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C4 Chapter 4

Brody

“Go long!”

Grouper’s mop clanked to the floor, and he started limp-jogging down the long hallway. Shannon, the nurse in charge of the day shift, walked by, shaking her head. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen us doing shit like this . . . we’d been screwing around since Grouper had bite in his step. Hip surgery had slowed the geezer down a few years ago. Now my passes were more of a lob than a bullet.

“He’s sixty-nine years old,” Shannon called over her shoulder. “You’re going to give that sweet old man a heart attack someday.” I caught her smiling as she continued on.

When Grouper made it to the far end of the hall, I sent the ball spiraling sixty feet until it fell directly into his hands.

“I still got it.” He headed back toward me.

“You never had it. I set that ball into your palms.”

“Bullshit. You can’t throw for crap. Everyone knows a pass is only as good as the intended receiver.”

“Does Little Guppy know how disrespectful his grandpa is to his idol?”

“Pfft. Idol. I’m his damn idol.”

The eight-year-old Grouper was a huge football fan and an even bigger Brody Easton fan. For his last birthday, I’d stopped by the kid’s party. He was so excited, he actually cried when he saw me. That got me a few weeks of ball-busting material to use on Grouper senior.

I stopped at the nurses’ station. “How was her week?”

“It was a good week, actually,” Shannon said. “She wants to go shopping. Says she needs new underwear, even though she has a drawer full.”

“So have the aide take her shopping.”

“You want me to have the aide take her on an outing that will cost you an extra three hundred dollars, plus the cost of the underwear, even though she has forty pairs already.”

“Will it make her happy?”

“I suppose.”

“Then, yep.”

She smiled. “I’ll schedule it for this week.”

I found Marlene in her room watching a rerun of The Price Is Right. The show was playing Bullseye, where you had to add up the total cost of a bunch of different items to come to a certain total.

“Hi, Marlene.”

“Shhh.”

She had a pad and pencil, and her shaky hand was furiously jotting down prices as they showed each item. Bob Barker held up a gallon of milk and I sneaked a peek at her scribble. Fifteen cents. Okay, so I had an idea what year we were in today.

She wasn’t happy that her total wasn’t even close to the answer. I tried to make her feel better. “They inflate the prices just to make it harder for people.”

“I think you’re right.”

“Of course I am. I’m always right. And damn good looking, too.” I opened the paper bag I’d been carrying and unwrapped the white paper, revealing the Reuben she’d wanted last week.

“You went to Heidelman’s.”

“Yep.” Or maybe the Ben’s Kosher Deli franchise that took its place ten years ago. It wasn’t important.

“I can’t wait to dig in. Can you hand me my teeth case?”

“Your teeth are already in your mouth, Marlene.”

She took a minute and confirmed I was telling the truth with a tap of her nail against her front tooth. Even though her mind was all over the place, her teeth were almost always a weekly conversation.

“Willow came to see me the other day.”

“That’s good.”

“Yep. She told me what she did.”

No idea. “Oh, yeah. What’s that? I can’t keep track of all the things Willow does anymore.”

“The pool. You know. You two should be ashamed of yourself. Next time the police won’t be so easy on you.”

It never ceased to amaze me how she could remember something from more than ten years ago crystal clear, yet not remember she put her teeth in five minutes ago. It was almost like her memories were fleeing most recent first. I hoped my memory of the pool incident never disappeared on me.

It was the first time I saw Willow naked. And the night I realized that the ache in my chest every time the girl I called Wild Willow did something to scare the shit out of me wasn’t pain. It was love.

“It was my fault. Willow tried to talk me out of it. She only hopped the fence to get me out. I threw her in the pool.”

Marlene looked at me skeptically. Rightly so. No one in her right mind would believe Willow had to be talked into anything that had an edge of recklessness to it. The girl had always danced on the blade of a sword, smiling, while I stood watching, waiting to stop the bleeding when she got cut. It was the most beautiful thing about her. And also the ugliest.

“This is my last warning. If you two get into any more trouble, I’ll keep you apart. The two of you act like a couple of screwballs together.”

I swiped half of her Reuben and promised to keep out of trouble. The irony was she’d threatened to keep us apart, but in the end, she was the one thing that kept us together.

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