In the state of Massachusetts, an average of two people a day die due to opioid overdose.
On Feb. 17, in an apartment on Gloucester's Cleveland Street, one of them was 26-year-old Michael Rogers, .
"Michael loved to cook," says his "mother," Lori Paterno Rogers. "He wanted to be a chef. He dreamed of buying a little place, a restaurant where we could all go and be one, big happy family."
On the face of it, Michael Rogers did seem to come from one, big happy family.
His eight surviving siblings call themselves the Brady Bunch because, like television's "Brady Bunch," they were, as a family unit, a hybrid of former marriages.
Unlike the Brady Bunch, these marriages ended in wreckage, and the siblings collided together from childhoods which had come to include stays in shelters and on relatives' sofas.
Michael's family was not, like "The Brady Bunch," ratings perfect. But it was, says Lori, a happy family — a fun family, a "wild bunch" bonded by love.
"In this house" she says, "we never used the word 'step.'"
The fact is Lori was Michael's "step'" mother. And the fact is Michael's biological mother was, and is to this day, what Michael's siblings describe as a "career junkie."
He was a sweet but damaged first-grader when Lori married his father. He and his brother Joe had, in effect, already lost their biological mother to the same drug that would eventually kill him.
"He was," says Lori softly, "probably genetically predisposed, But it's not for me to judge her. We all make mistakes."
Michael's siblings — be they step or half — are not as forgiving as Lori. Regardless of whether they shared the same father, or even the same blood, they regard Michael as their brother, their beloved brother, and they are not forgiving anyone — including themselves — for his death.
"The system killed him," they say repeatedly.
They sit — this big, boisterous, loving bunch — around the dining table in Lori's cozy home just off Stacy Boulevard, and recite a litany of names of other kids, kids they'd all gone through Gloucester schools with, who also were killed by "the system."
The list is long. The names all come with nicknames that sound like they belong to cheerleaders or quarterbacks.
They did belong to cheerleaders and quarterbacks, say Michael's siblings. You're dreaming, they say, if you think athletes are immune to drugs. Michael, they say, was an athlete. He played football. They pass photos of him across the table as if to prove this was true.
In the photos — taken just three years earlier, before Michael fast-forwarded from using OxyContin to shooting heroin — he appears tan, buff, handsome, healthy, happy. It is impossible to re-imagine this Michael as the Michael who died with a needle in his arm, hours after being released from a court appearance that family members say should have landed him in jail.
He was no stranger to jail; he'd been in and out of it due to inability to pay child support, and domestic-related problems. This time, Michael had violated parole. This time he was going in for a long time, his siblings thought.
And they are clear about one thing: if he was in jail, he would not be dead. Because in jail, he could not get heroin, they said.
Drug addiction is an equal opportunity disease. Heroin is an equal opportunity killer.
What Michael's family says about prison recalls what another Michael, the rich and glamorous Michael Douglas, said about prison when his heroin-addicted son Cameron, was sentenced to five years.
The sentence was, Michael Douglas has said, "a lifesaver."
His son Cameron agrees. Federal prison was, he says, "his longest period sober since he was 13."
Cameron Douglas believed he would have "relapsed if he'd been released on bail." Michael Rogers' family believe that when he was released from court that morning, he was, in effect, sentenced to death.
Michael Rogers also, ironically, had a son named Cameron, and another son — a baby — named Michael Jr.
Both sons are by a woman named Amanda Scola. She, like Michael's biological mother, is a heroin addict, the family says. She bought the heroin that killed Michael Rogers, police say. When they found him, dead from an overdose in her apartment that morning, she was, according to the police, too high herself to give a coherent accounting of exactly what had happened.
Michael's relationship with Amanda was, his siblings say, a fatal attraction. He was, they say, desperate to beat his heroin addiction. She was, they say, just plain desperate; a classic enabler.
But the biggest enabler, they say repeatedly, is "the system."
Heroin, they say, is Gloucester's "disease." Heroin, they say, is everywhere. Walk down the street, up the street, to the corner, you can score.
A brother-in-law, Alvy, who grew up on the mean streets of New York's South Bronx, says "no way, in the South Bronx, can you get the kind of drugs you can get in Gloucester."
This is apparently no secret. Gloucester has been notorious for its abundance of heroin since it started pouring in here in the late 1960s.
Gloucester was a decade or so ahead of the curve in a national opiate epidemic that is now claiming more lives in the state of Massachusetts than any other cause, according to statistics from the national Centers for Disease Control.
But to this day, Michael's siblings say, Gloucester turns a blind eye to what's hidden in plain sight.
The kids, they say, are not alright. The symptoms, they say, are hidden in plain sight. Nobody wants to see them, they didn't want to see them, when the drug first started "taking away our brother."
Their brother is gone now. It took three years for the disease to kill him. "There was so much more to Michael," Lori says, "than those three years of drug addiction."
But in all the talk of all the things that Michael was — and many of them were winning; he was, it seems, a golden boy — there is not a word about Michael's use of drugs being illegal.
In Gloucester, his siblings say, addicts are rewarded for being addicts. They get to go on disability, they get Section 8 (subsidized) housing, welfare, food stamps. They get methadone and support programs. They have it all, Michael's siblings say.
What they don't have is the one thing that keeps most of us from dabbling in drugs to begin with: good old fear of breaking the law.
It's easier, Michael Rogers' family seems to suggest, to let addicts slip through the cracks — like their son and brother.
It's time, they suggest, for the law to start laying down the law.
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 9780-283-7000 x3457, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.