Page 4


“Pearl, he didn’t—hit you or anything, right?”
I shook my head, a tear trailing down my cheek. Mitchell’s choice of the one item in my room most representing home to me hadn’t been an accident. Despite my useless exclamation, I’d known the minute he’d stretched toward the top of my bookcase that I was too late to prevent his retaliation, too late to wish I’d initiated the conversation somewhere else. His tantrum had dispelled any remorse I’d felt for abandoning our plans.
When he texted an apology, I didn’t reply. His calls went to voice mail, and I deleted them without listening. My sisters wouldn’t let him through the door of our house, and rumor had it that his fraternity president had threatened to revoke his membership if he didn’t leave me alone. There’d been an incident the previous fall with a sophomore in their frat who’d stalked one girl and raped another—a freshman in my sorority who transferred away at the end of the semester. After a damage control meeting with their chapter advisor and an alumni mentor, the frat leaders weren’t taking any chances.
“D.J. says he and Dean are going zero tolerance until they graduate in May.” Katie squeezed my shoulder. “Four months and we’re outta here, girl. God knows I don’t want another drop of drama, but I’d swear on a stack of Bibles autographed by Jesus himself—I’ll kick Mitchell’s ass all the way down the street if he so much as steps on the goddamned lawn.”
Mitchell and I avoided each other for the remainder of our last semester—including ninety-minute lectures in animal virology every Tuesday and Thursday, and eight awkward hours of experimental physiology lab every Wednesday. Graduation, three days ago, had been a relief—though I spent two guilt-ridden days trying and failing to ignore Mama’s bliss about my impending ascension to med school. I couldn’t ruin graduation weekend for either of us by dumping the truth on her, but my time had run out.
College was done. Mitchell and I had gone our separate ways. I’d informed Vanderbilt that I wouldn’t be attending, hopefully making some waitlisted applicant’s dream come true. Now there was only one thing left to do.
Tell my mother.
Chapter Two
I’m not a hero.
That description fit my brother, Brent, all his life, but not me. As a kid, I wanted to be like him—thought I could be, even, if I aped everything he did. By the time he was fourteen, he was close to earning his Eagle Scout rank, so I joined Cub Scouts. Dad wouldn’t pay for the fees and uniform, so Brent let me bag grass on the lawns he mowed so I could earn the money for it myself. Years later, I worked out that he’d removed the grass catcher from the mower so he could pay me out of his own earnings to rake and bag that grass.
In second grade, I got damned intense about earning merit badges, but Mom was done sewing the patches on. When I brought home the first one, she lifted her water-crinkled hands from a sink of soapy dishes and told me, “I’ve got a crap-ton of stretch marks and a bigger ass thanks to you boys. I’m not scarring my fingers up just to sew all those freakin’ patches on. Do it yourself like your brother does.”
“Look here,” Brent said, pushing a big needle through the edge of a patch, over the border, and back down through the fabric. He stitched the one-inch circle to my blue shirt with clear thread that looked like fishing line and then left me to do the others.
I stabbed a few dozen holes in my fingers with that needle, and I’m sure there was a fair amount of blood on that shirt when I was done. The first few patches dangled a little cockeyed but stayed put.
That spring my pack joined the town’s annual beach cleanup. I was first to sign up, because I wanted that conservation badge bad—even if I did have to stitch it on. My interest wore thin after a couple of hours of unseasonable heat and typical gulf humidity. The plastic gloves they gave us protected against everything but hypodermics—though I didn’t have to be told twice not to touch one of those. Needles and I had a mutual hatred for each other. But the gloves stuck to my sweaty hands, and bits of sand snuck in around my wrists and settled, gritty and irritating, between my fingers.
Eager to quit and claim the Capri Sun and hot dogs we’d been promised, I handed a bag full of bottle caps, food wrappers, and one rotting fish head to my den leader.
“Good job,” he said, and I could almost taste that hot dog, dripping with yellow mustard and relish. “Plenty of time to fill up another one or two bags before lunch. Deposit that in the big trash can and grab a new one. Don’t worry, Mrs. Thompson will blow the whistle when those wieners are ready.”
I turned to hide my scowl and muttered a cuss word, determined to fill that bag in record time and then park my butt on the other side of somebody’s beach umbrella until I heard my den mother’s signal—the same piercing whistle she used to call her sons back home at suppertime. All of a sudden a bunch of little girls wearing matching pink T-shirts and blue vests covered in girly-looking patches appeared between me and the water. Of all the rotten luck—baby Girl Scouts. They squealed and raced around, pretending their trash bags were parachutes.
“Crap,” I said, growing more ticked off. I’d have to hunt quickly to fill my bag, because those girls would scoop up all the trash on this part of the beach, and I didn’t want to have to hike too far from those hot dogs or Mrs. Thompson’s whistle.
As their leader called them all into a circle to pass out gloves and order them to stay together, I stomped right through the middle of them, toward a plastic six-pack ring peeking out of the sand.
“Hey!” one girl said. “He’s gettin’ our litter!”
I pretended I hadn’t heard her and stuffed it into my bag.
The leader laughed and said there was plenty of trash for everyone, and they all started grabbing any debris in view. “Ladies,” she added, “remember to leave nature as you find it! We’re here to collect garbage, not seaweed, sticks or shells.”
“Even the broken ones?” another girl asked, staring at a handful of shell bits. “No snails or crabs can live in these. They aren’t good for anything, so they’re trash, right?”
I rolled my eyes as I walked between them. She saw me and frowned.
“No, Pearl—the broken ones are still nature. Let those be too, hon.”
“Dumb girl,” I said, and she bit her lip and looked like she might cry, which poked something inside of me and made me feel mean. She was just a little kid. But I passed her, snatched up a scrap of newspaper, and crammed it into my bag. I was a man on a mission.