She had found him through facebook, just before Christmas break of her freshman year.
Two years and three months since Connor died, and she was still trying to figure him out. She had started seeing a therapist at school, trying to deal with all of the adjusting she was trying to do, and the therapist said that maybe reaching out to people close to her brother might help Zoe find closure.
Zoe didn’t want closure.
She wanted some goddamn answers.
The problem was…
Connor didn’t have any friends. When she went through his phone over the summer, the only texts that weren’t obviously from a dealer were from someone called Dave.
Zoe didn’t know anyone named Dave, let alone anyone Connor might have known. She ended up hacking into her dead brother’s facebook through the phone she carried around with her on campus and searching through all of his friends.
She found a David Schwartz, added more than two years ago.
She couldn’t imagine this guy could have possibly been the person from rehab. For one, he looked like a bodybuilder-slash-lumberjack. And he was old. Not super old, but a good five years older than Zoe was. This Dave worked at a tattoo parlor in her hometown. His facebook was littered with images of tattoos he had gotten and tattoos he had given. There was a recent picture of him holding a tiny pink blanketed bundle; a baby.
This Dave was a dad.
This Dave seemed to have a lucrative career as a tattoo artist (at least judging by his thousands of instagram followers and high ratings on facebook and yelp… not that Zoe had spent ages staring at his yelp page).
There was simply no way that David Schwartz was Dave from rehab.
In scrolling through his photos.
Zoe came across one of him holding a small bronze chip in his massive hand, with the caption. “Two years sober.”
It was like someone had slammed a shovel into Zoe’s solar plexus.
Incidentally, Zoe knew exactly how that felt because when she was fourteen and Connor was fifteen he had turned too quickly holding a shovel (some kind of gardening-as-grounding situation their mom was trying) and caught her right in the stomach with the blade. It had knocked the wind out of her; Connor had been wearing headphones and hadn’t heard her walk up to tell him their mom wanted him to come inside.
Thankfully their dad hadn’t been home to see. It was one of the very few moments of understanding between Connor and Zoe as teenagers; it had been an accident. She didn’t tell on him because he obviously hadn’t meant it to happen. She didn’t tell because the thought of him getting punished worse didn’t bring her any joy anymore.
She said she wouldn’t tell, and he said thank you.
So Zoe, sitting in her dorm bed, leaning over Connor’s phone with the cracked screen, stared at the bronze AA chip in David Schwartz’s hand and determined that, yeah, he was probably Connor’s Dave.
Zoe bit her lip, wondering more about this Dave person. Was he Connor’s friend? Had they talked? Did Dave even know what had happened to Connor?
Zoe looked up from her bottom bunk to see her roommate Ellen hanging her head off of the bed of the top bunk.
“You okay? It’s like four in the morning and you’re staring at your phone.”
Zoe nodded. “Yeah. Um. Yeah. I’m alright. Sorry, just… can’t sleep.”
“It’s all good,” Ellen said. “My exams are done anyway. What time are your parents picking you up tomorrow?”
“Three,” Zoe said. She had opted to stick around for a day after her last exam before returning home for Christmas.
The house was strange at the holidays. There was this gaping hole none of them knew how to fill, and nobody seemed interested in going skiing with the Harrises these days.
Zoe kept secretly hoping her parents would end up splitting up. Sell the house. Divide up the stuff and call it off.
They didn’t do it though. Instead they went to group therapy together and sometimes took weekend trips away.
She’d lost track of the conversation with Ellen. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “What was that?”
“I asked if you needed anything. You seem… a little out of it.”
Zoe tried to smile. “Thanks, but I’m okay. Just… hard time of year, you know?”
Ellen nodded. “Yeah. I’m sorry.”
Way too casual.
No that felt weird too.
Way way too casual.
Zoe sighed. It was Christmas Eve, late in the evening. Her dad had apparently decided that, despite the fact that they hadn’t gone since the year Zoe got confirmed, they were going to go to midnight mass.
When they were kids, their dad would always sneak out after he took communion, and when they got home at nearly two in the morning, their presents from Santa Claus would surround the tree.
Zoe doubted her dad would bother with all that, now that she was nineteen.
The year Connor died, they hadn’t even exchanged presents. Not after everything, not after Evan...
Last year, her parents had spoiled her, as if burying her in gifts would be a distraction from how quiet the house was.
Mass didn’t start for another hour, so Zoe figured she would have time to send this message. Her fingers covering over the keys of her Macbook (a Christmas gift from last year), she sighed and started typing.
I’m sure this is a weird message to get, probably about as weird as it is for me to send. My name is Zoe Murphy. I think you might have known my brother, Connor. I was wondering if it would be possible for us to meet up and talk sometime. I have a few questions that you might be able to answer.
Thanks for your time, and feel free to ignore this message if I have the wrong person or whatever.
Church bored her; her dad shot her a dirty look when she yawned a few times. Zoe bit back the caustic comments about it being midnight and how she’d just finished off finals in an eighteen credit semester, turning to face forward, her fingers curling angrily in the sleeve of her sweater, pulled down over her clenched fist.
Zoe noticed Alana Beck sitting in the third row from the front with two people who were probably her parents. Her hair was different; the braids had been replaced by an undercut and a pompadour. If Zoe didn’t half want to punch Alana Beck in the face, she might have wanted to tell her how cute her hair looked. How nice her new glasses looked. Zoe might have smiled, might have made small talk, might have done a million things.
Instead she clenched her fists and thought about how it might feel to actually punch someone in the face. Not the most appropriate thoughts for midnight mass.
It frustrated her to know that this was yet another thing she might have asked Connor if he were around.
Not that she would have, if the way things were when he died was anything to do off of.
But she would have had the option.
Zoe felt like her life was a catalogue of crossed off options. Options she couldn’t take.
Last time they had all gone to midnight mass as a family, their mom had made them sit apart, Zoe next to her mom next to her dad next to Connor. Worst sort of punishment, sitting Connor next to Larry. They had been fighting before they left; Connor banging on the bathroom door while Zoe straightened her hair because he thought she was taking too long. That ended in a shouting match and Zoe throwing her still hot flat iron across the bathroom at Connor. It burnt a hole in the hall rug and left him with a bruised and sort of burned spot above his eyebrow. Their mom had been walking up the stairs when Zoe hurled the flat iron, which honestly probably saved them from escalating things further. Zoe had been terrified, the moment she let the straightener fly, that Connor would go after her, attack her.
He didn’t need to hurl hair styling tools to hurt someone. Zoe knew already what he could do with just his fists by the time she was in the sixth grade.
Their mom grounded him for a week, having heard Connor call Zoe a cunt. Zoe didn’t get grounded for the words she hurled back, which objectively she knew wasn’t really fair. Hers were no better - psycho, homo - but their parents had taken to giving Zoe a pass, even when she started fights, because they apparently believed at fifteen it was Connor’s job not to rise to the bait. Because, despite all evidence to the contrary, their parents had decided that treating Connor like a rational adult was the best move.
Connor had nodded off during the homily that year, and their dad cussed him out for the whole ten minute drive back to their house, saying it was embarrassing that he couldn’t even take Connor out in public.
At the time, Zoe agreed. Fuck Connor. He was so disrespectful. How dare he fall asleep in church, where people could see?
Now, Zoe sort of wanted to nod off too. She was too tired to perform dutiful and perfect daughter, just home from her first semester away at college. Zoe ran a hand over her hair, freshly buzzed and velvet soft, and smiled.
Her dad sent her another pointed look.
Zoe crossed her arms over her chest and tried to pretend to be interested in Jesus’s birthday party. She could tell some people glanced their way when they got up to take Communion. Pitying looks. Stares.
They were just never going to stop, Zoe thought. It was always going to be like this.
“Would have thought you would have liked the attention.”
She might be starting to forget her brother’s voice, but his cutting commentary hadn’t faded from her memory. Sometimes her brain filled the silences with some selections of Connor Insults: Greatest Hits, Vol. I.
Zoe stuffed the communion wafer into her mouth, skipped the wine, and rushed back to her seat. She wasn’t crazy, but sometimes it felt like she was seconds from teetering off of that ledge. Zoe pulled down the kneeler and got on her knees (thinking what an idiotic name “kneeler” was), and pretended to pray.
Dear God, she thought, almost snorting with laughter. Please get me the fuck out of here.
She got a reply on December 26th.
I’m sorry I didn’t respond sooner. Holidays with my family usually mean no screen time.
I would be happy to meet you and talk. Well. No. I’m not happy about it, exactly, but I would like to talk to you. If that makes sense.
There’s a coffee shop on Elm Street, not far from where I work. Can you do tomorrow, around six? Please let me know.
Naturally, it was snowing. Naturally, it was the first snow of the year, two days after Christmas. Naturally, Zoe white knuckled the steering wheel the whole drive to the coffee shop on Elm Street afraid she’d flip her car because she hadn’t driven in the snow in forever. The shop was called Brew. It was warm inside; the walls were painted a sunflower yellow and there was a fireplace in the corner.
Zoe didn’t know the protocol here. Should she order a drink? Should she grab a table and wait? Should she start hunting around for a massive, burly, lumberjack looking type?
She decided to get a coffee. At least then she would have something to do with her hands. Zoe walked up to the counter and placed an order for a hazelnut latte. As she swiped her card on the iPad behind the counter, she heard the tinkle of the bell over the door and turned. Zoe recognized Dave on sight; massive beard, small crinkly eyes, the overall appearance that he spent his free time hurling logs for sport. He had a black knit cap on his head and he immediately waved to the barista, calling the girl by name and asking how her tattoo of a submarine was healing. c
Zoe sheepishly slunk to the end of the bar, pulling off her own hat and glancing anxiously at her reflection (or what she could see of it) in the reflective surface of the back of the espresso machine. She anxiously ran a hand over her buzzed hair, as if it might have grown long and unruly in the car ride over just to upset her nerves.
Zoe tried to do her best smile for the barista, still chattering away with Dave, as she accepted the drink.
How on earth could Connor have been friends… or friendly… or anything with this guy? This guy was.
This guy looked happy .
This guy made happy small talk about the weather and tattoos with baristas, he took big smiley photos with babies and posted them on facebook, he just. Didn’t make sense as a person that Connor could have known.
A familiar uneasiness washed over Zoe.
Evan hadn’t seemed like a fitting companion for her brother either. He didn’t fit, he didn’t make sense.
Did this Dave person just want to talk to her because he was hoping it might make him famous? What if he was just some internet creep who didn’t even know Connor at all, and the AA thing was just a coincidence and Zoe had walked right into it? What if this was all some joke, some sick plan concocted by the same people who had terrorized her during her junior year when they posted pictures of her looking out her bedroom window on facebook and told everyone how her parents didn’t usually lock the back door.
Zoe was just about to abandon her coffee and her plans to meet this guy when he spoke to her in this voice so deep she could practically feel it vibrating the bones in her ribcage. “Hi, sorry… Are you Zoe Murphy?”
Zoe, mouth dry, nodded.
“Hi. I’m Dave,” He held out a hand. She shook it.
Dave smiled at the barista and accepted the mug. “Should we go sit down?” He asked Zoe.
“Sure. Um. Yeah.”
If he was bothered by her obvious discomfort, Dave didn’t show it. He wended his way through a maze of tables deftly, which almost surprised Zoe considering that he was roughly the size of Mt. Everest. She half expected him to stomp buildings to dusk like Godzilla. She followed him, a few steps behind, into the shelter of a booth in the back of the shop. There was a big picture window facing the side street behind the coffee house and another fireplace crackling about five feet away. It was cozy. Nice. She could see the snow falling lazily on the sidewalk, watch people trekking by with their after Christmas shopping bags, and she wondered, again, how the fuck this was the situation she was in.
Meeting a friend of her brothers should involve. Like. An abandoned auto body shop full of other half dead users and losers, air thick with the smell of unwashed bodies, dark and freezing.
Though maybe she was just recalling a little bit too vividly the place where their mom had found Connor the second time he ran away from home. He was sixteen. Zoe wasn’t supposed to even be with her mom whens he picked him up, but Connor had turned on his phone for the first time in days and it set off her mom’s location notifications while she was picking Zoe up from guitar lessons. It was the maddest she had ever seen her mom; she had dragged Connor bodily out of the old garage on the other side of town, even though he was so much taller than her. Their mom had screamed at Connor the whole way home. Screamed. Shouted about him throwing his life away, shrieked about how worried she had been, swore and jabbed his skinny chest with one perfectly manicured finger.
Zoe thought he looked sort of dead, honestly. Dull unfocused eyes, unwashed hair, pale skin.
She also sort of wished he was dead that day. Because he was a monster for making their mom scream the way she did.
Connor didn’t say a word the whole ride home.
He didn’t say a word at dinner that night, either, though he had at least showered and changed clothes by then.
That night, Zoe passed him on the stairs as she was heading to bed. She tried to give him her best how dare you do this to us glare.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” Connor snapped at her, and Zoe, having had enough of him and his asshole tendencies and the fact that he had scared their mom and pissed off their dad to the point where she wondered if they could ever even pretend to be normal again, shoved him, hard, and watched as his hip collided with the stair railing. He stumbled a little, catching himself before he teetered off the edge of the step and down the flight of stairs, and then turned and just stared at her, looking almost surprised.
“Fuck you, Connor,” She spat, turning and hurrying up the stairs.
“Fuck you too!”
“Language!” Zoe heard their dad shout from downstairs.
Zoe rushed into her bedroom after that, locking the door behind her, her heart hammering. But the familiar banging and shouting didn’t follow.
The next morning his parents had a loud fight at the breakfast table, and by the weekend Connor had been shipped off to rehab.
“So,” Dave said, pulling his mug of coffee in closer and pulling Zoe out of her memories. “You’re different than I expected. I hope that’s not rude,” He added, smiling a little. “Just that. Connor always made you out to be this like… Wunderkind. Perfect daughter and all that. So. I wasn’t really expecting, you know, Furiosa .”
“Connor talked about me?” Zoe asked, eyebrows raised, defenses up. Preparing for some kind of bullshit about how cool he thought she was.
Dave nodded. “You know. Normal sibling shit. Said you drove him crazy, said you played guitar twenty four seven, said your parents thought you were the greatest thing since sliced bread… usual stuff people bitch about. He did mention that you had, like, blue hair for a minute there. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the punk rock haircut.”
Zoe blinked in surprise. “How did you two meet?”
Dave shrugged. “Rehab.”
Zoe had suspected this, but still. It was sort of weird to hear it confirmed.
“And you guys were… friends?”
Dave nodded. “Well. Not at first. And definitely not like, braid each other’s hair besties, or anything. He’s…” Dave stopped. “He was a kid. Like. He was one of the youngest people in our group at rehab. And the surliest motherfucker I’d ever met.” Dave stopped again, frowning. “Sorry, bad habit, I didn’t mean-”
“You can fucking swear,” Zoe said, almost smiling.
Dave did smile at her then.
“So he was surly?” Zoe asked.
“Like he was trying to win some kind of competition,” Dave said, shaking his head. “I mean, like, to put it politely… he was kind of like a cross between a junkie and a stray cat someone had dunked in the bath when he started rehab. Pissed off and complaining and looking like he hadn’t had a decent meal in a while.” He sighed, took a sip of his coffee. “He was sort messing around with this nineteen year old idiot Jason in our group for a minute there, and I kind of took it upon myself to… Tell him to pull his head out of his ass before he ended up dead.”
Zoe blinked. “Sorry… when you say ‘messing around with’...?”
Dave frowned deeper. “Shit. Um. I mean. Like they were… I dunno if they were sleeping together, but I sure as hell wouldn’t call it dating . That kid Jason was. Bad news. He ended up kicked out of the program.”
Zoe blinked again, trying to sort out that information. “Connor was… Connor was gay?”
Dave really looked like he regretted saying anything to her. For some reason, Zoe thought inexplicably of Hagrid in the first Harry Potter movie. Curled up on the couch with Connor on New Years Eve, in their footie pajamas, sugar high from too much hot cocoa, repeating “I shouldn’t have said that” in their worst accents while their babysitter giggled at them.
“You didn’t know?”
Zoe shook her head. “We weren’t close. At all.” She took a sip of her coffee. “I kind of… wondered. But I didn’t… we never talked about it.”
“I don’t think I should be the one telling you this,” Dave said, frowning deeper. “You ought to be talking to his other friends, I-”
“ What other friends?” Zoe asked, her voice cracking unexpectedly.
Dave rubbed the back of his neck. “I mean… All those people from the youtube stuff? I dunno.”
“Those people didn’t know him,” Zoe snapped. “None of them. He didn’t… Connor didn’t have any friends. I went through his phone… you were like. The only person who had texted him. In months.”
Dave frowned. “I… Yeah, I… I didn’t really buy that Evan kid’s story, honestly. Connor never mentioned him, plus like… Tree climbing? Sounded sort of like code for making out in the bushes to me.”
Zoe was certain her eyes had nearly launched themselves out of her head.
“Sorry, I keep putting my foot in my mouth, I don’t know what’s the matter with me…”
“No, it’s,” Zoe said, trying hard not to laugh. “Evan and I. We dated.”
“Oh shit, no kidding?”
Zoe smiled sheepishly. “It wasn’t exactly… I know. It was fucking weird. I was pretty messed up.”
Dave shrugged. “I get it. When my brother died, I got got drunk and high for the better part of seven years.”
She almost choked on her coffee. “Sorry,” She said, coughing. “Sorry. I mean. I’m… Sorry about your brother.”
She hated it when people asked her about her dead brother, but in college it was sort of unavoidable after a certain point. When you always had new people in your room looking at your things, new classmates creeping on your facebook, people in your dorm stalking your instagram, eventually someone would run across her name on The Connor Project webpage.
So Zoe knew better than to ask what happened.
But it did make her curious. She was sure it showed.
Dave seemed to understand. “Car accident. Daxton was texting and driving. Head on collision.”
“Fuck,” Zoe breathed. “I’m so sorry.” She looked down into her cup of coffee, and then the worlds were stumbling out of her mouth. “My um… My dad found him. Connor. I was in the hall right behind him.”
Dave reached across the table and gave Zoe’s hand a brief squeeze. “I’m sorry.”
Zoe shrugged, sighing. “God, I’m so sorry. I don’t even… how did you find out?” She asked Dave. “We um. None of us knew you guys were um… were friends. Did someone call you or…?” She tried to picture her dad going through Connor’s phone and calling Dave; her mom sending an email.
Dave pulled the black knit cap off of his head, setting it down on the table. “Facebook. Someone from one of our meetings shared it with me when she found out. Thought the picture looked familiar. She knew we were friends.”
They were quiet for a while.
“So… you and Connor? You’d just… hang out?”
Dave shrugged. “Sometimes. He’d hang around the tattoo shop where I work the summer after we both got out of rehab. Always used to weirdly, like, insist on buying me lunch. Said he’d rather waste the money on Chipotle for me instead of on pills.”
“Well there were also days when he would say all he wanted were pills. And, I mean, he was a shithead a lot of the time too. Showed up high a couple of times when we were meant to hang out, which wasn’t really great for me, like, sobriety wise. I had to kick him out of the shop once or twice because he was just… blitzed.” He scratched the side of his head thoughtfully. “I’m sorry, you probably don’t want to hear this.”
Zoe shook her head, “No. I do. I…” She ran a hand over her face. “It’s almost… nice to hear that. He was. You know. Not like, perfect or whatever. Like. I knew him… and he was an asshole, like, a lot of the time. It’s almost… better to hear he wasn’t just like that with me.”
“Like, I…” Zoe bit her lip for a second. “When Evan… from the videos? When he told me about his erm… friendship with Connor it was. Weird. But almost nice, because for the first time in ages it felt like I had my brother back. It felt like I knew who he had been…” She ran a hand over the top of her shorn hair. “But the thing is… I can’t get him back. I can’t… He’s gone.” She wrapped her hands around her coffee mug, wrinkling her nose, trying to keep the tears from forming. “I can’t have my brother back and nobody can give that to me… so I might as well figure out who the fuck he was, you know? Because… I don’t know who he was. I didn’t know. I knew so little that I swallowed the first, most convenient story I found…” Zoe sniffed. She was surprised to see Dave offering her a small, pocket size pack of kleenex. The kind her mom used to pack in her backpack on the first day of school. The kind Zoe had shoved into her purse the day before Connor’s funeral, knowing that the funeral home had cheap, rough tissues that only made your eyes and nose redder. “The last time I saw him,” Zoe said, shaking her head, “was on the drive home from school that day. He showed up all pissed off about something, and then snapped at me when I told him to put on his seatbelt. I said something stupid about if he wasn’t careful he’d end up dead in a car wreck…” She took a moment to catch her breath. “I just want something. Something real. Something I didn’t know.”
“I…” Dave cleared his throat. “The last time I saw him, I actually dragged him to an NA meeting. I knew he was starting school up again, and I like. Threatened to drive to your house and pick him up if he didn’t come willingly.”
Zoe smiled. “Our dad would have lost his mind.”
Dave smiled back. “Yeah I’ve heard some stories about… What did he call him? ‘Fucking Larry?’”
Zoe nodded, almost laughing. “They didn’t get along.”
Dave sighed. “I know. He talked about it sometimes. Like in group and stuff?”
Something about the idea of Connor telling a room full of strangers stuff about their family made her stomach flip. There were countless people out there who knew things about her that she never met, and the people Connor went to rehab with were apparently in that number.
“This is probably a long shot,” Zoe said, “But do you have any funny stories about him?” She felt like a moron for asking. “It’s just… My mom, our mom. She was pretty wrecked when um… when it, um, came out that all of those kids posting videos weren’t really his friends… I just.” Zoe shrugged helplessly, feeling idiotic and small and regretting every single word. “She might like it if… yeah…”
Dave gave her a sympathetic smile. “You know… you can want them for you too. Even if you two didn’t get along.”
Zoe swallowed hard.
“Let’s see… so, full disclosure: I wasn’t super keen on rehab at first either. Like, I had a stash of stuff around, just in case. Mostly weed. Which for me was like, barely a drug.” He shook his head. “So, your brother. He um. He didn’t like me at first. Acted like I was massively cramping his style, hanging around, talking to him, chatting away like an old lady after church. And there’s Connor, pissed off and going through withdrawals, and he’s not having any of my hanging around. I’m not actually tone deaf, I knew he didn’t want to be pals or whatever. But man, I’d never seen someone who looked so miserable. There were people in that program who spent their teens sucking dick for meth who looked better. Plus he was hanging around that Jason dude who looked like he was literally Satan. And I was… I. Worried. I’ve got siblings. I’ve watched them go through some shit, and I dunno. I wanted to look out for him, even though he thought he was too cool for school.”
“So after like a week of my sunny disposition, kid loses it on me. Just started throwing a god damn fit in group one day, saying I was just fucking with him and all that jazz. He like. Threw a chair. It was intense.
“And so, like. They let us have smoke breaks. I know, some fucking rehab, right? But they let us have cigarettes. And I find him on the porch, smoking, and I give him the big I-come-in-peace speech. Like, sorry dude, you remind my of my brother, I swear I’m not fucking with you or whatever.
“And he tries to shrug me off, because he’s Connor and he’s got the emotional depth of an eye dropper. And then, swear to god, he mumbled something about how he wasn’t used to people being nice to him. And at first I’m like, fuck you, don’t be such a martyr. But he mentioned how, like, the last time he thought someone wanted to be his friend it totally blew up in his face. And how that was in like, middle school. It definitely wasn’t like… sharing circle ready, or whatever, but it was the first time I’d heard him say a sentence that wasn’t like sixty percent cussing me out.”
Dave paused to take a sip of his coffee, cleared his throat, and continued. “As a show of solidarity that Connor was not being such a little snot, I tell him I’ve got some party favors hidden in my room. That we should hang out during mandated free time that night when everyone else uses that time for phone calls and watching TV. So he comes to my room, and we sneak out to the smoking deck and share a blunt. Swear to god, it was the first time I ever saw him relax. He asked me what I did, and I said I worked at a tattoo parlor and I was an artist and sometimes I filled in to do piercings because I’m double certified. So I’m showing him my tattoos, and I can tell he’s interested, but I also know that it’s the middle of July and he’s wearing a hoodie, so I’m not anticipating he’ll be my first client when I get back on the job. You know?
“Somehow we start talking about his dad. Erm. Your dad. And how Larry is all about, like, how men are supposed to act and whatever the hell. Real toxic masculinity stuff. And me, stoned, and not having any of that noise because I might look like a caveman but I’m a feminist , decides that I should pierce Connor’s ears then and there.”
Zoe blinked, surprised. “What? Really?”
“Yeah. I was an idiot, being all ‘just don’t tell my boss.’ I don’t suggest it, by the way. But we found a safety pin, which was a bit of a pain since drug addicts aren’t allowed sharp objects in rehab. I had a set of studs in my bag of stuff from home that I wasn’t using. I sanitized the needle and the studs with purell and a lighter. He wasn’t eighteen yet! I know, I know, so fucking terrible. I ought to be fired. So anyways, I pierce his ears in the bathroom, and it’s all hilarious because we’re stoned. And naturally, we get fucking caught by an orderly because we’re laughing too loudly at Connor’s pierced ears because for some reason it was the height of comedy. Like, clutching the counter laughing, big fucking guffaws, obnoxious. The orderly smells the pot on us and spots the safety pin and the lighter, and we’re boned. I get dragged off to see my counselor, Connor’s dragged off to see his. And the whole time I’m thinking, fuck , I finally drag this kid out of his hidey hole and I’m getting him kicked out of rehab.”
“So what happened?” Zoe realized she had been hanging on his every word.
Dave shrugged. “We both got off with a warning. Still hung out after that. He started talking a little in group and quit hanging around with Jason. His ears didn’t get infected, thank god, and I remember him texting me the day he got home because his dad... Sorry, your dad wasn’t happy about the new look.”
Zoe bit her lip. “I… I didn’t even notice that he pierced his ears, honestly.”
Dave nodded. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. Did he bust into your room, straight from rehab to show you his pretty new earrings?”
“So why were you supposed to be a detective?”
Zoe frowned. “I…” She stared at her coffee, half drunk and staring to go cold. “I just… I feel like I should have known.”
“Me too,” Dave said, and it was clear neither of them were talking about earrings anymore.
A moment of silence passed, and then Dave announced he probably had to get going. “It’s snowing, my kid’s sleep schedule is all off since Christmas…” He paused. “When do you go back to school?”
Zoe told him; it wasn’t for another three weeks.
“Why don’t you stop by the shop one day, around closing? My fiance is an amazing cook. I’m sure she’d love to have you for dinner.”
“Oh, I…” Zoe looked down at the table. “I don’t want to intrude.”
“Aletheia… That’s my fiance… already invited you over tonight.” He turned his phone around to display a number of texts from Aletheia (there was an avocado emoji next to her name) saying, after a string of texts about someone called Finley, “That poor kid. Invite her to dinner. Invite her tonight if she wants.”
Zoe smiled at Dave, embarrassed. “Thank you but I… I better go.” She collected her winter hat and her empty coffee mug and stood up.
“Zoe,” he said stopping her. “Really. Come by the shop sometime. I’d love to hear one of your Connor stories.”
Zoe nodded. “Okay.”
Dave wrote his number on a napkin, and Zoe was relieved that she wouldn’t have to dig through Connor’s phone to find it.
Zoe couldn’t sleep that night, watching as the snow fell heavily outside of her window. It was so quiet outside that she could actually hear the snow falling.
Curling her blankets around her, Zoe got up from her cozy nest in bed and crept down the hall, tip toeing into Connor’s bedroom and switching on the desk lamp.
She had asked Dave for a story about Connor, and he had responded kindly. But she had nothing to tell in return. It seemed cruel, in her mind, that all she could offer him was “that time Connor hurled a kitchen chair at me and my parents sent him to live with our grandma who had a stash of leftover painkillers the size of a hollow plastic candy cane hanging around” or “that time some kids made fun of me and Connor nearly killed them even though they were three years and several feet taller than him” or maybe “when I was a sophomore in high school Connor said to my parents that he wanted to die and I told him to do it.”
And childhood stories just felt… like a cop out. Like she was just ignoring the reality of her brother’s life if she only told cute stories about hunting for four leaf clovers at the Autumn Smile apple orchard or that when Connor was three and Zoe was two, Connor used to grab picture books off of the shelf and pretend to read her stories, even though he was still learning his letters.
Curled up in Connor’s desk chair, Zoe turned from the window to stare around the room. Like she might suddenly remember something good.
Their parents were screaming at each other, and Zoe couldn’t take it. She knew sometimes they just got carried away, but it was like they didn’t realise how easy it was to hear them upstairs. Zoe didn’t even need to press her ear to the door to hear her dad thundering, “I just want him to be normal! I didn’t realize that was a crime !”
Their dad really had it out for Connor lately, and usually…. Usually Zoe thought that was good. Because Connor was a jerk, and at least then someone was on her side for a change. But then he’d say stuff like that, and she didn’t like being on the same side with him anymore. He’d say stuff like that, and Zoe would want to be on Connor’s side again, even if he wasn’t messing up and kind of a loser.
So, Zoe got up, determined and frustrated, walked down the hall and rapped on Connor’s bedroom door. He pulled it open a few seconds later, eyebrows up, surprised she was there.
Zoe was surprised she was there too.
“What do you want?” Connor asked after a few seconds.
“I’m sorry I laughed at you earlier,” Zoe said, frowning at him. She felt bad, laughing at a haircut he clearly hated, even if he was being a bit of a baby about it.
He shrugged. “It’s fine.”
A few seconds passed. More shouts from downstairs.
“I’m sorry I wrecked your diary… And that I read it. That… wasn’t nice.” He directed this to the floor and part of her was twelve and still mad and didn’t want to accept that as his big apology. But then he said, “Do you…? Do you really like Brian?”
She did, but maybe not as much as she liked the idea of liking Brian because she knew it bothered Connor. And she knew he was reading her diary, and it made her so mad that the small crush she had nursed on Brian Harris that spring became a full on one sided love affair. Before she could answer, her voice was drowned out by a new burst of sound.
Their parents were in a shouting match for the ages downstairs. It was what had brought Zoe to the door in the first place; mom was mad that dad had taken Connor to the barber and brought him home with a buzzcut. Zoe didn’t really even blame her mom; Connor looked like an alien without hair. And he looked miserable. Their dad was so worried about making him look normal that he’d ended up making Connor look even more like a freak. Zoe caught the words “-probably turn out gay with the way you coddle him, Cynthia-” and her idiotic first impulse was to slap her hands over Connor’s ears, block him from hearing this, protect him because nobody else was doing it.
Instead she answered him. Honestly. “I don’t know.”
“It’s the twenty first century, Larry, you are the only person I know who would have a problem with having a gay son-”
Zoe didn’t want a gay brother. Not that she thought it was, like, wrong. Being gay. She just… he was enough of a problem already. He was weird and bookish and unfriendly. He never hung around with anyone, and he only seemed to talk to the teachers at school. If he was gay, Zoe would have to transfer schools because she would be laughed out of the sixth grade.
But still, that impulse to make those words stop striking him like knives persisted. “Want to blast music to drown them out?” Zoe asked. “We can dance it out like we used to do? That might get them to stop.”
She knew he would say no. They hadn’t done it in nearly a year by that point. It was something they had started the year before Connor moved up to the middle school; Zoe was suddenly anxious about the idea of not going to the same school as her brother, and Connor was anxious about school. They found their mom watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy this one Saturday, and they were both instantly hooked. Zoe started talking about becoming a doctor; Connor started worrying about the likelihood of a ferry crash. When they watched Cristina and Meredith “dance it out,” blasting music and dancing and ignoring all of the bad stuff in their lives, Zoe thought it was a genius idea. They started doing it whenever their parents fought.
They stopped doing it by the time Zoe entered middle school.
Connor, still staring at the floor, mumbled, “Okay.”
She was surprised but didn’t ask questions. Sometimes that was for the best. Connor let her pick the music, and she picked something she thought he might like, something that had ended up on her iPod due to an iTunes mix up. She bounced over to him, landing heavily and loudly, having cranked the volume as high as it would go.
Connor seemed to know the song; Zoe didn’t, but she picked up the words fast. They were jumping around, screaming “I don’t care” as loudly as they could, and they kept it up, matching each other’s pissed off energy, jumping and screaming and shaking their heads and punching the air and acting like idiots. But after half an hour, in a quiet second between songs, they could hear the silence downstairs over their heavy breaths.
“I think - I think they stopped,” Connor panted.
“Finally,” Zoe returned, smiling. “I thought they’d never shut up.”
Zoe sighed, looking into the bedroom, recalling their silly dance parties. She ran a hand absently over the velvet softness of her close cut hair. She imagined, smirking, what might have happened if she had just barged in here the day Connor got home from rehab and started blasting pop punk or something.
Would he have laughed? Joined in? Threw her out, cursed her out?
The words flashed in her mind, no less painful than the first time she read them.
Maybe he would have laughed at her. Or maybe he would have gotten up, stopped staring at the ceiling, made an idiot of himself with her and maybe they both would have felt better for a little while. Maybe they might have talked…
But probably not. Most likely he would have told her she was an idiot, told her to knock it off, told her to fuck off and shoved her out the door.
She didn’t know.
She hated how much she still didn’t know.
“You must be Zoe!”
She blinked; she must have looked alarmed because the heavily tattooed girl with the eyebrow piercing immediately dropped her smile. “Oh my god, I’m sorry, that was… just supremely weird. I’m Tasha; Dave said you might come by? He said if I saw a girl with a buzzcut that I shouldn’t treat them like a walk in, and I… I’m sorry. I made it weird.”
Zoe swallowed, then nodded. “It’s okay.”
“You’re Connor’s sister, right?”
Zoe nodded. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been referred to that way that didn’t have a tinge of malice to it. “Connor’s sister, Zoe” had been typed out a lot online in the last few years. Along with things like, “Zoe’s a stuck up bitch” and “Evan deserves better.”
“I think Dave is finishing a consultation, but you can. You know. Hang out,” Tasha indicated a black leather couch.
“I think it’s kind of cool,” Tasha said, smiling a little. “That you’re, you know… talking with Dave.”
Tasha blushed. “I just mean. Like. Connor was… like always here. I think he and Dave were pretty close I… I don’t know why I’m talking, I’m sorry.”
“But if you want to just… hang out.”
“Sure. Thanks.”Zoe smiled politely, and headed over to the couch, happy to be finished with pleasantries that were never especially pleasant for her.
She had never been in a tattoo shop before but she was surprised at how… clean it was. Shiny hardwood floors, sleek Mac computers, huge HD tv screens, big windows, tons of stainless steel. She felt almost like she was in someone’s office. Though, she figured, maybe she was.
On the back wall there were pictures of smiling people and intricate tattoos, pictures of people in the chair giving thumbs ups.
“Zoe!” She turned her head, seeing Dave approach with a huge smile on his face. “Welcome! How are you?”
Zoe shrugged. “I’m alright. You?”
He nodded, “Hanging in there. New Year’s is a hard time of year to be sober.”
Zoe blinked; she hadn’t been expecting him to continue to be so… honest. “Yeah I guess that makes sense.”
“Any big plans for New Year’s Eve?”
Zoe shook her head. All of her friends from school were scattered across the country for a month. She didn’t really keep in touch with most of her friends from high school anymore. She was half planning to lock herself in her bedroom with a bottle of wine she poached from her parents.
“Me either, though that might just be because Finley is way too cute to leave at home with a sitter.”
“Is that your daughter?”
Dave nodded, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a phone. He showed Zoe a couple of pictures of an adorable baby girl, clearly only a couple months old. Zoe smiled at the pictures; there was one where Dave was holding her and she looked so small in his arms. Like he had put a potato in a pink knit cap.
“She’s insanely adorable.”
“I know, right?” He rolled up his sleeve, showing off a tattoo of a baby’s footprint. “I got it three days after she was born. Once I was totally sure I got to keep her.”
Zoe grinned harder. “Do your other tattoos have stories?”
Dave nodded, like he was excited to be asked. “I got his moon over here when I was one year sober,” He said, pointing. “This owl is for my older brother. My fiance loves avocados, so I got this one,” He pointed out one on his forearm, “I really like it, but she hates it, so I got a carnation over here for her, too.”
He had skipped one, Zoe realized, as he started to roll his sleeve back down. He skipped a tattoo of a lion, shaded and detailed and full of color; it had drawn her eye immediately. “What about the lion?” she blurted.
Dave stopped rolling his sleeve down. He looked a little sheepish.
“Sorry, I… I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
He shook his head, smiling, and said, “Don’t worry about it. Really.” He sighed and said, “Let’s go into the office, okay?”
She nodded, following him into a small office space with a desk shoved into one corner and a pair of mismatched chairs in front of it.
“Do you want anything to drink? Water, soda?”
Zoe shook her head.
Dave sat down at the edge of the desk. “I. Um. Skipped a little part of the story when I told you about the time Connor and I got high in rehab.”
Zoe blinked, confused.
“I know… it’s. It’s almost stupid, really, that I would have left it out.. But part of me is weirdly holding onto it and… yeah. I should have just said something.” He cleared his throat. “High people talk about stupid shit. He and I spent at least ten minutes debating whether Gardettos or Chex Mix were better. Idiotic stuff like that, you know? But we got to talking about, like, if we had to be an animal… what animal we’d be. I said I’d be an osprey… that’s a kind of bird. They’re kind of the mama bears of the bird world, and they totally freak out if something tries to get at their nest...
“Connor said he’d be a lion. He was pretty baked, I’d been teasing him about how he never brushed his hair, and there were some jokes about the Cowardly Lion, you know, like from The Wizard of Oz ?” Dave shrugged. “I um. Teased him a bit about it. Because you know, lions are supposed to be these awe inspiring, big tough guys who don’t sweat the small stuff. And Connor, well… he was all small stuff, all of the time. Someone looked at him funny, and he’d be sick with worry for three days.”
“But so I’m fucking baked too, and like. My big mouth is all, ‘Did you know that most male lions are like… at least bi? Like they fuck other male lions?’ And I swore… I thought he was gonna punch me. I didn’t mean it to be like, you know, a call out… it just sort of slipped out. And Connor, he looked at me like he didn’t know what to do, he just sort of froze, and so I just… start babbling about how like one of my best friends from college is gay and like… Who you love is like, you know, just one piece of you and not inherently good or bad. I basically start this whole it’s okay to be gay crusade because I’m like, fuck, I touched a nerve… And he starts laughing. Like almost like he was relieved? He told me that, uh, when he was like thirteen or so your dad made him get this buzz cut and then had this massive blow out argument with your mom? About how he didn’t want Connor to turn out gay and shit… and, well, my asshole idea was that we ought to pierce Connor’s ears to piss your dad off.”
Zoe smiled. “So… gay lions?”
Dave laughed a little, “Yeah, it’s sort of stupid in retrospect. But, yeah. After uh… after I found out what happened I started thinking about it. And like. He was actually probably right about the lion thing, and not just because of his hair or that fact that lions are queer as can be. Like. He was brave. And a lot tougher than he looked. After some of the stuff he told me, it’s almost a miracle something didn’t happen to him sooner...” Dave shrugged. “I dunno. I… I didn’t know what to do with myself after I found out he died. I felt like I had fucked up somehow, because I had appointed myself his big brother. I’d already lost a brother, and now I’d fucked up and lost another. I was meant to look out for him, and I… missed the signs. It was a tough time. Took a lot of effort to keep going, keep on the straight and narrow, you know.” Dave sighed. “I figured… maybe I needed a little reminder of him. Of being tougher than I felt.”
Zoe blinked away tears suddenly. “Thanks for um. For telling me. That.”
Dave passed her a box of tissues.
“And um. Thank you. In general, for like… talking to me. I know it can’t be easy on you… some random girl showing up, wanting to know about some kid you knew years ago.”
Dave shook his head. “It’s not weird. Really.”
Zoe stared hard down at her boots. “Did he ever…” She stopped. Did she really want to go down that road again? Would it be worse to know he never mentioned her? It wasn’t like she ever talked to her friends about him. She’d complain, sometimes, about some lesser offenses… he’d finished the milk, he made her late. She didn’t talk about the stuff that made her lock her door at night, the stuff that kept her awake, laying on the floor to eavesdrop as her parents tried to figure out what the hell they were going to do with a kid who acted like a bomb about to go off. She didn’t tell the other girls in jazz band that she hoped sometimes they would send him away.
“He talked about you, yeah. A lot of it was just, like, regular sibling stuff, you know. But uh…” Dave looked a little uncomfortable for a second, then shrugged, like what the hell. “He did talk about you in group a couple of times.”
Zoe felt like she was choking.
“He mentioned how he was pretty sure he had messed things up with you, like, permanently. Something about how… about how he knew you were scared of him, and not just because of shit he did when he got high.” Dave let out a sigh. “He said that he didn’t even know where to start if he was going to fix things with you, and that he doubted you wanted that anyway. That you hated him, and that he probably deserved it. Said something once about the last time you two got along you were looking for four leaf clovers on a picnic as little kids, and he’d given you the only one he found... Then he made some offhand comment about fake twin telepathy, but honestly he was pretty wrecked by that point in the conversation so nobody really asked…”
Zoe sniffed. “We. Uh. When we were little, people thought we might have been… twins. Connor-and-Zoe, that’s what our grandma always called us. Irish twins. Literally.”
“I didn’t… I thought he hated me.”
“I don’t think he hated you,” Dave said gently.
“But I…. I hated him,” She said, her voice breaking. “I… I hated him. I told him so too.”
“You were what, fifteen? Sixteen?” Dave said. “Teenagers hate their siblings sometimes.”
“But… but what if that’s why…?” The words stuck in her throat, choking her.
Dave moved swiftly to the chair next to her, wordlessly pulling her into a hug. She just… fucking cried. Howled. Like a little kid or a wounded puppy. Everytime she thought it might finally be over, it was like another wave materialized in her chest to drown her again. She pulled away, shaking her head, “I let this… I let this happen if I had just talked to him if I had done literally anything…”
“Hey, hey,” Dave said, keeping an arm around her shoulders, a heavy warm weight. “You can’t do that to yourself. You can’t. Trust me, I know. I’ve done it. It only hurts you .”
That just set her off again.
Crying and sobbing into Dave, a virtual stranger’s, t-shirt.
It wasn’t neat or tidy or collected. It took a long time to get herself back. She felt like she was clinging to the edge of a cliff, like she was hanging on by her fingernails, seconds from letting go and giving up.
Was that how Connor felt? Was that day, that first day of school, the thing that pushed him over that edge? Had he reached a point where stopped fighting, stopped clawing himself back up? Could she get that bad, was she that bad now? What if she was like him, but it was all just lurking under the surface? What if she couldn’t claw her way back up?
“You can,” Dave insisted.
“I can’t,” She said, shaking her head violently. “I’m exhausted. I can’t, I can’t. ”
“You can. You’re already doing it.”
She thought she might drown in the sorrow that engulfed her there. She thought she might genuinely die, stop breathing, stop existing.
But she didn’t.
So she kept talking. “For the first year or so,” Zoe said, her voice ragged and low. “I was… I was almost happy he was gone. I was frustrated with my parents for grieving. I was more upset that I broke up with my boyfriend. I just spent all of my time being so damn… angry. What the fuck is the matter with me?”
“Not one damn thing,” Dave said, almost defiantly. “Sometimes… sometimes that shit is just totally out of our control.”
“Please don’t try some serenity prayer bullshit on me,” Zoe said, wiping her nose.
Dave laughed. Like genuinely laughed.
Zoe raised her eyebrows, confused, because for a second she forgot he was a stranger and that she ought to have some god damn manners. “What the hell?”
Dave kept smiling. “Well, I mean… you sounded just like him.”
Zoe gave him a shy smile.
For the very first time, that felt like a compliment.
“Sweetheart, where have you been?”
Zoe had come home at half past eight, boots covered in snow, to find her parents very worried.
“Oh I was… just. Getting some coffee.”
“I called you three times,” Her dad said, sounding more annoyed than concerned.
“My phone was on silent. Sorry.”
Her parents glanced anxiously between one another. “Zoe…” Her dad started, with a far too gentle tone, and she almost laughed.
“I’m not on drugs.”
Her parents stared, looking a little gobsmacked.
“I mean, I’m in college… I’ve, like, tried weed but I’m not on drugs.”
“Honey, we’re just worried…” Her dad said.
“I’m not drinking heavily or pregnant. I’m not… participating in drag racing or secretly an arsonist. I’m not planning to kill myself. So please stop looking at me like that.”
Her mom burst into tears.
Her dad’s jaw seemed to tighten.
“We were just… worried,” Her mom said, wiping her face. “We wanted to talk to you about something…”
“I’m nineteen ,” Zoe said, annoyed. “I should be allowed to go and get some coffee without you two totally freaking out.” A beat. “I don’t even live here anymore! I don’t call you and tell you every little thing I do when I’m away at school. Why do I have to do it here?”
“Zoe,” Her dad said, and her mom kept on crying, and Zoe, frustrated, stomped her boots hard on the rug to get some snow off of them and then stomped up the stairs, into her bedroom, slamming the door.
She didn’t know why she was acting like this.
She didn’t know why her impulse was to hide this from her parents.
She knew they’d probably be a bit happy to know where she had been. At least who she had been with. They maybe wouldn’t be thrilled about the activity.
She didn’t know what the fuck was the matter with her. Acting like a toddler because her parents were treating her like one.
She tore off her coat, kicked her wet boots off, threw her hat on the bed.
Her wrist ached a little.
But she looked down at it and smiled.
There was some blood pooling under the plastic covering. Dave had warned her that it might bleed a little bit. It made the tattoo look a tiny bit gruesome, but she knew it would be fine in a day.
Dave insisted that he wouldn’t take her money. She let him post it on his instagram as a trade off, because he said he was proud of the design. Zoe wasn’t concerned that her parents might see; they didn’t usually check social media anymore after the whole Connor Project blow up. She’d show them in a few days.
She liked how it had turned out. To the casual observer, it was probably just a cute little thing. A four leaf clover. Probably something about luck, or the fact that her last name was “Murphy.”
Zoe liked it. How nobody would question it, but how she’d always know.
It was probably stupid. She might regret it, someday.
But she liked it. She was proud of it.
Zoe felt exhausted, but she couldn’t sleep. She kept waking up or half walking up over these dreams, memories, mixing together, scrambling, making it difficult to actually get any rest.
Zoe, shouting, at her therapist at school, her nice therapist, a very nice woman named Nancy that she was terrified of how angry she was. “I don’t want to be like this! I am so tired of being so angry all of the time, it’s fucking exhausting.”
“What’s so exhausting about it?”
“I’m… it’s like I’m carrying him around all of the time. Like dead weight. Like I’m dragging this corpse around on my back and I keep getting pissed off at it, but I’m the one who picked it up in the first place,” Zoe said, and her breathing caught, and her eyes teared up suddenly. “I don’t want to be like him… but I don’t know how to let him go either…”
Staring at herself, naked, in the mirror across her dorm as the boy she had brought home kissed her neck. Trying not to think about what he looked like, because it made her feel a little sick and gross, but he had these green eyes like Evan’s and he’d been wearing the same kind of dorky shoes, and then she had been kissing him, putting his hand on her chest, unbuttoning her jeans. His nails were too long to be touching her the way he was, it was a little painful, but she didn’t care she didn’t care didn’t care.
Connor-and-Zoe, ten and nine at the beach with their parents, playing mermaids. Zoe was supposed to be the mermaid that time, the one to save him from drowning but she kept diving and not finding him, Zoe breaking the surface, screaming “DADDY I CAN’T FIND CONNOR” and they mom yelling that this wasn’t funny, their dad swimming out deeper to grab him, yelling at them for playing such a stupid game.
Her dad had been smoking the cigarettes she’d been hiding in Connor’s bedroom after a phase her senior year. Her mom commented on the smoke on his breath one day at dinner, and Zoe was sure her face had flamed when her dad muttered he had stolen them from Connor’s room. She didn’t even like smoking, but she’d bought a pack on her eighteenth birthday… because. Because she could. Because she didn’t even know how Connor had bought them without being eighteen.
A scene here brain was concocting, shimmery and strange, of a public bathroom like one just like the girl’s room at her middle school, and Dave, somehow looking even taller and bigger next to Connor, the pair of them laughing hysterically as Dave shoved a needle through her brother’s earlobe.
“Zoe what the fuck are you doing here?”
“Doesn’t that hurt?” She asked. His ear was bleeding all over the place, dripping down onto the collar of his white t-shirt.
“That’s the fucking point,” Connor said, laughing.
“Should you be doing that?” Zoe turned to Dave. “Should he be bleeding like that?”
Dave looked worried, because they were in his tattoo shop, his big hand on her shoulder, “A little blood is normal, Zoe, just make sure you wash it.” The tattoo gun went again, shooting little burning pains up her arm, and she looked down to see what he was doing, and her arm read CONNOR, like Evan’s cast, and she shoved away saying “NO, that’s not what I wanted!”
Connor-and-Zoe, giggling, babies practically, at their grandma’s and Connor snorting when Zoe told him if their mom hadn’t married their dad, his name would be “Connor O’Connor.”
Evan on that stage, and Zoe being pissed off as he started telling that fucking story about breaking his arm, because she thought it was crap. She didn’t buy it for a second. Connor probably shoved him right out of that tree.
Connor in the casket, wearing a bloody white t-shirt, and Zoe looking at her parents, bewildered, “Why would you let him wear that?”
“We’ve got to cut his hair before we let people see,” Her dad was saying, and her mom was making this inhuman noise, screaming about Connor’s arms.
Evan Hansen had a surprisingly nice body, she thought. Not that she expected him to had a bad body. But she had suspected her would be skinny and lanky and stretched too thin under his clothes.
But he wasn’t. He was solid. He had a little bit of hair on his chest, which was was surprised and delighted by. She didn’t realize guys in high school could grow hair there yet.
“Is… is this okay?” He had asked, his fingers settling on her naked ribcage, and Zoe nodded enthusiastically.
“Actually, hang on,” She said, sitting up. She unhooked her bra. She knew that the guy was technically supposed to do that, but she knew that Evan was all nerves already, so she figured maybe she could expedite the process a little. She giggled at the look on his face, like he genuinely truthfully, never in his wildest dreams imagined this happening.
Despite her whole speech just right before then about it being just about them, Evan-and-Zoe, it was way too tempting to tease him, say something about how Evan had better not be thinking about her brother now that he’d gotten her naked.
Instead, Evan kissed her and she kissed him and she did laugh a little when he nervously asked if she wouldn’t mind getting on top.
She walked in on him once, opening his door and barging in, planning to unplug his stereo, right before her freshman year, and he screamed at her to get out. “What’s wrong with you?” She had shouted and Connor and crossed the room in a pair of long strides, slapping a hand over her mouth and said, “It’s none of your business. Don’t tell.” She struggled to move her face away but he held on tight and pushed her back against the closed door and she even resorted to licking the his hand to get him to let go, but he didn’t budge. “Zoe. Promise you won’t tell.”
“That’s so gross,” She said when he pulled his hand away. “I won’t tell anyone. Freak.” She left quickly.
There was a small smear of blood on her cheek when she went down to dinner. She lied easily, saying she’d had a zit, and didn’t even look at Connor.
Zoe woke up around five in the morning, shaking her head, feeling like she had been trapped in some kind of horror movie of her own brain. She felt like she hadn’t slept at all. She looked at her wrist, throbbing a little bit, and the blood drying under the plastic, obscuring her new tattoo.
Her brain was a fucking dumpster fire. She crawled out of her bed, instead opting to pull her blankets off of the bed and curl up on the floor of her closet, locking herself up in the smallest space she could find.
She woke up early, before eight. She crawled out of the closet to see that even more snow had fallen over night. She was starting to feel sick of snow.
Zoe checked her phone, seeing a text from Ellen asking how her break was going, and a group text from Mel, a friend from high school, inviting a bunch of people to some big New Year’s party she was throwing.
Zoe didn’t really want to go downstairs and face her parents after the copious serving of attitude she had given them the night before, but she figured it would be best to get it over with. She went to the bathroom first, taking a fast shower, mostly as an excuse to clean her new tattoo. The four leaf clover still stood out starkly on her wrist and brought a smile to her face.
She got dressed quickly, and turned to head down the stairs.
But then she noticed Connor’s bedroom door was closed.
They always kept it open now.
Zoe walked over and… knocked, feeling stupid, thinking maybe her mom had just closed it when she was cleaning or something.
The door opened to reveal her mom, hair tied up, looking a little harassed. “Oh good. You’re awake. Maybe you can help me in here.”
Zoe blinked, confused. “Sorry?”
Her mom frowned deeply. “You father said he was going to talk to you before he went to bed last night.”
He had come to the door. Zoe had ignored him. Zoe sighed, crossing her arms. “What about?”
Zoe didn’t know how to process the emotion on her mother’s face. “LARRY!”
“Dad’s still home?” Zoe said, surprised. Her dad had taken to working as many hours as humanly possible the last two years, probably trying to avoid them, the house, everything.
Zoe heard footsteps on the stairs. Her dad stood in the door, wearing an old college sweatshirt and jeans. Very unlike him.
“What is going on?” Zoe asked, her voice higher than she meant it to be.
“Zoe, sweetheart, why don’t you sit down?” Her dad said.
She definitely didn’t want to do that, but feeling a little bit backed into a corner, cross the room and dropped herself on Connor’s bed. “What is going on?” she repeated.
Her mom looked at her dad hesitantly, then said. “We’re selling the house.”
Zoe felt like a bomb had gone off in her head. “ What ?”
Her dad was frowning. “Well… you’re off at school now. We don’t need this much space for just the two of us.”
“But,” Zoe said, angry, “But… where will you live? Are you going to stay together? When did you decide this?”
“We wanted to wait to tell you until after Christmas,” Her mom said, gently. “We’ve been talking about since you graduated. We think it might be time… to let go of this place.”
“Well don’t I get a say in that?” Zoe said, knowing her voice was becoming hysterical, knowing she wasn’t thinking straight. “Don’t you care how I feel about it?”
“We… Zoe, come on,” Her dad said, frowning. “Please don’t make this more difficult than it has to be.”
“I… No!” Zoe said, shouting. “I don’t want… You can’t sell the house.”
“It won’t be right away,” Her mom said. “It might take a few months.”
“Months?” Zoe shouted. “I don’t want months ! I didn’t know this was happening, I…” She put a hand to her face, looking around the room helplessly. “He died in here. In this house, in this room. And you’re just… getting rid of it.”
“Zoe,” Her dad said, his tone warning, his tone one she had heard him use on Connor more than once, more than a hundred times. “This isn’t up to you. We have to be practical here. We don’t need all of this space. We can’t keep having this room around like a museum…”
“Mom, come on,” Zoe said, turning helplessly to her mom. “Tell him no! Tell him we shouldn’t move until we’re all ready and I’m not… ”
“I know honey,” Her mom said, coming to sit beside her on Connor’s bed, putting her arm around Zoe’s shoulders. Zoe flinched and her mom took her arm away. “I know how hard this is. But I think… maybe it is time. We can’t keep living like this. It’s been two years.”
“But we…” Zoe started. Stared out at this bedroom, sitting vacant and empty for two miserable years. There was a dent in the wall from where Connor had thrown a stapler at her once; an empty bookshelf he had slowly been refilling after their dad donated his entire collection to Goodwill when Connor had gotten caught smoking pot for the first time. An electric keyboard in the corner that he hadn’t touched since eighth grade. This bedroom was a museum, but Zoe suddenly wasn’t sure what it was preserving.
“What are you going to to do with all of his stuff?” Zoe asked in a small, babyish voice.
“I thought maybe we could go through it today… since we’re all home.” Her mom said, taking Zoe’s hand. Her eyes suddenly went wide. “Zoe, is that a tattoo?”
Zoe felt her face heat up. “Yes.”
Her mom blinked a few times.
Her dad said, “You… got a tattoo?” He was clearly pissed. He had thrown a fit when she shaved her head at the end of the summer.
“Yes,” Zoe said, holding her head up defiantly.
“It’s of a four leaf clover,” Her mom said. “Last… last time we all went to the orchard, you found that pair of them…”
Zoe nodded. Her mom put her arm around her again. “I love it, Zo.” She pressed a kiss to the side of Zoe’s head. They were all quiet for a long moment. “I think he would have liked it too.”
Zoe nodded. “Are you really sure about this move?”
Her mom sighed, then said, “No. Not at all.”
Zoe looked at her dad. He was looking up, as if he was intensely interested in the ceiling. Zoe wondered if he was crying. Zoe looked up at the spot on the ceiling too. There was a single glow in the dark star still stuck up there.
“You two went through that space phase,” He said, his voice gruff. “After you went to the city to visit Aunt Christine and decided somebody had stolen the stars… because you couldn’t really see them in the city. It took us weeks to get you two to go to bed on time, because you were always trying to stay up until the middle of the night to play space detectives and find the stars. So I told him… I told Connor that I would help him crack the case. Your mom, she helped to come up with that whole… treasure map, clues… And at the end, the two of you found the massive box of glow in the dark stars we had hidden in the backyard. We spent, I dunno, three hours putting them up in here. My back hurt for three days after because Connor was on my shoulders the whole time, putting them up, making constellations.”
Zoe nodded. “We built a fort in here and pretended to camp out under the stars afterward,” She said.
“I don’t think sleeping on the floor helped your back, either, Larry.”
He smiled at her mom, this watery, weird smile.
“I never understood why he left one up,” Her dad said. “He ripped them all down in seventh grade. But he left that one.”
Zoe started to open her mouth, to offer a hypothesis, when they heard the doorbell ring.
“I’ll get it,” Her dad said, walking swiftly out of the room.
Zoe leaned her head against her mom’s shoulder. “Have you found a new place yet?”
“Nothing too far away,” Her mom said. “We’re not running away… we’re just. Letting go of some things.”
“Zoe!” Her dad called from downstairs. “Somebody called Dave is here for you!”
Zoe could hear from her dad’s tone that he had assumed she was dating Dave. She looked at her mom quickly. “Um. Hang on.”
Her mom raised her eyebrows. “Dave?” She said.
“Not at all what you think,” Zoe muttered, hurrying out of Connor’s room and down the stairs. Standing in her doorway was Dave, looking massive as ever, standing next to her dad and holding a big canvas shopping bag. Her dad looked pissed. Dave looked like he was smiling, in part, because he knew that her dad was pissed. “Dave? What’s up?” Zoe said, trying not to act like she was super surprised to find him.
“Sorry to just drop by, but last night Finley spit up on my phone and it doesn’t seem to be able to text anymore,” He said, shrugging. “But I was going through a couple of boxes of pictures last night, since Aletheia is a fiend about actually printing out physical copies… And I found some I thought you might want.”
“How can a baby make enough puke to wreck a phone?” Zoe asked, smiling. She watched her dad’s reaction and saw he was starting to look a little bit green.
“You know, everytime she spits up, I am amazing by the amount. Do you think six months old is too young to be worried she has some kind of mutant powers?”
Zoe smiled. “I’d get her tested, absolutely.”
Dave grinned and winked at her.
“Do you want to come in for a bit?” She asked Dave.
“If that’s alright…?” He glanced over at her dad like he couldn’t literally, physically break
Larry Murphy in half if he wanted.
“Come on in, we can go in the kitchen. Can I get you anything, coffee, tea?”
Dave smiled. “Coffee would be awesome.” He toed off his massive, boat sized boots and followed Zoe into the kitchen. She watched as her dad charged back upstairs, probably to tell her mom to come down and spy as well. Zoe shook her head. “Seriously, sorry for just showing up.”
“How’s the wrist doing?” He asked. Zoe held it out to Dave and he grinned, if possible, even bigger. Damn, he was such a smiley person. No wonder Connor had tried to avoid him at first.
“Looking good, Murphy.”
Zoe got a couple of mugs down from the cabinet and set about making some coffee. Just as the water started to boil, her mom, looking a little bit harassed. “Hi Zo,” She said, smiling. “Hello.” She directed that to Dave, smiling.
“Hello Mrs. Murphy,” Dave said, standing up. He offered her a hand to shake. She took it, smiling, still looking a bit confused. “I’m sorry to just show up unannounced. My daughter disabled my phone last night.”
Zoe figured her parents had probably suffered enough. “Mom. Dave and Connor knew each other. I found him on facebook a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh.” Her mom’s face had shifted. “I’m sorry… I’ve never heard your name before.”
Dave shrugged. “We were in rehab together.”
“I actually came across some pictures last night,” Dave said swiftly. “When I got back from the program, my fiance threw this huge party for me. You know, like congrats on being sober and all that. Connor was there, and my family takes a million and a half pictures of everything. I thought maybe you might want them. I have copies at home...”
“Oh, that’s… that’s very thoughtful of you.”
“I’m very sorry to not have met you before now, Mrs. Murphy,” Dave said. He bent down, scooping up his bag, pulling out a big business sized manila envelope, and also a small bouquet of white flowers. Lilies and daisies and white roses.
Zoe’s mom took the flowers, giving Dave a look of astonishment. “He never mentioned you.”
“I kind of figured. I know I annoyed the heck out of him most of the time.” He pulled the envelope toward him, pulling it open, and grabbing out the photos. He hadn’t been lying about the amount of pictures. There were a ton.
Zoe walked over to the table with three mugs of coffee. She sat down next to Dave as he passed some of the photos to her and some to her mom.
Connor scowling next to Dave under a “CONGRATULATIONS” sign. Dave was wearing a blue flannel with the sleeves rolled up, holding a can of La Croix. Connor was wearing that same vest he had worn on the first day of school and a black hoodie. And another, with Dave’s arm around him, under a welcome back sign. It was definitely Connor in the pictures. No photoshop could reproduce that. He had his same, beat up boots on. His same dorky smile. His hair long, and kind of a mess, like he hadn’t brushed it when he work up. The party looked like it had been held at the tattoo shop. Some of the same pictures still hung on the wall. Connor was standing right where Zoe had stood the day before.
There were more pictures.
Connor pointing out the label on a can of coke and rolling his eyes. Zoe could imagine the instagram caption, something like, “look mom, no booze!”
Connor flipping off the camera, smiling a little bit. Like he had just laughed at something.
Connor next to a woman Zoe didn’t recognize, a candid, looking like they were in the middle of a conversation. The woman was… ripped. She had this insanely gorgeous brown hair, and arms that was so toned and muscular that Zoe started to picture her ripping phone books in half. It looked like she had been in the middle of scolding Connor about something in the picture, which he was frowning but taking. The next photo was Dave hugging that same woman from behind while she continued looking like she was sort of lecturing Connor. She must be Aletheia, Zoe figured, and then giggled to herself, imagine how huge tiny baby Finley would grow with parents like that. A third photo with Aletheia giving Connor a hug, though he looked a little bit reluctant. Dave was laughing at them in the picture.
One of him smoking a cigarette with Dave, both of them looking like they’d rather not be photographed.
“You… you knew him,” Zoe heard her mom said suddenly.
“Yeah,” Dave said. “I’m not surprised he wouldn’t mention it, though. We only knew each other for a few months… And rehab isn’t, like, the most socially acceptable place to make friends. But yeah, um. We would try to go to meetings together sometimes. Sometimes he would hang out at my work. I kind of… you know, he… was a kid. I tried to keep an eye on him. I just wish I could have done a better job.”
And then her mom was hugging Dave, and naturally that was when Zoe’s dad walked in, looking somehow even more alarmed than he had before when he thought Zoe and Dave had a thing going on between them.
“Larry. Larry come look at these.”
Apparently today was not one of her dad’s most stoic days. He started tearing up looking at the first photo, one Zoe hadn’t seen yet, with Dave and Connor sitting outside, Connor’s hair in a bun. They both looked a little too pale. They both had this exhausted look in their eyes. Zoe could see that Connor’s ears were pierced in the photo.
“My fiance took that the day that I got out of rehab. Connor kept saying that she was treating it like it was summer camp, and so she made him get in the picture too.”
Zoe imagined that if Connor could have seen their dad crying and hugging Dave the Tattoo Artist From Rehab in the kitchen, he might have died of embarrassment.
But it was.
Kind of nice.
She flipped through more of the photos while Dave told her parents some stories about rehab, more cleaned up than the ones that she had gotten.
There weren’t enough pictures, of course.
There would never be enough, really.
It didn’t make up for the time lost, the years they couldn’t get back.
But it was something. Talking to Dave, seeing these photos, moments that were a little bit happier.
It was something.
Connor’s bedroom looked weird all cleared out. Some stuff was getting donated. A lot of it, in fact. All in boxes to be donated. Clothes and books and even an old controller for a video game console that hadn’t been touched in years.
Zoe zipped up the black hoodie she had taken from the closet. She wasn’t keeping a lot of stuff. Just a hoodie, the sign from the door that read Private Property, a copy of The Little Prince, and the keyboard Connor used to practice on in middle school. Zoe was taking piano lessons as part of her degree in music education. It was mostly practical. It had already been moved into her bedroom in the new apartment she was sharing with Ellen for their sophomore year. Zoe had already threatened to play the keyboard loudly if Ellen and her girlfriend were too loud in the other room.
Zoe didn’t know what all her mom was keeping. She knew her dad had scraped the last glow in the dark star off of the ceiling and held onto it.
So now Zoe looked into the now empty bedroom with the blue walls. The sun was streaming in. The room was a lot brighter without the curtains drawn.
She sighed, running a hand through her hair. It had grown out a little now, looking a bit like a spiky pixie cut since she had asked her mom to help her trim up the back a little. She liked the look of it, and was wondering if maybe she might keep it that way for a while.
Zoe’s room was all cleared out too. The walls looked weird and childish without the posters and pictures and fairy lights there. She’d never thought of her pastel walls as little kid-like until now.
The movers downstairs were carrying the furniture out of living room. That was the last room that needed to be packed up.
Zoe didn’t know how to feel about leaving behind this house. She felt sad, she felt relieved. She’d broken down last night over the height chart etched into the kitchen wall, the one that stopped with CONNOR, 17 and ZOE, 16. Half of her actually wanted to beg her parents to rip out that piece of drywall and take it with them. Now she just touched it gently and headed for the door.
Outside, her dad was giving the movers the address to the new place, even though they already knew it. Her mom was shutting the back of her suv, her hair in a ponytail. She was looking better lately. Zoe thought she might have been sleeping more.
“How are you holding up?” Her mom asked her.
Zoe shrugged. “It’s weird.”
“I’m not sure which part is the weirdest. My empty room or his.”
Her mom nodded, putting an arm around Zoe’s shoulders and pulling her in for a side hug. “I know.”
When the red door was locked and the keys collected, Zoe got in her car and followed her parents to the new house. It wasn’t far away. Just two neighborhoods over, two neighborhoods closer to the city where her dad worked, where her mom was taking a job as a teacher again this fall. She had taken some classes in the spring and renewed her license. She was going to be teaching fourth graders reading and writing. Zoe was weirdly proud.
Zoe pulled up to the new house. The door was blue.
The second story already had baby blue curtains in the window.
There were a few cars parked in the driveway. Zoe parked on the street, walking up, the end of summer sun warming the back of her neck.
In two weeks it would be three years.
So much had changed.
Zoe walked into the new house, calling out “Hey!” as she walked inside.
Zoe rounded the corner to find her mother, holding Finley, who was babbling incoherently. “Hey Fin,” Zoe said, leaning over and giving the baby a kiss on top of her head. “Dave and Aletheia are here already?”
“Your dad is very worried about the movers wrecking the bed frame, so naturally they came to the rescue.”
“I can’t believe you guys keep going on double dates with Dave and Aletheia,” Zoe said, taking Finley from her mom’s arms. “It’s like the Odd Couple, but as a double date.”
“They are good company,” Her mom said, tapping her finger against Finley’s nose. “It’s nice to have younger friends. Aletheia has really been a godsend in the kitchen. And your father just set Dave up with an accountant now that they have added a few new artists.”
Zoe could never have imagined this conversation six months ago.
She took Finley, balanced on her hip, into the new living room. The couches were set up already, and Zoe noticed that her mom had taken the time to unpack a box of family photos. There was a photo of her with her parents at graduation, a few pictures of her and Connor as little kids, and one of the pictures that Dave had given to them. It was another candid, of Connor sitting out on the stoop of the tattoo parlor. He wasn’t looking at the camera, but he was smiling a little. It was a nice photo.
Zoe sat down next to it, and Finley pointed her pudgy finger at the picture and cried, “Nana!”
Zoe laughed. “Come on, kid. Let’s go find your parents.”
Zoe and Finley walked into the new master bedroom, discovering Dave and Aletheia setting up the king size bedframe. Her dad was watching in the corner, frowning, probably because Aletheia had done the heavy lifting. Zoe almost laughed. Aletheia was a power lifter, but her dad was still offended.
“Hi pumpkin,” Dave said, smiling. “Hi Zoe.”
“Hey Dave. Aletheia. Does Fin call a lot of stuff ‘Nana?’”
Aletheia laughed, shaking her head. “No, why?”
Zoe shook her head. “She started pointing at pictures and saying that so I was curious.”
“Huh,” Dave said, setting down his end of the bed. He walked over, giving Finley a whiskery kiss. Zoe handed Finley over to Dave. “That’s a little weird. What was the picture of?”
“Connor,” Zoe said, shrugging.
“Nana!” Finley said, giggling.
Dave shook his head, smiling. “No clue.”
It would be three years in two weeks. Her family had a new home. Zoe would be starting her sophomore year of school. Her mom was teaching again, her dad was helping to do the books for a tattoo parlor. Dave and Aletheia sometimes got dinner with her parents. Her world was so incredibly different than it had been.
Some ways better. Some ways worse.
Zoe looked down at her wrist, at the tattoo there, the permanent change she had made.