My mother used to be beautiful. A lot more than I had any chance of becoming. It was a secret my brother and I had found out on one of the few occasions when we were accomplices. In her knee-length wedding dress, my brother already starting to push against the skin of her belly, she smiled at a camera that would ignore colours yet produce the evidence of a crime. What had happened to her? My father, I guess. Us.
I was studying that picture the morning after our revenge mission, running my index finger on its zigzag edges, but put it away when Will stomped up the ladder. Behind me, Filippo kept his brush suspended, as though afraid the eartquake of Will’s steps would cause him to disfigure an innocent alien. The bruises around Will’s left eye were darkening into purple, some of them creasing into the frown on his forehead.
“No one asked you and your little boyfriend for anything, you shitty little weirdo,” he spat. The shadows under his eyes were so dark they could be mistaken for more bruises.
“Mirko says no name-calling,” chirped Filippo in his thin voice, keeping his gaze down.
Will’s eyes focused on him and narrowed.
“Guys!” the voice came from the bottom of the tree, and for once Mirko’s steps were hurried. “Hey, Will, you just wait."
But there was some kind of infection burning through Will that day, something that wanted to be passed on.
“You,” he said nailing his thumbs into my wrists, turning them up so the careless sun would silver the scars on my skin, “you will never be one of us. You’re an intruder, here, everywhere. And you!” he said to Filippo, yelling on top of Mirko’s voice which, from the ladder, warned him to stop. “You’re only one of the men in your mother’s life, and from what I heard when your old man left, the figure runs double digits …”
“Enough!” Mirko leaped in and grabbed his brother by the collar of his T-shirt. The physical advantage he had on him—being taller, wider-shouldered, stronger—showed in the effort he made to keep his hands gentle. I saw Will lift his eyes to Mirko’s, muddy green into amber, and something primal, as pain-filled as raw flesh uncovered by a wound, passed between them. Then Will shook off Mirko’s hands, gave a furious swipe to his tears and disappeared down the ladder.
At the back of the room, Filippo was sobbing softly.
“Your brother’s a real prick,” I said to Mirko. His face went rigid, the muscles in his jawline showing, then he got up the way only he could do, like a cat that can lay there all day, but when it decides to do something knows the exact movements it must perform, and won’t do one more or one less than it needs to. He dug out the wooden chest from under the bench and sat beside Filippo on the floor. His cousin, with his features still untainted by adolescence, looked like a baby doll of fine China beside the sprawling Mirko.
“You get to choose a boon today,” Mirko said to him, but Filippo shook his head, tears flying from eyes squeezed shut.
“What did we say when we stole this treasure off those evil pirates? Mh?”
Fili looked at his own bare feet, toenails carrying drops of paint.
“That we would get according to need,” he whispered.
“Very well. Choose.”
But Filippo could only shake his head, and it seemed to me like the treasure held inside the chest must be blinding him, doubloons and gold ingots and gems drawing shining prisms on his face. I had never opened that chest, not even when I was alone in the tree house, and even on that day I kept the lid between myself and the treasure.
“Can you see a silver bracelet with a star-shaped pendant?” I asked and Filippo nodded, his lower lip protruding. “Take it.”
Filippo looked up at Mirko, who nodded, and lifted my First Communion bracelet out of the chest. His hands shook, but I could again see his missing front teeth.
“Is it magic?” he asked.
“Of course it is, it’s a find-me bracelet. It means that, no matter how far away Mirko and I go, we will always find you. Just don’t wear it around my mum,” I added quickly. “She’s an evil witch, and if she sees it she’ll cast a counter-spell and it will never work again.”