The rest of the day was a daze. It was harder than I expected, but at the same time, it took no effort. Neil had to stay in his third hour to finish a test at lunch, so I just went into the library and wrote some more poetry. But this time, it was strictly private. I poured my heart and soul onto the page. It was a good release, I guess, but I felt bitter as I made my way to Trig.

The rest of the day didn't calm my bitter feelings. And so when I started walking home with Neil, my anxiety had built itself up. Neil seemed to notice this, but instead of leaving it be, he decided to press, like usual. "It wasn't that bad, was it?"

I rolled my eyes. "It wasn't bad for them. It was bad for me, because they liked it. Now people are going to pay attention to me."

Neil laughed, clearly confused. "Most people want others to notice them."

"Well, I'm not exactly like most people."

Neil's ghost of a grin disappeared. "No, you're not." He looked like he wanted to say more, but for once, he decided to not push it. So we just walked in silence until we reached our parting spot. "Bye, Molly."

I nodded goodbye to him and headed home. And before I wanted to, I was there. I kicked off my shoes at the door and entered. At first, I just registered how hot it was. Then I noticed how dark it was. I saw the twins curled up on the floor with coloring books and found Lacey curled on the couch with a book. She looked up at me, clearly miserable from the hot, still, and stuffy air.

"Jett hasn't paid the electric. He won't know until tonight." I knew what this meant. He would get home but not want to go back out. Which meant it wouldn't be until tomorrow night that we'd have lights or air conditioning. Power in general. I was thankful that tomorrow was my shopping day for food. We were out of everything, fridge and freezer wise. All we had was canned goods now. I sighed. We'd have make due.

I sat and day dreamed until six, when I started dinner. Thankfully, Jett and Anne were running on the later side. I dished out cans of ravioli. The kids understood and didn't complain at their cold meal, but ate hastily. Then I had them all brush their teeth, pack up their stuff and head to the room. It was here that we had a few lights that were battery operated.

Thankfully, we had all settled in before Jett and Anne had gotten home. And thankfully, they didn't need us to tell them why there was no power. So, the twins just went up to their bunks, playing. Lacey and I squinted in the darkness, writing poetry. Never sharing, but always writing.

Soon, I could hear the twins yawning. I made them get into their pajamas before tucking them into bed. Before long, they were asleep. Lacey and I tried at writing for another hour, but by then, our heads hurt. So, we too changed into our pajamas and climbed into bed. It wasn't until then that I looked at the clock on the wall that still was ticking. It was ten-thirty. Normally we were asleep by nine or so. We never stayed up later than that. Yet, I was still wide awake. For another hour and a half, I just stared off into the semi-darkness.

But it was so hot in the room, I wondered if I would ever fall asleep. I felt restless, but I didn't want to move, in fear of waking Lacey. For whatever reason, she hadn't been sleeping much for the past couple of weeks. I knew the twins would sleep through anything, up above us, but Lacey wasn't caught up in the childhood innocence and naivety they were. Being older, she had picked up on the dangers of our father, sure enough. Not that we really talked about it. Why should we? Why invite it in more than we had to? Even when she was the twins' age, she knew a hell of a lot more than the twins know now. We made sure they didn't know that stuff. Someone had to have a decent life in this place.

I guess I just figured on my part I could take the most of it and let my brother and sisters live a halfway decent life. But I suppose Lacey is 'special' just like me and got to know all the details of the 'life' we lived. She probably has suffered as much as I have. Well, no. Scratch that. She hasn't been touched by that sick pig that's supposed to be our father. That I will make sure will remain so as long as there is a heart beating in my body. No one, and I mean it, will ever touch my sister. Well, unless she is happily married. Maybe then I'll allow it.

I never realized how much I think about Lacey until right now, while she was laying next me. We both have witnessed things I am very glad the twins manage to miss. How they managed to get out of seeing them, I have no idea. Maybe they are naturally innocent, just like all the kids I've grown up around. Most kids don't know about this kind of life. Most kids don't know the life of tricks, of abuse, of drugs, of alcohol, of rape, of incest. Me? Well, it'd be hard to ignore it. I'd have to be out of my mind stupid to not know this world. I'd probably have to be dead to not know this world, and honestly, I don't know how far from that peachy world I am. But the thought of dying sends chills down my body, despite the sickening heat. I know the moment I'm gone, he will go for Lacey. Just the thought sends nausea threats throughout my body. I shuddered.

"Molly?" Her voice was quiet, hardly a whisper, but it was louder than if she had yelled. Why? Her voice seeped with so much more than just her saying my name. I could tell she was terrified and exhausted, and probably feeling alone, even though I lay inches from her.

"Yeah?" I tried to hide my own thoughts from my voice, but it didn't seem convincing.

"Oh," she said, somewhat relieved, but somehow troubled. Regardless, she didn't say anything. I turned so that I could see her face. She was lying on her back, her hands folded and resting on her ribs. She seemed rigid and her breathing was shallow. Just like when she was scared. I sighed as I tried to look into her eyes, but I was distracted. I don't know how my sister got the striking beauty she had. Even in the dark, her dark electric blue eyes seemed to sparkle and shine. It was quite mesmerizing. Her dark mahogany hair framed her beautiful face in her gorgeous, naturally lightly curled hair. I don't think I've ever seen hair like that, too curly to be wavy but too wavy to be curly. It was always gorgeous. Just by her looks alone, I knew that if she ever had a typical interest in boys, she wouldn't have problems attracting them. She would be one of those beautiful women that men dreamed about, and desired.

This thought made me sick again. Why did women, and in our case girls, always have to be objects? My sister is way more than just a piece of meat. Hell, even I could say the same for myself, but I have been so spent from the years of my father getting his fill that I doubt I'll ever touch another man, let alone love one. The only love I have is for Billy, Kelly, and Lacey. I'd rather die than let anything happen to them. And I don't care if my father was the sperm donor, and my mom was the growing site. Those three are my kids, and I don't care what anyone has to say on the matter otherwise. I practically raised them, and I'm the only one who really gives a damn about them. I'm the closest to family they really have, and I sure as hell wouldn't let anyone go at that fact.

I studied her face and saw real pain there. I gave her a few minutes of thought until I saw the tears well up behind those beautiful eyes. Her face didn't contort in sadness, rage, or fear, but there was pain there that I couldn't recognize too much of before, that now I could. But I knew she hated me directly addressing her feelings. I think she feels as obligated to protecting me from things as I do in her case. But her protection is more of a deflection of more worry. I think she hides a lot of her thoughts and feelings just to try and make it easier for me, whereas I protect her from harm. I try to take the beatings, and I refuse for her to be even looked at suggestively by Jett.

"What are you thinking about, Lace?"

I saw her eyes shudder, as if she had been looking into some place other than this scorching room cramped with her and her siblings. I saw her already rigid body stiffen, and her jaw clench. From what, I wasn't too sure. She didn't look at me, but I saw her ear wiggle. She could sense my eyes trained on her face. She had stopped breathing for a second, but started abruptly, letting out a sigh that suggested her thoughts, but I couldn't translate it.

She frowned, her eyebrows furrowed in almost pity. "What I always think about."

I frowned this time. "And what might that be, little lady?" I let myself giggle a little, because this was too much of typical Lacey. If we had a penny for every thought she had, we'd be rich and I'd be able to take her and the twins and go live somewhere nice, away from this hell hole. My sister was too wise for her own good. But I let the giggle die before adding seriously, "You think a lot, especially lately."

Lacey let out a little scoff, but didn't meet my eyes. I frowned at her. What was wrong that she was looking like this? It wasn't the Lacey I knew so well… She was quiet for a minute, thinking over something to say. She settled with, "You don't even know."

My eyebrows jumped up. She still didn't greet my eyes as the annoyed and frustrated look plagued her face. But that look died like my giggle. Instead, a pitiful dying look crept on her face. I didn't like the latter much at all. "Try me," I challenged.

Finally, she looked at me, her frown infested with this painful dying look. "You probably do know. But why should you be haunted by the words that your little sister says? Sometimes hearing the truth makes it worse than any other thing out there."

Ugh. There was her wise side. I swear, she is a thousand years old. "The truth can't hurt me much more than the reality."

She laughed again, very similar to her annoyed scoff from earlier. But this time, it was more of pity. For once, she must have known something I didn't, but it didn't stop her from being scared. I could see it etched into her expression. Her voice was hardly more than exhaled air, now. "The only problem is that the truth is close to the reality."

I tried to suppress the shudder. What the hell was my sister thinking about? And why the hell was she revisiting these thoughts often, as she suggested she did? A thousand ideas came in my head, but what to articulate? I settled with, "What the hell, Lace?"

She smiled this time, genuinely. "I guess I'm not as little as I let myself act. Can't help growing up when the elements are out there. I guess I'm just so scared all the time that it gets the best of me. But thinking about it kinda lets the pain ebb away. The pain of the truth and the reality. But the thoughts aren't happy. Because I don't like how it's true, or could be so very soon." She seemed to be rambling, but the thoughts weren't too confused, because I had latched onto them in near understanding. She looked at me, seeking a reaction. All I gave her was my flabbergasted expression. I was only missing a few key points of the general idea… She gave a youthful crooked smile. "Figured as much," she muttered, amused. She sighed as if she was trying to explain something very simple to a very hyperactive child whose attention span was spent. Patient. God, when did she get that maternal aspect? I have been too busy protecting her to notice much about her…

She looked back up at the bed where the twins were sleeping, resuming the position I had found her in when I looked over. This time, there was still a trace of life on her face. What she was actually seeing, I wasn't sure. Maybe she was reliving a memory. Or maybe she was visiting an image of what she wanted things to be. I know that's what I used to do when I was her age. Whatever it was, she was concentrating on whatever the hell she was thinking about earlier, which frustrated me because I still had no idea. "Are you ever going to tell me what's going on up there?" I tapped on her forehead. She frowned at me, annoyed.

"What if I don't want you to know?"

I raised my eyebrows. "Then I'd know you were freaked out and that you would benefit from a good venting session. Besides, you told me the other day that you would want to talk about it."

She rolled her eyes, truly annoyed. "Leave it, Moll. You don't wanna know." She clenched her jaw again, and the life left her beautiful face.

I frowned at her. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had an older sister or a proper mother. Or maybe even a best friend who really knew something that I didn't and really was trying to protect me. It was like me and Lacey had swapped places. But dammit, wait! This was Lacey! She is seven years younger than I am, no matter what she knows… What the hell was there left for her to protect me from? She's only ten!

I didn't hold back my anger. "Dammit, Lacey, I am seventeen. I have dealt with my share of crap in this life, and nothing you say will be too much for me or will be far off from the stuff I've already dealt with. But you not telling me what is wrong? Lace, that is gonna tear me up faster than anything you say."

Whatever it was I said made her cry. But not because of my words, I don't think. I think it was because she believed I was wrong. She hesitated to answer, trying to mop up her tears. She was as surprised by them as I was. "Molly, you don't know what you're saying. You're wrong," she said as tears streaked down her face despite her efforts, confirming my suspicion.

"Then let me deal with it, Lacey." I didn't think it could really be anything to work me up more than the mere fact that my life was hell because of our parents. "What are you thinking about," I pressed.

She clenched her jaw and I noticed how her tears of pain turned to tears of anger. Anger of what, I was unsure. But she laughed in this bitter anger as she shook her head. "You really wanna know?" She glanced at my face, which must have reflected how eager I was for her to talk. She rolled her eyes. "You know what I am thinking about? What I have been thinking about almost every night since Jett held a knife to my throat?" I shuddered, remembering the night from a few months back. It had been another aftermath night, and both Lacey and myself had gotten on the bad side of Jett. She gave a bitter laugh. "Every night, I think about how we're probably going to die in the next twenty-four hours."

I had suddenly figured out what she was protecting me from: heartbreak. The feeling that flooded me was worse than almost anything else. The only thing that topped it was the first day Jett decided he wanted a piece of me. I looked at Lacey as angry tears fell down her face, and I felt my tears of pain coming. I literally felt a hole punctured in my chest. But apparently, she had more to say.

"I think about how even if we don't actually die in those twenty-four hours, something's going to happen that will make it worse than dying." She paused, glancing at me before she continued on with her words. As she said them, they looked as if they tasted acidic to her. "I wonder if today, this next coming day will be… the day… he finally… takes… me." She clenched her jaw again and squeezed her eyes shut. She spoke again, but didn't open her eyes. Her voice had gone up at least an octave, slowly becoming more hysterical. "I know you've sworn to yourself that you won't let him or one of mom's fellows hurt me, a-and I know you'd rather die than let that happen." She paused, taking in a shuttering breath. She opened her eyes, meeting mine. "But we both know that you can't always protect me. And that we are dead lucky that I've made it this long without being touched."

I couldn't hold in the shudders that rippled up and down my body. I couldn't stop the tears streaming down my own face as my sister admitted to thinking about the one thing that haunts me and terrifies me most out of everything in this life in hell. I shook my head, as if by doing so, I was making the prospect unable to become true. "Lacey, I swear nothing like that will ever happen."

She jerked up and turned to face me. "Don't you dare promise something you know could very well happen. For one, I don't want either of us carrying any blame on our shoulders."

I shook my head. "But it's not going to happen, Lace."

"Stop it!" She shrieked shrilly. Her cry was very childlike, which made it worse. It made me think of about four years ago, and how I was trying to wrestle one of my mom's drunken fellows out of the house, and he pulled a knife on me because I was trying to kick him out without his joints. And when I still fought, Lacey had screamed the same way then that she had just done now. I was surprised when I heard no response from the sleeping people in our place. I even expected to feel the knife at my throat again. But Lacey seemed oblivious to the fact that we weren't alone and of the memory I was experiencing. "Just stop it, Molly. You don't even know!"

I snapped back into the now and I shook my head again. "But I do know, Lacey. For one, I swear that I'd never, ever let him put a hand on you like that as long as I have a heart beating." Lacey looked livid, ready to retaliate with her tears falling down, but I put my hand up to stop her. I sat up, so that our eyes were almost level. "And don't forget that you have to have someone interested. And the only interested people are the fellows, and they're only around when I'm around, too. So like hell they're going to think about trying to hurt you!"

Lacey let out a furious cry, frustrated and strangled with pain and worry. "Don't even say that, Molly. It's not true and you ought to know that!" This time she held her hand up to silence me when I made to retaliate. Her voice grew even shriller when she continued. "No, you didn't even see him. Not this time. He was looking at me! Just like he always has looked at you!" The way she was looking at me seemed to tear at the whole in my chest and added a painful sting. These words hurt so bad that I thought it would consume me. It wouldn't hurt so much if it was blame. But the fact that she spoke this so easily, as if this was just the way things were supposed to be, made this hurt unlike anything I had heard.

"Molly," she started, pleading edging into her voice, "when he started looking at you like that, all it took was three weeks for him to actually do it. Do you know when he started looking at me?" It wasn't a question she wanted an answer to, and even if she did, I didn't want to try at an answer. "Two and a half weeks ago," she said through tears. "Maybe I'll have a little more time on my side, because…" She hesitated, looking at me as if judging to see if what she was going to say would hurt me. But she seemed to settle that, regardless, I was hurting. "I might have more time because Jett has you."

I didn't like these words much more, either, but they were so true that the hurt was almost gone whenever it came up. What frightened me was the fact that she was trying to compare herself to me, and there wasn't a chance in hell that that would ever happen. Lacey must have seen this in my eyes, for she shook her head in disbelief of my expression. "Moll, you know as well as I do that the only thing putting this off is you being here, and we both know, however deep down, that there will be a time when you won't be around and I will, and Jett will get me. And we both know that once he has me, there's no hope of me being safe. He's too strong for me."

I shook my head. "No, I won't let that happen."

Lacey let out a cry of frustration. "But just suppose it does, Molly. What then?"

I shuddered. The thought of my sister being raped was probably the most sickening thing… "I swear it won't."

Lacey glared. "Suppose it does!"

I gave a growl of frustration, but Lacey glared at me for an answer. There was only one answer I could be sure of. "Then I guess I will spend the rest of my pitiful life making sure he pays for what he's done."

We just stared at each other at first. Lacey slowly calmed down until she was almost as relaxed as when I first turned over to look at her. She laid back down into that same position, but her body was a little limper than before. After a while I settled down. I focused on her face again and saw the tears return. I pulled her in my arms. I was the big sister again, and I didn't want Lacey to fear. I hummed one of the old lullabies I used to know. I hummed it because I didn't remember the words right. I let her cry into my nightshirt, letting her break down in the safety of my arms. Once she fell silent, I gave her a squeeze. I whispered," I swear that I'll do everything I can to make sure none of this happens to you, Lace. I'd give up anything and everything to protect you." Whether she was asleep, too tired to answer, hopeful it were true, or just too frustrated to care, she didn't answer.

For the first part of Saturday, it was torture. Lacey and I refused to even make eye contact. I was afraid of making her cry again. But it was also very hot. Jett hadn't paid for electric, so we were all in the house without any circulation on one of the hottest days in the month. We didn't have much food left to eat, and I didn't want to go get more until we had electricity again. By noon, the twins were very moody, and I was quite ready to sink into a cold shower. But I didn't want to leave the kids alone for a second.

I tried to endure it all hour by hour, but by two o'clock, I couldn't stand it. I was about to cry out in frustration when I saw Kelly looking at me. "Molly?"

I sighed. "Yes, baby girl?"

"Is there any way we could go swimming or something?"

My heart sank. No, we couldn't. Not for free, anyway. I was just about to tell her this gently when I realized something. There was somewhere we could go…

I looked over to Lacey. "Can you hold the fort for a few minutes?"

She nodded groggily, our defensive walls momentarily pulled down. I raced to our room to search for a little folded up paper. Then I slipped on shoes and raced to our neighbor's house. Not the neighbors with Marty. The other ones. The ones who were just as bad as Jett. They were regulars at all the open houses. But they owed me a service, because I had given them extra drugs than they had paid for, in return for never perusing me, like all the other people. And since I was handling the drugs anyway, I decided to take advantage of the situation.

The oldest man, Larry, answered the door. He couldn't completely hide his taste in me. But he tried to rid of it. "Hi there, Molly. What is it you need? Or want," he said in an almost too hopeful voice.

I shook my head. "Can I just make a phone call? Our power is out."

Larry sighed. "Sure, come in."

He let me in, and I saw a circle of men and women, most of who lived here. They were bent over booze, marijuana, and crank. The smell was bad, because it lingered with the smell of dirty diapers and unwashed laundry. What made me cringe was the sight of the five children under the age of four, all filthy, playing nearby. I shuddered.

I found my way to the phone, which was thankfully out of earshot of the living room. I didn't want anyone knowing my plans. With a shaking hand, I unfolded the paper and called Neil's number. I must be crazy… But I didn't change my mind. I let the phone ring, half hoping someone would answer, and the other half hoping they didn't.

But after four rings, Mrs. Meyer picked up the phone. "Hello, Meyer residence."

"Hi Mrs. Meyer," I croaked. My throat was dry. I cleared it. "This is Molly. Molly Queens."

Mrs. Meyer couldn't disguise her excitement and surprise. "Oh Molly! Hello, dear! Is everything alright?"

"Yes, things are fine. I was just wondering if I could talk to Neil for a few minutes."

I could practically see Mrs. Meyer beaming with happiness. "Of course, dear! Oh, speak of the devil, here he comes now." And I heard her voice become soft as she was passing the phone to Neil.

And then he was on the line and his voice sounded extremely happy and surprised as well. "Molly! What a surprise! To be honest, I never thought you'd actually call. Wait-", he said, his voice suddenly panicked. "What's wrong? What happened?"

"No, nothing's wrong. I just…" I suddenly felt very embarrassed. "It's just I was wondering if…" I couldn't say it.

"What is it?" He sounded relieved, but very curious.

"I feel so bad for asking, but my house lost power and so it is really hot. I wouldn't be asking anything if it wasn't for the twins and Lacey. They're miserable…" I let my voice trail off.

"Oh! You wanna come over? Because most of us are gone for the day. It's just me, Amelia, and Jacob. My mom is taking the rest to see a movie. Me and Jacob have already seen it, and Amelia is completely uninterested. You could come by and just chill. Literally. It's almost cold over here."

I chuckled. "If that's not too much to ask."

"No! Never! And my mom will be happy to see you, though she's leaving right now. But you'll stay for a little while, right? Long enough for her so say hi?"

I pondered. I probably should be back before six… But that would be plenty of time for his mom. Right? "Yeah, probably. I've got to get home by around six, though."

Neil was practically cheering. "Awesome! Do you remember where the house is?"

I frowned. "Maybe. Maybe it'd be better if you could meet me at the normal spot. Give me twenty minutes to get there. I have to revive the kids," I said with a little laugh.

"Okay, sounds great. See you then!"

I smiled. "See you."

I thanked Larry again and rushed back home. I reentered to find the kids in the same place as before. "We're going to go to my friend's house to keep cool, okay?"

They all perked up at the idea of air conditioning. They smiled, the life coming back in their faces. "Really?"

I smiled at Billy, who was practically beaming ear to ear. "Yep. But only after you wash up and little and get presentable for public." The twins nodded and rushed to wash their faces and brush their hair. I sighed, glancing at Lacey. She was smiling.

Then we turned away from each other, going our separate ways to clean up enough to go over to Neil's. The twins were sluggish, so it took a good ten minutes before they were ready. I helped them into their shoes and before long, we were ready to go. I took the twins' hands and we set of, with Lacey following us closely.

"Billy, Kelly, we're going over to my friend's house. He said it would be okay if we came over for a while."

"Where does he live," Billy asked.

"Across Lewis, in that neighborhood," I responded, slightly nervous.

"Oh!" Billy perked up, excited. "That's where Vincent lives, Molly. Maybe I can point out his house…"

I sighed, relieved. If they had been to Vincent's, and he lived in the same neighborhood as Neil did, then they wouldn't be too affected by Neil's house. That would help. The only thing I was afraid of, now, was the idea of them saying something that would make the situation suspicious.

Before I knew it, we had arrived at our normal waiting spot. It was even hotter outside, and I was starting to melt, it felt like. I hoped he would come soon. And to my great relief, after a minute or so, I could hear his familiar footsteps. And then there he was, smiling as if it was Christmas. I had to return it.

"Molly! Glad you could come over!"

I grinned. "You're a life saver, Neil." I turned to the twins and smiled. "These two are Bill and Kelly. And that's Lacey," I said, jerking my head to my left where Lacey stood silently.

Neil grinned even still. "Neat-o. Well, let's get out of this heat." And so we set off, not talking, to Neil's house. A few houses before, Billy perked up again. "There's Vincent's house, Molly." He pointed across the street to a red brick house with green shutters at the windows.

"Oh, little Vincent McCoy? My mom loves the McCoys. They're a good family," Neil said, grinning.

And soon, we were there at Neil's. I felt like it was so familiar, but so unfamiliar, too. I could easily recognize his deep red brick house, with white shutters, so easily. Maybe it was the rose bushes that were settled in front of the house or the wildflowers that always grew by the sidewalk and driveway. Or maybe it was tire swing that hung from the tree in the front. It was so vivid in my memory, but I felt like I never knew these details.

And then we were inside, which was exactly how I remember it: clean and homey. I felt the love of their parents inside this house. It was a love completely foreign to me. Neil smiled and led us to the living room where Jacob, who was nineteen now, and Amelia sat watching T.V. When we came in, Jacob beamed just like Neil had.

"Molly! You actually came! How great to see you!" And he pulled me into a bone-crushing hug. Neil wasn't kidding when he told me Jacob was now the biggest kid in the family. I remember back when he went to school with us, and how he was huge even then. Their family never knew why he towered over most of the boys in his family, or how he managed to pack on so much muscle. He was a real life football player, but not quite on a team yet.

"Yeah, I figured I ought to be a good girl and be polite and come over like I promised." I grinned. Then I saw Amelia peek out from behind her brother. She didn't remember me much, but knew I was Neil's best friend. She looked incredibly shy, though. So, I waved at her. "Hi, Amelia! It's good to see you again."

She flushed bright red and looked so much like a porcelain doll. Her golden hair was pulled back in a graceful updo, and her face looked smooth and utterly perfect. But, she waved back before retreating back to the couch. Jacob grinned. "Always the shy one."

I grinned back when I realized my siblings were standing awkwardly behind me. "Oh, um, these are my sisters, Kelly and Lacey, and my brother Billy."

Jacob grinned again. Amelia nodded towards them, her eyes lingering on Lacey. I never thought about it, because I was around her so much, but Lacey was quite the sight. She was so naturally beautiful that sometimes it was hard not to stare.

"So, what should we do? We have quite a party in the making!" Jacob clapped his hands, crouching into football stance. I laughed and Neil rolled his eyes.

"Well, I suppose that's up to you guys." I felt Kelly shyly grab my hand and hold it, halfway hiding herself from Jacob. I had to giggle at how shy she was.

"How about we go swimming?" Jacob looked serious, straightening up.

I felt uneasy. "Well, we don't have our swimsuits," I said sheepishly. This was part of the truth. The full truth was that we didn't even own them.

Jacob beamed. "That's fine, we have a few spares! Do you want to go swimming?"

I smiled and looked at Kelly. "What do you think, sweetie?" She nodded shyly, flushing bright red in doing so. I grinned. Then I could Billy laugh at his sister, because he was only too used to her shyness.

"I'd love to go swimming!"

I looked to Lacey, who was smiling. She nodded, but not shyly. For a moment, I lingered on her face, thinking about last night. But then I heard Jacob whooping in joy, and I was brought back. I grinned.

"Alright! Let's get you all some swimming stuff, and then let's go hit the water!" He made to run off when he paused. "Amy, can you lend Lacey here one of your other suits?"

Amelia nodded, smiling. She turned to Lacey. "Here, come with me. My room is upstairs." Lacey nodded and followed Amelia upstairs. Then Jacob turned to look at the twins. He thought for a second before running off down a hallway. He was gone for a minute before returning with two suits for them. He handed them to Kelly and Billy and pointed out a few different rooms they could change in. Then he looked at me and laughed.

"You'll need to come here." He waved for me to follow him and I did. Neil followed me, somewhat hesitant. Jacob led into the laundry room, but there were several cabinets. One was labeled as 'Swimwear'. Jacob turned to me and grinned. "There are a few options for you, but the only real question is bikini or no bikini." He gave a bark of a laugh. For some reason, I flushed bright red. There was something about Neil standing there next to me that made me very uncomfortable, and especially so with Jacob's teasing manner.

Jacob laughed at my blush. "Well, I'll let you pick something. And once you find something, feel free to pick a room to change in. We'll be upstairs getting into our suits." I nodded vaguely. They grinned and left the laundry room, leaving me alone. I carefully went for the bin marked 'Older Teen Girl'. There were actually about six or seven different suits. I dug through them, checking sizes. I found two that would fit me, and understood what Jacob meant. One was a bikini. The other was not.

The one piece was a swirl of orange and red, with attached ruffled skirt. To be honest, it did not look flattering, but it covered me up. The bikini was black with white and green flowers. It looked like it wouldn't be too revealing, but I wasn't sure what I was comfortable in wearing it. I decided to try on both, and headed for the bathroom.

I tried on the one piece first, only to find it completely unflattering. It made me look six times bigger than I was and seemed to clash with me. I grimaced, really hoping I had been wrong about it, so I wouldn't even need to try on the bikini. But now, I seemed forced to. I reluctantly put it on before taking in a deep breath and turning to see the effect in the mirror.

After a moment of shock and rejection of a look I usually saw for open houses, I was able to be amazing. I have never looked for this sort of look before, because I rejected it. But for the first time in my life, I felt and looked hot. And I was actually okay with it. True, I felt utterly uncomfortable in something that revealed most of my body, which still happened to have some bruising, plus plagued with scars. But, I could get by those. I could see beauty. I could somewhat understand why men's eyes lingered, though I never wanted them to.

I just felt weird about preferring to display this much. But wasn't it typical for girls? Wasn't it normal? I wasn't sure, but I felt jittery. I was about to just throw caution to the winds and go out there when I heard Jacob give a soft knock on my door. "I forgot. Your swim towel is out here besides the door."

"Thanks," I said in a slightly shrill voice. I would only have to be uncovered when in the water, which I could handle. Right? I waited for the footsteps to be gone first. When they were, I shut off the light and opened the door. I grabbed a towel and tucked it around my waist. That made me feel much better. Then I grabbed the orange and red monster and dodged back to the laundry room to put it away. And then after a few deep breaths, I went out where I could hear faint talking.

For whatever reason, they all stopped talking while I came back out to them. It unnerved me. But I took in the others to distract me. Jacob was in orange and yellow trunks, while Neil sported black and silver. Kelly and Billy were both in red Hawaiian suits, and they seemed to match well. Amelia was in peach one piece that sparkled. And Lacey sported a nice blue and green two piece. The two piece suit was like a cross of a one piece and a bikini. There was clear separation from the two pieces, but Lacey was not completely revealed, as she would be in a bikini. I would be the one with all the skin. I shuddered.

Jacob smiled at me when I joined them. "Alright, all ready?" I nodded with my brother and sisters. Jacob grinned even more. "Alright, let's go out and swim."

Jacob led us all out to the beautiful backyard and gorgeous pool. I had paused to admire it when I felt Neil grab on to my wrist. "C'mon, let's go it!" He ditched his towel and ran to the pool. I grinned but hesitated. I reached for the kids' towels and put them up. They all ran to the water. Now it was just me. My heart accelerated at an alarming rate, but I knew I couldn't hesitate. I let go of my towel and set it near my brother's. I sighed and headed for the water, hoping no one would notice.

Well, some of them didn't. Kelly, Billy, and Amelia were too distracted to see me. But I saw Jacob, Neil, and Lacey looking at me. I could tell by Lacey's face that she understood how awkward this must be for me, and so she turned away. I saw Jacob laugh at my 'daring', which made me go red. And then I looked as saw Neil's face go red too, and that made me burn up more. Without hesitating, I just climbed into the water.

After a few awkward minutes, though, we were all back to normal, and I almost completely forgot about the bikini problem. We all just splashed around in the cool water. It was nice and relaxing. I could see the same effect take place on Lacey's face. And I didn't feel distressed by the heat anymore. It was so nice to feel relaxed and with friends.

There were only a few moment when Neil went red for whatever reason, but I tried to ignore it. I was happy to see Kelly and Billy smiling and laughing like there wasn't a care in the world, and Lacey talking and playing with Amelia. Jacob, Neil, and I all talked and teased, and occasionally invaded on the younger pairs.

We must have been in the water for two hours or so when Mrs. Meyer came out into the backyard. She was smiling at us. I beamed at her. I hadn't seen her much, but her kind and motherly face was always quite the comfort to me. "I'm making dinner, kids. You'll want to start drying off so you can shower off. Molly, you and your brother and sisters are more than welcome to stay."

I hesitated. I really should get the kids home, before Jett noticed our absence. But then again, we had no food, and I couldn't deny them one decent meal. Then I realized I was supposed to have gone shopping today. I should really go do that. But the kids would have to come with me. And they were bound to be starving. What was I to do?

Neil must have read my expression, though. He frowned. "Have you gone shopping yet? I know you were going to." Neil knew I did the shopping. He thought it was because my parent never had time. How little did he know…

I looked at him, frowning and shook my head. He frowned too. "Mom, after dinner, can we take Molly to the store to get her groceries? She hasn't been able to go yet."

If Mrs. Meyer was alarmed or uncomfortable at all, she did not show it. She only smiled widely. "Of course! That would be nice. We can put on a movie for the little ones," she said, looking over at the twins. She smiled at me again before returning to the house.

I was hit with a wave of embarrassment again when I got out of the pool. I was nervous, hoping no eyes were on me. I went straight for my towel and started drying off. Once we were all pretty dry, we all split up for different bathrooms. Jacob and Neil took one of the upstairs, and Amelia and Lacey took the other. I took the twins to the downstairs bathroom and got them cleaned up at the same time. Once I had them dressed again, I sent them out to Mrs. Meyer, who received them warmly.

"Would you two like to help me cook?" They eagerly nodded their head and Mrs. Meyer smiled as she rummaged for two little aprons. Whatever she was cooking smelled delightful. I grinned as I headed back to shower.

It was nice to shower. It was not to clean my body from any crime, which seemed to be a first. It felt nice to just take one, letting the water cover me. Their soaps smelled good, like gentle blossoms, but warm like the house. It smelled really nice.

But I made it short and dressed quickly, so I wouldn't be the last to be done. I made it out to the living room just as Lacey and Amelia were descending the stairs. I saw Jasper and Robert lounged on the couch, both watching the news with Jacob and Neil. Both Jasper and Robert had sandy hair and were thin. The difference was Robert was clean cut, his hair sleek, while Jasper's hair stuck out in every direction. But they had the exact same face.

I had barely walked into the living room, though, when Mrs. Meyer called for dinner. I saw her grin as she helped the twins out of their aprons. They grinned back and quickly ran to me. Kelly clutched my hand, smiling shyly. Lacey came to my side, too. But she looked fairly comfortable here. Then Mrs. Meyer motioned for us to get started.

Just as I was about to reach the plates, the front door opened and Mr. Meyer came in. "Oh, Lenny dear, you're just in time for dinner!" Mrs. Meyer was positively beaming.

Mr. Meyer came in to the kitchen and grinned at me and my siblings. "Molly! How nice to see you! And your sisters and brother, I see." I could practically feel Kelly's blush on my arm.

I nodded. "Yes, sir."

He grinned. "Well, eat up!" He then headed for the back of the line where his wife was waiting. I grabbed three plates, one for me, Kelly, and Billy. Then I dished out some of the most delicious looking food I had ever seen. Mrs. Meyer had made a huge homemade dish of lasagna, which positively oozed meaty cheeses. There was a huge pot of broccoli beside the dish of lasagna. The broccoli was fresh and smelled positively succulent. And she even had garlic bread. There was enough here to feed us all, and a few other large men if they were here.

On the table was also a beautiful Caesar Salad. I was practically drooling. I dished some salad onto the twins' little plates. No, they would have a good meal tonight. And they looked happy about it, too. Lacey looked faint with the hunger for real food. I was so eager to eat, I was about to grab a fork and dig in when I realized that Jacob, Neil, Jasper, Robert, and Amelia, who had already served themselves, were sitting patiently. Lacey had noticed as well, but the twins hadn't. I glanced at them and put my hand on Kelly's knee. "Not yet," I said softly. Billy heard too. They were gracious enough to just follow my lead and not question.

Once everyone was settled, I looked cautiously at Mrs. Meyers who was smiling at the full table. She turned to Jasper, who was looking at her expectantly. She smiled. "Do you mind if I say grace tonight, Jasper?"

I got a little jittery at these words. I obviously knew what religion was, and I had heard Neil mention it a few times, but none of my siblings had ever come face to face with religious situations. I knew the twins would be clueless. All I knew was to close your eyes and fold your hands together.

"That's fine," Jasper said. He flashed a grin at his twin before bowing his head. As I was about to, I caught Neil's eye and tried not to blush from embarrassment. I bowed my head and folded my hands just like I had seen him do once before and I hoped Kelly, Billy, and Lacey could catch on quick enough.

"Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for this day and all it has brought to us. We thank you for our bonding as a family, and our bonding with friends." I felt my face go scarlet. "We pray that you keep us in good health, both in body and in mind. We thank you for all that has been given to us, such as a job that helps to feed us, and the food we have that nourishes us. We thank you for our home and all the opportunities we have. We pray that you can help us be charitable and understand of those who are in need and are less fortunate than us. We pray these things in your name. Amen."

There was a murmur of 'Amen' from everyone, and even I murmured it. I tried to hide the blush lingering on my face, but it was too much to manage. Everyone had started eating, and my own stomach could not resist. Casually, I dug it.

It was easily one of the top five meals of my life. No. Top three. I couldn't decide whether this meal or the soup from years ago was better. All I knew was that it was incredible, and I wanted to eat until I exploded. But I didn't. True, I ate a lot. But I resisted a go at a third helping, even though Jacob and Neil didn't hesitate.

After dinner, Mr. Meyer agreed to find a movie for the twins and Lacey while we were out. Lacey wanted to come with me, but I thought it would be nice for her to stay. She agreed that it wouldn't be bad, and was okay with staying. The only person who came with us was Neil.

The car ride was nice enough. Mrs. Meyer was silent, and none of really seemed to want to talk. And so when we got to the Wal Mart, it was a relief to be talking again. "Do you have a list of what you need?"

I shrugged. "I usually just wing it, based off of the money I have. I shoot for the most I can get for the money I have."

Mrs. Meyer frowned. "For how long do you need to get food for?"

I shrugged. "Whenever my parents give me money next. Probably two or three weeks."

I saw Mrs. Meyer get an uncomfortable look. She looked as if she was trying to make up her mind about something. Whatever it was, she must feel like she was intruding. But she nodded once and smiled. As we walked inside, Mrs. Meyer grabbed a cart, then turned to Neil. "Honey, could you grab a second cart?"

Neil grinned at his mother before obeying. I was confused, but I bit my lip. I didn't want to misinterpret this action. Then when we were inside the store, Mrs. Meyer nodded to Neil. "Go get the usually dairy stuff that we get and some juices as well. Come meet us back here in fruits and veggies or so. We might be there a while." Neil nodded before heading off.

I suddenly got nervous again. I never got fresh fruits or vegetables, because of the expense. I usually went for cheap canned goods. I wondered if Mrs. Meyer knew I only had forty dollars with me at the moment…

"Don't get mad at Neil," Mrs. Meyer said suddenly. "He is only concerned. But he has told me about how it's been a struggle for you and your family. He knows it's been a hard time. So, I want to help you guys out. Do you cook?"

At first, I just stared at her. But I knew that was rude, so I forced myself to nod. "I-I just don't really have money to get things that need cooking."

Mrs. Meyer nodded. "Well, we'll change that. And if you don't know how already, I can write it down for you and send them with Neil to school for you."

And so we began. We started to bag tons of vegetables and fruits, like lettuce, tomatoes, onions, bananas, apples, oranges, and grapes. We had just finished bagging a dozen peaches when Neil returned with quite a load of dairy and things to drink. Orange juice, apple juice, both white and chocolate milk, cheeses, yogurt, and cream cheese. I started to get dizzy. So far, I knew this would all be summing close to my meager forty dollars.

We made our way to the meats next. We packed in chicken, pork, beef. Everything. I knew there was easy a month's worth of meals in meat alone, and I knew for the first time ever, our huge refrigerator would be completely packed.

We made our way through the isles, throwing in breads, canned vegetables and fruits, soups, frozen sides like pastas, and other goods like condiments. Everything we needed or ever could want was piled into the carts. And soon, they were almost too full. Thankfully, we had enough space. I knew we did.

But I was starting to panic as we headed for the checkout isles. Neil and I hastily unloaded the goods, which helped distract me from the numerous beeps of items. By the time the carts were empty, I was positively shaking. Well, figuratively speaking. I gave a worried glance to Mrs. Meyer. She caught it and smiled kindly. "Don't even worry about it, Molly."

But I did worry. The total alarmed me, at a whopping $394. My jaw dropped and I literally started shaking. This time, it was Neil who saw this. He put his arm around me, trying to steady me. "Molly, it's okay."

I looked at him, frowning. "That's a lot of money."

Neil shrugged. "We've been fortunate. And you guys need help. My mom saw how thin you guys are. She probably wonders if you ever eat at all. She wants to give you guys some help. Maybe now you can start to save up so you have a little bit more money for the future."

I frowned more deeply. This was more than I deserved. But before I could speak, Neil dropped his arm and started to pull one of the carts towards their van. At Mrs. Meyer's signal, I pulled the other cart after Neil. It took a little creativity to pack everything into the van safely, but we succeeded.

The drive home was quiet again. I felt a huge lump in my throat as we pulled onto their street. How could I ever thank Mrs. Meyer for this? There weren't words I could say, and I felt oddly tiny by this thought. The lump started to suffocate me when we pulled up into the driveway. Now what?

"Molly, why don't you stay in the van, and we'll just go and get the kids out and take you home. Neil, will you come with me?" I saw Neil stiffen, hesitating. But then he sighed.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Molly." All I could do was give a faint smile in return.

After Neil had disappeared, Mrs. Meyer sighed. She didn't follow him, which made the lump grow even bigger. "I figured you wouldn't want him knowing where you lived, still. I have to respect that. I won't tell him." I started at Mrs. Meyer, confused but grateful. But before I could thank her, the kids had come out and scrambled into the car, chatting happily about the movie they had watched. And then we made the short drive over to my house.

We pulled up in front of our house, and the strangest feeling rooted itself in the pit of my stomach. I wondered what Mrs. Meyer saw. Did she see how dark it was inside the house? Did she see not just Jett's beat up truck, but four other old cars parked in front of the house or in the yard? Did she see how neglected the yard was? Did she see the yellowish color of the once white and crisp curtains? Did she see the number of adult shoes piled outside the door? It made me nervous as she parked the car out front.

Thankfully, Mrs. Meyer only helped to put bags in our hands. She didn't ask to help bring things inside. I'm sure she felt like that would be intruding, or there was something we wanted to keep unknown. She respected the fact that I lived a secretive life. And so, we grabbed as much as we could carry and headed to the house.

I managed to get the door open and looked in on a group of six. It was Jett and five other men. However, I could hear Anne in the bedroom, so that must mean there were eight adults here. I could feel my ears go red as Jett turned to look at us, weighed down with bags of groceries. But I didn't hesitate long. I led the way to deposit the groceries on the kitchen floor.

I was just about to follow the kids out to the car to get the rest of the groceries when I could feel Jett's hands pull me to face him. "What the hell is all of this shit?"

In the back of my mind, I wondered if Neil had ever heard his parents curse. But I mentally shook my head clear. Then I tried to shrug off his hands. "Nothing. It's just food. A lady wanted to help us out."

Livid. That was the emotion in Jett's eyes as he punched me in the face. I staggered blindly as the pain erased everything else in the world for the first few minutes. But then my mind grew hot with anger. I straightened out, willing the tears to hold off.

"You let some broad to the house?" He was hollering so loud, I was almost sure Mrs. Meyer would hear. "Who the.. the," he started before pausing, trying to find the perfect curse to continue with. He chose several, dosed in acidic tone. "How dare you be so God damn stupid?"

I growled. "She doesn't know anything. She's the mom of one of my friends, and she isn't nosey. If you haven't noticed, you'd be smart to look and see that she is standing at her car, perfectly out of the line of sight into the house."

Jett swore as he went to look. Then he glared at me. "You owe me major, girl. You better expect hell for this."

I clenched my fists. "For what? Accepting help so that my brother and sisters don't starve?"

"No!" He swore thickly again. The kids came in with more groceries. They looked like they were going to freeze, but I turned to them, shaking my head. The twins frowned and Lacey looked tearful, but they turned and left. I turned back to Jett again, who looked furious. "Girl, you did more than accept help. You almost blew a very fragile cover. If you do-"

"Then I will never have to deal with your disgusting presence again."

Jett punched me again. Not nearly as hard, but it certainly hurt. "Don't play with fire, little girl."

"I'm not!" I said, fiercely. "She doesn't suspect anything."

Jett growled. "You better hope to God that you're right. But you still owe me big." Then he turned and went back to the table. Not wanting to mess with him anymore, I ran out to the car, to find the kids had the rest of the groceries.

As the kids headed up for the house, I turned to Mrs. Meyer. "I can't thank you enough for all you've done. You are a God sent."

Mrs. Meyer smiled. "Everyone needs help sometimes." And then she hugged me. It made me feel safe, which made the blinding pain in my face hurt worse. For the first time in a long time, it made me yearn for a mother… A mother whole loved me and cared about me. A mother who was willing to protect me from harm. But I knew I would never have that.

We broke away, and I tried to smile at Mrs. Meyer, to show her I was okay. But the truth was that I was on the verge of tears, and the truth was I was so far from alright that I could hardly even try to lie about it to myself. But Mrs. Meyer didn't ask me anything, even if she did see the pain in my eyes. She just said, "You take care. Come back again soon."

She didn't wait for a response. She just turned and got into her car and drove off. I stood there until she was long gone before I turned to go in the house. Inside, the kids had unwrapped all the food and put up all of the canned and boxed foods. I focused on fitting the freezer and refrigerator goods into our fridge. It was a tight squeeze, but we managed to put away everything.

We all went to bed quietly that night. I lay in bed, my face throbbing. I was exhausted and it was warm from only a recent start of the electricity. Swimming at Neil's seemed so long ago already… I sighed audibly into the complete silence. And for a long time, it seemed to stay this quiet.