Birdie had spent the night pacing in front of her bed, tossing this way and then immediately getting uncomfortable and turning back the other, pacing some more, being mad at Wendy, and then being mad at herself, staring out the window at the stars like some kind of sad movie heroine, and finally falling into broken, unsatisfying sleep as she gripped a pillow to her chest. All the while June slept a deeper sleep than he had since he had stumbled into town, not even waking when she had stubbed her toe while pacing.
It was the unfairness of it all. ‘Unfair,’ what a childish word. She’d stopped expecting things to be fair at a young age, as soon as she had realized her brother would get whatever he wanted, and also whatever Birdie wanted, too. Funny that as they had grown up it had been her brother complaining about things being ‘unfair’ the few times she had gotten what she had wanted, or even just the same thing as him. The word ‘unfair’ made her think of him screeching it, over and over, as they had sat in front of Missy’s Ice Cream, because her scoop had come with three peanut butter cups and his had two and a half. Of course their mother had made them switch, and he’d eaten those three peanut butter cups staring her down, that bulldog grin on his face.
She kept imagining whoever had brained June had done it with that look. What had happened to him wasn’t ‘unfair’ the way different amounts of peanut butter cups was unfair. It was practically cosmic. The world ended, and then on top of that he’d gotten a massive head injury. Or maybe it was the other way around? No, his book had come out mere months before the Blues, it must have been after. And if he’d been roaming with those two assholes like that, there was no way he was untested. Benjamin Hooper, Junior had been a physics professor with dogs and hobbies and a promising career. And then all that had been dashed by the Blues, and then in the early days of this new world he’d been clobbered in the head. In truth, it was a miracle he’d survived at all. Had he been with those two monsters this whole time? Two or three years of being used as bait?
Unfair, unfair, unfair.
She woke up a few hours later, early morning sunlight streaming through the window. Technically, she’d slept in, although she must have only slept for a couple hours. Every muscle ached from clutching the pillow, and then there was that all-over malaise from getting such short sleep. Across the room June still slept, red hair splashed across his face.
She’d been treating him unfairly, too. He’d gotten a little better once he’d been off whatever junk he’d been given, and then there had been weeks of no improvement. Looking at him now, holding the book in her hands, Birdie realized she hadn’t thought there could be any. How do you recover from something that left a dent in your skull? So she had been treating him like a child. No, not a child. A child you expected to grow and get smarter. She had been treating him…oh, it was so terrible she didn’t even want to think it…she’d been treating him like a dog. Taking care of him, and never expecting anything better.
He’d seen the bookstore. He’d left them to go into it. He’d known his book would be in there. He’d been able to find it, and recognize himself on the back. He’d spoken.
June was in there, at least a part of him was. She just had to get him out.
He woke up as she was getting dressed, yawning and rubbing at his eyes and padding off to the bathroom like she wasn’t even there. She was finishing putting her hair up in braids when he came back, standing just inside the door. Waiting.
“I’ve never done this before,” she said to him. “Rehabbed someone, I mean. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to try, so if I mess something up, just…give me a little grace. Okay?”
He sort of looked at her. Not quite at her eyes. Maybe her chin.
“Okay, good start,” Birdie said. She glanced at the book, now sitting on her bedside table. “Should I be calling you Benjamin?”
“Ben? Benji?” she asked, giving pauses between the names. Still no change. “June?”
That got him to look at her, square in the eyes. They weren’t as awake as they had been in the book store, but they weren’t quite as empty as before, either.
“Okay, we’ll stick with June. Maybe that was your nickname before? There was a character on The Sopranos named June, did you ever watch that? Maybe you didn’t have time. Or maybe you just didn’t like television. I think on the show they spelled it J-U-N, though, and I keep thinking of your name as J-U-N-E, like the month.”
Birdie hated talking this much, she felt like she was babbling. But as long as she kept talking, June kept looking at her. And was there a new spark in his eyes, or was she imagining it? Had the key been talking this whole time? If so, terrible. Birdie didn’t talk more than she had to. If someone else had found him, pulled him from those jerks, he might be better by now. Instead, he’d taken to Birdie, the woman who went most days saying fifty words or less.
“Unfair,” she said out loud, forcing her tongue against her mouth. “I need to learn to think out loud, I guess. We’ll start with that, anyway, and see how you do.”