He waits for his brother and mom to sit down, then slides into the wooden pew beside them. Anthony Moran always has to be on the aisle.
When your 12-year-old twin brother peels off his shirt during the offering, you want to be on the aisle so you can get him out of there. Fast.
"Did you bring his candy?" Anthony asks his mom. She reaches into her purse and pulls out a Ziploc filled with cough drops. "And his drink?" She retrieves an Iron Man sippy cup.
Anthony looks at Ryan, who is unbuttoning his pants.
"No," Anthony says gently, shaking his head. "Not appropriate. No one wants to see our bellies here."
Anthony Moran is blond and earnest and super serious for a seventh-grader. He gets straight As at Peniel Baptist Academy.
He speaks softly, always in plurals: We, us, our. Like many twins, he thinks of himself as half of a pair.
The other half has brown hair and wide blue eyes and a boisterous giggle.
Ryan Moran is in speech therapy and special ed at Ochwilla Elementary. He seldom says whole sentences.
All his life, Anthony has been his voice.
The boys live with their mom and dad and two dogs in a little house with a big yard in Interlachen. They share a room with bunk beds. On the bottom mattress, Anthony's Game Boy case sits next to Ryan's box of diapers.
The house has a third bedroom, but Anthony has never asked for his own space. "Why should I?" he said. This way he's there in case Ryan needs him.
Their mom, Jayne, 50, is studying to be a teacher. Their dad, Paul, 63, is a stained glass artist. He is not at church with them on this December Sunday because of his part-time job stacking produce at Publix.
"Aaarrriiiaaah!" Ryan shrieks as the minister greets the congregation at Trinity United Methodist Church.
Anthony reaches across his mom and clasps his brother's shoulder. "Soon," he says. "We'll get to sing soon."
- - -
The twins are fraternal, born 15 minutes apart. As toddlers they climbed slides, played catch, chattered away.
Then Ryan began to regress, his parents said. He stopped talking, seemed to withdraw.
After endless tests, doctors determined that he had "a pervasive development disorder." When Jayne went to enroll her boys in prekindergarten, she first heard someone say the word "autistic."
"I just sat there crying and crying: He can't be," Jayne says. "But he is."
She worried: What kind of life will Ryan have? Will he know he's loved? What will happen to him once we can't look after him?
She agonized over Anthony: How would having a disabled twin affect him? Would he be teased? Would he resent Ryan?
- - -
Anthony sees his childhood in scenes: That time at Burger King, when he got so scared. The day in first grade P.E. when he got so mad. The night the mayor gave him an award.
In every memory, Ryan is the main character.
"We were 5 years old, and we were playing in that bin of plastic balls at the Burger King," Anthony said. "Then Ryan was gone."
While his parents scoured the restaurant, Anthony ran out the door. He knew where his brother would be: in the middle of the highway, "just turning circles." Anthony looked both ways, crossed the stream of cars and grabbed Ryan's hand.
"He used to always run away," Anthony said. "But I'm faster. So I can always bring him back."
Anthony's parents never ask him to look after Ryan. He does it because Ryan is his brother and he needs him.
Okay, there is another reason. But he really doesn't like to talk about it.
- - -
Today's sermon is about Christmas and Wal-Mart, how they don't have to go together. The best gifts, the minister says, are those you can't buy.
"Aaarrrooo!" Ryan gets louder. He picks up his sippy cup, throws it onto the pew. Anthony leans toward his mom, "We're out of here."
He packs Ryan's drink in the plastic bag. Then he takes his hand and leads him out of the church, onto the playground.
"Yeeeaaayaaa!" Ryan squeals, flopping into a swing.
Anthony takes off his glasses and folds them into the Ziploc. "Want me to push you?" he asks Ryan. He unwraps a cough drop and holds it out. "I brought you some candy."
- - -
Most of the time it's good having a twin, Anthony insists. You always have someone to talk to, even if the other person can't really talk back.
Ryan understands everything. "Only sometimes he doesn't care what you're saying, so he walks away." And he can speak "when he wants to," Anthony said. "One time when we were in the bathtub he said the whole pledge to the flag."
Ryan will catch a ball, but he won't throw it back. He'll rebound your basketball but won't shoot it. In Little League Challenger baseball, he'll run the bases - but only if Anthony runs with him. "He's always thinking about other things, so he can't concentrate," Anthony said. "It must be weird to be in his world."
The best thing about Ryan is that "he does stuff that makes you laugh." Like one time at the pool, he walked over to this man and just started sniffing his feet.
It's annoying when you're trying to do algebra homework and Ryan sneaks up behind you and shouts "Baaa!" just to scare you. "But Ryan just thinks he's being funny, so you can't get mad."
Jayne worries that Anthony tries to do too much. She wanted him to go to a support group for kids with autistic siblings, but Anthony refused. "I don't want to be around kids that complain." Even when Ryan is hitting him, Anthony just takes it.
The only time Anthony gets upset is when he feels he has to defend his brother. Like that day in first-grade gym class.
"For the longest time, Ryan wouldn't hug anyone," Anthony said. "But one day he came running up to me at P.E. and started hugging me. All the kids, even the teacher, started laughing." Anthony got so mad he screamed. "You don't know him!" The next day, he brought in a book about autism and read it to his class.
In September, Anthony won Student of the Month and the mayor invited him to the City Council meeting. The room was crowded when the family arrived.
"Ryan just started freaking," Anthony said. "Dad had to take him out of there.
"As I get older, things like that don't bother me as much," Anthony said. He stopped. "Well, they do. I just don't show it."
- - -
The only thing that kind of stinks about having a brother like Ryan, Anthony said, is that your parents won't let you stay home alone.
Some of Anthony's friends can stay without a sitter for hours. After all, they're almost 13.
But Anthony's folks haven't even gone on a dinner date in three years. They feel it's asking too much to give him sole responsibility for his brother.
A few Saturdays ago, Anthony got up early with Ryan and let his parents sleep in. He changed his brother's diaper, gave him a bath and made him toast. Then he put on a Barney video in their bedroom and went into the den to play PlayStation.
Soon after, Ryan padded into the kitchen and put a bag of popcorn in the microwave. He turned it on high and set the timer for ... who knows how long.
"The whole house filled with smoke, and I got in big trouble," Anthony said. "I deserved it, though. I should've been watching him."
- - -
By the time church lets out, the boys have climbed up on a blue platform overlooking the parking lot. They watch their mom coming toward them.
"You ready?" Jayne asks.
Anthony climbs down the ladder, then reaches up for Ryan. "You're okay," he says.
He grabs the Ziploc bag and fishes out his glasses. As her boys rush down the sidewalk, Jayne thanks God. At times like this she wonders: What will happen when Anthony starts dating? When he goes to college?
What will he become? And what will become of Ryan?
Ask Anthony those questions, and he looks angry. Nothing will change, he says. He can't imagine life without his other half.
But what if you fall in love with a girl who doesn't want Ryan around? "I would never like a girl like that."
What will happen when your parents aren't around to take care of Ryan? "He will always, always be with me."
And what do you want to do, Anthony, once you're grown? "I'm going to Harvard," he says. "I'm going to medical school to become a doctor. I'm going to find a way to cure autism, so people like Ryan can talk."
And if your brother could answer, what would you ask him? "I'd ask him, 'Do you want to be like me?'"
When you're Anthony, you worry about things. Math tests, for one. And whether the dogs are digging up the yard and eating the pool toys. And when you go to the park, you never know when somebody might call your twin brother a retard.
"I mean, I know everyone in the world isn't nice. But Ryan thinks everybody loves him," Anthony says.
"Maybe he wouldn't want to be like me."
Anthony buckles his brother into the van and turns on a Sesame Street video. Ask him again why he's so devoted to Ryan and at first he doesn't want to talk about it. A moment passes while he looks out the window.
Finally he says, "I think about it all the time." He hands his brother the sippy cup.
"I mean, we're twins. I could have been him."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (727) 893-8825.