A.N.: Hi everyone! I know – you can shoot me if you like, just hopefully in the leg or something, I need my upper-torso for updates! So I'm rewriting this again – the dangers of leaving a story so long, your ideas change. But hopefully you'll like it – and still like Lily.
Lilium Inter Spinas
You Could Do Worse
"I told you. You could do worse."
Ryan's arrest had changed their lives.
She had seen Mom break when she'd gotten the call. Ryan was her smart boy, the good son. Dawn had failed. Not all her fault – Trey never made it easy to be his family, and if the cops had knocked on the door and said Trey had been killed in a high-speed chase…well, Lily wouldn't have been surprised. Relieved, but not surprised. That summed up her feelings toward her eldest-brother, and now that he was in jail for possession of drugs and an illegal firearm, she wasn't going to miss him one bit.
The relief she had felt when Dawn had snapped bitterly at her that Trey was going the same way as their dad… No more nasty surprises with girls he brought home, no broken bottles across the floor when he and Mom fought in drunken stupors, no more drugs stashed in her dollhouse, no more bruises from him lashing out without a second's warning, leaving her dazed and mute, no more watching him manipulate Ryan, playing on the deep sense of familial loyalty Ryan somehow had developed toward Trey.
For as long as she could remember, she'd wanted to get away. The first time she had run away had been the last – Dawn had found her, told her that Daddy was in jail and she'd never see him again, slapped her round the face, and locked her in her room until Trey had returned from summer-school with burgers. Trey didn't used to be a monster – but the frustration she had begun to see nuggets of in Ryan had taken hold and grown like mould in Trey; bitterness and anger had turned him into someone she didn't recognise from the few pictures from their childhood that had survived Dawn's episodes.
She was tired of waiting. Knew she had to, was willing to bide her time, working, saving, planning her escape – on a whim she had fled with her older-brother, and had found herself in nirvana.
At least, by appearances it seemed that way. Newport Beach. She'd never even heard of it - wasn't there a 'reality show' ten years ago that filmed obnoxious teenagers near there? It was all about the Kardashians now – and she had to admit they were a guilty pleasure. Crap TV in the background with a fat book, peanut-butter and a spoon and she was blissful. Of course, she couldn't watch TV at the public-library where she escaped from the home she had been maintaining with her pay-cheques from the diner, since Mom kept drinking hers – or giving them up to AJ to fund the crack habit that saw him cutting lines on the coffee-table in the living-room watching whatever game was on, eyeing her ass while she made dinner for her and Ryan. She had never liked the way AJ looked at her – or spoke about her to Dawn… Or the way Dawn said nothing.
So she had been trying to figure out a way to speed up her escape. She had been seriously building a case for legal emancipation from Dawn. Her sense of loyalty to her family wasn't quite as strong as Ryan's – but even she felt pangs at the idea of leaving Dawn to fend for herself. But, then again, half Dawn's problem was them, anyway. She and Ryan had never been much trouble – Lily always chalked it up to Trey. Half the neighbourhood had expected him to get shot down by a cop or get high and crash behind the wheel. He was an idiot, and Lily had always been able to see it clearer than Ryan, who still looked up to Trey in some twisted way. They both knew Trey wasn't good for him…but Ryan's reasoning was, Trey was their brother.
Lily wanted a test. She and Trey couldn't be from the same parents. She'd wondered if Dawn had just wandered drunk into a delivery ward and popped Lily on her hip – after her yells would rattle the walls and the cops would come around, Dawn would always deflate, apologise, make her a grilled cheese, tell Lily she'd always wanted a little girl, and didn't mean any of the things she said. Lily had grown up with that. Like Trey's mind-games, she had learned to let them just wash over her head. Her escape, her solace, was school. Eight hours away from home, and homework that demanded hours away from the distractions of Dawn's boyfriends or her drunk rambling. She rarely spent much time at the house she had been maintaining for the last six months, at school or work or the library, or babysitting around the neighbourhood, sleeping on their coaches rather than cycle home in the dark – that's what she told them, and everybody knew enough about her family not to ask questions.
There were few things Lily and her mother shared: a jawline, great tits, a love of yard-sales and a mutual loathing of Trump. Lily wore her thrifted Obama t-shirt with pride and a sinking sense of dread that this was what the state of American politics had come to – a struggle of extremes, on a stage viewed and judged by the entire world. Had there ever been a more humiliating time for the American nation than this presidential election? She would be interested to look back at other election campaigns and see what contemporaries had thought of presidential nominees.
This election was one of the few times Lily had ever appreciated that her mother was smart. Even tanked, Dawn had been so eloquent on her political opinions as they discussed shit-slinging, self-absorbed bully Trump, and Hillary, trying to take the high-ground, and their discomfort over Bernie playing a young-man's game and making unrealistic promises to appeal to the kids and aging hippies. Her mother was smart. Uneducated, but clever. Married too young, surprised by a family she wasn't ready for, and left to raise that family alone with no skills or support, Dawn Atwood had struggled. In no time in Lily's life could she remember her mother not drinking; her parents had loved a party – her earliest memories, those drenched in sunshine and Sixties music and Trey's innocent laugh and cuddles with Ryan, were of them all sat around the dining-table, laughing riotously and singing along to Daddy's records, betting candy and pretzels as Mom taught them cards, and Daddy laughing richly with her in his lap 'helping', Trey bringing their parents whisky. A lot of it, in a glass – just the way they liked it.
But Dawn Atwood, now-alcoholic card-shark, had always been smart. Both her parents were – Daddy had just been desperate, and that had made him reckless. She saw that every day in their neighbourhood, as jobs became scarcer, and with the kids at school, in a fight for survival, cutting corners and trying to make a dime before most people had had their morning coffee. She was guilty of it, too, making the most out of a dollar through any means she could imagine. And she was creative. But she was too smart to get caught – she used her talent with cards, baking, her seamstress skills, her artistic leanings, babysitting, catering shifts, dog-walking, and caring for elderly neighbours, to accumulate an impressive cushion she had protected by depositing in her own account at the bank.
Mr Cohen was never likely to see a case with Lily's name on it pass across his desk, unless she got caught voting with a fake I.D. And he'd been surprised to see her perched on the cinder-blocks, Hermione in her lap, playing with a deck of cards so worn that, as her mom said, a meal could almost be eaten off them – they were close to being replaced. He'd taken the fading bruise on her face in stride, probably used to it as a public defender who took on primarily juvenile cases. He hadn't gone pale and quiet like Ryan; she hadn't even told him about AJ grabbing her ass, and finally using the skillet to rebuff him. She hoped some of his fingers were broken, at the very least he'd have felt it hitting Ryan earlier. But Mr Cohen had given her a broad grin and squatted down to offer his hand for Hermione to sniff at, given her a vigorous rub that had ensured her everlasting love, and helped them tuck their things into his shining BMW.
She'd never even met a lawyer before, and despite talks with her school guidance-counsellor and her research at the library had no real clue where to go, to talk to someone about emancipation. She had done her part, building her case, but needed legal advice from someone who wasn't going to tell her what she wanted to hear to get her out of their office. For a couple of kids who'd never had much luck, Lily wondered whether some kind of divine intervention had brought Mr Cohen into their lives. When they couldn't rely on their friends, Mr Cohen had come through for them, no questions asked. He had driven an hour out of his way, at the end of his working day, to come and pick them up. She was sure their bikes were scratching the paint of Mr Cohen's BMW as they drove down the freeway, and sat in the backseat with her stomach churning in embarrassment, wondering how they'd pay for the repair.
She had some money tucked away, but she needed it – first on her list, she had to pick up her brand-new retainers from her orthodontist. Now that her treatment had finished, she could afford to go to an optician; she kept getting headaches when she read or worked on her sewing projects, but loved both too much to stop. And she needed to start looking for a studio or a small apartment. She and Ryan had shared a bedroom since she was born; she didn't mind sharing if it meant they could afford to live alone without Dawn. But…how would his criminal record affect his ability to emancipate himself? And get a job? She glanced at the back of Mr Cohen's head and mentally listed the questions she wanted to ask him.
Her immediate impression of Mr Cohen was that he was clever, good-humoured and too generous for his own good. He was also a Liberal Democrat and didn't blink when Ryan turned in his seat to ask her if she wanted the radio louder to hear the latest uproar created by Trump, then asking Mr Cohen if they could have the volume higher.
Due to a combination of Trey's brutal mockery and Dawn's drunken rants, abuse and slurred apologies, Lily had grown up afraid to speak for herself, at least in her family's company; and because he loved her, Ryan spoke for her. He'd taken hits meant for her, telling neighbourhood kids or AJ to stop perving on her. At home, she had always relied on Ryan to speak for her, and though he was not naturally chatty, he did. But he had developed a habit of speaking for her most of the time, and because she loved him she didn't want to lash out in annoyance.
She could speak for herself…it was just that, half the time, speaking her mind wasn't worth getting smacked in the mouth.
"Lily likes politics and math," Ryan said, sprawled in the front passenger-seat. "She's the smart one."
"Not the only one," she remarked: She had never been afraid of speaking her mind to Ryan. Him, or righteous anger, brought out her voice. She didn't have their mother's temper like Ryan did, but when she was impassioned, she would speak up.
"So are you the youngest, Lily?" Mr Cohen asked, and Lily nodded.
"Fifteen months younger than me," Ryan said. They got asked a lot what the age-difference was between them; they were in the same grade but weren't twins, and Lily was a half-inch taller than Ryan and maintained a level-headed, mature attitude to everything. She wasn't yet sixteen but she felt like she was approaching her fortieth birthday.
"I got a brother and sister too," Mr Cohen smiled in the rear-view mirror. "Nothin' but trouble." Lily's lips twitched, but it made her lip sting so she winced and stopped. She nodded instead. "Bet they'd say I caused most of it!" She decided she liked Mr Cohen. Maybe it was the jovial way he spoke in his thick New York accent, or the way he sang along to Elle Young's Ex's & Oh's at the top of his lungs without a care, winking into the rear-view mirror when he saw her smiling, or that he asked her opinion on which country he should up and decamp to if Trump got voted in, as if he cared what she had to say.
"Mexico," she said softly. "Beaches and beer." Mr Cohen chuckled richly.
"Shack on the beach with a hot-tub, roll into the surf every morning, fish tacos for lunch and dinner!" Mr Cohen mused enthusiastically, grinning. He had the kind of laugh that made people smile, at least, it made her want to smile. But her lip hurt. "I like it. Think I'll leave tomorrow."
"You can't," she smiled softly. "Ryan's court-case." Mr Cohen chuckled, snapping his fingers.
"Right. Day after I get your case thrown out as a misdemeanour, I'm gone," Mr Cohen smiled. "Do you speak Spanish, Lily?"
"Speaks better Spanish than she does English," Ryan teased, with a fond smile over his shoulder at her. It was widely known in their neighbourhood that Lily was a talented linguist. They lived in a predominantly Hispanic neighbourhood, poor as hell, lots of illegal immigrants, and she tutored quite a few adults at the local centre, as well as some kids at Chino Hills High. It was one of the many things she could do that Trey couldn't; and appreciating that helped her push her shoulders back a little bit, raise her chin in defiance of Trey's bullying. At least, behind his back. He'd never hesitated to smack her into what he felt was her place.
"That so?" Mr Cohen asked, smiling. "Maybe I should ask for lessons. Couple of my other clients don't have much English; I think I insulted someone's great-aunt yesterday."
The further Mr Cohen drove, the more the scenery around them changed. From a rambling, tumbledown sprawl of shoddy neighbourhoods and industrial sites, to bare stretches of useless fields brown from the drought, hills started swelling either side of the road, covered with greenery and trees. She sighed, wondering how much farther they would have to drive, her eyes heavy and pained from the sun and the strain of reading her book – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – and she stroked Hermione's silky soft ears, the tiny miniature dachshund curled up in her lap, silently mouthing Go in Peace by Sam Baker to herself, and then…she saw it.
The ocean. Spreading sapphire-blue as far as the horizon, where it met the blazing sun-gilded sky, waves churned and crashed against rock formations swarming with seals and gulls, sweeping up onto golden beaches speckled with brightly-coloured swimsuits and burnished hair.
"So, you guys hungry? You must be. I'm starving," Mr Cohen said.
"We made you late home," Lily said guiltily. And on a Friday, too.
"Aw, it's cool," Mr Cohen said, waving a hand nonchalantly. "Tell you what, as long as you don't tell my wife, we'll grab In N' Out."
"What's that?" Ryan asked suspiciously. Mr Cohen chuckled, giving him a look, and took an exit. She caught the name 'Newport Beach' on a road sign and Mr Cohen drove them through a neighbourhood she guessed he was very familiar with, homing in on a red-roofed burger joint with a drive-thru line that wound around the block. Lily glanced anxiously at Ryan, hoping he'd glance back; they had already put Mr Cohen out by calling him, he was late home, hungry, and it looked like they'd have to wait. But he was adamant: when Ryan mentioned they could go somewhere else, Mr Cohen just parked up the car. Lily had noticed his wasn't the only brand-new car in the lot, in fact she saw more luxury cars and convertibles than she probably had in her life. Kids piled out of some, surfboards and jet-skis slung into the back of 4x4 trucks that were more for status than suitability. There were bikini-tops and board-shorts aplenty, and everywhere she saw beautiful grins and heard happy laughter. She gripped the door handle and couldn't open it, her mouth going dry as Mr Cohen waited for her. He peered down, smiling behind his sunglasses, and opened the door for her.
"Looks like there's an empty table outside, if you wanna grab it Hermione can come have dinner with us," Mr Cohen said, reaching down to scratch Hermione's ears. She gave his fingers a lick, sitting up in Lily's lap. Mr Cohen saw the apprehension on her face as she warily watched a group of teenage girls saunter past. "You don't think you look scary, do you? One of my wife's friends just had cheek fillers, I'm sorry, but you got nothin' on her! C'mon. Everyone will be oohing and aahing over Hermione too much to worry about your bruise." Lily reached for Hermione's leash, buckling it on, and lifted her little mini-doxie onto the sidewalk. Hermione shook herself, sniffing at the tarmac, little nose lifting into the air. "Why don't you go stake a claim on that table before anyone else gets it? I'll go order us some food."
She might have dragged Hermione at one point; she knew she spotted some guys checking out the empty table and practically ran over, throwing herself down and sprawling across it so there was no question that THIS IS MINE. Hermione padded over, hiding under the shade of the bench, licking the backs of her ankles, and Lily untucked her backpack from her back, producing Hermione's water-bowl, filling it from her sports-bottle.
"What do you think, huh?" she asked softly. Besides Ryan, it was Hermione she talked to most. Puppy wasn't perfect, she had her flaws and had a way to go before she measured up to her predecessor Elijah, but Hermione was a very good listener – and cuddler. She was Lily's baby. And Ryan treated her like a treasure. She reached down, rubbing a finger down Hermione's back as she lapped up water, and glanced up at the burger-joint. It was packed to bursting, but she spotted Mr Cohen at the front of the line, and just caught a gleam of Ryan's blonde hair disappearing to the soda-fountain. He appeared first, laden with napkins, sauces, salt and sodas; Mr Cohen followed remarkably soon after, bearing a tray bursting with burgers, fresh-cut fries and thick-shakes, sinking onto his bench with the kind of exhausted groan Lily internalised after every shift at the diner as she pulled off her apron and headed off to school.
"Now, I got us all 'double double animal-style'," Mr Cohen said, handing them trays of fries and burgers. "Just don't tell my wife. Chocolate shakes, I hope you like 'em. And I didn't know if you've got D-I-N-N-E-R for Hermione so I got a burger patty by itself." Lily blinked, surprised into silence by Mr Cohen's thoughtfulness. She accepted the tray with a single burger patty in it, lips parted in surprise.
"Thank you," she said, surprised and touched. She had food for Hermione, but it was tucked safely in her duffel-bag with Hermione's blanket and baby duck plush. Before she started on her own meal, she broke up the patty into little pieces, licking her fingers before setting the paper tray down on the floor beside Hermione's water-bowl. Hermione peered closer, then glanced up at Lily; she had Hermione trained so that she wouldn't touch her food unless Lily told her she could. "Eat your dinner, Hermione." She'd bet that burger would be gone in thirty seconds; besides a spoonful of peanut-butter or some ice-cream on a Sunday, Hermione didn't get human-food – she was sure Ryan fed her treats without Lily knowing – bacon-grease on her dog-food, scrambled eggs and doggy chocolate-drops.
Lily's burger was delicious; Mr Cohen and Ryan demolished theirs in minutes, and while they waited for her Mr Cohen tried to instigate conversation. Ryan had never been chatty, and in the company of a stranger he'd been forced to ask for help, he was all but mute. And despite her hesitancy, Mr Cohen insisted on directing questions at her; she watched him give Ryan an odd look when Ryan answered for her. After that, Ryan didn't answer for her, but he looked physically uncomfortable at having to let her speak up. They were back on the road before long, joining the river of traffic heading back into the hills from Los Angeles, and Lily was relieved that the sun was starting to set, easing up on her eyes. She rubbed them continually, giving Hermione a pat and rubbing her ears as she cuddled in her lap.
As Mr Cohen drove, she observed the neighbourhoods, the usual tired house with patchy brown lawns conspicuous amongst neatly maintained, moderately-sized homes with older sedans in the driveways, pretty local parks with colourful flowerbeds and untarnished jungle-gyms. She looked at the inviting storefronts, the busy restaurants and the glowing green public parks, the new apartment-buildings, a sprawling high-school, the surprisingly beautiful public library – Mr Cohen told them what it was when Lily pointed out the building to Ryan, who had always been interested in architecture – a waterfront outdoor mini-mall opening onto a broad pier, the beginning of a famous boardwalk, and a smaller pier swarming with people, where Mr Cohen said the diner and burrito-shack were very popular.
The obvious affluence was like cramps; she had never been anywhere like this town and it hit home just how miserable her family's circumstances had been. And it felt like her face was being rubbed in it a little bit, that amazing public-library, the high-school, these houses, the beachfront.
Beautiful homes she had never seen the likes of outside of Kardashian episodes began to appear to their right, as the waves continued to rise and swell and gently lick at the sand to the left. As they drove along a beachside road, she saw girls playing volleyball, college boys throwing around a Frisbee on the sand, as if they were being filmed for a movie or something. Surfers with their wetsuit arms hanging down by their legs carried long, glossy surfboards to soft-top SUVs and Jeeps, and Lily sat back, amazed. She could remember the last time she had seen the ocean. Trey had been too cool to go into the waves with her, but Ryan had loved it. They had loved the freedom in the ocean while their parents got drunk under the umbrella they had borrowed from a neighbour.
Mr Cohen paused at a gatehouse, had a quick chat and laughed with the guard, and was admitted into the gated community. The homes had to be worth millions, and the cars parked in the driveways were Mercedes, Bentleys, the odd Lamborghini and Aston Martin. She glanced at Ryan, whose lips parted slightly in wonder; he and Trey had grown up playing with toy-cars and until the day they were arrested, tinkered with the engine of Arturo's old Mustang, which had belonged to his dad. Each home was perfectly manicured, apparently the rules on conserving water due to the drought did not apply here. She guessed all the wives in this place had expensive jewellery and gym-memberships, and the husbands enjoyed expensive toys and young, perfectly perky girlfriends. They probably belonged to country clubs and went to parties and led a lifestyle Lily wouldn't even know about.
She saw a few people walking their dogs – young women with conspicuously perky breasts in sleek gym-wear and ponytails so long and swishy she wondered they didn't topple over – and someone driving a golf-cart across the street, a golf-course spreading beyond several houses, and she wrinkled her nose, wondering how many chemicals and pesticides lingered on the air from treating that lush, too-green course. The more she saw the less she could place Mr Cohen, a public defender, in this neighbourhood. She frowned, bemused; he didn't fit.
The sun was setting into a magnificently rich watercolour of burnt oranges, gilded hibiscus pinks and royal purples, gilded by the sun's dying rays as clouds billowed on the horizon. Higher into the hills, closer to the edge of a cliff, Mr Cohen pulled into a cul-de-sac where the homes were larger, just as beautiful and more varied than the other neighbourhoods they had passed through, coasting up a steep driveway and tapping the button that controlled the ignition. Lily peered up through her window, mouth open, her stomach shrinking. Mr Cohen had brought them here? She had heard Ryan comment how nice Mr Cohen's BMW was – he'd told Ryan a public defender didn't make money…but his wife did.
That surprised her. The enormous house, with clean sharp lines and panoramic windows, was imposing and breathtakingly beautiful. She'd bet the view was insane, but wondered how cold and impersonal it was inside. Weren't houses like this all pretty much for display, all status no substance? Downstairs, the windows were lit up in soft amber, and a golden Range Rover stood outside the three-car garage. Flowerbeds overflowed, and Lily felt the urge to explore them. She would love a flower-garden.
"You know what, why don't you guys stay here for a bit?" Mr Cohen said, glancing at them. Lily knew he hadn't had time to call home and 'fess up. She wondered at the dynamic between Mr Cohen and his obviously very wealthy wife, and whether he did this sort of thing often. "I'll be back." They waited a few minutes, until Ryan started to fidget and he climbed out of the car. Lily gave him a little room to breathe, knowing how frustration and embarrassment built up, and climbed out of the car to let Hermione out. She was surprised by a pleasant breeze, a hint of salt on it and the tang of seaweed that took her back to childhood vacations, but the immediate impression she got was the scent of flowers, and Hermione sneezed, her entire tiny body twisting, staggering a few steps in confusion.
"God bless you," she murmured, eyeing the flowerbeds as Hermione scampered about her feet. Lily had worked part-time at a florist, probably nothing to the ones around Newport Beach, but it was in one of the nicer neighbourhoods in Chino and she had experience doing wedding-flowers, and she knew that under the line of six crepe-myrtle trees were loaded peony bushes, climbing jasmine and a few leafy clematis that wrapped around the cast-iron fence with irises, primroses, lilies, kitchen herbs, the glowing California poppy she had always looked out for on long road-trips when her family had still been whole. The lilacs and jasmine were fragrant on the breeze, and alien to her; except when she was at work, or over at Teresa's where she loved her vanilla lotion and her mother still used lavender-toner, Lily was used to the scent of cigarette smoke, burnt toast and spilt whisky. Her own rare indulgence, a huge tub of Japanese camellia-flower cream from The Body Shop, wasn't even strong enough to cover it. The only flowers that bloomed in their three-feet of scrubby front-yard enclosed by chain-link fencing were dandelions. Her stomach hurt, thinking of home, thinking of the beloved dollhouse she had been forced to leave behind there, the one Ryan had built for her from scratch. That gift had further strengthened her drive to get through high-school, to college classes, and into a career that would allow her to buy a house, a home, that no-one could take away from her, where she controlled who came and went and how they treated her when they were her guest.
That was what she wanted. She was dedicated to that, and Ryan's expulsion from their home had only sped up what she believed would have been the inevitable anyway. She had been planning to leave for months, using the public library to research her options, taking notes and building her case. And there was no way she was living at Dawn's without Ryan.
She reflected on Mr Cohen, wondering how he would react to her plan of emancipating herself from Dawn. He only knew what was in Ryan's file, and that their mother had kicked Ryan out of the house. How stunned would he be when she presented all the evidence she had accumulated over the last six months that Dawn was unfit, and that Lily was perfectly capable of providing for not just herself, but the rest of her family.
Lily had left voluntarily, following her brother. She'd found Ryan at one of the few places in their neighbourhood they always fled to when Dawn was drinking or AJ had his abusive buddies over, doing coke on the coffee-table and being grabby. She didn't want to be anywhere Ryan wasn't, her hero and protector, her twisted inspiration… Sadly, she saw in Ryan everything she didn't want to be. Brilliant but aimless, lazy and noncommittal. But he was also great-hearted, passionate and driven to protect people. He was clever, but frustrated and hopeless; worse, he had given in to other people's expectations that he would go nowhere. So why bother to try and prove them wrong?
As much as Lily loved her brother, she had decided she would not be like him. She pushed herself. Hard. Harder than she probably should, but there was no-one to tell her to cut back, that she didn't have to work so hard – there was no support. Not even from Ryan; he didn't see the point.
She sometimes felt she had more gumption than everyone else in her family combined.
Still, all this might turn out a blessing in disguise. Lily stooped to examine the lilies growing in carefully-planned but natural clusters amongst white and lavender-coloured campanula and love-in-a-mist, sprouting agapanthus and giant alliums amongst royal-purple and white irises, pretty grasses, graceful white foxgloves and a dramatic dark-purple peony, the delicate petals already starting to wilt, lavender-toned plants swaying in a gentle breeze that teased her nose with the scent of jasmine, honeysuckle and lilac. There were hollyhocks, a glorious white hydrangea with blossom-clusters large as crockpots, large daisies and cosmos, foxgloves, columbines and the prickly, recognisable poppy with delicate white petals already furled close in the dark. Fragrant basil, chives, mountain-sage, lamb's-ears, geraniums with striking leaf-patterns, heartsease violets and lavender-coloured succulents lined the edge of the flowerbeds, neatly maintained and a point of pride for the owner – and, Lily would say, the landscaper who put in so many hours tending to the garden.
However they had landed here, this place was beautiful. She'd definitely be taking her shoes off inside the front-door of this house, and she felt anxious about bringing in her luggage like she had any right to be here. Still, Mr Cohen had picked up the gauntlet when it had come to crunch-time.
She frowned to herself as she lamented having missed the clematis blooming, hearing voices. In the calm of the early-evening, the sun having just set and the crickets starting to chirp, the distant, unfamiliar rush of waves, the perfume in the air from the flowers and trees through which a gentle breeze caressed silky petals and sent tiny moths flickering in the light of the draped windows, she was careful of the nourishing mulch a landscaper had just distributed through the flowerbeds, peeking down through the bars of the cast-iron fence guarding the unwitting from tumbling twelve feet down into the neighbour's driveway. She could see the glint of Ryan's blonde hair in the lamplight, and a girl. Her first impression was of gangly tallness and 90s resurgence. A billowing white t-shirt dress to her upper-thighs glowed in the almost-dark, a slightly too-big leather jacket, her light-brown hair pulled up into a half-bun, a choker with something that glinted in the light, giraffe-legs, grungy boots and a slouchy black bag.
A Kylie Jenner disciple, without the obvious curves.
She couldn't see Ryan's face, but just his body-language and the way the girl smiled in a sweet, slightly surprised way when he offered his cigarette so she could light hers off it told Lily what she needed to know: Ryan was flirting. And that girl was no Teresa.
She would never understand the male psyche when it came to their taste in women. She had finished reading Far from the Madding Crowd and realised it was a timeless phenomenon, the amazing guys going for the wicked she-beasts. Ryan usually had good instincts but even he had fallen prey to a few girls like that – pretty, vacuous, nasty; there was just something about a pretty face and a banging body, they didn't seem to care about personalities. Trey had never had trouble attracting the opposite-sex – and with him it was different; he was the asshole, and he'd treated a lot of great girls very badly, and Lily missed having their influence on her. But Ryan…he was the good guy. And Teresa was amazing. The girl-next-door. Sweet, opinionated, loyal and a natural beauty. She wore eyeliner and flavoured chapstick, she thrifted for clothes with Lily, and understood that most of the time a gesture was worth far more than anything else.
Lily was not a girl who disliked people on principle; she had never hated anyone in her life, not even Trey. Whether they were here for the night or if something more permanent would develop in the area – dread curdled in her stomach as thoughts of Child Services whispered through her mind – she didn't like Ryan flirting with a girl who wasn't Teresa.
Especially a Kylie Jenner wannabe.
Although Kardashians was a guilty pleasure of Lily's, the lifestyle had absolutely no appeal to her. Self-absorbed, chasing money, obnoxious drama-whores, promoting rampant consumerism – hard-working, devoted to their commitments, yes, but Lily was a girl who knew how to stretch a dollar to its limit, cared more for gestures than gifts, and couldn't fathom spending $48 on a single M.A.C. lipstick when she could go to Target and get a cruelty-free dupe for a fraction of the price.
She tried not to judge, but first impressions – the house, and the girl's style – Lily wondered why on earth Ryan was flirting with her; he was vocal about his dislike of Kylie Jenner's angelfish mouth and was disturbed by her inappropriate look-at-me outfits.
Boys will be boys, she heard her mother sigh, as she watched Ryan exhale a plume of smoke, which caught the light and drifted away on the breeze, leaving an acrid taste in the air that overpowered the magnolia at the front of the neighbour's beautiful Spanish-style mansion. She heard footsteps, and straightened up as Mr Cohen approached, giving her a smile. "Hey, where's Ryan?"
Lily gave him an unimpressed look, pointing down the driveway. "Flirting." Mr Cohen's thick eyebrows rose, and she swore she saw his eyes glitter mischievously as he indicated her to follow him.
"C'mon," he smiled, and Lily traipsed after Mr Cohen as he approached Ryan, and the girl waiting at the end of the driveway. The girl started and hastily dropped and kicked out her cigarette, quickly expelling smoke from lips perfectly over-lined and painted with nude lipstick. Just the way she did that, shooting a brilliant grin at Mr Cohen, told Lily she was afraid of getting in trouble for doing something she knew she shouldn't be.
She wanted to rebel against her parents but not get into trouble for it.
"Hey, Marissa," Mr Cohen said jovially.
"Hey, Mr Cohen! I was just meeting your nephew," the girl said, smiling charmingly. She had over-lined her lips in that Kylie Jenner way, and Lily wondered just how much of her natural prettiness was even visible. She and Teresa had always been horrified by how drastically contouring altered someone's features, made unrecognisable.
"Oh," Mr Cohen blinked, as Lily gave her brother a disapproving frown. "My favourite nephew, Ryan. All the way from Seattle."
"Seattle?" the girl smirked playfully.
"Dad lives there. Mom lives in Boston," her brother replied smoothly, and Lily sighed to herself, narrowing her eyes at Ryan; he had told. She glanced at the girl, noting that her boots and handbag were designer, that her watch looked pretty and expensive but subtle, and that she might be, beneath all that makeup, very pretty. Square-faced, with cheekbones that could cut glass – defined by a shit-load of contouring bronzer – she was a little too skinny, in that Victoria's Secret runway-model way, with defined collarbones and thighs smaller than most people's arms. No boobs whatsoever, but she was pretty, Lily guessed. The scary, perfect Instagram pretty of YouTube makeup-artists. The girl smirked at Ryan.
"So, we're all really excited for your fashion-show fundraiser tomorrow-night," Mr Cohen declared.
"Really? You are?" the girl, Marissa, said sceptically.
"No," Mr Cohen admitted, pushing his hair back from his face, and Marissa laughed as a sleek black pick-up drew up to the curb, a surfboard glistening on the roof-rack and Kanye West blazing from the open windows. A blonde boy with classic Abercrombie features leaned across the cab.
"Let's go!" he called, not looking at them or even acknowledging Mr Cohen, not killing the engine or hopping out of the truck to greet the girl or get her door. Lily pulled a face that told Mr Cohen everything as he glanced over his shoulder at her. Lily glanced back at the truck, and saw the blonde boy staring at her. Maintaining eye-contact for a few seconds, Lily pulled a face and tugged gently on Hermione's leash so she didn't stray too close to the enormous wheels. She watched gangly Marissa sweep her hair over her shoulder, eyes glittering as they rested on Ryan.
"Hey, you should come by, check it out," Marissa sighed carelessly, "if you don't have any plans. See ya." Without a single look Lily's way, the girl climbed into the truck, leaning over to receive a kiss from the blonde boy, who finally looked away from Lily.
"Goodnight," Mr Cohen called, as Lily heard the boy mutter, "Who're they?" indicating Lily and Ryan, who stared dopily at the girl. Mr Cohen's look was very knowing as he glanced at Ryan's stupefied expression, and he chuckled in silent amusement as the truck's tail-lights disappeared like glowing embers.
Ryan and Teresa's relationship had been amazing, to an outsider; Lily had loved them together – they had fun, knew each other better than anyone, brought out the best in each other, they cared. Only, drama had a way of getting anywhere, like rats – girls at school, jealous of Teresa's beauty, of Ryan, creating gossip, and they had broken up. Eddie had swooped in, knowing what a good thing he'd have with Teresa – they had been off-and-on for a few months and Lily was sceptical but supportive, quietly hoping Eddie would move away for work, leaving Teresa to at least finish high-school. Lily knew Teresa. She knew Ryan. And however striking that girl had been to look at, with her skinny tan legs and fluttery eyelashes, if her personality didn't match up to her pretty face, Ryan would lose interest. She wouldn't be the first Ryan climbed into the backseat with, never to acknowledge each other again after. And it didn't matter that she had a boyfriend – it wouldn't be the first time Ryan got into a fight because he'd slept with someone else's girlfriend; girls flocked to Ryan, sensing that he was a decent guy, and that he'd treat them well.
"Let's go inside," Mr Cohen smiled warmly, eyeing the cigarette Ryan hadn't bothered to put out – unlike that Marissa girl, he had no qualms about smoking in front of adults, because no adult had ever cared to tell them that it was inappropriate. "There's no smoking in this house." So Ryan flicked the cigarette away as Lily dawdled up the driveway with Hermione sniffing at everything her tiny nose could find, and Mr Cohen jogged back down to the drive to grind out the cigarette with his toe. He chuckled softly watching Hermione's tiny tail wag so enthusiastically her entire body shook, nosing amongst the agapanthus and violets.
"She's adorable," he smiled warmly. "Is she a Dachshund?"
"She's a mini," Lily nodded. Hermione would always be tiny – Lily had given her a long name to compensate. "And she's never seen so much nature," she said softly, then cooed, "Hermione, come on. You can explore in the morning." Hermione glanced back at the sound of Lily's voice, sneezed, and trotted to Lily's ankles, giving one a delicate lick, sitting down and glancing up at Lily, waiting, a little bit of lavender sticking out of her mouth. Lily smiled affectionately, stooping to take the lavender out, tossing the stalk into the flowerbed, and turned to watch Ryan help Mr Cohen remove their bikes from his trunk.
How she'd managed to carry so much stuff on her bicycle she had no idea – well, she did; awkwardly – but she'd at least given herself time to pack Ryan's things on top of hers in her overstuffed leather duffel before fleeing the house, rather than run straight after him. An overstuffed duffel, a thrifted vintage suitcase, her battered school backpack, and her sheets and blankets rolled up with Dad's ancient sleeping-bag and Hermione's little bed, secured with a belt. Hermione had ridden shotgun in the little basket on the front of Lily's vintage bicycle, the place she loved, and Mr Cohen helped secure their bikes in the garage before Ryan turned to help Lily with her luggage. All things considered, it wasn't actually much. Whatever Ryan hadn't shoved into his backpack she had folded carefully, as small as she could, into her huge duffel, which she had managed to secure precariously on the back of her bicycle. She'd looked like a bag-lady, but hadn't cared; they were gone. Free.
Instead of taking them through the house, Mr Cohen guided them around the side, past the thrumming air-conditioning unit and an enormous pool that disappeared over a ledge in the darkness, to a pool-house, tall French windows glowing pale-amber through off-white sheers. Inside, a Hispanic housekeeper was busy draping a sheet and blankets over a sofa-bed, while a glacially-pretty woman in expensive red-soled heels and subtle, brilliant-cut diamonds smoothed away invisible creases from the slate-grey and black sheets on the queen-sized bed. The mini house was full of unused garden furniture, pool-toys and sports equipment. There was even a kitchen, complete with dishwasher – something Lily's family had never had – and blender, and a full bathroom. Two of the walls were entirely made of French doors, draped with diaphanous off-white sheers and custom blinds. She'd bet the contents of the pool-house were worth more than her entire home – furniture and family-members included, and her stomach sank.
"So, we thought you guys would be more comfortable out here, it's a bit more private," Mr Cohen said, and glancing at the blonde lady wringing her hands anxiously, Lily read the subtitles: Mrs Cohen would be more comfortable with them out here. This was the compromise after Mr Cohen had sprung them on his wife. "And this is the queen of the manor herself, my wife, Kirsten. Kirsten, this is Ryan Atwood – and his sister, Lily. And Hermione, the mini dachshund, who is a very good traveller in a brand-new Beamer." Having carried Hermione through the backyard, Lily let her down on the tiled floor, observing the rug was worth more than Dawn's car.
Hermione dawdled closer to Mrs Cohen's fabulous heels, sniffing, her tail wagging. Mrs Cohen gave Hermione a warm, delighted smile; Hermione had that effect on people, but it was clear Mrs Cohen wasn't an animal person as Hermione sniffed at her ankles.
"Hermione," Lily warned. Hermione sat, glancing over her shoulder for a second. Then she nuzzled Mrs Cohen's ankle, giving her a little lick. "Hermione, come here." Hermione responded to her mama's voice, trotting over happily, winding around Lily's ankles – twisting her leash around Lily's legs. Lily sighed, peering down past her bundle of bedding and her suitcase, frowning. "This is why some animals eat their young." Mr Cohen chuckled.
But Hermione had broken the tension, and Mrs Cohen gave them a gracious smile as she said, "Welcome to our home. If you need anything, just ask me or Sandy, or if you can't find one of us, Rosa here can help you. She runs the entire house for me."
"Thank you," Ryan said quietly, looking out of his depth. He nodded at Rosa the housekeeper. "Thanks very much."
"Hey, make yourselves at home," Mr Cohen said, smiling. "D'you have everything you need for Hermione? We sorta had a dog once."
"I've got everything, thank you," Lily said, wondering how someone could sort of have a dog. Though she looked like a dainty darling, Hermione was not a pampered dog; like her owner, she liked the simple things. She had her bed, her bowl and her baby, and loved perching in Lily's bicycle basket, peanut-butter, cuddles and her blanket. She was a lady of simple pleasures.
"Well, I hope you have a good night's sleep," Mr Cohen said, with a jovial smile. "We'll see you in the morning."
"Thank you," Lily said quietly, and the three adults left them to their own devices. For the first time in hours, they were left alone, and she had never felt more uncomfortable. She licked her dry lips. "It's pretty," she said quietly, swallowing the lump in her throat, and Ryan gazed around the airy room. Despite the junk, it was easy to see the design, the architecture; simple, airy and clean. Classic. Like Mrs Cohen, she thought, and set her bundle of blankets and pillows on the sofa-bed, removing Hermione's bed, and opened her suitcase to remove the tiny silver bowls she used for water and Hermione's dinner. She set Hermione's bed down under one of the windows, with her water-bowl, and Hermione scampered over when Lily draped her blanket on the bed; tiny tail wagging, Hermione clambered onto the pillow and started burrowing through the folds of the blanket. She twisted and turned, sniffing and finding a comfy spot, and settled down with her head resting on her paws, crossed like the lady she was, the blanket draped over her. Lily reached down to stroke her ears, and Hermione licked her fingers, settling down to sleep.
"Think they're okay with you bringing her?" Ryan asked, watching Hermione. Hermione was Lily's dog – the only time Ryan got involved was to let her out if Lily was doing a late-shift. But Hermione still looked forward to Ryan coming home.
"Mr Cohen would've said something earlier," Lily said quietly, after thinking about it. If the Cohens – probably Mrs Cohen – wanted Hermione to stay out in the pool-house, that was absolutely fine with Lily; the Cohens' house looked so enormous Hermione could easily be lost, overlooked, and the last thing she wanted was her baby to not be noticed when someone sat down. She lifted her things onto the sofa-bed, unbuckling her duffel-bag, and started tossing things at Ryan, who caught some, and ended up with others draped over him.
"This is my stuff," he frowned.
"I grabbed it after you left," Lily said. She had left a crying Dawn, glass chinking on glass as she poured herself another drink, AJ sprawled back in front of the TV, hand curled around a beer Dawn had brought him from the otherwise empty refrigerator. Lily sighed to herself, feeling suddenly very tired: she hadn't done grocery shopping, what with Ryan being arrested. And rent was due next week. She wondered if Dawn realised that. She hadn't paid rent the last six months, possibly believing that it magically paid itself when the landlord hadn't angrily contacted her.
"Thanks," Ryan said, so quietly she almost missed it. Ryan had been easy to pack for – he wasn't a guy who had much stuff. He didn't tend to acquire anything that Trey could steal and sell for drugs. Six months ago, when Lily had decided emancipation was a serious consideration – long before AJ's eye had wandered her way – Lily had locked her favourite things away in a self-storage container, slowly building up what she had to her name, things she could furnish her own place with. The only things she had had left in her shared-bedroom in Dawn's house were what she had brought with her this afternoon – and her already-mourned dollhouse. Living out of a suitcase was better than not being prepared – she just regretted not having moved her dollhouse to the container. But she could only move what she could carry; she could have asked Teresa, who had her licence, to give her a ride, but she hadn't had time – they both had part-time jobs.
Ryan sighed, and after a few minutes, glanced uncertainly at her. "Wanna sit outside and play cards? It's still warm," Ryan said, and Lily sighed, rubbing her face. Her eyes were exhausted, and anxiety churned in her stomach.
If she went to bed now, soon it would be morning. The diner had been shut down by the health inspectors and her job at the florist had always been during vacations – she hadn't heard anything from the owner, despite having made several calls and even a couple visits to the store. Skeevy as it had been, she had relied on her tips at the diner – they were always good whenever she wore her shortest, butt-teasing denim shorts and an unfazed smile… Those tips had tided her over many a time when the electric company threatened to cut them off.
So what would happen when she woke up tomorrow, alone in a new town with a brother facing criminal charges, and no job? They didn't have a GED or high-school diploma between them, and with Ryan's brand-new juvenile record and her young age, it was going to be tough. She had an impressive bit of money stashed away to keep them going on instant noodles, hot showers and Laundromats, but didn't want to tell Ryan about it unless things became truly dire…
Sitting in the dim amber light of the pool-house with Ryan, her hastily-gathered things around her, the fading bruises on her face thrumming subtly to make sure they weren't forgotten, her eyes so strained she could barely keep them open, she felt the burger churn in her stomach with worry, but actually pausing to absorb and process what had happened over the course of a very long day, some of the tension eased. If she asked Mr Cohen, she bet he'd at least give her an honest perspective on her prospects if she emancipated herself. He seemed like the kind of man to want to make sure Lily knew exactly what she was getting herself into before he'd assist in her pursuing anything of the sort.
She preferred to think of it as getting herself out of an intolerable situation. But in order to do that she needed to be fresh and clear-headed, and she couldn't be if she kept pushing herself to stay awake because she was afraid she couldn't handle tomorrow.
She could. She always could. She was going to kick tomorrow's ass. She was going to carpe the diem right out of it.
And she wasn't ready to hash it out with Ryan for getting into that stupid car – or forgive him. He was her smart, kind brother – they were supposed to survive into adulthood together. The two of them against the world. There would always be room at the place she envisioned herself living in for Ryan – no-one else. Ryan was the only person in the world Lily was certain she loved. But even then, he pushed her trust. She wasn't ready to forgive him for almost leaving her alone.
If he'd been stuck in juvi, that would have been it. And selfishly she was angry at him for scaring her so badly. That wasn't supposed to happen. He was supposed to work construction and she was going to work while she studied for accountancy or engineering, and they were both going to get their high-school diplomas. The first ones in their family to do so. If he'd been stuck inside, she'd have been left to Dawn's drunken indifference and neglect, and AJ's disturbing interest. Lily would have been out on her own within the week, regardless of any emancipation papers.
The pit in her stomach made her angry, too – when she had heard about Ryan's arrest, the prospect of striking out on her own had been thrust on her, leaving her winded. She had never imagined her life, even emancipated from Dawn, without Ryan a huge part of it. In a lot of ways, he was her safety-net, a crutch she was trying to use less and less, especially now, with the prospect of a Trey-free life ahead of her.
Ryan had been arrested. He had let her down. He had jeopardised the future she had imagined for them both, and for a brief moment this morning, she had felt a hot, bilious anger in the pit of her stomach at him having been so stupid.
"I think I just want to sleep," she mumbled, smoothing her hands over the comforter. She went through her bedding-roll, removing her folded pyjamas from her pillowcase, and folded everything more carefully. She grabbed her huge, well-stocked toiletries bag, and changed, uncaring of the fact her big-brother stood there – they had shared a bedroom since she was born, and their concept of privacy was a little warped. The full bathroom in the pool-house had probably cost more than outfitting Dawn's entire house, it was beautiful, and she was surprised as she explored the contents of the vanity, finding girls' hair-products, GHD straighteners, tiny unused sample-size cosmetics – very few of them cruelty-free brands, she noted, though with a guilty wince she found a bottle of lustrous black nail-polish by OPI called 'Baby It's Coal Outside' – and knickknacks and the kind of crap that accumulated in a girl's bathroom drawers. Realising too late that she hadn't grabbed Ryan's things from the bathroom cabinet, she searched and smiled as she found an unopened toothbrush and toothpaste tube, handing them to Ryan as she padded out of the bathroom, face washed and her hair braided around her crown, toothbrush sticking out of her mouth.
She had climbed into the sofa-bed by the time Ryan shuffled out of the bathroom in his boxer-briefs and wife-beater, the scent of mint in the air, blankets up to her chin and her eyes so heavy he was nothing but a dark blur against a golden glow which extinguished suddenly as Ryan rustled his sheets. She had fallen asleep nearly every night of her life to the sound of Ryan's soft snores, and the few nights he had been in juvi had seemed unending. She'd had nothing to listen to but Dawn's crying, refusing to shed tears over her halfwit brothers. Stealing cars…
"Why did you do it?" she asked finally. It was too late to get into it, but she wanted to know what threats or goading had led Ryan to get into that car.
"Just…didn't think," Ryan sighed.
"You left me with them," Lily said quietly. She wasn't above rubbing his guilt in – and she knew he felt guilty. Ryan was a conscientious person, he lived to look after others. Him and her, they were both what could be classed as young carers, kids taking care of their alcoholic mother. Lily was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but still…he was her big-brother, her best-friend. Often, her hero.
Who else had noticed her humiliation, and bought her tampons the Halloween she'd gotten her first period? Or bloodied that guy's nose when he'd shoved his hand inside her panties after the school dance? She still burned with humiliation at the memory. Nobody else carried her dozen borrowed books home from the public library, or helped shift her baking to school to sell to the stoners and guilty cheerleaders, meeting her at the diner as she finished the early half-shift she pulled most mornings. He alone came to her basketball games and track meets. She liked to think she was the only draw that brought him to her roller-derby bouts, but who was she kidding? Angry tattooed girls in fishnets and mouth-guards? Nobody tolerated her reliance on Roseanne, or her love for The French Chef, Fred and Ginger movies, Doctor Who and Spoby the way he did; he knew a chilled glass of milk and a jar of peanut-butter made her happier than their last dog, Scamander. There was no-one else she'd cruise around Chino on their bikes with; no-one who could talk about Tolstoy and physics and Walking Dead being a reflection on human-nature at midnight, listening to her churn out her disgust at reading the second act of The Taming of the Shrew, who appreciated all her cooking, and switched t-shirts with her at school after Teagan threw her marinara sauce at her during lunch; and had, according to Teresa, stopped a lot of gossip about Lily that she hadn't even been aware was circulating around school. There wasn't anyone in the world she felt comfortable cuddling except Ryan – and she had cried on and off for a fortnight when Javier had gone; he'd made her bacon and French toast or chocolate-chip pancakes for breakfast that whole time, endured Top Hat on repeat and given up one of his prize grey sweatshirts so she could snuggle in her misery. Every other disappointment - work, boys, friends who let her down, school, it didn't matter; he was always there.
And she was there for him, too. Sharing a bedroom, they had grown up incredibly close. It could have gone the other way, wanting to murder each other; but with their family, they had learned to stick together. He was the light in her dark; and she always knew when he was upset, pissed off, desperate. They took care of each other.
Until he'd almost ruined everything.
There was nothing she could do for him if he was in juvi.
She knew Ryan well enough to know his mind was still buzzing from the repercussions of what he'd done – this morning he had only been facing a court appearance: now, he was homeless. And Lily had followed him into the abyss.
He had never been arrested before. He knew where the line was, for their own survival they had both frequently dipped a toe over it, but neither of them had ever done anything that would compromise their futures the way Trey's absurd juvenile record had affected his.
"I'm sorry," Ryan said to the dark.
A.N.: I know. This is about the fourth time I've tried to rewrite this. And…I've kind of changed Lily's personality a bit – she needed more oomph to have survived her family! And I went through a mini obsession with mini dachshunds, hence Hermione!