Chapter 3 - Nate
I jerked awake, even before small fingers closed over my arm, shaking gently. I’d never been a heavy sleeper, even before things turned really sour. Something always hit me -- that shift in the air that came before the hands or the voice or the alarm, jolting me to consciousness, wide awake with a pounding heart and sweating palms.
What was it like to wake up slow and sluggish? Was that really even a thing?
“’Sup?” I mumbled, sitting up and prying Trish’s tiny hand off my wrist. The bedroom I shared with Paul and Ronny was never really dark. The windows didn’t have blinds and the streetlight outside cast a haunting orange glow and ominous shadows over the room. I glanced at the other two beds and saw quiet lumps beneath covers. The boys were still asleep. Good.
“Can I stay with you tonight?” Trish pleaded, her eyes wide and shiny in the eery light. She clutched her tattered safety blanket in her hands, her lips trembling, and my heart cracked open. She was only six and had only lived with us for three months, but she was a smart kid and she knew how things worked. She knew the sounds of her foster parents getting rip-roaring drunk. She knew that those sounds most often proceeded trouble. She knew what all my other foster siblings had learned throughout the years -- that the safest place to be when there was trouble was with me.
Or, more specifically, behind me.
It wasn’t that I was so great in a fight. Especially not back when I was little. Even now, at sixteen and finally filling out, there wasn’t much I could do against a hulking monster like our foster father. Nah, it wasn’t that I could kick ass. My strength lay in my unique and unparalleled ability to piss people off. Something about my face just made folks angry, and I took a perverse pride in that. Anger at me was better than anger at the littler kids and it was far preferable to the desire that glittered in my foster father’s otherwise-dull eyes when he looked at the girls.
“Fine,” I said, reaching out and tucking my hand beneath Trish’s arms, swinging her up onto the bed so fast it made her giggle. “You gotta be quiet, though.”
“’Kay,” she whispered, kicking her way beneath the covers and snuggling into the pillow. Trish broke my heart a little bit every time I looked at her. She wasn’t like the rest of us. She hadn’t ended up here because of shitty parents and bad behavior. She was here because her parents had no other relatives and were too dumb to plan a safety net for their daughter in case they did something stupid like die in a fiery car wreck. Trish didn’t have an ounce of fight in her. Even Paul, the youngest, had a little fire and steel, born of abuse and neglect. Trish was just sweet. She cried when she hurt and smiled when she was happy. It killed me to see because I knew it wouldn’t last.
“Did you shut your door behind you?” I asked, slipping out from beneath the blankets and stretching out on top of them, shoving a hand beneath my head.
“Mmhm,” she mumbled. Trish was a smart kid. She knew the drill.
“Stuffed your pillow under your blanket so it looks like you’re still there?”
“Uh-huh.” She was asleep by the second half of her answer. She didn’t get enough sleep. Didn’t get enough food, either. I hadn’t done a very good job of bringing snacks home, lately. Not after getting caught red-handed with a backpack full of shoplifted groceries. I guess it was on me. I should’ve stuck to small hauls like I had in the beginning but I’d grown more arrogant with each success and stepped up my payout without stepping up my game. It pissed me off a little, though, that nobody asked why the reprobate was stealing stupid healthy shit like protein bars and dried fruit. My probation officer just dragged me over the coals and handed me back to my foster parents for the real punishment.
Whatever. If six years in “the system” had taught me anything it was that adults didn’t care about the truth or doing the right thing. They cared about one thing: the bottom line. My case worker did her job and cashed her check and went home to her real kids. My PO did his job and cashed his check and bought a new motorcycle. Tim and Marsha, my foster parents, let the lot of us sleep under their roof, cashed their check, and then drank, injected, huffed, sniffed, and smoked their way to oblivion. Really, who can blame any of them? Life sucks. All anybody’s ever after is a way to forget about reality. Raise your kids, ride your motorcycle, get high as a kite-- whatever it takes to fabricate a little good-- to carve out a portion of the world that doesn’t completely fucking suck.
I was guilty of it, too. Every night I could, I slipped off into the woods to the one part of my life that wasn’t garbage.
As if reading my thoughts, my watch alarm beeped, and I turned it off. That was my cue-- my cue to abandon the kids who needed me, climb out the window, and flee to the good. What did that say about me?
If Trish hadn’t woken me up I’d be halfway gone. Tim and Marsha had been quiet when I went to sleep, and they weren’t too loud now. I wouldn’t have heard their noisy stumble off to bed thirty minutes ago or the gag-inducing sounds of clumsy, drunken lovemaking. The sounds were disgusting, but they didn’t just make me nauseous. They scared me. They sent chills of dread running up my spine and raised every hair on my body.
Something uglier than usual happened to Tim when he drunk-fucked his hag of a wife. Stoned fucking was okay. Blazed fucking was okay. Those sessions didn’t usually last too long and they always ended with both parties in a coma-like sleep that lasted until well after the sun-rose.
Drunk fucking, though? I guess when Tim was drunk, Marsha didn’t quite sate him. The idiot probably didn’t realize the problem was his own pickled pecker and not Marsha’s dried up old cunt. The reasons don’t matter, though. What matters is that when Tim got drunk and fucked his wife he always did the same thing. He waited until she went to sleep and then he climbed out of bed and turned into a predator.
My stomach clenched at the sound of creaking floorboards as Tim leveraged his hulking frame out of bed. What if I’d left? What if Trish hadn’t woken me up?
Trish didn’t twitch as I slipped off the bed, but Ronny did. At twelve, Ronny was every bit the perpetually-pissed off little shithead I had been at his age. Maybe even worse.
“Where are you going?” he whispered, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
“Tim’s up.” That was all I needed to say. Ronny was too worldly for his age. He knew what it meant. His eyes skipped to Trish, asleep in my bed. Then they widened.
“Deb!” he whispered, anxiously.
“She’s at Rob’s.” I didn’t have to worry much about Deb anymore. She was fifteen and spent more nights with an endless string of boyfriends than she did at “home.”
“Keep them inside,” I said, nodding at Trish and our youngest sibling, Paul.
Ronny just nodded silently. Once, a long time ago, he’d challenged my methods of dealing with Tim. Just once he’d interfered, and Tim had beat him so bad he pissed blood for a week. After that he let me do my thing. I could take a beating better than any of them. That was my job. My purpose. Ronny understood that, now, and he’d take care of the kids until they learned it for themselves.
Cold sweat broke out on the back of my neck as I pulled the door open and slipped out into the hallway. It was stupid, what I was about to do, but I knew it would work. Tim’s perverse lust for his young female charges only came out of the woodwork in certain conditions. His rage, on the other hand, was a living thing that owned him every minute of every day. All it would take was a gentle nudge and he’d forget Trish. He’d forget why he’d gone looking for her and he wouldn’t have the brain power to wonder at the timing of my interference.
I forced my hands to stay steady as I pulled the door shut behind me and turned to Tim, who was fumbling with the girls’ doorknob. “What are you doing?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest as Tim spun around, glaring at me.
“None of your business, boy. Get back to bed,” he growled, stalking forward. Tim was a good three inches taller than my lanky 5’11” and he worked part time at the shipping yard and part time laying bricks. He didn’t know the word “exercise” and he smoked and drank and did every drug under the sun, but the man was undeniably strong. Muscles strengthened by years of manual labor were coated in a thick layer of fat, as well, which lent him bulk. The sight of him, towering before me, made my throat go dry with fear.
“I ain’t tired,” I said, trying to convince both of us that I didn’t give a shit about his meaty fists or the dark rage spreading over his face at my recalcitrance. “What are you doin’ trying to go in the girls’ room? You pervin’ again?”
Tim hated that. The only thing he hated more than me existing was me pointing out his flaws. He took a few lumbering steps forward and I fought the urge to flee and stood my ground.
“What did you say to me, you little shit?” Tim growled, snatching the front of my shirt in one meaty hand and pulling me close. His breath smelled like sour milk and beer and I swallowed the urge to vomit.
“I asked if you were pervin’ on the girls,” I spat at him. “You know you ain’t s’posed to touch ’em. What if I told the case worker?”
“The case worker wouldn’t believe you, boy,” Tim hissed in my face. That was probably true. Miss Meg might have, but I hadn’t seen her since the day they took Jakey. I guess punching a woman in the face is a good way to lose her support. The next time CPS picked me up for an appointment I was introduced to my new case worker: Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones was a skeletally thin, pinch-lipped older lady whose cold, dead eyes always seemed to look through me.
She hated me almost as much as Tim, I think.
“I bet they would,” I goaded Tim. “And I bet Marsha wouldn’t be too happy, neither.”
“You shut your mouth,” Tim snapped, jerking me up by the neck of my shirt so that my toes barely touched the ground. He was good and angry, now, and I knew just what to do to send him over the edge.
My balled-up fist caught Tim in the stomach, bouncing off the fleshy surface without doing much harm. My knee, however, struck gold. His fingers dropped away from my shirt and I staggered back as he bent over, gasping.
“You little shit,” he breathed, and I backed up to the wall of the narrow hallway. I could’ve fled, but if I ran he might not chase me. He might turn his rage on Paul or Ronny. He might find Trish in my bed and twist it into something it wasn’t. He’d tell my prune-faced case worker that I was the pervert and she’d call the cops. Nobody would listen to me. I’d go to juvie and the kids would be alone.
Terrifying possibilities sprang up in my head, as they always did, battling back the urge to run. I only had two real options: fight back or to take it lying down. Either way would distract him, but I’d long since come to crave the fiery satisfaction of landing a punch. I’d fight back.
I’d always fight back.
Recovering, Tim pushed himself upright and staggered forward, grabbing me by the neck before I could duck and flinging me to the floor. I landed hard, dull pain radiating up my shoulder, and only barely managed to roll away in time to avoid being crushed by Tim’s weight as he knelt over me. As it was, he pinned me to the ground with a forearm against my neck, the fist of his other hand pounding repeatedly into my stomach. Even drunk, Tim knew better than to hit me in the face. It was only in the blindest rage that he’d leave a mark where it could be seen at school.
I, however, had no such quibbles. I scrabbled at his face with my fingers, digging my thumbs into his eyes, and he yelled out, lashing out on instinct and cuffing me in the side of the head so hard my ears rang. I bucked against his weight, catching him in the stomach with a knee, and he roared with anger, staggering to his feet.
Even when I fought back, it never did much good and it always ended the same way. Like this. I was still reeling from the blow to the head and gasping for air when Tim’s bare foot caught me in the ribs and all I could do was curl around the nauseating pain.
“Stupid little shit,” Tim hissed as he kicked, again and again. Peripherally, I realized he was stepping over me and didn’t even have time to brace myself before he kicked me in the back. “Stupid, retarded little bastard. You think you can take me, boy? Really?”
“Tim?” Marsha’s voice filtered in from the master bedroom and Tim froze. Marsha was a useless bitch, and I hated her almost as much as I hated Tim. She didn’t like it when he beat us, though. Our presence in their home kept her in decent drug money, and she worried that the flow would stop coming if we got taken away.
“Be right there,” Tim called back, crouching down and shoving at my shoulder until I rolled onto my back. “You’re fucking lucky, kid,” he hissed. “When are you going to learn your lesson?”
Then he stood and left, staggering drunkenly down the hall, having completely forgotten his original mission. And the man thought that I was stupid. I almost laughed, but caught myself because laughing would hurt like hell.
I lay on the dirty carpet of the hallway for a long time, mustering the willpower to climb to my feet. I lifted my arm and glanced at the glowing dial of my watch. It was way too late to go see Alex, and that was all I really wanted. I wanted to see her face and hear her voice. I wanted to lay on our rock and stare up at the sky and talk about how she was gonna go there, someday. I wanted to close my eyes and imagine a universe where I could go with her.
Alex didn’t know jack shit about my life. True to our original agreement, we hadn’t exchanged more than passing glances at school. We did meet at the spot nearly every night, though and she had quickly become my favorite person on earth. Our spot was in the darkness of the woods in the middle of the night, but Alex, to me, was sunshine.
Also true to our agreement, I beat the shit out of Jimmy Campbell for spreading a rumor in our Freshman year that she was putting out. I didn’t tell her why, though. She was mad as hell at me for getting in trouble, and didn’t speak to me for three days, but I just let her think I was pissy and violent. Her being mad didn’t hurt me much. Definitely less than it’d hurt her to know the truth.
Alex was a fantasy for me, and I couldn’t bear the thought of letting darkness touch her. Not darkness like Jimmy Campbell and his stupid rumors and especially not the darkness of my reality.
Biting back a groan, I used one hand to push myself up and pressed the other to my ribs. The world swam dizzily around me as I clawed my way up the door jamb and let myself back into the bedroom.
All the kids were up. Paul and Trish were sitting on my bed, clinging to each other. Orange light glistened off the tears on Trish’s cheeks, and Paul’s eyes were shiny with them. Ronny was standing in the middle of the floor and I could tell from his hooded, guilty expression that he was halfway through the motions of coming out to check on me.
“You know to stay inside,” I hissed at him, not at all surprised when he met my anger with a fierce look of his own.
“I heard Tim go back to bed,” he snapped back. “I’m not stupid.”
“Next time, stay the fuck in bed,” I ground out, trying not to limp as I crossed the room and settled on the edge of my stiff mattress. “Trish, do you wanna sleep with Paul?” The two children had developed a bond during Trish’s short few months with us. I think it made her feel better to be the older sibling. Paul was only four, and I guess taking care of him made her feel stronger, and that was a feeling I understood well.
Trish whispered her answer, staring guiltily at the floor. “Can I stay with you?”
“Sure, sweetheart,” I sighed. “You okay, Paulie?”
Paul nodded and swallowed his tears, clambering off the bed and climbing into his own. I stretched out on my back, swallowing a groan as bruised ribs protested the movement. Trish stretched out beneath the covers, her hand wrapped around the fabric of my shirt. I guess living, breathing safety blankets are better than the inanimate variety. Ronny slunk to his bed and sat on the edge but didn’t lay down.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, turning my head to look at him. His hands curled around the sheets with a white-knuckled grip and he was worrying furiously at his bottom lip.
“Nothing,” he spat.
“C’mon, kid,” I muttered. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Are we supposed to just let him kill you?” Ronny asked, finally, glaring at me from across the room.
“He’s not gonna kill me,” I sighed, closing my eyes. “He’s not that stupid.” Tim and I had a tentative agreement. Mutually assured destruction. He let me stay and kept the beatings just this side of deadly and, in return, I didn’t tell a soul what was happening under his roof. It wasn’t great, but it worked. If I snitched Tim might get in trouble, but it wouldn’t solve anything. They’d break us up and farm us out to different houses that would probably be just as bad. Maybe worse. And worst of all, I might move school districts. I might lose Alex.
“I hate this,” Ronny mumbled, laying down.
“Well, I’m not a huge fan of it either,” I shot back, but I kept my tone light. Ronny didn’t need any more stress in his life. He was volatile enough as it was.
“I wanna beat him up,” Ronny said to the semi darkness. I smiled.
“Well, when I leave you can try. ’Till then, you gotta wait and let me deal with it my way. You know the rules.”
“I know,” Ronny sighed, and he drifted into silence. Trish and Paul fell back to sleep, and the rhythmic pattern of their breath caused the tense air in the room to settle. After a while, my eyelids started to droop as well and I was half asleep when Ronny finally spoke again. “When are you gonna leave?” he whispered. It wasn’t a challenge. It was a plea. A desperate bid for comfort.
“No time soon, buddy,” I mumbled. “By the time I leave you’ll be twice my size and you’ll be able to beat him up in your sleep.”
“Are you sure?”
“Whatever… night, Nate.”
* * *
Alex was pissed.
I could feel it the second I walked into third-period civics, the one class I had with her. I hated civics, but I lemme tell you I loved that class. It was my one chance to linger in the presence of the strange girl who inhabited my best friend during the day. As I passed, I let my eyes trail over her for one glorious moment.
Her hair was in a perfectly-coiffed bun, hair-sprayed into compliance. Gold studs glittered at me from her ears, and and her lips were painted a delicate shade of pink. Her shirt was a flowy white thing that dipped just low enough to showcase a delicate gold cross, sitting against her skin just above that perfect valley that I longed to explore. The skirt she wore was knee-length and modest, but it had a mind of its own, molding itself against her thighs like it was trying to fuck with me. Her feet were crossed at the ankle, tucked primly beneath her chair.
This girl was beautiful, but she wasn’t my Alex. My Alex wore baggy shorts and worn out t-shirts. She was dirt-smudged and had delicate scratches on her arms and legs where the branches and brambles snagged at her while she ran through the woods. My Alex never wore that cross because she had it in her head God was a manmade construct and the church was a tool used to manipulate the masses. My Alex had a mosquito bite the size of Mt. Vesuvius on her forehead that I knew she wanted to scratch at but wouldn’t because she’d covered it up with make-up and nobody else could see it.
I winked at her as I passed her front row seat. It wasn’t in compliance with our deal, but I liked to piss her off sometimes, and I needed a little touch of heaven that morning.
Her lips tightened and a touch of flame flared up in her sweet blue eyes. Definitely pissed, and my transgression wasn’t helping. Good. The pink flush creeping up her neck warmed me up from the inside out. This was my Alex. Fierce and fiery and stubborn as hell. The world could keep the quiet, gentle little churchgoer with the fancy clothes, the preacher daddy, and the 4.0 GPA. Angry Alex in ragged old clothes, raging against the machine, tearing into me for being an idiot? That girl was all mine and I loved her.
Fighting the urge to press a hand to my aching ribs, I hid a smile and rolled my eyes as I strode past her, dropping my bookbag by my desk in the back of the room and sinking into the chair. My eyes were heavy, and I didn’t exactly have an A-plus-student reputation to uphold, so I put my head down on the desk and zonked out.
I awoke just before the crack of a ruler banged against my desk. Startled, I jerked upright, barely maintaining the presence of mind to hide a wince as my body protested the sudden movement. Our civics teacher, Mr. Quinn, stood above me, a smug look on his face and a ruler in one hand. The rest of the students were laughing.
“Would you like to join the rest of the class, Mr. Reynolds, or shall we wait for you to finish your beauty rest?”
God, I hated that fucking name. I inherited three things from my father: a handful of scars, a hair-trigger temper, and that shitty fucking surname.
I hated Mr. Quinn, too. I hated this fucking school. I cast a catch-all glare around the room and the majority of our giggling audience fell silent and turned back to the front of the classroom or made hasty conversation with each other. Mr. Quinn didn’t seemed phased, though. “Well?” he asked.
“I’m awake,” I snapped at him.
“Alright!” he said brightly, turning on his heel and marching back to the front of the classroom. “Now that Mr. Reynolds has decided to grace us with his presence, everyone pull out your textbooks and turn to page 427. Miss Winger, do you mind recalling what we discussed last class?”
Alex answered quickly, the dulcet tones of her voice tinged with panic. She hated -- hated -- being called on in class. It made her break into a nervous sweat, and although she was eight rows in front of me, I imagined I could see the sheen on the back of her neck. That made me irrationally aroused, and irrationally angry at Mr. Quinn for calling on her.
“We talked about the checks provided by the executive branch to the legislative branch’s function,” she said.
“Excellent. Mr. Reynolds, can you give us an example of one of these checks?”
Oh, hell. I hadn’t been paying any attention at all. Alex’s hair was too distracting. It was pulled up too tight and I knew it hurt her head to wear it like that. She kept reaching up and tugging gently at the hair at the nape of her neck and I knew she’d have a headache later. That knowledge didn’t stop me from enjoying the way the sun came through the window and brought out the reddish streaks in her brown curls.
“Fuck if I know,” I shot at Mr. Quinn, and Alex spun around in her seat, shooting me a death glare. She hated it when I acted out in class. She had it in her head I might actually graduate if I stopped being such a shithead. Alex can be a little delusional.
“Language,” Mr. Quinn said sternly, his face impassive. “The question was very simple. What is an example of a check the executive branch can use against the legislative branch?”
He said it was a simple question, but I was drawing a blank. Silence fell in the classroom, and I felt heat creep up my neck as my classmates started to snicker. I cut them down with a look and went back to panicking.
“I said I don’t know,” I shot at Mr. Quinn. “Ask somebody else.”
“I’m asking you. We can sit here all day, or you can answer the question.”
Alex’s face softened and she mouthed something at me. It was so subtle, I doubt anybody else picked up on it, although it helped her cause that that all eyes were on me. I saw her upper teeth scrape against her lower lip and her mouth pucker slightly around a silent ‘o’ sound. Something-o? She mouthed it again, and the answer came to me with a rush of relief.
“Veto,” I mumbled.
“You’ll have to speak up,” Mr. Quinn said, smiling at his own douchebaggery.
“Veto,” I stated again, louder.
“Well done. See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
I’ll show you what’s bad, you fucking asshole.
Thank you, I mouthed at Alex, but she just shook her head in disappointment and turned back around. I’d rather Tim beat my ass thousand times than have her look at me like that. Anger was fine. Anger was great. Disappointment, though? It stung like salt in a wound I didn’t even know I had. Maybe it’d be worth it to at least try to pay attention in class. Just for her.