Robert’s nails dug into straw as he watched his brother’s slumbering form. His brother’s frail chest slowly rose and fell, Robert’s stomach churning in rhythm. He frowned.
“Com’ on, James! It ain’ nothin’! What’d a you sleeping around for?” Rasps. Deep, guttural rasps that made James’ skin crawl. No 8-year-old sounded like that, let alone his little brother. He picked at a patch in his overalls and stared at his feet, wondering when his pa was coming back. It’d been three days already! He shook his head and stood up, looming over his dumb little brother. He sneered at him. “Fine, then! I’ll fix youse up myself!” He walked over to his small section of the room and snuck a hand under a crack behind the wall. He kept fiddling until he’d hit something; he grinned and pulled out his life savings. It was two quarters and a penny. He whistled in appreciation, making his way out the door, saluting his brother off on the way. “I’ll be right back!”
It was a thirty-minute journey towards the nearest town. Robert’s legs ached as he came to a stop, hands on his knees as he wiped his forehead slick of sweat. His stomach grumbled, and he sighed. ‘Gotta use this for James…’ He strode forward with purpose, looking around at the boarded-up windows and glaring at nearby-passengers who’d been looking his way for a little too long. He reached his destination, a small little general store he’d seen once or twice but’d never been in. He always remembered his ma telling him about it, before she’d gone. He ignored the stinging in his eyes and walked in, hearing a bell above him ring and smelling the warm, incensed air inside the store. He saw a man turn and smile, only for it to die at the sight of him. The man’s face darkened. “I don’t take in street urchins, so I’d reckon you ought—“
“I ain’t no urchin!” he interrupted hotly. The man crossed his arms, and Robert stuck up a quarter in sweet, sweet defiance. “I can pay, don’t just try to throw me out!” The man rose an eyebrow and shrugged, seemingly relenting the point. “Fair enough,” he went on, “but” - he glared at the boy - “don’t try anything funny. I got my eyes on you.” Robert’s lips thinned, but he bit back an insult that he was sure his pa woulda gave him hell for. He walked up to the man.
“I need medicine,” he stated with the utter confidence of a child. The man drily stared at him.
“Medicine?” the man repeated, testing the word in his mouth as if he hadn’t heard it before. Robert nodded. “Yup. Anythin’ for sickness.” If Robert wasn’t mistaken, the man’s face had softened a bit. Robert scowled - he hated pity. The man must have picked up on this, for he went business-like again and nodded, handing Robert a cure-all salve he said would “work for anything, anytime.” Robert liked the sound of that. He didn’t like losing all his money though.
Robert’s heart beated with anticipation as he saw where his little brother must have been waiting for him. He saw no sign of his pa. He scoffed. That’d took him less than a few hours, tops, and his pa was still gone? He hung his head up in pride. Man, he sure was smart if he could outdo his pa like that! A grin stretched out onto his face as he entered his home, eyes searching for his brother. “James!,” he called as he saw him “I got the medicine! You can stop whin—-“
His grin died.
“James?” He walked up to his brother. His eyes were open, but they were looking through him, at a place far away. He put a hand on his brother’s chest. Nothing. It was still. His blood turned to ice. “J-James?,” he whispered. He looked down at his brother’s feet, and they’d gone blue. He blinked.
“Oh.” His arms dropped slowly back down. He dropped the salve, its mint-green content spilling out all across the house’s floor.
His house, it was, 10-year-old Robert now realized.