“I was, Reese.” That quieted him. “Damian liked you first, you know. I’ve always liked basketball. My two brothers played. One was a big star in school, and we weren’t close, but I felt close to him then. I think that’s when I really started loving the game. He didn’t give me any attention—I was a gnat to him. I don’t think he meant it in a bad way, but older brothers get caught up in being cool, you know? Except for basketball. I mean, I had to act a certain way. I could only say a couple things to him during a game, like hand him a water or give him a towel, but it meant something to me. I did stats, and he was the team’s star on passing. That’s why I started following you. Your passes are phenomenal. No one can match you in the league, and your ball handling skills are unprecedented. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that before this—before you and I became friends—you were already more than just a basketball player to me. You connected me to a good memory from my brother, and the same with Damian. We’d watch your games together, and for some reason, he was always Damian during those times. I still had him. He’d slip away later on, but I always knew he was Damian for eighty-two games a year—the ones we could watch on television, I mean.”
Reese was quiet. We walked a few feet, then, “Your brother didn’t let you speak to him?”
More lip mashing.
I twisted the ends of my sleeves into balls, knotting them together.
“To give him credit, I was probably annoying—”
“No little sister is truly annoying. They’re younger, and they just want to be loved. Unless they’re spoiled brats. Then it’s different. I have a feeling you weren’t spoiled.”
I wasn’t. Ignored? Forgotten? Yes. Not spoiled. Definitely not that.
“Did your family help with Damian?”
It hurt to talk about it. My insides were being stretched until I felt they were going to break apart.
“I tried to tell them once, but they didn’t want to understand it.” My stomach twisted, remembering. “They wanted to think I was lying, making it up. My mom got on the internet and tried to look up proof that no one in their mid-twenties could get early-onset dementia, especially not something that progressed the way his did. So I stopped trying. It was too much work to try to convince them.”
Yeah. It was. “I think it’s easier for people to deny something than learn and change.”
“Still shit. Your family was shit for doing that to you.” There was an extra edge in his tone. “And his family? Did they step up?”
Tears fell down my face.
He didn’t know. He didn’t see. I wasn’t making a sound.
My voice was normal. “At the end. They took over conservatorship of him. He’s completely reliant on them for everything now.”
“Did they know before the end, though?”
My throat spasmed. My hands trembled. My knees almost buckled. But my voice—it was normal. Maybe I couldn’t lie about some stuff, but other things, I didn’t give a damn thing away. And for the moment, walking that dark path, I let myself fall apart, except the part he could hear.
“His dad had passed from dementia, and there was some violence that came with it before he went into a facility. Damian blamed his mom for letting it occur as long as it did, so there were problems between them. They didn’t talk.”
“Did you reach out to her?”
My voice dipped, a small chink in my armor. “Yes.”
He paused. I knew he heard the small crack in my voice.
He asked, his voice low, “And he didn’t want you to?”
The chink grew. “No.”
“I will never forgive you if you go to her about this. I’ll never forget, even with my brain. I won’t forget. It’ll be the one thing I remember about you: that you betrayed me.”
“She’s your mom, Damian. She can help.”
“No, she can’t! I don’t want her to know.”
Reese was quiet again. We walked a few more yards. My heart felt like it was down there with my feet, like I was walking on top of it.
I was whispering now, and Reese had to know I was faltering. “Sometimes the hardest part of having a disease, or having something happen to you, is acknowledging that it’s happening. Once you do, your life is never the same. You’re never normal again. Once you acknowledge it and ask for help, you’re never the same person again. You cease to be you, and you become the you with the problem. He’s no longer Damian. He’s Damian who has dementia. Pride can sustain a person for a long time before they have to break.”
I sank to the ground.
I couldn’t go any farther, and I was cracked wide open again. I couldn’t keep the sobs to myself anymore.
Reese sat beside me, his feet coming around both sides of me. His arms slipped under me and he scooped me up, pulling me onto his lap. So simple a movement, but it meant so much to me. He cradled me, his hand smoothing back some of my hair.
“Was he a good guy?”
I grabbed his shirt, fisting it. “He was the best kind of guy there was.”
He got it. A small weight lifted. He understood. The dementia wasn’t Damian. The disease didn’t define who he was. So many didn’t see that. They just saw the disease. And if they couldn’t see the disease, they didn’t think it existed.
Reese’s arms closed around me, his forehead resting on my shoulder for a moment. “I wish my brother—I get you. I get what you went through, but Damian didn’t want to suffocate you.”
“No.” I sniffled. “He did at the end. He couldn’t help it. He was too far gone, too much in denial of what was happening to him.”
“My brother thinks I owe him. My lifestyle should be his. Hell. He kinda looks like me, so he tells people he is me, and he gets all this treatment because of it. Penthouse suites. Comped meals at restaurants. He tries to get free shit. Women. I’ve had so many women claim I got them pregnant; then they realize it was my brother who fucked them, and suddenly, it was a false positive.” His voice was laced with disdain. “He was using my name at a club, and a girl thought she was going to sleep with me. She found out during the act that he wasn’t me. She tried to say no. He didn’t stop. He just…” His arms tightened around me. His voice was anguished. “Didn’t stop.”
I felt hollow at times. I recognized the same in him.
I felt it, and I understood.
Letting go of my sleeves, I slid my hands over his arms, moving to face him. I twisted around, my forehead pressed into his shoulder as I tried to grip him back.
I wanted to soothe his pain, to shield him from the harm his brother could do, to take away the damage his brother had already done. I knew in that instant that these were the same feelings I’d had for Damian, all over again.
But this was different, because Reese didn’t need me to breathe for him.
I just needed to sit alongside him.
He could breathe on his own.
After a beat, I lifted my head. “I know why we’re friends.”
He grunted, sliding his hand up my back, curling it around my shoulder. “Please, enlighten me. This should be good.”
I paused, my hands falling to the bottom of his sweatshirt. I tugged on it. “You want serious or the joke response?”
His chest rose, pausing, and his forehead came down to rest on mine. “I think I need the joke now,” he murmured. “That’d be helpful.”
The joke. I could do that. I was good at that.
“Well, we’re friends because we’re both ridiculously good-looking.”
He snorted, lifting his head. “Jesus. Are you kidding me?”
I shook my head. “Absolutely not. Ridiculously good-looking people are friends with other ridiculously good-looking people. It’s a whole wavelength thing going on between them.” Sitting back more on his lap, I rested my hands on his legs. “See? At some point, they’ll always intersect, and that’s where we are.” I clasped my hands together. “We intersected.”
“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. There are lots of good-looking people I am not friends with, and there are not-good-looking people I’m great friends with.” He tugged on a tendril of my hair, pulling my head back a tiny bit before letting go to slide his hand down my back and tunnel up under my shirt.
His finger began tracing circles on my skin.
Goosebumps spread all over me. I ignored them.
They were weird. Odd. I couldn’t handle having them, or the sensations that came from being in his arms, feeling his touch, feeling him all around me. Or the way his breath fanned over my shoulder, then my face because he was so close.
We were friends.
Friends didn’t affect each other like this, hold each other like this.
But we were still friends, right?
I swallowed over a lump. “Which one am I?”
“What do you think?”
I could hear his smirk.
And I couldn’t help myself. I reached up, my hands touching his face. I explored him. My fingertips moved over his jaw, feeling a slight stubble there, grazing its roughness, and I touched his mouth. He trembled, just slightly, but I followed the lips, and I was right.
He was smirking.