Die a Little

By: Megan Abbott


My warmest gratitude to Paul Cirone for all his efforts and conviction, and to Denise Roy for her keen editorial insight and sustaining guidance.

To my early and encouraging readers and dear friends, Christine Wilkinson and Alison Levy. To Darcy Lockman, for her friendship and perpetual support. And without whom: Patricia and Philip Abbott, Joshua Abbott, Julie Nichols, Ralph and Janet Nase, and Jeff, Ruth, and Steven Nase. And most of all, to Joshua Gaylord.

Later, the things I would think about. Things like this: My brother never wore hats. When we were young, he wouldn't wear one even to church and my mother and then grandmother would force one on his head. As soon as he could he would tug it off with soft, furtive little boy fingers. They made his head hot, he would say. And he'd palm the hat and run his fingers through his downy blond hair and that would be the end of the hat.

When he began as a patrolman, he had to wear a cap on duty, but it seemed to him far less hot in California than in the South, and he bore up. After he became a junior investigator for the district attorney, he never wore a hat again. People often commented on it, but I was always glad. Seeing his bristly yellow hair, the same as when he was ten years old, it was a reminder that he still belonged to our family, no matter where we'd move or what new people came into our lives.

I used to cut my brother's hair in our kitchen every week. We would drink cola from the bottle and put on music and lay down newspapers, and I would walk around him in my apron and press my hand to his neck and forehead and trim away as he told me about work, about the cases, about the other junior investigators and their stories. About the power-mad D.A. And his shiny-faced toadies. About the brave cops and the crooked ones. About all the witnesses, all his days spent trailing witnesses who always seemed like so much smoke dissolving into the rafters. His days filled with empty apartments, freshly extinguished cigarettes, radios still warm, curtains blowing through open windows, fire escapes still shuddering ...

When I finished the cut, I'd hold out the gilt hand mirror from my mother's old vanity set and he would appraise the job.

He never said anything but "That's it, Sis," or "You're the best."

Sometimes, I would see a missed strand, or an uneven ledge over his ear, but he never would. It was always, "Perfect, Sis. You've got the touch."

Hours afterward, I would find slim, beaten gold bristles on my fingers, my arms, no matter how careful I was. I'd blow them off my fingertips, one by one.

For their honeymoon, just before New Year's 1954, my brother and his new wife went to Cuba for six days. It was Alice's idea. Bill Die a Little -- 2 --

happily agreed, though his first choice had been Niagara Falls, as was recommended by most of the other married couples we knew.

They came back floating on a cloud of their own beauty, their own gorgeous besottedness. It felt vaguely lewd even to look at them.

They seemed to be all body. They seemed to be wearing their insides too close to the surface of their skin.

There is a picture of Alice. The photographer--I'm not sure who it was--was ostensibly taking a picture of our godparents, the Conrans, on their thirtieth wedding anniversary. But the photographer snapped too late, and Uncle Wendell and Aunt Norma are beginning to exit the frame with the embarrassed elation of those unused to such attention and eager to end it, and what you see instead is Alice's back.

She is wearing a demure black silk cocktail dress with a low-cut V

in the back, and her alabaster skin is spread across the frame, pillowing out of the silk and curving sharply into her dark hair. The jut of her shoulder blades and the angular tilt of her cocked arm draw the eye irresistibly. So like Alice. She didn't even need to show her face or have a voice to demand complete attention.

It had all begun not six months before.

My chest felt flooded by my own heart. I could hardly speak, hardly breathe the whole way to the hospital, lights flashing over me, my mind careering. They said, "What is your relation to William King?"

"What's wrong?"

"Are you his wife?"

"What's wrong with my brother?"

But he was fine. He was fine. I was running down the hospital corridor, shins aching from my heels hitting the floor so hard. I was running when I heard his voice echoing, laughing, saw his downy, taffy-colored hair, his handsome, stubby-nosed profile, his hand rubbing the back of his head as he sat on a gurney, smeary smile on his face.

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