One Step Too Close

By: K.A Merikan

The bitch was attractive, she cooked well, or at least she had done the two times Ryder and Jess came over for dinner, and seemed to be the model girlfriend. And yet, whenever she smiled or touched Jed, there was something off between the two of them, and Ryder had no clue what to think of it. Jed might be all grown up but was still his little brother, so Ryder kept a close eye on Dana. They’d met her through her cousin, a shady guy with mafia connections, so that was an extra reason not to trust her one bit. Ryder supposed the bad-bitch persona was part of the appeal for Jed.

Ryder smiled when he remembered the young, pretty kid that suddenly came into his life so many years ago. They first met when Ryder’s dad started a relationship with Jed’s mom, and while the sudden appearance of a younger kid in the house wasn’t appreciated by the then-eleven-year-old Ryder, with time, they became very close. Ryder never told this to anyone, but he was glad that Jed’s mother abandoned him when she split from Dad and left. She hadn’t been much of a mom anyway, and Ryder didn’t have to part from the stepbrother he grew to appreciate.

It was only much later, when Jed started slowly turning from boy to man, that a strange tension appeared and never let off since. Ryder couldn’t explain it, but after Jed’s voice became soft and thick, his jaw became sharp, his chest and shoulders filled, and it was almost as if he became a different person. Where little Jed had been sweet and easy to tease, adult Jed was cocky, rude, and confrontational. Instead of protecting Jed, Ryder now had to keep him from doing something needlessly reckless. With time, he understood Jed’s closeness made him feel confused and frustrated, so he tried not to touch him too much, but he couldn’t keep himself from staring when no one could see.

Jess left to use the restroom, seemingly ready to just ignore the inappropriate comments she’d heard earlier. Ryder focused more on what Jed was doing on his side of the courtyard. He sat alone on the bench, his muscular form slouched, and his facial expression was the essence of ‘broody’, but only now Ryder realized Jed was putting the hot red end of the cigarette against his hand. Each time Jed did so, Ryder’s frown deepened.

He got to his feet and rushed over with a tightly-set jaw. Did the speed consume Jed’s brain enough so that burning himself became his idea of fun? He clearly didn’t want to make it a social activity, because as soon as Ryder stood in front of him, Jed hid his hand in the sleeve of his shirt.

Jed looked up at Ryder with piercing blue eyes that broke many girls’ hearts and pulled on strings that Ryder didn’t know existed in his chest. “What’s up?”

Ryder opened his mouth, suddenly unsure what to say. It had been a while since Jed took whatever he took, and if he hadn’t acquired another dosage, he might be sober now. “Yeah... just thought you shouldn’t be sitting alone like this when I’m celebrating.”

“What do you care? You have Jess to celebrate with.” Jed shrugged and gave Ryder that look he’d had as a disgruntled teenager.

Ryder couldn’t help but laugh. He sat next to Jed and wiggled his fingers, asking for a cigarette. “Don’t be a prima donna. You’re still pissed off over me defending my girlfriend? You’d have done the same if I were talking shit to Dana.”

Jed passed him a cigarette, still holding the sleeve to hide whatever he’d done to his hand. “No. I don’t dwell on some bullshit.”

“Sure you do.” Ryder clinked his beer against Jed’s empty bottle. “Remember that one time when I mixed ginger powder into your cocoa, and you were still mad at me two months later?” He couldn’t help but smile at the memory of Jed spitting the cocoa all over the place and drinking water straight from the tap.

Jed groaned, but Ryder could see a hint of smile on his lips. “Seriously? That was like fifteen years ago.”

“I know. Still hilarious.” Ryder poked Jed with his shoulder and looked at him, irritated that he couldn’t see Jed’s face well as it hid in the shadow. He wanted to pull Jed’s head back by the long, wavy hair, but stopped himself at the last moment. There was no need to get weird.

“Not really, no. I think hemorrhoid gel in your toothpaste was a lot funnier.” Now Ryder could see Jed smile even through the messy hair. Ryder couldn’t take it anymore and rustled Jed’s mane, just like when they were kids, uncovering the straight nose and plump lips surrounded by fair stubble, but he stopped when Jed’s eyes reflected the moonlight at him.

“Yeah. That... was a good prank. Never forgive, never forget.”

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