Had dreadlocks and tattoos on his hands and wore ripped jeans and dirty t-shirts. Our mom didn’t like him—at all. Whenever he was over, she’d eye the ceiling, like she knew what was going on in my sister’s bedroom. I knew what mom thought they were doing. But I checked, and it wasn’t anything all that exciting. My sister was laying on her bed, playing with her phone. He sat on the floor, guitar cradled on his lap, one leg outstretched, fingers picking their way along the strings like long spiders. Sometimes, he’d close his eyes, body swaying with whatever he heard in his head.
One time, he caught me spying. I froze, not able to will my legs into moving, into scurrying back to my own room. My sister was going to be so pissed. But he just smiled, quietly and without judgement, his fingers never pausing. Heat flooded my face and I fled.
I tried avoiding him, but he was always at our house. Didn’t he have any other friends? His own house? A job? Probably not a job—I’d overheard Mom calling him a deadbeat mooch. I didn’t think he was a deadbeat. He probably had cool gigs to play at night with his band.
We ran into each other in the upstairs hallway, a short stretch of carpet between her room and mine. Guess we were both trying to get to the bathroom.
He stopped, and I stopped.
He leaned against the balcony railing, all slouchy grace and teenage limbs.
“I’m not a kid.” I flushed at the way it came out—petulant.
He laughed. “No offense, my dude.”
I jerked my head in his direction. “What do your tattoos mean?”
He glanced down at his hands. Up close, I could see they were birds in flight, winging their way up his forearms. From a distance, they just looked like black smudges.
He shrugged. “I just like them. They don’t mean anything.”
“You didn’t get them for a reason?”
“Yeah, the reason was I liked them.”
“Doesn’t seem like a very good reason.”
He grinned. He had very white teeth for someone who looked like he never showered. “Not everything has to mean something, kid.”
When he brushed past me, he ruffled my hair with a lazy hand. The sensation was strange, like a game my grandpa used to play with us when we were little. He would pretend to crack an egg on our heads, and his fingertips would be the yolk, running down. It felt like that, and the impression lingered.
I was no longer afraid to meet him in the hallway. It almost felt like our thing.
“You wanna know how to meet chicks, kid?”
I tried to mimic the casual way he shrugged, like nothing meant anything. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Start a band. Chicks dig dudes in bands. Can you play an instrument, sing?”
I shook my head.
“Doesn’t matter. You don’t even have to be good. It helps, but it’s not a requirement for the ladies.”
“Are you any good?”
“You bet, kid. How do you think I landed your fox of a sister?”
To me, it didn’t appear like he was landing anything. I never saw them touch or look at each other when he was here. Maybe that’s how it was between chicks and dudes.
He squeezed my shoulder on the way past, and I thought I felt his hand delay longer than it should.
After much pleading and doing her chores for a week, I finally convinced my sister to take me to see one of his shows. She didn’t ask why I wanted to go, and I didn’t say.
It was a small venue, a local bar and grill where they let under twenty-ones in until ten. The show was at eight.
On stage, he really looked like a rock star, black eyeliner smeared under and around his eyes so they looked like huge black holes under the spotlights. I felt the music thrum through my body, wound tight like thread on a spool. I could feel the threads unravelling, and I jumped and screamed with the rest of them.
I found him after the show, still high from the pageantry of it all. I flung my arms around his neck before I had time to think the action through, to be afraid of what would happen, to think about what it all would mean.
“You were great. Brilliant,” I rasped.
His hands splayed across my back, and I remembered the birds there, wings open, free.