Rosanna Durst

Magic Tattoos

P

ops sleeps on the sofa, one leg off and one on, while we paint him. He has whiskey breath and dead eyes. I snuck the paint set from the art room on the last day of school. We have six colors altogether, each in its own plastic container. Luka does the legs. Lately he's been into animals. Elephants with trunks that wrap up to the knee, lions with leg hair for mane, gorillas that grip Pops' ankles with wide, blue hands. I prefer self-portraits. Pops will wake and see my face on his arm, my spaghetti hair, mouth a fat red smile, or a frown if he promised us something and then forgot.
   This is what we do now that Mama's gone. It was my idea. We ran out of paper on day 10, and Luka was sulky because I'd ripped up all his paintings. I don't know why I did that. Sometimes I do mean things just because. But when I told him let's make Pops pretty, he jumped up from the floor and said, "I was just thinking that," even though I knew he wasn't.
   We paint green circles around the eyes. Luka traces blue along the edges of Pop's beard. We create maps with his veins, maps that lead to nowhere. Then I paint the nose purple, and we breathe on him to dry everything. When his left eye twitches, me and Luka smile in secret at each other.
   He wakes long after we finish. Midday, just before his shift at Alfonso's on Market Street, where he serves tourists fake Italian food and pours wine that costs more than like twenty happy meals. Add a shit ton of oregano, he says, and bam! It's Italian. Nothing like the dishes his mother used to make. She emigrated from Sicily, you know.
   We know.
   He scrubs the paint from his face in the bathroom. Cold water in the sink, phlegm in his throat. Comes out red-faced and puffy-eyed, smelling of Old Spice and cigarettes. He rolls up his sleeves and pants legs to show us where he left some of the paintings. How'd they get there? "Magic tattoos," he calls them.


 

   68 days. That's how long since Mama left.
   On the porch, we eat handfuls of Fruity Pebbles and watch the sidewalk below. We shove each other into the wood railing. "Move your hair, your hair," Luka says.
   "I don't see him yet."
   Luka straddles the railing. He's barefoot and shirtless, tanned, hair a mess of brown curls. His has rainbow fingers from the cereal. "He'll come."
   The mailman's name is Charlie. His skin is plumb-colored and he has a poof of white hair on his head. Now that we're on summer break, we wait for him every morning. We live on the second floor of a 200-something year old house in downtown Charleston. Our porch faces the side of the neighbor's house, all mold-stained and tiny windows. Sometimes we hear a piano in there. Our landlord, Marion, lives below us. The number one city in the world, that's how they rate Charleston, whoever they are. Pops says some rich bastard must pay them to say that. He'll find out who it is, he says. He'll get ‘em. But I like the idea of being number one. The whole world beneath us. I've never been number one at anything, except compared to Luka.
   Luka points to where the sidewalk is shaded by live oaks. "There he is, near the church."
   I hurry downstairs before Charlie reaches the house.
   "Wren, my friend." He always says that.
   He pulls our mail from his bag and stacks it all together.
Then he presents it to me in open hands. "Thanks," I say, and even though I always tell myself I'll wait until I get home to check, I flip through the mail right here in front of Charlie, searching for her handwriting, her name.
   Electric bill, water bill, pizza coupons, that one with the gecko.
   "Anything good?"
   I shrug and don't say. I hold the mail against my chest as I run home. On the porch, I ignore Luka and go inside. Dump everything onto the kitchen table, where a pile of old mail lies unopened.
   The screen door squeaks, slams, and then Luka's behind me. "Nothing?" he asks.
   I spin around and shove him into the refrigerator. His bare back makes a smacking sound against the fridge door. He sinks down, his eyes all teary, and I don't apologize. He has to learn. Somebody has to toughen him or he'll never survive. I sit across from him, underneath the kitchen table, my dirty gray knees pulled up to my chin. In the living room, Pops' snores slap the walls of the house.

   She's a musician, my mother. A singer. In bars across Charleston her voice gripped the throats of men, grazed the egos of women with a rusted knife. At least that's how The Charleston Paper once described her. I was made to practice my reading on those lines. She sang the blues, she sang country, she wrote lyrics on blank paper, balled them into tangles of words she called worthless. Me and Luka, we spent our nights sitting in guitar cases at the backs of stages. We wrapped long, black cords around our legs. Crawled beneath barstools, tasted spilled beer and sticky wing sauce on cold floors. If you found teriyaki you won.
   I swear I knew before she left that she would. I just didn't know what to do about it. "I'm just another ghost of Charleston," she told me one night on the porch, "haunting my own grave." We sat together on a rusted glider, and she drank red wine from a princess sippy cup. I was cold, but I tried not to show it. "The music in me," she said, "it'll die if I don't take it somewhere."
   I nodded when she said that. Imagined the notes cough and fall off the staff. I wanted her to see that I understood, that I was old enough for anything.
   I was stupid.
   It had been a blue-sky afternoon, just as the magnolias were beginning to bloom. I'd walked home from school with Luka like I always did. We finished our homework on the porch. Pops was at Alfonso's. Everything was the same as it always was. But the shadows came and our stomachs growled and we were still alone. That's when I called the jewelry shop where she worked. Never showed. Time I got off the phone, Luka came from our parents' bedroom, his lower lip quivery.
   "She took her guitar," he said.


 

   In my dreams now, she's just voice and hair. A raspy hum, blond frizz down her back. She has the kind of hair that could be on a model if only she'd tame it. A lioness, Pops says.
   She called him the night she left. Their conversation was quick, hushed. Pops leaned into the stove, all boxer shorts and bare back, the word "fine" repeated like a leaky faucet. He hung up before anyone else could talk. I screamed and beat my fists into his doughy back, why didn't he let me talk, and he just stood there and took it.
   Why'd she go, Pops?
   Music, he said.
   But me and Luka, we had other ideas. He thought she left for another man. He'd seen it on TV.
   I thought it was Pops' drinking. Why didn't he just stop? Why did she care?
   But maybe it was none of those. Maybe it was me.
   She hasn't called since that first night. Instead, she writes to us about once a week. Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee. Luka and I receive separate letters. His are short, the writing bigger, and he grins when he reads what she wrote. Mine are pages and pages. Luka wants to read them, but I snatch them away, refuse to let his dirty fingers touch the thread between Mama and me, between us women. I keep her letters inside my pillowcase, where they crinkle as I toss and turn. I imagine that's her voice now, that crinkle, and only I can hear it.
   Be strong, Wren.
   A real woman stands her own ground. Her footprints are permanent, wherever she goes, they can't be washed away by some pathetic wave on the beach.
   Sometimes I call her. She says writing is truer, writing is ancient, but I know she believes in the voice, too. So when Pops sleeps, I sneak his old flip phone from his pocket. Luka follows me upstairs to my bedroom, and I dial. Five long rings. One beep. Then, the silly sound of me and Luka: Leave a message if you dare.
   I dare.
   I spew into the phone while Luka stands on tiptoes and watches with hands over his mouth. We counted 6 palmetto bugs in the kitchen last night, I sprayed them dead like you showed me. Then the beep returns, it pokes me on the head with a sharp fingernail. Time's up. Luka goes next. His messages are all tears and blubber, and I can't stand it. I yank the phone from him long before the last beep. "She won't come home to a bunch of babies."
   Luka nods. Wipes his eyes with fists.
   She sends nothing to Pops. For Pops, she only communicates through me.
   Here's the thing. If he loses his job – AGAIN – all three of you could starve to death. Tell him I said so, Wren.
   Don't ever marry a man with a bumpy nose.
   Does he spend time with you and Luka? Does he play with you?
   Tell him tell him tell him.
   But I don't have the heart. Pops does play with us. When he comes home after midnight from work, and I'm curled up next to Luka in bed, Pops wakes us with song. His voice is low and grainy, he sings about pirates and magicians and women who can read your mind. He pulls us out of bed and carries us downstairs over his shoulders. We twirl around until we're dizzy and laughing, and Pops gives us Coke. We clank our glasses against his silver flask.
   He's a good Pops.
   Even when he sinks onto the sofa and his eyes leak, when he says, "Fuck this, fuck this, fuck this," and I pat him on the head, he's a good Pops.


 

   74 days. Usually the Indian man who runs the corner store gives us bubblegum, but in July we get sparklers. "Not to be used until the fourth," he says. Pops comes home early the night of the fourth, says he can't think straight, and we beg him to do the sparklers with us. All day we've waited until dark. We pull on his arms. "Please, Pops, please."
   His eyes are foggy, but he says, "Okay, okay."
   Pops wants to light them on the porch, but we think it'll be better on the roof. He follows us upstairs, where me and Luka each have an attic bedroom. The hardwood floor is painted rust-red, and there's a window between the bedrooms, beneath the triangle ceiling. Luka helps me push it up. Pops holds the sparklers and his flask while we climb through.
   "Come on, Pops."
   He stares at me through the open window, his forehead crinkled, mouth hidden inside his beard. For a moment, I worry he'll slam the window down, lock us out because he's tired, tired, tired. Does he play with you?
   But he takes my hand, lets me guide him through.
   Once outside, we walk along a skinny ledge to a flat, concrete area. Here we can see the neon sign on the corner store, the grime and dead leaves on all the rooftops, the silver cross atop the church one block over. The sidewalk below is dark and quiet.
   "Marion'll pitch a fit if she finds out we're up here," Pops says.
   "We won't tell, right, Luka?"
   "Right."
   Marion is an English teacher, but she's old and doesn't work anymore. I remember the hearse parked on the street when her husband, Leo, died. Her veiny hands shook when Mama made us pay our respects the next day. Now she stays huddled inside with her shelves of books, a large portrait of Leo over the fireplace, his blue eyes sharp, pissed.
   Fireworks scream behind clouds. Luka runs around me and Pops in a circle, all the sparklers in his hands. I'm tempted to stick my foot out and trip the excitement right out of him.
   "Let's do this," Pops says. He takes a swig from the flask.
   Luka hands me the sparklers and Pops gives me the lighter, a plastic red thing, warmed from his pocket. My hands are full. They both watch and wait. This is how it is without Mama. Luka wants me to do everything for him now. Even the things he knows how to do, like tie his shoes. And Pops, he doesn't ask for anything, but the way he looks at me, the kind of desperation you might see on a stray dog, I know he wants something from me too. I'm eleven years old, but I'm the woman of the house now. I wonder if this is what it means to be a woman, this pressure on your spine, your chest, all this want you're begged to fulfill.
   Is that why she left? Does she feel lighter now? Or has she taken on a new pressure, one that pulls instead of pushes?
   Does she know my hands are smaller than hers?
   I start with one sparkler. A breeze causes the flame to burn my thumb, but then the sparkler comes to life. "More," Luka says. "All of them."
   I light the rest, one by one. We each take some and hold them above our heads like rescue signals. All around us the sky is littered in red and white.
   "Pew, pew," Luka chants.
   Pops holds his face to the sky, eyes closed, as the sparklers simmer out. Thin strings of smoke rise into the black. Me and Luka drop ours onto the street below, one by one, look how funny they fall, but Pops still stands like that, the dead sparklers above his head, flask in his back pocket.
   "Pops?"
   "Hmm."
   "You can drop yours too," I say. "We'll pick them up tomorrow."
   "Drop ‘em, Pops. It's fun."
   He doesn't move at first. Then he sighs and brings the sparklers in front of his face. He bunches them into one hand, like a bouquet of dead flowers, and squeezes the burnt end of one between his thumb and index finger.
   "Drop ‘em," Luka repeats, softer this time.
   Pops holds the sparklers over the edge, then lets them all go at once. They scatter on the ground. Luka cheers, I do too, but Pops just pulls the flask from his pocket and drinks it empty. Then he tosses the flask too. It clanks against the pavement and bounces into the middle of the street. Light from a streetlamp echoes off its surface.
   "Why'd you do that?" Luka asks.
   Pops puts a hand on each of our heads. I feel him all the way down.
   "I'm done with it," he says.
   In the morning, though, I find him passed out on the sofa, the flask on the floor next to him. Scuffed and dented, but alive.


 

   The adventure continues. This motel, it smells like mold and ass, but it's a quick bus ride from the city, and I met this musician, Ronny's his name, and he's showing me the ropes. Where to get gigs and whatnot. Got one lined up for Saturday night. And I got a job now, so I'm less of a tourist! It's not much, just some souvenir shop downtown, but it's money. I sell t-shirts and keychains, fake leather boots, cowboy hats, all that shit. Tell your father I'll bring him back a Nashville shot glass, ha ha. Do you think he misses me, Wren?

   He misses you like crazy, I whisper into the phone.
   He cries for you every night, I lie.


 

   86 days. I'm on my back, only a thin Mickey Mouse towel between the hot pavement of the roof and my skin. I wear a two-piece bathing suit and some expired sunscreen. The inside of my eyelids is red.
   Charleston summers are weighted down to the grave, not just by humidity but also by tourists. Buggy rides slow the traffic, and only the sea breeze relieves the stink of horseshit. When it rains, the streets flood. I swear one day the peninsula will sink, and then we'll be number zero instead of number one. Sometimes the tourists wander by our house. We've learned to recognize them by the confusion in their voices. They say things like ghetto and slummy. They're lost, these tourists. They've taken the wrong alleyway and wound up on a sidewalk with shards of glass in its cracks, shadowed by tall, crooked homes.
   Luka throws pennies at them.
   "Goddammit. Missed again."
   The penny experiment: if thrown from a great height, a penny will kill the person it strikes. I call bullshit, but Luka questions everything now, he must see it for himself.
   "What if you hurt someone?"
   He wipes sweat from his forehead. "Someone has to be the sacrifice."
   We spend most days on the roof. When it storms, we shout and dance with relief. Hold our hands up and dare the lightning to mess with us. I smack Luka with my wet hair. Usually, though, the sun bares down on us from a mean white sky. We stay out even when we see black spots and grow dizzy. I've come to like the feeling. How my hands seem faraway in front of my face, how my body turns to liquid. My head is both light and heavy. We burnt red first, but now we're brown and coarse.
   If Mama were here, she'd take us swimming. Each summer, she bought us new swimsuits, fresh towels, made sure our hair was brushed, and we walked into one of the hotels sprinkled around Charleston as if we were guests. As if we belonged. Mama's like that, she can make anyone believe. We must have visited at least ten different hotels each summer, and nobody ever said a thing. Mama stretched out on a lounge chair while me and Luka swam. He always hesitated to go in before me, so sometimes, when he wasn't looking, I pushed him from behind. The splash of his small body against the surface of the water, the way he disappeared for a moment. The surprised betrayal on his face. Even when he gasped for air and cried to Mama, even when she popped me on the behind in front of everyone, the feeling of his body there and then gone–how I made that happen–was worth it.
   Now, before his shirt becomes sweat-soaked and he peels it off, I pretend to shove him off the roof. Even after several days in a row, he still puts himself in a vulnerable position next to the edge. He watches the sidewalk, ready to throw his pennies, and I sneak up behind him and push. I keep hold of his t-shirt, though. Yank him back toward me so hard we both nearly fall backwards.
   Again, the betrayal. The dumb shock.
   Only this time, there's nobody to tell. He just grows quiet, refuses to look at me for a while, and I almost miss his snot-nosed cry, the sting on my ass. Mama saying, Wren Marie, you stop that shit. Now there's just the quiet. There's just the sun.


 

   98 days. He doesn't have to tell us. We know.
   I sit in a dusty corner of the living room. The only light is the flash of TV and the cell phone screen. Again, I dare: Pops lost his job. We'll starve if you don't come home.
   He becomes obsessed with the TV. We don't have cable, but mornings he uses the rabbit ears to watch the news. During the day, infomercials. Nights, reruns of sitcoms and more news.
   Gas prices, Obama, fucking liberals, the job market, sex slaves, people being shot in our own city. Pops is concerned about it all, and we're to keep quiet. We no longer play in the living room, where Pops melts into the couch and yells at the TV. We've been banned.
   Luka begins to wet the bed. We sleep together most nights now, greasy head to dirty toe. Usually I'm the first to feel the warm wetness. Too tired to be angry, I nudge Luka awake and we move to the other bedroom, to the clean bed. When both sets of sheets are dirty, I wash them. The apartment is stuffy, the heat always here, even at night. Pops says we can't afford air conditioning. Says we have ceiling fans. We have cold showers.
   "But Pops, we're out of Cokes."
   "The weatherman said we're melting."
   Volume up. Skeleton eyes. The flask never full, never empty.
   "We're fine. Go play."

   Words are useless, I decide. Words are shallow underneath, red hearts with black centers. Words betray.
   So I do the logical thing: I stop talking. Instead, I use hand motions only Luka understands, and I vow to never call Mama again. What's the use? Is she even listening?
   We paint on Pops by the light of the TV.
   Music.
   That's what we paint.
   All the music we cannot hear. Mama showed us how.


 

   One million years later, on a humid morning, Pops shaves and says, "Store." Finally. We walk with him to the Piggly Wiggly. He smokes cigarettes, tosses the butts into front yards. His arms and legs are covered in the music. At the store, he gives us cash and we purchase the essentials—birthday cake ice cream, Easy Mac, frozen pizza, Coke—while Pops goes across the street to the drinking store.
   He's a good Pops.
   We will be nourished.
   Me and Luka each carry a plastic bag of food home, and Pops takes the rest. He puts his brown bag inside one of the plastics, then whistles and skips to make us laugh. The music cries as it melts.
   I'm still hungry after we eat the pizza. Pops has claimed the living room, and I stand in front of the dresser in his and Mama's bedroom. Her makeup is scattered before me. Hot red lipstick, monster-purple eyeshadow, tongue-colored blush. All the beauty she left behind. I apply cream over the freckles on my nose. Rub the red over my lips and smack them together like I've seen Mama do. Next the blush, the eye shadow, I want to wear it all.
   Her latest words: Like the strings on a guitar turn to rust. Nothing lasts, my sweet Wren. Nothing stays the same. The exception is a mother's love for her children.


   The makeup feels greasy in the sun. Luka throws a penny. Two seconds later, he holds his hands in the air and shouts, "Success!"
   Below, a woman's voice: "Hey!"
   I spring from my towel, and everything goes black. Once the light returns, I look down at the sidewalk, where a pony-tailed woman squints up at the roof. She shakes the penny at us and grips the handle of a red stroller. Only the baby's fat legs are visible. "Little bastards!" she yells. Beads of sweat shimmer on her forehead. She turns and throws the penny down the street. I can barely hear it against the pavement. When she walks away, her knuckles are mad white against the stroller's handle, and I think of Mama, how she towered over Pops when he was too drunk to stand, her fists clenched, her words a series of bullets: my babies, my babies, what about my babies.
   What about us now, Mama?
   Luka wanders along the edge of the roof, arms out. He's barefoot despite the hot concrete, his t-shirt plastered to his skin. "You were right," he says. "Can't kill no one with a penny. ‘Specially not that bitch."
   When he looks at me, I roll my eyes. ‘Course I was right.
   "I think I'm drunk," he says. "My head feels like a bag of wet sand."
   He lets his head go limp as he walks the edge. I stumble around with him, and we make drunk moaning sounds and bump into each other. Luka in his sweaty t-shirt, me in my two-piece. "Little bastards," he says. "Little bastards."
   And I shove him in the chest.
   Maybe it was the thought of Mama that made me do it. Her clenched fists. Maybe it was the woman Luka hit with the penny. That kind of anger, where does it come from, I want to be engulfed by it.
   I grab for his shirt, but this time, I miss. The shirt's too soaked, his body too slippery.
   Nothing lasts.
   We look at each other for a second before he goes down. His mouth open, eyes wide, reaching for me. But there's a knowing in his eyes too, as if together we planned this moment, as if we could find no other way.
   One side of the roof overlooks a narrow space between the neighbor's house and ours. Dead grass and wide-open trash bins and curtained windows. Three stories down. He hits a trash bin first, white bags of our own filth his only cushion. The sound of bone against plastic a punch to my gut. He lands on his side in the grass, sprawled out yet also curled into himself.
   I can't look.
   I set my eyes on the church steeple instead, the cross white in the sun, and after being mute for a week, my voice suddenly stumbles up my throat, into my mouth, like a river of rocks, and I scream. When I place my hands over my ears, the scream is even louder inside of me. I look down, finally, and see Luka curl further into himself.
   "Wren! Hey, Wren!"
   Pops.
   Behind me, on hands and knees after climbing from the window. His forehead scrunched into a thousand tiny lines. "Goddamn, Wren, what is it?"
   I point to the ground.
   "Luka?" Pops asks, and I nod.
   I follow him through the window, we push against walls for momentum, and all I can think is please don't die. Downstairs, a few people stop to watch until Marion comes out and glares at them. She wears a dress that looks like wallpaper, and her gray hair is pulled back tight. While Pops calls the ambulance, she hands me two plastic grocery bags full of ice cubes. "It's his left arm," she says. "And his forehead."
   I look and then wish I hadn't. First, the head. A golf-ball welt the color of morning rainclouds. I want to cover it with my hand. Smash it back into place.
   Then, the arm. The bone's in the wrong place, the skin stretched thin.
   Marion eases Luka onto his back. His face is red, scrunched, and he groans. She motions for me to help. "Hold the ice on the arm," she says. She takes the other bag and places it on the welt, her other hand on his cheek. Her fingers are long like Mama's, wrinkled yet soft. Luka cringes at the ice, but he begins to calm when she touches him.
   My hands shake as I press the ice on his arm. The crackly sound of the bag and Luka's groaning and Pops saying they're coming, they're coming.
   Pops kneels at Luka's feet, rubs his leg. Smudges of paint are smeared on his arms and neck. "What happened?"
   I clench my jaw and squeeze the rough edges of ice through the plastic bag. I pushed him, I pushed him, I pushed him.
   But it's Luka who speaks. His voice comes out wet with snot and tears. "I tripped," he says. "I'm sorry, Pops."
   "You shouldn't of even been up there," Pops says. He looks to Marion, panic in his eyes. I smell the drink on his breath when he speaks. "I'm sorry—I didn't know."
   Marion shakes her head. This whole time she's remained calmer than anyone. She must know about us, about my mother. "It's okay," she says, and I believe her.
   Sirens in the distance. Pops and Marion head for the street, and it's just Luka and me now. The stench of trash and sunlight and our own bodies between us. Despite his cringe, Luka looks at me the same way he always has, and I know neither of us will ever say what really happened on the roof. We'll own it together. I reach into the plastic bag and pull out a piece of ice. He opens his mouth, and I place the ice on his tongue.
   He crunches on it and says, "Mama?"
   "No. Wren."
   "You're all fuzzy."
   I touch my cheek. My fingers come away covered in Mama's makeup, her leftovers, all these colors I've tried to keep.


 

   I call her on Marion's phone. Luka puked pink sandwich on dead grass, and then the ambulance took him and Pops away. Marion insisted I stay with her. Soon as I stepped inside, cold air wrapped its fingers around my bones. Suddenly I became aware of my exposed skin in the two-piece, my makeup-caked face, stringy hair down my back. The portrait of Marion's husband seemed appalled.
   She directed me to the kitchen. Marion's the only person I know who doesn't have a cellphone, or at least a cordless. Hers hangs on the kitchen wall, the cord like one long strand of curly hair. I wrap it around my body now and listen to the ringing. Brace myself for the singsong voices of my brother and me.
   "Mm, hello?"
   What do I say? Can forever be spoken in one breath?
   Again, my mother: "Hello?"
   The words that finally come to me are so obvious: "You answered."
   "Wren?"
   "I'm on Marion's phone," I say, and here are the stupid tears. Gulps of them in my eyes, down my face, fat drops on the kitchen floor.
   "Did your father do something?" She mumbles to someone in the background. I imagine her hand over the speaker, the cellphone shrouded by her hair. My babies, my babies. Then, to me: "Say, what's going on?"
   "Luka." Just his name brings on a new wave. "He's hurt."
   "Hurt how?"
   Marion peeks at me from the kitchen doorway, then disappears.
   "Wren? Hurt how?"
   "Will you please just come home, Mama?"
   "Are you fibbing?"
   I suddenly feel the urge to scream like I did on the roof, only this time the scream boils rage red in my throat. "You need to come home," I say. My voice goes stern, the same voice I sometimes use on Luka. "I swear to God, I'll hate you forever if you don't come home right now."
   "Honey."
   "Will you?"
   A woman's high-pitched laugh in the background. The sound of rock ‘n roll.
   My mother again: "Honey, I know this is hard for you."
   Maybe I should just agree. Tell her about painting Pops, the fireworks, the bed-wetting. But something inside of me slams shut, and I want it to stay that way.
   "Fuck this," I say.
   "Jesus. Let me talk to your father."
   "He's not here." I reach up to the receiver, press down the hook.
   Later, when I replay it in my head, I only regret that last line: He's not here. Because those words, to my mother, meant Pops was drunk. Why didn't I say he was at the hospital? Why didn't I say he was with Luka? But it doesn't matter. I understand now.


 

   119 days.
   Since she's brushed the tangles from my hair.
   Since her voice has rolled like the sea through the house, splashed against the walls and caked us in salt.
   I miss her singing the most. We always knew when Mama was home. We could tell her mood by the songs. A low hum meant to leave her alone. The Beatles meant she was happy: here comes the sun, little darling.
   Now there's only the creak of swollen doorways. There's a tired and three-day sober Pops. He wears the spaghetti stains of a new Italian restaurant. For Luka, there's a lime green cast, bent at the elbow. A brain shaken like a broken doll. Concussion, they call it. And there are two special markers the color of a bruise.
   Luka wakes crying for her the night before school starts back. I no longer sleep in the same bed with him since the cast, afraid he'll accidentally whack me with it. But when I hear him cry, I make my way across the space between our bedrooms. Dull blue light on the hardwood floor, dust at my feet.
   "Luka, it's okay."
   "Mama?"
   I turn on the bedroom light. His floor is all clothes and race cars and Legos.
   "Still just me."
   He sits up and squints, his cheeks wet. He's shirtless, end-of-summer tan.
   "Where's the markers?" I ask.
   He grabs one from the bedside table, hands it to me. I sit next to him, say, "Hold steady."
   We've already drawn a few stars and puppies on the cast. But there's an opening on his forearm, and this is where I draw my face. Just like on Pops. For Luka, I make my mouth into a wide, purple smile.
   "Is that Mama?" he asks.
   I draw my hair, shake my head no.
   "I want Mama."
   I need to say something or he'll cry, but I don't know what. Pops was wrong, there's no magic. There's just me. In my head, I can still hear Luka's lie: I tripped. And the lies Pops used to tell Mama: I haven't had a drink. Work was good today. These lies are like little air bubbles we release to each other beneath a dark sea. Take this, we whisper. You'll need it to survive.
   But I want to give Luka what's real.
   "I talked to her, you know," I say. "When you were at the hospital."
   "You did not."
   "Did, too." My purple eyes, pupils round. "I told her she has to come home since you're hurt."
   "Yeah? What'd she say?"
   My smile, darkening from purple to black. I have to say this the right way. "She's not ready yet."
   He makes a sniffling sound, and I know he's trying not to cry. "Well, when?" he asks.
   "I don't know." I press down hard on the cast, force the marker to give me everything, and I say what I've been afraid of all along. "Maybe never."
   Luka stares at the cast, my unfinished face, thinking. Then he breathes, his belly expands, in and out, and I continue to fill in the lines.

 

ROSANNA DURST has an M.A. in English from the College of Charleston, where she now teaches freshman composition. Her work has appeared in Yalobusha Review, Flyleaf Journal, and The Mighty. She lives in the Lowcountry with her husband, Thomas, and their three rescue dogs. This story is the basis for a novel she’s currently at work on.