This is the third story in Pain of the Prison System, a series proudly presented by Narratively, written by high school students for POPS the Club – a nonprofit dedicated to providing a safe space for high schoolers whose lives have been impacted by incarceration.

Igrew up in what seemed to be a happy home.

I was always smiling, rarely cried and no one ever seemed to argue. Ever since I was a child, my mom, dad and big brother, Jeremiah, have been the center of my world. My mom and dad were deeply in love, even after twenty years of marriage.

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Even though we didn’t live in the best neighborhood, they always found a way to make me laugh and see the best in every situation. It wasn’t until I turned twelve that it all fell apart.

On May 9, 2010 my daddy was sent to prison and given two life sentences. My mom broke down as soon as he was gone. She fell deep into depression and she wouldn’t speak to either me or my brother. She was lost in her sorrow. I felt desperate for my daddy’s hugs and I actually missed listening to his lectures and him telling me how proud he knew I would one day make him.

Jeremiah became more than just my brother; he was now my best friend and the only reason I had left to keep trying. He and I did everything together. He wasn’t the best role model, but he looked out for me and despite being eight years older than me, he always treated me as his equal, never judged my decisions.

By thirteen I was watching him do drugs, gangbang and gamble. I moved into his two-bedroom apartment with him and his girlfriend. At first, I felt at peace and safe. Jeremiah taught me everything I needed to survive.

One day we were sitting on the porch with his friends. I remember Jeremiah giving me a long speech that ended with, “Michelle, one day I want to see you make it out of the ’hood, even if I don’t make it out with you.”

All I could think was, “Why wouldn’t you make it out with me?”

He made me promise I’d be successful. When his friends left, I shared my thoughts and questions with him. He told me that people like him don’t make it anywhere. I couldn’t quite understand, but I didn’t question him any more.

At fifteen, I was seemingly doing well in school, even though I had been kicked out of three high schools in two years. My brother seemed happy, living life day by day as usual.

On July 17, 2013, around 4:30 p.m., I was walking home from school as I did every day. As I neared home I could see an ambulance and police cars. I saw my family and neighbors crying. When I asked what was going on, the police pulled me to the side and asked for my I.D. They interrogated me for five minutes before they realized I was Jeremiah’s sister.

Then they told me that my brother had been shot. Killed.

My body became stiff, weak. He was gone, shot dead at age 23, by an enemy on his own porch. The very porch where we shared laughs and enjoyed each other’s company. I didn’t cry. Not a tear dripped out of me because he taught me never to let people know when I am hurt.

I walked closer to the yellow tape and I could see his feet sticking out of the white cover they’d put over him. The puddle of blood surrounding his body seemed deeper than the ocean. I ran and tried to hug him one last time, but the police pulled me away. The next day I moved in with my mom. She was still depressed and quiet, now more than before. I noticed my mom’s eyes had changed. The once strong and joyful superwoman had turned into a disconnected, fragile human being. My uncle moved in with us to help my mom out. Mommy was no longer here, Daddy was taken away, and my brother was gone.

Every Monday at four p.m. I visit my brother’s grave and sit and talk as if he were sitting right beside me. I laugh at the things I imagine he would say to me and cry because I can’t hear him saying them.

I pretend we are on the porch, and that makes me feel like I’m home.

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Michelle Montano continues to dedicate herself to her writing.

Alison Rutsch is an artist and educator living in New York.