“No. Why are you standing in front of my house right now?”
“I saw you lying on your roof. Behind that big tree over there across the street, I politely waited for your love partner to leave.”
I just stare up at Boy21.
He was spying on me, which should freak me out, but for some reason I don’t feel angry. I’m mostly curious about why he came to my house at all.
“Can we sit up there together and identify all we see in the cosmos?” he asks, and then points toward the roof.
I don’t know why but—suddenly, almost involuntarily—I nod once, and then he follows me into my house.
My dad—who picked up an extra one-to-nine-a.m. Friday-night shift and is therefore leaving for work—says, “Are you the new kid?”
“Is that the English-language human term you will call me, Earthling?” Boy21 says. “New kid?”
“Did he just call me Earthling?” Dad says to me. His expression makes him look uncomfortable, like he’s squinting directly into the sun.
“Your grandparents are worried about you,” Dad says to Boy21, staring in disbelief at the N.A.S.A. T-shirt. “Coach called asking if you were here. I’ll just give him a ring back now to let him know where you are.”
Dad goes into the other room to make the call.
From his wheelchair Pop says, “The neighborhood people don’t know you, son. It’s not safe to walk across town at night alone.”
“Nothing on this planet can possibly harm me,” Boy21 says.
Pop says, “I wish that were true, but it ain’t.”
Dad returns and says, “Coach is coming to pick up Russ. You two can wait out front if you want to talk. But I need to go to work now.”
When my dad leaves, we sit on the front steps and Boy21 says, “I’d like to sit with you on your roof in the future and teach you about my home—outer space. You have a calming presence, Finley. Would it be possible to sit on your roof with you in the future?”
No one has ever told me that I have a calming presence. Maybe people think it, but they just don’t say it. “Sure,” I say.
I like the words calming presence much more than White Rabbit or dumb mute.
I search his face, trying to determine if he’s making fun of me or being ironic, but he’s not—he’s one hundred percent serious, or at least I believe he is.
We sit in silence until a tired-looking Coach pulls up ten minutes later, smiles an embarrassed thank-you to me, and takes Russ away in his truck.
I lie awake all night thinking about Boy21.
THE NIGHT BEFORE SCHOOL BEGINS Erin and I are making out on my roof when suddenly she pulls away and says, “Is that Coach’s truck?”
I sit up, peer down over the edge of the gutter, and see the old Ford.
“Finley!” Dad yells from the living room.
Erin and I slide through my bedroom window and jog down the stairs.
“Hope I’m not interrupting anything,” Coach says. He and Dad share a smile.
“No,” Erin says. “Nothing at all.”
“Take a drive with me, Finley?” Coach says.
“We’ll only be ten minutes, Erin. Promise,” Coach says.
“No sweat.” Erin plops onto the couch and takes the remote control from Pop’s hand, because he’s passed-out drunk again with my grandmother’s rosary beads wrapped tightly around his left fist like brass knuckles. There’s a green Jameson whiskey bottle between his legs. “I’ll just watch some TV with my favorite senior citizen.”
Dad shakes his head at Pop’s state, but no one says anything.
As we get into Coach’s truck, I see sweat beads on his forehead and dark spots on his shirt where he has sweated through the fabric. It’s a hot sticky night, but I can tell Coach is nervous.
He drives me around the block, and then parks with the engine running, the air-conditioning on full blast, which feels nice because we don’t have air-conditioning at my house.
“Are you still willing to help Russ?” Coach asks.
I know what he wants me to say, so I say it.
“Good. Here’s the situation,” Coach says. “It took some convincing, but the boy’s agreed to stop talking about outer space and go by Russ Washington. No more Boy21—at least not in school. But given the stress of classes and a new environment, there’s no guarantee that he might not slip back into his routine, so I want you to stick by him. I want you by his side every second of the day. If he has to take a leak, you go with him. Understood?”
It sounds like Coach is preparing me to mark a man in a basketball game, because he’s raising his voice like he does in huddles. He’s being more forceful, and it’s like I’m not doing him a favor anymore, but just doing what I am supposed to do as a member of the basketball team. I’m willing to help, but I feel like the circumstances have changed somehow. Or am I just being paranoid?
“What if we’re not in the same classes?” I ask.
“Don’t worry about that. What time should I tell Mr. Allen to drop off Russ?”
“Drop him off where?”
“At your house, so you can walk to school together.”
Erin and I always walk to school together alone, and that’s my favorite part of the day. I like talking to Erin first thing in the morning, and kissing her too. I think quick and say, “Can Mr. Allen drop Russ off at Erin’s house around seven twenty?”
This way, I can go to Erin’s at seven and spend at least twenty minutes with her alone. It’ll mean waking up a bit earlier, but I don’t mind.
Coach reaches over and squeezes my shoulder. “This Russ—he’s special. His doing well here at Bellmont means a lot to me. His father was a close friend.”
“You won’t let me down, right?”
“Good. Seven twenty at Erin’s house. What number is hers?”
I actually can’t remember, so I say, “Just a block down the street from mine. We’ll be sitting on the front steps. Mr. Allen won’t be able to miss us.”
“And you didn’t tell Erin anything about the situation, right?”
“No more than necessary.”
“Thank you for that. Let’s keep Russ’s true identity a secret at least until basketball season is under way.”
I want to ask Coach about my starting position—how he can ask me to help the kid who’s threatening to take it away—but I don’t say anything and Coach drives me home.
When we pull up to my house, he says, “Just tell Erin and your folks we were talking hoops, okay? They don’t need to know our secret.”
I nod. I’m a little uncomfortable with this secret, but when your coach gives you an assignment, you do it.
“SO THIS RUSS IS GOING TO WALK with us every day?” Erin asks me.
We’re sitting on her steps waiting for Boy21’s grandparents to drop him off so we can walk to school and start our senior year.
“Looks that way,” I say.
“Why?” she asks.
I feel bad about keeping the secret from Erin, but Coach told me to keep Boy21’s true identity hidden, so that’s what I’m going to do. I know I can trust Erin. She’s a great secret keeper. But for some reason, I also feel like I should let people make up their own minds about Boy21—including Erin.
“You know Coach went to the Irish Pride Pub to talk with my brother,” Erin says.
I blink several times rapidly.
It surprises me to hear this, because black people generally don’t go to the Irish Pride Pub, although Rod did play ball for Coach back in the day, so they know each other.
“Coach asked Rod to get the word out on the streets,” Erin says.
I raise my eyebrows. “Really?”
“That Russ Washington is our friend.”
This means that Coach asked Rod for protection. If he did that, it means he also went to Terrell Patterson’s older brother Mike. Mike Patterson controls much of the streets on the blacker side of town.
“Seems kind of strange for Coach to be sticking his neck out so far for a non–basketball player,” says Erin, fishing.
“Coach has a personal interest in Russ,” I say.
“They’re sort of like family. Okay?”
“Okay,” Erin says, and then adds, “so did you forget to tell me something?”
She gives me this funny look that makes me start to feel horny.
I cock my head to one side and squint at her.
She stands and spins around so that her new white back-to-school dress lifts a little and I can see her knees.
I just stare at her. She’s probably the only girl in our entire school who’ll be wearing a dress today. All the other girls will be wearing jeans or short shorts or tight miniskirts.
“How do I look, Finley?” she says.
I give her a smile, two thumbs up, and one raised eyebrow.
“Thank you,” she says. “You look very handsome in your new Sixers T-shirt.”
Erin puts her hands on my knees and leans in for a kiss, but before our lips meet, I hear a car horn, and then Boy21 is getting out of a big old Cadillac.
We strap on our backpacks and meet him at the car.
Boy21’s wearing a brand-new-looking outfit.
Tommy Hilfiger button-down shirt.
Dark blue jeans.
Nike Zoom Soldier sneakers.
His hair’s been cut and shaved tight to his skull by a barber—no more nappy braids.
Instead of a backpack, he has a leather over-the-shoulder bag.
He looks sort of like a prep-school student, which will put him at a disadvantage in our school and make him stick out, because no one at our school has money, except drug dealers.
Erin offers her hand and says, “I’m Erin. Nice to meet you.”
“Russ.” Boy21 shakes her hand without making eye contact.
“Where you from, Russ?” Erin asks.
“Out west,” he says.
This is when I realize that either the therapist has really healed Russell or Boy21 has gone incognito.
It’s such a true, grounded, not-weird answer.
I’m surprised by how disappointed I am.
“You’ll look after our boy?” Mr. Allen says from inside the Cadillac.
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“Thank you,” Mr. Allen says, then smiles and looks me in the eye from under his old-style hat—the kind with a feather sticking out of the red band ringing the 360-degree short brim.
As we walk to school, Erin tries to engage Boy21 in conversation, but he only gives one-or two-word answers, asks Erin no questions, and kind of acts like I usually do, which makes me wonder if he’s also a minimalist speaker in certain situations.
I keep waiting for her to ask this six-five kid the most obvious question, and, of course, she eventually does.
When she asks if Boy21 plays basketball, he says, “No,” with conviction.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m glad to hear he doesn’t play basketball anymore. And I’m relieved that my spot on the team is secure.