She lifts one finger to her lips. An unuttered shush forms. I inhale my own odor mixed with stale cigarette smoke. It’s a living metaphor of my state of mind.
I lack all grace as I rise to follow this ghost. She tightens her coat’s embrace though the air stifles my stride.
She doesn’t speak. She never looks back at me. I am her obedient soldier. She knows I’ll be right where I’ve been trained to be: five steps behind. I am slightly to the left of her exact path and far enough back that I can course correct. I don’t look forward, as she does. I look down, keeping the tips of my shoes glancing in and out of view.
She leaves the main road we’ve traveled and leads me down ever narrowing alleys. I still don’t talk, even when we are well past any danger of overhearing. Every footfall makes her existence more maddening.
How could she keep me out of the loop? The same way I’m kept out of all the loops.
“June-Bug!” I shout, jogging to catch up. She turns and offers only a withering glare. The dim alley shadows deepen as I enter the warehouse. I blink to allow my eyes to adjust.
“I’m sorry,” she says, her voice softer than her eyes. “You cannot call me that. And don’t say my legal name, either.”
I swallow the questions, the anger, that boil in my throat. Two folding chairs stand in a relatively clean corner of the open room. She takes one, rests elbows on knees, and runs her hands over her head three times. I sit. Wait. She presses her palms on both sides of her head – trying to push something in or force it out, I don’t know.
“You died. Let’s start there,” I say.
June-Bug leans back, bends one leg to rest by the ankle on the other leg.
“This is why we don’t tell you things.” The details of her countenance betray her quiet voice. “What were you thinking? Nope. I don’t want to know. You risked it all to have a good cry? Over me? It’s like you’re this neophyte.”
“You died,” I say once more, with feeling.
“No. Clearly I did not die. Kinda like you didn’t die a year ago.”
“How many people do you think can pull off that parlor trick, Juney?” Now I’m mad. “What could you possibly say that would make any sense at all?”
“Stop saying Juney or June or June-Bug. We are on incredibly thin ice already.”
We sit in silence for a bit. She looks away and I look at her. Her hair is cropped close to the scalp and pink. Evelyn’s trademark for killing off folks, I guess. She is wearing colored contacts and a fake scar crosses one cheek.
“Bet you still have those impressively white teeth,” I say, tentatively feeling out the girl.
She flashes her giant smile at me and winks. We laugh and let the noise fall away slowly.
“And neophyte? That’s what fancy living does to name calling. But what should I call you?” I ask. I must give in to the newest hijinks. I have no recourse.
“Pye,” she says.
“Like the food?”
“No. Try again!”
“Like the math thing?”
“What other pies are there?”
“It’s supposedly a double meaning. P-Y-E, short for pyro, and P-Y-E standing for ‘prove your existence’.”
“Aw, you know E.” She didn’t need to say more. We both know to do as E instructs, for E knows best. Or, at the least, it’s easiest if we do it her way the first time every time.
“So, Pye,” I draw it out as I turn over potential scenarios, “your parents kicked you out because you set fire to the family yacht?”
“Officially? My fosters put me out because their trash caught fire after a night of yelling and fighting and I ran away.”
“Where’s your accent?”
“It’s hard to be in character with you.”
“A while back I asked E to get me out of my parents’ house. Since Asa–,” tears rim her eyes but do not fall, “well, my dad used Asa’s story on the grief ticket. I couldn’t take it but E wouldn’t get me out until things were ‘in position’.”
“She played it well. I really thought…I couldn’t blame…Asa was just such a loss.” My words seem to abandon me when I need them most.
She inhales deeply and stands. “Well, I’m Pye. I have a similar arrangement as you have with Cindi. And I’m at your disposal, action-wise.”
“What are the instructions?”
“I was hoping you knew them,” she says.
“Business as usual, huh?”
“Business as usual.”