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With her welding mask on, Byron’s world was all starbursts and darkness. All heavy leather apron and gloves and sweat. All burnt ozone, like singed bleach, in her nose.
She shifted her elbow, urging the torch across the bead between the tie rod and the twisted hunk of roll cage that would make up the sculpture’s foundation. This was where she belonged, in between the strobed images of metal, not turning a wrench from nine to five at Deuce’s Customs, waking up with anxiety that pills could only blunt,
It never went away, that anxious tension, even when welding. That constant fear of something waiting around the next corner to pull the rug out from everything she’d built as one of the hottest names in Southern California’s underground art scene.
She took her foot off the pedal and raised her mask. The sculpture—an abstract rendering of the mythological Prometheus reimagined as a woman—was coming together nicely from the junk and stolen pieces of classic cars she used as her medium.
“Hey!” Logan, her roommate, was waving frantically at the door of the screened-in back porch Byron used as her welding studio.
She yanked off her gloves, annoyed. Interrupting her welding was a violation of his unwritten sublease: he had free rein to do whatever he wanted in the shithole bungalow, so long as he left the porch to
“Why do you set an alarm if you never remember to bring your phone out here?”
Byron got off her stool and stretched her back. The alarm meant it was midnight. She’d been welding five hours. Felt like two or three at the most.
“Lost track of time,” she said.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got people coming over.” He was wearing one of his club-night deep V-neck shirts.
“I thought you were going out.”
“I thought you were going to make it big so you could stop making fire statues on my back porch.”
His back porch? Byron battled back a retort. Logan didn’t get it. Probably never would. Designer shirts, designer drugs, and endless fuck-friends like a parade of too-thin clones were all he wanted in life. Good for him and his myopic bliss. Byron needed more. Her art was part of it, but she couldn’t escape that restless feeling there was something more significant, more urgent, waiting for her. Maybe making it big, with all the fame and cash that came with it, would
finally cure that feeling.
To do that, she needed to get her ass moving. The parts she needed for this sculpture weren’t going to steal themselves. She flipped her middle finger at Logan, who disappeared back into the house, and set about cleaning up, the sound of her phone’s alarm still blaring from the living room. When things were squared away, she grabbed her phone from the couch and shut off the alarm. It was ten after midnight. Plenty of time to get over to Deuce’s and liberate some rods and deflectors, if they hadn’t upgraded their security since she got fired last week.
“You know you can pick a song for that or something,” Logan
called from the kitchen.
Byron dropped the phone into her back pocket and washed up in the bathroom, then went into her room. Her most important tool for the night was on the bed beside her motorcycle helmet and gear: her cordless drill for boring out the lock in Deuce’s employee entrance. She shoved the drill into her backpack and searched the bed for her
keys. Always dropping them somewhere obvious she couldn’t remember five minutes later. She found them on her nightstand between the only two framed photographs she owned: one of a beautiful green-eyed young woman on a beach somewhere, and one of an urn on a bureau taken with a pink Polaroid during her
photography stage more than a decade ago.
“I know, Mom, I know,” she said to the young woman. “But I need some stuff to finish the sculpture I’m working, and I just don’t have the cash. Last time. This one’s going to sell big, and then I won’t have to steal anymore. Promise.”
The same old rationale. It only ever triggered her guilt when she was looking at the photos, but what was she to do? She couldn’t make her sculptures without supplies and parts, and the owner of Deuce’s was an asshole.
She imagined her mother telling her that being an asshole wasn’t cause for stealing from the guy. Not the way Dad always scolded her, with his jaw set and his eyebrows slammed together like a car accident. Mom, had she lived more than a few minutes after Byron was born, would have been gentle and supportive. She would have explained that wanting to be a good person was not the same as being a good person. She would have forgiven, and then she would
have sung softly with her arms around the daughter she never met. Byron’s phone began buzzing in her pocket, startling her. A call not a text. She thought of her father, though he hadn’t called in more than five years. Then, for some reason, she thought of Chase, her childhood best friend back in Pennsylvania.
Except it wasn’t Dad or Chase calling.
She knew it the moment her hand touched the phone in her pocket. A bad feeling. Not a slip. Not yet anyway, but she could feel something coming. She opened her nightstand drawer for her pills to fend it off while the phone kept buzzing, insisting, in her pocket.
The call ended and then another began almost immediately. Where were those damn pills? The second call ended. Byron gave up on the pills and waited for a third call. It didn’t come. Instead, there was a single buzz, abrupt and angry. A voicemail. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she took out the phone. Two missed calls from Lacey, her father’s sister. The one who’d given her a place to stay in Los Angeles when she fled home for the West Coast.
Who’d paid for that shrink seven years ago.
They hadn’t spoken in over a year. The bad feeling intensified as Byron pushed the voicemail icon. The screen lit up so bright it made Byron dizzy, like she was falling into herself, slipping backward and forward at the same time, into a moment that hadn’t happened yet—
The phone presses to her ear. Lacey’s voice fills her head, thick and choked even through the phone’s tiny speaker.
“Byron,” the message says, “it’s Aunt Lacey.”
She’s never called herself “aunt” before. Byron’s stomach knots.
“Geor—your dad.” Lacey is crying, stuttering over the words. Choking on her tears. “He was at home in his study. They couldn’t find your number. They think it was his heart.”
It’s a mistake, Byron thinks. Some other University of Penn professor in some other pompous study. But she knows it isn’t.
“I think,” Lacey goes on, “maybe—should I come down to see you? Or you’ll probably be going home to take care of things, won’t you? I’m so sorry, sweetie. I’m here for you. I just…I’m sorry. I’ll call back later.”
The voicemail ends. Byron can’t breathe. She’s dizzy. Her hand wavers before her like in a first-person shooter video game, disembodied but her own, reaching for something to lean on, finding
…the nightstand, knocking the photos of her mother onto the floor. She shook her head to clear the gauzy feeling that always followed a slip. She recited the alphabet backward—an old habit to help the transition back to the present—and raised the phone to her ear. She didn’t want to. She already knew. Slips never lied. She couldn’t ever change them. They were prophecy and prison.
“Byron,” the message said, “it’s Aunt Lacey.”
Without choice or escape, she listened, her stomach knotting, to the news a second time. Her father was dead.