|I smile in relief at the sight of our beautiful white-pillared house, happy to be home from a mentally exhausting day. A few hours as a new intern and I already feel like an official grownup. I even find myself conversing aloud like my father did on occasion.
“That was a good first day,” I mumble, slowly turning into the driveway. “I didn’t screw up once.”
As I park in the four car garage, envy and jealously swoop in. Ben’s truck is a sudden reminder that my brother is still with Ryan. I can only hope he’s appreciating the extra time he’s getting with him. I know I would.
The enormous mound of laundry I have to maneuver around as I enter the house is unexpected and a sign Kelly is working a double shift. I throw a large load in the washer and fold a pile of towels, taking in the clean cotton smell before heading upstairs to change into some more comfortable clothes.
I stretch out on my ivory bedspread, cozy in my leggings and an old volleyball sweatshirt. One hand latches to my phone, waiting impatiently for it to ring. The other traces circles around my belly button.
I’m anxious to call Ryan and see how his first day on campus went, but convince myself to wait a couple more hours. I’m hoping he’ll call me once he’s got more than a second to talk. I imagine he needs a moment to reflect on his day just as I do.
I play back Bryce’s encouraging words from my time at Probe Research. For whatever reason, he see’s potential in me. It’s hard to wrap my head around that, but it’s also flattering. I trust he’ll be a good mentor. Well, at least with this internship. His pride in his company wouldn’t allow anything less.
There’s an excitement bubbling inside me regarding the team meeting tomorrow, but I’m also intimidated by the sudden offer to join in. I decide it would a good time to research marketing firms and the different strategies companies implement.
I walk down the stairs in over familiar silence. Slowly. Observantly. I’d rather hear a creak or a pop than nothing at all. It doesn’t matter my age, being in a big empty house at night is a little unsettling.
I leave the French doors to the office wide open so I can hear when my brothers get home from the airport. I have loads of questions waiting for Ben. Mostly about Ryan.
An hour or so into my web search and I find there are many tactics and resources to helping businesses improve their marketing efforts. The list goes on and on. It’s a matter of finding out what works best for a client. That’s what I’ve determined, anyway. I’m not sure how I can possibly contribute to the many ideas already taking action. Still, it would be nice to impress Bryce tomorrow, or even myself a little.
Feeling overwhelmed with the massive amount of searching and perusal of new information I quickly pick up my phone and call Ryan. It rings...and I wait. My heart sinks as the call goes to voice mail.
Moments later, I hear the harsh grind of the garage door. My exit from the office is swift and purposeful. Both of my brothers appear in the kitchen, one happy to see me and the other not so much.
Jason presents a sincere smile, while Ben looks away in exhaustion. It’s as if I’m already a burden and inflicting him with a headache from my burning curiosity. If I wasn’t so happy to see him, I’d be insulted.
“I couldn’t remember what time you we’re getting home. How was your trip?” I ask, sliding onto one of the bar stools.
“It was fine,” Ben answers, hoisting his carry-on further up his shoulder. “Can we talk about it tomorrow? I’m beat.”
My shoulders slump and disappointment falls upon me. Ben’s not lying. The tousled hair and puffy eyes vouch for him. Even his voice sounds fatigue. But I need at least one question answered.
“OK, but can you at least give me some information to hold me over? Like did you enjoy your time with Ryan?”
“I spent most of my time with Nate. Ryan kept himself pretty busy. Sunday we hung out a little, but I barely saw him today.”
“Oh,” I mumble. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not a big deal. Nate showed me around.”
Ben heads for the spiral stairs, stepping backwards for a moment to say, “I need a shower. We’ll talk tomorrow, OK?””
“Alright. Goodnight,” I say, ready to sulk from the lack of info received.
“You have dinner yet?” Jason inquires, cheerful with his delivery.
My eyes light up and grow wide with pleasure. “Not yet. You?”
“Nope. I’m starving. How bout I make us some quesadillas?”
“Sounds good.” I smile and lean forward on the island, pleased that my brother is making an effort to spend time with me. I miss the one on one time.
I watch my brother gather cheese and butter from the fridge, taking note of the dark shadows on his face. The newly added facial hair makes him resemble my dad. It also gives him more of a sophisticated look. He’s starting to look the part of a doctor.
Because my father is so well known in the medical world, Jason’s been given more opportunities to complete rotations and observe complicated procedures. But his current work situation is only adding more stress to his last year of medical school.
“How’s the clinic going?” I ask.
The stainless steal frying pan warms up on the stove as Jason hands me a knife to butter the tortillas.
“It’s been a wave of challenges. But I feel like I finally have some control over my schedule. And thanks to our legendary father, I already have a residency program set up for next year.”
“You can’t give dad all the credit. You’ve worked hard. I don’t say it enough, but I’m so proud of you. I know it hasn’t been easy.”
Jason grins and moves towards the stove. The pan sizzles as he adds some oil. I finish sprinkling some shredded cheese onto the tortillas and scoot the plate his direction.
“I’m just thankful the stress hasn’t drove Kelly away,” Jason admits, taking the plate. “She’s been so supportive.”
“That’s for sure. She puts up with a lot of crap.”
He angles a smirk my way. “I know she does.”
After the quesadillas are complete, Jason sits next to me. Instead of immediately chowing down, he gazes my way and becomes pensive.
“Tell me what your plans are for next school year?” He asks.
“I told you already. Sam and I applied to several colleges all over the state,” I answer with obvious vagueness.
He nods his head and takes a bite of cheesy goodness. “I assume some of those are within close proximity to Ryan?”
“Yes, and I know what you’re going to say. I shouldn’t pick a college based on a relationship.”
“That’s not at all what I was going to say. But since you brought it up, let’s address it.”
It’s my turn to bite into my warm quesadilla. It allows me to escape my thoughts for a moment. But the spicy cheese isn’t the only thing with a kick. I’m practically kicking myself for bringing such a sensitive idea to light.
Jason follows suit and eats more of his dinner. I get the sense he’s dreading the next part of our conversation as well.
“Listen, I’m not blind to the fact that you and Ryan have always been close, especially after mom and dad passed and then again with Emily. But I have to be honest with you. I’ve had time to think about it, and I’m worried your relationship is more of an emotional reliance based on mutual trauma and excessive devotion. And don’t get me started on Ryan’s constant need to fix or save. “That’s—“
He stops abruptly as tears begin to swell under my eyes. I’m so ashamed. He’s basically describing codependency. I learned about it in health class last year.
“Please don’t cry on me,” Jason says, quickly rubbing my shoulder.
“I’m not,” I insist, pushing back the tears.
“I know it’s comforting to have continual assurance and support. I get that. You’re not the only one that benefits from Ryan’s nurturing side. Kelly and I greatly appreciated his willingness to move in and help take care of this family. He’s invested so much time in taking care us all. But I also know he tends to put others needs before his own. To the point of losing his sense of identity. Even though it’s going to be hard not having him here, I’m relieved he’s finally prioritizing his mental health and his happiness. He’s going after a goal and bettering himself in the process. You should be very proud of him.”
“I am proud,” I contest, heatedly. “I want the same things for him. More than ANYTHING. I love him enough to support his dreams...” Heat washes my face as my voice projects some harsher words. “It really pisses me off that you would suggest otherwise. Because obviously you think our relationship is nothing more than a dysfunctional mess.”
“I didn’t say that. Don’t you dare put words into my mouth.” He takes a deep breath and slowly speaks, softening his face beforehand. “What I’m saying is I understand how much you care about each other. There’s a long history of support there. That’s a good thing. But sometimes a comfortable relationship like that can make it harder to flourish on your own.
I want you to be happy, but I also think your decision about college needs to be based on the long term and not just the short. It’s needs to be what’s best for you as an individual. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to ask you to think about what I’m saying. Because I care about your well-being.”
I’m at a loss for words, saddened by my brothers revelation. The worst part...Sam basically said the same thing in her own way. I just pushed her opinion to the side. But now—after hearing Jason’s voice—I don’t think I can brush all this off. Its affecting me. Deeper than I want it to.
“Say something, please?” My brother begs, strumming his fingers on my back.
“I don’t know what to say, other than I’m sad you don’t support us.”
Sighing with deep dejection, Jason swivels his chair my direction, then carefully twists mine, fully gathering my attention.
“I never once said I don’t support you,” he begins, staring intently into my eyes. “Ryan is my best friend, and I love him like a brother. If you want to be with him, than I support you. But I really want you to value yourself, not just your relationship. The love and support needs to be mutual. So do me a favor—over the next couple months, be honest with yourself. I believe your heart will know the truth.”
I nod my head in reflection. I want to be honest. Not just with myself but with everyone in my life. I’ve been working on it, but maybe not hard enough.
“Come here,” Jason urges, pulling me into a much needed embrace. “I’m sorry for upsetting you. I’m probably the last person who should be giving relationship advice.”
I wrap my arms tightly around his blue collared shirt and talk softly into his neck. “I love you anyway.”
“I love you too.” He draws himself back slowly. “Let’s talk about something a little lighter.”
My lips curl slightly and say, “that’s probably best.”
It doesn’t take long for my brother and I to discuss more lighthearted topics. It’s a great reminder of our younger, more laid back relationship. The one we had before my parents were killed.
We enjoy one another’s company as we reminisce the past, particularly all the times I covered for him when he’d sneak out of the house as a teenager.
“You know...now that I think about it, you owe me big time,” I point out. “I think it’s time I collected on all those bribes.”
“Nope. All null and void at this point.”
Unsurprised by his conclusion, I still shove him in the shoulder. “You're evil.” I tease. “I still remember the time you promised me a goat.”
His entertaining snort subjects me to laughter.
“Oh, man. I forgot about that.”
“See...you owe me.”
“Ally I’ve let so many things slide over the years. Things you don’t even know about. Trust me. We’re even.”
I tilt my head to the side. “Oh really. Name ONE.”
“OK...freshman year, you and Ayden ditched school to see a concert. I never said anything and you both thought you got away with it.”
My eyes grow wide. “You knew?”
“Yep. And I believe it was sophomore year when you and Sam lied about going to the high school football game in one of the most dangerous parts of L.A.”
I stare at him, speechless. Then start to chew the inside of my cheek, anxious for an explanation. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because I think everyone needs to experience a little freedom and rebellion every now and then. It’s part of growing up. I know it might not seem like it, but I do pick my battles. I was a teenager once too, as you so clearly remember.”
“I’m impressed...So is there something more recent you let slide?”
“Hmm... let’s see...” Jason thinks for a moment, scratching his thin beard with his thumb and pointer finger. “Last summer you came in the house incredibly early one morning. You told me you had fallen asleep at Sam’s and forgot to call. But I know you fell asleep out in the guesthouse with Ryan.”
“He told you?!” I exclaim, utterly shocked.
“Of course. This is Ryan we’re talking about.”
I shake my head in disapproval. “I know, but he promised me he wouldn’t say anything.”
With the shrug of his shoulders, Jason remains puzzled. “I don’t understand why you thought it was a big deal. He said nothing happened. Why did you ask him to lie?”
“Because I didn’t want you to know I liked him. I was afraid you would send him away.”
Jason chuckles. “That’s ridiculous. I would never do that.”
“Yes, I realize that now. I admit I was a little naive and paranoid back then.”
“Shut up,” I demand, playfully shoving him again.
His smile matches mine for a long moment, but then shifts to a contemplative stare.
“I don’t think I ever realized how loyal and honest Ryan was with me. About you. About everything. I think that’s the reason I was so upset the night I found you both in the office. It really hurt that he didn’t come to me first. Instead, he tried to hide it.”
A ping of guilt hits my gut. I’m partly to blame for his affliction.
“I know it hurt,” I confess. “We both should have told you.”
“We all made mistakes that night.”
“Yes, that’s for sure,” I concur.
So much has changed since that awful night. Ayden passed away. Ryan moved away. Sam and I acquired internships at a place we barely know anything about. And then there’s Christian. Somehow he remains the same. He’s been a great friend. A perfect Ex. A constant in my life. But even more than that...steady as a heartbeat. I can’t help but love that.
“Wow, it’s getting late,” Jason admits, observing the time on the kitchen microwave. “I need to get some sleep.”
“Yes you do.” I stand next to the island and cross my arms. “Thanks for dinner and stuff.”
“We need to do this more. It was fun.”
My smile grows so big my cheeks hurt. “I agree.”
It’s nearly eleven and still no text or call from Ryan. I try reaching him again and get the same result. It’s impossible not to worry. Is he busy still? Is something wrong? My stomach aches with the unknowns.
I’m too anxious for sleep and eventually return to the office for more studying. My focus is strictly on Probe Research. I’m surprised by the number of search engine results. The top one is the official company web page. Underneath are several pages that lead to the companies various social media platforms. Most of the remaining websites are similar businesses. But it’s the final headline I scroll upon that really peaks my interest. More like demands it.
Tax Fraud Violation Leads to an Investigation: Founder Bryce Williams... Is adamantly denying all fraudulent claims made against his company, Probe Research...
The date is from a year ago. I click the link in haste, reading and absorbing each word as if they inhibit all the power over my life.
Unfortunately, the article is very short and vague, even the legal details are lacking. But it does say the investigation is looking into “possible failure to report income, falsifying receipts, and inadequate record keeping.“ None of those sound good.
I scour the internet to see if Bryce was ever charged with “tax evasion.” But I find nothing. No trail leading from the original article. Nothing. It’s as if the allegations disappeared.
Maybe that’s a good thing, I tell myself, tracing my lips with my finger. If Bryce made a mistake then I’m sure it’s been fixed by now. “He’s not a criminal,” I whisper aloud. “He can’t be.”
But even my own persuasion lacks confidence. I need more information. I need prove.
My suspicious thoughts are interrupted by the rustling of keys heard outside the office. Poking my head into the entry way, I see Ben, freshly groomed and dressed, ready to walk out the front door.
“Where are you going?” I ask, tilting my head quizzically.
“Natalie’s outside,” he replies, matter of fact. “She wants to talk for a bit.”
I roll my eyes, annoyed with his answer. “I can’t believe you’re still seeing her. She uses people Ben.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. She’s been great friend to me. I mean...is it really so bad that she cares about me?”
The pain in my brothers voice says it all. He’s hurting and somehow Natalie is helping him through it. I should swallow my pride and accept the unexpected, but I can’t. I know in my heart she’s trouble.
“Promise me you won’t let her take advantage of you. Of your sympathy or concern. Because that’s what she does.”
“Just stop. You’ve despised Natalie from the moment she set eyes on Ryan. But she’s not looking at him anymore. She’s looking at me.”
Ben opens the front door, only to exit and slam it hard. I peek out the front window and watch him enter the passenger side of a white car. Seconds later, it drives off and I’m left with remorse and shame.
Ben deserves better from me. He’s still grieving from the loss of his best friend. My words only hurt him further. I don’t know how, but I promise myself to make it up to him. Even if that means being nice to Bratty Natty.
Around midnight I call Ryan from my pillow, vowing it be my last attempt for the night. Surprisingly I hear a small, masculine hello on the other end, but it doesn’t sound familiar.
Confused, I ask, “Who’s this?”
“It’s Nate. Sorry to confuse you.”
“Oh—hey. It’s no problem,” I assure him.
“I kept hearing Ryan’s phone ring and realized it was probably you. I thought you should know why he isn’t answering.”
“Is he OK?”
“Yes, he’s fine. He passed out a few hours ago on the couch. Pretty sure he hasn’t slept much. I didn’t want to wake him.”
I sit up from my cozy bed, slightly alarmed by Nate’s words.
“That’s not good. He shouldn’t be working so hard.”
“I think he just needs time to adjust. But I doubt he’ll be calling you back tonight.”
“Oh, OK.” Despite the relief Nate has kindly generated by answering my boyfriends phone, its hard to hide the sadness in my voice. I feel a little neglected. Maybe it’s selfish for wanting to be a priority. “Thanks for letting me know. I was definitely worried.”
“Well, goodnight,” I suggest with a soft sigh.
“Hey, wait...I’m here, if you need someone to listen or talk with.”
“I appreciate the offer but I barely know you.”
“Get to know me then,” He insists. “Ask me anything you want. Anything at all. I’m an open book.”
I stand from my bed and pace it, indecisive with my options. On the one hand, I perceive Nate as being too assertive and direct, but on the other hand, I find him kind and intriguing. He seems genuine and thoughtful in his own quirky way.
“OK, how about you tell me where the limp in your leg comes from.”
“Gunshot wound,” he quickly replies, unshaken by my personal question.
“Seriously?” I state in disbelief.
“My older brother made some poor choices at an early age and became indebted to a gang. They exploited him by threatening our family. At fifteen, I was fed up with the violence and ultimatums. In desperation, I stood up for my brother, argued and begged on his behalf. The next day they waited until I got out of school and shot me.”
I don’t know what I was expecting to hear, but it wasn’t that. A deep sorrow sweeps over me. I sit on the edge on my bed, overwhelmed with learning just a fraction of Nate’s tragic past. The last thing he probably wants is my pity, but that’s what I feel, along with a great deal of admiration.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine being that brave. Is your brother OK?”
“He disappeared shortly after I was shot. I haven’t seen him sense. But as far as bravery goes—I wasn’t fearless—just really stupid to think I could alter something I had no control over.”
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to end violent behavior, especially to protect your family. Your heart was in the right place. That’s what matters.”
“I know,” He agrees, sweetly.
I suggest Nate tell me more about himself and he does. I learn his mom and younger sister are living in Southern California and are in close proximity to me. I can tell he misses them very much by the longing tone in his voice. But I also sense he’s happier up north, attending college and getting a fresh start.
Nate isn’t quick to share the details of his troubled youth, but I encourage him in hopes of better understanding him. When he was just six, his dad was sent to prison for gang related crimes. Five years later he was released. Sadly, he never returned home and nobody has heard from him.
Thankfully his mom was a strong role model. She would cook, clean and work her butt off, all while insuring Nate finished school. And he did—with scholarships to prove it.
His behavior wasn’t always the best. There were many fights and suspensions, but never once did he take part in criminal activity.
“When I walked to school, I would see people stab each other. Gun fire was normal. Violence was normal. But I always knew it wasn’t supposed to be normal. There was a better world out there and I was determined to find it.”
As I listen to the story about his childhood with a sinking heart, I feel weighted down by the cruel and unjust circumstances of his upbringing. Without his perseverance and assertive personality, he could be telling me a different story. He could be incarcerated or even dead.
“I have so much respect for you, Nate. What you’ve been through—what you’ve overcome. You’re an awesome person. I really mean that.”
“I appreciate that,” he says, humbled. “But enough about me. Tell me something about yourself. You’re a senior, right?”
“Yes and very eager to graduate.”
“So are you the party type or the stay at home and study type? What’s a typical Friday night for Ally? Walk me through it.”
I laugh out of nervous embarrassment. “Uh, I don’t think so.”
“Oh, come on. That’s a much nicer question than the one you gave me.”
My jaw drops with a loud gasp. “What? You literally said ask you anything and—“
“I’m kidding,” he interrupts with a laugh. “Just giving you a hard time.”
“Not funny,” I scold. “But honestly, there’s not much to tell. Before Ryan left, I spent every Friday night with him.”
“And before him?”
“I probably spent half that time with my best friend, Sam and the other half with Christian.
“Hmm...” he says, reflectively.
“What are you hmm-ing about?” I press him, curious.
“I just think it’s interesting that while you were with Christian you had time for friends.”
“Yes, I know it sounds that way, but knowing Ryan was leaving me soon, I wanted to spend as much time as possible with him.”
There’s this awkward silence as I reflect on my own words. Words that are making me question my justifications.
“Everything OK?” He asks. “Did I upset you?”
“No, not all. I’m just thinking.”
“Yes...Is it terrible that I can’t imagine my life without him?”
“No, but I’m curious. What makes you think that’s a bad thing?”
“Because the people who are supposed to love me the most seem to think our relationship is unhealthy.“
“Interesting...what do you think?”
“I don’t know anymore...I just know that I love him. And I want what’s best for him. I assumed that was enough.
“Maybe it is...I know it’s difficult, but I do think it’s wise to accept counsel from the people we are closest to. They can sometimes see a different perspective, but it doesn’t always mean there right.”
“Ryan’s told you about us—about our history. You even know about Christian. So based on what he’s mentioned, what do you think about or relationship? Be honest.“
“Ally I don’t know nearly enough to make a fair assessment. Besides my opinion isn’t relevant. But I’ll share some advice someone once gave me: Loving someone the way you want to be loved doesn’t always work. You must love them the way they want to be loved. I think sometimes people need to be reminded of this.”
“That’s actually pretty good advice.”
“I thought so. And listen, the only opinions that really matter are yours and Ryan’s. The rest are ideas and observations. What you make of them is up to you”.
“Thanks. For some reason I get the sense you’re just telling me what I want to hear, but either way it helps, and I appreciate it.”
His short laugh is sweet and pleasing to the ear. “Maybe that’s true. But I can sense things too. It’s been a long day and you should probably get to bed...It is a school night after all,” He says in a teasing tone.
“Ha Ha. You just had to throw that in there, didn’t you.”
“Yes I did.”
“Night, Ally. Talk to you soon.”
I toss and turn in my bed, unable or unwilling to doze off. My mind keeps racing. Nate managed to calm my nerves about Ryan. But what I can’t seem to shake is Bryce. Something inside me is yearning for more info on him. I need to know if Sam and I are working for a criminal.
The brightness of my phone blinds me as I open up the search bar. I type my boss’s name along with the city/state for more narrowed results. I learn quickly that he has no personal social media accounts. He’s tied to nothing else except his business.
Eventually I stumble upon the same article from earlier. I click on it again to see if maybe I missed something. At the very bottom of the article there’s a tab that says view comments. I click on it. Only two comments are present. Both anonymous. The first reads:
All allegations of misconduct have been dropped. The company was a victim to fraud.
Well that’s encouraging.
The second reads:
Just another scandal paid to go away. Bryce Williams is a crafty con artist with a deliberate aim of deception. His corrupt and inappropriate behavior is the real investigation. But know this... if you come after him, he will retaliate.
What the heck did I just read? A hurtful, biased comment from a former employee or lover? A disgruntled client? An angry investor? Who wrote this?