It’s supposed to be a joke, but it falls flat. James smiles wearily. He’s used to this kind of judgment. Everything he’s wearing is black, including heavy black boots, not unlike the ones Shelby used to wear. Now her pretty leather boots have high heels. Frankly, they’re not very good for trekking through snow. James takes off his sweatshirt, and she sees his arms are colored sleeves filled with dragons and roses, skulls and blue-black geometric patterns. She wonders if James’s tattoos come alive in burning color when he sleeps. If she spent the night with him would she know everything there was to know about him?
When he sees her staring, James rolls his shirt up his forearm. Inside a circle of thorny, blue vines there is a name. Lee. “Sometimes what feels right turns out to be wrong. It turns love into a burden.”
Shelby actually feels a surge of jealousy when she sees the name inked onto his arm. She wonders whom he might have loved so deeply that his love became a burden. Still she shrugs. She has been planning this tattoo since the accident. “I want a name, and I don’t much care what you think.”
Her eyes are burning. There is a wave of grief rising to the surface. She didn’t think she could cry anymore, but now it is happening in this highly inappropriate place. Shelby covers her face with her hands, mortified. Maybe it’s because it’s Ben Mink’s wedding day and she’s here alone and she still hasn’t punished herself enough for her crime. “I don’t cry,” she manages to say.
Before she can leap off the table and pull on her shirt, James embraces her. He doesn’t say anything; he just lets her cry. He doesn’t tell her It’s okay or You’ll be fine or any of that other crap people try to tell you when you’re breaking apart. For a guy who talks so much, he knows when to shut up.
“I’m an idiot,” Shelby says when her tears subside. “I’m ready. Let’s get this over with.”
“Is it Ben’s name you want?”
Shelby looks at him, more confused than ever. “You know Ben Mink?”
“I’m Jimmy,” the tattoo artist explains. “From fourth grade? Out in Huntington? James Howard.”
This is worse than she could have imagined. He’s someone she knows, or at least she did, once upon a time. In their fourth-grade class photo session he leapt up and down so much the photographer finally tied him to a chair with a jump rope. “You’re the one who shot Ben with rubber bands when he cried over Bambi.”
“I didn’t hurt him.” James squints at her. “Did I?”
“You did. I think he has a scar. He’s probably still embarrassed over that incident.”
“Should I call him and make amends? I did that in AA, but I had so many other people on my list I didn’t even think of Ben.” James gives her a sidelong glance. “Are you two still together?”
“He’s getting married today. You really don’t have to worry about Ben. He’s fine without amends. How did you know we were together in the first place?”
“Who do you think he bought his drugs from back home? He never mentioned the Bambi incident, so I thought he was over it. But he was always whining about you when he picked up his weed.”
“Really?” Shelby is flattered.
“He was madly in love with you.”
“Well, not anymore. Now he’s marrying a beautiful Cuban woman.”
“I doubt that he loves her,” James says.
“He happens to love her a thousand times more than he ever loved me.” Shelby’s heart is racing. She doesn’t want to talk about love with James Howard. “Can we get on with it?” she says briskly even though her heart is fluttering. Perhaps she has arrhythmia, a syndrome she’s been reading about in a veterinary text that affects elderly dogs.
James brings out a book of lettering so Shelby can choose the style she prefers. “This isn’t invisible ink,” he warns. “What you write on your skin is there forever.”
Shelby notices the word Trust written across one of his wrists when he gives her the book. She loves the thin, Gothic lines. It’s just the sort of print she wants. Without thinking, she reaches for James’s other arm to see what’s written there as well. He pulls back; it’s a gut reaction, but a strong one. Shelby nearly topples off the table, until James puts an arm out to stop her fall. They’re both breathing too hard. Now she can see the ink. Someone is written across his other wrist. It’s the most recent postcard message she received. She looks at him and he looks back at her and she can feel something between them, but she’s not sure what it is. “You’ve been writing to me? Why would you do that? We hardly knew each other.”
“I was there that night. I was high and drunk,” he tells her, “and the road was a mess. I probably would have crashed if I kept driving, but you spun out coming the other direction. I stopped because your car was blocking the road. I was the one who pulled you out of the car.”
Shelby is half-naked and freezing. What she remembers most about that night is how cold it was. But she remembers there was someone who told her not to close her eyes. He told her not to fall asleep. He said Stay here and she did.
“What about Helene?” Shelby asks.
James shakes his head. “She was crushed. I couldn’t get her out. But you were breathing. What they say about saving a life is true,” he adds. “You’re responsible for that person forever. That’s why I wrote to you. Even though you didn’t really know me.”
“My mom saw you leave the cards. She thought you were an angel.”
“I’m not.” James laughs. “Far from it.”
It’s a good thing James gets up to put the book of lettering away. Shelby’s not sure what she might have done if the spell hadn’t been broken. She wants to stop her attraction to him before she does something she’ll regret.
“I had a brother who died when I was ten,” he tells her when he comes back. “Meningitis. The doctor said it was just a cold and he would be fine but he wasn’t. He died in the middle of the night, in the room we shared. I was there with him, in the next bed. We’d both gone swimming. We’d snuck away and biked all the way to Northport. Then he died and I didn’t. I shouldn’t have been saved. So I knew what you were going to feel. That’s why I stayed with you until the cops came. As it turned out, I happened to have some drugs in my possession, so I didn’t get to visit you in the hospital. The best I could do were the postcards.”