Thirty minutes later and Romeo and Casey were seated at the kitchen table. The twins, true to Nash’s word, retreated to their bedroom and didn’t bother them.
Romeo wasn’t such a bad help. Casey was having trouble getting through the long poems and Romeo watched him curiously, but silently. He had some experience with learning disabilities himself and with Miles’ help had been able to get through school much easier the last two years than all of his years before. Now, how to breach the subject with Casey was a different story.
With Romeo doing the second reading, Casey was able to understand everything that the older teen said. His own recall on the first poem was sketchy, probably from his own struggles through the literature.
When they finally started up on the writing from Romeo’s essay, he felt that the younger teen had a smart head on his shoulders, easily noticing a few comparisons that Romeo himself had missed. Funnily, he couldn’t help but think about how much Casey and Miles would get along, if Casey didn’t feel so hounded all of the time.
Just as they were making progress and half way through the essays, the infamous Heath Braxton showed up, walking through the back door with a handfuls of grocery bags.
“Oi, what we’ve got here,” Heath teased. “A study date?”
Casey sighed, glaring at the back of Heath’s head.
“Romeo’s here to help me with an assignment,” Casey informed him. Please don’t be an ass! Casey couldn’t help but think.
“For school?” Heath scoffed. “You?”
With a heavier sigh, Casey slammed his pencil down and turned towards Heath. Seeing his little brother’s reaction just caused Heath to smirk.
“Must you be an ass?”
“Did I strike a nerve?” Heath tried to look apologetic, but his eyes twinkle with mischief Casey knew well. “Should I leave you two love birds to it then?”
Casey knew better than to engage. Heath loved bothering everyone, and Casey was an easy target for him. Casey often wouldn’t say anything and then just explode. For the older brother, it was amusing. Heath could easily overpower him and it wouldn’t be long before Casey was in enough physical pain to warrant a retreat. Heath was always careful not to actually hurt him, and knowing that just made things worse.
“Yes,” he gritted out instead.
“Fine then,” shrugged Heath, headed towards the backdoor once more. “Put the food away. I’d rather hit up Wilson’s anyway.”
Casey scoffed, and Romeo just watched the interaction silently. The Heath before him was nothing like the Heath Braxton he had heard about. Heath was rude and rash and arrogant and aggressive and a womanizer.
“Waste of time, if you ask me,” he commented, making a grab for his truck keys again. “Dumbo here wouldn’t know his elbow from his ass.”
“Shut up, Heath,” Casey glared at him, wishing that for once his brother wouldn’t have to prove he was such a jerk to everyone.
But just as Heath was passing them to leave, making a harsh swipe at Casey’s head, he stopped cold.
“Fuck,” he groaned, dropping his keys on the table. “Stay put.”
Casey frowned at the keys and turned to look in the direction that his brother had been looking out the backdoors. He expected to see trouble, police or rivals or even some of the Boys riled up. It happened sometimes, though usually after long weekends and hard liquor.
“Fuck my life,” Casey groaned, seeing the real cause of Heath’s sharp tongue just as the older Braxton closed the sliding door behind him.
“What?” Romeo asked, taking in the shift around them. He too turned and spotted the older, redhead stumbling her way through the yard. “Who’s that?”
“That’s my mum.”
Romeo turned and frowned at Casey. Case for his part couldn’t tear his eyes away from the scene occurring on the other side of the glass doors.
Heath stood just on the edge of the back porch. He leaned to the side, against the post that helped hold up the roofing to the small area. His arms were crossed and his legs too at the ankle. He made no move to help the woman as she began to stumble towards him.
She didn’t seem to notice him and the brown bag in her hand was most definitively still full.
Romeo’s own mother had been alcoholic, but while she hadn’t been abusive to him or his sister, she hadn’t seemed to care about who was. Her boyfriends would come and go and come and go. Some couldn’t give less of a shit about him or Mink, some took too much interest.
Romeo watched but they couldn’t hear the exchange between the two of them. Casey would either stare at them or glare at the table. Neither spoke.
Heath’s position changed when Cheryl made a move towards the house. Gone was the easy going posture. Now they couldn’t even see her as Heath’s larger body blocked her from view. Their voices too rose, though it was still impossible to understand what was being said.
“What’s going on?”
Casey and Romeo turned to see the twins coming down the hall. Jagger’s hair looked sleep tussled and Nash too looked like he might have had a bit of shut eye himself as he rubbed a fist at his eye.
“Nothing,” Casey was quick to say. Standing up, he tried to use his body to block their view from the door. “Go back to your room.”
Jagger scoffed. The twins were an observant pair. They easily noted the green grocery bags and Heath’s keys in front of Casey.
“Is that her?” she glared as she started putting a name to the sounds they could hear. “Is she here?”
“Ah man,” Nash groaned, dropping back against the wall in the hall. He was mostly blocked from their view now except for his feet.
“Leave it, Jags,” Casey insisted.
“It is, isn’t it?” Jagger glared. “She’s here!”
Casey sighed. “Heath’s got it.”
Jagger rolled her eyes and started forward. “Bullshit! You know he won’t do shit, Casey!”
Casey moved to block and Jagger stood, glaring instead.
“You’re not going to want to stand in my way,” warned Jagger.
“You’re not much of a threat,” Casey shook his head. “Just let this go, this time.”
“Not this time, not ever,” Jagger growled instead, making a move towards the door.
Romeo was surprised as Casey moved forward, Jagger rushed and hurdled over the chairs, making it clear over and just barely to the door before Casey was able to turn, grab at the back of the board shorts and pulled her back.
The commotion, however, was enough to warrant Heath and Cheryl’s attention.
Cheryl’s voice grew in volume.
“What the hell’s going on?” came Brax’s voice as he walked down the hall, having entered from the front.
Casey groaned. His arms were wrapped around Jagger’s shoulders and waist, easily plucking the ten year old from the ground.
“Knock it off,” Brax growled at them, taking a quick look around at them.
Casey dropped Jagger, who in turn stopped moving. Brax glared at them, glared at Romeo, and glared at Nash by his own feet. Just as he opened his mouth to tell at them, he noticed that the real commotion was coming from outside.
“Fuck this shit,” he gritted as he walked past them and towards the back door.
Romeo for his part didn’t look fazed. He remembered what life had been like for himself, before things got even crazier that he was placed into foster care and the whereabouts of his mother were left to the wind. Somehow, she was always able to find him, but it wasn’t always a good thing.
He remembered as well what Casey had said just the week before. They couldn’t chose their families, no one could.
But before Brax was able to get to the backdoor and the chaos erupting outside, it came inside.
“THIS IS MY HOUSE!” Cheryl was screaming as she shoved the sliding doors aside, causing the screen door to jostle off of its alignment.
Casey’s grip returned around Jagger’s shoulders and he tried to pull her further away.
“You little shits!” she bared her teeth as she spotted the youngest Braxton. “You think you’re entitled to everything!”
“What the hell are you going on about now, Cheryl?” Brax’s voice was loud enough to halt her screeching and get her full attention. “What do you want?”
“What do I want?” she gave a maniac laugh. “It’s my house, Darryl! I don’t have to answer to you and any of you damn shits!”
“You’re the blasted shit!” Jagger gritted back.
Casey moved one of his hands to cover her mouth and started to walk back and away from Cheryl, who Heath now had a grasp on. It had taken a moment for him to recover for the bag of empty tequila thrown at him as Cheryl tried to enter.
Brax moved towards her, blocking her view as Heath kept a hold on her arm.
“Goddamned little fuckers!” she started screeching at them, and as she tried to lunge at Jagger she slipped and would’ve fallen if not for Heath’s hold on her. “Took my body!” she continued as if she wasn’t mere inches from her face meeting the ground. “Took my sanity! Took my house!”
“Sanity?” Nash scoffed.
Brax turned enough to glare at the young boy.
“Cheryl, what are you bitching about now,” he moved forward and got her to her feet. With a nod, he instructed Heath to let her go.
“Can’t just toss me away like garbage!” she spat at him, her sharp nail clawing at his chest even through his black tee shirt. “Can’t leave me out like some goddamn beggar!”
“Sounds like what’s his face is done with her,” Heath scoffed from behind them.
“More like a cheap prostitute,” Jagger amended her comment.
“Jag, Nash, go to your room,” Brax stated quickly. For whatever reason, Cheryl’s latest attacks had been aimed at the youngest two, and they weren’t taking the situation lying down.
“Why do we have to leave?” Nash frowned. “Toss her out!”
“Trying,” muttered Heath.
Brax glared at his baby brother over his shoulder. “Do as you’re told!”
Nash sighed, but he turned and slowly headed down the hall, glancing backwards every other second. The others seemed to dismiss him once it looked like he had actually acquitted.
Romeo watched as the woman standing not four feet from him was seemingly losing her shit. He could tell that she wouldn’t get past Brax, but if she did, Heath was standing by. She was shorter, skinny, and clearly drunk. But Romeo knew all about the kind of strengths alcoholics seemed to possess. His own mother had been just about unbearable as she got deeper and deeper into her bottle.
Casey was struggling to keep a hold of Jagger, who was trying to spew back some choice words.
“How much do you want to go away? Huh?” Brax asked, standing a foot in front of her. Any time she attempted to move away, Brax would stick his arm out and keep her at the wall. A few times he had even shoved her back, though the motion didn’t seem particularly hard, she still stumbled about. “That’s why you’re really here, isn’t it?”
“Fuck you, Darryl!” she made to shove at him, but Brax easily caught her hand and used it to shove her back.
“You’re just getting worse by the second. I would let you sleep it off, but all the kids are here,” Brax was telling her. “You’re not welcome in here. And certainly not like this!”
“You are not their mother!” she gripped. “I am, I’m a good mother! I am their mother!”
“That’s a laugh,” Heath rolled his eyes.
“I’m a good mother!” She screeched towards Heath, making a lunge at him. Heath didn’t flinch, but Brax caught her before she was able to leave the space of the wall he had kept her to.
“Don’t help, Heath,” he glared instead.
“As if she could get worse?” he scoffed.
“Don’t help,” Brax insisted again.
“I gave you life! You ungrateful, son of a bitch! I could have tossed you! I could have had my own life.”
“Every time with you,” Heath sighed. “We’re alive, get over yourself already!”
“What thanks do I get!” she continued on, as if he hadn’t even spoken. Heath could only shrug at Brax’s look.
“I can get rid of her,” he offered instead.
“She’ll just keep coming back,” sighed Brax. “How much, Cheryl?” he asked again.
“I don’t need you!” she gritted. “This is my home! I have this home and it’s mine! And I don’t have to have you here! How about that? How about you leave!”
“Please,” Nash couldn’t contain his disbelief.
Brax groaned, glancing up for a moment’s thought.
“Heath, how much?” he turned to ask his brother instead. He himself had just spent a good amount at a lunch date with VJ’s mother. He had found her to be quite a lovely woman, but then he started thinking more about her roommate and the copper of his troubles, Charlie Buckton. He wasn’t about to go looking for money with the kids all there and Cheryl present. Not to mention that blond kid who was probably thinking they were all insane by now.
Heath pulled out his wallet and counted out what he had left over from the grocery trip.
Brax frowned. He didn’t like giving Cheryl too much money. She worked – well, she was good at finding herself jobs and finding money. And unlike him and Heath, all the money she ‘earned’ she kept to herself. Her nasty drinking and slight drug problem was of her own doing. Brax tended to the house, the kids, and himself. Not to even go into how often he helped out one of the Boys. He had a few lines of income working for him, but it never seemed like enough. One day you could think you had some money saved up, the next one of the kid’s would wind up with a broken leg or a broken board and money would need to be spent.
At the sound of it, however, Cheryl seemed to perk up slightly. He had no idea what she was thinking about in particular, but she seemed to like the thought.
“What do you take me for?” she scoffed. “My house! You can’t keep me out of here! Goddamn freeloaders!”
“Pathetic,” Heath shook his head. “Do you even hear yourself anymore?”
“You!” she yelled back.
“Give it to her,” Brax instructed. Heath sighed, but he pulled out all of his cash and folded it over towards Cheryl.
Brax reached out, however, stopping her hand.
“You don’t come back here without my say-so, understand?”
“You are not the boss of me, Darryl,” she scoffed.
“Don’t think I don’t remember your last little visit,” he growled. “Nash’s got quite the mark from you, and you’re lucky none of us were here. You’re especially lucky he’s okay! So you’re gonna shut your goddamn mouth, take the fucking money and leave this house. Or, alternatively, I’m going to show you what happens to people who dare touch what’s mine. And you’ll leave this house in a stretcher. Your choice.”
“Just to clarify,” Heath frowned. “If you do beat the shit out of her, I keep my money, right?”
Brax gave his brother an evil look, but he smirked.
“I vote beating then,” Heath shrugged.
“Second,” Jagger muttered.
“She’d just make herself a victim and call the coppers,” Nash shook his head.
“This isn’t a debate,” Brax mumbled over his shoulder.
Casey remained silent, his arms around Jagger as they watched the scene unfold before them.
“You’ve got three seconds,” Brax released her hand and took a step back.
“One,” he said, glaring at her hard look his way.
She turned, looking at Jagger, Casey, and finally Heath before turning her attention to Brax when he spoke again.
She turned towards Heath’s still outstretched hand and snatched at the wad of twenties and tens he held out. She was moving towards the door, glancing back at Brax as she was finally let to leave the wall area.
Within seconds she was gone.
“Funny how fast she can move when she wants to,” Heath said, glancing over his shoulder at her departure.
“Shut up,” Brax groaned.
Heath turned, offering them a wide easy grin.
“Should’ve hit her,” Jagger said, shoving Casey’s hand away from her mouth. “She could’ve killed Nash!”
“Don’t need murder on my rap sheet, thanks,” Brax groaned back.
“Then you should’ve let me!” Turning, Jagger jabbed an elbow at Casey’s hip, causing him to hiss.
“Yeah, well you’re welcome!”
“Not thankful!” Jagger retorted.
“Should be,” Brax glared at her, turning to look where Nash had been unseen by their mother. “What are you two even doing here?”
“Should we let her go like that?” Heath interrupted, frowning at the now empty street.
“Could always run her over with a car,” offered Jagger.
“Could run you over instead,” Brax shook his head. “What were you thinking? You don’t engage with her, you know better!”
“She could have killed him!” Jagger uttered again.
“That’s not a good reason for you to lose your shit and forget who you’re dealing with.” Taking a deep breath, he turned towards Heath. “Find out where she’s been staying, if we have anything to worry about.”
Heath sighed with a cringe. His own job that day had been the groceries, but most days couldn’t ever be simple.
“Poppy ought to know something,” Heath turned towards the table and grabbed his keys again.
“Just as long as she doesn’t take her in,” Brax crossed his arms.
Heath nodded and turned to the door again, leaving their troubled silence behind him.