I bolt across the lawn, squinting through the inky black. The streetlamp behind me casts a pool of light, but it’s weak. Clouds block the moon.
As I run, I wipe my hand across my forehead, and it comes back wet. It’s hot as shit out here, even though it’s January in Los Angeles and that’s supposed to mean something. It’s been like this for weeks--hot and still. Earthquake weather, Lucy’s grandmother claims, even though I keep telling her it’s been scientifically proven that you can’t predict an earthquake.
I’m alone; Lucy ditched me after our late-night dinner. I guess I can’t blame her for going home; it’s after midnight and we have school in the morning--my first day at this new school since I was kicked out of the old one almost ten months ago. I probably should have gone home too, but I couldn’t without coming here first. It’s not like I sleep anymore, anyway.
Lucy would have a fit if she knew where I went after she left.
Ever since we figured out that Michelle Teller installed motion-sensitive lights on the side of the garage, Lucy’s been so much more cautious--all Dude, May, I love you but we need to be careful, messing with that shit--which I get for her--I get it, I do--but for me, it’s different. For me, it’s worth it. She disagrees, but as much as I love Lucy and as much as I tell her about what’s running through this fucked-up head of mine, I don’t tell her everything.
Like, tonight. When I called her, late, and asked her to meet me at the diner for some food--I didn’t tell her why.
This afternoon I checked the mail for the first time all weekend and there was another one, waiting for me in the box.
When I saw it, my insides froze. I grabbed it, went upstairs, stuffed it under my clothes way in the back of my closet, and then went into the bathroom and threw up. After, I lay down on my bed, head pounding. But from across the room I could feel the thump of its presence, like a fucking telltale heart. There are so many now, hidden around my room, haunting me at night from my desk drawer, from my closet, from every nook and cranny in my bedroom where I shove them. If I actually fall and stay asleep, like a normal human being, they creep into my dreams, turning them into nightmares.
I couldn’t stay still. I jumped out of bed and started cleaning my room but couldn’t concentrate enough to do much more than pace back and forth across the cluttered carpet.
Hence the call to Lucy. Hence not going home when she did. I need this--it’s the only thing that will smooth the sharp memory of those letters.
I finally reach the garage door, but as soon as I get to it an image pops into my head, distracting me, of my twin brother Jordan’s body sprawled on the jazz band room floor, thick, bright crimson pouring out of him, soaking into the ratty gray carpet. I’m thrown for a moment, before I take that image and shove it down out of my head, down into the depth of my belly, and I step too close to the side of the house. I know not to; over the past months, I’ve gotten to be an expert on the layout of the Tellers’ driveway and the system of lights they hooked up, but as usual I screw things up.
A spotlight blasts on, and for a split second I’m like an animal caught in headlights, one of the idiotic ones that always get mowed down. I freeze.
After a few long seconds, I finally get it through my dumb head that standing here in the middle of a bright circle of light is not a great idea, and I force myself to move. I dart around the corner into the blackness of the backyard and press my body up against the stucco of the house. I’m gripping the can of spray paint so hard that my fingers turn white, standing out against the black of the night. I suck in breaths like Dr. McMillen, PsyD, taught me, one long inhale for four counts and one long exhale for four, and my heart begins to slow.
I try to think of what Lucy would say if she was here, other than the obvious--Be more careful, May, you dumbass. Would she tell me to go home? Yell at me for being a pussy? Normally she’d be out here with me, the two of us charging through the night together, but over the past few weeks she’s been doing this more and more--ducking out and leaving me to come here on my own.
My breath calms me enough that I can think about moving again. I need to pay more attention, stop letting memories distract me, remember what I read in The Art of War, which I found buried in Jordan’s room in a pile of his clothes a month after he died.
In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.
That guy, Sun Tzu, was pretty smart. It’s how I first came up with this thing--a way to show the asshole lawyer who took that psychopath’s case that what she’s doing isn’t okay. From that book. I figured it was a sign or something, finding it in Jordan’s stuff.
I’m pretty sure the night I found it was the first time any of us had been in his room since it happened. Even now, eleven months later, my mom still refuses to go in there, refuses to sort through his things, and sometimes--on the rare occasions when my parents are both at home--I hear her and my dad arguing about it, late in the night when I can’t sleep.
Darkness settles back over the driveway, and I decide it’s safe to shake the can just enough to prep it, even though each time the hard ball hits the bottom it sounds like a cannon going off. You’d think, it being the twenty-first century and all, someone would have invented a quieter way to do this, particularly since, in my experience, no one ever uses spray paint for activities that are . . . let’s just say . . . totally legal.
Although, I’d argue that the purposes I use it for are right in line with my moral code, and that everyone is getting what they deserve.
I’m out in front of the garage finishing the last letter, paint still dripping red down the door, when there’s a rustling behind me. For a second, David’s face flashes through my mind, and even though I know--I know--he’s secured behind bars at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Downtown LA, I leap about twenty feet into the air and whirl around so fast that I trip over my feet. I land hard on the driveway, scraping my palms, and the goddamn spotlight flicks on again, blinding me from above. My heart’s beating a million miles a minute, and tears prick at the edges of my eyes. I’m squinting at the sudden glare, trying to scramble to my feet, generally having a massive heart attack, when I hear a soft mew, and something brushes against the back of my leg.
Fucking hell. It’s just a stupid cat.
I collapse back on the driveway in the center of the spotlight to catch my breath and stop my insides from sprinting away from my body down the street. I don’t even care if someone sees me. My limbs feel like they’ve been filled with lead. The cat, unaware that it almost killed me less than ten seconds ago, walks up onto my chest like it owns the place and starts to knead my sweatshirt.
“Jesus Christ.” I can’t help it; I start to laugh and have to squeeze my lips together to keep the sound from bursting out of my mouth into the night. “Kitty, you scared me half to death, no joke.” I reach out and run a hand along the side of its fur, only realizing after that I’ve left a faint red line all the way down its back. I glance at my arm and see that it’s streaked with paint from fingers to elbow. I must have sprayed myself when the cat freaked me out.
This last part of the night is not going as planned. I’m definitely going to give Lucy shit for abandoning me. Tired, my ass.
Whatever, the cat will just have to deal with its new color. A little red paint never killed anyone, right? (I actually have no idea if that’s true, but I’m going to go ahead and believe it for the time being, otherwise I could potentially end up washing a cat in the dark.)
I’m still lying here in the driveway with a cat nudging at my face when the spotlight goes out, leaving me in dark.
That word, still slightly wet, dripping red paint onto the asphalt of our driveway, is the first thing I see as I leave the house to head to school. First day back after winter break--what a great way to start the semester.
The letters are huge--massive, in fact--tearing their way across the garage door.
When I see them, I stop in my tracks.
Gwenie slams into my back and screeches, “Zach, what the hell?” Her curly blond hair is a mess, all unruly and tangled, and I make a mental note to find her a better brush. File under yet another thing a parent should do for their daughter that I’ll be doing instead.
My sister thinks she’s so grown up this year, what with her cursing and the belly-button piercing she got without permission at some shady place down near the Venice Boardwalk. She’s convinced that entering high school has made her a full-fledged grown-up. What she doesn’t know is how little she still is. How much she should always want to be little. Playing on her swing set in the backyard, ignorant of messages like the one that’s been spray-painted on our house, yet again.
Instead she’s standing behind me, glowering at my back.
“Gwenie, go inside.” I turn and try to shove her back through the front door so she doesn’t see, but she’s too quick. She darts under my arm and stops at the corner of the porch.
“What is it?” She’s squinting; she doesn’t have her glasses on, and the contacts she normally wears have been retired for the time being, until she can remember to take them out at night. “They were here again? In our driveway?” Her voice is rising, her breath coming out in short bursts.
“Go back inside.” I’m trying to stay calm, but my voice comes out like a growl, and her spine stiffens.
“It says bitch!” Her voice squeaks; she sounds like another version of herself, the one that would follow me around constantly when we were younger, trying to get me to play with her.
I sigh. “Gwen. It’s nothing. Just the same stupid crap that people have been doing ever since Mom took this case, you know?”
“But . . . it’s on our house. Again. They keep coming, Zach. When we’re sleeping inside! They’re out here, and we don’t even know it.” A sob escapes her mouth and she turns back to me, tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. “We should get Dad.”
I run a hand through my hair and tug at its ends, trying to think. Our dad’s still asleep upstairs. It’s my job to drag Gwenie out of bed in the morning; my job to drive her to school, to make sure she has dinner, to make sure she gets all her homework done and handed in on time. Over the break, that’s all I did--drive Gwenie to the mall, order dinner for the two of us, stay on top of her to finish the reading she needed to do for her new classes.
I don’t know when I became my sister’s keeper. Was it when my mom took this stupid case and my family became a fixture in local gossip? When this fucking vandalism started, escalating from mean notes left in our mailbox to graffiti marking the house and salt killing our front lawn? When Gwen started waking up in the middle of the night from nightmares? Or did it begin way before any of that? It’s not like our mom was ever here much--it’s not like our dad’s been present in years. Not since he was laid off five years ago and instead of looking for a new grown-up job decided to pursue a career as a musician at the ripe old age of forty-five. Surprising no one, except maybe him, his career didn’t take off, and six months ago he collapsed into a useless heap of skin and bones. I’m sure the total lack of support from my mom’s end these past few months didn’t help matters; she basically ignored the entire situation, per usual, and, from what I can see, has started to treat him like her third child. A role that he’s readily adopted, a role that’s overshadowed his identity as, you know, a FATHER. Gwen and I are so lucky.
“Dad’s sleeping.” I glance up at his dark window. “C’mon. Let’s just get to school. I’ll text him so he knows what to expect when he goes downstairs today.”
If he goes downstairs today.
“We’re just going to . . . leave that word? Sitting there? What if the neighbors see it?” Gwen asks.
Considering it’s light out and I can see the kids down the block waiting for the school bus, I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed, but I’m not going to tell her that. Not to mention, I think the neighbors are used to it by now, although I wouldn’t know because they ignore us just like everyone else.
“It’s fine, okay?” I hoist my heavy backpack farther up on my shoulders and walk over to where she’s standing, frozen, a statue made of ice and fear.
I put a hand on her arm. “Gwenie. C’mon. We’re gonna be late if we don’t leave.”
“I don’t care if we’re late. I hate that place.” She mutters this so softly that I almost miss it. I grit my teeth and turn away, pretending that I didn’t hear, pretending that the hot, blustery Santa Ana winds snatched up her words before they could reach me.
I walk by her motionless figure to my car and beep it unlocked.
Behind me there’s silence, and then the sound of her footsteps, running to catch up.