Debbie, who has always been more of a ghost in school than any of the others, the Gallagher her teachers forget about, starts to run into trouble, and Carl makes her a shank. She doesn’t even ask him to, he just pulls it out of his backpack and hands it across the counter to her when they’re digging through the cupboards for anything snack-like after school one day.
“It’s pretty obvious-looking, most of them will back off just from the threat,” he tells her, and Debbie can’t help smiling at that, both because it’s true and because it’s not something he would want for himself, particularly—he’s thinking of Debbie, when he says it.
“Uh-uh,” Debbie tells Liam, who reaches out for it, “Not for babies,” and she thinks this is one of those things—kids shouldn’t be in houses with hard drugs, kids shouldn’t be passing weapons as gifts across the kitchen counter—that CPS probably shouldn’t hear about. Still, she smiles, tells Carl “Thanks,” and tucks it into her backpack.
Debbie was seven when she first heard a social worker refer to Carl as a sociopath. From the lofty age of thirteen, Debbie knows that the woman, who was whispering to a colleague in the hallway, must have been exhausted and exasperated, over-worked and under-paid and not in the mood to explore the nuances of Carl’s more destructive behavior. At the time, though, even though she hadn’t known what the whispered word had meant, she’d still bristled on Carl’s behalf.
When she and the rest of them were finally out of foster care and back at home, Debbie had remembered it, and she’d wondered. She had lugged out the Webster’s College dictionary that’s been in the closet-space under the stairs since some well-meaning teacher presented it to Fiona when she graduated the fifth grade, painstakingly sounded out the word and looked it up.
When she found it, Debbie read it, squinting a bit to see the tiny print in the dim light of the closet, considered the definition as applied to Carl, read it again, cocked her head, tried it out. Sociopath. She could kind of see where the social worker had been coming from, only seeing what she saw of Carl—the rest of the kids in their room at the group home had given Debbie and Carl a wide berth after Carl’s first afternoon there, and his meditative reflections to the woman on why there should be a hunting season in the city couldn’t have helped—but on the whole, Debbie had known from just the growing sense of wrongness in her bones that the label didn’t fit.
He might be a destructive force of nature, he might take delight in terrifying his classmates, but Debbie knew there was more to him then, and there’s more to him now.
Debbie looks at her little brother’s expressionless face, the quirk of his satisfied eyebrow when she tucks the knife in her bag, and she knows he loves her.
Debbie was about nine, she thinks, probably, when she started to realize that your family doesn’t have to love you just because they’re your family. That a lot of the time, they don’t, and that when they do, it’s a gift.
Frank doesn’t have to love them and knows it, so he doesn’t really bother to, most of them time. There are flashes, and Debbie can see now that those flashes are what she was clinging to for a really long time.
Monica doesn’t have to love them, and she mostly doesn’t, Debbie thinks, or maybe she does and she’s just incredibly bad at it. It can be hard to tell, with Monica, but it all comes to the same result anyway.
Fiona doesn’t have to love them or take care of them or stay with them, but she does because she chose them back before Debbie was even born, probably, and she’s chosen them over and over again every day since. Debbie thinks that probably has less to do with the fact that she’s their sister and more to do with the fact that she’s Fiona.
Shiela loves them partly because she’s the kind of person who likes to love people, as long as that love doesn’t ask too much of her, and partially because when Frank swept into Sheila’s life like an unstoppable force, Debbie decided that she should. Anyone who can think that she loves Frank, even for a brief, misguided while, should be perfectly able to care about the rest of them, and Debbie is good at convincing people she can be someone they can care about.
Debbie’s also good at only asking people for things they want to give—she doesn’t ask Sheila to save her, to help the shadows under Fiona’s eyes go away or to sit down with Karen and tell her to stop putting Debbie’s big brother through hell during the pregnancy. She asks Sheila for baking lessons and occasional babysitting for the most well-behaved toddler on the planet. She asks that Sheila’s home be an island of sanity and order she can visit sometimes, and nothing more, and that’s how she manages not to overstay her welcome.
The way Sheila lets Jodie take Karen away after the accident is all the proof Debbie needs that she read Sheila right.
When Bonnie leaves and takes her pack of siblings with her, Debbie sees Carl twisting something shiny between his fingers. Knowing him, it could be anything from a trip-wire to a piece of jewelry a teacher was unwise enough to set down in his presence, but when Debbie looks closer, the necklace looks cheap and a little chintzy, though nice enough.
Between that, Bonnie’s family’s quick exit and the unreadable look on Carl’s face, it’s not hard to put two and two together.
Debbie knows what to do now, and she knows like it’s in her DNA when it’s the right time to take one for the team, so she settles Liam in the play-pen he is definitely too big for now, gives him his blocks, steals one of Fiona’s little-used emery boards, puts Saw III on the TV and waits.
When Carl wanders over, moments later, she waits a moment until he’s engrossed, then grabs his free hand and sets to work filing his too-long fingernails into points. When she finishes the first and moves on to the second, Carl looks down at her work, a sly little smile stretching its way across his face.
“Cool,” he tells her.
“I’m going to the dance with Mattie,” Debbie tells Fiona, perched on her bed while Fiona brushes her hair up before heading out for work. Fiona left them, and she came back, but the fact that she could leave proves that she does have a breaking point. Debbie’s not about to change her whole life over the knowledge—she’s never known changing your life for someone to work out for anyone she knows—but it’s enough to make her think it might be time to stop pushing her sister away.
“Oh, so you guys are back together?” Fiona asks, voice bright and only a little distracted.
“Kind of,” Debbie tells her, and then, experimentally, “We’re going as friends.”
She thought, even just a few days ago, that she wouldn’t be able to stop until she had Mattie back, until he wanted her as much as she wanted him, as much as the boys who followed Holly around wanted her. ‘Friends’ doesn’t sound so bad anymore now, though.
“That’s great, Debs,” Fiona tells her, echoing Debbie’s thoughts as she goes on, “Friends are important, probably more important than any romantic relationship. Good friends are like a family that chose you.”
Debbie thinks actual family that sticks around is like that, too, but she takes Fiona’s point.
Nobody had to love Mandy and Mickey Milkovich, and so, as far as Debbie can tell, no one ever bothered, except maybe each other.
Maybe Ian, too, later, but Debbie thinks of Ian’s big, staring-open eyes in Mickey’s bed, facing the wall, the last time she saw him and she thinks he probably doesn’t have a lot of love to spare right now. Maybe that’s part of why it took him so long to come back to them, maybe he stretched himself too thin trying to fill in gaping-empty holes for dark-haired Milkovich siblings who stand even less of a chance of making it out of this neighborhood alive than any Gallagher.
Debbie thinks of Monica, of her blank, staring-open eyes in the dark of the bedroom, and looking out from the closet under the stairs, and gazing up from the kitchen floor as her wrists streamed with blood and she knows Ian’s going to come back. He did already, even if then he was jittering out of his skin on drugs and mania. He came back to them, and even when he wasn’t himself, even when he seemed about to explode with uncontrolled energy, he kissed the top of her head and called her ‘Debs,’ and he leapt in to defend the Milkoviches like a part of him still knew he’d taken on the role of ‘person who cares about Mickey and Mandy’ a while ago. Ian is going to be okay, Debbie can tell.
She’s less sure about Mandy, because Mandy told Debbie not to let a guy hit her like that was something Debbie needed to be told, and Debbie thinks it’s because someone should have told Mandy that a long time ago.
No one needed to tell Debbie because she’s always known that anyone who lays a hand on her will have any of her siblings who ever hears about it to deal with—Fiona with her baseball bat, Lip to destroy their life, Ian to come in fists swinging, and Debbie is sure Carl would be ready with something diabolical and terrifying and massively overkill, and that he’d smile while he did it.
Debbie has people to defend her, and she thinks that’s at least a part of why she’s always ready to defend herself—because her family has always made sure she knows she’s worth defending.
Debbie thinks Mickey would probably look out for Mandy in most situations, but it’s not exactly the same. There’s a sick sense of guilt running through the way they act with each other that Debbie first noticed at the fund-raiser for Mandy’s abortion—Debbie asked Ian about it, once, after the second night Mickey stayed with them, and he said he thought they’d watched too many bad things happen to each other without being able to do anything about it.
In any case, Mandy tells Debbie she can come over before the dance to do her makeup. Debbie could probably go to Holly’s, and a part of her even wants to, the Milkovich house can be so creepy, but Holly won’t hold a steady hand beneath Debbie’s chin and put the liquid eyeliner on her in long, even strokes. Holly won’t talk Debbie through the shadow colors best for her complexion or tell her it’s okay to still enjoy being young—it’s the time everyone wants to get back to once they lose it, enjoy it while it’s there.
Mandy treats Debbie like an equal, but doesn’t make her feel like she needs to act too grown-up.
Mandy looks tired these days, but she still tells Debbie, “You can call me afterwards, if you want. Do a post-mortem.”
Mandy walks Debbie to the door, and it’s only then that she even asks about Lip, though Debbie knows she’s wanted to the whole time. Mandy gives Debbie a quick hug, careful not to smudge her makeup, and Debbie wonders if anyone ever told Mandy she’s worth defending.
Mattie picks Debbie up, and the car is the same right down to the empty soda cans rolling back and forth across the floor, so probably it’s Debbie that’s changed as the car’s familiar shitty suspensions jolts over the same old potholes in the road and Debbie breathes in the same stale, faintly pot-scented air like it’s new.
She looks over at Mattie with his shaky smile and his skinny hands and she doesn’t feel butterflies, and she doesn’t think of the life they could have together. She thinks of the quiet of his apartment and the way she’s never heard him mention his family. She thinks of the way he’d never have made it, growing up in her neighborhood. She thinks of the way any of her brothers could tear him to shreds, the way Fiona would look at him and think he wasn’t even worth the trouble. Debbie doesn’t feel butterflies and she doesn’t think she ever did. Maybe she just wanted to badly enough that it made her feel phantom wings behind her ribs, even when they weren’t there.
So she’s not in love with Mattie. So she never was. That’s okay, Debbie thinks. Love has almost always been another thing to worry about for Fiona, has been one of the most insidious forces fueling the hurricaning-wildfire-nightmare of Monica and Frank—you can say a lot about Debbie’s parents, but she doesn’t think anyone can deny that they adore each other in a way they’ve never quite managed to care about any of their children. Love made Lip chase after Karen long after she started making him miserable and makes Mandy go all hollow-eyed when she asks about Lip. Love wasn’t enough to save Ian, and looks like it might be enough to take Mickey down with him, for a while. Love is even the reason Carl’s gone even quieter than usual, lately.
Debbie might not have been in love yet, but maybe she’s lucky. She smiles at Mattie and says, “We don’t actually have to go to the dance, you know. Want to just hang out instead? As friends.”