I'm the Girl excerpt (cont'd)
continued from part three
“Was I at Aspera?”
The shape of my brother stands at the window, staring out at the hospital’s parking lot view. I don’t realize I’ve asked the question aloud until he moves to my bed, reaching for the cup of water on the stand beside it. Ice rattles against plastic as he brings the straw to my lips and then: a cold miracle against the sandpapered insides of my throat. Beyond my room, the soft sounds of doctors and orderlies moving down the corridor, beds being rolled from one place to another, beeps from machines I wouldn’t know the names of . . .
Tyler comes into focus slowly, his thick brown hair knotted in a bun at the back of his head. The cold white glow of the room’s lights cast the lines in his light brown face in sharp relief. He works construction all day, every day, the wear and tear of the job belying his thirty years. Mom had him when she was twenty-seven and then I came along, an accident when she was forty-one. He got the benefit of her youth and the heart that body housed, and I got—something else. We don’t look the same. Different dads. Mine was a fuck-and-run, the way Mom told it, but Tyler’s is Tony Ruiz. Lives down in Roanoke. Tyler visits him sometimes, but mostly keeps him at an arm’s length, like if Mom couldn’t make it work with him, he shouldn’t either.
That loyalty to her is the difference between us.
“Sheriff Watt’s going to come down to the house tomorrow to question you,” he says. “I might put him off a little longer. Doc Abrams says it’s important you rest.”
“I’ll be okay tomorrow.”
“Tell that to me when you’re not hooked up to the good stuff.”
I breathe in, the chemical clean of the hospital coating my tongue.
“What’s he going to ask me?”
“I’m sure he’ll want to know anything you can tell him about the car that hit you, its driver . . . the body. Maybe what you were doing out on that road.”
I close my eyes and some of what I see there is more than I want to see, but the rest is like an overdeveloped negative, details all blown out. I can’t remember the car, can’t conjure the face belonging to the person driving it.
Footprints around my body.
My bike, my phone, gone.
I open my eyes.
I suddenly feel like I survived more than I realized.
“He thinks it’s connected?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like how it’s looking.”
I stare at my IV line. The painkillers keep me from my concussion, my broken arm, from skin turned raw meat and all my newly stitched together places. I wish it would keep me from other things too. I’m not as numb as I want to be. I’m more awake than I’d like. Tyler sits in the chair next to my bed and leans forward, his shoulders slumped.
“Just heard this morning about the James kid. She was missing a couple days. Can’t fuckin’ believe it took this long to reach our side of town . . . white girl, cop’s daughter.” He lets out a breath, his fingers twitching, itching, I know, for that pack of Camels he keeps lovingly tucked in his shirt pocket. They’ll kill him one day, just like they did Mom, and I don’t want to be around for it when it happens. “Ashley James, goddamn. She’s not much younger than you. Her sister in your grade or older?”
Nora. “Older. Seventeen. She just graduated early.” I close my eyes and there’s a memory there: “She invited me to her birthday once . . . Mom wouldn’t let me go.”
“Right,” Tyler says slowly. “I remember that.”
When I was thirteen . . . and I got so angry, I ran away from home . . . all the way out to a dirt road . . . and a car pulled up beside me . . .
“Ashley the one always getting into shit?”
There are stories about her, but people are always careful in their retellings, just in case Justin James ever finds out who’s been saying what about his baby girl. Ashley James: a wild little thing. Ashley James: paints ten years onto her face every day and sneaks out every night. Ashley James: always on the lookout for the kind of trouble she one day won’t be able to get herself out of. Ashley James: dead.
“What the hell were you doing out there, George?”
I shift, the crisp sheets painful against my tender skin.
“I went to the mall to get your money back.”
He scrubs his hand down his face. The pull of his skin makes him look even older and even more exhausted in this light. “I said I’d take care of it.”
His voice is tight, still mad at me, and my chest gets just as tight at the thought of him trying to “take care of it.”
“There’s nothing to take care of. He wouldn’t give it to me. But I was thinking.” I hesitate. “I could earn it back instead.”
“Yeah? And how you gonna do that?”
He looks at me. “You kidding? That’s where you were headed?”
“I could be an Aspera girl.”
“I’m sixteen,” I say, and he rises angrily to his feet. “I could work there now. If they took me on, I could make back half what I owe you in one summer—”
“Mom would roll over in her grave,” he hisses, “that place killed her—”
“She had no fight left in her—where do you think it went?” I wince, and he lowers his voice but it doesn’t do much to soften it. “What do you think you’re going to prove, huh? What’s got into you? Some man at a pop-up shop tells you you can be a model, so you steal four grand from me for a photoshoot and now you’re begging a job at Aspera after what they did to Mom? You want to earn back what you owe me, Mac’s Convenience is hiring—”
“I’m not working there.”
“If I don’t get my money back, George, you might not have a choice.”
I press my knuckles against my forehead, tears pooling at the corners of my eyes, and let out a shaky breath. Tyler sighs.
I nod. He gives me another drink of water.
“We shouldn’t even be talking about this now.” He sets the glass down. “You’re—you need rest. So do I. It’s been a long fucking day.”
“Yeah,” I say.
He rests his hand on the top of my head, his thumb lightly stroking my forehead as the warm hold of the drugs take over. The hard lines of his face smooth as I drift, and as I drift he keeps his hand there. I know I’m not an easy person to love, and the times I really feel it are the times I’m asking it of him the most.
“Besides,” he says quietly as my eyes close, “you forget the part where the Hayeses don’t want to see an Avis pass through that gate ever again?”
I struggle to stay awake. It’s a losing battle, but I have to know. Because the road, the car, and the body feels like it happened today, but everything after . . . her . . .
“But I was there. Wasn’t I?”
Feels like a dream.
“Yeah,” he finally answers. “You were.”
This excerpt of I’m the Girl will continue in Courtney Summers’s June 1st newsletter. I’m the Girl is now available for request on NetGalley.
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