Moonshine hated being alone, especially during the most vulnerable times of day: early morning and late night, when there was nothing but her own thoughts, silence, failing light. She found herself doing crazy, desperate things to avoid it. Maybe it was because she had been raised with so many other children around. Maybe it was because she had never learned to be comfortable with her own thoughts. She preferred chaos, noise, activity, anything to the cold dread of lying alone in her bed, staring up at the water-stained popcorn ceiling.
Early in the morning after another ill-advised roll in the hay, she watched Triss shimmy back into her dress from the night before, still in bed. Moonshine was a notorious booty-caller, and Triss picked up the phone with the greatest degree of frequency and enthusiasm. They’d met at a music festival the summer before, and ever since, they had been hooking up with alarming regularity. There was no shallower relationship on God’s green earth. Moonshine didn’t even know the other woman’s last name, and they could barely hold a two-minute conversation with one another, but they were sexually compatible and individually emotionally damaged enough to make no strings work.
“You want some breakfast?” Moonshine asked, voice scratchy, sitting up and stretching. She already knew the answer, but it was only polite to ask.
“Um, no thanks,” Triss said, pulling her bottle-blonde hair over her shoulder, scanning the room for her purse. “I have plans for the day. I’ll just call an Uber.”
“Alright. See ya later, then?”
“Yeah. See ya.” She threw a peace sign up over her shoulder as she snatched her purse up from the floor and sashayed out of the room.
Crawling reluctantly out of bed, Moonsine pulled on a pair of shorts and a sports bra and went out front with Pawpaw. Hardwon was at the curb with his car. When he heard the front door open and close, he stood up, narrowly avoiding banging his head on the raised hood. He high-fived her, leaving a smear of grease on her palm.
“What was that for?” she asked, squinting in the bright sunshine as she lit her first cigarette of the day.
“I saw Triss leave a minute ago.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“I don’t even deserve the high-five, to be honest,” she said ruefully. She watched Pawpaw lift his leg on the neighbor’s rosebush, frowning slightly. It wasn’t that she disapproved of casual sex. On the contrary: she thought it was a beautiful and spontaneous expression of human connection. Just…not the way she and Triss did it. It always left her feeling shitty and hollow and disaffected.
“Laid is laid,” he said, bending over the car’s engine again. She rolled her eyes to herself.
“Don’t forget that Erlin is comin’ up this weekend to see Bev. I’m makin’ jambalaya.” With that, she tossed her cigarette butt into the street and called Pawpaw inside. She had to get cooking if she wanted her signature dish to be ready by the time Erlin showed up.
She had the day off, so she and Beverly did mani-pedis on the living room floor while the jambalaya simmered. He was good at painting nails, precise and patient, but Moonshine was miserable at it. She slopped the polish all over the place, swearing and apologizing, but he didn’t bitch at her like he usually did. In fact, he was way too quiet in general, especially since his default setting was “uncontrollable verbal diarrhea.”
She poked his leg with her bare foot. “Hey. What’s wrong?”
He looked away from her quickly. “Nothing.”
“Beverly Toegold the fifth.”
He sighed, putting the cap on the bottle of nail polish. “I dunno. I’ve been thinking about me and Erlin.”
“It’s just… I feel like I’ve had so many experiences that he hasn’t had. It’s not his fault. It’s just weird. We were both hardcore church kids growing up. It was such a bubble. I’m a lot different since I moved away from all that, and he’s grown up a lot, too, but…he won’t leave the bubble.”
“I know what you mean,” she said.
“Yeah. It’s hard to talk to my family now that I’m out here by myself. Half of ‘em never leave the five acres they were born on.” And the ones that did tended to come to ruination one way or another, but she didn’t say that out loud. “I love ‘em, but they’re limited.”
“Yeah.” He still looked troubled. “His grandma doesn’t know.”
“About…?” She felt a familiar dread settle in her stomach, a familiar sympathy.
“That we’re dating. She thinks we’re still just best friends. She’d throw him out if she knew. I told him he could come and live with us, but…I think he’s scared to be on his own like that.”
“He wouldn’t be on his own. He’d be with us,” she said with as much pep and positivity as she could muster, but he just shrugged, looking down at his poorly painted nails. She pulled him into a tight hug, which he returned just as tightly. He buried his face in her shoulder, and she felt his breath catch as he tried not to cry. Moonshine wished she was better, smarter, that she knew how to fix things like her mother did. She had inherited a lot from Jolene, but not her innate wisdom, her aura of peace. Maybe that only came with age and experience, but then again, maybe Moonshine was just not enough like her mother.
Soon after, Bev left to pick Erlin up from the Amtrak station on the other side of town. Moonshine made some final adjustments to her jambalaya before declaring it perfect, spooning some morsels into a little dish for Pawpaw, and leaving the kitchen an absolute wreck in her wake with no intention of cleaning it up. She hollered at Hardwon to stop messing around with whatever he was messing around with and come inside.
One of Moonshine and Hardwon’s favorite evening activities was watching pro wrestling together, but that was never where it stopped. Watching wrestling meant drinking beer, and once they drank enough beer, they both inevitably started getting a little crazy. Getting a little crazy meant that at some point, they were going to start trying out the moves on one another. This biweekly brouhaha had thus far resulted in one chipped tooth (hers), one broken toe (his), a lot of bruises, and one shattered lamp that Beverly had dramatically declared had belonged to his great-aunt Toegold and was irreplaceable. For his part, Pawpaw spent the whole time jumping up and down in place nearby, yipping nervously, desperate to protect his mother from being destroyed by a Tombstone Piledriver but unwilling to bite Hardwon, with whom he shared a lot of snacks.
When Bev and Erlin came in, all the furniture had been pushed to the sides of the room. The TV was blaring a raucous cage match, the noise of which was only equaled by the noise of Pawpaw yapping. Moonshine was draped around Hardwon’s neck like a feather boa, kicking and screaming as she wriggled around and tried to get him in a mid-air headlock.
“You guys!” Bev said, raising his voice to be heard over the racket. “Time to act normal!”
“Erlin!” Moonshine exclaimed, shaking her sweaty hair out of her face and kicking her airborne legs excitedly.
“Hey, kid!” Hardwon said, depositing her back on the ground as if she weighed nothing.
Erlin was a little shorter than Bev with a headful of unmanageable auburn curls and an ever-present air of anxiety. Moonshine gave him an enthusiastic hug even though he was stiff as a board the whole time.
“How’s it goin’?”
“Good,” he said, smiling shyly.
“I made dinner, if you’re hungry.” She didn’t wait for his answer; by the time she was done with her sentence, she was already in the kitchen, taking the lid off the massive pot and ladling some of the contents into a bowl for him. They dragged the furniture back into place even though they all ended up sitting on the floor around the coffee table anyway, digging into steaming bowls of stew and chatting amiably.
“Tell me some embarrassing stories about Bev,” Moonshine said, bumping Erlin with her shoulder.
“Oh, jeez.” He laughed, a little nervously. “He was the pastor’s son. He never did anything bad. One time, someone brought weed to summer camp and Bev called the police.”
“You’re shitting me!”
“No, he really did.”
“In my defense, I was eight,” Bev said, but it was hard to hear him over Moonshine shrieking with laughter.
“More!” she demanded.
“Hmmm…” Erlin leaned his head again Bev’s shoulder, and Bev wrapped an arm around him securely as if to assure him that he didn’t mind. “Okay, here’s one. When we were in the Boy Scouts, they literally took a merit badge away from him after he had already earned it.”
“Well, which one was it?”
“That sounds like our Beverly,” Hardwon said fondly, tousling Bev’s hair. “Remember the time he fell out that second-story window and almost broke both his fucking legs?”
“Remember that time we went snowboarding? He tried to hit a jump on his skis and landed in the fuckin’ splits!” Moonshine put in.
“Beeferly Slowgold!” Hardwon cheered.
“Don’t tell my boyfriend that you guys call me Beeferly Slowgold!” Bev protested, but he was laughing too. Once they were done with dinner, which everyone agreed had been delicious, it became immediately apparent that Bev wanted the two of them to get the hell out of dodge. Some interpreted the signals better than others.
“What’re you two gonna do this weekend?” Moonshine said, tossing one last stray shrimp to Pawpaw.
“I’ll probably just show him around the city. All our spots. Nothing crazy. Tonight, we’re gonna stay in, I think.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty tired from the train,” Erlin put in politely.
“We’ll clear out, then. We don’t wanna third and fourth wheel you two,” Hardwon said, inching toward the hall.
“Four wheels is actually better,” she pointed out. Hardwon glared at her. They were always lecturing her about boundaries and personal space, something that growing up with what had seemed like a million brothers and sisters and cousins and little to no adult supervision had not taught her much about. If someone wanted her to clear out so they could bone down, then she wished they would just say that to her face. But Bev would never do that. He would say that it was politeness, but she would say that he was just plain repressed.
“Come on. Let’s go watch 2 Fast 2 Furious.”
“Tokyo Drift,” she countered, following him into her bedroom.
“Don’t push me, Cybin.”
Her bed was plenty big enough for she and a fifteen-pound dog—she could even fit another normal-sized human adult, no problem—but adding a 6’6” He-Man stunt double was a bit of a squeeze. Hardwon was like a Great Dane puppy who had grown up and still didn’t realize how big he was. They ended up in a semi-comfortable heap with the laptop balanced on her knees. They smoked her entire stash over the course of the two-hour film. By the time they were finished, she couldn’t even remember if they had watched 2 Fast 2 Furious, Tokyo Drift, or something else entirely.
“You wanna sleep over?” she asked through a thick cloud of smoke, shutting the laptop. She knew that it was a terrible idea. She didn’t know where this whole thing was going or what she wanted from him, but she knew that desperately didn’t want to be alone, especially not when Bev was canoodling with his boyfriend in the next room.
“I’m sure as hell not moving. ” He squinted. “Actually, I’m not sure I can.” She made herself comfortable against his chest. He wrapped his arm around her, his hand resting firm and secure on her hip.
“Your pillow smells weird,” he griped.
“Triss uses a lot of essential oils.” She didn’t want to think about Triss, about how her hair always smelled like elderflower and lemon…
“The fuck is that?”
“Oils distilled from plants and…shit…”
“’S not gross.” Moonshine drifted off, but her ringtone jolted her rudely awake again a moment later. She fumbled for her phone and squinted at the screen, combing her hair away from her face. “Ah, shit. Hello?”
“Hey, it’s me.” The voice was gruff, rushed and urgent. She recognized it immediately. Her stomach curdled. She was way too high for this.
“’Sup, man? Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
“Moonshine, I need some money.”
“For what?” He didn’t answer, not that she had expected him to. “Okay,” she said, more gently, sitting up. “I don’t got much. I’m sendin’ most of it to our mama every month.”
“Just twenty bucks.”
“Okay. I’ll Venmo it to ya. You doin’ okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks, sis.” He hung up before she could get another word in.
“Who was that?” Hardwon muttered.
“One of my brothers. He wanted some money.” Her own voice sounded faraway to her, as if she were listening to herself speak from another room.
His eyes snapped open, struggling to focus. “Jesus.”
“That’s how my auntie died. She overdosed in the back bedroom at ma’s when I was a kid.” Normally, she would’t have said anything, her emotions seemed faraway, too, drifting by, muffled in the centers of the clouds. Moonshine looked at herself in the vanity mirror across from her bed, half-obscured by darkness and blurred by the remaining smoke. Everyone always said that she looked like her auntie Marabelle. She looked like her mother, too, with the red hair and the freckles, but there was some of the shrewdness, some of the sadness that she could always see in her aunt’s expression in old pictures. She had tried to make her body her own, to distinguish herself from all the people she had grown up with; she was covered in stupid, impulsive tattoos. Her most recent addition, dark across her ribs, read, sometimes the predator, sometimes the prey. She didn’t even know what that meant. Just something she had thought sounded deep when she’d been drunk.
“I didn’t know that,” Hardwon said softly, touching her leg.
“Yeah, ‘cause I didn’t tell ya.” She smiled ruefully, snapping back to herself. “Hold on. I gotta call my uncle.” Her Uncle Cobb had been married to her aunt before her death, and he was still a beloved member of the family even though he wasn’t blood. He had once been very close with her brother, a mentor of sorts, until Deadeye had run away from home. They had been calling him Deadeye since before she was born, when he’d shot his eye out playing with a BB gun like the kid in A Christmas Story. Her siblings ranged so widely in age and paternity that not many of them had grown up together. She only had a few snapshot memories of him from childhood, and even fewer once they’d both grown up, but they were still brother and sister. She had to believe that counted for something.
“Do you know what time it is, young lady?” Cobb asked without any real irritation in his tone when he picked up the phone. Moonshine felt a twinge of homesickness at the sound of his familiar drawl.
“I know you ain’t sleepin’,” she said. “You’re drinkin’ on the front porch with my mama.”
“You got me,” he chuckled. “What’d you need?”
“I just got a call from my big brother.”
“Yeah. He wanted twenty bucks.” Silence, longer than she would have liked. “You gotta talk to ‘im.”
“Only thing I gotta do is pay taxes and die.”
“I’m pretty sure you haven’t paid taxes since the seventies.”
“Number one, that ain’t none of your business. Number two, your brother’ll either come home or die. We done all we can for him.”
“Is that how ma feels?” She heard him get up and go inside, the creak of his rocking chair, the distinctive screech of the screen door.
“I’m not gonna bring this to her, Moonshine. Not now. She’s sick. I’m tryin’ to keep things light around here.”
“Fine. Talk to you later.” She hung up, breathing out sharply, and tossed her phone to the end of the bed, swallowing tears. Her face felt numb and hot at the same time, and her hands were tingling for some reason, maybe with all the things they couldn’t do. Moving surprisingly quickly for someone as stoned as he was, Hardwon cupped the back of her neck and pressed his forehead against hers.
“Hey,” he murmured, brushing her hair out of her face with her free hand.
“You’re my best friend, you know that?” she choked out, squeezing her eyes closed.
“You’re my best friend.”
They stayed like that for what felt like a long time, until her breathing started to slow down to match his. Pawpaw squirmed in between them and curled up in her lap, never one to be left out of a cuddle. Sleepiness started to overwhelm and dampen her turbulent emotions.
“Are you ever scared?” she asked softly.
“I dunno. Everything.”
It was nice to know that she wasn’t alone in at least one thing.