The trip to our old meeting place didn't take long, but by the time we were there, darkness had fallen even though there was still light in the sky. We lay down in the grass, side by side and looked up. There wasn't anything to see, just washed out blue and the moon making its way over the hills.
Our arms touched. She had on longer sleeves than I did, but my hand brushed hers and I could feel how cold her skin was. It made goosebumps rise on my arm. I rubbed at them then rolled over to look at her. She didn't move, only glanced at me and then went back to looking at the empty sky.
"You look weird with short hair."
Self-consciously, I scratched at it, the short hairs tickling my fingers. Jimmy liked the cut. He thought it was a sign of my growing up. Or so he said. "I'm thinking I should grow a beard."
Her hand shot to her mouth too late to cover her laugh. It was too wonderful a sound to wound my pride. She blinked quickly, her throat rising and falling as she swallowed. The smile on her lips slowly disappeared and that look of exhaustion returned. I didn't know what to say to her. Was my being here really enough?
Her thoughts were too quiet. There was nothing to pick up. They were as clear as the sky. I touched her arm so that she would look at me. Tears hung on her bottom lashes. Whatever it was she needed, she wouldn't ask for it. She didn't know how to ask for help.
I rolled over on top of her, and she gave a gasp of surprise. Her hands fell to her side, hitting the ground with a soft thump as she partially tried to push herself up, but I threw my arms around her. Instead of shoving me off, she wrapped her arms around my back and whispered in my ear. "I hate him," she said, her voice shaky with tears yet to be shed. "I hate the one who did it. They say he was just a boy-- like it makes it any better. They keep saying it was an accident."
She held onto me, and I was sure she was crying. I held her head and rubbed her back. The possibility that it was an accident was slim. Telling her that wouldn't offer any more comfort than lying to her, so I didn't bother to speak.
"Do you think he meant to hit my father?"
"No. It could have been anyone. It would have been anyone."
She held so still that she didn't even shiver. Her thoughts had kicked up again, but they were going much too fast for me to catch any of them. She laid back down and closed her eyes.
I knelt over her while considering just how much I wanted to tell. "Jimmy's looking for the one that did it."
Her body tensed at that. She opened her eyes and looked up at me. "I know what that means."
"He asked me to help."
She sat up on one elbow, but didn't move from under me. "You aren't going to..." The words started out strong enough, but they taped into silence before she had even finished her thought. She pressed a hand over her mouth until she regained some of her composure. "Your first... it can't be because of us." Because of me. Her thought was so strong, I believed she'd said it out loud.
I sat back on my knees. "What makes you think I haven't already? It's been months since you've actually talked to me."
Her fingers covered her lips again. She eyed me as if she would be able to see the truth.
"You hate him, don't you? You want him dead.”
She glanced away. I hadn't actually heard her think it, but I could guess. Quietly, she said, “I haven’t heard it said out loud like that. Does wanting someone gone mean I’m an adult now? I don’t want to be if that’s the case.”
I had nothing I could say to her, but in an instant I understood Jimmy too well for my liking. He was always pushing me, trying to get me to take a more active role in the tribe based off of something that I had no choice over. I couldn't exactly choose my brother or my father, but I had to deal with the repercussions. Becoming an adult was something that would happen, to both of us.
A tear worked its way down her cheek. She looked up at me, and I was aware of just how close we were to one another. I reached for her then, scooting even closer, so I could kiss her chastely, just the top of her head, something to warm her and protect her. Her head tilted, and then it was only a short distance from her forehead to her lips. At first, she tensed, unsure if she should enjoy it. Her lashes nearly brushed against my skin as she shut her eyes. Her hand stayed on my shoulder, but the rest of her melted into my arms.
We didn’t pull away. She didn’t open her eyes. “I won’t ask. Do what you have to do.” She untangled herself from me and stood up, reaching a hand down. “We should go back. Did you see my mom walk off with your brother? What was that all about?”
“You think they’re talking about us.”
She put a hand on her cheek. “Wouldn’t you if you were them?”
I laughed. She turned to head back down to the bar, but I grabbed her and pulled her to me again. “I know you said it wouldn’t work, but—“ I paused. She stood expectantly. I took a deep breath to gather my strength and only felt my own frustration creeping up. It had been building. For months I'd been trying to figure out what I'd tell her if I got the chance or even making a chance of my own to explain to her just how much she meant to me. In my head, I had always been so well spoken. “Dammit, Pat. You mean a lot to me. More than anyone else ever before. I just wanted you to know.”
I was sure she was blushing them. She took my hand and led me to the bar. I’d prepared myself to not expect a response, but it would have been nice. Even her thoughts were a quiet buzz, effectively hiding them from me.
We entered the bar from the back. Jimmy was still there. He sat at the bar, a half-filled glass in front of him. Rita sat next to him with her glass even less filled than his. Pat caught my eye, hers wide in disbelief.
Jimmy stood. Rita’s eyes were as red as Pat’s had been and they still shone with recently shed tears. Had my brother sat through her tears? Listened to her? Somehow offered her comfort? She managed to smile at me, not a real one, but a muscle memory. Instinctive. Her smile was her defense.
“I’m glad we didn’t have to send out the search party after all.”
Pat fidgeted next to me, crossing her arms and looking away. I knew she was still worried about what her mother would think we had been doing alone in the dark, but it seemed the furthest thing from Rita's mind. The only thought I caught from her was one word: Good.
Jimmy and I said our goodbyes. Pat locked the door behind us. We walked together back home as the lights in the village started to come on one by one. When we were away from the village, walking together in the dark, Jimmy spoke.
“You’re right. I want to help.”