Page 16


Her tank and jeans concealed the tats on her abdomen, lower back, calf and hip—I only knew about that last one because Brent had slipped and told me and then made me swear never to say a word to her or anyone.
“She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever known,” he’d said then, a sort of awe to his voice. Staring up at our ceiling, he lay on his bed with an arm behind his head, across the thin stretch of dingy carpet from my bed.
“So you don’t want her to get mad?” I’d asked, turning to watch him. It was the summer I turned eleven. The last summer we’d shared the cramped bedroom on the side of the trailer that leaned into the brick exterior of the garage—a setup that completely blocked two of the three windows. The lone working window was shoved all the way up, and a fan swung back and forth from a short dresser under it, pulling damp air from outside and blowing it around in a useless attempt to cool the room. We both stripped to our underwear and slept on top of our sheets every night. None of these efforts made much of an impact.
“No. Because I don’t want to hurt her,” he’d answered, and I wondered aloud why he would worry that someone he thought was strong could be hurt so easily. “She trusts me now. I swore I’d never hurt her, and I mean to keep that promise.”
Four years later, he was dead, and I was the one who’d come to hurt her.
Whatever Buddy had seen in my face, Arianna saw it too. “No,” she said. Her hands fisted at her sides like she could hold herself away from what I’d come to tell her.
Her client was some lady I didn’t recognize—a tourist maybe, or someone from a nearby town who’d heard about her artistic skill. The smile slid from her mouth as she looked back and forth between Arianna and me.
“No,” Arianna said again, a sob emerging with the word, sneaking out and grabbing at the thread uniting us—love for my brother—and jerking me awake when I wanted to be unconscious. The pain I hadn’t really felt, blunted by shock until that moment, drilled through me like a lightning strike, fixing me to the ground before dividing me into a million scorched fragments. The tears didn’t rise up. They gushed. My body didn’t care if I was trying to be a man, trying to be tough and strong for my brother, for the girl he’d worshipped. A wail forced its way from my core and emerged, raw and ugly, from my throat. I went to my knees as Arianna rushed forward and sank to the floor with me.
“Are you sure? Are they sure? There’s no hope? There’s no—”
I shook my head, silencing her attempt to wake from this nightmare and make it untrue. “He’s gone. He’s gone.”
Her slim arms surrounded me and her tears joined mine.
The day he turned eighteen, Brent had gone to the Merry Mermaid and requested the words Semper Fi be inked on his left delt, signaling his intention to join up as soon as he graduated high school. Arianna had done the tattoo, but it’d been far from love at first sight for them. Twenty-one and full of fire, she’d decided my brother was an idealistic goody-goody who was all talk and no action. “You’ll probably just say fuck it by the time summer comes around, Boy Scout. You’ll tell yourself there’s no reason to go get yourself shot at. You’ll head off to college next fall with all the other armchair crusaders.”
He’d been goaded into angry silence at her presumptions, but that only lasted until he got home, at which point he was just plain angry and none too silent.
“Who does she think she is?” He tore his T-shirt over his head and tossed it on the floor, pacing. “Just ’cause she’s all tatted and pierced and hot, she thinks she’s so cool? Just ’cause she’s older than me, she thinks she knows everything? She assumes she can size me up with one look? Judgmental bitch.”
Brent rarely cursed, and I’d never seen him lose his temper over a girl. Which was why I was surprised when he went back a week later for another tattoo—and requested her.
When he got home that time, he was quiet. The bandage wrapped around his bicep, just under the scripted Marine Corps motto she’d put on his shoulder the previous week. When he unwrapped it an hour later, I saw that she’d added the Marine emblem—a hostile-looking eagle sitting on a globe with an anchor through it.
“Thought you said she was a bitch?” The tattoo looked pretty cool, but still. I wouldn’t let some obnoxious girl stick a needle in my arm. Not like I’d want a nice girl sticking a needle in my arm either. I shuddered just thinking about it.
“I was wrong,” he said, examining her work in the bathroom mirror. “Be hesitant to judge people too fast, little brother. I know I’ve told you to trust your gut…” He caught my eyes in the mirror. “But sometimes what seems like a gut feeling is just pride pretending to be instinct.”
• • • • • • • • • •
I was about to head out the door when I got another text from Pearl, asking if she should just come to the trailer. I stopped, glanced around. She hadn’t come here while my father was alive. Not once in the fifteen years I’d known her. I wouldn’t have let her if she’d wanted to—but she wasn’t a stupid girl, and she’d never asked before.
The trailer was mine now, piece of shit that it was. I texted back: Sure, come on over. And then I tore around like a jackass, picking up trash and dishes and clothing and embarrassing junk mail I’d never given a first thought to, let alone a second. Minutes later, the front door rattled from her knock, and I was standing in the kitchen holding the cardboard box I’d just gotten from the crematory. Inside the box was a clear plastic bag holding Dad’s remains, which looked like the gray stuff inside a vacuum cleaner. My father, reduced to a bag of dust. When I’d signed the paperwork, the crematory guy had figured out pretty quick that I wasn’t interested in paying for some fancy decorative urn to house Dad’s ashes. But what the hell was I supposed to do with this shit?
Pearl knocked again and I dropped the box on the table (hello—dead guy on the kitchen table), then picked it up and moved it to a chair. Maybe later I’d clear a space for it under the sink, next to the bug poison.
“Dumbass,” I mumbled at myself. Dammit. That asshole was dead, and here I was still using his preferred nickname for me. Some parts of my life, I hadn’t been sure he even knew my given name anymore.
“Boyce.” Pearl smiled up at me when I opened the door. “It’s a good thing your house is next to the garage, because it’s too dark to read the house numbers, and they all sort of look the same.”