Boy21 laughs at Dad’s joke, which makes him smile and raise his hand. They exchange a dorky dad-type high five, and then Dad is gone.
“Be gone, old cleaning products!” Magic Johnson says as he shoots old bottles like basketballs into a faraway trash can. “Magic is here. Magic! Watch out, stains! You don’t stand a chance! Magic! Magic! Magic!”
Magic Johnson looks old.
“Let’s go,” I say.
Boy21 follows me up to my bedroom.
I pop open the window and we climb out onto the roof. It’s cool, but not too cold up here. Maybe like opening-a-refrigerator-door cool.
Once we’re seated he opens the box and, surprisingly, a small package of birthday candles. The two cupcakes are store-bought. Because the light is still on in my room, I can see that someone has drawn space shuttles on the cupcakes with frosting. I start to worry because of Boy21’s freak-out at the IMAX Theatre.
He sticks a candle deep into each cupcake so that the wicks stick out where the flames would exit each space shuttle.
He uses a lighter to ignite the wicks and then says, “STS-120. T minus ten seconds. Eight seconds. T minus five. Four. Three. Two. One. And liftoff of Discovery—opening harmony to the heavens and opening new gateways for international science.”
Boy21 starts singing “Happy Birthday.” His eyes look wild, crazy, manic.
“Happy birthday, dear Boy21. Happy birthday to you,” he sings, and then blows out the candles.
He hands me one of the cupcakes and says, “I got you a vanilla and me chocolate,” and then takes a big bite out of his cupcake.
I wonder if the vanilla and chocolate comment was a joke. He’s not laughing, so I say, “Happy birthday. If I had known—”
“One day short of completing my fifteenth trip around the sun, my father doesn’t drive me to my high school,” Boy21 says in this really serious voice. “In fact, we drive in the opposite direction. When I ask where we’re going, he just smiles and laughs. We end up at the airport and when we check in, I realize we’re headed to Florida. So I say, ‘Dad, are you delivering on your promise?’ When he winks at me, my heart starts pounding, because I know exactly where we’re going. We land in Florida and hit a hotel. He doesn’t even have to confirm it for me, because I know we are about to fulfill his lifelong dream and mine.”
The wind blows and the few dry, brittle leaves still hanging on to the trees rattle. I shiver a little.
“The next day we drive to the viewing spot and I can see it—space shuttle Discovery. It stands huge on the tower, and only a small body of water separates us. We wait for what seems like forever for it to take off, wondering if there will be complications. But it takes off twenty minutes before noon and there is this awesome noise when the rockets are ignited—and then these massive clouds explode from the bottom of the ship and billow out forever and ever along the horizon and then it rises real slow… pushed upward by what looks like a bright cone of orange lava, and a long tower of clouds forms in its wake. It may have been the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And I remember my father putting his arm around me as we stood and watched. When it was over neither of us said anything for a long time. We just stood there smiling. It was the best birthday I’ve ever had. The best day of my life.”
When Boy21 finishes his story, I don’t know what to say. So this is why he freaked out on the physics field trip.
“Eat your cupcake,” he says.
I eat the whole thing in just a few bites. Vanilla. Rich. Moist. So sweet it makes my teeth ache.
We sit in silence for a long time.
“You want to see that launch?” Boy21 asks.
“YouTube,” he says while pulling a laptop out of his bag. “I downloaded it before I came.”
We watch the short video. Boy21 was quoting verbatim whoever was announcing the launch on the YouTube clip—all the talk about harmony for the heavens and gateways. I wonder how many times he’s watched this video.
“Your dad,” I say. “He was interested in outer space?”
“Fascinated by it. He used to read endless books. Was a big Star Trek fan. He loved the final frontier. We had several high-powered telescopes too. Still do, in storage out west.”
Boy21 looks into my eyes and I start to feel as though he’s making a decision. It’s weird. This is the most he’s ever said about his past. I feel as though he’s already let down his guard far more than he had intended. But then his facial expression changes and he’s gone again, just like that.
“My father sent me a telepathic birthday card today. He says he has a present for me, but due to an unforeseen meteor shower in a galaxy that you Earthlings don’t even know exists yet, he anticipates being a few Earth days later than he had originally planned, regarding the pickup. So it looks like you and I will be spending some more time together, Earthling known as Finley.”
Part of me wants to call him on the charade and put some direct questions to him, especially after all he’s revealed tonight. He came here uninvited. He freely offered up the story about his father. He obviously wants to talk about all this stuff. But for some reason I don’t ask him anything. Maybe it’s just my nature to remain mute when I am unsure, which is always, but I feel like I should be asking questions—that conversation would help—and yet, I realize he’s probably talking to me because I don’t ask questions and just let him exist as he wishes to exist. I don’t mind him being Boy21, but I sort of like Russell too.
Instead of talking we simply lie on our backs and look up at the sky, even though it’s cloudy and we can’t even see the moon.
When his grandfather pulls up to my house, Boy21 says, “Thanks for eating cupcakes with me, Earthling.”
I walk him through my room, down the steps, and out the door.
Just before he gets into the car, Boy21 turns around and says, “I wish you and I could travel through the cosmos together, Finley. You have that calming presence. Happy birthday to me—and thanks.”
“See ya, man,” I say, and then he’s gone.
I’M IN MY ROOM TRYING TO READ The Merchant of Venice for English class, which is proving to be pretty hard, when something hits my bedroom window. The splat remains of a snowball are sliding down the glass. I open up the window and cold air rushes into my room just before I get blasted in the face with another snowball.
“Snowball fight!” Erin yells from across the street.
I throw on my jacket and shoes and race downstairs.
“Where’s the fire?” Dad says as I pass him in the living room.
Erin drills me in the chest just as soon as I exit through the door.
The flakes are falling huge and fast and the whole neighborhood is coated in white. Something pretty magical happens whenever it snows around here. The neighborhood gets very quiet and all the trash, broken glass, and graffiti are hidden under the white, at least for a little while. It seems too early for snow, which makes this night even more beautiful—like an unexpected present.
While I scoop up some snow and pack it, Erin hits me three times, which is when I realize that she has stockpiled snowballs. Once I have one packed, I charge Erin and take aim. She ducks and I miss, so I decide to tackle her, but not too hard, because there isn’t all that much snow on the ground. She doesn’t put up much of a fight at first, but then she tries to wrestle me, so I grab her wrists and pin her arms with my elbows, and we kiss.
Our mouths are the warmest things in the world right now.
“Isn’t it amazing?” she says as the snow falls past my ears and lands all around her head.
“Let’s sit on the roof and watch it fall all night.”
We see two headlights approaching, which seems weird because most people around here are afraid to drive in the snow.
We stand, and I recognize the Ford truck as Coach’s.
“Why is Coach here?” Erin asks.
Coach pulls up slowly, rolls down his window, and says, “Finley, take a ride around the block with me?”
I look at Erin and shrug.
“I’ll go hit Pop with a snowball,” Erin says. She actually picks one up from her pile and then jogs to my home. I wonder if she’ll really throw it at the old man, which she could get away with, because Pop loves Erin as much as I do.
I get into the truck and the heat streaming from the vents burns my fingers when I try to warm my hands.
Coach doesn’t drive around the block. He says, “How’s Russ doing?”
“Have you talked to him about playing basketball?”
“Yep,” I lie. Ever since his birthday he’s been extra quiet, and I get the sense that he doesn’t really want to talk about basketball or anything else, so I let him be. But Coach doesn’t want to hear that.
“What does he say?”
“What does he say about basketball?”
“I don’t think he wants to play basketball.”
“Russ said that, or you think it?”
“He’s not really stable.”
“Are you a psychiatrist now, Finley?”
Coach has never talked to me like this before. There’s sarcasm in his voice and I can tell he’s annoyed with me, which makes me angry, because I have walked to school with Boy21 every day, eaten every school lunch with him, and allowed him to be my shadow for more than two months now. And tonight I was having a nice private moment with Erin before Coach interrupted us.
“No, sir,” I say.
“I expect you to make sure Russ gets his physical tomorrow after school in the nurse’s office and that he shows up to the team meeting on Friday. Understood?”
“When you see the boy play, you’ll understand why this is so important. Trust me.”
Coach reaches through the darkness and squeezes my shoulder. “Thank you, Finley. This is about more than basketball. More than the team. Russ likes you. You’re helping him.”
I don’t know what to say to that, because it sure doesn’t seem like I’m helping Russ, and he really isn’t getting better, as far as I can tell.
“Tell your family I said hello,” Coach says.
I nod and then run through the falling snow toward the house.
Erin’s watching the Sixers game with Dad, and Pop’s shirt is all wet, which lets me know that she really threw a snowball at the old man.
“This is one feisty broad,” Pop says to me.
Dad laughs. “She ran in here and blasted Pop in the chest!”
“If I had legs…”
“Sure,” Erin says, “the old no-legs excuse.”
There aren’t many people who could get away with talking this way to Pop, but Erin’s special to us. She’s put her time in. She’s family.
“Come on, Finley,” Erin says.
And then we’re on the roof again, watching Bellmont turn white—one snowflake at a time.