She asks where exactly he’s from out west—what town, what state?
He says, “I forget.”
Erin gives me a worried glance, and then asks Boy21 if he likes Bellmont so far.
“Was that your grandfather in the car?”
“Do you live with him?”
“And my grams.”
“Where are your parents?”
“No more questions,” he says, then smiles awkwardly and adds, “please.”
Erin gives me another worried look.
When we turn onto Jackson Street, Erin says, “There it is. Bellmont High.”
Our school is a long three-story brick building with a cop car perpetually parked out front. By the front doors are metal detectors manned by large grumpy people who perform random bag searches. Kids have tagged the outside bricks with all sorts of graffiti. In sloppy silver spray-paint cursive someone long ago wrote BELLMONT HIGH BLOWS HUGE COCK next to the gigantic silhouette of our mascot, which is a rooster. And those words are the first we read every morning.
The hallways are yellow and very loud. Girls laughing. People pushing one another. Lockers slamming. No one seems to notice Boy21, just like no one seems to notice us.
We squeeze through the crowds and check the lists posted in the hallway.
Boy21 is in my homeroom even though homerooms are arranged alphabetically and all the other M and W names are not grouped together.
This is when I realize that Coach has intervened. Our team has been so good for so long under Coach, he has a lot of power around here.
Boy21’s locker is right next to mine and it just so happens that he’s in every one of my classes and every single teacher has chosen to sit us together on the seating charts. This also means that Boy21’s in all Advanced Placement classes, like me, which isn’t saying much because our school isn’t very academic. Don’t think I’m smart. If you’re polite and seem well behaved, you get placed in the AP classes.
To our teachers, Boy21’s very respectful and formal, always maintaining eye contact.
He says nothing to the other students in the building. Even when they speak to him, he continues to look at the floor or the ceiling, not answering.
I worry that the other students will find him arrogant, which is not a good thing to be in our neighborhood, unless you like being beaten down.
During lunch, noticing his size and stature, the other basketball players come over to my table, and Terrell says, “Yo, White Rabbit, who dis?”
“This here is Russ Washington. He’s new,” Erin says.
“You play sports?” Sir says. Sir is our starting small forward and our number one wide receiver. His mom named him Sir because she wanted people to show him respect. He’s half Puerto Rican, which is a bit of a rarity around here.
Boy21 just shakes his head.
“Maybe you should try basketball,” Hakim says. He’s our power forward. “You’re tall. You got the body for it.”
“I see you’re in our AP English class. Who’s your favorite author?” Wes asks. Like I said before, Wes is our center, and he’s a bit of a bookworm. He’s always reading books on the bus when our team travels. He wears a headlamp at night so he can keep on reading when it’s dark out.
Boy21 doesn’t look up or answer the question.
“Okay. I see how it is,” Terrell says. “You a quiet one, just like your new friend here.”
“What’s wrong with being quiet?” Erin asks.
“Nothing, White Rabbit’s lil baby,” Terrell says.
I see the hurt look on Erin’s face, but I don’t say anything when she gets up and throws her trash away. I wanted to say something. Sometimes I really hate being a minimal speaker.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Terrell yells with his hands above his head. “Ladies and gentlemen!”
Everyone in the lunchroom stops talking.
When the room is hushed, Terrell says, “Please welcome the new student. This here Black Rabbit, good friend to White Rabbit, and just as quiet. These people friends of mine too, understand? So just let them do rabbit things as they wish without paying them no mind. That’s it. Enjoy your lunch.”
Some people laugh at Boy21’s new nickname, but everyone understands that Terrell is officially putting Boy21 under his family’s protection.
“Okay,” Terrell says. “Now you rabbits do whatever rabbits do. And, White Rabbit, you get ready to rack up the assists this winter, you hear?”
Terrell is wearing a huge diamond in each ear. Those are new. He never wore diamonds last year.
When my teammates leave, Erin returns to the table, but she won’t look at me.
I know she wanted me to stick up for her when Terrell called her White Rabbit’s lil baby, but I need Terrell to like me so that the basketball season will go well, which is my number one priority, and there are much worse nicknames that other girls in our school endure. This is why I’m looking forward to basketball so much. When it starts there will be plays to memorize and I’ll be in the gym just about every night. The rest of the world will disappear.
When Boy21 finishes the sandwich his grandmother made him, he says, “We are not rabbits.”
For the first time all day, Boy21 is looking into my eyes, and maybe it’s me who’s crazy, but it’s like he’s trying to communicate with me, sending messages through our pupils. The weirdest part is I think I sort of understand the message he’s trying to convey.
When we leave the lunchroom, in the hallways, we’re greeted by hundreds of references to rabbits.
“Yo, Black and White Rabbits!”
“What’s up, Biggie Rabbit and Smalls Rabbit?”
“Carrots are comin’. We gon’ feed dem rabbits!”
It’s all playful teasing, especially since we are under Rod’s and Mike’s protection, but it gets kind of annoying nonetheless.
Neither Boy21 nor I say a word, and I have to admit that it feels good not being the only rabbit in the building.
MR. GORE’S A TALL, THIN MAN with thick glasses and a Jheri curl hairstyle that the other students relentlessly make fun of. He’s my guidance counselor, and I don’t really like him, even though he smiles a lot, has a soft voice, and is always talking about looking out for my best interests.
He’s pulled me out of English class on the first day of school, which seems unnecessary and makes me feel anxious because I had to leave Boy21 behind, and Coach won’t like that.
Mr. Gore’s office is covered with bumper stickers—floor to ceiling. Each bumper sticker has the name of a college on it, which is sort of ironic, because not many of the students here will get to go.
“So,” Mr. Gore says when I sit down, “you thinking about your future at all?”
“Community college,” I say, because it’s all I can afford without a scholarship, and my SAT scores are pretty mediocre. Dad says you can go to community college for two years and then transfer, which saves a lot of money in the end. I’ll have to take out less in loans, which seems smart. And then I plan to follow Erin wherever she ends up playing basketball.
“You can do better,” Mr. Gore says. “But there will be time to discuss that later.” He leans forward in his chair. “So tell me about the new kid, Russ Washington.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe why Coach asked you to shepherd him around school, for starters.” Mr. Gore smiles and licks his lips. “Why do you suppose he picked you?”
“I know about Russ’s past, Finley. I’m in the inner circle, so to speak.”
He’s evaluating me, trying to see what I know, or maybe he’s trying to trick me into giving out information on Russ. I don’t like the look on his face. It’s almost like he enjoys messing with my mind.
“Tell me. Do you see any similarities between you and Russ?”
“We both play basketball,” I say, and then I wish I hadn’t because I don’t know if Mr. Gore knew that already.
“True,” he says, which makes me feel better, “but I’m thinking about something else. Something that maybe you need to talk about. Something you’ve kept bottled up for too long now.”
I know exactly what he means because he’s been trying to get me to talk about this subject ever since I was a freshman, and it’s really none of his business. He doesn’t understand what he’s messing with. Some things are definitely better left unsaid. Mr. Gore doesn’t live in this neighborhood, and it shows.
“Can I leave now?” I ask.
“I’m only trying to help you, Finley.”
“Coach told me not to leave Russ alone, so I have to get back to class.”
“You do everything Coach tells you to do without ever questioning his motives?”
“He’s my coach.”
“I’m worried about you, Finley. If you get to feeling like you’re in over your head, you can always talk to me. I want you to know that. I’m a good lifeguard.”
Take a look around, Mr. Gore. We’re not exactly at the town pool.
I’m starting to get annoyed, and it must show, because Mr. Gore writes me a pass and holds it up between his fore-and middle fingers.
“You’re free to go,” he says.
AFTER THE LAST BELL OF THE DAY, Boy21 follows me to the gym, where I meet Erin for our after-school workout.
When I change into my workout clothes, I ask Boy21 if he’ll be training with us, and he says, “I just want to watch.”
I nod, and when I turn my head, I smile, because I don’t want to help him earn my starting spot should he decide to come out for the team. I’m happy to let him sit on the sideline while I get stronger and faster. And as soon as I’m on the court sweating, feeling my heart race as my body moves, I stop thinking, sort of like I did when we were looking at sticker constellations, only more intense. Playing basketball makes everything else go away.
Russ sits in the bleachers while Erin and I shoot our patterns, practice free throws, and do our sprints. He sits in the football stadium while we dribble our five miles. And he sits in the corner of the room while we lift weights. The whole time he watches us with this blank expression on his face.
Eventually, he begins doing his homework.
Boy21 waits on the sidewalk when I walk Erin up to her door and give her a kiss good-bye. And then he and I sit silently on my front steps until his grandfather comes to pick him up.
The next day his grandfather drops him off at Erin’s house and he becomes my silent shadow once again.
OUR PHYSICS TEACHER, Mr. Jefferies, announces that we’ll be taking a field trip to watch an IMAX Theatre film. It’s about an expedition to fix some telescope in outer space called the Hubble.
“You won’t believe how much of what we’ll be talking about this year is applicable to space travel,” Mr. Jefferies says while passing out the permission forms. “You’re going to see images that will absolutely blow your mind!”