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Yeah. That would be awkward. I’d wanted her for too many years. She was the bad habit I’d never broken, because I didn’t fucking want to.
“I may be jealous, but jealousy isn’t why I don’t trust him,” I said, and she turned her face to mine. I wanted to fall into the deep wells of her eyes. “I protect you, Pearl. It’s just what I do.”
• • • • • • • • • •
Brent protected me until the day he left town. Our whole lives, he insisted that Dad was full of shit and I should pay no mind to his opinion of me or anything else. He blocked my punishments, deserved or undeserved—sometimes physically, but usually by negotiation. My brother was a born peacemaker, the kind of kid who’d stepped in to referee neighborhood disputes before fists could fly, which made his decision to join the Corps at eighteen all the more incredible to me. At ten, I thought all Marines were guys who liked to fight and shoot people.
He planned to serve four years, then go reserve and come get me. “If I believed they’d let me take you from him now, I would—but nobody lets little kids choose their guardians. And I’m barely an adult.” He paced the airless room we shared at the ass-end of the trailer. He’d just graduated from high school and would leave for boot camp in California in August, when I began fifth grade. “When I get out, I’ll be older. You’ll be older—in high school. I’ll get a decent job. We’ll move to Corpus, and he’ll never lay a hand on either of us again.”
My brother was also a dreamer, but I figured that’s how heroes were—it’s how they changed the world—by dreaming how it should be, superimposed over how it was. I wanted to believe what he told me. I wanted to believe that when Brent came back Dad would be so glad to get rid of my sorry ass that he’d let me go.
Brent went to San Diego, and then Quantico, and a year later, after 9/11, to Afghanistan. After earning distinction for marksmanship in boot camp, he made lance corporal and then became a scout sniper. When I was fourteen, he was sent to Iraq. Dad hung a US flag in the window of the garage and accepted praise from everyone who stopped by to yack about how proud he must be to have a son serving our country—as if he’d had any fucking thing to do with it. As if he weren’t the dead reverse of everything Brent stood for.
I hadn’t been born with my brother’s ability to defuse anger; I’d inherited my mother’s knack for throwing fuel on it without even trying. It didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say—I was the only one left to trigger his drunken rages. I was the motherfucking dipshit, the worthless dumbass, the pansy-assed son of a bitch, the useless shit-for-brains moron. I swallowed every word, except where Pearl was concerned. I’d done my one good deed when I saved her life, and I knew it.
When she came up to the middle school, she was still tiny and so quiet. She seemed more defenseless than ever. I didn’t notice when she sat down at the end of the table Rick and I had commandeered for lunch the year before. The outcast table, we called it—but that didn’t mean just any weirdo could plant his ass at it.
“Hey, dipshit—sixth graders don’t sit with us,” Rick said. He and I were dicked around enough by eighth grade jocks without welcoming guys who’d just be a magnet for more of their shit. I glanced up, expecting to see some skinny kid moving his ass along. But the person sliding her tray off the table was Pearl Torres.
“Shut the fuck up, Thompson,” I said, looking into Pearl’s dark eyes, which were almost obscured by glasses so large they hijacked her face. Her hair was wild—free of the braids or hair ties she’d always worn. “Stay,” I told her. “It’s okay.”
She nodded and sat. Every day for two school years, she sat at the end of our table, shoulders hunched, hair partially obscuring her face, silently eating her lunch and reading a novel or doing homework. No one bothered her unless they wanted to pass through me. I didn’t get in many fights in middle school. Brent had made me swear to stay out of trouble when he went to boot camp, and my dread of Dad getting called to the school went deep. But I was bigger than Rick’s big brother, Randy, who was old enough to drive, so most kids just weren’t that interested in pissing me off.
“Evan arrived last night with his mannequin-to-be in tow.”
I was almost reacquainted with the way Melody launched into impassioned conversations the second she slipped into my car, before she’d even fastened the seat belt or asked where we were going.
She yanked the door shut on my GTI, and I flinched at the force of the door slamming into the frame. “She’s a Barb Dover replicant! All Yes, honey and Whatever makes you happy, Evan, like she has no damned opinions of her own and no intention of forming any.”
Now probably wasn’t the time to point out the hypocrisy in her judgment of her future sister-in-law.
“But hey—my parents are thrilled shitless. They’ll finally have the daughter they always wanted. Evan even proposed with Grandma Bea’s three-carat emerald.”
I gasped. “What? But she bequeathed that ring to you in her will!” Melody’s outspoken force-of-nature grandmother was the only member of her family who’d ever encouraged Mel to stand up for herself. She’d also suffered no qualms encouraging her favorite grandchild to rebel more often, claiming that her parents deserved it.
“Right. And what am I supposed to do? Sue my parents, my brother, and his Mom-clone to get it?” She choked up, and I didn’t know what to say.
Mama and Barbara Dover had been in the same social circle since Mama married Thomas. Mama took pains not to gossip, but sometimes she’d come home from lunch or a Junior League meeting muttering in Spanish, and even if she spoke too quickly and softly for me to translate, I’d caught the word Barb on a few occasions.
“They know I can’t do anything about it. This is how they punish me for breaking up with Matt instead of extracting a marriage proposal out of him.” Her mother actually expected Mel to be engaged by twenty-two. Who did that?
“I thought Matt broke up with you?” After your mother gave you a bridal magazine subscription for Christmas, I didn’t say.
She huffed a sigh. “No. He just didn’t want to get married in the near future, or maybe ever, so I broke up with him. Mama had convinced me that if I did it right, he’d propose. But instead I spent two weeks with Ben & Jerry and Jose Cuervo, and nothing to show for it but an extra inch on my ass.”