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“Don’t tell him where you live. Don’t give him any money. Don’t trust a word he says.” That’s what Aunt Vinnie said about Xavier.
“How bad can a fourteen-year-old be?” I asked her.
That got a throaty “Ha! The kid says he’s your brother, so wipe off four years and take a look in the mirror.”
Anyway, he’s late. So I guess I can add Don’t rely on his time-management skills to the list. Behind me, people dash in and out of Bean Me Up, Scotty, the smell of coffee calling me each time the door opens. But I wait. I search the afternoon crowd for “brown hair, gray hoodie, high-tops” because that’s what Xavier said to look for. “I’ll wear bright blue high-tops so you’ll know it’s me.”
The 86 rattles down Smith Street. Sparks fly where the tram’s mechanical-arm thingy meets a crisscross of overhead cables and I jolt back into something warm and solid. Something that lets out a loud “Oi!” I swing round and get a dirty look from the old guy I’ve just bashed into: gray hair, dandruff-sprinkled jacket, expensive-looking brogues.
So, not Xavier?
The guy shuffles past, shaking his head and muttering. My middle finger itches, but I’m trying to cut down on obscene gestures: Vinnie says it’s a sign of low breeding. “Not like you can’t think of something colorful to say instead,” she says.
I check my phone for the time. Again.
What’s this kid going to look like, anyhow? Dark-olive skin like me? Short? No, he sounded tall. But he also sounded like a con-artist junkie. Maybe.
A young guy walks onto Smith Street from Gertrude: gray jacket, the hood flipped over his head. My gaze slides down his black skinny jeans toward his shoes, my heart kabooming the whole way.
He’s wearing white Chucks.
My nails dig into my palms.
There’s a voice behind me. “Got change, cuz?” I turn and see Homeless Eddie doing his morning rounds. Right now he’s chasing a gray-haired librarian type. His hands are in a prayer pose as she’s shaking her head, gripping her bag to her chest. She scurries away.
“Nothing for Eddie,” he says, raising one arm high above his head—it’s his usual tic. He jiggles his outstretched arm, his index finger poking all sorts of holes in the sky.
I’m just about to split when another voice stops me short. Male. Young. Right behind me. “Frankie?”
Okay, so running away is still an option, right? Grow a pair, Frankie.
I take a deep breath, swing round, and get a punch in the face.
No, not literally. What I experience is more like a bitch-slap from fate.
Brown hair, gray hoodie, high-tops, bright blue.
I look him over—this Xavier person, this boy who shouldn’t exist. I look him over and it’s like a sumo wrestler is bear-hugging my lungs.
“Frankie, right?” The kid blinks at me, half smiling, and all the while my lungs are collapsing into mashed-banana mush in my chest.
He holds out his hand, staring at me with wide-set, so-brown-they’re-black eyes.
“You’re Frankie?” His outstretched hand hangs between us. I don’t take it. I give him a small wave: jerky and mechanical.
“Cool,” he says. He shoves both hands in his pockets and grins.
He’s tall, broad-shouldered and pale, light-brown hair cut short back and sides, with a fringe flopping half across his face, all the way to his chin. More skate punk than junkie. No meth sores and all his teeth. That’s a good start.
We stand in silence. Me and my brother. Half brother.
“Shit. This is awkward,” he says in a voice deeper than it sounded on the phone. Raspier. And then he laughs.
Homeless Eddie laughs too, but I ignore him because right now I’m listening to my half brother laugh for the first time and it’s … weird. Weird and cool. It’s like when you get a whiff of some random chick’s perfume and the smell drags you back to primary school and that teacher who cuddled you after the kids ganged up on you at the monkey bars because all your clothes were from the Salvos. So you want to chase the random chick down the street and hug her for reminding you of that moment. But you also want to slap her because it’s not just Ms. Ng stroking your hair you remember, it’s the name-calling, too.
Xavier chews on his bottom lip. He’s not laughing anymore.
Maybe because I’m staring at him. Like a proper psycho.
I shift my weight, boots sloshing in a puddle. I nod at the café. “We could go in? I mean, if it’s gonna be awkward we may as well overdose on brownies, right?”
“Cool,” he says with a shrug.
* * *
We got the call three nights ago. Vinnie answered and said nothing—just shoved the phone under my nose. I half expected it to be a cop or a nurse—someone saying, “Sorry about your mum. We did everything we could. It was just her time,” blah, blah, blah.
I haven’t heard from Juliet in forever, not since she dumped me at age four. Not since she pissed off to Queensland so she wouldn’t have to worry about a kid cramping her style while she got high and ripped people off.
But it was a young voice on the phone. Male. “Are you Francesca Vega?”
“I’m Frankie. Who the hell are you?”
“Is Juliet Vega your mum?”
“Why are you asking?”
“Cos I’m Xavier Green. She’s my mum too.”
Bam, crash, ka-pow. Hell of a game changer.
It’s those four words—“She’s my mum too”—that loop through my head as I follow Xavier into the frosted, wooden Scandinavian-ness of Bean Me Up, Scotty.
We grab a table at the back and I inhale my brownie. Because eating equals mouth full equals can’t talk.
In between mouthfuls I watch him, sitting there looking more like Juliet than I do. It’s the long, thin nose and the straggly hair, I think.
There’s a nervous, jangly energy about him. “This is cool, hey,” he says.
I nod because if I open my big mouth I’ll be honest and tell him this is 10 percent cool, 30 percent uncomfortable, and 60 percent completely freaking me out. Either that or I’ll tell him there are words other than “cool.”
He rips a napkin out of the dispenser, pulls out a fineliner, and starts doodling while I flag down the waitress and order a second brownie.
I tear my fingernails and watch him—his tongue at the corner of his mouth as he scribbles all over the napkin with the kind of fluid, easy movement of someone who knows what he’s doing. He moves his arm so I can’t see what he’s drawing, but what I do see are the scrapes on his knuckles, the pen marks on his fingers, the dark stain on his hoodie, and the shadows under his eyes. And slowly I think I might be beginning to see Xavier.
On the phone he told me he’s just turned fourteen; already he’s a fair bit taller than me. I don’t know if I’d call him good-looking, but I think girls would go for him. It’s the dimples. Bet he gets away with murder.
He looks up. “You like music?” He points his pen at my Joy Division T-shirt.
“Some,” I say. “Ian Curtis is a god.”
“He’s a wanker,” says Xavier.
I stop wiping brownie crumbs from around my mouth. “You did not just say that.”
He looks up at me and grins.
Dimples don’t work on me, kid.
I lean forward and jab my finger at him. “Firstly, without Joy Division there would be no Smiths and without The Smiths there would be no Radiohead and without Radiohead there would be no music. At all. Secondly—”
“So that’s how I get you to talk, hey?” Xavier flips the napkin over and slumps back in his chair. Still grinning.
“Insulting Ian Curtis is how you get on my bad side.”
“Confession: I don’t know who Brian Curtis is.”
The edges of my lips twitch. It’s a weird feeling. Almost like I might be about to … smile. I quickly cover my mouth with my hand.
Xavier leans forward on his elbows. “So you live with your aunt, hey.”
“I guess she’s my aunt too. What’s she like?”
What do you say about Vinnie? That she has three ex-husbands and two ex-fiancés? That there’s nothing tighter than her skirts? That she took me in when no one else wanted me?
“Amazing. Basically the opposite of Juliet,” I say.
He looks away, a little crease between his brows.
Way to go, Frankie. He was probably dumped in a cardboard box on the doorstep of a convent and raised by sadistic nuns. The only thing keeping him going was the hope that out there, somewhere, was a fairy-tale mother who would ride in on a silver unicorn and rescue him. But now his ugly half sister is telling him his mum’s the Wicked Witch.
Man, I need another brownie.
He taps his long fingers on the napkin and clears his throat. “What year are you in at school?”
“Shit,” he says.
I nod. I don’t tell him I’m currently on “extended hiatus.” I don’t tell him that two days ago I was suspended indefinitely, until the school board meets and decides whether or not I’m kicked out for good. I don’t tell him, because I am not talking about the Steve Sparrow Incident.
“You?” I ask.
“Eight. It’s bullshit.”
And it’s like that, back and forth, firing off questions like we’re ticking off a list.
He tells me he lives with his dad in Reservoir (but grew up in Townsville), only bothers turning up at school for Art, doesn’t have any other siblings (that he knows about), obsessively plays some game called StarCraft (it’s big in Korea), and his least favorite food is anything green. I have to answer the same questions and pretty soon we’ve covered all the key topics.
Except one. No one’s mentioning Juliet. But it’s fine. Got to know what this kid’s favorite color/animal/holiday destination is before I broach the J-word.
“Got a boyfriend?” he asks.
“I’m taking an extended hiatus.”
He looks at me, nose crinkled. “You like big words, hey.”
“Big words, yes. Boys, not so much. They lie.”
“Most people do.”
Same eyes, same healthy dose of cynicism. No need for a DNA test, doctor. We’re definitely related.
I lean forward. “What’s your dad like?”
“Just Juliet’s type, then.”
He frowns, a chipped front tooth digging into his lip. “You don’t like her, do you?”
Hmm. Looks like we’re having this conversation after all.
Diplomacy is not my strong point but I’m going to try. I pick over my words as carefully as a girl in combat boots can. “She never gave me much chance to like her. There’s a lot I might have forgiven if … Well, she’s not exactly bombarding me with phone calls begging for forgiveness, is she?”
Xavier’s frown deepens, so I assume my little foray into diplomacy has sucked. If I were a country, I’d be North Korea.
World’s shortest sibling relationship? I guess this is the end of what might otherwise have been the feel-good story of the year. No more Frankie and Xavier. You’ll get your way after all, Vinnie.
The silence stretches all the way to Awkwardville. Xavier stares at nothing. All I can focus on is the tip of his pen as he raps it against the table.
And then he takes a deep breath, shoulders drawing down. “Dad says she should’ve never had kids. Not fit to be a mum.”
“Your dad and I would get along fine.”
He looks at me, the barest hint of dimple. “That’s cos you haven’t met him.”
“Or maybe because he hasn’t met me.”
“Look.” I lay my hands on the table, palms down. “I don’t know how old you were when she dumped you but, believe me, she was doing you a favor. If I can give you one piece of sisterly advice it’d be to stay away from Juliet Vega. Unless you’re a disappointment junkie. Then you should go right ahead. If you can find her.”
When I’m done with my incredibly undiplomatic diplomatic speech, there’s silence. Except for all the coffee orders, hipsters droning on about how drunk they were last night, plates and cups clinking, and whatever crappy dance music is pounding in the background. Actually, it’s just Xavier and me who are silent.
“How long did she stick around?” I ask. “She must have got knocked up with you pretty soon after she left me.”
No dimples now, more of a grimace. “I’m no good with maths … But family’s family. Sometimes it’s all you got, hey? And if you don’t—”
He’s cut short by a racket from his jeans’ pocket: a thin beat, vinyl scratching—wooka wook wook—and some dude rapping with a nasally voice and a bad case of sexism.
He has Eminem for a ringtone? This is not going to end well for us.
He grabs his thigh with a jolt. “Shit,” he says. His second-favorite word after “cool.” “Sorry.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the phone. “Got to take this.” He swipes the screen and the racket ends—thank god. “What?”
Sheesh. Rude much? I rest my chin on my palm and try to look fascinated by the lunch menu.
“Nah, dude. Not for like an hour or something.” Xavier’s eyes keep flicking between the floor and me. He angles his body to the side, his phone ear completely hidden from view.
The waitress appears. “Anything else?” She eyes my plate with the mounds of brownie crumbs.
Don’t judge me, bitch. This is a high-stress situation. I shake my head. “We’re good.”
The waitress flicks me a half-arsed smile and walks away.
Xavier ignores her.
“You for real?” He glances my way, so I try out a smile. He shifts farther around in his chair. “What the fuck, Nate? Why does it have to be now?”
Vinnie’s number one hate is when people come into her shop and order while still on the phone. “Yeah, I’ll have a—what do you mean you won’t be able to make it by six?—kebab with—well, then you’ll have to pick up Madysin and Jakwelin from ballet lessons—but no garlic sauce, ’kay?” Those kinds of people get the special sauce.
So what would Vinnie make of Xavier? Looking so much like Juliet would be a massive black mark next to his name in the Book of Vinnie. He didn’t thank the waitress when she brought him his Coke—another big no-no—but, having met the waitress in question, I’d argue that in this instance it’s a gray area.
I reckon if Vinnie were here she’d be kicking me under the table, telling me to get the hell out. She doesn’t have a lot of time for Juliet Vega–related things; I’m the one and only exception.
But I’m not sure what I think about Xavier. Junkie? Probably not. Liar? Thief? Not enough evidence. The jury’s still out on how far this apple fell from the tree.
He hangs up and pockets his phone. “Something’s come up. I’m real sorry, Frankie, but I gotta go.”
No, wait—jury’s in: the kid’s a bastard.
I push my plate into the center of the table and stand, chair scraping. “Yeah. I got to go too. Busy, busy, busy.” I rummage through my bag for cash. Why can’t I ever find anything in this stupid jumbo-size backpack? Is there a vortex at the bottom of it?
“It’s my mate,” he says. “I owe him. He’s calling in a favor so…” He frowns at the napkin and keeps blinking, like he’s got dust in there. It’s weird watching my eyes doing stuff in someone else’s face. “But we should do this again, hey.”
“Sure.” Not a chance.
Xavier places two fingers on the napkin and slides it across the table. “I really would like to see you again, Frankie,” he says. “We never got to … Well, maybe I could swing by your shop? Meet Vinnie? You can shout me a kebab, hey.”
I dump a twenty on the table.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from this meeting. It isn’t like a date, but then it kind of is. I wanted to be funny, intriguing, intelligent. I didn’t want to accidentally spit brownie on him or trip and face-plant the pastries. I wanted him to call me later and say, “Hey, I had a good time. Let’s be brother and sister. Let’s fight over the remote. You can call me Pus Face and I’ll call you Sarcastitron, Her Royal Bitchiness, and we’ll moan about what a fuckup Juliet is and no one will understand just how fucked up but us.”
I wanted to be impossible to walk away from.
“How ’bout it?” he asks.
Looking into those black-brown eyes, I get that feeling again. Weird and cool at the same time. And then I look down at the napkin.
It’s a girl. All delicate, swirling lines and feathery shading and eyes that you’d swear were real, that you could stare at for hours just waiting for them to blink. It’s so raw, so good. And it’s hard to tell the wrong way up, but I’m pretty sure it’s a drawing of me. A nice me, though. A happy me.
What’s that sound? Oh, nothing. Just my heart exploding into a million pieces.
When I look up, he’s watching me. Waiting. With dimples.
“Okay,” I say.
Bouncing to his feet, he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a few crumpled notes, dumping them on the table next to mine. “Cool,” he says, and thrusts out a hand for me to shake.
This time, I take it.
Copyright © 2017 by Shivaun Plozza