I can never help but stare. I'm in love with her shoulders, the smooth skin between her black tank top and the nape of her neck, the curve of her spine as she leans over the railing of the bridge to look at the lazy river below. Her arms are slender, her wrists graceful and delicate. Her hips and her waist have just enough curve to them to be interesting, though not enough that they're distracting, in any sense of the word. But those shoulders.
She turns around and leans back against the railing, tossing her waist-long ponytail, her thick, dark hair, over her shoulder. Sighing, she meets my eyes for a brief second, then gazes down the train tracks. Those tracks, they seem to go on forever. She says, "I'm sorry, Spence. Really, I am."
The heavy-looking gray clouds have blown past for the time being, and the warm summer sunshine splashes down across the bridge and the train tracks and the two of us. I follow her gaze along the steel rails and wonder how far we could go if we started walking, if we could keep on walking forever. Renee looks at me, expecting me to answer her, wanting me to tell her everything is all right. I'm not entirely sure why she's apologizing to begin with. She's done nothing wrong.
Then I realize that it's not forgiveness that she wants, it's reassurance. Reassurance that it's all going to be okay. That she's not going to have to go back to her house and fight anymore with her dad. That she won't have lost another job. That she won't be so sick anymore.
How long are those train tracks, I wonder?
"Let's take a walk," I tell her.
She stares at me for a bit, then nods, and starts walking.
We don't talk much as we make our way down the tracks. It's too hot to walk and talk at the same time, and it seems to me that what Renee needs to do is keep moving, keep the energy and the blood flowing, else all that tumult of emotion is going to eat her from the inside out. It also gives me time to figure out what the hell I'm going to say to comfort her when she finally does start spilling her guts to me. Looking at her now, at the ambling, easy-going gait she uses to nonchalantly step over each plank of wood, each puddle, each discarded beer can and ancient cigarette butt, it's hard to remember that when she called me an hour ago, she was crying so recklessly that I made her pull over for a few minutes because I was afraid she was going to drive her car into a ditch.
We walk down the tracks for a mile or so; she never strays more than a foot from me. She takes down her ponytail and a breeze gusts her hair from her face; I drink in the sight of her, the smooth skin of neck exposed, her face slightly upturned to the sun and sky, eyes closed. I want to stop walking and catch her by the shoulders and kiss that spot just between her neck and the spaghetti strap of her tank top, I want to press my lips to that thin white line in the sun-kissed bronze of her skin.
I look at her face again, though, and I can't do it. She's got too much going on in that head of hers, I don't want to give her a reason to possibly push me away. I can't.
The trees on one side of the tracks fall away to make room for a park, complete with public pool and tennis courts and a carousel. There is a serenity in this place, a calmness that I know Renee needs. The twirling menagerie sings "The Blue Danube" in a tinny orchestral voice, animals leaping and bounding in slow motion, and I stop to stare at it a moment.
"Come on." I grab Renee by the hands and guide her down the gravel slope, away from the train tracks and toward the park. "You need a carousel ride. Put a smile back on your face. Nobody can be sad on a merry-go-round."
She laughs in a way that tells me she thinks the idea ridiculous, but I don't care. Suddenly I am desperate to see her, child-like and carefree, astride some mythical creature petrified in plaster and bright-colored paint. She allows me to practically drag her to the carousel, and we pick animals relatively close to each other; she climbs onto a griffin, and I choose a rather odd-looking, polka-dotted frog.
The carousel spins around and the animals move up and down; I make a face at Renee and she laughs, tossing her wind-blown hair out of her face. For a moment she smiles sadly down at the head of the plaster griffin, then pats it and looks up at me again.
It's all right, I want to tell her, but the words won't come out; she wouldn't even hear me over the Strauss. Everything's all right. They'd be lies, anyway. These fights with her dad, the screaming and the crying, they've been going on too long and even I've stopped believing that they're going to stop. I met the man once, and only once, and it was enough to make me not want to meet him again. The way he spoke down to his daughter – Renee – made even mefeel like worthless shit. No wonder she's so sick, so tired, and too stressed out to hold down a job.
The carousel slows to a stop, and I jump off of my multi-colored frog and hold up my arms to help Renee down off of her griffin. She rests her hands on my shoulders and slides down out of the ornate plaster saddle, her hair falling over her face and brushing against my cheek. Her face is close to mine, and I hear her murmur, "I can't go back, Spencer. I can't."
Suddenly, she is in my arms and she is clinging to me, desperate, afraid. I want to say, It'll all be okay, I promise. But I can't promise that. I can't promise her anything, I can't do anything for her. I can't give her what she needs; hell, I can't even give myself what I want. I scramble for words to say, and find nothing. Even my thoughts, as candid as they are, are too cliché.
My face is next to hers, my mouth just above her ear. It would be so easy to tell her… what? Something. Anything.
"You don't have to go back," I say.
She doesn't answer. She buries her face in my shoulder and I clutch her tight against my chest. Her shoulders tremble, as if she is holding back tears, her breath snagging on anxiety and grief. She shudders with every exhalation.
"Do you want to stay at my place tonight?"
I feel her nod. "You're mom won't mind?"
Of course not, I think. Of course not. You don't even know how many times they've told me they wish I'd just tell you to stay. How many times they've told me to bring you over when things get bad for you at your house. When I pick up the phone to hear you crying so hard you can barely breathe.When those fights rip you up and almost send you driving your car into a ditch.
I say, "She won't mind."
It's begun to rain before we get back to my house, and it's getting dark. My mother tries to find something of my sister's for Renee to change into, and my dad calls me out onto the front porch. He's taken advantage of the fact that my mother is occupied elsewhere to have himself a smoke, and he watches the traffic go by like he's surveying a crop that he planted with his own hands, puffing on his White Owl cigarillo contentedly.
"This street's in the shit," he says. Just like my dad to open a serious conversation with a comment about something completely unrelated. "They're never going to fix those goddamn potholes."
I look at his face and realize in shock that his expression is drawn and distressed. He offers me a cigarillo, and I light up. My father has never actually acknowledged the fact that I smoke, but at the same time I know that he'll never say anything about it even now, either to me or to my mother. She'd kill both of us if she knew.
"Has Renee's father ever hit her?" he asks.
I stare at him, then fix my gaze on the house across the street. There is something in his voice that alarms me, and it takes me a second to figure it out what it is. There's no specific name for it, but the closest I can come to describing it is "grief."
"No," I answer him. "I've... never seen any bruises on her." I try to joke, "Besides the ones she gets here." Occasionally, when I'm too busy with my own job, Renee will come and help my dad with remodeling our house. She's collected a good number of bruises just from banging her shins against the rungs on the ladder a little too hard, or almost dropping a toolbox on her own arm.
"Spencer," my dad says, and his tone is grave. "I'm serious."
I close my eyes and think about the question. I wouldn't put it past Renee's dad, but I'm fairly sure it hasn't happened. Fairly sure. Blowing a half-assed smoke ring, I say, "She'd tell me if he had."
"Positive. We tell each other everything." Well, almost. I imagine confessing to her the poetic thoughts that came to mind every time I see the little bumps of her spine, between her shoulder blades, every time she looks over her shoulder at me and one corner of her mouth upturns in an easy-going, sardonic smile. The way that the scene won't even solidify in my imagination tells me that it would not go well at all in reality. But that's beside the point, so I let the thought go and return my attention to the cigarillo.
"I'm going to say something to you, Spencer," my dad sighs, "that I never really thought I'd ever hear myself say." He finishes his cigarillo and flicks the end of it into the street, where it is almost immediately flattened by the damp tires of a passing rusted Camaro. "I think of that girl like my daughter, Spencer," he says. "And I know you care for her a great deal. So I know you understand. It breaks my heart to see..." He trails off, unsure of how to finish. He pulls another cigarillo out of his pocket, plays with it in his fingers, but doesn't light it. "Make sure she doesn't go back there, Spence," he says after a long while. "Even if she stays here the rest of the summer. Just so long as she doesn't go back to that jackass she calls a father."
My mother calls my name from inside the house. I finish my cigarillo and nod at my dad, to show that I understand, and head inside.
There is an extra bed in my younger sister's room; for the past two years, it has been empty except for the occasional guest. Now, my mother is putting sheets and a comforter and some pillows onto it, adorning the entire thing with a lopsided stuffed rabbit holding a cheerful heart half the size of its head, not counting its disproportionately long, floppy ears.
"I'm putting Renee in here with your sister tonight, Spence," she says. "She's in the shower now, but as soon as she's out I expected she'll want to rest. She had a little bit of a breakdown after you went out to talk to your father." She meets my eyes pointedly, eyebrows raised, and I take her meaning well enough. Renee having a breakdown is like a dam finally cracking, concrete crumbling and tons of pressure exploding in a destructive force too terrible to fully comprehend.
When she emerges from the bathroom, dressed in a pair of my sister's pajamas, Renee's hair is damp and clean, her eyes are puffy from crying, and there's a listless quality to her gaze. She is exhausted, almost broken-looking. My mother shoos me out of the room for a few minutes as she tucks Renee into bed, a gesture she hasn't displayed to any of her own children for years. I stand in the hallway a moment, listening to the quiet, comforting murmur of her voice on the other side of the door, but I can't make out any actual words. If Renee is answering her, she is very quiet about it; I can't hear her at all. I go downstairs and open the fridge, staring inside a moment at nothing before shutting it again. Dad is sitting on the couch in the living room, flipping channels on the television.
"She going to bed early?" he asks, as I sit beside him.
We sit together for an hour or so, under the pretense of watching TV, but in reality we are both waiting for my mother to come down, like a messenger bearing grave news. After about twenty minutes, she pokes her head into the living room to tell me that Renee is asleep now, and if I wake her up for any reason I'll wish I'd never been born.
Another hour passes before I tire enough to go upstairs to bed myself. As I pass by my sister's room, I open the door and peek inside to check on Renee. she is curled up in the blankets of what up until tonight had been the empty bed. She clutches the ridiculous bunny rabbit in one arm, as if it's a life preserver, and though her breathing is steady and easy, the crease of her brow tells me that her sleep is not peaceful. The pajama top she wears is sleeveless, exposing her bare shoulders, and I step inside and pull the blanket up under her chin so that she won't get cold. The action is cheesy enough that my face burns in embarrassment, even though no one is watching, but it makes me feel good. Like I'm actually doing something to help her, for once.
At two in the morning, several hours later, I suddenly wake. The darkness of my room is impenetrable. I hear a soft sound, perhaps a repetition of the sound that woke me, and without seeing her, I feel Renee slip under the blankets and curl up next to me.
I try to think of something to say, and find myself mute. For a moment I want to ask what she's doing, why she is here -- but then I'm afraid that such questions would drive her away, and suddenly there is nothing I want more than for her to stay. I take a deep breath, feel a lightness in my body just at the nearness of her.
Then I realize she's crying.
Words won't come, just the same as before, on the carousel. Whether surrounded by warm sunlight or the blinding black of night-time, my search for the words to soothe any of her hurt is fruitless. She buries her face in my shoulder, and I can feel her hot tears on my neck. Instinctively, as if I have done it a thousand times before, I ease my arms around her and say nothing. The curve of body nestles perfectly against my chest, and I imagine myself like a blanket, tucking myself around and about her.
"I didn't know how to ask," she whispers. She hiccups a little, a result of crying too hard, and I smile sadly into the dark. "How to ask for help..."
"You're safe now," I answer her. "I'm right here."
Her body shudders with a few more sobs, but there is more relief in them than grief. I, too, am relieved; I've rescued her. She is safe, and she is here, with me. I breathe steadily, calmly, a rhythm for her to focus on and align herself with, and kiss her brow. Eventually, her crying ceases, and she breathes in time with me, drifting off to sleep again. Her body relaxes, slowly, the tension flowing out of with every exhalation. The soft skin of her shoulder is beneath my palm, her head nestled just beneath my collar bone. I kiss her face again, and sleep.