Five years ago today, my foster mother took away the only person I’d called family. Molly was nine when Martha, had put a bullet through her skull. Nine. She hadn’t even hit the double digits yet. She was a baby and her life was taken from her in the blink of the eye. And for what? I’d never know.
Martha and Howard Johnson had been sentenced to life in prison for what they had done to Molly—for what they had done to all of their foster kids. We were all just another paycheck to them. Everyone knew they didn’t give a damn about us. The cigarette burns on the inside of my arms and the deep lashes that scarred my back could tell you that story.
It should have been me. Molly had her whole life ahead of her. I did too, but I’d vowed to protect her. I’d promised to never let those so-called parents hurt her. I failed and her blood was on my hands.
She was Martha and Howard’s only biological child, which meant that they hadn’t tortured her the way they had me. They might have pushed her around and treated her like a dog, but they never burned her. Never whipped her or threw her in a cage. Molly had her own room, one she’d let me sneak into at night so I could read her stories to steal her away from the real world. She loved when I read her Peter Pan. She dreamed of flying away to Neverland and living happily ever after with Wendy and The Lost Boys.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was just a make-believe land. One that represented death instead of life. I couldn’t take away the only thing that brought some light into her dark, hollow eyes.
One night, she asked me if I’d be her Peter and help her run away. Trying to explain to a seven-year-old that you can’t fly when you just happen to be her idea of a hero? Well, that’s just terrifying. It was worse than standing in front of Martha with my head hung in defeat as she yelled at me for not cleaning her bathroom well enough. I would have rather been hit over and over by that god-awful woman than to ever have to tell Molly that my fairy dust had expired.
It didn’t matter now though—and it never would again. Molly was dead. Martha and Howard were locked up. Trevor and Steven, our other two brothers, had been shipped off to another family, and I haven’t seen them since. They’d tried to reassign me, but I ran. There was no way in hell I was going to let them send me to another family—not without Molly. My family was gone, so I had to leave too.
Sleeping on a different park bench every night wasn’t ideal, but it was better than the alternative. Better than being forced into another shitty home with shitty parents. Better than getting close to another possible sibling only to let them down too. I was better off alone anyway.
Five years later, I was still running.
I had spent the better part of the past week bunking under a bridge with a kid named Travis. He was sixteen and his appearance screamed your typical runaway teenager. He had a bag full of designer clothing and at least two pairs of Jordans tucked away for safekeeping. He had been fed up with his parents’ expectations of him and left out of the blue. He’d grown up just outside St. Louis and was sure no one was looking for him in the heart of the city.
He kept telling me about how free he felt in the real world. I wanted to tell him to run back to his mommy and daddy. He had no idea what kind of horrors the real world held. He’d been raised privileged. He might have been fed up with the way his parents had treated him, but at least they had given a damn. They’d pushed him too hard—so what? At least they had wanted him to succeed. He was just another whiny bitch in my book. I had met my fair share of them while living on the streets of St. Louis.
A few days ago, he had come back from grabbing dinner and told me that he had found a place for us to crash in real beds and take a hot shower. I’d shaken it off because anywhere we would go would just call Child Protective Services. I had run from them enough times after my last few arrests; I wasn’t up to running again.
Travis had sworn up and down that they wouldn’t check for IDs or call CPS on us. I had finally given in after an hour, and we’d made our way to Martin’s Home for the Loved. Martin, the man who owned the joint, had welcomed us into his home without any questions. We managed to get there just in time for dinner, and he set up a room for us right away. I was thankful that Travis had found this place. It had been a minute since I’d had a hot meal and a bed to crash in.
Martin roomed us up with a younger boy named Chris. He was a scrawny little shit, but he didn’t hesitate to fight for what was his. When Martin introduced us that first day, Chris refused to shake either of our hands and walked over to his side of the room to mark his territory.
Tonight, he had decided to pick a fight with me because he’d seemed to think I had crossed over into his sacred space. The kid was a whack-job, and part of me assumed he just wanted to put on a show for everyone.
He had snuck up on me in the dining hall at dinner and slammed his tray into the middle of my back. When I turned around, his fist connected with my face, and anger raged inside me. No one got away with hitting me, especially not a snot-faced asshole like him. He had no idea what he had gotten himself into by trying to start a fight with me.
I’d hit him once, knocking him flat on his back. I’d heard his head thump off the ground before I jumped on top of him, laying into his skull. Each blow had caused another crack through the sound waves. Travis had pulled me off of him after four or five hard swings.
It was too late.
I had gotten a taste of blood, and I wanted more. The desperate need to crash my fists into something else grew as I was pushed out of the room. My hands were shaking and my nerves shot.
“Dude, what the fuck was that?” Travis asked, giving me one final push into the bedroom we shared with Chris.
“He started it.”
“So? You could have left it at the one hit, man. I don’t think he’s getting up. Martin is going to kick your ass out.”
“So what? You want to go back to the dumpy-ass bridge?” he asked.
“Hey, that’s my dumpy-ass bridge. At least I was alone there.”
“Is that it? You don’t know how to socialize? Go figure.”
“I just prefer to be alone. That’s all. Is it really that bad?” I asked, forcing myself to breathe in order to calm down. I shut my eyes briefly and my hands stilled.
“Chris? Probably. He was bleeding pretty badly. I was too busy getting you off of him to take a good look though. You all right, man?”
“I’m fine. Go check on him.”
He hesitated before he turned and walked out of the room. I looked at my hands, and my right knuckles were covered in Chris’s blood. I walked over to the sink at the far end of the room and turned the hot water on.
I watched the steam form and rise to the mirror, slowly fogging it up. I slipped my hand under the water and it burned. I didn’t pull away though. Instead, I let it scorch my skin until the stream of water stopped running red. The pain was nothing compared to what I had endured at the hands of Martha Johnson.
She was the definition of a monster. That woman found pleasure in our pain day in and day out. Each time she would hit me or slice me up with a knife, Molly would be there to clean my wounds. She had her own twisted moments, but although she was a little kid, she had more compassion in her heart than a grown adult. How anyone could have ever hurt her floored me.
The thought of her pain caused the rage to boil inside me again. I pulled my fist back and slammed it as hard as I could into the mirror. Pieces shattered into the sink and onto the floor. Blood seeped from the cuts all across my hand. The water was still running, so I went for the burn, but it had long since turned cold. I let it wash away the blood before I decided I needed some fresh air. I had been cooped up in this home for a couple of days, surrounded by people. It wasn’t my style, and I just needed to breathe.
I pushed open the front door to Martin’s and made my way outside. The sun was setting and the air had cooled for the night. A slight breeze made its way across my skin, and I inhaled sharply as I headed down the sidewalk. The streetlights were dim and people were scarce. I had the usually busy streets of St. Louis to myself.
It was almost eerie—the loneliness that surrounded me. Hell, there could have been a million people out tonight and I still would have felt alone in this world.
No one understood the pain I had been through. Any normal person dealt the hand I’d been given wouldn’t have survived. They would have given up or let it eat away at them day in and day out. I, on the other hand, had brushed it off. I hadn’t let it change me because I knew the difference between reality and fiction. My life as a Johnson had ended the moment Martha put that gun to Molly’s temple. That’s when I had stopped giving a damn.
I kept my pace for a few blocks before I slowed down and let the sense of peace the air held seep into my pores. As calming as this city was, it didn’t feel like home. Twelve years and my heart still knew that this wasn’t where I belonged. Nothing was keeping me here, so why I hadn’t left yet was beyond me. Just like something was pulling me away, something was holding me back, keeping me in this hellhole. I had no idea what kept me here. Why I couldn't just leave.
I started wandering and thought about heading back to the shelter to apologize. I wasn’t actually sorry, but an apology would be necessary for Martin to let me stay. I hadn’t known him long, but I knew him well enough to know that he was a man who held respect high up on his list of expectations.
Just as I was about to turn around, I ran into a tiny little figure that smelled of coconut and cranberries. It was an odd mixture that burned my nostrils. I pushed my arms out in front of me to catch the girl, and her eyes fell on mine. They held a tint of fear inside them. Enough so that they left me intrigued.
“I’m so sorry,” she spoke, her voice laced with hesitation. It reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t put my finger on whom.
I kept my eyes on hers as she pulled away from me. The fear was now consuming her pupils, sending a wave of excitement through me.
“That was my fault,” I declared. “My head was in the clouds.”
“I wasn’t paying any attention.” She ran her slim fingers through her dark-auburn hair, lowering her gaze toward the ground. It was clear to me that she was nervous and my presence left her on the edge.
When she finally glanced back up at me, I realized whom she reminded me of.
If Molly were still here, I imagined she would look somewhat like the woman in front of me. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-two or twenty-three. Her hair hung in loose curls, and her body was thin, draped in an American Eagle hoodie and leggings. She wore worry lines across her brow and carried a sense of self-doubt on her shoulders. One look at her told me that she had a secret eating away at her. Everyone had secrets though.
“I-I’m a clutz. I’m sorry,” she said.
“Let me walk you home. It’s the least I can do.” I reached for the shopping bag from her hand. I realized we were standing outside a local grocery store and she had a single bag of groceries.
“Uh, that’s okay. I’m just right down the road. Thanks though,” she said, pulling the bag back toward her body.
She quickly moved herself to the right so she could pass me. I turned and watched as she walked the way I had been coming from.
I waited a second before following her; after all, I needed to head back that direction anyway to get to the shelter.
She walked two more blocks before turning left. I sped up to the corner and watched as she headed up the steps of a small apartment complex, unlocking the door to go inside. I wasn’t sure why I felt compelled to make sure she got home safely, nor was I even sure that her safety was what I was concerned with. I was curious about her and wanted to know more. To know what made her tick, what she did, who she spent time with, where she ate. I wanted to know everything about her—including the secret she spent her days running from.
It would never matter how far you ran because the secrets and the darkness that you held on to always seemed to catch up to you eventually. One way or another, the past would always haunt you.