I wasn’t supposed to know where my brother snuck off to in the night. I was only supposed to cover for him if Mom or Dad woke up while he was gone. The weight of this responsibility was constricting and inviting—a secret shared between Patrick and me. I never considered what I might tell them if they awoke, but I knew that Patrick trusted me, and for that, I trusted myself.
I knew her name was Miranda. I’d seen Patrick writing it in the steam on the bathroom mirror. I knew she was beautiful because I had peeked at them when they met in the night. She was always dressed in flowing skirts in hundreds of colors; the material was see-through and showed the bikini bottoms she wore underneath. Tied at her waist, she wore a pinstriped button-down that I recognized as belonging to my father. Her long, curly hair was the color of sunset and sand, and it danced with the wind like flames. Her wrists and ankles were covered in bracelets, and every move she made was musical. She held a long white cigarette in her fingers, twirling it like a tiny baton in between smooth, elegant drags. She would wait for Patrick out near the water. He would run to her from our back deck. The only noise in the night was the crash of the waves and the tinkle of her bracelets on the wind.
I would watch them embrace, then I would creep quietly back to my bedroom, envisioning them on the beach—her dancing and singing poetry while my brother strummed the guitar he’d never really learned how to play. Her jewelry would jingle accompaniment and she would stop only to shower my brother’s face with kisses. After seeing her, I understood why he snuck away from our beach house each night. Our parents never would understand Miranda the way we did.
Each morning at sunrise, Patrick would sneak back into the house. I would wake to him sitting on the edge of my bed. Sometimes, if I knew he was there, I would keep my eyes closed just a little longer, breathing in the sweet smoky smell of him, pretending that someone needed me like he needed Miranda. When I opened my eyes, he would search my face and whisper, “All clear?”
I’d give him a thumbs up and watch his body relax into the fatigue he’d been hiding all night. He’d tuck the sheets around me, kiss my head, and slip from the room, returning to his own bed down the hall. In his wake was left a bit of sadness. I wanted him to crawl under the sheets with me like when I was a little girl, telling me funny stories and tickling my feet. But, I was too old for that and both of us knew it.
Near the end of summer, Patrick shook me awake in the night.
“Get your sweater and sandals. We’re going for a walk on the beach.”
I raced on tiptoes for the back door. Miranda was waiting for us out in the sand. She waved and began running toward us, her bracelets clinking in the night wind. Her skirts buoyed on the wind; for a moment, she was running on air. She swept me up in her long, brown arms and kissed me on the cheek. The smell of her stayed on my skin; it was sultry and strong and reminded me of the heat of the sun on the back of my neck.
“Oh, Patrick! She’s beautiful just like you said! Let’s pretend she’s ours—just for tonight!”
I looked at the dreamy grin spread across Patrick’s face. I was a part of his secret world now, and I never wanted to go back home. My brother lit a cigarette from the end of hers, and they both watched me for a moment. Watching Patrick smoke for the first time, he suddenly looked older and more like our father than I would have thought possible.
That night was different from what I had imagined. Patrick hadn’t brought his guitar and Miranda didn’t sing. They built a fire in the sand, and they smoked and drank cans of beer from a little red cooler. She rolled cigarettes in colorful papers, and when they smoked them, the smell was sweet, almost like Grandpa’s cigars. She laughed when her smoke would blow into my face, and I felt my cheeks flush. Her laughter was like wind chimes, and I closed my eyes to see them. They were round and crystal and strung from gold chains. The wind and the sun in my mind created rainbows beneath my eyelids.
I stretched out on the sand by the fire while they ran to the water, wearing just their underwear in the waves. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought they must have been freezing in the frigid water, but I didn’t want to ask—I might break the spell.
I woke to the sunrise and knew we had to go home soon. Patrick sat nearby, staring at the water. Miranda’s curly head rested on his lap. As I watched, Patrick began twirling a piece of her hair in his fingers and smiled down at her sleeping face. When he noticed me watching, I raised my eyebrows, knowing we should be going back home. But he just shrugged. He lifted his thumb up and whispered, “All clear.” But he was telling me, not asking me, this time.
That night was the last time I ever saw Miranda. That was the last summer that our family spent at the beach house together. That was the last summer that Patrick lived with us. But I didn’t know any of that then. All I knew was that the sun was sitting on the edge of the water, and the sand in the wind was blowing through my hair. The air that morning was wonderful and salty and strange; I let it fill my lungs until they ached, and I knew I had to let it out. No air would ever taste that way again.