I sharpen my blade. I scorch my face with a knife. Old skin and clipped hairs fall to the floor.
I hear my brother, Twitch, happy-humming a tune in his bathroom next to mine. He’s too young to shave. I’m the one that has to. If I didn’t, it would just be another excuse for our drunk father to bring out his belt and beat me. I bear the pain to make sure he doesn’t touch, Twitch. I’m my dead mother’s kid. My name is Reginald Slay; they call me Irish.
I walk out of my bathroom to a stained air mattress. My life is my pillow, my torn blanket, and a doorless closet with a few empty hangers. The only thing that hangs in there is my ragged, worn-out, black hoodie.
I try to find a white shirt on the floor that isn’t stained with my blood or with Dad’s liquor. I find one that only has a few cig-stick holes, so I can hide last night’s blood bruises from the teachers at school. After putting on a pair of jeans and tying up my boots, I have my breakfast cig-stick. It’s the best part of my day. It’s the best part of my life.
The cig-stick burns to its butt and I place it in an old army canteen I found last year while on a seventh-grade field trip.
“Irish! The bus is here. You coming, Bro?” Twitch asks.
I zip up my hood, grab my pencil and journal, and take my canteen.
It hurts to move, but I fight to turn the doorknob. Twitch is waiting at the door with a fresh backpack and a new pair of headphones.
I walk past him, and he tries to pat me on the back, but I grab his wrist before he hits the part of me that’s raw from last night’s lashing.
Twitch is worn from my beatings, he stays strong if I’m strong. I act like nothing happened.
When we head down our stairs, Dad is passed out on the couch with a wasted cig-stick hanging from his two fingers. I grab his stick and place it in my canteen.
We leave the house. It’s cold as hell outside, but I smile.
“Why you smiling?” Twitch asks as he pulls off his headphones.
“I just…I love Ashton.”
This town is my home.
Twitch points to a few burn holes on the bottom of my shirt, “You better tuck in.”
A rusty, yellow school bus pulls up spewing exhaust as it stops. Children chant through the window.
I notice our regular bus driver, Ms. Baker, is missing. She usually warms our day with a nice, “Good Morning,” but this new driver looks old and kind of creepy. The front rows are scattered with baby-graders. They quiet down as I pass each row.
Rumors of my size and grit came about years ago when I rescued Dad and his cronies from a fire. I saved those fools, and a girl my age from a burning house.
I kept growing, my life kept getting harder, and word got around. I don’t like it, but I’ve become a bit of a leader to these kids. I call them Ashies.
As I pass them, I pat a few on the head, and they act like they’re being touched by some superhero.
I hate being the center of attention, but these kids need something, anything, anyone, to believe in and to look up to .
As we walk down the aisle, we pass Mars and the jocks from Five Points. They’re loud, but they’re funny. Even though sports mean very little to the Valley, when the jocks compete, it feels like we’re getting a taste of the real world.
Sitting alone, with glasses way too big on his face and a hoodie that could eat him, is a kid named Jeremiah. I call him “J”
Girl Ashies sit behind him. My favorite is Christmas Daye. She’s different. Real, natural, and awesome in every way. She’s sitting with Vivian Steele. Viv carries all the power in Ashton because her dad runs the Sugar Sweet Factory, the town’s major employer.
Twitch sits next to our neighborhood friends, Shea and Curly. Hardened by their own lives, they sit in silence. I get my own seat because we can’t fit two kids in a seat when I sit down.
It’s a pain being this big sometimes.
Before my butt touches the seat, Vivian turns around and says, “Hey, Ish. How was your summer, baby?”
“We kissed…once. We’re not dating, Viv. You know I hate when you do that.”
Christmas turns slightly toward me and rolls her eyes when Vivian isn’t looking.
“Yeah, ease off, Easy V,” Mars spouts from a few seats up. The bus echoes with oohs and ahs.
“Sit down!” the bus driver yells.
“Whoa, Irish. Check that out,” Twitch says as we pass Ms. Baker’s house. It looks like her house has been washed out by a landslide. Mountain living can be a risk.
Ms. Baker’s house has been more like a home for all of us than our own houses. When an Ash is cold, or sick, or alone, her door is always open. Now, the door is gone. We see her standing outside, staring at the ruins. Alone.
“Damn, dude,” I say.
Ms. Baker is the town sweetheart. She’s a middle-aged mental health nurse that helps with PTSD. When kids have trouble at home, she opens her doors for relief. Dad is one of her patients. He is Schizo-Affective and has mad PTSD mood swings. She taught me to recognize the signs and has been working with our family for years.
She’s also known for giving out the best homemade cookies on Halloween. Ashies wait the entire year for her Halloween batches. Some want them for the taste, some just love the idea of being baked for, cared for, the sense of feeling at home.
The bus would normally be deafening with drama from school, but as we pass, our hearts crumble like the brick of Ms. Baker’s house. Our home. For the remaining ride to school, the only sound is the rusty brakes of the bus.
The school day is a dead day. We’re all mourning Ms. Baker’s loss. Hours of silence drain the day. I don’t mind because more time at school means less time at home.
The final bell rings and a chill runs through my body because I know what awaits me at home. If we heard the news, so did Dad. And Dad’s answer to anything is a bottle.
I walk down to the Academic Hall and pick up my brother who’s standing with J.
“What’s up, J?” I ask.
“Sick kicks,” he says pointing at my muddy old Timberland boots. “Seriously, dude, wash those puppies up and you got a pair of fresh Tim’s. Those go for a bit online.”
Twitch says, “J is helping me with school. You know art’s my jam, but I can’t do anything else. He may come over a few days.”
“You tell Dad?”
I love the kid, but Twitch is naïve as hell. Dad hates having people over, ever, let alone when the town’s reeling from a loss.
The three of us sprint to the bus and spend the ride catching our breaths.
We get off the bus and, as we approach our cabin, the stale smell of cig-sticks burrows through the air and bombards my nose. Smoke is one of the signs Ms. Baker taught me to prepare for. It’s Dad.
I hold them both back and say, “Twitch, go to J’s house.”
“But…it’s like two miles away.”
“Shut up and go. I have to talk to Dad,” I say as I give him a stern look.
“Damn. C’mon, J. Let’s go,” Twitch says.
I make sure to watch them turn the corner toward J.’s neighborhood. I crack my back and neck; I take a deep breath. I creep to the door, hoping to God he doesn’t hear me.
I step onto our porch and the rickety wood cracks under my feet.
A burly, hard shout: “Who the hell is that?”
He yanks the door open and his silhouette staggers from the living room light. In his left hand, a bottle. His right hand, a belt.
“You here to remind me of her?”
“No, Dad. No…Sir.”
He takes a few gulps out of the handle of whiskey. His eyes tear up after finishing the pull, and he throws up half the liquor.
“Get over here, boy.”
I know what to expect. I know what to think about to ease the pain. I think of Mom. I think of protecting my brother, Twitch.
I make sure he looks me in the eyes as I walk up to him.
He lashes my shoulder with the belt and says, “You should have let me burn in that house.”
He thrashes again at my back. I feel my old wounds tear from their scabs as my body shakes and trembles.
This is longer and worse than before though. I expect a few lashings, but he continues all over my body. He slurs his speech to a single word after each whip of his belt.
I fight with my last bit of strength to move away from another lash. I’m done with this. He swings, misses, and falls off the porch.
“I’m not leaving Twitch with you. You’re going to have to kill me.”
I jump off after him.
I let him stumble up. I watch and wait. I blitz forward, making sure I blast my shoulders into his stomach. I tackle him. One after another, I throw brick-sized, enraged fists at his face. I feel his bones crunch against my knuckles after each blow. He fights back a little, but after a few more jacks in the face, he’s out.
My palms are soaked in blood. I look around for help and see no one. I yell for help and find no one. My adrenaline slows, and pain surges all over my body. I pass out.
My head is bumping when I wake to a soft voice whispering to me, “Get up, now!”
It’s Ms. Baker.
“The ambulance will be here any minute.”
“You may be big, Kid. But you have a lot to learn. Ambulances lead to questions. Questions we don’t have the right answers to. You don’t see it, but I do. The Ashies follow you.”
“The Ashies? They’re just little kids.”
“You’re the reason why they smile. You’re Ashton’s hope. Now, get up.”
I try to use my hands to press up, but my arms give in. “I can’t.”
She shakes my shoulders, and says one word, “Fight.”
It works. Adrenaline surges through my body and I fight my way to a stance. I hear sirens approach.
She whispers, “C’mon. Follow me.”
It feels like we walk miles. She stops and says, “I’m going to need your help with this one.”
She grabs my wrist and places my palm along the trunk of a dead tree. Water rushes below.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Push it down. We need a bridge.”
“I can’t. I can barely move.”
“Look,” she points to an old, abandoned RV hidden in the woods. “I can help you in there, but first we have to get there.”
I use my lasts bit of strength to push the tree trunk down towards the river, and her plan works. The log rests rigid and acts as a bridge for us to cross.
It’s sketch, but we somehow make it to the RV.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but the inside of the RV is disgusting and uninhabitable. Weeds and greenery grow all over the furniture. Dirt and mud cover the floor, and I hear a few squeaks of scampering field mice.
“This is where you’re going to live?”
“It’s not my choice. You better sit down,” she says.
She clears a spot on an old couch, reaches inside a bag, and pulls out bandages, gauze, and some aspirin. She starts wrapping my right wrist and says, “I can’t believe he did this to you.”
“I’m so stupid. I can’t be taken away. Twitch needs me. Dad is sick.”
She blots the torn skin on my back with a sanitized wipe. It stings.
“I knew your dad when we were younger,” she says. “He was different. Sober, of course. And he loved your mom.”
“You knew Mom?”
“Your mom wasn’t around until later, but I went to school with your dad.”
“Different, huh? I can’t picture Dad without a belt and bottle.”
“PTSD does that. When your mother died while giving birth to you, he died with her. He’s an evil shell of a once great man.”
“It sounds like you want me be sympathetic.”
“Oh, honey, no. Your dad is a mess, for sure. No matter how bad things are one never puts their hands on a child. But a family always looks past the pain. Tonight, I’m your family.”
“Ms. Baker, I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”
“I see you with the kids when you give them your batch of my cookies. There’s something special about you and I won’t let you give that up.”
“I’m just a kid.”
“Look… my house just got crushed. Everyone deals with their own pain. Yours is extreme, so is your father’s.”
She wraps the final bandage around my shoulder, “It’s okay, Reginald.”
“How’d you know my name? My real name?”
“I was your mother’s nurse when she gave birth to you. When she named you. When she died with you in her arms. It was one of the worst days of my life.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. You should never have to say anything. You saved your dad, his friends, and especially the little girl from that hellacious fire. Saving lives doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when it’s a kid, by himself, saving people from a burning house.”
“Anyone would have done that.”
“Sure, Kid. Because everyone is big enough to carry out limp bodies.”
“I’m not afraid to die.”
She takes a deep breath, and lets out a sigh, “You’re too young to think like that.”
“Well, most Ashies have to deal with stuff they’re too young for. I’m just…just…”
“Sure, okay, maybe Ashies look up to me from time to time. But that doesn’t mean anything; they’re just kids.”
“There’s something about this Valley. Ashton needs someone like you.”
“I can’t explain it, but when things go bad here, in the darkest of dark, there’s always a light. My world is underneath mud and rock. Right now, you’re my light.”
Dogs bark in the distance.
“You better get going, kid.”
“I have nowhere to go.”
“Follow the creek a few hundred yards down and you’ll find a spot to wash up. Act like you’re walking home. Everyone in this town is used to you hiding your bruises, so suspicion will be low.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be fine. It’s me. They won’t touch me. Just remember, you’ll always have somewhere to go now.”
After the aspirin kicks in, I speed up to a slow jog. I do exactly as Ms. Baker says, and she’s right, there’s a public bathroom next to a bridge. I wash up and begin my trek home, but I don’t feel like I’m in this fight alone anymore.
I walk up to our cabin and it’s aglow in red and blue lights. Twitch stands with an emergency responder. As I approach them, he turns, and runs to me grasping me like a lost teddy bear. I wince in pain.
“Bro, what happened man? Dad is knocked out. Like, really out.”
“Did they see you? Did you say anything?”
“Yeah right, Bro. I’m surprised the ambulance even showed up after the daily amount of calls from this neighborhood.”
I tell him: “I went for a walk after he beat the hell out of me. Looks like a cougar mauled him or something. Let’s just get inside,” I say, eyeing the emergency responders nearby.
Dad lies on a stretcher and is being propped into an ambulance. We watch as the lights and Dad drift away into the darkness. It hurts, but I raise my hand to pat Twitch on the shoulder and say, “Well, looks like we get the place for the night.”
Twitch asks, “What are we going to do?”
I look down the path that leads to Ms. Baker’s RV. I say, “I have an idea.”
I explain to Twitch what really went down while we walk to Ms. Baker’s RV. The conversation is so heavy, we don’t even notice our walk over the death-defying log. I approach the door and knock. There’s no answer at first, so Twitch and I start heading back home. Then, I hear the creak of a door swinging open.
“Hello?” she asks.
“Hi Ms. Baker, sorry. We thought you were gone, or something, we were just about to leave,” I say.
“We? Who’s we?”
“Me and my brother, Twitch.” I gesture toward my brother.
She looks at him, noticing how he’s physically the complete opposite of me. She says, “Brothers? From the same mother?”
“Hey!” Twitch says.
I smack him in the arm to shut up.
“Ouch! Fine, whatever.”
“No, but seriously,” Ms. Baker asks. “What are you doing back here?”
I say, “Ms. Baker, you saved me tonight. But you save us Ashies every year. The smell of your baking always makes us feel at home and for most of us, that’s a once-in-a-year feeling.”
She tears up, and says, “Jesus, kid.”
Twitch says, “He’s right, Ms. Baker. We count down the days to Halloween like it’s Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, the cookies taste amazing, but your baking to us is more than just taste. It’s something to look forward to. Something to be happy about.” Twitch shakes his head, “And now, with your house gone, the tradition is gone too.”
“Not yet,” I say. “Ms. Baker, this RV is a dump. We can’t let you stay here. You and I both know Dad will be in rehab for a few weeks. You’re staying with us, instead.” By the time we make it back home, we’re so tired from the day’s events that all three of us fall asleep right there, on the living room couch.
I wake to the smell of warm, buttery, cinnamon rolls. Twitch and Ms. Baker sit in peace at the kitchen table.
I sit down, and Ms. Baker asks, “Want one?”
Twitch says with a stuffed mouth, “Bro, you have no idea. I have had like six.”
I take a bite, and it’s amazing. The buttery cream oozes through the warm roll and the cinnamon is perfectly balanced. I’ve never had something this…this good.
Icing slips from my mouth as I say, “Thank you, Ms. Baker.”
“Well, you two better go get ready for school.”
We only have a few minutes, so I don’t have to have my morning smoke, but that’s okay because my stomach is full, and I don’t remember the last time I had a full stomach.
Before we head out the door, Ms. Baker hands each of us a paper bag lunch. The gesture overwhelms both me and Twitch.
Twitch swallows her with a hug and asks, “You’re not going to stay with us?”
“My home is your home. Even if it is an RV.” She kisses Twitch on the cheek and scrubs some left over lipstick with her thumb. She finishes with a gleeful smile and says, “You have your brother. You will always have your brother.”
The three of us embrace over our homemade lunch.
We get on the bus and the sight of us carrying lunches brings the chatter to a halt. Nobody ever brings a lunch from home. Envy and jealousy aren’t present in this silence. The Ashies know that there’s only one person in all of Ashton generous enough for something like this.
As we sit down, the bus rumbles. It takes only seconds for Vivian to turn around and ask, “Hey Ish, so where’d you get that lunch?”
Christmas answers for me, “It’s from Ms. Baker, of course”
“I don’t know what to do with it,” I say honestly.
Christmas pulls out her phone and grabs the bag from my hand. She opens it, and takes a few pictures for me. She hands me her phone and says, “Now it’s more than a memory.” .
“Sucks what happened to her house, man,” Mars jumps through the aisle from a few seats up. “Five Points loves Ms. Baker.”
Our other two friends, Curly and Shea, don’t say much but chime in with a couple, “for- sures.”
“I know what you’re saying fellas,” I say. “We have to do something.”
Twitch asks, “What the hell are a few Ashies going to do?”
I say, “A few aren’t going to do much. But if we could get everyone involved, maybe come up with something.”
A small voice crawls from J’s seat in front of me. “I’ll help.”
“With what?” I ask.
“If you get the wood, I can map out a reconstruction plan,” J says.
“Dude, that’s sick,” Mars says as he gives him a slick shake of the hand. “You’re that smart. Dope.”
J says, “I can’t do anything without supplies. So, you need to get the supplies.”
Mars nods, “I can get my people from Five Points.”
Vivian says, “Christmas and I can get some tools and stuff from my dad’s factory.”
I take a heavy breath and say, “I’ll get the wood.”
I drive the blade of my axe into the trunk of the tree.
The blade sticks. But I pry it out.
I use my leg to push the tree over.
The tree, along with all the other trees around my house have been dead for years from beetle-kill. It’s exhausting. I look behind me, and I am proud of myself at the sight of a pile of logs.
I ditch some days from school to finish the wood supply for Ms. Baker’s home. The work is laborious, but she deserves it. Ms. Baker is a beacon in this town. We can’t lose her.
Dad’s recovery is sooner than expected. With rehab, we only have a few weeks. And snow falls soon. Ms. Baker’s RV won’t hold up a month.
The next day, I wake up to the sound of bustling murmurs outside my window. I look outside, and the entire town is here, to help rebuild Ms. Baker’s home.
Twitch opens the door and jumps on my bed. “Bro, let’s get started! Everyone is here.”
Even though Ashton is poor, the people bring anything they can. Even if it’s a few sandwiches and some canned soup to feed those working. The thought makes me so proud of my town.
It takes a week or so, but, with the entire town helping and J’s blueprints, we’re able to get the job done just in time.
Morning birds chirp as I walk along the slow running creek up to Ms. Baker’s RV. I knock and she calls out, “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Irish.”
She opens the door and she looks like she’s been through weeks of hell. Her hair is unkempt and dreaded in knots. Her face and fingers are covered in dirt. She covers up a moth-eaten nighty and says, “Good morning, Sweetie. Nice beard.”
“Thanks. Haven’t shaved in days.”
“Why do I have the honor of your young, lovely presence so early this morning?”
Even in a midst of her own misery, she finds a way to be warm to me.
“I want to show you something. We want to show you something.”
I move over and behind me is the entire town scattered amongst the trees.
“What’s this?” she asks.
“Come with me, Ms. Baker.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second…let me put my face on.”
She shuts her door, and I can hear her rustling around. When she reappears, her hair’s in a pony-tail, she’s put on her nurse’s uniform, and she’s covering up with a shawl. I guide her up the path to my house and past it a few hundred yards to her new home.
Her hands tremble as she covers her mouth. “How? …When? Did you do this?” she asks.
“You’re a mother to our family, Ms. Baker. We need you, just as much as you need us,” I say.
She approaches the cabin, and Dad stands in front of the door holding his red AA token attached to a ring of gold and green keys. After weeks of rehab, he’s finally sober.
“Here,” he says. “The gold one is for you. The green one is for our place. You’re welcome any time.”
She walks in and it’s simple, just a few old couches and a fireplace. Ms. Baker is overcome with emotion. “This…is…perfect,” she says.
“We’re going to let you get settled, Ms. Baker,” I say.
“By myself? No, Sweetie, it’s time to celebrate.” She turns around Ashes and Ashies stand in respect. “I’m so honored to be an Ash,” she says. “I wake up every day wondering what I did to get here, but whatever I did, I’m glad it happened. I love all of you. This is the best family I could have ever asked for.” She shakes her new keys and says, “Now, what kind of breakfast should I make today?