The Broken Boy — Part 1

Thank you to Stefy Ortiz for this great picture taken for The Broken Boy. And thank you to my model, Jake!

I’m not surprised when Derek and Logan show up at the park. They think they’re so cool because they’re in high school and can grow a little facial hair. I’m not in the mood for them today and I’m hoping they leave us alone, but seeing as me and my friends are the only other kids here that seems unlikely.

Of course, if anything were to happen, I would have to be the one to stand up to them. I always was. My friends are wimps; they tend to avoid a fight but I embrace it. They would too if they lived in the foster care system. You have to be tough. There is no room for the weak because no one is coming to save you. You have to save yourself and that’s exactly what I do.

“Aww look what we have here…the squeak toy that thinks he’s a tough guy and his chicken friends,” Derek says, messing my hair like I’m a two year old.

“Leave us alone,” I say, glaring back at him. I have to bite my tongue from saying anything else, knowing it would only instigate them. In any other circumstance, I’d have plenty more choice words for them.

It’s no use though. They take our soccer ball anyway, and begin playing keep away with it. My friends and I become the monkeys in the middle.

“I guess you don’t have anything better to do than hang out with a bunch of ten year olds. That’s pathetic,” I say. There is no use chasing them for our ball any longer. They are marginally taller and stronger, but I know how to make them stand still. It’s a risk for sure, but my fuse is running short.

Derek pauses and steps closer, towering above me as if that would scare me. “Better watch what you say to me squeak toy or…”

I don’t wait to hear what he has to say before I punch him in the gut, dropping him to the ground. I throw the ball to my friends and try to run, but Logan catches me before I get too far. My friends escape, leaving me to fend for myself, as usual.

My foster parents are not happy when I return home with a black eye among other minor injuries, but it’s not unusual for me. Other kids are mean, and have to be put in their place. I’m not one to allow people to walk all over me. I refuse to be a doormat.

“I don’t know what to do with you, Daniel,” Millie says. “It’s like everything I say goes in one ear and right out the other.”

That is mostly true. I don’t pay too close attention when they lecture me. She continues talking at me, but I stop listening. Something about being disappointed with me fighting…that’s typical. Everyone’s always disappointed with me. It doesn’t faze me anymore, I’m used to it.

The phone rings as Millie tends to my eye and Arthur yells up that some lady named Abby Brennin is on the phone. The name Brennin is familiar…the Fischers had been talking about a foster kid they had years ago with that name, and they often compared me to him. I remember he died a few weeks ago because they had gone to his wake.

Millie finishes with my eye and tells me to go to my room and keep ice on it. I nod, but there’s no way I am going to my room. I sit on the top step instead, listening to their conversation with Abby Brennin. They mention something about Benny Brennin, the Fischer’s old foster kid, and that Abby is his daughter. They make plans to meet with her this coming weekend before hanging up, and I tiptoe back to my room so I wouldn’t be caught.

In the safety of my room, I sneak into my closet and lift up a loose floorboard. My door doesn’t have a lock, so I have to listen carefully for footsteps coming up the stairs. I take a few gulps of gin I have hidden in the floor that I had stolen from my friend’s parents’ house. I wonder if they had noticed it was missing. I cough at the burn in my throat. I’m not used to gin, but it was the only bottle within reach that was small enough to stash in my bag without notice.

After storing the bottle back in its safe hiding place, I cover the board back with shoes and munch on a Snickers bar to hide the alcohol smell from my breath. If the Fischers came up, they’d be more focused that I’m eating candy before dinner to notice much else. Thankfully, I am the only foster kid the Fischers have, and although being the only kid made it harder for me to get away with a lot, no one could rat me out either.

My muscles begin to warm and relax, a familiar sensation that a little bit of alcohol brought.

After helping the Fischers with laundry and cleaning, I have some time to myself before Abby Brennin comes over. So, I lay in my bed and read some comic books that my friends let me borrow. Little did they know, I have no intention of returning them. After about an hour, Millie comes to my room and tells me to go downstairs to meet Abby. I don’t really want to, but Millie mentions food and my hunger trumps all other feelings now.

I do my best to flatten my tousled hair in the mirror before I head down to meet this stranger. Pieces of hair still stick up and out all over, reminding me that I am in dire need of a haircut. Entering the living room, Millie introduces me to Abby. She is a pretty lady with wavy chestnut brown hair and soft brown eyes and I try not to blush as she smiles warmly at me.

I turn my attention to the fruits and finger sandwiches on the table and begin munching while Millie leaves to fetch us lemonade. Abby asks questions about the bruise on my eye that I received a few days ago from the park, and other things, like my age and whether or not I like my teacher. I give her short answers between bites of food to satisfy her. Adults always ask too many questions.

“Do you like it here?” she asks. I hadn’t realized we were playing twenty questions.

“It’s ok,” I say with a shrug. I better talk about something else before I have to answer more questions. I point to the picture of Benny Brennin that Abby had been looking at hanging on the wall among other foster kids the Fischers had throughout their years. “That’s your dad?”

“Yup. That’s him.”

“They say I’m a lot like him. Sometimes they call me Benny by accident.” Abby’s eyes widen at that statement. Thankfully, Arthur and Millie come back with lemonade and carry the conversation with Abby. I retreat back to the top step to eavesdrop and eat my sandwiches in peace.

“Benny came to us when he was thirteen. He had been in over a handful of homes before us and we knew right away he didn’t think he would last long here. He didn’t take his things out of his bag for a whole year,” Millie says. That is a typical foster kid thing. I didn’t unpack for a few months when I first got here either. Packing is a pain, and when you move often, it’s just easier to live out of the bags.

“We encouraged him to go to a vocational school so he could learn a trade. He was not the best student grades-wise, so we knew he probably wouldn’t go to college, not that he couldn’t go to a community college if he wanted to. We made it very clear he could make a good future for himself, but he never seemed to believe that,” Arthur says. They mentioned the vocational school to me as well, but I had four more years to figure out high school. Hell, who knows if I’ll even still be here in four years.

“I take it he didn’t go to vocational school?” Abby asks.

“No. He insisted on going to the high school in the city where we lived at the time. It’s where his friends were going. Maybe we should have forced him to the vocational school but he was such a fireball, we were afraid he’d run away, or forcing him would push him away from trusting us, so we let him go to the school he wanted,” Arthur says. Smart move, I think. Forcing kids, especially us fosters, to do something they didn’t want to do usually never works out, aside from chores. I’m hoping I get the same choice when the time comes, where ever I may be.

“Plus, we figured having his friends would keep something stable in his life and help him transition to staying with us,” Millie adds.

The Fischers couldn’t tell Abby a lot about her dad before he was thirteen, but boy did they have stories from the five years they had him. He stole a lot, I learn, mostly money or alcohol from the Fischers or other kids from his school. He got in trouble in school often, for fighting or talking back to the teachers. I see now why they compare us.

“That’s why Daniel reminds us so much of Benny, he’s a fireball just like your dad was. That, and he has the same blue eyes.”

I had come to the Fischers a year ago and had several homes before them. Millie and Arthur have been foster parents for about thirty years which certainly accounts for all of the faces on their walls. They were unable to have kids of their own, and Arthur had been adopted himself as a young kid, so they decided to foster.

“So many people want babies or toddlers because they are easier. We like to give the older kids a chance,” Millie says.

“Sometimes we’re the last impression they have of family life before they go out on their own in the world, like in the case of your father, and we like to try and set a good example.”

“Many of the foster parents take on three, four, five kids at a time. Kids can feel lost and forgotten in such a busy house. We only take one or two at a time.”

“We once had three at a time, but they were all siblings. We couldn’t break them up and we certainly couldn’t refuse them.”

“We keep them as long as we can. Sometimes their biological parents regain custody and then sometimes they’re with us until they’re eighteen and head out on their own.”

They did adopt a couple of the kids that became eligible for adoption while they were with them. Their daughter is twenty and in college to be a veterinary technician. I had met her a couple times when she came home from college, but she was always so busy. She hadn’t been around much. And now that she was older, she had her own place near the college she went to. I hadn’t met their son, only seen him in pictures and heard his voice on the phone when I answered. He was close to thirty now and had moved out of the state for a job.

Every day since we met Abby, she was in contact with us in some way. Whether it was a phone call or a dinner visit, we grew closer over the next few months. Today, while Millie and Arthur are visiting their daughter at college, Abby is waiting for me after school.

“Hi Abby,” I say, walking through the door and throwing my backpack on a nearby chair. “I’m going to the park now.”

“Whoa, wait a minute. I didn’t say you could go to the park,” she says. Great, the first three seconds of watching me and she was already trying to control me. I was hoping she’d just let me do my usual things and make it an easy experience for the both of us.

“But it’s Wednesday. I always go to the park with my friends on Wednesdays.”

“Not today. I don’t need you coming back with another black eye on my first day watching you by myself, or kidnapped or something. Then I won’t get to hang out with you anymore.”

“I’m not going to get kidnapped,” I whine, throwing off my shoes with a pout and slamming the front door behind me. Some adults are so paranoid. I can handle myself, why didn’t they trust me?

“Hey, this isn’t exactly how I imagined our first day together was going to start off.”

“Then you should’ve just let me go to the park,” I say, slumping down into a chair in the kitchen where she is piling on some fresh fruit to the graham crackers she had slathered in cream cheese.

“Listen, I’m responsible for you today and I don’t feel comfortable with you going to the park by yourself. Now do you want a snack or what?”

I roll my eyes but quickly direct my attention to her concoction. “What is it?” I ask, wrinkling my nose as I pick up a square.

“Uh, it’s the best snack ever. Just try it,” she says, taking one for herself.

I sink my teeth into a fresh slice of sweet strawberry and savory cream cheese before hitting the crunch of the graham cracker, trying to decide if I like it or not. “It’s ok,” I say, taking a bigger bite.

She asks how my day was at school. I shrug and say fine and don’t reveal anything else even when she pokes me for more. Nothing interesting had happened to tell. I let her know I’ve already done my homework for the night at my free period, since I was expecting to go to the park after school.

“Well, now we have time to do something together,” she says.

“You want to do something with me? I’m ten.” Not many adults had ever wanted to actually do something with me, not anything I liked anyway.

She lists off a few things to do, most of which I’m not interested in. Coloring? I’m a little too old for that and chess is too nerdy. We settle on an old video game of Mario Party. She says she had played it when she was kid, and would be fun to relive her childhood a little.

The interaction cheers me up. She is a fun adult and I crush her in almost every game. She jokes that she let me win, but I don’t believe her. Clearly she is out of practice. The Fischers come home just as we finish dinner and are surprised how good of a mood I’m in since Abby didn’t allow me to go to the park. They seem pleased to have a decent babysitter and could get out during the week to see their daughter.

As Abby gets ready to leave, I hug her as a thank you, before dashing upstairs to my room. The evening hadn’t started off great, but the end made up for it. I only hope she sticks around.

Saturday comes quickly, and I have to visit with my mom and the social worker lady. I hate visiting with my mom. We never do anything fun and she doesn’t seem like she enjoys seeing me at all either. I had pleaded with the social worker lady on numerous occasions to end the visits, but she always told me it wasn’t up to her. The judge ordered the visitations. I told her I wanted to speak with this judge, but that never happened. So here I am, forced into visiting with my mother once or twice a month.

Today we end up at a park in the shitty city where my mom lives. I hate this park. It’s so dirty, nearly everything is broken, and I don’t know any of the kids that come here. I didn’t want to know them either. On the few occasions I had tried playing with them in the past, they were mean and chose to push me around instead. I thought the last fight I had gotten into with them would have kept us away from the park for good. Apparently not.

I don’t understand why we come here anyway. Visits with my mom were supposed to be, well, with my mom. When we come here, she just sits on the park bench and smokes cigarettes. I gave up trying to get her to play with me a long time ago. If she wanted to take me to a park, why couldn’t it be the one near the Fischers’ house with my actual friends?

I pass the time hiding under the dilapidated playground, carving swear words into the wood with a pen. When a few city kids crash my hiding spot, I move to the swings and sway back and forth for a while. I am too afraid to actually swing since my full weight makes the structure lift from the ground. I don’t want to be responsible for destruction of city property. Carvings are one thing…collapsing an entire swing set is another.

I stare at the rusty metal slide to the side of me, wondering if any kid was dumb enough to actually use it, or what kind of parent would allow their child on it. I sure wouldn’t. I won’t ever come to this city when I grow up, not even to pass through it.

After what seems like forever, the social worker lady waves at me that it’s time to leave. I eagerly jump off the swing and run towards them. Once in the car, the social worker starts driving in the opposite direction from either the Fischers’ house or my mom’s place.

“Where are we going?” I ask out loud to anyone willing to answer.

“Getting lunch. Are you hungry?” the social worker says, peering at me through the rear view mirror of her car.

“No. I want to go home.” It was a lie, I am hungry, but I’d rather go back to the Fischers’ than spend any more time with my mom. Plus, I had a party to go to and there would be plenty of food there.

“You will eat lunch with your mother and I don’t want to hear any more complaining,” my mom snaps from beside me. I silently sigh and gaze out the window with a scowl on my face.

I roll my eyes as we pull into a McDonald’s parking lot. We could have at least gone to Friendly’s. It’s slightly less disgusting. After getting our food to go, we head back to my mom’s rundown apartment to spend the last half hour of our mandatory visit.

I eat in silence and pay no attention to the cheap child’s toy that came with my happy meal. A small cheeseburger and a few fries wouldn’t be enough for me, I’m not five anymore, but it will hold me over until I get back to the Fischers’. I had learned not to argue with my mom when it came to food. She would remind me that she could barely afford anything, and I would be happy to take anything I got. So I took whatever she decided to get me, but I wasn’t happy about it.

When the social worker goes to the bathroom, my mom springs up from her seat on the living room chair and advances on me, squeezing my face in her hand. She glares at me with her dark brown eyes under her black hair. “You’re an ungrateful little shit, you know that? You didn’t thank me for your lunch and have barely looked at me today. They spoil you over there, don’t they? You think you’re better than me now that you live in a fancy town in a nice big house. I’m your mother, your real mother, and you need to show some gratitude towards me when you’re here.”

I pull my face out from her grasp and push her away from me. She stumbles backwards but remains standing. Her brows and lips curl with blood rushing to her face, putting some color on her otherwise pasty white skin.

“What do I have to be grateful for? This food is garbage, this city is garbage, everything here is garbage! Including you!” I yell.

Just as I finish calling my own mom garbage, she back hands me across my face, leaving a stinging impression on my cheek. The social worker sprints towards us and removes me from my mother’s reach as she winds up her arm for another slap.

I run to the door as they yell back and forth, standing against it out of the way. After scolding my mom for hitting me, the social worker gathers her stuff and gets ready to leave with me. I wasn’t done though; I still have more to say to the woman that calls herself my mom.

“I hate you! I never want to see you again! Do you hear me? I hope you die so I never have to see you ever again!” I scream, storming out the door to the social worker’s car.

I can hear the social worker calling after me, telling me to wait for her. I ignore it, wiping tears from my face and get to the car as fast as I can. I never want to come back to this hell hole.

“Daniel, that was not a nice thing to say to your mother,” she lectures me, getting into the driver’s seat.

“I don’t care! It’s true. I hate her! Take me home now. I want to go back to the Fischers’ and never come back here. I don’t care who orders it! I’m never coming back here!”

She does her best at trying to cheer me up, but my mood is too dark to be lifted. The day had barely begun and I am ready for it to be over. I feel bad that the Fischers and Abby now have to deal with me being sour for the rest of the day. I hope they blame my mom. I blame her for everything.

I don’t say anything as I enter the house, racing up to my room and slamming the door behind me. The social worker can fill in my foster parents of what happened. For now, I climb back into bed with my clothes still on, and cover my head with the comforter, forcing sleep to take me.

It’s nearly one o’clock when Millie wakes me. Abby had arrived to take me to my friend’s birthday party. If it weren’t for Abby taking me, I would have just opted to skip it after the disaster that was this morning. I hope that being with my friends will make me forget about the morning.

I straighten out my hair, which still needs to be cut. I hate that it’s black like my mother’s. I don’t like having anything in common with her.

I grab the gift Abby helped me pick out yesterday and head downstairs. Abby came around any time I asked if she could. It’s a nice change, being around an adult that actually enjoys hanging out with me. The Fischers were nice and all, but they were older, and weren’t particularly fun. But Abby is. I’m not quite sure why she likes me, since no one else did, but I wasn’t complaining. I enjoy her company too. I find that I am happier when she is around.

“Are you sure this is a good gift?” I ask Abby, looking down at the box in my lap, wrapped in colorful birthday paper.

“Of course it is. What kid doesn’t like Legos?” she says, briefly glancing in my direction in the back seat as she drives.

All my friends have smartphones and video games, but I couldn’t afford any of those games. I don’t know if my friends play with the same toys I have at the Fischers’. They seem old, since Abby always talks about how she had them when she was a kid. She told me though, if I liked Legos, they were bound to like them too. I’m not sure if that logic makes much sense, but I didn’t have much choice with what little money I had, and I couldn’t go empty handed.

The house we pull up to is massive in comparison to any house I had lived in and was certainly much larger than the Fischers’ small cape. Tons of kids are running around the back yard with a large bounce house and a pool to swim in.

The cake could feed the whole school, I think as the birthday kid blows out the candles. The gifts he gets are mostly video games or other electronic things. When he opens my gift of Legos, he appears confused and quickly throws it aside without thanking me. I try to hide my reddening face and frown at Abby for suggesting such a stupid gift. I might as well of brought nothing, it would have been less embarrassing.

While playing with a new drone, the other kids begin to taunt me. Eventually while running away from the drone chasing me, I trip and fall. These kids were supposed to be my friends and I don’t understand why they choose me to pick on. It must be the stupid gift I brought. This is their revenge.

I grab the drone and throw it to the ground. It must have broken because the birthday boy is unable to get it back in the sky with his remote. Obviously angry, he pushes me back down to the ground. After everything that happened today, piled onto everything from the past, I snap.

I can’t even control myself as I throw him to the ground and swing hard punches as I sit on top of him. I don’t stop even when he starts crying. Instead, I grab handfuls of dirt and grass and shove it into his mouth with swears rolling off my tongue. That’s when Abby grabs me…

“Daniel, stop it! What is wrong with you?”

My face is hot and watermarks stain my cheeks. I hadn’t even realized I was crying too. “I don’t know! I’m messed up!” I shout, pulling away from Abby.

I run. I don’t even know where I am going…I just need to get away from here.

I run and don’t look back.

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