The two were sat at the kitchen table, quietly chatting and tucking into the French toast, heavy with syrup. “Really? You drove all the way from Colorado?” Tetrox mumbled around a bite of breakfast. “I’m honestly surprised that you made it to Texas. That’s what, 600 miles? I’m surprised your parents are okay with this.” Arnick raised an eyebrow and swallowed the last bite of toast. His third serving. He really had been hungry. “Closer to 700, and they aren’t. And they aren’t really my parents anymore.” The girl seemed trustworthy enough, and if he was going to be staying here for a bit, it wouldn’t be good to lie. “I told them I was cutting ties, and left a few days ago. I’m eighteen, so I’m officially my own man now. Thanks for the breakfast, by the way. Haven’t had french toast in a while.” Tetrox pretended to not be shocked at how nonchalantly the boy had told her he had basically orphaned himself and stared directly into her food. “That’s, um, interesting. So, uh, where you headed?” “Not sure. East, for now. I’ve never been away from the West coast, so we’ll see.” seeing how Tetrox reacted to his… Unusual circumstance, Arnick changed the subject. “So, this is your cousin’s farm? Ranch?” “Yeah. Been visiting for the summer. I’ve come here every year since I was 8.” Tetrox checked the clock on the wall and clapped, hopping to her feet. “Bella should be getting back soon, so we should get you cleaned up. She can’t kick you out if you’re in the shower.” She grinned impishly and directed Arnick to the washroom, showing him where the towels and soap were, before giving him some privacy. Tetrox dithered around the door until she heard the water run and the shower curtain slide into place before zooming back to the kitchen. She had to get everything cleaned up quickly, so that Bella didn’t find any evidence of another person in the house. She always got mad about uninvited guests, no matter the circumstances, and she was ridiculously stubborn. The last visitor who came knocking had to pick buckshot out of the novelty-sized stuffed animal he was carrying, even after trying to explain that he was from a radio raffle they won.
Thinking of the tragedy that it would be for someone to survive immense dehydration, only to still end up buried in the back garden, Tetrox scrubbed plates probably faster than she ever had before. Just as the last stirring spoon *clinked* back into it’s place, the screen door whined open and shut, accompanied by the thunk of heavy boots being dropped to the floor.
“Roxie! You there?” A dark skinned young woman in a boonie hat shoved the door to the kitchen open and leaned against the nearest counter. “It’s an absolute scorcher today, had to take the cattle down to the pond. Heatstroke issa real danger this year.” She took a swig from the water bottle she carried and waggled a cautionary finger at her younger cousin. “I know it might get boring when I’m not around, but don’t let me catch you going to visit the boys in town. It ain’t safe to be running around in this weather.” Tetrox rolled her eyes.
“I told y’all, I’m not gonna run to town tryin’ ta get a boyfriend. If I was gonna be rebellious, it would be for something better than a bunch of rednecks.”
“Then whose van is that out front, eh?” Belladonna eyed her accusatively.
Oh shiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Cold sweat beaded down the back of Tetrox’s neck. She totally forgot about the van. Nothing for it but the truth, then.
“Well, you’re not gonna believe this. Y’see, there was this dying kid,” Not a very convincing start. “and he had been pushing his van for miles, and, like, he really needed water. I didn’t want him to die on the doorbell, cause that would get annoying, right? Just ding-dong, ding-dong all day, heh.” Tetrox chuckled nervously. Bella looked more confused than mad at this point, which might have been an improvement. “ So, like, i gave him some water and french toast, and he’s probably okay now. His name is Arnick, and he’s not from around here. I think he ran away from home, but he’s 18 now, so I don’t know if that counts.” While trying to frame the truth in the most casual light, Tetrox kept babbling, digging a deeper, even more nervous hole. She didn’t know why she was freaking out so much, but she really didn’t want Bella to kick the boy out, no matter how weird he was. When the girl started talking about his weird hat, Bella held up her hand to shut her up.
“Shut up,” She added firmly, for good measure. “Calm down girlie. I get it, a weird kid came to the door. That, or you’re terrible at lying, and I’ve caught you with enough stolen cigarettes and magazines to know that ain’t it. But where is this boy? You’re so freaked out, I’m starting to think you stole the damn van.” At this most opportune moment, Arnick slunk into the room like a beaten dog, having heard most of the conversation.
“Would you mind if I washed my clothes somewhere?” He wore only a pair of patched shorts and his peaked cap, with his torso wrapped in a big fluffy towel that hung around his bony shoulders like a cloak. You could count each of his ribs, and his pelvic bones jutted out beneath his skin. Just as striking as his obvious malnutrition were the myriad scars that crossed his body. Large welts, thin slashes, and several large jagged lines from his left pectoral that wrapped all the way around to where the towel covered them. The scars were all obviously of differing ages, and in different stages of healing. It looked as if the boy had been flayed with a whip constantly over the course of his life.
The cousins both stood stock still for a moment, simply staring at the boy. Tetrox saw a flash of something cross Belladonna’s face, but it was for only an instant. The older girl was the first to snap back into action.
“Course ya can.” Her boonie hat dipped Bella’s face into shadow for just a moment. “I might have somethin’ for you to wear in the meantime. Roxie, show him where the laundry room is.” Belladonna hustled out the kitchen door and upstairs, leaving the two alone. Arnick cocked a questioning eyebrow at Tetrox, but she just shrugged. Leading the boy to the laundry room, she loaded his filthy clothes into the washing machine and showed him how to work it.
Waiting for Bella to come back, Tetrox flumped down onto the couch in the living room, and Arnick perched next to her, being careful not to soak the seat with his towel.
“It’s been a long day already, and it’s still only 10 am… Although, I imagine it’s been rougher for you.” Tetrox sighed, and leaned over to Arnick, roughly wrapping an arm around him in a sudden show of affection. He jerked in surprise, and she quickly retracted her hand. “Sorry… How are you feeling? And I don’t need any more ‘Thank you’s’ or ‘I’ll be leavings.’” The girl really was an anomaly to Arnick. She was staring at him with an earnest intensity, truly wanting to know how he was. He finally put his finger on it, what was odd about her. Her eyes matched her words. It was unsettling how genuine she was towards him. He hadn’t meant to jump when she touched him.
“I’m doing better, especially after that shower. Never thought I’d see water again, nevermind get to bathe.” Arnick allowed himself a small smile, but cut it out before Tetrox would notice. She was worried, and he didn’t want to make fun of her for it. His smiles were not to be seen, since they were creepy. He scooted an inch or two closer to her to show he wasn’t insulted by her trying to touch him. He felt he should avert his eyes, so as not to seem like he’s demanding the contact. A long pause. What was she thinking?
“Is that why you left your parents?” It took Arnick a moment to realize what the girl was talking about, and that she had gestured towards his torso, his scars. The eyes again, an earnest concern, a caring worry that felt almost like a stab from a blade. He never knew looking at someone could make you feel warm. But… with a sigh, Arnick removed the cap he hadn’t let go of since arriving in Belladonna’s home and showed Tetrox the golden badge on the front.
“That’s only part of it. I… need to find someone. I’m looking for my grandfather.”