Jacky's parents are alcoholics. His mother doesn't really care about him, while his father frequently yells at and hits him. He was never allowed to leave the house on his own for anything except to go to school. He was never allowed to invite friends over or take part in extracurricular activities. He wasn't even allowed to stay in his room much of the time, for his father was always calling for him, and if he didn't please his father enough, the punishments were harsh and severe. Jacky had one jewel in his life, however: his older brother Jordan, whom he shares a close bond with.
One night, Jordan sneaks out in the middle of the night and breaks curfew—and his parents's laws—but he invites Jacky to do it again with him... and every night after that! The two start a tradition of sneaking out after their parents had gone to bed, savouring the freedom once forbidden from them. They roam the streets of the city, indulge on junk food, and even do some of the things they weren't allowed to do as kids—all together as brothers. Taking great care not to let the secret out, they continue their "nightly outings" for two years, strengthening and building the tightly knit relationship they had with each other.
It isn't long, however, before a house party at someone else's house arouses the attention of the cops, who chauffeur the boys home in handcuffs. Now that the secret is out, their bonds are about to be sorely tested...
Written by Enoch Leung
This story is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
This is the master copy.
Me, My Family, and I
My parents were alcoholics.
My mother, Betty, was 34. Fancied a pint of wine whenever she had the chance, drinking it out of plastic, disposable cups like grape juice. She'd get herself so drunk that she would stretch herself out onto the couch before she began, head hung over the edge, letting her vomit and misery drip down into a bucket. Occasionally she'd fall off the couch headfirst into that bucket, and she'd wake up to dried vomit in her hair.
My father, Alphonse, was 37. His friends called him "Al". I would often see him sitting in front of the TV, surrounded by a Stonehenge of discarded beer cans, almost as if he were conducting some sort of religious ceremony. When he tired of the drinks, he would light up and smoke a pack of cigarettes, maybe two, within a day. Contrary to belief, he never drank and smoked simultaneously; always one or the other at a time. I knew it well because he would always yell at me to bring him his smokes and his Zippo, and when I arrived, his breath smelled strongly of the beers he had downed. I was most fearful of him whenever he smoked; while the most he could do was whip a beer can with terrible accuracy when he was drinking, he had hot ash to flick at me if I did something he didn't agree with. He'd often make me stand next to him, ready to take his "orders", and if I didn't act fast enough, or if I didn't do it in a way he liked, I felt the searing burn of the end of a cigarette being driven into my bare skin.
Oh, how I hated them!
My mother always said she loved me, but she never acted that way. I guess she's an example of how you can lie without actually telling a lie. She didn't seem to hate me, necessarily, but she didn't show me any love either. She'd make dinner, but she never asked me about it, never offered to give me seconds, never even looked at me when I ate it. A lot of mothers do all of those things, because "Love me, love my food." But there was no love between us, and so the food was just food. No different from what an amateur cook working at minimum wage could concoct in his spare time.
My father was the real monster. Never a moment when his breath didn't smell like beer or his clothes didn't smell like tobacco. Always raising his voice, even when I was right next to him, telling me to do this and to do that, to not do this and not do that. If I didn't listen he'd hit me across the face. If I did it incorrectly he'd hurl a beer can at me, sometimes one of my mother's drinking glasses, one time an entire plate whose shards cut my wrist. If I somehow got on his nerves—and trust me, most of the time I didn't know what I did wrong or if he was just doing it for the hell of it—he'd grab a lit cigarette and leave a welt on my arm.
"Owww!!" I exclaimed when he did that. "What was that for?!"
"You didn't bring me that slice of pie fast enough!" came the reply. "And look at that: you've got crumbs all over the fucking carpet! You damned useless boy; a crack in my condom for sure!"
I lived in constant fear of my parents. Well, mostly my father. My mother would usually be too wasted to notice her vomit bath, let alone care for me. But I seldom had a waking moment where my father wasn't looking for me, impatiently calling my name, angrily demanding to know why I wasn't there when he needed my services the most. A raised hand. A strike. Two strikes. And the scars would never go away.
Mercy! you say. No child should ever have to go through such a hopeless situation like that! But—and Jesus bless me—I haven't mentioned one very important family member just yet.
My brother. My older brother, Jordan, who was 15. To my parents, he was no different than me. Just another slave to their commands, one that brought them their daily bread—drinks and cigs—and to my father, another accident that hadn't been whipped enough to regret his existence.
To me, he was God.
I was three years younger than he was, but he never showed any signs of superiority over me. He would call me his "Little Jacky", and together we'd pray and hope for better days. When my parents were too wasted to keep their eyelids open, he would put his arm around me, I'd put my arm around him, and we'd enjoy our brief vacation away from our parents, a small amount of time that we were free to spend together. Usually it was my father who came to first, and his angry barking would ring the bell that signalled the end our time. And when he did, we would go together, absorbing whatever round of verbal fireworks he had to launch at us, or accepting any cans or fists he threw at us, or even the spray of his beer or lungful of smoke to blow at us, standing right next to each other. He didn't like it when we were together, but we hated seeing our sibling having to endure his punishments alone. Funny enough that I say it, but our hate trumped his hate.
So, to sum it all up and put it into a nutshell:
My mother, Betty, 34. Mostly absent from my life. Doesn't love me.
My father, Alphonse, 37. Drinks like a fish and smokes like a factory, but never at the same time. Loathes the sight of me.
My brother, Jordan, 15. My best friend. The best friend. He loves me. I love him.
And me. Jacky. 12.
I guess you can say I love myself.
Our home was nothing elaborate, just a small suburban home in the borough of a large, sleepless city. It sat near the end of an idyllic cul-de-sac under the shade of a large oak tree, a tree so old and so wise that it dwarfed our little abode. We had a small little driveway that connected our small, one-car garage to the street. Our parents owned two cars, and fortunately (or unfortunately?) for us, they were at least smart enough not to drive after a pint. My mother drove more often than my dad did, so her car was parked outside on the driveway, slightly shielded from the elements by the big oak tree, though still drastically affected by the temperature. During the summer it was as hot as a sauna; in the winter it was an icebox on wheels. My dad's car had the messy garage as its home, with heaps of discarded electronic scrap, some gardening tools, a few snow shovels, and even a rusted bicycle hanging overhead for company. Talk about being popular.
Our house was small, but it looked smaller thanks to the big tree outside. The roof and second storey was entirely concealed from the street by the branches and the leaves, and it was only during the fall when the leaves dropped but before the snow came that the house seemed bigger than usual. Our exterior walls were made out of clapboards, painted white to make it look bright, almost like some sort of an igloo that virtually disappeared in the snow. To the right of the narrow driveway was a small porch, elevated from the ground just enough to warrant a wobbly concrete step to help visitors climb up. An overhang supported by two white columns provided some protection from the rain and snow, but was utterly useless when the wind drove the precipitation sideways into our eyes. Underneath that overhang sat two chairs and a table, of which I presumed were for fine summer evenings in the moist, mosquito-infested outdoors, though they were so rarely used it was more of an exterior decoration than anything; my parents never sat on the porch to drink or smoke. The overhang and the rest of the roof had shingles of a light-brownish colour, though I lack a head for identifying colours, so I couldn't tell you for sure what shade of brown they were.
There were three ways into and out of our house, excluding the ground floor windows that one technically could try to squeeze through: the noisy garage door, the creaky front door, and the almost-completely unused back door in virtually pristine condition. At the back of the house was the kitchen and the dining room. The kitchen shared a bland, windowless wall with the garage, while the dining room shared two walls with the exterior, enjoying a few more windows than the other rooms in the house. The back door stood in between, standing at the head of a small aisle of tiles that were coloured differently from the ones of the kitchen and the dining room. It led into the living room, serving almost as a No Man's Land between the two sides. We seldom ever used the back door, which led into our backyard. It was fenced, like all the other yards in the neighbourhood, but it had nothing to offer, no furniture or lights or hot tub or anything; just a mound of exposed dirt overgrown with weeds after the grass that once occupied it dried out and died from neglect.
At the terminus of the No Man's Land aisle was the living room—or as me and Jordan called it, the "Dying Room"—the largest room in the house, and the first room visitors would be confronted with when they entered, at least if they entered through the front door. Facing the front wall of the house was the couch my dad spent most of his waking moments on, and if there were no beer cans littering the radius of the couch when he plopped down into it, soon there would be. Perpendicular to that couch, tucked along the right side of the house, was the couch my mother would recline on, serving herself her desired doses of alcohol until she needed the bucket. The TV adorned the living room, angled in front of the two couches so its occupants could easily see what was on the screen. In the small cove behind my father's couch was a desk with a computer and even a small table lamp. From the outside, it looked like a fairly ordinary living room. On the inside, though, it was an alcohol fiesta almost every night.
I had no idea why my parents loved to drink. They never told me a thing about it, aside from a "Shut up, Jacky!" when I tried to ask.
Along the left side of the house, adjacent to the garage and just in front of the front door, were the stairs leading up to the second floor. The door connecting our living room to the garage sat squashed underneath the landing, the ceiling low enough to force a basketball player to duck their heads when passing through. At the top of the stairs was a small hallway that led to three rooms: my parents's bedroom, the bedroom me and Jordan shared, and a bathroom that the two of us shared with the visitors. We didn't have a bathroom on the ground floor. Our bedroom overlooked the front of the house, though there was usually nothing to see out the window but the branches and leaves of the oak tree. My parents slept in the back, a relatively spacious room that had its own private bathroom. We were usually forbidden to enter the master bedroom, but on the rare occasions that we did sneak in, there was nothing of interest to look at. It seemed just as shabby and old as the rest of our house was.
Our bedroom was perhaps the best part of the house, at least in my eyes. While it didn't look any different from all the other rooms, to me it was the one little part of the house that I had to myself. Well, my brother too, but I still had some jurisdiction over it at least. My brother and I slept in two different beds at opposite ends of the small room, though when I was younger I used to snuggle in with my brother, and he would wake me up in the morning by playfully pushing me over the edge. There was a small desk with two chairs, a quiet workplace for the both of us to complete our homework. A messy dresser stood in the last vacant corner, its contents rarely filled with neatly-folded clean clothes. After we had gotten the clothes back from the laundromat, we would stuff them in as quickly as possible, not because we were messy, but because our father was always calling for us, and we had no time to sit and quietly fold clothes. A blessing for many kids, I'm sure. For me? Not worth it for what we did get in return.
My mother was an office worker, though where she worked and what she did exactly, I did not know. Most white-collared workers bring home some of their work, as a sort of "homework" that they needed to complete, but my mother sure didn't do any of those things. Home, in her eyes, was an opportunity to forget she even had a job, at least until morning rolled around and she had to get over that hangover and drag herself to work. She never talked about her job, and for all I know she probably wasn't even employed. She could've easily gone to a Bingo club like the mother in that Roald Dahl book I read in school, her paycheque being her winnings, if she did win.
My father worked in a warehouse, sorting through and moving packages and other goods around, I figure. Don't think he has a head for numbers, so he probably didn't do any of the office work. To be honest, I don't know what he does exactly either. His uniform bears the name of the company he works for; even has the address to his workplace on it. It was all the way on the other side of town, though, and I wasn't desperate enough to go over there to see what he did for a living.
I went to elementary school. My brother, being 15, was in high school. I missed having him in the same building during the day. Before he graduated, it was nice knowing that he was in the same school as I was, and every day at recess we would sit, play, and chat together. I'd get to know his friends and he'd get to know mine. We walked to school together every morning, and walked back home together every afternoon. It was nice having him by my side. Now he had to take the bus to school, and for that he had to leave the house earlier. I started waking up earlier just so I could walk with him to the bus stop. Once he left, I'd walk back home, collect my belongings, and walk to school alone. But my father's strict policies ensured that he would get home no later than I did.
Which brings me to that: my father and his own code of laws, his own version of the Code of Hammurabi. To put it in a simplified version, we were to listen to him and do as he said like obedient dogs, and we were to never talk back to or resist him. No leaving the house without his permission, except to go to school. No taking longer than ten seconds to appear in front of him if he called for us. Always recognize him as the lord of our lives. As soon as school was done, we were to get home as soon as possible, no exceptions. No going out with friends. No going anywhere else unless he explicitly told us to. Even detention wasn't taken as an excuse. No chewing gum. No crying in front of him. We weren't even allowed to hug our sibling, though we broke that law as often as we dared. And if he caught us red-handed, he could choose whatever punishment he thought was suitable. Sometimes he'd force us to do more chores, which wasn't always a bad thing, considering the perpetual state of disarray the house seemed to be in. Most of the time, though, he would exert physical force onto us, hitting us, shoving us, throwing objects at us. No matter what we did, he would always yell at us, even if we hadn't violated any of his sacred edicts.
Nights were the only luxury I had at home. My mother would usually muster the strength to straggle up the stairs like a zombie and find herself safely tucked in under the covers of her bed, if she didn't simply spend the night on the couch. My father was pickier; he wouldn't accept a sofa or a lounge chair as the hay, so he'd yell at us to come down and help him up the stairs, all the while spewing forth profanity and derogatory insults as he stubbed his toe on every step. We weren't finished when we got to his bedroom, though; he would then order us to do all sorts of menial tasks while he stained the atmosphere with coarse language. Take off my socks; take off my shirt; take off my belt; no, you're doing it wrong; flip me over onto my side... no, not that side!; give me a sponge bath; the water is too cold; the suds are too thin; hurry the fuck up, I'm tired and I need to sleep! When we were finally done and when he had finally fallen asleep, we retreated back to our bedroom, closing the doors behind us, and we almost wanted to scream in exhilarating joy. At least we were done with him for the day. But we had nowhere to go at this time of night, so we would go to bed—go back to bed if he yelled at us while we were asleep—and we'd stay there until morning. Yet, still, it was only during this time that I felt truly comfortable and truly safe, and after the torture of having to put my dad into bed, me and my brother had about six, maybe seven hours together. It was only because of his presence, his calm but steady breathing in the room, that assured my safety and his protection. At the very least, it told me that I wasn't going through this alone.
I have many, many fond memories of me and Jordan. I know a lot of people that argue and bicker with their siblings like it was their worst nightmare. Me? I can't recall too many times where I grew irritated with him, and him with me. I believe our oppressive background brought us together, and no matter what happened between us, we were quick to realize that it was better to stick together in desperate times than it was to be divided. And God bless: though social services would've gawked at our situation, I wouldn't have traded the bond between me and my brother for anything else.
One time, when we were both still in elementary school, I was walking down the hall, my brand new knapsack in my hands. Some of the older kids happened to be roving down the same side of school as I was, and I told them that I had purchased it at Zellers when they asked where I got it from. They laughed and teased me, calling me a "garbage dump scavenger", and during recess they took the liberty of dumping out my knapsack's contents, letting the cold wind blow it away in a big, white cloud, tossing the bag into the mud. I was crying; they were clapping with delight, but their moment was short-lived when my older brother found me, his dark coat billowing in the wind, looking almost like Batman as he approached. He angrily ordered the bullying to stop, nearly raised a fist when one of them refused, and soon my belongings were returned to me, albeit a bit soiled. My brother cleaned them off as best as he could, and from then on, whenever a bully tried to pick on me, I knew who to turn to.
Another memory, this time a bit more jovial. My brother and I were bringing our family's dirty clothing into the laundromat. After we had loaded our load into the washing machine, my brother grabbed my hand and led me outside. Under my father's orders, we were not to leave the laundromat until our clothes were done. I looked at him uneasily, but he reassured me that nothing bad would happen. "He can't see us. He's at home sipping beer!" He took me to the ice cream parlour; only had enough money for one cone, but that was fine for the both of us. We shared a medium Cookies and Creme cone, taking turns licking up the deliciously sweet treat as we walked around the neighbourhood, feeling free like horses in an open field. We didn't lose any time either, returning to the laundromat just as the wash cycle ended. Our father didn't think otherwise.
Then a memory, not too long ago, about a few weeks after my brother's fifteenth birthday. I was standing with my father, his eyes glued to the TV, sitting almost motionless except to take puffs from his cigarette, letting out a long stream of smoke that curled in the air like a snake, floating stealthily to the ceiling. I wasn't looking at the TV; when you're feeling really miserable, it's remarkably easy to ignore something even as distracting as a television screen. I was staring at the floor, thinking about the three-page assignment I had to do, and how my father wasn't letting me do it.
"Jacky!" he barked, and I came to my senses. "Bring me my ashtray!"
I brought him his Joe Camel ashtray, an "antique", as he hailed it, and was probably the only proud owner of one in the neighbourhood. Today he glared at the ashtray and, with a sharp flick of his wrist, threw some of the ashes into my face. I coughed and gagged.
"I told you to empty this, Jacky!" he thundered. "Why is it still full?!"
"I'm... I'm sorry..." I managed.
He thrusted the ashtray back at me, sending a mound of ash flying into my shirt, onto the ground. "Go. Empty it out. Clean up this mess. And don't fuck up again!"
I heard footsteps coming softly down the stairs. I knew it was my older brother, probably alarmed at the commotion. I looked over at my mother as I disposed of the ashes and cigarette butts. She was sleeping peacefully on the couch, overtaken by the alcohol. Her vomit bucket was dirty, and though she never asked for it, I knew that eventually I'd have to clean it out as well.
My father was alerted to my brother's presence. He hadn't been drinking nearly as much today, I could tell; drunk dad barely had the aim to throw ash at me. He pointed his cigarette at Jordan like Harry Potter brandishing his wand. "Back off," he warned. Like I said, he didn't like seeing the two of us together. "Nothing's happening here."
I returned the ashtray, and when my brother retreated slightly, my father dusted the ashes off of his cigarette. I took a broom and dustpan and began to sweep up the mess on the ground. I felt my brother watching me from the stairs; I knew he wanted to help me, but his father's fiery attitude would've kept even an Africanized bee at bay. I collected the ashes, dumped them into the trash, and replaced the tools.
"Jacky!" my father barked again. "Bring me another piece of pie."
My mother had prepared some pre-cooked chicken pot pie she purchased at the frozen foods section at the supermarket last week. Each pie came in cupcake-sized, oven-safe cups that could be removed after preparation. The pie was filling—more filling than anticipated—and so there were a few left over after dinner. I selected one and brought it over to my father as he had requested, along with a spoon. He dug out a chunk, took one bite, and spat it out. "Why is this cold?!" he roared.
My blood turned to ice, perhaps a bit ironically, but there was no time to laugh now. He flicked the spoon at me, and it hit me on the forehead with the kind of accuracy that would make a basketball coach cheer with delight. "God dammit Jacky; I told you not to fuck up again and here you are serving up bullshit for me!"
Fear had completely immobilized me. My father didn't like that. He reached out, grabbed a fistful of my shirt, and barked into my face: "You better pop this pie into the microwave and heat it back up till its edible again, or I'll tar your back so warm you could fry eggs on it. You hear me?!"
My brother had had enough. He was standing in front of my father in a flash. "Leave my brother alone!" he shouted.
Dad didn't appreciate the gesture, though. He pointed his cigarette at my brother again. My brother almost retreated. Compared to me, he had the most experience with that cigarette in his bare skin. "Need I say more?" my father snarled, still gripping my shirt.
I struggled to get out. "Let... go... of... me... I'll reheat it, I will!"
"Stop resisting me!" he growled. Next thing I knew, I felt the unmistakable searing pain of his cigarette digging into my flesh. I doubled-over in shock and pain. My brother went straight for my father's wrists as he wrestled with him, trying not to get burned himself. "You monster!" he seethed. "My brother hasn't done anything wrong! You have no right to go burning him like that!"
My father stood up, shoving my brother back, letting his size do the talking. "What are you going to do?" Jordan asked in an unafraid tone. "That doesn't solve the problem. My brother just made a mistake, that's all. He didn't mean any harm."
"You talking back to me?" my father replied in a dark, dangerous voice.
"I'd rather talk back to you than to watch silently as you kick the dog off the porch!"
That's when he struck him. My father. Striking my brother. Hard across the face. My stomach sickened. I staggered to my feet. Jordan slowly turned his head back, a look of shock plastered on his face. My stomach did a backflip; I hated seeing my brother suffer.
"You got something to say to me, young man?" my father said.
"That's enough!" I rasped. "That's enough! That's enough! All Jordan was doing was sticking up for me! He didn't do anything wrong! You can't hit him like that!" I felt some of the strength returning to my muscles. "You can't hit him like that! You can't hit any of us like that! You can't! You can't!"
There was no warning. He struck me across the face with a swift blow. Time came to an absolute standstill. I could hear my breathing, feel my heartbeat, see the room fading into the background noise as my vision waned. He had hit me before, hit me even in the face in this fashion, but this time it was different. This time it felt like my very inner soul, my inner sanctuary, had been violated. He had gone too far.
My brother's anger flared. He tackled my father, and for a few moments, they grappled ferociously on the ground. My father, being bigger and stronger than the both of us, soon got the upper hand, getting my brother into a headlock with one arm. With his other hand, he reached for his cigarette and drove it straight into my brother's neck. I would never forget his screams of pain. It would never stop haunting me.
I came to my brother's aid. "That's enough!" I repeated, pushing with all my might the weight of my father, trying to get him off my brother's body. "You've gone too far! You can't do this to us! We're your sons!"
My mother turned and made a gross, sickening noise. "Tchaaak!" Her frail body trembled as her head dangled from the couch, taking in wheezing gasps as she struggled with herself. Finally, the vomit came out, but she was so weak that her aim was less than optimal. My father looked at her with distress. "Shit..."
But for the two of us, it was our chance. Pressing onto each other for support, we booked it and fled up the stairs towards our bedroom.
"Hey!!!" our father yelled. "Hey!!!" But we weren't going back. Not now, at least. We were done for the day. We slammed our bedroom door shut and leaned against it to keep it from opening.
For several minutes, we could only pant, gasping for air as even our brief run had eaten up all the reserves we had. As the adrenaline died down, though, the pain from his cigarette and his open hand resurfaced, and I cringed. I looked over at my brother. He was obviously in worse condition; he had his neck burned by the cigarette.
"Are you alright?" I finally managed to say when my breath had caught up with me.
He nodded. "You?"
"I'm dying on the inside."
He squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head. I could hear his muffled sobs as his anxiety and fears were translated into tears. I didn't know what to say to console him, so I put my arm around his shoulders. He did the same to me, squeezing me into him.
"How could he do this to us?" I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.
He brushed a hand across his eyes. "H-H-How could th-th-this h-happen t-t-t-to any-anybody?" he stammered. "Wh-wh-wh-why u-us? Wh-wh-what h-h-have we d-d-done t-t-to d-d-deserve th-this?" He wiped the tears off with his shirt. "A-A-A-All you d-d-did w-was l-l-listen t-t-to h-h-him... y-y-you d-d-didn't d-do a-a-anything wr-wr-wr-wrong!"
We were silent. Well, minus his sobbing and my occasional sniffling. I felt hot tears building up in front of my eyes. I blinked, and two teardrops came streaming down my face. "I feel so alone..." I whispered.
I felt his second arm coiling around me. "A-A-At l-l-least I h-h-h-have y-y-you..." He bit on his lips in a fruitless attempt to control his emotions. Me? I didn't even bother. Now it was coming out like raindrops on a stormy day. I squeezed him with my arms as I shifted to get into a more comfortable position. "I-I h-h-have you t-t-too," I whispered into his ear.
I would never forget that night. The best night and the worst night. The night where we stayed up crying in each other's arms. The night where we felt so distant and foreign to the world. The night where our lives seemed to have fallen apart. The night where we felt closer to each other, more so than we already were. The night where I realized how lucky I was to have a brother that cared. They say that, in times of desperation, the effects of all that is good to you get amplified. I truly felt that way that night, when my brother seemed larger than life to me.
Thank you, Jordan.
I lived under that umbrella of terror for most of my childhood, never once experiencing an ounce of love from either of my parents. The only comfort I had in my life was my older brother, and I was his only comfort as well. We had no experience with true freedom, little experience with the outside world. Our lives revolved around our two drunk parents: one indifferent to us, the other directly hostile. There was no escape from the circle of misery, no way out of the hell we lived in.
Until one night that I would never forget. The one night that changed my life.
It was a Friday, about a month after the ashtray and chicken pot pie incident. After carrying our drunk father to bed and enduring a dose of his verbal Molotovs, my brother and I retreated to bed, our little sliver of time that we got to ourselves.
"Good night, Jordan," I said.
"See you in the morning, Little Jacky," he replied. Even kissed me on the cheek before retiring for the day. He seemed happy, and that made me happy.
For some reason, though, I woke up during the night. Not too sure why. I'd imagine most people who lived in situations like mine would be woken up by anxiety, terrified of the unknown, not knowing what their future was; but for me, even though I was all of those things, I slept soundly at night, knowing that I had the best blessing of all right next to me.
Waking up in the middle of the night was a bit foreign to me. At first, I wasn't too concerned. All I had to do was listen for the soothing sound of my brother's slow but steady breathing, which comforted me like one of those relaxation CDs people buy to destress themselves. I listened carefully for that sound now, turning my ear towards my brother's bed, remaining motionless so I could hear it. But tonight, my brother's breathing was absent, and I was greeted only with the sound of silence.
I turned over onto my side, trying to get a better glimpse of my brother's bed. I couldn't really see it with great detail in the dim light, though I saw the faint outline of a body reclining on it. Well, at least, I thought I saw. I straightened up. Was my mind simply drawing fake pictures to deceive me?
"Jordan?" I whispered. "Jordan, you there?"
No answer. I didn't dare raise my voice, for fear of waking my parents up. My brother would've heard me anyways. I slowly pushed back the covers and got out of bed. Very gingerly, I tiptoed over to my brother's bed. One look. One good look.
He wasn't there.
For the first time in my life, I began to feel afraid at night. Where could my brother possibly be at this time? I pawed through the room, looking for my watch. It was a cheap, digital watch with a small LCD screen that could light up upon request for timekeeping in the dark. I fished it out from under a pile of clothes and checked.
2:30 AM. It was two-thirty in the morning and my brother wasn't in bed.
The bathroom, perhaps?
Very slowly, I opened the door a tiny smidge, just enough for me to slip sideways through the gap. The hallway was dark; I kept to the right, hugging the wall for guidance, knowing that the bathroom was to the right and the stairs were to my left. I already didn't have my brother with me; last thing I needed was an unwanted, noisy tumble down the stairs.
The bathroom. No light coming out from it. The door was unlocked, and I pushed it open. Nothing. Nobody there. Obviously my brother would never do his business in the dark.
I made my way down the stairs very, very slowly, keeping to the railing side for support. I moved along at a snail's pace, trying not to make any noise that would disturb my parents. I hoped that they were too drunk to even notice, but I wasn't taking any chances. Finally, I got to the bottom of the stairs. Both the living room and the kitchen were dark. Nobody there. No crazy ghost waiting for me. No boogeyman. Definitely not my brother. I checked my watch. 2:45 AM.
Where's my brother where's my brother where's my brother...
I checked the garage. Nobody there. I peered out into the backyard to check. Deserted. I opened the front door and tiptoed outside. It was autumn, about a week past Halloween, so the weather was starting to get cold. The street had an unsettling atmosphere to it, almost like a horror movie, just before the scene where some horribly mutilated body would be shown to the viewer to make them jump from their seat. The street lights casted little yellow haloes onto the empty roads and sidewalks. Our porch and front yard were empty. So were our neighbours's. I stepped out onto the front path, the cold ground freezing my bare feet, the frigid air sucking the warmth out of me.
"Jordan?" I whispered.
Fool! No one could possibly hear you outdoors with that minute voice! But my fears were catching up to me; without my brother, I felt naked and exposed to whatever evils the world had to offer. I turned around, and my heart almost stopped. I saw my mother and my father watching me from the front door! I blinked. They were gone. Gone as if they had never existed.
Man up, Jacky! Man up!
I retreated back inside the house, checking behind me one more time to see if my brother was there. He wasn't, and I closed the door softly behind me.
What was there to do? My brief outdoor trek had sent truckloads of adrenaline running through every artery and vein in my body, and I felt anything but tired and hungry. I curled up onto the couch, hugging my legs, not knowing what to do, almost surrendering myself to the darkness. Where's my brother? Where's my brother?! He wouldn't leave me here alone! I know he wouldn't!
An hour passed. Then two. Sometimes I felt a bit better, other times my anxiety conquered me again. My watch read 4:55 AM when I heard footsteps. Footsteps from outside, coming up the front steps and onto the porch. The turning of a lock. Then the front door opened. A figure stepped inside, taking great care not to make any noise. It closed the door quietly behind it, turned its head, and froze.
The voice was familiar. "...Jordan?"
The figure relaxed. "Jacky? What are you doing here?"
I bounded towards him and wrapped my arms around his body. "I woke up and found you weren't in bed. I was terrified! I didn't know what happened to you! I didn't know where you went!" I looked down at his hands. He was carrying two white plastic bags, similar to the disposable ones you get at grocery stores. "What's in those?"
He put his finger to his lips, motioning for me to be quiet. "I'll show you once we get up to our room," he whispered. Very quietly, we made our way back up the stairs, moving very slowly, even slower now to avoid rustling the bags. One step. One step. Another step. The bags made some noise. Pause, listening carefully to see if our parents had stirred. Then another step. Finally, we got back to our bedroom, our little island of comfort, the little room that we had to ourselves. Jordan closed the door, turned on the lights, and slowly began to open the bags. "Don't squeal!" he warned me as he produced their contents.
Food. A McDonald's Big Mac. Some French fries and ketchup. A bottle of Coke. Candy. Lots of it!
"Whoa," I breathed, my pupils dilating at the sight. His loot glowed in front of my eyes like treasure salvaged from a buried chest. "Where'd you get this?"
My brother could not contain his smiles any longer. "I snuck out," he said. "After tucking you in, I waited for about half an hour to make sure you were fully asleep before leaving the house. Man, I've never felt so free in my life before! For once, I had nobody to answer to, nobody to listen to except myself. I headed for the McDonald's we sometimes went to, you know, the one in that huge plaza near the subway station. They're open 24 hours, and I just couldn't help it. I was so tired of having to eat the crap mom makes for us. I went in and bought myself something to eat. I was so hungry, I wolfed it all down in four bites. Then I remembered you, and ordered some more for you when I got home. Then I went down to the 7-Eleven and bought some candy. Tons of leftover Halloween candy on the shelves, all for cheaper than cheap! Man, I thought I hit jackpot. C'mon, this one's for you!" He was jumpy and fidgety like some sort of a bunny, talking a mile a minute, and his mind was probably spinning faster than that. I had never seen him this excited before. He opened the container housing my Big Mac and handed it to me. "Don't tell mom or dad! Only I will ever give you something like this!"
I took a bite out of the sandwich. It was a bit soggy, having been left in the container for some time, but it was still delicious nonetheless. I allowed the unmistakable flavour of fast food to roll over my tongue, up the sides of my cheeks, onto my teeth and the roof of my mouth. It tasted of pure bliss, and the fact that my very own brother had bought it for me made it taste all the better. My brother put his arm around me as I took another bite, and his contagious smile spread onto my lips. It was pretty rare for us to have Mickey D's, and we definitely weren't allowed to go buying it on our own.
"Like it?" he asked.
I nodded. "Thanks," I said with my mouth full. "Can't believe you actually did this for me."
"For the both of us, but yeah." He reached for a plastic container filled with sour keys. He popped one into his mouth and sucked on the candy. "Treat yourself!"
Sour keys! My mind raced back to that Halloween party my fourth grade teacher had in her classroom. Movies, sodas, and snacks. The sour keys were my favourite. Well, everyone's favourite. As soon as I swallowed the chunk of Big Mac in my mouth, I reached for the candy and let the sourness sink into my mouth once more. Mmmm...
"This is our little midnight feast—even if it's five hours past midnight." He opened the bottle of Coke and offered it to me. It was half full. "I already drank a ton; you have the rest."
Sodas were a little more common in the house. My parents sometimes drank them when they had had enough of alcohol, and they didn't raise any eyebrows when we drank it too. I slugged down the sweet, sugary liquid. The fizz had died down, but it was still cold and refreshing. I took another long sip and offered my brother some more. He declined, but I kept pushing and coaxing him until he finally relented. He had another drink, and passed it back to me. We kept passing the bottle back and forth until it was empty.
After about an hour of talking and laughing and eating, being careful not to let our volume get out of control in case our parents heard us, Jordan gave me a serious look. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked me straight into the eyes. "You liked that, right?" he asked.
I nodded slowly, a bit bewildered at his sudden mood change. He was smiling less than a minute ago. Why was he so serious, like somebody's father?
"I'm glad you did, but I'm going to have to ask you a favour. You willing to do it?"
"What does it involve?"
I felt his grip tightening. His breathing was heavy. "Will you go out with me tomorrow night?"
"Jacky," he said, and I knew that, whenever he said my name without that "Little" prefix, he was serious. "I know that we've been through many ups and downs, that our life is a rollercoaster that we can never get off of, and every twist and turn, every drop and every corkscrew, is never a pleasant surprise. The only reason we survived it all is because we did it together. No matter what we had to go through, you had me and I had you, and without each other, God knows where we'd be right now. You understand me?"
I nodded slowly.
"Tonight I had a blast. Never before had the cold, crisp air of the night felt so cool and refreshing on my face, like water from a frozen glacier. The food that I ate and the places I went to were all things that mom and dad would normally never let us experience, definitely not on our own. But as bad as it seemed, it also felt good, because I wasn't anywhere near those two monsters. I wasn't anywhere near that woman who loved her booze more than her two sons. I wasn't anywhere near that man who burned my neck with his cigarette and slapped you across the face for defending me. I was free from those accursed chains, and man, the taste of freedom is sweeter than any honey on earth. But what sort of a brother am I if I didn't free you too? How could I ever enjoy the wind in my hair if I knew you were still locked up in this rotten old house?" He bit on his lips, and I could tell he was fighting back tears. "I may not be able to cut the chains off of us completely, but at least we can ditch the ball for a little while. You and me. Together. Just for a few hours. We'll get out of this filthy prison and take to the streets, take to the outside world, take to the city that's just beyond our front yard. Who knows what sights we'll be able to see? Who knows what sort of fun activities we'll be able to do? Who knows what sort of people we'll meet? I want you by my side, Jacky; I couldn't have survived without you, and I know you can't survive without me. We need each other, even in the best of times." He released my shoulders and grabbed my hands, squeezing them tightly. "Join me, Jacky. I promise I'll still be the big brother you've always known and loved."
I was quiet. He was still looking into my eyes, and despite his best efforts, the tears were streaming out of them. The prospect of breaking—no, decimating—my father's laws excited and frightened me at the same time. On one hand, I thought, I'll show that old fart a lesson! Who's he to boss me around? On the other hand, I was worried about the consequences, and what my father would say and do if he discovered that we had been sneaking out at night. "What if we get caught?" I finally asked.
"Then we will stand together. We'll face the consequences. We'll suffer our fate. We'll do it together." His grip on my hands tightened. It was almost as if he were trying to suck every bit of my soul out for him to preserve just in case God came and struck me dead that very moment. "If he hits you five times across the face, you bet I'll dare him to hit me ten times across the face. I promise that you will never have to suffer alone. If he grabbed a knife and drove it into your heart, I won't rest until I can join you in Heaven... or Hell, if we deserve that fate. I promise I'll always find a way to get to you."
Now it was my turn to cry. I threw my arms around him and hugged him tightly. My brother's warm, strong body was the only lamp I had in a world of darkness, and I would die to keep it going. I would never let my only lamp go out on me. "I will," I whispered into his ear. "I'll follow you. We'll do it all. Together. Together as one."
"Together as one," he repeated, and now we were both bawling. We weren't crying because of fear. We weren't crying because of our parents. We weren't even crying because of our bleak life. We were crying because of the most beautiful thing in the world that we got to share. Something that could only be found between two people. Something that was impossible for one to find alone. Something that many people could not and could never truly find.
Thank you, Jordan.
First Night Out
The next evening we were seated around our dining table, eating dinner quietly. Mom, as usual, had her attention completely absorbed by the mashed potatoes and peas, pushing them around and over into each other, a strangely mesmerizing repetitive motion. She really likes her own cooking, I thought sarcastically.
Dad wasn't nearly as into playing with his food. If he wasn't chewing and swallowing or gathering the next morsel of food to shovel into his mouth, he was just staring at a spot on the table, usually his glass of water, probably wishing that it was vodka or something. He would stare at it intently, as if he were studying it like a detective examining a clue, before breaking out of his trance, scooping up some of the peas, and stuffing it into his mouth. Chewing very, very slowly, again studying the glass. Swallow. Motionless for about a minute. Repeat.
I looked over at my brother. He was eating quietly, keeping to himself, not letting his gaze stray from his plate. We rarely talked at the dinner table, mostly because of the presence of our parents. We would've loved to sit closer to each other, but my father was watching us like a hawk. One wrong move and he might flick a spoonful of gravy at us.
"You gonna eat or what?" my father said roughly, waking me up from my thoughts.
I looked at my plate again. I hadn't touched the food on it for a good five minutes. "I'll eat it," I replied. I speared a mushroom, garnished it with some of the mashed potatoes, and put it into my mouth. The mushrooms tasted a little bit overcooked tonight, as if they had been left in the pot for too long.
My mother scraped off the last bit of mashed potato from her plate and got up. "Don't forget to scrub the frying pan; saw some dried gunk at the bottom of it this morning." Without another word—or even a glance in our direction—she headed straight for her couch in the living room. Weekends were the best time for her to drink because she could sleep in until noon without fear. She didn't go to church, didn't care what time she woke up on Sundays. I heard a POP! as she removed the cork from a bottle, heard the sound of liquid being poured into a cup, heard the sound of her gulping it down.
My father ate more slowly. Even at my pace, my plate was still cleaner than his by the time another five minutes had passed. All three of us still had a sizable amount of food left when my brother suddenly put his fork down, picked up his plate, and got up. "I'm not hungry."
As soon as he did that, I put my utensils down and got out of my seat as well. "I'm not hungry either."
"Where are you two going?" my father demanded.
"Homework," we both answered simultaneously.
"'Homework's' not a place," he said, unamused.
"We'll do the dishes," Jordan said, "and after that we got work to do. Mrs. Greystone wants my four-page essay done by Monday."
My father turned to me. "And what about you?"
I had to think of a lie, fast! I actually didn't have that much homework this weekend, just a few math problems that I could blow through in three minutes. "I also have some writing to do... It's a three-page assignment that's due on Monday as well..."
"About what?" He was suspicious of me, and I was unprepared to tackle him. Uh...
"About Marxism and its effects on modern social sciences," my brother said, coming to my rescue.
"You don't study that in your grade!" my father retorted.
"His teacher just wants to know how much he knows about the subject." My brother was clearing off the table. "C'mon Little Jacky, let's get the dishes done. I'll help you with your paper."
I couldn't look at my father's face after that. He was still staring at me, believing that something fishy was up with me. I filled one basin of the kitchen sink up with hot water, added some dish soap, and began scrubbing at the pots and pans. My brother cleared away the remainder of the dishes, wiped the table down, and washed off the suds, drying the dishes with a dishtowel before putting it back into the cupboards. When my father finished eating, he cleaned that up as well.
I always liked doing chores with my brother, if only because it was a great opportunity to spend more time with him while simultaneously keeping my parents quiet. Well, my mother at least. My father didn't like seeing the two of us together, but at least we got the housework done. Plus, working together, we were able to get the job done sooner, rather than later.
"Who's going to tend to me tonight?" my father barked. He had made his way into the living room, seated at his usual spot on the couch.
"We have work to do!" my brother called out. "Tomorrow night, I promise!"
"Not good enough!" My father turned around and pointed at me as we were about to climb up the stairs. "Jacky! You're it tonight!"
"But I have homework to do!" I protested.
"Sure you do! Ass down here, right now!"
"How about if I do it?" my brother said.
"I thought you were going to help Jacky out with his assignment!" dad shouted.
"I can't help him if he's down here with you!"
"Enough arguing with me!" Now he was foaming at the mouth. "Jacky, bring me my smokes and lighter. Jordan, don't you dare come down here for anything!"
Now I was scared. My father hadn't consumed a single drop of alcohol today. Some people were nastier when they were drunk, but my father wasn't one of them. If he was mad and sober, you were better off praying to God on your knees in front of him.
"I'll help you!" my brother said, coming back down the stairs to where I was.
My father pointed at him with his index finger like a pistol. "You will help nobody," he warned in his dark and dangerous tone.
I knew my brother would never honour that command, however. He slinked up the stairs, but he still stood on the landing, looking down into the living room, keeping an eye out for me. I would've smiled at that if my father wasn't watching every move I was making at that moment. "Hurry up, Jacky! You have two feet and a big brain. Don't be a tortoise."
I fetched him a fresh pack of smokes and a lighter. Dad selected a cigarette and put it into his mouth. He flicked the lever on his lighter, trying to get a flame, but all that came out were a few errant sparks. He tried a few more times, his fury building up within him, before throwing the apparatus back at me. "No lighter fluid! Get me another one!" he ordered.
I disposed of the old lighter and fished out a new one from the drawer. Dad always kept a neat collection of cigarettes and lighters in two separate drawers in the kitchen, always fully stocked. If there was a zombie apocalypse, he'd be in no short supply of either product. I tested the new lighter, checking to see if it worked, before returning to the living room. He lit the cigarette, turned the TV on, and his evening began.
I looked up at the stairs. My brother was still there, watching me. I knew that he really had an assignment to do, and that his teacher came down pretty harshly on late assignments, but my brother would rather drop out of school than watch me drop dead. I took a risk and flashed him a smile. He nodded, but he did not leave. In this house, my father was always the one with the last laugh—at least when he was awake.
"Jacky! Ashtray!" my father barked.
I retrieved his Joe Camel ashtray—making sure it was empty this time—and delivered it to him. He wedged his cig into the notches on the side and turned to me. "What are you up to?"
I blinked and hesitated. "I'm here right now..." I began.
"You and your brother are acting quite peculiarly today."
I froze. I felt my brother trying to send messages into my brain with his eyes from behind my back. Don't tell him anything!
"Nothing. We really had homework to do, and we didn't want to leave it until the last minute to do it," I replied.
He turned around in his seat and, picking up his cigarette, pointed it at me. "You're not fooling anybody, Jacky," he hissed. "You and your brother aren't foolin' anyone right now. I got my eyes on the both of you, and if you two try anything funny, whether it be within the four walls of this house or out on the streets, I'll see you." He inhaled through his cigarette. I saw the ominous red glow from the end of his cigarette as he did so before he exhaled a cloud of smoke into my eyes. I coughed. "And I swear to God, if I catch you, this cigarette will feel like a pedicure compared to what I'm gonna do to the both of you. You'll be bleeding so much, you're gonna wish you were dead."
I felt my brother stiffening. I felt like clenching my fists as well. Nobody should ever be threatening us like that. Not a friend. Not a cousin. Not a cop. Not even our father.
"You have anything to say about that?" my father inquired. His cigarette was still pointed at me.
I swallowed. "We're not up to anything," I said quietly. "We really aren't. I promise."
The Gates of Heaven open up to rain fire and destruction upon my head! I had just told my father a lie. A whopping, gargantuan lie. My father was still suspicious of me, but he let me go... this time. He relaxed in his seat, turned his eyes back towards the TV, and continued to consume programme after programme, cigarette after cigarette. After a few hours, he relaxed some more. "Jacky!" he shouted, breaking me from my trance. "Get me a case of beer."
I almost breathed a sigh of relief. I rushed into the kitchen, pulled out several cans of beer from the fridge, and brought them back to him in short order. He extinguished his cigarette and popped a tab. One can. Two cans. Three cans. I emptied out his ashtray and put them back just in case he wanted it. Soon, my dad was more like his usual self, sitting behind his palisade of discarded beer cans, breath smelling strongly of alcohol, yelling and shouting while wasted.
I looked up at the stairs. To my surprise, my brother was still there. Don't you have an assignment to do? I wondered.
Yes, he replied, but I'm keeping an eye out for you.
He hasn't hit me yet, I said.
He's unpredictable. Last thing I need is to have you get killed when you least expect it. If he grabs your throat, you bet I'll jump off of this landing and come to your aid.
That's my brother. Thanks, I said before returning to my original stance, standing quietly next to my father at the ready.
The rest of the evening progressed smoothly as intended. My mother put herself to bed, then my father yelled at us to take him up to his room. Remove his clothes and his socks and give him a sponge bath in bed. Finally, he was asleep, and we pulled the covers over him and closed their bedroom door.
"Ready?" my brother whispered to me.
"Ready," I answered.
"We'll wait for about half an hour, to make sure they're really asleep. After that, we'll get started."
We closed our bedroom door, turned off the lights, lay on our beds, and waited. We didn't talk or stir, trying to make as little noise as possible. The furnace kicked in, making a soft humming noise that hopefully prevented them from listening for us through the air ducts, though that seemed unlikely. Finally, my brother checked his watch and rolled out of bed. "Should be clear; let's go!"
The gap under our parents's bedroom door was dark. We tiptoed towards the stairs, keeping to one side to minimize the creaking from the wooden floorboards. I clung onto the wall and railings for guidance, though I would have preferred holding onto my brother's hand. He was leading the way, body very stiff and tense. He was listening carefully for any warning signs that indicated our parents were waking up, ready to catch us in the act. We proceeded down the stairs one step at a time, pausing frequently to check for noise. Finally, after what seemed like forever, we got to the ground floor. Still not over yet. And we still had to sneak back in when we were done.
"Get your coat," my brother advised. "It's cold out."
I nodded. I slipped on the lightest coat I had, hoping that it would make less noise than my warmer, winter coat. Probably not enough for the cold nighttime temperatures at this time of year, but it was better than nothing. I put on my shoes and looked up at my brother. He was waiting for me.
"Ready?" he asked.
I nodded. "Let's do this."
The front door creaked open slowly. It made a loud noise when opened quickly, and it was powerful enough to make the whole house shake if it was slammed shut with enough force. Tonight my brother did his best to minimize its noise. When the gap was wide enough for the both of us to slip through, we turned our ears back towards the house again. Nothing. At least, nothing we could hear.
"All clear," I whispered.
He stepped out first, followed closely by me. The autumn, nighttime air felt crisp and cool, like water from a spring. I closed the door very gently behind me, locked the door, and stepped off the porch.
Here we go!
"Phew," my brother said, exhaling. "Not bad for our first night out together." He began walking down the sidewalk, with me close behind.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
He cracked a smile. "Just follow me," he responded simply.
He led me out of our cul-de-sac, down the winding, twisting maze of streets that led to the main arterial roads of the city. The streets were almost completely deserted, nobody walking or driving except for the occasional car carrying someone who worked late home. When we got to the avenue, he turned right. "This way," he said. "There'll be more people here, so just keep your head down and pull up your hood!"
I did as I was told. My hood was thin—nothing impressive—but it kept my identity concealed, somewhat at least. The avenue was brightly lit by yellow, sodium vapour lamps that lined both sides of the road. A few more cars here, some buses and trucks, but there weren't too many pedestrians. The winds were calm, but I was still shivering underneath my crappy jacket. I wasn't too sure if it was because of the temperature or my excitement. Probably both.
"Jacky, look up!"
I did just that. "Whoa..."
We were at an intersection, one that was frequently busy and crowded during the day. It was surrounded by commercial establishments of a wide variety, such as the laundromat we usually went to. Behind the plazas were large apartment buildings whose lights spotted the starless city skies with mini stars of their own. I was surprised to see many lights on even at this time of night. The intersection was surprisingly busy even at night, with several cars and trucks waiting at a red light. At a bus stop stood a small group of people, talking loudly and mingling with each other as a bus arrived to pick them up. I rarely ever got to see the city at night, especially not this late.
"We'll go to the McDonald's that I was talking about last night," Jordan said to me. "It's a bit farther away, but I promise it'll be good. Trust me on this one?"
"I trust you," I said.
We turned left at that intersection and continued down. This road was busier, lined with towering apartment complexes and shopping plazas of various sizes and designs. The light wind that was blowing picked up slightly, and I saw my breath in the cold air. My brother didn't like that I was trailing behind him like a shy puppy, so he stepped to the side and put his arm around my shoulder when I caught up to him. I smiled. He disliked the right things, unlike my father. His friendliness was something I would never grow tired of.
"You cold?" he asked me.
"I'm fine," I answered. Really, I was fine when he put his arm around me. I probably would've been warmer even if I was butt naked as long as he was around me than if I donned a space suit knowing that he was dead.
"If you need me to, I'll give you my jacket," he offered.
"Thanks, but I'm fine. I don't want you to freeze because of me."
"I won't blame you for that, even if it kinda is your fault." He grinned.
"That's why I won't take your jacket."
"So what do you want?" he inquired. It was pretty clear that he knew my meager jacket was inadequate and that I was shivering. "A nip of brandy?"
"Your arm around me," I answered honestly.
He laughed. "Well, you got that right now."
We arrived at the plaza where the 24-hour McDonald's my brother mentioned was located. It was a huge plaza, with several stores all jammed up into a crooked L-shaped building that encircled a small parking lot. Two ramps provided access to a parking garage positioned on top of the shops. About a block away was a subway station, its lights still on. I was amazed to see people were still entering and leaving the station at this time of night. My brother and I glanced down the road in both directions before jaywalking—jayrunning?—across the four lane avenue. Soon, we were standing in front of the doors to the Golden Arches. There were a few people inside, mostly what appeared to be university students and a few construction workers, nothing special.
"After you," I said, opening the door.
He chuckled. "You're becoming a Canadian." He walked inside and opened the second set of doors. "After you."
It was delectably warm, compared to the frigid air outside. The air was filled with the aroma of freshly prepared French fries and other fried foods. Behind the counter, a lonesome cashier tended to the till, while another swept the floors of the kitchen. The university students were too immersed in their work to take much notice of our entrance, although the construction workers glanced briefly in our direction. Nobody seemed suspicious about two adolescents walking into a McDonald's at one in the morning without any accompanying adults.
"What would you like?" my brother asked. "Anything you want. I'll pay for it. Just don't order the most expensive item on the menu, that's all."
My stomach growled. Not finishing dinner was a pretty good way of making room for a midnight snack, no matter how illicit or unhealthy it was. "Another Big Mac," I replied.
"Classic, huh?" He scanned the menu. "I can share a quarter of a Quarter Pounder with you, if you'd like."
"How many pounds is that?" I joked, smirking, and he playfully shoved me out of line.
Soon, we were seated in a booth near the back of the restaurant, a cozy little corner concealed from prying eyes. We couldn't see the front door from here, but as a plus, no cop could see us either unless they were to scrutinize the entire place, in which case we were screwed anyways. Our midnight feast sat before us: a Big Mac, large fries, and a medium-size Coke for me; a Quarter Pounder, medium fries, and medium ginger ale for him. No mom. No dad. I wouldn't have minded having a couple of good friends with us either, but nothing could beat the brother-to-brother time I had right now.
"How's your night so far?" he asked me.
I nodded. "Great! It's nice being away from mom and dad and their alcohol."
"You remember the time I took you out for ice cream while our clothes were going through the wash cycle?"
"Of course I remember."
He took a bite out of his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. "I've always wanted to do that again. Not just the prospect of escaping our parents—we get a bit of that every night already—but the ability to just make decisions on our own, independently from them. Not just little ones either, but big ones away from home. Big decisions made out here in the outside world, where we can watch our actions change the world around us. Perhaps nobody is the king of the world, but everyone certainly has some power over it, no matter how small."
"Even us?" I asked. "What can we do? Our voices have been suppressed for as long as I can remember. We've had the wings of flight cut off from us as infants. We've had the cloak of dad's laws smothering any hopes of freedom. We've had a share of his punishments too—the very idea of freedom is taboo in our house, and anyone who tries to achieve it gets a cigarette to the chest. We have no experience with any of this."
"We don't, but that doesn't mean we can't acquire it." He sampled some of the fries. "Everyone has a point where they start small and grow big. We weren't born knowing how to read and write. When we entered school we didn't know what geometry or paragraphs or scientific elements or any of that stuff were. If we stopped school on the basis that we didn't know what was ahead, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere in life. Here we're at a fork in the road: one road is the road that we've always followed and known, the other is one that seems foreign to us. We don't know where it leads, but how are we supposed to know if we don't travel down that road?"
I didn't have an answer to that. I guess he was right on that one. I dunked a handful of fries into my ketchup container and popped them into my mouth, tasting the sweetness of the sauce and the saltiness of the fries, letting it flow across my tongue. I wondered if that was the taste of freedom: a sweet feeling, a salty sting.
"I know you're still worried about the consequences of getting caught, and maybe that's the snake on the road," my brother said in response to that unspoken thought in my mind. "But if you're getting a good thing because of it, and if you think the good stuff is better than the bad, why would you let the bad stop you?"
I peered out of our booth, half-expecting to see mom and dad turning the corner and pointing a finger at us. "Yeah, we have the wind in our hair, and we've gotten away from those two freaks, but what is there to gain from all this? At the end we still have to go home and be with them."
He looked at his drink. "It's not all about making decisions that have the biggest, most-profound impact now, but for getting us onto the lane that eventually exits the highway." He took a sip. "I mean, we're all going to have to get out of that house eventually, even if we stayed there and obediently did as they told us to do. Eventually they'll grow old and die, and then we'd be free. What if we just stayed at home and didn't go out at night? We'll be in our forties, maybe even our fifties, before they're gone for good. Would you want to have to wait that long to be freed from captivity?"
I shook my head. "Well... provided the alcohol doesn't kill their livers sooner than that."
He grinned. "Sounds morbid, but... I actually wished that happened too."
"So your point is—?"
"My point is that, if we wait that long to be freed and released into the outside world, we're already beyond the age of learning. It'll be difficult for us to adjust, since we haven't had any experience with what the world out here is like. The closest we'd ever get is from our fifteen-ish years of schooling, and it's a lot different to be told about the world in a classroom than it is to actually go out and see the world for yourself. If we explore the world now, at least we'd know what it's like at a young age, and who knows what fun we'll have? Even if we're stuck in that shabby house with our parents until their death, at least being free isn't as foreign to us as an earthling is to Mars."
I slurped down my soda. It was nice and cold, sugary sweet, and I could feel the bubbles in my mouth before I swallowed it. "Alright. So if I hear you correctly, you want us to keep sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to explore the outside world, so that once we grow old, we'll know how to get around. Right?"
"I know it seems daunting without our parents, but trust me: we're still young. We're strong, resilient, and adaptable at the same time. We can learn quickly. And I promise you: I'll be with you every step of the way. I don't want you to ever have to go through this alone."
That was more like my brother. "I guess freedom is better if you celebrate it together."
"The road to it is scary, but I'm confident that it'll bring us closer together. And once we get to greener pastures, nobody can separate us, not even with a chainsaw. We'll be closer than we already are; the closest bonds of humanity can be even closer." He straightened up. "That's what I really want you to know, Jacky. We can't go through this alone. Our parents may have been cruel to us, but the pressure they exerted on us created the bonds we share today, the two brothers that we are. It's just like how diamonds are formed after millions of years under intense pressure under the earth. It's painful—if rocks could ever feel pain—but the end result is something that sparkles. It's something that people value greatly."
"Aren't we removing our parents by sneaking out?" I asked. "Aren't we removing that pressure that's pushing us closer together?"
He shrugged. "Who knows? I reckon that there's plenty of pressure out in the outside world as well. That'll change things for sure. But I don't think we're actually removing the pressure our parents have on us; in fact, I think we're exacerbating it. Now we'll have to keep silent about this. We're going to be dead tired in the mornings, and we can't let them figure out what's going on with us. They'll get suspicious; at the very least dad will think we're lazy and force us to work harder and harder. But that shouldn't stop us. That won't stop us. Nothing's tougher than a diamond, and nothing should be tougher than two brothers standing together."
"You stole that from somewhere, didn't you?" I tried to inject some more humour into our discussion.
He took it. He flicked a French fry at me and laughed when I caught it. "Well it worked, didn't it?"
We were finished eating after about half an hour, but it honestly felt like ten minutes had passed. Time sure flies by when you're having fun. I wiped my mouth with my napkin and asked, "Where do we go now? It's only a quarter before two."
He shrugged. "Where do you want to go?"
"I'm asking you."
He smiled. "We'll think of it when we go outside."
The night air was colder, or maybe it was just because I had gone from the warm environment of the restaurant into the outside air. My brother selected a random direction and we started walking towards it. "We don't go out like this very often in our house," my brother commented. "We've lived here for over fifteen years and we're still strangers to our own city, in a sense."
"A stranger that knows the roads around here." We had a number of road maps of the city in our house. Our parents weren't that stupid.
"C'mon," he said, putting his arm around me once again. "Let's just go and see where all of these roads lead to. I just want to spend some time with my Little Jacky tonight."
"You always spend nights with me," I said.
"Yeah, but not like this. I never really get to walk with you in a direction of our choosing, without having to put a thought towards our drunk parents and our lousy house." We stopped at a red light, though there were so few cars and buses on that road that we could've just crossed without being hit. "You know, in some of those sappy soap operas where the guy and girl go for a walk in the evening after dinner?"
"What do you take me for?" I said, pushing him playfully onto the road.
"For a girl!" he responded, and for a while we stood there awkwardly in the middle of the road, wrestling and tickling each other, right up until a bus pulled up and blared its horn at us. We ran to the other side, still laughing, still panting.
"Our parents would never let us do that," I remarked.
"'C'mon Little Jacky, hold my hand. You'll get hit by a car otherwise,'" he said, mocking a mother with a high-pitched voice. I giggled, and after we had calmed down a bit after walking for another block, he put his arm around me again. "No seriously," he continued, "I really just wanted to spend some time where I was truly alone with you."
"I don't really know what to say about that," I commented, "aside from the fact that I'm touched. Seriously, I really am. I can't believe you took a huge risk just for this simple moment."
"It's more than just a moment, Jacky."
We were crossing a highway overpass now, a bridge that spanned the width of a massive expressway, eight lanes divided into two carriageways in each direction. Even at this time of night, there was still quite a bit of traffic moving along at breakneck speeds, leaving a unique whistling noise as it drove along the pavement. My brother and I stopped to look over the railing at the highway, watching as the cars and trucks passed by under us. The highway provided a clearing that, combined with the elevated nature of the overpass, created an impromptu observation deck where I could see the high-rises of the different parts of the city, their lights twinkling in the night sky like artificial stars. It really was an incredible view—only if you stopped to appreciate it.
My brother was still looking at the cars. "I want to be like those cars sometimes," he said over the noise. "This highway stretches the length of the province, passing by countless cities as it goes. I want to grow four wheels and an engine and just go to those places. The road to them is literally right here, not far from where we live."
"Someday," I responded. "Someday, we'll get out of the dump we live in, pack our bags, load up a car, and hit the road. We'll go to the places this highway connects to, and many more beyond them. We'll drive with the windows down, letting the wind blow in our hair, going wherever the road takes us. We'll find freedom, and we'll explore freedom. Together."
"And who knows what we'll see or who we'll meet or what we'll do along the way?" I felt him squeezing my body into his. "I'm not prepared, and I don't think I'll ever be prepared. I just gotta do it sometimes."
"Oh, you're prepared." I looked up at him. "You're prepared the moment you bring me along."
"So long as you don't ask me stupid questions while I'm behind the wheel."
He cleared his throat. "'Are we there yet?'" he said in a shrill, high-pitched voice.
"Hey, I never asked that question!"
"To mom and dad once, you did."
"And what makes you think I'll say that to you? You're not dad."
"I promise I won't drink and smoke like a maniac and force you to bring me my ashtray."
"At the very least, don't make me get gas for your car and leave me with the bill."
"I might... If you piss me off."
"Aren't you just gonna kick me out of the car and drive away without me?"
He patted me on the back. "No worries, Little Jacky. No matter how much you get on my nerves, I'll probably go a bit hard on you, but I'll never, ever, leave you behind like that. And if I do, I'll drive back in five minutes, so don't start walking. It's a long walk home."
I smiled. "You know what they say: you love 'em until you hate 'em."
"Y'know, we probably should've wrestled more at home. Well, maybe not at home, but maybe in the park after school. Just a quick match, and we'll run home after that. Or maybe on a school holiday, or maybe we should just skip a day—"
"I'd love that," I said suddenly.
"Huh?" He looked at me. "You like it when I'm pwning you?"
"No, no... I mean, I'd like to just skip a day of school to spend some time with you, like we're doing right now... What makes you think you're going to win, anyways?"
He released me and cracked his knuckles. "I'm like, three years older and stronger than you."
"I'm three years younger and wittier than you."
"You think?" And he grabbed my head with his arm, giving me the wildest noogie possible while I squealed and tried to wriggle out. We were going at it so hard like two WWE wrestlers that we very nearly went over the railing and onto the highway—and our deathbed—below. After struggling to regain balance, arms tight around each other for support, we collapsed and lay on the concrete walkway, panting and laughing. Gosh, what animals we were! We should be locked up in a zoo.
"Man, this is weird," my brother said after his breath had caught up with him. "Are we trying to stargaze in each other's arms in the middle of the city on a highway overpass? How romantic!"
"Do you still think I'm a girl?" I asked.
He laughed. "God, I was kidding there!"
"So? Am I your date or something?"
To my surprise, he turned his head and kissed me on the temple. "You're my brother," he said. "You're better than any date I could ever find."
"Really..." I began.
"I'm serious!" he insisted. "You're awesome because you can't leave me like a date can. You're my little brother and there's nothing you can do to change that!"
I shoved him over, but returned to him when I shivered from the cold. "Man, this overpass is freezing!" I said, my teeth chattering.
"C'mon," my brother said, getting up. "Let's keep walking. That'll keep us warm." He helped me to my feet and we made our way off the overpass. We had our arms around each other, mostly for warmth, although there was definitely a love component to it as well. "Don't wanna freeze and get sick out here."
The city was home to many rivers, each of which snaked south towards the lake which they drained their contents into. Along each river were patches of green, usually forested recreational areas with paths and benches. Buildings were strictly off-limits there as a flood protection measure, making them immune to the clutches of the concrete jungle. They stood out like little green jewels in a city of grey. We were walking into one of those parks now, the pathways lit up by scattered lampposts. I had never been here at night before.
"What time is it?" I asked.
Jordan checked his watch. "3AM," he replied.
Already! "Time sure does fly by when you're having fun."
I saw him smile. "I'm really glad we have this time together. Feels bad and all, but at the same time, this is the best night of my life!"
"For now, at least." The path ran under a canopy of trees, which provided quite a bit of protection from the biting wind. The branches of the trees were clearly visible in the light from the lampposts. "If we keep doing this, chances are pretty good that we'll find better nights than this one."
"So you want to do this again tomorrow night?"
My brother was silent for a moment. The next time he spoke, it was with a serious, somber tone: "Thank you Jacky..."
The shift in attitude got me again. I knew there was a jovial side to this, and a solemn side as well. "You okay, Jordan?"
I heard him sniffling. He stopped and hugged me tightly. I was a bit bewildered, but I hugged him back comfortingly anyway. He released me and looked at me in the eyes. He was crying, face wet with tears. "Every time I see you laugh, it makes me feel good on the inside, knowing that we're still able to smile even in the worst of situations." He tried to wipe away his tears. "If I was an only child, this would be rebellion; with you, it's saving our lives. My life would be in tatters without you, Jacky, and I know you feel the same about me as well." He bit his lips, trying unsuccessfully to stop crying. "The way you agree to do this again so enthusiastically makes me all the more reassured that what I'm doing is not wrong. I said 'I'm', because I'm the one who came up with this idea. And if there's someone that really needs to be punished if we get caught, it's me. All you did was tag along, and though that may not seem like much, it means an awful lot to me. I asked you to hop on board this boat I'm driving, and a good captain goes out of his way to protect his passengers and crew. That's why I have to take the blame for this, if everything goes wrong."
I stood there, speechless at what he was saying. Finally, I found my voice. "No Jordan... we agreed to this already. We're going to take the punishment together. I did far more than simply tag along with you. If it weren't for me, I don't think you would have bothered to sneak out in the first place. You sought freedom not just because you lived in an oppressive life since the days of your earliest memories. You sought freedom because you wanted for the both of us to be free together. If we are to get caught, it's not right for only one of us to take the blame."
He smiled, still crying, but smiling at the same time. "I'm really glad you understand."
"I'm just doing what a brother's supposed to do."
"Brothers do many things."
When we had composed ourselves, we continued to walk down along the path. My brother was holding my hand, and while most people my age would've objected to that, to me, I didn't mind. My father wouldn't let us hold hands when we were younger anyways. Now that he wasn't around, though, we were free to do as we pleased. Most people probably would've robbed a bank with that freedom. Us? We just wanted to do the things everyone seems to scoff at or take for granted these days. The path swooped down and ran adjacent to the river, and though we could not see it, we could hear the current moving along softly.
"I wish this night would never end," I breathed.
My brother checked his watch. "'Bout a quarter to four."
"This night's slipping out of our hands too quickly."
"We have tomorrow night. And the night after that. And after that one. We can have 365 of these nights a year, if you'd like. Just so long as we can sneak out and back in successfully every time."
"That's the challenge."
"Do you think it's worth it?"
I nodded. "Absolutely!"
"Then it'll be no problem for you." He looked around. The path was beginning to slope upwards back up the sides of the valley as it neared the next avenue. I could see the taillights of a few cars going over the bridge up ahead. A flight of concrete steps and we were back onto the sidewalk again.
"We should probably start heading back now, so we'll have some buffer time in case something happens to us," my brother advised.
I didn't disagree with that idea. "Let's go." We turned left and began the trek home in relative silence. My heart was a little disappointed that our night was about to come to an end, and that soon we'd have to go back to our old, miserable lives. I was already impatient for tomorrow; I couldn't wait to see where we'd go next. We crossed an overpass over the highway, turned into a side street, back through the maze of suburban houses. Soon, we were at our cul-de-sac, and I knew that it was all about to end. The feeling was similar to that of leaving the amusement park after a long day of fun; tired and sad, but happy and regretless at the same time. We stopped at the foot of our property and stared at the house. No lights on. Nothing had stirred. Our parents were still asleep, unless they were playing stealth mode right now.
"Well," I said quietly, "we're here."
My brother turned around and hugged me again. His body offered me a much welcomed warmth and shelter from the cold. "We had a great time together, Jacky."
I put my arms around him too. It was only fair that he got whatever I could offer as well. "Can't wait for tomorrow, Jordan."
We stood there for maybe two to three minutes, though it felt like thirty seconds to me. I was almost reluctant to let him go when he patted me on the back, asking to be released. "We still have to get back in," he told me.
I nodded. We advanced up our front path to our little porch. He produced his house keys, quietly unlocked the door, and pushed it open. The living room was dark, as was the kitchen and dining room. We tiptoed inside, closed the door, and removed our jackets and shoes. This place is too quiet, I thought. We crept up the stairs, one step at a time, again pausing frequently to check our surroundings. My parents's bedroom door was still dark, no light coming from underneath. Hugging the wall, walking sideways on the balls of our feet. Soon, we were both safely inside our bedroom, door closed. Our night was a success!
"I'm still cold," I commented.
"So am I," he said. "And I'm still hyped. Don't feel like sleeping at all!"
"We're going to be so dead tired tomorrow morning," I said.
He checked his watch. "It's almost five. It's a Sunday so our parents won't wake up until nine, maybe even ten if they're really hungover from last night. Let's catch up on some shut-eye while we can."
I changed into my pajamas and slid under the covers of my bed. It felt cold, and I rubbed my legs and feet to warm them up. Soon, I was snug, though my eyes were still wide awake. By the time I'll be able to sleep it'll be noon and dad will be yelling at us.
I heard my brother rolling over in his bed. Then again. A sigh. He put his pillow over his head. After I had listened to his restlessness for a good half an hour, I asked, "Can't sleep either?"
He rolled over to face me. "You're still awake?"
"Haven't slept a wink."
"Yeah, me neither."
"Think we should sneak out again and buy some coffee and donuts?"
He chuckled softly. "Nah, we'll just drink some of the soda in the fridge. And eat breakfast. Hopefully mom and dad are apt to doing nothing today too."
We lay there quietly for a few more minutes. I closed my eyes, but sleep did not come. Not even the very fringes of it. "Jordan?" I asked, my eyes still closed.
I didn't ask my question right away. "Do you want better parents?"
"Of course," he replied.
"Would you want to have better parents even if you were an only child? Even if I never existed in the first place?"
My brother was silent. I got him there, but "I just want your honest opinion about this."
"You know what?" He sat up. "I do want better parents. But if I was born an only child in the blossoms of two loving parents that taught me all my lessons and were with me every step of the way, I probably wouldn't really think much about having a sibling. My parents would have been enough." He was looking at me, the darkness obscuring the details of his face so I couldn't really read his facial expressions. He would've looked like the Slenderman if I didn't know who he was. "But I didn't get that opportunity. Instead I got two drunk parents and a baby brother. I don't know what it's like to not have a brother. If I say 'No' to your question, it's because I'm biased and I don't know any better." He lay down again. "To answer your question: No. No, I'd rather have you than to be an only child with good parents."
I waited for a few more minutes. "Jordan?" I asked again.
"What is it?"
"Do you love me?"
Now I really had him. He was silent again. "Do you?" I said after five minutes of silence.
He rolled over onto his side, facing me. He was looking in my direction. I could see his eyes glowing slightly.
"You want my honest answer, or just the one you want to hear?"
He took a deep breath. "I love you, Jacky."
I was silent. I felt my eyes dampening with tears. Those four words kept echoing around in my mind, the first three growing louder and more profound as they ricocheted inside my skull. The three most powerful combination of words in the universe.
I love you.
He was the only person in my life who had ever said that to me with sincerity and truthfulness, who actually said it without just saying it, who actually meant it rather than just moving his lips. He was the only person who could ever say it, prove it, and validate it in the way he did. He was the only person that would never truly grow old in my eyes, the only person that would remain the same to me no matter what happened to either of us.
He was my brother.
Thank you, Jordan.
And that's how it began, our nightly outings that took place in the middle of the night, after our parents had retired to bed and before they woke up in the morning. We never told anybody else, not our friends, not our relatives, definitely not our parents. We were always careful not to get caught, not just while getting in and out of the house, but out on the streets; we steered clear from any roving cops we saw. It was absolutely wonderful when everything went smoothly; it was our little sacred time every night, like how Christians go to church every Sunday, and we savoured every moment of it. Just me and my brother. No mom. No dad. None of their alcohol.
Our outings came at a cost, though. After our first night out together, we slept in till ten and woke up to dad's angry shouts from downstairs. We were tired and hungry as we did as we carried out his orders, lacking breakfast and a good night's sleep. Dad grew even more suspicious of us now that we were roaming the house like groggy zombies. Perhaps he thought we were on drugs. Mom, as usual, didn't care, although she was disappointed to find dried gunk still stuck on the bottom of the frying pan again.
On our second night out, we bought some more candy at the 7-Eleven and hid in the playground of the park near our house, a park that we were frequently forbidden to go to as children. Between the slides and the monkey bars was a little red playground tunnel that formed a cozy, albeit cramped, hangout spot for the older kids. We crawled inside that tunnel and consumed our snacks, talking and laughing under the light of a cell phone screen. The tunnel provided protection from the wind, and in such close quarters, our body heat warmed the spot up to tolerable temperatures. I'm sure many kids have done this before, maybe even in this very tunnel, but never before at 3AM.
"My legs are aching!" I said after we had been inside the tunnel for a while. I lay down onto my stomach and stretched out my legs. My feet stuck out one end of the tunnel, and the wind snatched the warmth out of them.
"Mine too." My brother did the same, and for a few minutes we lay there, waiting for our legs to stop protesting at us. I could see his face in the light emanating from the phone's screen. Suddenly, I smiled.
"What's so funny?" my brother asked.
"My legs may be aching, but my heart sure isn't."
He flicked a candy wrapper at my face. "Shut up."
On the third night, we picked up some hot chocolate at a coffee shop and went back to the park by the river again. We seated ourselves on a park bench, securely nestled between three large evergreen trees whose branches and leaves shielded us from sight and cold. Combined with our hot drinks and the walls of the valley, it was quite warm and snug indeed.
"You good so far?" my brother asked me. His arm was around me, as usual. He never got tired of doing that, and luckily for him, I never got tired of that either.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, these nightly outings. You liking them so far?"
"There isn't a night where you just want to stay home where it's warm and sleep?"
He definitely wanted a truthful answer there. "I'll be honest with you: I do want to stay home and sleep in our cozy bedroom, provided you're with there with me. But at the same time, I want to go out and be awake with you, wherever you go."
"If you want to just sleep and have a normal night, just let me know."
"No problem, Little Jacky."
Fourth night, we took the subway downtown and sampled a bit of the nightlife there. I had only been downtown once or twice in my life, and obviously never at night. My brother and I were so dazzled by the scene, the sleepless and restless nature of the city's core, the bright lights and atmosphere, the people out and about that had anything but their bedtime in mind. Me and my brother were so amazed at the sight, we just sat there and watched, unfamiliar with the action, not knowing how to jump in and take part.
Fifth night, we were tired, so we stayed home and slept. Well, kinda. At 4AM we got up and started talking about what we could do tomorrow night. We settled on going back downtown and roaming the streets, visiting neighbourhoods both old and new, walking through the past and present. Sixth night, we did just that, armed with a map that we seldom checked. We took note of every notable building we passed, every notable street we crossed, every storefront that seemed interesting to us. The cold autumn air bit at our extremities until they were slightly frostbitten, painful to the touch. We stopped and checked on each other, covering our freezing hands with the cuffs of our jackets, wishing we had warm gloves to wear. An old convenience store clerk spotted us shivering on the street and allowed us to enter his store, even though it was closed for the night. He had been cleaning the place when he "spotted two young boys, freezing from the cold, huddled in each other's arms." He didn't ask who we were or where we came from, or even about what we were doing downtown in the middle of the night. Even offered us something hot to drink. Probably thought we were street children.
"Thanks," I said to him as I took a sip. It was very creamy and very sweet, and it warmed me up right down to the toes.
"No problem," he responded, smiling. He was still cleaning the place, now cleaning up after himself when he prepared the drinks, but he never once appeared frustrated or disgusted at his extra, unpaid work.
"Do you usually do this, or you just happened to see us?" my brother asked.
He thought for a bit. "A year ago I saw a man collapse on the street outside this store. It was snowing and the wind was pretty fierce. I managed to bring him back inside and offered him some food and drink. Goodness, how he was bundled with hundreds of scarves like some sort of a mummy, and when I placed my hands over his to warm them up, they were as cold as ice!" He sighed. "Seems like I'm a saint, doesn't it? But he was just one of hundreds out here on the streets in the cold. Figured it couldn't hurt to help just one more. Well, two."
When we had bid him farewell and waited for the bus to take us home—the subway was closed for the night—I asked my brother, "What did you think of him?"
"Better than dad, at least," he replied.
"That was nice of him to let us into his store at night, even though our shoes were dirty and he had to clean up all over again."
"He's living proof that there's hope in the world. All our lives we've pretty much been taught that adults are snobs that can't take care of themselves, littering their own houses with vomit and beer cans." He looked back at the store and read its address out loud. "Keep this store in mind. Just in case."
"Just in case of what?"
He smiled, but didn't really answer my question. "You never know."
Soon, the seventh night came. One week since we started doing this. We slipped out and headed back for that McDonald's again.
"I think I've learned more things during the past week than any of the previous twelve years of my life combined," I said when we were seated with our food.
"That's a broad statement," my brother said. "What makes you think that?"
"Exactly what you said last week, about us going out into the outside world. It really is different to see the world for yourself than it is to hear about it in class."
He smiled. "Heh, we've barely even started!"
"I know. That's why I'm excited to keep going."
"There's lots to see and lots to do, but what's most important is the fact that you're here with me. Not as a travelling buddy. Not as a good friend. Something better than that. Something that's truly irreplaceable." He pushed his cup over to me and invited me to take a sip. Root beer. I let it sit in my mouth for a bit, tasting the sweetness of the soda carefully. Probably shouldn't do that if I want to avoid the dentist—and my parents wondering why my teeth were rotting—but it was awfully nice of him to share whatever he was drinking with me; I returned the gesture by letting him have a bite out of my chicken burger. Really, we weren't bad kids; sure, we were keeping big secrets from our parents, but at the same time I'm sure there are hundreds of parents out there who'd kill to have children like us, who were happily sharing food with each other instead of fighting over the last chicken nugget. Our parents never really understood and appreciated how lucky they were.
"Jordan," I said, "you think we'll still be doing this a year from now?"
He shrugged. "Maybe, provided we don't get caught and you still want to do this."
"Oh, I have no problems with it. Maybe we'll still be doing this well into our twenties and thirties. We'll be adults by then, and we won't need to worry about curfew anymore."
"I hope we're still together by then."
"We will be, Jordan."
Autumn progressed, and the days grew colder and shorter. We saw the first snow of the season, coming down in thick flurries amidst a howling wind in the early morning hours of a freezing December day. By the time the sun came up, there was a thin layer of white powder on the ground. Our parents, as usual, made us shovel it up. Me and my brother were smiling the whole time; underneath all the chores and misery it brings, snow is really quite beautiful. A few nights later, more snow came down, enough for kids to play in it. After our parents went to bed, we snuck out, headed for the park near our house, and erected a magnificent snow fort together.
"This reminds me of all the snow forts that were dotted around the schoolyard during recess," my brother said when we had finished the outside and began working on the inside. "It's like a little city of forts."
"Like a dozen countries vying for power," I added. "I remember how everyone just kept trying to steal each other's blocks of snow and ice. Our fort would've been dismantled by the seams if we didn't keep an eye on it."
"Well, there aren't any pesky thieves now," he said. "At least not until morning."
A few weeks later, school ended for the holidays, and our nightly outings stretched on for longer. Being tired during the day wasn't an issue anymore, for we could just sleep while our parents were away at work. Still woke up and cleaned the house just in time before mom and dad got home, so at least they weren't too suspicious of us. At night we walked around and looked at the Christmas decorations everyone had been setting up, all the colourful lights and illuminated lawn ornaments that lined the sidewalks and curbs. Every house on our cul-de-sac had their lawns decked out for the holiday season. Everyone but us. At least our driveway was clean.
"Our house looks so dreary even during the most wonderful time of the year," I lamented.
My brother patted me on the back. "It only appears dreary; inside it houses two glowing stars." And I grinned at that.
Christmas Eve rolled around, and my parents had their hearts set on celebrating the occasion by drinking more than they usually did. Even sat next to each other on the same couch in front of the TV; mom drank some of dad's beer, and dad drank some of mom's wine. When they were together, they usually forgot about us, so me and my brother sat next to each other in the kitchen, just in case they called for us.
"Hopefully the alcohol will help us sneak out more easily," I whispered.
"We haven't had any issues yet," he responded. "But yeah, this'll help."
My mother hiccuped.
"Where should we go tonight?" I asked.
He smiled. "Oh, you'll see."
Tonight, though, mom was too drunk to carry herself to bed, so she slept on the couch. Normally, this wouldn't have been much of a problem, but now she was in the way of our nightly outings. We had to get her out of the way somehow. After we had placed dad in his bed, we went down and nudged her shoulder. "Mom," I said, "it's time to go to bed."
She shuffled slightly, but did not respond. "Mom," I repeated, "You have to go to bed."
"I... I'll sleep here..." she said in a drunk voice.
"That's going to be uncomfortable," Jordan said. "You have no blanket, so you'll be cold. Plus, if you roll over a little too much, you'll knock your head onto the wooden floor."
But she was too drunk to even care. With a sigh, she tried to roll over onto her other side to face away from us, at a terrible cost. She wretched and tried to throw up, but lying on her back, it had nowhere to go. We quickly flipped her back onto her side and helped her as she threw up into her bucket. Gross...
"How about we help you to bed?" Jordan suggested. "It's a lot more comfortable than here. And don't worry, we'll bring your vomit bucket along just in case."
No response, but we weren't about to take "No" for an answer anyways. Jordan got her right arm, I got her left, and together we hauled our mother to her feet. She staggered this way and that, and we struggled under he weight, but we managed to make some progress towards the stairs.
"Mom," my brother said, "you're going to have to move your legs. Just a little bit. We need to get you up the stairs. We'll help you, we promise!"
My mother responded by doubling-over and coughing out another bout of vomit. I quickly pushed the bucket under her, and while most of it got into where it should've gone, it looked like we had some cleaning to do afterwards.
"Alright mom, on the count of three, lift up your right foot! One... two... three...!" It was already a challenge trying to prevent her from falling over; God knows what would happen if she fell while we were on the stairs. She did not respond.
"C'mon, mom!" I grunted, and when there was still no reply, we lifted her up off the ground and onto the first step. She nearly toppled over, but we caught her just in time.
You know something's really up when you have to carry your own mother up the stairs when you're still a child...
"Again!" Jordan cried out. "One... two... three...!"
It took us a full thirty minutes to get her up the stairs and onto the landing. By then she had awoken just enough to make a bumpy trip up the last few steps. Soon, she was safely in bed, blanket over her body, vomit bucket right where it needed to be.
"Phew!" We cleaned up the mess, washed ourselves up, and got ready to go out. "Man, that was exhausting," I remarked when we were outside.
"You know something's up when you're essentially babysitting your own parents," he said.
"Exactly what I was thinking!"
"C'mon," he said, grabbing my hand. "We can stay out longer tonight, now that they're totally wasted. I have something to show you." He led me out of our cul-de-sac, onto the main road, towards the apartment complexes that stood behind the plaza. He led me through an open gate that led into the apartment's communal grounds. Huh? Were we visiting someone or...?
"Try to look normal and don't make too much noise," he said. To my surprise, he pulled open a side door that led to a stairwell. He must've done some preparation ahead of time; there was putty stuffed inside the doorjamb, preventing it from fully closing and locking. We tiptoed inside the stairwell and climbed up the stairs—30 flights—all the way to the roof. It wasn't the highest point in the city—not even the highest point in the neighbourhood—but it was something, and I still had a nice view of our surroundings. It was like the highway overpass, only much better. I could see the vast array of buildings, many of which still had their lights on, dotting the cityscape like stars in the night sky. Underneath us, the overnight traffic moved swiftly and smoothly along the near-empty roads, free of the congestion that clogged them during the day. Our increased height meant that there were fewer obstacles for the wind, which nipped at us like howling wolves, but with my brother right beside me, I hardly knew it was there.
"I wish I could say it was all ours, but it isn't. What it is, however, is ours to explore. Not to own." His hand felt warm in mine. "Sorry I couldn't buy you a turkey dinner or anything; I don't even have a fancy gift for you. But there's one gift I can offer you, and it's from the bottom of my heart." He squeezed my hand. "Merry Christmas, Little Jacky."
My brother was the only family member who ever said that to me. "Merry Christmas to you, Jordan," I replied as I rested my head on his shoulder. He didn't mind. He never minded. He cared about who I really was and not what he expected me to be, and I can't name too many people in the world who are willing to do that. I remember a quote, either from Bernard Baruch or Dr. Seuss, that reads, "Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind." My parents were the former; my brother was the latter. As long as I had him, I couldn't care less about what happened elsewhere in my life.
Thank you, Jordan.
An Illicit House Party
We managed to keep our secret for over two years. We had some close calls, and our parents often wondered why we were so tired during the day, but they were so preoccupied with their alcohol that they couldn't be bothered to care. We didn't go out every night, but our sleep cycles had changed so drastically we often just stayed up all night in our bedroom. When my brother bought a laptop, we'd get cozy and watch movies on it whenever we stayed home. We shared a pair of earbuds to avoid disturbing our parents, and either sat at our desk, crouched on the floor, or reclined on a bed to enjoy the film. I didn't know how my brother got all of those movies, but I didn't care enough to ask. All I cared about was being able to do something with my brother even within the four walls of our house.
Until our luck turned one hot night in July.
My brother was 17, and I was 14. We were both in the same school again, at least until he graduated. The immense freedom associated with high school stunned me on my first day of walking through those big, double doors. My teachers couldn't care less if I skipped three classes in a row, and because our school was semestered, the timetable was a hot, messy soup of classes and "lunch" periods scattered haphazardly around the clock. In my first semester of high school, I got "lunch" first thing in the morning. Not like I complained though; my brother happened to be in the same boat as I was, and after we had gotten away from our miserable house, we sat together in the empty cafeteria and talked about anything, be it school, our house, our parents, our nightly outings, anything. Nobody else was around to hear our conversations.
School had just ended for the summer a few days prior, and me and my brother had our hearts set on enjoying our summer together. Summers were great times even before our nightly outings, as we had the entire day to ourselves; both our parents had to work, my mother working the classic nine-to-five workweek, while my dad left at six (It was a miracle he could still do that after being half-dead from alcohol the night before) and got home by four at the earliest. If we weren't home by then, he'd bring out the dreaded cigarette and burn us. With school out of the way, however, we had more control over the time we could spend, though my father never allowed us to leave the house on our own. After we started sneaking out at night, summers became far more productive than they once were, and the past few summers were spent sneaking out during the day and the night. It was safer during the day, but more exciting after sundown, and we wanted to experience the best of both worlds.
The two of us had just gotten home with fifteen minutes to spare. We had spent the day checking out places that would be cool to visit later that night, and we also happened upon some of our friends at school. One of them invited us over to his place after midnight—his parents were away on vacation, but he couldn't go with them because of exams. Me and my brother were excited at the prospect of finally being able to mingle with other people, so we agreed to go. We got home and finished cleaning up the place just before dad stepped through the front door. His eyes were blood red, like something out of a horror movie, and he began shouting at us the moment he walked through the door: "Jacky! Go to my room and bring me a fresh set of clothes! Jordan, get me my smokes and look sharp about it!" It was clear that he had a bad day at work today, and he was unleashing his workday stress out onto us. "Hurry up you two cumbags! Don't keep me waiting! Get your two lazy arses moving and do as I tell you to do!"
I ran upstairs, retrieved a clean dress shirt and a pair of jeans, and brought them back to my father, who also insisted that I help him change. He was too tired and too angry to even change on his own. My brother brought him his cigs and his lighter, and as soon as he was in clean clothes he lit one and reclined on the couch, propping his feet up onto the coffee table. He looked tired and drained, almost a sight that would invoke pity in onlookers. He didn't even bother turning on the TV, instead staring at the popcorn ceiling through eyelids so narrow they were just slits. My brother and I stood behind him, waiting for his next command.
"Would you like a can of beer?" my brother asked, somewhat timidly. It seemed strange to fuel someone's alcohol addiction, but we knew that alcohol was our best defense in helping us sneak out. "I can get it for you real quick."
"Bring me my ashtray," he said, ignoring the question. He wasn't exactly red-hot like a fireplace poker, but he didn't have much practice with being kind either. I got the Joe Camel ashtray, emptied it out, and brought it to him. He wedged his cigarette into the notches and stared off into space. For about thirty minutes we just stood there, not knowing what to do. Finally, he waved us off with a "Beat it, you two." We scurried up the stairs and into our room, our little sanctuary.
"What do you think's up with him today?" I asked my brother.
"I hope it's not an omen..."
"He didn't even want beer! What if he doesn't drink a sip at all tonight? What if he hears us sneaking out? Do we climb out through the window or something?"
"Jacky," he said, and I knew he was serious, "we've been doing this for well over two years now without incident. We know how to get out; we've been stealing towards the front door without making a sound, not enough to wake even a mouse up. One time we were even able to sneak out with mom passed out on the couch right in front of us! We can do this, Jacky; have faith in yourself. We can't let our oppressive parents erect another barrier for us now."
"But they were drunk all of those times!" I protested. "If dad's sober tonight, what's going to happen to us?"
"If he's asleep, he's still not going to hear us. It's not like we waltz downstairs singing hakuna matata at the top of our lungs."
He had a point there. Having nothing else to do now that our father was guarding the front door, we pulled out a deck of cards and played quietly until we heard our mother coming home through the door. Our dad yelled at us and we went down to help mom out in the kitchen, not that she really needed or appreciated it anyways. Dad didn't even bother eating at the dinner table and ate in the living room instead. He had now turned the TV on and was guzzling on both his wife's crappy cooking and whatever the rectangular box of light spoon-fed him. My mother sure as hell didn't care about what we did, so for the first time ever, I was sitting right next to Jordan at the dinner table now that dad wasn't with us. It seemed too good to be true, but here we were getting what we wanted at last. And all we wanted was for there to be less distance between us at dinnertime.
My mother cleaned off her plate and headed into the living room for her daily dose of wine. At least nothing was unusual with her. We washed the plates, pots, and pans, and when dad yelled at us to wash his empty plate as well, we complied. Much to our surprise, he got up and started walking up the stairs, all on his own.
"You're not going to drink, Al?" my mother asked him.
He waved it off. "Too tired. I'm going to bed." I heard him slamming the bedroom door shut.
"Apparently it's possible to be too tired to drink," my brother whispered to me. I covered up my laughter with some coughing.
Mom didn't need us to serve her, unlike my father, so we had the rest of the evening off—an unexpected blessing. We headed up to our room and talked quietly amongst ourselves, talking about what we had done today, talking about the night ahead of us, talking about what we had in store for tomorrow. "What do you think we're going to do once we get there?" I wondered.
"Oh, probably weed and stuff. The stereotypical things at parties."
"You think there's going to be alcohol?" Let's not forget about the fact that we were underage—both of us, and probably everyone else at the party as well.
"If there is, I know better than to drink," my brother said.
"So do I," I said in response.
"And if someone dares you to do so?"
"Why me?" I sat up. "Why not 'us'? What makes you think they're only going to ask me and not you?"
"I'm bigger and older and stronger than you. Everyone wants to pick on the little guy, right? Easy win for them."
I took him down, and for a few minutes we were wrestling on the floor, forgetting about the need to remain quiet. We kicked and grappled and grabbed and pulled and squeezed and choked each other, making enough noise to disturb all the neighbours. Finally, my brother got me into an armbar, and after trying unsuccessfully to get out of it, I tapped. He made a show of kicking me while I was down for the count before helping me back up. "See what I mean?"
I dusted myself off. "Whatever."
"You two better shut up in there!" Dad's voice oozed into the room through the air ducts. "If you don't stop it with the racket in your room, I'm going to come over there and beat the living shit out of the both of you!!"
We froze and immediately retreated. Dad's voice reminded us of the reality we were in. We had a bit too much fun. Too much. Too soon.
My brother glared at the air vent. "You watch out there, you drunkass," he seethed. "One day we're going to leave you, and we'll get back at you. Your drinking days are sorely numbered."
I swallowed. When my brother hadn't calmed down for a good minute or so, I tugged at his arm. "Hey... calm down. He's not coming for us right now, at least. Let's not ruin it for tonight."
"I'll break his neck," he growled.
"Someday—maybe—but not now. Not today. We'll get arrested if we did that. It's not worth going to jail for this; it means we can't sneak out at night anymore. We might even be separated! We can't let that happen, can we?"
My brother did not answer. I could still feel the anger boiling inside of him, rushing through his arteries and veins like hot liquid.
"You don't want us to get separated, do you? I thought you said you weren't going to leave me..."
I felt his posture beginning to relax. When he had calmed down, I hugged him tightly. "Just remember what we've been through and how we made it through all those years of pain and suffering. We only survived because we had each other. You have to give mom and dad some credit for that, at least. For some reason they at least had another baby—me."
After a few minutes of silence between us, my brother tapped me gently on the shoulder. "Let's get ready for tonight." I turned off the lights and we crouched by the door, waiting quietly for our mother to put herself to bed. After about an hour or so, we heard our mother's desperate struggles to get up the stairs while barely being able to pass the straight line test. She made it to the top, though not without her share of tripping and toe-stubbing, and closed her bedroom door. We waited another thirty minutes—plus an extra fifteen, just to be safe—before stirring. Jordan went out first, followed by me. Our strategy was so well rehearsed that we made it from top to bottom in less than five minutes without making a sound. Slip on our shoes. Sneak quietly out the front door. And soon we were on the public sidewalk, the air still warm even at night. Our friend's house was in the other direction, so we crossed our cul-de-sac. The heat the asphalt absorbed during the day radiated out like a heater.
"You think dad's still gonna be asleep when we get back home?" I asked.
"If he isn't, we'll climb up the downspouts and reenter the house through our bedroom window," he replied.
We stopped at a traffic light and waited for the light to turn. Tonight there was a warm breeze that kept the heat and humidity from becoming too unbearable. A waning crescent lit up the sky, unobscured by the lack of clouds. Across the avenue I could hear three drunk people waiting at a bus stop, their shrieks and laughter clearly audible even over the noise of the traffic. They sure do sound like they're having a great time, I thought.
"You alright, Jacky?" my brother asked. He was looking at me. "It's a brilliant evening, but you sure don't look excited."
"I don't know." I really didn't. I mean, we were about to do something that we've been wanting to do for a very long time, and normally I would've been excited—was excited when I talked about it earlier this evening, at least until I heard dad. What was so special about him, though? It wasn't like he hadn't yelled at us before.
I'm going to come over there and beat the living shit out of the both of you!!
I'm going to beat the living shit out of the both of you!!
Beat the living shit out of the both of you!!
The light turned. My brother tugged at my arm a couple of times before I regained my senses and followed. "If you don't want to go, just let me know," he said.
"I'm asking if you want to go, Jacky. Don't give me the answer I want to hear."
I swallowed. "I can't get dad's words out of my mind."
"The ones he yelled at us with this evening. How he's going to beat the living shit out of the both of us."
"It's not like he hasn't done that before already."
"Yeah, but..." And my voice trailed off.
I couldn't answer. My brother gave me a reassuring pat on the back. "Probably just your feelings talking. I'm sure it's nothing to worry about."
We arrived at the house. It was a small bungalow with a wide lawn and a small driveway with no garage. The steps to the porch connected with the driveway; there was no dedicated walkway for people to walk up on from the sidewalk. The view of the house from the street was almost completely obfuscated by a large tree, much like our own house. As we neared, we could hear the low-pitched bass of the music playing inside, a sound that kept shaking every bone in my body. I thought I would fall apart into a pile of broken bones once I stepped inside. My brother was about to ring the doorbell when the door cracked open, slightly ajar. "Are you the cops?" a voice demanded.
I froze. "Uh, no..." my brother began. "It's us... Jordan and Jacky..."
The door was opened slightly wider. The figure behind it was a short but stocky male with glasses and a revealing tank top that clearly showed his chest. "Quickly, before anyone else notices."
It was like walking into a sauna. The comfortable heat of the night was quickly replaced with the heat of the masses of sweaty bodies, with barely any room to move around. The airflow was practically non-existent, and given the fact that I was shorter than most people at the party, it was like being suffocated with a thick blanket. "Who invited you?" the figure asked us.
"Jessie. Jessie Engelhardt."
He grinned. "He's a good guy, letting us mess up his house. I'm Craig, by the way." He pointed towards a large archway on the right side of the house. "He's in the kitchen; just go through the dining room and you'll get there."
"Thanks." Although getting there was easier said than done. Aside from the unbearable humidity in the air, every square inch of the house was occupied by at least three people, either chatting or laughing or some combination of the two. I kept squirming and pushing and weaving through the hordes of bodies, with everyone intruding into my personal bubble, and me into theirs. On more than one occasion I lost sight of my brother, but I kept an eye on the archway, knowing that he would wait for me to catch up. The house couldn't have been any bigger than ours, but the sheer quantity of people and the climate of the room made it feel like hiking through a swampy rainforest. Face after face passed me by; none of them seemed awfully familiar, with a few faces or two I recognized from the occasional encounter in the school hallways, but nothing significant. Finally, we got to our friend, who immediately lit up like a child seeing Santa when he saw us.
"So you two made it!" he said exuberantly.
"Uh huh," I answered nervously.
"Ever been to a party before?"
"No," my brother said. "Our parents never let us do that kind of stuff."
"Ah." He looked around. "My parents don't let me do this kind of stuff either, but who the hell cares? They're in Cuba right now, and the most they'll think of me is a 'Poor Jessie; he had to stay home because he had an exam the day the plane left.' Leaves me free to do this, at least. You two good?"
"It's kinda hot in here," I lamented.
"Yeah, I know. I'd open the window if it didn't mean the neighbours would complain."
"Why wouldn't they be complaining now?" my brother said. "I could hear the ruckus outside, and all someone needs to do is take one look at your living room window to know there's a midnight party going on."
Our conversation was interrupted when a blonde-haired girl approached Jessie and whispered something into his ear. He resisted, but she kept pushing him. Above the noise I could hear little snippets of their voices: "In a minute, baby..." ... "What's wrong with you?..." ... "I've been waiting..." ... "Just talking with the boys..." Finally, he gave us a wink as left. "I got some stuff to do. Enjoy yourselves around here."
I watched him as he left, leaving the two of us in an unfamiliar environment with no one to talk to. "What do you think he's up to?" I asked Jordan.
"That's what I'm strangely curious about." He started to follow them. I grabbed his arm. "You have to be kidding me!" I said.
"Huh?" he stopped and turned around. "Do you have anything better to do around here?"
"I..." Oh, right. No, I frankly don't.
"C'mon," he said, grabbing my hand. "We'll go together. If it seems bad, we'll get out of there and do something else."
The two had gone through a doorway leading out of the kitchen into the den. It was still crowded, although there was a bit more room here. Some of the more introverted kids were crowded around Jessie's computer, their eyes glued to the screen as they watched someone play computer games. In the corner, the cushions and pillows of the sofa had been pulled out to erect a small fort that barely defended its inhabitants from a paper ball fight. I could see Jessie and the blonde girl passing through another doorway, one I presumed led to the bedroom, closing and locking the door behind them. It wasn't a special lock of any kind, just one of those cheap bedroom door locks that had a slot the size of a coin on the outside, making it fairly easy to break into. My brother and I knelt by the door and put our ears to it, being careful not to make any noise, although the paper ball fight made enough noise to mask any mishaps we encountered. This is a bad idea...
"Who were those two?" I heard a female voice saying from inside the bedroom. "Are they from our school?"
"Yeah! Jacky and Jordan; they're brothers. Jordan was in my tech class last semester. Jacky... I don't know. I think he's still in first year."
"Why did you invite them?"
"Hey, they're good people. They're not very social, but Jordan's a really nice guy from what I've seen."
"He looks so weak and faint-hearted! Almost as if he had been whipped senseless as a child."
My brother's face turned pale.
"Gosh! Don't be so hard on them; they're normal people, like us."
"Hmm? They sure don't look normal."
"I'll just ask them and see what's up. No biggie."
"It's just that they're so... weird..."
I jabbed my brother in the arm. "Who are these people?" I hissed.
"I thought they were..." His voice trailed off.
"I saw the looks on their face when you greeted them," the girl was saying. "Gosh, it looked like they were actually surprised that they were at a party, like they've never been to a social gathering before. What do you think's up with them? Didn't they tell you anything?"
"Nah," Jessie said. "Didn't think about asking. I don't actually know them that well; just knew that Jordan was a friendly face that couldn't hurt to have around."
"You seem nervous today, Jessie."
"What? No, it's just that I'm a bit— Owww! What was that for?!"
"For you, of course."
A shadow came over us. "Spying on what's going on inside?"
I looked up. Craig's body seemed titanic and intimidating at this angle. "We... we... uh..." I stumbled over my words.
He waved it off. "Don't worry about it. Everyone around here is curious about what Jessie does in there."
"Wait, so you mean...?" Jordan began.
"It's not like he hasn't done this before. Just about every party he goes to he always disappears into a room with someone else for some reason. Gee, I wonder why." He pointed at the door. "Who's in there with him?"
"Some blonde girl. Don't know who she is," I replied.
"Huh, okay. There are lots of blondes around the school. Could be anybody." He gestured for us to follow him. "C'mon. While they do their 'business' in there, I'll show you what it's like to fly a bit higher."
He led us back into the dining room and seated himself at the dinner table, where he reached into his pockets and pulled out a white cigarette, neatly rolled and complete with a paper filter. My eyes widened. My dad never rolled his own cigarettes, and though I had my share of inhaling second-hand smoke, I had never smoked a cigarette myself in my life before. I was pretty sure my brother hadn't either.
"Hey Rob!" Craig called out. A few eyes in the room turned to look and stopped what they were doing when they saw the cigarette. A boy roughly a year younger than my brother pushed his way through the crowd to get to the table. He smiled when he saw the cigarette. "You brought the joint this time," he said. His voice sounded high-pitched and young, as if he hadn't started puberty yet. Though his height was reasonable for his age, his arms and body barely had any muscle on them, even less than I had. He sat down at the table and glanced at us. "I think I know you," he said, looking at my brother. "I see you in the hallways sometimes with Jessie."
"He's Jordan," Craig said, introducing us to him. "He brought his younger brother Jacky here."
"First timer?" Rob asked.
We nodded weakly.
"I can tell. I saw your eyes widening when you saw the joint. Like, both of you."
At least I was in the same boat as my brother was.
"You two can sit this one out and we'll show you what it's like," Craig said, not unkindly. "If you're feeling confident and you want to take part, be our guest, but no peer pressure here." He looked at Rob. "That's it? Where's the rest of our circle?"
"Not here," Rob replied.
"Any ideas why?"
"They're either on vacation or just don't feel like coming, at least not today. Maybe in a week or so they'll be fine with it."
"Alright." He looked around the room. "Who here wants to join our circle? We can take as many people as there are chairs around this table."
In no time at all, the chairs around the dining table were filled. There was a brief commotion as a few of the chairs were fought over by some of the guests. "Hey hey, now..." Rob protested. "No fighting, no fighting! We'd rather leave a chair vacant than to have three people sharing a seat."
Craig lit the cigarette and took a long, deep breath. He exhaled a long string of smoke that came out almost like some sort of a serpent, crawling stealthily up towards the ceiling, where it hovered and stayed there.
One person applauded. "Another! Another!"
Craig shook his head. "We have new members here, even if they're temporary. Gotta let them have the rest." He passed the joint over to Rob, who also took a thorough puff of the joint. I saw the red glow of the flame before he blew the smoke out, blowing it so slowly that most of the smoke gathered around his face and headed upward in a thick, white wall. He looked like a ghost at the pinnacle of the smoke.
"Everyone here does it a bit differently," Craig explained to the two of us. "Some like to add in their 'signatures' to the smoke; others just like to smoke it and pass it on. It doesn't matter how you do it. Just be sure not to take more than two puffs of it at a time, since this is a circle, after all. Take two and let the others have a go."
I wasn't paying attention. I was staring at the smoke that poured out of the mouths of the smokers. The almost-clandestine nature of the smoke brought back terrible memories of my father smoking, which he often did after waking up from his drunken nap on the couch, if he was still able to function by then. I would have to stand there, watching the smoke dance across my field of vision, a terrible reminder that my father was still in the room and that I could expect him to yell at me at any moment whenever he felt like it. Smoking has always been a negative symbol for me, and whenever my father lit up I trembled with fear, for there was nothing that could stop him from driving that cigarette into my arm or blowing a cloud of smoke into my face. Now my "friends" were smoking and laughing and chatting, as if it were some sort of casual coffee shop gathering, not knowing or realizing what that cigarette was capable of. I looked over at my brother. He seemed uncomfortable with the scene as well.
"Hey Jacky, are you alright?" I could hear Craig saying. "You don't look so good."
I swallowed. "Excuse me," I said, tight-lipped. I pushed my way through the crowd—which had gathered around the dining table when they heard about the joint—and headed straight for the bathroom.
"Hey... no worries, Jacky!" Craig called out. "I mean, if something's up, just let me know. You need a glass of water?"
I couldn't answer him, not when I felt like tossing my cookies all over the floor. I closed the bathroom door behind me, locked it, and turned on the tap, splashing my face with cold water. My face was so numb I could barely feel the icy blast. I looked up at my reflection in the mirror, my eyes dilated, my cheeks white as snow. I turned up the heat on the tap and kept splashing my face, first with lukewarm water, then with hot water that stung me as it met my skin, like hot knives being driven into my cheeks. I rinsed out my mouth and looked up at the mirror again. Some colour was returning to my face, but I could still see the uncomfortable look in my eyes.
There was a knock on the door. "Hey Jacky, are you alright?"
Jordan. "Are Craig and the others with you?" I asked. I didn't want to see them. I didn't want to see the smoke. I especially didn't want to see the joint again.
"No," he replied. "Just me. Craig and the others are still in the dining room."
I opened the door and gestured for my brother to come in. "We need to talk. Privately."
He nodded. "I understand." He closed the door and locked it. "I can't stand it in there either, not right now anyways."
"Not just in there! This place! This whole house!"
He placed a hand on my shoulder. "Do you need me to take you home?"
I ran my hands through my hair. "I... I just... I can't... I can't..."
He hugged me and squeezed me tightly. "It's alright," he said soothingly. "Just let me know if you need anything, or tell me what's on your mind. If you need me to keep it a secret, I won't tell a soul. If you need me to get you something, I'll do my best to get it for you. If it's me that you want... my door's always open."
"The smoke..." I could only manage to say at that point. "The smoke..."
"It reminds you of dad, doesn't it?"
I nodded. I felt hot tears streaming down my face, and I figured I would've been majorly embarrassed if I was caught crying at a party. Now, though, I was alone with my brother, who did not mind my tears. Even though I wasn't a child anymore, it was a relief to be able to let out the emotions bottled up within me.
"The guys in there don't mean any harm. They're not trying to make us feel bad or anything. They just don't know what we've been through. To them, smoking is a leisurely activity; to us, it's a symbol of our bleak childhood. Though their ignorance is harmful, it is not malicious."
I sniffled. "I can't believe these are the people you hang out with."
"They're not. I only know Jessie, and maybe a few others here. You're still my best friend, Jacky. You're still my closest companion."
I couldn't answer. I was choking on my tears, my breaths heavy heaves as I continued to sob. My brother rubbed my back soothingly, trying to make me feel better. "It's okay," he continued. "I promise that I won't ever, ever leave you. You were right about mom and dad, that they at least chose to have another baby. Even if they didn't and you were an accident, you're no accident to me. I wouldn't be the same without you, and if I had to go through all of that pain alone, I might not even be alive right now. If I really had nobody to turn to for support, I might've taken my own life a long time ago." He released me and looked at me straight into the eyes. "But I didn't. Because I had you. I've been dependent on you for as long as I can remember. Every time I felt like ending it all I thought about you, and I put the knife down when I realize that by doing so I'd be leaving you—alone. Not only would I lose you, but you'd lose me as well. What's so good about that? I'm alive today because of you. And I'm not going to just leave someone who saved my life like that."
I bit my lips in an unsuccessful attempt at stemming the flow of tears. My brother's words were echoing around my mind, which was already an overflowing bottomless well of emotions. My brother led me to the sink and helped me wash my face, like a father washing his child. When I was able to hold myself together again, I looked up at the mirror. My eyes were red from crying, and anyone who looked at me could tell I had been emotional. I dried my face off with my shirt and did my best to look normal again.
"All good?" my brother asked.
I nodded. "I'm good," I croaked.
"Are you strong enough to go back in or do you need a break?"
"I don't know," I said, shaking my head. "That joint still brings back terrible memories whenever I think about it."
"If you need to go home—or even to just step outside—let me know."
"I-I-I can stay."
"Are you sure?"
I was afraid of being the "stereotypical spouse" that complained about trivial matters, ruining the fun for everyone by making us go home early, but I was trying hard not to show it. "I'm okay. I can survive."
There was a knock on the door. "You two alright in there?" I heard Rob saying. "Sorry if the smoke made you sick; usually happens to first timers. No need to be ashamed or anything."
"We're good," my brother called out. "We'll be out in a minute."
I brushed my arm across my eyes. My face was recovering, but the butterflies in my stomach were out and about again. The words dad threatened us with were ricocheting inside my skull again. I'm going to beat the living shit out of the both of you!!
Why...? Why did our lives have to be this way?
I looked up. "I'll keep myself together," I promised. "I won't chicken out again."
"Don't tell me what I want to hear, Jacky," my brother said softly. "Be honest with me. You're not ruining my night for me if you do. It hurts more if I know that you're having a miserable night than if we both left early because you were sick."
He released me, splashed some water on his own face, and opened the door. "Let's go."
The joint was about two-thirds smoked when we returned to the dining room. "You alright there, fellas?" Craig asked. "I know it's your first time and things don't always go as expected. I can get you something to drink, if you want."
We shook our heads. "Just felt a bit sick, that's all," I answered.
"From the smoke?"
"Someone threw up once. They hadn't smelled the stuff before in their life. No need to be ashamed; after a while you'll get used to it." The joint was passed over to him, and he took only one puff before passing it on. "Do your parents smoke?"
That question was uncomfortably personal. I knew Craig didn't mean any harm, but on the inside the nasty thoughts started eating me alive again. "Our dad does," my brother said, coming to my aid.
"Does he smoke joints like this one, or something else?"
"Just tobacco cigarettes."
"He has a Joe Camel ashtray, which he's pretty proud of."
Craig's eyes lit up. "Wow, an antique? How old is your dad?"
Before Jordan could answer, I spoke up: "I think that's getting a bit too personal."
"Oh. Sorry." He straightened up in his seat. "I just thought that there was something deep within you that caused you to feel a bit sick from the sight of smoke."
I grew more and more uncomfortable. Time to run back into the bathroom, perhaps?
Fortunately, Rob decided to change the topic. "What're y'all planning to do this summer now that school's out of the bloody way?"
I breathed a small sigh of relief, one that was easily drowned out by the chatter.
"I'm backpacking in Thailand."
"I'm travelling across Europe."
"Have to go to Hamburg to visit my grandparents."
"Are you fucking kidding me? I have work over the summer."
"Hey, same here!"
"At least you get paid..."
"I don't get paid. I'm going to summer school. Shit's real."
"Did you fail a course this semester?"
"Yeah... kind of. I failed calculus so I have to retake it this summer if I wanna get into university. Also trying to get English out of the way so I can have a free period during the school year."
I leaned over to where my brother stood. "He got really personal there," I whispered into his ear.
"He doesn't know," he replied. "He was just curious. But we don't know him well enough. It's mostly a matter of him trying to find out the truth about us too soon."
"Do you think we should tell him?"
Before he could answer, a voice from the living room shrieked, "Cops!!!"
It was like a bomb had gone off. There were screams and cries of panic as the guests attempted to flee. The living room window was obscured with red and blue flashing lights, clearly indicating the presence of a police car. Some tested their luck and tried to escape through the front door; others rushed into the backyard and climbed over the fence. A few even saw the windows as a viable exit. The bedroom door was thrown open. Jessie's shirt and hair were in disarray. The blonde girl was right behind him, wide-eyed and bewildered at the commotion. "What's going on?" he said over the din.
"The cops are here!" I yelled.
He cursed. "Great... I'm fucked. You three should get out of here, fast. I'll take care of this. It's my fault, after all."
"How?!" my brother yelled. "They're right outside the front door and your backyard's fenced in."
"Climb over the fence. Do whatever you have to do to get out!" He headed towards the front door. "I'll talk to them; you three try to get out!"
Before he could say—or do—anything else, a shadow came over the front door, which had been left open when the brave escapees made their exit. Two uniformed police officers appeared. "Look who's home!" one of them said.
"Are you the owner of this house?" the second cop asked.
Jessie stepped forward. "It's my fault, officer!" he exclaimed. "I was the one who held this party! The other three here were just guests!"
"We got a complaint from one of your neighbours about the noise," the first cop explained. "She told us that your parents were apparently on vacation and you're home alone." The cop shrugged. "Guess you couldn't handle the freedom?"
"God dammit... that Aunt Alice..." I heard Jessie muttering under his breath.
"What was that?"
"You'll be thanking your neighbours soon enough." He produced a notebook and pen and jotted down some notes. "What about you, blonde girl?"
"What?" the girl said.
"What's your name?"
"That's none of your business!"
"Oh, it's my business all right. It's my job. I'll deal with you later." He turned to us. "What about you two?" he asked. "What are you two youngsters doing out here past curfew? Are you parents home?"
My brother slowly nodded. I did the same.
"Do they know you're out here?"
We shook our heads.
"Are you lying and being uncooperative with me like that girl over there?"
"Hey!" she protested.
"No," Jordan and I said simultaneously.
"They didn't do anything! I swear they didn't do anything!" Jessie took another step forward. "I met them at school and they seemed nice enough, although a bit shy, but that's it! They showed up and they've been following me around the whole time!"
"Really?" the first cop said, completely unconvinced.
"I smell marijuana in here," the second cop commented. "Have any of you been smoking?"
I looked back at the dining room, which was deserted. The joint everyone had been happily sharing sat smoldering on the glass table. "Not us, but some other guys were," I said. "They were in the dining room."
The first cop was scribbling down notes like a computer, translating the evidence into written words. "You better not be lying to me," the second cop warned.
"I'm not, officer! I didn't take part in the weed circle! None of us here did!" I was genuinely scared, both of the cop and the situation. I hope he's not going to drive us to the station or anything. "Ask anyone in here!"
Meanwhile, the first cop was bombarding Jessie with all sort of questions: "What is your name?" ... "What school do you go to?" ... "Do you have ID?" ... "How long have you had this party going on for?" ... "Is there anything you can show me to prove that you are not lying to me?" Poor Jessie; I've never seen him this helpless and nervous before. He looked like he was ready to wet his pants the whole time the cop was interrogating him. Finally, when the cop was satisfied with his notes, he gestured towards the girl. "Hey. Miss Blondie. You better not tell me off about how things aren't my business this time."
"Don't I have the 'right to remain silent'?" she demanded. She was pretty sassy for her age.
"Sure you do," the cop said without flinching. "But you sure aren't being silent right now."
After seeing Jessie being beaten down by the cop's presence, she reluctantly answered his questions. The second cop asked for Jessie's permission to enter the house, and when Jessie agreed, he entered the dining room where the joint was and began to scrutinize the scene. My legs had gotten so weak that I had to sit down. My brother put a hand on my shoulder to reassure me that he was still there. He was a good brother like that, about as good as if not better than a loyal friend.
"Are they going to arrest us?" I asked nervously.
"They might," he answered, "if we're cheeky and snobby to them. The most they'll probably do right now is drive us home and stain our records."
I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Of course, I didn't take law, so this is pure guesswork." He gave me a pat. "But don't worry. We're not going to Death Row for this."
I looked up. Jessie was slumped on the floor by the coffee table, his hands in plain sight as the officers had instructed him to do. The first cop had finished up with the blonde girl and turned to us. "Who should I start with?" he asked.
"We're... we're brothers..." I stammered.
"Who's gonna be the bigger brother that talks to me? And as Madame Diva mentioned over there, you do have the right to remain silent, but I overheard your brief conversation and I'm pleased to inform you that things will be better if you don't show me sass of any kind."
My brother raised his hand. "I'll talk... I'll answer."
"Your friend over there said that he invited you to his midnight house party earlier this afternoon when he ran into you at a Burger King. Is that true?"
"Yes," my brother said. I saw Jessie shuffling uncomfortably. He wasn't a mean guy, I could tell, and he didn't like getting other people into trouble as much as he didn't like getting into trouble himself.
"What are your names?"
"Jordan Westwood. My brother's name is Jacky."
The cop asked us a number of other questions, including our address and whether or not we had identification with us. My brother didn't have his driver's license yet, and the most I could produce was my school ID card. When he seemed mostly finished, I asked timidly, "Are we being arrested?"
"You're in trouble all right. Sorry for the bad news." He otherwise completely dodged my question.
The second cop reappeared. He had the joint confiscated and several more findings to report to his partner. The two talked to each other briefly before making a decision: "Sir," the second cop said to Jessie, "this whole incident will be going onto your record. Your parents will be contacted. You are not to reinvite your guests over the minute we leave. Is that understood?"
"Yes sir," he responded glumly.
The cop turned to the three of us. "Same goes to all of you. I have no idea where your friends all went, but know that they are in bigger trouble than you are simply because they left. You three stayed and cooperated with us—mostly." He glared at the girl, who was staring at the ground. "We have your addresses and we'll be driving you three to your homes. Your parents will be notified, and you are to stay there until morning if you have no intentions of joining us for the ride back to the station. Is that clear?"
"Yes sir," Jordan and I said. The girl was still staring fixedly at a spot on the wooden floor. The cop made me stand up and wait patiently in the corner. My brother complied as well, lacking any other options, and not willing to get on the officer's bad side. When he got to the girl, however, she shrugged him off. "Get your hands off me!"
"Whoa whoa there, Madame Diva," the first cop said, coming to his partner's aid. "What's wrong with you?"
"I'm not going home! I can't go home! This'll be my third grounding this month and I can't let my dad know about this!" The cop tried to get her up again, but she shrugged him off. There was a brief scuffle before the first cop produced a pair of handcuffs and cuffed the girl. "Sorry about your dad, but it looks like his sweet princess is unfortunately going to have to be grounded again."
The second cop turned us around and made us put our hands behind our backs. Much to my surprise, I heard—and felt—the clinking of handcuffs as my own hands were given the irons. The same was done to my brother, who seemed just as surprised as I was. "You can thank the blonde girl for ruining it for you guys," he said. "It's for our safety. The cuffs will be removed once you are back in the custody of your parents."
When the girl was under their control, the cops led us to their cruiser, its lights still flashing, boring holes into my eyes that were clearly visible when I closed them. The first cop had the blonde girl, while the second cop escorted me and Jordan. He opened the right-side door, pushed my brother in, and shut the door before taking me over to the other side. My hands throbbed with pain as I was practically forced to sit on my hands, which were still handcuffed behind my back. The insides of the doors didn't have any handles, and the wire mesh in front of me meant that we were trapped inside the cruiser until the cops decided to let us out. To my left, the first cop forced the blonde girl in before the left door was slammed shut. My brother was to my right and the girl was to my left. I was being sandwiched between two people that were bigger than me, each of whom got a window seat, while I got the middle. I don't think they would've found getting a better seat than I did much of a luxury worth celebrating about, though.
The two cops were finishing up inside the house, leaving the three of us in awkward silence inside the cruiser. For several minutes, the sounds of our nervous breathing were the only things to be heard. My brother shuffled uncomfortably inside his seat, the rustling of his clothes clearly audible. Finally, the girl muttered under her breath, "I can't believe this is happening to me..."
Neither of us had any response to that. The cops clearly had the last laugh now, if they wanted to. I turned to my brother. "What do you think dad's going to do to us once we get home?" I whispered.
"I don't want to know," came the reply. He was looking out the window, looking back at the house. The lights were still on; poor Jessie was in hot water right now. We all were, actually. We all were going to be in trouble with our parents. I wondered what everyone's parents would do if they found out their son or daughter had snuck out in the middle of the night to attend an illegal house party well past curfew. Craig's parents might decide to send him off to military school; Rob probably would've been spanked. Jessie might be forced to attend summer school. The girl sitting next to me would be grounded. And us? Oh man... that cigarette seemed almost friendly compared to what dad's probably going to do.
If I catch you, this cigarette will feel like a pedicure compared to what I'm gonna do to the both of you.
You'll be bleeding so much, you're gonna wish you were dead.
I'm going to beat the living shit out of the both of you!!
Beat the living shit out of the both of you!!
I heard the front door being closed. The two cops were walking back towards their cruiser, ready to drive us home. The cop that had dragged us into the car got into the driver's seat, while his partner took the co-driver's seat. The latter turned around in his seat to look at us. "Comfy?"
We grumbled in agreement.
"Hey, be thankful you get to be chauffeured home. For free." The engine was started and the cruiser crept forward. "We're the Little Blue Taxi Guys, aren't we? Carrying drunks, crappy midnight robbers, and misbehaving teenagers around the city."
Neither of us responded. The girl stared out of her window; my brother stared at a spot on the ground; I stared straight ahead through the windshield. The two cops laughed at their unfunny joke for a little bit before refocusing their attention on the job at hand. I didn't move. I saw no reason to. Nothing I could do short of spitting on and harassing them could slow my journey home down, and I wasn't in the mood for getting into deeper trouble than I already was. These officers were small potatoes compared to what my father would no doubt do once he saw us on the front porch in handcuffs at three in the morning.
I had never been inside a police car before. They're not an uncommon sight on the streets, but aside from brief glimpses when your car is right next to one, what's inside is never known to you. Now I was inside one, and while most kids would've been enthralled at the car cops and robbers get to taxi around in, I wasn't very thrilled with my ride at all.
The cops hadn't spoken a word since their lame joke. The girl was sullen and silent. I didn't even know her name or who she was, only that she and Jessie had something together. I wiggled ever so slightly to get closer to my brother. He would've put his comforting arm around me if he wasn't handcuffed, I'm sure.
We were driving down familiar streets now, and I knew that we were going to be the first ones home. Not exactly a pleasurable honour, but it was better than prolonging the dreadful knowledge of what was ahead—and the fear of the unknown. It would also mean that we would meet our fate much, much sooner.
"Jordan," I whispered. "I'm sorry."
He looked at me. "You're sorry for what?"
"I'm sorry for... for everything. Everything. If I hadn't been born, you wouldn't have started laying out all the steps that eventually led to this."
"Don't be ridiculous!" he seethed. "Don't think that way! We had this discussion before in some way or another! Don't forget what I said to you!"
The cop car turned into our cul-de-sac and came to a stop. "It's someone's home sweet home!" the first cop sang out.
Yeah. Home sweet home. What a load of horseshit.
The two cops got out of the car and opened the door on the right, perhaps fearing that the girl would kick them in the kidneys if they opened the door on her side. My brother was dragged out, followed shortly by me. "You behave yourself, missy," the second cop said sternly before shutting the door.
The short walk up the walkway from the sidewalk to our porch was the longest walk I had ever walked in my life. It felt like a prisoner's final journey to the electric chair. The walkway seemed dark and sinister, as if it were a pathway to Hell. The first cop had my brother, while the second cop escorted me. The handcuffs felt heavy and tight on my wrists, as if they were about to cut off the flow of blood. Soon, we were at the wobbly steps that led up to the front door. Next thing I knew the cops were ringing our doorbell. Funny enough, but so few people came to our door that we rarely ever heard the sound of the doorbell. I wonder if mom and dad still remember what it sounds like.
"This is your house, isn't it?" the cop standing beside me asked.
"Yes," I answered.
"You better not be lying to us!"
At first, I hoped that my parents were too drunk to hear or react to that. Then I remembered that dad hadn't consumed a single drop of beer today, and he would've heard the doorbell for sure. The cop rang the doorbell again, and within half a minute I could hear my dad coming down the stairs.
"So someone is home!" the first cop exclaimed. "And I thought you were squatters in an abandoned house!"
The lock was turned and the door swung open. "Who's out there now—" my half-awake father was growling when he caught sight of us. "What the hell are you two doing here?!"
"Are these your sons, sir?" the second cop asked.
"You damn right they're my sons! And I wonder why they're out here with you instead of in bed!"
"I'm Constable Colin," the first cop said. "And this is my partner, Constable Jameson. We found these two boys out at someone else's house at around two-thirty this morning. There was marijuana at the scene, but your boys claim they didn't partake in the weed circle."
Our father pointed a finger at us. "You damned bastards! I knew you two were in cahoots! You had homework to do, huh?! Filthy liars!" His breath was filled with the strong smell of tobacco, devoid of any traces of alcohol. He was sober tonight. One-hundred percent sober. Just like the first night we snuck out. That would explain his memory.
"We told the boys what's gonna happen to them," Constable Jameson continued. "They're going to be let off with a warning, but this incident is going onto their record. They're to stay here at home under your authority, and they are not going to be sneaking out again until curfew is over. The boys have acknowledged this and have agreed to comply. If they break their promise, they're following us back to the station."
"And we have lovely accommodations at the station waiting for you," Constable Colin added. "Just think about it: concrete floors, hard benches, metal bars, and room service with batons. If you ever feel homesick, come to us. Five-star amenities are just a short police car ride away."
I knew he was being sarcastic, but part of me actually wanted to go to the station. It would've been better than having to stay home and deal with my—
"Get 'em in here," my father said gruffly. "I'll deal with them myself."
"Before we do, could you please give us your name?" Jameson asked. "We'll remove these handcuffs and return your sons to you."
"I'm Alphonse Westwood. Now get 'em in here!"
I wondered if the cops were any bit surprised at being on the receiving end of my father's temper tantrums, but they didn't say anything in response to that. The cuffs around me were removed first, and as soon as I was freed my father's hands shot out and pulled me in. "You're in a helluva lot of trouble with me, mister!" he barked into my face. As soon as the irons were taken off my brother's hands, he was dragged in too.
"You stay in that house, boys," Jameson warned.
"You damn right better stay in this house!" my father yelled. Before the two cops could even step off the porch, my father had slammed the door shut with a loud BANG!
The door to jail was closed. And funny enough, that was a bad thing for me.
"You! Stand over there! Both of you!" He pointed angrily at a spot on the living room floor, just in front of the TV behind the coffee table. We obediently did as we were told. I was scared, genuinely scared; the cops were at least "friendly" compared to this. I looked over at my brother. There was fear in his eyes, and I saw no reason to doubt that the same was happening to me as well.
"I've had a hunch that you two have been up to something for quite some time now," he began. "That was some interesting night two years ago, huh? 'Where ya goin'?' 'Homework!' Homework ain't a place. You were plotting something, weren't you? Hmm?!"
We remained silent. Our father didn't like that. "Answer me, one of you!"
My heart was in my throat. "W-W-We... uh..."
"You what?! You what?!?!"
"W-W-We've b-b-been... s-s-s—"
"Quit repeating syllables and cut to the chase!"
It came. I have no idea how my father was able to reach me over the coffee table, but he managed to do it, and he hit me with such impressive accuracy I felt hot liquid trickling down inside my nose. The tension was thick; I could feel the discomfort my brother was wallowing in right now. My father selected him as his next target. He marched over to get near him. "So you two have been sneaking out in the middle of the night when I've been asleep, weren't you?"
My brother did not respond.
"Answer me!" he barked, starling me out of my bones.
"Y-Y-Y-Y-" my brother stammered.
Second blood. My father's hand slapped him hard across the face. I cringed. "That explains everything," my father said. "That explains why you've been so strangely tired during the day. Too busy sneaking out to attend parties, hmm? Smoking weed?"
"W-W-We d-didn't do that... W-W-We didn't g-g-go to a-any p-p-p-arties until t-t-tonight..." I said.
"Then where did you go?!" he roared.
"W-W-We went to a McDonald's on our first night..." my brother managed, trying to come to my aid. "Sometimes we went there. Other times we went to other places, like the park or something. But never to someone else's house, not until tonight."
For several minutes, silence reigned. My father paced back and forth slowly at the speed of a military officer's promenade just before falling in. His arms were crossed, and though his head was tucked in, I knew that he was very, very cross. When his back was turned towards me, I rubbed my sore cheek with my hand. The next time he did so, I felt my brother grasping my hand to let me know that things were going to be alright. Finally, he stopped and turned around. A smile was on his face. A sly, sinister smile that made me uncomfortable. "Congratulations," he said.
"I am impressed with you two. So you say that, for the past two years, you have been sneaking out in the middle of the night every day while I was asleep?"
"W-We didn't do it everyday..." I began.
His hands suddenly clenched into a fist and rammed me right in the stomach. For five whole seconds I could not see or hear anything, nor could I breathe or even stand up. All the air was knocked out of my lungs like a blown-up brown paper bag being punched in the gut. When I was able to recover somewhat, my breaths were nothing more than fruitless wheezes. I had collapsed onto the floor and was holding onto the coffee table for support. My brother stepped forward. "It's my fault!" he shouted. "I was the one who started all of this! I was the one who snuck out first! I invited Jacky to come with me and he agreed! I started all of this! It's my fault! It really is!" He became desperate when I felt dad's hand grabbing onto my hair, pulling me back up to my feet. "Leave him alone! It's my fault! If there's somebody you have to hit, that would be me!"
"Isn't it, Jordan? We'll see about that." My father grunted as he picked my slim body up, and for a split second I saw myself, my feet an inch or two off the ground. Fear had completely paralyzed me, and while most people would have wriggled like a worm on a hook, I was still enough to hear my own breathing. But the moment ended as quickly as it began, and my father hurled me back down towards the earth like a WWE wrestler. I hit the coffee table with such force that it broke into two down the middle. I felt my insides being pulverized as the force of impact liquidated them. I lay there, almost motionless, praying for death to come quickly.
My father took another step forward towards me, but was stopped by my brother. "Enough!" he shouted. "Leave him alone! I told you that it's my fault! If there's someone you have to beat till they bleed, that person would be me!"
"You stay out of this Jordan, unless you want to be beaten worse than your brother over there."
"That's what I'm asking for!" He kept trying to block my father, trying to divert his anger and assault away from me. "Jacky didn't do anything wrong! I was the one behind most of this! I should be given the most punishment, if not all of it!"
My father grabbed his shirt and practically tossed him out of the way. "Don't stand in my way!" To me, he shouted, "I'm not finished with you yet, you gutless turd! Take off your shirt and bend over that coffee table if you wanna live another day!"
"Don't you dare argue with me, or I'll hit you on the head! Just do as I tell you too!"
I looked at my brother, who was recovering from the throw. Do it, he pleaded. Just do what he says...
Very gingerly, I began to take my shirt off at my father's request. I was shaking so much that it took me some time to be able to get the shirt up and over my head. My vision disappeared briefly as I saw only the little streams of light that slipped through the fabric. Soon, I was shirtless, my vital organs exposed to whatever wrath he chose to bear down on me.
"Bend over, over that coffee table right there!" he pointed. "Hurry up and don't keep me waiting!"
Slowly, I did as I was told.
"Don't you dare move an inch, son." He started walking towards the kitchen. "You too, Jordan. You'll be getting a dose of this yourself soon!" I heard a few grunts as he strained himself, presumably to get something placed at a height, and returned to the living room, his two footsteps accompanied by a third thump in the rhythm. I took a chance and looked up.
A cane, bone white and scratched from use. I gasped. He had spanked us frequently as children, but that stopped after my eighth birthday. After that, he still hit us, but either did it with his bare hands or with other objects, like the cigarette. Now he was about to relive the horrific memories of my childhood, memories that I would always fear talking about. The scars will never go away.
"Don't... Don't!" my brother gasped. He tried to get to where I was, but my father raised the cane threateningly in the air. "Don't do it to him... Do it to me! I've told you that it was all my fault and that I should be the one punished for this."
"You keep your flaming mouth shut," my father said, snapping his fingers in disgust. As for me, he dragged the rough surface of the bony cane along my naked backside, allowing me to feel the unsettling coolness of the weapon that he was about to use on me. "You think this is terrifying, huh?" He snorted. "My dad would take off his belt and leave me so many welts I couldn't sleep on my back for weeks on end. You? You're lucky if the skin doesn't break." He raised the cane up into the air and brought it down with force that would've made even a drill instructor back off and reconsider their career choice. I heard a loud crack, and a few seconds later, felt the pain. I screamed—loud enough to wake up all the neighbours—and from the corner of my eye I could see my brother covering his eyes.
"It hurts, doesn't it?!" Without letting me answer, he brought the cane down again. My back was on fire as I bit down hard on my tongue, trying hard not to scream again. It was general practice for spanked children to give their assailant the silent treatment. The first scream was a slip up, but I was determined not to repeat that mistake. The cane hit my back again, and I bit my tongue so hard I thought I tasted blood. A third strike followed, then a fourth. My father invested massive truckloads of energy and hate into each strike, ensuring that there was no shortage of agony for me on the receiving end. When the cane struck me a fifth time, my brother got up. "That's enough! It's my turn!" he shouted.
My father ignored him. He hit me a sixth time, then a seventh. When the cane was readied for an eighth time, my brother suddenly jumped in front of it. There was a crack, but I didn't feel any pain. My brother groaned in agony. "You stupid fuckwit!" my father yelled at him. "Only a twit like you would jump in front of a cane while someone was being spanked!"
"He's my brother!" my brother screamed. His voice was slightly choppy, showing evidence of him struggling with the pain. "I can't just sit there and watch while you hit him! You'll have to kill me first!"
Dad placed a foot on me and rolled me over. "Damned shit hole," he muttered as I hit my head on the side of the couch. He turned to my brother. "You're just asking for it, you little bitch. Take your damn shirt off and bend over like your brother did!"
Now I couldn't tell who was more comfortable: the victim or the audience. I had been the lion at the circus, and now it was my turn to spectate. My brother took his shirt off and bent over the coffee table in the same manner that I did. I covered my eyes, for I couldn't bear the sight of watching my brother willingly take the punishment away from me. He was doing the thing my parents would never do for me, and he would do it even under the seeming authority of my father. I could only think that, had my father paused and contemplated using his right mind for once, that he would realize who we really were and how we didn't deserve this treatment, but he didn't and he never would. My parents were about as close to me as Pluto was to the sun. If anything, the person who was closest to me as a father was not my father.
It was my brother.
I heard the swishing of the cane as it whistled through the air, and the sharp crack as it met my brother's bare skin. He gasped, and I covered my head; though I knew my brother would never blame me, I couldn't help but feel responsible for this. The cane hit him again after my father had taken in a deep breath, a breath to refuel his muscles in order to inflict as much pain as possible onto his sons. My brother whimpered as he was spanked again. And again. And again. How many times exactly, I couldn't be sure, but it seemed somewhere between twenty and forever. I heard muffled sobs coming from my brother, and when I looked up I could see the tears streaming down his face. I couldn't tell if it was because of the pain or the love he had for me.
"That's enough!" I said suddenly. I knew I was asking to be spanked again, but I didn't care, not at this point. "Leave us alone! You've made your point! You've beaten us well beyond our limits! You can't do this to your own sons! You're supposed to be our dad! You're not doing that right now! You're being a monster!"
He redirected the next strike with the cane towards my chest. I fell over, breathless once more. "You will curse the day you were born!" he seethed. "Both of you! You will both regret your existence!" He threw the cane at my brother. "And as for me, I regret the very day I became a parent!"
I swallowed. My brother remained motionless, but when he heard my father panting from exhaustion, he turned his head to look at me. His open eyes—though narrow slits—told me that he was still alive.
"I'm not done with you two fools yet!" He retrieved his cane and stormed back into the kitchen. There was the sound of drawers being angrily thrown open and closed, along with their contents being sifted through. My father came back with a roll of masking tape. "Jacky!" he barked. "Put your hands and feet together in front of you! Now!"
I gulped, but lacking any better options, did as I was told. He took the roll and bound my hands and feet together with the tape. "You think I'm gonna let you go to bed like that? Think again!" He knelt down and made an X on the ground with the tape. "Stand on that spot!" he ordered. "And don't you dare stray from it until I tell you to in the morning!"
My feet were bound together, so I had to hobble over there inch by inch like a penguin. He seemed disgusted at my speed, but he didn't do anything else to me. He turned to my brother and bound his hands and feet up as well. "I should've done this to you as kids; would've placed you both right where you belong!" He made an X on the ground on the opposite end of the living room and dragged my brother over there. "You stand over there, facing the wall! Jacky, you're to face the other wall! Neither of you are allowed to look at each other, and if I find out that either of you moved from your respective X on the ground, you'll be seeing your own bones exposed to the air!" And with that, he stormed up the stairs, slamming the bedroom door behind him. I heard the springs of his mattress groaning under his weight as he retired back to bed, leaving us alone once more.
For several minutes, the sound of the air conditioner running was the only thing to be heard. I heard my brother quietly sobbing in the corner, the psychological damage that had been building up within him having brought him to his breaking point. I was crying too; though I managed to suppress the sobs, I could not help but allow the salty tears to stream down my cheeks. I was thirsty, so I stuck my tongue out and caught some of the tears as they fell. Finally, I turned around. "Jordan!" I whispered.
He looked up. If he seemed like a grown adolescent, he sure didn't look that way now. In my eyes I saw a lost little boy, crying and screaming in the rain for his parents that would never come. It sickened me to know that I was in the same boat as well. "The couch," I said. "The couch."
He nodded, but he was such a distant from his destination, it took him eons to get there. He inched forward bit by bit, being careful not to fall over or to make noise; both would likely have woken up my dad, while the former also had the unpleasant addition of being virtually unable to move. The masking tape was not strong, but the quantity, combined with the fact that our hands were bound together, made it very difficult to escape. When my brother was a few feet away from the couch, he hopped the rest of the way and fell forward onto the backrest, panting. I made my way over to the couch and kneeled to give my tired feet a break.
"You alright?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I can't take it anymore..."
He was spanked more frequently as a child; I figured the experience was far more traumatizing for him than it was for me. His eyes were red from crying, and though I wanted to hug him, I couldn't with my hand tied up. "The secret's out," I whispered. "We're done. Those two years of secret joy are over."
There was no verbal response. He was still crying.
"I can't believe it had to end like this..." I continued.
He shook his head, but not in disagreement. "I knew the consequences were bad, but I never imagined ever getting caught. And the thing is, it was because we went to that stupid party. If we had just stuck to our regular routines then none of this would've happened."
"We would've been enjoying our time alone with each other," I breathed.
I looked around. The room was dark except for the few lights dad turned and left on. The air conditioner was still running, producing a dull ambience that was clearly audible in the absence of other sounds. I struggled with the tape around my feet, and after some thrashing around I managed to fray the tape enough for me to stand up and walk somewhat. "I'll get a pair of scissors," I whispered.
He nodded but didn't say anything else. I shuffled into the kitchen, the tape getting weaker and weaker with every step I took. I got to the drawers, opened them slightly, and picked up the scissors. I wasn't Harry Houdini, so I couldn't cut my hands free from this angle, but at least I wasn't alone. I cut the remaining fragments of tape from my feet and returned to the living room. "I'll cut the tape off your hands and feet," I said to my brother, "and then you'll cut off mines."
He nodded. I freed his hands, then his feet, and handed him the scissors, where he cut the tape off my wrists. We were both free—at least of the tape.
"We can't stay here any longer," I said. "Dad barely let us live just now. If he doesn't sell us a ticket to the morgue, he might have us separated, and I'd rather die than to be separated from you."
"Where do we go, though?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. "If we do get out of here, what place do we have to go to? Who's going to take us in?"
I swallowed. I didn't have an answer to that. I knew that staying here at "home" was a bad idea; I had already cut the tape, and that was evidence enough for dad to know that we had moved from our treasure chest markings. At the same time, however, we had no place to go, save for fending for ourselves on the streets. Alone. With no trustworthy people on our side. We weren't children, but at the same time we weren't adults either.
My fists clenched. "We may not have a place to go," I began, "but neither did we when we started sneaking out two years ago. We were unprepared to take on the world back then, and yet we still survived. Even when dad yelled at us and hit us, we still stuck together like two peas in a pod. We had each other two years ago, and we still have each other today. We can take on the unknown. We just need each other."
He looked up at me. "Do you really think we should leave?"
"We have to," I said firmly.
"Where do we sleep? What do we eat?"
"We'll have to answer those questions by experience, Jordan. Simply put: we can't stay here any longer. It's clear that the people in this house are far too hostile to us. What's the point of living in a house where you get food and shelter when the people there hate your guts? Is it better to suffer physically than it is to suffer mentally? Look at the damage they've done to both our bodies and our souls. Is it really worth staying just to get a plate of mom's crappy TV dinner cooking?"
He sighed. "I've always wanted to run away from home," he admitted. "I wanted to just grab your hand and bolt out that door, never to look back. But I couldn't. It was just too big of a leap. Sneaking out at night was a tippy-toe compared to leaving for good."
"We have to make that jump," I insisted. "We'll make it. I swear we'll make it. We've been through a lot already and we're not dead yet. We can do this. Like I said, we can do anything as long as we stick together."
He placed a hand on my shoulder. His eyes were still red, but I knew there was determination behind them inside of just misery. "You're right, Jacky. I'll be eighteen in a few months anyways. I'm old enough for this. I shouldn't be chickening out the way I was."
"It's unfortunate that things have had to come to this," I lamented.
He looked at me. "Things were always unfortunate. It's time we stopped crying."
I got up from the couch. My brother was a bit sore, so I helped him to his feet and allowed him to lean on me. "Should we bring anything along?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Dad's still sober. He might hear us coming up the stairs, and if he does and finds we're not here, he'll call the cops right away. If we sneak out now and remain undiscovered until morning, we have a good chance of getting away."
I looked at the stairs. Up those stairs and behind my bedroom door were my personal belongings, the few items I had, aside from my brother, that mattered a lot to me. I was going to have to leave them behind. I had nothing with me except the clothes on my back and the phone in my pocket.
I wonder if I'll ever see home again...
Home?! Who said this was 'home'?! This is a living hellhole!
"Are you ready?" my brother asked me.
"I have to be," I replied.
"This isn't home anymore. Come to think of it, it was never really home in the first place."
I grimaced at that terrible thought. "I read somewhere that the true definition of a home is a place where you can retreat to, a place where you can feel relaxed and safe being yourself, and a place where the people welcome you for who you are."
"It's all we wanted," my brother said. "We just wanted a home where we were loved in. But such a simple thing we couldn't get."
"We only had each other." I squeezed his shoulder. "The closest thing we had to home was each other. Home, to us, is not a place: it is a person. You were home to me, Jordan."
"You were home to me as well, Jacky. My Little Jacky." He smiled weakly. "I guess you're not 'little' anymore."
"I'll always be your little brother, Jordan. You'll always remember what I was like as a child."
The door creaked noisily as I opened it. I froze, waiting for dad to come down and roast our buttocks. But he never came. The two of us slipped softly out of the house and quietly shut the door. Hopefully forever.
"Jordan..." I said.
I hugged him tightly. "I love you," I whispered into his ear.
I felt his two arms wrapping themselves around me. They felt warm and strong, even though he was a terrible athlete and arguably small for his age. "I love you too, Jacky."
Those three words again. The three most powerful combination of words in the universe. It only ever had weight when it was used with sincerity and not mere lip service. It was not a combination to be used unwisely or recklessly, lest its true meaning be diluted. But when used correctly, the power it had to change a person's life was about as powerful as death's ability to rob someone of their life as well. People often say that they're drowning in an ocean of love, but in reality, love is an island in the middle of an ocean, an ocean of indifference and hatred. That's how I felt right now, standing on our porch for perhaps the last time in each other's arms. There was a lot ahead of us, a lot behind us, and a lot around us; together we formed a small island that almost disappeared in the waves. Yet without that island we'd both drown. An island, no matter how small, is still better than having to tread water forever.
Thank you, Jordan.
That was the one word that described us now.
We weren't actually alone, but at the same time we really were alone.
A desired state for some; a dreaded state for others.
I felt like a wanted criminal running from the cops right now. At every corner we turned I half-expected a cop shining a blinding flashlight into our eyes, or an overhead helicopter spotting us with a searchlight. We ran as fast as our legs could carry us, staying on side streets for as long as possible to avoid being caught, although I wasn't sure if anybody was actively looking for us. I half-expected to run into the two cops that had dropped us off. They'd stop the car, step out, shine their flashlights into the face, and "What's up, boys? Going for a walk too soon, hmm?"
"The Little Blue Taxi Guys", huh?
I didn't know where we should go—or could go, for that matter—but we knew two places that we had to avoid at all costs: "home", and police stations.
My brother and I remained silent, communicating only by hand gestures, for fear of being heard and discovered. Every hair on my back stood on end, I felt goosebumps all over my body, and I was shaking—whether or not it was due to excitement or fear, I couldn't be sure. My older brother led the way, naturally, although I could tell he was just as unsure of where he was going as well. He led me through some side streets, walking on the side of the road opposite that of street lights, although I was pretty sure someone with even a marginally good eye could see two figures moving in the dark. Soon, we were out on the main arterial road, which was very lightly travelled at this time of night.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Shh!" my brother hissed. He didn't stop walking—well, running, almost. "Just follow me!" He led me across the road, down the empty sidewalk, over a highway overpass, down some concrete steps. Immediately, I knew where we were headed.
The park... the park...
The park where we spent our first night out together.
He grabbed my hand. It was about as cold and clammy as mine were. He dragged me off the main path and into the bushes, trying to avoid the light, although I was pretty sure any passerby would've heard our noisy trek through the foliage. Soon we were at the park bench that we sat in on our third night out, nestled between three large evergreen trees. My brother crouched behind the bench, and I did the same. During the day, it was pretty obvious that there were two sinister figures hiding behind the wooden bench, but at night the darkness concealed us like a cloak, shielding our identity and our presence. Someone could sit down on the bench and not notice the two of us.
"Got a plan?" I whispered.
"Not really," he responded. "Don't think he's looking for us right now, but I'm not going to take any chances."
"Is there a place for us to go to?" I asked. "We can't just stay here forever."
We sat—well, squatted—silently for a moment. Suddenly, a light bulb came on in my head. "The convenience store!" I exclaimed.
"Remember that old convenience store clerk that let us in when it was freezing cold out? Dunno if his store's still around, but it's worth a shot."
He gave me a nod of approval. "I pray he's trustworthy and he's not going to turn us in."
"Should we go now?"
He looked around. "How? Are we supposed to walk there?"
"What makes you think dad has caught us already? And even if he did, do you really think the cops are going to check every bus on the road?"
He sighed. "Alright. Do you have any money?"
I pulled out my wallet, which contained my student ID card and a few coins. I counted them. "Not really. Just a few dollars. Enough for one of us, but not both."
"You go," he said. "I'll walk."
I shook my head firmly. "We're doing this together, Jordan. If you're walking, I'm walking with you. Besides, we might need this money for later." I looked at him. "Do you have any money?"
He sighed. "I left my wallet at home... and going back to get it is out of the question."
We were silent for a few minutes, not knowing what to do. "Should we start walking?" I asked, breaking the silence.
"If the cops are looking for us, they'll probably catch us for sure."
"And if they're looking for us, it'll be easier for them to find us during the day."
"But if we walk at night, the cops will find two teens walking around at four in the morning suspicious."
"But if dad had reported us by now, our faces will be on the morning news, and someone who's seen the news will recognize us if they see us."
My brother sighed. "It's not easy being a fugitive."
"It was never easy leading the life we lived."
We eventually settled on walking there right now. It shouldn't have felt any different than the times we snuck out and traversed the city streets alone at night, but tonight the butterflies in my stomach were out in full force. They fluttered and flew around in circles, over and over again, bumping incessantly into the walls of my stomach, making me more and more uncomfortable with every passing moment. We stuck to the side streets, taking the road less travelled, hoping not to be seen.
"You alright?" my brother whispered to me when we stopped to rest behind a small shopping plaza.
"Scared as hell," I responded.
"We still have a long way to go," my brother responded. "I can see the sky's starting to brighten. Soon it'll be day. Not sure if that's a good or a bad thing."
"We're still waiting for the sun to rise in our lives," I said.
He managed a weak smile. "It'll happen. Soon."
The temperature had dropped overnight, and by the time we got moving again, I felt cold. It was a Saturday morning, so there were few cars out at this hour, and virtually no pedestrians. My brother and I kept walking—wandering, almost—merely heading towards the direction we knew we should be walking in. We were passing by unfamiliar neighbourhoods on unfamiliar roads, and even though I was sure that nobody would raise an eyebrow towards us, I couldn't help but feel like I didn't belong there. We no longer stuck to the side streets, not because we weren't afraid of being caught, but because we wouldn't know where we were going otherwise.
"You have a map?" my brother whispered.
I checked my phone, but my battery was dead. Didn't have my charger with me. "Nope. Not anymore, at least."
He checked his own phone. The battery was dead too. "We're gonna have to find a place to charge them," he said.
"Let's just find that old shopkeeper first," I suggested.
He nodded. "We'll worry about our phones later."
After a few more hours, we were able to see some of the skyscrapers of downtown from a distance. It was mid-morning by then, and as long as nobody recognized us as the "fugitives on the news", we were fine.
"You think dad's woken up and noticed our absence by now?" I whispered to my brother.
"I don't wanna think about it," came the response.
There was a traffic accident up ahead of us, and even though the cops seemed too busy with the task at hand to even recognize us, out of all people, we still didn't risk it and detoured several blocks around them. This added to our travel time, but we'd much rather spend another night on the streets than to be driven home back to dad. And even if they sent us to juvie, the news would no doubt get to him, and he might decide to pay us a little visit. Right now, though, we were facing another dilemma: fatigue.
I leaned on my older brother's shoulder for support, but he was so tired himself, I nearly pushed him off the sidewalk and onto the road. "Sorry," I apologized. "I'm just—"
"Yeah. Me too." He put his arm around me instead, and together we leaned on each other weakly for support. Hold me... Hold each other...
Should we stop and rest? I wanted to say. But just as I was about to open my mouth to speak, my brother said, "I'm dead tired. Let's sit down for a bit." We walked into a park and plopped down under the shade of a large oak tree, an island of cool in an ocean of hot. A street vendor was nearby, selling ice cream bars and sandwiches, and he gestured for us to come over and buy one. We told him we had no money in the hopes that he'd at least give us one for free, but he shrugged and said, "That's fine. I'll be here until two, so that's plenty of time for you boys to run home, get your purse, and come runnin' back!"
Go home. Yeah right.
Fortunately, he didn't pay much attention to us, so we were able to rest a little. Me and Jordan weren't big on naps, given our father's tendency to either make us stand there or yelling at us when we least expected it, but today we managed to sleep for half an hour in each other's arms. Luckily for us, nobody had emptied our pockets during that time.
"We should probably find a better place to sleep," I mumbled, rubbing my eyes.
"Like what?" Jordan asked. "An alleyway? Hell no, I'm not sleeping in there!"
"Better than sleeping at home, though?"
He sighed. "The unfortunate truth."
My watch read 12:00 PM by the time we got moving again. Our tiredness had somewhat subsided, but it was now accompanied by both a raging hunger and thirst. We were weak and miserable, having been on our feet since the early morning hours. Maybe we really should have gone back and bought some ice cream. My wallet had a few dollars. Should be enough. "Think we should get some ice cream?" I asked.
"My mouth feels like fur. Think we should get something to drink first."
We had to save money, so we bought a single bottle of soda at a gas station and shared it, passing it back and forth as we walked. It was awfully tempting to just tip the contents down my throat, but I knew I had to leave some for my brother. It was better for us to be together than to be alone in all cases, anyway.
"We're almost there," my brother gasped a good ten minutes after we consumed the last drop of soda in the bottle. "Still remember the address?"
"I thought you were the one who insisted on remembering it," I said.
"Well, I did. Did you?" I could tell on the edge of his voice that he wanted to make this lighthearted and playful, like he did when times were "good". Our trek had completely drained him of that energy, however, and he was on survival mode right now. I gave him a quick squeeze. "I did," I replied.
After a few more blocks, my brother found the strength to squeeze me back. "I couldn't have made it this far without you," he said.
"I think you said something like that before."
"If only mom and dad had eyes that were willing to look at us." He had the empty bottle in his hand, and he crumpled it slightly. "Always calling us bad kids, always labelling us as 'shitheads', always making us feel terrible on the inside. They can't see that it was all their fault, their fault that we had to do this, and if we had better parents, we'd be pretty good kids. I'd be wrestling you playfully in the park if that were the case, rather than running away from home."
I closed my eyes, trying to picture that scene. Multiple scenes. Scenes of siblings being siblings with each other. I could imagine it. "It's a good thing we're together now, at least. Things could be worse."
"Yeah, things could be worse... But isn't that something ignorant people say about our situation?"
"Hey, I'm not ignorant! I'm in this with you!"
But neither of us had the strength to be the playful brothers we wanted to be. Our weak laughter was extinguished like a birthday candle flame being blown out. We were just a few more blocks away from our destination, and a part of me felt glad that this was all going to end. The terror reign of my father. The indifferent attitude from my mother. We were finally going to have a trusted adult, someone who had wisdom and experience, someone who was willing to care for us. Even if we had to sleep on the streets, even being able to see him just once a day was good enough for me. And, of course, my brother was there. Forever a friend. Forever a companion. Forever a—
My brother stopped suddenly. "Fuck," he muttered.
I looked up at him. "Huh?"
"The store..." he said simply.
I turned my head and looked, and my heart instantly wilted. The convenience store where we received such selfless hospitality at two years ago was no longer, replaced instead by a comic book store. I looked around the neighbourhood, around the block we were on. Most of the other stores in the area were still the same. The street we were on was the same. The building was the same...
"T-T-T-They closed...?" My brother couldn't get the words out of his mouth. He was completely dumbfounded, unable to comprehend the reality before him.
I couldn't answer. My mind and my heart were so high on the thought of being able to find the convenience store whose clerk happily took us in that the sudden shocker was almost impossible to believe, as if I had been dreaming. Now, though, it was no doubt that reality couldn't have been any more disappointing. No convenience store, and who knows where the clerk went. My happiness popped like a balloon after it had been murdered with a pin.
"This can't be..." my brother was still saying. He was in complete denial of the situation. "No... we have to have gotten the location wrong."
"But this is the right address," I said. "Look, I remembered that the store was here too, so I can definitely back you up on that one. I mean, the stores next to it are the same. They haven't changed since we last came here. Everything else about this place is pretty much the same! We're in the right place! The store's actually gone!"
My brother was simply staring ahead, his mouth agape. "C'mon," I said, tugging at his arm. "Let's sit down for a bit."
"This just can't be!" my brother exclaimed. He ignored my suggestion. "We have to be in the wrong place! We have to find that store somewhere around here!" He stormed off in a random direction with such speed, even he was probably surprised by it.
I struggled to catch up, though the day's ordeal had already taken a massive toll on me. "Hey, wait up, Jordan! Calm down!"
He ignored me, but at the same time he didn't reject me and push me away. He wandered a few blocks here, a few blocks there, seemingly having no clear sense of direction or navigation. He was like a lost child trying to find his parents in a gigantic shopping mall; so many places they could be, so many strangers in the way, and no lead on where to go. I chased my brother like this for what seemed like hours. He frequently ran through red lights and jaywalked across several lanes of traffic. All the while I begged him over and over again to calm down, but he couldn't. Wouldn't. Finally, he stopped and placed a hand on the wall to support himself, trying to catch his breath. "Fuck..." he muttered again. "Just... fuck..."
I looked around. We were right back where we started, the comic book store that had usurped the convenience store without so much of a record about the establishment before it. It was gone, as if it had never existed before. It was a bit like Narnia, almost, where you find it by accident and then it disappears when you actively tried to look for it, leaving you to doubt your memories.
"Hey," I said when he had relaxed a little. "Let's get this clarified, shall we? How about we go inside and ask?"
He gritted his teeth, trying to get his spirit and courage back. He always had to do that, for he always felt the responsibility of being a good role model to me in lieu of my parents. "Right."
We walked inside the comic book store. Me and Jordan were never big on comic books, and we never kept them in our room. Our parents seldom entered our bedroom, however, so it wasn't like it was contraband or anything—I bet we could've kept pornography in our room and the two wouldn't bat an eye towards it. The store was air conditioned and had a nice, comfortable atmosphere to it. There was some light music playing in the background by some sappy female artist I've never heard before. A dozen or so shelves and racks littered the store's interior, containing loads and loads of comics that were messily organized into different genres and age groups. A skinny teenaged male was behind the counter fiddling with his phone, which he quickly hid when we walked in. What, was working at a comic book store not enough for you?
"Hi," I said, my voice cracking slightly. "We wanted to know if a convenience store used to be here a few years ago?"
The employee gave us a clueless look. "Um... I'm not sure... I just started working here a few weeks ago..."
"Do you know anyone who knows?" I asked.
He nodded nervously. "I'll, uh, get my manager," he said briskly before scurrying off.
I tapped my brother on the back. "No worries... we'll get this sorted out. We'll be fine as long as we don't leave each other."
He nodded, although I could still sense the doubt in him. He was probably doubting his ability to take care of me, now that we truly were on our own. I wonder if anybody has ever turned themselves in to the cops just so they could be fed in jail.
The nervous teenager came back, followed closely by his manager. She was a tall but youthful-looking woman with blonde hair, curly eyelashes, pixie cut hair, and two earrings on only one ear. "Can I help you?" she asked.
"We were wondering if there used to be a convenience store around here," I told her.
"Oh yeah," she said. "That closed up around eight months ago. Don't know much about what happened, but I think the owner moved."
"Moved? To where?" my brother asked.
She shrugged. "Honestly, I don't know. Seemed like a nice guy and all, but he didn't say where he was going."
"Do you have any contact information for him? A phone number? Address?"
She shook her head. "I'm sorry I don't have anything, boys. I only know that he closed up the store and moved out of the city, but he didn't tell me anything else. I'm really sorry, boys... I hate to be useless..."
The hot July air hit us with the fury of a furnace as we left, a drastic difference from the air conditioned cool of the store. I helped my brother walk down the sidewalk for a few steps. He stopped and slowly sat down with his back against the wall, burying his face into his hands. I sat down next to him and put my arm around him, and through his hands I could hear him sob.
"Jordan... don't worry, it's not your fault."
He brushed a hand roughly across his eyes. "M-My hopes were t-t-too h-high," he mumbled.
"So were mines."
He placed both of his arms around me, like the night of the chicken pot pie incident. "I really hoped that we would be able to find that old clerk and put an end to our suffering. We would finally have someone to turn to for support, finally have a home where we could freely be ourselves and not have to worry about two drunk and abusive parents." He sniffled. "W-W-Was that really too much to ask for? Now we're really stuck, all on our own. We can't go back, and we don't have a way forward."
"We have each other, at least," I said, trying to stay positive.
"Yeah, but for what? You and I could die here, together. We barely have enough money for food, and no means of getting a job. You and I aren't going to be able to go to school anytime soon, not at this rate. If dad's called the cops on us, they'd be looking for us right now, and if we get caught, it's all over. Regardless of the situation, it's about survival now. We have to find food ourselves... if we somehow are able to. Don't forget about our other basic needs as well. Everything's going to be harder from now on."
"At least we no longer have our parents." That felt funny on my tongue when I said that.
"Well, at least mom's crappy cooking fed us, and at least dad's job kept some money flowing. Some." He squeezed me gently. "But in return for the ability to survive, we paid them with our sanity, our childhood, our lives. They ruined our lives forever. They didn't teach us any of the things we needed to learn. They only drank, and drank, and drank some more. Mom didn't care about us; dad would directly make our lives a living hell. What did we do to deserve this? All we wanted to be were children, and we couldn't have even that."
The two of us sat quietly there—for how long, I don't know. A seemingly endless wave of cars and pedestrians passed us as if we didn't exist, as if we didn't matter. I often felt eyes looking at us, but nobody offered to help us, or even to check to see if we were alright. At least my brother's comforting presence reassured me sufficiently to know that I wasn't alone.
Alone. We had each other, so we weren't really alone in that sense... but together, we were alone. We had no one else except each other. Even though we were in the middle of a large, bustling city teeming with millions of people, even though we were sitting on the side of a busy street, and even though we lived in an age where everyone was connected, we were alone.
Alone alone alone alone alone...
Never before had I felt so shameful in my whole life.
Some people think it's easy, panhandling for change; you just sit or squat on the side of a busy road or walkway and ask people for money. Quarters and dimes will practically fall from the sky and into your hat. Panhandling requires no real skill and is just a free, cheap way of making money. Right?
Jordan and I were doing just that, standing on the sidewalk, asking passerbys if they had any money. It was harder than I thought. Most people ignored us, not even bothering to turn their eyes in our direction. A few stared at us, but didn't stop walking. The nastier ones gave us dirty looks, but they too often said nothing. The biggest challenge, however, was trying to talk to them. We were in desperate need of the money, yet for some reason we couldn't help but feel remorse from our begging. The meager amount of money that was in my wallet when we ran away from home, minus the cost of the bottle of soda, was $2.50. Two dollars and fifty cents. Two-fifty, two-fifty, two-fifty. That was all we had. And as the hours slowly passed, that number did not change.
Two-fifty two-fifty two-fifty two-fifty...
Jordan came up to me. We had split up—somewhat—in order to try and reach more people. We never strayed further than a block away from each other, and we made sure we were within sight of each other. "Any luck?" he asked.
I shook my head. "Nothing. You?"
He opened his hand to reveal a nickel, its sides dirty and discoloured, as if it had been through some sort of a chemical bath. "And I found it lying on the street."
"Think we should stick together?"
If we were doing this for fun, Jordan probably would've laughed and asked if I was chicken. Today, however, he was dead serious. "Sounds like a good idea." If there was any good that came out of our oppressive background, it was to never, ever leave each other, no matter the cost. Losing my brother was the worst thing that could happen to me. It had been that way since I was born, and that was not changing anytime soon.
Two women were coming down the street, both of them carrying shopping bags. Might be worth a try. "Excuse me, could you spare some change?" I asked when they were close enough.
The two looked at each other, almost utterly confused, as if I had spoken to them in an alien language. "It would really come in handy for the both of us," my brother said, putting his arms gently around me.
One of the women blinked. "Um, I'm sorry, we don't have any change," she said.
"Yeah," her friend added. "We, um, maxed out our credit cards."
"Alright then... Thanks?" But the words were barely out of my mouth as the two walked away. Ran, almost. They were trying to get away from us, trying to avoid having to talk to us, the wretched of the city. In their haste, though, one of them stumbled and dropped their bags. Textbooks and magazines spilled out of one, along with the jingling of metal against pavement. As the woman bent down to try and collect her items, one of the metal objects rolled down the sidewalk.
The two of us didn't react. What could we do? We couldn't just steal the coins and call them out for being a liar. The two women didn't even look back at us as they scrambled to collect their dropped merchandise and money before running off again. They turned a street corner, and that was the last I saw of them.
My brother's arms were still around me. "It makes you wonder why people would lie just to avoid helping the poor," he said quietly.
I placed a hand on his arm and patted it gently. "I know..." I whispered, almost on the verge of tears. "I know..."
I sat huddled by the phone charging station, keeping my head down but glancing up every so often to see if our phones were still there. Me and Jordan had spent the entire evening trying to get change outside restaurants. They were packed and busy on Saturday evenings. We had a bit more luck this time, but despite our best efforts, we only made about five dollars together, most of it in the form of nickels and dimes. We had tons of coins, but when actually counted, we didn't have much.
It was 10PM when we decided to retreat. We sought shelter inside a shopping mall, which thankfully had a charging station for our phones. My brother had gone off to look for food while I guarded our phones, watching the battery percentages creep slowly upwards. I feared every moment of being alone, even though I was fourteen—I hugged my brother like it was the last time we'd see each other again before he left. He didn't mind. I think part of him felt the same way.
The numbers at the mall were starting to decline ever so slightly as the minutes and the seconds ticked later and later into the night. Countless feet and shoes passed me by, and while I felt eyes glancing at me, nobody stopped to check on me. A few people stopped briefly at the charging station to fill up their batteries, and while they must've taken notice of my presence, none of them bothered to help me; a few even turned their backs or shuffled away from me, as if I were infected with some sort of contagious disease they didn't want to catch.
Yes... I'm infected. I'm infected with misery.
My brother reappeared, holding two Styrofoam containers. I got up and hugged him; couldn't help it. I knew that most people would consider it silly for me to be unable to take care of myself, but given what I had been through and what I was going through now, having even just one face who actually cared about me was a blessing I could not ignore. "Did you get anything?" I asked.
"Not much," he lamented as he opened the containers. The first one was filled with leftover fried rice, some beans, and a half-eaten chicken wing. The other had some barbequed pork, most of it burnt to a crisp. Both containers had a disposable plastic spoon. "Some half-hearted chef gave me the second one when I begged him for scraps. As for the first, I found it after scrounging through a trash can. Looks like someone's unfinished dinner."
My stomach turned slightly at that. Living on the streets meant that we couldn't be sure what was going to be on our menu. Some days we might have enough for a meal at McDonald's; other days we'd have to hope someone was wasteful enough to dump their perfectly good salad in the trash. No matter what happened, though, we had to accept what we could find. My brother spooned half of the rice into the container with the pork. "You want the pork or the wing?" he asked.
Personally, I wanted neither. What was worse: burnt food or someone else's saliva? "The pork," I answered after some hesitation.
"For once, you actually let me have the wings," he joked.
"Not like mom made it very often, but it was the best thing she ever made, compared to the rest of her crappy dishes."
He sighed. "I think I'd prefer eating that over someone else's dinner." He passed the container with the pork over to me. I doubted the quality of the rice, but my growling stomach reminded me of just how hungry I was. Neither of us had eaten anything for more than 24 hours. I wolfed down the rice—then the unburnt pieces of pork—at record speed. It wasn't much, and it was cold and bland for the most part, but it was better than nothing. I mostly picked at the blackened meat, looking for any pieces that had escaped the curse of being burnt. I looked over at my brother. He had finished the rice and beans as well, and was currently forcing himself to eat the chicken wing.
"Can't really be picky with our food now, I guess," I said.
"We never were picky in the first place. How many parents would've wanted children like us?" He sucked at the last bits of meat clinging onto the bones. "We're not really children anymore, are we?"
I tried to smile. "Hey, some adults still don't eat vegetables."
"I'm surprised dad actually eats them."
"Hrm." I got up and checked our phones. They were both at fifty percent. "I don't think our phones will be fully charged by the time this place closes and security chases us out."
"We still need to find a place to sleep." He looked around. "It would've been nice to sleep in here. Gets pretty cold at night, even in the summer."
"Speaking of summer, what's gonna happen to us during the winter?"
He had no response to that question. I felt bad for asking it too. What were we going to do once the temperature dropped and we were all covered in snow?
I tossed my spoon into the container with the burnt pieces of meat, which seemed just as edible to me as sand on the beach. I got up and started to head towards a trash can when I stopped. "You think these might come in handy?" I asked my brother.
"I don't know..." I pressed down on the material. "You said it gets cold at night. If we have enough of these, we can—"
His eyes lit up. "Good thinking." He got up and discarded the chicken bones, keeping his spoon and his container. How interesting, I thought. Being homeless has turned us into hardcore environmentalists.
"We never ate out very often as a 'family'," I commented.
"We never really did many things together as a family, either. Dad forced us to stay under the same roof, but it wasn't because he liked us or anything. He kept us there so we could be his slaves; he stayed home because it was easier to put himself to bed after he got wasted." He sighed as we sat down together again. "The first taste of family I got was watching kids at school being picked up by their parents or their older siblings, watching them get excited when they saw their parents, running into their arms. Oftentimes when we went out to do the laundry, we'd see families in parks, restaurants, and stores, adding spice to the mundane chores of life. They were keen on being together, in a good way. They looked out for each other and were willing to offer comfort when one needed it. And there was playtime. Lots of it." He put his arm around me. "I really wanted to do those things with you, which is why I took you out for ice cream that day. Maybe it wasn't as freeing as what we would do years later, but it was still the first glimpse of what our lives should've been like. We just wanted to be family, after all. That's why we started sneaking out. We started doing all of the things family members normally do to each other."
"And look where it led us," I lamented. "Although to be fair, we probably would have gotten away with it if we hadn't gone to that house party."
"Probably." I felt him squeezing me again. "Mom's always too drunk to care, fortunately, but dad got suspicious of us. The alcohol helped us for sure; on nights where he drank he'd be too wasted to even take care of himself, let alone try to catch us sneaking out. But that night he was sober. Might've been better for us to just stay at home then. If he was drunk, then we might've been able to go out, and when the cops drove us home he would've been to drunk to understand what was going on. He probably wouldn't remember what happened in the morning."
We were silent for a few minutes. Finally, I said, "There's no point in crying over spilled milk now." I got up and checked our phones. Sixty-one percent.
"We'll have to find a place to sleep soon."
"We're probably going to be sleeping on the street."
He sighed. "That sucks."
"If you want some privacy we could sleep in an alley."
"Seriously? I'm not doing that. That doesn't seem safe to me."
"There's no safe place to go to when you're homeless."
He was silent. I sat down again, waiting for our phones to get just a little more juice before the mall closed and we were kicked out. All of the stores around us were closed, and the food court had mostly emptied, with a lonesome janitor being the sole figure in the spotlight. Finally, my brother spoke: "I guess we were always homeless then; we never really had a safe place to go to."
"We had each other."
He smiled. "I think we've talked about this before."
I got up and checked my phone again. Sixty-three percent. And it was 11PM. The mall closed at 11PM. I unplugged our phones and handed my brother his phone. "Let's get out of here."
The night air was cool, and we shivered in our shorts and T-shirts. July may have been warm during the day, but the temperature dips at night, and while it wasn't cold enough to necessitate a jacket, a long-sleeved shirt would've been nice. The streets of the city were still buzzing at this time of night, as we had learned from our nightly outings, but tonight was nothing to celebrate about. We weren't here for leisure. We were here because we had no other choice.
Preferably we should have something to sleep under... or on top of.
My brother clutched at me. "You tired?" he asked.
"So am I." He sounded tired. Really tired. We had been walking for the entire day—and the night before that. Save for our morning nap, we hadn't slept for almost 48 hours. We went through a whole series of emotions—hope, anger, disappointment, desperation—but now nothing seemed more appealing than having a bed to sleep in and some blankets to crawl under. And we no longer had such a simple luxury, something people take for granted.
"There," my brother said, pointing. We had come to a small side street lined primarily by small houses with small yards and narrow alleyways in between. Near the intersection where the side street met the main road was a small liquor store, its lights still on, storefront facing the road. The side of the liquor store had no windows and was a plain, brick façade that faced the sidewalk of the side street. It was still a bit noisy—the sound of traffic on the road could still be heard—but at least there weren't as many pedestrians walking past us.
It would do.
My brother and I sat down and leaned wearily against the wall. We were far away from home, far away from familiar environments, far away from help. We were alone in a big city that we thought was our home. Now, it seemed about as foreign to us as another country. No one paid any attention to us; no one cared about the fact that two boys were alone in the middle of the night on a street they didn't live on, trying to rest near a liquor store without any blankets or warm clothing.
Was it better to be ignored than to be abused?
But I was too tired to think about that question. The brick wall was uncomfortable to lean on, so I slumped down and lay on the asphalt instead. It was rough and bumpy, filled with cracks and ants, but the heat that it absorbed during the day was still emanating from it, almost like a hot stone massage. I curled up into the fetal position and tried to get comfortable. A few minutes later, I felt two arms wrapping themselves around me. Jordan had snuggled in, shielding my backside from the outside world, offering me whatever protection and comfort he could give me. I could feel the warmth from his body making the temperatures of the night far more bearable, and unlike the asphalt, felt comforting and genuine to me; while the asphalt was better than nothing, it was dead and couldn't love me. My brother, on the other hand, was alive, a living being with a beating heart, and his love was something he demonstrated with actions rather than words. I thought about all of the things my older brother did for me, how he always wanted to be a good older sibling in lieu of my parents's harsh and unloving attitudes. I thought about how he took the blows for me, trying to get my father to stop hitting me, trying to take the punishment onto himself so I wouldn't have to suffer. Now here he was, being my wall and my shield, my guardian and my protector; he was going to be exposed to the world so I wouldn't have to be. He was trying to make me comfortable at his own expense. He was trying to love me even though he had never really experienced love himself.
He was being the older brother that I needed.
Thank you, Jordan.
Nights used to be the best times of my life for me. It was the only part of the day where I could truly get away from my parents and be alone with my brother. After we started sneaking out, it was a time of brotherly bonding, a time to solidify our relationship.
Tonight, I wasn't so sure.
I woke up several times during the night. Every time I did so, I was at least reassured by the fact that my brother's arms were still around me, but still I could not block out the sounds of the city, the city that never slept. Every time I woke up I could hear cars in the background, the footsteps of the occasional pedestrian walking by. A couple of times emergency sirens stirred me from my dreamless doze. How Jordan fared, I didn't know, but I imagined that he didn't have a good night's sleep either, even more so considering that he was the naked, exposed wall that was protecting me from the outside world. I felt a pang of guilt. My older brother had done so much for me, and even though I was miserable as well, I felt like I had to repay him somehow...
Jordan, I know we've talked about this before...
I checked my watch numerous times. First time I checked, it was ten minutes past one. Second time, it read twenty minutes before two. Then 3AM. 3:18AM. 3:41AM. Every time I felt like an hour had passed, my watch confirmed that length to be a mere twenty minutes.
Finally, my watch read 5AM. I tapped my older brother on the arm. He woke up in an instant. "Hmm?"
"It's five in the morning," I whispered.
My brother and I looked up. The sky was starting to brighten, an indicator that night was slowly turning into day. Summer meant earlier sunrises, later sunsets. My brother slowly released me, and I sat up, rubbing my eyes.
"How was your night?" my brother asked.
A bad night was one thing; my growling stomach was another. It rumbled and snarled at me, demanding that I feed it breakfast. Normally the two of us would head downstairs, fix ourselves some cereal or toast, and eat our breakfast together. On weekdays my dad would leave the house at six, and mom didn't wake up until seven, so we had an hour to ourselves. Not that mom's presence made us uncomfortable, but it was still better to be alone with each other. Now we had the latter, but breakfast wasn't as simple as digging through a cupboard now.
"C'mon," my brother said, helping me to my feet. "We gotta find something to eat." The two of us started walking back towards the main road, back towards the noisy sights and sounds of traffic, back to where all the activity was. If we seemed like two normal boys just strolling around the city yesterday, we didn't look that way now. While our clothes weren't torn and ragged, I could smell the sweat it had absorbed from me. Our hair was a bit messy, and our faces looked drained and defeated. It probably wouldn't seem apparent that we were homeless at first glance, but I'm guessing some attentive people might think that something was up with us. My stomach growled again. The one thing people can't see—hunger.
"Finding breakfast's gonna have to be the hardest part," my brother said. "Any food from last night will have spoiled, and if we're to scrounge through trash cans, we'd have to do it in plain sight of everybody else."
"It's that or starvation," I responded.
"Or just waiting until dinnertime before looking for food."
"You think we can survive on one meal a day?"
"Well, yes." He looked at me. "It's gonna stunt your growth, but you're not gonna die."
I reached into my pockets and produced the five dollars we had made. "Think this is enough for a bite?"
My brother was silent for a bit as we walked. "Yeah," he said. "Enough for one person."
"We can share."
"Alright." He pointed to a small coffee shop ahead. "Looks like they just opened. Let's see what five bucks will get us."
Five dollars wasn't much, but it was enough to get something. We got a small breakfast sandwich with some cheese and eggs, along with a bottle of water. We shared both the sandwich and the bottle, taking bites and sips as we passed it back and forth. Me and Jordan were used to sharing food, but there was so little food between the two of us, even I had the temptation to just pop the entire sandwich into my mouth and devour it on the spot.
"Don't think we're gonna get very far on this," I said. We were seated just outside the coffee shop, leaning against the front windows looking out towards the street. The tiny sandwich was finished in under a minute, and now we were slowly sipping from the bottle of water, trying to make it last, trying to savour the feeling of the life-giving liquid on our tongues. At least mom's subpar cooking filled our stomachs and nourished us. I was surprised to find myself missing that. Probably the nicest thing about our old life was the free food we got every day.
"We gotta try, Jacky; we just gotta try. Like you said, we just have to stick together. We made it through all those years of our life because we depended on each other. We can make it through this chapter of our lives by doing the same."
Soon, the bottle was empty. Me and Jordan had quelled our hunger and quenched our thirst a little. Whenever someone passed us we asked them if they had any change, and every time we did so we either got rejected or simply snubbed. After a few more minutes, we got up, having made no money.
"Our luck's gotta turn," Jordan said.
"A feeling in my gut says that's not gonna happen anytime soon," I answered.
"Anytime soon. Doesn't mean forever. We'll try to survive one day at a time."
We started heading towards the core of the city, the place where all the office towers and the shopping centres and the malls and the money resided, the part of the city that always bustled with activity no matter what hour of the day it was. Hopefully we could get more money there. Me and Jordan were practically leaning on each other for support, for comfort, for refuge. "Jordan," I whispered.
He heard me. "What's up?"
"Last night I thought about all the sacrifices you made for me, how you offered me a way out of the life we lived, how you ran in front of dad's cane to save me from the blows, how you slept on the outside last night... I still can't believe you would willingly do all of those things for me. Mom and dad certainly wouldn't tell you to protect me, but throughout your entire life you had done just that. You were my big brother even though you had no role models or caregivers of your own. You gave me things that you never got to and will never have."
He squeezed me on the shoulder. "I'm just doing what a good brother is supposed to do..."
"I'm right here, Jacky. I'm—"
"I love you."
Those three words. Those three words again. It silenced him, but not in a bad way. The two of us walked together in silence for what must've been a good twenty minutes. Finally, as we entered the downtown core of the city, my brother responded: "I love you too Jacky."
A wealthy-looking man was coming up the steps of the subway station. He was wearing a suit and a tie, and while he wasn't carrying a briefcase, it seemed evident that he was an important person with lots of cash to spend. Perfect target. As he neared the top of the stairs, I pounced on him: "Excuse me sir, could you spare some change for people like us?"
He snorted. "Oh, it's you people again." He gave me—then my brother, who was beside me—a look of disdain. "What's up with the two of you? You look like you dropped out of high school yesterday!"
"Our circumstances are a bit difficult to explain..." my brother began.
"Yeah, like they're that hard to explain. Let me guess: you're all meth addicts and you couldn't afford to pay for your daily fix of shit, so you ran away from home to panhandle for change. Am I correct?"
"No sir!" I protested. "That's not what—"
"Don't lie to me!! You two better get the hell away from here and go home to where you belong! You've got some hefty explaining to do to your parents. And if I see the two of you again, you bet that I'll be calling the cops to have these two meth freaks purged from the streets!"
"But—" I tried again.
He shoved me back. Hard. "Get the fuck away from me!" Without another word, he stormed off, not looking back to see the damage he caused. His shove wasn't the strongest out there—heck, some playground bullies could shove me harder than that—but I was so weak and exhausted, I fell onto the concrete sidewalk. An unconcerned passerby stepped on my face. Didn't apologize, didn't stop to help me, didn't even acknowledge the fact that he had just stepped on a human being. A few other pedestrians had turned their heads to witness the commotion, but nobody attempted to intervene. Most of them carried on with what they were doing, where they were going. People were walking around me like water streaming around a boulder that had settled and stopped in the middle of a river. As soon as there was a break in the current, my brother got in and knelt beside me. "You alright, Jacky?"
With his help, I managed to sit up. "I'm alright." Physically I seemed okay, aside from a few scrapes on my hands, which shot out almost instinctively to cushion my fall. The shoe that had stepped on my face was dirty and dusty, and my brother brushed some of the grime off my face. Some people were still looking at us, so my brother led me into an alleyway, out of plain sight. "I can't believe someone had the nerve to do that to us," I whispered.
"It pains me to realize that people like him exist in this world, and they look like ordinary people until you approach them and ask for help."
"He didn't even bother to learn about our background, our history. He just assumed we were drug addicts and left us on our own."
My brother gave me a serious look. "Do you think we'll be able to avoid that?" he asked, looking directly into my eyes.
"Huh? Avoid what?"
"He said we were meth addicts. How long do you think we'll last out here before that becomes a reality?"
I could only stare at him.
"I saw it briefly in a magazine once. Don't know much about the subject, but I know that tons of this stuff is available on the streets. Someone could hook us up and get us addicted to the stuff in no time, and we'd be forking over whatever cash we have to get high on the stuff. Jacky, we have to be careful out here. In some ways, this could probably be more dangerous than the old life we lived."
I was still speechless afterwards, but my mind was stirring. No, I thought to myself, why would we ever blow off our cash buying drugs? We barely have enough for food. My brother could sense my thoughts. "I'm just scared of losing the relationship we've had for the past fourteen years."
"So am I." I put my hand on his shoulder. "That's not going to happen, though. There was never a day in my life where I never got to see you, never a day where I didn't think about you."
My brother and I got up and exited the alley after a few more minutes to ourselves. The scrapes on my hands were still throbbing, but they didn't seem serious. I still wished I had a band-aid to cover it up with, though. We ducked inside a shopping mall, sought out the washrooms, and washed our hands. Well, mine at least. The water stung my flesh as I cleaned out the wound, rinsing out some of the dirt that got in. There were a few other people in the washroom, and as soon as they left I took my brother aside.
"Where do we go now?" I asked.
"Back out onto the streets," he said. "We need more money; we barely have enough for anything tonight."
"And risk running into people like him again?"
"Do you have any better ideas?" my brother asked me.
He got me there. "No, I don't," I lamented.
"I don't mean to discourage you," he said, "but I figure life's just going to get harder from here. Remember all the conversations we've had; remember all of the things we've been through. We can make it. Someday this will all end."
We got up, slurped down some water from the water fountain, and headed back outside. The heat of the afternoon was beginning to pick up, transforming the urban jungle into a sweltering ocean of hot, humid air. I could see mirages blurring the lines of the road, the exhaust pipes of cars. To avoid running into the same people we had previously encountered, we trekked north a bit to reach the next subway station. It wasn't a terribly long walk—only a few blocks—but in our hungry, exhausted, stressful state, it felt like forever. My brother and I had our arms around each other's shoulders, as usual. That was probably the only good part of our day: the fact that we were still together.
"I wonder if we'll ever reach a point where one of us will be too hungry or too fatigued to carry on," I said.
My brother did not answer.
"I know you're willing to be the one who starves and dies for me, the one who'd gladly give up his life to save mine." I inhaled. "But what's worse? Dying, or living knowing that your closest companion is dead?"
Still no response.
"If we're going to die out here, I hope that we'll be able to die together. If we're going to be beat up and clubbed to death in an alley, I hope that none of us are spared. If we're going to starve, I hope it's because none of us got to eat. And if it's because of illness..." I paused. "...I hope one of us will stay by the other's side until the lights went out for them too."
When we got to the next subway station on the line, my brother turned to look at me. "Do you believe in life after death?" he asked.
I wasn't religious. At least, not overtly. "Sort of, yeah."
The two of us stopped and stared. The entrance to the subway station was built into the side of a building, taking up a storefront's worth of space. An escalator leading up and two flights of stairs leading down connected the subway to the street. For a moment we just stood there, lost in thought. Aside from an absentminded smoker on his phone, nobody was lingering around the entrance. Finally, Jordan came to his senses and gave me a warm squeeze. "I know for a fact that the two of us are not going to die. Something inside me tells me that the two of us are never going to be separated, no matter what. Something exists that's above us, that's more powerful than us, that's beyond our understanding. And that something is going to keep the two of us together, forever." I felt his head on my shoulder. "I have a heart for you, and you know that. I'm just glad that you have a heart for me too."
Buckets and buckets of water rained down from the sky, collecting along the side of the road and flowing down the curb towards the nearest storm drain. Where it could not flow, it pooled up instead, forming puddles that grew as more and more water congregated, unable to escape on their own. The sidewalks were still packed with people, some with raincoats and ponchos to stay dry. Others were simply winging it in their shorts and T-shirts, or pathetically shielding themselves with newspapers or knapsacks. Some just sat in the rain, sometimes on an old rag, but many of them on the wet pavement, getting splashed every time a large vehicle drove by or a hurried pedestrian jumped into the puddles of water a little too hard.
I saw those people sometimes, on the rare occasions we went downtown as a "family". They were everywhere, and at the same time they were nowhere. You could see them if you looked, but most people didn't look. They were almost a forgettable part of life, and in fact, if you tried your best to forget about them, you probably wouldn't even realize that they even existed.
Today, we were one of those people.
"Sorry I can't keep you any drier than this," my brother said. He had taken his shirt off and was trying unsuccessfully to shield me from the torrent with it. Eventually, I was so drenched myself that I took off my own shirt, mostly because the fabric was clinging onto my skin and was starting to make me cold.
"We can hide from society, but we can't hide from rain." We were in a small alleyway behind a block of stores and some old tenements. One end of the alley opened up onto the street; the other a parking lot. No one was there with us, which offered some privacy. Privacy. Shelter. Shelter from the eyes of the public, the feelings of shame...
One turned the corner from the parking lot end of the alley and was walking towards us. My heart jumped into my throat. "Jordan!" I hissed. "A cop! A cop!"
Neither of us needed any encouragement. We were out of there in a flash, back onto the street, running away from there as fast as we could. The cop didn't pursue. We hid behind a few shrubs and watched as the cop turned and headed in the opposite direction when he reached the street. One would probably expect him to be suspicious of two shirtless boys lurking in an alleyway in the rain. Did he simply not see us, or was he so accustomed to the peculiarities of this environment that a knife would have to be pulled before he would react?
"He might come back," Jordan said. His voice was filled with uncertainty, but I saw no reason to take chances with him. We quickly sought out a new alley and hid inside it. It was smaller and dirtier than the one we were in before, filled with trash, discarded warehouse pallets, and extinguished cigarette stubs. Discarded, rejected, unwanted. Like us. It was unsettling to imagine that we were worth about as much as the garbage before us. Since it had no other exit, it seemed unlikely that anyone would use the alley unless they had a purpose there. On the other hand, it also meant that we had nowhere to go if a cop or mugger spotted us.
"I'm hungry," I said.
"We only have enough for one meal," my brother said. "We'll have to find—"
"There has to be a better way of getting food around here than hoping people give us pennies to buy cheap breakfast sandwiches."
He looked at me. "Do you have any ideas?" he inquired.
I shook my head. "But there has to be something out there."
"The only other thing I can think of that'll get us something quickly is to steal. That's probably worse than panhandling, though."
Me and Jordan had never really stolen anything as children. A year ago, I took some of dad's cigarette packs, hoping that I could sell them somewhere so that we could have more money at our disposal for our nightly outings—and perhaps for our future away from our parents, if that ever happened. Dad took notice immediately when he noticed that his drawer was a few packs lighter, and he ferreted me out as the thief. Knowing what would happen if I didn't comply, I quickly returned the cigarettes, but he beat me anyways. Clearly I wasn't the greatest thief in the world.
"It's not a chance I'm willing to take," my brother continued. "After all, if the cops catch us, who knows what might happen to us? They'll take us to the station, look at their files, recognize us as the runaway kids, and then call dad letting him know that we've been caught. We'll probably be sent to juvie... and who knows if we'll be able to stay together?"
"Okay, so stealing's out of the question," I said. "At least, for now it is..."
"We just have to stay hopeful and—"
"Hey!!" a voice barked out. "What the hell are you two doing in our turf?"
We looked up. There were four guys, roughly around Jordan's age, standing at the mouth of the alley. All of them were in ragged tank tops, shorts, and shoes, but the hard, cold expression on their faces was enough to tell anyone with a brain that these weren't people to mess around with. My brother motioned for me to stay behind up. He was protective like that. "Sorry," my brother said. "We, uh, didn't know this was your turf."
"Well, now you know!" the guy who yelled at us said roughly. "And you two better get the fuck out of here if you know what's good for you. Got that?"
"Hold on," one of the others said. "These two look just like the runaway teens they showed on TV."
My blood froze. So dad did report us to the cops. And he must've given them the latest images he had of us: our school photos from last year. Now the whole city—or at least, those who watched the news—knew who we were and what we looked like. The ice cream vendor, the cashier and manager at the comic books store... they might've recognized our faces on TV. Those places we had been to were no longer safe. We had to be extra careful now.
"You guys have apparently been missing since yesterday morning," he continued. "Apparently the cops drove you home from a midnight house party and you slipped out shortly after. You two are in a shit ton of trouble if the cops catch you!"
Uh... "Thanks for the info, but it looks like we gotta run now," I said. I tugged at Jordan's arms. "Let's go."
"The cops downtown are nothing like the ones where you live!" the teenager called out. "Up there, the most they do to people is give them a speeding ticket. Here? I've seen them beat a bum up once. Don't get yourselves into any trouble with them, or else 'fucked' will be the best word that describes you!"
The two of us booked it and ran away from there. The guy that had so angrily barked at us didn't pursue, instead staring perplexed at us as we sloshed through the rain. He mostly likely would not turn us in, but I could tell the gears in his head were turning.
The cops downtown are nothing like the ones where you live...
I thought about the cop we had evaded not too long ago. He didn't seem to care about us, so I would've taken that guy's words with a grain of salt. But what if we had stayed there? What would the cop have done? Would he have recognized us? What would happen if he did?
I've seen them beat a bum up once...
Were we bums now...?
My brother turned down a small, narrow driveway hidden between two old, decaying brick buildings. It was filled with parked cars, bumper to bumper, end to end. The driveway was just wide enough to accommodate the vehicles in a single file line, and it dead ended at a flimsy chain-link fence. I wondered how the car at the very end—a red hatchback—was supposed to get out. Come to think of it, I wondered how all of these cars got here in the first place. We got to the end of the alley and squatted behind the hatchback to catch our breath.
"If we get sent home, it's all over," my brother said.
"We should've known dad would've called the cops sooner or later once he realized we were gone," I lamented. "He's not that stupid. Now we're in trouble with everyone!"
"You know what's stupid? Staying at home with him."
"You think we really had a chance out here on our own?! We can barely find food and now we have to deal with the fact that anyone can turn us in now!"
"Hey, this was your idea!" he argued. "You said we couldn't stay at home any longer and that he'd kill us if we did. Now you want to go back? Next stop for you is the grave!"
I fell silent. This was my idea, after all. I let the sound of the rain fill the atmosphere for a bit. "Still—" I began again.
"Still, we need to keep going," my brother said, interrupting me. "It's too late to turn back now. If we stay out here there's a chance we might hold out, even if that seems unlikely. If we go home, it's a guaranteed defeat."
Looks like I've been defeated. I was silent as the truth of his words sunk in: that the best decision we could make now was an undesirable one and that we had no better options available. I turned to my older brother for support, for leadership, for an answer. "What do we do now?" I asked him.
He had no answer for me. Pretty much everything we could think of doing to find food put us at risk of being caught. Begging on the streets meant being in plain sight of everyone else. We couldn't get a job, in case our would-be employer recognized our faces. Even if we just squatted somewhere and starved, there was still the random possibility that someone would see us and turn us in.
"What are the odds of us getting caught?" I wondered aloud. "What are the chances that someone who happened to remember our faces on TV being at the same intersection at the same time and looking directly at us? What are the chances that their mind will click and that they'll actually do anything to us?"
My brother stared at me. "Are you suggesting that we take a risk out there?"
"We've always taken risks! We took risks every time we snuck out of the house! We're not new to this, Jordan; we just have to try and make that jump. Like you said... we just have to stick together. We couldn't have survived without each other."
My brother didn't say anything. I didn't say anything either. We just sat there behind the hatchback for what seemed to me like hours. The rain slowed down and stopped, although the sky remained dank and overcast as evening settled in. When the adrenaline worn off, my stomach resumed growling at me, a sign that the meager street diet wasn't doing me any good. How do street kids even grow up like this, let alone survive?
"You hungry?" my brother asked, breaking the silence.
"Let's see how much money we have."
The two of us dug through our pockets and piled the cash up into a pile. We still had the two-fifty I ran away from home with, plus sixty cents we made that day panhandling. That made the total $3.10.
We'll have to get by with this meager amount, I suppose.
"You go buy something," my brother said. "I'll take the risk and try to get some more cash."
I shook my head. "Better if we both tried, Jordan. Besides, three bucks isn't enough to get us anything decent."
"Not us. You. You go buy something for yourself to eat."
I blinked. "What are you going to eat, then?"
"Don't know, but whatever I'm going to eat, it'll be after you eat."
"I can't do this, Jordan!"
"You'll just have to try, Jacky..."
"Jordan!! Don't forget the discussions we had! We're in this together! Don't say those kinds of things!"
Before my brother could answer, however, a voice from behind the hatchback called out, "Hey!"
We looked up. A tall, well-built man in his thirties towered over us. He was standing next to the red hatchback. "What are the two of you doing here? You doin' something to my car?"
"N-No..." I stammered nervously. He seemed even more intimidating than usual since we were crouching down. I eyed the tattoos that covered the lengths of both arms, overlapping the muscles and veins that would've kept any sane person at bay. "W-We were just..."
"Just counting up the loot you stole from my car?" he inquired, the tone of his voice becoming soft and dangerous. It reminded me of the way my father talked when his anger streamed out of him like smoke from a volcano. Any moment now, and there would be an eruption.
"We didn't break into your car!" my brother said, finding his voice. "This money is our own!"
"Yeah, now it's your own. Now that you've heisted it from me." He started coming around the hatchback to our side. We could've gotten away from him on the other side of the vehicle, but fear had paralyzed us both. "C'mon now," he growled. "Let's see how much you stole."
Neither of us moved.
"Hand me the money already, or I'll come over there and get it myself!"
Still no response.
"You need me to come over there?"
I saw my brother looking at me out of the corner of my eye. When I turned to look, I could see him mouthing out a message for me: Run!
"I'm taking your silence as a 'Yes'," he said. The figure started making his way over to our side of the hatchback. "See how you truants like it when I'm finished with—"
We bolted. So did the man. He slammed my body into the brick wall on one side of the alley and darted to where my brother was before he could even react. Next thing I knew, he had my brother pinned against the wall; two strong arms keeping tight control over Jordan's body. "Be honest with me: what've you been up to?!"
"N-N-Nothing...!" he gasped.
"How much money did you take from my car?!"
I looked down at the ground. In our mad dash to get away, we had forgotten to collect the money we took out of our pockets! For a second I was almost glad that we hadn't gotten away. But there was no time to count our blessings now. Right now we had to get out of the log jam we were in...
"We didn't take anything! I swear!" I heard Jordan saying.
I picked up the money we had—all $3.10 of it—and thrusted it towards the man who had my brother. "Here, just take the money if you want it, but please leave us alone!"
The man turned around and looked at me suspiciously, studying me. It didn't take long for him to make a decision though. He roughly released my brother and snatched our money right out of my hands. "You two better back off away from my car," he warned.
Our money. Our hope. Our future. Gone. We'd be lucky if we had anything to eat tonight. We slowly backed away until there were a few cars between us and him. I heard him opening the door of his car, heard him getting something out of it. I heard the flicking of a lighter, then the smell of cigarette smoke. My stomach turned. It reminded me of—
"Let's go, Jacky," my brother said. "Let's get away from him."
It was a solemn, melancholic walk down the city streets. An aimless one too, since there really was no place for us to go to. We didn't have a roof to sleep under and sustenance to sustain ourselves. Now we had no money, all of it taken to pay our ransom. Sure, we didn't have much to begin with, and we had lost much more than just a few bucks, but when you're poor the scanty amount of money you have means a lot to you. Now it was gone, every last bit of it. Nothing to buy food with. Nothing to buy things with. Someone was either going to have to be really generous, or—
"No! It's not worth it! I swear I'll regret doing it!"
Jordan looked at me. "Regret doing what?" he asked. I hadn't realized that I had recited my thoughts out loud. But too many thoughts were stirring around my head for me to even hear him.
How do you make a hobo a criminal? You treat him like shit, that's how!
My brother could sense my thoughts somewhat. "Let's find a place to settle down first." He was trying to stay positive for me, I could tell, but it was becoming harder and harder for him with every passing moment.
Our New "Friends"
The underpass was noisy, filled with the sounds of cars and their engines passing by, echoing off the concrete walls and ceiling. The sidewalk ran alongside the road, separated by a short concrete barrier that was crumbling and wearing out in some areas. Sodium vapour lamps along the walls and support pylons cast an urban, yellowish glow into the eternal night of the underpass. Above us, the rumbling of freight and passenger trains as they made use of the two dozen concurrent railway tracks vibrated through my skull as I felt it through the ground. It was probably worse sleeping here than along the side of the beer store, but the sky had opened up and drenched us once more, and showed no signs of stopping. As noisy as this railway underpass was, it was at least dry.
We had gone around begging people not just for change, but also for food. Most people who did pay any amount of attention to us threw dimes and quarters, and we ended the day with a full dollar. Not much for a meal. One person did, however, take us to a Burger King and bought us some sandwiches and fries.
"Thank you sir!" we cried out to him as he gave us our food. "Thank you so much!"
"Take care out there, boys," he said as he bid us farewell. He reminded me of that kind old shopkeeper that welcomed us in so many years ago, showing us that there was still hope in the world. Like him, however, he disappeared after that moment of bliss, perhaps never to be seen again. Our life had pretty much always been like that; we had learned from a young age to cherish whatever blessings we had, little islands of positivity in an ocean of pain and suffering. It was just so darn unfortunate, however, that good things never lasted, while the bad seemed to stretch on for eternity.
Now here we were, lying on the sidewalk underneath the railway overpass, tucked against the side of the wall. Sleep evaded me over the noise of the din, and I could tell it was going to be another long night on our own. But our stomachs were content from the first decent meal we had in a while, my brother was again keeping me warm and protected with his presence, and we had something solid over our heads as we slept. Well, if we could, over the noise.
"I can cover your ears if you want me to," my brother offered. But I could still hear the noise through his hands, and after a few minutes, said, "I prefer having your hands and arms around my body and not my head."
"Alright." And that was how the night had progressed so far: Jordan with his arms around me, like on our first night on the streets. I had always appreciated his presence near me—that was nothing new—and as our situation got worse and worse, I was more than grateful that he was still with me. The question that was on my mind was: how long would it last?
Something is going to keep the two of us together, forever.
What was that "something"?
Was this "something" the thing that kept us together for the past fourteen years? Was it the thing that kept us going, kept us alive, kept us hopeful even when our parents had all the might in the house? Was this the thing that led us to take these risks, the risks that eventually led up to this?
Was this "something" even real, or just an abstract concept?
I closed my eyes. Funny enough, but I was in such an odd state that closing my eyes seemed to require more effort than just leaving them open. I was no philosophy student, but this "something" sure got me thinking. What was it? Did it have mystical powers that I didn't realize had been guiding me along this whole time? Could it really empower us and rescue us, or was it leading us to our demise?
Dear mystical power...
...could you please send something hopeful our way?
I was never really religious. Still wasn't. But after saying that "prayer", I felt like something inside me changed a little, and that someone really did hear it. Someone... something...
The back door leading into the alleyway opened. A woman in a red shirt and a white apron tossed out a large plastic bag. It sailed through the air for a few seconds before hitting the ground, its contents squishing slightly. "They're all stale," she said. "Nobody bought 'em this morning. Can't keep them. All yours now."
"Great... thank you!" I said back. But she had already closed the door.
We had spent the entire morning asking for change again. People this morning seemed a little more generous today: by noon we had collected six dollars and twenty-three cents. We then went inside a coffee shop that was about to close and asked if they had anything to give us. We didn't get any money, but the manager told us to go around back and wait for them to throw out the unsold pastries from earlier that morning. Stale bagels, donuts, and cinnamon rolls... our stomachs growled at the prospect of having stale food. We had a large supply of food at our disposal, but the pastries wouldn't keep for very long, so we tore into the bag, feasting on everything inside of it. Within half an hour, the bag was empty. I felt stuffed, a rare feeling to experience even before we ran away from home. Mom would make just enough to fill us, never too much. I thought that being homeless and on the streets meant being in a perpetual state of hunger. Today, however, I had overindulged like a king at a royal feast, even if it was on stale pastries.
"Man, that feels good," my brother said. He was sitting down, leaning his back against the wall, resting from his little buffet. "Being fed like this is certainly worth the stomachaches."
"After yesterday, things are starting to look up, for once," I said. I could feel the gases and the discomfort building up in my stomach, but at the same time it was a cozy, comfortable feeling. The feeling of fullness and satisfaction from a large meal was worth the feeling of regret from overeating and being sick.
Thank you, "something"! Thank you for blessing us!
"Count our blessings, and make the good times last." And last we did—or at least, tried to make it last. We hung around in the alley for another hour before getting up and resuming our panhandling. That one hour passed by way too quickly, and we were back to being miserable before we knew it. The next five hours passed without incident. We collected a healthy eighteen dollars and twenty cents, which sure beat any of the money we had earned so far. At around six o'clock, we decided to buy ourselves a decent meal. I was busy thinking about what I was going to get: a quarter pounder, a medium Coke, large fries. Something to remind me of good days long gone.
"We actually got two decent meals today," my brother said as we were walking down the street. "I bet most people on the streets consider it lucky to get even just one."
There was a McDonald's just a couple blocks away; we had passed it a couple of times while panhandling, so we knew where it was. Our stomachs were growling, and we couldn't wait to get our hands on another hearty meal, so we took a shortcut through a smaller side street. It was the start of summer, so it was still bright at this hour. The two of us were thinking about what we could do if we could get a steady income.
"A room for us to sleep in," I said. "And a shower. Would be nice to be able to wash the grime and the sweat off me."
"I'd buy a fridge and stock it," my brother said. "We could keep the food we get instead of having to eat it all, like the donuts and crullers we got for lunch."
"We could live on our own if we had our own money. We wouldn't have to worry about mom and dad anymore."
"It's possible, Jacky," he said. "We might not be able to get very good jobs, but if we stay minimalistic and keep our expenses down, we might actually be able to get by."
"To survive, maybe, but we might not have a roof over our heads for a long time, if at all. The cost of rent here is pretty high."
"We'll just have to stay hopeful," he assured me. "I mean, our luck turned today, and we did better today than we did—"
Two rugged looking people—a man and a woman, both of them donning dark hoodies—turned the corner. As soon as they saw us, they grabbed my brother and threw him to the ground. Jordan tried to fight back, but he was not strong enough to overpower his aggressors.
"Hey!" I shouted. "Leave him alone!"
The man nodded to the woman, and she went after me as he held my brother to the ground. I tried to run, but she tripped me and pinned me down. I struggled to get out, but she locked both of my arms behind my head, leaving me completely defenseless.
"What do you guys want?!" my brother cried out. He was terrified at this unexpected confrontation. "Why did you do this?!"
"You're on our turf, that's what," the man replied. His voice was amazingly calm. "You guys didn't see our symbols, did you?"
"What symbols?" I asked.
"The white cross painted onto the walls," the woman who had me said. She too was calm and confident. The two knew they had us and that we stood no chance. "Guess you didn't notice them, hmm? Well now you know."
"We didn't mean to intrude!" my brother said. "We didn't mean to cause any harm! Please let us go!"
"Oh we'll let you go. You just have to pay the road toll."
"Search them." The woman kept both of my arms locked with one hand and emptied my pockets with the other. Boy, was she strong. Out came my phone and my wallet. She opened it and dumped all of the coins out. All of our money. Gone. Again.
"Does the bigger one have anything?" the woman asked her partner.
"Nope," he said. "How much does the little one have?"
"Nineteen dollars and twenty cents."
"That's enough for us." The woman pocketed our cash and tossed my phone and my empty wallet back at me. "You're darned lucky you had something for us. If you were broke as hell we wouldn't let you walk out of here alive."
"That's our money!" I yelled. My anger was building up; I wasn't about to accept being dirt broke again!
"You know what's good for you, son?" the woman asked. "For you to keep your mouth shut unless we ask you to talk."
"Give us our money back!" I yelled. "We didn't know this was your turf! You can't just take our money like that! Hand it back!"
"Quit being hysterical, son," the man said.
"I'm not the one being pinned to the ground here," the woman said to me. Both of them were still quite calm. I wasn't getting the reaction I wanted from them.
"Leave us alone!" Jordan shouted.
"Give us our money back!" I snapped.
"Don't go asking for it, bud," she replied very calmly.
"Asking for what? I'm asking you to give us our fucking change back!"
"Jacky, stop!" my brother yelled, but I wasn't listening. "Give it back, you assholes! Hand over the money you stole from us!"
"Well, I can see you're not looking forward to getting out of here unscathed." Her calmness dumbfounded me, but what she did next made my blood turn to ice. Very calmly, she removed a knife from the pocket of her hoodie and waved it in front of me. My brother couldn't see what was going on from his angle, but he could sense that it wasn't good. He thrashed around, trying to break free, but the man kept him down. "I'd advise you not to get in the way," he said, "unless joining your friend in his state of misery is on your wishlist."
"Stop!" my brother yelled. "You made your point, alright? Just let us go!"
"Too late now," the woman said. "This knife will teach you a thing or two about respect."
I wiggled, squirmed, and thrashed, but the more I tried, the harder it became. I had exhausted myself with my own foolish frenzy, and the woman was completely unfazed at my outburst. I was done. She had overpowered me in a way that would shock even my dad, who thought anger was the only way to dominate someone, and she didn't even break a sweat as she prepared to slit my throat.
I was going to die! I lived for fourteen years under my father's terrorist reign, yet I didn't survive a week on the streets on my own! This was crazy! This was—
"Hey!" a voice cried out suddenly. I looked up, or at least tried to. The woman looked up as well, though her iron grip on me didn't wane. There was a guy and a girl, both of them around Jordan's age, standing just a few steps away from us. The guy pointed a finger at the man. "Doug, you faggot!"
"So we meet again." The man and woman who had us released us and stood up, though they kept their calm composition.
"You two better not have forgotten what we did to you just a few weeks ago," the girl said.
"Oh? And what did you do that was so intimidating?" the woman said sarcastically. "I have amnesia."
The guy and girl responded by pulling out two switchblades, clicking them both open at the same time. "That's your refresher," the guy said. "Need another one?"
"Right." The man and woman began to calmly back away. "Dane and Diane, we'll be on our way."
As they were beginning to make their exit, I found my voice again: "Give us back the money you stole!"
"Suit yourself," the woman said to me.
"If you need us to come over there, we can do that!" Dane snarled.
The woman just shrugged, but she dug into her pockets, produced our money, and threw it in my direction. Without another word, the man and woman disappeared, as quickly as they had appeared.
The door to the motel room creaked open noisily, revealing a small, dirty room behind it. There were two dirty queen-sized beds, the sheets yellowed with age, the blankets looking grimey and filthy. An old dresser with a small TV on top stood across from the beds, with one of its drawers missing all of its knobs. The window was covered with cardboard, secured haphazardly with masking tape. A small door at the back of the room led into the bathroom containing a dirty shower, a dirty sink, and a dirty toilet that had urine encrusted on the seat. It was repulsive. It was also a castle to us.
"This bed's ours," Dane said, pointing to the bed closest to the door. It seemed to have less stains than the other one, but honestly, both of them seemed more or less equally dirty and unpleasant to sleep on.
"This is some room," I commented. "It's like the staff here can't be bothered to invest some effort into keeping it clean."
"What do you think thirty bucks gets us?" Diane asked. "This isn't exactly the Hilton Suites."
After bailing us out of our sticky situation, Dane and Diane—fraternal twins—had taken us to the motel that they had checked into for the night. Both of them had been on the streets since they were twelve, and like us, had gotten most of their cash through begging, though they had stolen things as well. Me and Jordan were a bit cautious of them at first; two street teens offering us to stay with them seemed a little too good to be true, didn't it?
Jordan checked the bathroom. "At least there's soap. Barely." There was half a bar of soap on the dish; enough for tonight, but it still had that sense of dirt cheapness only a fleabag motel like this one would let slide.
"As long as there's enough for the four of us tonight, that's cool." Dane was still standing in the doorway. He was tall and skinny for his age; not particularly muscular, but still stronger than me and my brother. He had a brown leather coat over a greasy, dirt-stained grey T-shirt and blue jeans. "Speaking of 'enough', we need to get enough food for everyone."
"We have ten bucks left between the two of us," Diane said. She had matte hair, a dark blue shirt whose colour almost completely concealed the dirt and grime on it, and a matching pair of jeans, identical to her brother's. "You two have to contribute if you guys want to eat tonight."
The nineteen dollars and twenty cents that the two shady figures had tried to take from us came out of my pocket. The twins threw their cash onto one of the beds, and I tossed our earnings into the pile as well.
"We should still have a bit left over," Dane said as he collected the money. He threw me five dollars ("For you to keep") and took the rest. "I'll be back. Anything you want to eat?"
"Where are you headed?" Diane asked.
"Get a Big Mac for me."
"Alright." He turned to me and Jordan. "And you?"
"Quarter pounder," I said. My original plan.
"A Big Mac as well," Jordan said.
"Just be sure you're actually going to get the food," Diane told her brother. "You're spending other people's cash."
"Don't worry, don't worry; I'll get food," he said reassuringly, although his sister still had her doubts. "Fine. I'll be right back."
"What did you mean by that?" I asked when Dane had left.
"One time he didn't get food," she said, tight-lipped.
"What did he get?" my brother asked.
She looked around, as if to check for eavesdroppers. "Promise you won't tell him I told you this?"
We nodded our agreement.
"Alright. One time he bought pot brownies."
"Pot brownies?" I said.
"He got stoned on them, and when I asked him where the food was he just gave me a cocky grin and a weird smile."
"You think he's going to do it again?" Jordan asked.
"Hope not." She didn't say anything else about that subject.
"How did you and Dane wind up on the streets?" I asked.
And she told us. Dane and Diane were born about an hour apart to a teenaged mother who had dropped out of high school and smoked three cigarettes a day. They weren't abused like us, but their mother had mostly neglected them, leaving the two in the care of her grandmother—their great-grandmother—since her mother had kicked her out long ago. When the great-grandmother died, the twins lived with their mother in a cramped apartment until she eventually threw them out, unable to feed or support them. The two had been on the streets since then.
"That's awful..." I could only manage after that.
She shrugged. "Only awful thing was our great-grandmother's death. Our mother never cared about us at all, and I bet she couldn't feed us because she spent all of her money on cigarettes."
"What did your mother do for a living?" I asked.
"She was a stripper."
She blinked. "Let's just call her a 'dancer', shall we?"
Before we could say anything else, the door swung open and in came Dane, carrying our food orders in his arms. "God, I'm famished. Let's eat!"
Soon, we were seated cross-legged on our beds, indulging on our junk food feast. In total we had seven dollars left; Dane tossed us half that amount. "Look, I didn't spend it on anything else!" he said to Diane.
"Just had to make sure you weren't doing that," she said defensively. "How do you think they'd feel if they heard you had been spending their hard-earned cash on shit for yourself?"
Even though no sane person would've thought the conversation was funny, I still pretended to cough to cover up laughter.
"Well, I've talked about us," Diane said, looking at me and Jordan. "So what about you two? What's your story?"
My brother did most of the talking. He told the twins about our early lives, how our parents were alcoholics, how our father hit us and abused us. He told them about the nightly outings we had and how we stuck together throughout the years. And he told them about the house party we went to—the party that led up to all this.
"Sounds like your dad beat you guys up pretty badly," Dane commented.
Neither of us had anything to say to that. Talking about our father's punishments were no better than actually receiving them.
"As for our dad... We don't even know who he is," Diane added. "We've never met him before, and our mom certainly didn't talk about him. Does it really matter, though? We're still bastards either way."
"At least you were spared from the agony of having a father that jabbed lit cigarettes into your arm for not bringing him a warm piece of pie fast enough," I said, tight-lipped.
"Cigarettes in your arm?" Diane said incredulously. "Man, your dad was a rough smoker. Our mom was at her nicest when she lit up."
"Do you two smoke?"
Instantly there was silence. The twins stared at each other. That wasn't the response I was expecting. "Look, I didn't mean to get personal, but—"
"Two a day," Diane whispered.
"Same here," her brother added.
I blinked. "But... I thought you said you hated your mother because she spent all of her money on cigarettes."
"Not all. Just the money she could've used to feed us." She crumpled the packaging around her half-eaten burger and got up. "Speaking of smokes... I need one right now." Without another word she exited the motel room. Me and Jordan stared at Dane for a few seconds before he too snapped out of his trance. "Yeah, so do I."
"I have a bad feeling about this..." I said to my brother when Dane had left.
"No, they're probably not like dad," he said, trying to reassure me. "At least they went outside to smoke. Dad always smoked around us. And not everyone's nasty when they smoke. I mean, Dane said that their mother was 'at her nicest' when she was smoking. Maybe they're in a better mood with a cigarette in their hands."
"No no... not that," I said. "I mean, the images of dad..."
He knew what I meant. He wrapped his arms around me. "Calm down, Jacky. It's just like Craig and the other guys: they didn't mean to harm us or anything. To them, it might be—"
"Why do you think they smoke when their mother spent money on cigarettes instead of food for them? Doesn't it remind them of what she did?"
He shrugged. "Who knows? Remember what I said about us possibly getting hooked onto some street drug sooner or later? Besides, their 'mother' smoked, so that probably got them addicted from the start. I guess the two of us have been lucky enough to resist being addicted to alcohol and nicotine despite our parents. Who knows, though?"
I simply sat there, my mind spinning wildly. I had remembered seeing somewhere that people who had friends who smoked were more likely to become smokers themselves. I had also remembered that children whose parents smoked were even more likely to start smoking themselves. That we had defied the greater was reassuring, but we had never really liked nor respected our parents. We weren't exactly comfortable with Dane and Diane, but they were certainly miles better than our parents. And by the looks of it, unless we left them and decided to wing it on our own again, they were going to keep an eye out for us, like family.
Family. Four people from two broken families coming together to make one street family. A family that wasn't broken?
"Jacky," Jordan said, rousing me from my thoughts. "I'm still here. I'm still the same brother you've always known. I know the world around us has changed, for better or for worse, but I'm still the one thing in your old life that you've always loved and treasured dearly." His arm was still around me; I pulled it tighter around my shoulder. "And you're still my Little Jacky. You're still the person I'm glad I had in a life full of pain, fear, and suffering." He rubbed my shoulder comfortingly. "Thank you, Jacky."
Thank you, Jordan.
I sifted my hands through my hair, letting the water run through it, getting the dirt and the sweat out. Even if I didn't use the soap, a good rinse was still better than nothing.
Showers... A luxury we took for granted at home.
I picked up the bar of soap—or rather, the broken remnants of it—lathered the suds onto my hands, and started rubbing it into my hair. I could feel the dirt and the grime, digging it out from the depths of my hair, loosened by the soap and my scrubbing. I didn't think I'd ever see a shower again after leaving home, yet here I was. Trashy bathroom inside of a crappy motel, sure, but it was still miles better than nothing.
Thank you, "something"! Thank you for giving me a shower to wash up in!
I ran the water through my hair, letting it rinse out the suds and the dirt it had picked up. Streams of soapy warm water slithered down my face, then my body. It felt like a hot massage at an extravagant spa—VIP treatment, almost. It had only been a couple days and already I missed these luxuries so much that having them now seemed like the best things in the universe.
A knock on the bathroom door. "Hey Jacky, you done in there?" an impatient Dane asked.
"Almost," I lied. I wasn't even close to being done; I still had the rest of my body to wash. Even if I was, I still wouldn't want to give up this heaven I was in right now. Dane was going to have to wait until I shriveled up into a prune from all the water.
"Well hurry up, cause you've been in there for ten minutes now and none of us have had a turn yet."
I sighed. A slice of heaven was still finite, sadly. I picked up the soap, quickly lathered the suds over my arms, chest, torso, and legs, and rinsed it off. I stood on one foot and, keeping my balance, rubbed the soap between the toes, repeating the process for the other foot. I even closed my eyes and rubbed the soap onto my face, getting the oil out of the pores.
Another knock. "I thought you were almost done in there, Jacky," said Dane.
I turned the faucet off in response. Hopefully he got the message. I grabbed a cotton towel, dried myself off, and put my clothes back on. Now if only there was a washing machine around here for these...
I opened the door. "I'm done." I retreated to the bed I was sharing with Jordan and plopped down, the springs groaning under my weight.
"You sure took your time in there," my brother commented.
"Yeah, well, I figured it's gonna be rare for us to ever have a shower, so may as well make the most out of it." I reached for the remote and turned the TV on. The screen flickered, flashed, and then slowly gave way to a barely visible image filled with fuzzy white static. I changed the channel. Still full of static.
What do you think thirty bucks gets us?
At least they got the shower part right.
Dane closed the bathroom door behind him. I heard the sounds of clothes being removed, and then the noisy gushing of water. Either the plumbing sucked or the room was badly noiseproofed.
"At least the neighbours aren't noisy," Diane said, reading my thoughts. "Trust me, I've stayed at this place before, and the walls suck so much you can literally hear people getting into and out of bed."
"I can't imagine anyone with money ever checking into a place like this," I said.
"Hey, we have money. Just not a lot of it." She redirected her gaze onto the TV. "Hey... Isn't that you guys?" she said, pointing at the screen.
Me and Jordan looked. The TV was tuned into the news channel. The static was still pretty bad, but the picture was somewhat visible. The headline read, "Two Teens Missing Since Saturday Morning". Above it were pictures of me and my brother.
Our school photos. They were still recent enough to allow someone to recognize us. And Diane made the connection. So did the guy in the tank top and shorts. We were gaining fame, unwanted fame. We had to keep a low profile if we wanted to stay free. And we were already prisoners in another sense. We had always been prisoners.
"Fuck...!" Jordan muttered.
"Someone had already recognized us yesterday, before we met you," I said to Diane. "We figured we already had our twenty seconds of airtime."
Diane was looking at us, her mouth agape. "Wow!" she said amazed. "I can't believe we've actually taken in a bunch of fugitives!"
My heart jumped to my throat. "Please don't turn us in!" I begged.
She laughed. "You really think we'll go to the cops and tell them we've found you? Boy, if we did that, they'd ask us a whole bunch of questions, and then they'd ship us off with social services." Her smile ceased."I'm not going into foster care."
"Why not?" Jordan asked. "I mean, those people can't be as bad as our dad was."
"They'll separate me from my brother, and I won't have a choice in the matter." She was dead serious. "You really think I want that? You really think I'd want to give up what I have left to go live with some people who don't really know me?"
We were speechless.
"The only person I want to live with is my great-grandmother. She's the only person in my life that ever cared for us. Now she's dead, and my brother's all I have left. Plus, I'm sixteen now. I can support myself. I just want to live a life where I can forget that slut that gave birth to us and then didn't give a crap about us afterwards."
I looked at Jordan, and he looked at me. We had never actually seriously considered the thought of being in foster care—to us, having each other was enough. It would seem that Dane and Diane had thought the same, afraid that social services would rip apart the bond they had that they valued greatly. "I guess we wouldn't like being separated either," I said after a prolonged silence. "Our parents never cared about our well-being too."
"Plus, if we had gone into foster care, nobody would've saved you from Doug and Irene. Those two are just monsters. Wouldn't want to mess with them."
I heard the water being turned off. Dane was fast in the shower for someone who had spent more time on the streets than I did. "I guess a sense of family is what you guys wanted," I said.
She remained silent. I heard Dane putting on his clothes, and a short while later, emerged from the bathroom. "Who's next?" he asked.
"You can go, Diane," Jordan offered.
"Thanks." She got up and went inside the bathroom. We were left to stare at Dane, who had already passed out on his bed, eyes closed, fast asleep. Or at least pretending to be asleep.
"Where do we go tomorrow?" I whispered to Jordan.
"You can stay with us," Dane replied, his eyes still closed.
"We don't want to be of bother..." my brother began.
"Are you kidding me?" He opened his eyes and sat up. "Four years of living on our own kinda sucks. It's nice to have company."
"You guys live all on your own?" I asked.
He was silent for a bit. "Nah, not really. We do know a couple who stay in a warehouse just a bit east of here."
"They have a permanent roof over their heads?" I sat up. "Why don't we just stay with them?"
Dane shook his head. "Not permanent. Indefinite, more like it. It's an abandoned warehouse. And it's pretty packed; there can be up to two hundred people in there, and it's not really that big."
So much for my hopes of being able to get off the streets soon.
"They're good to us, though, so I can introduce you to them if we run into them." He directed his gaze at the TV. Our story had passed long ago and the station was now airing some lame chewing gum commercial. He opened his mouth to say more, but succumbed to the distracting grasp of the screen.
"Dane?" I said.
He didn't respond.
A little louder: "Dane?"
He looked up. "Hmm?"
"Do you want a sense of family?"
Silence. He turned his head to stare at me, and stayed there until I grew uncomfortable. "Well...?" I said after the staring contest continued for thirty awkward seconds.
"What makes you ask that question?" he said in response.
"I... Well, your sister told us about your past, and she said that the two of you hated the idea of foster care because it would mean the two of you would get separated."
"Yeah," he said. "Plus, why would we need foster care anyways? We're doing fine on our own, and besides, even if I did want to go they'd likely ask too many damn questions. Questions I don't want to answer."
"So did you guys take us in because you wanted to..." my voice trailed off.
"Wanted to what?"
"...include us in your family? Call us family?"
He stared at me again for a couple of minutes. Finally, he said, "I'll be honest with you: I never thought of it that way. I figured you two were new here and I saw that damned Doug harassing you two, so I thought we'd jump in and give you guys a hand. I thought you might make good company... But family?"
"I didn't mean to be a nuisance—" I said defensively.
"No no... I'm not disagreeing with you..." Some more staring. "...I actually kinda like that idea."
"It's just that the two of us have been looking for a family for a long time. Like you guys."
Dane looked at me thoughtfully. Then, he smiled. "Yeah, I like that idea." He settled back into his bed. "Family..." he mumbled to himself.
My brother poked me lightly. "You had me the whole time," he whispered into my ear.
"Yeah, but... Family's always more than one person. Family is a group of people that do things together. Mom and dad hardly fit the picture. They drank; we didn't. They wasted their time at home; we snuck out to see the world. They preached hate; we wanted to be together. We're completely at odds with them. How can we be called family?"
He leaned in close. "You're not saying... we treat Dane and Diane as our new 'parents', are you?"
"More like good protectors."
"We don't even know these people very well."
"But they're our best shot," I insisted. "They know more about the streets than we do. We gotta learn how to survive out here, and we have two people here that seem friendly enough to take us in under their wings. We just have to try, Jordan. And we'll fare better under their protection; at least all those people that tried to attack us won't dare to mess with the twins."
"I'm still a bit skeptical," he said. "I'm not so sure about calling them 'family', but for lack of a better option, I guess we should stay with them. Stay vigilant, though, in case they're up to no good."
The loud noise stirred me from my light, dreamless slumber, and I snapped to my senses. The motel had never been fully quiet—I could hear the neighbours talking though the walls—but this was a loud disturbance that would've roused any heavy sleeper. I looked over at the twins' bed. The two still had their eyes closed and were still sound asleep, or at least pretending to be.
Another crash, this one a little less severe than the first. Then shouting. Angry yelling. What seemed to be fists pounding on a table. I breathed a small sigh of ironic relief: this was a domestic argument!
At least it wasn't the cops. Or something much, much worse.
"I hate you, Jean!"
"You've been saying that to me since you left me!"
"No, you left me, then you came back! I don't want to see you again!"
"Honey, please, I—"
"Get out!! And don't call me 'honey'!"
I heard a door opening, and then shortly afterwards being slammed shut. One final bang, which sounded like furniture being thrown at the wall. Then silence. Well, relative silence, compared to the ruckus. I wasn't facing Jordan so I couldn't speak for him, but Dane and Diane hadn't stirred at all. I was enthralled. Does sleeping on the streets give you some superhuman ability to ignore noise?
"Hey Jacky, Jordan, wake up!"
My eyes blinked open at the sound of Dane's voice. The room was still dark, and through the boarded up window I couldn't see any sunlight. "W-W-What time is it?" I mumbled.
"A little bit past five. We gotta get out of here now if we don't wanna get caught."
"Who's going to catch a bunch of teenaged fugitives at five in the morning?"
"The manager," she said. "He clocks in at five-thirty today. We gotta get out or he'll run us in."
"Stop arguing with me! Just grab whatever you have and let's get out of here!"
I didn't have much with me, and neither did my brother. Within a minute, the two of us were staggering out of the motel room and into the parking lot. My hair was a mess from having woken up just a moment earlier. The early morning air felt crisp and cool on my face. The orange fringes of sunlight were beginning to creep into the sky, signifying the arrival of morning. It was an impressive view—and for us at one point in time, quite disappointing; it meant that our nightly outing was over and we had to get home before dad woke up.
"Why didn't you tell us this earlier?" my brother asked, rubbing his eyes.
"Just remembered. Our apologies. We're friends with the clerk at the front desk, and he told us that his boss was coming in nice and early today. His boss is one nasty character; he'll call the cops on a bunch of raccoons raiding his trash can. For our safety—and yours too, seeing how you're wanted by the cops—it's best if we got away long before he came." Diane gave us a sober look. "Sorry. You got to sleep in a bed for the first time in days and you didn't get to sleep in."
I grumbled my thanks.
"Time to find some change," Dane said. "The subway stations down here get pretty busy in the morning. Good opportunity to get some cash from the commuters!"
I shuddered. It was also at a subway station that snobs like that wealthy-looking guy could dump on us. With good things comes a cost: more money, more scrutiny, greater risk of being caught.
"We had some, um, 'interesting' experiences with panhandling near subway stations," my brother said, thinking of that same incident.
"Oh? What station was that? It's best not to stick to the same stations too often, since you'll probably run into the same people that way."
"Excuse me sir, could you spare me some change?"
"Dunno if I have much change." He seemed to be in his thirties, wearing a plain dress shirt, top button undone. His beard looked like it could use a shave, and there was an orange juice stain on his unironed shirt. He pulled out his wallet and thumbed through it. "I have three dollars," which he promptly gave to me. "I really don't carry cash these days."
"Thanks!" I said. And not with pretended enthusiasm; the twins had us all split up so we could cover a larger area, with us occasionally checking in on each other. There were four entrances to the subway station we were at, and each of us were 'covering' at least one entrance. So far we had about twenty dollars, and it was just midmorning. Dane and Diane really did know their stuff. Then again, there were now four of us...
Another person came up the stairs. "Excuse me sir, could you—"
He flipped me the finger and gave me a cocky, vulgar grin. Obviously he was out of the question. I let him pass. We still got our fair share of dirty looks and being outright ignored. That, I figured, was a part of being on the streets that never went away.
A large crowd was coming up the stairs. Looks like a train had just passed. I stood up and asked them all for change. Only one responded, and he said, "I'd like to know where my money is going first."
"I need to buy food; haven't had a thing to eat since last night."
"I don't want my money going to the drug cartels, you know what I'm saying?"
"I don't do drugs," I responded.
"I doubt that, but whatever." He handed me a dollar. "Just so I don't feel bad after this."
Who felt worse: the giver, or the receiver?
Dane came over and tapped me on the shoulder. "How're you doing?" he asked.
"Doing fine," I answered.
"No 'interesting' characters so far?"
"I have a tidy sum." He showed me some of the money he had collected. "Some guy dropped a full ten dollars into my hat. We have enough for lunch for sure. Sweet, huh? Keep at it—never hurts to have some cash left over."
That made me feel good. We were doing better with the twins than we did on our own. Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad after all.
"We'll get by, don't worry," Dane said reassuringly. "We know our stuff. Plus, like you said, we're... family. Families look out for each other.
I smiled and nodded. "Thanks Dane."
He patted me on the shoulder and went back to where he was. A number of people had passed us while we were talking, but I wasn't too worried. We were making good money, after all, and as long as nobody took it from us, we were fine.
Another person was coming up the steps. A woman—no, two women—were coming up. Both of them seemed to be in their early thirties. Each of them were holding the hand of their child, the oldest being no more than five years of age, I would say. They seemed nice enough. "Hey guys, could you spare me some change?" I asked, trying to put some sense of desperation into my voice.
The two kids—one boy, one girl—just stared at me. One of the mothers looked at her friend and said, "Goodness, so much for the days of credit cards! Do you have anything on you?"
"You look pretty young," her friend said to me. "How old are you?"
I thought about lying about my age, but decided against it. "Fourteen."
"Pretty young to be on the streets asking for change. You trying to go home?"
"Yeah," I said. Hey, why not? Seemed like a pretty good reason to use.
"Hmm, in that case, I have something better." She let go of her daughter's hand and dug through her purse. "At least, I think I do— Ah wait, here it is!" She produced what seemed to be small coins, but my heart wilted when I got a closer look.
"Subway tokens!" she exclaimed. "I don't use these anymore. You can have all of them."
"Gee, thanks!" I said with pretended excitement. In my mind, I was screaming. Subway tokens?! What the hell was I supposed to do with those?
She dropped the useless metal coins into my hand. "Take care, son. Hope you're able to get home!" They smiled, waved, instructed their young'uns to wave at me, and went on their way.
Go home. To my drunk dad. That's suicide.
They crossed the street, and shortly afterwards disappeared from sight. I pocketed the tokens for later. They might come in handy, in case we needed to get somewhere fast, but otherwise they were pretty impractical. At least she gave something... and they seemed nice enough.
Thirty minutes passed. I was about three dollars richer when a large, stocky man came striding up the stairs. He didn't seem particularly muscular, unlike some of the other figures we've met on the streets, but he could probably win fights by sitting on his opponents. He intimidated me, and nonetheless I was afraid to ask. He noticed me, though.
"Looking for change?" he said to me.
I nodded my head nervously. My mind was preoccupied with devising a possible escape plan in case this went awry. Last thing I needed was to get hurt, even though I knew I wasn't alone. He was big enough to brush me aside like a feather, but I could probably outrun him with some effort. Maybe he would like to meet my new friends...
"What's the matter with you?" He was digging through his pockets, looking for something to give me I suppose, when he caught a glimpse of my face. "You seem terrified. What do I look like to you? Do I look like a bouncer to you, son?"
I was too nervous to reply.
"Don't be scared, son. Look, I'm giving you money." He was about to hand me some of his coins when he stopped. "Try not to look terrified for me."
I tried to force my facial muscles to relax.
"A little harder."
I tried again.
"You're clearly new to the streets, aren't you?"
I slowly nodded my head. I had no clue where this whole exercise was going.
"I have five dollars here... but I'm going to give you a choice. You can either take the five bucks now, or—" Out of his wallet he produced two twenties! "—you do something for me, and I'll give you forty upfront in cold hard cash. You with me?"
My heart jumped at the thought of getting forty dollars. "What do I need to do?" I asked, rather foolishly.
He gave me a sly grin. "Come with me."
Inside I heard the better part of me screaming, "No! Don't!" It had only been a few days and already I was sick of being on the streets. Money meant opportunity, and any amount of it was beneficial to me. I started to follow him where he was going. He led me to an alley just a block away. "Come in here and I'll show you," he said.
The rational part of me grabbed my reins and held me back. This seemed like a bad idea. "Why can't you just tell me now?" I asked.
No! the voice in my head screamed. Don't even bother asking! Just get the hell away from there!
"I'll tell you if you come in," he said. He was already standing inside the alleyway, waving the money at me.
"Uhh... I think I'll take the five dollars," I said uneasily.
"You're backing out? What a darned shame." He did not move. "Fine, I'll give you the five bucks, but you gotta come in here to get it."
I didn't budge. Everything seemed off about this guy. I should've booked it then, but my feet were rooted to the ground.
"What's wrong, son? You look terrified again."
I tried to relax my facial muscles.
"Don't be kidding me; I know you're petrified." He was still holding out the money he had produced from his wallet. "I don't look that scary to you, do I? I'm friendly, I promise; look, I'm even giving you money!" He smiled, a smile that made me very uncomfortable. It looked so fake and sinister, so unsettling. "We can be friends. I'll help you out, alright? Even if it's just five bucks and you don't wanna do me a favour."
I had it. I turned around and started to run, but bumped right into Diane. I was immediately relieved. "Diane! God, I found you at the right time. There's this creepy old fart inside that—"
"Is my kid acting up again?" The guy had emerged from the alley, his wallet and money back in his pocket, his expression still that forced complexion. He might've convinced a stranger that I was related to him, but thankfully for me, he was talking to the wrong person.
"Nice try, but he's not your kid." Diane wasn't at all intimidated by his size. "Quit trying to sucker kids into whatever you're doing."
"Wow! Is this your girlfriend, son?" he said enthusiastically. "She's pretty tough. Didn't know you scored that big on her!"
"Oh fuck off already; we're not dating," she growled. "This conversation just ended. Be on your damn way."
"Hold on, hold on, I can explain—" he began, stepping forward. Diane flinched, and within a second, the blade of her knife was mere inches away from the guy's nose. "Holy shit! Alright, alright, I'll leave you and your hooker alone." And with that, he turned around and half-walked, half-ran down the street. Diane quickly put her knife away before she attracted too much attention.
"That guy was—" I began.
"Try to be more careful next time," she said. "Not everyone out here is a friendly face, obviously."
I breathed a sigh of relief. If it hadn't been for the twins, and me and my brother had been panhandling in different locations, we might've been torn apart by that. I was still grateful that at least I wasn't stupid enough to go into that alley with him!
"You keep going. I have to stop for a smoke." She leaned against the wall, produced a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her pockets, popped one into her mouth, lit it, and drew in a long, slow, deep breath. I caught myself looking at her, which was probably a mistake. The smoke and the cigarette brought me back to my angry father, who was at his worst when he smoked.
Jacky! Bring me my ashtray!
I told you to empty this, Jacky! Why is it still full?!
Go. Empty it out. Clean up this mess. And don't fuck up again!
And then he... And then he...
"Jacky...?" Diane looked concerned. "Are you okay?"
I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. "Yeah... I'm fine."
"No you aren't. Is something wrong? Is it because of my cigarette?"
"I'm sorry Diane... I don't mean to be a killjoy or anything, but that cigarette... It reminds me of my dad."
"Do you need me to move? I can smoke in that alleyway, just out of sight."
Part of me wanted to say yes, if only to spare my mind from those horrific memories. The other part of me, however, wanted her to stay; she was braver and stronger than I was, and I wanted to have some sort of protection. "No, it's okay. I'll pull through. I have to learn. I have to change."
While we were eating lunch that day, I noticed that Dane had disappeared. Diane wouldn't say where he went. When he came back, he told us to follow him out to the alley behind the Harvey's we were at.
"What's the surprise?" I asked.
"This will probably make you guys uncomfortable... but in case you're unaware, we aren't exactly the most popular people in the city. Some people will take advantage of the fact that we're both young and on the streets, and while it would be better if you never had to use this, inevitably it will come in handy." Out from his pocket he produced two new switchblades, this time with plastic handles as opposed to the wooden ones the twins had. I stopped. He was giving us...?!
"Why would you give us knives?" my brother asked.
"I don't think I want a knife," I said.
"You think we want to carry knives too?" Dane responded. "If it weren't for our knives, though, you'd probably be dead right now. Living on the streets ain't child's play. The law doesn't apply here—which is a bad thing. That's why you need something to defend yourself with, if you have any intention of surviving out here for long."
"I think I'd lose any knife fight," I said.
"I'm not asking you guys to go and pick fights with people. In fact, I'd strongly advise you two to keep this thing out of sight most of the time. This is for 'just in case', when you'll be glad you had this when you needed it." He was still holding the knives out to us—neither of us had taken them. "Don't leave me hanging here, guys; just take it."
Jordan swallowed and took a switchblade. Following my brother's example, I took one too. It felt light and heavy at the same time in my hand; an object small enough to hide inside my pocket was capable of doing serious damage to someone. Like that woman who tried to slit my throat. No way, I thought. I don't think I'll even have the guts to take this thing out if I got into a mess like that again!
"Plus, the two of us can't always protect you guys. You need to have some means of defense of your own."
I'm not a criminal I'm not a criminal... Even though I'm pretty sure these things are illegal... I'm not a criminal I'm not a criminal...
"We're kids and we're on the streets, that's what," my brother whispered to me. "That in itself is illegal."
"Don't wave this around in public, obviously," Dane said. "Don't try to fight a cop with it; down here they'll just shoot you, no questions asked. You'll be fine with this. The two of us have carried knives since the first few weeks of living on our own, and it's saved our skins countless times. Life here's no walk in the park, trust me."
Life back "home" wasn't a walk in the park either.
We went back inside the restaurant. Dane and Diane nodded to each other, as if they both knew what was going on, but they didn't say anything. I was still hungry, so I went back to my burger, which was getting soggy. My brother seemed to have lost his appetite and was eyeing the twins cautiously.
"Are you going to finish that burger?" I asked when I was done mine.
"No," he said without flinching. His eyes were still fixed on the twins.
"Then I will." I grabbed his half-eaten burger and started munching on it. He didn't react. I was surprised, too, that I actually did that. I had never asked to take food from my brother's plate; whenever we shared food, it was always one of us offering it to the other. Was I starting to become more selfish?
"We're doing well today," Dane declared, breaking the awkward silence between us. "The two of us got enough for lunch to be entirely on us. Let's see what you two got today."
Jordan still looked stiff and rigid, never taking his eyes off the twins as he placed his money on the table. I reached into my pockets and fished out the contents in them. Out came seventeen dollars, fifty cents, and the tokens the woman gave me.
Dane glanced at the tokens. "Subway tokens?" he snorted. "Where did you get those?"
"Some woman gave me the tokens," I said. "I used the 'I need to go home' excuse and she gave me these. What, you can't expect me to refuse them, do you?"
"Keep them," Diane insisted. "We can probably sell these later. And even if we can't, you never know when public transit might come in handy."
Jordan was eyeing the tokens, but he didn't say anything. I wondered what he thought about the tokens. He's not planning on going home with these, right?
"We have to get cracking," Dane said. "Gotta secure our dinner tonight."
Jordan wasn't hungry anymore. I wrapped both of our burgers up with the paper and stuffed them under my arm. It would probably get squashed and mushy, but as long as it was still edible—and I was still hungry enough to eat it—I don't think I'd care. We exited the Harvey's and followed the twins down the street. My armpits closed over the burger, squishing the sandwich with every step that I took.