(I don’t really listen to music much, maybe because I have no iPod. Music is okay, but I don’t go crazy for any one type.)
“Do you guys know what N.E.R.D. stands for?” Wes asks.
“What?” I say.
Boy21 says, “No one. Ever. Really. Dies.”
“You a fan, Russ?” Wes says.
Boy21 nods and smiles.
“You seen the Seeing Sounds Game on their website?” Wes says. “Retro. Badass futuristic funky.”
Wes punches up the N.E.R.D. website on his computer and then hits the right link. The Seeing Sounds Game has an outer-space theme.
No wonder Boy21 likes this group.
A giant gorilla chases the group members across a moonlike landscape.
“It’s an old-school video game. You play as one of the group members,” Wes says, and then he and Boy21 take turns playing.
When they finish messing around on the N.E.R.D. website, Wes suggests we form a Harry Potter book club. He wants to read each book and watch each film in between readings. I always thought that book clubs were for rich women, but it feels good to be included in something other than basketball.
We both agree to join him and pick up copies of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
I like Wes. We’ve always been friendly, but I’m starting to feel like maybe he could be a real friend to both Boy21 and me—someone we hang out with regularly. Maybe because he’s the weird type of kid who forms a Harry Potter book club. Wes is strange like that. Odd like us.
Why didn’t I hang out with Wes before?
As we walk back to the Allens’ home, I ask Boy21 about N.E.R.D. and the outer-space theme of their website, and he says, “That’s just pretend outer space, not real outer space, but it’s true that no one ever really dies.”
I raise my eyebrows when he glances at me.
“Matter cannot be destroyed nor created,” he says. “That’s one of the basic principles of the universe, first of all. But then there is your life force, which is contained and trapped here on Earth by your body—your flesh—which is like a prison. When you Earthlings die, your life force is released and then you’re free to travel through the galaxies again. That’s not death, it’s liberation.”
“Umm… what?” I say.
“I only tell you, Finley, because you seem to be enlightened. The rest can’t handle such ideas.”
I feel a little proud knowing that Boy21 thinks I’m special, but I also feel a little sad too, because Boy21 is suffering. Deep inside his brain there is a war going on—a war that he’s losing.
There’s not much I can do to help him.
I SEE ERIN IN THE HALLS of our school and in the gym. We pass and she always tries to catch my eye or rub elbows, pretending it’s an accident, but I keep walking with my eyes straight ahead, like I don’t notice her.
Coach names Terrell and me this year’s captains during a team meeting. The team celebrates by eating a dozen or so pizzas.
The day before our first game, Coach announces the starting lineup, and I get the nod at point guard.
All is going as planned, and I sort of forget about Boy21’s ability to take away my starting position.
I’m playing organized basketball again.
On the court it’s all adrenaline and sweat and movement and leather and cheering and squeaking sneakers and high fives and the feeling that I can and am accomplishing something.
Off the court it’s all anticipation, hunger, counting down the minutes until the next practice or game, drawing plays in my notebooks, visualizing myself on the court: seeing myself diving for loose balls and feeling the scabs on my knees burn; defending so closely my mark’s knees and elbows leave bruises on my legs, arms, and chest; passing creatively, finding the open hands of my teammates; even making a few layups; Coach telling me I did well; Dad and Pop smiling proudly.
It’s all sweaty practice and daydreaming until I’m suddenly playing our first real game against weak Rockport, and I’m actually doing all the things I visualized, which feels so amazing, I wonder if it’s real—like maybe I’m sitting in science class just daydreaming.
But I’m not daydreaming in science class; I’m playing basketball.
I rack up fifteen assists while Terrell scores thirty-two points.
We’re up by forty at the end of the third quarter, and so Coach puts in the second squad.
On the bench I notice my heartbeat slowing, my muscles cooling, and I begin to feel a wonderful sense of having completed a task.
I watch Boy21 play and again I can tell he isn’t really playing. He doesn’t make any mistakes, but he just looks to get the ball to the other backups so they can try to score. He’s running at three-quarter speed; he doesn’t shoot when he’s open; there’s no intensity.
He’s playing very unselfishly, which is nice to see, but it also makes me feel as if he’s hiding in broad daylight—like he’s afraid to show the world what he can really do.
We win the game 101–69.
Dad is proud.
So is Pop.
THE SECOND GAME OF THE YEAR is the annual boy-girl doubleheader against Pennsville, our archrivals in basketball and by far our best competition for the conference championship. The day before the game, in practice, Coach has us all lined up sitting against the wall when he says, “Based on our scouting reports, Pennsville’s going to run what we’ll call a triangle-and-two on Terrell, which means they’re going to double-team him anytime he gets the ball.”
“Damn,” Terrell says. “I hate being double-teamed.”
Coach ignores Terrell and says, “Wes, Hakim, and Sir will experience a matchup zone, which will leave Finley wide open.”
What Coach means is that Pennsville doesn’t think I can make my jump shots—they don’t think I’m a threat to score. I’m not offended, because my being the weakest scoring threat on the team is a fact. I’m a point guard, not a shooter. That’s my role, and other teams have doubled Terrell before, but for some reason my jump shot seems a little more off this year than in years past. I went zero for two in the first game.
“Finley will have to shoot his way out of the triangle-and-two,” Coach says. “Which we all know he can and will do. He just has to hit a few early shots to make them switch to man-to-man coverage. And then we’ll be able to run our regular man offenses.”
Coach teaches the second squad the Pennsville triangle-and-two defense, and then we practice against it. Just about every shot I take bounces off the rim. It feels like I haven’t heard the sound of the ball spinning through net twine in years.
“Keep shooting,” Coach says. “Get all your misses out today. Save your baskets for tomorrow.”
I keep shooting, but I feel a little more anxious with every miss. When I glance at my teammates, I see doubt in their faces—or am I just being paranoid?
Coach subs in Boy21 for me at one point and Russ misses all of his shots too, which doesn’t make me feel any better. I’m really starting to think he’s missing on purpose. This depresses me and makes me feel guilty, even though I told him not to hold back.
In the locker room after practice, Wes, Sir, and Hakim all punch my arm and pat my back and say things like “You got all your misses out today” and “Tomorrow’s baskets are the ones that count, not today’s” and “Game day is the real day.”
But Terrell says, “You better get that extra man off me early, White Rabbit. You hear? I want to hit a thousand points before the season’s over.”
Coach is always saying we shouldn’t chase personal records, but we all know there will be a huge celebration when Terrell scores his one-thousandth point. He needs me to do well if he’s going to reach a grand this year.
I’m worried about tomorrow enough already, so my stomach flips and pulses when Coach calls me into his office. He shuts the door and says, “I only expect you to shoot the ball when you’re open tomorrow. You’re a decent shooter, Finley. Hakim and Wes will rebound too. Trust me.”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“Maybe talk to Russ about making more shots in practice too,” Coach says.
“So you think he’s missing on purpose?”
“We haven’t seen the real Russ play ball yet,” Coach says. “And you don’t know what a show you’re missing.”
He looks into my eyes for a long time—like he’s trying to control my mind or something—and I eventually look down at my sneakers.
“See you tomorrow, Finley.”
“Yes, sir,” I say, and then go change in the locker room.
I thought everyone had left, so I’m startled when I hear, “Finley?”
Boy21 is standing next to me in a towel. He’s the only player who uses those nasty showers, which haven’t been cleaned for decades. He wears flip-flops to protect his feet.
“I told my grandfather to pick me up at your house later tonight.”
“I was hoping we could sit on your roof.”
I sigh. I’m tired, and the thought of talking in code with Boy21—all the cosmos and outer-space jazz—exhausts me. “I have to do my homework.”
“We could do it together maybe.”
Russ is rubbing his chin over and over again, looking at me with these crazy intense eyes. Again, I wonder if he really has been missing his shots intentionally, and for some reason I decide he probably has. Something about the way he’s standing—it’s almost submissive, like a dog with its tail between its legs. Why would anyone yield to me?
DAD HEATS UP FROZEN PIZZA FOR US and Pop peppers us with questions about the Pennsville game plan.
“They’re gonna double Terrell, right?” Dad says.
“Yep,” I say.
“Finley should get a lot of shots,” Boy21 says.
“Score some points for the Irish!” Pop says.
“For Bellmont,” Dad says. “You think you’ll get into the game, Russ?”
“You okay, Finley?” Pop says. “You haven’t touched your slice.”
Dad gives me a look.
I just shrug.
Boy21 and I do all our homework up in my room, but we don’t really work together. He does his at my desk and I do mine on my bed for about an hour before we put our jackets on and go out onto the roof.
It’s not really that cold out for winter. In the distance a police siren is whining, but it’s a pretty peaceful night otherwise, and I always enjoy being on the roof, getting a different perspective. I start to zone out a little—in a good way.
After ten minutes or so of silence, Russ says, “If I get into the game tomorrow, would you mind if I used my extraterrestrial powers?”
I’m not really in the mood for outer-space talk. “The only way you’re getting in the game is if I can’t hit any shots.”
“You’ll hit your shots.”
“Well, then it’s a nonissue, right?”
I look up and see part of the moon sticking out from behind a cloud.