Read an Excerpt
Bleed Like Me
I wasn’t supposed to be born. My mom’s doctors had told her over and over that severe endometrial scarring would make it practically impossible for her to carry a baby. But my infant self didn’t care about scarring. Or the partial hysterectomy Mom had to get after my delivery. And for most of my childhood, we were happy in our little pod of three—Mom, Dad, me. Until my parents got a different notion about the magic number three: adopting three boys from Guatemala.
And I learned to disappear.
It was easier for everyone. I became the quiet one. The one who didn’t drain my parents of everything they had. Pathetic as it might sound, going to school and working at the Standard Hardware were the good things in my life. When I wasn’t there, I was tucked away in my bedroom, coming out only to referee arguments between Mom and my brothers when one of the neighbors called about the noise. Or to help when Mom gave me the ragged, desperate face she had on now as I stood at the open front door. Her gray roots were an inch thick at the crown of her head, and she was wearing the same outfit she slipped on every day after work: stained, discolored T-shirt, saggy sweatpants with too-loose elastic at the waist.
“Luis has locked himself in the bathroom again and Alex won’t eat any of his snack until Luis comes out.” Her exhausted voice passed through me. I’d heard it for almost five years, too long to even remember what the Mom of my childhood sounded like.
I dropped my messenger bag at my feet and opened the drawer of the small side table next to the overloaded coatrack in the hall. I plucked one of the emergency hotel key cards from its box and took the stairs two at a time. My heavy boots squeaked on the scuffed hardwood. The loud explosions from Miguel’s Call of Duty game echoed from the living room.
I pounded on the bathroom door at the top of the stairs. “Luis. Get out of there.”
Jesus. What did the other fifth graders think of this kid? He spent more time in the guidance counselor’s office than in his own classroom. But no amount of “be respectful and appropriate” lecturing from my parents or school officials made a dent in his colorful vocabulary.
I shimmied the card along the edge of the doorjamb, wiggling it into just the right spot. Click. I swung the door open. The bathroom was trashed. Toilet paper and shaving cream were everywhere. A bottle of cough syrup sat sideways on the sink, its contents spilled all over the toothpaste and toothbrushes. Not quite a childproof cap after all.
Luis stood with his arms crossed. Brown, unapologetic face, black eyes boring into me as if I were personally responsible for the crap state of his life. “That cunt won’t let me play video games.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. He’d trashed the bathroom over a video game? I shook my head. Mom didn’t deserve this even if she did sign up for it. “Clean it up.”
“Clean it up or I’ll hide Alex’s blankie.”
His eyes flared in alarm and then burned in hatred. The kid didn’t care one bit about himself, but threaten one of his brothers and he came out swinging. He snatched a washcloth from the drawer and dropped it onto the cough syrup mess. “I’m gonna get my brothers out of this shithole. Soon.”
“I’m first,” I mumbled.
“What?” he asked, pausing in his half-assed cleanup job. “What did you say?”
I pointed to the washcloth and he started sopping up the mess again. His thin shoulders shook as he muttered curses. I called down the stairs to Mom, “He’s out. Tell Alex he’ll be there in five minutes.”
• • •
“I need to go to the library to study,” I said at dinner, pushing leftover spaghetti across my plastic plate.
Dinner was the worst time of the day. The “pretend we’re a happy family” time where cell phones weren’t allowed and we all had to announce two things we’d learned in school. Two. Things. Did my parents ever even go to high school?
Mom had become an expert in making every meal in under eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes was the maximum allowable time she could leave the boys without chaos erupting. I had no idea how she’d figured this out statistically, but I trusted her on it and got used to dinners that came frozen in bags or popped out of the microwave. Family “together” time was loud boys barking orders at Mom.
My parents had adopted my brothers off the streets of Guatemala City when they were six, four, and three. They were only going to take one of them, but they could tell the brothers were bonded and they wanted to keep them as a unit. We’d had so many family discussions about the benefits of siblings. I was twelve then and just starting to get pissy about being the sole focus of my parents’ relentless hovering. Mom stared at babies everywhere we went, then came home and gushed about how her sister had been her best friend growing up. The sister who’d moved to Germany and rarely called anymore. My dad said he’d always wanted brothers. They both promised it would change all our lives. It did, but not like any of us expected.
“I need to go to the library to study,” I said again, between Luis’s demands for more milk and Alex’s complaints about how he got too many tomato chunks in his sauce.
“I need to go to the library to study.” Repeating sentences three times gave me the best chance of them actually sinking in.
I hadn’t been to the library since seventh grade. But I was testing out the ratio of success in getting away from my brothers. Good lies need to be tucked away for emergency use. Most people don’t realize this and use them too frequently, so they’re no longer effective. Big mistake.
“You can study here,” Mom answered, the desperate “don’t leave me with these monsters” look flashing across her face.
“It’s too loud and—” Before I could finish, Luis snatched Miguel’s dinner roll from his plate, and then Miguel punched him hard enough to make Luis squeal.
Cue sibling fistfight number three. A new record for family dinner.
I scraped my half-eaten spaghetti into the trash and ran upstairs while Mom pulled the boys apart. I glanced in the mirror: jeans, black T-shirt, hoodie, boots, stripy hair, chain necklaces, too-pale face, too-thin body. Still the same me. Sometimes I would squint when I looked in the mirror and imagine I was someone else living a different life, but the blur never lasted. The dinginess of my room and the hollowness of my eyes always broke the illusion.
My boots thunked on the stairs as I headed back down, grabbing my bag before returning to the kitchen. When I walked in, Mom was standing at the counter, dropping more dinner rolls onto a baking sheet and lecturing the boys about how they should just ask her to make more if they’re still hungry.
“Okay, I’m going.”
“Be back before ten.” Mom waved at me and continued her lecture. Alex flashed his missing-tooth grin and then flipped me off as Mom turned away. Nice. Miguel and Luis were kicking each other under the kitchen table when I walked out. A crash followed by a shriek from Mom punctuated the door click behind me.
• • •
The skate park stayed open until eight on weeknights in September, closing for the season on October first. I walked to it on autopilot, having spent so many summer afternoons watching my brothers fly up and down the ramps. They bitched endlessly about the helmet requirement, but after two trips to the ER for stitches, they’d gotten the point about head injuries.
The night was cool and quiet. I parked myself on top of the high hill I normally sat on to watch the hard-core skaters practice. A chain-link fence surrounded the ramps, and on a clear night I could see the blinking lights of the Chicago skyline in the distance. I lit a menthol cigarette and blew rings of smoke toward the dusky sky. I shut my eyes and listened to the boards zipping down ramps and the low voices trash talking and laughing. Did my parents ever watch me at the skate park when I was younger? Before the boys and all the trouble? I couldn’t remember.
“Skate girl, huh?” a voice broke into my cocoon, and I blinked the menthol buzz away. A tall, too-thin boy stood in front of me, smirking. A bright blue patch of hair dropped in front of his left eye, and a retro Sex Pistols shirt clung to his lanky frame.
“What?” I blinked again and shook my head.
He gave me a small smile and shrugged. His eyes traced over me, and it took everything I had not to cross my arms over my chest and move away.
“Why aren’t you with the rest of the chain-smokers at the Punkin’ Donuts?” he said. He took a step toward me, and I slid back so I could see him better. My eyes dropped to the aerosol can and paper bag he held.
“What are you doing with that?”
He sprayed the can into the bag and stuck his face into the fumes. His chest puffed out as he inhaled. I pressed my hand into the grass beneath me, plucking at the cool wetness. Wetness I could feel along the back of my jeans.
He coughed and dropped the bag to his side. “Livening up the evening.”
I looked him over again. The rest of his hair was dark brown like his eyes. His jeans hung low on his hips, but not in the annoying way where they practically fall off. The bones of his shoulders jutted out from his shirt. He grinned at me, slightly dazed.
“Is something wrong with you?”
“Nope,” he said, and the grin cocked up even higher on the side of his mouth not hidden by hair.
“You sure? No one huffs here. It’s country.”
“Country?” He shook the can again.
“Yeah, as in it’s for idiots who can’t find better drugs.”
He chuckled, and I stared at the way his hair fell across his dark eyes and clear skin. No acne. How does this even happen to guys? He brushed his long fingers over his mouth, and I followed them as they fell back to his side. Hands have always been interesting to me, and his moved too gracefully in comparison to the rest of him. Like they didn’t know they were on the end of a sloppy boy.
“Well,” he said, dropping the can into the paper bag, “huffing wouldn’t be my first choice, but we’re in the suburbs. Sometimes you gotta work with what you’ve got.”
“We’re like three El stops from Chicago. My grandmother could score drugs in this town.”
He shrugged. “Maybe I like the fumes.” I looked him over again. The thumb of his left hand hooked in his jean pocket while his other fingers drummed against the denim.
“Huh. My brothers huffed on the streets of Guatemala to keep from getting too hungry.” Why’d I tell him that? Why was I even talking to him? Shit. Shit. Shit.
He took another half step toward me. “Yeah? Your brothers are from Guatemala?”
“Obviously.” He motioned to my pale face and blue eyes. Something was written on his palm. I squinted to see, but it was too blurred.
Enough. I stood up and grabbed my messenger bag. “Okay. Well, it was nice meeting you. I’m gonna go talk to some of the boarders.”
“What’s your name?” He reached out and fingered the hoops running up the side of my ear. I flinched and knocked his hand away. Goose bumps prickled along the back of my neck. It’d been too long since someone touched me.
I took a step around him. “Amelia Gannon. But no one calls me Amelia. It’s just Gannon.”
He pushed his hair off his face, and I saw a metal bar peeking from his eyebrow. “Gannon. Yeah, I like that.”
“Glad you approve. I live to please. Really.” I slid my pack of cigarettes into my pocket. I took a step to the side and he countered. People normally weren’t this interested in having a conversation with me. I crossed my leg behind me and stared at him for an uncomfortable amount of time. “So?”
His eyes looked glazed, and it occurred to me his interest might be more from the fume high than anything else. It made sense. I wasn’t exactly the kind of girl guys got in big conversations with, even random blue-haired boys with eyebrow piercings and nice hands.
“So what?” he said, reaching out to trace my hoops again.
“Dude, back off.” I grabbed his wrist and dug my nails in. “Why are you touching me?”
He dropped his hand. “I like your hoops. They’re sexy.”
My cheeks heated, but I squinted my eyes at him. “Listen, whatever your name is, you can’t just go around touching people. You’ll get your ass handed to you.”
He tilted his head back and laughed. His Adam’s apple bobbed along his slender neck. I gulped as something warm pooled in my stomach. Shit.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Are you a boarder?”
He snorted. “Fuck, no. I was never sober enough to learn when everyone else was figuring it out. Seems kind of stupid to try it now.”
“You mean when everyone learned in, like, fifth grade? One of those child addicts, eh?”
His face froze for a half second, but then he grinned. “Something like that.” He drummed his fingers on his jeans again. “So do you skate?”
“No. Not in a long time. Too busy working. I just come here for the amusement of watching guys fall on their asses.”
He grinned. “One of those types, then?”
He looked me up and down, and my stomach knotted. “The angry girls.”
My fingers tightened around the strap of my bag. “Not quite.”
He leaned closer. “Then what type are you?”
“I’m not any type.” I inched back. My strong instinct to bolt warred with the depressing realization that I had no place to go and the even sadder fact that this guy was the first guy in a long time to talk to me without asking for money or cigarettes.
“So where do you work?” he said, dropping to the grass and patting the spot next to him.
I didn’t move. “Standard Hardware.”
He patted the spot again. I stared at his fingers and tilted my head, trying to decide if he was being friendly or stalky. Chitchat wasn’t my strong suit, so it was hard to say. He released a sigh before yanking me next to him. I scrambled to get up, but then his hand touched my side and I froze.
“Relax, Gannon. It’s a nice night. I want to talk to you. You don’t have to be so cagey.”
I shifted away and narrowed my eyes. He offered me a goofy boy grin. I hugged my knees to my chest and focused on the boarders.
He grunted. “So a job at the hardware store must mean you know your way around tools?”
I couldn’t help smiling. “Yeah. Pretty much.”
His hands moved to the sleeve of my hoodie and he brushed away a piece of dried grass. His fingers lingered over the outside of my wrist before I snatched my hand away.
“I like girls who know their way around tools.”
“Are you being gross?”
He laughed and nudged me with his elbow. “That’s your head in the gutter, not mine.”
“What did you say your name was?”
“Michael Brooks. But Brooks to you. Okay?”
“So . . .”—he picked at a piece of loose string on the edge of my jeans—“do you want to hang out for a while?”
“Not really.” I had nowhere to go, but I still wasn’t sure about Mr. Grabby Hands Brooks. Or my weird response to him.
He chuckled. “You don’t like me?”
“You’re a little handsy for my taste.”
He laughed harder and pulled his hand back from the loose string. “Not normally. It must be something about you.”
It was a line. It had to be. But why was I being singled out to be on the receiving end of cheesy lines? “What are you talking about? You just met me.”
“I go to your school.”
I stretched my legs out in front of me. “Since when?”
“Three weeks ago. Haven’t you seen me?”
I turned to him and laughed in his face. “It’s a big school. And why would I have noticed you?”
“I’ve seen you,” he said, and shifted his knee so it touched mine. The warmth of his leg made me feel strange and, if I was being completely honest, a little bit good. “Come on. Let me walk you home.”
“You’re not walking me home. I’m not telling you where I live.”
“Okay, I’ll walk you somewhere else, then.”
“Who even said I was leaving?”
He nodded to the flickering street lamp behind us. “Skate park’s closing soon. What’re your plans for the rest of the evening? Is there any place else you’d like to watch guys fall on their asses?”
I pulled my phone out of my messenger bag to check the time. It was too early to consider going home. My brothers would still be up.
“I think I’ll stay here a little while longer.”
He inched close enough that his whole thigh pressed fully against mine. “Me too, then.”
I shrugged and tamped down the heat on my cheeks, grateful for the growing darkness. “Suit yourself.” I held out my pack of cigarettes. “Want one?”
He scoffed. “Filtered menthols? I don’t think so. I smoke real cigarettes.”
I lit another cigarette and dropped my lighter into my pocket. Smoke curled around me, and wetness from the ground seeped further into the back of my pants. But the warmth of Brooks’s too-close leg kept me from paying much attention to the cold discomfort. Neither of us said a word. I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing there in the first place, but somehow the question felt like an intrusion into the strange peace blanketing the night.