Rob Presley, Just Jarad
I sat on the floor of the gym, my legs splayed open, and rolled the basketball toward Wesley, who mimicked my pose fifteen feet down the court. He watched it approach, then captured it with his hands. “This is a baby game,” he complained.
“Yeah, well—I’m an old lady.” I nodded to the group of four at the other end of the court. “You can go play with them if you want. I’ll be your cheering section.”
He didn’t reply, just spun the ball in front of him.
He rolled it back to me and stayed silent.
“Is it Becky?” His courtship had gone well, according to Monica at the front desk. She and Wesley were eating lunch together every day and holding hands when they thought the staff wasn’t watching.
“Not Becky.” He beckoned with his hands. “Bounce it.”
I gave it a careful and low bounce, one that he missed. I waited as he chased the ball down, waved at a boy he knew, and then returned back, his focus on bouncing the ball for a few times before he sank back down to the polished floor.
“So, what is it?”
“Big brother,” he said sullenly.
Ah. I struggled, as I always did when he brought up Cash, with what to say. I needed Wesley in my life, but I understood that, at some point, Cash might discover this secret. When he did, I’d lose visitation and volunteer privileges at the Ranch. It was a thought that filled me with an unnatural amount of anxiety, an emotion that increased the closer I grew to Wesley.
I was lucky that the staff at the Ranch was mostly ancient adults who barely knew what Twitter was. Add that to the fact that my glammed up internet persona was a far cry from my make-up-free natural look, and I’d be shocked if one of my followers ever recognized me in my volunteer garb. I pushed the anxiety to one side and sighed. “What’s wrong with your brother?”
“He got mad at me on the phone.”
Anger ticked in my chest. “Over what?”
He laid back on the floor and laced his fingers together over his chest. “He didn’t come this week.”
Oh. I scooted closer to him, moving until the toes of my sneakers hit his side. “Wesley, listen to me. He’s out of town. He can’t come.”
I knew, because he was on the RedBull Tour, MCing to sold-out arenas each night, his social media feeds filled with athletes and celebrities that were all reposting the content. It would be a three-month follower avalanche of epic proportions, and I was so jealous of the opportunity, my jaw hurt from clenching it so hard. What were they paying him? A million? Two? It’d been four days, and he’d already jumped at least that in follower count.
“I am his BRO-ther,” he enunciated, stabbing his chest with his thumb. “He always said I come first.”
“This was a huge opportunity for him.” I patted his arm. “He had to take it to make money, so he could pay for this place.”
“He can be like you and work here.” He stared up at the ceiling, blinking quickly, his eyes wet.
I sighed. “I don’t work here, Wesley. I volunteer. I come to visit and hang out with you. Because we’re friends.”
“You clean toilets,” he reminded me. “Friends don’t clean toilets.”
I laughed and captured the ball before it rolled away. “Yes, you’re right. I clean the toilets.”
“Gross toilets.” He wrinkled up his nose. “Poop.”
I smiled. “Yes. Poop.”
He laughed. “Miss E said POOP!” He shouted the word, and I reached out and gently bopped him on the head with the ball.
“Shush. You’re going to get our ice cream sandwiches taken away.”
He tried to sit up, his short legs lifting from the effort. I held out my hand and helped him upright. “Ice cream sandwiches now.”
“No, it’s too early.” I scooted back to give him some room. “Wesley, look at me.”
I waited until his attention was on me before I spoke. “I need you to forgive your brother. This is going to be hard on him, being away from you. Even though you’re the little brother, I need you to be a big man for him.”
He puffed out his chest. “I can be a big man.”
“I know you can. You’re the bravest man I know.” I smiled at him. “I’m so proud of you.”
No one else in the world would have cared that I was proud of them, but he lit up with a glow that stayed with me for days.
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Three days before Christmas, I laid on my stomach, my fingers interlaced underneath my cheek, and squinted lazily at the drone, which hummed across the brilliant blue skyline. For the thousandth time this year, I mentally pinched myself. Last Christmas, I was in my old apartment, my mouth swollen and stuffed with bloody gauze, watching Hallmark and flipping through a scant number of social media messages. Now, I was on a yacht in Aruba, next to a billionaire, with an inbox of thousands of messages I’d never get through because I had people for that.