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Early the following year
Leslie slipped into her school uniform and got ready as quickly as she could. She closed her bedroom door softly, staying quiet so she could get out of the house before her father woke. Being retired wasn't good for him. He'd been a decent father before—before Mom left, before he'd fallen into a bottle, before he'd started taking trips to Atlantic City and gods knew where else.
She headed to the kitchen, where she found her brother, Ren, at the table, pipe in hand. Wearing nothing but a pair of ratty jeans, his blond hair loose around his face, he seemed relaxed and friendly. Sometimes he even was.
He looked up and offered a cherubic smile. "Want a hit?"
She shook her head and opened the cupboard, looking for a tolerably clean cup. None. She pulled a can of soda from the meat drawer in the fridge. After Ren had doped a bottle—and thereby doped her—she'd learned to drink only from still-sealed containers.
Ren watched her, content in his chemical cloud, smiling in a perversely angelic way. When he was friendly and just smoking pot, it was a good day. Ren-on-Pot wasn't a problem: pot just made him mellow. It was Ren-on-Anything-Else that was unpredictable.
"There's chips over there if you want some breakfast." He pointed to a mostly empty bag of corn chips on the counter.
"Thanks." She grabbed a couple and opened the freezer to get the toaster waffles she'd hidden. They were gone. She opened the cupboard and pulled out a box of the only type of cereal her brother didn't eat—granola. It was nasty, but hispilfering stopped at the healthy stuff, so she stocked up on it.
She poured her cereal.
"No milk left," Ren mumbled, eyes closed.
Sighing softly, Leslie sat down with her bowl of dry granola. No fights. No troubles. Being home always made her feel like she was walking on a high wire, waiting for a gust of wind to knock her to the ground.
The kitchen smelled strongly of weed. She remembered when she used to wake up to the scent of eggs and bacon, when Dad would brew fresh coffee, when things were normal. It hadn't been like that for more than a year.
Ren plunked his bare feet on the kitchen table. It was covered with junk—news circulars, bills to pay, dirty dishes, and a mostly empty bottle of bourbon.
While she ate, she opened the important bills—electric and water. With relief, she saw that Dad had actually paid ahead on both of them. He did that when he had a good run of luck at the tables or a few sober days: sent extra on the big bills so it wouldn't be a hassle later. It didn't help for groceries or the cable bill, which was overdue again, but she could usually cover those when she had to.
Not this time, though. She'd finally decided to go through with it, to get a tattoo. She'd been wanting one for a while but hadn't felt ready. In the last few months, she'd become near obsessed with it. Waiting wasn't the answer, not anymore. She thought about that act far too often—marking her body, reclaiming it as her own, a step she needed to take to make herself whole again.
Now I just need to find the right image.
With what she hoped was a friendly smile, she asked Ren, "Do you have any money for cable?"
He shrugged. "Maybe. What's it worth to you?"
"I'm not bargaining. I just want to know if you can cover cable this month."
He took a long hit off his pipe and exhaled into her face. "Not if you're going to be a bitch about it. I have expenses. If you can't do a guy a favor now and then, make nice with my friends"—he shrugged—"you pay it."
"You know what? I don't need cable." She walked over to the trash and dropped the bill in the can, fighting back the sickness in her throat at the mention of making nice with his friends, wishing that someone in her family cared about what happened to her.
If Mom hadn't taken off . . .
But she had. She'd bailed and left Leslie behind to deal with her brother and father. "It'll be better this way, baby," she'd said. It wasn't. Leslie wasn't sure if she'd want to talk to her mom anymore—not that it mattered. She had no contact information at all.
Leslie shook her head. Thinking about that wouldn't help her cope with her current reality. She started to walk past Ren, but he stood up and grabbed her for a hug. She was stiff in his arms.
"What? Are you on the rag again?" He laughed, amused by his crass joke, amused by her anger.
"Never mind, Ren. Just forget I—"
"I'll pay the bill. Relax." He let go of her, and as soon as he let his arm drop, she stepped away, hoping the scent
of pot and cigarettes wouldn't cling to her too obviously. Sometimes she suspected that Father Meyers knew exactly how much things had changed for her, but she still didn't want to walk into school reeking.
She put on her fake smile and murmured, "Thanks, Ren."
"I'll take care of it. You just remember it next time I need you to come out with me. You're a good distraction when I need credit." He looked at her calculatingly.
She didn't reply. There wasn't an answer that would help. If she said no, he'd be a prick, but she wasn't saying yes. After what his druggie friends did—what he let them do—she wasn't going anywhere near them again.
Instead of rehashing that argument, she went and grabbed the bill out of the trash. "Thanks for taking care of it."Ink Exchange. Copyright © by Melissa Marr. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.