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“So he didn’t want to break up—he just didn’t want to get married? Oh, Mel.”
“Yeah, can we not discuss what a moron I am? I had a good relationship with a decent guy and I blew it. Again.”
When we were in high school, Melody—and half the town along with her—caught her boyfriend cheating on her. Clark Richards and three of his varsity baseball bros had a visiting-college-girls orgy in a beach rental his father owned. One of the guys took video clips, which made the rounds of the student body like a lit fuse. It wasn’t the first time Clark had cheated on her, but it was the only one caught on film, witnessed by just about everyone. I was never more proud of her than when she broke up with him.
She started going out with Boyce’s best friend, Landon Maxfield, which I warned her against doing because I was afraid she was just going for a bad boy and she might get hurt again. But then she told me about their conversations. How he wanted to know her opinions and cared about her feelings. How he made her laugh. How his kisses did things to her that Clark’s had never done.
Clark found out immediately, of course. No matter how sizable the population of this island becomes during tourist season, it remains a small town to those of us who live here, and nobody keeps anything private for long. He had batches of roses delivered to her house. He gave her a diamond-studded charm bracelet in a pink satin box, begging her to take him back and swearing to never screw around on her again. Her parents approved of him; his daddy was a big developer, even richer than they were. He was a year older, popular, and hot in a conventional, old money sort of way.
He was also a rat bastard cheater, but I couldn’t convince her that even if once a liar, always a liar might not be a surefire judgment, it was a damned good presumption.
She didn’t even tell Landon herself. In the west hallway the following day, her boyfriend informed him he’d been a rebound and nothing more. I didn’t know Landon well then, but I knew he didn’t deserve my best friend staring at the floor while her boyfriend told him he was trash.
Then Clark graduated and dumped Melody like their two-year relationship and all his promises meant nothing. I hadn’t wanted to be right. I hadn’t wanted proof that what goes around comes around.
“So, about you,” she said as I pulled away from the curb. “You said you notified your mama that med school was a no-go, and you’re still alive. So how’d that conversation go?”
“She’s in full-blown denial. I’m pretty sure she’s setting her sights on one of the waitlisted programs coming through. Like getting into Harvard or Michigan would make any kind of difference to me when I was sitting right there telling her what I want to be and what I don’t.”
She grunted a soft laugh and mimed blinders on either side of her face. “Mothers are good at ignoring what they don’t wanna hear.”
There was no reason to point out that blinders block peripheral vision, not the ability to hear. It came to the same conclusion either way. I’d described my vision of the life I wanted to live and who I wanted to be, and Mama wasn’t having it.
I’d always thought my mother was superior to all other mothers because she’d sacrificed everything for me—the love of her life, her family and friends, the place she was born and raised. I assumed she’d forfeited these pieces of herself because she believed in me, because she meant to provide me with every chance to dream and reach and become. I assumed that what I dreamed and reached for and became would be my choice.
Until today, I hadn’t understood that I was the one wearing blinders, and she was the one who’d put them there.
Boyce:  Meet up tonight?
Me:  Good timing. Dropping Melody off in a few minutes.
Boyce:  I’m all about timing, baby.
Me:  *insert eyeroll*
Boyce:  ;)
Chapter Six
Brent died when he drew enemy sniper fire. On purpose, according to the final report we got. To divert attention from half a dozen fellow Marines bent on storming a building where intelligence had pinpointed a nest of insurgents. A year later, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity.” The day he died, though, we knew nothing more than the fact he’d been killed.
It was June. Without a word, I walked past my father in his mute shock, through the open doorway. I got on my bike and pedaled to the Merry Mermaid, the tattoo parlor where Brent’s girlfriend worked. Flying down the side of the road—past colorful stores and restaurants, imported palm trees, and out-of-towners laughing in rented golf carts that were street-legal in town—I was numb. The sky was cloudless, the sun straight overhead. The shadow my body cast was a shapeless, fluid blob, caught beneath the fat tires block after block. Without Brent, I was a formless, unconnected outline.
“I need to see Arianna,” I said to Buddy, the guy who ran the place. My voice cracked on her name, like I was a squeaky preteen with a crush instead of a stand-in for the angel of death.
Buddy, silver-haired but lean and muscled, was the color of wet sand wherever he wasn’t covered in ink. He pulled a pocket watch from the front pocket of his black Dickies, flicked it open and glanced at its face. “She’s finishing up with a client—be done in five or ten.” He squinted at me then, his forehead a canvas of baked-in creases. “You Brent’s little brother?”
I nodded and tried to swallow, nearly choking on my own spit. I’d been to the shop a few times with Brent. Brent, who was dead. His last breath exhaled in a foreign country. His blood spilling out there. His heart stopping there. His eyes closing there for the last time. My fingertips went so cold I couldn’t feel them. I could barely breathe. My eyes burned. I was like water trying to choose a suitable form—ice or vapor.
“You okay, son?” Buddy asked.
I shook my head, or thought I did. I wasn’t sure. Maybe I didn’t move at all.
Buddy’s expression altered then, his pale eyes wide and piercing from the other side of the counter. He wasn’t often startled, and his face wasn’t familiar with the shape it took. “Brent okay?” he whispered, two words barely audible over the classic rock blaring from speakers set into the back corners near the ceiling. The vocals repeated the same line, louder and louder—Do you wanna die? Do you wanna die?—while the bass thrummed, keeping pace with the pulse in my ears.
Buddy turned as Arianna parted the threaded seashells strung on lines from the lowered ceiling, separating the front room from the corridor where the tattooists did their work. Unlike Buddy, her visible tattoos were confined to one arm, which looked like an incomplete puzzle. A blue-haired mermaid was pinned to the curve of her shoulder, sitting on top of an albatross I’d once made the mistake of calling a pelican. Brent had laughed until tears filled his eyes. A hodgepodge of patterns were scattered from her elbow to her wrist—outlines, empty of color. Unfinished.