She stepped out of the cab in her high laced black boots and tossed the driver two crumpled twenties. “You sure this is where you want off?” he questioned. She kicked at the dirt road, sending a flurry of dust into the air. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.” The driver stared at her. He was old. Kind-looking. If she asked, he’d drive her right back to the bus station. She nodded, gave the driver a half wave. She’d come too far to turn back now.
She watched the cab drive away until it was shrouded by a cloud of dirt, then pulled her green duffel bag up on her shoulder. The Eastern Meadowlarks’ song was just as she remembered. She turned to the trail then chuckled sadly as she passed the proud ‘Rails to Trails’ sign. This crushed gravel was not what she’d expected. It seemed fitting that the road home, the tracks she’d balanced on time and time again as a young girl, would be covered over and pressed down with rocks or torn out all together. She took a deep breath and stepped onto the trail. No matter. It was still the way home.
Brooke woke up smiling. It was her twelfth birthday and for the first time in years she was excited for the celebration. Her father was gone and Riv had been hinting for days that he had something special planned. She stretched in the sheets, feeling that wonderful mix of warm bed and cool air flow over her. She reached over to pull her blind. Sunlight flooded across the room, making the dust dance. The door creaked open. Brooke turned her head to see Riv’s smiling face popping around the corner.
“You still sleeping? Get up!”
“I will, I will.” Brooke stretched again and pushed herself up. “So now will you tell me what we’re doing?”
Riv grinned. “Nope. Just get dressed.”
Brooke stepped out of the shower to the scent of bacon wafting up the stairs. Riv’s Omelet Supreme. Her brother made the best omelets ever.
“These are so good.” Brooke spoke through a mouth full of food, a dribble of syrup running down her chin.
Riv leaned back with his feet up on the table rung and gave his lop-sided smile. “Geez. Eat much, Brookey Baby?”
Brooke took a big swallow. “They’re just so good!” Riv leaned forward and took a big bite himself. She liked seeing him across from her, more like the brother she remembered. In the past few years his clothing had changed. Torn denim and chains. He listened to punk music, hung out with punk kids, copying their sleeveless shirts and piercings. He worked out for hours. She didn’t care, except that during the few hours he was home he treated his headphones like they were as important as oxygen. Even when he ‘pumped iron,’ as he called it, the headphones were on. If she tried to talk to him he’d pull one side of the headphones away, say, ‘huh?’ and then half listen. She missed the days before his Discman. Today though, his ears were free. Just having him across from her, focused on her and not some band, would have been gift enough.
Riv straightened his beautiful curls every several days, wearing them long and slick, almost covering one eye. Secretly, Brooke thought it was his way of looking more like the other kids, though she’d never say this. It’d make him all pissy and defensive. Brooke was slightly darker than anyone else in town, besides their mother, and Riv was darker still. When he was younger the kids called him Blackie or Brillo head. The only kids who looked like them lived a few towns over. In Rhett’s Bend, they stood out. Finishing his last bite, Riv flexed his arms, making little bulges appear under his tight blue t-shirt with some rocker logo. “Will you tell me now?” Brooke pleaded.
“No.” Riv stood up. “Finish eating and we’ll go.”
Minutes later, Riv threw a backpack over his shoulder and handed one to Brooke. “Put on good shoes, hiking shoes.”
“Alright.” Brooke followed her brother out the door, up the drive, through the field, and onto the train tracks. As soon as they hit the town and left the tracks to head up Main Street, Riv’s walk slowed almost to a saunter. He wore a tough, uninterested expression on his face that always made Brooke feel as if she were looking at a mask of her brother, not the real him.
Only once they reached the woods on the other side of town did Riv hurry his pace and smile back at her, the mask having vanished. “Hustle a bit, would you?”
“I’m hustling!” She laughed, struggling to keep up with him. “Tell me where we’re going.”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
Brooke sighed and sped up her pace to match Riv’s. Though three years younger, she was almost as tall as him so it wasn’t hard. She tried to think of the last day she’d spent with Riv. She couldn’t remember. When they were young, they’d spent hours together. At night, her mother would snuggle her and Riv up under the comforter and read them stories. Little House on the Prairie, The Secret Garden, a big book of Fairy Stories—Brooke’s favourites were the ones with Princesses and Knights. Some nights—when Brooke was really young, before kindergarten—her dad would sit in Mom’s rocker and listen too. After, he’d carry Riv and Brooke back to their own rooms, one of them slung under each of his arms, ‘like a sack of potatoes,’ he’d say with a wink. Other times he’d start snoring and Riv, Brooke, and her mother would all laugh softly, enjoying the joke.
For the past few years now, Riv usually wasn’t even home when Brooke went to bed. She didn’t worry about it so much when their father was home. She knew Riv stayed away from Jack the way a cat avoids water, but the other nights…what kept him away? As she walked, Brooke tried to hold onto the memory of what it was like to be a happy family that curled up together under warm blankets. She couldn’t even remember the last time her mother had put her to bed, tucking her in tightly, kissing her forehead, or when her father had made her feel safe.
When they reached a clearing, Riv stopped. A guy Brooke recognized from the high school was leaning against a stump beside a lake, smoking a joint. “Bout time,” he drawled.
“Yeah, sorry Tommy.” Riv smiled and gave the guy a quick handshake. “Girls, you know. Hard to get them moving.”
“Of course.” Tommy chuckled. Brooke felt his gaze on her, a sensation she’d become familiar with in recent months. The boys in her class seemed almost scared of her, the older boys, boys like Tommy, looked at her like they were seeing her for the first time. “She’s your sister, right?”
“Yeah, she’s my sister.” A rowboat and fishing poles leaned against a tree a little ways up the trail. Brooke grinned, realizing the surprise.
Riv yanked the boat over to the shore. Tommy kept his gaze on Brooke. His sly smile made her edgy. “Hey,” he called to Riv, “aren’t you going to introduce me?”
“Yeah” Riv gritted his teeth and made his way back over. “Brooke, this is Tommy. Tommy, Brooke. She’s turning twelve today.”
“Twelve!” Tommy laughed. “Wow. You better keep an eye on this one!”
“Oh, I will.” Riv turned to her. “Come on, Brooke.”
“Fishing,” Brooke said once Tommy had walked out of earshot. Happiness flooded her. “That was the big secret?”
Riv grinned. “That was the big secret. Do you like it?”
“Yes! We haven’t gone fishing in like, two years or something.”
“And have you been on this lake before?”
Brooke scanned the rich mix of evergreens, maple and birch, all reflecting against the placid water. “No, I don’t think so.” She stepped into the boat, laughing as it wobbled.
Riv reached forward to steady her. “Good. I didn’t think you had. It’s nice here. Peaceful. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see anyone else all day.”
“And see that island? When we get to the other side we can tie the boat up at an old stump by the shore, explore, have lunch.”
“Our own deserted island?”
Brooke leaned back in the boat, pleased at the way it rocked gently. “This is awesome.”
“You’re welcome.” Riv baited his hook, put his feet up, and leaned back as well. Brooke stared at him. Riv was only a few inches shorter than their father now. They shared the same chin and nose, but the similarity stopped there. Where Jack was broad and sturdy, Riv was scrawny. He seemed all arms and legs, sprawled out in the boat like that. It made Brooke smile. He looked like the brother she remembered, not the strange person he’d turned into. Brooke thought back to her last birthday. It’d been on a Thursday and she loved Thursday. The way Jack’s schedule worked, nine times out of ten he would be gone or leave on a Thursday. Lying in bed, Brooke had heard the grumble and roar of her father’s rig coming to life, then making its way out their long drive early that morning. She didn’t have any real birthday plans—a morning of reading, watching TV, an afternoon in the woods with her best friend, Gabe—talking and being. An evening with her mother and Riv. No cake. But a special lasagna dinner. The birthday before that, her tenth, her father had been gone too, as had Riv. When Brooke got home from Gabe’s she had checked the old fort, where Riv sometimes hid out, but he wasn’t there. She tiptoed through the house, not wanting to see her mother’s face. Virginia would be in one of two places: in the rocker in her room, staring out the window; or writing in the journal she took out from time to time; or at the kitchen table, a cup of cold coffee in her hand.
‘Brooke?’ Her mother had called, her voice hardly more than a whisper, travelling softly on the air.
‘Yes?’ Brooke shuffled toward the kitchen, her head down. She focused on breathing. Her mother sat slumped at the table, her chin resting in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Brooke averted her gaze from the bruises. When she was younger, Brooke used to pretend if she didn’t see the bruises they weren’t really there. In a way, these bruises were Brooke’s fault. The day before she’d been out all evening after school, hadn’t called. The bruises, she knew, were her father’s parting gift. Why don’t you know where your children are? he probably yelled as he gave them. What kind of a mother are you?
‘Come here, Honey.’ Maybe Virginia finally remembered it was Brooke’s birthday. Had called her in to apologize, to give her a present, a card even.
‘You off to bed?’
Virginia nodded back, expressionless. ‘Is your brother home?’
‘No.’ Brooke stood several steps away from her mother.
‘What does he do out this late?’ Brooke cringed at the pleading in her mother’s eyes. ‘He shouldn’t be out this late.’ Virginia shook her head and offered a smile. ‘Does he tell you where he goes? Do you know, Baby?’
‘No.’ The older Brooke got, the easier the lies came. She never liked lying, but it was easier than the truth sometimes. She didn’t know for sure where Riv had been but she was pretty sure she knew who he was with and what he was doing. He’d taken up with the older boys. He drank. He smoked. He did things Brooke wasn’t sure of but, from the way people talked, were worse than the first two.
Virginia took a sip of her drink than scrunched up her nose. ‘You said you’re going to bed?’
‘Come give me a hug then.’ Brooke had closed the distance between them. Her mother wrapped her arms around Brooke, her hand stroking Brooke’s hair felt like love. The scent of ground coffee beans filled Brooke’s nostrils. ‘Look at you, all blades of grass and curly wisps. You were in the woods, weren’t you?’ Virginia smiled. ‘When I was your age, I used to do that too, playing with the fairies.’
I’m a little old for fairies, Brooke wanted to say, but she didn’t. Instead, she pulled back, trailing her fingers across the discolouration along her mother’s jaw. ‘Mom?’
‘Go to bed now.’ Virginia had straightened up and smiled. She had kissed Brooke’s temple.
“Hello, earth to Brooke, earth to—”
“What?” Brooke snapped out of her memories to see Riv staring at her from the other side of the boat like she was crazy. “Sorry.” Brooke smiled. “I was just thinking.”
Brooke shrugged. “We couldn’t have asked for a better day, huh? Blue sky, hardly a breeze.”
“Yeah. It’s practically perfect. I ordered it up special.” Riv grinned. Now that Brooke was back to the present, they chatted as they floated, Riv telling Brooke about the bands he listened to, how he was going to be discovered one day, if he could just afford this guitar he’d been looking at.
“I’m going to make it big,” he said, casting his line once more. “Jimi Hendrix big.”
“Yeah, you know Jimi Hendrix, right?”
Brooke shook her head and listened, enraptured, as Riv enlightened her through song and miming out guitar riffs. When he finished, she told him about a new story she’d been thinking up.
“You should write it down.”
“Why not, Brooke? You’re always talking about stories you think up but you don’t write them down. What’s the point?”
“I don’t want to write them down.”
“I just don’t want to Riv.”
“What’s the point then? If you’re not sharing them?”
“Well …” Brooke leaned back, staring at the ripples in the lake. She felt Riv’s eyes on her. She looked up. “I share them with you, don’t I?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Riv laughed. “I guess.”
Though Brooke had caught two fish and Riv one, they made it a catch and release day. After lunch and exploring the island they paddled back to shore, had burgers in town, and walked home beneath a sienna sky. They turned down the bend in their lane and saw Jack’s rig parked in front of the house. Brooke turned to see Riv’s body stiffen. She knew he hadn’t seen their father in months. Every time Jack was supposed to be home, Riv spent the night at a friend’s place. Tonight, Jack wasn’t supposed to be home.
Molly took a deep breath and stepped past the gilded curtain. A surprising rush of excitement flooded through her as the nervousness she’d felt just moments before flowed away. Light splashed across her face and shimmered on her sequined skirt and bra. She turned on her stiletto heels and kicked her leg to the sky. She could feel the crowd’s energy, their excitement, an excitement that was all about her. Looping her glittering ankle around the pole, Molly flung her head back, casting her most enticing smile at the darkness all those lights blinded her from.
She couldn’t see him, but she knew he was out there somewhere, eyes glued to her every motion. He had to be there. She could feel him. She moved for him. In one swift motion she coiled her leg around the pole and pulled her body upward. Her muscles glistened as her body effortlessly carried out the moves she’d been mastering for months. Behind her, seven women made their way through the curtain and into formation. Molly seductively made her way back down the pole and joined in their dance.
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