Brat Smith waited. He wanted to make sure that Stephen Baxter would be the one serving him. Stephen was the reason he tried to schedule his shopping trips for after school and weekends. When the opportunity arose, Brat stepped forward.
"G'day, Brat. How are you today?"
"G'day, Stephen. I'm good." Brat started to unload the basket of fruit and vegetables.
Stephen smiled. "You've got more than usual. What happened?"
Brat bristled but made sure it didn't appear on his face. He didn't like people prying into his personal life, even someone like Stephen whom he had known on and off for several years. They had shared classes at various times and were on a nodding acquaintance, but Brat didn't like to let anyone get too close. "Mum got her welfare payment."
What Brat didn't add was that he had gotten to the bank first, and had used the card that his mother thought she'd lost to withdraw some money. She had left it with Brat to cancel the old card – something he had conveniently forgotten to do. He had been skimming money from the account regularly for over a year, putting some of the money away 'for a rainy day' as his grandmother used to say, and using the rest to try to ensure there was food for his younger brother and sister.
"I didn't see you at school today," Stephen said as he started to weigh the goods.
Brat shrugged. "I didn't go. Sheila wasn't feeling well, so I stayed home to look after her." It was a useful excuse as Sheila had an ear infection every couple of weeks, even though on that particular day it was a lie. As was often the case, his baby sister had been left with Mrs. Donaldson from down the road. Brat had used the time to mow the lawn for Mrs. Donaldson as payment for the baby sitting, and then had run errands for some of the old ladies on the street. Picking up groceries and posting letters didn't take him long, but they were difficult tasks for those who could move around only with the aid of a walking frame. He'd had a good day and had earned more than usual.
Stephen paused and stared at Brat. "Again? Have you taken her to the doctor?"
Brat bit back a 'mind your own business' response and started putting the items that had been processed into a box. "What would they say? All they ever do is prescribe some expensive medicine that we can't afford." Brat neglected to say that his family had a healthcare card that allowed them cheaper drugs. He occasionally managed to wheedle extra cash out of someone by playing the sympathy card about medical expenses.
Stephen resumed his work. Brat kept his smile to himself as he realised that, yet again, Stephen had missed one of the bags – tomatoes that time. It was one of the reasons he wanted Stephen to serve him. The guy was supposed to be some sort of genius at school, but Brat wondered why his parents' greengrocer business didn't go broke with the mistakes that Stephen regularly made when he was serving. Brat thought Stephen was a nice guy – always quick with a kind word – but in Brat's world nice guys finished last.
"But what if she really needs it? You should at least get her checked out. Didn't you tell me once that the doctor bulk bills you? It wouldn't cost you anything for her to be seen."
Brat kept the conversation going. He had noticed that Stephen made more mistakes when he was distracted. Stephen seemed to like talking to Brat, and Brat took unashamed advantage of that fact. "If she's still not well, I may take her tomorrow. Getting an appointment's a pain, though. I often have to wait around half the day before I get to see someone."
"Just ring and show up at whatever time they tell you."
Brat didn't answer. The phone had been one of the first things to go when he realised he had to look after the family. His mother spent too much of her time either drunk or zoned out on some sort of drug to do anything. Over the three years since Sheila was born, Brat had taken on more and more responsibility as his mother slipped farther and farther away from reality. The only saving grace for Brat was that his mother hadn't found herself another useless boyfriend to complicate matters. His own father had disappeared soon after Brat was born, and Guy's father was still in prison. Brat wasn't sure who Sheila's father was – his mother had had a series of very short relationships around that time.
"That's twenty-one eighty-five," Stephen said.
Brat pulled out his wallet and gave Stephen a twenty and a five. He watched like a hawk as Stephen put the notes in the till and slipped out some coins.
"Here's your change. Have a nice day, Brat, and I hope Sheila's feeling better tomorrow."
Brat snatched the coins before Stephen could have a good look at them. He had noticed that Stephen had given him a couple of two-dollar coins instead of a one and a two, and he didn't want the other boy to realise. "Thanks, Stephen. Yeah, I hope so, too. Maybe, I'll see you at school."
"That'll be good. Bye!"
Brat darted out. The free tomatoes and the extra dollar in change would help him stretch the meagre amount of money in his wallet.
* * *
Brat watched Sheila play in the corner of the living room that was 'her' corner. He didn't let her play outside if he wasn't able to supervise. The area of Melbourne where their current Housing Commission home was located wasn't a good place for a young child to be playing outside by herself. That meant that Sheila ended up spending most of her time inside, and she had adopted one area as her own little fantasy world.
Brat frowned. Sheila had developed a runny nose, usually a precursor to another ear infection. As a precaution, he gave her the last of the medicine left over from an earlier infection. He then collected his younger brother and headed to the kitchen to start preparing their dinner of mashed potatoes, carrots and beans. The two boys were peeling the potatoes when there was a knock at the door.
"Do you want me to get that?" Guy asked.
Brat shook his head. "I'll get it. You finish off the potatoes and carrots and put them on the stove." He wanted his ten-year-old brother out of things as much as possible. A knock on the door was almost always bad news. If their mother had lost her key she'd be yelling, not knocking. Salesmen didn't come to their place – the rundown state of the front yard was enough to tell them it would be a waste of their time. That left fanatics and the authorities – neither of which would make Brat happy.
It turned out to be the authorities. If there had been two guys, Brat may have suspected the Jehovah's Witnesses, but a single guy in a suit was generally from some government department.
"Who is it?" Brat called out through the security door. The lock was broken, but a nail through the frame did just as well, as long as the person on the other side didn't know that they could pull the nail through from the outside of the door frame.
"Is your mother home?" The middle-aged man had a thin, reedy voice. He tried to peer through the wire screen, but Brat knew that he would only be able to see a vague outline.
"Why should I tell you?"
"Are you Brad Smith?"
Brat smiled. The one good thing about his name was the way people would misread it as either Brad or Brett. It gave him the excuse to lie without being caught.
"You've got the wrong house. There's no one by that name here. Fuck off and leave us alone."
Brat closed the door. He waited and, as expected, the guy knocked again.
Brat opened the door. "I told you to fuck off!"
"My name is Chris James, from the Department of Education. A year nine student by the name of Brad Smith of this address has been consistently truant. If you're not Brad, then I'm afraid I need to speak to your mother. If she's not home, I'll wait until she is."
Brat gnawed at his lower lip as his thoughts raced. "Nice try, but if you were really from the government, you would've shown some sort of ID when you first spoke. You're probably some sort of pervert who just wants to take advantage of a young guy who's alone. Fuck off now before I call the cops."
Brat mentally crossed his fingers, hoping his bluff would work. He thought it was doubtful that the man outside would know they didn't have a phone.
The man held up something. "Here's my ID. Now, please open this door!"
"No fucking way! I can't see that properly through the screen, and I'm not opening it up so you can jump me. I've heard about your sort. You've got one minute before I call the police."
Brat slammed the door and then went to the window to watch. After a couple of minutes of uselessly knocking on the door, the man turned around and left. Brat breathed a sigh of relief. It would make life very difficult for the family if he was forced to go back to school. He needed that time to earn extra money to make sure his brother and sister had something to eat.
"I've finished," Guy said as he walked into the living room. "Who was that?"
"No one important," Brat said, his forehead still wrinkled with worry. He smiled. "Let's get dinner cooking. I'm starving!"
Guy had finished his dinner, Brat had helped Sheila eat hers, and was finishing off his own while dreaming of a nice juicy piece of meat – any sort, he wasn't fussy – when the front door was flung open.
"BRAT! What have you been up to, you little bastard?"
Brat swallowed his mouthful of mashed potatoes. "Nothing, Mum!" He got up and headed out to see his mother.
He didn't need to see the wild look to know she was drunk. She was always drunk on welfare payment day, and for several days afterwards. What he hadn't expected to see was the man standing next to her, Chris James from the Department of Education.
"This man tells me you've been skipping classes again." Belinda Smith glared at her eldest boy.
Brat kept a wary eye on Mr. James. He had already noticed the shocked expression as the man from the government took in the pigsty-like appearance of the living room. Brat had once been given some crayons for Sheila to play with, and the walls still showed the result. There were empty beer cans, discarded wrappers and the occasional piece of rotten fruit on the floor. One prominent carpet stain was the legacy of a streaking episode by Sheila, who then failed to make it to the potty. Brat had tried to clean it up as best he could, but he couldn't afford to buy carpet cleaner to do the job properly. Other stains on the carpet and furniture were from his mother throwing up after a drinking binge – something that happened regularly.
Sheila was playing with Guy in the only moderately clean section, but Brat knew that if the wrong thing was said, there would be a report to the Department of Human Services with a recommendation that the children be taken away. He was afraid that it was already too late. They had received such a threat before, and it had taken a lot of fancy footwork by Brat's grandmother to prevent the children from going to foster homes. Unfortunately, the old lady had passed away earlier in the year and wouldn't be able to stop another attempt.
"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" Belinda Smith asked.
Brat shrugged. He couldn't say he'd stayed home to look after Sheila and to work for money to keep them in food. That would guarantee the disaster that was looming. He wanted his family kept together, though he consciously excluded his mother from that group. As far as he was concerned, he and his siblings were the family unit.
"That's it. You're grounded!" Belinda turned to Chris James. "There. All taken care of. If he knows what's good for him, he'll be at school tomorrow."
Brat stood there impassively. The grounding didn't mean anything – his mother never cared what he did as long as he didn't interfere in her life.
Chris frowned. "That's all very well, Mrs. Smith, but I've got more concerns than just his absence." His nose wrinkled as he glanced over at where Guy was playing with Sheila. "I'd like to know why he hasn't been attending school, why you didn't know about it, why these children have been left alone until after six at night, and why they have been left in these conditions!"
Belinda raised a fist and stuck it under Chris's nose. He took an involuntary step backwards.
"Don't you come around here in your fancy suit and tell me how to raise my kids! I've been doing fine by myself for fifteen years – I don't need you telling me what to do."
"Be that as it may, I –"
"Get out! Get out!" Belinda advanced, forcing Chris to back away again. "And don't come back!"
As soon as he was out of the door, she slammed it closed and turned to Brat. "Damn government. Always interfering."
Brat smiled. "Good one, Mum." He wasn't sure it was good, but he knew he had to humour her.
"Don't you start on me, young man. This is all your fault – if you'd been going to school like you're supposed to, they wouldn't have a reason to come here."
Brat stayed silent. There was no point arguing with his mother, especially when she was drunk.
"...and don't forget to go to school today, you lazy sonofabitch."
"Yes, Mum." Brat waited patiently. His mother was on her way out to find her drinking buddies, and it wouldn't be long before he could get things organised for the day.
After a couple more admonishments that he dutifully acknowledged as he instantly forgot them, Brat was left alone. He sighed as he turned back into the house. Sheila had been coughing throughout the night. He knew from the way she was shaking her head when he went in to check on her that she had developed another ear infection. That meant another trip to the chemist. At least he still had one more repeat available on her script, or he'd have to organise a doctor's visit for a new prescription.
His problem was how to get to the chemist, return with drugs, give his sister some medicine, and still get to school on time. His first preference was to skip school, but he didn't think it would be wise. He thought about the options while he filled a large saucepan of water and put it on the stove. Sheila needed a wash every day, and he felt it cruel to subject her to a cold shower – the only sort available since their hot water system had stopped working. Guy and Brat only had showers occasionally, though Brat tried to make sure Guy had at least one a week.
"Guy, I need your help. Can you get Sheila ready and take her to Mrs. Donaldson? I need to go to the chemist."
"Sure, but can you pack her bag? And what about my lunch?"
Brat grinned. "Thanks. Yeah, I'll do that now and then head off. There's a tomato sandwich in the fridge and grab an apple from the basket. Thanks, mate. You're a lifesaver."
Brat threw together the things that his baby sister would need for the day and then disappeared into his room. He reached behind his bed and found the small cardboard box where he kept his savings. He pulled out a couple of notes and then headed out the door. The chemist opened early and, if he was lucky, he would be able to get Sheila's prescription filled, drop it off at Mrs. Donaldson's, and still get to school on time.
When Brat arrived, there were no other shoppers in the store. He advanced to the dispensing desk and handed over Sheila's old prescription. The chemist, a young lady with long black hair that Brat hadn't seen before, frowned.
"This isn't for you. I'm not sure if I can fill this without some sort of authority from one of your parents."
"Come on, please! I've got to get to school and there's no way I can get home and back again in time. I've picked up drugs for my family before. What's different about this time?"
The chemist contemplated Brat for a moment. He knew what she saw – a teenager in an oversized flannel shirt, jeans with multiple holes, and runners that were mud coloured because they'd been worn every day for over six months. At least the shirt was moderately clean. He had bought both of his shirts at a second-hand sale two months prior, and was hoping they would last until summer, when he would be able to go topless.
"The problem is what you've just said. We've had reports that gangs are collecting medicines and then turning them into illegal drugs. We're no longer allowed to dispense certain drugs without proper ID."
Brat slammed a fist on the bench between them. "Fuck it! My baby sister's ill and you're fucking telling me that I can't have the fucking medicine? Do you want her to die?"
The lady crossed her arms. "Don't be stupid. No one wants that. Get your mum to pick up the drugs, or get her to sign the authority so you can collect them. Until then, no."
Brat was ready to wring her neck. He forced himself to pick up the prescription slip and turn away.
Brat stopped when he heard his name and glanced back over his shoulder to see the owner standing by the younger chemist. Brat forced a smile onto his face. "Hi, Mrs. Hissop."
Mrs. Hissop smiled. "What do you need, Brat?"
Brat rushed back and pulled the prescription out of his back pocket. "I need this for Sheila. She's got another ear infection."
"We're not allowed to dispense the drugs, Mrs. Hissop. He's underage."
"Normally, yes, Mary, but welcome to the real world. This isn't a textbook situation. For all essential purposes, Brat here is the sole parent in his home. He's the only one in his family with any sense of responsibility. If we don't dispense them to him, they won't get dispensed at all." Mrs. Hissop glanced at Brat. "I'll have this for you in about five minutes."
"Thanks, Mrs. Hissop!"
Brat ran through the school gate as the bell started to sound. He didn't bother going to his locker, as there was nothing in there, but headed straight to his homeroom.
"Brat! Over here."
Brat gave Stephen a grin. He knew he needed to keep on Stephen's good side, so there was no point in offending the guy who was just trying to be friendly. Brat didn't like being told what to do, and he would have preferred to take a seat at the back, but sitting next to Stephen in the middle of the room was an acceptable compromise.
"I'm glad you made it. You've been missing a lot, lately."
Brat shrugged. He tried to think of something to say, but couldn't come up with anything that would neither sound trite nor reveal more than he wanted to say.
"Are you doing anything at lunchtime?" Stephen asked.
"Nothing special. Why?"
"Some of the guys are going to have a footy match. I was going to go watch and I wondered if you'd like to come too?" Stephen paused. "I remember you used to play football a lot."
Brat pulled a face. That subject brought back memories he preferred not to recall. He had enjoyed the game and it had been tough to give it up. "Yeah, but that was years ago."
"Why did you stop playing?"
Brat snapped. He was stressed with worry about Sheila, and Stephen's constant chatter and questions pushed him over the line.
"Because it costs too fucking much! When I've got a choice between footy boots and food on the table, football comes a distant last! I'm not like you, Stephen. I don't have parents who'll buy me whatever I fucking want. I don't even have parents who'll buy me what I fucking need! I've only got myself, and I've got my brother and sister to look after. Do you know what it means for me to come to school today? It means one less fucking meal on the table because I can't earn any money while I'm here. It means I'm going to have to find another way to make sure my family has enough food to eat. Now, why don't you just fuck off and leave me alone!"
Brat had the momentary pleasure of watching Stephen rock backwards. He also noticed a lot of wide-eyed students staring at him.
"Do you think you're the only one who's got it tough, Brat?" Stephen glared for a moment before relaxing his expression into one of polite frustration. "I haven't gone through it myself, but I had a foster sister who was so badly hurt by what she'd been through that she ended up killing herself. Spare me the horror stories – I've heard enough of them to know you don't have things easy. That doesn't mean you've got to make it harder for yourself."
Brat realised he might have said too much. He couldn't afford to have Stephen off side. He also hadn't known about Stephen's foster sister. Brat's life had never been so bad that he'd seriously considered that option.
"Sorry, Stephen, but Sheila's not well, and we're being hassled by some department guy because I've been wagging school. I really don't want to be here today, but I don't have a choice. I didn't mean to take it out on you."
"What makes you think I don't know that?" Stephen shook his head. "I've been watching you come into our store for the last year. You're always picking the cheapest fresh food available, and I've never seen you go near the butcher. You do your clothes shopping at the Op shop or second-hand stores, and then wear them until they wear out. It doesn't take a genius to work out that you're scrimping and saving on food. But the first time I offered to give you something, you jumped down my throat. You wouldn't take charity, you said. Well, how about accepting some help from your friends? That is, while you still have some. You seem bent on trying to drive everyone away from you. I've been trying to help you all year, but you just turn away. Think of your family instead of your stubborn pride!"
Brat opened his mouth but nothing came out. He had a suspicion that all the mistakes Stephen made when serving him were deliberate, but he couldn't ask. If he was wrong, he would lose that extra little bit of help he needed to keep his family alive.
"Mr. Smith. Mr Baxter. If you have both finished, it's time to start." Mrs. Williams glared at the two boys. "And I'll see both of you after school for a half-hour detention."
Brat slid to a stop. He was racing home because he was late due to the detention, but the sight of two shiny cars parked outside his home wasn't good news. Cars like those didn't belong in Brat's neighbourhood. He made a face as he wondered what else could go wrong. There had been a tense silence between him and Stephen all day. Brat felt he had to talk to the other boy, but he didn't know what to say.
He approached the house cautiously. The front door was open, but he didn't see any signs of activity.
The sound of Sheila giggling spurred Brat into action. If there was trouble in the house, he couldn't leave his baby sister in there. He scanned the front yard and then picked up a short length of pipe. He entered the house with his weapon held ready.
Brat took in the scene at a glance. A young man in a shirt and tie was tickling Sheila. A suit jacket lay nearby. Guy was licking an ice cream while sitting on the couch next to a middle aged woman. There was a briefcase at the woman's feet and she was perched near the edge, as if she didn't want the back of the couch to touch her. Another man in a suit stood near the entrance to the kitchen.
"Brat! Ms. Linden says we're moving. What's going on?" Guy asked.
Brat glared at the woman. She was the eldest of the intruders and Guy's comment made Brat assume she was in charge. "You're trespassing. Get out or I'll call the cops."
The woman reached into her briefcase while keeping a wary eye on Brat. "I'm Ms. Linden from the Department of Human Services. I'm sorry, Brat, but I've got a court order here to take you and your brother and sister to a foster home. We'll be informing your mother of the situation when she comes home." She glanced around the room, her distaste obvious. "I can assure you that you'll be looked after a lot better than you are here."
"Ms. Linden told me I can have ice cream several times a week!" Guy said, his happy face marked with white splotches.
Brat ignored Guy. "This is our home. We're happy here and we're not leaving." He lifted the pipe as he took a defensive stance.
Ms. Linden shook her head. "I'm sorry, Brat, but you don't have a choice. You're not sixteen, yet, and Guy and Sheila are definitely too young to be left alone. We've had information that this is not the first time you've been left without suitable supervision." She smiled, and that put Brat immediately on edge. He could tell when someone was going to try to do a schmooze job on him. "You'll be a lot better off in foster care, with people who'll care for you. Don't you want what's best for your brother and sister?"
Brat was tempted for a moment, but he was sure he knew what would really happen. He decided to check on his worst fears. "Can you guarantee we'll always be together? You're not going to split us up?"
"I'll be honest with you, Brat. We try to keep siblings together, but we can't always do it. It's not easy to find someone who'll take three children all at once."
Brat narrowed his eyes and hefted the pipe. "In that case, I'm not moving."
He was startled when someone came up behind him and grabbed the pipe. There was a short tussle as Brat was being disarmed. He hadn't realised that there was a third man in the house.
"Thanks, Tim. I think it's time we left." Ms. Linden glanced at the man by the kitchen door. "Stu, you stay here and inform Mrs. Smith as to the situation." She gave Brat a wry smile. "I know you're not happy, Brat, but we'll do the best we can. You can't go on living in this squalor."
It took two men to manhandle Brat into the back of one of the cars. It was only when they threatened to drive off with Guy and Sheila that Brat gave up. He crossed his arms and glared at the back of Ms. Linden's head as she drove away from the house.
It was a short drive, which didn't surprise Brat. There were a lot of Housing Commission homes in their area, and it made sense that there would also be some foster homes. The one they pulled up in front of had a white picket fence, a rose garden, and a newly cut lawn. The house looked like it needed a new coat of paint, but there were no rotten posts on the verandah, unlike the place where they had been living.
They were introduced to Mrs. Cowell, a middle-aged lady who seemed to have a permanent smile on her face. She quickly gathered up Sheila and Guy, but let Brat settle in at his own pace.
"Are you going to be our new mum?" Guy asked.
"No, sweetie. I'll be looking after you for the next few days, but it'll be someone else who'll look after you longer term. Now, would you like to meet Chloe?"
Mrs. Cowell led Guy and Sheila towards the back door. Brat followed while keeping a short distance between himself and the woman. He wanted to keep an eye on his brother and sister, but didn't want to make it look like he approved of what was happening.
Chloe was a black pug. The small, chunky dog soon had Sheila squealing with delight, and Guy throwing sticks for Chloe to fetch. Brat stayed back and watched.
"You're very protective of them."
Brat hadn't noticed that Mrs. Cowell had moved up next to him. He shrugged.
"They're good kids. Happier than a lot I've seen." Mrs. Cowell gave Brat a moment's contemplation. "I'm guessing that's your doing. You've been looking out for them, haven't you?"
Brat shrugged again. He managed not to flinch when the woman patted him on the arm.
"You've done a fine job. Now it's time you learnt to be a teenager again." She grinned. "You've got the silent shrug down pat – just like my own son at your age. I was lucky to get three words out of him. And even then, they were usually, 'What's for dinner?' Sometimes, mealtimes were the only time I'd see him all day."
"Where is he now?"
Mrs. Cowell raised an eyebrow when Brat spoke. "He's grown up, and he moved out a number of years ago. We're still waiting for grandchildren, but he doesn't seem to be rushing with that."
Brat grunted. Despite his best intentions, he was relaxing. Mrs. Cowell seemed harmless, and if they had been staying there permanently, Brat may have accepted the new reality, but he knew that they'd be moving again soon and his family could be split up. He wasn't going to let that happen without a fight. He started to make plans.
That night, Brat lay still until he was sure Mr. and Mrs. Cowell were asleep. He slipped out of bed and glided over to his brother. He paused at the soft smile on Guy's face and wondered if what he was about to do was the right thing. They'd had their first hot shower in months, and they'd been given clean, almost-new clothes.
Brat's lips formed a straight line as he firmed his resolve. He couldn't take the chance that something would go wrong. He reached out and gently shook his brother.
"Guy, Guy, wake up," Brat whispered.
"Go away," Guy muttered, and rolled over.
"Guy, wake up. We've got to get out of here!"
Guy sat up and rubbed his eyes. He stared at Brat. "Why? This is a good place. I even had seconds for dinner tonight. And meat!"
"Yeah, it's a good place, but we're not staying here. They might break us up. They might send us to different homes. We've got to get out while we still have a chance."
It took a few minutes of persuasion, but Guy reluctantly agreed to go with Brat. Brat eased open the window, removed the flywire screen, and lowered Guy to the ground outside. He passed a bag of clothes out to him.
"Wait there. I'm going to get Sheila."
Brat padded down the hall to where his sister was sleeping. He grimaced when he heard her sniffling – he hoped her medicine was in the room. He gathered some belongings and breathed a soft sigh of relief when he found the medicine on a shelf above her bed. He put everything into a bag, which he then slipped over his shoulder.
Opting not to wake her, Brat lifted Sheila out of the bed. She stirred and then snuggled into his chest. Carefully, he took her back to his room and climbed out the window.
"Where are we going?" Guy asked when they were out on the street and walking away.
"Do you know the old abandoned factory at the back of the shops?"
"We're going to stay there for a couple of days, and then I'll work out where we go next."
"Good. I can walk to school from there."
Brat paused. He realised that Guy didn't understand what was going on. "I'm sorry, Guy. You won't be going back to school. If you went, they'd find you and take you away."
A noise attracted Brat's attention. He glanced back and saw lights going on in the house they'd just left. "Come on, we've got to hide!"
Brat hurried Guy down the street. A backward glance showed a car pulling out of the Cowell's driveway. Brat pulled Guy into the closest garden.
"Lie down!" Brat whispered as he squatted behind a bush. He pulled his jacket over Sheila and watched as Mr. Cowell drove past them.
"What are we going to do?" Guy asked. "Can I at least go to school to say goodbye to my friends?"
Brat realised he hadn't thought through things very well. He had been so focused on keeping everyone together that he hadn't looked more than a few days ahead.
"Sorry, Guy, but I don't think so. Maybe we can work out how you can see them after a day or two, but we need to be careful. You don't want to be taken away from Sheila and me, do you?"
Guy shook his head. "Would they really do that?"
"They might, and that's what we've got to make sure they don't do." Brat looked around. "The coast is clear. Come on, let's get going."
Brat could tell that Guy wasn't happy, but that he still trusted his big brother. Brat was happy that Sheila was sound asleep, though he didn't expect that to last. He just hoped he'd have Guy and Sheila secluded in the abandoned factory before she woke up.
Brat's hopes weren't realised. Sheila woke up partway through their travels and started crying.
"I'm cold and I want my bed!"
"Hush, Sheila. We'll soon be somewhere safe. You can go back to sleep then," Brat said, trying to be as soothing as he could while walking along a deserted back street. He was trying to avoid the main roads, as he wasn't sure he'd be able to recognise Mr. Cowell's car from a distance.
"I'm cold, too," Guy said.
"I know, but it won't be long. We just have to be careful not to get caught."
"Can we keep Chloe, Brat?" Sheila asked. "I love her and want to keep her."
"Sorry, but we can't. She's not our dog," Brat said. He shifted Sheila to the other side of his body. She wasn't heavy, but he had been carrying her for a long time.
"Please? Pretty please? I promise to be good." Sheila wrapped her arms around Brat's neck. "Please?"
"I'd like to keep her, too, if we can," Guy said.
"I said no!" Brat caught himself before he yelled anything else. Sheila started to sob and Brat felt like a heel. "I'm sorry, but she's not ours. Maybe we can find another pet for you to look after."
Brat knew it was unlikely, but he couldn't tell them the truth. He just wanted to concentrate on getting to the old factory.
Sheila had drifted back to sleep by the time they arrived. Rather than trying to find their way into the building, Brat found a sheltered corner that couldn't be seen from the street. He slipped off the jacket Mrs. Cowell had given him and then laid Sheila on top of it. Shivering, he folded the jacket around his sister. He then turned to Guy.
"I need you to watch over Sheila for me. When I get back you can go to sleep, but until then, you're in charge. You have to keep her safe. Can you do that?"
Guy stared. "Where are you going? I thought you said we'd be staying together!"
Brat put a hand on Guy's shoulder. "There's a couple of things I need to do. I won't be long, I promise, and I'll be back before the sun comes up."
"What sort of things?"
"I need to get some things from home. Money, for starters. But I can't take Sheila back, just in case we're caught. Can you protect her for me? Please?"
Guy glanced around nervously and then returned his attention to Brat and nodded.
"Good boy. I'll be as quick as I can." Brat grinned at Guy, hoping that the sign of approval would give his younger brother some confidence. Brat wasn't happy leaving them behind, but he needed to get the money he'd been saving.
It didn't take Brat long to get to his old home. He jogged as much as he could – the exercise helping to combat the chilly night air – but he was also cautious, and hid whenever a car went by. He waited until the street was quiet before he slipped into the front yard. Ignoring the door, he carefully worked his way around the side and to the window of his former bedroom. Using the broken kitchen knife he had left there for such a purpose, he undid the window latch. He had been locked out of the house by one of his mother's boyfriends several years earlier, and he had resolved never to be in that position again.
He was easing the window open when he heard the sound of a stick breaking behind him. He spun around to see a figure in the shadows.
Brat held the broken knife in an underhand grip. "Who's there?" He mentally kicked himself for asking a stupid question. Before he could say anything else, the figure stepped forward.
"It's only me, Brat. Do you need any help?"
"Stephen? What the fuck are you doing here?" Brat glanced back at the house. "And keep your voice down!"
"It's okay. There's no one at home. Your mum got into a fight with the police and she's being held overnight."
Brat narrowed his eyes. "How the fuck do you know that?"
"Because I overheard my dad telling my mum."
Brat waited a moment but Stephen didn't say anything more. "And how did he know?" Brat turned around and resumed opening the window.
"The Cowells are friends of the family. I found out soon after I got home that you were being taken off your mum."
Brat grunted. He jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Brat. It must be tough."
"What the fuck would you know about it and why should you care? You've got a mum and dad that love you." Brat changed to a sickly-sweet tone. "They probably tuck little Stevie-poo into bed each night and give him a goodnight kiss on his forehead." Brat glanced over his shoulder at Stephen. "Now fuck off and leave me alone!"
Stephen glanced around. "Where's your brother and sister? I didn't see them when you arrived."
Brat had the window open enough to slip in. "None of your fucking business." He started to climb in when he was grabbed.
"You're not going until I know where they are. You might not care about their safety, but I do," Stephen said.
Brat kicked Stephen in the groin. He followed it up with a punch to the guts and then pushed him away. He heard Stephen gasping but ignored him as he climbed into the house.
A minute later, he had his stash of money. He wanted to pick up some more clothes, but with Stephen outside, he didn't want to waste any time. Instead, he quickly grabbed the threadbare blanket that was on his bed, hoping it would be enough to keep Guy and Sheila warm at night.
Stephen was sitting up against the wall when Brat clambered out. Brat was about to go when Stephen spoke.
"Don't you want to know why I'm here?" Stephen's voice was broken by frequent, short breaths.
There was enough light filtering through from the streetlights for Brat to see that Stephen was in pain. He wanted to ignore Stephen but curiosity got the better of him. "Why?"
Stephen levered himself upright. He winced. "You've got a solid punch."
"What? You came here to be a punching bag? Is that what you're saying? If so, I'm happy to do it again!" Brat stepped forward.
"No, wait!" Stephen took a step back. "Give me a chance to get my breath back."
Brat paused while Stephen regained his composure. "I'm waiting."
"All right. I said before that the Cowells are friends of the family. When Mrs. Cowell rang, she was hysterical. As soon as we found out that all three of you had disappeared, Mum and Dad headed out. They're driving around now, looking for you. I had an idea that there might be something you'd want to collect from your old home, so I slipped out here and set up watch. I knew I was right when I spotted you coming down the street. I'm guessing you've left Sheila and Guy somewhere safe."
"Okay, smarty pants, it was a good guess. You can tell them that we're safe and we just want to be left alone. I'm going now – don't try to follow me."
Brat was about to move past Stephen when he heard the sound of a car pulling up nearby. He peered around the corner of the house to see a strange vehicle parked outside.
"HE'S OVER HERE!" Stephen yelled.
Brat spun around, only to be tackled.
"I'm not letting you get away," Stephen muttered into Brat's ear.
Brat tried to knee Stephen, but the other boy didn't let go. A few elbows and head butts allowed Brat to escape Stephen's grip, but it was too late – a large man grabbed him in a bear hug.
"Steady, boy. We're not going to harm you." The man glanced over at Stephen. "Are you okay?"
"I'll be fine, Dad. He's got the others somewhere safe, but he didn't say where."
"Don't worry, we'll find them. I rang the police after I got your call, so they should be here soon."
Brat stiffened and then redoubled his efforts to get away, but without success.
"Steady, Brat. I still haven't told you why I came looking for you," Stephen said.
Brat stopped struggling and spat at Stephen. "Because you're a fucking bastard! You're a dead man, Stephen. Someday, somehow, I'll get you back for this."
"You watch your language, young man, or I'll–"
"It's okay, Dad. Can I tell him? Please?"
"Okay, son. You found him, so, yeah, you can tell him. Though I'm no longer sure it's a good idea."
"Only joking. Go ahead, tell him the news."
Brat was confused. "What the fuck are you going on about?"
Stephen grinned, then winced and held his jaw. "Remind me not to fight you again." He shook his head. "You want to know what's happening? Okay, here's the short version. After I heard you'd been taken into care, I started hassling Dad. Tomorrow morning, he's putting in an application to be the foster carer for you, Sheila and Guy."
"Though if there's a repeat of tonight, I might change my mind," Mr. Baxter said.
"Dad! Don't joke about that – Brat doesn't know you're not serious."
"But I am serious. If he's going to be one of the family, he needs to know the limits." Mr. Baxter stared down at Brat. "Stephen told me you wouldn't want to be separated from your brother and sister, and I agree that you shouldn't be, but another three kids isn't something my wife and I had planned on. If we take you on, you'll need to be part of the family – work with us, not against us. It won't work, otherwise."
Brat barely noticed the sound of another car pulling up. He stared first at Mr. Baxter and then at Stephen, while trying to take in what he had been told.
"But why? Why us?"
"Because it's the right thing to do? Because you're an okay guy who's had a lot of bad luck? Because I want another brother? Because Mum wants a baby girl?" Stephen shrugged. "Pick one. Pick all of them. Make up your own reasons. Does it matter?"
"What's it going to be, son? Will you take us to where you've hidden Guy and Sheila?" Mr. Baxter asked.
Brat saw two policemen heading in his direction, but to his surprise, that didn't bother him.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank Rain from The Mail Crew for editing this story for me. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.(unfortunately, their site is no longer available)