Nicolas wakened around six in the morning. His back was stiff from sitting in the hard, springy chair. Every little sound had broken his peaceful doze. Once, he’d heard movement in Iziah’s bedroom and went to investigate, but it was just a rat.
Perhaps his nerves were rather frayed. When he wakened for the final time, he stood and stretched, rubbing his eyes. Iziah hadn’t made a sound, sprawled across the couch with his arm hanging over the side and his lips parted. The hoodie covered half his face, but Nicolas could tell the bruising had gone down. It was a relief to see him looking so peaceful. For all his indifferent speech, Iziah had looked broken when he opened the door, eyes glassy from crying, hands shaking beneath his sleeves. Hopefully the night’s sleep would put him in a better state of mind.
As the sun rose and filtered in through the window, Nicolas’ stomach began to grumble. He walked into the small kitchen. There was nothing in the mini-fridge except a bruised apple and some condiments. Bored, Nicolas rifled through the cupboards and found little more. A box of crackers. Empty beer bottles. Some snack packs and a half-eaten container of peanut butter. No wonder the kid was scrawny.
Nicolas decided he would eat later.
He sat down again, smoking and watching the sun rise.
Iziah didn’t waken until eight. He frowned and shifted before letting out a short hiss of breath, putting a hand on his ribs. The idiot left the hospital before they could give him any painkillers. Iziah squinted, rubbing his hair out of his face with his splinted fingers.
“Hey, kid,” Nicolas said. “How do you feel?”
Iziah’s eyes drifted to Nicolas, and a hollow, disconnected expression settled over his face. He relaxed into the couch without saying a word, staring blankly across the room.Nicolas’ heart sank. Fifteen minutes of silence dragged past. Nicolas wanted to say something but couldn’t think of anything. After what seemed like an eternity, Iziah came out of the daze and slowly sat up, wincing. He looked around with lines of suspicion carved across his face.
“Why are you here?” he suddenly demanded.
Nicolas leaned back, folding his arms. “To keep them from coming back, since you thought it was a good idea to leave the hospital.”
Iziah scowled. “Them, huh?”
“Look, I didn’t think you should be alone.”
“Whatever. As if you’ve ever cared about that.” Iziah rolled over, turning his back to the man.
“What?” Nicolas frowned.
“Just go away.”
Nicolas opened his mouth, then closed it again, letting out an agitated sigh. They hadn’t gotten along since Iziah left, and he supposed that wouldn’t change in a hurry. He’d just wanted to help. Nicolas took a long breath and stood.
“Do you want something to eat?” he asked.
Nicolas turned and looked around the room. A phone sat on the counter with several papers under it. He knew he should try to convince Iziah to leave or go to the police station, but he didn’t think the boy would be receptive right now. And besides, he had a job to do tonight, and he wasn’t quite ready. He needed to get going. “Okay, well I have to go. Do you have my phone number?”
Iziah was quiet a moment, then he said, “No.” His voice was a soft, choked rasp.
Nicolas turned and grabbed a discarded pen, writing his number on a spare bit of paper. “Well, I’m leaving it here, okay? If you need anything, you can call. I’ll come check on you later.”
It felt wrong to leave, but Iziah obviously didn’t want him here. Maybe it was better if the boy was alone for a while.
“See you later, kid.”
Nicolas walked out the door and closed it behind him. It was cold out and looked like it might rain. He shook himself, yawning, and he headed toward his car.
Iziah laid on the couch for a long time, staring blankly at the wall. It hurt to move. The sleep had done him good, and he hadn’t wakened afraid like he had in the hospital, but the silence was bothering him. Part of him wished Nicolas hadn’t left, but, at the same time, the man would question him sooner or later, and he didn’t want to talk about it. A lump lodged in his throat, and he pressed his lips tight together.
Desperate for a distraction, Iziah hauled himself upright and slid his legs off the couch. He hadn’t gotten a proper shower since they... Since it happened. Shivers ran down his spine. Taking a deep breath, he stood and limped toward the bathroom. His body ached, and he was exhausted after last night’s trek. Curses rose to his lips as he clutched his rib-cage, letting out a strained groan. His legs shook beneath him. The room began to rock and swirl, making him sway. It took one misstep – his foot catching on the shag carpet – to put him on the floor. Agony wrenched through his body, and his sprained wrist slapped the shag carpet. He lay there a moment, gulping air, as furious tears welled up in his eyes.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it!” he bellowed, pounding his uninjured fist against the floor.
How had he become so weak? How could he possibly maintain his reputation in this condition?
Iziah buried his face in the carpet, letting out a rage-filled growl as he held his throbbing chest. Tears filled his eyes and wet his cheeks as wretched sobs began to wrack his body. He should have known this would happen. He’d deserved it. People from the Faceless and the Crimson Serpents hated him...and with good reason. Iziah crawled forward and hauled himself into a sitting position, leaning against the wall. He buried his face in his knees, feeling stupid and pathetic. This was what they wanted. To knock him from his pedestal. To show him who was really in control.
Being on the street was such a relief after his time in foster care because he felt like he was in control. Even if he could barely pay his rent and went to bed hungry most nights, it was an improvement because no one pushed him around. Now that had been ripped away from him. He was no better than a child.
Although he remembered very little about his parents, he’d been told that Child Protective Services took him when he was five. They said he’d been living in a closet for two years while his parents lay in a drug-induced stupor. His first real memories were of the agents that transported him to his first foster home. When he first arrived, he was anxious and confused but eager to impress. In his small suitcase was a small red firetruck that made noise, an old teddy bear with one eye, and some clothing.
The first foster home wasn’t the worst, but it was the one that broke him. He remembered walking up to the front door of the big house. Remembered being bundled up, holding the agent’s hand. Eagerness rushed through him at the thought of having a family that would love and protect him. The light coming through the windows looked warm and inviting.
Then the door opened.
It was such a little thing...but it meant everything in the world.
His foster parents were plain-faced, both blond and wrinkled. Iziah had looked up at them with hope burning inside him...only to see their disconnected, uncaring eyes stare back. He remembered everything. How he blinked, then swallowed. Forced a shy smile. They took him into the house and showed him his room. But their expressions never changed. His new siblings – two girls and a young boy – paid little attention to him. He stayed in that house for three years.
It was strange. Everything on the surface made it look like the ideal, dream family. But on the inside, he felt no love... No acceptance. Among the family, there was a connection, but Iziah was an outsider. No matter what he did, he couldn’t make them care. His desperation grew, and he tried everything to get their attention. He tried being perfect – doing the dishes, taking out the trash without being told, cleaning his room, helping with his younger siblings. When that didn’t work, he tried being a terror – throwing fits, breaking things, hitting himself and others. Nothing worked. When he was good, they ignored him, and when he was bad, they punished him. Iziah couldn’t understand. Why was there love for the other children and none for him?
The question haunted him as he drifted from home to home until, finally, he stopped caring. Why should he care about gaining the approval of people that didn’t like him? He stopped trying to be perfect and caused mischief wherever he could. He got his siblings in trouble, pulled pranks, stole food... If they were going to hate him, he wanted to give them a reason. His stays at each house became shorter. Some of the people he stayed with ignored his antics while others became enraged. In one house, his foster mother reddened his back with a belt whenever he acted up, and then he would lay in bed and glare at the ceiling, unable to move, stinging tears streaking his face. He’d never been happy in any of those homes.
Of course, the Pierce family was an exception.
The year he spent living across the street from Micah was pleasant. He went to that home just as angry and despairing as before. But during the first week of school, he actually made friends. Iziah was eating lunch in the corner when Micah walked up, plopped down across from him, and started talking. Next week, he was invited to the house to play Xbox, and that was it. He spent more time with the Pierces than his foster family. Martha was kind to him and let him eat all he wanted. She was one of the only people that ever gave him a hug. Nick, after work, played card games with them. He had worked in some office building for minimum wage, but he always seemed happy.
When he found out he was moving to a new foster home, he considered running away. The idea of leaving the Pierces was unbearable. But...he said nothing about it, not even a goodbye, before he was taken away. He didn’t think he could handle delivering the news. It would have broken something inside him, and he didn’t want to fall apart in front of the one family he’d ever been attached to.
And now...Micah was dead, and Martha was out of town. The thought made his chest ache.
Not that it mattered. He was a street boy with a broken education and an inability to stay out of trouble. Mrs. Pierce wouldn’t have liked that. Neither would Micah. They were better than that, and he didn’t deserve them.
Taking a long breath, Iziah hauled himself off the floor and stood, limping into the bathroom. His cheeks were damp, and he sniffled. It brought him a sense of peace...knowing that what happened was his fault. But it made him want to cry all over again. Several pairs of dirty socks were strewn on the floor. Mildew spotted the walls. Iziah’s eyes avoided the dusty mirror as he closed the door and started to undress. It hurt to use both hands, so it took longer than it should have. Then there was the matter of the stitches and the wrap around his ribs. Deciding he shouldn’t get them wet, he knelt in the tub, turned on the spigot, and cleaned himself with a washrag. He scrubbed until his skin tingled, trying to tell himself he was washing away all that remained of the incident.
Everything was a million miles away.
Once he was done, he towel-dried and dressed himself, limping into the silent living room. Normally, he would be on his paper route and hanging out with his gang. Maybe taking odd jobs here and there. If he didn’t get back out there in the next few weeks, he wouldn’t be able to pay his rent. But the thought of wandering the streets made his stomach twist in knots. Anger churned through him. This was why he made things happen, causing mischief and taking odd jobs. He wanted to make things happen so things didn’t just happen to him.
Iziah sighed, leaning against the wall for support. He needed to get back into the swing of things and prove to himself that he wasn’t scared. Matthias would be at the bar this afternoon, so maybe Iziah could pay him a visit. Until then, he either needed to occupy himself or sleep away the hours. He wished that one of his neighbors would break the harrowing silence. He squeezed his eyes shut. He wanted to lay on the couch again, but he didn’t think he had the energy to move.
Iziah wished he’d thanked Nick. After all, the man stayed with him all night, and that was more than he deserved. Mustering himself, he staggered over to the kitchen counter. For a moment, he considered calling to apologize but talked himself out of it.
The scrap of paper with Martha’s number on it lay on the counter. He stared at it for several minutes, thinking. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number.
Anything to keep busy. Anything to redirect his brain.
He raised his eyebrows, not expecting a reply. She sounded just like he remembered. “Is this Mrs. Pierce?” Iziah asked.
“Yes, it is. Who is this?”
A moment of silence, then she spoke excitedly, “Iziah? I didn’t think I’d ever hear from you again. How are you?”
Iziah’s lips twisted. She was probably the only person in the world that smiled when she heard his name. “I...I’m doing great, Mrs. Pierce. How are you?”
“Well enough. It’s so good to hear your voice. I just wish... Well, I wish that I was seeing you face to face.”
“Yeah, me too. Listen, I just called because I wanted to apologize.”
“For the way that I left. I should have said goodbye to you and Nick.”
“Oh, honey, you don’t have to apologize for that,” she said. “I just wish they wouldn’t have moved you.”
What would have happened if he’d never moved in with Shawn’s family? Would he still be in a home? With a high school diploma and a real life ahead of him? “Yeah, me too.”
“How do you like the new place?”
“I have my own place now, Mrs. Pierce.”
“Look at you! You’re on your way!” He could almost hear her smile.
Iziah let out a light chuckle, and there was a beat. Then he said, “I talked to Nick the other day. He told me what happened with Micah. I’m really sorry.”
A silence. “It’s all right. That’s not your fault.”
“It’s not Nick’s either.”
“I know that.” She sighed. “I just needed a change, and this was the best way to get it. You know?”
“If I ever come down that way, I’ll visit you. You can introduce me to your new family.”
“Heh...” Iziah tried to laugh. His legs shook. “Maybe, but I’ve got the feeling they’re not all that interested.”
“Oh... Honey, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’m fine with it.”
“But it’s not okay,” she protested. “That’s not fair to you, having to live with people that don’t care. Don’t you ever let them make you feel worthless, you understand?”
“Yeah.” Iziah nodded, staring at the counter, his cheeks heated.
“You should find someone to talk to. Someone you trust. I know you don’t like your foster family, but you should at least make an effort.” She was quiet a moment, then added, “I wish that things could have been different. Just remember you don’t have to be alone, okay? Don’t close yourself off. I love you, Iziah. And...Nicolas does too. Okay?”
Iziah was quiet a long moment before managing a hollow whisper, “I...I love you too.”
Funny. She and Nick were the only people he ever heard those words from.
“Honey, are you alright?”
“Yes. I’m fine.”
A moment of silence. “All right. Well... You call me again, okay?” she said. “I have an appointment to go to, but I’d like to catch up.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Bye.” Iziah hung up the phone and put it down, taking a deep breath. His legs throbbed, and he staggered toward the couch, sitting and running a hand through his damp hair. Every time he took a breath, a bolt of pain ran through his rib-cage. Iziah wiped at his eyes.
Safe or not, he definitely needed to get out of the apartment for a while.