Fourteen years old
“Justice, man, wake up.”
My eyes spring open at the frantic whisper and shake of my shoulder. I stare into my best friend’s face, his eyes wild with panic. They glow in the shadows of the room that we share in this hell we call home.
“What is it?” I ask, my voice sounding as groggy as I feel.
“Brax is gone.”
Dread tightens my chest, restricting my breath. I shoot upright and look at the bed next to the door to find it empty. The scrap of material we get to use as a blanket lies on the floor.
“Did you see anything?” I ask.
Knox shakes his head. “I didn’t hear a thing either. I just woke up and saw his bed empty.” Guilt hangs thick in his voice, mirroring the one coiling in my stomach.
Braxten is two years younger than us and we have taken it upon ourselves to watch over him. The three of us met in this group home months ago, each of us dumped here by the state within weeks of one another. We were taken from one nightmare and brought to another.
“We need to find him, man,” Knox whispers, his tone urgent. “Hobbs was seriously pissed earlier at the shit he pulled at dinner.”
Brax is a prankster, even at the worst of times. It’s his way of coping with shit. Tonight’s prank against Hobbs though was to deflect the attention off one of the other kids who was about to get smacked around for spilling his milk and shattering his glass.
Hobbs is one of the leaders and the biggest asshole of them all. He’s a sick son of a bitch who gets his kicks by hurting others. I remember the first time I fucked up and the beating I received. It tightens my gut further, thinking about Brax and what he could be enduring.
Jumping from the bed, I pull on my jeans from the day before then my dingy shirt. Knox and I both move for the door but discover it’s locked.
“Bastard!” Knox seethes. “He knew we would come for him.”
He takes a step back, ready to kick it open but I stop him, my hand landing on his rigid shoulder. “We can’t. Jones will hear us and then we’ll never get to Brax.”
“Then what the hell do we do? Time’s wasting. Who knows what that asshole is doing to him right now.”
My attention shifts to the bedroom window. We move quickly, our eyes scanning out over the five acres of land the house sits on.
“There.” I point to the barn where the door has been left opened a crack, light spilling out into the darkness.
“Figures,” Knox grits, his jaw locked tight. “No one will hear him scream out there.”
The thought fuels the fear gripping my chest. “We’ll go out this way and climb down the trellis,” I tell him.
As far as the leaders think, all the windows are secured with an alarm system. Except for this one. We figured out how to disconnect ours and cut the wire weeks ago, knowing one day this time would come. Or maybe one day we would even find the perfect moment to escape.
I slide open the window and crawl out first, Knox following close behind. Some of the plastic trellis snaps beneath our feet but otherwise we make it down with minimal noise. My bare feet hit the hard gravel, biting into my skin. Ignoring the sting, I walk lightly until I hit grass. Then we bolt, our feet pounding the rough earth as we head for the barn.
It isn’t long before we hear Braxten, his cries of pain assaulting our ears.
“Shit!” The curse spews from Knox as he pushes himself harder, passing me by in a blur.
I fight to catch up to him, grabbing his arm. “Hold up. We need to see what we’re dealing with before charging in there.” My warning is nothing more than a breathless whisper, my heart pumping wildly in my chest.
We slow our approach, cautious as we peek through the crack of the wooden door. What we find has my bile rising in my throat and fury surging through my veins. Brax wrists are bound by leather reins as he hangs from a whipping post, a noose wrapped around his neck. He’s stripped naked and faced away from us, his bare flesh raw from the riding crop that Hobbs holds.
“How does it feel, boy? You’re not such a big shot now, are ya?” He cracks another lash against his bare ass. “I’m going to show you what happens to cocky little bastards like yourself.”
Horror slams into my chest when Hobb’s reaches for his belt. An enraged roar rips from Knox and he charges inside. I follow after him, knowing there’s no time for a plan.
Knox swipes a shovel off the ground, his quick feet never faltering. “Motherfucker!”
Hobb’s spins around just as Knox winds back and swings, slamming the end of the shovel into his face.
Blood sprays from his nose as he drops to the ground. “You bastard!” he bellows, rolling to his knees.
My feet are quick as I run at him from the side, kicking him in the face. His head snaps back, another howl of pain tearing from his chest.
Warm blood coats my bare foot but I don’t hold back and deliver another, a dark rage slipping over me from all the pain he’s inflicted on others.
My foot cranks back relentlessly, showing no mercy. That’s until he manages to grab my ankle and pulls my foot out from under me. I hit the ground hard, the breath shoving from my lungs.
“You’re going to fucking pay for this,” he seethes, struggling to his feet.
Knox brings the shovel down on the back of his head, knocking him out cold. Blood seeps out from beneath his face, the crimson color spreading into a large pool.
Knox and I make eye contact, our thoughts reflecting the other’s. Brax’s groan breaks the connection and puts us in motion.
Knox removes the noose around his neck while I kneel in front of him, reaching for his pajama pants that he was stripped of.
“Brax, man, we’re here. Everything’s gonna be okay,” I assure him.
He lifts his head, revealing a black and blue face. His cheeks are stained with tears and dirt, while one of his eyes are swollen shut. “He got me in my sleep, Justice,” he chokes out. “I never even heard him comin,’”
I swallow past the burn in my throat and gently put my hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right. We’re getting out of here.”
Knox works on untying his wrists and I get him dressed. When the last restraint is removed, Brax falls to his knees, crying out in pain.
Knox drops down next to him, helping me hold him up. “What is it? What hurts?” he asks.
“It’s my whole body, man,” the words are delivered through a choked sob. “Everything hurts.”
Before either of us can say more an alarm pierces the air.
Panic thrashes through my veins. “Shit. They know we’re gone. We gotta move, now!”
Knox throws one of Brax’s arms around his shoulder while I throw the other one over mine. We move quickly, running from the barn and dragging Braxten with us.
Eventually, we find a clearing far enough away from the property but remain hidden in the fields. We sit Braxten down, mindful of his beaten and bruised body. Knox stays with him while I run back a little ways, making sure no one followed.
When I see no sign of anyone, I head back to the others. Braxten hugs his knees to his chest, his face buried to hide his tears.
Knox sits quietly next to him with his arm around his shoulders, his face grim. “Anyone?” he asks.
I shake my head. “No but it’s only going to be a matter of time. We have to keep moving.”
“And go where?” Brax asks, lifting his face.
I shrug. “Anywhere is better than here.”
“Come on, Justice. We have no money. Hell, we don’t even have clothes,” Brax sniffles. “What the hell are we going to do?”
“We do whatever necessary to survive,” I say, looking into his weary eyes. “We can’t go back. Look what almost happened to you. Hobb’s is most likely dead and they aren’t going to believe a bunch of homeless kids. Who knows what we’ll face next. The system has fucked us long enough. Living on the streets is better than where we’ve all been.”
They both remain silent but I see the look in their eyes, the same knowledge I have burning in my mind and heart.
“I say we make a pact right here, right now. We do this on our own. No more hits, no more pain. We watch out for one another, take care of each other.”
“Like family,” Knox says.
I nod. “Like family.” My eyes search theirs in the quiet dark. “Are you with me?” I ask, putting my hand in the middle.
Knox doesn’t hesitate. “I’m in.”
We wait, both of our eyes shifting to Braxten who still looks scared.
“We got you, Brax,” I promise. “We’d never let anything happen to you.”
He places his beat up hand on ours. “Family. Forever.”
That day we made a pact and became more than friends.
We became brothers.
For the next year we lied, stole and did whatever necessary to survive. Until our travels brought us to the Mississippi Delta. There we hid out on a farmer’s land, seeking shelter on a rainy night. The owner was a lone man named Thatcher Creed. He was the first adult to ever show us any kindness. Instead of calling the police when he found us, he took us in and raised us as his own.
Thatcher Creed gave us something we’d never had but always longed for.
A real family.