A woman sings nicely for a time, about “a great tomorrow,” and is encouraging us to “sign up with Outer Space Ways Incorporated” if we “find Earth boring.”
Then there is a song about Pharaoh being on the throne when the black man ruled the land, and I wonder what that has to do with outer space, but I sort of realize that the whole record is about black culture and how it might thrive more easily in the cosmos.
The music sounds nothing like N.E.R.D. at all, but it’s very interesting, and as I lie there listening, gazing up at Boy21’s fantasy outer space, I feel as though I’m in a trance or something, and I actually do imagine myself traveling through distant galaxies, which is pretty cool.
I’ve never taken drugs, but I wonder if taking acid might feel something like listening to Space Is the Place in the dark while staring up at glow-in-the-dark sticker constellations.
The last song is the title track and it’s upbeat and makes me feel like I really want to go to outer space, where “there’s no limit to the things that you can do.”
After listening to this CD, it’s easy to see where Boy21 is coming up with his weird philosophies and costumes.
Wes and I don’t make a sound through the entire experience, and when it’s over, Boy21 turns on the lights.
Wes and I sit up and blink.
“Now that was different,” Wes says while making a lemon face, as if he’s really saying, What the hell was that?
Boy21 says, “So what do you think?”
“About what?” Wes says.
“Outer space. Do you want to come with me?”
Wes raises his eyebrows. “Where exactly do you think you’re going?”
“Saturn and then beyond,” Boy21 says. “Black man and the cosmos! That’s where my parents are now.”
“Finley too? Or is space only for black people?” Wes says.
I note the sarcasm in Wes’s voice.
“Finley has a calming presence,” Boy21 says. “We’ll make an exception. He’ll be our token white space traveler.”
I smile. All of this is insane. Russ could be kidding, pretending, messing with us. But Wes is uncomfortable.
“Okay,” Wes says. “We’ll go to outer space with you. When are we leaving?”
“Sooner than you think,” Boy21 says.
“Right,” Wes says. “Got it. Now Finley and I have to go. Homework and all. We’ll see you tomorrow morning?”
“Very well,” Boy21 says. “I’m so glad that you’ll be making the journey with me. We can listen to Sun Ra some more to get used to being in outer space. We’ll practice being in the cosmos again soon.”
I want to talk to Russ about the music and why he and his father used to listen to it on the cliff, under the stars, but Wes has already exited the room and he’s my ride home, so I’ll just ask Russ tomorrow, when we’re alone. It’s easier to talk when it’s just Russ and me anyway.
Downstairs we say good-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Allen.
“Do you want a ride home?” Mr. Allen asks.
“I live just around the corner,” Wes says. “My pop’ll drive Finley home.”
A block away from the Allens’ home, Wes says, “I think this is serious. That music was nuts. I can’t believe I lay there for all that time listening. He’s either psycho or messing with us.”
I’m surprised Wes didn’t think it was an interesting experience.
“Or he’s just doing what he has to do to get through the day,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
I don’t get to answer because I hear someone screaming my name. I turn around and see that Boy21 is sprinting toward us, his cape trailing.
“Finley! Finley! Wait up!”
Wes and I look at each other; he’s just as concerned as I am. When Boy21 reaches us he puts his arm on my shoulder and pants for a few seconds.
“What’s going on?” Wes says.
“My grandfather’s coming to pick us up.”
I see the headlights of Mr. Allen’s Cadillac coming toward us now.
“I told you,” Wes says, “we don’t need a ride.”
“Coach just called,” says Russ, still panting. “There’s been an accident.”
“What happened?” Wes says. “Just say it.”
Russ ignores Wes, puts his other hand on my shoulder, and looks into my eyes. I see the Russ I saw on his birthday, when he was talking about his father on my roof—the real Russ. Not Boy21.
“It’s Erin,” Russ says. “She’s in the hospital. She was hit by a car.”
“What?” Wes says. “How?”
“Don’t know,” Russ says.
Someone’s jabbing a finger in my throat again; I can’t breathe.
Mr. Allen pulls up, rolls down the window, and says, “Come on. Get in.”
I’m sliding through the worst streets of Bellmont now, seeing my blank reflection in the window—my face superimposed on our shitty neighborhood.
Try to breathe, I tell myself.
But it’s getting harder and harder.
“What happened?” I finally get the words out. “Is she okay?”
But no one answers, not even Mr. Allen, which seems bad.
“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.”
MR. ALLEN DROPS RUSS, WES, AND ME off at the emergency room and then goes to park his car. The automatic sliding doors close behind us and I throw up in the waiting-room trash can.
It feels like I’m turning inside out.
When I come up for air, half the room is looking at me. There’s maybe twenty or so sick, weary people sitting in chairs, and one homeless man pacing at the far end of the room, yelling, “Whenever I get help, I’m gonna be thankful! Whenever I get help, I’m gonna be thankful!” The other half is watching a show about sharks on the TV that hangs in the corner. I glance up just in time to see the massive jaws of a great white clamp down on a sea lion.
Russ puts his hand on my back and says, “You all right?”
I puke again and just look up at my teammates when I finish.
I don’t know how I am.
“Listen,” Wes says, “you’re going to have to lie and say you’re family, or they won’t let you in. I know, because when my sister had her baby her friends tried to come in during the birth, and the hospital people said only immediate family could visit. So tell them you’re Rod. They’re probably not going to let Russ and me in, so you have to get yourself together.”
Wes’s hand is on my back now too. He says, “You need to be strong for Erin. Be a man. Okay?”
I nod because I’m supposed to, but I feel like I’m going to throw up again.
At the main information desk, Wes tells the woman that I’m Erin’s brother and, just like he predicted, he and Russ are made to stay in the waiting room, while I’m led to what the check-in person calls the trauma center.
I stand in the doorway for a few seconds before I enter Erin’s room.
It’s like a nightmare.
Her left leg is in a soft cast and there’s a plastic neck brace holding her chin in a very rigid position.
Her right arm’s all wrapped up.
There are red bandages on her face that were once white.
The skin around her eyes is purple and black.
Her face is really puffy and shiny; it looks like someone smeared Vaseline under her eyes.
Mrs. Quinn’s sitting next to the bed, which has wheels on it, so maybe it’s not a bed. I don’t know.
They’re holding hands.
Erin’s moaning and her cheeks are wet with tears.
“I’ll leave you alone with your family,” the nurse says.
I stand frozen for a long time, just watching, wondering if this can be real.
Erin looks ruined.
Mrs. Quinn’s hair is all frizzy and wild and her eyes look small and scared. She’s staring at the window even though the blinds have been pulled. Neither Erin nor her mother notices me at first.
I walk around to the far side of the bed and take Erin’s other hand in mine. She doesn’t squeeze.
When we make eye contact, it doesn’t even look like her, because of the swelling, but I recognize the shamrock-green eyes.
She starts talking really quickly. “Finley, my leg’s shattered. I’m never gonna play basketball again—ever. It’s over. That’s it. My season’s ruined. My basketball career is over. No chance for a college scholarship now. When they hit me, they knew it. They saw my face. I flew up onto the hood of their car. I was thrown onto the street—and they just left me there like I was a dead animal. It seemed like they even sped up when—But that can’t be true, right? Who would do something like that? And now I can’t play basketball. What am I going to do about college? How are we going to get out of Bellmont now? I should have made my decision and committed earlier. How could they leave me there? I don’t want you to see me like this, Finley. I must look so ugly. Maybe you should leave. No, don’t leave. And the paramedics cut through my brand-new sports bra too—I just got it two days ago—and that bra cost a lot of money, and—”
“Shhh,” Mrs. Quinn says. “You’re in shock, honey. You’ll be playing basketball in no time. We’ll get you a new sports bra. It’s going to be okay.”
So many thoughts are running through my head, but I can’t seem to make sense of any of them.
“It hurts, Finley. It hurts so much. I can’t move my leg.”
When Erin starts to sob, she looks like a little kid who’s been tortured to the point of exhaustion. I can see the pain tunneling its way through her face and body.
It hurts for her to even cry.
I want to tell her it’ll be okay—that she’ll be playing ball again soon.
I want to ask her how she got hit—what happened?
Will she ever be able to walk again, let alone play basketball?
I look to Erin’s mom for help.
“She can’t have painkillers until they rule out any possible head injuries. They’re going to scan her brain soon, and then—once they rule out brain damage—they’ll give her drugs,” Mrs. Quinn says. “You just have to hold on a little longer, Erin.”
“What about her leg?” I ask. “What did the doctor say about that?”
When Mrs. Quinn doesn’t answer my question, I study her face. She looks very scared herself. Suddenly, I understand that it’s probably worse than I initially thought.
“Finley,” Erin says.
Her eyes are red, but the green shines even now—even amid all the swelling and bruising—maybe even more so.
“Will you please be my boyfriend again?” she says. “I need you to be my boyfriend now. I’m scared. I’m really scared. Please be my boyfriend again. I can’t go through this alone. Please. Please.”
Of course I will.
“I need you to say it,” she says, and her voice sounds tiny and childlike and so unlike Erin that I really start to worry.