Roxy Brayburn and a broken heart
Losing Lucas has embittered me to the world, to every couple on the beach, Elle, Santa Maria, and even you. You’ve had twenty years with Daddy. Why didn’t I get that with mine? I expected to live with Lucas and Mayhem and maybe a whole bunch of babies for the rest of my life.
But then Lucas jumped off the cliffs like he was late for an appointment. You know what that means.
I can’t look at Elle after what she did, and if I have to fight this battle, cleanse my Brayburn blood, I have to do it away from here, where I can’t hear the water whisper, where I can’t feel its pull on my heart, never mind my body. I been thinking, Mama, Santa Maria is just like us, like Brayburns. It seems like a good, safe place for some free love and a party on the beach, but once you peel back the first layer, you realize it’s a lie, and what’s underneath is rotting and dirty. Spoiled, like meat that’s been sitting out too long.
I know what you’re thinking: I’ll be a Brayburn wherever I go, and so will Mayhem. You’re thinking that being born a Brayburn is a gift, that your grandma Julianna blessed us. I wish I had never known anything about it. I wish I was normal, and there was no Millie the cat, no birds, no cave, and most of all, no water. Even more than that, I don’t want to see, because that is the worst thing. I want to make myself blind like the rest. I want to be whole, and Brayburns are thorns.
I love you, Mama, and I’m sorry to do this to you. I know how much you and Daddy live for Mayhem, and I know how much you care for me. This will hurt you, but I don’t want to be at the mercy of my lineage, and I don’t want it for my daughter, either. I want both of us to be free. Since Elle can’t have babies, we might be able to end it all if we go away. Don’t worry, Santa Maria will survive, like every place on earth. It doesn’t need us.
I keep going back there, standing right at the edge of the cliff, looking down. I will fall if I stay. And Mayhem?
Well, you’ve seen how curious she is, how determined she is when she wants something. Fate is umbilical for her.
Don’t blame yourself. You did your best for me. I’m going to do the same for Mayhem.
You understand, don’t you?
I love you, Roxy
Tell the Truth
All I ever do anymore is swim. I like how the world is muffled underwater.
Last night, I woke up and Lyle was standing over me, darkened and backlit by the hallway, so at first I thought he was a demon, come for me. Roxy tensed, held on to me a little tighter.
This is how it goes.
Since their fight two days ago, he’s feeling bad, or maybe he’s just smart enough to stay away. That won’t last long. Then he’ll start giving her stuff and being sweet
to me, which will make me want to vomit all the time. Then, after a period of contrition and seduction, he’ll get comfortable and drunk and mad and then he’ll do it again. Last time, she couldn’t walk for days. It used to take a while to come around to the hitting part again, but lately he loops fast.
I’ve been to the cops.
Well, the station. I haven’t gone in yet. I don’t know what I would say.
“My stepdad is a creep who’s always in a corner, watching.” (big dimpled smile)
“My stepdad has an arsenal in the workshed. Might want to check that out.” (finger guns)
“My stepdad looks at the odometer when my mom leaves the house. He won’t let her shower alone. He won’t let her work.”
“I think my stepdad is going to kill us someday, maybe soon. Maybe that’s why he was in my doorway, watching. Can you do something about that?”
What would they say? They’ve all seen him at my swim meets, cheering, hugging me when I win. They’ve seen him show up to chaperone dances where I stand at the side, alone. They don’t know the way I recoil when he touches me, that I cringe as he glides across a dance floor, and that at home he never dares come so close.
I don’t know how they don’t smell the steamy sickness coming off him.
At night, when I’m holding on to my mother because she’s trying to get away from you so she can have a few hours of peace, I think about ways you might die. I’d love to stab you, to pull your dreamy blue eyes from
8 E STE L L E L AU R E
your head. I’d love to hear you scream, to see you beg for your life and then take it from you anyway. You’re a plague and a pestilence, and the way you carry your manliness like it’s a permission slip from God to act like you rule everything and everyone in your path, like you
can do whatever you want—well, I think the guillotine is a good option. I’d love to watch your head roll across the grass.
I wish you were the kind of drunk that passes out. I wish I had the guts to get your handgun and blow your brains against the wall while you were sleeping. I would never feel sorry a day in my life.
You did that to me. You turned me into a person who hates, one who dreams of ways to die. Roxy is the only thing keeping me here. Protecting her from you. I often wonder who I would be without you. Maybe I would
be in love, somewhere beautiful, dreaming about the future, instead of struggling to make it through the day, worrying every time I step out the door to go to school or practice that when I come home, my mother won’t be there anymore. She’ll have disappeared.
You did this to us. Everything is your fault. Sincerely and with hate,
Roxy doesn’t cry. Neither of us do. We don’t talk about it, even to each other, like if we never say it out loud, it will stop. We just lie there, awake, except where our bodies warm each other. And of course I’m always worried
about Roxy and her stomach and her achy bones that never go away. The doctor can’t find a reason, so she lives like that, taking pills to ease the pain. All the pain.
I always go back to the pool, to swimming. Underwater is the only time I’m safe. Seems like I may never have a person wrap himself around me, care about me the way I think is possible for some.
The water is the closest I get.
“Trouble,” Roxy says. She arches a brow at the kids by the van through the bug-spattered windshield, the ghost of a half-smile rippling across her face.
“You would know,” I shoot. “So would you,” she snaps.
Maybe we’re a little on edge. We’ve been in the car so long the pattern on the vinyl seats is tattooed on the back of my thighs.
The kids my mother is talking about, the ones sitting on the white picket fence, look like they slithered up the hill out of the ocean, covered in seaweed, like the carnival music we heard coming from the boardwalk as we were driving into town plays in the air around them at all times. Two crows are on the posts beside them like they’re standing guard, and they caw at each other loudly as we come to a stop. I love everything about this place immediately and I think, ridiculously, that I am no longer alone.
The older girl, white but tan, curvaceous, and lean, has her arms around the boy and is lovely with her smudged eye makeup and her ripped clothes. The younger one pops something made of bright colors into her mouth and watches us come up the drive. She is in a military-style jacket with a ton of buttons, her frizzy blond hair reaching in all directions, freckles slapped across her cheeks. And the boy? Thin, brown,hungry-looking. Not hungry in his stomach. Hungry with his eyes. He has a green bandana tied across his forehead and holes in the knees of his jeans. There’s an A in a circle drawn in marker across the front of his T-shirt.
“Look!” Roxy points to the gas gauge. It’s just above the E. “You owe me five bucks, Cookie. I told you to trust we would make it, and see what happened? You should listen to your mama every once in a while.”
“Yeah, well, can I borrow the five bucks to pay you for the bet? I’m fresh out of cash at the moment.”
Roxy cranes out the window and wipes the sweat off her upper lip, careful not to smudge her red lipstick. She’s been having real bad aches the last two days, even aside from her bruises, and her appetite’s been worse than ever. The only thing she ever wants is sugar. After having been in the car for so long, you’d think we’d be falling all over each other to get out, but we’re still sitting in the car. In here we’re still us.
She sighs for the thousandth time and clutches at her belly. “I don’t know about this, May.”
California can’t be that different from West Texas.
I watch TV. I know how to say gag me with a spoon and grody to the max.
I fling open the door.
Roxy gathers her cigarettes and lighter, and drops them in- side her purse with a snap.
“Goddammit, Elle,” she mutters to herself, eyes flickering toward the kids again. Roxy looks at me over the rims of her sunglasses before shoving them back on her nose. “Mayhem, I’m counting on you to keep your head together here. Those kids are not the usual–”
“I know! You told me they’re foster kids.”
“No, not that,” she says, but doesn’t clarify. “Okay, I guess.”
“I mean it. No more of that wild-child business.”
“I will keep my head together!” I’m so tired of her saying this. I never had any friends, never a boyfriend–all I have is what Grandmother calls my nasty mouth and the hair Lyle always said was ugly and whorish. And once or twice I might’ve got drunk on the roof, but it’s not like I ever did anything. Besides, no kid my age has ever liked me even once. I’m not the wild child in the family.
“Well, all right then.” Roxy messes with her hair in the rearview mirror, then sprays herself with a cloud of Chanel No. 5 and runs her fingers over her gold necklace. It’s of a bird, not unlike the ones making a fuss by the house. She’s had it as long as I can remember, and over time it’s been worn smooth by her worrying fingers. It’s like she uses it to calm herself when she’s upset about something, and she’s been upset the whole way here, practically. Usually, she’d be good and buzzed by this time of day, but since she’s had to drive some, she’s only nipped from the tiny bottle of wine in her purse a few times and only taken a couple pills since we left Taylor. The withdrawal has turned her into a bit of a she-demon.
I try to look through her eyes, to see what she sees. Roxy hasn’t been back here since I was three years old, and in that time, her mother has died, her father has died, and like she said when she got the card with the picture enclosed that her twin sister, Elle, sent last Christmas, Everybody got old. After that, she spent a lot of time staring in the mirror, pinching at her neck skin. When I was younger, she passed long nights telling me about Santa Maria and the Brayburn Farm, about how it was good and evil in equal measure, about how it had desires that had to be satisfied.
Brayburns, she would say. In my town, we were the legends.
These were the mumbled stories of my childhood, and they made everything about this place loom large. Now that we’re here, I realize I expected the house to have a gaping maw filled with spitty, frothy teeth, as much as I figured there would be fairies flitting around with wands granting wishes. I don’t want to take her vision away from her, but this place looks pretty normal to me, if run-down compared to our new house in Taylor, where there’s no dust anywhere, ever, and Lyle practically keeps the cans of soup in alphabetical order. Maybe what’s not so normal is that this place was built by Brayburns, and here Brayburns matter. I know because the whole road is named after us and because flowers and ribbons and baskets of fruit sat at the entrance, gifts from the people in town, Roxy said. They leave offerings. She said it like it’s normal to be treated like some kind of low-rent goddess.
Other than the van and the kids, there are trees here, rose- bushes, an old black Mercedes, and some bikes leaning against the porch that’s attached to the house. It’s splashed with fresh white paint that doesn’t quite cover up its wrinkles and scars. It’s three stories, so it cuts the sunset when I look up, and plants drape down to touch the dirt.
The front door swings open and a woman in bare feet races past the rosebushes toward us. It is those feet and the reckless way they pound against the earth that tells me this is my aunt Elle before her face does. My stomach gallops and there are bumps all over my arms, and I am more awake than I’ve been since.
I thought Roxy might do a lot of things when she saw her twin sister. Like she might get super quiet or chain-smoke, or maybe even get biting like she can when she’s feeling wrong about something. The last thing I would have ever imagined was them running toward each other and colliding in the driveway, Roxy wrapping her legs around Elle’s waist, and them twirling like that.
This seems like something I shouldn’t be seeing, something wounded and private that fills up my throat. I flip my- self around in my seat and start picking through the things we brought and chide myself yet again for the miserable packing job I did. Since I was basically out of my mind trying to get out of the house, I took a whole package of toothbrushes, an armful of books, my River Phoenix poster, plus I emptied out my underwear drawer, but totally forgot to pack any shoes, so all I have are some flip-flops I bought at the truck stop outside of Las Cruces after that man came to the window, slurring, You got nice legs. Tap, tap tap. You got such nice legs.
My flip-flops are covered in Cheeto dust from a bag that got upended. I slip them on anyway, watching Roxy take her sunglasses off and prop them on her head.
“Son of a bitch!” my aunt says, her voice tinny as she catches sight of Roxy’s eye. “Oh my God, that’s really bad, Rox. You made it sound like nothing. That’s not nothing.”
“Ellie,” Roxy says, trying to put laughter in her voice. “I’m here now. We’re here now.”
There’s a pause.
“You look the same,” Elle says. “Except the hair. You went full Marilyn Monroe.”
“What about you?” Roxy says, fussing at her platinum waves with her palm. “You go full granola warrior? When’s the last time you ate a burger?”
“You know I don’t do that. It’s no good for us. Definitely no good for the poor cows.”
“It’s fine for me.” Roxy lifts Elle’s arm and puckers her nose. “What’s going on with your armpits? May not eat meat but you got animals under there, looks like.”
“Shaving is subjugation.”
“Shaving is a mercy for all mankind.”
They erupt into laughter and hug each other again.
“Well, where is she, my little baby niece?” Elle swings the car door open. “Oh, Mayhem.” She scoops me out with two strong arms. Right then I realize just how truly tired I am. She seems to know, squeezes extra hard for a second before letting me go. She smells like the sandalwood soap Roxy buys sometimes. “My baby girl,” Elle says, “you have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to see you. How much I’ve missed you.”
Roxy circles her ear with a finger where Elle can’t see her.
Crazy, she mouths. I almost giggle.
Elle pans back to scan me up and down. She’s checking me for signs of a fight, but then her face softens and unspilled tears hover at the edges of her lids. “Roxy,” she says, still staring at me, “Mayhem looks like Mama.”
I know the mother she’s talking about from the picture Roxy keeps in her wallet, the one I’ve stared at so hard I have memorized every millimeter. Black shoulder-length hair parted in the middle, tall, big glasses, a bottle of Coke and a cigarette in hand, always lipstick on, clothes like in a magazine. That woman is gorgeous, nothing like the wreck I see in the mirror. When I look.
Roxy nods, and now she finds those smokes again and chk chk chk she lights one. “Same reproachful stare, too,” she says. “Can’t escape it.” Her jeans are skin-tight, blue blouse straining over her push-up bra, tied at her waist so most of her is covered even though it’s hot, brown Candie’s that draw so much attention to her legs you can’t help but take her in head to toe, yet cloaked so you can’t see the beating.
Elle lets her hand run across my cheek. “We used to read together, me and you,” she says. “We’d take long walks right over there.” She points to an orchard not far off and a bench with its back to us, and then looks at me as though expecting a reaction, or at least hoping for one. “Well, never mind. You’re here now and that’s all that matters. You really do look like your grandmother. We both loved her so much. But your eyes . . . reproachful stare or not . . . ,” she nearly whispers, “those are your father’s, right down to the blue flecks.”
I let her inspect me because it gives me the chance to inspect her back without her knowing. She’s tan, hair shiny, muscles taut, like she spends a lot of time moving around outside. She isn’t wearing a bra, and the same bird necklace Roxy has dangles from her neck, though hers still has some details: eyes, feathers, and it’s silver instead of gold. She’s so different from my mother. I thought twins were supposed to be alike, but if Roxy’s air, Elle is earth.
“Can I carry your bag inside?” She tries to pull it from my shoulder.
“No,” I say quickly. “Thank you.”
A blade runs through me when I think about Lyle violating my room, buzzed, finding my journal, opening its pages. It was the only place I could be honest. And I was. I was so honest. I don’t want anyone touching what little I have that’s mine, and that’s pretty much just this bag.
“Out of the way, Muffin.” Roxy nudges me from the passenger side. She looks weak and pale next to Elle, but even with everything that’s happened, my mother is still a knockout, as Lyle would say. All curves and heels and painted toes.
Not everyone is born with a pinched waist and Cupid’s bow lips.
“Come on.” Elle swings an arm around my shoulder like we know each other. “You hungry? You must want a shower, something to drink.”
What I want is to push her all the way back as much as I want to let her pull me in. I try to make my body soft against her. “Yes, ma’am,” I say. “That would be lovely.”
“Ma’am?” She lets out a loud laugh. “Oh no, no. You’re in California now. Please don’t ma’am me. I was at Woodstock, for Christ’s sake. I’m not an old lady yet.”
“Ma’am” gets everyone’s sweet spot in Taylor, Texas. I have a lot to learn about this place. Elle seems to have moved on, though, because she’s still talking like crazy.
“We’ve got so much to show you. The house, the garden, I mean . . . all of it. But first you have to meet my kiddos.”
The kids are standing there, watching me, so still they could be wax. All around them more birds are landing, chattering like they’re at a cocktail party.
“I don’t know if your mom told you, but I’m working on adoption. I’m hoping we can make it work with everyone living here.” Elle takes me in again. “I’m sure we will. Brayburns are all about family.”
I flash a look at the boy.
And then her. The older girl. Staring at me sharply. Elle turns her attention to the kids.
“That’s Nevie. I call her my soft-boiled egg. All goo on the inside, but first you have to tap tap tap on that shell. Jason and Kidd are brother and sister. Jason’s almost eighteen, so in some ways it’s silly for me to go through the adoption process, but it’s important to me to keep them together. People are afraid of teenagers, but I think that’s only because kids can see through bullshit. Every revolution and social movement has started with teenagers, right?”
While I’m contemplating that an adult has just sworn in front of a kid with impunity, I pull a Kissing Kooler from my pocket and slather my lips, because something awkward is about to happen.
“Don’t be rude!” she calls out to the fence. “Come over here and meet Mayhem.”
Grown-ups love to force meetings between teenagers. I let myself get scooted forward as the three of them saunter over.
Neve comes first, the smaller one trailing behind her. I extend a hand and she takes it in hers. A jolt slips through me, like I just touched a bolt of lightning, and I say, “I’m so nervous to be here. It’s all so different. I’ve never had a friend, so maybe you can be one . . . for me.”
“Neve!” Elle says, her face suddenly creased. “Let her go.” “Sorry,” Neve says. She pulls her hand away.
I feel dazed. “I don’t know why I said that.”
“It’s cool,” Neve says, with a little smirk. “It’s nice to meet you.”
The little girl beside her holds up two of her fingers. “My name is Kidd, and I got two d’s in my name.”
“I’ll remember that,” I promise.
She crosses her arms in front of her chest and eyes me stonily.
“Kiddo doesn’t talk much, but when she does we all listen.” Elle rubs the girl on the head, and Kidd smiles at her.
“What’s up?” Jason says. “Welcome to your home, I guess.” He doesn’t offer to shake my hand or anything, so I hug myself, wishing I could evaporate, except then I wouldn’t get to see what’s inside that house, and I really, really want to.
“I’ve told them to treat you like a sister,” Elle says. “I’m not big on discipline, and I suspect your mom isn’t either. I think kids need to be kids, explore the world, get in touch with their primal drives.” She flings her arms open. “Follow their bliss!”
Okay, maybe I didn’t know everything about California. “We’ll be like the distorted Brady Bunch,” Neve says. “Not to worry, Elle.” “Cool,” Jason says.
“This isn’t funny,” Elle says. “I expect you all to get along and for all of you to welcome Mayhem.”
“I’m Roxy, in case anyone cares. You care, don’t you, birds? Yes, hello, friends,” my mother says to the crows, as she gathers up a couple of bags and hands me one. What’s in the car is mine. When we got to the Texas border, Roxy threw everything of hers out the window but the clothes on her back, piece by piece, howling like a loon. I wonder where Jason and Neve were when we stopped to call, if they heard Roxy hyperventilating through the phone when she told Elle we were on our way.
I search their eyes for clues but find them opaque.
“Nice to meet you.” Neve fidgets. “Can we?” She looks to Elle.
“Go ahead. Thanks for waiting until Mayhem and Roxy got here, honey. It means a lot.” Elle assesses me, my blue hair and black lace choker. “You’re going to fit right in, May. Friday nights in Santa Maria are all about bonfires and beaches and all the rides on the boardwalk. When you’re ready, it’s down the road, and it’s a great place to celebrate life, to relax, and forget the rest of the world.”
Roxy makes an ugly noise.
“You should come with us sometime,” Neve says. “Yeah.” Kidd makes spooky fingers. “If you dare.”
Neve laughs. Kidd refluffs her hair, then climbs into the van. “Later, Mayhem,” she says. “Until next time.”
“Oh shit, I left soup on the stove.” Elle smacks her own forehead. “I’ll be right back.”
Roxy gives her a wan smile. “Thanks for taking us in,” I say.
“Thanks for coming home,” she says, and then she runs into the house.
I’m distracted by the van door sliding shut, by the music coming on.
The VW bus bounces down the driveway. I contemplate my situation. When I was younger, I used to lie in bed looking at the bunny-shaped water stain on the ceiling and fantasize about living in Santa Maria and having brothers and sisters. Things might still not be perfect, but they would be better, because someone besides me would know how things were and I wouldn’t have to spend so much time wondering if I was crazy. And of course, in my fantasies my father, Lucas, is here. There’s no Lyle and there never was. Every mile has erased a week of his life, so there’s nothing left and he was never born, and those same miles have closed the gap between me and my dad. My father, Lucas, is going to come around the corner of the house any moment, completely legitimately alive, with his arms so far open I won’t even have to reach for him at all. I’ll just be able to sink and he will catch me.
“You all right, May?” Roxy asks.
“Fine, Roxy,” I return.
I stare up at the Gothic roof and its raven weathervane. Inside that house lives the past, my family, remnants of my father. I remind myself why I pulled over at the payphone and made Roxy call Elle instead of going back to the shelter.
I wanted answers.
“Well, you may be fine, but I need you to hold me up for this one.” Roxy threads her arm through mine and leans against me as we approach the house.
I want to ask her again why she left Santa Maria and all of this and why she’s so freaked out about being here. But I don’t ask her any questions, because with Roxy you can’t. You can only wait. I take her arm and steady her as she negotiates her heels across clods of dirt.
My mother is shaking so hard my arm is shaking, too. And.
Watching her, I’m certain all the answers are in that house.
(C) Estelle Laure, Wednesday Books, 2020. Reprinted with permission from the publisher
A YA feminist mash up inspired by The Lost Boys and The Craft.
It’s 1987 and unfortunately it’s not all Madonna and cherry lip balm. Mayhem Brayburn has always known there was something off about her and her mother, Roxy. Maybe it has to do with Roxy’s constant physical pain, or maybe with Mayhem’s own irresistible pull to water. Either way, she knows they aren’t like everyone else. But when May’s stepfather finally goes too far, Roxy and Mayhem flee to Santa Maria, California, the coastal beach town that holds the answers to all of Mayhem’s questions about who her mother is, her estranged family, and the mysteries of her own self. There she meets the kids who live with her aunt, and it opens the door to the magic that runs through the female lineage in her family, the very magic Mayhem is next in line to inherit and which will change her life for good. But when she gets wrapped up in the search for the man who has been kidnapping girls from the beach, her life takes another dangerous turn and she is forced to face the price of vigilante justice and to ask herself whether revenge is worth the cost.
From the acclaimed author of This Raging Light and But Then I Came Back, Estelle Laure offers a riveting and complex story with magical elements about a family of women contending with what appears to be an irreversible destiny, taking control and saying when enough is enough.
About Estelle Laure
Estelle Laure is a Vonnegut worshiper who believes in love, magic, and the power of facing hard truths. She has a BA in Theatre Arts and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and lives in Taos, New Mexico, with her two children.