He'd grown accustomed to the cigarette fumes; they didn't bother him nearly as much as they used to. They, he figured, were as much a part of the house as the molded take out in the fridge or the litter of empty beer cans and bottles that coated every surface.
He'd been with the Forresters for nearly two years. It didn't seem that long. He remembered the first day he'd arrived, clutching his worn teddy bear, Sammy,-- the one all foster kids received--close to his small chest.
"Be polite, Keith," Karen had said, glancing down at him with narrowed eyes. "And straighten up. We don't need you causing any more trouble."
Nodding at his caseworker, Keith complied, stiffening his muscles.
The house was much bigger than in person. The pictures Karen had shown him did hold some form of accuracy, he supposed. The peeling paint held true to its ink counterpart, a beige coat slathered across the flimsy clapboard walls. There was a wooden porch, the one Keith stood on, that cried out at every imposition of pressure.
Karen plastered a fond smile across her features. It didn't reach her eyes-- barely reached her checks, in fact-- but it was enough. "I really want this to work out for you," she'd said. Karen was a rather complex person; austere, but genuine-- harsh, but sympathetic. Over the years, Keith has grown a liking to her, and he knew the same held true the other way around.
With one more skim of Keith's features, she tousled his floppy hair and knocked on the scratched marred door. "I hope they replace this door."
They never did. Two years later, that damned door still stood tall but Karen was gone. Car crash, his foster mother had said over breakfast.
Keith's grasp on Sammy loosened as he nearly choked on his Cheerios.
"Chew with your mouth closed, boy," his foster father scolded, taking another puff of his morning cigar.
Keith ignored him. "What happened?" he asked Mrs. Forrester.
She looked up from her coffee, squinting. "Does it matter much?" she spat, "was a horrible woman, anyways."
Anger flared in Keith's veins. "No, she wasn't," he said. His foster mother shot him a venomous glare. Keith shoved another scoop of cereal into his mouth. "She was better than you," he added under his breath.
"What did you just say, boy?"
Keith's throat hitched. "Nothing, sir. It was nothing," he stammered, casting his gaze away quickly. His eyes traced the frames of the loan Cheerios that began to drown in his milk.
Mr. Forrester stood up. "What the hell did you say to my wife?"
Keith grimaced, goosebumps scurrying across his skin. He pushed against the palm of his hand nervously.
A whimper escaped Keith's throat. "Nothing, please, I promise!"
His foster father grabbed the collar of his shirt, forcing him from the chair. Keith clawed at the older man's hand, struggling to breathe. He could feel his blood illuminate his face a bright red as oxygen struggled to circulate around his body.
"What. Did. You. Say." At this point, it was no longer a question, but an order.
"I-" Mr. Forrester's grip tightened, "I- s-said: s-she's bet-ter th'n you." A tear tracked down Keith's cheek.
Something in his foster father's face shifted. He threw the nine-year-old to the ground harshly. "Show some damn respect, boy; you should be grateful!"
What Keith was supposed to be "grateful" for, he didn't know. Grateful that everything and everyone he cares about leaves him? Grateful that no one loves him? Grateful that every foster family hated him? It was okay, though. He deserved it. That's what they told him, anyway.
Mr. Forrester narrowed his eyes, spat, then slapped Keith across the face. "Pathetic," he grumbled.
A sob choked from Keith.
Keith tried to stop, he really did. But he couldn't. Another whimper tore from his chest.
"I said 'don't cry,' dammit!" Mr. Forrester kicked Keith in the ribs. Nostrils flared, he snatched the teddy bear from the kitchen table.
"Sammy!" Keith cried.
Mr. Forrester wore a sick smirk. With a glance at Keith, he ripped the stuffed animal's head clean off, dropping the remains next to the cowering boy.
"Everything you touch dies," he spat, stepping over Keith's body and sitting back in his wooden chair, taking another puff of his morning cigar.
Keith woke up screaming.