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And then I watched him leave town, along with Pearl. Along with most everyone I knew, or cared to know. Two years later, Dad was diagnosed with liver disease, and I saw the first light at the end of the tunnel I’d been stuck in since Brent died. And then I looked around. If Wynn’s Garage was going to be mine, it was going to stop looking like a damned dump. I started with a bottle of industrial-strength cleaning stuff—hosing down the counters, scouring years of grease and dirt away before moving to the plate glass window. I used half a bottle of glass cleaner and wad after wad of newspaper, scrubbing until the glass seemed to vanish.
As Dad’s condition deteriorated, I gradually took over all the repair work, ordering parts and billing—keeping the books with the help of a new computer, accounting software I found online, and a few chats with Maxfield’s dad, Ray. Over that last year, I ran everything and shuttled Dad back and forth to the clinic and the hospital besides.
Folks sometimes assumed, wrongly, that he and I might have mended some of our grievances in those last months, but the knowledge that they’re dying doesn’t transform everyone. Some people remain selfish bastards all the way to the ground. My father was one of those. Some people can’t absolve what can’t be reconciled. I was one of those.
I still met up with the boys: Randy Thompson (Rick’s older brother, known as Thompson Senior when we were kids) and Mateo Vega, when he could spare a couple of hours away from his wife and screaming toddlers. Poor bastard knocked up his girlfriend—with twins—the summer after we graduated. Brittney and some of the other girls I cut my teeth on came around now and then, though they usually preferred to screw out-of-towners who’d give them an entertaining weekend and then get lost. Couldn’t say I blamed them; I felt the same way. Occasionally one or another of them would start to hint about to settling down, and that would be the end of that. There was only one woman alive who could settle me, and God knew hell would freeze over before that’d happen. My love life consisted of one-nighters and nostalgia fucks. No love, but it was fine.
Until Pearl said she was moving back home, and my heart woke up like I’d just set a live wire to it. I heard this saying once: The heart wants what the heart wants, and right off the bat I decided that even if that was true I’d never heard a more damned unhelpful bunch of bullfuckery. No explanation. No guidelines. No solution. Sayings were supposed to simplify shit, not complicate it.
The heart wants what the heart wants. Great. Now what?
“This feels like the end of high school all over again,” Mel said, glancing around her bedroom—now empty of her personality, so bare that it resembled a guest room. “Except I’m leaving for good this time.” She deposited the last of a matched Louis Vuitton luggage set near the door and reached for me. “I’ll miss you, you tiny little chica.” She tucked her chin over my shoulder.
I returned her hug. “I’ll miss you too. But you’ll be back for holidays and Evan’s wedding.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. If you weren’t here, I don’t think I’d ever come back.”
That wasn’t true, I knew—when it came to defying her parents or exerting independence, Melody was all talk. The shiny blue Infiniti in the driveway was proof of that, as were the pics she’d shown me of her new apartment off Turtle Creek. Recent college grads couldn’t afford a car or digs like that without help. In her case, help came with strings attached—such as not raising hell over her grandmother’s ring going to Evan’s fiancée.
“Then I guess it’s a good thing I’m staying here,” I said.
She pulled back, sighing. “For the record, I still think you’re crazy. All those brains and you’re going to use them studying sharks or seaweed or whatever? But you’ll be the best at whatever you do. You always have been.”
• • • • • • • • • •
Four years ago, Melody had thrown her arms up and said, “Let’s make daiquiris!” as soon as my parents turned the corner at the end of the street on their way to their second honeymoon. They’d entrusted the house to their dependable, newly matriculated daughter for the coming week, because they couldn’t imagine her doing anything remotely irresponsible—like invite a boy over in a harebrained plot to lose her virginity.
That thought made my insides coil tight as new springs. “It’s not even one o’clock. Maybe we should pace ourselves?” I hadn’t told Melody my plans for Boyce, and I wasn’t going to. She might heartily endorse what I was about to do, but not who.
“Oh, fine.” She pouted. “Let’s go upstairs and decide what we’re wearing to the beach party tonight then. I plan to be too hot and sexy for Landon to resist me.”
“I know, I know—don’t say it. I’m not listening!” She’d botched her chance with him in tenth grade. I’d told her a hundred times that he was clearly the type to whom over is over, unlike Clark, who jerked her around until the day he loaded his Jeep and headed for Missouri State. We’d begun our senior year with her life in shambles because she was single, no take-backs, for the first time since ninth grade. Between bouts of fury, she moped. I wanted to shake her like a Magic 8 Ball that keeps giving the same undesirable answer.
“Also, your mama is on her way to another continent, Pearl. Live a little! Put on that hot pink bikini—the one we got at La Mode two months ago that I haven’t seen on you even once? You can’t arrive at college a virgin for chrissake. Wear that bikini tonight and you won’t.” She made virginity sound like a disorder.
My reason for holding back had nothing to do with morals or repression and everything to do with trust. While I understood virginity to have no real scientific significance, I was still intimidated by the notion of being that intimate with another human being. I’d spent my life in this small Gulf Coast town and knew everyone in my age range. Weekends and summers meant hanging out at the beach, sometimes tolerating a sloppy kiss from some alcohol-emboldened boy in the light of a bonfire. I’d had a few dates, some good, some not, and had survived a wave of gossip when Parker Guthrie told his friends I’d “given it up” in the backseat of his Bronco.
I hadn’t bothered denying it because that would have required acknowledging the rumor, but my reaction wasn’t good enough for Mel, who started a rumor of her own concerning the size (miniscule) and shape (like a boomerang) of Parker’s penis. He’d tried to prove otherwise with photographic evidence to the contrary, which got him suspended from school for a week and almost arrested. He’d been pretty much shunned the rest of high school.