Chapter 1

I only saw the flash of movement out of the corner of my eyes and barely paid attention as I pulled the keys from the ignition. I reached to open the door and before I had pushed it even halfway open, some other force jolted the other side of the door, moving it to sit in a gaping position. My eyes darted up to take in the face.

"Out! Out! Bryce, out!" My mother announced, trying to shoo me from the vehicle urgently with her free hand. Her other hand was occupied in holding her hair against the head as the wind attempted to whip it into disarray. "I'm going to be late!"

"But I need it!" I protested, moving from the truck reluctantly at her tugging. I sent her a meaningful glance. "I need to go shopping. You said there was no more food in the house."

We had gotten into the habit of calling our shady activities shopping because we didn't want the truth to slip to my little sister Lindy. She didn't need to hear about stuff like that at age five. Besides, she was a blabbermouth and could end up getting us in trouble.

"And I have a job interview," She responded on a breath of air. She hopped into the driver's seat and turned back to look at me pointedly. "If I get this job, we won't have to go shopping anymore."

I chewed my lip and made a decision.

"Alright," I agreed. "We can live off the last of the money until your paycheck comes in."

The sensation of acid oozing through my veins hit me as she winced. I paused, stiffening, as I waited for her reply. "I—well, I used the last of the money to bail your uncle Terrence out of jail."

"You what?" I all but exploded. I swore loudly and then lowered my tone, remembering that Lindy could be in hearing distance. "You wasted money on that—"

"He's my brother!" Her voice was quick and harsh. "I will not hear you badmouthing him! How can you ever expect our family to help us if we don't help them?"

My reply was just as instant and vehement. I knew there was no point in mentioning this because my mother and I had fought over this several times before and she had remained stubborn on the matter.

"Oh, I'm sure they'd be right happy to help us out!" My voice was laced with sarcasm. "Maybe one day Uncle Terrence will wake up and decide: Hey! Maybe my family is worth more than drowning in beer and hairspray! He's just like dad!"

She pointed her finger at me sharply. "Don't you go talking about your father like that! Have respect for the dead. And don't tell me you've never done the same. I've seen you with your friends, sneaking around the side of the house with a couple bottles of hairspray."

My lip curled. Yeah, that was right. But I didn't have responsibilities—not like him. And what teenager didn't want to get a buzz now and then? It was different. My dad had a family. And he wouldn't be dead right now if he had cared more about his responsibilities instead of being a self-serving bastard.

But arguing with my mom wasn't going to do anything. She was right stubborn. Instead, I just shrugged to show her that I didn't agree with her, but I was tired of fighting her on it. Besides, fighting with her wouldn't bring the money back. My stomach squeezed emptily. Lunch was my only meal of the day. We got free ones at school. I was always the last in line so no one else would notice me flashing my 'poor bastard' card. That's what the white people called them, snickering whenever they saw someone use one.

"Saah, whatever," I said in return to the hairspray comment. "You ain't seen nothing."

She pulled the seat belt across her chest and locked it in next to her, sending me a hard look as she did so, as if to say, 'you aren't fooling anyone'. What she actually said was, "Just look after Lindy, will you? Oh, and don't drink the water—and use the outhouse if nature calls."

She shut the door and spun out of the driveway before I could ask any more questions, kicking up dust and stones in her wake. I muttered a string of curses under my breath and picked up the stray basketball sitting on the gravel drive and slammed it into the side of the house. It hit one of the wooden supports that were interspersed widely between the opaque plastic that was stapled along the front side of the house.

The front side still had no wall, so the plastic was the only barrier between the outside world and us. My dad had been in the process of putting up a wall. The back and sides of the little house had a sturdy covering in a stucco-like pattern. But he had decided to overdose on drugs—five different types at once—before he ever finished the front end. And that had been the end of him.

I moved toward the house with a sigh. Obviously, the septic tank was broken again. And it would probably be broken for a good half a year before we would be able to find the money to fix it again. And if we couldn't drink the water, that probably meant we were having problems with sewage leaking into our water pipes again.

I blew air out of the side of my mouth, knowing that there was no way I was going to be able to get into town now. Mountain Heights was a good fifteen-minute drive away, which translated to about an hour and a half walking. Damien and Cooper were expecting me to be there and I couldn't call them because the phone line was down. It had been for the last three months since we been able to make our payments.

I needed to find some way to work off my aggressions. The screen door creaked on its hinges as I pulled it back and slipped into the dimly lit house. Thank God the electricity was still working, but mom only wanted us to use it when it was absolutely needed. And since the whole front of the house was covered in opaque plastic, that translated to no artificial lighting while the sun was up.

My eyes landed on the small child sitting cross-legged on the floor. Her long and silky black hair fell down her back. She was going to be beautiful when she grew up, which made me even more protective of her. She glanced up from the picture she was drawing.

"I'm hungry," She announced plaintively.

I shrugged in helplessness and muttered gruffly. "I'll see what's here."

Regret hit me the moment her eyes lit up and she jumped to her feet to run to me. My promise would only be followed by disappointment. She clung to my leg and balanced on my foot as I began to walk toward the kitchen.

"Guess what Mrs. Murray brought today!" She spoke with excitement, squealing as I made my stride extra long. "She brought kittens and we got to hold them. They were too cute. I right want a kitten. Why won't mommy let me have a kitten?"

"Because they're smelly!" I spoke aloud, scrunching my face up exaggeratedly. I pinched my nose with my free hand that wasn't being used to help her balance. "Piewww!"

Lindy giggled loudly. "No, they don't! You're lying."

I picked her up and sat her on the kitchen counter. She was light, even for a five-year-old. I dreaded opening the cupboards because I was pretty sure that there was nothing for Lindy to eat. That was just setting her up for further disappointment.

"You're right," I said seriously. "Kittens aren't smelly. But we can't have kittens right now. We don't have enough money."

Lindy's eyes were just so wide and innocent, and she took me at my word. She nodded simply. "So, when do we get more money?"

I grinned, concealing my anxieties and unspent anger. "When you learn how to fly."

She squealed. "People can't fly!"

My eyes widened. "They can't? Are you sure?"

She nodded her head vigorously. "My teacher told me so."

I opened the cupboard over her shoulder, only to find it empty. The next cupboard and displayed the same result: Emptiness. Well, that's what I thought until I caught the glint of plastic from the top row. I reached up and gripped the package, pulling it down. It was the strawberry wafer cookies. There were only three left.

My mouth watered and I could feel my stomach twist again. Wrenching my eyes away from the food, I gripped Lindy about her waist and placed her back on solid ground. I handed her the package of cookies.

"There you are," I announced and began to turn away.

"Where are you going?" She asked.

"To work out," I replied, jutting my head in the direction of the blue mat sitting in the corner. I'd nicked it from the school gym a couple of years ago.

She shrugged, stuffing a cookie into her mouth with her tiny fingers, half of it protruding outward.

Working out gave me a toned appearance, even if I'd never be one of those big guys like Damien. I was quicker than he was, and I was a formidable opponent in a fight—and I wasn't too modest about it either. But what guy is?

I was just breaking into a sweat when I heard the door creak open again. The mere sound had adrenaline pumping through my veins automatically. I jumped to my feet, ready to kick out the intruder when I caught sight of the girl stalking into the house in a bright pink tank top that was ripped along the side seam and a flowered jean miniskirt. I'd heard a lot of guys call her a hottie, but I couldn't think of her that way. She was my sister. Not to mention that her hair was in tangled disarray and a couple scratch marks marred her cheek like someone had taken a pair of fingernails to her.

"Jolie!" I raised my eyebrows and took a towel to my forehead to wipe off the beads of sweat running there. "Shouldn't you be in Coaldale?"

"Shouldn't you be in juvie?" She responded in a pissy tone; her cheeks flushed red with temper. She was twisting the keys in her fingers fretfully.

I shrugged and quipped. "They couldn't handle me. They decided it would be safer to set me loose on someone else."

She rolled her eyes and sent me a sarcastic and withering glare.

"What's up your ass?" I asked, stretching my arm behind my back to feel the pleasant strain. I held it for ten seconds before moving to the other arm.

"It's Lacey," Her words came out in a rush. "The nasty freak. She's right pissed at me and thinks she can spread lies behind my back. Too wrong. It's not like it's my fault. She should be blaming her husband. Does she think I would have gone with the guy if I knew he was hitched? I was just looking for a good time."

I didn't need to ask how the rest of the story finished. By her appearance, it had been a pretty nasty cat fight. And from her temperament, I was guessing that Jolie was the instigator of the tussle.

My arms dropped to my sides after finishing the stretch, once again noticing the keys dangling from her fingers. I moved up to her and snatched the keys.

"What do you think you're doing?" She demanded.

"I need to borrow your car," I responded. "Can you watch Lindy for me?"

"Oh, no you don't!" She snapped, stalking after me to the door. "I don't have insurance and with your driving, you'll get my car impounded."

"I'll be careful!" I pleaded, sending her a meaningful glance. "I need to go shopping."

Lindy giggled. Obviously, she'd been listening to the conversation because she suddenly joined in with a child-like taunt. "Bryce is going stealing! Bryce is going stealing!"

"No!" My expression towards Lindy was gruffer than I had intended. "I'm not stealing. Lindy, I'm shopping!"

Her taunt cut short and her lip quivered a bit. A bit of the Good Striker stubbornness shone through as she placed her hands on her hips and said stoutly. "Yes, you are."

I sent her an apologetic glance for speaking so harshly and decided to leave the conversation at that. I glanced back at Jolie, who had moved to the kitchen and was checking through the cupboards.

"Is there anything in this whole damn house?" She demanded.

I nodded to the stray cookie that Lindy had dropped on the floor next to her picture. "That's the last piece of food in the house."

Jolie sighed. "Alright, take my car," She relented, but then poised her finger. "But don't you dare get it impounded. That car is my life! I'd be right screwed without it."

"My word of honor," I replied, moving to squeeze her in a quick side hug before running out the door. I didn't want to give her the chance to change her mind.

Hi All! I want to thank you all for the reviews up to this point.

For those new to reading the story, please know that the characters opinions, offensive comments, etc. are not reflective of my (the author's) opinion.

I realize that some of the comments made in this story will be difficult to read. It is natural for you to feel upset or incensed by them. In fact, I'd be worried if you were not. But they are necessary to the building plotline!

Thanks to everyone and please review!