Trent held open the creaking screen door as we passed, and I stepped into their tiny home, the worn carpet and furniture an ode to the house from A Christmas Story. I half expected Ralphie to be standing at the top of the stairs in a pink bunny suit, and then smiled as I remembered watching that movie on numerous Thanksgiving evenings from my father’s lap, swaying as he belly laughed for over an hour.
I inhaled stale smoke and the smell of old carpet, feeling strangely at ease. We paused in the kitchen, watching a girl washing dishes at the sink dry her hands and reach her ink-covered arms for Tyler. He hugged her, and then she shook my hand. Her fingers were pruny from the sudsy water, but I could still make out the word baby doll across her knuckles. A diamond stud sparkled in her nose, and beneath the thick eyeliner, she was stunningly beautiful. Everything from her razored bob to her timid smile reminded me of Paige.
“Or Camille,” she said. “Whichever you prefer. Nice to meet you.”
“Cami belongs to Trent,” Abby said, pointing to the correct brother.
Camille lifted her shoulder, standing on the side of her foot. “I think I’ll keep him.”
“You better,” Trent said, winking at her.
Tyler cleared his throat. “Where are we sleeping?”
She kissed her husband on the cheek, and then led us upstairs to a bedroom with a bunk bed and a dresser. Dusty frames with dirty boys and school pictures of Taylor and Tyler with oversized teeth and shaggy hair hung on the paneled walls. Baseball and football trophies crowded a bookshelf.
“Here you are,” Abby said, tucking her hair behind her ear. She perched her hands on her hips, taking one last glance around the room to make sure it was suitable before we settled in. “Clean sheets on the beds. Bathroom is down the hall, Ellie.”
“See you downstairs,” Abby said. “Cami and I are starting some of the food if you want to come down. Poker later.”
“Don’t play with her,” Tyler said, pointing at Abby.
“No, she’s a fucking hustler. She’ll take all your money.”
“Not all of it,” Abby said, glaring at him. “I give some of it back.”
Tyler grumbled something under his breath, and Abby left us alone, closing the door behind her. The room suddenly felt tiny, and I peeled off my coat.
He held out his soft pack and his lighter, walking a few steps to crack the window. I flicked the lighter and breathed in deep, holding in lungs full of smoke until I kneeled beside the window and exhaled.
Tyler lit his own, reaching behind the dresser and pulling out a small red bowl with cutouts on the rim.
“Yeah. He never found it. We were pretty proud of that.”
Tyler took a drag and blew it out the window, looking down at his old neighborhood. “I beat the shit out of Paul Fitzgerald on that corner. And Levi … damn … I can’t remember his last name. Weird. I thought I’d remember those kids forever. Do you remember all of your childhood friends?”
“They’re mostly all still around. Some of them OD’d. Some of them committed suicide. The rest are around. I see them at charity galas now and then. Well … I used to … when I went to charity galas.”
We both laughed, and I shook my head, taking one last drag before mashing the end of my cigarette into Tyler’s secret ashtray. “An asshole magnet.”
I snorted, and then stood, putting my pack on the lower bunk and opening the zipper. “Dibs,” I said, setting my things on the bed. When Tyler didn’t answer, I turned to catch him staring at me. “What?”
He shrugged. “It’s just cool … you being here.”
“Thanks for inviting me. I’m sorry for being a cranky bitch.” I swallowed, and my throat felt dry and tight. Jim seemed like a beer guy, and I hoped he would have a six-pack or two in the fridge downstairs. It was all I could do not to run down and yank open the door to find out.
I ran my fingers across the spines of the few books that stood next to his trophies.
“Shut it,” Tyler said, holding the ashtray out the window and turning it upside down to empty its contents. He pushed the windowsill down, latching it closed.
I sat on the bed, and Tyler sat next to me, taking my hand and sliding his fingers between mine. “We never bring anyone home, so she’s hypersensitive about it. She’s our sister … overprotective.”
He stared at the carpet, breathing out a laugh. “Me, too. She really saved this family … saved Travis … in more ways than one.”
“They really love each other. It’s kind of gross.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. They used to fight all the time. Broke each other’s hearts. When they broke up, I thought Trav was gonna lose it. Now look at them. They are crazy happy.”
“They make it look easy—like anyone could make it work.”
“She’s had a lot happen, too. If you heard her story, you might feel a little differently about things.”
“I doubt that. I thought we weren’t going to talk about this.”
I glared at him, and he smiled at me, his dimple appearing and making it impossible for me to stay mad.
“I wanna be gross with you,” he said.
“Well … when you put it that way…”
He leaned in, grazing his lips across mine. My body instantly reacted, craving nothing else but him. I reached under his shirt, running my fingertips up his back.
“No,” he whispered. “I don’t mean that.” He pulled away, fishing my hands from his shirt. He sighed. “It’ll be a year ago tomorrow night that I saw my baby brother in more pain than I’d ever seen him in before.”
“Looks like it all worked out, though.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself. I look at them and remember what it took to get there, how confused and stubborn Abby was and how Trav never gave up.”
“Don’t say it. We’ve got a whole weekend left.”
He kissed the corner of my mouth and then stood, pulling me up with him. We walked downstairs, hand in hand. Abby eyed us until Tyler let me go to join his brothers in the next room.
“You get right to the point, don’t you?”
She shrugged. “No sense in beating around the bush. These boys have been through a lot. For some reason they’re also gluttons for punishment.”
“I guess you’d know,” I said, pushing up on the counter to sit and grabbing an apple out of the fruit bowl. I rubbed it on my jeans and took a bite. “Who interrogated you for Travis?”