Silver bars of moonlight flickered through the whirring blades of the fan in my bedroom window and splattered across the note on my pillow with an almost ghostly glow. I felt rather than heard the click as I turned the dial on top of the fan and the hum of the motor slowly faded as the fan blades slowed, then stopped. Except for the occasional rumble of passing cars, the city was unusually quiet. On the other hand, the argument in the apartment upstairs was getting louder.


Mrs. Martin wasn't at the top of her voice yet, but she was getting close. "Dammit Andrew, what makes you think you have the right to tell me how I should raise my own son?"


Her new boyfriend's voice was deep and booming, but a lot calmer than hers. "In the short time I've known you and Luka, I've--"


"His name is Lukas."


"I'm sorry, Alice. What I was trying to say was, in the short time I've known you two, I've come to see how much you love each other."


"Well, of course I love him." The anger in my neighbor's voice deflated a bit.


"But I can also see you've been having problems with her."


"What the hell do you know about problems, and what kind of crap has he been telling you?"


I ignored the rest of the argument and concentrated on pulling the fan out of the window as quietly as possible. My latest foster parents really seemed to care about me and I was pretty sure, if they heard me, they'd try to stop me. I just hoped my note would convince them I wasn't running away; I was running to help someone.


I took in a deep breath of the humid, almost gritty air when I poked my head out the window. The metal grate of the bottom landing to the fire escape was still warm as I dragged myself outside, but not as hot as it had been when Luka and I had talked this afternoon. I'd been shocked to hear she'd told her mom's boyfriend about her secret, but I was even more worried about what would happen when Luka said Andrew was going to talk with her mom.


I tried creeping as quietly as I could to the second floor landing, but every step seemed to cause a creak or groan that echoed between my apartment and the one across the alley. The yelling had gotten louder by the time I reached Luka's window. She looked paler than usual when she responded to me tapping on the glass, and her hands shook as she opened her window. "What are you doing here?"


"I'm gonna get you outta here. I know a place that really helped me when I needed it. They can help you too."


"But. . . ."


Whatever Luka had to say next was interrupted by a loud banging on her bedroom door. "Lukas, unlock this door now!"


Over the yelling and banging, I heard someone calling my name. When I looked down, I saw my foster father staring up at me from my bedroom window, frowning with annoyance. "Maggie, what do you think you're doing out here this time of night?"


I ignored the question and turned back to Luka, reached through the window and grabbed her hand. "C'mon. We gotta leave now before your mom gets in."


Tears sparkled on her lashes like tiny diamonds. "No, I can't! She'd just find me again."


Before I could say anything, there was the sharp snap of breaking wood and the bedroom door slammed open. Luka's mom stalked in. "How dare you lock your own mother out!"


Andrew walked in through the door and wrapped his long fingers around his girlfriend's upper arm. "Alice, you need to stop and think about what you're doing."


I missed her answer when I noticed a metallic creak. My heart dropped into my stomach when I saw my foster father on the landing below. I turned back to the bedroom just in time to see Andrew stumble back out of the doorway after Mrs. Martin gave him a sharp elbow jab to the stomach. I could hear the steps groan as my foster father climbed up. Luka whimpered when her mom slowly walked towards us. "Okay," I thought, "change of plans."


Luka's mom froze when I slid through the window and landed on my feet beside my friend. "What are you doing in my son's room?"


"You are such a clueless. . . ." I remembered who was standing next to me and bit back the name I was going to call her. Instead I grabbed Luka's hand and ran as wide a circle as I could around her mother. My friend started crying and nearly fell as I dragged her behind me. I wanted to stop and just hold her until the tears were gone, but I knew I couldn't. I glanced back and saw Mrs. Martin grab for and miss Luka's shoulder. I also saw my foster father climbing through the window.


"Hold on there, hon." I turned back and saw Andrew standing in the doorway. "I'm sure you have good intentions, but--"


Without slowing down, I threw my full weight into slamming my shoulder into his gut. I felt guilty even before I saw him land on his backside, pain and shock plain on his face, but I didn't have time to talk or be polite. I hopped over his feet and caught Luka when she tripped over them, then dragged her through the wrecked living room and bolted with her out the apartment door.



*        *        *



Luka and I were both panting. I felt like barfing from the stink of the dumpster we were hiding in. My friend already had. I pulled her closer as she started crying again. "It's gonna be okay. All you gotta do when we get to the shelter is tell them what's been happening."


"But I'm scared!"


"Shhh. I just heard someone pass a couple of minutes ago. We don't want anyone coming back here."


Luka leaned her head on my shoulder and whispered between snuffles, "I'm sorry."


"It's okay." I pulled back a little and shooed a fly away from her face. "So what ya scared of?"


"My mom. You've got no idea what she's like."


"Trust me, I know better than you think. Sometimes you've gotta stand up for yourself, even when you're scared."


"Ever since Mom beat me when I told her I was a girl, I've been scared." Her jaw tightened as she hissed through her teeth. "I'm tired of being scared." She squeezed her eyes shut and began sobbing noisily. I was busy rocking my friend and barely noticed when pale light and a whiff of fresh air hit my face. I probably would have jumped straight into the air when the dumpster lid banged against the back if Luka hadn't been in my lap.


I looked up and saw Mrs. Martin. Her face was twisted with fury and her nose crinkled in disgust. "What do you think you're doing running off like that?"


I slid Luka from my lap and stood between her and her mom. "She's getting away from you."


Mrs. Martin frowned and her eyes tightened to slits. "What do you mean by. . . ." She let the end of her question go and turned to the alley entrance at the sound of approaching footsteps.


Andrew came around the corner and ran towards us, huffing and puffing. "Luka, I'm so glad you and your friend are safe. You two really had us worried."


Luka's mom whirled on her boyfriend. "Why the hell do you keep on calling her. . . ." her hands bunched into tight fists. "I mean, why do you keep on calling him Luka?"


"Well, you see, she--"


"Oh I see just fine. I see you're poking your nose in where it doesn't belong."


There were more footsteps and my foster parents were suddenly running towards me. When they saw me, they shouted at almost the same time, "Maggie!"


Mrs. Martin turned to them. "Goddammit! Is the whole neighborhood coming in here?"


My foster mother squared off against her and shook a finger in her face. "Now you listen here!"


Before she could say more, there was the earsplitting squelch of a siren. Red and blue lights reflected off the walls of the alley. A couple of car doors slammed and two police officers jogged into the alley. Luka's mom took a couple of steps back until she bumped into the dumpster.


My foster father turned and waved to the officers. "Thank you so much for getting here so quickly. Both children are in the dumpster over there," he pointed to Mrs. Martin, "and that's Luka's mother."


One of the officers walked towards the dumpster until he was standing maybe a foot away from my friend's mom. "Is Luka your daughter?"


I hopped back, nearly knocking Luka over, when Mrs. Martin slammed her fist into the side of the dumpster. "Has everyone completely lost their minds? I don't have a daughter. I have a son, and his name is Lukas!"


I felt a hand touch my shoulder. I turned and saw Luka's cheeks were bright with tears and her chin was trembling, but there was a hard, determined look in her eyes. She held onto my shoulder and climbed over the garbage at our feet until she was standing beside me. "If you don't want me to be your daughter, then I guess I'll hafta live with that. But I can't be your son, 'cause I ain't a boy. And I don't wanna be called Lukas any more."


She took in a deep, shaking breath. "My name is Luka."