After Theodore and Vera left, Russell had gone home and gotten Theodore’s new aquatic friends ready for transport. Now, with the tank set up in Theodore’s bedroom, Russell and Gina–Theodore’s best friend–worked to move the fish back into their tank.
“This is so damn nice of you, Russell. He loved the hell out of those fish before that fucker killed ‘em all,” Gina said.
“I know he did.” Russell gestured to the goldfish in the fishbowl on the computer desk, the one and only fish Theodore had gotten since leaving his ex-husband. “He loves that goldfish, talks to him every morning while he feeds him. I did my best to get him some of the fish he used to have based on the pictures, but there were some damn expensive ones in that old tank.”
“Yeah, Theo went out of his way to get some of those pricey ones. One of them was a gift from a kid we went to high school with. Rich kid who was a little bit in love with Theo. Shane fuckin’ hated that, even though it was before they started dating. He wanted that fish dead from the start. He just used their fight as a reason to finally take a fucking baseball bat to the tank,” Gina said through her teeth. She shook her head. “Sorry. I-I get… a little heated.”
“I don’t blame you. This fire burns inside me every time he says Shane’s name, every time he flinches, every time…” Russell cleared his throat. “I do everything I can not to let it show in my responses to him. I don’t want him to think I’m angry at him.”
“I do the same.”
Russell offered a smile. “Maybe we can blow up at each other on occasion, then.”
Gina laughed. “Yeah, maybe.” She lowered the last fish into the water before pouring in the rest of the water from its bag. “So… they’ll be okay?”
“According to the internet, yeah. The water in each of their bags was from the tank they’ve been assimilating to at my house.” Russell squatted down just enough to look into the tank at eye-level. “I think they’ll be okay. I did everything the fish blogs told me to.”
“You read fish blogs?”
“There are fish blogs?”
“There are blogs for anything people love. Mm, and anything they hate.” Russell smiled at her. “I just wanted his fish to be okay. He deserves something to go right. A whole bunch of fish are…” He shrugged. “Well, I think it’s Theo’s definition of ‘right’.”
“Yeah, probably. He does love the slimy little buggers.” Gina pushed away from the fish tank, turning to where her son sat on the bed. Despite the fact that Russell knew the boy and Vera were biological siblings, their similarities surprised him every single time he saw the kid. They both had Theodore’s nose and Gina’s eyes, though Vera’s were closer to green and Boyd’s were closer to brown. They both had Theodore’s freckles, though they were heavier on Vera’s cheeks than Boyd’s.
“You ready to head to Christmas at Grandpa’s, buddy?” Gina asked.
“Yep!” Boyd grabbed Gina’s outstretched hand and jumped off the bed.
Gina looked back at Russell. “Come on. Grab anything you need so I can lock up again.”
“Sure thing, Gina.”
After handing over his cell phone and any other personal effects that the staff deemed ‘dangerous’, Russell walked into the visitation room. As he usually did, his brother sat by the window in his wheelchair, hands folded in his lap. Russell crossed the room and laid his hand on the man’s shoulder.
He lifted his head, a smile spreading across his face. “Hey, baby brother.” He squeezed Russell’s hand. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” Russell echoed. He sat down on the edge of the couch, clearing his throat. “How’re you doing, Grant?”
“I’m good. I-I feel good. I’m in a bit of expected pain, but I’m sober again. That’s about all I want anymore, Russ.”
“Yeah.” Russell squeezed his brother’s hand. “Are they working on your walking?”
“Little bit. We’re, umm, working on figuring out ways for me to push through the pain in order to take more than a couple steps with the walker. I’m in less pain in the chair. I might…” Grant shrugged. “Being in a wheelchair isn’t the worst thing in the world, y’know? I could’ve died instead. I’ve still got my life. I’ve still got my health. Most of it.” Lightly, he smacked Russell’s leg. “How’s that boyfriend of yours?”
Russell nodded, unable to stop himself from smiling. “Yeah, he’s good. We had breakfast and opened presents with his daughter today before they headed to his parents’ place.”
“Did you move those fish into his place?”
“Has he seen ‘em yet?”
“Not yet. He’ll see ‘em tonight, though. I’m hoping to be there when he sees them, but I guess we’ll, uh, see.”
Grant chuckled. “I’m glad you found this guy, Russ. You’re a lot happier since you started seeing him. A-and I was worried about you for quite some time. Seeing you happy is a damn good thing.”
“Thanks, Grant. I, uh, I like seeing me happy, too.” Russell raised an eyebrow. “What about you? Got eyes for any lucky ladies?”
His older brother snorted. “Ah, in this rehab facility filled with drug abusers? Yeah, my mind’s reeling with the possibilities.”
“To their credit, you’re also a drug abuser.”
“Yeah, which is why I know I don’t wanna date one.”
Russell chuckled. “You’re a dumbass.”
“Whatever. You love me.”
“Yeah, but I’m ashamed of it every single day.”
Grant laughed, turning back toward the window as he raked a hand through his dark hair. “Thanks for visiting, Russ. You’re the only person from outside of here I get to see anymore.”
“No problem, Grant. Hell, I don’t know what I’d do without you in my life, anyway. If I never visited, you wouldn’t be in it.”
“Yeah, I know, but… still. Sis swears up and down that she loves me, but I never see her. Haven’t seen her since I came back to this place,” Grant said.
“She does love you. She does. She’s just a little scared of being around a bunch of drug addicts, no matter how long they’ve been sober.” Russell circled a hand in the air. “This runs in our veins, Grant. Depression, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse… It courses through every single ounce of our blood. She’s scared of this influencing her to be… to be like our father or Mom o-or you. Fuck, even like me. Unlike us, she’s got a little girl to take care of. She says she can’t risk it. But she does love you.”
After a long moment, Grant nodded. “I believe you, mostly. Just have a hard time fully wrapping my head around it, y’know?”
“I do. I understand. She’s your sister, so it feels rude, intentional. It feels like betrayal.”
“That about sums it up,” Grant agreed, his voice quiet. He looked back at Russell. “Since your boyfriend’s got a kid to worry about and he’s letting you hang around her, I’m assuming he doesn’t know you used to shoot up, huh?”
Russell cleared his throat. “He knows… I was in a bad place, and he knows I have a problem controlling my alcohol intake, especially on bad days.”
“What part of ‘bad place’ does he know about?”
“I watched those people murder children, Grant. That’s what he knows about. He knows about the alcohol and therapy, too.”
“Just not the heroin, huh?”
Russell closed his eyes for a moment. “Can we please just talk about something else? Christmas or… something?”
“Sorry, Russ. I don’t get much gossip in here. Christ, I don’t get much of anything in here. I barely know how to speak to another human being without it being a therapy session, either for my legs and back or my head,” Grant said.
“I know. Think you’re gonna leave anytime soon?”
Grant lifted his shoulders. “I don’t know. The last time I was outta here, I eventually fell back in. I don’t think I have enough knowledge on how to balance my pain yet to stay sober again without their help.” His brow furrowed. “I’ve still got enough money to keep covering this place, right?”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re good, man, promise. I just miss having you around,” Russell said.
“Yeah. I miss a lot of, uh, well, everything. Late night gaming with you, owning the hell out of a courtroom, going on early morning runs, choosing my own meals.” Grant shook his head. “As soon as I think I can, I’ll come back home. I just wanna make sure I’m equipped to handle it this time. I don’t wanna end up in here again. Next time I’m out, I want it to stay that way. I need it to stay that way. I can’t keep living back and forth between sober, fucking up, and this.”
“Well, you take all the time you need, okay? I want you to have the tools you need to survive outside of this place again, and I don’t wanna rush you in your journey to find them. I’ll still be here when you get out, and I’ll visit as often as I can in the meantime.”
“Thanks, baby brother.” Grant smiled, reaching out to squeeze Russell’s hand. “Don’t know what the fuck I’d do without you.”
“Guess we’re even, then, ‘cause I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Rather than responding, Grant squeezed his hand again. Russell knew it spoke much more than words ever could, anyway.
For the second time that day, Russell had handed over all of his personal effects and been patted down before being allowed to sign in. He followed one of the staff members down the quiet hall, stopping at his mother’s door. “You can head on in whenever you’re ready, Mister Steele.”
“Thank you.” Russell waited until the woman had started back toward the lobby before he knocked on the door.
Russell opened the door, a smile on his face. “Hey, Mom.”
His mother lifted her head, a smile coming to his face. “Oh, my baby boy.” She pushed herself off her bed and held out her arms. “Come here, sweetheart.”
Russell’s shoulders relaxed as he crossed the room and wrapped her in a hug. They had switched her medication again several months ago, after she had lashed out at Russell during their last visit. The new meds must’ve done her some good. “How’re you doin’, Ma?”
“I’m good.” She pulled away, hands moving to his face. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m okay, Ma.”
“Good,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry about last time, Sully. I said some very nasty things to you, and I am so sorry.”
“Thanks, Ma. But I get it. Those last meds weren’t working for you anymore. It happens.” Russell smiled. “The apology means a lot, though, really.”
She smiled before hugging him again. Russell closed his eyes, wrapping his mother in a hug once more. It was certainly an improvement from last time. Two hugs in one day was a hell of a lot more than he expected, that was for sure, and he planned to treasure every damn second of it.
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