Each book cover is followed by a sample chapter from that book, so be sure to scroll waaaay down!
Sometimes I try to imagine how they all ended up in the car, headed to the hospital. To see me. The scenario changes, depending on my mood, depending on what I’m thinking about, what I’m doing and what makes me wonder, again, why they were all in the car.
Scenario One: They were all in the car, headed to the mall. Or a movie — though if they were going to see a movie I think they’d have texted to ask if I wanted to go, and there was no text. Dad said, “I feel like getting a burger, who wants one?” and they hustled about finding shoes (Penny never knew where her shoes were) and keys and wallets to leave the house. Dad would have been driving, as usual, and the hospital people probably called his phone, but Mom would’ve answered, because she hated it when he talked on the phone while he was driving. I don’t know what she said — the nurses never told me — but once they heard I was there, they would’ve forgotten about the burger or the mall or the movie and headed to the hospital. In my imagination, my little movie for myself, Mom is telling Dad to hurry up, and Dad is acting all calm, saying, “Margo, we’ll get there as soon as we can.”
Scenario Two: They were all at home when the nurse called, and when Mom answered the phone, she got all
frantic and panicked. She stood in the living room after hanging up the phone and couldn’t think what to do next. She might have yelled “Matt! Matthew! It’s Layne! Matthew, it’s Layne!” and he would have come running, not having any idea what she was talking about. And Penny, too. Maybe she was reading in her room, or studying — her chemistry book was open on her desk when I got home — and she heard Mom yelling and ran into the living room too. Maybe Dad made Mom sit down, and he made calming sounds — “shhh shhh shhh” — like he used to say to us when we fell off a bike or had a nightmare. He would’ve squeezed tightly on her arms and stared into her eyes. And once she was calm, Mom told him where I was and that she had to go. He would have insisted on driving her, because she was panicked and frantic. He asked Penny to go with them to keep Mom calm. Or maybe Penny insisted on going too.
Scenario Three: Mom’s not frantic or panicked. She’s pissed. They were having a nice, relaxing afternoon. It was a beautiful, sunny day, so they were in the garden working together on their new bed, where they wanted to put in herbs and vegetables — the one that’s covered in grass and weeds now. Mom was annoyed that the phone interrupted her, and then more annoyed that her phone got dirty from the mud on her hands when she answered it. When she hung up, she swore and told Dad, “Well, Matthew, I guess we’ll have to do this later. Layne’s gone and gotten herself hurt. Again.” Sometimes that “again” isn’t there at all, and sometimes it’s there in a really angry voice. Ah-gain. Penny was just hitching a ride. She came out of her room and asked to borrow the car, but Mom said, “I wish, but we have to go to your sister. If you’re ready now, I can drop you off on the way. C’mon.”
However it happened, they were all in the car when the pickup crossed the centre lane and hit them. I was waiting in the hospital. The same emergency department, actually, that they were brought to in ambulances, though of course I didn’t know at the time. It wasn’t until way later I found out that while I was waiting, everything changed.
I only got on that stupid skateboard because Asher told me I was too chicken to try it. I mean, how elementary-school- dumb is that? But I fell for it — like I always do — and got on the stupid thing and went down the stupid hill, and now I’m waking up in the ambulance with Asher and some paramedic with terrible breath gawking at me. Asher is sitting there by my head, staring down at me with his eyes all wide and scared. He isn’t saying anything, just staring. Why is he staring like that? I reach up to touch my face, to see if all the parts are in the right place, and the paramedic starts asking me questions:
“Can you tell me what day it is? What’s the date? Where does it hurt? Does this hurt? How ’bout this? And this?” I mumble the answers, but all I can think of is how twisted and yellow his front top teeth are, and OMG, his breath! With each question a poof of air puffs out at me. Rank! I know, it’s not very gracious of me to think nastily about the person who is trying to help me, but I’m not a very nice person.
That’s Penny. She’s the nice one. The pretty one too. And the smart one. I’m the funny one — if you think sarcasm is funny. And the fearless one. When we were little and we went to Canada’s Wonderland, I went on all the roller coasters. Being daring was cute when I was small. Dad would say, “Did you see her, Margo? Laynie isn’t scared of anything. The bigger and faster the ride, the more she loved it.” It was true. And he was proud of me for it. He didn’t call me “reckless” until I was older. I am the reckless one. Penny has the common sense.
It was as if, when those first cells divided into two identical people, all the personality traits got divvied up too. We’re each a half. Even our names. Dad wanted to call his daughter “Penny Lane” — yes, after the Beatles song. I asked Mom once why she agreed to it, and she only shrugged and said, “You know your father if he gets his mind on something. Besides, it was his turn.” His turn. He said Mom had her chance with Zac. Dad always says he wanted to name him “Ringo.” I don’t know if he’s joking or not. Mom named him Isaac after the violinist Isaac Stern. (Whenever this came up, Dad would say to Zac, “At least she didn’t name you Yo-Yo,” and laugh and laugh.) But we always call him Zac. So the story is that when Dad found out there were two of us, he split the name in half too: Penny and Lane. Mom added the “y” to make Layne look more like a real name than a street sign. At least most of our friends didn’t know about the Beatles or the song, and so they didn’t make the connection between our names. Until their parents told them, that is.
We arrive at the hospital, and the paramedic wheels me into the ER, past the busy waiting area and into a space with a curtain that does little to block out the noise. Asher follows and stands in the corner while the paramedic tells a nurse all sorts of numbers and long medical words. The doctor flashes a light in my eyes and runs his hands over my body, squeezing at points and asking, “Does this hurt?” Everything hurts, but my arm most of all. And my head. Trying to watch the people moving around the bed makes me dizzy, so I focus on Asher by the door. Maybe they should check on him; he’s white as a ghost.
Then the doctor leans close. It takes effort to get my eyes to focus on his face. “Layne, you’ve bumped your head, and I’m pretty sure you broke your arm, but everything else looks good. You’re going to be fine. Wait here and we’ll get you all patched up.” Wait here? Where else would I go? The doctor stands and pats my shoulder. As he lifts the curtain to leave, he says to Asher, “Call your folks.”
“I did,” Asher says. I don’t remember that.
“You did?” I ask when the doctor is gone. He nods. “What did you say?”
He shrugs and steps closer. “That you fell and hit your head, that we were headed here.”
“Did you call mine?”
Asher was so abnormally white to begin with, it’s hard to say if he blushed or his colour was just coming back. “Um, no. I should’ve. I don’t have their number, and they took your phone.”
Longer sentences are confusing. I summarize what he said to make it clear: He didn’t call. They took my phone. “They who?”
“The paramedics. Sorry, I should’ve—” I’m not sure what he thinks he should’ve done, because he stops there. I try to nod my head reassuringly, but it hurts. A lot. “What’s their number?” I think for a minute. Why can’t I remember? It’s a favourite on my phone, not one I dial often. “I, um, don’t remember.”
He goes white again and steps back toward the crack in the curtain. “I’ll go tell the nurses.” He’s gone before I can ask what exactly he’s going to tell them. The lights hurt, so I close my eyes until he whispers, “You awake? I’m back.” I try to smile, but it hurts my head. “The nurse said she was looking up your folks’ number and calling them.”
“What did they say?”
“I dunno. I didn’t wait. Want me to go ask?”
“No. I just hope they aren’t mad.”
“What? Why would they be mad?”
Because I’m the reckless one.
FLASHBACK: I was sitting on the counter pressing a wet paper towel to each bloodied knee when Dad walked into the kitchen. “What happened to you?” he asked, but the casual words didn’t hide the tight pitch in his voice that showed he was worried.
I shrugged. “Rollerblading.”
His worry-widened eyes pinched into a frown. “Weren’t you wearing your knee pads?” I shook my head, my arguments for not needing them obliterated by the blood oozing from each knee. He sighed. “Laynie, why do you have to be so reckless?”
Asher and I wait. And wait. I sit on the bed, holding my sore arm against my chest. Asher sits beside me sometimes and then paces by the foot of the bed when he can’t sit any longer. He keeps looking at me every so often, his face white and his eyes wide. We chat a bit about nothing. We’ve been there a whole forty minutes before a nurse shuffles into my curtained space. She studies the chart and adds some notes. “Shouldn’t be too long,” she says. For the cast? For my parents
“Shouldn’t be too long,” she says. For the cast? For my parents to arrive? I want to ask for what, but she’s already gone, leaving the curtain waving in the gust her exit made.
Asher tries to smile at me, his lips curl up on the edges, but his face is still white and his eyes are still wide. “That’s good,” he says, and I nod again. The silence in the curtained square is awkward. But it’s not like silence with Asher is ever comfortable lately. I mean, it seems I’ve always got this tight knot in my middle when it’s just him and me together. If we’re in a group and there are others around, I’m not so edgy, but more and more lately when we’re alone, I don’t know what to say. I never used to be that nervous. It would seem really creepy if I just watch him and don’t say anything, so I’m staring at my feet trying to think of something unlame enough to say. “It’s a Mom Race,” Asher says, and it takes me a minute to realize he means between our mothers to arrive. “Wanna place bets?”
“Mine,” I say. So sure. But where is she? The nurses called them at least a half hour ago.
Asher’s mom gets there first. She rushes in and hugs him long enough that his pale face finally gets a bit pink. “Oh, Asher, are you alright?” she asks, pushing him away from her, holding his shoulders at arms’ length and looking him over.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine. Layne was the one who fell.”
She looks at me then and says a small “Oh!” as if she hadn’t seen me sitting there at first.
Asher says, “They think she broke her arm. She needs X-rays.” X-rays? Did I forget that too? I smile and shrug to show it isn’t that big of a deal. Moving my shoulder makes a pain stab in my arm, but I make sure I don’t wince.
“Oh, dear, Layne, are you alright?” she asks. It’s a pretty dumb question, considering we’re sitting in emerg and Asher just told her I broke my arm. I nod, because my throat is tight all of the sudden. I wish it were my mom who was here instead. “Where are your parents?” she asks, and I feel guilty, like she read my mind.
“The nurse called them, they’re on their way,” Asher said. “I’m going to wait with her.”
Asher’s mom looks at him a moment, then at her phone, and says, “Okay. We’ll wait,” before giving me a too-sweet smile.
More awkward minutes. Nobody talks. Asher keeps glancing at me. When our eyes meet, he smiles and sometimes shrugs as if to apologize. Asher’s mom keeps checking her phone and her watch and pacing. The space is really too small for a hospital bed and three people who aren’t talking. When the nurse returns, Asher’s mom looks relieved. “Are Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler here?” she asks. I’m not sure where she thinks the nurse would be hiding my parents.
“Not yet,” the nurse says and smiles at me.
Asher’s mom gives me a sympathetic smile too, as if she were hiding my parents and felt a little guilty for it. “They must have gotten caught up in the traffic. I was able to slip out and around before they closed the road.”
Closed the road? What for? The nurse stepped closer. “The doctor wants you to get your X-ray done now, though. Think you can go down without them?”
There’s a part of me, an embarrassingly huge part, that wants to cry and stubbornly insist that I wait until my mother can come with me. But she isn’t here. And Asher is, and he doesn’t need to see me act like a crybaby. So I smile as calmly as I can and say, “Yeah, sure, no problem.”
Asher’s mom sighs loud enough that everyone turns to look at her. She says, “In that case, Layne, I have to get back to work. You’re in good hands with the doctor, and your parents will probably be here when you get back from the X-ray department.”
I squelch the tantruming child that is making my heart start to race. “Of course! You’re right. They’ll be here any minute. There’s no sense you waiting here.”
“Well, good luck and feel better. Asher, come on then.”
Asher looks at me and stays seated. “I’m going to stay here with Layne,” he says, and my middle does a little flip-flop that may not be related to the pain in my arm or bump on my head.
“Asher, Layne is fine. She said so herself. You know I have too much on my schedule today to worry about how to come back and pick you up. I’ve lost too much time already. And you have exams to study for.”
Asher crosses his arms. “It’s fine, I’ll get a ride home with Layne. I can study later.”
Her voice is cool. “The last thing they are going to want to do is drive out of their way to take you home. I really would prefer if you come with me now while I’m here and not make an issue of it in front of your friend.”
For a moment Asher stays seated, and his lips press together so that they are white against the reddening in his cheeks. He can’t get into trouble on my account. “Yeah, Asher, I’m fine. Go while you’ve got the chance,” I say instead of ‘Please, please, please stay here so I’m not alone.’
He looks at me for a moment then stands up and takes a step toward the bed. His fingers brush the back of my hand where it rests on the mattress, and suddenly I’m frozen, afraid to move and break the buzzing connection. “Okay. Text me later?” I don’t trust my voice to stay even, so I nod. Head hurts.
Asher follows his mom out of the curtained space, and I can hear their arguing voices fade as they walk away.
“Ready?” the nurse says, and I nod again. She pulls back the curtain to reveal a wheelchair and pushes it toward the bed. “You get valet service,” she says with a smile. I try to smile back, push myself up from the bed with my good arm and sit down in the chair. A single tear slips out and runs down my cheek to my neck. I wipe it away quickly, but the nurse says,
“Is your arm hurting worse?”
“Yeah,” I say, thankful for the excuse.
My parents are not waiting for me when I get back from X-ray. They don’t show up in the hour I wait after that. Nobody comes. Maybe they are mad. Maybe this is a grand display of tough love. They’ll come when it’s convenient. I can hear footsteps and muttered conversations on the other side of the curtain. There’s a slit where the curtains hang apart by a few inches, and I make a game of trying to guess who might be zipping by the space by the sound of the voices and footfalls on the linoleum. That one’s a woman for sure. Two men. A man? No, a woman in a winter jacket, which is strange because it’s hot outside. Footsteps coming with no voice, so it’s only one person. Heavy, like a man, but they stop before anyone passes through my narrow view.
I hear papers shuffle, and finally a doctor pushes the two curtains aside to come in. “Good news? Bad news?” he asks, but before I can answer he goes on, “The bad news is it’s broken, right about here.” He points to his own white-sleeved arm, about halfway between his wrist and elbow. “The good news is it’s a clean break that will heal quickly and easily. Bad news? You’ll need a cast, so no swimming or summer sports for the next while. Good news, no cleaning toilets either.” He smiles, seemingly proud of his wit.
“Where’s my mom?” I ask, and my voice cracks. I feel tears building in my eyes and blink fast to push them back.
I’m not sure if I’m more upset that she’s not there or that my cool, independent facade is crumbling.
His smile does not falter. “Did you call them?”
“Asher, my friend, he went to the nurses’ station. He said someone called them…”
“Ah yes. They probably meant to and got distracted. I’m afraid it happens — it can be busy around here. I’ll get someone to call them to be sure.”
Well, that makes more sense than my silly Tough Love Conspiracy Theory. I use the hand on my good arm to pat my pockets for my phone. My pockets are empty.
“Where’s my phone?”
At that his smile slips a bit and his eyes narrow. “You didn’t get it back?” He steps around the small space, looking along the counter, moving tubes and bandaging in shrink-wrapped packaging. “The ambulance guys would have had it. They should have left it here. Maybe they left it at the nurses’ station. I’ll find out for you.” I try to smile, but I don’t think it works. “A volunteer is going to come and take you down to the orthopaedic department so they can get a proper cast on that arm. By the time you’re done with that, your folks and your phone will be here waiting for you.”
“Okay, thank you,” I manage to say as he’s backing out between the curtains.
He has only been gone a few minutes before a man comes through the curtain with a clipboard and a wheelchair.
“Layne Wheeler?” he asks, looking from it to me.
“Hi, Layne. I’m Keith. I’m going to take you to the ortho clinic.”
I sit in the chair, and the volunteer pushes me to and then from the orthopaedic department. I’m now sporting a fresh orange fibreglass cast that is wrapped around my hand and arm up to my elbow. The curtained area is still empty when we return, and my phone is nowhere to be seen. My arm and head ache, and I’m feeling sick to my stomach, so I lie down on the bed and close my eyes against the fluorescent light.
Urgent shouted orders reverberate from another corner of the emergency department over the hushed muttering I’ve heard so far. I turn on my side, gently cradling my newly casted arm, and pull the pillow over my head to block out the sounds. I close my eyes and start to cry.
I must have fallen asleep. When I open my eyes the doctor is standing beside the bed. His smile is gone, his face tense and tired, but his voice is gentle when he asks, “How are you feeling?”
I shrug. “My head hurts,” I admit. I don’t tell him my eyes hurt from crying. The curtains hang open a bit behind him, and I catch a glimpse of movement: Penny’s ponytail. Finally, they’re here. “My parents?”
He studies me a minute and shakes his head. I must be seeing things. He says, “Concussion,” as if the one word holds all the answers to the unknowns of the world. I guess it explains a lot about my situation: headache, queasy stomach, falling asleep, easy tears, seeing things. “I’m going to keep you overnight for observation. We’ll get you a room upstairs.” I look at my fingers poking out of the cast to see if they are turning blue or green or swelling up huge or in danger of falling off. I can observe them myself at home, I think, and come back if they do anything strange. I must’ve said it out loud because the doctor sighs and says, “Just the same, we’d like you to stay the night.” He reaches into the hall behind the curtain and rolls a wheelchair into the cramped space. “Hop on,” he says. His voice is light in a fake, strained way, like I’m six and he’s trying to make everything fun — even the horrible bits.
Especially the horrible bits.
And I’m getting sick of other people pushing me in a chair. “I can walk,” I say. After all, it’s my arm in the cast, not my leg. I swing my legs to one side of the bed and push myself up onto my feet. The room spins, and I lean back against the bed again. The doctor doesn’t laugh or say I-told- you-so, which is nice of him. He smiles at me, still like I’m six and difficult, and says, “Hospital policy,” as he puts his long fingers around my bare elbow and steadies me toward the chair. I shut up and sit.
He pushes me through the ER to an elevator and hits the fifth-floor button on the inside. The ride up is short and silent. From the corner of my eye I see Penny sitting beside me, but the wall of the elevator is a mirror, and it’s just me with messy strands of hair falling loose from my ponytail. I raise my good hand and try to smooth it out. My face is so white that my freckles look darker than usual. When the elevator doors open, the first thing I hear is screaming. Not horror movie sounds, but toddler screaming — somewhere too close, someone is not getting their way. Or maybe far — toddlers can be loud.
I’m fifteen, almost old enough to drive and just a few years away from being a legal adult who can drink and vote and all that, but in the hospital fifteen is still a kid, I guess. He steers me down the hall into a dim room. The curtains are open, but the sky outside is dark, so I see the doctor behind my chair in the reflection. How long was I in the ER anyway?
Before I can ask the doctor, a nurse rushes in and says, “Thank you, Doctor,” in dismissal, and he obliges without saying anything further to me.
The nurse turns to me and says, “Here you go.” She holds out a pair of ugly hospital pj’s. When I don’t reach for them immediately, she says, “You must be tired.” She stands there holding them out until I take them, then she says, “You can change in here,” and opens the bathroom door. Her words are abrupt. She doesn’t seem to be the soft, gentle kind of nurse. Her perma-frown has creased the lines between her eyebrows into deep crevices.
“Resistance is futile,” I mumble to myself, but she hears me. Her eyebrows meet over the fissure, but I can’t tell if she’s confused or annoyed. It’s probably better to shut up and go along with her. I step into the bathroom and shut the door — there’s no lock on it. I pull my T-shirt up, and my casted arm gets caught in the sleeve. I pull and tug, and the pain in my arm shoots from under the cast up to my shoulder. But there’s no way I’m asking for her help. I stop for a minute, take a deep breath and slowly slide my good arm and head out of the shirt, then untwist the material and slip it off over my cast.
Victory comes at the cost of a throbbing pain from my shoulder to the tips of my not-yet- green fingers. I look at my orange-plastered arm and wiggle my fingers. My watch.
I come out of the washroom with my T-shirt and shorts folded and set them on the chair by the bed. “I still don’t have my watch or phone,” I say to Nurse Hatchet.
She looks at me for minute then pats the bed with her hand. “I’ll call down and see who has them. The paramedics usually collect that stuff and give it to the staff in emerg.”
“When are my mom and dad getting here? The doctor called them before he brought me up. They should’ve been here by now.” My voice catches on the last three words. Nurse Hatchet looks at me and sighs again, a big enough sigh that her whole upper body rises and settles. I must be fulfilling the self-centred, ungrateful teenager image. Maybe they weren’t able to drop everything and come running right away. There’s a quiver of guilt in my chest. Penny’s the thoughtful one. I’m more often selfish.
“Your family will be along as soon as they can,” she says without looking at me. And then, “How about you lie back and relax.” She strides out the door without saying anything else. If I never see her again, I’d be good with that. I lie back against the pillows and close my eyes.
When I open my eyes, Zac is sitting beside the bed, his head lying on his folded arms by my leg. I must’ve been more tired — or maybe my concussion is worse — than I thought, because I don’t remember anything after closing my eyes. There is light coming through the window, so it’s close to morning. I must’ve fallen asleep. Or, a scarier thought, maybe my smushed brain didn’t make any memories. Zac’s asleep. What’s he doing here? Besides us, the room is empty and quiet. Maybe Mom and Dad were here and stepped out for a minute. Why would they call Zac? Maybe my hit to the head is bad. It had to be something for them to call
Zac; they haven’t talked to him in months.
His hair is longer than the last time I saw him, flopping over his arms and touching the bed. He needs a haircut, badly. But it’s good to see him; it’s been way too long. “Hey,” I whisper, but he doesn’t move. I say it again, just a bit louder, and he wakes up, looks up.
His blue eyes are green, like they turn when he’s been crying. And the whites are red. And his face is puffy.
I’m going to puke.
And he’s here. And my parents aren’t. I don’t know what’s happened, but nothing about Zac sitting here crying can be good news.
He says, “Hey,” then makes this hard clumping sound in his throat, like he’s trying to swallow the world. Like the whole sphere full of plants and animals and people going about their regular days working or jogging or playing with their kids or studying or falling in love or falling out of love or cleaning their cars or playing sports or walking the dog is stuck in his throat, and he has to swallow it down before he can open his mouth again to tell me what I already sort of know, because his blue eyes are green.
And he is there and they are not.
He puts his forehead down on the side of the bed and mumbles it away. I try to listen closely, but opening my ears to hear him just makes me hear the kids screaming in other rooms and the beeps and buzzes that seem to be the breath of the hospital. His words come out jagged and sharp so that I don’t really need to hear them with my ears. They pierce me through my chest and cut straight into my heart. A drunk. A pickup. They were all in the car. Mom. Dad. Even Penny. All of them. In the car.
My brain is searing. Screaming. Someone’s screaming. It’s me.
People rush in.
Colours, flashes, swirl in my head.
Maybe it’s the concussion.
The sound of footsteps started as uncertain whispers and grew into a hurried, pounding rhythm that reverberated through the hollow tunnel of the hall toward my cell. As the volume increased, my heart leaped and sped so that when the footsteps halted outside the door, my heart felt lodged in my throat.
Silence. Then the hum of the security palm panel replaced the echoing footfalls, and I held my breath to find out who was on the other side of the door.
The door slid aside with a burst of lemony perfume on hot, stale air and admitted two people. A tall, lanky woman in a blue suit pushed her way in first before the door was all the way open. Her jacket fell neatly to the width of her hips and gaped to show a lighter blue blouse underneath. Her pants were fitted but held a crisp crease falling straight down the front of each leg to point at her shiny black shoes.
The two-inch- wide band sewn into the upper sleeve of her right arm was bright blue. She was a Judician. Her dark hair was short and meticulously placed, sweeping away from her face into a swirling spiral over her right ear. The particular style drove me to thrust my fingers through my own hair that hadn’t been brushed in… I couldn’t say when. I tucked the flyaway strands that had fallen loose behind my ears and tugged at my grey shirt to smooth the wrinkles that must have been there.
Behind her stood a shorter, rounder person, a man who looked younger than me. His Judician band, of thinner material, made the sleeve of his jacket sag askew against the arm hanging at his side. He was bald except for a circle of dark hair hedging the top of his head. One hand held a briefcase, the other pushed his glasses up his rounded, reddened nose. He stank. As he stepped through the door, a thick whiff of body odour cut through the lemon scent hovering around the woman, and I concentrated on not wrinkling my nose.
The door slid shut, and I was trapped again, this time with the severe, gangly woman and her opposite. The room was not big enough for the three of us.
The woman strode toward me and thrust out her hand with a force that propelled me in a diffident step backwards until my calves met the edge of the bed. I don’t know why, but I noticed right then that her nails were immaculate, painted red and filed to a fashionably sharp point. Mine were chewed, curled up and hidden in my palms.
“Hessa Black. My name is Counsel Gallie. I’m the prosecutor assigned to your case.” I didn’t take her hand. She dropped it to her hip and turned her attention to the screen she’d placed on the small table. “Your turn,” she said without looking up from the screen.
My turn? But then the round man stepped forward. “Hi, Hessa. I’m Counsel Finch, I’m your representative.” His eyes were watery and brown. He looked at me too straight, too long, and I looked away first.
“Sit,” Gallie said as she waved her blood-coloured claws to the chair opposite the one she had claimed.
I hesitated long enough to earn a loud sigh and a pointed glare, but I had nowhere else to go. I slunk into the chair at the table, but I leaned against the back to gain as much distance from her as I could. In the corner of my eye Finch looked from Gallie to myself and around the tiny room. When his gaze fell on the corner, his face scrunched up and he took a step away then perched on the edge of my bed. He took out his own screen from his case and laid it across his knees, fluttering his fingers over it. The light from the screen glowed up on his face, leaving dark shadows in the hollows of his eyes.
Gallie’s screen flashed as it flicked between pages, following the commands of her fingers. Her eyes fluttered under her lids, painted to match the identifying blue strip on her sleeve. She said nothing but occasionally emitted an audible release of air that carried exasperation. For long, silent moments I studied them while they studied what must have been me documented in text and photos on their screens.
My fingers worried at the three inches of skin on my lower arm smoothened by the constant presence of my missing communicator. I didn’t trust them. Hell, I didn’t trust anyone. Not since they came the night before and demanded I go with them. If only Toan had been there … what would he have said? What would he have done? Would I still be here?
It was late when they came to the door, past social curfew and into my favourite hour of the day. I loved the calm quiet of late evening, keeping the lights low and the scenters on relaxing lavender, scrounging to find a few more minutes of productivity in the day. I had just opened my students’ assignments on my computer in my home office. The columns of numbers on the screen threw shadows around the small dimly lit room. The intercom in the wall startled me with “unregistered person at front door,” and I jumped, knocking my hot tea across the screen. I took just long enough to strip off my sweatshirt and drop it on top of the mess, hoping it would sop up the tea before I hurried down to the front door in my grey T-shirt.
So when I answered the door, I had a glare on my face and a smart-ass remark on my tongue that I swallowed when I saw them. I wonder if the mess is still there, if my computer still works or if the tea seeped into the circuitry and destroyed it. There were three of them. Protectors, dressed in dark grey uniforms with thick black vests, dark hats and dark glasses. I couldn’t see their eyes; instead, the reflection of my stunned face looked back at me from each lens. Their faces were unyielding masks with drawn-in brows and pinched, closed mouths. One met my startled greeting by grunting my name:
“Hessa Black?” I nodded just a bit and unknowingly sealed my fate. A second man held out his communicator, showing identification.
“You’ll come with us,” he said. It wasn’t an invitation or a request.
“Is someone hurt?” My mind flashed back to an emergency call on a dark night years ago, and I shivered in the warm air.
“You’ll come with us,” the same man repeated, as if I hadn’t spoken at all.
“I — I need to change.” My voice sounded feeble and lame, and my uncertainty was proven by the fact that I stood still in my house clothes, waiting for their permission instead of turning away to go get dressed.
“There’s no need. We’ll leave now.”
Maybe I should have protested, but they were the law, and as naive as it sounds now, I didn’t realize I was in trouble.
I folded my arms against the cold and stepped into the night. The house door slid behind me, and out of habit I said, “Lock door” to the security system. I followed one Protector while two followed me. Too close, so that I smelled the garlic on one Protector’s breath. Beyond the halo of our door light, the night was dark. Our movement toward the road initiated the streetlights, and they slipped on, illuminating a long black car parked at the curb. I had only ridden in a private car once before; it seems luxury transportation only comes with very bad circumstances. My breaths shortened, and my heart raced until I felt dizzy, and the car and street and houses seemed to tip in front of me. I stopped. Cold fingers curled around my elbow and pulled me forward. As we approached, the rear door swept up and open, and I had no choice but to fold myself in and sit on the cool seat facing the back of the car. It smelled of bitter old smoke, and my throat pulled even tighter against the noxious taste carried through the scent. The seat belt snaked with a whir from my right shoulder to my left hip and snapped into place. I didn’t feel safer; my chest bone was squeezed between the pressing seat belt and my pounding heart.
One Protector slid in after me. He sat opposite, riding forward, facing me with his body but keeping his shielded eyes turned away. The car was big, but with him in the space I felt crowded. I folded my arms and tucked my legs under me, trying to make myself small. As the car shifted into motion I asked again, “Is someone hurt?” but he didn’t even acknowledge my presence, let alone my question. From then on I kept my eyes on the window, watching the lights behind us switch off as we passed out of their sensor range and my street fell dark. I tried to remember if there was somewhere I’d been or something I’d done, or said, that might have triggered a warning through my communicator trace. Some kind of suspicious misunderstanding to warrant their reaction, something I could explain easily enough if they’d just give me the chance. Or a slip. But the evidence was gone, disintegrated into nothing.
But the evidence was gone, disintegrated into nothing.
Within moments they whisked me away through the empty streets and echoing halls to the room where I now sat waiting for the Judician antitheses to tell me why I was there. The cell was small, three meters square, if that. One corner hugged a mattress on a metal frame that squeaked each time I moved on it. The mattress was wrapped in stiff white sheets and a scratchy red blanket. The pillow was hard and flat. I’d tried to fold it in half, thinking if I lay still it wouldn’t flip open, but when I got that close, it reeked of something unfamiliar, something sour. I threw it to the floor, where it landed under the table, and laid my head on my arms instead.
Gallie and I sat in the opposite corner of the cell, at the heavy silver table. The top of the table was shiny, with metallic grain running through. I’d spent the morning sitting in the chair, running my fingers along the cool grain lines, studying them as if they were a map illustrating my route into that hole. Or maybe out. Overhead, the white-lit ceiling hummed, which was
Overhead, the white-lit ceiling hummed, which was usually the only sound, except when someone walked by the door. I think that was the worst of it — they had taken my communicator, and I missed its frequent beeps. There were no screens that whirled or muttered, no distant hover whoosh, no sirens, no voices. Just the even hum of the ceiling.
In the third corner a small oval was barely visible on the floor. The outline was a thin crack in the otherwise unmarked surface of the shiny black floor. I hadn’t even noticed it at first, until my anxiety drove me to pace. When I stalked to that corner, I heard a whoosh of air, and the oval split in two, each half sliding aside under the floor to leave a dark hole. An odd stench, a combination of sewer and chemical cleaner, wafted up to meet me. Walking away from the toilet made the oval slide closed again. I’d limited my pacing closer to the door in the fourth corner of the room after that.
Like the table, the door was metal and solid, cold and smooth when I pressed my hands against it after it closed behind the Protectors who left me there. It didn’t budge. A transparent square at eye level was almost always closed by a cover accessed from the outside. Along the length of the opposite wall, above the bed and toilet, was a thin strip of window to the outside. It was only three inches or so tall so that the light it let in was limited to a bright sliver that had traveled across the floor over the bed and toward the door since I woke early that morning. I had stood on the bed to raise my eyes to the window. There was nothing but concrete walls with jutting corners and edges that must contain miles of mazed hallways, just like the one outside the cold door.
“Do you know why you’re here?” Finch now asked, and my shoulders jerked up as he brought me out of my trance.
Gallie’s thin fingers swept off her screen, and it turned black. She looked up and studied me for an uncomfortable moment before taking a deep breath. I turned my head in an almost indiscernible denial. She tapped the sharp point of her fingernail on the table, the other three curled in against her palm so tightly the skin was white against her knuckles. “I told you.” She blew out on her pent-up breath, and in the still of the cell I felt her exhalation brush warm against my face a second after I heard it. I smelled peppermint then onion. “He’s dead, Hessa, and you are being held responsible.”
“Toan?” The whisper fell out of me as if forced out by a punch. “Toan’s dead?” My cracked voice pricked my throat, and my stomach heaved up pressing against my heart. If I had eaten the food they offered, I’d have vomited all over Gallie’s pristine suit. Toan’s wide, boyish smile flashed in front of my eyes as the cell and the two Judicians blurred through instant tears.
“Excuse me, Counsel Gallie, but you are here to observe, not to intervene. You will have your chance in court.” Finch’s watery eyes blinked at Gallie, and his eyebrows tipped inward. Gallie shrugged and waved her hand palm up at me.
Finch sighed and looked at me a breath too long before he said, “No, not your match.” For a second I could breathe, but then he went on. “Aubin. Aubin Wallace is dead.” Aubin. The shock of hearing his name aloud momentarily cloaked the implication of his other words. My ears hummed. Aubin. Who was this man to say his name to me? How could he possibly know? I squinted at him. I pinched my lips together in defiance and bit the inside of my cheek until I tasted metallic blood. I hated him then. I willed them both away. I wanted them to leave, even though it would leave me alone. But they sat still. Gallie’s eyebrows raised and her head cocked as a sneer inched slowly across her lips. Finch looked at his hands, fingers woven together and resting on his screen in his lap.
And then the rest of his message caught up. Aubin is dead. I broke. My heart, that I had spent the last many months piecing back together, blew apart into shards that cut me as they flew. Aubin was dead. I was trapped, and Aubin was dead.
“See? I told you she didn’t know.” Gallie’s voice had a hint of a laugh to it. “Perhaps you had better start over, Counsel Finch.”
Finch looked from Gallie to me and nodded. He sat up a bit straighter and fluttered his fingers above the screen again. “When was the last time you saw Aubin Wallace?”
I knew the exact date, the exact hour, but sharing less seemed safer. “Eleven,” I managed to squeeze out of my tight throat.
“Eleven of last year?” I couldn’t speak again, so I nodded. His simple question ferried me back in my memory to a moment that was so intimate, only the two of us knew it existed. Now just one, just me. I had told no one, of course; it was too dangerous. And wrong. I had walked away stiffly, my false bravado carrying me away from his wet blue eyes and his haunted insistence.
I forced myself back to the present, where I was locked in the metallic cell. “What — what happened? Why am I here…?” I whispered.
“He is dead, that is the truth we know as of now,” Finch said. “The Authority has evidence that you know information which will explain the circumstances of his death further. Information that you kept secret. The Authority maintains that had you shared the information, his death would have been avoided. You are being charged as culpable in his death because of that evidence, and your failed responsibility to share it. That warrants a charge of murder.”
Murder. The word bounced around in my brain, and I shook my head to try to clear it. Aubin. Just months ago he was full of curiosity and hope and wonder… How could he be…? But he was dead. What reason did these people have to lie? Aubin was dead. Murder. Could it really be my fault?
“Hessa, I thought you knew all of this.” Finch leaned toward me from his perch on the bed but turned to glare at Gallie when she snorted.
I wanted to scream ‘How could I?’ but I kept silent, staring at the grain lines in the table, tracing their swirls with my eyes. “We need to prepare for your trial. Counsel Gallie will be narrating and presenting the evidence.” He looked at her when he said this, and Gallie smiled brightly, nodding. My jaw throbbed, and I made myself release the clench. The pain only rose into my temples and pounded there instead. “I am your representative.”
“But I … I didn’t…” I was going to say “I didn’t hurt anyone,” but that was far from the truth. “Why do they think it’s my fault?” Gallie answered, her voice sharp and fast, cutting in while Finch took a breath. “There is
Gallie answered, her voice sharp and fast, cutting in while Finch took a breath. “There is irrefutable evidence that proves you are to blame for Aubin’s death. I have shared the information I have with your representative, so he knows the futility of challenging—”
Finch stood and closed the half step between himself and Gallie. His face was flushed red and his hands were fisted, shaking. “Counsel Gallie, I must remind you of your role in this meeting. You asked to be present solely to ensure no undisclosed truth was revealed. I ask you maintain your silence.” They stared at each other as if I was no longer in their midst.
“Of course, please proceed,” Gallie finally said. Finch sighed and turned back to look at me.
“Hessa, your trial will be presented through Narrative Summary Trial by Counsel Gallie. She will present the information to the judge, I will be there to ensure the information is submitted with objectivity. If you are found culpable and therefore guilty of murder, your certification will be stripped and you will be convicted to oddout containment.” He glanced at Gallie, and she flashed him a wide smile. “We will start in one week.”
“One week?” I managed to push out on a panicked breath, and then swallowed down another mouthful of bile.
Finch returned to his screen, tapped and stroked the cover, then swept his fingers toward the wall. I kept my gaze locked on the metallic lines of the table, but in my periphery the black wall lit up with white letters that spelled my name. I avoided looking up.
“Yes, timing is essential in a Narrative Summary Trial. Research has indicated that an immediate summary is the most reliable method to obtain the highest accuracy of truth, and testimonies are most precise closest to the event. The system moves quickly so witnesses don’t have time to forget details or generate alternate truths. Any delay in proceedings raises questions and doubts in the truth presented.”
“So you will tell my side?”
“There are no sides, Hessa. There is no indication of conflicting facts. The Judicial Authority is confident it knows the truth. Counsel Gallie’s responsibility is to provide the structural questions that will elicit the facts, and my role is to make sure those questions are not delusive or subjective. Your responsibility is to tell the truth.” He blinked, twice, and his lips twitched as if he was failing an attempt to smile.
Gallie stared at me so steadily, I hoped she didn’t see me shiver. My head pounded with questions. What facts? What truth? What did I know? As if she could read my thoughts, she smiled at Finch and said, “May I?” but leaned forward in her chair and rushed into her next breath before he could protest. “You will need to provide your concealed information that our evidence demonstrates you have. The judge will determine your guilt and liability in Aubin Wallace’s death. If you are found guilty, you will be incarcerated and submitted to the Authority’s medical sustainment program.”
“That is it!” Finch growled.
“Yes, that is all I have to say.” Gallie smiled sweetly at him and stood to face him, nose to nose. “Are we finished here?”
Finch narrowed his eyes and stood his ground. “Not quite,” he spat, a spark of spittle flying off his enunciated ‘t’. Gallie grimaced and forced her smile wider before she stepped around him to stand by the door.
“Hessa, do you have any questions?” he asked, his voice lowered as if he could whisper to me unheard.
I had questions. Thousands of questions. So much was unknown that I didn’t know what to ask. My throat was closed, and I concentrated on pushing air in and out. My jaw locked closed, tight again, bulging pain from my teeth to my temples. I couldn’t loosen the grip and suddenly I realized if I did, I might start to scream and not stop. I shook my head.
“I will be back tomorrow. Now that you have met Counsel Gallie, the audio surveillance in the room will be sufficient to exclude the need of her invigilating our meetings.”
Gallie smiled with one last pitiful look in my direction, faced the door and placed her hand on the palm panel of the wall. Her barbed red nails stood out against the dark wall. The door slid open. “Are you coming, Counsel Finch?” she asked sweetly. Finch was still looking at me, his wet eyes locked onto mine until my cheeks started to burn. I looked away. “Until tomorrow,” Finch whispered and stepped through the door after Gallie. The door
“Until tomorrow,” Finch whispered and stepped through the door after Gallie. The door closed with a mechanic thunk behind them, leaving me alone with the documents on the screen glowing on the wall — and my thoughts.
I followed my finger along the grains for a while, resisting the urge to read through the information glowing on the wall. I desperately wanted to see what it said, but I was terrified to look. The Judicians’ whirlwind visit had left me with more information but even more questions.
I had only encountered one other person since the officers had left me there. A stooped old man in a dark green oddout uniform that matched the green bruise dripping from his eye had appeared twice to deliver my meals in a plain flask of liquid nutrients. The first time he came, shortly after I arrived, I tried to talk to him. As soon as he walked through the sliding door, I pummelled him with questions, asking where I was and why I was being kept, but he only looked away as he shuffled to the table to put down the flask, and then back to the palm panel to request his exit. That morning he had shaken his head before I even opened my mouth. As he shuffled out, a sarcastic, hollow laugh echoed in my head when I remembered the character in an old movie Toan insisted we watch for compulsory arts hour. I decided to call him my butler.
The butler slid in again, interrupting my standoff with the screen. He put the flask on the white ‘L’ reflecting on the table, and I heard him sigh. He hesitated, and I thought he shifted just a bit in my direction, but his communicator buzzed, and he must have thought better of whatever he had been about to do. Or maybe I had imagined it. He turned and left without looking back. His appearance and disappearance pushed me to act. I grasped the flask, opened my meal and looked up at my name on the wall. I hadn’t even noticed the screen on the wall, but a rectangle of the dull grey fabristone had been replaced by a polished black background against which my white name glowed. The background was glassy, like the deep lake I remembered from the holozoo, so still I could see my reflection. The ‘ac’ of my last name cut across my forehead just above my eyes, staring back at me. I was a mess. My dark hair that was always neatly tied back was frizzy and loose; it was pointing all directions around my face. The amber orbs of my eyes stood out against wider, red-rimmed whites. Frantic. Even with the limitation of the black screen as a mirror, I could see my face was pale enough that my hated freckles glowed. My eyes were puffy, making my lips look even narrower than usual, and more so as I pressed them together. My grey house clothes — T-shirt and sweat pants — were shapeless and hung from my frame.
My wild appearance made me feel even more out of control. I wished I could get dressed and brush my hair. Put everything back in place. I held my fist up in front of the screen on the wall and twitched my fingers open. The screen flickered and my name dissolved into a white rectangle with black text: a formal document with the Authority crest at the top. My name was bolded in larger font, standing out from the rest of the message. Down a line and halfway across the screen, also thick and enlarged, was Aubin’s. There we were, officially tied together by mention in a legal document. And the worst possible words linked our two names: is charged with murder due to interference and manipulation resulting in the untimely death of.
I knew two things: Aubin was dead. It was my fault.
Ella wasn’t a reader. Novels often left the reader with unanswered questions, and she had enough uncertainty in real life. She sometimes enjoyed a book if it was a fast-paced, easy read, but she preferred flipping through her playbook. She had meticulously saved every handout, with the squiggles and arrows, X’s and O’s, and filed them away in a one-inch blue binder. In her playbook, where to start and where to end up was clearly laid out in black and white. Each play included contingencies for the unknowns. Real life didn’t work that way. Big events that defined her overlapped and collided with the smaller occasions in her life. She tried to identify events that might specify who she was, where she was going, where she would end up. She wished starting points were indicated with an arrow, like a street sign or a play squiggle; something that would point her the right way. It would be easier to recognize the beginning of a play. But beginnings are easier to find in hindsight. Looking back, it was clear that hers started one warm day in September that seemed just like any other.
Ella was late. Again. She cursed her night owl tendencies—How do I forget how hard it is to get up when I stay up watching Jimmy Fallon?—and vowed to go to bed earlier. Sighing, she tossed her math text carelessly in her book bag and her court shoes into her gym bag. Great day to forget those, she thought. I’d be screwed if I missed the first tryout. She was determined to make the starting lineup. She brushed her long hair and drew an elastic twice around the high pony, folding her hair only halfway to keep the heavy length off her neck. With a quick glance in the mirror—clean jeans, T-shirt (only slightly wrinkled)—she zipped up her hoodie and assessed herself aloud. “Good enough.” She shouldered her backpack, grabbed her gym bag and bounded down the stairs to the kitchen.
“Watch it, dork,” grumped her brother Ben when she brushed past him. He stood at the fridge staring at its contents with glossy eyes, one hand propping the door open and the other braced against the top. He wasn’t a morning person either, his ever present backwards Jays hat covered a mop of bedhead. He ignored her growled “Look out,” so she ducked under his arm, between him and the food, and grabbed her bagged lunch and a can of Diet Coke. The fridge door swung shut as she pushed him back out of the way. Banana it is, she thought as she snatched two from the fruit bowl on the counter and handed one to him.
“No time for breakfast,” she told Ben. She didn’t wait as he picked up his book bag and followed her out the door, racing to catch the bus. The September sun was still low in the sky, shining off the dewy leaves on either side of the gravel driveway. The air smelled of rain and worms but the sky was clear. Ben’s footfalls kicked up gravel as he caught up and matched her hurried gait. They reached the end of the driveway just as the bus rounded the corner and shuddered to a stop in front of them. When the doors opened, the voices of students stumbled over one another. The bus was always loud. The driver glared at them from under his worn cap as they climbed the steps, but they'd long since grown immune to his impatient stares. Ella followed Ben down the aisle through the ruckus and fell into the seat in front of him, while he landed beside Charlie.
Sliding down further in her seat, knees propped against the back of the bench in front of her, Ella fiddled with the earbuds in her old iPod until the static cleared. She didn’t really mind the ride; forty minutes was just enough time to get ready for the day. She had known most of the kids since elementary school and on the bus they were together without expectations: no teachers, no chores, no listening parents. She watched out the window, letting her mind wander until she felt a hard jab on her left shoulder. She yanked her earbud out and turned to glare at the boys behind her. “What?”
“He was under the tag. Right, Ella? Did you see it?” Charlie stared at her with his dark eyes narrowed, waiting for her to answer. It took her a moment to realize they were arguing about the baseball game from the night before. Ben and Ella had fallen into their father’s love of the Blue Jays to be loyal to him and to their Canadian roots. Charlie’s team was the Red Sox from nearby Boston. It didn’t matter that Boston consistently fielded a winning team while the Jays lost season after season. Ella remained steadfastly loyal to her favourite underdogs.
“Yeah, saw it… He was out. The ump blew it. And without that run, we’d have beaten you in the ninth. That was the difference in the game, right there.” Charlie rolled his eyes as she punctuated with,
“Face it, Lassie, you just can’t handle them losing—though you should be used to it by now.” Ella narrowed her eyes at him and turned back to slouch in her seat. Charlie knew Ella hated being called “Lassie.” Her ninth-grade math teacher had called the class “Lads and lassies,” sneering at them over his fingerprint-smeared glasses. She made the mistake of complaining about him to Ben and Charlie once. They’d laughed and teased in fake Scottish accents, “Pass me that pen, Lassie” “Lassie, Mom’s calling you.” Since then, whenever Charlie needed to get under her skin, he would slip that moniker into a sentence. She would glare at him then shut him out, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of her frustration. It never seemed to deter him.
“Aw, c’mon, Ells, it’s okay … they’re in a rebuilding year.” Ella raised her hand and flipped him the bird. Hearing the boys laugh, she smiled to herself and fiddled with the earphone jack to reduce the static again.
Ben met Charlie their first year of school and they had been friends ever since. Ella spent much of her last year in preschool trying to win back her brother’s attention whenever Charlie came over. For some reason the boys tolerated her while they played. It helped that she was never a girlie girl, preferring to climb trees and run through the woods out back. Then for a few years she realized it was not cool to be friends with ‘a boy,’ so she let her friends believe she thought Charlie was gross like all the other boys. At home she would still play video games or ball with them but at school she avoided him. Her friend Karen thought it was hilarious. Once in third grade Karen led the whole bus in an out-of- tune rendition of “Charlie and Ella, sitting in a tree…” until the bus driver hollered over the noise at them to sit down and be quiet. It was the one time Ella was glad for his impatience. At their stop Ella raced off the bus, tears stinging her eyes and threatening to betray her cool indifference. She never talked to Ben or Charlie about it. The next morning as Ella climbed the steps onto the bus she kept her head down, feeling eyes on her and wishing she could be invisible. Without looking at anyone’s face, she slipped into the front seat. Ben and Charlie got off first and stopped to wait for her, but when she stepped onto the pavement she met each of their gazes briefly with a hard stare, put her head down and walked right past them. Charlie didn’t talk to her again in school that year. Even years later, on that sunny morning in September, she felt a pang of guilt for the way she had treated him. But that was then. Ella shoved the memory out of her mind as the bus bounced over the potholes in the school driveway and came to a hard stop. Stepping off the bus, they headed towards the school. Ben gave Ella a gentle shove as he ran past, calling, “Later, sucker!” She watched the boys disappear through the front doors.
Stepping off the bus, they headed towards the school. Ben gave Ella a gentle shove as he ran past, calling, “Later, sucker!” She watched the boys disappear through the front doors.
“Ella!” Her name floated from somewhere in the parking lot. She turned to see Karen waving as she moved between the parked cars. “Ells, wait up!” She stopped and waited, pushing a loose strand of hair out of her face. She straightened her shirt. Karen strode past and swept Ella into her gait. Her sleek hair was pulled neatly up in a couple of clips. Long and blonde, it caught in the sunlight and glowed around her face like an aura. Her tank top was tight and black and barely met the low-rise jeans that hung at her hips. Her knee high boots clicked on the linoleum floor when they entered the school, announcing her imminent arrival. Although Karen was her friend, Ella sometimes felt like a child beside her. Karen
Although Karen was her friend, Ella sometimes felt like a child beside her. Karen had poise, an attitude of confidence and self-assurance that Ella envied, not to mention hair that did what it was told instead of frizzing wildly between curly and straight. As the girls traveled the hall, students turned to greet Karen, who continued her monologue, speckled with comments thrown to the side, “… so I told him if that’s what he wanted, I’d go too—hey, Melissa! Nice boots!—but I didn’t really want to. He should’ve known. I mean, really, right? Val! Get my text last night? I mean, what was he was thinking…” Karen’s ridiculously loud laugh ricocheted off the locker-lined walls. At their side-by- side lockers, Ella fiddled out her combination while Karen lamented, “Why can’t boys just grow up a little?”
Realizing she had lost track of Karen’s complaint, Ella gave a noncommittal shrug and asked “Are you sure you’re not going to try out for the team tonight?”
“Too much to do. Between homework and that stupid job, I won’t have time to see Jake if I play ball. Besides,” she managed to pout through her grin, “he said he’d miss me too much.”
“But the season is only ’til Christmas, it’s not like it’s forever. Did he actually ask you not to play?”
“No, ’course not. I wouldn’t listen to him anyway … but when I mentioned it, he seemed kinda bummed. It’s not like I’m the star of the team, either. Don’t worry, I can cheer you on from the stands just as good as I would from the bench.” As Karen spoke she walked backwards down the hall. “Good luck tonight. I’ll text you later to see how it went.” Ella waved and turned towards her homeroom.
Between final bell and the start of practice, the rush of students moving en masse from classrooms to lockers to buses was chaotic. Ella dumped her books in her locker, shouldered her gym bag and maneuvered through the fluid maze of people to the girls’ locker room. The door swung shut behind her, muffling the noise from the hallway. Several girls were already in various states of changing and she easily spotted Alex by her red hair, in the far corner tying her court shoes.
“No Karen?” Ella shook her head. “Told ya. Well, we tried. Not much we can do if that’s what she wants.”
“I know, I just hope she doesn’t regret it later.” Ella nodded towards the other corner of the locker room at a younger student tying her shoes for the second time. “I’m glad that’s not me. I was so nervous last year I felt like throwing up, though I’m not feeling much better right now.”
“Me too,” Alex agreed. “At least you know you’ll make it … I don’t.”
Ella rolled her eyes. “Shut up, Alex. Don’t be dumb.”
“No, really! What if there’s some superstar first-year here today? I don’t think I’m on for sure.”
“’Course you are, Coach knows how you play.” Alex finally smiled. “C’mon, let’s go. I’ve got to burn off some of these nerves.”
A push of the gym door released the reverberation of basketballs hitting the floor and walls and making poor, heavy shots. Ella took a deep breath, held it for a minute, then puffed up her cheeks and let it go in a slow, audible blow. The gym was loud and reeked of wood and sweat. It sounded and smelled like basketball. The boys and girls were mixed throughout the court, taking shots at baskets or huddled together in groups stretching, chatting or watching the activity around them with flitting glances. Ella spotted Charlie and Ben shooting with a few friends across the gym and tried to catch their attention, but they were engrossed in a rough two-on- two match. An errant ball rolled towards her and she picked it up, pushing it to the floor and gently slowing its return with her hand. She had missed this: being on the court, feeling the hard, rough ball press up against her fingertips. She felt the echo of its bounce move through her shoes, up her legs and into her lungs. She took a few strides forward, pounding the ball along with her, and shot at the closest basket. The ball bounced off the front of the rim and spun wildly away from her. “Shit,” she whispered, making a face.
“Parker! Watch that shot!” Coach yelled from the sidelines. Ella grinned. It was good to be back.
Out of breath and wobbly-legged after practice, Ella shuffled into the locker room behind Alex. “That was tough. I should’ve run more this summer.”
“Tough?” Alex groaned. “At least you got some in. I couldn’t shoot to save my life!”
Crashing down on the bench, Ella sighed and leaned forward to untie her shoes. “I think everyone was a little off. Coach didn’t look too thrilled.” Dropping her voice she added, “I hope the team looks better than we did today. “I swear half of them only come out because the guys warm up with us.” Around the room several of the new girls were whispering and giggling in twos and threes. Alex rolled her eyes. “I mean, really.”
Ella followed Alex’s line of sight and smothered a laugh. “It’s not like there’s anything out there worth watching.” Her wet, warm feet felt much better released from her restrictive socks as she slipped on her flip-flops.
Alex turned a shade brighter and muttered under her breath “Well there’s … a couple guys…” She means, “There’s one,” Ella thought, slipping on her hoodie and pulling it down at the waist. She wasn’t sure Alex even knew the vibes she cast when it came to Ben. Ella knew her brother wasn’t interested in the least, though she didn’t know why. He once said he “wasn’t into redheads,” but Ella thought he was just making excuses. When Alex came over, Ben would hide in his room. Alex didn’t seem to notice, but Ella did, and she felt embarrassed for her friend. Stuck in the middle, she didn’t know how to tell Alex—or if it was even her place to do so.
“Hey, where’d you go? What’s up?” Alex asked.Ella smiled and shook her head. “Nothing. But shit, look at the time. I gotta go. Mom’s picking us up.”
Ella smiled and shook her head. “Nothing. But shit, look at the time. I gotta go. Mom’s picking us up.”
She looked back to make sure she had all her gear. “Text me!” she yelled as she hurried out of the room and down the hall to her locker where Charlie and Ben stood, looking impatient.
“Hey Lassie, what took you so long?” Charlie asked as she drew closer. Ignoring him beyond a quick glare, she crammed her gym bag in the locker, tossed her court shoes down with a hollow bang and stared at her pile of textbooks.
“C’mon, Ella,” Ben said.
“Shut up, will you? I’m trying to think. What books do I need tonight?”
“Look out, Benny, she’s thinking.” The boys snickered and slowly sauntered down the hall towards the front exit, squeaking their sneakers as they went. Math, English, no history tonight, she counted as she added books to her bag. Then she slammed the door shut, replaced the lock and hurried after them. They were passing the girls’ locker room as Alex burst out. “Hey, look out!” Ben said as he stooped to pick up the math text he’d dropped. Walking behind them, Ella wondered if her face was reddening as she felt Alex’s embarrassment. Alex diverted her eyes and mumbled an apology. At least he’s decent enough not to relish her embarrassment. Alex tossed a sheepish smile at Ella then escaped down the hall.
Stepping out of the school, Ella could see their mother parked at the end of the lane moving her head to music they couldn’t hear. “Told ya she’d be waiting,” her brother chided as they picked up their pace towards the car.
From behind them someone yelled, “PARKER!” They all turned to see Sam loping towards them. He was tall and slender, built in the arms and shoulders. He wore his blond hair longer than most guys, with wide, bouncing curls that fell below the nape of his neck. Girls swooned over him. He turned heads in the cafeteria and down the halls. He was outgoing and friendly, and rumour had it he would be named captain of the basketball team. He made Ella feel off balance.
He closed the last few yards between them and cruised to a stop. “Hey.” He held a grey Roots sweatshirt at arm’s length towards Ben. “This yours?”
Ben looked surprised, then relieved. “Yeah, thanks!” He took the sweater, balled it up and stuffed it in his bag. Ella glanced over at her mother’s waiting car then looked at her feet. Her palms were clammy. Gross, Ella, get a life.
“Hey, good practice today.” Sam’s smile was audible in his voice. When neither Ben nor Charlie replied, she looked up and saw the three of them watching her.
“Oh,” she responded. “Um, I guess.”
“Running that zone drill, you weren’t half bad…” Ella felt heat rising in her cheeks. The silence of the moment was full but her mind was empty and she had no idea what to say. “Well, for a girl that is, right guys?” Sam slapped Charlie on the chest with the back of his hand as he snickered at his own joke. She looked up and caught Charlie studying her.
“Um, thanks…” She regretted her choice of words as soon as they escaped. Where is Karen with her witty retorts when I need one? Risking a look, Ella saw Sam’s steady gaze was still on her. His laugh had settled into a soft, friendly smile. Shifting her weight between her feet, she looked from Charlie to her brother for a rescue. A car horn beeped twice and she looked back to see her mother frowning and gesturing from the driver’s seat.
“I’ll see you round,” said Sam. Taking a step backwards, he turned on his heel and ambled towards the parking lot. For the briefest moment, Ella stood watching him go and then caught up with Charlie and Ben as they hurried towards the car.
“For a girl?” Ben repeated. “If I’d said that…”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with you, Lassie?”
“Whatever. Not worth my time.” Ella prayed they couldn't see the redness she felt burning in her cheeks or hear the pounding in her ears. She climbed into the front, giving her mother a smile, while the boys scrambled in back. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Mom.” Her mother acknowledged the apology with a nod. “How was practice?”
Her mother acknowledged the apology with a nod. “How was practice?”
“Alright,” Ella muttered, looking out the window.The boys laughed as they recounted stories of the first-year students who scored on the wrong net
The boys laughed as they recounted stories of the first-year students who scored on the wrong net during the scrimmage or tripped over the ball during a weave. Ella turned in her seat to watch them emphasize their stories with their hands and arms, laughing at their antics. She shut out thoughts of Sam Cleveland and the almost-conversation they’d had, worried they would project on her face and give her away.
Twenty minutes later, after dropping Charlie at his house, Ella’s mother slowed and maneuvered the car between the two spruce trees at the end of their long driveway. Ben hopped out of the back seat, but before Ella could follow her mother stopped her with a cool hand on her arm. “Who were you talking to?”
Ella resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Sam Cleveland, he plays on the boys’ team.”
“Ah,” her mother said, still holding her gaze, eyebrows raised and lips curled. “He’s cute.” Ella gave in and rolled her eyes, forced a smile back and opened the car door.
Once inside she climbed the stairs to her room, tossed her bag on the bed and flopped down beside it. Propping up her head with her hands she looked, unseeing, up to the ceiling. “Stop being so stupid,” she chastised herself aloud. “He wasn’t even being nice.” But that smile, her mind argued. She groaned, knuckled her eyes with her fists and reached into her bag for her phone. Four texts. The first one was from Karen: HEY GRL. HOWD IT GO? J MADE IT UP 2 ME 😉
Ella rolled her eyes. Lately Karen was always insinuating what she was doing with Jake. Even though she couldn’t tell how much was true and how much was exaggeration, Ella wasn’t interested in the details of Karen.s sex life. She’d had changed since she started dating Jake. I’m just jealous. Ella fiddled with the floppy ears of the small stuffed dog that had lived on her bed since she was small. Its fur was matted and flattened from wear but was still soft. Well, what high school girl wouldn’t want to be swept off her feet and romanced by a popular senior? But for Ella it was easier to be “one of the guys.” She could banter about sports or trade sarcastic quips, but as soon as conversation turned serious or personal she ran out of things to say. She didn’t know how to flirt or even how to tell if someone was flirting with her. Fack, you’re such a loser. She shook her thoughts from her head and took her math book out of her bag, hoping to distract herself with homework.
Standing in the middle of the dinner mess in their kitchen, Katherine could see the answer in Danny’s face. One by one, the muscles around his eyes and mouth fell. He caught her eyes and lifted his shoulder in a minute shrug as his jaw set. “Yes, I see, we’ll be in touch,” he said into the phone in a low voice, holding her gaze. His face started to blur as tears filled Katherine’s eyes. She tried to keep them in, push the disappointment back down, but as Danny ended the call he offered a small, resigned smile that shattered her control and released her tears. She buckled, still locked in his eyes, and folded into the chair behind her.
In two strides, he was kneeling in front of her, his hands on hers folded at her chest. “Shh, shh, shh, Kat. Shh,” he whispered. He pulled her close and stroked her hair as she buried her face in his neck. She took a deep breath but couldn’t stop the tears. Her stomach turned and her ears pounded. She had hoped so hard. Prayed so hard. But this was it. It was over.
Later, they lay facing each other on top of their made bed. Katherine found some comfort in the furry warmth under her hand. The dog curled contently between them, breathing slowly with the deep rise and fall of his side. The night had fallen on the other side of the blinds, and the wind gusted, making an arrhythmic rustle in the wooden slats. The muted TV cast highlights and shadows on their faces and the walls. She clutched a ruined tissue in her other fist. Danny reached up and brushed a loose blonde ringlet off her face.
“We could try one more time.” Her voice caught as she whispered. “We could take out a loan.” Danny smiled sadly. “C’mon, Kat, we agreed this would be the last time. I don’t want to borrow any
Danny smiled sadly. “C’mon, Kat, we agreed this would be the last time. I don’t want to borrow any more money. We owe enough as it is. I think we’re getting a pretty clear message that this is just not going to work.”
“It could work. One more try might be enough.” She hated the desperation in her own voice and felt guilty for trying to talk him out of their agreement. He only agreed to the latest “once more” because she wanted to so badly. And because she promised it would be the last, whatever happened. “I’m not ready to give up. I just … I just …” Her voice trailed off but she didn’t cry. All of her tears were spent. Her eyes burned as she searched his face.
“There are other options, remember?” he began. She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to block out what she knew he was going to say. “We could adopt. There are lots of kids out there who could grow up to hate us as much as any kid we could make.”
Katherine smiled in spite of herself and silently thanked God for the man who was her rock. “I don’t know. I want our baby, yours and mine. Our own.” With her eyes closed, she heard his quick intake in response.
“It would be our own, Kat. I know it,” he whispered. She said nothing, but remained still and concentrated on breathing. She heard him sigh, felt his palm on her cheek. Her lips turned up to his touch as if by reflex, and she finally fell asleep.
That Friday Katherine sat with her tea and made a list of errands on her phone, hoping to cram the day full enough to push out the empty moments that might sneak up on her. She usually loved her days off, but that day she wished she had work to distract her. At least she could wear comfy sweats.
Downing the last of her tea, she picked up her keys from the table by the door, slipped into her sandals and patted the dog gently on his head. “Sorry, Coop, no dogs allowed at the grocery store.” He lifted his ears and cocked his head as her hand touched the doorknob. “No, Cooper. Stay.” The dog’s tail and ears dropped. She pushed the door open and stepped into the crisp fall morning air.
She turned the ignition over and the country radio station up, relieved it was an upbeat tune. Music always soothed Katherine, no matter how broken she felt. With a shoulder check, she pulled onto the road and accelerated, shifted gears and turned the radio up another notch. She sang along as Brad Paisley coerced a girl into a walk in the woods. As he led into a guitar solo, Katherine’s mind wandered to her own journey that had ended that week.
She and Danny had been married for seven years. University sweethearts, they’d married after graduating with their first degrees and moved together to Boston, where they could both finish professional degrees and start careers. She remembered worrying about becoming pregnant while in school—an unexpected baby would throw a wrench into their plans. Determined not to blow her academic chances, she was militant about their use of birth control. Years of fear-inducing health classes in high school had left her feeling that looking at Danny sideways under the wrong alignment of stars could leave them too-soon parents, and her a professional never-was. In the car that September morning, she laughed bitterly at her lack of forewarning. She wondered if she would have had more fun had she had known the futility of her vigilance. She wondered if Danny thought so.
They had been so excited when they started trying to have a baby five years ago. They’d counted forward to the baby’s first Christmas, planned their summer vacation around the practicalities of traveling pregnant, just in case. Month after month Katherine had searched her body for signs. Month after month she was met with disappointment, right on time. They tried everything. Doctor’s visits and tests, diets and charting and timing and supplements gave way to drugs and medical procedures. They asked all the right questions, researched all the right places, followed instructions to the smallest detail, from top medical specialists to busybody acquaintances who tried to be helpful with “Pray harder!” or “Just relax and it’ll happen.” As much as she hated to admit it, Danny was right. They needed to stop. Enough was enough.
Brad Paisley started the final chorus and Katherine shook her head back to the moment, chiding herself for allowing her thoughts to wander. Years of practice had taught her one thing about failure: there was no value in wallowing. The faster she could push herself through the disappointment, the easier it would be to get on with everything else. Still, it surprised her that the world kept turning around her, oblivious to the deafening sound of her heart breaking into pieces. She pulled her shoulders back, sat up straight and blinked her eyes, setting her jaw in tight resolution. Slowing to turn into the grocery store parking lot, she ordered herself, “Right, then, Katherine. Let’s get it done.” Katherine preferred to hit the grocery store on Friday mornings, when there was no crowd. The downside was that the other shoppers usually had reminders of her heartache in their carts or toddling beside them. Walking, smelling, babbling, crying, screaming—unavoidable reminders.
Katherine watched the bouncing raven-headed girl in line in front of her. She was about three years old with almond-shaped eyes and long, shiny, pin-straight hair. Her socks were two different colours. She sang as she flitted around her mother and Katherine smiled in spite of herself. Ahead of the mother, a woman started playing peek-a- boo with the toddler, hiding her face behind her Redbook, then pulling it away to reveal drooped, watery eyes, wrinkle-creased cheeks and a yellow-stained grin. She was oblivious to the child’s unease as the toddler stopped prancing and hid behind her mother’s legs.
“Beautiful girl,” the lady said. “When did you adopt her?”
The mother seemed to push her lips into a wary smile. “Earlier this year.”
“Is she a good girl?” she asked.
“Yup, she’s pretty perfect.”
“Well, they can’t be perfect, dear. Remember they all have their moments.” The lady looked from the mother to the child and back again. “It’s so good of you to save her. God knows what her life would have been like over there. Do you have any children of your own?”
Your own. Katherine cringed hearing those words trickle out of the woman and couldn’t help but lean forward to hear the response. With a deep breath, the mother squared her shoulders and spoke in a steady voice. “She is my own and I’m very lucky. C’mon, Wen, I forgot those bagels Daddy wanted.” She lifted the toddler up onto the cart handle and turned out of line. The child reached her arms up and around her mother’s neck. The mom nuzzled her shoulder and whispered in her ear.
Katherine resisted the urge to pump her fist. She settled for a bright smile at the lady, who looked at her in bewilderment. Deep in the darkness that had settled, Katherine felt a prick of light. She took a deep breath, realizing it didn’t hurt quite as much to breathe. Danny’s words echoed in her mind—“It would be our own, Kat. I know it”—and she felt his certainty. Maybe it was time to start listening to him.
Cooper raised his ears moments before Katherine heard the crunch of tires on the gravel. She knew it was Danny. Cooper would bark at any other car but his. As the engine silenced, the thump of Cooper’s tail on the wood floor quickened. He pushed himself up, slipping his arthritic legs on the floor, and loped over to the door. Katherine smiled as she watched him go then turned back to the pile of pamphlets on the table. Words jumped off the papers: adoption, foster care, children, social worker.
Suddenly the timing was all wrong.
“Hey, Coop!” Katherine heard keys fall on the table beside the door. “Where’s your momma?”
“Right here,” Katherine called, hurriedly gathering the papers together. Cooper’s nails clicked on the floor as he followed Danny from the door to the dining room table. She looked up at him as he drew near. She loved that after seven years of marriage her heart still sped up when she saw him in his suit and tie. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey yourself.” He grinned and planted a quick kiss on her forehead. He shifted his gaze from hers to the pile of pamphlets. “What’s all this?”
“Oh nothing … just some information I picked up today. We can talk about it later. What do you want for supper?”
Danny plucked one of the brochures out from under her hands, flipped it over and read the cover. She searched his face for a reaction. As he read, his eyebrows raised and his lips pulled into a silent oh. She could see him collect his emotions and rearrange his face. His eyes moved to hers. “What’s this, Kat?”
“Well, I thought maybe it was worth looking into. I mean, it doesn’t hurt to ask a few questions.”
“I’m not sure about anything, except that we want a baby and for whatever reason we can’t seem to have one of our—to have one the old-fashioned way…” Her voice faded as she watched him. She could tell he was holding back, letting only a small smile escape around the corners of his mouth. He blinked and his eyes shone. “I think we should look into it,” she added lamely.
“Kat, I—I don’t want to talk you into anything.” He laid the brochure on the table and stepped closer. He reached out and brushed her shoulder as if she were a mirage or a bubble that could dissipate with his touch. “It has to be what we both want, or it won’t work.”
“I know.” Katherine’s confidence returned with a little bit of excitement. “I’m not sure it is, but I am sure it’s worth looking into, right? The worst that happens is we decide it’s not for us. We’ll read up on it, talk to some people and make a decision when we know more. Deal?”
Danny’s face released a beaming smile that reached his eyes. He slipped his long fingers into her hair and framed her face with his palms resting on her jaw. She relaxed into his touch and smiled at him as he blinked wet eyes. “Deal,” he whispered, and pressed a kiss to her lips. Her arms reached up around his back and he dropped his to hold her close. The prick of light in her darkness grew and she felt weight pull up from her shoulders. Deal.
Karen butted into the lunch line behind Ella, smiling an insincere apology at the tenth-grade students
behind her. “What’s up?” Ella asked.
“Math sucks.” Karen rolled her eyes and selected a yogurt from the display, placing it on her tray. “Got my test back.”
“That good? Fries, please. No gravy,” Ella said to the hair-netted lady behind the counter.
“Mom’s gonna kill me. She’s already pissed that I was late Friday night. Oh, by the way, that’s your fault. You got lost driving home.”
“What? You told her you were with me?” With a “Thanks” to the server Ella took her fries and placed them on her tray. She dug in her pocket and started counting coins.
“Well, it wasn’t a total lie … we went to the movie together. I just let her believe you drove me home too.”
“Karen! She’ll find out. We went to the early show!” In hindsight, Ella remembered Karen’s tight jeans and barely-there top and realized how convenient it was that Jake had been at the restaurant Karen had chosen for dessert. Ella silently cursed her for using her as a cover. I should have known. Ella headed to a table where their friends were already busy eating, laughing and playing cards. “Deal me in, Alex,”
he said as she sat.
“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” Karen continued, sitting down. “It’s not like she’s going to call you and ask. She just doesn’t get it. She thinks I see Jake too much and that I should spend more time with all of you. No offence, girls,” she spoke to the table, “I love you and all, but there are just some things you don’t do for me.” With the last remark she winked at Alex, who groaned and threw a piece of broccoli at her before playing an ace.
“Gross!” said Alex. “Ells, are you going to the open gym after school?”
“Yeah, Mom has a meeting, so we have the car. We can only stay till five though, ’cause we have to go get her from work.”
Alex’s eyebrows rose. “So Ben’s going too?” She blushed and hurried to add, “And Charlie?” Ella smiled and nodded without comment, laying down a card. She glanced over at the nearby table where her brother and his friends were eating. Charlie was demonstrating some foolish dance or basketball move to his laughing friends. She could hear his voice above the others. He’s such an idiot, anything for a laugh. Ben caught her looking and winked at her. She smiled back. Maybe Alex wouldn’t be so hung up on him if he were a jerk. At least then I could give a good reason why she shouldn’t bother with him. Ella knew her relationship with her brother wasn’t typical. Sure they fought, but not like their friends did with their siblings. He was only eleven months older, so they had a lot in common: friends, basketball, even a few classes. When she took the time to admit it, she felt pretty lucky to have him.
“Earth to Ella … Earth to Ella,” Karen chanted. Ella turned back and met Karen’s laughing stare. It was a good thing the card game was so mindless. She wasn’t paying attention at all. “What’s up with Sam?” Karen asked.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Sam Cleveland. What’s up?”
Ella shrugged and willed the blood to stay out of her cheeks. Alex was watching her closely and Karen rolled her eyes. “C’mon, Ella! Don’t tell me that you haven’t noticed him checking you out. Look!” Ella glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, surrounded by his boisterous friends, Sam was looking at her. When their eyes met, he waved. Ella forced a weak grin and turned back to glare at Karen, who gave a huge wave. “Stop it! Karen, seriously!”
“What? What’s wrong with a little attention? He’s only the hottest guy in school. And free, you know. He broke up with Lindsay.”
“Really?” Alex asked. “What happened?”
“Dunno.” Karen loaded her spoon with strawberry yogurt and cleaned it by pulling it through her painted lips. Her eyes narrowed and her voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. “Probably she wasn’t all he wanted, you know, in bed?” Alex laughed and Ella rolled her eyes.
“I win!” Ella played the last card. “I’ve gotta go, I forgot my math book in my locker.” She swiped up the remaining ketchup with her last fry and stood, collecting her garbage on her tray. She turned to her friends. “Wanna do a movie tonight? My place?”
“Yeah, sure.” Alex smiled.
“Sure, if Mom doesn’t find out about my test,” Karen muttered with half a laugh. “I have to work until eight but I’ll come after that.”
“Good.” Ella turned to Alex. “See ya at the gym!” After she dumped her garbage, Ella passed by Sam’s table at just the right angle that she could glance his way without being obvious, but she was met by his steady gaze. She jumped and quickened her pace to push the cafeteria door open and escape into the hall.
“Argh!” Charlie groaned and rested his hands on his knees, breathing deeply. “That was not right, Lassie, not right at all. I call foul.”
“Oh whatever, Charlie, I didn’t touch you. You shoot worth shit, that’s all.” Ella laughed and slapped Ben a high-five.
“Suck it up, Charlie, she got you on that one,” Ben said, tossing Ella the ball at the top of the key. Ben breathed heavily and the shaggy hair that peeked out from under his backwards cap was wet with sweat. “Quit whining and play the game. It’s ten to six for us, still game point.”
Ella held the ball up over her head at the foul line. Alex stood between her and the net, but Ella could see easily over her head. Ben struggled to get open but Charlie shadowed his every move. Ella put the ball on the floor and stepped forward, guarding her dribble with her body. Alex blocked the middle so she stepped right and pushed against her. Alex swung a hopeful hand towards the ball, reaching into Ella’s protected space. With Alex off balance, Ella spun on her heel, pulling the ball past Alex and bouncing it under Charlie’s reaching hand to Ben. With a two-footed takeoff, Ben dunked the ball, hanging on the rim momentarily before dropping to the floor with a laugh.
“And that’s game!” He clapped loudly and shoved Charlie on the shoulder. “We beat your ass ah-gain!”
“Good game.” Ella reached out to Alex, trying to break her adoring gaze at Ben. Alex blinked and smiled back, slapping her hand.“I’m done,” Alex gasped. “I gotta quit.”
“I’m done,” Alex gasped. “I gotta quit.”
“What?” Charlie said. “C’mon, we have fifteen minutes. You can’t let them finish like that!”
“Yup, I can. I will. I am.” Alex laughed, repositioning the band that held her hair out of her face. “Good game, guys. See you later.” She retreated to the locker room.
“Well, damn,” Charlie said. “The Parker luck has to run out sometime. At least I’m not afraid to play you.” He shot at the basket and moved for the rebound.
“Me neither!” A voice came from across the gym. Ella turned to see Sam leaning in the doorway, his arms folded across his broad chest. He smiled, revealing a small dimple on his left cheek she hadn’t noticed before. His gym clothes hung just right from his shoulders and hips. Ella’s gut twisted. “Need a partner, Charlie Mac? I’ll help you beat these guys.” Ella forced a smile and looked from Sam to her brother and Charlie.
“Great!” Ben said. “Let’s go, sis. Charlie hasn’t been schooled enough yet.”
Ella’s heart was racing. She struggled to catch her breath, then shook her head. “Nah, I gotta get ready to go.”
She took a step backwards towards the locker room. Sam had left his post at the doorway and sauntered towards the key. Ella glanced at him and he smiled again. Damn. She took another step back. “It’s getting late.” She looked at Charlie, hoping for support.
“We have time,” Ben said. “Let’s play a quick game—to five.”
When Ella shook her head again Charlie laughed. “Some teammate you’ve got there, Benny. Shefknows round one was a fluke so she’s scared of round two.” She glared at him. Some friend.“C’mon, Ella. I dare you,” Sam said softly. She turned to look at him but he had moved closer so she
“C’mon, Ella. I dare you,” Sam said softly. She turned to look at him but he had moved closer so she had to look up. She took a half-step back. His eyes held hers and flashed with restrained laughter.
“Here. Your ball.” She looked away but her traitorous hands took the ball.
“Woo-hoo!” Ben called and took his place under the net.
Charlie stepped towards her but Sam said, “I got her.” She glanced up at his face; his green eyes were trained on hers. Her stomach flipped and she studied the ball. “Let’s go!” Ella held the ball tightly, watching Charlie and Ben battle for position under the net. It was an even match, since they were the same size. (Ben’s height advantage was only gained by his shaggy hair and backwards ball cap that inched past Charlie’s buzz cut.) Sam stepped closer and bent in defence. Ella faked left and turned right but he blocked her. She felt his contact on her hip and in her stomach. She moved back and Sam lunged. In one smooth motion he stole the ball, turned and shot cleanly through the net. Charlie cheered and tossed the ball back up to him at the top of the key.
Five minutes later the game was 4–1 for Charlie and Sam. Ella had only dared to meet Ben’s stare a couple of times and knew he was frustrated that she wasn’t playing her game. “C’mon, Ella! Let’s go!” Ben shouted from under the net. She checked the ball and got into defensive position so she wouldn’t have to look at him. She couldn’t meet his eyes, or Charlie’s. Certainly not Sam’s. She wished she had escaped with Alex when she’d had the chance. Ella fixed her jaw and set her eyes on the ball as Sam bounced it back and forth between his hands. Don’t be such a girl. Sam flashed a smile that set her resolution. Let’s go, Ella. She clenched her jaw. Game on. Sam took a step forward. Instead of falling back, Ella moved up and met his advance. Hands wide, she avoided the distraction of the moving ball and feet and watched Sam’s hips for a clue as to which way he was going to go. She kept her weight on her toes and concentrated on not letting him past. When he drove to the net, she didn’t have time to register his move; she used motor memory to block him. Her feet planted with her body square, her arms flew up to make herself taller. Sam took one long stride and launched upwards, hitting her trunk squarely with his full weight. Then she was on the ground trying to breathe.
“Whoa,” Sam said as he stumbled away. She gasped and tried to inhale. Charlie pulled her up.
“What the fuck?” Ben stepped towards Sam, meeting him nose to nose in two strides. Ella breathed out and in again.
Sam backed away with his hands up and looked over Ben’s shoulder. “God! Sorry, Ella. You okay? Look, I didn’t think she’d stand in like that. Really. Ella? You alright?” His eyes flitted back and forth between Ben and Ella.
“I’m good.” Ella winced and held her arms out then bent her knees. “Look, nothing broken. No harm done.” Sam’s relief spilled out in a sigh and a smile but Ben held his stare. “Ben, stop it. It was an accident.” Charlie touched Ben’s arm, breaking the spell. Ben looked over his shoulder at her so she waved her arms again. “Look, I’m good.”
“It’s time to go anyway,” Charlie said. “C’mon guys, we have to leave if you’re going to be on time with the car.” The three of them headed towards the locker rooms. Following the boys, Ella glanced back at Sam. He stood where they left him, the ball on his hip, and gave a small wave. She smiled back and walked out of the gym.
Ella kicked off her shoes and slipped on her flip-flops, pulled her sweatshirt over her sweaty gym clothes and stuffed her sneakers in her bag. She pushed open the door to the hall and stopped short when she saw Sam. His back was against the wall, left knee up with his right foot sole resting beside it and his arms crossed. As she came out, he smiled and took a step towards her. “You really okay?”
“Yeah, ’course. I’m tougher than that.”
Ella cursed her flawed poker face, which was probably glowing red. “Sorry about Ben. You know, big brother and all. He’s a bit of an ass sometimes.”
“Whatever.” Sam shook his head. “It was a hard hit. I’ll just have to play nice when he’s around.” Ella narrowed her eyes. What does that mean? But Sam continued. “Hey, lemme make it up to you. Do you wanna see a movie tonight? The one with that Zach guy is supposed to be epic.”
Ella felt her pulse jump. Dammit. Movie night in with the girls. She hoped he couldn’t see how pathetic
she really was. “Um,” Shit! “Well…”
“If you have other plans—”
“No, no, tonight’s good. I’m not doing anything.” They’ll forgive me. “I want to see that one anyway.”
“Great! How ’bout I pick you up at seven? I’ll get the tickets online so we have time to eat first.” Sam grinned down at her as he pulled out his phone. “What’s your address?” She recited the house number and street name and hoped her voice didn’t sound as weak as she felt. “Great, see you then?” He started to walk away.
“Yeah, see you then!” Ella waved then turned to walk in the opposite direction. Her knees were shaky. She took a deep breath and asked aloud, “What the hell just happened?”
At home, Ella climbed the stairs to her room and tossed her book bag on the floor. She checked her phone. There were texts from Alex and Karen confirming they were good to come over. Ella sighed. She didn’t want to talk to them yet.
She texted both: SRY GRLS NO GO 2NTE. STHING CAME UP. Within a minute her cell rang. She rolled her eyes at the caller ID. I should’ve known.
“Hey, so what came up? It better be good. I told Jake I couldn’t go to a party with him because I promised I’d hang out with you.”
“Not much. Um, I’m just going out to a movie instead, that’s all.” She closed her eyes and hoped. No such luck. “I thought you wanted to stay in? What movie? We’ll just come with—wait a minute…”
No such luck. “I thought you wanted to stay in? What movie? We’ll just come with—wait a minute…” Ella sighed as she waited for Karen to add up the facts. “Who are you going with, Ella?”
“Sam.” She held the phone away to avoid the squeal on the other end.
“I knew it! I knew it! I told you he's been watching you! Give it up, girl, I want deets. When did he ask? How?”
“He asked me after practice, there’s nothing else to tell. Look, I gotta go. I’ve got stuff to do here before I can go out and I’m a sweaty mess from practice. I’m running out of time.” It wasn’t a complete lie and Karen seemed to appreciate half-truths.
“Alright. But I want to hear all about it later!”
Ella showered quickly and was looking through her closet trying to talk herself into wearing the one flirty skirt she owned when the phone rang again. Alex’s face was on the call display. That didn’t take long.
“So, Sam Cleveland, huh?” Alex laughed.
“Yeah, sorry for bailing.” Ella held the phone between her ear and shoulder and looked back and forth between a bright blue T-shirt and a red V-neck sweater, then tossed them both on her bed.
“Well, you obviously owe me one. You can start by telling me everything tomorrow. I’m going to spend my boring evening at home alone, so I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through you.”
“What about Karen? You guys can still watch a movie.” Ella slipped a dark plum shirt over her head and found her favourite faded jeans in the pile on the floor.
“Ah, you know Karen. She told Jake and said she’d go to the party after all. She asked me to go with, but I don’t know. It’s at Daniel Fraser’s—does Ben know him?”
Ella felt a twinge of guilt but smiled at Alex’s veiled effort and answered her real question. “Yeah, but he and Dad are going to the hockey game tonight so he’s not going to the party.”
“Oh well. I probably won’t go anyway. Have fun, ’kay?”
After hanging up, Ella frowned at herself in the mirror. She put a brush through her hair and started to pull it back into its regular knot. Pausing, she let it fall down around her shoulders. She pulled the front and sides up in a barrette on top and was startled by the difference it made. Her thick, dark hair framed her face. Perhaps this might work after all. She applied the green shadow around her eyes that she thought made them look more green than boring brown and tucked her pink lip gloss in her pocket as she smacked her lips together to smear the gooey shine. She added a necklace with her purple sparkly “E” pendant and stepped back to critique. “Good enough,” she muttered and checked her watch; it was 6:45. Almost game time. She slipped into her teal Under Armour zip-up hoodie and instantly felt better.
“Hey, sweetheart. What do you want for supper? It’s just you and me since Dad and Ben are gone already.” Her mother looked up from the sink as Ella entered the kitchen. “You look nice! Why are you so done up?”
“It’s just jeans, Mom.”
“Well, jeans and makeup, and your hair’s down. It looks pretty. What’s the deal?”
“Um, not much, just a movie. I’ll get something to eat before the show.” She hoped her mother wouldn’t ask any more questions.
“Who are you going with? Karen and Alex?” Ella opened the fridge door looking for a bottle of water, hiding her tell-all face from her mother.
“No. A guy from school.” She hesitated. “His name’s Sam.” She took out the water, closed the fridge door and turned to face her mother, bracing herself.
“Sam, huh? The boy you were talking to the other day?” When she nodded, her mother continued. “Your father and I haven’t met him. You should have asked before making plans.”
Ella tried to keep her tone light. “It’s no big deal, Momma, just a movie.”
“Just the two of you.” Ella didn’t like the way her mother’s question was really a statement.
“Yeah, the two of us and a whole theatre of people.” Ella locked her eyes on her water bottle to keep from rolling them.
“Mom, really, it’s just a movie. It starts at 8:30 so I should be home by 11.” She dared to meet her mother’s studying eyes. Is she going to make me beg? “Please?”
“It’s a date, Ella, with a boy I haven’t met.” Ella gritted her teeth to bite back her reflexive response, then said instead, “I’m not a kid, Mom, it’s not
Ella gritted her teeth to bite back her reflexive response, then said instead, “I’m not a kid, Mom, it’s not a big deal.”
“It’s not?” Her mother gave a small smile and Ella felt her cheeks warm. “Do you have your phone?”
A knock fell on the door behind her. She froze on the spot until her mother raised an eyebrow and tipped her head towards the sound.
“Oh yeah.” Ella laughed and went to open it, hoping he didn’t hear her mother call after her, “I need to meet him first!” Sam was standing on the step with his back to the door. He wore dark, loose jeans and a heavy grey hoodie. His hair was mostly contained by a blue ball cap but the longer curls poked out underneath. At the sound of the door opening, he turned and grinned at Ella.
“Mom? I’m off!” Her mother appeared around the corner and Ella hoped she had pulled herself together. “Mom, this is Sam.”
“Hi.” Sam dipped his head and shook the hand her mother offered.
“Hi, I’m Jane. I hear you play ball with Ben?”
“Yeah, um, at school.” Ella couldn’t remember ever seeing Sam nervous before. He looked at her and smiled and she smiled back, happy not to be the only one feeling awkward for once. He raised his eyebrows as if asking for help.
“We’re gonna be late,” Ella pleaded.
“Alright guys, have fun. Eleven, Ella. Give me a call if you’re going to be late.” Ella smiled at her mother and followed Sam out the door. At the car he laughed as he made a big deal of opening the passenger side door and gestured for her to sit with a gallant sweep of his arm. She dipped in an exaggerated curtsey and settled into her seat. In the moment between shutting her door and opening his own, Ella took a deep breath and willed herself to relax. It’s just a date. He’s just a boy. The movie was funny. Ella enjoyed glancing at Sam as they tried to catch their breath through their
The movie was funny. Ella enjoyed glancing at Sam as they tried to catch their breath through their laughter. Halfway through, Sam found her hand on the armrest and wove his long fingers between hers. She looked up, startled and he smiled at her, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. She squeezed back. It seemed like the right thing to do.
When the movie finished, Ella let Sam lead her through the crowded lobby, his hand tight around hers. When they hit the cool air outside, he turned to face her and grinned. “That was a good movie. That part where he got stuck … classic!” They recounted favourite scenes as Sam drove, and were still laughing when they stopped in front of her house.
“Well,” Ella said, “that was fun. Thanks.”
“Yeah, sure was. Um, so are we even?” Sam’s eyes lit with humour.
“I dunno,” Ella replied with a coy smile, surprising herself. “You did hit me hard.”
He smirked and then recovered, forcing his mouth into a serious thin line. “Yeah, I did. I guess I’ll have to try again.”
“I guess. If you want to, I mean.” She was enjoying the banter.
“Well, I’d hate for you to retaliate on the court. How ’bout Sunday afternoon?” His eyebrows rose, punctuating his question.
Ella had no idea what plans she had for Sunday. She didn’t care. “Sure.” She put her hand on the door handle and pushed open the door.
“Ella?” She turned back, startled to come eye to eye with him. Sam had shifted closer to her and leaned over the armrest. She froze. He reached up, moved a stray lock of hair from her face and tucked it behind her ear. He leaned closer and pressed his lips against hers. For the second time that day, he knocked her off her feet.
Katherine moved the bowl of dried flowers back from the coffee table to the hutch and glared when Danny laughed. “What? It’s out of reach up here.” She stepped back to assess the placement of the bowl. Danny moved between her and the flowers, putting a hand on each of her shoulders with a gentle squeeze. “She’s not checking to see if the house is baby-proof yet. She’s just coming to tell us about the
Danny moved between her and the flowers, putting a hand on each of her shoulders with a gentle squeeze. “She’s not checking to see if the house is baby-proof yet. She’s just coming to tell us about the process and see if it’s something we think we want to do.”
“I know…” She shook her shoulders free and pushed past him to move the bowl back to the coffee table. In a lower voice she continued, “I know. I—I just want it to go well,” then turned and searched his face for reassurance.
“What’s the worst that can happen? She decides we’d make the most terrible parents in the world, tells us it’s a hopeless cause and we should give up. If that happens we’ll buy an impractically tiny sports car and take annual trips to Fiji.”
“Mmm.” Katherine stepped into his arms. “That doesn’t sound half bad, you know? Who needs shitty diapers and nighttime feedings?”
“Yeah, really? Who needs early hockey practice and fights over homework?”
“Who needs moody teenagers and missed curfews?” Her smile fell and she turned away. Gently turning her face, he kissed her. “You do, love. And I do.” Katherine nodded. “Don’t worry,” he continued. “We’ll find our baby.” She kissed him back and squeezed him in a hug before she stepped out of his arms. He grazed her cheek with his fingertips. Cooper clambered up and started barking before the doorbell rang. “Though Fiji does sound quiet.”
She laughed and headed to open the door.
Katherine fidgeted with her rings as she sat straight on the couch across the room from the social worker—she had already forgotten her name. Cool as ice, Danny asked questions and nodded as she answered. Occasionally he jotted a quick note on a legal pad on the coffee table. Whats-Her- Name seemed nice. She had been pleasant at the door and declined their offers of tea, water, pop, anything, with a polite shake of her head and asked them to relax. She told them about The Children’s Heart, an organization that supported women throughout and following unexpected pregnancies.
“Our services for adoptive families are extensive,” Whats-Her- Name assured them. “We connect you with the right government departments. As you know, adoptive families need to be approved by the state to protect children. You will need to fill out paperwork, pass police background checks and complete a training program. A social worker will complete interviews and draft a Home Study Report and will help you write a letter to prospective birth parents. Then it becomes a matter of waiting. Since the birth family usually chooses the adoptive family, it’s impossible to say just how long you might wait to be matched.” She smiled at them and asked if they had questions.
Danny asked her about the training timeline and the process, about past statistics and probabilities. He asked why children came to be placed through their services. Katherine smiled and nodded at all the right moments. The whole process sounded long and intimidating but if the end brought them a child, surely the means would be worth it. Katherine’s heart beat faster and her thoughts started to race. All off the medical tests and procedures had left them empty-handed. There were no guarantees with adoption either, but somehow this path seemed … hopeful. She was frightened by the feeling of hope fluttering like butterflies again in her chest.
As they walked to the door Danny said, “Thank you for coming. You’ve given us a lot to think about.” He pulled her jacket from the closet.
“Yes, thank you,” Katherine added. “We’ll be sure to be in touch soon.”
The social worker smiled and wished them good luck as she walked down the steps. Danny waved once more at her receding back and closed the door.
“So? What do you think?”
“Well, she was nice.” But Katherine could tell he was looking for more. She headed to the living room to buy herself time and took his hand when he sat down beside her. “Are you going to say ‘I told you so’?”
“Would I do that?”
“That hurts, Katherine.” His mock seriousness made her laugh. “Seriously though, you have to be fully on board—you can’t be doing this because I want to.”
“I know, and I think I’m ready to try.”
“You think? Or you know?” His seriousness was real now, his eyes intently studying her face.
“You know … I don’t think I know anything anymore. I don’t know if this will work for us, but I think it’s worth a try.” Katherine enjoyed the way his smile spread across his handsome face.
He squeezed her hand and said, “It could take a long time, and maybe never happen.”
“That’s no different than what we’ve done so far.” He nodded as she continued. “It seems like a lot of red tape but if there’s a chance…” She could almost see her visions of motherhood shifting from a pregnant belly and morning sickness to reams of paperwork and interviews. But she could still see herself pushing a stroller and a swing, and that was really all that mattered.
“So? We should do it?”
“Yes. Let’s try. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“Deal,” he said and sealed it with a kiss.
&RunnerSy43 — Streak still going #Sameshirtdifferentday
&PowerVic — &RunnerSy43 How many days? LOL #Sameshirtdifferentday
&Andrea43 — &RunnerSy43 B nice. Blue 2day, red yesterday.
&RunnerSy43 — &Andrea43 Still SuperLoser uni. #Sameshirtdifferentday
the first sign that today is a good day is i wake up right at 7:30 am. i used the ipad alarm app to wake me up right at 7:30 am. mom used to wake me up in the morning but sometimes it would be 7:32 am or 7:27 am or anything except right at 7:30 am and that meant the day would start wrong right from the very first part and my thoughts would be worried about how bad the day would be if the very first part was wrong. when mom woke me up at 7:32 am or 7:27 am or any time that was not right at 7:30 am my thoughts would get worried that it was a different time and since i was not dressed when i woke up i did not have my string to spin and so i would yell. mom gave me a strategy for getting up right at 7:30 am to stop my thoughts from worrying and stop my voice from yelling and that is he said i could use the alarm app on my ipad and set it right at 7:30 am and now i can wake up right on time right at 7:30 am and that is a strategy to make sure the day starts as a good day from the very first part. waking up right at 7:30 am gives me the right amount of time to do everything i need to do in the morning like put on underwear and put on pants and put on the blue Superman t-shirt because it is tuesday and put on socks and put on a hoodie and put on—wait that is Too Much detail. mom says sometimes i say Too Much detail and i need to think about what is important in a story. this story is not about what i wear on tuesdays so i do not need to say all of the clothes i put on after i wake up right at 7:30 am.
today i wake up right at 7:30 am and do all of the things that are Too Much detail to tell. then i have toast with blueberry jam and butter for breakfast. that is a big detail that is important to the story because i woke up right at 7:30 am and we had blueberry jam so it should be a good day not a bad day. i have toast with blueberry jam and butter for breakfast every morning. but one day we were out of blueberry jam and i was mad i had to have toast without blueberry jam and just with butter. that was a very bad day. but this morning we have blueberry jam so i make toast with butter and i put on one spoon of blueberry jam. mom says one spoon is enough. if I spread it out it can reach all the crusts so there is no bald spots. i eat my toast with blueberry jam and butter and wipe up forty-two crumbs because that is a strategy mom made to keep the house tidy. and i go brush my thirty-two teeth but i do not brush my hair because i do not know how many hairs are on Henr—my head.
i watch the weather channel because i am ready to go. every morning when i am ready to go and it is not time to go to the bus i watch the weather channel so it can tell me what will happen with the weather that day and that helps to tell me if it is a good day or a bad day even though i woke up right at 7:30 am and there was blueberry jam on the toast. even though it is december the weather channel says the weather will be not cold, a high of minus four degrees celsius and sunny skies with zero chance of precipitation. precipitation is the scientific word for rain and snow and sleet and hail and anything wet that falls from the sky. i do not like any precipitation. there is zero chance of precipitation so it should be a good day. four degrees celsius is not warm but in december four degrees celsius is warmer than a lot of other days. mom says “Henry go back and brush your hair.”
mom says “Henry go back and brush your hair.”
i go back to my bathroom and look in the mirror and start counting to 270 because that is four and a half minutes and four and a half minutes is long enough to brush my hair. in the mirror i look the same as yesterday but today is different because i am sixteen years and two months and seventeen days. dad says i do not have to tell everyone the number of months and days but it is the days that is the different part about today. i am six feet and one and a half inches and that is very tall, way more tall than Simon who is only five feet and eleven and a half inches even though he is seventeen years seven months and four days. mom says my hair is a little too long and i should get a haircut but i do not like to have haircuts and i do not like to have my hair brushed. i do not like the feeling of each hair pulling on my head and that happens when scissors cut my hair or a brush pulls my hair. i have to count each piece when the hair is pulled and i do not like counting that fast. i start to miss some pulls and that makes me mad. i do not like missing any of the numbers when i am counting.
i have brown eyes. my eyes are the same colour as my hair and that is good because they match. my eyes are the same colour as mom’s eyes and the same colour as dad’s eyes. my eyes are a different colour than Simon’s eyes because Simon’s eyes are blue. that is because Simon has the two recessive genes for eye colour and that means mom and dad each have one recessive gene for eye colour and one dominant gene for eye colour because mom and dad have brown eyes but Simon has blue and to have blue there is a twenty-five percent chance to have two recessive genes, one from a mother and one from a father. or Simon was adopted. but mom said there is a one hundred percent chance Simon was not adopted. my strategy to not brush my hair is to count to 270 and i do not brush my hair and then it is 7:49 am and i do not have time to go back into my room again if mom thinks i need to brush my hair.