“Theo, dear. He wants you.”
Kacey’s soft hand tightened in mine. I looked at my brother’s girlfriend, who gave a wan, reassuring smile. Another squeeze of her hand, then I somehow found the will to stand up.
My mother smiled weakly, hanging on Dad’s arm in the hall outside Jonah’s hospital room. She looked so lost and broken. Frail. Dad looked grim but stoic, holding Mom up. But Jonah was the glue in our family. Without him, we were going to fall apart. It was only a matter of time.
It was time now to say goodbye to my brother. As I walked toward the door of his room, a carousel of images circled my head, each faded with time, as if they’d sat out in the bright sun too long. Jonah and me feeding a goat at the state fair. Jonah and me in swim lessons together. In our Little League uniforms. Walking high school hallways where Jonah was effortlessly popular and I was his wingman. Visiting Jonah at UNLV, then at Carnegie-Mellon. Swimming with Jonah in Venezuela.
Where he got sick… and I didn’t.
I pushed the door shut and moved to where Jonah lay dying. A thin, pale version of the healthy guy in my mind’s photo album.
My brother. Struggling to breath. Struggling to hold on. While I was still strong—strong and ready to tear down the walls of this goddamn place, to set the whole fucking world on fire at the unfairness of it all.
Still not strong enough to walk over to his bed and say goodbye.
Jonah managed a weak smile. “That bad, huh?”
“You’ve looked worse,” I said, finally moving into the room and taking a seat beside his bed.
“Bite me.” His chuckle was a horrible-sounding wheeze. His hand twitched on the blankets. He didn’t even have the strength to lift it. I reached to clasp it, wrapping my fingers around his.
Jonah’s smile faded and his eyes—still sharp—met mine. “I’m worried…about Mom.” His heart could only pump enough air for two or three words at a time, squeezing them out between shallow intakes of breath.
“I’ll take care of her,” I said.
“And Dad… He’ll come around…about your shop. I…believe in you.”
I doubted our father would ever support my work as a tattoo artist, but at that moment, Jonah’s I believe in you was all I needed.
“Now,” Jonah said, his gaze intent. “The favor…I want from you… Remember?”
I sat forward in the chair. “Name it.”
My voice stuck in my throat. I coughed it free. “What about her?”
“You love her.”
The words were weak and soft, yet each one struck my chest like a hammer. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, could hardly blink. I was on fire, a million different emotions boiling in my guts, stealing my air, choking my words.
Despite keeping everything buried, deep down where it could never see the light of day and betray my brother… He saw everything. He always had.
He smiled at my paralyzed expression. “I’m glad, T. I’m so…relieved…it’s you.”
I almost found my voice to tell him it wasn’t me. I wasn’t anything. What the hell did I know about love? Not a damn thing. And he was wrong anyway.
She’ll never love me because she loves only you. Which is how it should be.
“The favor…” Jonah’s gaze bored into mine with all the strength his failing body lacked. “Take care of Kacey. Please. She’ll need you. She’s strong. But if she falls, help her… Love her, Theo. This life is…short. Don’t hold back. Okay?”
I nodded. Only because he needed me to. Not because I had any fucking clue how to do what he was asking of me.
Jonah eased a sigh of relief. He was beyond exhausted and had yet to see Kacey, to say goodbye to the love of his life. I couldn’t waste their time.
It was time now.
I clenched my jaw hard against the tears but they came anyway.
Say it. It’s now or never. You’ll never have this chance again.
“I love you,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Me too,” Jonah said, his voice so weak and thin. “Love you, T. Always will.”
The grief slammed into me, pressed me down. I buried my face in the crook of my arm, battling it back. I had to be strong. For Mom and Dad, and for Kacey. For Jonah who had given me a job to do.
“I’ll get Kacey,” I said, wiping my eyes.
I planted my feet and tried to rise, but could only get halfway out of the chair. Still clasping Jonah’s hand, I leaned to put my forehead to his, to hold him close to me one last time.
Jonah sighed my name.
“I’ll take care of her,” I said, my voice cracking. “I swear.”
It was half the promise, but the half I could keep.
I’m not going to be able to walk out of here.
But I did. I left my brother’s room and leaned against the wall outside his door, feeling like I was on a ship tossed at sea.
That was it. The last time I’ll ever see him or talk to him…I’ll never talk to my brother again. Never hear his voice, his words…
And his last words. Love her…
My eyes sought Kacey in the waiting area; something to grab on to. Something real. She’d fallen out of the goddamn sky like a bomb, blowing up our careful life, smashing routines and disrupting Jonah’s plans. First I was scared she’d leave him, and when it was clear she wasn’t going to, I was scared her staying would hurt Jonah too much. He’d have to say goodbye after only a handful of weeks together.
Kacey walked toward Jonah’s room. Her stride graceful, her face wracked by grief, but burning with love at the same time.
She filled up my eyes as Jonah’s dying wish echoed in my ear. I had one short, selfish, miserable second of hope…
Then I squashed it flat. Killed it.
Sorry, bro. She’s yours, and she’ll be yours to the end of time.
But I could take care of her. Black days were coming. Weeks, months. Possibly years. However long she needed me, I’d be there for her.
One month after the funeral, I got a call from my mother.
“Theo dear, there’s no answer at Kacey’s. I’ve been calling for two days now.” Her voice crackled with panic over the phone. She couldn’t take another hit. Neither could I.