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Can I Help You?
I kicked a can out of the way as I walked aimlessly down the street. My tattered leather jacket wasn’t an effective shield when it came to the wind; I was chilled to the bone after a few minutes. In the back of my mind, I could still hear my brother’s voice—Here, Cade. Take mine. He had said that this morning, before he headed off to work.
I had said no. Micah had already given me more than enough, and then some. Besides, he needed his jacket; it was the only one he had.
I shivered involuntarily as the wind picked up. It was a horrible day to take a walk, but I needed to get out of that musty apartment. I hadn’t expected it to be so cold, though, especially since it was the beginning of October—usually it was a lot warmer. I could almost see my older brother’s disapproving look in the back of my head, but he couldn’t blame me. Jasen, my cousin, hadn’t stopped me, and he was technically one of my guardians…
I stepped into the mall for a moment. It was unusually empty—then again, it was during school hours. The whole teenage population would be at school, learning pointlessly random facts that everybody told them would be apart of their futures. I smiled reluctantly as I thought about it. I didn’t need to learn meaningless math or science. Not anymore. However, no matter how relieved I was that I didn’t have to endure it any longer, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. All of my friends were there, all of my friends had visited regularly after I dropped out, but now Nolan didn’t even stop by.
I felt my face distort into an expression of bitterness; a light hand was on my arm shortly afterwards. I turned towards the owner of the hand—a young woman. “Excuse me?” she asked timidly, voice laced with concern. “My name is Lilly. Can I help you?” I smiled tentatively back at her, bitterness still evident in my eyes.
“Caedmon. It’s a pleasure to meet you, but I’m fine. I just stopped in for a breather.” She smiled at me nervously, obviously taken aback my by rugged appearance. Who wouldn’t be? I hadn’t had a proper shave in days, and my matted brown hair was shaggy. My clothes didn’t help much, either—I was wearing hand-me-downs, the sweater belonging to Micah, and the jeans I wore belonged to Jasen. He was lithe, like me, whereas Micah was very muscular. I would’ve needed a belt to hold his jeans up—a belt that I didn’t have. She nodded, still visibly unsure, and went off to help another customer.
I left the mall grudgingly. I was getting weird looks, like I always did, but just because I always got them didn’t mean I was entirely used to them. I zipped up my jacket, but it didn’t do much when it came to the wind. Sitting down on a bench, absentmindedly looking at a streetlight, I got thinking about what she had said.
Can I help you?
The question sent chills down my spine as unpleasant memories from my past came popping up. I responded to her as I tried to repress them.
You can listen.
It all started when I was five. I was a pretty observant little kid—I almost immediately noticed that Mom had bruises the morning after Dad had been drinking, bruises that she hadn’t had the day before. Micah never failed to notice the apprehensive looks on my face, and pulled me into his room the first time the look had appeared. “You won’t tell anyone about this, you hear?” he asked, pinching my ear. I winced as the whimpers came. Micah could be pretty intimidating for a nine year-old. “If you tell anyone, then they’ll take us away from Mom and Dad, and they’ll separate us, and I might never see you again. Understand?” He pinched my ear harder. “Cade! Do you understand?!”
I nodded as the tears came. “I get it, Mikey, I get it…you’re hurting me, Mikey, stop it…”
He let go of my ear lobe quickly, like it was burning, and gave me a stunned look. His eyes were wide, like he couldn’t believe what he had just done. He stared down at his hand blankly for a few moments, and then he enveloped me into the most loving hug I had ever experienced and that I would ever get from anyone in my family.
I kept it a successful secret. Nobody ever guessed. I always assumed that Dad knew we knew, but he never let on. We rarely saw our father except for when he was in drunken rages, and even seeing him during those almost never happened. However, if he dared to show his face on the morning afterwards, we never looked at him, but I could always feel his eyes on me. It was uncomfortable.
On my seventh birthday, my mom kissed me on the forehead before she put me to bed, like she always did. However, she looked fearful, anxious…I felt my left eyebrow rise as my curious eyes met her scared ones.
“Mom? What’s wrong?” She smiled at me as sincerely as she could—it didn’t reach her eyes. It unnerved me. “Mommy?”
“Nothing, sweetie,” she responded, voice slightly shaking. “Don’t worry about it. I love you. Remember that. I love you.” I nodded slowly as she kissed me again.
“I know. I love you too, Mom.” Micah observed us quietly from the door as she slowly got up, ruffling my hair. She escorted him to his room, and I heard them whispering until I fell asleep about an hour later. I couldn’t get her scared expression out of my head.
That was the last time I ever saw my mother.
She fled that night, and a social worker came the next morning to talk to my father. He was mad, as, yes, his wife had just left him and yes, he had been woken up too early on a hangover morning, but his rage grew when he discovered that there were two police officers there just for him. My father got charged with assault, and Micah and I went into foster care soon afterwards. They never separated us. I haven’t seen my father or my mother since.
My life took a turn for the worse when my Micah turned eighteen the year I turned fourteen. I was retained in the foster care system, whereas he was free to go. I was lost when he left, dazed. I couldn’t imagine life without my brother, and it turned out to be harder than usual. Of course, he visited every now and then, but the visits were supervised—nobody ever knew if my older brother would turn violent. We never actually said that our father had hit us, but we hadn’t refuted the fact either.
And, after all, “Kids with abusive pasts are potential abusers.”
It didn’t help much that they moved me that year, into a house that had two older teenaged boys. I got immediate attention as soon as I walked in the door, and it didn’t let up. The older teenagers, two and three years my senior, took note of it and didn’t stop harassing me at home, at school…everywhere. They constantly threatened me to the point that I had Micah worried—I was paler than usual, and very fidgety—I confessed instantaneously as soon as he asked. He wrapped his arms around me in a hug not unlike the one he had given me when I was five. “Don’t worry, Cade. I’ll get you out of here.”
True to his word, he did. Two days later, I was on my way to my cousin Jasen’s apartment, where Micah also lived. It was a shabby place, very bland—there wasn’t a T.V. or a computer. We barely had enough food to make it through the week, and everybody’s clothing was shared. We didn’t care if clothing had been worn once; we really didn’t have enough money for a Laundromat, so we wore clothes over and over until they started to smell. I dropped out of school, opting to get a job instead. We were living just above the poverty line. I had to help in any way I could.
This year I got fired from my job, only two weeks ago. Micah became my official guardian last month, even though he had been my unofficial guardian for three years. I took my eyes off of the streetlight as I realized I had to revamp my future if I ever wanted a chance at a better life. I had to do something…
And getting a new job might just be the starting block.
I got off of the bench and headed to the wood shop, where Micah worked. He had always been good with his hands. I sighed unevenly—the cold air was getting to me. Her question was repeated, once more, in my head.
Can I help you?
I shoved my hands stubbornly in my pockets as I waited for the light to turn green. I ignored all of the looks that drivers and pedestrians alike gave me, and I smiled a twisted, reluctant smile.
No, you really can’t. But thanks for asking.