"That wasn't me," says Luke.
Fink sighs. Somehow, I can recognize it out of all the sounds rustling to life around me. "D'you wanna get it, Vinny? Or should I?"
Vinny—of all things—starts to laugh under his breath. "It'll be less flashy if you do."
"You two are terrible roommates," Luke says. Nobody besides me or Tía seems awfully panicked about the situation.
There's a stumble and a curse. "You're welcome," says Fink.
Tía's socked foot nudges my shin. "Let's go to the kitchen," she whispers.
"Will we make it?" I whisper back.
"I know how many steps it takes," she says. "Just hold on to my sleeve."
So we get up in a tangle of limbs and blanket and shuffle across the carpet in the direction of the kitchen. Objectively, I know the place is cramped, but in the dark everything seems farther apart and more uncertain. Only Tía and I seem to know this, with our perennial fear of the dark.
"We could have used our phone flashlights," I say suddenly with a grumble. We've hit the cold linoleum under the soles of our feet.
"My battery's dead."
And I left my phone somewhere in the crack between the couch cushions where I shoved it because I was too busy being irritated with Shay. I'm not going back for it now.
We make it to the dining table and Tía feels along the round edge until she reaches one of the chairs and sinks down on it. I remain standing, one hand on the oily tabletop.
"Is there always a power outage when you're here?" I half-joke. The air feels like it needs it.
"This is only the second time that's happened."
"So Fink's some kind of electric genius, huh."
Tía says she wouldn't know. The only two times it's happened were when Fink was around, so maybe he's more bad mojo than a genius. We both have a laugh at that because it's appropriate.
"I've always wanted to ask you," she says, and pauses.
It makes my heart beat quicker. Things asked in the dark always go deeper than intended.
"That night—when I came back home...why did you keep all the lights off?"
I'm not fond of this question. "I don't remember that."
I can't see her, not yet, because my eyes are yet to have adjusted in the gloom, but against the distant sounds of Fink clattering around in another room and Luke and Vinny following after him boisterously, I can imagine Tía's face giving me a look.
"If I did do that," I concede, "it was probably because I heard somebody knocking and I had to pretend nobody was home. Just like Dad taught us."
There's a sound that stops at that. Belatedly, I realize that my sister has been scratching the surface of the table in a pattern with the edge of her thumbnail, and now the movement has stilled.
"I don't know. Maybe. I know one of those nights there was a knock and we weren't expecting anybody. But you know the place—tons of cable sales reps. It was probably that."
"Did you feel scared?"
I still don't want to admit I remember it was the same night that she came home, pale as a nightmare and telling me our parents were dead, that the knock came on the door. But I have to dispel Tía's notion.
"Jesus, I was fourteen," I say. "Of course I wasn't scared."
She makes a noise at that. Something in my voice seems to have convinced her I mean exactly the opposite.
With realization, I clear my throat and whisper, "Well. Doesn't matter. I'm sorry if that made you scared of the dark. Y'know...after."
Tía's a hypocrite, though, just like me. "I'm not scared," she says sharply. She softens her edge a beat later. "It's just pointless. You can't do anything in the dark. And so many things depend on electricity—like—people's lives, even, which is why they have humongous generators at the hospital." She sniffs. "Never happens there."
"Right," I say, to mollify her, though for what, I don't know.
"I wonder what's taking them so long," she mutters.
"Why did you ask if I was scared?"
A lump shoves itself into my throat. "Don't play dumb."
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should have told the truth and said yes, yes I was scared shitless when the knock came. I thought I was done for. I'd heard many sales reps calling at the door but this one—this one felt different. I had never been able to feel the presence of someone behind the door before.
"Sorry," I say for the second time that evening. "I'm just being dumb."
She mutters something that sounds a lot like nothing new there, in that horridly fond way of hers that sounds pretty damn annoyed to anyone who doesn't know the both of us. If there were actual light in here and she could see where my head was, she'd have cuffed me on the ear in no time.
Suddenly I snort. "Yo. Hey. Hey, hey. Remember when we were in Sunday school and I thought it was Shamrock, Mizrahi, and Oregano who were tossed in the furnace?"
She's already laughing like a pin being pushed into a balloon before I've finished speaking. There's a spark and a fizz, and the living room behind us comes back to life bathed in marigold light. It hurts a little, but I don't say this. At least Tía is smiling.
I want to ask her about the things I've observed. About how I was watching her just before the power went out and the TV died, and I saw her gripping her bowl with white knuckles with her eyes hard and wide at the sight of the girl on the screen who was murdered. I want to ask her if it's okay to assume she was scared by what she saw because of something else that happened to her, that happened to us, and to us only, and not because she's a girl too and she lives under that other shadow of anxiety every day she goes out alone.
She seems to sense the current of my thoughts, in part. "I'm okay," she says. She grabs the cuff of my sleeve and yanks me down onto the weirdly modern chair across from hers. "I promise."
And that makes me wonder, too, how she and I can talk as candidly as two biddies knitting on a porch when I ask her about the joint in Luke's pocket or she tells me about the first time they got it on, but blackouts and door knocks stop our throats up about the other things that really matter.
The first thing that I notice and that annoys me out of my mind when I walk into class two days later is that Fink, of all people, is seated in the back row of my classroom.
And yet my feet find their way toward him.
"What are you doing here?" I hiss at him.
"I'm going to college, just like I told Vinny while I was stripping and he was getting depressed over his third shot of vodka," says Fink, like this is the most expected meeting on earth and I'm the fool who's not getting with the program.
"I'm not—I'm not talking about what college you're going to. I'm talking about what you're doing here here."
He blinks. "Stalking you."
I let my backpack down by my seat with a spectacular thud. I don't know why I've decided to sit right in front of him.
"Stalking me," I repeat.
"Yup. I charmed my way through the Spanish advising, of course. It wasn't too hard. And then I had to get Vinny to use his hacker skills to get the answers to the placement test, which, honestly, multiple choice? Not that hard to sneak through. And so, voilà."
"You're pulling my fucking leg."
Fink blinks back. And then his lips pull up in that lazy smile of his. I'm starting to learn when he's spinning his tall tales. For a moment I am overcome with the intense and ridiculous desire to come to know all his tics.
"Así se puede decirlo," he says with all innocence.
A baritone voice behind me tells us to carry on socializing but to please do so in Spanish like the syllabus says, or would say if Tom had prepared it in time for the first day of classes, for once.
Tom speaks Spanish with the pained accent of someone who's spent the better part of his dissertation years in Cuba and needs everyone to know it. He comes up to his double l's like a doorstop, deliberate but jarring, like falling down the stairs on purpose. Tía and I never learned to speak Spanish that way, having inherited our parents' Jalisco accent. Tía always teases me and says I sound like I'm trying to keep a bunch of corn kernels from falling from my mouth when I try to talk like Mom.
Tom does speak Spanish well, all things considered. One has to, after dedicating their entire life to studying it.
He's no John Keating when it comes to teaching, though. He spends the first eight minutes of every class scribbling out his lesson plan on the board and then drawing arrows to switch around the order and then erasing everything and starting over again. And he never seems to grade people's assignments at the same time, always handing them back to students in piecemeal. I know this because of that day two years ago when I was lost and small, and Tía was in class and I couldn't bother her, so I emailed Tom and he replied within two minutes telling me to meet him in O'Malley 241 and I could keep him company while he taught class. That first day turned into a second day and a third day of auditing his course from the back of the room and scribbling notes in my Avengers-themed notebook.
Despite his organizational foibles, Tom's got one heck of a personality as a speaker, almost entirely worth taking a class on Afro-Caribbean poetry with him for. Once he had to climb up on the desk to fix the projector which never ended up getting fixed, and for the next two weeks even after I stopped dropping by, he taught by sitting in a lotus on that desk and holding up giant print-outs of his PowerPoint slides.
While Tom goes about his ritual on the chalkboard, I switch to Spanish to ask Fink, "So you're into poetry?"
"Not particularly," he replies in English in a murmur. "I wasn't exaggerating the stalking part all that much." His rings tap on the edge of his desk. "Shay told me you were taking her dad's class. I needed an elective. And a tutor, probably."
The mere mention of Shay has instantly soured my mood. Sometimes I can't believe there was a time I looked forward to her texts without my heart drumming with misgiving.
So he knows Shay. I repeat the thought to Fink, pointedly in Spanish.
He says, "Oh, yeah. We used to go to the same all-girls school back in middle school. Before—y'know."
Maybe it's the richly incongruous image of Fink in a plaid skirt that makes me forgive him on the spot. I don't give him much grief after that, though it still rubs me the wrong way that everyone seems to know everybody before I do and there's a wealth of years of conversations between them that I never had.
Tom finally gets around to noticing the class. "I see I already know at least two of you," is what he says first, glancing at me and Fink in the corner. "Which still gives me hope for the other fourteen of you."
Then he goes about roll call, forgetting to check off the faces on his sheet of paper and having to pause and go back and retrace his steps once he's remembered to retrieve his pen. He reverts to last names when he gets to Fink.
"Finkel?" he says.
"Adam, sí," says Fink. He doesn't bat an eye.
"Adam," Tom confirms with a nod, and makes note of that in the margins.
"People always forget my first name," Fink whispers conspiratorially to me.
"Me pregunto por qué," I say dryly.
His deadname must still be listed on school records, then. Tom is a damn decent human being for using Fink's last name instead, when he couldn't remember his chosen name. I wonder to myself if I should give his daughter another chance. Shay was more than decent to me, too, when we were still vibing.
Fink seems to pick up on the former part of my train of thought. "Turned eighteen last year," he mutters. "I filed after, like, a millennium of going back and forth on the name. I'm hearing back from the courts in a month or two."
"Adam?" says Tom. "Español, por favor. Por lo menos tu tocayo sabía el significado de la autoridad, no?"
Fink answers that no, clearly his biblical namesake respected no authority whatsoever, or we wouldn't be in this world of sinful classist bullshit. It's just teasing enough to make Tom laugh. In that moment, Fink has my entire respect for his seamless conjugation of the subjunctive just to deliver a joke. I also foresee fighting with him at least eleven times before we get to kissing.
"You should give me your WhatsApp," Fink says at the end of the class.
I ask him whatever for.
"Tutoring," he says, and this time I know for sure he's pulling my leg.
"I don't have a WhatsApp," I say.
"And I don't really need a tutor."
"We already knew you're a filthy liar."
"See, if you gave me your WhatsApp, we could continue this roast outside class."
I offer, as a compromise, my Instagram handle. As he types it in, I say, "I like apps where I don't go there specifically to talk to people. It's easier on the social anxiety."
Fink's expression is carefully neutral. "That's smart."
"I'll send memes first," says Fink. "And you can always leave me on read. Just don't—well, try not to leave me unread." He grins, and my lungs stretch and press against my chest. Cocky bastard.
"I doubt that'll happen," I say. And smile a little bit and add, "Often."
My phone pings then with a notification for what is clearly a WhatsApp text. My eyes wind upward and find Fink's, and he's biting the tip of the black polish on his thumbnail with a particularly devilish spark in his eyes.
"Bye, Fink," I say with as much boredom injected into my voice as possible. I almost remind him not to bite around his band-aid unless he wants an impressive infection, but I decide that would make me look a little too invested.
The text was from Shay, and she was inviting me to join her for lunch at Subway out of the blue. Considering that she left my rather meaningful apology on read, I'm inclined to give her a dose of the silence she has been subjecting me to for months. But I recall my resolve from class earlier and decide I could be charitable one more day to Shay for her father's sake. The younger part of me also whispers that maybe her response to my text could only be conveyed in person.
"You're vegetarian," I say when I sidle up to her in line and catch her in the middle of asking the guy behind the counter to hold the chicken.
"Have been for about eight months," she says. She turns around in the line with her arms open, and I don't want to reciprocate because the gesture means too much, but I can't help it. We share the most awkward hug in the middle of the shop and I spend the whole four seconds noticing that she's a little taller and she's changed her scent. Her new hair done up in a black and baby blue split dye and her silver contacts are no surprise, since she's always changed her hair and eyes about every other blink of an eye.
"Tell me about Dad's class," Shay says, while she pays for her food.
I don't want to talk about Tom's class. I want to talk about how our last conversation before this week was when I told her I kind of wanted to Spider-Man it off the balcony and she left me on read, making me feel an absolute fool for ever telling her anything.
Still, I oblige her and tell her all about the thrills of syllabus day. Fink inevitably slips into the conversation.
"He says you know each other," I say.
Shay nods around her cucumber. "Seventh and eighth grade."
"I don't remember you talking about him."
She gives me a meaningful look. "I did. A couple of times."
"Oh," I say suddenly. "Oh, I see."
"Uh-huh. He's the one in that one photo on Facebook with the pens up his nose. He's in the background."
I know that picture. Now I realize that Fink has always been a gangly thing, but back then he was softer-jawed and had a yellow cap on over his braids. Shay and five other girls were in the foreground of that photo that must have been taken in an unlit bedroom at a party, considering the abundance of flash and unretouched redeye.
"We actually haven't talked in ages," she says. "Just recently got back in touch. Really recently. I wasn't even talking to him...last year."
I think she's lying, but I bite my tongue on my bitter lack of proof.
"We don't have to talk about Fink," I say.
She nudges me with her stone gray nails. "You definitely want to talk about Fink."
I'm not here to play this kind of game with her. Not yet. "No. I definitely don't. I want to talk about how you are."
"I'm fine. Nothing's changed," she says. Her voice hitches. Pickle juice sprays from her sandwich and she picks the bits out from between her front teeth. "We need to talk about how you are."
"You know how I am. You know how I've always been." I am vengeful, and it gives me no small delight to see the color rise in her face. "Kinda the whole reason we don't talk anymore, Shay."
She twists a ring on her finger. "I was a dick."
"Yeah," I say.
If she has an explanation for this, any half-baked excuse for leaving me high and dry when she knew she was the only one I confided in about trying to jump off a roof, now is the time to hear it.
"I was going through some stuff," she says. Very small.
"Would've been nice if we could have both gone through it together."
"I would have been there for you."
I mean it to sound plaintive and honest, but we don't know how to read each other right anymore, and Shay's face morphs into something that tells me she thinks I want her to feel shame.
"I know," she says.
I try to make it better. "I'm here for you now, too."
She opens her mouth to speak. She fails for several moments.
"No matter what it is," I say.
"You don't have to tell me now, but whatever's been percolating inside you has been going at it for the better part of a year. Older than Tía's sourdough. Maybe it'll do more good to let it out."
She looks vaguely offended. "How do you know I haven't been letting it out? I could be talking to someone."
I give her a look.
"I have friends," she protests.
"You mean friends other than your well-meaning but emotionally constipated dad?"
"It's all the poetry," she says defensively. "He doesn't know how to hold a conversation if it's not in verse."
We both have a snicker at that. It's true.
"I was in the hospital," says Shay in the middle of a smile, and that wipes the mirth clean off my face.
"Yeah," she says, somehow still showing her teeth but in a way that's stained with bitterness now. "I...I wasn't eating."
It's more a reflex than anything else, but my gaze dips down to the half-eaten sub torn apart on her tray, and I don't miss the way her face pinches and her fist clenches on the table when she catches me doing it.
"I'm managing now. Obviously it sucked when I...wasn't."
I didn't mean to look at the food. Or even look at her that way. The past year's hurts on her account have faded swiftly to give way to shame, because the day she met Tía she barely batted an eye at the mark on her face. The day Shay showed up at the apartment in a panic half an hour before school because her new secret septum piercing was swelling up like mad, I didn't stop to question anything, I just shoved little sandwich bags of ice cubes into her hands and blasted Queen from the balcony to hype her up.
I guess it's hard not to look at her now, though—to look at every corner of her. I've always known she takes the harsher edges of her and buries them behind layers that can be peeled, like her seven necklaces of paperclips and locks, or her five-inch Jeffrey Campbells and maroon dreads and ice blue contacts and plaid jeans that look like last decade's haul. But she's lost the tacky bits that somehow used to make it easier to look at her and see a regular girl going through some pain. Somehow, she's quieter and firmer in many things more than her style choices, and that just makes her seem like she's grown with the hurt like a tattoo on her throat, and the thought of her in the hospital hits me this time like it's real.
"Say something," she says with a slip of a laugh. Not completely at ease.
She misunderstands me. "Yeah, it's mega dumb."
"You're being mega dumb. That's not what I meant. Life is dumb."
"It sort of is," she says, and doesn't need to say any more.
Her parents flit across my mind. As do mine.
"Tell me what I can do," I choke out.
Shay says it's fine, really, but my jab at her earlier about friends wasn't far off the mark and I know she doesn't have that many people in her corner, if at all, whom she could just come up to and tell about her stint in the hospital. She hasn't even told me why, and I daren't ask out of turn, because Shay is the type of person to share things only if she wants to share them.
"I said I'd be here for you," I remind her.
"I guess there's two things you can do."
I know her. The first thing she asks will be the thing she really wants, and the second will be something completely different to cushion it in case the honesty hurts.
"Just kind of check up on me around lunchtime? Since that's when I get busy and stressed out most of the time and...forget to get something to eat. And also come over after class today and help me finish the mural in the garden."
"I did not know you have a garden. Are you—are you saying you and Tom have become plant moms? Also—a mural? I have so many questions and we're gonna need way more than one lunch date to cover it all."
The little huff precedes the blinding flash of white teeth from her. In just a handful of sentences, I've let her know in my eternally indirect and dysfunctional sort of way that there's no way I'm leaving her side now.
"I swear to God, the last time we talked you were just painting over the boobs on the Starbucks napkins."
"Somebody had to take on that burden," she says. "And. Yeah. Painting is—I really got into a bunch of things while I was at the hospital. Seeing as I was, y'know, extremely busy and not at all alone with my thoughts."
I bite down on the reminder that I was always around to hear her thoughts, and that she was the one who shut me out, because it is what it is and saying things like that are no longer helpful. So I laugh a bit instead. Pain tasting like year-old Skittles between my teeth, resembling the uneasy grin she first gave me when she broke the news to me of her hospital stay.
"I'm glad you were being productive."
"Cathartic is more like it, but sure, whatever you want."
"I bet you're gonna be the next Banksy."
"Chill. You haven't even seen my mural outline yet."
"There's absolutely no way it's worse than Leo the Pony."
Shay is overtaken by a snort of surprise at the reference to my very first drawing from when we were nine. "Setting the bar low, I see."
I cup my cheek in my hand with a cheeky squint. "I never aim to disappoint."
"Do you want these bits of tomato?" She pushes the tray across the table. At my look, she raises her hands in front of her. "This ain't funny business, I swear. I'm just full and I'm really not enthusiastic about those tomatoes."
I decide to accept that at face value. If I'm going to trust her that she wants this to work again, I have to trust her all the way. I crunch down on the tomato obligingly. "Sure, vegetarian."
She laces her fingers together in her lap. "I'm serious, Oli."
"So am I."
That startles her a bit. "Well. If I need help, you'll know. You'll—be the first to know."
I can't speak, so instead I crease my face with a smile. The expression holds itself for a moment, and then I crack and pass a napkin over my mouth so it doesn't sound too loud or unsteady when I whisper, "Thanks."
"Don't," says Shay. "I should be."
That shouldn't make sense, but it's the two of us.
The last time I was at the Marcuses' house must have been two years ago. Sure, I was meeting up all the time with Tom, but our typical rendezvous consisted of a weekly nerve-wracked pop-in at his office when I was trying desperately to get out of Tía's hair. Sometimes the occasional cup of coffee or two at the college dining hall, which felt highly illegal to my sixteen-year-old self that didn't know what was allowed or wasn't allowed anymore.
At first it feels that nothing has changed much when Shay and I roll up on our Huffys to the whitewashed stone wall of her yard. But then as she jiggles the lock on the side gate, I notice first the fresh paint of black on the iron bars, and then the newly planted row of apple saplings just beyond the old curtain of foliage in our faces. The front door and garage door have also changed from their signature faded red to a wine purple that instantly begins to grow on me.
"The mural's out back," Shay says, beckoning me with her head.
There are parts of the garden that I remember used to be dead—skeletal remains of empty plot boxes, ever since Shay's mom left and took her green thumb with her—but suddenly there's far more vegetation than ever before. Bougainvilleas, hydrangeas, gardenias, all the Southern species whose names I memorized from Tía's and my days of nerding over the shiny pocket-sized National Geographic nature guides. Fresh vines wind their way up the east turret that I know is still Shay's bedroom. On the ledge of her windowsill are potted plants, leafy kinds I can't even identify, bursting and spilling over the edges.
I'm so caught up in the wonder of this raw display of life where I always remembered the scent of abandonment, that I don't realize we have circled nearly the entire property and arrived at the blank brick wall in the back.
"Your dad knows about this?" I breathe out, quite dumbly, as I crane my neck up at the chalk outline unfurling over the surface. I think I can discern the shape of part of a dragon stretching out from the ceiling toward the ground.
"It was his idea," Shay says, just as quiet at my side. She's closer to me than I initially realized. "I ran the color scheme by him, but he really doesn't care about it matching anything. He just thought—well, I told him about this art exhibit I wanted to get involved in. It's something international and most of it runs over Instagram, so obviously you need your own space that's permanent and that's yours to display your…" She gestures roundly about her, the cuffs of her oversized black sweatshirt flopping over her hands. "Your thing."
I'm quiet with revelation at that. I still remember clearly when neither Shay nor Tom were talking to each other. That's always been something the Marcuses have an extraordinary talent for: talking to everyone but each other, about anything except themselves.
"He said it was kind of a late birthday present thing, but I guess he was really just happy to see me actually doing something when I got out of the hospital."
I would bet on that, too. I watch as Shay unhooks her backpack and slides it from her shoulders to the patch of overgrown concrete we're standing on. From the inner pockets she draws a plastic bag that rattles with the tell-tale sign of spray paint cans. Sure enough, she steps over to one of the algae-green stone benches to the side of this forgotten sitting area and reaches underneath to pull out a small crate of more spray paint.
"I'm more a pen-and-paper kind of guy," I warn her.
She tosses me a teal and a metallic purple in reply. "Then you're lucky you're kind of my only friend, because it would be stupid of me to yell at the only person I know who's tall enough to reach the top bit."
I have to give a cocky eye-roll at that. Still, I let her take the lead and start out filling in the belly of the dragon with one of her lighter shades of lime green. I push the sleeves of my denim jacket up over my elbows and soon follow suit, shading in the dragon's toes with teal and outlining the darker scales with small squirts of the purple.
We work in silence like that for a long time. Questions roll around in my head—why a dragon? Does she have other art she could show me? What was it like in the hospital? Did she think of—well. I halt my thoughts from hurtling any further. For once we've coasted to a point where the quiet is starting to thaw and feel comfortable around us again, so I wait for her to be the one to break the moment.
And she does, eventually. "How's Tía?"
"Tired," I say immediately. "Good. But tired. She just started at Mercy." I go on retelling to her some of Tía's favorite stories from the pediatric unit, with a few embellishments here and there. I decide to keep for another time the more sober stories, like the nights she would tiptoe into the apartment thinking I was asleep and couldn't hear the clink of her keys on the counter or the sound of her crying softly over a glass of mango juice because of the things that happen at work. I suspect sometimes it's not a death, but the smiling families passing through the pediatric unit on their way to neonatal that really get to her on those nights.
Shay smiles to herself, small and private, without looking up at me, as if she's proud of my sister but doesn't think it appropriate to throw the comment out there just yet. She arches a spray of gold over the belly scales while she chews over her next words. "And...you? How are you?"
The same question from lunch today. I know it, and so does she. What remains to be seen is if I will extend more grace to her this time around.
Apparently the smell of birds on the wind and the bend and creak of trees around me have a favorable effect. I spray a last toenail and then lower my arm, flexing my wrist.
"I've been worse," I say. "And I've been better."
Shay makes a noise of understanding. Of all people, she should relate to that sentiment. Intimately.
I open and close my mouth a couple of times. I want to tell her about how useless I feel around the apartment, how I cook and clean and obsess over every mote of dust because it's the least I can do for my sister who's given her entire life for me. How it took me months to outgrow the habit of locking and relocking all the bolts on the front door and sitting curled up with my back against it and my bare calves pressed against the linoleum. How I learned to pretend I was asleep on the couch whenever she came home, so she wouldn't feel the burden of my sleepless guilt or taste how much I regretted not being there with her to see the bodies of our parents in the ambulance. I wonder how I can talk about having nightmares about the very bodies I never saw—how sometimes I would wake with vengefulness dry and heavy in my mouth, because Tía got to say goodbye in a moment of realness, in the horror of it all, not surrounded by black crepe and umbrellas and artificial eulogies at the funeral like me.
There was a time I could sit on a fire escape with Shay with a bag of Twizzlers resting between our thighs and let my thoughts roll like this. But that was before I became truly acquainted with the darkness of my mind. Before that text to her that seemed to end everything. It's easier to be invisible, or to be that one kid who draws comics and has the emotional intelligence of a sponge. That way, you don't let people see the parts of you that you could regret.
But if I've changed, so has Shay. She sets down her can and turns to me. I set mine down too and sit down hard on the concrete, cross-legged with my arms on my knees.
"You're doing your best," she says.
"I don't really know what that is," I say.
"That's really not as strange as you think."
I swallow. "Well, the last time I felt as bad as...that time I sent you that message...was a really long time ago. So I guess there's that."
She crouches down on the balls of her feet and lays a hand on my elbow. She says she's glad.
"Did you know there was a time I thought it was gonna be you and me?" I burst out. I don't know why I say it. Only that I need to change the subject, and this thought has been niggling at the back of my brain since I saw her from a distance in Subway, and somehow it's all tangentially related.
"It is gonna be you and me. From now on."
"No. I mean—you and me, as in, remember when your mom looked at my mom that time we went to the Halloween thing at school? And they were taking pictures and totally thought we couldn't see them?"
Shay mulls that over, probably getting caught up in a silent snicker at the remembrance of our costumes. And then realization dawns, and she says, "Oh," while the pressure of her hand on my elbow tightens infinitesimally.
"I mean—that's—okay, I can see that. But you know I'm not—"
"And. I don't. Like boys that way..."
"Honestly, same. It's just a funny thing I remembered."
A little laugh leaves her in a puff.
"I think I didn't even understand the whole romance part of it," I explain. That just makes her laugh a little harder, soft and breathless.
"We do make a pretty good old married couple on our good days," she concedes. She clicks the tips of her nails together. "I'll be out in the country in Ireland or something with my wife and then she'll wake up and you'll be there peeling potatoes in the kitchen and I'll go, oh, yeah, that's my sort-of boyfriend except we only got drunk married in Vegas."
I serve her a look, playfully offended. "Why am I the one peeling the potatoes in your domestic fantasy?"
"You're my industrial partner. Every famous artist needs one."
"Excuse me, I write poetry."
"Does Fink write poetry too?"
The change in topic gives me whiplash. "Um," I say. "What."
I don't trust the twinkle in her eye. "I said what I said," she says, the picture of innocence.
"Fink is annoying," I say, kicking my can with the toe of my sneaker. "He's smug and he has this weird accent in Spanish and he licks his fingers in front of people and—and—he's irritating."
"Hey, Oli? Come here."
I turn to her in confusion. She grabs my chin between her fingers and with her other hand sprays me with gold dead center on my cheek.
Shay just giggles and stumbles to her feet to elude me when I swing wildly in her direction to wrestle the paint can from her hand. I manage to capture her from behind and swing her around by the waist. She shrieks a little and drops the paint can, her legs flopping in the air.
"I'm confiscating your supplies," I intone in her ear.
"Stop. Literally, put me down right now."
"Never. Sorry I had a growth spurt and you didn't."
"Oliver, I'm serious!"
"I thought you were a lesbian."
"And you're a dad." Shay finally wriggles free and swats me on the chest. "Oh, look, you got a little something there on your shirt."
I glance down without thinking, and like an absolute child, she guffaws and flicks me on the nose.
I forgot how good this felt. Being open with people is pretty rotten business, and I haven't even done a half-decent job at it with Shay today, considering how much I've still withheld from her—but at least the gesture is mutual. Someday we'll get to the nitty-gritty confessions on a Tuesday night over sugary coffee and calculus problem sets. For now, I can marvel privately at how well we click back into place after a year of hurt. Perhaps not all new doors have to be feared.
By the time we finish the base layers of the dragon, I'm nearly late for my dinner date with Tía. Normally she comes home and I have some steaming takeout waiting for her on the table as our end-of-the week luxury, but this time we agreed to meet up at the Thai place a couple blocks from the hospital. I speed away from the Marcuses' place with a used pack of markers from Shay in the pocket of my backpack and a silly little uncontainable grin on my face, despite the wind kicking up a rattle of dry leaves in my face as I pedal.
Tía's face is getting more haggard by the day. It's the first thought that comes to me when I stumble through the tinkle of the door, and she lifts her head from staring into nothing and I'm struck by the darkness under her eyes. Her cheeks hold a paradox of a flush, as if she's just jogged several blocks and managed to catch her breath before I came in.
"No coffee for you tonight," I joke as I settle loudly into the chair opposite her.
"No problem. I've already had my three for the day."
I squawk at her in protest. "Tía. No."
"I swear I'm kicking the habit. Just as soon as I get to the part in my job where we actually save up enough to have a car and not, like, a tin can on wheels, and I can relax a bit."
"You really should let me take that offer from the blogger guy," I say with a frown.
Tía's shoulders collapse from across the table in that age-old exasperation. It's familiar and worn at the edges, almost comforting, how we rib each other and argue about who's old enough or has a gigantic enough guilt complex to earn the dough in our household. But something about the air about her tonight feels like she's stretched too thin over her bones to take much more of this dynamic.
"Oli," she says softly.
I decide to concede the point to her tonight. "Right. Sorry."
We browse the menus then in silence, even though we both know we'll end up taking our usual orders from when we were kids. Slowly Tía thaws back up to me with a half-finished story here and there about the kid in the unit who's obsessed with drawing avocados in the sky.
The next half hour passes in the fatigued sounds of munching. My sister lost in her head, where I have a feeling she goes somewhere faster and farther than I can follow, and me wrapped up in the sudden epiphany of instability that overcomes me from the reopening of my relationship with Shay.
As she pulls out her wallet to foot the bill, I cross my arms on the table and clear my throat. "I'm genuinely worried about how much you're working."
Her eyes flick up toward mine with hardness in them. If I were anyone else, or if I were any younger, I might have flinched.
I hold up a hand to stave off her protests. "I'm not saying you should. I just think—whatever's going on at work, it's really stressing you out. And I can't not worry." I bite my lip. "It's kind of my job."
"Your job," she says as she zips her wallet, "is to study hard and be a teenager. Which, apparently, you've already failed at, because you'll be sprouting gray hairs by tomorrow at this rate."
I toss her a dry look.
Her face creases despite herself. "Look, it's not really work that's got me all twisted up like this."
I hold my tongue, hold my breath. Getting her to admit her weariness is a first. But when nothing follows on the heels of her thought for several seconds, I venture: "So what is it?"
"Just…" I can hear her hands twisting in her lap underneath the table.
I want to reach over and shake her, remind her that it's me, and she can always tell me anything. Of course we're both great pretenders at being all right. Perhaps I'm to blame for starting that trend between us. It certainly does nothing to diminish the ache inside me to take up the nameless burden that haunts her.
"Forget it," she says.
That alarms me. "I can't. Shit, now you've got me extra worried."
"Well, don't be."
"I'm not fourteen anymore."
"And I'm not eighteen anymore," she says without missing a beat. Her eyes bore into mine. "We're both older, but I'll always be the big sister. So let me worry about my own worries, okay?"
That stings in spite of every gentle measure she's taken to cushion her statement. I know she means the best for us, and Tía may be skilled at juggling many hats, but assuaging my anxiety about her health has never been one of them.
"Maybe it doesn't have to be a worry. Maybe it doesn't have to be so heavy, if you just let me share it with you."
"You can't," she bites out. "This isn't something that can be shared."
"So I guess I'll just wait around for the phone call when they find you passed out in a ditch somewhere and they need to get you to an ambulance."
"Oli," she says sharply. Demanding that I look at her. But I don't. I turn my head away and count the filthy cracks in the tile grout on the wall instead.
"C'mon, he's coming over with our change now. We gotta get home before it gets too dark," I say briskly.
Her gaze is still trained on me. I can feel it as I thrust my arms back into the sleeves of my denim jacket and houst my backpack onto my shoulder, and push back the chair with a grate to stand up and stalk out of the place.
A part of me expects her to call after me. Perhaps that's the part of me that expects too much of her, when I've known all along that we are one and the same. And so when I hear her footsteps slap on the pavement after mine, hurrying to catch up, but she doesn't say a word, I find that deep down I am not surprised.
We walk two blocks in silence before I look back at her. There she is in the multicolored downtown night lights, her birthmark splotchy and dark against the striking paleness of her face. That gives me pause, and I falter in my steps to wait for her to catch up. She catches my eye and opens her mouth to speak. But I never get to hear what olive branch she meant to extend to me, because then everything happens all at once.
A spike of heat and ice shoots up my spine. From the corner of my left eye a shadow moves from the alley we're passing by. It's massive and unassuming at the same time, and it darts out onto the wet pavement with a silence that rocks my ears. Smoke slithers into my lungs. Something thunders between the corners of my skull, hotly, madly, and even as I open my mouth to scream Tía's name, a fist of numbness punches me in the chest and seizes me by the throat.
She's the first one to scream. The man's arm comes up and I register a flash of white or silver in his hand. That drives a guttural cry from deep within my gut, and I throw my hands out, breathless, gasping at my sister to run. Something tugs at my spinal column again with that arrow of fire and ice, and everything inside me seems to come apart to its atoms and rearrange itself in a whirlwind.
There's a rattle from somewhere down the alley. A groan, a crash, and then out of nowhere a mass of metal comes hurtling in our direction and flies straight into our attacker's temple. It connects with his skull with a crunch.
I don't register the clang of the trash can on the pavement. I sense Tía's presence shaking at my side, but every limb in me is frozen, rooted to the spot. I'm deaf and the world is ringing around me.
"We need to call the police," I feel the shape of my lips say.
Her hand latches onto my bicep and digs its fingernails into me. "No. No. We have to go home, right now."