“The McClatchys must be millionaires?” Tack says. “This house is fucking huge.”

“It’s just old,” I say.

“How much are they paying you to rub plastic baggies on their walls between fuck breaks?”

“They don’t pay me. I subcontract for my dad.”

“Jesus, whatever.” Tack passes me the joint again. “How much?”

“Nine hundred for the room, I think.”

“Holy fuck balls.” Tack grabs his chest. “They’re just jizzing Franklins on their walls.”

“It’s a fair price for faux finish. Lots of people pay that.” Really, I can only think of two in the last three years. The other one had a single accent wall done. But somewhere, in real cities outside tiny Alma, lots of people would pay.

“Lots of people get robbed by crook painters, you mean.”

“They’re getting exactly what they asked for,” I say. “This is primo fucking work. You couldn’t do it. Takes a skilled hand.”

“Like yours?” Tack says. “Like his?” He grabs Hector’s fingers, sniffs them. “Is that April’s skill I smell?”

Hector lets him sniff. His hands are limp in Tack’s grip. It feels like that campfire glowing, lapping light where I don’t want it, exposing my wrong-logoed hips.

“I can’t explain skill to someone who only knows how to leech off people and fill them full of shitty drugs.” The joint’s back in my hands. I suck it down and flick the roach out the open window.

“Selling shitty drugs takes skill. The shittier, the more rhetoric, my dear. Charisma. My skills aren’t in my hands, you runt of a grunt. They’re up here.” Tack knocks knuckles against his skull. “And I wouldn’t be able to give Hector and his bitchy girlfriend quality chemicals if I didn’t have the skills to profit off shitty drugs. So I’m skilled and fucking philanthropic.”

I ignore him and go back to work. My head’s getting too loopy to keep up with Tack. I’m morphing into that paint-for-brains bucket on my dad’s shirt. That’s how Tack gets what he wants, how he wins, by making our brains floaty.

We should have three walls done by the end of the day, and there’s still a half wall left to go. I’ve lost Hector. He’s sucked into the Tack show. While I paint, Tack rifles through the drawers of the bureau tarped off in the middle of the room. Mrs. McClatchy’s purple silk panties go on his head. Black lace bra masks his eyes. They look expensive, and I pray they don’t rip.

I don’t bother trying to get Hector back to work. It’s hard enough keeping a whole wall wet, and that’s what you have to do with faux work. Stopping points kill the illusion. The slightest seams are fault lines. Faux must never look faux, must never reveal the truth of the agreed-upon lie. So I extend a dark brown vein from the ladder, hop down to redden near the baseboard. I’m jumping up and down, red to brown, floor to ladder rungs. Tack’s pot has now fully hollowed out my skull. When I swing up from kneeling, my eyes go gray, my head hurtling. I exhale, wait for the color to return. I keep painting anyway. Sweat drips down my forehead, weighs down my shirt. I may be ruining everything. I may be doing my best work ever.

Hector and Tack find Mrs. McClatchy’s dildo. Tack chases Hector under my ladder, waggling rubber whir. Hector stumbles, falls, and Tack jams it in his ear. He punches Tack lovingly in the jaw. Tack sits on his face. Hector wails on his gut. The dildo slips from Tack’s grip, splats in my red paint pan. Mrs. McClatchy’s embarrassment lumps my throat. She’s got all that beautiful underwear, is paying for us to turn her bedroom walls into sex. But romance fails. It’s a dirty rubber dick in a gal’s own hand.

The dildo buzzes against my aluminum pan until I finish the wall. I step off the ladder, dip to my knees. The red paint jiggles, like an overfed carp death-seizing in a blood puddle. I fish out the dildo, switch it off, wipe it with a rag. I rinse it in the sink, use some of McClatchy’s expensive-smelling soap. On my way back out, I cradle it in my shirt, hope the boys won’t see it and get to laughing again. I’ll smuggle it back to its proper hiding spot. I pull open the drawer, and it’s a mess of crumpled lace and satin and silk and leather. Straps tangled with buckles latched to hooks. There’s no way Mrs. McClatchy won’t know we went through her things. So, I grab the top of the bureau and pull. It topples, spills soft things all over the carpet. You can’t help that: a casualty of repaint, some tipped furniture. I’d rather admit accident than make her face the pang of exposure, and Dad will knock fifty bucks off the job.

For the first time since Tack arrived, the boys look at me. Hector lifts his palms, says, “Whoops?” Tack chews his cheek, squints at me sideways.

I bow to the bureau, start lifting it up. Hector grabs the other side. Together, we pick up Mrs. McClatchy’s sexy underwear and stuff them back into oaken drawers.

“Okay, yeah, I dig this plan, little sister,” Tack says. “We mess up the place, make it look robbed. And you can say someone smashed a window or some shit when you weren’t here. The beauty of it is we get to take our time, find all the best stuff and secret hiding places. No dildo shall be safe.” Tack shoots up his fat victory fist.

“That’s not what I was doing.” I tamp down the top drawer so it’ll slide shut. “I’m not that stupid.”

“I don’t know,” Hector says. “It’s pretty brilliant.”

The McClatchys are gone until Monday, and we could have until then to take everything. Dad would lose business, his reputation, but who cares. He lost my house already, the house where my sister sleeps, where my mom cowers and never leaves and now someday soon she’ll have to. If we stole enough, Hector and I could leave this town and Tack.

Tack wraps his hand around my shoulder, sucks me close. His armpits smell like pepperoni. “If you hang around long enough, even a girl house painter will sprout a light bulb over her head.”

I push away from Tack. He squeezes tighter until I’m really pushing, and then he lets go. I stumble, am about to fall, but Hector catches me.

“She used to get straight A’s,” Hector says, “until we came along and blew dumb into her lungs.”

This is the first time Hector ever said anything about me being smart. Hector never put much stock into the word, and he hates school even though he reads like he’s possessed, gets high and pours over leather-bound history books he steals from the library until 4 in the morning. He’s always talking about getting his GED with Tack. Tack got expelled three years ago, and now he’s gloriously free, a twenty-year-old dropout living the dream. Skipping the ass-in-a-chair-waste-of-time classroom is smart to Hector. He wants to swim to freedom, be swept into its current and drift.

“Where should we start, April?” Tack asks. “Where’s the secret stash?”

I’ve seen the gold-winged eagle emblazoned on the safe in the basement, next to the cans of paint. I’ve heard the tinkle of thin metal and tiny stones when I moved the nightstand. But I wasn’t snooping. Being a house painter means seeing everything, but only watching walls. A two-dimensional sight that’s time-stuck. No future or past, only this brushstroke pushing this paint bead. And yet, I can’t be blind.

Just as I’m about to tell Tack about the safe—but not about the jewelry—the front door downstairs shakes open. Dad calls, “Quitting time, Ape.” He’s trudging down the hallway. His steel-toed boots clomp harder than my heart.

“Get the fuck out of here,” I hiss at Tack. “Dad said he’d call the cops if he saw your ass around me again.”

“Well, fuck him,” Tack says, trying to sound tough. But he’s already straddling the windowsill, waving at Hector. “Let’s go, man.”

Hector steps toward the window, but I grab his arm. “He knows you’re here. He’s paying me to pay you. Leaving is stupid.”

Tack tumbles out the window. The hedges outside the window cringe and crack under his weight. Hector shakes me off, swings a leg over the window, but Dad stomps into the room before he can escape.

“Ape, what’s your help doing in the ding-dang window?”

Hector looks at Dad, turns his head toward the night that swallowed Tack. It looks like he’s still deciding whether he’ll sneak away, long past the point where sneaking would make any sense.

“He’s cooling off,” I say. “Hot as a bitch in here.”

“But it looks mighty dandy.” Dad whistles. “I’d never have the patience for this stuff. Lucky the lord blessed me with a girl that’s got a cool head and steady fingers.”

These days, it’s rare for Dad to acknowledge I’m a girl. The more I look like a woman, the more he tries to pretend I’m some kind of androgynous species. I remember the shock on his bleached face the first time he changed the bathroom trash stowing one of my tampons. He carried the bag out of the bathroom and out the front door held in an arm stretched like he was willing his shoulder to disconnect. I’m sure he’d give his blown-out shoulder in trade for this bit of blood going back inside his daughter. After that day, he started calling me by the gender-neutral simian title of Ape.

“Your protégée worth a dang?” Dad points at Hector still seesawing the windowsill. One thing Dad hates more than acknowledging that I have a vagina is imaging a boy exploring what’s inside. In Dad’s forced imagination, Hector is only my laborer. I’ve told my mom we’re seeing each other, and she has to know we’re fucking. They know. But Dad can pretend, because Hector’s a ghost story. Hector’s never around, hates the idea of meeting family. Now I’ve trapped them together. They both have to face reality and they both hate it. Dad won’t quit staring at Hector, and Hector gazes up at the raised window, as if contemplating a bilateral guillotine.

“He’s a natural,” I say. “Born to paint. Worth every penny. And he’s beautiful.”

“Nothing harder to find than good help.” Dad pretends to ignore the last part, but I see it splash red flush across his cheeks. He strides toward Hector and juts out his hand. Hector tries to look away, to look up, out, over Dad’s shoulder at me, and then, inevitably, at the hand of the father of the girl he’s fucking. They shake. Both of their forearms tense. I’m waiting for one of them to punch the other in the face and make a run for it. Dad’s pointy shaved head gleams over Hector. Hector straightens his back, steps into the room, stands, still shaking Dad’s hand. Hector is almost the same height as my dad, and I don’t think Dad was expecting to look straight into his eyes.

“He’s a tall one. Hardly needs a stepladder, I bet.” Dad finally drops the handshake to look Hector up and down. “How tall exactly, kid?”

“I don’t know.”

“What boy doesn’t know how tall he is?” Dad says. “What’s your doctor say?”

“Never been to one.”

“What’s on your driver’s license?”

“Don’t have one.”

“Be honest now.” Dad stabs his finger into Hector’s sternum. “Are you legal to work in the best country in the world?”

“Which one is that?”

“Gosh dang it, kid. Don’t smart-butt me. Are you an illegal?”

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” I say. “We go to school together.”

“Who knows?” Hector shrugs.

“God knows.” Dad points up. “So spill it. How tall you think you are?”

“I don’t know. Five-nine maybe.”

“What! Ridiculous, kid. You’re almost as tall as me, and I’m five-eleven-and-a-half.”

“Just a half-inch short of perfection,” I say, quoting one of Dad’s mottos.

“You’re dang right.” He breaks his gaze from Hector to rub his knuckles against the side of his bald skull, something he’s always doing when heavy thinking is required. “Ape, I’m going to need a level, measuring tape, and four-foot stepladder.”

Before I can tell him how stupid this is and rescue Hector, Dad’s already in action. He’s twisting Hector’s shoulder, positioning him like a mannequin, pressing his back against Hector’s. His black hair falls atop Dad’s shoulders. Dad shouts orders. “Don’t slouch, son. Kick off your shoes. Don’t prance on your toes like a fairy or nothing. I want this square and fair.”

I toss Dad the tape measure. He steps on the metal foot and yanks it to the point of his head.

“Five-ten,” I say, measuring from the largest part of his skull and not the pointed peak I’m sure he’d prefer me to use.

“That’s bull. Climb up the dang ladder first so you can read straight.”

I climb up the ladder. “Five-ten,” I say.

“It’s the carpet padding in here. We’re sinking in at least an inch and a half.” Dad elbows Hector’s ribs. “I told you we’re almost six. Now the level, Ape.”

I place the level across their skulls. Black hair and waxy white flesh. The neon green bubble dances, swishes from side to side and then settles toward Hector. Dad will be humiliated. I love it. I love Hector a little more and his mommy and daddy for their wonderful long bones. Hector keeps trying to inch away from Dad, who keeps inching tighter. Back to back. Head to head.

“Don’t leave us in suspense. Where’s the bubble lean?”

I wait a little longer, steady the level with one hand and palm Hector’s chest with the other so Dad has to see me touching this man. “The bubble’s on Hector.”

“Son of a mop bucket.” Dad springs away from Hector. He studies him up and down, grapples his chin. “By my guesstimate, I’d say you break the six-foot mark by a good quarter-inch, boy. Nice scouting skills, Ape.”

I hook my arms around Hector’s neck and hop down the ladder, but Dad’s already turned, headed out the door.

“This work and that giant call for a beer on me,” Dad announces to the world outside the room. “Let’s quit this place, kids.”

Hector and I linger in the room. Even with only three walls done, I can see their effect on Hector’s face. His tan skin glows warmer. His lips look thicker, eyelashes longer. We have to go with Dad, but I want to stay here and finish what we started, this job, our fucking, the minutes we have alone that are so short. I know it won’t last. No job ever does and just when they look best you move to the next one and start over. Hector already wants the next thing, wants out, wants a window egress rather than a date with Dad. But tough shit. He’s with me. That he doesn’t see what I want and how I want him just pisses me off. He’ll learn. I’ll show him I’m better than Tack and the tiny life he can have here in Alma. Better than bullshit dads and fake walls. I’ll show him what real red looks like.

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