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Sheryl's Brother

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People just don't get her brother. Sheryl learned that quite early on in life. She couldn't pinpoint when, exactly, but she still has memories of how, when they were children, he would stand on his bed and tell tame stories with outrageous characters, and they were the funniest things she'd ever heard. Sometimes she was left in tears afterward, and he would settle down beside her and proceed to riff and review his own story, as if they'd just heard it on the radio or TV.

 

But she remembers when their baby sister Cindy was old enough and she sat in on one of Frank's narratives. She got bored a sixth of the way through, and left. Frank tried to hide his hurt as he continued, and Sheryl tried to make up for Cindy's lack of excitement by intensifying her own. He gave her a kiss on the forehead that night. It was a touching act that always stuck with her.

 

There was one other person who understood Frank, and that was their grandmother, Esther.

 

Esther was considered odd by their father's side of the family, but their mother's adored her. She was the kind of grandmother who kept a perfect sunroom, radiated with her exuberance, and always had time for her children's children. Sheryl and Frank in particular held a special place in her heart. They were a trio who were magnetized to each other whenever they were near enough to connect.

 

The three of them would have tea in the garden under the fountaining leaves of the willow and talk for hours, or they would hide in the attic and listen to music, or they would be in the kitchen experimenting with mishmashed recipes. That was their weekend, as often as they could have it. Cindy preferred the company of her grandfather and the horses.

 

She was their confidant and best friend, Esther was. Alongside Sheryl (as they were all sitting around the glass table outside at the time) she was the first person Frank talked to about his draw toward other boys. Sheryl doesn't remember much of what was said, only that Esther's protectiveness did not fail them. She encouraged Frank to find someone to love “regardless of their gender or color”, only asking that he find someone who undoubtedly loved him back. Then, she turned to Sheryl and made the same request.

 

Sheryl seemed to have failed in that respect a few times, but she didn't doubt that Esther would still be ferociously proud of the great grandchildren Sheryl had produced. Dwayne and Olive would have captured her heart.

 

She never got the chance to meet them, though, as she passed away when she and Frank were in their teens. It shook them to their cores, but during the funeral, Frank still found the tenacity (for which Esther would have been pleased) to speak in her honor.

 

Frank had squeezed Sheryl's knee, all draped in the white satin and lacy mesh of her skirt, and walked around the altar to stand beside the too-tall lectern. He slipped from his sleek black pocket a sheet of paper, which he unfolded and read. It was the lyrics their grandmother's favorite song, and she had said numerous times that she hoped someone would read it when her time was up.

 

In a mellowed voice, that shook with his sorrow and anxiety, Frank read aloud the lyrics of Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham. Sheryl cringed at the gasps of appall and outrage, but she kept her eyes on Frank, who she was grateful refused to look up from his page because she didn't think her faltering, encouraging smile would make up for the warped expressions of everyone else.

 

When the lyrics were finished, Frank's hands shook violently as he folded the page back up and pocketed it. He stumbled down the step around the altar and slumped into Sheryl's side.

 

She held his quaking hands and whispered, “Grandma loved it.”

 

Frank's chin quivered, and tears began to roll down his cheeks.

 

They knew Esther would not have sincerely asked anyone to actually read that song to the grieving family, who surely wouldn't understand the meaning it held to her, and by extension the siblings. But Frank had a strange sense of loyalty, and even though none of them would get the joke, he still put it out there for Esther. For her memory.

 

It was just another show of how few people understood Frank.

 

She always thought that if Frank had been around more when Dwayne was growing up, the two of them would have developed another vitalizing bond for Frank, one she hadn't seen before or since grandma Esther. Dwayne was intelligent in many of the same ways as Frank, and had the driest wit she'd seen in someone who wasn't her brother. She just knew they would love each other.

 

But Frank wasn't around much. After Esther's death, they slowly pulled apart—so slowly as to be imperceptible up until the point where too much damage had been done. There was no fallout, just the different paths they chose. Still, Frank sort of fell into their laps sometimes, when his depressions got to be too much and he needed her support (which she gave gladly). And then he'd pick himself back up and pretend everything had been solved, throw himself back into his work, and fade into the background for another couple of years.

 

This time, when Frank landed back in her life, the severity was more real. A suicide attempt. An actual suicide attempt. She almost lost her brother.

 

She took him home, put him in with Dwayne because she trusted her son with the responsibility. She fretted and it irritated him, but she couldn't afford not to. She kissed him on the forehead like he did for her all those years ago.

 

And then they went on a road trip, because that's apparently where life was headed. Family (mis)adventure to California.

 

It's pretty terrible, Sheryl thought as they drove down an endless road. Edwin was grumpy, Richard was grumpy, Frank was bitterly resigned, and Dwayne's misery was silent (although apparent). Olive, for her part, was blessedly unaware of everyone's pain. At least she had her music to listen to. The rest of the family had to listen to Richard, who was expounding upon his deal with Stan Grossman. Unfortunately, his excitement wasn't catching.

 

“—And, I don't know, two minutes in Stan stops me, he says, 'I can sell this.'”

 

“Mmhmm. Interesting,” Frank droned. Sheryl looked back at him—interesting indeed: he had his head perched on his knuckle and his eyes gleamed with all the vigor of a dry noodle. She faced the road again with the corner of her lips twitching.

 

At all the right moments he intoned again, and Richard just kept on talking. It all came to a head at 'ticking clock auction'.

 

“Holy—how about that,” Frank exclaimed. Sheryl stuffed her tongue into her cheek and bit down. A smile fought to appear.

 

He must have spotted something, because the next time he spoke, Richard said, “Yeah, and I can detect that—that note of sarcasm there, Frank.”

 

Frank replied, “What sarcasm? I didn't—I didn't hear—“

 

“But I want you to know something: I feel sorry for you,” Richard told him. “Because sarcasm is the refuge of losers.”

 

“It is? Really?” Frank didn't miss a beat at Richard's condescension. She looked back at him. God, she missed this piece of him. Even more so when he put more effort into it: “Wow, Richard, you've really opened my eyes to what a loser I am. How much do I owe you for those pearls of wisdom?”

 

Sure, she inevitably had to break it up, but it was well worth it to hear some fight from her brother.

 

She reached back to swat Frank's knee. “You're so bad,” she said with a grin. Before she could turn back around she caught sight of her son in the back seat.

 

Dwayne was the most stoic person she had ever known, but just then, on the tail-end of Frank's jabs at Richard, he had an amused smile on his lips. These days it was his equivalent of a hearty laugh, and its extreme rarity in appearance was practically criminal. Sheryl loved that look on her boy.

 

What a wonderful surprise that it had been coaxed out by her brother's sense of humor. Perhaps Frank and Dwayne had a chance at bonding yet.

 

Perhaps, she thought with joy in her chest, Frank was developing another supporter.