Cherished (Steel Brothers Saga #17) - Helen Hardt

Chapter One


I was no longer afraid.

My mother was gone most of the day, looking for work or begging for money to feed us for another twenty-four hours. I sat alone in the tent. I wasn’t supposed to leave our sanctuary, but I disobeyed today. It was so hot, and I could barely breathe.

I opened the flap, and then the stench hit.

The smell of tent city.

Pee, poop, puke.

I felt funny, and saliva pooled in my mouth. That feeling right before you hurl. Smell was the one sense I had that didn’t seem to collide with the others very often, and I was thankful.

The stink alone was enough.

Mom and I had learned to walk carefully among the tents, avoiding the piles of poop and the used syringes. Once I asked Mom how people who lived on the streets could afford to get drugs. Her answer was, “That’s why they’re on the streets.”

Still, I was confused.

Why were we on the streets, then?

I never got a straight answer from her. Only that she was doing her best.

And she was. I never doubted it. I knew only that my father died when I was too young to remember, and she’d lost her job soon after that. We were eventually evicted from our apartment, and with nowhere else to go, we packed up and headed for tent city.

This was home now.

In the tent to our right lived a nice old man. He was a Vietnam veteran, though I didn’t know exactly what that meant, other than he’d fought in a war a long time ago. Maybe we’d learn about Vietnam when I went back to school in the fall. I’d be in third grade.

Mom made sure I went to school.

I hated it.

I couldn’t have friends over, and I couldn’t accept any invitations from friends—the few who actually offered them. Most of the other kids looked down on me. Sometimes I had to go to school in the same clothes because nothing else was clean. Sometimes we had to use the little money we had for food instead of the laundromat.

On our other side lived a brother and a sister. They were teenagers. Mom said they’d been “lost in the system.” Their parents were either dead or had abandoned them, and instead of going into the system, they chose to live here.

Were there beds in the system? Showers? Food every day? If so, the system didn’t sound too bad to me.

We were lucky that a nearby building let us use their bathrooms. They allowed single women with children inside, but no one else. Mom had taught me how to thoroughly cleanse my body using hand soap. Being homeless was no excuse to be dirty, she said.

Still, I remembered the warm pelting glory of an actual shower. One day, I’d experience that heaven again.

I took three trips to the building each day to use the toilet as well. I’d learned not to drink anything before going to sleep. It wasn’t difficult. We conserved what water we had. Mom said we were never to relieve ourselves outside. Homelessness was also not an excuse for being disgusting.

“How are you today, Ashley?”

I turned to see Mr. Davis, the veteran, sitting in his lawn chair and reading.

“I’m okay. How are you, Mr. D?”

He coughs.

Gray smoke. That’s the color of his cough. It turns grayish green when he hocks up a loogie.

“Been better. But it’s a beautiful day, so who’s complaining?”

“What are you reading?”

He held up his tattered paperback so I could see the title.

“Kidnapped. What’s it about?”

“It’s a classic,” he said. “It takes place in historical Scotland and is about a young man’s adventures.”

“He’s kidnapped? That doesn’t seem like a good adventure.”

“He gets away. And then gets into trouble. But what young man doesn’t?” He laughs but ends up choking again. “Don’t ever start smoking,” he says when he finally catches his breath.

“I won’t.”

“It’s a nasty habit.”

“I’ve never seen you smoke.”

“I don’t. Not anymore. But I still have the aftereffects.”

“Maybe you should see a doctor.”

“Most doctors don’t welcome patients who can’t pay their bills.”

“What about the free clinic?”

He coughs again. “Nothing free about it. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with me. I may cough a little, but I always stop eventually.”

I cocked my head. “I guess that makes sense. Do you have any other books?”

“A few. They’re in a box inside my tent. You can take a look if you want.”

“Okay. Thanks.” I scrambled into his tent.

I breathed through my nose. Mr. Davis’s tent smelled…icky. Like phlegm and puke. Blech. The box of books