“Wear some clothes around my girl.”
Isaiah digs through his duffel bag. “Why? She already knows I’m the better-looking one. Echo chose you because you’ve got that smooth mouth.”
Jackass. “I’m heading. Watch over her, all right?”
I open the door and look over Echo’s sleeping form. Is having bad family better than having no family? Guess it’s time to figure it out.
I woke to an empty bed and to Beth and Isaiah playing travel chess.
At first I thought I was dreaming, and that the Mad Hatter was going to magically appear and whisk me away to Wonderland while we chased large white bunnies, but then Beth called Isaiah an asshole for the move he made, and I knew I was awake.
I dressed leisurely, hoping Noah would return. I called him once. Sent a text. It was weird enough that Noah left without saying something to me and weirder to have to wait for a response with an audience. When there was no reply, I headed to the art gallery.
There’s a low hum in the attic studio, and it reminds me of art class in high school, including the girls whispering as they peer at me.
With my cell resting on the easel in case Noah checks in, I sit on a stool and study the blank canvas. Painting or drawing something has never been an issue before, but the oomph needed to paint the Aires constellation escapes me. Not one inkling of where to start or what shades I’d like to use. Not. One. Thought.
Oh, dear God in heaven, I’m experiencing writer’s block.
As if they can hear my internal screaming, the two girls who can’t be much older than me once again whisper to one another then gawk.
My fingers form into a fist. Really? Just really? “Is there a problem?”
Some of the “low hum” in the room dies off as I channel my inner Beth. Guess I am affected by who I hang with. Who would have thought those guidance counselors had it right?
They both stare at anyone other than me, and one starts to pick at the strands of her paintbrush. Strand girl, the one with hair so black it looks blue, plucks at the brush as if she’s sifting out the split ends. “We…uh…we’re wondering…um…”
My right hand slips over the scars of my left arm. I freaking hate my life at times. “How I got my scars?”
Her eyes widen. “No. God, no. We were wondering if you were going to go into that trance again. It was amazing to watch you paint and…well…we liked watching.”
“Oh.” Oh. My cheeks burn. At least I just didn’t make a fool of myself. My gaze falls to the blank canvas. “I’m blocked.”
“That happens to me a lot,” says the girl with brown hair. She closes the gap between us and extends her hand. A thick mark runs vertically up her forearm. “I’m Meredith.”
Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself from gaping at the scar on her arm and conjuring up the story of how it got there. But now I welcome the bright blue eyes that are full of life. “I’m Echo.”
* * *
Meredith and her friend Brigit asked me to lunch and I have to admit, I haven’t been this excited over a meal in a long time. Who asks me out to lunch? No one. No one asks me to share food with them, and these two girls did.
My happy moment consists of peanut butter sandwiches from the coffee shop while lounging on a park bench across from Hunter’s gallery, but I swear this is the best meal of my life.
“I heard that you’re here with your boyfriend,” says Meredith.
Even though I’m giddy, I’m still super-nervous that I’ll say the wrong thing and screw this up. “Yeah. His name is Noah.”
“FYI,” says Brigit. “Hunter isn’t fond of boyfriends. He says that guys our age are unsupportive.”
I pause midbite. “Noah’s supportive.”
“According to Hunter,” Meredith adds, “boys our age pretend to be supportive. Anyhow, I’m thinking that I’m past the unsupportive boy stage. I turned twenty-one last month.”
Twenty-one. Even though it’s not that far, it feels far away from eighteen. “How long have you been studying under Hunter?”
Meredith and Brigit share a glance, then Meredith clears her throat. “I’ve been trying to get into some sort of program with Hunter since I was eighteen, but this is the first time I’ve been accepted for anything. It was only for the summer program, but I just learned that I’ve been accepted into the year-long program starting in the fall.”
She’s grinning from ear to ear, and I can’t help but smile with her. I like Meredith. For the past hour she’s been kind and gentle, and she hasn’t once stared at my scars.
The happiness fades from her face, and she begins to shred her sandwich. “I gave up a lot coming to Colorado. My parents don’t understand my obsession with art. They informed me that if I quit college to come out here, then I wasn’t welcome back home. When Hunter told me last week that I got the year program…”
Meredith sort of chokes then puts a hand to her mouth. “It was a happy day, but when I told my parents that I was dropping out of school…” She smiles genuinely at me even though tears glitter in her eyes. “It was a happy day regardless. How many of us get to follow our dreams?”
That’s a good question. Not many of us do.
A couple of months ago I sat on a park bench and watched from a distance as my brothers played so I could spy on their home life. It appears my stalking days aren’t over, except this time I can’t hide at some fancy park. I have no idea who I’m searching for, and odds are I wouldn’t know my answer if it smacked me in the face.
But across the street from the empty church parking lot where I parked Echo’s car is a house that can’t hold more than a bedroom and a bathroom. The gutter hangs off the house, and one of the two windows in the front is X’d over with gray tape. The once concrete stairs have crumbled into a pile of rock, and an old plastic milk crate serves as the new and improved step. A front yard of three-foot grass is a barricade warding off whatever moron would want to approach the door. This place screams halfway house for the criminally insane.
A sickness slowly devours me. The longer I stare, the more my thoughts distort. If my mom grew up here, I understand why she ran and why she ran far.
Regardless of that, the question remains, is bad family better than no family? I belonged once, and I won’t bullshit that I don’t miss the feeling.