Her Name is Petunia.
If we are to believe what pop songs all around the globe say, Great Things Happen once you fall in love. Colors look brighter, food tastes better, and suddenly you can spend a whole day staring at paint dry itself because you'd be so distracted that you wouldn't notice just what a bore of a thing it was.
To my brother Pete, it was as if he had been stuck underwater his whole life, and suddenly he found out he could get his head from out there and breathe.
Not that Pete would actually say that he had fallen in love, of course. But he had that twinkle in his eye that dad always told us about. He had a song hidden, a special smile meant just for a special lady.
And that special lady was Petunia. Pete first saw her on another's man arm, the right one, and she was wearing a green dress that didn't look okay on her, and she was half hidden by his shirt sleeve, as if he was embarrassed to have her there. But when Pete caught a glimpse of her, he was wowed. From her long red hair to the way she turned her neck to the way she was smiling as if saying 'you know you want me', Pete was enthralled. There was only one thought running through his head at that time:
"I have to have her."
Which wouldn't have been much trouble if not for the fact that my brother Pete was eight years old at the time. No kid in Wellsville had a tattoo, unless you counted the ones you had to lick and then slap on your arm so that you could have a tiny fake tattoo for two or three days, as well as an excuse not to take a bath.
But Pete wanted much more than that. As a man in love, he wouldn't just conform with mediocre seconds. Upon meeting Petunia, life had become something new and strange that Pete, always hungry for adventure, was ready to find out. If the world was a cookie, Pete would eat it.
Or he would, if not for his arch nemesis, Papercut. The moment that Papercut moved into town, he and Pete knew they'd be fighting forever.
Papercut didn't have a tattoo: he had tribal cuts on both his arms that he said had been done by a shaman of the secret Gami-Ori order, scars that showed that he wasn't only the meanest boy in town, he was also the bravest and... the coolest eight years old boy that could have been.
Pete was cool, but not That Cool. Despite his pranks, despite his courage, so far the one cool thing that he could talk about was how if mom cocked her head just right while she was standing next to the TV, the metal plate in her head would give us extra channels to surf around. And that wasn't something his.
For the first time in his eight years of life, my brother Pete thought he could taste defeat, and it tasted worse than the Surprise Casserole we had every Wednesday at school.
But life has its way to make sure that its champions don't go defeated for long. Every hero needs a little push, and Pete was destined to greatness. He wouldn't have just a little push.
He would have a superhero's push.
So while Pete walked around with his naked forearm, suddenly he heard somene cackling.
"Why the long face, mate?"
Pete looked around, wondering who could have said something like that. And there he was, up in a tree, wearing a blue and red shirt and red tights, looking as if he alone was holding the sky up there. Artie: the Strongest Man in the World.
The man jumped from the branch he was standing up and fell unto the ground besides my brother: the Richter scale measured that the repercussions of Artie touching Wellsville's had been equivalent to a 4.5 earthquake, and from where he had fallen down on his butt, Pete was staring at this strange man with his mouth hanging open.
"Stand up, little man!" the man said, offering a hand to Pete. "The world is for those who stand on their own two feet! Never stay down!"
"Who are you?" Pete asked, overwhelmed as he stood up.
"Who am I? Who am I?! Well, my friend, clean up your ears and be ready, For--" The man laughed before he jumped to a bench, flexing his arms. Pidgeons all over Wellsville flew away, the sprinklers didn't start sprinkling on time, and Pete wouldn't have been able to close his mouth even if he had been paid. ("Not a chance!"). "I. Am. Artie! The strongest man... in the world!"
No-one ever knew where he came from. Some speculated that he had been raised by badgers underneath the earth, and that he had gotten his strength from them. Some other people thought he was an alien that had come down to Earth to befriend us before a race of supermen came to conquer us. For Pete, Artie was the answer to all the prayers he had never actually made.
Artie was the last drop needed for the proverbial glass of Pete's patience to tip over. And during that first afternoon of their friendship, when Artie, after having conquered the evil sidewalk that always made people trip, said:
"You have to remember, young Pete Wrigley. If it's worthy, fight for it!"
Pete knew what he had to do.
He was getting his girl, no matter what.
Back then, mom and Pete hadn't had a big fight yet. Perhaps it was because he was young and he was still mom's little angel, perhaps it simply was that Mom had been happy to believe that we'd remain children forever. Mom and dad hadn't joined yet the Adult Conspiracy, though by then they had gone to a few meetings. Still, both our parents had been, yet, of the idea that children were meant to be listened, and they considered that a Conspiracy was Mean.
Oh, how fast would that tune change. But up until then, Pete and mom hadn't really fought ever. But, as history has taught us, it all starts with one little battle. On retrospective, I should have realized it was coming it, but this is how things work. There are some things you just miss until you look back and then they hit you on the back of your head like a baseball.
On this particular war, it started about two months before Pete met either Petunia or Artie, with Pete simply refusing a haircut ("It was a bowl cut! Who does she think I am? Bowl Cut Jim?"). Up until then, Pete had never outright refused something mom had said. Mom stared and then twitched, as if the plate in her head was bothering her the way it bothered her the days with lots of static. But then mom simply smiled her 'of course' smile: if I had paid more attention, I would have noticed how her eye was twitching, an impending sign of doom.
"Of course, honey. What haircut would you want then?"
And so Pete won the first battle, and he kept on using the hunting cap grampa had given him last Christmas, with nothing but a short trim on his head.
But oh, it wasn't the last battle, oh no. Mom counterattacked with socks. The Krebstar 3000 Socks, done with a special thread that rumors said was used into making the uniforms astronauts wore, made socks last much more. The molecules in the socks where brainwashed into fighting against getting threadbare and keeping socks together without holes. They were a super secret of the Krebstar company and no one knew what they were made of, but when you wore them, you were lost. The socks almost had no give whatsoever. You couldn't wiggle your toes for freedom, and with little to no chance for holes to grow out on their own, there was little hope that your toes wouldn't just merge together into a wiggle-less amorphous shape.
But there was absolutely no reason why Pete should have had to say no. Mom gave him the socks on Sock Day and all, looking chirpy and happy.
"I thought these might last you a little bit longer, honey," Mom said, beaming.
Pete took the socks like one would accept a bomb. "... gee, mom... you didn't have to..."
"Oh, nonsense. Everything for my baby!" and after that mom had kissed Pete's cheek like she always did, then rubbing his cheek with her thumb.
Round two went to mom.
It was an extremely Civil War for a while. You could say it was the Most Polite War that has ever been. Little acts of defiance that threatened to change the way water flowed eventually. Dad kept away from the most time, having to decide between his Role as a Father or his Manly Pride, and this was a fight where brothers were meant to watch from the sides and don't help. Pete was fighting for his freedom, and it wouldn't do to have his big brother win that battle for him.
And then, with Artie having given Pete the last needed push, he was ready. That night, as mom was making her Broccoli-and-Chicken Stravaganza, Pete dropped the bomb:
"I'm getting a tattoo."
The silence that followed was terrible and everlasting for all of five seconds. During those endless seconds, I don't think that even our hearts dared to beat, just out of fear of what would happen if they did. I didn't dare to even blink.
If we had had an X-Rays machine focused on mom – never mind the metal plate – we could have seen how her Scream started from a spark on the cerebral cortex that traveled at the speed of light down every nervous terminal in her body. Her lungs expanded, taking in as much air as possible, her throat relaxed, her stomach tensed. Her hands curled into fists and even before she had spoken, her whole body said that the Polite War was over.
"You. Are. GROUNDED!"
Up until that point, Pete had never been really grounded. He had had a few hours of Deep Reflection after he misbehaved, but as Mom's Little Boy, Mom usually lasted two hours or so before she gave in and allowed him out of his room.
This time, five days went through and Pete remained grounded.
"And he will be grounded until he forgets that stupid idea about getting a tattoo!" Mom explained to me when I tried to get Pete out on parole, cutting the carrots as if they were responsible for Pete wanting a tattoo.
But Pete wouldn't do. He painted his arm with a Petunia look alike, promising the real Petunia that she'd be soon there, on his arm, ready to dance the night away. Artie would dance tribal dances of Strength and Patience in our front yard and mom would snap at anyone who even dared to mention Pete unless she had started that conversation. And they usually weren't so much conversations as monologues. 'That boy!' was repeated a lot. 'I can't believe it!' was another favorite.
For a while, dad and I were allowed neutrality, but it didn't last long. Eventually, mom and Pete turned towards us, and he had to pick sides. I had it relatively easy: everyone knows that in intrafamiliar disputes, 'brother' trumps 'mother' in the loyalty scale. So I became mom's enemy as well.
Dad, he had it much more difficult: there were the Sacred Bonds between Father and Son on the line, as well as the Everlasting Vows between Husband and Wife and, as a side, his Manly Pride. No matter what he chose, he was doomed. So he did what was best in his opinion: dad went into denial that there was any fight at all, and whenever Pete or mom wanted to talk with him, he'd start to hum 'My dear Clementine' as loudly as he'd possibly could. It came to the point that he even got himself a banjo so that he could play it on time with his humming.
And then came my part in the Great Tattoo War. When five days had gone by where neither Pete nor mom had given up, Pete asked me for a favor as a brother. Chances were that once mom found out, I'd be grounded until I was thirty, but I knew that if I said no, Pete would lose his faith on me as his big brother.
I had to help him escape from mom's watch.
As I've already said, mom has a metal plate in her head. Among a whole lot of cool things mom can do with it, it's the fact that sometimes we get to hear a radio station all the way from three states from the west side of Missouri. But there is also the fact that sometimes she gets a frequency that is just annoying enough for her to want to move as far away as she can from it.
That's where I came in. I had to ask my best friend, Ellen Hickle, to help me with the maths and physics for this project. It took us about twenty seven hours and five soda cans each to be able to work the proper frequency in such a way that mom would have to get out of the house, and then about five hours with the help of Artie to build the proper antenna, a mile away from my house. There, we'd put our recording of nails against a blackboard and then all we'd have to do was wait for mom to decide she couldn't stand it anymore.
"I hope that you know what you're doing, Pete," Ellen told me, shaking her head. "The Adult Conspiracy won't forgive this that easily."
"It's for Pete, Ellen," I told her. "I have to help him."
And with that, it was all set.
I have to give it to mom: she lasted nine hours, sixteen minutes and forty three seconds more than I or Ellen had ever expected. At the fourteen hour of the recording going on and on, mom finally went out of the house, a hand to her head as she looked around, trying to find the signal. And that's when Pete ran out of the house, ready to get Petunia or die trying.
Artie had told Pete that he knew a Tattoo Prophet who went by the name of Marine Joe. No-one knew if Marine Joe had actually been a Marine, but no-one dared to ask him. He was covered from head to toe on tattoos, and he had his own girl smiling at him from his bicep, a blonde mermaid with bright blue eyes and a flirty smile. It was said that Marine Joe could predict what would happen in your life through the lines of his tattoo, but he never revealed the secrets the tattoos whispered to him. He was simply the best and, more than anything else, he would be the one to say if Petunia was meant to go on my brother's left arm.
Pete took a deep breath as he saw the man but then he walked towards him, offering his left arm, where the drawing he had made on his skin with sharpies of the woman he loved was waiting to be properly inked.
"This is Petunia," Pete said. "I want her."
Marine Joe turned his eyes from one of his tattoos and instead he took Pete's arm, staring at Petunia. He hummed, thoughtful, eyes going from her face to the lines of her body, and then he looked at Pete.
"She's feisty and wild and free, boy. You won't ever be able to tame her. Many men have tried to, and they have all failed. What makes you think that you'll succeed?"
"I don't want to tame her!" Pete said. "Petunia was born to dance, and dance she will!"
Marine Joe laughed, a deep, throaty sound that reminded me of storms upon a wild sea.
"Finally! Someone who understands her!" Marine Joe nodded, and through the twist of tattoos on his face, I thought he seemed touched. "You pass the test, boy. I'll give you Petunia."
"Over my dead body."
And there was mom, with dad behind her, looking sorry and embarrassed. And behind her...
Papercut had proven to be a true enemy when he did the most vile thing any kid could do. He tattled, breaking about seven rules children in the whole world had. No child who actually enjoyed being a child tattled to a grown up, no matter what happened. You could hate each other, but tattling was considered the lowest of the low.
Papercut smirked, a nasty looking cut on his lips making it look crazier than it was.
"Enjoy being grounded for eternity, Wrigley!" Papercut laughed, bending a paper into a pair of handcuffs he gave mom.
Mom's lips were pursed as if she had drank the juice of a thousand lemons, and she held the paper handcuffs ready to close them around Pete's wrists as she walked forward.
"Noooooooo!" but Artie, thankfully, saved the day. With his all mighty chop, he cut the paper links and before mom would react, he snatched what was left of the handcuffs, stuffing them inside his mouth and swallowing them. "Taste the power of FREEDOM, suckers!"
"Pete, we're going home. NOW." But even without the handcuffs, mom wasn't gonna let go. She glared, hands on her hips, using a tactic that so far hadn't ever failed: Guilt. Her whole face was saying 'you disappointed me' and 'I will never be able to trust in you again'. No son could ever resist that. I was on the verge of apologizing, ready to offer a thousand Saturdays worthy of cutting the grass.
But Pete, with Artie by his side, was stronger than that. So he took a deep breath and took a step unto maturity.
"No, mom," and while mom was recovering from her shock, Pete kept on. "You don't get it, mom! I have to do this! If not, Petunia will die! We were meant to be together! She needs to dance, and she was waiting for someone to notice her! Marine Joe said so!"
"Mom, really; I've never seen him this serious about anything before," I added, putting a hand on Pete's shoulder.
Mom didn't say a thing, and she and Pete engaged in one final battle as they stared at each other, each of them trying to share their thoughts via telepathy. If no-one had interrupted, they could have stayed like that months. Perhaps even years. But then, dad finally made his choice.
"I'm sorry, dear, but I agree with the boys," Dad declared, and, with a last glance towards her, he moved past the line to side up with Pete, Artie and me. "This isn't something we say no to a child. This is like... like a maturity test. It's not even a Man Thing. It's... it's about love."
"Sorry son, just giving the facts. Joyce... if we keep Pete from getting her, we'd be breaking him far worse than anything else. We can't just do that."
Mom still stared at us for a while, but I was old enough to tell that the word Love had rang true and deep, from her metal plate to the bottom of her motherly heart. I saw how mom's lips twitched and how she blinked fast enough to avoid tears. Her whole body expression shifted, a squeal of delight building itself deep inside her.
So she knelt, still very much on her side of the line.
"Pete... are you sure, darling? Once you get her, it'll be forever," she asked, reaching to touch Pete's hands. "I just don't want you to regret this."
Pete glanced towards Artie and then towards me as we both nodded, and then he grinned at mom.
And mom looked at dad as well, who gave a tiny proud nod. And just like that, this war was over as mom sighed.
"... alright. You can have your tattoo."
"YES!" Pete hugged mom once, fast enough that it almost didn't register before he turned towards me and Artie, laughing, as Papercut cursed the day Artie had come to town, but that wasn't important to Pete. He had won. Of course this would be the last push mom and dad needed to formally join the Adult Conspiracy, but right then and there, Pete wasn't just happy. He was ecstatic. He had won his right to keep his girl.
And that's the story how my brother got three things at the same time: he got Petunia, the most rad tattoo any eight years old had ever had, he got his very own superhero friend, and the biggest thing of them all.
The knowledge that if you really wanted something to happen, you had to fight for that thing, no matter what.