Shelby bent and dropped the bouquet of lilacs she’d picked off someone’s bush onto her brother’s grave. New grass sprouted between the thin layer of straw that covered the loose soil. Two boys at school had bragged about coming to the cemetery and pissing on Ronnie’s tombstone. Everyone at their lunch table laughed until they noticed Shelby glaring at them. Then there was an uneasy silence. When she didn’t move, just kept staring, one of the boys said, “He deserved it. Even if he was your brother, you know he did it.” When she didn’t answer, he challenged, “Get lost, will you? What are you going to do about it?”
“I go to his grave every day,” she said. “I talk to him. He told me he didn’t do anything. He’s mad. He might come back and make everyone sorry for the lies they told.”
“Go away or I’m telling the teacher,” the boy said. “You’re as creepy as your brother was.”
Shelby smiled. “He wasn’t just creepy. He was dangerous. Remember that.” Now, she plopped on the ground beside the lilacs and rested her back against Ronnie’s granite stone. “Everyone’s talking about you, but you probably don’t care anymore, do you?” Shelby couldn’t remember a time in all of her thirteen years that people hadn’t whispered about her brother. Mom had told them over and over again to ignore it, that people could always find something to gossip about, but Ronnie had been different since Dad died, and the fire just made it worse.
First off, he always towered over the other kids his age, and he was skeletal thin. After the right side of his face and body were scarred by the fire, he refused to eat any solid food, surviving on liquids. And most notably, he stopped talking and never smiled. Not a word, not a curve of the lips.
Shelby took a box of juice from her backpack, opened it, and poured it into the freshly turned dirt. “Here. It’s your favorite. Grape juice, like at church.” Ronnie had loved sitting in a pew, staring at Jesus hanging on the cross.
A fly was attracted by the sweet odor of the juice and buzzed past. Shelby flipped out a hand, caught it, and smashed it on the ground. It didn’t move. It died fast, like Ronnie did.
“You know people always like to believe the worst,” she said, fluffing her backpack and using it as a pillow to soften the hard granite as she leaned against it once more. “They say there were signs all along if anyone had been paying attention. They say the Merrick boy was lucky that you were running so hard to get him that you didn’t pay enough attention and ran right out in front of that truck.”
She stopped to listen, as if Ronnie could defend himself from the grave. When he failed to reply, she went on. “They say that you didn’t start cutting yourself, making all those strange tattoo scars on your body until after Daddy fell off the loft in the barn. They say no one would have thought anything about that, only that it was a young boy feeling guilty because he’d yelled up to his dad at the wrong time and that he tried to punish himself because he felt so bad about it, but they say that the cat getting locked in the dryer was maybe too much coincidence, and the dog falling out of the boat too far from shore and drowning might not have been an accident. Now, they’re even wondering about the fire.”
A car pulled to the far side of the cemetery and an old woman got out to water flowers she’d put on her husband’s grave. Shelby waited for her to leave before she went on.
“People are stupid, aren’t they?” She gazed up at the clear blue sky and the leaves changing color on the trees by the gravel path. The flowers wouldn’t last much longer. Frost would wither them away. “You looked different and wouldn’t talk, so everyone stayed away from you. Only Mama knew how sensitive you were. Mama and me.” She opened the zipper of her backpack and pulled out her pocketknife. “Who’s going to let me cut them now to help me feel better? I shouldn’t have pushed Daddy when you called in for dinner, but he wouldn’t let me play with the new kittens in the hayloft. He said I was too little to know that I played too rough with the last litter, and that’s why they all died. It made me so mad.”
She pressed the blade against her upper thigh and watched blood trickle to the ground. The pain wasn’t as bad as she’d expected. It almost felt good. “The first time I cut you, it was an accident. And you punched me for it. That’s when the fire started. I couldn’t help it. I felt all hot and angry inside.”
She sighed. “I didn’t mean for you to get burned. Well, not so much. Maybe just a little. But after that, you let me cut you. You knew it helped me try to be good. And both of us were afraid of what I might do. Well, you more than me. That’s why you were chasing Tommy Merrick.”
A tear slid down her cheek and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. “I know he didn’t mean to spill fruit punch down the front of my new khakis. But he didn’t have to laugh about it and tell everyone I’d finally started my period. That was nasty. And I was really mad, and you could tell. But I wasn’t going to hurt him…much. You shouldn’t have chased after him to try to warn him. You should have just left things alone. Then you’d still be here.”
She pressed the knife blade perpendicular to the first cut, making a cross. That was the first design she tattooed into Ronnie. After that, there was the sign of the fish. And after that . . . She smiled. If she could just remember, she’d do her best to duplicate each and every symbol. And when she looked at them, she’d try to remember what a good and wonderful person Ronnie was. And she’d do her best to be just like him.
Another fly buzzed near, drawn by the blood. She gave it a quick smack with both hands and it fell to the ground, stunned. Smiling, she tore off one wing, then another. Feeling better, she grabbed her backpack and started for home.
(This was first published in it’s a mystery, tales of intrigue an anthology that I contributed to with Emily Jean Carroll, published by Publish America.)