"Boy, git out here!" Pa roared. I carefully hid my worn copy of The Meeting of Wolf, my only book, under the dingy mattress. Then I checked on my sister and our pet flying squirrel on the bottom bunk to make sure they were still sleeping and eased myself off the top bunk as quietly as possible. "Boy, I said git out here!" Pa roared again as I slipped past the blanket nailed to the doorframe. I scampered into the filthy trailer kitchen. "Didn't I tell ya to have my dinner ready when I got home?" Pa demanded.
"It's right here, sir," I explained, showing him the mountain of hotdogs I had fixed earlier. They were nestled snugly in their buns and buried in ketchup, mustard, and onions, just how he always ate them.
"Well, I see somethin' missin'," Pa replied, his voice sending a shiver down my spine. I examined the paper plate sitting on top of the stove. Shit, I'd forgotten the sweet relish. I flung open the refrigerator, unable to recall seeing the jar anywhere. Sure enough, we were clean out of relish. "Well?" Pa prompted.
"We don't have any relish, sir," I explained, gesturing toward the nearly-bare refrigerator.
"Well, then why don't you go git some!?" Pa demanded, pulling his wallet from his back pocket and mumbling something about the price of food these days. He flung a ten at me. Catching it, I shoved it into the left pocket of my ripped jeans and headed out the door.
I knew this part of the city well, as I was the errand-runner of the house. I was also the chef, the housekeeper, and the babysitter, but that was beside the point. I knew the city even better in the dark, as I snuck out every so often to get food for Jenny and Nilly while Pa slept off his nightly alcohol binges. I quickly made it to the local Mini Mart and walked inside, dodging a driver all-too-eager to fill up his car with watered-down fuel.
As the door beeped to signal my presence, I checked my cereal-box watch. If I hurried, I could maybe make it back in time to collect Jenny and Nilly and get out for good. I'd been making preparations for months: rescuing a map of the city from a garbage can, squirreling away all the money I got from keeping the change from all the food, booze, and cigarette runs, and salvaging an old hiking backpack Pa was going to throw away. It was still in decent shape, a little torn and stuff, but I figured it was big enough to carry a malnourished baby and a rescued flying squirrel.
Walking quickly, I made it to the section with the relish. I selected a jar, a box of Graham crackers, and a small set of juice boxes. I paid for the stuff with the ten Pa had given me, and walked home with the bags of food. I kept my head down as a homeless Veteran called out to me for money, wishing I had some to spare. "Sorry, man," I muttered to myself as I passed him, "I have to put my sister first. God knows Pa won't."
I stashed the crackers and juice beneath a neighbor's porch with the rest of our food. She was too old to check beneath her porch, so I knew our stash was safe. On the way back to our trailer, I stuffed my pockets with seeds from her bird feeder for Nilly. Taking a deep breath, I entered the trailer with the jar of relish in a bag. Pa was still in the kitchen, tapping his foot impatiently. "There you are, boy! You kept me waiting!" Pa exclaimed.
"Sorry, sir, it won't happen again," I answered. I pulled the jar of sweet relish from the black plastic bag and set it down on the countertop to finish fixing the hotdogs.
That was when I made my grave mistake. The receipt I'd forgotten to ditch fell from the empty bag and fluttered to the cracked linoleum floor. I lunged for it, but Pa picked it up first. He frowned as he read over it, and I contemplated the consequences of running right now and leaving Jenny and Nilly to fend for themselves. No, Pa would surely kill them, either in a drunken rage or by neglect. I had to stay in place and take another beating.
"Where are they?" Pa asked in a low voice.
I decided to play dumb. Wetting my cracked lips, I asked, "Where are what?"
"The other items," Pa elaborated. "Don't play dumb with me, boy. There are two more transactions than what I sent you for. Now, I'll give you one more chance to answer me. Where. Are. They?"
Panicked, I thought up a lie. I just hoped Pa would believe it. "The...the cashier accidentally messed up the transaction and gave me the wrong receipt. Those were bought by the lady in front of me, but they ended up mixed up on my receipt. She voided it, though, so I didn't get charged."
I really hoped Pa wouldn't detect the tremor in my voice as I openly lied. I hated lying, even though it was practically a survival tactic. Mommy had left us after Jenny was born, having died of complications from HIV from getting pricked with a needle. This trailer park was riddled with drug users, and I'd been lucky I hadn't been pricked yet, either. She'd been an amazing woman, never raising a hand to either Jenny or me and never touching a drug or drop of alcohol in her life. She'd even been the one to help me rescue Nilly as a baby when her mother had abandoned her. Pa had drunk himself into a stupor the day of the funeral and had regularly beat on me since. He'd tried to beat on Jenny, once, and I'd taken her beatings from then on.
"Take off your clothes," Pa told me, and I flinched. So he hadn't bought the lie. I'd take the beating and whatever came with it like a good little boy, because tonight, Pa would be drunk, and we would be gone. With my brown eyes trained on the cracked tile, I set my glasses on the counter and pulled my shirt over my head, wincing as it brushed against the wounds from last night's lashing. My belt, pants, and underwear followed, then my socks and shoes, until I was standing before Pa, naked as the day I was born. I silently handed over my belt and went to the couch, bending over so my back and butt were in the air. I just hoped the beating wouldn't come with...the other thing. I was still sore from the last time, and my last bowel movement had come with a concerning amount of blood.
"How many lashes do ya think ya deserve, boy?" Pa asked in a chilling tone.
Gulping, I answered, "Twenty?"
"Very well," Pa replied, and my belt struck my bare ass.
I had the routine down. I yelped just enough to let Pa think the punishment was working and counted each and every lash aloud. In my head, I pictured the thing I wanted most in this fucked up world: Jenny growing up without a hand laid on her, getting a chance to go to school and be a normal, well-adjusted kid, unlike me. I hadn't been well-adjusted in the first ten years I'd been on this planet, and the last year of beatings and rapings certainly hadn't helped. I hadn't even been to school since Mommy died. I should have been ready to start sixth grade by now, but Pa couldn't be bothered to register me. So much the better, though, as it kept me around to keep Jenny and Nilly alive.
After what felt like an eternity, I finally yelped the last number, "Twenty!" Pa dropped the belt and stalked off to the kitchen to polish off his cold hotdogs. Breathing a silent sigh of relief, I shakily got to my feet and retrieved my clothes. "Thank you, Pa," I said, as was the custom. He tossed a single slimy hotdog at my feet as I dressed.
"That's for you and that baby," Pa said as I picked up the dirty hotdog. "I don't wanna see you out of your room tonight. I've got a friend from the bar coming over to play poker, and if he hears any of you, that baby is dead, you got that?"
"Yessir," I replied, swallowing the bile that rose from my stomach. So Pa wasn't going to the bar tonight. There went our escape.
"Good, now git outta my sight, boy," Pa said. "If yer good, I may even bet you," he added with a sickening, yellow-toothed grin. Suppressing a shudder, I slipped past the curtain.
Jenny and Nilly were both awake when I sat down on the edge of the bottom bunk. They hadn't appeared to have moved much. Jenny had merely sat up and wrapped herself and Nilly in her purple baby blanket. I set the hotdog down and pulled a bit of birdseed from my pocket. As Nilly dug into her dinner, I pulled out a tub of baby food for Jenny: strawberry banana. She would likely choke on the hotdog, and Pa knew that. I wasn't sure if he wanted that, or if he simply didn't care. That's why I kept a hidden stash of baby food for her. Before I even fed myself, I twisted open the jar of baby food and dipped my finger into it before sticking it in Jenny's mouth. She didn't make a sound as she polished off the container. Once I knew her little tummy was full, I changed her poopy diaper and finally sat down to eat. I munched on the hotdog and watched the girls play quietly.
I really had only one reason for wanting to run away: I just wanted Jenny and Nilly to have a shot at an actual life. I didn't give a shit about myself, aside from wondering who would be around to care for the girls if I was gone. God knew Pa wouldn't…
I flinched at the knock on the door. Pa got up to get it, and I slowed my breathing, hoping that Jenny and Nilly would remain silent during their poker game. Pa's friends had no idea we existed, and Pa preferred to keep it that way. Glancing over at the girls, I discovered they had both fallen asleep once more. With a small smile, I tucked them in, wrapping them up in the baby blanket so they'd both be warm enough. I kissed Jenny on her bony cheek, then climbed back up to the top bunk and pulled out The Meeting of Wolf once more. I rolled onto my stomach, keeping the pressure off my bleeding ass, and began to read again.