Living with Bev turned out to be easier than living at home. There were no uncomfortable silences, no pretending everything was fine when it wasn’t, no fights that ended when I walked into the room. We fell into a routine quickly—we both woke to her alarm, and while she took a shower, I ate a quick breakfast and made coffee.

I made sure to call my parents during my first Saturday evening in Huntington Beach, mostly so they wouldn’t worry. I didn’t have much to tell about my new home, and they had nothing to say about my old one. But at least they knew I was still alive.

“Hey, Bev?” At her absentminded hum of acknowledgement, I swallowed against the sudden nerves and sat next to her on the couch. “My birthday is in a couple days.”

“I know.”

“Well, I was, uh, I was wondering if you’d give me my first tattoo. I mean, I’d pay for it, obviously, but I want you to do it.”

My aunt finally looked up from the magazine in her hands, blinking owlishly for a second. Then her brain caught up to the conversation. “You realise your mom might actually kill me, right?”

“She won’t care. She doesn’t care about much lately,” I muttered as I picked at a thread dangling from the hem of my shorts,

“Oh, honey, she cares. She does. She just—”

“Has a hard time showing it now, I know.”

“No, sweetheart, I don’t think you do.” Bev sighed, setting her magazine on the coffee-table, and turned to me. “I don’t have kids, as you know. That’s of my own choice. But your mom? She’s wanted to be a mother since she got her first baby doll at three. She got her wish twenty-one years ago when Sophie was born, and then you came along, and Theresa was over the moon. All she ever wanted was now a reality.

“So Sophie running away isn’t something anyone could easily move past, least of all your mother. Most parents could function well enough if they lost a child. It’d hurt like Hell, and some days, they’d be ghosts of who they were. But your mom took it as a failure on her part, and she lost half the reason why she’s even a mom in the first place.”

“So I should be more understanding?”

“You’re a teenager. Mature for your age, but still a teenager. I think we all expect you to not be understanding. And… I like to think you’ve done a good job of being understanding toward Theresa’s feelings, even if you couldn’t quite grasp the depth of them.”

I blew out a breath, slumping into the cushion. Bev was right—of course I’d tried my best to not show my anger at my mom for forgetting she still had another daughter, at my father for shutting everyone out so he could block off the pain of losing my sister. Why would I have made an impossible situation worse? But it was harder to listen to Bev explaining just how deeply my mother was hurting, even if she never put it into words.

“Now about that tattoo. If your parents ask, you tell them it was some redneck in a dark alley who did it.”

“Seriously? You’ll do it? Oh, my god, Bev, you’re the best!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Got an idea of what you want?”

I nodded and hurried to my room to grab the sheet of paper with the design I wanted. She stared at it for a long minute then glanced up at me. Shrugging, I explained my reasons, why it was the only thing I could think to have put into my skin. She seemed to accept it, handing it back, and said I could use the shop’s computer to tidy it up.

The fifth of June arrived quickly. I’d spent the last three days growing steadily more anxious about my request. I trusted Bev to do a terrific job—I’d seen her work often enough that there was no doubt that she could do this—but the design I wanted was unorthodox, especially for someone’s first tattoo. Words instead of some small piece of art, but they were words that meant the most to me.

Malcolm nudged me with his shoulder, leaning his weight back on his elbows as he soaked up the sun. Waves crashed against shore, children laughed and birds shrieked. A sticky sort of sweat covered my skin as I breathed in the salty air. My mother was right: I was born a West Coaster in a Midwesterner’s body.

Bev had closed the shop for today, and though it puzzled all of us, no one questioned her choices. She made sure to assure me that she had this day blocked off on the schedule anyway, so it wasn’t like she was losing money or customer satisfaction. It was a small comfort, really, one that I latched onto with both hands.

Spending my eighteenth birthday on the beach was probably the best idea my aunt could have had. It was humid, sure, but not the oppressive thick moisture of summertime in Indiana. I felt… free, even with the thoughts that plagued me as I sat, drinking in the mid-morning heat.


I’d only spent one birthday with him and his family, and yet I couldn’t help but wish they were here, too. Anne and Bev would get along spectacularly, both of them nurturing without being overprotective. Robin and Malcolm had the same sort of quiet humour, and Dray would have had Gemma laughing within seconds.

But all I wanted was to spend another day—Hell, another minute—with Harry. Sighing, I shoved my sunglasses into place on my nose and stretched out my legs. Dray waved from where he was half-buried in the sand, a floppy side-brimmed hat perched precariously on top of his head as kids dumped bucketfuls of sand over his torso. Trix laid to my left, her dark skin gleaming with sweat, and her braids wrapped around her skull as she read a book she’d brought with her.

It was nearly perfect.

“Are you sure?” my aunt asked quietly three hours later, and I swallowed but gave her a shaky nod. “You can’t take this back once I start. And this is the worst place for a first tattoo.”

“I know. I’m—I’m ready.”

She frowned, scrutinised my face, but then dipped her chin. I dragged in a steadying breath and shifted to get more comfortable on the cot. My T-shirt hung over the cubicle wall, a sunny yellow beacon amid a mass of photographs and drawings. Footsteps neared, and my skin warmed when Trix and Dray plopped down into the chairs.

Though I knew they’d given enough tattoos that the naked form no longer affected them, I still blushed at their attention. I didn’t know them well enough to be comfortable with the fact that I was topless. Dray thankfully handed me a dishtowel from the break-room, and Trix helped me arrange it so that my breasts were mostly covered.

Bev nudged my elbow, gesturing for me to lift my arm, and I did as ordered. Before I could so much as blink, my aunt placed her hand on my side, leaning over me, and the needles touched my skin.

“Damn, you did good.”

Trix passed my shirt to me, using the towel to wipe the dampness from my cheeks, and I pushed myself to sit up once Bev gave me the all clear. My entire torso ached, the ghosts of vibrations in my belly, and I could have sworn that Bev had injected my skin with fire instead of ink. Covering my chest with my arm, I made my way on unsteady knees to the mirror on the wall, stared at the reflection.

Know who you are stretched beneath the curve of my ribcage, dark script against pale skin. I smiled to myself at the words—the first bit of advice I received from Harry, written in his handwriting. It had taken me an hour to go through every single letter from Harry, taking pictures of the words I needed, and another two hours on Photoshop to crop and merge the pictures together until the phrase was done.

“Thanks, Aunt Bev. Really, I mean it. It—it’s amazing.”

“Don’t expect me to give you any more,” she warned while peeling the latex gloves off her hands. “I don’t like tattooing people I love.”

“What, afraid they’ll have too much expectations for your work that you might not live up to?”


I giggled and allowed Trix to clean the area, smear an ointment over the skin, and wrap it up. She helped pull the loose-fitting shirt over my head, and I winced when the movement tugged at my skin. She smiled in sympathy.

“No bra for a couple days. After that, I suggest a bikini top until it’s healed all the way.”

“Thanks. Fuck, does it always hurt like this?”

She shrugged. “Yes and no. If you’re unlucky, it will always hurt more than it feels good. If you’re like me or Malcolm, though, you’ll find you’re addicted.” Pausing, Trix raised a brow at me. “You already want another one, don’t you.”

“I wouldn’t say no at some point in the future,” I laughed, and she shook her head.

“We’ll see once the healing process is done.”

The following months passed in a blur of routine: I’d ride into work with Bev, do my job as receptionist and lunch-fetcher, help clean up once the last client was gone. Then I’d go home to sleep and repeat the process the next day. Weekends were reserved for conversations with my parents and going to the beach. Dray helped me develop my drawing skills. It was slow-going, but even I could see the progress when I compared my first sketches to later ones.

Summer faded into autumn then winter. I took advantage of PermanInk’s Halloween deal to get another tattoo, this one done by Dray: a rubber ducky on the inside of my left wrist. Bev had told me I was an idiot for choosing another painful spot, while Trix laughed and announced to the whole shop that I’d officially caught the bug. I didn’t bother denying it, then or now.

Shortly after the ducky came the massive piece on my left thigh. Trix did a marvellous job over the six sessions, and the detail was astounding: An owl clutching flowers in its talon, each one with meaning that I hadn’t known until she worked with me on the design. Her knowledge of flower symbolism was surprising—she certainly didn’t come across as the type of person to care what a daffodil means.

Malcolm was more than pleased to bestow me with my final tattoo on my right thigh. I waited for it to heal up then sent my parents a picture of the warrior’s shield protecting an overflowing cornucopia. My mother called me almost immediately, in tears and blubbering enough that I couldn’t quite figure out what she was saying. She didn’t sound angry, so I counted it as a win.

Winter fell upon Huntington Beach as much as winter ever could. February brought with it the reminder that yet another year had gone by without any further contact with Harry. I couldn’t tell him happy birthday. I remained on the outskirts, looking in on his life in the limelight, and it was all I could do to be okay with that.