“Hey, Stick,” says Wally as we crowd around the back door of the bar.
“Yeah?” I’ve gotten used to my new nickname by now, although it’s still a little weird to have my name be based off of my scrawniness.
“You ever drunk anything?”
“Nah,” I reply. “Never had the chance.”
“You’ll like it,” he says, like he knows everything there is to know about me. “Burns a little at first, but you’ll like it.”
The other guys in the gang - the Bronx Boys, they call themselves, but I think names like that are kinda stupid - shuffle their feet restlessly on the scuffed-up concrete. “Danny,” says Trent, “you sure your brother’s gonna be able to get us some booze?”
“Dunno,” says Danny, a fat kid who moved up here from Mexico a few months ago. He was the new kid in the gang before me. “He said he would.”
We stand there for a little longer, staring at the rusty door. It opens suddenly with a slight creak, and a dark-haired head pops out. Danny grins. “Hey, Juanie.”
“Hey,” says Juan, opening the door wider. “Listen, guys, I can’t get you more than one bottle or people’ll notice. You’ll have to split it, okay? And for hell’s sake, don’t get caught. I can’t lose this job.”
“Don’t worry, Juanie,” says Danny. “We’ll be careful.” Juan rolls his eyes and disappears back into the bar for a second. He comes back a second later and hands Danny a beer bottle.
“Now get lost, okay?”
Danny laughs and turns to go back into the maze of backstreets and beat-up brick buildings with rusty air conditioning units sticking haphazardly out of the windows. Me and the rest of the guys follow, and we run, our feet pounding against dirty brick and concrete. Carter, a small, lean guy that sorta reminds me of a weasel, lets out a loud whoop, and we all shush him, reminding him that we can’t be caught. If we do, we'll be arrested - if we're lucky. Shot, probably, if we aren't. 'Round here, police mean the opposite of safety.
Finally, Wally stops in a random alley and holds up his hand. We all stop too. “Here’s good,” he says. Everyone nods in agreement, even though there’s nothing too special about this place. We sit down and lean our backs against the narrow walls. Danny opens the bottle and takes a sip.
“That’s good stuff,” he says, passing the bottle to me.
I take the bottle from Danny and raise it to my face. I’m not scared, exactly - just apprehensive. I know what alcohol can do to a person. But one little sip can’t hurt, right? Before drinking it, I breathe in deeply through my nose. I expect the heavy, sharp smell; I’ve smelled it too many times on too many people’s breaths. What I don’t expect, though, is to be taken back to the apartment I used to share with Momma.
I’m five years old - long before they snatched me outta Momma's grasp and shoved me into a crappy foster care program. I sit on the couch Momma found on the sidewalk and dragged home the year before, watching videos of kids skateboarding on the babysitter’s phone. Older, cooler kids with ripped jeans and backwards-facing baseball caps. I want to be like them when I grow up. The sitter’s off in the corner, probably taking drugs, but I don’t notice.
Momma stumbles through the apartment door. Her eyes have a strange glazed-over look to them, like she's wearing a ton of contact lenses. She throws a couple of bills at the babysitter, who takes her phone from me and leaves.
“Hi, Momma!” I say with a grin.
“Honey,” she says, her voice slightly slurred. “You should be in bed.”
My face twists into a pout. “I don’t want to.”
She comes over and lifts me up, holding me so our faces are level with each other. Her hands tremble, but she doesn’t drop me. “You should be in bed . . .” she says again, her expression becoming distant. Her breath smells strongly of something that I’ve never smelled before.
She drops me suddenly and clutches her stomach, doubling over and throwing up all over the living room rug. She falls to her knees and heaves again, her breath coming in short gasps.
“Momma!” I cry, half wanting to rush to her side, half wanting to run away.
Sobbing, she leans sideways heavily against the couch. She pulls something out from under the faded brown cushions, grips it so tightly her whole arm shakes. “Should’ve been in bed,” she wails. “Should’ve been in bed.”
Momma had always been my hero. She was so strong, so brave. I looked up to her, even more than I looked up to those kids on skateboards. But it’s then that I realize she isn’t the person she's always showed to me. This is the truth, this is the real her - a broken woman, so drunk she can't even think, sitting in a puddle of her own puke.
I start to cry too. “Momma, what’s wrong?” I sob, my voice quivering. She ignores me and stands up shakily, only to fall back down. She tries again, stays upright this time, wobbles over to her bedroom door. The same scent that I caught on her breath hangs around her like a curtain, sticks to her like syrup. I see the thing she’s holding slip from her grasp. It falls, flutters, lands on the ground. A photograph, I realize. She goes into her bedroom and slams the door behind her.
I stand there in the living room for a second, shocked that my Momma, the only person I loved, was just as broken as the rest of my world. But then I snap out of it. She’s sick, I tell myself. Yeah, that must be it. Momma’s sick. She’ll get better. I nod and walk towards the photograph that she’d dropped, bending over to pick it up.
It’s a picture of a boy, a lot older than me - probably fifteen or sixteen. He's smiling, all his yellowed teeth showing. I’ve never seen him before, but he somehow looks familiar...
And then I see it. He looks like me. Not exactly like me, but enough for me to see that we must be related somehow.
I stare at the picture for a second. Who is he? Or (more likely) who was he? My uncle? My brother? My dad?
At five years old, it's too much to think about. I go to my bedroom and close the door, taking the picture with me.
“Stick,” says Danny, shaking my shoulder. “Stick.”
I shake myself out of my daze. “Yeah?”
“You look like you're in some sorta trance - just standin’ there starin’ at the ground like it’s the most interestin’ thing ya ever saw.” he says, staring at me. The other guys nod.
“Oh,” I say. The photograph, even though it’s just a tiny piece of paper, weighs heavy in my pocket. “Sorry.”
"I know what it is," says Carter knowingly. "He's high on somethin'."
"I am not," I say defensively, scowling.
“Whatever, guys," says Wally impatiently. "You gonna drink that or not?” He gestures to the brown bottle in my hand.
I stare down at it for a second, grip it so tight it hurts. The glass is cool against my palm. Images flash through my head - Momma getting drunk every Saturday for three years and slurring more nonsense about staying in bed, the old homeless guy who always sat at the corner of my old block chugging whiskey until he forgot where he was, my old foster dad going out at night and coming back late with hands itching to hit someone.
I tip my head back and take a big gulp.
It feels like liquid flames are licking the inside of my throat, but I like it.