“I’m your boyfriend again now,” I say.
“Then talk to me. Tell me something else,” she says.
“Anything to take my mind off the pain.”
“I just threw up before I came in here.”
“Really? Are you okay?”
“Wes and Russ are in the lobby. Boy21 made us lie on his bedroom floor in the dark and listen to this jazz CD about using music to travel through outer space and then I was confused and suddenly I’m at the hospital and I was so worried about you that I just threw up. I puked twice. I puked yellow bile even.”
“Very romantic. You really know how to make a girl feel special, Finley,” she says, which makes me feel good because she smiles for a second. “I’ve missed you. Look what I have to do to get your attention.”
She tries to laugh, but the attempt hurts her and she starts crying again.
I’m afraid that Erin might die, because she looks that bad. “It’s going to be okay.”
“No, it’s not. It’s really not going to be okay, Finley.” Erin tries to laugh, but only starts to cry harder.
Her mom strokes her forehead and says, “Shhh. It is okay. Everything’s fine.”
Because I don’t know what else to do, I start to pet Erin’s hand like it’s a cat or something. After a minute or so, she yells, “Just everyone stop touching me—okay?”
Mrs. Quinn flinches.
I try to make eye contact with Erin, but she’s staring fiercely at the ceiling; I can tell that she doesn’t want to look at me all of a sudden and that I should just be quiet.
We wait around silently for a long time, until they take Erin into a room where they will scan her brain.
Mrs. Quinn’s allowed to accompany her, but a nurse tells me to stay behind.
Being alone in a hospital freaks me out so I return to the ER waiting room to see if Wes and Russ are still there.
I find them with Mr. Allen, watching a show about snakes. On the hanging TV a snake with a head as big as a football is in the process of swallowing what looks like a dog, although I can only see the hind legs sticking out of the snake’s mouth. I wonder why they play these types of shows in the ER waiting room, where people are already feeling depressed about hurt loved ones. Couldn’t they find more lighthearted programming?
Mr. Allen, Wes, and Russ stand when they see me. Russ is no longer wearing his cape.
“How’s Erin?” Mr. Allen says.
I shake my head and say, “Not good.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Russ says.
“Her leg’s shattered and she has bruises all over her face. They’re scanning her brain for damage now. She was rambling for a time and then she got really angry and started yelling at me like I did something wrong, when all I was doing was holding her hand.”
“The girl’s in shock,” Mr. Allen says. “Won’t last. She’ll be back to normal soon.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Wes says. “Damn.”
Boy21 says nothing.
I look up and the snake has finished swallowing. Its midsection is now the shape and size of the dog; it almost looks fake.
“I’m gonna stay here,” I say. “You guys can leave. Thanks for waiting.”
“You sure?” Wes says.
“Yeah. I can catch a ride home with the Quinns if I need to.”
“Tell Erin we’re pulling for her,” Russ says.
“Yeah,” Wes says, “please do.”
“We’ll pray for her tonight,” Mr. Allen says.
“Thanks.” I go back to the trauma center, but Erin and her mom are still in the brain-scanner room.
Alone in the hospital, I think about how fragile people are, how anyone can disappear in a second and be gone forever—how close I’ve come to losing Erin—and I start to remember things I don’t want to remember, so I bite down on the triangle of skin between my left thumb and forefinger until it hurts enough to stop my brain from dredging up any of the garbage that sits at the bottom of my memory.
When Erin’s wheeled back into the room, she has an IV drip in her arm and is semiconscious.
“Her brain’s okay,” Mrs. Quinn says. “She’s on morphine now.”
I pull up a chair and hold Erin’s hand.
“I’m your boyfriend again,” I tell her.
“That’s good,” she says, and then smiles once before she closes her eyes.
EVENTUALLY COACH SHOWS UP with the girls’ coach, Mrs. Battle, a large squat serious lady who always wears a tracksuit. Tonight she has on a navy-blue number with three silver stripes running the length of her arms and legs. Erin’s mother and father repeat all the information we know.
Major reconstructive surgery.
After the Quinns explain the metal external fixator—a super-skeleton on the outside of Erin’s leg that will hold the bones in place—there’s silence.
What else is there to say, really?
Erin’s season is over.
Coach shakes his head sadly.
Mrs. Battle frowns and says, “Tell Erin the team will visit,” as if that will really help.
Everyone nods sort of dumbly and then Coach says, “Finley, I’ll drive you home. Let’s give the Quinns some time to themselves. Erin’s drugged and out for the night. There’s nothing for you to do here.”
I look at the Quinns and see that the wrinkles around their eyes are pink and raw. It does look like they want to be alone, so I nod and follow Coach out of the hospital.
We say good-bye to Mrs. Battle in the parking lot and then get into Coach’s truck.
The Bellmont streets silently pass by the passenger window. I see a man sleeping on the sidewalk. A small abandoned bonfire in an oil drum makes an alley glow. Hookers in wigs, short skirts, and fur coats are pacing under the overpass.
“I have to take care of my pop,” I say, just to break the silence. “I have to put him to bed.”
“I’m taking you home,” Coach says, but that’s it; he doesn’t say anything else, which makes me feel sort of strange.
It’s late, so Dad’s already left for work.
Coach tells Pop about the hit-and-run—how Erin was walking home from practice and a car came around the corner just as Erin was crossing the street, hit her, and then sped away.
Pop just shakes his head, grabs onto the crucifix at the end of Grandmom’s rosary beads, and says, “I hate this neighborhood.”
I get the old man’s diaper changed, carry him upstairs, and then put him to bed. When I turn out the lights, Pop says, “What did Erin tell you about the accident—anything that Coach left out?”
“Just what we told you.”
“Nothing else? You sure?”
I think about it, replaying Erin’s words in my mind. “She said they might have sped up before they hit her.”
“That’s what I thought.” The old man shakes his head and blows air through his broken, jagged teeth.
“Maybe this wasn’t an accident.”
“What are you saying, Pop?”
“You’re not stupid, Finley. Stop pretending you don’t understand what’s going on.”
I think about what the old man means and immediately dismiss his words as crazy. Why would anyone want to break Erin’s leg?
Back in the living room, Coach has helped himself to one of Pop’s beers and is sitting on the couch.
“Wanted to speak with you,” he says.
Before I can think better of it, I say, “Do you think that maybe someone hit Erin intentionally to get back at Rod?”
Coach opens his eyes really wide. He looks at me for a moment, and then he says, “Don’t know, and I don’t wanna know, either. You don’t wanna know that, Finley. Haven’t you lived in this neighborhood for eighteen years? Don’t go there. Useless information. Not a damn thing to do with thoughts like that. You hear me?” He takes a sip of Pop’s beer and says, “Sit.”
“I’m real sorry about what happened to Erin. It’s a shame. A damn shame.” Coach looks down at his hands for a few moments, but when he looks up, he’s smiling, which makes me feel very weird. “In other news, the cat’s out of the bag. You don’t have to keep Russ’s secret anymore.”
In other news? Did Coach really just make that transition?
“I’m already getting calls from top programs. Coach K phoned just this morning. Coach K himself. Duke basketball. Russ really has a shot to go far, and your helping him get through this tough period is commendable. I want you to know that I appreciate it very much and that you’ll be getting your minutes, don’t you worry. I know this is a tough night for you, Finley, and that’s why I wanted to say I’m proud of you. You did a good thing, helping Russ. But the job’s not done yet.”
I just stare at Coach. I know that he’s trying to make me feel better about losing my starting position, that he’s thanking me, but with Erin in the hospital—with my having just seen how bad she was hurt and understanding that her hopes for a college scholarship are now over—this hardly seems like the appropriate time to be discussing Russ.
My hands are balled and I can feel my face getting hot.
“I just wanted to take that off your mind, in light of all you have to think about now, with Erin in the hospital,” Coach says. “I’m not displeased with you. Quite the opposite. And the doctors will fix Erin’s leg. Don’t worry about the rest. You can’t control the rest. So just forget about those questions you were asking earlier. Okay?”
I nod, because I don’t want to continue this conversation.
Coach sips his beer once more before he places it on the coffee table and says good-bye. Then I’m alone.
I stretch out on the couch and wait for my father to come home so that he can advise me, but I fall asleep somewhere around three.
I sit up when I hear the front door open.
“Finley?” Dad says. “Why are you sleeping on the couch?”
My face must look terrible, because Dad sits next to me and says, “What’s wrong?”
After a minute or so of waking up and thinking and remembering, I tell him what happened.
Remembering is bad, but it feels even worse to say the words.
My stomach starts to churn.
I feel guilty, but I’m not sure why.
Finally I say, “Do you think that someone hurt Erin because of who Rod is and what he does? Do you think that it might not have been an accident?”
Dad looks scared. His left eye is sort of twitching. “Someday you and Erin are going to leave this neighborhood and never come back. May that day come soon.”
He didn’t answer my question directly, but I know he’s talking in code, the way people do around here. So he’s confirmed my suspicion.
“Go get your pop ready for his day, and I’ll put on breakfast.”
And so I do.
BOY21 EMERGES FROM HIS grandfather’s Cadillac looking very much like an Earthling. He’s wearing dark jeans, a Polo rugby shirt with the huge oversize polo-player-on-a-horse symbol, and a cool leather jacket—no robe, cape, or helmet. Judging by the look on his face I don’t think I’m going to hear anything about outer space today.