Velvet Midnight by Max Walker

1

Benjamin Gold

The Gold AnimalSanctuary was decked out for our twenty-fourth birthday. The trees had colorful rainbow streamers hanging from them, and most of the animals were wearing party hats, which looked extra funny on the bouncing Tammy, our North American river otter, who enjoyed hanging out with us more than the dogs did. She was currently playing with my twin brother’s shoelace.

“Dusty, I think she’s trying to tie your shoes together,” I warned.

He laughed and playfully rolled Tammy over on her side. She rolled right back and got to work with laser focus.

Brandon, my brother’s husband, laughed a big booming laugh as he walked over to the table. My moms flanked him, laughing equally loud, Mia holding a large golden bag in her hand.

“You guys need to hear Brandon’s impression of Donald Duck. It’s creepy,” Ashley said, sitting down next to me. She put a hand around my shoulders and pulled me into a tight side hug. Her hair smelled like it always did: strawberries and vanilla.

“Happy Birthday, Benj,” my mom said, kissing the top of my head. She leaned over and kissed my brother’s head next. “Dust, my two loves.”

“Happy Birthday, you old fucks,” Brandon said in a scarily accurate Donald Duck impression.

The table cracked up as Brandon took his seat next to Dusty. We were outside next to the pool, and I had to admit, looking around at the smiling faces that came together for my birthday made me feel really good. A foreign feeling lately, which made it all the more sweeter.

“All right,” Mia said, setting the bag on the table. Uncle Peanut and Aunt Gabbie, two best friends who lived next door and were honorary members of the Gold family, moved their seats over so my mom could take center stage at the table. Uncle Peanut, dressed to the nines, kept checking his watch, which Aunt Gabbie loudly ribbed him about. I didn’t mind. He had a date tonight, and the excitement was clear on his face.

Hey, at least someone at this party is gonna get it in.

I rubbed the back of my head and tried not to think too much. That’s what ended up getting me in trouble. I wanted to enjoy today, and that meant making a conscious effort to enjoy it. Lately, shit had felt so empty, my life looking like a boring blank canvas, that I almost forgot I even had the ability to enjoy anything.

My sister, Kaitlyn, reached for the golden bag, but my mom pulled it back. The only one missing today was my older brother, Maverick, who said he’d be arriving late.

“Eh, eh, eh,” she said, wagging a finger in the air at my sister. “Tradition says birthday boy reaches into the bag first. Since it’s a tie, we go by time of birth, and Benji, that means you go.”

“Ugh, by five minutes. I’m always behind,” Dusty said, rolling his eyes and smiling.

The Gold Grab Bag. My moms’ favorite moment at any birthday, and all of ours, too. Inside the bag was a collection of cards, each one with a photo of one of the animals that had been rescued, rehabbed, and released by the sanctuary. On the back of each card was either a challenge or a prize. One of those cards was golden, and whoever pulled that card had their choice of whatever other cards someone else chose. So after three rounds, someone might have accumulated sixty bucks in prize money only to have it snatched away at the very last round from a golden card pick.

It was a fun time and kept a few healthy grudges running in the family.

I reached in and shuffled around a bit, everyone’s eyes on me.

“Annnnd,” I said, pulling out the card. “It’s one of the cheetah cubs.” I lifted the card and showed it around the table. On the back, it said, “You now have to pick one person to race two laps around the yard. Winner gets twenty-five dollars.”

There were a few choices I could go with. I knew Mia didn’t love running, although no one could ever catch her on horseback. Although Uncle Peanut was older, his nickname growing up had been Jack the Crack of Lightning (which he shortened to Jack the Crack sometime in college, a story he loved to tell), so I definitely wasn’t choosing him. Kaitlyn was also a track star, and Brandon would have smoked me.

But Dusty…

He already saw it coming, standing up with a roll of his eyes. He adjusted his glasses and headed to the start line Ashley pointed to. Even though we were identical twins, the two of us were pretty different. My brother worked for NASA and had a brain the size of an orbiting moon, while I had concentrated on other muscles throughout my life. Lately, though, I’d been slacking with my fitness routine, so it really could have been anyone’s game.

Ashley lifted her hand as we lined up. “Ready, set, go!”

And we ran, and we laughed, and I almost tripped. Tammy joined on the second lap, bouncing behind me as Dusty took the lead in a final last-minute push. I saw him pull ahead and dug deep for some more speed.

I took first place at a photo finish. I grabbed Tammy and lifted her up as if we had won the gold in an Olympic race. The table cheered and laughed, and my brother gave me a pat on the back.

Next up was Aunt Gabbie, who pulled out a card of Ari the hawk we rehabbed last year. “You’re soaring high and collect a $25 prize.” She lifted her hands and wooted, my mom handing over her prize.

“Oh thank the Lord, I thought I would have to get up from my seat for something.” She leaned back, making an exaggerated display of counting her winnings.

We spent the next hour or so pulling cards and playing the game, going over the number of rounds we normally played. At one point, I looked around at my family and felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. It was a reminder of how life used to be, when we were all together, hanging out at the same dinner table every evening, laughing and talking and joking.

It felt so freaking good, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling even if I wanted to. This was so different from how I’d been feeling lately, which mainly was just a mixture of numbness and sadness. I couldn’t even pinpoint exactly why or when I started feeling that way, but it was eating away at me little by little. It made moments like these seem so few and far between, which meant I just had to savor today as much as I could. I didn’t know when the gray waves would hit me, but at least for right now, the sun was shining and the tide had pulled the gray waters away.

We finished up with the Gold Grab Bag and settled into a relaxed mood. The sun was still high in the sky, but the fresh fall breeze kept us from getting too hot.

“Benji, want to go throw around the football?” Brandon asked, leaning over Dusty. Dusty gave his husband a kiss on the neck. Those two couldn’t have been more perfect for each other, brought together by a fire and still burning hot all these years later.

“Yeah, let’s do it.” If I even still remembered how to throw a ball. I used to love playing sports and was actually damn good at most of the ones I committed to. Football and wrestling had been big ones in high school. In college I’d started playing soccer and tennis, loving both of them but dropping them sometime after graduation.

Brandon, a world-famous rugby player and popular internet personality, probably wouldn’t have trouble throwing the ball.

We got up from the table, Brandon taking one last bite of cake and leaving the empty plate on the table. Before we could even leave the table, my mom called out, “It’s Mav!”

Coming from out of the house was my older brother, a carry-on suitcase in his hand and a bottle of water in the other.

Maverick waved, calling out to the table. He looked like he had just rolled out of bed, wearing a pair of gray sweats and a black T-shirt with impenetrable shades on his face, his honey-brown hair messed up in the way it always was when my brother was fighting a hangover. I’d seen that look a lot, which only made me appreciate him being here even more.

I got up from my seat and went over to him, Dusty close behind me. He opened his arms and wrapped me into a hug.

“Happy Birthday, little bro.”

“Thanks for coming,” I said. Maverick lived in New York, which wasn’t too far a flight from our house here in Georgia, but still, it was a flight, and when your head was sloshed with vodka and beer and whatever else Maverick chugged last night, then an hour-and-a-half flight could easily feel like a ten-hour flight.

“Of course, Benj.” His smile slanted into an expression I recognized. My brother always looked like that when he was about to drop some kind of bomb. He loved doing that.

“Check it out—I brought you a birthday surprise all the way from New York.”

Mav stepped aside, his arms looking like a game-show prize presenter, aiming toward the sliding glass doors leading into the house.

I looked, half expecting my brother to have hired the cast of Magic Mike to strut out through the doors. I braced myself to die from embarrassment, knowing that my moms would be watching as their twins sat down for birthday lap dances from impossibly cut (and impossibly flexible) men.

And then the surprise turned the corner, walking out with a much bigger suitcase rolling behind him. I had to do a double take, squinting my eyes, unsure if who I saw was really who I thought.

“Happy Birthday, Benji,” he said.

Rex Madison waved at me with a smile on his face.

Rex Madison, my brother’s best friend.

Rex Madison, my first ever crush.

Rex Madison, the one I lost my virginity to.

Rex Madison, the one who irreparably broke my heart and disappeared for six whole fucking years.

I turned and walked away, hurried, trying to get as far from Rex Madison as I possibly could.