Author: Lee Adams
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Pages: 349 pages
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About the book
When Joshua Anthony finds himself homeless at fourteen, he is determined to survive on his own. With the help of motel owner Curt, Josh is doing just that when he encounters three other homeless teens; Charles, Elise and Leah. They decide to band together, pool their resources, and form their very own unlikely family. Along the way, they encounter Liz, a 27 year old woman who is down on her luck and needs a break. Will these teens be just what she needs to get her life back on track?
This is the story of four resilient teenagers, determined to thrive in spite of their circumstances. They encounter many hardships on their road to adulthood, but also learn to love, hope, and find success.
Join this unlikely family on their journey of discovery. Laugh with them, cry with them, fall in love with them as they do with each other.
My name is Joshua Diego, but mom always called me Josh. I’m sixteen years old. I feel at least twice that. I’ve been on the streets since the day I turned fourteen. My life started out pretty good. I was born to a white American mom, Pam, and a Puerto Rican dad. Joshua was my maternal grandfather’s name and Diego was my dad’s middle name. I stopped using a last name a long time ago. When you live on the street, you don’t use a last name.
My dad, Anthony, took off when I was five. Mom and I never heard from him or saw him again. We’d heard he returned to Puerto Rico. He just failed to come home one day and that was that. Mom worked hard to keep our little apartment and was an excellent parent. Despite the fifty-hour work week at the local supermarket, mom always managed to make it to PTA meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and any other activity I participated in. She rarely missed a Little League game, and if she did, she’d make sure another parent was there to keep me safe until she picked me up.
Life was good with Mom and me. It helped that I was a good kid. always did my homework, got all A’s and B’s and was polite to teachers, neighbors—everyone. In fact, all of my teachers raved in my report cards about what a good kid I was. My teachers would say things like, “Joshua is mature beyond his years.” “He’s a joy to have in my classroom.” “He’s always so polite—wish I had a dozen more just like him.” Comments like that would make Mom so proud, and I wanted to make her proud.
When I was seven, Mom met another Puerto Rican man, Juan Rodriguez. She was in love with him from the start, it didn’t hurt that in Juan she found a father figure for me that shared my heritage. Juan was a good man. He worked construction and moved us to a small house. Mom hired an attorney, took the necessary steps to obtain a divorce with an absentee husband, and married Juan. He and Mom never had any children together. Being a dad wasn’t something Juan seemed interested in, and he never fully took on the role where I was concerned. But he was good to Mom, loved her deeply, and was kind and decent to me. That was good enough for me.
Mom’s one bad habit was smoking. She was a two-pack-a-day smoker, and Marlboro Reds her brand of choice. That’s bad in and of itself, but to make matters worse, she had asthma—the kind that means you should never be without your inhaler.
When I was younger, I would destroy her cigarettes whenever I had the chance. I’d throw them away, pour water on them—anything I could do to stop her from smoking. Mom never seemed appreciative of my efforts. She’d just get mad at me for wasting so much money.
For years doctors had been telling her to quit or prepare to die young—sometimes hearing this would motivate her to cut back to a pack a day. Before you knew it, though, she’d be right back up to a pack and a half and then to two. Juan tried desperately to get her to quit but she just couldn’t.
“Don’t you think I want to quit?” she’d ask, frustrated with both of us. “Do you think I enjoy what I’m doing to myself? I can’t quit. My body begs for nicotine. It craves it. You just don’t understand how strong the feeling is.” Sometimes she’d turn to me: “Whatever you do, don’t ever start smoking, drinking, or doing drugs. Once you start, your body is no longer your own. It craves what it wants and the craving will never let you go, no matter how much you want it to.” That used to scare the crap out of me. I imagined cigarettes becoming aliens and living in my body, like in that movie the Body Snatchers, threatening to take me over completely.
Over the years, you could look at Mom and know the cigarettes were taking a toll. Her skin became more pale, she lost weight, and the wheeze in her breath got louder. One day when I was twelve, I came home to see Juan sitting at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, crying. I’d never seen this big, quiet, stoic man cry.
“She’s gone,” he said as he glanced up at me. I thought he meant she’d left us like my dad had years before. Just up and one day didn’t come back.
“What? Gone where?”
“Gone, son. Gone. The asthma and the cigarettes finally took her.” His voice cracked, and he rested his head back in his hands and began weeping.
“Dead?” I implored, still not able to comprehend what he was saying.
“Dead,” he cried, and that was the end of the conversation. I sat at the table and cried with him.
I later learned that she’d gone into an asthma attack earlier that day, but her inhaler was low. She called 911 but died before they could get there. A cigarette was still lit in the ashtray when they arrived.
The next few days were a blur of caskets, funeral homes, people crying that I didn’t know, and people hugging me that I’d never seen. Finally, after it was all over and the last mourner had paid their respects, Juan and I were home alone. Mom’s parents showed up long enough for the funeral and left again. Mom hadn’t spent much time with them in years and I wasn’t real close to them They weren’t the nurturing type of grandparents who wanted me to spend time with them on weekends and in the summer. They never sent cute kid toys for my birthdays or Christmas. They always sent a check with a card simply signed ‘love grandma and grandpa.’ Mom said she named me after her dad in an effort to create a bond, but it never happened.
I had no idea what Juan would do with me. I wasn’t his legal child, but he was a decent enough man not to send me out in the streets so I quietly kept living there. I stayed out of his way and rarely saw him. I once asked him about his plans for me, and he told me that I could stay as long as I wanted to. Maybe it wasn’t ideal, but I had a roof over my head and food to eat. The pantry remained stocked with bachelor- and kid-food. There was cereal to eat for breakfast, Ramen Noodles or Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner, and for lunch he’d just leave me a few bucks to buy something at school. Juan didn’t think kids should drink soda so it was never in the house, but he kept the basics like milk and OJ around. I never went hungry.
I remained in Little League, because I was a good player, and other dads would make sure I got to practices and games. Juan never came. We didn’t talk, didn’t watch TV together, and didn’t really even see each other. He worked twelve-hour days, went to the local pub to hang out after work, and by the time he came home, I was asleep. He often worked on Saturdays, which was fine with me because I liked hanging with the neighborhood kids. The only time I saw him, without fail, was when we’d go to the local Catholic Church on Sunday. We’d sit together silently, shake the priest’s hand, assure him we were fine, and go home. Juan would head back to the pub and I’d do whatever twelve-year-old boys did to keep busy.
Juan started dating a woman about a year after mom died. She was a pretty redhead with two kids. She had a six-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy. Although they were younger than I was, I was excited by the idea of having more kids around. I thought that maybe with a woman and other kids in the house we’d be like a family again. But I quickly figured out that if there was one big family, I was not to be a part of it.
Juan’s girlfriend, Marie, would come by and they’d all go out to a movie, or bowling, or to dinner and leave me at home. I was never once invited to go along. Juan would leave me some money and the number of the pizza place on these nights, I guess as a way to placate me for being left at home alone. This went on for a year.
On my fourteenth birthday, I heard everyone downstairs and thought surely I’d get included on a family outing on my birthday. I went running down the stairs just as they were all leaving. Juan turned around and, seeing the look on my face, said “Hey, Josh. I guess it’s your birthday today, isn’t it?” He only knew because I’d gotten a card from my teacher and left it on the fridge.
“Yeah, it is. Fourteen today,” I replied, thinking I might still get invited out.
“Well, happy birthday, kid. I left you some money on the counter to get some pizza,” he said, and I started crying. A fourteen-year-old boy, old enough to be considered a man in some cultures, and I just started crying.
“Why?” was all I could think to say through my tears. Juan sat down. The others had gone out to the car, and I could hear it running.
“Your mom was the love of my life, Josh. A part of me died the day she did. I’m trying to start over, rebuild, but the fact is you are a constant reminder of losing her. I see you and I feel a sadness that nothing can take away. I simply can’t be near you. You’re a good boy, always have been. You never give me any trouble, but it’s unbearable to be around you. I’m sorry, kid. I really am. For your mother’s sake, and for yours, I’ll never run you out. You can live here as long as you like. You just can’t be a part of my life. I really am sorry, but I have to move on without you.” He had tears welling up in his eyes.
“Okay,” I responded with more stoicism than I felt. “Thank you for being honest and for giving me a place to live and food to eat the last two years. It’s probably more than others would have done.”
“Well, I tried to get your mom’s parents to take you, but they’re old and said they couldn’t afford it. Your aunt is worthless and your uncle isn’t much better. I figured you were better off with me even if I’m not that good to you. You got a bad break in life, kid.”
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
“I’ve got to go. Treat yourself to something special at the pizza place. Happy birthday.”
“Thanks, Juan. Take care, man.” And with that he left. And this time so did I.
I packed my stuff up that night. I had no idea where I was going, but now that I knew I wasn’t wanted, I couldn’t stay. I didn’t want to be Juan’s charity case, in the way of his new life. Apparently no other relatives wanted me either so I was on my own.
When Mom was alive, she was adamant about saving for a rainy day. Every time I got money for my birthday or Christmas, about fifty dollars a year, she would make me put it in a big box that she kept locked. I broke into that box and was shocked to find five hundred dollars. I silently thanked my mom and took my life savings, along with the twenty dollars Juan had left me for pizza, and wrote him a quick note thanking him for the last two years and promising to stay away so he could move on. And then, just like that, I left my home.
I didn’t know where to go, so I just climbed on my bike with my backpack on and started pedaling as far away from Scranton, Pennsylvania, as I could get. I rode for a couple of hours before deciding to go into a convenience store and get something to eat. I overheard a guy saying that he was heading south to Hagerstown, Maryland, and was having a hard time staying awake. He said he needed someone to talk to. I followed him out the door.
“Hey, mister,” I yelled. “Wait up!”
“Whatcha need, kid?”
“Yeah? Running away from home?”
“Not exactly. I don’t have a home to run away from.”
“How old are you?” he asked. I was lucky that I’d always looked older than I was. I figured I could get away with sixteen, maybe even seventeen.
“Sixteen. Almost seventeen. Mom died. No dad. I’ve been on my own for a while now. I’m ready to try something new.”
“Do you have a license?” he asked.
“No sir, but I can talk a blue streak and will help you stay awake.” I answered.
He laughed. “Come on then, let’s go. Throw your bike in the back.” I threw my bike in the back of his truck and was on my way.
I told him my sad tale, changing the dates a bit to work with me being sixteen. I told him my mom died two years ago and my stepdad just didn’t really want me. He asked what I planned on doing and I told him I had no idea, but I’d figure it out sooner or later. Three hours later we were in Hagerstown. He pulled into a gas station to drop me off.
“The ride stops here, kid. Anywhere else I can take you?”
“No, sir. This was great. Thank you! I hope I helped you stay awake.”
“You did. Listen, you’ve got a rough road ahead of you. Wish I could offer to help, but I just can’t. You seem like a decent guy, so try to keep your head on straight. Stay away from drugs. Take it from me, they will mess you up bad.”
“Yes sir. That’s what my mom always said. And so far its advice I’ve followed.” He shook my hand, slipped me twenty bucks, and drove away. I got back on my bike and started riding down a road called Route 11. I didn’t know where I was going, but hoped when I got there, I’d know.
It was now midnight and I was feeling a little unnerved, but I just kept riding. I rode until I reached a town called Martinsburg in West Virginia. There was a small mom-and-pop motel, Curt’s Place, with a sign out front that flashed, “Rooms $19.99. Stay five nights, get two nights free!” Exhausted, this was music to my ears, so I parked my bike and went in to the front lobby.
“I need a room,” I said to the man at the front desk.
“How old are you?”
“Really? You look older. We don’t rent to anyone under eighteen.”
“Fine, I’m eighteen.” He frowned. “Help me out here, would ya? I’ve got cash.”
“How long are you staying?” he asked.
“Forever? A day? I don’t know.”
“One hundred cash will get you a week. Maid service is once a week. If the room is too wrecked, she won’t clean it.”
“Done,” I said, peeling off one hundred dollars exactly from my wad of cash.
“What’s your name, kid?”
“Curt. I own the place.”
“Nice to meet you, Curt.”
He gave me a room key and told me to keep the door locked and not to open it for anyone. I took his advice.
The room looked old, and smelled as old as it looked, and had questionable bed linens and towels that looked old and overused. But it was somewhere to sleep, and for a week it was mine. I had enough money for five weeks if I begged for food. It wasn’t enough. If I was going to make it, I was going to need a job, and soon.
I dropped my backpack and with my clothes still on fell into bed. I’d have to figure the rest out later.
I hung out at the motel for five days without leaving the room except to buy some food at the local minimart. It was scary being on my own, and I didn’t know where to go or who to trust. I was sad and depressed and couldn’t find the energy to do anything but watch TV. I missed my mom more than ever. I kept asking the question to myself, “How did I end up like this?” I was afraid of the future with no money and no one to help me. I was conserving money as much as possible, eating enough to survive, but it wasn’t sustainable and I knew it. I needed a plan. Just as I was starting to feel the first pangs of desperation, on my fifth day outside the minimart, a guy started talking to me.
“Hey, I’ve seen you here for five days in a row. What’s your story?” he asked.
“You’re obviously not in school, although you probably should be. Homeless?”
“Is it that obvious?” I asked.
“Yeah, ’fraid so. Do you have a job?”
“No, I’m not sure where to go to find one,” I replied.
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” I answered, the lie now coming easily.
“Bullshit. How old?” I hesitated. “Seriously, how old are you? If you were sixteen you could get a job.”
“Fourteen,” I confessed.
“Yeah, it’s going to be tough. The law won’t let you work during daytime hours when you should be in school. At best, you could get something menial for a few hours at night. Not enough to get by.”
I scowled at him. “Well, thank you for that depressing piece of information.”
“Look, I just lost my runner. I’m actually looking for someone to help me.”
“Your runner? What’s a runner?”
“Runs packages to clients for me. Pays one-twenty-five per week, no taxes taken out. Where are you living?”
“The motel. Curt’s Place, I think it’s called.”
“That run-down, $19.99-per-night motel?”
“Well, it would pay for that,” he said. “You in or what?”
“What would I be running and where? I don’t have a car.”
“You’ve got a bike,” he said pointing to my bike. “It’s local stuff. You can do it by bike.”
“What’s in the packages?” I asked, figuring it couldn’t be legal.
“Drugs,” he replied bluntly.
“What kind of drugs?”
“Pot. Basic stuff. Nothing harder. I don’t deal in meth or heroin or any of that stuff. I mainly supply some thirty-somethings who still like to get high but aren’t into the heavy drugs.”
“But it’s illegal.”
“No shit, dude. But you’re fourteen. What’s the worst that can happen? Juvie? It would be better than what you have now.”
“Are you a cop?” I asked, having learned to ask that from TV shows.
“No. I’ve been watching you the last few days. I hang out here and shall we say, do some business. You come in every day, buy a little bit to eat, and hang around. You aren’t in school and you’re obviously on your own. I’ve never seen you before so I figured you just got into town. I’m looking for someone. You need some money. We can either make it work or you can walk away.”
“I don’t know the area.”
“I’ll draw you maps. You’ll only be going to about twenty places. I don’t run a big business. Just enough to get by. I have another job, which is why I need a runner. I can’t do it all myself. So you in or out?”
I was desperate. “I’m in as long as I don’t have to do the drugs,” I offered.
“Smart kid. I highly recommend you don’t do them.”
“Hell, no. Won’t touch the stuff. I see what it does to people.”
He told me to meet him back there tomorrow, same time, and he’d have my first packages to deliver and would pay me for half the week. I returned, on time, expecting to see a cop when I got there, but I didn’t. Just him. I asked his name and he said I could just call him Breeze. He told me not to tell him or anyone else my real name either. I told him to call me Wind. He laughed. He handed me a TracFone—one of those prepaid cell phones—and said I was only to use it for emergency situations when I needed to reach him. He gave me the emergency number. I took the addresses and maps, took the packages, and wrote down his specific instructions on where to leave everything. He gave me seventy-five dollars.
I was afraid to knock on the first door, firmly expecting to see a dirty, drugged out, mean-looking person. But instead I was greeted by a nice man who looked to be about thirty. He was dressed in khaki pants with a golf shirt, had short brown hair, and looked like he could work in a bank. He thanked me, gave me a five-dollar tip, and I was on my way. That was pretty much how every stop went. These people weren’t scary at all. I was finished the deliveries within three hours.
I decided if I was going to live in a motel room, I may as well make it feel more like home. So I went to Wal-Mart and bought a bed-in-a-bag for forty dollars, a nice big towel, a washcloth, some toiletry items, and a cooler. I figured I needed a way to keep food cold. I loaded my goods into a shopping cart and pushed them two miles home.
I did four more deliveries that week and got the rest of my money, which paid for another week at the motel. I filled up my little cooler with ice from the lobby ice machine, which Curt had installed. I bought some milk, orange juice, and sports drinks at the minimart, and—deciding I needed a way to cook food—went back to Wal-Mart and bought the cheapest microwave they had. So far, I hadn’t had to break into any more of my original five hundred dollars. I felt good about this, and it felt good to feel good about something.
The first year on my own was a blur, and each week was pretty much the same. One-twenty-five a week, and I’d make about eight to ten deliveries on average. I talked to no one, made no friends, and stayed out of sight as much as possible. I was a missing person that was missed by nobody, but I was surviving. The only person I talked to was Curt, and we would sometimes play cards until odd hours of the morning. On the night of my fifteenth birthday, we played cards until two in the morning.
“I like you, kid. I don’t know what your story is, and I’m guessing it’s a sad one. But you’re an okay kid. You stay here as long as you want, and I’ll keep it to one-hundred-a-week for you. You don’t cause me any trouble, and you always pay on time. I wish all my customers were as easy as you are.”
“Thanks, man. Hard to believe it’s been a year since I’ve been here. I just turned fifteen today. I left home on my fourteenth birthday.”
“Kid, you know you told me you were sixteen a year ago.” Oh man. I was caught in my lie.
“Crap,” I said.
“Lucky for you, you look older than you are. You’re too young to be living like this. I admire you, though. You’re making it on your own when most kids would be dead by now. I never see you drunk or drugged or even smoking. Hang in there. You’ll get a break some day.”
“Thanks, man. I’m heading to bed.” I got up and walked to the door.
“Kid?” he yelled, never using my name.
“Thanks, man.” I went to my room, locked my door and went to bed. One year down, how many more to go like this?
As I entered my second year as a runner, Breeze asked if I was interested in making some more money.
“Well, yeah. Of course I do. What do I need to do,” I asked.
“We need more clients, and I don’t have time to find them.”
“Wait. You want me to start dealing?”
“Uh, not necessarily dealing per se. Just maybe talking around a bit. Make sure that our type of clients know they can get stuff from us. You’ve got to be careful but in the last year, you’ve been this nearly invisible person. You fly so far under the radar you’re not even on it. You can pull this off. Feel it out and see what you can do.”
“I don’t even know how to start.”
“Just be available at places where people might be looking. Restaurants, late at night on a Friday, bars, but not the seedy kind. Stay away from kids and junkies. I don’t go near that. Don’t want the hassle. That’s when you get caught. No school yards!”
“Okay I’ll give it a shot,” I said.
Sure enough, by hanging at the right places, I started getting asked if I knew where people could find some stuff. It was always the same type of people: middle-class yuppie types that just wanted their weekend high.
Within the first six months, I’d doubled our clients. My pay went up one hundred dollars a week. I started to put it in my savings box.
I decided I needed a bank account, but I had no ID. I couldn’t get ID without a birth certificate, which I knew was back in Scranton in Mom’s security box. I had to call Juan.
“Hello?” a female voice answered.
“Marie?” I asked.
“Yes, who is this?” she replied.
“Josh,” I said.
“Oh my God, Josh. Where are you? Are you okay?” I was shocked at her concern.
“Yes, I’m fine. Are you living there now?”
“Yes, Juan and I were married last month. He wonders about what happened to you. He feels bad.”
“Yeah, well, tell him not to. I’m fine. Listen, I need my birth certificate. Mom used to have it in a fire-proof security box she kept in the closet. I forgot it when I left. If I give you an address, can you send it to me?”
“Of course. Josh?”
“Do you want to come home?” she asked.
“I am home, Marie,” I flatly stated. I gave her my address at the motel without telling her it was a motel. She promised to send the birth certificate.
Two weeks later I got a letter from Juan.
I was glad to hear you had called. The night you left, Marie asked me why you never wanted to be around her and her kids. I told her what I had told you that night and she was furious with me. She ordered you a piece of birthday cake, and we left the restaurant early. I was ashamed of myself and finding you gone made it even worse. I’m sorry I wasn’t better to you. Your mother would be ashamed of me, too. If you ever want to come back, it will be different. You will have a home here if you want it.
I knew I couldn’t go back at this point. Too much had changed in my life and returning there with his new family after I’d been on my own for so long wouldn’t work. But it was nice to hear the offer anyway. I jotted a quick note back to him.
Thanks for the note. I’m doing well. I’m making it on my own, but thanks for the offer. Marie is a good woman, and I’m glad you found her. We both needed to move on, and we have. I hear horror stories all the time of kids beaten and abused by stepfathers. I consider myself lucky. If I’m ever back in Scranton, I’ll stop by.
It felt good to write the letter and have some closure. It also felt good to know they wanted me to come back, even if I didn’t plan to go. I took my social security card and my birth certificate to the DMV and got myself an ID. Then I went to the First United Bank and Trust and opened an account. I had six hundred dollars to put in. My goal was to save so much that within a year, I could move out of the motel and into an apartment. I would need a deposit, along with first and last month’s rent. I estimated I needed a minimum of $2000. With my increase in pay, I could do that. I did want to use some of the money to start eating better and to buy a small refrigerator. I could use some new clothes too. I was pretty sure I’d grown a couple of inches in the last year.
I was four months into my plan when I came home one day and found an African-American boy sitting under the motel sign on the sidewalk with a suitcase.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied.
“Why are you sitting here?”
“Nowhere else to go, and that jerk in there won’t give me a room.”
“Why would he give you one? They cost money,” I told him.
“Duh. Do I look stupid? I have money, but he said I’m too young.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“First rule of being a kid on the streets: Lie about your age.”
“Thanks for the tip. Too bad you weren’t here an hour ago,” he said with attitude.
“You’ve been sitting here for an hour?”
“Did you not hear me? Nowhere else to go, man. Listen, I slept in a church doorway last night, freezing my tail off and pretty darned scared, if I have to admit it. And I just got roughed up and punched while a guy tried to rob me of what little money I had. I’m cold, tired, scared, and hungry. And that jerk in there told me to go home.”
“That’s actually some good advice,” I said.
“You wouldn’t say that if you lived in my home.”
“Fair enough. Come on, you can bunk with me tonight,” I offered.
“You’re not going to come on to me, are you?” he asked. I was shocked.
“What the heck, dude. No! Why would you even ask that? Do I look like a pervert?” I almost took back my offer.
“No, but neither did the other two who tried,” he insinuated. What had he been through?
“Come on,” I said. He got up, grabbed his suitcase and followed me to my room.