed onto it and slowly went back and forth. I stared toward the house and hoped for Eloise and Mr. Aickman to come out the back door, laughing. Maybe Mr. Aickman had a kind old wife, and it would be like living with loving grandparents. Or maybe Eloise and Mr. Aickman could become wed, and I wouldn't have to leave her at all. I immediately felt stupid for even that split-second consideration, and tried to clear my head of it.

Whatever hopes I had built were shattered as I saw Eloise and Mr. Aickman come around the side of the house. He had his hands behind his back, hat off and tie loosened. He must not have been going out after all. Eloise looked grim as she watched me, maybe even sorrowful, but Mr. Aickman lifted his hand and motioned for me to come to them.

I stumbled off the swing and ran across the lawn, wanting nothing more than to jump into Eloise's car and drive away from this bland place and the mysterious old man. But when I ran to Eloise, Mr. Aickman put his hand out and placed it on my shoulder, slowly turning my torso toward him.

"Come on, boy. We'll get your things out of Ms. Eloise's car and get you settled. I have the perfect room for you." He smiled now. But to me it looked hollow. I gave Eloise a desperate glance, and grasped at my only excuse.

"I didn't pack any things, sir."

"Nonsense! Eloise tells me they're right there in the trunk. Don't be slow, now. Go get them." He put a hand on my upper back and walked toward the car, subtly pushing me along with him. Eloise opened the trunk and, to my dismay, there sat a brown suitcase. Next to it was a satchel that held some books, paper and pencils of mine, for schoolwork.

I reached in and pulled both out, throwing the satchel strap over my shoulder and grabbing my suitcase by the handle. I felt betrayed, angry and scared all at the same time. I wouldn't make eye contact with Eloise. She gave me a hug anyways, and whispered into my ear.

"It will be alright. I'm so sorry, dear Jonah. You will have a good life here, understand? I have a good feeling about it." She squeezed me, then stood straight and nodded at Mr. Aickman. "Good day to you both." Then she got in her car, and she drove away.