I step into the tiny bedroom I share with my five foster siblings. Four now. Agony explodes under my skin and causes my head to spin. A memory of her small, pale, dead and beaten body slams into my mind and nausea assaults me. I hold my stomach and turn my head to the side, trying to hold the bile down.
“Slater? What’s wrong; are you sick?” Hearing my little sister’s sweet voice causes a tear to escape.
A warm hand lands on my shoulder and my brother, Pacer, repeats the question. “Slater, what’s wrong?”
Just the thought of telling them, breaking their hearts, has me racing to the shared bathroom attached to our bedroom.
I kneel at the toilet and just as a wave of nausea hits me, my throat finally releases and I heave the contents of my stomach into the bowl.
When I’m sure I have nothing left to throw up, I sit back on my haunches. I sense the presence of my younger siblings behind me and break down. I physically feel the emptiness of one of my family members now gone, the girl I could never call a sister like Della. A girl whose smile brightened even my most terrifying days, one who made living in this dark, frightening house bearable.
Della’s smile always warmed my heart and made me smile back at her. But Mia... her smile made my heart pound heavily with excitement and something else I don’t understand. It always felt strange thinking of her as my sister, but she was in our group home so we were all brothers and sisters, through circumstance, not family.
I grip the toilet seat and stand on shaky legs before I turn and face my family. All of them are staring at me with fear in their eyes.
Pacer steps forward, waiting for me to explain. As the second eldest at eleven, one year younger than me, it’s always been him and me looking after our siblings.
I look to Mackson and at nine years old, he’s already been through too much. Mia and Kelso were the only two who are the same age, at eight. We all joked sometimes that they must be twins. And then Della, the youngest at seven... So sweet and gentle, she often offers her food or water to us all, her nature to give and care for others. Even being brought up in this house, all of them are gentle, protective and giving people.
We are children who have lost all hope, who had our childhoods stolen away, who don’t smile often and when we do, it’s rare and something worth remembering. This is all we’ve ever known, all we can remember. We see what life is like on the outside through the little bit of TV we have been allowed to watch. We know we aren’t normal; we know our lives are set on a different and more terrifying path than others. I had thought that as I got older things would change and then I could get us all away from here, but that day has come much quicker than I thought it would. I’m scared. I don’t know how to feed or protect my family in the outside world. I only know the rules inside these walls, but I have no choice now. I will not lose another.
I stare at Pacer for strength as I speak, because I know seeing my younger siblings’ faces will break me.
“We have to leave, now. Phillip—” I pause as a lump forms in my throat. “Phillip killed Mia.”
I find the courage to look to my brothers and sister and find wide eyes and sorrow evident on their faces. Della’s lips tremble and she cries out, “No.”
I pull her into my arms as she grieves the death of the only sister she’s ever known.
My brothers start falling to the floor one after the other. Cries and moans echo around the bathroom as they grieve for their little sister. My eyes glaze over as I realize I don’t have enough arms to hold them all.
Ever since they started arriving, one after the other, I took them as my family and promised myself I would protect them as much as I could. We were all placed here through the system because our parents didn’t want us or couldn’t cope with us anymore. The system, which was supposed to protect children, willingly handed us over to a monster. A group home that held many screams behind its closed doors.
I knew the horrors which awaited the kids who came after me, as I was the first. Each of them arrived when they were five, just like me. Any time Phillip neared the boys I would grow tense and prepare for a battle with him. I took many beatings trying to save them from Phillip’s wandering hands. Usually, I would end up in our bedroom, beaten and crying, knowing what one of my brothers was enduring at that very moment. What I’d failed to prevent once again.
I could be more relaxed around my sisters; Phillip’s hands apparently didn’t like little girls. Thank God. But Phillip’s fists found their faces often when they didn’t keep up with their chores. We all did what we could to help the girls when Phillip wasn’t looking, and often we felt the belt across our backs when we interfered with him hitting our sisters.
I call to Pacer because I need his help to get us all out of here alive. We need to stay strong for just a little while longer.
“Pace, I need your help and we don’t have much time.”
Pacer’s eyes swing to me.
His tormented face brings an ache to my chest which attempts to explode from my mouth, but I stop before it can show them how close I am to falling apart. I need to stay strong. I need to get the rest of my family out of here.
“Pace, we need to move quickly and quietly so Phillip doesn’t hear us. I need you to silently close our bedroom door and move a bed up to it. If he tries to get into our room, I want time before he gets in here.”
Pacer nods and quickly races out of the bathroom. I don’t hear our door close but I hear a soft drag of a bedframe.
I pick Dell up, carry her to her bed and place her down. She curls her body into a tight ball and sobs into her knees.
I rush back to Mack and Kelso and gently pull their chins up, forcing their eyes to meet mine. “I’m sorry,” I say, swallowing back the large lump in my throat. “I’m so sorry this has happened, but I promise you, today we’re getting out. We’re leaving this place behind forever, but I need you guys to pull together and help. Can you do that for me?”
Mackson is the first to nod in understanding that we need to act now and grieve later. He’s only nine, but he has always been the most level-headed one of us all. My gaze turns to Kelso and his eyes are still wide and glassy. “Can you do this, Kel? I need you, buddy.”
“Slate, how? Where is she? We can’t leave her behind.” Kel’s words come out strangled and they gut me to the core.