"Alright, Judith. Wave to the camera."

I pick up her chubby little hand an' wave it at my phone. I lightly kiss her cheek as I take the picture. I set it back on the couch an' lay her down on her blanket, gently rubbin' her stomach as she starts to wind down. It's been a long day an' I feel about as tired as she looks.

My phone buzzes beside me an' I see Amy's name on my screen. Her an' I've decided to go out Monday before her shift at the bar. We've actually been textin' each other all day. I quickly type back, agreein' on lunch an' goin' to the mall. I laugh at how excited I am. It feels like a lifetime's passed since I've had a girl other than my sister wantin' to go places with me. Judith starts to babble away, tryin' to get my attention. "I'm sorry, darlin'. You want me to sing you to sleep, don't you?"

I lift her off the blanket an' hold her to me. I clear my throat an' begin to hum. Tiny fingers grip the end of my braid an' she lays her head in the space between my neck an' shoulder. It's possible that I'm the most comfortable when I'm with her. We just get along so naturally.

Nobody else seems to make her laugh the way I can, besides her brother. An' I can get her to fall asleep by the end of a single song. Lori calls me a miracle worker. I walk us over to the bay window an' gently rock her in my arms. The sun's just startin' to fall back behind the trees. I clear my throat again an' begin singin' the first song that comes to my mind.

"I remember tears streamin' down your face when I said, 'I'll never let you go'. When all those shadows almost killed your light. I remember you said, 'Don't leave me here alone'. But all that's dead an' gone an' passed tonight."

Birds fly through the leaves of the oak tree. It's quiet enough that I can just make out the soft chorus of frogs outside. Peaceful. I feel her body relax more against me an' I continue.

"Just close your eyes. The sun is goin' down. You'll be alright. No one can hurt you, now. Come mornin' light, you an' I'll be safe an' sound."

I stare at the tire swing. My heart pounds at the memory of last night. The memory of Daryl's kiss an' his smile. I can almost hear his laughter. I grin an' place a small kiss on the top of Judith's head.

"Don't you dare look out your window, darlin', everything's on fire. The war outside our door keeps ragin' on. Hold on to this lullaby. Even when the music's gone. Gone."

I can hear her breathin' evenin' out an' her fingers release my hair. I hum as I walk us back to her blanket. Gently as I can, I lay her on her back an' smile at how sweet she looks sleepin' there. I rub her stomach some more an' quietly finish off the song.

"Just close your eyes. The sun is goin' down. You'll be alright. No one can hurt you, now. Come mornin' light, you an' I'll be safe an' sound."

"That's an interestin' song to sing to a baby."

I turn to see Maggie standin' in the archway of the sittin' room. I shrug. "I figure it's better than fallin' cradles an' ashes."

She smiles warmly at me an' makes her way over, sittin' behind us on the couch. I glance down at the baby sleepin' quietly an' look back to Maggie. She's wearin' a dark green strapless dress with a full skirt that hits just at her knees. It compliments her skin tone. I also see she's wearin' the pair of diamond earrings Daddy had given her on her sixteenth birthday. I keep my voice down. "You look pretty. Gotta date with Glenn tonight?"

She grins from ear to ear an' nods. They've been gettin' pretty serious over the last year. Always goin' out to dinner, her stayin' at his place on the weekends an' them goin' away at least once a month. I like seein' her so happy an' I really like Glenn. He doesn't treat me like I'm just her kid sister. We actually joke around a lot an' the three of us have fun together when he comes over for dinner. She looks down at the baby an' keeps her voice quiet like mine. "How was your date last night? You got home pretty late."

There's no anger in her voice. If anything she looks happy for me. I feel myself smile. "It was..."

What's an appropriate word for what happened? Daryl went from shy an' cautious to carelessly happy with me in a matter of hours. He makes my head spin just tryin' to keep up with his different sides. The mental exercise I've gotten these last few days is probably the reason I've been so exhausted by the time I lay my head down at night. Even then, I can't fight back the smile I get just thinkin' about him. It's all just...

"Wonderful."

She looks me over approvingly an' tells me to give her more than that. I shrug. "I don't know how to explain it."

"Try."

I roll my eyes. Of course she wants to dissect every aspect of a single night out with a guy. But I remember that Maggie's the one person I can go to for absolutely anything. Especially the subjects that are too embarrassin' to ever bring up with Daddy. I sigh.

"It's pretty complicated, Maggie. It's nothin' like datin' Jimmy was. Is it wrong that I actually like that?"

I see her bite her lip an' realize she's tryin' not to laugh an' wake up Judith. I appreciate that. She just shakes her head. "Bethy, nothin' worth havin's ever gonna be easy."

I snort. "Thanks for the philosophy, Mags."

"I mean it. Do you remember how hard it was gettin' Daddy to accept me goin' away with Glenn that first weekend? He was so stubborn an' fought me tooth an' nail. But, every time I felt like just givin' up, I reminded myself how happy Glenn made me. I realized he was definitely someone worth fightin' for."

I let the words sink in. Maybe I haven't known Daryl very long, but I know he's worth fightin' for. Even if a majority of the fightin's with his own insecurities. I check to make sure Judith's still asleep an' climb up on the couch with my sister. She pulls her legs up an' tucks her feet under her. I mirror her position. "What if I'm fightin' against some protective barrier he's got put up? I mean, one minute he seems carefree, the next he's pullin' away. I can't keep up with all the triggers that scare him back behind that shell. What am I supposed to do?"

She looks like she's thinkin' it over. But she's still smilin'. After a minute she laughs an' we both quickly check to make sure she didn't wake up the baby. I glare at her an' she whispers, "Sorry."

She sighs an' looks me in the eyes. "You've always been attracted to broken things, Beth. Don't look at me like that. You really have. Remember gettin' Nervous Nellie? You were so certain you could make that damn horse love you."

"She does love me."

"That's my point. You're such a nurturin' person. You're instantly drawn to anything that needs some sorta lovin' care. An' you're the most persistent person I've ever met. You just don't give up on anyone or anything. That's what you gotta keep doin' with this guy. Maybe he just needs to know that you're there for him an' you wanna help him."

I sit back against the arm of the couch an' gaze past my sister, out the window. The sun's well below the trees an' there's a rosy glow on the horizon. I think about what she's said. It's all true, of course. It's just in my nature to want to help someone. I know whatever Daryl's fightin' against, no matter what it is, I wanna help him.

"Maggie?"

"Hmm?"

I fix my eyes on her face an' I return her smile. "I know what you meant before."

Her expression turns to curiosity an' I feel the grin split across my face. "I've got it. The feelin' like I'm floatin' on air? Daryl makes me feel like that."

Her big green eyes soften an' she keeps her voice quiet. "Told you so."

We hear Glenn's car pull up an' I walk her to the door, watch as she slips on a pair of heels she'd brought down from her room an' hold the door open for her. Glenn waves to me an' I wave back. Before she walks away, I tug on her elbow. She turns to face me an' I hug her. I step back an' smile at the questionin' look on her face. "Thanks for the talk, Mags. I needed that."

She reaches her hand out to my shoulder. "You know you can talk to me about anything. I'll see you tomorrow."

I watch her walk gracefully out to his car, somethin' I can truly envy. I have enough trouble walkin' over a flat surface in heels. She makes walkin' out the door, down the steps an' across the yard look so simple. I wave goodbye as they drive away, turn to go back to the baby an' close the door behind me. I sit down on the couch an' pick up my phone, lookin' at the picture I took with Judith. We both look so happy. There's a smile on my lips where I've kissed her cheek an' her tiny hand waves to me from the picture. There's a soft glow around us where the sunlight broke through the window.

I haven't heard from Daryl since earlier this afternoon when he text me to see what time he should pick me up tomorrow. He'd told me he'd be busy tonight an' wouldn't be able to talk much. I pull his name up in my phone an' glance at our conversation. Maggie's right. I can't give up on him. Just lookin' at his name gives me goosebumps. I tap on the screen an' attach the picture of me an' Judith in a text.

Judith says hello. Can't wait to see you tomorrow :)

I send him the message an' set my phone back down. I get back on the floor an' lay down next to Judith. Starin' up at the ceilin', my mind wanders back to decipherin' whatever it is that bothers Daryl so much. I can't imagine what could possibly haunt him, but I know it doesn't matter. He's broken an' I'm determined to help him at any cost.


"Whatcha doin', Daryl?"

I turn 'round in my seat an' see the little kid starin' up at me. He's got a red popsicle in his hand an' it's drippin' down his fingers. He's smilin' at me an' I see the gap where he's lost his two front teeth. The shirt he's wearin's covered in dirt an' stains. I smile back at him an' pull the cigarette outta my mouth, tappin' the ash off the end.

Luke lives in the trailer 'cross the street from us. Always findin' me when I'm workin' outside an' always got somethin' that needs fixin'. He don't annoy me much. Kinda feel bad for the kid. It's just him an' his mom livin' there since his dad ran out on 'em a few years back. Shit. Ain't like his mom's any better. She's just another dope fiend. Always stumblin' over to our place in the middle of the night to get her fix from Merle. It's a wonder the kid don't get in any trouble. I put the cigarette back to my lips an' get back to my work.

"Puttin' a new radio in my truck. What's up?"

"Mama got me a slingshot for my birthday, yesterday. Wanna go shoot down empty cans offa the fence?"

I finish up the radio an' turn the ignition. Skynyrd comes through the speakers an' Free Bird fills the cab. I tap the dash an' turn the truck off. "Can't tonight, Luke. Gettin' ready to head out. Didn't know your birthday was yesterday."

"Yeah. I turned eight. It was a pretty big deal."

I laugh at him an' climb outta the truck, slammin' the door behind me. I pull my wallet outta my back pocket an' dig through. Shit. All's I got's a ten. Guess ten's good enough for an eight year old. I hand it to him an' he smiles up at me, nearly droppin' his damn popsicle. I shrug. "Happy birthday. We'll shoot cans tomorrow night."

He thanks me for the money an' shoves it in the front pocket of his shorts. I look over to his house an' see the car's gone. "Where's your mom?"

He shakes his head. "Dunno. She went out a few hours ago. Locked the door to the house an' told me to play outside."

I look down the street a little ways an' just make out some of the other kids kickin' a ball 'round in the middle of the road. I speak 'round my cigarette. "You go over there an' play with them other kids. Patrick's there. Tell him I said to practice your slingshot with you."

I look down at him again, blowin' smoke outta the corner of my mouth so it don't get in his face. Kid can't weigh much. Damn clothes practically hang offa him. Brown eyes stare up at me through dirty, brown curls. I shake my head just thinkin' what a good kid he is. How his mom don't give a shit what he does or where he goes. I start to think that fuckin' junk in his hand's all he's ate today. "You get hungry, go on over to Zach's an' he'll get you somethin' to eat."

Luke nods an' starts to walk away. I know why I feel so damn protective over that kid. He reminds me of myself when I was his age. Parents that don't give a damn what you do, long's you stay outta their sight. I remember my old man an' I'm glad Luke ain't gotta deal with his own jackass dad. Better off without him. I'll be damned if he ends up like me. I shout out to him. "You best get good with that thing. Me an' you gonna shoot for money tomorrow."

"Alright, Daryl. I'll bring my jar of quarters. See ya tomorrow."

I wait 'til he gets over to the other kids, grind my cigarette in the dirt an' head inside. Merle's sittin' in his recliner an' starin' up at the ceilin'. I get over to him an' kick his chair. Icy blue eyes meet mine an' they ain't dilated. He's been sober since his last fix Thursday night.

"You needa stop sellin' to the lady 'cross the street."

"You talkin' 'bout Shelly?"

I nod. "She needs to worry more 'bout her damn kid than gettin' high."

I try to sound like I don't give a damn. Like it's just somethin' that gets on my nerves. But Merle sees right through me. Always could. He gets up an' laughs right in my face. "You playin' daddy to that kid, little brother? Think it's a good idea for any of them kids out there to look up to you?"

I glare at him as I make my way into the kitchen an' get some water from the sink. I drink down the whole glass an' turn to see him leanin' back against the fridge, starin' at me. I put the empty glass on the counter an' stare back at him. He shakes his head. "Always said you were the sweet one, boy."

I don't move a muscle. Don't care what shit he's gotta say 'bout me. I ain't ever asked my brother for nothin'. Ain't ever needed nothin' he could give me. But this is somethin' I do need from him. I can't help but feel responsible for that kid walkin' 'round this neighborhood, locked outta his house 'cause his mom don't give a shit what he does. It's my flesh an' blood supplyin' her nasty habits. I just want better for Luke than I had.

Merle laughs at me. "Alright. Fuck her. She don't ever pay upfront, anyways. But don't think you're savin' that kid. Shelly don't get her shit from me, she's just gonna find someone else. Drugs are a terrible thing."

He smiles wickedly at me an' tells me to get ready to head out. I follow him down the hall an' catch him 'fore he goes in his room. I put my hand on his shoulder. "Thanks."

For a second he just stares at me. Then he looks at my hand touchin' him an' shrugs it off. He shoves me outta the doorway. "Get outta here, man."

My brother ain't ever been one to accept appreciation. Hell, I don't even like it much. But I take it better than him. I walk into my room an' close the door behind me. We still got another hour or two 'fore it gets dark. I close my eyes an' try to get some sleep. At first, my nerves get the best of me. I ain't sure how shit's gonna go down with this guy tonight. I just want it to be over with. I think 'bout how badly I wanna get away from livin' like this. An' that's when I start thinkin' 'bout Beth. It's her face I picture right 'fore I fall asleep.

"Get your ass up! We gotta go!"

I open my eyes to a dark room. My door shakes from his fist beatin' against it. I pick up my phone to check the time an' realize I was out for almost two hours. Fuck. I quickly take off my work shirt an' grab my thermal shirt offa the bed 'fore I head down the hall. I drop down to the couch an' try to ignore my nerves.

Shovin' my feet into my boots, I can't fight off the feelin' somethin's gonna go wrong. I glance over to my brother an' he looks like ain't nothin' wrong with the world. "You sure 'bout this, Merle?"

"What'd I tell you? Gonna be a quick job. In an' out. Ain't that what you said you wanted?"

I look into his eyes. Strange seein' they ain't bloodshot. Almost like I ain't even lookin' at my brother. Him wantin' to sober up 'fore we meet up with this guy bothers me. Makes me more nervous that he felt he needed a clear head. I grab my shirt an' pull it on. Catch the now familiar scent: strawberries. I close my eyes just a moment to remember last night. To remember her. Anything to take my ass off edge.

I'd been in a shitty mood since I'd gotten off work yesterday. Couldn't stop thinkin' 'bout what was gonna happen tonight. The whole drive to Beth's, I tried to figure out just what the hell the two of us was doin'. She's such a damn good person an' there I was, still talkin' myself into this shit with Merle. I felt bad tryin' to piss her off enough so she'd be the one to tell me to go. Fuck, God hisself knows I couldn't do it. She kissed me in that kitchen an' I couldn't help but think it'd be alright. I'd make her understand I ain't nothin' like I was. Even if she never knew the way I was.

Her fingers touched the skin of my back, soft an' gentle when that part of me's only ever felt pain. It's what I needed to get my head back on straight. I told myself right then that she'd never accept me. An' I knew deep down I'd never fuckin' deserve her. Holdin' her to me was painful. I convinced myself I didn't have to lose her. This all started with us actin' like friends. Figured I'd take spendin' time with her anyway I could. Later, I felt her face relax into my hand when I'd touched her. Realized I'd never wanted nothin' more in my life than for her to always be that way with me.

Bein' at Zach's, watchin' the way she smiled when she didn't know I was lookin', I couldn't help but think it coulda all been real. Wasn't just some fucked up trick in my head. Like I hadn't imagined how comfortable she was with my hand on her face. If it was more than only thinkin' she liked sittin' so close to me on the tailgate. That's how it played out the entire night in my damn head. Fightin' between holdin' onto her 'cause of some distant chance or lettin' her walk away from me 'fore it could ever be more.

We was just turnin' on her road an' I'd been feelin' so damn good that she felt comfortable bein' alone with me an' fallin' asleep. I put the truck in park out fronta her house an' watched her sleep a minute. I ain't ever imagined anyone sleepin' so damn sound. My mind raced through right an' wrong. What I'd done in the past, what I planned on doin' the next night. But everything inside me froze when I heard her say my name. I'd thought she was awake. I looked over an' saw her head on her shoulder an' could just make out the smile on her lips. She was still asleep. She ain't said nothin' but my name, soft an' quiet. I'd felt like I'd just been hit with my own damn truck.

I lower my head an' inhale again, her scent soothin' my frayed nerves as I come back to the world 'round me. Merle's sittin' on the recliner, lacin' up his own boots. I stand an' go to the door, grabbin' my keys offa the hook. I turn back to him. "See you in the truck."

He nods an' I slip through the door an' walk outside. I take out a cigarette an' light it up, leanin' back against the fronta my truck an' lookin' up at the sky. There's still a hint of light, orange an' red just at ground level. I don't know why, but I almost think to text Beth an' see what she's doin'. I'd made up my mind last night that I ain't gonna watch her walk away from me. Not after she told me she don't care what I'd been hidin' from her. Said we'd get through whatever it was together. That was the exact moment I knew just how bad I needed her. Ain't nobody ever cared 'bout me so much they wanted to help me. Shit, never wanted anybody's help all my life. I blow the smoke outta my mouth an' tap the cigarette between my fingers. Ain't all that sure I want her help, or that she even can. But I know I want her to try.

The trailer door opens an' I turn to see Merle comin' down the steps. I just make out the wood in what little light's left out here. "The fuck's the bat for?"

He opens the passenger door an' gets in, settin' the bat at his feet. I drop the cigarette to the ground. Still a good bit left, but even that can't calm my ass down. I get in an' start the truck as he laughs. "I like to refer to it as The Voice of Reason. That bastard don't wanna listen to what I gotta say, I'ma let this Louisville Slugger do the talkin' for me. You can bet your ass his ears might be workin' then. Course, that's only if I feel good enough not to wanna aim for his damn skull first. Head on down the drive. I'll tell you where to go."

I start down the road an' I can already feel myself gettin' anxious again. I'd wanted this to be quick an' simple, but it's obvious Merle thinks it might go downhill. I get to the end of our drive an' he tells me to head right. I turn onto the main road an' try to clear my head. Last thing I need's to get stupid. Stupid gets you dead.

"What happened with you an' this guy, anyways?"

"Like I said, bastard owes me money."

It's real quiet in the truck for the next two miles or so. Ain't even fuckin' hot an' Merle's got his damn window down. The cold air whips 'round in the cab. Shoulda brought my leather jacket.

"Me an' you oughta go huntin' tomorrow, baby brother. Just like old times, huh?"

I glance over an' see he's actually smilin'. It's been a long ass time since we last did somethin' together that weren't goin' to the bar. I almost wanna take him up on the offer, but I'd already made plans with Beth for tomorrow. "Got shit to do tomorrow. What 'bout next weekend?"

"Shit to do? The fuck you gotta do?" After I don't answer him, he lets out a heavy sigh. "Jesus Christ. It's that scrawny little blonde, ain't it?"

"Fuck you, Merle."

"Whatever you gotta do to loosen up, boy. Get it over with so you can stop walkin' 'round the place all pissed off all the time. Nothin' like a good lay to ease the tension. 'Sides a little crystal. Maybe even a nice, fat joint?"

I see him look at me outta the corner of my eye. I don't turn to him an' he snorts. "Yeah, musta forgot. You're above that partyin' lifestyle these days. Ain't that right? What would Blondie think of the way you'd been back then?"

"Just tell me where the fuck to drive."

We don't say nothin' else to each other the whole ride there. I keep my eyes on the road an' my mouth fuckin' shut. I'd never gotten into the heavier shit Merle had. But there were plenty days where I'd sit 'round with him an' his friends smokin' pot or doin' shrooms. I'd always followed in his shadow. It's only been a few years since I'd decided it wasn't what I wanted in life. Cleaned myself up, got the job at Jim's an' ain't touched nothin' stronger than liquor since.

"Turn up on the hill. Take the road all the way back. His house's at the end."

I park behind an SUV. The guy's house is small an' I make out a swing set in the front yard. One of the swing's is broken. "This guy got kids?"

"How the hell would I know? The fuck's the big deal with you an' kids, anyways?"

I don't answer him, just follow him up the concrete steps to the front door. It's a small house, almost like Zach's, but it ain't gotta garage. There's green patches along the dirty white sidin'. Merle knocks on the door. "Pizza!"

There's a shuffle inside an' a thick accent says, "I ain't ordered no fuckin' pizza."

The man opens the door an' Merle pushes his way in. I follow an' close the door behind us. The guy drops down into a chair an' stares up at Merle like he ain't gotta fuckin' clue what to do. Merle taps the bat in his hand, then spreads his arms wide. Almost knocks down a whole shelf of crosses an' Jesus figures. "Felipe! Mì amigo! Reckon you ain't plan on seein' my ass stroll up in this dump tonight."

Felipe shakes his head. I cross my arms over my chest an' lean back against the wall. I look 'round the room an' see the inside of his house ain't nothin' like the outside. Nice leather couches an' a flat screen tv mounted on the wall. It's hard to believe he can't afford to pay Merle. Obvious he just don't wanna. I can already feel the tension in the room. He stumbles over his words.

"Merle! I told you, money's been tight. Gotta take care of my niece now that my brother's doin' time. Her mother died a few years ago. Drug overdose."

"Stop. You're breakin' my fuckin' heart."

It's obvious by the look on his face that Merle don't give a damn 'bout none of Felipe's problems. He lifts the bat an' swings, a sickenin' crack comes from the contact of wood with ribs. As the man screams in pain I step forward. Merle holds his hand up to me an' I feel my whole body tighten up. I don't move a muscle. He kneels down next to the man, now doubled over in pain. Merle shakes his head, lets out a whistle. "Holy shit. I'd be donkey licked if that weren't a break."

He stands an' lifts the bat again. "I'm only askin' you one time, you filthy fuckin' spic. Where the fuck's my money?"

I watch as the man raises his head. His breathin' sounds painful an' his face screws up, tryin' to form the words. "Second room...down the hall." He takes another agonizin' breath. "Top drawer."

Merle slaps him on the back, causin' him to jolt forward an' scream in pain. My brother heads down the hall, leavin' me alone with the man cryin' in his chair. I can't watch him. Instead, I focus on a picture hangin' up beside his head. It's a little girl with large brown eyes an' dark hair. She's holdin' a stuffed bear an' smilin' on the swing. "That your niece?"

He looks up to me, then tries to turn to where I'm lookin', but he can hardly move. I feel bad for him. "The little girl in that picture."

He nods. I look 'round the room an' realize there's even more pictures of her. Some with an older woman, some with Felipe. There's one where she's tuggin' a rope with a dog. It's obvious the guy cares 'bout that kid. "What's her name?"

For a minute he just stares up at me, holdin' onto his side. "Isabel."

I stay where I am, just lookin' him over. I think 'bout that little girl. The kinda life she's growin' up in. "She here? Now?"

He nods. "In her room. Sleepin'."

I feel my fists clench. "Think it's a good idea? Runnin' drug deals outta the house your niece sleeps in? Ain't you all she's got? Or that just some shit you said for sympathy?"

A look takes over the pain. He's upset over what I said. "The fuck," he shudders an' waits a minute. When he continues he's quieter an' speaks slowly, tryin' not to cause more pain. "The fuck you know 'bout it? You rednecks come up in my house, take my money an' then you tell me how to raise a kid?"

He spits at my feet. "Fuck you, punta."

"What'd you just say to my brother?"

Merle comes back down the hall, stuffin' a thick roll of cash in his back pocket. Felipe watches as he walks up to me. "I ain't said shit."

"That true, Daryl? My ear's fuckin' with me?"

I look back to Felipe. He's gotta sorry look on his face. Then I see that picture above his head again. I keep my voice low. "He ain't said shit, Merle. Let's go."

He gives me a dirty look. He knows I'm lyin'. For a second, I think he's gonna take that bat to my ribs. But he only shakes his head an' tells Felipe never to fuck with him again. "An' you go to the police, I'm gonna burn your fuckin' world to the ground."

He points the bat at the picture of Isabel with her bear. His voice a threatenin' snarl. "Everything an' everyone in it's gonna be ashes at your feet. Don't you ever fuckin' think I won't."

He heads out the door an' I get one last look at the fear in Felipe's eyes 'fore I follow him outside. That man ain't goin' to the police. Doubt he'll ever come up short with my brother again, either. I walk to the driver's side of my truck an' get in. We don't talk at all at first but, halfway home, the thought gets the better of me.

"You ain't really gonna hurt that little girl?"

"Jesus. Really, the fuck's up with you an' kids?"

I glare at him an' he spits out the window. "I'm plenty of things, Daryl. But I ain't no baby killer."

When we get home I drop to the couch an' take off my boots. Merle goes to the kitchen to grab a beer. I pull my phone out to check the time an' see I gotta text from Beth earlier. Hadn't even felt the thing vibrate. I open the message an' stare blankly at the screen. A baby girl's wavin' at me. Beth's lips are pressed against her cheek an' the two of 'em are covered in sunlight. I trace my thumb over the outline of Beth's face.

"Damn, boy. That was fun. Me an' you oughta do shit like that more often."

He sits down in his recliner an' takes a drink from his beer. I look over to him, clenchin' my phone tightly in my fist. "I ain't doin' that shit anymore, Merle. I'm done."

"The fuck you mean? We ain't get into no trouble, did we? Course you ain't done."

I get up an' toss my phone down in his lap. He picks it up an' looks at the picture on the screen. Looks at if for a while. "I mean it. I'm done, Merle."

He looks in my eyes an' I'm almost disgusted by the pity I see there. What little pity it is. He tosses the phone back to me an' I catch it. "You ain't told me the girl was a mama."

"Ain't her kid. That's the sheriff's baby."

Merle stands so quickly it makes me step back. "What's Blondie doin' with the sheriff's baby?"

I shrug. "Friends of the family."

Merle paces in fronta me, makin' me nervous. "You gonna screw the sheriff's babysitter? Lead that sheriff right to this house? Right to me? I got enough here to lock me up for life, jackass!"

I feel my temperature risin'. All he ever cares 'bout is hisself. "It ain't even like that. Don't worry 'bout your precious drug deals, asshole. He ain't ever gonna come 'round these parts. Not after me, he ain't."

I start to walk back to my room but Merle catches up an' grabs my arm. "You do whatever you gotta do to see to it he don't come sniffin' 'round here. You either treat Blondie like fuckin' royalty, or you walk away from her now."

I feel my shoulders hunch forward. Thinkin' of cuttin' her outta my life nearly suffocates me. The words slip quietly past my lips 'fore I can stop 'em. "I can't walk away from her."

He comes 'round to face me, but I won't look him in the eyes. Not after I've said that. He drops my arm. "Damn, boy. You're really fucked up over this girl, ain't you?"

I keep my head down. I know that I am. I can't fuckin' bring myself to let her go. Not knowin' she could go back to Jimmy or find some other guy. The thought of it eats away at me. But I don't say nothin' to him. He walks away an' opens his door, speaks over his shoulder. "Don't let that fucked up head of yours bring trouble to our door, little brother."

Then he closes the door behind him an' I'm left standin' alone in the hall. I look at her picture again an' tell myself I ain't ever gonna hurt her. Swear on my life not to. I walk into my room an' fall to the mattress. Shower can wait 'til the mornin'. I'm too fuckin' tired to get back up. I hold the phone to my chest an' fall asleep.


I wrap the towel tight 'round my waist an' open the bathroom door. The moment I step into the hallway, I slam into somethin'. It only takes a second to realize it's a half naked woman tryin' to put her shirt back on. "Watch where you're goin', ass!"

An' she's yellin' at me in my own fuckin' house. I keep my eyes up offa her bare tits an' look at her face. Brown eyes glare up at me, purple circles under her lids. Curly, brown hair falls to her shoulders. I feel my blood run cold. "The hell you doin' here, Shelly?"

She takes a step back an' I look past her head to my brother's room. That fuckin' bastard. Her small hand shoves at my chest, like I'm the one she's pissed at. "That piece of shit brother of yours called me up in the middle of the fuckin' night. Asked me to hurry over for a quick fuck."

I tighten my grip on the towel. She stomps her foot on the ground. "I came over here, fucked him into next week an' he tells me he ain't got any dope for me. Like I'd ever let that animal touch me for nothin'!"

"Flattery ain't gonna get you nowhere, Sugar Tits."

Shelly turns on the spot an' I see Merle standin' in his doorway, a big grin on his face. "I offered to pay you, woman. Get your panties outta that knot."

Her words are pure venom. "I'm not your fuckin' whore, Merle Dixon! I'm not some sleazy prostitute!"

He laughs. "Course you ain't, sweetheart. You just fuck men for drugs."

She pulls one of her spiky heels off her foot an' tosses it at him, just missin' his head. He laughs again. "That ain't nice. Reckon me an' you are done with our fun, ain't we?"

"There is no me an' you, jackass! Not anymore."

She shoves past me an' storms down the hall. I hear her knock somethin' heavy over an' imagine that'd be the tv. I look my brother in the eyes, but he quickly looks away an' shrugs. "Gettin' tired of her shit, anyways."

I walk past him as he goes back in his room an' can't fight the smile on my face. The jackass really does care 'bout me when he wants to. I grab my phone offa the charger an' text Beth to let her know I'm changin' an' I'll be there soon.


A/N: Safe and Sound belongs to Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars.