This is unedited and subject to change if the need arises.
Thirteen years old
Deep in the woods, next to a dwindling fire, the stars blanket the sky above me, making the universe seem promising when in reality it holds nothing but pain and hardships, at least for my brothers and me.
My empty stomach clenches violently as hunger rages, reminding me that it’s been days since we’ve last eaten. Knox sleeps on the other side of the warm flames while Justice leans back against a tree, carving a stick with his pocket knife as he keeps watch.
We all take shifts, knowing someone has to be on the lookout at all times. You never know what enemy will strike next and for the three of us we can never be too careful.
It’s been six months since we ran away from the group home we all met in, escaping that sadistic bastard Hobbs. We left with nothing but the clothes on our backs. It’s a decision I don’t regret but some nights, on nights like this, where the hunger pains are strong and defeat feels all too close, I wonder if we are any better off.
Every morning we wake up, hoping to survive another day. Fighting to eat, sleep and stay warm, stealing food, clothes or these sleeping bags we are in now. It’s a constant struggle, but then I remember the beatings and the scars that will mark our bodies forever. It’s a good reminder that anywhere is better than where we were, including the streets.
With sleep feeling so far away, I give up and climb out of my sleeping bag to relieve Justice from his position.
“What are you doing?” he asks when I take the spot next to him.
“I can’t sleep. You may as well go ahead and try.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
I shrug but my gaze remains straight ahead, thoughts heavy.
“Talk to me, Brax.”
I decide to give in, knowing he won’t quit until he drags it out of me. “I don’t know. I just… sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever be better than this. If we will ever know what it’s like to live a normal life.”
“We’re already better than this and one day we’ll prove it to the rest of the world.”
Despite his reassurance I see the same worry in his eyes, the uncertainty of our future. Unless we catch a break I don’t see how we will ever get off these streets.
“Besides, we have something that a lot of other people don’t have.”
“What’s that, one pair of underwear?” I joke, hoping to lighten the moment.
“Each other.” His eyes hold mine, the words slamming into my heart with the truth.
He’s right. I wouldn’t trade him or Knox for a warm meal or an even warmer bed. My brothers are the family I never had. My own mother tossed me in a dumpster because she didn’t want me whereas Justice and Knox would give up everything they have for me, just as I would them.
They are only a year older than me but they have taken on the roles as my big brothers. They have taken care of me just as they promised they would when we made that pact six months ago. At times, I’ve caught them giving up their own food that we managed to steal just so I can have more.
Terrible circumstances brought us together but destiny gave us so much more. Fate made us brothers, loyalty made us family. I’ll happily starve for the rest of my life if it means getting to keep the both of them.
A soft groan penetrates the heavy moment, the sound trailing into an even more tortured whimper. Both Justice and I look over at Knox to find him tossing and turning with another nightmare. He gets them often. Whatever torments him is the same all the time, something he keeps buried deep inside. It eats away at his soul, haunting him on the darkest nights.
Justice and I have shared where we come from and how we landed in that group home but not Knox. He’s told us some of the shitty foster homes he’s been in but never anything about his birth parents. Anytime we have broached the subject a stark pain enters his eyes, demons like I’ve never seen surfacing. Something different than what Justice and I have faced and we have faced some pretty horrific shit.
I might not remember my birth mother who tossed me away like yesterday’s trash but I know what it’s like to be beaten within an inch of my life, to be locked in a dark closet for days without food or water.
We all have pasts that haunt us but I have a feeling whatever torments my brother in those nightmares is beyond anything we can imagine.
When his thrashing gets worse Justice gets up and walks over to him. He bends down, carefully waking him with a hand on his shoulder. My brother does not like to be touched, he flinches at the very thought. Any physical contact from even Justice and me is minimal and hesitant at best. His affliction and fear is another reason why I’m not sure I want to know what his nightmares are about.
“Knox, man. Wake up.”
“No,” the word falls helplessly from him as he’s lost in the darkness that holds him prisoner.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, his demons swallow him whole. His body begins convulsing violently, his desperate screams for help piercing the night as his hands claw and scratch at air.
Justice grabs his shoulders, pinning him down as his own panic rises. “Wake the fuck up!”
Knox comes awake on a roar, his fists striking out as he knocks Justice on his back and comes over top of him.
I jump to my feet, fear barreling through my chest as I watch my brothers roll around in the dirt.
Justice finally gets the upper hand, throwing him off. “It’s me, Knox. Justice!”
Knox snaps out of it, his shoes kicking up dirt as he scrambles backwards. Both Justice and I watch as he jumps to his feet, his haunted eyes wandering around the dark as he tries to grasp reality. His chest heaves, body damp with sweat while he stares back at us terrified.
“It’s all right, brother,” Justice coaxes, slowly rising as he tries to calm the beast. “It’s going to be okay.”
Knox shakes his head then opens his mouth to speak but quickly closes it. It isn’t long before his terror morphs into something else entirely, despair gripping his face in a way I have never seen before.
“She wasn’t supposed to love me like that, man.” The words are choked out before the first sob rips from him as he crumbles to his knees.
My thundering heart sinks straight to my stomach.
Justice and I share a look, our horror reflecting the other’s. He moves first while I remain frozen, too scared to move, too scared to breathe. He wraps an arm around Knox’s shoulder, reeling him in close as he whispers soothing words. It’s that rare touch that eventually has my feet moving.
Swallowing thickly, I sit on the other side of Knox, my hand going to his shoulder as he continues to sob into his knees. The sound of his grief makes my eyes burn. I wish more than anything I could take his pain away and carry it as my own.
But I can’t… No one can.
That night my brother told us a tale so horrific, so vile and twisted it tarnished a part of my own soul, changing everything I thought I knew about the ugly world we lived in. I was so sure I had faced all the monsters this life had to offer, but I was wrong.
So very wrong.
Knox encountered a far greater evil than either of us could comprehend and it broke him beyond repair. From that moment forward, Justice and I vowed he would never know fear and pain like that again. He would never be poisoned by someone’s touch because we would be there to protect him.
From that moment forward, our bond became more than a pact. It became indestructible.