By the time I was in the third grade I knew two things for sure.
First, breathing was easier when I knew my brothers were safe. Like right now. I sat with four of my five brothers, scrunched together like peas in a pod on the queen mattress our daddy had rescued from the dump. Our youngest brother, Wyatt, was only two and lay in a playpen next to us trying to suck his big toe.
“Why is daddy mad?” Gray asked as glass shattered on the other side of the door making us all jump.
Because the sun rose. Because mama got paid so daddy got drunk. Because the social worker came two days ago which meant she wouldn’t visit again for months.
None of that would make a lick of sense to my youngest brothers. I looked over the heads of my little brothers at Asher, who was seven to my eight. Asher knew. But Eli, Gray, and Ryker were too little.
The yelling got louder, almost as loud as when the tropical storm rumbled through the trailer park last summer. Eli’s body trembled up against mine, and I wrapped my arm around him tight.
“Hey, did I tell you guys what happened at recess today? Suzy Baker forgot she had a dress on”—crash—“and did a cartwheel”—you fucking bitch—”and everyone saw her pink underwear.”
Asher looked over at me with a single nod as our little brothers snickered and giggled.
“Gross,” Eli said. Eli was five and everything was gross to him. Mama said it was a phase.
“Yeah, gross,” Ryker and Grayson, both four but ten months apart, echoed Eli.
“Girls are dumb,” Asher added his wisdom just as the bedroom door slammed open.
I shoved my body in front of my little brothers, whipping my head around to the door. My heart pounded up against my chest, only to calm down at the sight of mama.
Our beautiful mama, even with an eye swollen shut and an angry red handprint slapped on her left check and both arms. I’d seen my mama like this before. The suitcase in her hand—that was new. I hadn’t seen that before.
“Boys—I’m leaving. Your daddy’s a mean son-of-a-bitch, and I can’t take it anymore.”
I watched a single tear roll down her bruised cheek as she looked around the room, avoiding our faces.
I had a bad feeling that started like an earthquake in my stomach. Jumping up, I grabbed onto her arm. “You can’t! Mama, you can’t!”
“I have to. You hear me, Beck?” She grabbed me by the shoulders, shaking me so hard my teeth cracked together. “I have to.”
“Can we have pancakes when you get back, mama?” Ryker asked.
Her hands dropped from my shoulders and her eyes finally met mine and I knew—she wasn’t planning on coming back. It was like a big gaping pit opened up between us and just maybe I fell in.
“I’m counting on you, Beckett. You take care of your brothers.” Her green eyes darted around frantically and then she was gone.
That was the day I knew the second thing: don’t count on love.
Two days later when our daddy sobered up after his pay-day binge and realized mama was gone, he’d gone into a rage. And that rage set the pattern for the next three years. Daddy was a mean, ugly drunk. I went to bed every night praying and wishing for something to change. That something would stop the life we were stuck in.
I tried to protect my brothers. Most of the time I succeeded and had the bruises and cuts to show for it. Sometimes I didn’t. It was one of those times and a broken bone that finally brought the change I’d been wishing for.
Too bad no one had taught me that expression, be careful what you wish for…