She halted and peered at me with a fair amount of expectation.
My initial and immediate recoil of the idea was stalled by my growing curiosity of Wesley Mitchell’s condition. I fingered the visitor’s lanyard that hung around my neck. “What does a volunteer do?”
She resumed walking, her pace slower as she began listing the duties. “Visiting with the residents. Changing linens. Supervising group activities. Clean-up of common areas.” She lifted her bird-like shoulders in a shrug. “It’s not the most glamorous thing in the world, but it can be gratifying. There’s so much joy in these walls.”
Oh yeah. The place was positively brimming with it. Still, I warmed to the idea. “I could do that. Maybe one day a week?”
She gave a warm smile. “Whatever works with your schedule.”
By the time I pulled out of the tree-lined drive, I had a visitor’s badge with my photo on it and my first three shifts scheduled. I’d planned just to come a few times. A month of volunteering at most. Just enough to understand why Cash was hiding his brother and what that real story was.
But then, on my fourth day at the Ranch, I met Wesley. And after that, a part of me changed.
* * *
The last public picture of Wesley Mitchell was taken when he was seven, by a paparazzi hidden outside of The Ivy. The photo had been snapped as Wesley was getting in the car, his attention on the balloon string tied around his wrist, only half of his face visible to the camera. That profile showed enough — the unmistakable facial trademarks of Down’s syndrome. My heart had twisted a little at the way Jocelyn Mitchell’s hand had been outstretched before his face in an attempt to block it from the camera.
The boy who sat at the table was ten years older but painfully similar to his seven-year-old self. The same slightly hunched shoulders. Low-set ears. Almond-shaped eyes. His attention was on a small television. As I watched, he absentmindedly picked at the hem of his sleeve.
“Wesley?” Miranda, my volunteer coordinator, tapped on his shoulder. “Wesley, this is Miss Emma. She’s going to be working with you today.”
The teenager sighed, then picked up the television remote and pointed it toward the screen, jabbing at the button until it turned off. He set the remote down on the table and swiveled in his seat, giving me a look of exasperation. “It is not a good day for me to work.”
I laughed before I could catch myself, then clamped a hand over my mouth when Miranda shot me a horrified look. Laughing at the residents, without a doubt, was a no-no. “I don’t like to work either,” I quickened to say. “What do you say we both play hooky from work today?”
Miranda tutted under her breath, but Wesley’s smile widened. “Play hooky—“ he said haltingly, then gave a strong nod. “Sounds good to me.”
I grinned back at him. “We’re good,” I assured Miranda, who would probably pen my termination papers as soon as she left us. “I’ll use the walkie if I have any questions.”
It took a few minutes of convincing, but Miranda finally left. Wesley stared at me expectantly. I glanced around the room, which was filled with round activity tables and reading and television nooks. “What were you watching?”
“SpongeBob.” His chin jutted out. “It’s not a kid show.”
I raised my hands in surrender. “Oh, I know. I watch SpongeBob too.”
“You lie.” He crossed his arms over his chest.
“Nope.” I took the seat next to him and scooted it up closer to the table as my competitive juices started to flow. “Go ahead, quiz me on something about the show.”
He watched me warily. “Who is SpongeBob’s best f-friend?”
“Patrick Star,” I said promptly. “Easy. Give me something harder.”
His eyes slid to the television screen then back at me. He tucked his chin into his chest and thought for a long moment. “Who likes root beer?”
I didn’t understand the question at first. His speech coated the vowels thickly, and I asked him to repeat himself. He gave a frustrated sigh and repeated the question, heavily enunciating the words.
It was a hard question, and it was my turn to study the table and think. He let out a giggle, and I looked up quickly to catch his hand over his mouth, eyes lit with amusement. The answer came to me but I frowned, playing it out longer. His legs danced under the table.
“It was that episode…” I said carefully, torn between displaying my SpongeBob knowledge and ruining his fun. “The one where Plankton is trying to steal the secret formula…” That description could easily match forty percent of the show’s episodes, but his face still fell slightly.
“Gosh,” I said, pressing my palms to my forehead. “This is hard.”
“Just give up,” he instructed. “It’s too hard.”