Content warning: emotional child abuse, implied physical child abuse.
He had started the go-bags when he was sixteen.
Better put, Cat had started them. He’d been unable to do much, his arm in a cast that kept it permanently bent at an annoying and useless angle.
The morning after the cast was put on his arm, he woke his ten year old sister before dawn and dragged her down into the basement to sift through piles of things the family didn’t use anymore. There were shelves of picture albums, board games, and gardening paraphernalia from the backyard that their mother had never ended up doing much with.
Most importantly, there were bags. They’d used them once on vacation when he was a child, and then the things had languished in the dusty basement for a decade. He was sure they wouldn’t be missed.
He helped as much as he could while Cat lugged them up the stairs. They were quiet so that they wouldn’t wake anyone, not that it was likely at such an hour.
Upstairs in their shared room, they’d laid one open on each bed, and he’d directed Cat on what to put in them. Toiletries like toothpaste and shampoo went into little plastic bags he’d stolen from the kitchen on their way upstairs. All the toothbrushes they found under the sink in the bathroom went in, since you never knew when you’d need a spare. On top of that went the clothes. Half a dozen changes, focusing on sturdy useful items like t-shirts and blue jeans, with lots of extra socks and underwear packed in around the edges, since those were the things that would need to be changed most often. And extra pair of shoes was wrapped in a plastic bag and laid atop the rest.
All of their important personal keepsakes went in the side compartments. The toy dinosaur Cat had given him for his twelfth birthday. A picture of their maternal grandmother, who had died a few years before. His class ring, which he never wore, but thought might come in handy if he was ever desperate for some cash.
Through the whole ordeal, Cat was silent. She never complained about getting up early or doing the hardest part of the labor. She didn’t even ask him why they were packing suitcases.
She already knew.
Because Liam had a broken arm, and if Cat ever mysteriously slipped in the kitchen and got hurt the way he had, he was taking his sister and getting the hell out. Their father had never been a nice man or a good father, and he’d gotten violent with them before, but broken bones was a new thing.
Liam had had a lot of time to think while sitting in the ER waiting room, holding his broken arm as still as possible. He’d been a terrible brother to Cat, he had decided. He’d let their father smack her around for years. He’d comforted her when she got pushed down half a flight of stairs instead of actually doing something about it.
That wasn’t going to happen anymore. If their father raised a hand to strike anyone again, Liam was going to raise one back.
Over the next few months, Liam had expanded on their bags. He’d added a few rolls of quarters to each, for inevitable laundry needs, and any extra cash he’d come into from doing odd jobs around the neighborhood.
It became a nightly ritual. After the family went to bed, Liam would pull the flashlight out of the nightstand and turn it on, setting it up on its base so that the light shone on the ceiling and brightened the whole room. She would open the closet, and they would pull out their respective cases, adding and changing things.
They cycled in new clothes and shoes for Cat as she grew, to make sure the things they had would fit her.
One night, after he’d turned off the flashlight and put it away, Cat’s whisper came from across the room. “You are going to take me with you, right?”
“Why do you think I’m packing your clothes, Squeaker? They’re nice and all, but they’re not gonna fit me.” He tried to make the words sound like a joke, but it didn’t work. There was nothing funny about it.
She sniffled, and the sound sent a jolt of guilt through him. “I promise, Cat. If he ever tries to hurt you again, we’re out of here.”
“What about you?” she asked. “You’re the one he hits most.”
He shrugged, even though he knew she couldn’t see him in the dark. “I can handle him. If he tries it again, he’s in for a surprise. Next time I’m gonna hit him back.”
“He’ll kill you!” She sounded terrified at the idea, her voice giving that little squeak he’d nicknamed her for years earlier, and he knew she believed it.
Hell, he wasn’t sure she was wrong. The old man wasn’t really rational when he was drunk, and killing someone wouldn’t be beyond his capabilities. Anyone who hit a little kid like his sister was capable of anything, as far as Liam was concerned.
“Don’t worry,” he assured. “I won’t let him. Me and Leslie have been taking self-defense classes at the Y.”
The broken arm had been the reason for that, but he didn’t talk about the arm to Cat. He didn’t think she was fragile or anything stupid like that. There was no way his sister was fragile after all they had been through together. But that was the thing: he hadn’t protected her from so many things over the years. If he could protect her from just that one, he would feel more like he was a good big brother.
Some people would have thought it odd that he wasn’t as protective of their younger sister, but at five, Amelia didn’t need protecting. She was her daddy’s little princess, and the old man had never raised a hand to her. Sometimes, in his darkest thoughts, Liam wondered why Amelia seemed exempt from the suffering he and Cat dealt with.
A year and a half later, Cat had started to get obsessive about the suitcases. She’d started babysitting the neighbors’ kids and walking a few local dogs for pocket change. Everyone thought it was cute, but he doubted they’d still think that if they knew that every cent went into the bags.
Cat didn’t buy makeup, or dolls, or whatever it was kids her age were into. She prepared for war.
On Cat’s twelfth birthday, she made her own cake. Liam helped, since he knew how to cook, but they both knew that there was something wrong with the picture of kids making their own birthday cake. Their mother managed to get home in time to make dinner after pulling a double at the store. It was boxed macaroni and cheese. It was a very good thing that Cat had simple tastes.
After dinner, Liam put candles on the cake, and they all sang happy birthday to her. When their mother set the first slice in front of Cat, the old man took it away.
“Cut her a smaller one,” he ordered, leaning back and cutting into the stolen slice of cake. “She’s getting fat, she doesn’t need all that cake.”
Without saying a word, Cat stood up and went to her room. Liam followed. Behind him, he heard his father complaining about damned kids and their dramatics.
He found Cat sobbing on his bed, clutching his pillow to her face. He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her against him. “You’re not fat, Squeaker. Not even a little bit. And fuck him anyway, because you’d be perfect even if you were fat.”
After everyone went to bed, Liam went downstairs and cut them both giant pieces of the cake, and they ate them sitting on his bed. The next morning, their father had declared them thieves, and thrown the rest of the cake away. Liam had just smiled at him, which seemed to make him that much angrier. Still, he hadn’t laid a hand on anyone since the broken arm. He’d even been drinking less, which seemed like a miracle.
Liam didn’t believe in miracles, though. He knew that in the end, anything good the old man did would be balanced out, if not overcome, by bad.
At the beginning of February, his father gave him a wide smile at dinner. “You’re turning eighteen soon.”
“Yeah,” Liam answered, not interested.
“You’ll be leaving, too.”
Everyone at the table went still.
“He doesn’t graduate high school until May, William,” his mother said, her voice barely audible.
The old man shrugged. “Not my problem.”
Cat burst into tears and ran upstairs. As he always did, Liam followed. He heard his mother crying behind him, but he didn’t look back.
“He’s going to kick you out,” Cat said when he stepped into the room. “You won’t even finish high school.”
“Sure I will,” he told her, sitting next to her and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “Leslie’s family said I could stay with them until graduation if I ever needed to. Don’t think this is what they were expecting when they offered, but they won’t mind.”
“What then, Liam?” Cat looked up at him, tears streaming down her face, her whole tiny body trembling. “What are you going to do after that? Flip burgers? Be a cart boy at Walmart?”
“Hey now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those things,” he said with a smile. A snake started to uncoil in his stomach, though. He knew the answer. He’d known for a long time. He had just dreaded telling Cat, because it felt like a betrayal.
“I wish I were the older one,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’d go to college, and when you graduated, I could take care of you.”
He gave her a stern look. “You’re still gonna go to college. You’re gonna make something of yourself, get a nice steady career, like an accountant or a doctor.”
She nodded meekly before remembering that she’d had a point and he’d changed the subject. She returned his stern look with one of her own. “What about you? He’s gonna kick you out. That big jerk. I should—“
“Nope,” he interrupted. “You shouldn’t. Nothing you can do about this.”
He scrubbed his palm down his face, trying to find the words he needed. She was right, it would have been easier if she’d been the older one. She was so much smarter than him, she’d have known just what to say.
“Liam?” she asked. “Do you have a plan? You look like you have a plan and you don’t want to tell me about it.”
He sighed, and the tension that had already been building in his shoulders ratcheted up. “Yeah. I got a plan.”
“You don’t look happy about it.”
That was an odd thought. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it, exactly. He knew that he didn’t hate it. He knew it was the best option for a guy of average or less-than-average intelligence who wasn’t going to college. It was also something their father had done, and the thought of being anything like that man made him ill.
“I’m gonna join the army,” he said in a rush, wanting to get it out before it stuck in his throat. “They pay okay, and they feed you and give you a place to stay and stuff, so I won’t have to worry about things.”
He didn’t know what he’d do if she didn’t approve, or worse, if she accused him of abandoning her.
Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing? a niggling voice in the back of his head whispered.
She scrunched up her nose, and his heart dove into his feet. Instead of launching into a speech about what a bad idea it was, though, she shook her head. “The army, Liam? No, not the army.” He opened his mouth to protest or explain, but she squeezed his shoulder. “The navy, maybe. Or the Marines.”
He cocked his head, confused, and waited for an explanation.
“The army is like camping for a living. It’s lame. At least in the navy you’d get to be on a boat.” She thought about that for a minute and frowned. “But you get seasick on Lake Michigan, so maybe not. The Marines, then.”
“How come?” He wasn’t opposed to the idea, he just didn’t know anything about it. He’d taken the ASVAB and qualified to join any branch he liked, but he didn’t know a lot about the difference, other than that he was not joining the air force. He hated planes.
She smiled at him and pinched his cheek. “Because it’s way more cool than joining the army. And the uniform is better, too. You’ll get those pants with the red stripe, like Han Solo.”
“You know they don’t have a red stripe for the same reason, right?” he asked.
She snorted at him. “No, I totally thought you were joining the space navy of some fantasy world. Who cares? They look cool.”
“The Marines, huh?” As always, she made a lot of good points. He hadn’t ever been much for camping, and he was no good on a boat for sure.
The old man had been in the army. He’d picked up his drinking in the army, and come home broken, angry, and horrible. He’d spent almost twenty years taking it out on his wife and kids.
Liam nodded. “The Marines.”
Somehow, saying it all out loud made it more real. In four months, he was going to be off to basic training, to be all that he could be. Or was that the army slogan? The navy, maybe?
His fears came bubbling back up. “What about you?” he asked in a near-whisper. “I’m going to be abandoning you.”
She gave his chest a playful shove without letting go of him. “Don’t be stupid, Liam. You don’t have a choice. It’s not like you can camp in the yard for the next six years.”
He wished he could. He had a sick feeling that the old man would call the cops and have him removed, though. They were done with each other, and neither wanted to see the other again. The difference was that the old man was, still and always, the one with all the power in the relationship.
“If I work hard, I could graduate high school early,” she told him. “Uncle Jack said I could go to the University of Chicago and stay with him.”
Liam raised an eyebrow at her. “You think he’ll allow that?”
She returned his dubiousness with a wicked smile. “You think going to grandmother with a sob story is beneath me? ‘Cause it’s not.”
He couldn’t help but chuckle at that. She was right. Their father’s mother would no doubt side with Cat on something as impressive as going to college early. She’d be able to trot Cat’s name out in all her social circles, pointing out her granddaughter the genius, who had gone to college early. The facts very rarely mattered in those conversations. Liam suspected that Cat would get younger with each retelling of the story. Cat would one day meet their grandmother’s friends and they’d be shocked to find that she was an adult at all.
Cat grabbed his face in both hands and turned him to face her. “You think I’m going to freak out when you’re gone, and that I won’t be able to take care of myself.”
He had a hard time looking her in the eye, since it was basically true, but when she put it like that, it sounded patronizing as hell.
“I’m not going to lie, Liam. I’ll be miserable, and it will suck.” Her eyes were soft when he snapped his up to meet them. “I’m not stupid. I know how much of his crap you take for me.”
He frowned at that. A vision of the bright green cast he’d worn for six weeks swam in his mind. If he found out that the old man hurt Cat while he was away, he’d never forgive himself. He’d also go AWOL to come back and kill the bastard.
“Stop it,” Cat said, shaking her hands with his head still held between them. “It’s going to suck, but I will live. I promise you, big brother, I’ll be okay. I’m a survivor. You taught me to be that.”
He snatched her into a tight hug, knocking her hands loose and pressing his face into her hair. If she noticed the tears in his eyes, she was kind enough not to mention them.
So on the morning of Liam’s eighteenth birthday, he and his little sister woke before dawn. He took his go-bag from the closet while she solemnly looked on, and he repacked it one last time.
They walked down to the front door together, before anyone else in the house was even awake. He hugged her once more before leaving.
Pulling back, he looked down at her. “I’ll see you on the outside once your sentence is up, Squeaker.” He was proud to note that his voice didn’t crack once.
She smirked at him. “Maybe by then you’ll have a more inspired nickname for me.”
“Not likely. You’re the only family I’ve got now, so you’re the only person I’m allowed to torture with stupid names.” He was stalling, and he knew it. They both knew it. He wanted nothing more than to be quit of his father forever, but leaving Cat behind was the most excruciating thing he’d ever been through, including that broken arm.
“I’ll see you soon, Liam,” she said. “Promise.”
“Soon,” he agreed.
Turning toward the first pink rays of morning sun, Liam walked