Prologue – Asher
“Come on, Coop,” I whisper. It’s dark in the closet, but I can still make out his huddled form in the back corner. “Come on, Coop. Please. Mom will be back soon and you know she’s gonna be mad if she hears us.”
I shift my body so he can see the cracker box I grabbed from the barren kitchen. Mom never brings us food anymore. I’m lucky that my best friend, Joel, lives close and shares his snacks with us or we wouldn’t eat.
He doesn’t ask questions.
“I’m scared, Ash.”
I ball up my fist when I hear his broken and weak voice. My brother is so small. I just turned ten last week, but I’m bigger. I know Coop is small because he is always scared. Too scared to come out of the closet our mom always makes us stay in.
“We gotta hurry. Move over, ‘kay?”
“’Kay.” His weak voice cracks.
“Are you still cold?” I question.
“Yeah,” he replies weakly.
When I get to the back of the closet, closing the door tightly behind me, I reach out and hand Coop the box. It only has seven crackers in it. They’re old, and I had to get a few roaches out of the box before I brought it back. Coop doesn’t like the bugs that live in the kitchen.
“Don’t you want some?” He holds the box my way, and even though my stomach rumbles, I shake my head no. “You need some too, Ash,” he tries again.
“I’m okay, Coop. I had some before I brought them back. You gotta hurry before mom gets home, okay?”
He nods his head and starts to eat sluggishly. I grab one of the bottles of water Joel gave me last week and hand it to him. His head falls to rest against my shoulder while he takes turns eating and drinking slowly.
He’s getting weaker. He couldn’t get up this morning to go to school. He just kept sleeping, so I stayed home. Mom didn’t even notice. I could hear her throwing up this morning. She’s always throwing up. And drinking the nasty stuff.
I don’t know how long we have been sitting here when I hear the front door bang shut and the sounds of feet stomping around the house. Coop drops the crackers and pulls his legs up to his chest.
“Zachariah Cooper! Where in the hell are you, you little shit?!”
Oh crap. This isn’t going to be good.
“Ash,” he quivers.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.”
I grab some of the old blankets we sleep on and throw them over Coop. I can hear him whimpering when I crawl over to the door and crack it open.
I know she’s coming.
She wouldn’t miss this chance to show Coop how much she hates him.
But I won’t let her. No. I’m a big boy now, and I won’t let her hurt my brother anymore.
I hate seeing Coop scared.
I’m already standing in the middle of the bedroom when she rounds the corner, her yucky clothes that don’t cover her private parts on and her face smudged with old makeup—I know she’s going to be really mean today.
“Where is that little shit? He didn’t go to school again today. Both of you little shits decided to stay home, and now I’ve got the school poking around, asking questions!”
She tries to get around me, but with her tall shoes on, she can’t move quick enough. That’s all the distraction I need for her to focus her attention on me and not on Coop. Just where I want it.