Boss With Benefits

By: Talia Hunter

Tiny was pale, with dark shadows under her eyes. She blinked sleepily, then focused on Rosa and gave her a little one-sided smile. “You came.” When she spoke, Tiny’s mouth didn’t move the way it used to. The right side of her face dragged down a little, and the words came out slow and slurred.

Rosa’s heart clenched. Tiny had spent her school years in a blur of activity. As well as her packed schedule of after-school art classes and her obsession with science fiction movies, she’d studied hard and done well in class. Now there was a fragility and stillness to her, as though her life force had been drained away.

“‘Course I came,” Rosa said lightly. “But I didn’t mean to wake you. How are you feeling?”

“I’ve been better.”

“I’m sorry,” Rosa murmured, sitting on the side of the bed.

Tiny moved over to give her more room, and Rosa watched the awkwardness of the movement, trying to figure out what seemed so wrong about it. It was only when Tiny reached behind her to hitch up her pillows that Rosa realized she wasn’t moving her right arm.

When Mere had called Rosa, asking her to come, she’d said Tiny’s muscles were weak down one side. But her right arm seemed worse than just weak. It hadn’t moved at all.

Rosa swallowed. She was used to seeing dried smears of paint on Tiny’s hands and under her fingernails. Now her right hand lay limp and clean. The sight was far worse than the weakness in her friend’s face.

“Hey,” said Rosa. “I brought the bubbles.” She motioned to the champagne on the dresser, already wondering if she’d made a mistake bringing it. The bottle had become a tradition she and Tiny had kept up over the years, born from a late-night conversation they’d once had. Champagne had been flowing at the time, and they’d pinky-sworn to always drink the stuff together, in good times and bad. Like Winston Churchill had said, in victory they deserved it, and in defeat they needed it.

That had been a lot of years ago, and whenever either one of them had been low, the other had been there with both support and bubbles, at least in spirit. Even if it was only their tradition of saying “Cheers” at the end of a phone call instead of goodbye.

But now bringing the bottle seemed like a mistake. Would Tiny ever be well enough to share a glass with her again? Maybe Rosa had miscalculated, and the bottle would be a reminder of what Tiny had lost.

“Anyway.” Rosa stepped in front of the dresser to block the bottle from Tiny’s view. “Can I get you something? A glass of water?”

Tiny shook her head and shifted again, readjusting her pillows. She looked exhausted, and Rosa felt a pang of guilt. No wonder Dalton hadn’t wanted her to see her friend today.

“I only arrived about an hour ago,” Rosa said brightly, her cheerful tone horribly forced. “And I’m already in love with the place. It’s even more beautiful than I thought it’d be.”

“Glad you’re here.” Tiny closed her eyes slowly, as though they were too heavy to hold up.

“I am too. But you should get some more sleep now, okay? I’ll come back and have a proper visit tomorrow.”

As Rosa turned for the door, she noticed some darker-colored squares on the walls that showed where pictures must have once hung. Tiny’s own paintings, probably, if her friend’s old bedroom in Sydney was any indication. But the walls in this room were now bare. If pictures had been hanging here, why had she taken them down?

Rosa faltered when her brain connected the dots. Tiny’s right arm wasn’t working properly. For most people that would be bad enough, but Tiny had lived for her art. If she couldn’t draw or paint, what would she do?

“You met my brother?” asked Tiny in that slurred, exhausted tone.

Rosa turned back to the bed. “I did. But he didn’t seem pleased to see me.”

“We need you.”

“Not according to him.”

The good side of Tiny’s mouth twitched, in a movement that a little optimism might let Rosa interpret as the shadow of a smile. “Since when do you listen?”

Rosa laughed more enthusiastically than she would have if she wasn’t trying to hide the fact that tears were suddenly pricking behind her eyes. Bad enough seeing Tiny so pale and weak, but to glimpse even the faintest hint of Tiny’s old humor and spark was a heartbreaking reminder of the energy that used to radiate from her.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I don’t plan to listen. I don’t scare easy, remember?” Well, that used to be true. Before Otto. “I’m going to stay and run this place just as well as you would,” she told Tiny. “Don’t worry about anything, okay?”

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