(A/N): I seem to be stuck on short family-centered pieces. Hm.
I was her hero from the very start, when I was twelve and she was nine, just a knobby-kneed twig of a girl with tangled hair and big brown eyes. Her ma left her on our doorstep with the same old tired excuses – she wasn't cut out to be a mother, it was all too much – and lit out for the territories. We never did see her again.
"Stevie," my mama said that night (and back then I was still little Stevie, a full six years away from my final height of six foot two), "Stevie, you look after your cousin. She's family." She stroked her hand down Janey's tangled hair and peered at me over the glow of the cigarette clamped between her lips, rheumy eyes shining in the dim light. "You mind me, now."
I minded her. For Janey I became a big brother extraordinaire, slayer of monsters real and imaginary, her white knight in dusty jeans and tattered Keds. I tended to her through the hot, dry summers and the cool, dry winters. I would've moved mountains to see her smile. And she came to love me, with the fierceness and the purity that only a kid can.
When I was sixteen and she was thirteen I ferried her everywhere on my bike, over my mama's objections and my own fool sense, just because I knew how much she loved the sound of the engine and the feel of the wind in her hair. That was the year she let me call her runt in private (but never in front of her friends) and I did all the growing up I could so that she wouldn't have to; as her body began to fill out the sticky ice cream kisses she'd press against my cheek were heartbreaking in their simplicity.
When I was nineteen and she was sixteen she came home from a date with a black eye poorly disguised with makeup. She began crying the minute I saw her, clutching onto my shirt and reciting the age-old mantra: it was her fault, he couldn't help it, he really did love her. I left her in a boneless pile on the living room floor, still begging me not to hurt him.
She didn't say anything when I got back, but she ran a cool washcloth against my skinned knuckles, and the kiss she pressed to my cheek (and when I remember it I think it must have tasted like copper, that kiss; like copper and salt and all the things I'd so foolishly hoped she'd never grow up enough to understand) made me feel like crying myself.
I last saw her two months ago, when I was twenty-five and she was twenty-two but the both of us still so old, so old. She was standing in her living room with a brown-eyed toddler on her hip, about to finalize a divorce in a no-fault state and the man who'd promised to love and honor her only worried about the alimony he'd receive. Just a knobby-kneed twig of a woman with matted hair and her big brown eyes so wide and beseeching, the only person in the world still allowed to call me Stevie.
Her little girl's name is Sarah, and she's been living with me for the past two months. She's four years old today, and has already stopped asking when her mama is going to come visit her. And in the back of my mind I am only waiting for (dreading) the day she asks with her little girl voice and too-solemn eyes if she can go riding on her uncle Stevie's motorbike.