In Broken Places
Author:Michele Phoenix

5




SIX MONTHS EARLIER

“Nice,” Trey said.

I looked around the condo and wondered what he was seeing that I wasn’t. Nice? The walls were straight and the windows were clean, I’d give him that. The laminate floors weren’t bad either and the fairly new kitchen held definite potential, but nice? No. The condo was an eclectic collection of old-man smells and single-guy knickknacks and way too many small-child toys. The only draperies I’d seen were in the balloon-themed bedroom upstairs, and the furniture from top to bottom was a tribute to the worst the ’70s had to offer.

“Sure, Trey,” I said. “This is nice. Nice like All in the Family meets Sesame Street.”

But it was tidy and warm and spacious and in a good part of town, and most importantly, just a few blocks from L’Envie.

“Maybe I’ll buy you a lava lamp as a housewarming present,” Trey said.

I swatted his arm and walked to the bay windows overlooking a small, man-made pond. I tried to picture a younger Shayla out there feeding the ducks, her two-year-old bowlegs pumping stiffly as she chased them into the pond. And I tried to picture a tall, sixty-year-old man, slightly stooped with age and regret, trying to catch her before she fell in, then both of them walking slowly back to the condo, hand in hand, while he pointed out trees and flowers and stones to his tiny, adoring daughter.

It was the “adoring” part I had the most trouble imagining. Yet every surface in the condo seemed to hold pictures of a devoted father and his loving child picking pumpkins, decorating Christmas trees, swimming at the beach, and posing with Mickey Mouse. I hadn’t seen one picture that didn’t reflect utter happiness and mutual affection. Even in the snapshot of Shayla in the hospital that I’d found in a kitchen drawer, the little girl, dwarfed by her big bed and the monstrous teddy bear she was hugging, had something that looked like serenity in her eyes. The note on the back of the picture said, “Shayla—tonsils—Apr. 15,” and I had stared at the handwriting until it blurred, trying to find a trace of familiarity in it.

“So what do you think?” Trey asked from right behind me.

“About what?”

“Oh, you know, the price of gas. The condo, Shelby! What do you think about the condo?”

I sighed and smiled. “It looks just the same as it did last week, and just the same as the week before that.”

“And . . . ?”

I took a deep breath and held the keys up so they dangled between us.

“You’re going to keep it?” He sounded pleased, unaffected by the conflict between the hand-me-down home and my hand-me-down wounds.

“Sorta.” I took his hand and dropped the keys into it. “Can I use the couch if I stay overnight?”

His gray-green eyes got wider. He opened his mouth, then shut it and frowned. When he opened it again, I held up a finger to stanch the flow of perfectly rational arguments I knew was coming and launched into a monologue of my own instead.

“It’s perfect, Trey. Perfect for you. It’s close to work. It’s furnished. . . .”

He wrinkled his nose.

“It’s got a new kitchen.”

He looked more hopeful.

“It’s in a good neighborhood, and—” I grabbed his shoulders—“it’s not a pantry!”

“I don’t sleep in a pant—”

“You do. You’ve moved a cot and a lamp into it, but Trey, it—is—a—pantry!”

“This is your place. He left it to you.”

“And I want you to have it.”

“All right, we’ve got to talk,” he said grimly, taking my hand and dragging me to the couch.

“Trey . . .” We sat facing each other on the green-and-orange hide-a-bed that squeaked when we moved, and Trey kept my hand firmly in his.

“Shell . . .” He paused and shook his head with a smile that said “my sister the doofus.” “You are not giving this condo to me. Period. It’s paid for. It’s cute.”

I raised a dubious eyebrow.

“You know what? It’s everything you just told me it was. So use it! Live in it!”

“It was his,” I said. The words sounded brittle.

“And you think that has any less of an effect on me?”

I shook my head. “I think you’re stronger, though.”

He laughed at that. “And you’re . . . what? Weak? Helpless?”

“Furious.”

“I know. It’s a terrible cut, but seriously, Shell, your hair will grow back.”

“Trey . . .”

“I don’t know why he left it for you, but he did. So . . . be thankful. It’s your place now. At least, it will be once you’ve burned all the furniture and painted some walls. And I know a great bathroom guy if you want to remodel that.”

“You know,” I said, finally voicing the thought that had been on the tip of my mind for the past three weeks, “you should be furious too. You were just as much his kid as I was, and you were hit by just as much of his shrapnel. You were his firstborn, Trey, and I can’t figure out for the life of me why you’re taking all this so well. You should be hating me for being on the receiving end of his last will and testament.”

He shrugged and smiled some more, but there was something bruised in his eyes.

“In any other family,” I continued, rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of the whole thing, “Mom and Dad would leave a nice little bundle of junk for their kids to inherit. A stamp collection. A few picture albums. A time-share in Aruba. Maybe even a dog. But in ours?” I laughed. Then I laughed again, harder.

By the third laugh, I knew I was on the verge of hysterics, so I reeled in the humor and put a lid on the levity. “In our family, Dad leaves, Mom dies, Shell and Trey move on; then Dad dies too and . . .” I wasn’t sure where the tears had come from. They weren’t part of the plan.

I swallowed hard. “Dad dies,” I resumed, “and we inherit what? No—wait. Not we. Just me. What’s up with that? I inherit—me, Shelby Davis—I inherit a condo, a truckload of money, and a four-year-old half sister he had with heaven knows who. Trey,” I said, my voice brimming with incredulous anger, “weak doesn’t begin to cover what I’m feeling—what I’ve been feeling since Dad’s lawyer knocked on my door. I am winded, stunned . . .”

The tears came in earnest then. “I don’t know what to do,” I groaned, leaning into Trey with abject devastation forcing sobs from my constricted lungs. Three weeks of utter desperation burst through my restraint and rained a bruising hail of betrayal, fear, and anguish down on me.

And Trey? Trey remained the person he had always been—my anchor, my defender, my friend. He was the eight-year-old boy who patted my back and dried my tears, the twelve-year-old rescuer who convinced me we’d be fine, the sixteen-year-old knight who promised to make it better, and the thirty-six-year-old champion who persuaded me that this latest assault would not shatter me either. Nothing else my dad had done had managed to destroy me, and this—this aberration both for Trey and for me—would not undo us.

“I need you to keep the condo,” I told him when reality had grown more bearable again. “And we’re splitting the savings. I want you to have a home, Trey. I’ve already got my own and it feels like me. So take this one. Take it just to infuriate him, wherever he is, because he didn’t leave it to you.”

“You make a good case.”

“He was your father too.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“And if this is his last-ditch, posthumous attempt at hurting us, we need to show him that he can’t.”

“I don’t know, Shelby.”

“I do,” I said, and for the first time in forever, I actually felt certain of one thing. “This is a good thing for you, Trey. It’s what you need. And it’s what I need because it’s driving me nuts picturing my brother sleeping in a pantry.”

“I—”

“Shut it, Trey. You’re taking this place off my hands. And that’s it. Done. ‘Signed, sealed, delivered . . .’”

“‘. . . I’m yours.’”

We spent a few moments talking about other things. Another tactic we’d developed in thirtysome years of deliberate denial.

Then Trey came back to the trauma at hand. “So . . . can we talk about this?”

“I thought we just did.”

“No, about Shayla.”

Shayla. “Well, I’ve pawned this place off on you and the money off on an accountant. What do you think? Can I pawn Shayla off on the state of Illinois?”

He didn’t answer. He just looked at me. I suddenly understood what microwave popcorn felt like. He was watching me pop and waiting for me to be finished.

“What do you think I should do?” I asked.

“Be true to yourself.”

“So helpful.”

“I try.”

“And ‘myself’ is . . . ?”

“‘Yourself’ has a good heart. A warm heart. Something you didn’t inherit from our dad.”

Deep breath. “Trey . . . She’s so—”

“You know, there’s a chance—a very small chance—that the old man got a couple things right in his life. The first was marrying Mom. No one else would have put up with him for so long.”

“And the second?”

“Giving his daughter to the best possible person for the job.”

“You mean giving his illegitimate four-year-old daughter to his estranged thirty-five-year-old daughter.”

“Hey, I never said this family didn’t put the fun in dysfunction!” He wandered to the kitchen and started opening cupboards. “And in his defense, it looks like he actually put some thought into things this time. I mean, it’s not like he just handed off his daughter and expected you to make do. She comes fully loaded with a condo, a college fund, a cuckoo clock, and a babysitting uncle.”

“And a ’64 Impala.” I smiled at his incredulous look. “Convertible. Cherry red.”

“He left you his car, too?”

“Two of them, actually. I’m donating one, but the Impala’s for you. Custom-restored and kept in mothballs since Shayla was born.” I held up a second set of keys. “Congratulations, my friend. You’re the new owner of your very own chick magnet.”

He shook his head. “A ’64 Chevy, huh? Too bad I don’t have a thing for fifty-year-old broads.” He took the keys and stared at them for a moment, considering the emotional strings he knew would be attached. Then he pocketed them and let his dimples reveal his conclusion. “You sure?”

“I’m sure,” I answered.

“About the condo, too?”

“Yup.” I followed him toward the kitchen and took stock of the time and effort he’d need to invest to rid the space of my father’s presence. “So—you think you can do something with this mess?”

He leaned against the counter and surveyed the small room. “I think I know just the right shade of Italian tile to make the cupboards pop.”



From where I sat on the edge of the stage at the front of the auditorium, I could hear Italian, French, and a couple other languages I didn’t recognize. It was round two of the play auditions, and there were only a little over twenty students in attendance this time. I’d thanked the rest of them for their efforts and, squelching the part of me that wanted to throw myself at their feet and beg for their forgiveness, had informed them that there just weren’t parts that suited them in this year’s play. So the twenty-three pairs of eyes begging me for mercy on this cloudy afternoon were all the more nervous about the verdict to come, and their performance jitters had made them revert to their comfort languages to express their insecurities.

The vulnerability of these young people had become increasingly evident in my first couple of weeks in Germany. At the beginning of my time here, they had shown few differences from the teenagers I’d taught back home. They had the same scattered study habits, the same discipline issues, and the same aversion to rules. All of those were familiar to me—and somehow comforting, too. But there were other facets to these students that I was only beginning to discern.

A handful of them had asked if they could eat their sack lunches in my classroom every day, and I had allowed it, as the only alternatives were a crowded, noisy cafeteria and the bleachers in the gym. So Grace, Nicole, Liz, Sunny, and Fiona had become regular lunchtime companions. Instead of talking among themselves, though, they’d drawn me into their discussions, asking my opinion on topics as varied as morality, global warming, and Lindsay Lohan’s latest scandal. They wanted more from me than a good grade and a manageable homework load. They wanted my input and my guidance, and I found it disconcerting to be personally involved in the lives of students in a way I’d never been before. I was happy to try, though, because I was coming to love these contradictory creatures—self-sufficient and dependent, mature and naive, complex yet still simple enough to play duck-duck-goose in the school parking lot when there was nothing else to do.

But it was another kind of play the students had on their minds this afternoon. I’d cast four parts already, though I’d told no one yet, but I was still looking to fill several major roles, including C. S. Lewis himself and Joy Gresham, the New York native who had blown into Lewis’s life like a tornado of cynicism and somehow managed to transform the stodgy scholar into a man softened and empowered by love. Needless to say, the role was a challenge of monumental proportions, and my sights were set not so much on finding the best actress as on finding the least bad one. It was an approach I’d used in the past for buying cars and choosing shoes, and I’d found it to be immensely practical, if not entirely gratifying.

The tryout scene I’d selected was Lewis’s declaration of love to Joy. I’d been a victim of enough misguided declarations in my life that I knew just how complicated and awkward the practice could be, and I figured I should set the bar high for this first face-to-face scene between wannabe Lewises and potential Joys. In the script, Joy eventually forces the issue by saying, “Back where I come from, there’s this quaint old custom. When a guy makes up his mind to marry a girl, he asks her. It’s called proposing. . . . Did I miss it?” But a sadistic streak that scared me just a little had made me deviate from the script on this afternoon and instruct the students to spontaneously make up their own proposal, in keeping with C. S. Lewis’s character. And to push the meanness just a little bit further, I had announced that all the actors would have to submit to the torturous scene, not just the ones trying out for lead roles.

Oh, the sheer entertainment of watching teenagers trying to be at once intensely romantic and casually credible. The attempts ran the gamut from gut-wrenching to sidesplitting. One actor seemed to be doing an imitation of a British Rocky Balboa, all emotionally battered by philosophical cogitating, begging his beloved to marry him as if some sort of horrendous physical harm would befall him if she were to say no. Another less dramatic young man opted for a more lighthearted approach and simply mimed clubbing Joy into unconsciousness before slinging her over his shoulder and carrying her off to his . . . Oxfordian den?

My personal favorite, however, was the scene between Seth and a young lady called Kate. Seth was a senior and she was just a sophomore, so there was a good chance neither of them had really spoken to the other before. Still, I thought they might be a good match. There was a bit of a rebellious edge to Kate, the kind of countenance and carriage that said, “Your welcome only extends so far.” And Seth’s response to her defiance was an expression and body language that were at once awkward and curious. The pairing looked promising, and I gave them the signal to start. I should have known something noteworthy was in the offing when Seth took a moment to gather his thoughts before stepping onstage. The other actors hadn’t so much as marked a pause before launching into the scene. Kate, on the other hand, walked onto the stage with her usual purposeful stride and struck a stance that reminded me more of a wrestler than of fortysomething Joy.

They moved to sit on the make-believe bench we’d fashioned out of three chairs, and then, for seconds that stretched to the breaking point, neither of them said anything. Seth sat in hunched bewilderment, and the eyes he turned on Kate spoke of such reluctance and yearning that the air between them grew taut. She returned his gaze with a sort of competitive defiance and provocation that seemed to shrink him for a moment even as it grew her into an imposing presence.

Seth looked away, wiped sweaty palms on his pant legs, then gathered the courage to meet her gaze again. Only this time, there was something of a challenge in his eyes, and the bravado that had masked Kate’s frailty yielded to a femininity that instantly softened her lines and gentled her carriage. Their eyes held as a blush crept up Seth’s neck. He reached toward her, his hand visibly shaking, then withdrew it. When he turned to face away from her, there were protests from the students watching the scene unfold. Kate hardened a little again, though there were cracks in the armor this time, and just as she stood to leave the stage, Seth whispered, “Will you marry me?”

It was so quietly uttered that I wondered if I’d imagined it, but a Korean girl in the front row let out the kind of heartfelt “Aw” that confirmed how real and stirring the moment had been.

I didn’t know much about play directing, but I did know that the kind of improvised acting I’d just witnessed was rare—even more so at a high school level. If truth be told, I’d felt a little pang of envy at the scene, and I knew enough to jot down two names next to the parts of Lewis and Joy. It may not have been true love I’d seen on that stage, but it was something worth exploring further.

I was hurrying to Gus and Bev’s at the end of the session when a figure in shorts and a torn sweatshirt emerged from an alleyway at a dead run. Night was falling and the street was deserted, so I stepped off the curb to change sidewalks and avoid the oncoming runner. I knew this was Germany, where the odds of being stampeded by a herd of cows were probably higher than being attacked by a jogger, but survival instincts and a college self-defense class propelled me across the street nonetheless. I hadn’t gone two steps when the runner slowed his pace and, coming to a full stop, said my name. I was so surprised that I didn’t respond immediately, and the jogger walked up to me and peered more closely at my face. “It’s Shelby, right?”

“Uh . . . yes. Yes, it is.” I took a deep breath and covered my heart with my hand to muffle the beating I suspected Scott could hear.

“Sorry—didn’t mean to jump out at you like that.”

“Oh, it’s okay. I was just a little startled, that’s all.”

“Hey, it’s getting dark out here. Would you like me to walk you home?”

Fierce independence reared its ugly head. “Oh, no. Thanks, though. I’m just going as far as the Johnsons’ to pick Shayla up.”

“I’ll walk with you.”

“Uh . . . You know, that’s really kind of you, but it’s only a little bit farther and it’s still kind of light out and I really enjoy the time to think before I pick Shayla up.”

“Hey, that’s fine. No problem.” He used his sweatshirt to wipe his face and stood there a moment longer. “I haven’t seen you around since you got here.”

“Well, you know, you live in the gym.” I attempted some humor to cover my awkwardness and send him on his way. I failed. All he did was scrunch up an eye in confusion. “I don’t do gyms,” I clarified. “They give me the heebie-jeebies. Too many jumping jacks when I was a kid.”

He grinned at that and wiped his forehead with his arm. “So you’re not into sports.”

“I’m into fork lifting. I hold the world record. But only when cheesecake is on the fork and there’s a glass of milk nearby. Otherwise I stick to stepping on my scale once a day for exercise.” Being funny was exhausting. But his chuckle was gratifying, so I attempted one more zinger. “Besides, I have this rare medical affliction that makes me yodel if I sweat, so . . .” Yup. No reaction. One zinger too far. “I’ll see you later then,” I said into the lengthening silence. The streetlights came on and I saw a sparkle in his eyes. He was laughing on the inside—I was sure of it. “So, uh . . . enjoy the rest of your run!” It was a cheerful dismissal, which he was kind enough to obey.

“Thanks, Shelby,” he said with laughter in his voice, and he took off down the street yodeling like a maniac.



My father was singing. Which was a frightening thing. It was frightening for two basic reasons. One, he had the musical ear and sensitivity of a foghorn. Two, it meant he was happy—chipper, if such a word could apply to someone like him. And the higher the high, the harder the fall. So it was a walking-on-eggshells kind of day again.

My mom was so solicitous over breakfast that I knew she was bracing us all for the worst. It was an unspoken language between us, a sort of codependent shorthand Trey and I had PhDs in—when Mom made chocolate chip pancakes and beat up real whipped cream to go with the chocolate sauce, we knew there was something unpleasant on the way. And by unpleasant, we meant out of control, out of proportion, and completely out of his gourd. My dad, that is.

Dad joined us late for pancakes. He’d been singing while shaving, which always made the process take longer. But he liked the resonance in the bathroom and I think he imagined the whole neighborhood was listening in rapt attention. His face was never smoother than on a day when he’d been singing.

My dad was the only man I knew who wore a tie to mow the lawn, and he was wearing one today. It was that kind of professionalism that had propelled him so quickly to the top position in the first investment firm he’d worked for, then allowed him to start his own firm two towns over from where we lived. We weren’t poor, but you’d never know it. Dad believed in making money, not spending it, and he was perfectly content living in my grandmother’s old house with squeaky floorboards, water-stained ceilings, and decades-old wallpaper on every square inch in sight.

My dad took his place at the head of the table. To be honest, the table was pretty much square, so there was no geometric head. But it seemed to make him happy to think there was one, so we all played along and made him feel important. He stacked four pancakes on his plate, and Mom poured so much chocolate syrup over them that I half expected them to float off the edge of the plate and onto the floor. Which might have caused the outburst we all feared. So I sat in front of my own melted-cream-saturated pancakes and willed his to stay in place. Please, God, let them not make like a barge and flow downstream.

“Thermos, Shelby,” he said. Which was my dad’s way of saying, “May I please have the thermos of coffee, my beautiful daughter?” I liked his voice better in my head. I watched him spoon enough sugar into his coffee that it should have permanently sweetened his countenance, but life wasn’t fair that way. After all, this man who was devouring four pancakes and already eyeing the ones coming off the griddle, this man who could order two McDonald’s meals without blinking, this man to whom oversweetening was a culinary habit, not a character trait, this very same man was so thin that seeing him without a shirt on made me want to feed him butter. I, on the other hand, seemed to be wearing my butter—mostly around my hips and chest. And at the ripe old age of thirteen, it felt not only ugly, but icky in a can’t-I-just-be-a-skinny-man kind of way.

“Got practice before the game?” he asked Trey. There was a game that afternoon, and Trey’s team was so riddled with incompetent newcomers to the sport that they often resorted to pregame scrimmages to try to get their act together.

Trey nodded yes. Then he went back to eating.

It had become something of a hobby trying to imagine the subtext of conversations that happened on my dad’s happy days. Under normal circumstances, there would have been no subtext needed. He would have hit us right between the eyes with his personal brand of overt insult and not-so-subtle disdain. But on his happy days?

“They’re lucky to have you,” he said. Translation: Anyone says anything bad about my son and I’ll have their head. Insulting you is my job.

“Thanks, Dad.” Translation: I hate it when you’re happy—makes me squeamish. Trey gulped some orange juice and caught my eye-rolling. His eyes crinkled. I liked making him smile.

“Cleats still feeling okay?” Translation: You should be kissing my feet for spending so much money on your cleats, young man. I’m a wonderful dad.

“Yup. Fine.” Translation: I’d rather kiss Sonya Roland than say thanks to you, and she’s got zits and braces.

“Well, try to score one for the old man.” Translation: I’ve got a belt and I’m not afraid to use it. You stink, you sting. That’s the rule.

“Sure, Dad.” Translation: Like I’m ever going to put any effort into making you happy, you pompous bag of bones.

I wanted to play too. “It’s too bad you hurt your ankle skateboarding,” I said. “Maybe you’ll be able to play anyway, though.” Translation: Let’s see if we can make Dad crazy by letting him think you might not get to play.

“What’s wrong with your ankle?” He put his fork down and narrowed his eyes. Translation: How stupid have you been, Son?

“It’s fine, Dad.” Translation: Please don’t get mad, please don’t get mad, please don’t get mad. Trey sent me an are-you-nuts? glare and swallowed a too-large bite of pancake.

“What’s with the ankle, Son?” The distant sound of thunder was in his voice.

“Nothing,” Trey answered, an almost imperceptible tremor weakening his words. I knew it meant fear, but to my dad, it sounded like guilt.

He leaned across the kitchen table, the napkin he’d stuck in his collar brushing the chocolate syrup on his plate. “What—did—you—do?” Strange that a minute before his face had looked clean-shaven. Now, with the blotchy red creeping up from his collar and the dirtiness of his scorn flaking out from his eyes, it looked like a kind of threatening stubble was growing out of his skin.

Trey saw it too. “I didn’t . . .”

My dad pushed away from the table with so much force that a couple of plates went flying and the milk container tipped over. Mom, who had been standing frozen at the counter, rushed in with a dish towel and mopped up the milk before it spilled onto the floor along with more of Dad’s wrath.

“Dad, I didn’t mean—”

His hand came down so hard on the top of my head that I bit my tongue and felt my jaw go weird. He pressed his fingers into my skull like it was a watermelon he was trying to crush. I felt his pancake breath wetting my ear when he hissed, right next to it, “Shut up, Shell.”

There were stars behind my eyes when he released me, so I didn’t actually see him shove Trey’s chair back so hard that it toppled over. My brother looked like one of those beetles that can’t figure out how to get up off their backs. So I guess my dad decided to help him by flipping him over onto his stomach with his shoe. He flipped him hard and Mom yelped and I jumped off my chair and went to grab Dad’s arm because I knew what he was thinking and Trey kinda crawled away as fast as he could, but his knees kept slipping in the mess of his pancakes.

I grabbed my dad’s arm harder and said, “I didn’t mean it, Dad! I was just being funny! Trey’s ankle is fine! Really, it’s fine! He hasn’t been on his skateboard in forever!” But he wasn’t hearing anything right then except Trey’s cowering. He flung me off his arm so hard that I hit the fridge. Then he leaned down to pick my brother up by the front of his shirt. My mom had retreated to the sink by then and I wished she would throw herself on her husband’s back and ride him and pummel him until he stopped, but she twisted the towel in her hands instead and kept saying, “Jim. Jim, stop. Please, Jim.” Which I thought was a very ineffective approach.

My dad had Trey shoved into the corner of the wall and cupboards, and Trey had gone from looking scared to looking mean. He hadn’t been able to do that until the last couple of years or so. But somehow he’d managed to figure out how to stop being frightened and start being mad. It hadn’t really changed the outcome of my dad’s happy days, but I think it left Trey feeling somehow less destroyed.

“I’m not injured, okay?” he croaked bravely, trying to pry my dad’s fingers from the front of his shirt. “Let go of me, Dad!”

I tried to squeeze between my mother and the sink, thinking maybe her towel would protect me from what I knew was coming.

“Let go of you?” My dad was going rigid. “Let go of you?” he repeated, as if Trey’s request were colossally insulting. And he did let go then. He released Trey’s shirt and used that hand to slap him across the mouth—hard.

“Dad!” I yelled. “Dad, I was just joking. There’s nothing wrong with his—”

When my dad turned on me, I realized I’d crossed the kitchen and grabbed his arm again. I felt something wet on my face, but it couldn’t be tears. I wouldn’t let it be tears.

“His ankle is fine,” I said, trying to look like Trey, but I could feel my chin wobbling, so I clamped my jaw to stop it. “I was just being funny, Dad! I was just—”

The look he gave me dried up my words. He stood in front of me smelling like sweat and coffee and injustice. He was shaking—I could see it. And there was a vein popping out near his hairline. But it’s his eyes I remember most clearly. He looked at me like I was at once invisible and intolerable. He didn’t really see me. I was sure of it. He saw a weak, whiny, repulsive, and unwanted distraction. He made a kind of snorting sound that would have been funny under any other circumstances. Then he gave my mom the same kind of look he’d given to me, turned on his heel, and slammed the door on his way out of the house.

Mom rushed to Trey, who’d slid halfway down the wall and was bracing with his legs to keep from slipping farther. She helped him to a chair and got a wet rag to put on his lip. It was split a little. But he didn’t look mad anymore, which was good. It scared me when he looked that way. I picked up his plate and put it on the table in front of him, then I sat down on the chair next to his and kinda waited. We never knew quite how to bridge the gap between terrified and normal.

“I was just trying to be funny,” I finally said.

He turned his eyes to me and I could see he didn’t hate me. I couldn’t ever figure out how he did that.

He smiled a bit, but I could tell it hurt him, so he settled for smiling with his eyes instead, which always made me feel like warm bread.

“You gotta stop being funny, Shell,” he said. But I knew he didn’t mean it.

I nodded and put a pancake on his plate.