Michael wasn't surprised to walk into his house to the sound of his father shouting at Nate.

In fact, he would have been shocked to find this weren't the case. He sighed and shook his head and walked in.

Frank and Nate were in the kitchen. Nate was backed up against the wall, looking up at his father with wide eyes and a quivering lip.

"What were you thinkin, boy? Huh? Answer me when I talk to you!"

"I-I don't-" Nate stammered. He spotted Michael and shot him a look of desperation. Michael pretended he didn't see and kept going to his bedroom. He could still hear the fighting, though.

"Hey! Damn it, look at me when I'm talking to you! Now answer the question! What the hell were you thinking?"

"I wasn't," Nate whimpered.

"Speak up!" Frank barked.

"I-I wasn't thinking, sir," Nate said.

The sound of flesh connecting with flesh, of Nate hitting the ground, made Michael's blood boil and he went back to the kitchen.

Nate was on the floor now, one hand fingering his left cheek, where there was a cut and a bruise already forming. Frank was standing over him, his hand raised to strike again.

"Hey!" Michael called. "Leave him alone."

Frank straightened up and glared at Michael. "This doesn't concern you. Get outta here."

Michael walked forward and stepped between Frank and Nate.

"Nate, go to our room. Shut the door and stay there," Michael commanded, his eyes never leaving Frank.

Nate scrambled to his feet.

"Hey! I'm not done with you!" Frank shouted, moving to go after him. Michael pushed him back.

"What the hell you think you're doing, boy? Huh? This is my family. I'm in charge, you hear? Now get out of my way." The stench of alcohol on his breathe made Michael's nose wrinkle.

Michael shook his head. "Judge, jury, and executioner, right? Nate's just a kid. You should lay off."

"I discipline how I see fit!" Frank growled.

"What'd he even do? What did he do to justify you roughing him up like that?"

"What the hell does it matter to you? Now this is your last warning."

Michael didn't move. "If you're so eager to deliver a beating, then here I am. Leave Nate alone."

Frank hit Michael across the face with the back of his hand then went in with a blow to the ribs. The air rushed from Michael's lungs but he didn't make a sound. He didn't want to give Frank the satisfaction. Of course, that just pissed of Frank more and he grabbed Michael by the shoulders and threw him to the ground. Before Michael could get up, Frank kicked him in the side one, twice. Michael tried to shield himself from the blows but it wasn't helping. They kept coming, and he could feel himself losing consciousness. A groan slipped from his lips against his will.

Suddenly, the door burst open.

"Frank!" Maddie cried. "Frank, stop it!"

Frank stepped back, breathing hard, looking ready to go for more. But he stopped.

"I'm going out for a drink," he grumbled , stepping over Michael and shoving past Maddie out of the house.

"Oh, Michael," she breathed, kneeling down next to him and helping him sit up. "Are you okay? Come on, honey. You need to go to the hospital. Come on, I'll help you to the car."

Michael shook his head. "No, Ma. No. I'll be-" A sudden jolt of pain, enough to bring tears to his eyes, made him stop and draw in a sharp breath. "-I'll be fine."

Maddie's eyes brimmed with tears. "I'm sorry, Michael. I'm so sorry."

Michael put his hand on the counter and pulled himself painfully to his feet. "Don't be. It's not your fault. I'm going to bed."

Maddie nodded. "Okay, Michael. I'll bring you some dinner later."

"That would be great, Ma."

He made his way slowly to his room and lowered himself to his bed with a groan. His brother watched him in silence.

"You look like hell," he remarked.

Michael sighed. "Thanks, Nate. I feel like hell."

"You gonna be okay?"

"I'm always okay."

"I'm sorry, Michael."

"Stop, Nate. I don't want to hear it. What I am curious about, though-What did you do?"

"Dad caught me getting into his liquor," Nate answered sheepishly.

Michael sighed and shook his head. "You know better than that, Nate. Damn it. You gotta think!"

Nate nodded. "Thank you. For having my back."

Michael shrugged. "No biggie."


Michael moved as quietly as he could, but it was to no avail.

"Mike? What are you doing?"

Michael looked up from his mostly packed backpack with a sigh. "Nothing. Go back to sleep."

"Is that a suitcase?"

"Go back to sleep!"

Nate's voice hardened. "You can't leave, Michael. Dad'll kill me."

"No he won't. Besides, you've got to learn to take care of yourself."

"And Mom? What about her?"

Michael hesitated. It hurt him to leave, it really did, but he couldn't do this anymore. He didn't trust himself, so he didn't say anything, just zipped his backpack shut. He slung it over his shoulder.

"Michael, wait! You can't really be leaving!"

"I've just got to get out for a few days. I'll be back soon," Michael promised.

"Okay, then."

Michael stopped at the front door. He knew that if he walked out, he wouldn't be coming back. He closed his eyes to steel himself, reached forward, turned the doorknob, and stepped into the cold.

This was it. He didn't know exactly what it was, but this was it. He'd probably serve in the army a few years, settle down somewhere.

He walked down the dark sidewalk, ignoring the biting cold of the October wind.

He didn't look back.