“If you’re worried about whether I have ulterior motives…”
“No, it’s not that, Jesus. I just worry…”
“It’s not just me. It’s me and Kat.”
“Kat’s three. It’s not like she’s gonna take up that much space…”
“You know what I mean.”
Jesse swigged his beer and nodded. “Yeah, I know what you mean. But the room’s pretty big and we can set up an extra bed.”
“And Alexa’s fine with this?” Megan knotted her brows. She twisted her wrists about so her own beer sloshed in the bottle.
“I don’t know. Guess she’ll have to be.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
Jesse shrugged. “You’re my friend. Leaving you in the cold seems a lot less fair.”
“But maybe more appropriate?”
“You’re sweet, but Jesus, I don’t wanna be a part of any world where abandoning your friends is considered appropriate.” He guzzled the rest of his beer and set the bottle on the porch, sliding a new one out of the six-pack in the same movement. He pried the cap off with a flick of a calloused thumb, offered her the bottle but she shook her head and sipped the one she had.
He couldn’t pretend he didn’t know what she was worried about. She and Alexa got on fine. Alexa was never worried when they hung out alone while she was at work. But having her in the back room? Out of work, so she was always there? Jesse worked mornings, Alexa worked afternoons. He and Megan would be alone together for hours, every day.
Well, not really. Kat would be there. But it wasn’t too hard to distract a three-year-old, was it?
“What are your other options?”
She shrugged. “No fuckin’ clue, man. I mean, I could head to Hawthorne where Kat’s dad is, but…” She sighed, wordlessly admitting she’d nearly prefer to be homeless. She swigged her beer. “No fuckin’ clue.”
“Alright, you’re crashin’ here then. You gotta.” He waved a hand to cut her off. “It’s out of our hands, woman. Until you can get something figured out, alright? I ain’t gonna leave ya to twist in the wind.”
She was quiet a long while. Her oak-brown hair fell over one shoulder and curled around her elbow. She had smooth skin with a tone like honey. He could never tell if her eyes were brown or green, but they were always sparkling. There was a single freckle on her nose, like a pin holding everything together. She was a looker, alright. Not that he ever looked, but others did. His buddy Dave. Alexa. His cousin Kim. And they didn’t mind bringing it up around him, either. Megan was beautiful. Looking at her now, he could easily see it.
But there’d never been that instinctive recognition. That lurch in the gut that told him when someone was pretty. Megan was beautiful, but somehow she was beautiful in everyone’s eyes but Jesse’s.
And damn, but do people get imaginative when you’re alone with someone pretty.
Jesse’s friend since sixth grade finished her beer, scooted lower into the porch swing, and stuck a leg out against the railing, softly rocking herself along. She seemed to be intensely studying the satin flat she was wearing, shimmering black against the whitewashed wood. “Thank you,” she nearly whispered.
Jesse took off his ball cap and dropped it over her outstretched foot. “No biggie,” he told her, then swigged his beer.
Well, how could she say no?
She liked Megan, a lot, actually. They always got along. She loved it when the three of them stayed up late together, drinking beer and laughing over stories from high school.
When all three of them were together.
Jesse was always home by three. Alexa was always home by seven. And Megan, at least for now, would always be home.
Moving her in had been easy enough. Megan’s life was sparse enough she could fit it all into a car trunk. When everything was unpacked and Kat’s bed was put together, Jesse left to grab pizza. Megan and Kat played in the kitchen. Alexa had left to pee, but now she stayed behind and stared into the mirror.
She put a hand against her cheeks, pushing against them so she didn’t look so much like a chipmunk. Her nose was round and looked a little mushed. Blond hair always a little too shiny, oily looking. She ran a finger behind her jaw on either side, feeling for the goddamn whiskers that always tried to grow there. It was the first, second, and third thing she always checked for in the morning, always with a pair of tweezers gripped like a six-shooter.
No one but Alexa saw this being who only came alive in the mirror. This creature that in Alexa’s mind could only just barely be called a woman. This thing that, she felt, she’d managed to hide from Jesse.
Megan was in the kitchen, sweaty in an old tee shirt stained with grape jelly. Bandanna holding her hair back from her dirty face. Movie star beautiful. Suffering but still so goddamn beautiful. Here, in this house.
Alexa touched up her foundation, and heard Jesse come in. Kat screamed in delight. She loved Jesse. Alexa felt something jerk violently somewhere in her heart.
She grabbed paper plates and plastic cups, poured juice for Kat and grabbed beers for everyone else. She watched Jesse toss his hat by the TV and run a hand through his rust-red crew cut. Even so short, it always looked like he was fighting a case of bed head. He rubbed at eyes that always looked a little puffy, like he’d just woken up. His face alternated between pale in tone and red from a swarm of freckles. He scratched at his neck, dotted red from acne that’d held on since he was sixteen.
Kat hugged his neck and flopped backward in his arm like Katherine Hepburn. Jesse hoisted her up and sat her down in Megan’s lap. He untangled himself and moved to Alexa. The whole time, he was moving toward her. They locked eyes, and there was the smile he only ever gave her. She knew this. She’d watched him around others. He only smiled like this, with his eyes and his lips, for her.
Megan and Kat picked at a slice of pizza. Kat told her gorgeous mother about her day at preschool. Jesse held Alexa close, telling her hello with a kiss.