North Bend, Pennsylvania, fourteen years ago…
A little hand jostled my arm.
“Asher, wake up.”
I blinked my eyes open, and they immediately began to sting. “Morgan? What is it?”
“I woke up to pee and smelled it.” My eleven-year-old brother was a dim outline in the predawn light.
I rubbed my eyes. “You smelled pee?”
I shot to sitting, fully awake and adrenaline racing through my veins. Our bedroom in the double-wide trailer was hazy with smoke, and flames licked from under the door.
“Get your clothes,” I barked, bolting out of bed. “Your jacket and shoes—No! Forget it. Here.”
I shoved open the window and yanked Morgan toward it.
He climbed out and jumped down to the scrubby grass that was going to go up like straw any second now.
“The Hill, Morgan,” I said, tossing his shoes out the window, followed by his jacket. “Get up The Hill.”
The Hill was our name for an embankment of dirt and rocks piled high from where they were digging foundations for new houses in the development. After school, Morgan and I would climb The Hill and look down on the construction zone that was going to kick the Pine Hills Trailer Park off the land and make us homeless.
We’re homeless now.
“What about Mama and Dean?”
My clothes and Morgan’s were in a heap on the floor in our messy room. I shoved them all out the window. I slept in jeans and an undershirt, mostly because I was already on internal high alert since our mother started using. I found my boots and tossed them out too. You aren’t supposed to take anything when your house is on fire. Getting out is supposed to be your main priority. But now my little brother was my main priority. Not my mom and her latest loser boyfriend and their spoons and lighters and little baggies and the needles sticking out of their arms…
“No more,” I muttered, grabbing my school backpack. I dumped the books out. A lunch-size bag of Fritos fell out with my schoolwork: a math test with an A+ in red and an essay I wrote on the French Revolution, A-. My future, and it was all going up in flames.
I stowed the Fritos and a tin box of money I’d been saving from odd jobs into the backpack. About four hundred bucks. I’d wrapped the box in a pair of boxers and hidden it in my underwear drawer so my mother or Dean wouldn’t steal it and shoot it up their veins.
“Asher…” Morgan was at the window, fear making his voice waver. He was still in his jammies, making him look younger than he was.
“I told you to get up The Hill,” I said, then coughed. Smoke was pouring in from around the door, and the ceiling was beginning to blacken. The air felt like the inside of an oven.
Frantically, I tried to think what else we would need, but we didn’t have much and there was no time anyway. I chucked my bag out the window, then dropped down beside it. Morgan had put his shoes on but refused to budge. I grabbed an armful of clothes, shouldered my pack, and took his little hand. We tore out of the Pine Hills Trailer Park, through the construction zone, and scrambled up The Hill. Our feet slid and sank into the piles of shoal and dirt; nothing that would burn.
At the top, I tossed my bag over, then helped Morgan up. We hunkered down on our stomachs on the other side as dawn broke over North Bend.
“What about Mama…?”
I nearly snapped at him to shut up. She didn’t care about us. Still, a wave of relief hit me to see her and Dean staggering out of the blazing inferno that was our trailer, clutching each other’s arms, bent over, coughing.
I pointed. “There.”
Morgan’s eyes filled with tears. “Mama…”
“She’s gone, Mo,” I said. My heart felt like it was filling with concrete.
“She’s not. She’s—”
“Going to jail. Her and Dean both, for a long time. And even if they don’t, this is going to happen again. And maybe next time you don’t wake up to pee first, you get me?” I put my hand on his shoulder. “We’re all we have. Each other.”
We’d been that way for a long time, since Dad left five years ago. Mom hurt her back working two jobs to keep us afloat, and the doc gave her a pill. Oxy-something. Got her hooked so that she wanted more, long after the prescription ran out. Turned out, heroin wasn’t too different from the “medicine” and so we lost our mom too.
Sirens sounded in the distance, and the inhabitants of other trailers were shouting at our mother and Dean while dragging hoses and filling buckets to protect their homes.
“She’s gone,” I said. “Just like Dad.”
“Yeah, he left, but Mom did too. When she started up on the drugs. She’s right there.” I jerked my chin at our junkie mother who’d fallen to the ground like a drunk person. “She’s right there but she’s really not.”
Morgan nodded and wiped his nose. He was a smart kid and sweeter than me. He didn’t deserve this shit. He should’ve had a mom who packed him a lunch every day and a dad who watched his soccer games. Not an older brother trying to make up for all of it.
But life didn’t give a crap what you deserved. Sink or swim. That was it. I wasn’t big on signs or omens, but I could read the writing on the wall. The years since Dad left were a run-up to this morning. It was up to me to protect Morgan from whatever bad shit wanted to wreck him and turn my happy-go-lucky little brother into something else.
I’ll be something else. I’ll take it all to keep him safe.
I nudged his arm. “Come on.”
“We gotta get out of here before the cops find us. They’ll separate us and put us in homes.”
He looked at me with round, dark eyes. Eyes like mine, dark hair like mine, but he was slighter and skinny, whereas I was already bulking up from yard work, construction work, whatever odd job someone would give me. I was sixteen—seventeen in June—but Alice at the grocery and Phil at the hardware store both told me I could pass for twenty. Maybe older.
“They’re going to separate us?” Morgan asked, the tears coming again. “They can’t.”
“I’m not going to let that happen.”
They’ll have to kill me first.
Morgan turned back to the scene unfolding below. The firemen had arrived in a truck almost as big as our trailer. Their hoses blasted what was left of our home, while cops had Mom and Dean sitting on the curb. Neither looked panicked or even concerned that there might be two boys still inside the blackened, charred heap. Too high to care or remember we existed.
“Let’s go,” I said.
Morgan sniffled and wiped his nose. He gave the scene a final glance, then followed me as we half-walked, half-slid on our asses down the other side of The Hill. To the north, Allentown was a cluster of buildings just waking up on the spring morning, about twenty miles away.
“Too close,” I muttered, thinking quickly. We had to get out of the state if I had any chance of keeping the authorities off our backs. It was a longshot, already.
“Where are we going?” Morgan sounded small. Lost.
I put my arm around his skinny shoulders. “Home.”
“Where is that?”
“Wherever we make it. It’ll be like an adventure.”
But Morgan was too smart for that fairytale bullshit. He started to cry, and I hunched down in front of him.
“Hey. Hey, look at me.”
He raised his eyes and the fiercest love surged through me. I almost didn’t recognize it as love, it was so tangled with pain and rage at the unfairness of it all.
“I’m going to take care of you,” I vowed, infusing my entire being into those words. “I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you. You hear?”
“I swear it. I swear on my life, I got you. Okay?”
He threw his arms around my neck, and I hugged him tight—but only for a minute. He was going to squeeze emotions out of me that I didn’t need or want. They were only going to get in the way of what I had to do.
I had four hundred bucks and a packet of corn chips to my name, but I was going to keep my promise to my little brother. Protecting Morgan and building a life for him out of the smoldering ruins were all that mattered. Somehow, someway, I’d make sure he went to school, had a roof over his head, and that no one would take him away from me.
We turned our back on the burning trailer and walked away.