Tell Me a Truth by CoraLee June
Everything I owned wason my back: three outfits, a cellphone with a cracked screen, and a folded up photo of Mama I couldn’t look at because it hurt too fucking much. I stood on the sidewalk, staring up at the red brick building in front of me.
I was avoiding eye contact with the balding homeless man three steps to my left. He was playing his scratched up and out-of-tune guitar while singing off-key for tips. From the looks of it, he wasn’t making much. If I had money to spare, I’d drop a nickel in his jar out of pity.
The humid air smelled like charred BBQ and grime. A steady summer breeze kissed the beads of sweat dripping down my face, effectively melting the cheap makeup I’d capriciously painted on to hide the dark circles under my eyes. It was sweltering hot, the air so humid it felt like I was walking around in a cloud of morning breath.
What the actual fuck was I thinking?
I’d asked myself that question numerous times on the drive from Lucas, Texas, to here. It had been a long trip. Not because the distance itself was necessarily daunting, but because I stopped every thirty minutes to park and convince myself to turn back. I could run away. I could escape this, if I really wanted.
So why didn’t I want to?
My older brother’s loft in Memphis was in the South Main Arts District. It looked nice on the outside and had that hipster vibe I loved, with traditional architecture to compliment the design. Patches of manicured grass littered the walk up, making it look homey. It seemed nice enough, but I learned a long time ago that just because something—or someone—looked pretty on the outside, didn’t mean they’d be just as beautiful within.
I’d been standing outside for a while now, like a statue on the concrete. Drunks and tourists walked by with beer bottles in their hand, straight from their boozy brunches. My car was parked precisely two blocks away. I could run to it, get inside, and use the last thirty dollars my brother sent me to fill up the tank and get the fuck out of here.
“You gonna stand out here all day?” a voice asked. The smooth, Southern drawl was laced with skepticism. My hard stare flickered to the doorman of the building, and I had to cup my palm over my eyes to shade my light-sensitive gaze from the beaming rays of sunshine over us. I’d caught the older, slender man staring at me multiple times, trying to gauge if I was trouble or not. I guess I did look suspicious, standing out here while deciding what I wanted to do with my life.
Mama always said I was too much of a thinker, was too stuck in my own head to make a decision and commit to it. I guess I got that from her. She never stuck with anything. My, she’d be shocked to hear I managed to drive all the way here. Too bad I couldn’t rub it in her pretty little face.
“I’m trying to decide if I want to go inside,” I offered back with an honest shrug. Maybe if this man called the cops on me, I’d have another day to process everything before meeting Lance. I’d been trying to give myself excuses for the last three weeks: I didn’t have enough money, my ’97 Corolla wasn’t able to make the drive, my heart wasn’t able to handle the rejection. What if Lance didn’t like me? What if he kicked me out? It wouldn’t be the first time someone charitable turned out to be a snake. Mama was always the one that let others fix her problems, not me. And yet, here I stood.
The doorman was wearing a black suit and a striped red tie with a name tag perched on his chest. Cornelius was his name. It suited him, I decided. He had a proper air about him, and stern eyes with a kind, wrinkled smile. Something about his stance told me that he took his job as a doorman very seriously. “You know someone in the building?” he asked while nodding toward the glass door.
What a fucking loaded question. Did I know Lance? No. No, I didn’t. I didn’t even know he existed until Mama informed me on her deathbed. One minute, I was holding her hand, forcing tears to fall from my eyes while the nurses looked on with pity. The next, I was being told about a half brother she put up for adoption at sixteen. Luckily for me, she’d found him just in time, but was too ashamed to reach out until it was too late.
I wasn’t sure if it was pride or cancer that killed her in the end.
“My…br-brother lives here,” I answered with a stutter before adjusting my backpack strap on my shoulder and eyeing the third floor of the building. I was trying to count the number of windows there. It was weird using the term “brother” to describe what Lance was to me. He didn’t feel like a brother. I didn’t even know if I had a right to call him that.
Mama didn’t have a will. Those things were meant for people that actually had shit to pass down or plans for their legacy once they were gone. Instead, she left me her beat-up Toyota, a phone number, and a name: Lance.
“Who’s your brother?” the Doorman asked as I tore my eyes from the building to stare back at him. He was clutching a water bottle, squeezing the plastic in his fist.
Well, wasn’t that a good question? Who was my brother? “Lance Trask,” I replied with a frown.
The man’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Mr. Trask is your brother?”
“That’s what I’m told. I don’t really know him though.” Why I was admitting this to a complete stranger was beside me. I watched the doorman grow uncomfortable at my honesty.
Lately, I tended to have that effect on people. Like when our landlord reclaimed Mama’s trailer. I’d told him that he was a piece of shit for not giving me a week to bury my mother. People took one look at my face and assumed that a pretty girl like myself should smile and be complacent, like somehow bright green eyes and blonde hair suddenly made me incapable of rage.
Deciding I couldn’t wait much longer, I walked up to the door, nodding when he opened it. “Good luck,” he said, like he didn’t know what else to say.
Luck was a cruel, petty bitch that didn’t visit me often. Karma, though? She and I were best friends. She spoke with my depression and knew all my dirty little secrets; she knew I bred skepticism in my mind and taunted me with the idea that I didn’t deserve happiness.
The inside of the building was beautiful. In one of our brief phone calls, Lance explained that he was an architect and designed the place. I wondered what about this place made him decide to set up roots here.
The traditional arches were broad and gave unobstructed views of the hallway leading to the apartments. It felt open but mysterious as well. It seemed like there were secrets hidden around every corner. The warm tones of the design looked welcoming and masculine. It had a contemporary edge but a timeless quality about it that I could appreciate.
I took the stairs instead of the elevator to prolong the inevitable. With my backpack weighing me down, I trudged the three flights with unease.
I could do this, right? I could face him. Introduce myself. I didn’t have any grand ideas about living with Lance. Even though he’d offered, I made a backup plan to camp out in my car until I could find a job and get a hotel room. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d slept in Mama’s old Corolla. I guess I just wanted to know him. I wanted to figure out who the fuck he was and maybe even find pieces of the person my mama pretended to be in him.
Something she told me stuck like a pin needle in my chest. Not big enough of a cut to do any lasting damage, but small enough to feel annoying, something that pricked at me every damn time I took a breath. I still remembered her last day, asking why she gave him up, why she didn’t keep him.
“I loved him too much. I wanted to give him the kind of life he deserved,” she answered with simplicity, like it was this grand sacrifice.
So why the fuck did she keep me?
This was all so ridiculous. One death. One phone call. One offer to move here and start over. I didn’t know Lance, but he was like every other man that swooped in and tried to save my mother and me. He made grand gestures, offered to let me live with him until I got on my feet. Even helped pay for the funeral bills when I realized how fucking expensive caskets were.
I’d never even seen his face aside from the photo he sent me of him in Cozumel. I spent many nights staring at that photo of him. I guess I was trying to find hints that we were cut from the same cloth. He had blond hair and bright blue eyes. His skin was tanned, and the boyish, carefree grin on his face hinted at the burdenless life he’d had.
Oh, but Lance knew all about me. He spoke with my social worker, called my school, and paid for repairs on my car so I could drive out to Memphis. Lance did his homework the moment he found out he had a sister and decided right then and there he wanted to save me.
With my eighteenth birthday just last week, the state kept an eye on me, then eagerly signed me off as a legal adult. I was one less temporary problem to solve, one less kid on the streets. He said he would have come to pick me up himself but a busy project at work was keeping him here.
I walked down the long hallway, dread filling me with every step. Reading the numbers as I passed each door, I noted a man leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, glaring at my back as I passed.
He was hot, despite the furious expression on his face. He had a mess of black waves touching the tips of his ears. His eyes were dark and demanding, framed by long lashes and thick eyebrows that were perfectly shaped but also masculine. His nose was rounded at the tip, and a demanding frown kissed his lips, which were plump and addictive.
I couldn’t help but feel like he was watching me. He looked poised and ready for action, and the swirling intuition in my gut made me question if he was waiting for me. I knew he wasn’t Lance. My brother had blond hair and blue eyes according to the photo he’d sent me. This man was dark and dangerous. A shiver traveled up my spine, telling me to run.
Once I made it to the right door, I lifted my hand to knock and hovered it over the wood. I debated on scrapping this entire trip and running back with my tail between my legs to Texas. What’s the worst Lance would do? Come and get me?
“Who are you?” the strange man with a deep voice asked behind me. I turned to stare at him as he smoothed his jacket with his right hand. He was wearing a navy suit that was fashionable and cut to mold his tapered silhouette.
“I’m Blakely. My brother lives here. The doorman let me in,” I hesitated, not sure who this hot, pissed-off dude was and why he was talking to me. He pushed himself off the wall and stalked toward me. It made my pulse rush. Sweeping his eyes up and down my body, his gaze lingered on the spot where my white summer dress hit mid-thigh.
I felt silly, then, for dressing up to meet my brother for the first time. For some reason, I had wanted to make a good first impression. This was, after all, a fresh start for me. No one knew me as the daughter of a poor, single mom. I figured I could be anything I wanted to be, and I wanted to be happy.
“So you’re the girl that’s moving in to mooch off Lance?” he sneered. It felt like someone had stepped on my heart with stilettos.
My mother was a mooch. She always latched onto people and held on for dear life. She would bleed them dry if given half the chance. It was why I was so prideful, why I took care of myself and struggled so much with coming here. Lance didn’t seem bothered, so who the fuck was this guy, and why was he saying this?
“I’m here to meet him, yes,” I choked out, feeling unsure how to proceed. It was bad enough that I had to meet my brother for the first time, I didn’t need this. “Who are you?”
How did he know Lance? Was this his boyfriend? His boss? The landlord? Feeling like I needed to salvage this unexpected greeting, I forced a smile on my face. He reached out his hand to shake mine almost reluctantly. I took it as he introduced himself in a deep tone that I could practically feel in my bones. “I’m Decker Harris, Lance’s best friend and temporary roommate.”
Roommate? He hadn’t said anything about a roommate. It was bad enough I had to navigate learning how to live with one virtual stranger. Now I had to worry about two? The hallway ambush didn’t make sense. If we were supposed to live together, why the hostility?
“Oh, I see. So you’re the current mooch, worried I’m coming in on your turf, yeah? Don’t you worry, I have no plans to stay long,” I said with a little bite to my tone while fumbling to shake his hand. I could only manage one confident gesture at a time, and my shaking fingers betrayed the fierceness of my words with their clumsiness.
He lingered in the touch for a moment, and it wasn’t until a good few exhales had escaped my trembling lips that I realized he was still holding me, pressing his index finger into my wrist, as if he was testing my erratic pulse. He looked pissed as hell.
“Were you waiting for me?” I asked while snapping my hand back. I rubbed where our skin touched, not sure if I should run or punch him in the dick.
“Maybe. Come inside so we can talk,” the dangerous looking man demanded while glancing down. “Is the rest of your stuff in your car?”
I tucked a blonde strand of hair behind my ear before responding. “This is it,” I barked. At my words, my feet started bouncing in embarrassment.
It wasn’t my fault I didn’t have anything. Money was tight. I was all about surviving. There was nothing left in that trailer home I wanted anyway. It all reminded me of her. The only reason I saved her photo was for Lance.
“Fine. Come in.” He looked me up and down quizzically, then walked past me to unlock the door. I got a whiff of his scent and breathed it in.
He smelled like soap, leather, and expensive single malt scotch. I knew that drink. One of Mama’s boyfriends, Colby, always came over smelling like it. He had a wife and kids and a big house in the suburbs. Colby liked to come over when his life was feeling stagnant. He used to tell my mama that the cure for boredom was getting his dick wet. I learned long ago that you could tell a lot about a man by the way he smelled. And Decker smelled like trouble.
“I figured you’d be here yesterday. I was worried I’d miss you before Lance got here. I want to talk,” he said while setting his keys on a table by the door and walking inside.
“Is this the part where you try and scare me away? Warn me that if I fuck with your boyfriend, you’ll kick my ass?” I asked, forcing my tone to sound polite, despite the anger swirling in my gut. I didn’t want to bullshit my way through a conversation about why I was here.
That was another reason I didn’t want to come. I knew Lance would have questions. He’d want to know about the woman that gave him away. I just wasn’t sure he could handle the truth. People liked to think highly of those that died. It’s why the preacher called my mother a saint at our quaint burial service. And it seemed like Decker had already made up his mind about me. He lumped me in with my deadbeat mother, and it pissed me off.
“You’re perceptive,” Decker replied, interrupting my thoughts.
“I know an asshole when I see one,” I replied while staring at his back. He set down his leather messenger bag on the coffee table in their living room as I stepped through the threshold. Decker spun around to face me again, and the moment his dark eyes met mine, I started looking around the apartment to avoid his gaze. His eyes were too cruel, too inquisitive. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
The loft was nice. Clean. Had modern furniture and an open concept living area. I loved the dark wood floors and abstract art on the walls. It seemed like every damn part of this apartment was selected by someone with an eye for design.
“This place is really nice.” I swallowed before taking another step forward. If I was going to live with this guy, I should probably rein in my temperamental tongue. I didn’t know these people, didn’t know if Lance would kick me out for insulting his best friend. I took another step. It seemed like every shuffle of my feet brought me closer to the reality of my situation. “So you’re Lance’s roommate?” I asked while clutching the straps of my backpack. I wasn’t ready to part with it. Setting my belongings down would mean that I was here to stay, and I wasn’t wholly committed to that idea, especially since Decker’s welcoming was cold as ice.
“Temporary roommate. I bought a fixer-upper outside of town with some land. It needs massive renovations, so I’m staying here for six months while it gets put together. Lance and I grew up together, and he’s always been the type to take in anyone that needs help.” His dark eyes stared openly at me, disdain evident in his expression.
I wasn’t sure how that made me feel. On the one hand, I felt like another problem someone got off on fixing. I wasn’t special; it was just in my brother’s charitable nature. But I was still thankful for a roof over my head.
“So where is Lance?” I asked. It seemed weird that he wasn’t even here to greet me. I pulled the cheap gas station phone out of my backpack to see if I had any missed calls or texts from him. I filled up my minutes with some of the money he sent me so we could keep in touch for reasons like this. I was used to flighty behavior, but I’d been hoping he hadn’t inherited that trait from my—our—mother.
“He got stuck in a meeting with a client. He’s designing a new hotel, and the owner is being a pain in the ass,” Decker replied while staring at me. I wasn’t sure what it was about this guy, but it was as if I could feel his gaze. It wasn’t like a caress or heated look. Just an all-knowing assumption that hit me in the gut with its penetrating punch. “Why don’t you have a seat?” he offered while gesturing to the rustic leather couch beside him. I nodded and reluctantly shuffled over to him, every nerve in my body on high alert with this strange place and this strange man.
I took off my backpack and clutched it to my chest, not willing to let it go. It seemed silly to hold on to a bunch of meaningless belongings, but they were all I had.
Once I lowered myself to the couch, he sat beside me. Our legs brushed, and he let out a quick exhale as he shifted to increase the distance between us. It was the first sign of uncertainty I’d seen in his confident demeanor since meeting. I wasn’t necessarily one to enjoy the reactions guys got from looking at me. Boasting about beauty was one of my mama’s vices. But for some fucked up reason, I liked knowing that simple touch affected him.
“I’ll cut to the chase. I did my homework, saw your mom’s rap sheet. I don’t know you, but I do know that Lance has worked fucking hard to get to where he’s at. If I think—for even a second—that you’re here to cause trouble? I’ll have you gone like that,” he said while snapping his fingers to accentuate his point.
I should have been pissed. But for some reason, all I could feel was an odd sense of jealousy. What would it feel like to have someone so devoted? What would it be like to have someone that had my back? I didn’t like Decker’s assumptions about me, but I liked that he was fiercely protective of my brother. It must be nice. “Understood,” I gritted.
“Good,” he replied with a wide smile. “Lance tells me you’ll be a senior this year?”
I frowned. “I’m not exactly committed to the idea of finishing school. I’m looking at getting my GED so I can get on my feet faster. I guess we’re both temporary roommates,” I replied with a grimace. Decker’s face dropped for a moment as if he was surprised by my answer, but he recovered quickly.
“Temporary is good. You’re a National Merit Scholar, yeah?”
Of course he knew about my grades. Lance seemed like an open book, telling you his life story the moment he got you in his grasp. It figured he’d tell his roommate all about me. I just wished he’d told me about his angry roommate.
The truth was that I loved school. I loved learning new things bigger than my shitty life and shitty situation. My grades had slipped a little while taking care of Mama. Between working nights as a custodian at the local power plant and making sure her quality of life was decent, I didn’t really have time for homework.
“Yeah, I was,” I replied, wanting to change the subject. I didn’t want to get my GED. I didn’t want to work in some crappy job with crappy pay. I’d had plans, once. “I think right now I’m just taking things a day at a time. I want to meet Lance and see if this is going to be a good fit for me. I have three weeks until school starts. If I think I can put some roots down here, I will. I’m not committing to anything yet, regardless of what you think.”
“Fair enough,” Decker replied speculatively before twisting his body to look at me. His white shirt strained against his muscular body, and sitting this close, I could see the hint of a tattoo peeking up his neck. “I teach biology at a magnet school,” he explained. “If you want to make something of yourself, let me know. I’d be happy to help you get enrolled. If you think you’ll just be sitting here on your ass, you’re dead wrong.”
I stared back at him, shock scattering across my face like spiders. “I have no intention of sitting here on my ass,” I replied in a mocking tone.
I twisted to stare at the front door, not sure if I wanted Lance to show up and end this awkward interrogation. I was pretty sure it would just elevate the strange situation to an entirely new level of uncomfortable. “I just want to make sure you aren’t another person capitalizing on Lance’s generosity. I am sorry about your mom though,” Decker finally said after a long lull.
I kept my eyes trained on the front door, willing my brother to show up and drag me away from the polite “thank you” I’d have to purge from my system. I felt terrible because there was a deep part of me, a piece I didn’t want to acknowledge or admit was there, that was happy to see her gone. Not because she was a terrible mother. Not because she brought boyfriends home that touched me and pushed me around. Not because we were poor and lonely.
I was glad Mama died because I was finally free. I didn’t want to be chained to a selfish woman’s suffering when I knew she ultimately wouldn’t provide me with the same courtesy. “Thanks,” I replied in a dull tone, my bland gratitude seeping from my pores with every syllable. “So I’m guessing Lance does this often? Takes in strays?” I asked.
“All the fucking time. Lance would give the shirt off his back to a murderer if given the chance,” Decker replied while rubbing his temples.
“Well, I’m not a murderer,” I replied with a smile, hoping to salvage the situation.
“That’s exactly the sort of thing a murderer would say,” he deadpanned.
I rolled my eyes before shifting on the couch, brushing my thigh against his in the process. “Did Lance have a good life?” I asked, not sure why I wanted to know. “I mean, what are his adoptive parents like?”
Thankfully, Decker picked up on my change of direction in the conversation and rolled with it. “Mr. and Mrs. Trask are outstanding people. I’m sure you have lots of questions, and Lance would be much better at answering them for you. But we grew up together, and for the most part, I think he’s had a very fulfilling life.”
I dug my fingers into my backpack, my nails bending backwards as I pressed. “I’m glad Lance had a good home. When I found out I had a brother that was put up for adoption, I didn’t know what to think. Did he know he was adopted? Or was this all a shock?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Trask have always been upfront about his adoption. He’s always craved a relationship with your mom though. He’s taking the death kind of hard.”
Well, that made one of us.
“Even though I’m not happy about you being here, I think it could be good for him to grieve with someone, you know? Maybe you could tell him about her?”
I’m not sure how the combination of words escaped my lips, but before I could stop them from pouring out my mouth, there they were. “He’d be happier not knowing,” I said in a voice so low that I hoped Decker didn’t hear.
“I see,” Decker replied, thankfully not commenting on it.
We were both left suspended in tension for a moment longer before the knob to the front door twisted and in walked a tall, blond man with striking eyes and a fist full of flowers. He was wearing jeans and a tight black shirt. His fingers had ink stains blotting them, and his left shoe was untied. He looked casually careless and put together all at once.
“Blakely?” he asked, his eyes widening to a broad grin. “Oh gosh, it’s so good to meet you finally!”
Setting my backpack to the side, I stood up and smoothed out my dress, not knowing if I should shake his hand or hug him. What did people usually do in these situations? “Gosh, we look alike,” he said before stalking over, holding a bouquet out to me. I guess he was right. We had the same bright eyes. The same shade of hair. He was taller than me, naturally. And his skin was tanned like he’d just gotten back from the beach. Although his nose was sharper, we still shared a lot of features. It was jarring. “I, uh, got you these. Would you believe I googled ‘what to get your long lost sister’ ?”
I laughed. Lance was quirky and warm, like sunshine. Once he was in front of me, he seemed to mirror the same indecision as I, but ultimately decided a side hug would do. When his arm circled my shoulder, I half expected to breathe in the smell of our mama. She always smelled like cigarette smoke and roses. But instead, he smelled like paint and warm paper.
When he pulled away, I tucked my blonde hair behind my ear nervously before looking back at Decker, my breath stalling when I noticed how his eyes were on mine, inquisitive and firm. He made me feel like a question he wanted the answer to.
Decker ran his hands down his thighs before standing up too. For some reason, I found myself wanting to keep staring at him. That thought had me tearing my eyes back to Lance, who was taking in the sight of me. “It’s nice to meet you, Blakely,” Lance said with a genuine smile.
“It’s nice to meet you, too.”