Chapter 22: Four Years

I hated it in the halfway house, it wasn't how it was supposed to be at all. Even Jen admitted her erroneous representation of the dull building. It was a small building that was run by a large woman with very long hair whose name I could never remember. There were four other kids there, three of whom were maybe three or four years old and one who had to be at least sixteen. None of them wanted anything to do with us.

Desmond even admitted that he didn't like it and that he wanted to go home. But we couldn't. It felt like a prison.

I didn't know why, because whenever Jen came to visit us, she wouldn't tell us a damn thing. She wouldn't even tell us when we would be leaving. Madison and Mikey came to see us a few times, but it was a long drive down.

The friendliest person there was Dave, the man who made all of our food. While he wasn't exceptionally good at cooking, he was very nice and surprisingly young. I eventually learned that he'd been raised in the halfway house until he was eighteen, when he was offered to stay on as a cook. Apart from Dave, I spoke only to the fat woman and to Desmond. Desmond spoke to no one but me.

If anything, my brother seemed worse there than he ever had been at home.

I felt bad about being right, to be honest. I'd hoped that this would be a place where we could be happy, but we were proved wrong. Our days were long and boring, mostly spent in front of the TV or longing to be outside. Some days we were allowed to "play" in the "yard", but it was even more depressing outside on the four-foot-square patch of brown grass in the back than it was inside the grey, drab building.

Each time our social worker came, we begged her to go home, to go back to our regular lives. This wasn't where we belonged at all, I would tell her. She felt bad about our situation, she would say, but there was nothing she could do about it until more paperwork went through. I always tried to get her to spit it out, I'd say, "What paperwork?!" but she would never tell us.

Then suddenly, one day, Jen came to talk to us and informed us that we would finally be going home. We packed our bags, said goodbye to Dave and the fat woman and just like that, that chapter of our life was suddenly over.

We didn't go back to our dad's house, though. Thankfully, we went to our true home: Mikey's. I expected Desmond to protest staying with the Lincolns and beg Jen to let us go back to "normal", but he accepted it silently.

After a week of staying with Mikey and his grandparents, I couldn't stand not being told what was happening as if I were four years old.

"When are we going back to Dad's?" I asked Madison over breakfast one morning.

She looked slightly taken aback. "I'm not sure, hun. Probably not for a while."

This surprised everyone, Mikey included. He said, "Why?" It seemed that we all expected this to be a short-lived detour in our lives, whereas Madison knew it wasn't.

Mrs. Lincoln sighed and looked up from her plate of toast. Her soft eyes met mine for a moment before she stood up and went to clear her plate. "Because Mr. Carpenter..." I'd never heard him addressed like that. It felt weird. " going to court."

"What?" I said in disbelief, "Why? When?"

"Tomorrow. Daniel and I will be there, but I don't want you two going," she finished with a voice sterner than when she'd started. Madison rinsed the plate and sat down. "I'm sorry, boys, I know this is a lot for you two to handle, and you're so young. It isn't fair."

I digested this for a moment, wondering why Desmond and I couldn't go to the court with them. "What is he going to court for?" I decided to ask instead.

"Child abuse and neglect."

Desmond looked like he wanted to cry. I let him squeeze my arm in anxiety for a moment.

"What would be the sentence?" I said.

Mrs. Lincoln wasn't fazed. "Four years in prison."

That hit me. I couldn't believe it, really. I'd never really made the connection between his actions and repercussions because there hadn't been any, at least before. I couldn't say anything. Des looked as put-out as me, unable to process this information. His nails dug into my wrist.

Finally, Mikey said, "Don't worry."

"Huh?" I said.

He smiled at me. "It'll be okay, I know it will. We can be brothers!"

After a moment, I broke into a grin. "Yeah! We can live together forever."

Mikey launched into an innocent rambling monologue about all the benefits of us staying with him, stating that he'd always wanted siblings and that we were the best brothers he could ever have.

Even Desmond turned up a small smile.

The next few days were heartbreaking. There was no hard evidence, and Mrs. Lincoln and the lawyers didn't want us to be in the courtroom – not that Desmond would stand for it anyway. As such, our dad got off scot free.

I didn't know if it was the depressing outcome, the worry of moving back in with him or simple bad luck, but Desmond got very sick all of a sudden. Madison said it was the stomach flu. I asked why we weren't sick and she realized that it was more likely to be food poisoning. Again, "Why aren't we sick?" I asked. Mrs. Lincoln didn't know. I briefly wondered if he might've been faking just to avoid going back to our dad's, but I couldn't see my brother making himself throw up and faking a fever, it just wasn't in his personality. He stayed in bed at Mikey's for a few days, too sick to do anything. I worried about him day in and day out and I, too, seemed unable to do anything without knowing Desmond was alright. I wondered if this was what Desmond had felt like when I'd been sick with pneumonia. It was a great relief when he got better, even though it meant that we would then have to go home. "Home".

"Hi, Dad," I said as Mrs. Lincoln stepped into the house. He stirred in the living room and slowly migrated to the kitchen. My heart leapt into my throat just imagining how furious he would be with us.

He scowled at Madison and then to us. "Fuckers," he spat, mostly to us. Back to Madison: "You fuckin' bitch, you know you're not puttin' me away for nothin'!" he was only slightly inebriated. I wasn't sure if that should make me thankful or not.

Mikey's grandmother didn't say anything.

"Get the fuck outta my house!" he roared suddenly, his eyes turned into a shocking, piercing glare. His sagging face went blank as Madison kissed us on our foreheads and left without a single word. Her apology was in her sad expression. I didn't blame her; she'd done all she could've.

In a rare moment of lucidity, our father left us alone. He sauntered away to his armchair in the living room and we hurried upstairs before he changed his mind.

The next few weeks were, for some reason, surprisingly without harassment. The two of us had expected our dad to be enraged that he'd been sent to court, but if anything, he just seemed grateful not to have been convicted. He seemed to have been scared straight.

Desmond was better, at least. Our dad ignoring us was significantly better than our dad beating the shit out of us every time we walked in the door. My brother was as happy as he could be – which, admittedly, wasn't as happy as most ten-year-olds, but I would take it.

But it wouldn't last, I was sure. Of course it wouldn't.