“No. That’s not true.” With shaking hands, I finally get to the zipper and tug it down, wincing as she heaves a breath. “Please look at me.”
She tunnels both hands through her hair and sits down on the pedestal in a slip, the dress still in a tangle around her ankles. “I’ll be fine. Just give me a few.”
“Honey, you can talk to me.”
Birdie’s voice goes up several octaves, bringing a hush down over the rest of the buzzing dressing room. “I don’t need to talk.”
The curtain opens behind me, and Jason’s reflection appears in the mirror. His frown deepens when he sees his sister in obvious distress. “Birdie?”
He bypasses me in a single stride and stops just short of his sister, clearly unsure of what to do. His fingers flex at his sides, chest lifting and falling. Finally, he goes down on his knees and slowly wraps her in a hug. Their stilted body language tells me it’s their first hug in a very long time—and I should leave and let them have the moment. I am leaving, but Jason’s eyes find mine in the mirror and implore me to remain. I don’t have this, they tell me. Stay.
“I’m trying to do this in a way that would make her proud.” Birdie’s face is turned into Jason’s shirt, muffling her words. “It’s too much pressure trying to make her kinds of choices and decisions. It’s like a fat fucking reminder I never could. She was always better.”
“Not better, Birdie. Different,” Jason rasps. “When you were kids, Nat could never hula hoop as long as you. She threw herself facedown into the grass once, crying about it. Remember?”
She sniffs. “Vaguely.”
“You walked first. You won a spelling bee in fourth grade and Nat came dead last. I’m embarrassed I remember this, but you were better at braiding doll hair.” He pulls her tighter into the embrace. “People shine at different times. Maybe she was having one of her moments right before she died, so you’ll always remember it that way. Remember how you felt less…bright. But she was headed for a valley. We all head there eventually—and then we come out of it. Just like you will. You’ll shine, too. You’re shining now.”
Jason’s words make my pulse skip. Twice. Three times. It won’t stop fluttering all over the place, listening to him find the absolute perfect words for his sister. And they’re perfect because they’re not rehearsed or contrived. He didn’t try to tell Birdie she was just as wonderful as Natalie. He was honest. Maybe one sister was standing in the sunshine and one was in the shade—and maybe the best way to get through today is to acknowledge that truth and stumble forward toward the next obstacle.
“Let’s go home,” Jason says, ruffling Birdie’s streaks of blue hair. “You don’t have to sneak a beer after I go to bed tonight. I’ll let you have one free and clear. One.”
Birdie bursts out with a watery laugh. “You knew?”
“One beer never hurt anybody.” He stands and helps Birdie to her feet. “Get dressed. Take your time. We’ll meet you outside.”
She eases down onto a velvet stool with a deep breath. “’kay. See you in five.”
My emotions are playing leap frog as I lead Jason out of the curtained stall. I’m worried for Birdie. For the direction I’ve taken with her coaching. I missed so much behind the scenes. What if I did more harm than good by not recognizing the pain she hides behind the humor? It’s possible I’m not equipped for this at all.
In a twist, it’s Jason that’s up to the task of comforting his sister—and my admiration for him in this moment is endless. That’s the emotion leaping right past my self-doubt to take the lead. He was amazing in there. Glancing back at him over my shoulder as we walk past the rows of dressing stalls, I see he’s questioning how he handled Birdie, just as I’m doing to myself. He’s totally oblivious to the fact that he saved the day.
My pulse bongs in my ears with the need to show him. To wipe away his expression of uncertainty. I stop walking and turn, searching right to left for a place to talk alone. But as he draws closer, I see Jason needs reassurance. Nearness. Needs to be grounded. My actions take place all on their own, as if my body has no choice but to compensate for what Jason is lacking. I pull him into an empty dressing room and yank the curtain closed.
And his mouth is on mine before I’ve secured a breath.
He wrestles me back against the wall, our mouth slanted and suctioned together, his hips knocking into mine and pressing, pressing. “Please, baby,” he groans into my gasping mouth, his face pained. “Please.”
The kiss is a downpour of rain you can’t see through, powerful and hypnotic and intoxicating. It’s that first trip around a Ferris wheel, only we’re moving at a hundred miles an hour. I’m instantly dizzy at the taste of him, tobacco and coffee and mint toothpaste. I throw my arms up around his neck and cling, letting him smash me into the unbreakable wall of his body while his mouth bears down on mine again and again. He slants our lips together, sipping at me, changing directions, punctuated air leaving his nose, like he’s out of control. Snapped.