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A Better Life, Part 1

I have worked with troubled youth for over twenty years. I have seen the damage that abusive family relationships can inflict on character.

The evil of this world twists its way into the blackened void of a willing man's heart, coaxing him to harm the innocent, therefore strengthening the demon that persuades him.

The evil of this world twists its way into the blackened void of a willing man's heart, coaxing him to harm the innocent, therefore strengthening the demon that persuades him.


Jason stretched out on the living room sofa as a slight yawn escaped his mouth. The baseball game wore him out. It was boiling outside. Yesterday, the temperature reached up to one hundred degrees, and it was not even mid-June. Outside, the sun beat down on the small town of Lorena with unrelenting fury. The hot desert winds that swept into the West Texas town brought painful stinging clouds of dust. In the summer months, most afternoons were free of children playing, who, like Jason, sought refuge in the safety of their homes.

Jason still relished the home run he slammed over the rusty fence at the ball field. It helped his team win the game. The feeling left him proud. He gazed up at the ceiling and smiled. He repeatedly watched with his mental eye as the little white ball sailed a good twenty feet over the fence. He had put every ounce of strength into that swing despite the hitch in his right arm. He had missed most of the first of the season with a broken elbow. He had been their star pitcher up until then. If he had not been so stupid, he would have been able to play the whole season.

Jason turned on the television just in time to catch the last of Tom and Jerry. That was his favorite cartoon. The sun coming through the window seemed too warm. Dust particles danced in the beams. He watched the cartoons until the afternoon news began. With his energy rebounding just like many other eleven-year-olds, he was ready to go back outside and do something else. If it had not been for the cartoons and the heat, he would not have even gone home.

Jason walked across the street to where his best friend lived. Michael was only a few months older than he was. They had been best friends since before he could remember. When Jason was not playing baseball, he spent most of this time at Michael's house.

The other boy was a bookworm. Michael could read five books in one week and still manage to play games with Jason, who struggled to read one book in two weeks.

Mrs. Wharton answered the door and smiled at Jason as she shook her head. “Michael is at the library and will not be back until later this evening. You can come back after dinner and watch movies with him if you like.”

Jason expressed disappointment. “It is too far to walk in the heat to town to the library.” Disappointed, he turned around to go back home.

“I can drive you up there,” Mrs. Wharton offered. “I really do not mind.”

“No!” Jason realized his answer was too abrupt. “My mother does not want me to leave the neighborhood. I will be all right.”

Mrs. Wharton’s smile faltered. “Okay. We will see you tonight?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jason believed Mrs. Wharton was the most beautiful woman on earth. “Can we watch a scary movie?”

The woman’s smile returned. “It cannot be too scary. I do not want you boys to have any nightmares tonight. Bring your pajamas.”

Jason started to tell her that he did not have any pajamas. It was unlikely that he would have permission to spend the night at Michael’s house, anyways. He turned to go back home, but had to wait a moment as a tumbleweed, taller than he was, rolled past. The wind that pushed it along its trek brought paper cups, tin cans, and various other detritus from the center of town. He noticed a red and white soda can, and he licked his dry lips, thirsting for a cool, sweet drink.

When Jason re-entered his house, instead of sitting down to watch more television, he went upstairs to his bedroom. His bedroom was typical of most young boys' bedrooms, although a bit too neat.

Where Michael had his reading skills to entertain him, Jason chose model building to escape his boredom and fuel his imagination. On his desk sat an unfinished diorama of a tank rolling through a meadow. One of its tracks rested on the gut of a fallen soldier. He could never seem to make that soldier flat enough.

Next to the model sat a picture of Jason’s Daddy when he was still alive. He could not remember much of Daddy. He could remember the hugs and kisses he longed for now. He remembered a camping trip, the last wonder-filled memory he had, to a place called Clayton Lake, Oklahoma. That was almost five years ago. They had been fishing from a canoe in the middle of the lake. The memory was all that remained of a better life.

Not long after the camping trip, when he had been working on an oilrig near Ambrose, Daddy suffered a heart attack that caused his death. He fell from the top of the rig into the steel skeleton of the structure. The injuries from the fall had been so terrible that they would not open the casket at the funeral. Jason could not kiss Daddy one last time goodbye.

Jason jumped up on his bed, something he did not dare do when his mother was around. Above his bed an unfinished mobile sported model WWII aircraft. An F-4U Corsair pursued a Japanese Zero. He tapped the mobile so that the planes spun around each other in a mock dogfight. He rested back on his bed and watched them until he fell asleep.

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Jason had been asleep no more than an hour when he heard Mother enter the house. She was humming quietly to herself, which indicated she was in an agreeable mood. Still, he had to be careful what he did around her. One wrong move could bring disaster. He did not dare go down to meet her. He had learned that that valuable lesson when he was barely five. She had to call him first, and if she did, he would have to be there in an instant.

He listened carefully as she began to work in the kitchen. He worried that he had done something wrong or left a mess and that she was going to find it. He could not remember if he had cleaned up his dishes from lunch, which had consisted of peanut butter and half of a banana forgotten at the back of the refrigerator.

To ease his worries, he stood up on the side of his bed next to the window. He checked to see if Michael's bicycle leaned against the old post cut from a long dead tree. It was not there yet. He looked out to the distant two-lane blacktop that led into Sweetwater, which was over one hundred miles away. It shimmered like watery glass in the early summer heat.

Jason turned away from the window and slapped his mobile so fiercely it spun around violently. He had not heard Mother come up the stairs and nearly gasped when he saw her standing in the door. He froze in terror, paralyzed the way a frightened rabbit was in the headlights of an oncoming car. They forbid him to play on top of his bed.

"It is a good thing your room is clean." His mother's tone was cold and flat. "Now come downstairs and set the table for dinner."

Jason jumped off his bed and started to amble by his mother obediently. As he did, a deft hand lashed out and caught him by his ear. He had to stop dead in his tracks, fighting back the urge to yelp in pain. Searing pain burned in his ear as she twisted it upward. Her other hand slapped his cheek hard enough to produce wide spots flowing through his vision. This time he could not stop the outcry and that brought a fresh burst of pain to his ear. He could never predict her moods or her reactions.

"Shut up! You deserve this!" His mother twisted his ear even more.

Now the poor boy stood on his toes and struggled to keep from grabbing her arm or crying any louder. “I am sorry, Mother.” Tonight was going to be a tight wire act.

"I told you never to stand on your bed or jump around on the floor!" His mother forced him toward the staircase. "Not get down there and set the table!"

Jason nearly fell down the stairs as he hurried to get out of her reach. Tears rolled down his cheeks, though he wanted so badly not to cry. It seemed to give her some sort of satisfaction to see him in pain. He did not understand that those matters were not his fault.

“Use the fine china to set the table,” Mother told Jason when they were in the dining room.

The china set belonged to his grandmother and was important. That made the boy especially nervous. His mother must be expecting company or planning something nice for Randy when he arrived home. Occasionally, when one of the dishes would rattle, Mother would glare at him. That made him even more nervous.

Just as Jason had finished setting the table, Randy lumbered in through the front door. His stepfather was a tall, overbearing man with a slight beer gut. The man had been out of work for nearly a year and spent most of his time at a bar in town. Jason was glad the man never stayed at home with him during the day. He hated the man with a passion. Nevertheless, he had to live with Randy because he was married to Mother. Jason tried to avoid contact with the man as much as he could, but too often he was hard to avoid.

Dinner consisted of fried chicken, corn, and peas. The boy ate quietly, listening to Mother and Randy talk about adult matters. Jason never said anything to his parents when they were sitting at the table, not until they were finished eating. Several unexpected slaps to a tender cheek had broken him of that bad habit. When they all finished eating, he excused himself, and that was all he was permitted to say. Carefully, he picked up his dishes and set them in the sink.

"Go to your room, Jason." His mother glanced at him casually. "Your father and I have something to discuss."

How can she call that drunken idiot my father?

Jason never allowed himself to acknowledge Randy as a father figure. There had been only one father in his life. Randy did not deserve to fit in Daddy’s shoes.

"Yes, Mother," Jason replied in a servile manner.

"Jason." Her taut voice hinted at something important that he was forgetting.

"Huh?" Jason gazed back at her with the eyes of the cornered animal. His heart felt as though it had skipped several beats. He tried to hide his fear, though.

"Are you forgetting something?" She tapped her cheek with a forefinger and gave an expected smile.

Is Mother in a good mood? She only wants a kiss. That is all she wants…just a kiss. That is fine.

Jason’s love for Mother was greater than his concern for his own well-being. Inwardly, he felt relieved. A kiss was something he could rarely give her that he enjoyed sharing with her. He almost ran to her and kissed her, feeling the softness of her cheek warmed to the sensitivity of his tender mouth. She kissed him back and hugged him briefly. It was one of those moments, fleeting memories of love, that made him forget the less painful moments of his life. Even if only for an instant, it was a moment filled with a blissful peace.

"Goodnight, Mother," he said as he kissed her again.

"Do not forget Randy." His mother was too gentle as she turned Jason to the man.

Jason hesitated too long. He was reluctant to have any contact with Randy, but he knew Mother watched every move he made. He wondered if she knew about them. He forced himself to step closer and reached his arms up to put them around the neck of the man who did not deserve to be a father. He kissed the cheek rough with beard stubble as quickly as he could, and then pulled away immediately. He believed he betrayed Daddy every time he had contact with Randy.

"Off to bed now." His mother's voice was so warm and inviting!

"I'll check in with you later." That came from Randy, who gave the boy the smile of a used car salesman.

Of course, Jason knew what that meant. He turned to his mother to see if she was aware about what Randy planned. She paid no attention to their interaction, which burned away the pleasure of the moment before. Randy kept on smiling. That smile so unnerved Jason that he became afraid. There was no way to stop that man.

One time, Jason tried to tell Mother when Randy first started visiting his room when she was not home. She called her son a liar.

You spoiled brat! You are just saying that because you do not want me to have anybody else except your father. The man is dead!

His mother humiliated Jason in front of Randy, forcing him to strip all his clothes off and lay on the bed. She whipped him front and back with the telephone cord, which bit into his flesh so many times that he could not keep count. He almost went to the hospital due to the punishment he deserved. She locked him in his room for a week. Jason did not dare say anything else about the man to her.

Jason knew that he had been wrong. He never should have said anything about Randy. He was always wrong in his actions. He wished that he could be a better son for his mother, but he kept making mistakes. He was the one who accidentally wandered in when she was with one of her other boyfriends. That mistake caused him to miss a week of school.


Jason was so afraid of what might happen with Randy later, that he lost all poise in his movements. He wanted to hurry up and get away from both, to get to what little safety existed in his room. He stumbled over his own feet. What happened next became a blur of the events of a day he would never forget. He should have tried to catch himself on the table, but his reflexes often reacted before he could control them. His hand caught on the corner of the table. Nevertheless, the fall still happened. He fell, pulling the tablecloth and Grandma's fine china serving bowl down with him. He watched it fall and break into three pieces. The cherry cobbler poured out of the remnants like the blood of a creature from some horror movie.

Of course, Jason knew it was his own fault again. There was no doubt about that. He could see the angry conviction in Mother's eyes. She rose ever so slowly in anger from her seat. The boy got up off the floor with cautionary movements and backed away from his accident in terror. Tears formed at the corner of his eyes as he shook his head, hoping in vain to ward off the punishment. He paused in the doorway to the living room when she stooped to pick up the broken bowl with trembling hands.

"No Mother! I am so sorry!" Jason cried now, even though he had not yet received punishment. "Please do not..."

"This was Grandma's china you broke with a clumsy action." She managed to get the words out clearly through tightly clenched teeth.

"I did not mean to." Jason's voice took on a pleading tone.

"You clumsy little shit!"

Suddenly, a massive piece of the bowl hurtled towards Jason at a speed faster than he could dodge. It struck him on his temple, sending an intense shock into his mind. Tiny black and white dots clouded his vision almost to the point of obscurity. The pain that followed almost instantly was too severe and intense to allow him to pass out into a peaceful bliss.

The force of the impact sent Jason sprawling to the floor. Fresh blood streamed from the cuts on his face. There was one cut above his right eye that was about four inches long and deep enough to show the grayish white color of his skull underneath. The one that ran along his upper cheek to about the center of his right ear was not nearly as deep. He cringed as bloodstains began to form on the living room carpet. Awkwardly Jason attempted to get up and get away from his mother. The blood from his right eye half blinded him. Every time he cried; he swallowed a mouth full of blood. Trying to get away was the worst mistake he ever made. It left him backed into the corner between the front door and the living room couch.

"You do not turn away from me!" The anger in Mother's voice intensified.

Jason no longer had the voice to beg her to stop. It simply was not in him anymore. He struggled to curl into a defensive fetal position and attempted to draw up his knees and protect his vital organs. That seemed to anger her even more as she caught him up by his arms before he could do anything else.

"You little shit! That bowl is costly!" His mother shook him violently. "Why do you have to be so stupid all the damn time?"

"I do not know! I do not know!" Jason cried. "I am sorry!"

His mother was about to tell him to clean the floor when she caught sight of her new white couch soiled with the red ball field dirt. "What the hell!” Her face twisted into an ugly mask or rage. “You got dirt on my new sofa!"

All hell broke loose then. His mother's hand curled into a fist as hard as stone. Jason saw it coming and closed his eyes. She hit him as hard as she could. Not in and out like blows but up and down like a sledgehammer. She struck at random his back, his shoulders, his neck, and his head. He received several blows to the head that was, in a way, a blessing because it numbed out all the other strikes. The world became a gray cloud with only shadows moving against him.

His mother’s rage began to wane when the boy stopped resisting her abuse. "I will teach you the value of expensive things!" She threw Jason down to the floor and kicked him once in the backside as her energies were spent. "You will never play baseball with your friends again!" She turned and grabbed her purse from a coffee table. "I need to get a drink, Randy. I will decide what to do with this ungrateful little shit when I get back."

Jason looked up at her through swollen, sorrowful eyes as she reached for the front door. She scowled at him with disgust and threw open the door, smiling wickedly at the sound of cracks in the boy's broken ribs the door had caused, and appeared even more pleased at the squeal of pain that followed. She slammed the door shut behind her. Thoroughly weakened, crying from exhaustion and pain, Jason lay there unable to move.


Randy sat at the table and finished gnawing the chicken leg he had been eating on before the whole mess it started. All the while, he watched Jason lying helpless and crying in the corner with a different type of hunger in his eyes. When he cleaned the kitchen, he took time now and then to watch the boy with care, and then returned to work. When he finished cleaning up, the man walked over to the boy and knelt beside him.

Jason managed to look up at him with dark, terrified eyes. Not again tonight. The evening was only getting worse.

"Well, little guy." Randy spoke in a deceivingly soft, soothing tone. "It looks like you have gotten yourself into quite a mess this time."

Jason tried to say something, but his voice was too choked back with tears. His side hurt too much even as he breathed. Randy picked the boy up and helped him in getting upstairs. It hurt to move. It hurt to live. He wanted to die so badly. He just wanted to give up and get away before everything got worse.

Randy put Jason in the bathroom. "Let me go get my robe on. I do not want to get any blood on my new clothes. I will be scarcely a minute, and then we will get you cleaned up and bandaged."

Jason wanted to leave without delay. His body could not obey his will yet. It still struggled to cope with the beating. Therefore, the boy sat waiting for the inevitable. He would not be able to resist tonight.

How could I be so stupid? None of this would have happened if I had not been such a clumsy shit! My mother is so angry at me. I could have still played in the baseball game tomorrow. Now, I will never get to see my friends ever again. It is all my fault. Why did I have to be so stupid?

"What are you thinking, sport?" Randy stood in the doorway dressed only in a robe. His grayish pink gut stuck out through the front of the robe entirely too small for him.

"Nothing." Jason whispered as he turned his head away.

"Well, we will have you fixed up here in a little while." Randy walked over to the bathtub beside Jason and began drawing up water for a bath. "Let's get you undressed while the tub is filling up."

Jason hurt too much to protest. He braced himself mentally, forcing back the feelings of violation and humiliation. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not. He did not care anymore. Randy had taken off his shirt and was checking the ribs on his right side. The man touched the painful spot.

“Ouch!” Jason winced, fresh tears bursting from his eyes.

That was how it all began, was it not, with the touching? Years earlier, Randy would sit with the little boy, dressed only in his underwear, in front of the television. His mother had gone to the grocery store or something. While Jason watched cartoons, the man would reach under his shorts and grope him. Randy was pulling Jason's pants down now as that weird, ravenous gaze returned to the man’s eyes.

Jason pushed himself deeper into his mind to a time before his real daddy died. He wanted to go back to the last time they went camping. In Oklahoma, there were trees so tall that they seemed to touch the sky.

Randy gently lowered Jason into the soothing warm water.

They were on the Canadian River! They had rented the big red canoe from the elderly Indian. How proud that Indian appeared, despite his weathered face and the hair as white as a January snow.

"Let me get some Epson salt. It will help out a lot." Randy whispered into Jason's ear.

Despair ripped reality back into existence.

Jason watched as the man reached into the medicine cabinet and pulled out the tiny bluish-white box. He let out a sigh and tried to slip back into that canoe Daddy had taken him out in. The memory would not come back to obliterate the present. Jason watched Randy pour a generous amount of the salt into the water and stirred it around. The man looked at him in a way almost loving, and yet demanding. Jason wanted to turn away from that disgusting stare. Randy caught his chin with ever so gentle hands that forced their eyes to gaze on one another. The man almost seemed to care about him.

"You know you should not make your mother mad like that." Randy twisted Jason's soft red curls within his fingers. "She almost killed you tonight."

"I did not mean to break that bowl." Jason stammered.

"I know that." Randy grabbed a bar of soap and began to bathe the boy and wash his wounds. "You just have to be careful around her. She could mess up that beautiful face of yours. I love you, Jason, as much as your father did or more. I do not like to see you get hurt."

Somewhere deep inside the core of Jason's soul, a tiny spark of anger came into existence. It was so small at first that he barely realized what was happening. Randy's words had set the ember into existence. There existed no comparison between the love from his Daddy and what this man called love. It burned Jason’s heart for the mere suggestion.

Randy wrapped the silent child's rib cage so that he would not be in too much pain. He even sewed the wound above the eye and the one along the cheek. He carefully applied the iodine. Jason winced as the medicine brought searing pain to the severed nerves of the wounds. The bandage around his chest helped ease the pain from his ribs. It was a dull throb, and as soon as he took the aspirin, he would be able to ignore the pain. He watched as Randy fished out a jar of petroleum jelly from the cabinet. The man slipped it down into the pocket of his robe. Jason shuddered with disgust and expectation. He knew what was coming soon.

“Come with me, son.” Randy helped Jason off the side of the tub, not even bothering to dress him. “It is getting past your bedtime.”


Tears of shame streamed across Jason’s face and down onto his pillow after Randy left him alone on the bed. The act of violation left him exhausted and sore. He lay there naked under the sheet, unwilling to move. The movement caused the pain to flair, despite the aspirin. Randy promised a stronger pain pill that would help him sleep, but not until he returned. The man always came back for a second round of torture. He curled into a fetal position, crying aloud for the first time that night.

It was then that the ember inside his soul became a wildfire out of control. It was not just anger that fueled the flames. The years and years of humiliation kept bottled up until that night, burst out and poisoned his soul. Jason felt deeply ashamed of himself. He was at the mercy of a mother whose punishments were too severe. The man, whose sick desires played out on him repeatedly, finally pushed him over the edge of sanity. He had to get away tonight, before it could ever happen again. He could not live with them any longer.

The wildfire slowly helped build up Jason's strength that he needed to get away. As soon as he was far enough away, he would take the rest he needed to let his wounds heal. Then he would move again. His mother would be gone at least until the bars closed. If he waited any longer, Randy would come back for the next round with him before midnight. If the second time could be avoided, Jason needed to attempt.

Jason forced himself up out of bed to go to the bathroom. He cleansed himself of Randy's filth, scrubbing everything until he was nearly raw. He stepped out into the hall and stole a cautious glance downstairs. The creep sat in a chair, beer in hand, watching Saturday night wrestling tapes.

Jason went back to his room and, being restrained, dressed. He took his pillowcase from his bed and started to put some extra clothes in it. He decided to go ahead and take his pillow and a blanket. He went outside his room to steal another glance at Randy. His heart skipped a beat. The man slept with his head rolled to one side and snored loud enough to wake the dead.

Jason went back to his room and checked over everything. He studied at the picture of his Daddy and found himself starting to cry again. He bit his lip, determined to leave the pain all behind. He climbed to his window, clutching the picture of his father close to his heart. Carefully wincing from the terrible pain, yet never crying out, he climbed down the dilapidated trellis beside the front porch.

Except for the occasional dog barking in distant yards and the constant rustle of dry tumbleweeds in motion, the night was eerie and quiet. After dark, small Texas towns shut down almost all business activity except for fast food joints on the highways or bars in the seedier parts of town. The air was still oppressively hot with heat radiating from the pavement.

Jason glanced into the front window, observed Randy still sound asleep, and turned to leave his life of pain behind him forever. He was about to step out into the street when a familiar voice startled him badly. He nearly dropped into one of his protective postures. He turned and looked up to his friend, who leaned half-way out of a window.

"Where are you going?" Michael squeezed his eyes to see Jason. He was nearly blind without his glasses.

"Ssshhh!" Jason spoke in a harsh whisper. "I am running away."

"Wait up!" Michael was always one for adventure, especially one that involved his best friend. "I want to come with you."

There was only one person alive in the world that Jason cared as much for as he did for Daddy, and that person was Michael. He thought about the decision for a long moment while the other boy disappeared from his window. He could not well just leave his best friend behind. Yet he was uncertain about what was going to happen now, and the boy wanted the comfort of somebody to walk beside him as he left the only home he had ever known.

"Hurry up about it!" Jason was not sure he should be letting Michael come along with him. "Mother will be back soon."

Jason crouched near a dead row of dried out hedges and waited nearly five minutes before Michael came out. His friend sure was lucky to have a backpack. His parents were dutiful to him. They were gone visiting with their church, so he could come out to the front door just as clever as could be. He beamed at Jason with the eyes of all boys, setting out on the adventure of a lifetime.

Jason was not as enthusiastic as he took a last glance toward his porch, expecting to see Randy there watching him. "Come on. I want to be out of this town before morning."

"Why are you running away, Jason?" Michael almost had to jog to keep up with his best friend, who did not appear as cheerful as when he had come home from the baseball game.

"I just want to have a better life." Jason had no idea how he was going to get to wherever he was going as he kept to the darkened portions of the street out of the lights. "I have to get away from them!"

“You want to leave your mother and Randy?” Michael knew the relationship between Jason and his stepfather was non-existent, but he could not grasp the idea of leaving a true parent. “Jeez! What happened to your face?”

“I do not want to talk about it.” Jason gasped from the pain.

Michael’s enthusiasm for a grand adventure turned into genuine concern for Jason’s well-being. “You should go to the doctor and have that looked at.”

“If I go to the hospital, they will find me there and take me back home.” Jason stopped to catch his breath in painful, stabbing gasps. “Besides, I already have a doctor in the house. Remember?”

"Where are you going to go?"

"I am going to Hollywood."

"How are you going to get there?" Michael glanced at Jason’s pack. "Can I help you with that? I do not mind."

Jason took a moment to meditate over Michael’s question as he gladly handed over his bag. It made him nervous to stand still, but he did not realize how weakened he was. Even though they were a block away, he expected to discover Randy gushing out from their house after him. Michael’s last question perplexed him. He had no idea how to get to Hollywood.

“Do you have any money to ride the bus?” Michael noticed blood oozing from the facial wounds.

“That bus does not operate until tomorrow afternoon. They will find me before that.” Jason started hiking again, in a different direction, yet still away from his home.

“You could stay at my house tonight,” Michael offered. He could not understand Jason’s desperation to leave immediately. “Momma thought you were coming over, anyways.”

“No! I have to get away from him!” Jason cupped his hands over his mouth to stifle a scream of rage. “I hate him!”

Michael thought of an idea that seemed a worthy solution. “The hobos are always getting free rides on the empty box cars. We could stow away in one of the empty freight cars on the rail line to Santa Fe.”

“What time is it?” Jason changed directions again, this time in the direction of downtown where the depot was.

Michael glanced down at his watch. “9:35.”

“The train to Santa Fe stops through here until 10:00 to let the south bound trains pass.” Jason felt a surge of hope as freedom neared.

That seemed to be their best bet to Jason. He did not have to go all night to escape the reaches of his parents. It would allow him time to rest up and heal a little. They headed off across an open street to the rail yard. A security guard sat snoring on a bench at the depot. He did not wake from his sleep when the two boys hopped aboard an empty freight car and crawled back into the dark shadows.

Exhausted, both boys collapsed against the back wall of the train. There was no comfort from the remaining heat of the day, and both were drenched with sweat. The boxcar smelled of rust and oil and a slight remnant of whatever merchandise it had once carried. Jason tried to hide his misery, but it did not escape Michael’s concerned eye.

“You should go home, now.” Jason stretched out his thin blanket on the bare metal floor. “I think I hear the last southbound coming.”

“I am staying with you.” Michael laid out his sleeping bag. “When we get you to Hollywood, I will call Momma, and she will pay for my ticket back home.”

A metallic groan vibrated through the floor of the boxcar. Jason put his pillow down and then carefully positioned himself into a prone position. The last train was getting close and its whistle reverberated painfully within the boxcar. Michael lay on top of his sleeping bag next to Jason.

“You have an awesome mother and father.” Jason turned so that he could glance at Michael. “My Daddy was awesome.”

There was a long moment of silence before Michael finally asked a question nagging at him for a long time. "Why does your momma hit you like that?"

Jason felt his stomach drop away. That was something he had never wanted anyone else to know. "I guess it was because I broke my grandma's China bowl. It was kind of stupid of me."

"My Momma never hit me like that. I watched your Mother throw a bowl at you!" Michael touched the wounds on Jason's face carefully. "That is what caused this, was it not?"

“I did something bad and I deserved punishment.” Jason pushed Michael’s hand away from his face. It still hurt too much to be touched. “Do you get punished when you do something bad?”

Michael felt a bit of embarrassment. “I get time out from my books or privileges like the library taken away.”

The other train was upon them. The train was long and carried significant weight. Its passing shook the ground beneath both sets of tracks, and consequently, the static train waited to embark. The movement of the boxcars caused a cooling wind to circulate where the two boys waited. After the southbound had passed, there was a jolting shift in the boys’ boxcar as the whole train lurched, and then began rolling forward.

“It is not too late to jump off and go back home,” Jason suggested.

“You need my help right now.” Michael fished two bottles of water out of his backpack. “Did you reckon to bring along any of this?”

“You are a smart kid.” Jason attempted to sit up, but it hurt too much to do it on his own. “Did you bring something to eat, too?”

Michael helped Jason sit up and opened his water. “Just sip. I have four more bottles of water, a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. That needs to last us a couple of days.”

“I wish I was as smart as you.” Jason watched as the last lights of the town of Lorena disappeared into the desert night. “Maybe then I would not do such stupid stuff to make Mother so angry at me.” He turned back to Michael. “How could you see she hit me with the bowl?”

“When I came home from the library, I could see it happen through your living room window.” Michael studied Jason for a moment. “I got scared and told Momma about it tonight at bedtime. She said she believed me. I believe that is why she and Poppa went to talk to the pastor. His phone is out. He also works for some place called C.P.S. They tried to call the police, but they are all out working a wreck out on the highway.”

"What else did you notice?" Jason was worried about what his friend might think of him.

Michael stared off into a corner of the car, moonlight glancing off the rim of his glasses. "I do not know. I worried so much for you. Momma was crying about you when she left to visit the pastor.” He shook his head. “In your room...the window was open." He looked at Jason. His eyes seemed larger and wiser behind the lenses of his glasses. "You are not fagging out on me, are you? I mean... Randy forced you do that with him, did he not?"

Now Jason stared off into that same corner, as the most shameful part of his life lay exposed to his best friend. "I do not know how to make him stop." He gazed back at Michael with tears welling in his eyes. "I do not want to do it with him, but I have to…because Mother tells me to obey him. I must let him. But I do not want it to happen."

AN expression of sympathetic understanding appeared in Michael’s eyes. "I thought that was what it was. My Sunday school teacher told me about that. Sometimes grownups have a way of making you do something you do not want to do and make you feel like you have to."

Jason thought long and hard before deciding to tell Michael everything. If he could not trust his best friend, whom could he trust? It felt good to tell somebody about his heart. Michael was a good listener. He never made any wiseacre remarks about anything that Jason told him. After Jason was finished, even though he was crying, he felt the burden lifted from his heart. Michael somehow made him feel better about himself. He loved his best friend almost as much as he loved his Daddy.

  • A Better Life, Part 2
    Jason lives a lonely life at home, tortured by a mother who does not love him and a man who claims to love him. He longs to be free of the nightmare and escape to a better life far away. His best friend Michael saw the torment first hand, old enough

For a more uplifting read, choose Little Joe's Christmas Tree:

  • Little Joe's Christmas Tree
    A short story about a boy living in a family shelter for the first time. When thieves break in and steal the center's Christmas tree, Little Joe determines to find another just before the worst ice storm in years strikes. He wants to share with other

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