Raphael Graves frowned at the graded history test dropped on his desk.

“Congratulations, Mr. Graves. Another excellent effort,” Mr. Haley said in his trademark wheeze. Lung cancer had robbed the older man of most of his volume when he spoke. The students knew if they wanted to survive his class, they had to shut up and listen.

The high school senior glanced up at the teacher, and the man sighed as he knew the look. “See me after class,” he muttered as he moved on to hand back the next student’s test.

Most would be pleased with ninety-eight percent but Raphael would fight for the remaining points. He rarely gave the teachers any grief, but he’d get every point he was owed.

Raph’s eyes panned down the test and found the question where he lost the two points. He reread it, and his answer still seemed accurate. He waited patiently for the teacher to finish handing out the tests and listened to the idiots whine and grumble at their low grades.

For him, the test hadn’t been difficult because he’d made the required effort. History class was just about listening and memorization. He didn’t enjoy the course, but he needed to maintain his grade average if he was going to earn the scholarship he was after. So far, he was on track, but he wouldn’t let any points slip away if he’d earned them.

It still mildly annoyed him that Mr. Haley continued to roll the R and use the wrong emphasis on his name, gra-Vess, giving it a Spanish flair his mother’s family had no heredity to back. The Graves he was aware of were as white bread as they could get, short of donning white robes with pointy hoods. Not that he’d ever spoken to any of them. Dotty was expelled from the family home and her family’s lives when they discovered she was pregnant and who the father was. When he was born, Dotty named him after his father’s father in the futile hope it might lure his father back, but none of her family came to welcome newborn Raphael into the world.

Taking a slow, quiet breath and rolling his shoulders to release the tension, he let it all slide, again.

Mr. Haley was making his way back to his desk and glanced over as if he felt Raphael’s eyes on him the entire way. He looked to the other kids as they were restless to leave, having only a couple of minutes left in the class. The teacher dropped himself in his chair and wearily waved at Raph to approach.

Raph picked up the test and walked up to the teacher’s desk, where he placed it on the surface.

“Where did you lose marks?” Mr. Haley asked.

“Question four, but I answered it correctly,” Raph insisted quietly. The room behind him settled down as they listened. They’d seen this happen before.

The teacher read his answer once more. “You explained how the army took the beachhead but not how they held it,” he responded.

Raph blinked at the teacher, then the frown returned. “That’s not how the question was phrased.”

It was the older man’s turn to frown, and the room was completely silent now. He shifted in his chair as he was obviously aware of their attention, and Raph could see his neck turning red with his annoyance. It almost looked like he was going to toss the test back and say the grade was final.

Raph watched him reread question four, then read the answer he’d given… and freeze. The man saw it.

Sighing, Mr. Haley nodded wearily. “All right.” He looked at the other students. “Question four wasn’t expressed as clearly as it should’ve been, so I’m removing it from the test. Bring whatever I gave you for your answer to that question up to two points. That’s your new grade. Hand your tests back to me on your way out, and I’ll record the new values. You’ll get them back next class.”

“Fuck yeah! I passed!”

Mr. Haley scowled at the speaker, and Raph didn’t need to turn around to know who it was. Wally Peterson was not one of the stars in this class, or any, for that matter.

“Mr. Peterson, watch your language in my classroom!” the history teacher growled.

Wally just grinned, nodded to the teacher, and went back to showing off his new, barely passing grade to his friends.

Raph nodded to Mr. Haley and made his way back to his desk. He noticed a couple of people smiling at him, but he didn’t acknowledge those smiles. He’d learned the hard way to keep his head down.

Besides, he only had a few months left in this dead-end town. He wasn’t going to start making friends now.

The bell rang, so Raph packed his stuff and headed back to his locker. He had a shift at Beckett’s Landscaping and Garden Center, so he had to get going. He stuffed his notes and books for his homework into his backpack and made his way outside and across the busy street to the bus stop. He had to sprint to avoid being run over by a school bus that lurched away from the curb just as he stepped onto the road. This wasn’t the first time. The stupid old fucker never looked forward when he pulled out into traffic.

As he waited at the stop, he noticed he was getting admiring glances from a group of girls waiting for the bus as well. He heard them giggling. He scowled and looked down the street for the bus. He knew some of those girls had boyfriends on the football team. All he needed was for one of them to mention him within earshot of their testosterone-drunk boyfriend, and he’d have to deal with their jealousy. He’d already had to reason with one, explaining he had no interest in a girl he didn’t even know the name of. A second boyfriend had just started swinging. Raph hit him once in the gut and patiently waited for him to stop puking before they could have their talk.

Raph was tall, dark, and handsome, which had proven to be more of a curse for him than a benefit. Some in this small town criticized him for his ethnic looks. His Spanish name didn’t help either. That wasn’t unexpected in a place with an overwhelming majority of white sameness.

While his mom Dotty was a looker herself, she told him his beautiful attributes came from his father, who’d been a musician passing through town. Dotty was as fair-skinned as she could be, but his father was of Spanish descent and bestowed his olive skin tone, black wavy hair, dark brown eyes, strong jaw, and sensual mouth to his son. She’d confirmed once that his father had been just a little taller than her five-foot-ten, so Raph had inherited his six-foot height from his parents as well.

Unfortunately, that was all his father had passed along to his son because, after two dates and one night of bliss, the man left the young woman he’d infatuated and impregnated and moved on to the next city, and likely another one-night stand.

Dotty liked to tell him he probably had an enormous family out there somewhere, with half-sisters and brothers all across the country. She’d told him stories like that when he was younger, before she lost hope and crawled into a bottle.

He shook off the dark thoughts and looked up to see the bus approaching. He got in line and boarded, following the girls who continued to undress him with their eyes. He’d gotten used to that and just ignored them.

His job at the landscaping company was better than a gym membership and cheaper. His body was lean, well-muscled, and hard. He wasn’t big, but he was strong. Every job he’d been able to get involved some form of heavy lifting, and he worked hard to keep the jobs. That was getting easier now that he was getting better at controlling his hot temper. The days when he’d lose control of the rage inside were mostly behind him. Mostly. He worked hard at that as well.

He found a seat at the back of the bus and settled in for the ride. Glancing at his fellow passengers, it was safe enough with this group, so he closed his eyes and got what rest he could. He’d be tired enough after his shift, and he still had homework to complete when he got home.

His internal clock automatically woke him before his stop, and he exited the bus to walk across the parking lot to the huge garden center. He was early, so his boss wouldn’t have an excuse to ride his ass. Jackie Polane, the new owner of Beckett’s, wasn’t the worst boss he’d had, but he had a bad temper and never failed to take it out on his temp staff.

Raph stuffed his jacket and backpack into his locker, put on his apron, and pocketed his gloves. He signed in and was directed immediately to the warehouse.

“Raph! It’s about fucking time!” Jackie barked as he entered the vast space.

“I’m early,” Raph replied quietly.

Jackie’s eyebrows went down, and he glanced at his watch. His anger slipped away as quickly as it had flared when he saw Raph was telling the truth. He moved on without apologizing.

“The morning crew fucked up a shipment of wood chips. They mixed the bags for the entire shipment with the existing stock. I need you to separate it into the proper storage bins. Get it done,” the manager stated with finality, then turned to leave.

Get it done was Jackie’s catchphrase. There was no arguing with it.

Raph just nodded and moved to walk down to where the bags had been stored.

Jackie stopped and turned back to face him. “Hold up a second… listen, I fired Jimmy this morning for pulling this shit again. I kept Fred, but he’s been warned it was his last chance. This means I’m short-handed in the stock room. I can juggle some of you part-timers around, but I need you to do some additional shifts. Can you work weekends?”

Raph looked at the man in surprise. He’d been after the weekend shifts since he started working here. It meant extra hours and more money. “Yes, sir.”

“Seven to five? Both days?”

“Yes, sir,” Raph said with a nod.

“Good. Fix that shit back there,” Jackie growled as he turned away.

Raph made his way to the mixed shipment with a small smile on his lips. More money was good. It meant he was that much closer to leaving.

The bags of wood chips were heavy, damp, and stank, but Raph separated them and restocked them into the proper bins. He was aching pretty badly from straining his muscles by the time he finished. Jackie inspected his work and gave Raph a rare smile. He was given lighter duties until the end of his shift.

The bus ride home dropped him several blocks from his door. The neighborhood was run down as many of the residents struggled with poverty, drugs, or alcohol addiction. His mom was in the latter two groups. He did what he could to help her rise above it, but her depression was winning.

As he walked the dark streets, he kept his eyes open for roaming addicts who weren’t above a little robbery to pay for their next high.

He was a known presence in the area, so people left him alone. He’d beaten a few potential thieves to within an inch of their lives. The message was received. He wasn’t a target… but that didn’t prevent mistakes.

He let himself in the low-income housing townhouse’s front door and saw an unfamiliar jacket on a chair in the kitchen. Then he heard crying. He dropped his stuff on the sofa on his way to the stairs leading to the upstairs bedrooms. He made it to his mother’s bedroom door, where he heard her whimpers and a man’s voice cursing. The crack of flesh struck violently was easily heard through the closed door.

Raph threw the door open and barged in.

On the bed, an overweight, naked, white man with thinning hair was slapping Dotty’s reddened face as he forced her legs back to her chest so he could shove his small cock in her ass.

Raph reached the bed in three strides, seized the man’s ears in a painful grip, and yanked him back, away from his mother. He stood aside as the heavy man crashed to the floor, arms flailing.

“Getting beaten was never on the table; you fat fuck!” Raph roared.

He picked up the man’s clothes to toss them at him and felt the jacket’s fine material. His rage flared, and it was all he could do to keep himself from beating the man. A wallet fell from the jacket pocket, and he picked it up. He saw the man’s eyes go wide with fear as he curled defensively into a fetal position, looking up at him as he loomed above the fallen man with teeth bared.

The wallet was open, and Raph read the man’s name and address aloud. Now he knew where the asshole lived.

“So, Gene, if you come near her again, I’m going to show up on your doorstep, and everything you did to her, I’m going to do to you. We never want to see you again. Am I making myself understood?” The man nodded rapidly with terrified eyes. “Then why the fuck aren’t you getting dressed and out of our house?” he yelled as he tossed the wallet at the man’s face.

When the chubby man was on his feet and mostly dressed, Raph grabbed his shirt and pulled him close to stare him in the eye. “Don’t forget to pay what you owe her! And throw in money for damages, you fucking prick!”

The man dropped all the cash from the wallet on the bureau, then Raph rushed him downstairs, grabbed his coat, and gave him a shove out the front door.

“Never come back… Gene,” Raph warned one last time. The man hustled away with a terrified glance over his shoulder.

Raph closed and locked the front door, leaning back against it to let his anger drain away. Dotty didn’t need it.

As he took slow and deep breaths, he looked around the drab little living room, trying to distract himself from the rage boiling just under the surface.

The home wasn’t much, but he kept it clean. It certainly wouldn’t appear on the cover of an interior design magazine. He took in the thread-worn carpet under the cheap second or maybe third-hand furnishings, where nothing matched. The only personal touch was some framed art from his childhood adorning the walls. He sighed. He kept it neat and clean, which was the important thing.

Distracted sufficiently, he felt calmer, so he made his way back upstairs. He stopped in the hall when he heard his mom crying quietly. His rage against the man threatened to surge once more, and he struggled to force it down. Once it was safe to do so, he went back into her bedroom and brought her the dressing gown from the back of her door. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, oblivious to her naked state, and he helped her put the robe on. The smell of whiskey on her breath turned his stomach, as did the bruises on her arms and her face, but he forced that down as well.

“How you doing, mom?”

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

“It’s okay, mom. It’s over,” he said softly as he put his arm over her shoulder. She leaned against his chest, and her tears started once more. He held her trembling body against his as she came apart once again. He just let her cry as it was what she seemed to need right now, and he didn’t know what else to do.

She was fading, so he tilted her chin up and kissed her forehead. “I got my history test back. I got a perfect score on it.”

She smiled proudly at him and hugged him tighter. “My baby! My baby is going to make something of himself! I’m so proud of you. You’re keeping your promise to your old mom. I’m so proud!” Her voice was fading at the end as he could see the night had taken too much out of her.

Raph gave her one more hug, then stood and scooped her up in his tired arms. He kicked the blankets down, then laid her down on the bed with her head on the pillow. He pulled the blanket up over her and kissed her forehead once more. “Good night, mom. Sleep well.”


She was out.

Raph let himself out of her bedroom and closed the door. He made his way back downstairs and grabbed his backpack. Pulling his homework out onto the small kitchen table, he got to work.

At thirty-four, Dotty was well past her prime for strip club talent, but she was still reasonably slim and had a delicate beauty that drew the eye… when she smiled. What set her apart was how well she danced. She moved with a sensual grace that put the other dancers to shame. Raph had witnessed this talent a few times over his eighteen years when she’d come home drunk and danced to the music in her head while he prepared her a late-night meal. It had been awkward and uncomfortable for him to see, but he couldn’t deny she had mesmerizing moves.

Dotty drank… heavily. She also took drugs when she could get them. Her job as a stripper earned her a pitiful income as she didn’t work every night. He didn’t let her use her wages to pay for her habits, so she turned tricks on the side. He couldn’t watch her all the time, and she was too deep into her addictions to find her way out. Her pain was deep and overwhelmed her sometimes. He’d been unable to help her with it, though he still tried. She’d long ago stopped trying.

On one particularly bad night, he’d come home to find a group of three men taking turns raping her. Even though he’d only been eleven at the time, he’d fought them off with the violent use of a kitchen table leg, which broke off during the initial struggle. The men barely managed to flee the house with their lives. In the following week, he’d hunted down and kneecapped two of them with the improvised club. The third man had been warned of the hunt, and he left town. The police had shown up on Dotty’s doorstep to ask them questions about what had happened. His mom had given him an alibi, and the cops left after issuing a warning.

Dotty made him promise that night to put all his efforts into his grades to make something of himself. She knew he was smart. She just needed him to channel his energy into something positive. She told him she couldn’t allow herself to live, seeing him waste his potential. Terrified she’d commit suicide like their neighbor recently had, he’d promised and had thrown himself into his schoolwork with everything he had. The initial years were hard, but he learned how to make it work for him, and he put all other distractions out of his mind. He worked when he could, as he’d need money to get them both out of this cesspool. As well as the part-time jobs he’d taken, he managed his mother’s money for her, paid the rent, kept the house clean, and got them fed.

Once he finished his homework, he went upstairs, unlocked the deadbolt on his bedroom door, and went to bed. The lock had become necessary when Dotty began stealing money and stuff to sell from his room in her desperation for a fix. Once inside, he flipped it closed once more.

He set his alarm and finally let himself relax. He glanced at the lock once more and frowned. Another reason for it was to keep his mom from stumbling naked into his room during the night, as she’d done in the past. There was only so much he was willing to do to help her. Her addictions messed up her mind, most frequently at night, and now that he was older, she often mistook him for his father. Those were especially painful memories for both of them, just for different reasons.

Unsettled, he flipped over onto his stomach and tried to clear his mind so he could get to sleep. He had another busy day to get through tomorr–he glanced at the clock and sighed.



Sam allowed herself a smile as she looked at her history test. The ninety-five percent would keep her grade average high, and that’s all that mattered. She heard some of the other students griping about their grades, especially Wally, and turned to smile at her boyfriend Victor, who was sitting across the aisle from her. He smirked and showed her his eighty-one percent, and she nodded her proud approval. She’d tutored him for the test, and it obviously helped. It helped them both, to be honest.