By the Light (First Version)

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This is the original version of the first in a series of young adult suspense/mystery novels featuring Stuart Hall. The full version can be found for $2.00 under the title By the Light (Full)

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Before

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ONE

I can play… The game of basketball has layers, like an onion. Well, kind of like an onion, but an onion’s only got two layers, one of which is thin and worthless and the other one stinks, so I guess basketball’s not like an onion. Maybe it’s more like an apple, where you have the skin, the stuff you eat, and a core at the center, except the core of an apple is the worst part and the core of basketball is the best part. So maybe basketball isn’t like fruits and vegetables after all. It doesn’t really matter because I don’t get trophies for making metaphors, I get trophies for playing basketball and I know about the layers. Trust me. The outside, the skin, is pretty much the same for everybody, from your big stars to the lowest bench-dweeb. It’s the feel of the game, the physical sensation, the bright orange game balls with the pebbles standing out firm and true, instead of the worn brown practice balls that keep slipping out of your grip; it’s the uniforms, the satin sliding softly against your skin instead of the cotton practice jerseys that are soaked with sweat and riding up your buttcrack after ten minutes; it’s the game shoes, the ones that twice a year you walk into Footlocker and drop a hundred and a half for. It’s the lights and the reflection off the floor, the smell of popcorn and cheerleader’s perfume; it’s the crowd noise, telling you that what you’re doing is important, that you matter.

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Move to the next layer and talent, training, and intelligence come into play. You’ve got guys who just take up space on the bench; you’ve got guys with a very narrow range of function – guards who bring the ball down and pass it inside to the big guys, or forwards with limited offense who set screens and battle for rebounds. Then there are players who are so high on the talent charts that they become stars, idols, even, without ever penetrating the deeper levels of the game, who excel without understanding. On a lot of teams that’s as far as it goes. But, if you’re a student of the game, sometimes you find yourself watching a guy who can see the whole game, beyond the plays and the shots and the rebounds, a guy who can see when a teammate is tired and needs a rest, who can tell which plays are working and why, a guy who knows when to switch defensive assignments on the fly, and who can even tell when the coach is getting a little too worked up for the team’s good and who’ll call a timeout to settle him down. Combine that level of understanding with exceptional athletic skills and you have a star who’s also a leader. But you may not, necessarily, have someone who’s penetrated to the core of the game. Because at the deepest level, at the heart of the game, where victory hangs in the balance, there are guys who can look at their opponents and see the drops of sweat, the dilated eyes that spell uncertainty and fear. They see the microscopic hesitation, the thought before the action. Those guys can seize the moment and raise their game

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and bring their teammates along with them. Some overdramatic sportswriters call it killer instinct, but those are just words. What it is, is pure unbridled joy. You are flying…and once you’ve reached that level, you can say it. I can play. And that’s the only way to say it, really, with a flat tone… "I can play", every word emphasized about the same and I wouldn't bother to say it at all except that playing b-ball is pretty much the central point of my existence right now. My parents call it a God-given talent, but, having never been able to figure how God could be much of a basketball fan, I look at it the way I look at guys who are really good at math, for instance, where all those stupid formulas actually mean something. They just get it, somehow, and that's the way it is with me and b-ball. So, when I say "I can play," it's just a statement of fact, like saying "I have brown hair." Nothing less, and nothing more. Tonight, for instance, we played Southwest, a truly awful team, and unexpectedly ran into trouble. I specialize in composure, but these guys were so bad that I couldn’t predict what they were going to do from one minute to the next. My ability to control the game depends, somewhat, on our opponents doing things that make sense. Their guys weren’t just playing badly – they were being stupid and it made my guys nervous. The game quickly devolved into playground chaos. We stopped

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thinking and started getting all humpy and firing away from ridiculous angles. Stupidity is a contagious disease. Late in the third quarter, tired of the circus, I finally called time out. We gathered around the bench, heads down, heaving, a little bit dejected, while Coach Perkins bellowed his usual nonsense. I glanced up at Bug and mouthed “Zone.” He nodded agreement, knowing that a tight zone defense would help get us reorganized. We trotted back onto the court, Bug and I motioning the other guys into a 2-3 formation, which limits their ability to improvise. We shuffled back and forth as a group while Southwest tried to find a passing lane. Eventually, and predictably, they threw the ball away. I took the inbounds pass and began to work it up the court slowly, keeping it away from the guys who were most frazzled. Bug set a pretty pick on the outside. I dodged past him for a short jumper and just that fast the natural order of the universe was restored. Our lead grew to ten and then fifteen and the cheerleaders were whirling and the band was rocking. I rainbowed a couple three pointers and it was all over, the scrubs were in for garbage time, we're fifteen and oh, ranked second in the state and the prettiest cheerleader in the world is sitting in the front seat of my car - and you think you've got problems. Because, you see, I won't have sex with her and she doesn’t understand why. Don't get me wrong. It's not that I couldn't, and it's

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certainly not that I don't want to. (I'm sure there are dead guys in town who want to sleep with Melanie Horvath.) It's just that I won’t. I don't love her. Actually I don't even like her very much. She's an airhead, snobbish and petty, not very bright, consumed with surfaces. If she didn't look like a Victoria's Secret model and have a Dad who owns half the town, she’d be anonymous. And you know what? I don't think she really likes me all that much either. I'm okay looking, and sizeable, but I'm not glib and funny like the guys who run in her crowd. My parents are relentlessly middle class, very religious, and about as social as a, as a… well they're not social at all. Their idea of a party is coffee after church. So Melanie and I are a total mismatch, but she's the head cheerleader and I'm captain of the basketball team. Speaking with total honesty, I’m the best b-ball player this school has ever seen and she’s the best looking girl any of us may ever see and people just figure we belong together. And, in the same spirit of total honesty, I think Melanie would have dumped me on the spot if I'd ever slept with her, but I haven't, and won't, and I think it hurts her pride. And that's how we end up in the front seat of my car on Parker Ridge at midnight with her panting away and me saying no. And yes, I know how this looks, how shallow it makes me look, that is. I’m not an idiot. But it wasn’t always like this. In the early days, when we first went out, there was a genuine sense of… possibility. I

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know there were hormones involved, lots and lots of hormones, but we actually talked, and did stuff. We went to movies and we walked around the lake and one Saturday we snuck into the old deserted brewery and explored the whole place, hearts pounding away as we stepped on rotted planks and held each other up, loving the feeling that we were doing something secret and forbidden, mistaking it for loving each other. But eventually we ran out of things to talk about and were left with the only avenue we hadn’t explored. It’s really all we have at this point. Hence the conflict. We go through this charade every weekend, kissing and fumbling around. I know everyone on the team thinks we're making it and I know Melanie tells her friends that we're making it and I know half the kids in school are probably out there making it, but I keep thinking that there's got to be something better than having sex with a girl I don't really like just to say I did it. And so, tonight, I finally come up for air and move as far away from her as I can (which isn't far, given that we're smooshed in the front seats of my ancient VW, battling with the gear shift and trying to avoid the repair tape that keeps sticking to exposed body parts.) My back is pressed against the window. It’s about ten degrees outside so my spine is freezing even though it’s about two hundred degrees inside the car, where the air is so full of Melanie’s perfume that I can hardly breathe. I shake my head and look at her, really look at her. She's sitting there in the moonlight, tight blue skirt hiked way up her beautiful

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legs, white cotton blouse half undone, dark red lipstick smeared around her puffy, perfect lips, eyes half closed in what I assume she thinks is a passionate, seductive pose (courtesy of Cosmo, I would guess) and I feel… nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly – I’m a little sore and tired from the frantic pace of the game. I'm annoyed, exasperated, and sexually frustrated. But I don't feel happy and I don't feel proud of myself and more than anything I just want to be home in my room with a Coke, a sandwich, and a fast, violent detective novel. A breath of fresh air would be okay, too. Mostly, though, I don't want to be here for the next scene, because it isn’t going to be pretty. I mean, I've turned Melanie down before and she's been alternately hurt, angry, scornful, insulting, or tearful - testing whatever mood she figures is most likely to break down my resistance. In fairness, I've never given her a good reason why I don't want to have sex with her. I'm not a hundred percent sure I know the reason. My parents think premarital intercourse is sinful, of course, and sixteen years of twice-a-week church services have burned that concept so deeply into my brain that I'm sure it has some effect on my behavior. But a lot of people in the Bible seem to have been forgiven for fornicating, especially if they were in the Old Testament and were really important, and I'm pretty sure that God understands what it's like to be sixteen and have mega doses of hormones shorting out your conscience. And, if the ministers are correct

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when they tell you that wanting to have sex is as big a sin as actually having it, then I'm already doomed. So I don't think I'm sitting here across the seat from Melanie because I'm afraid of going to Hell. I'm sitting here across the seat from Melanie because I'm not in love with her. And if I tell her that she'll make more fun of me than if I told her I was gay. Because, after all, what's love got to do with it, she would say? Well, just about everything, I would answer. It matters, even to a jock, even to a "premiere prospect… big, fast, with a deadly jump shot and great instincts" (courtesy National Prep Sports Monthly). I see college scouts in the audience all the time. My parents are very strict about keeping them away from me, but I know that, in the material sense, I've been given a free ticket to the future. Some of the magazines that cover high school sports are already talking NBA. In many ways, everything I could possibly want is right in front of me, literally and figuratively. And, hey, it's not like it's all bad, or that I don't get a thrill from lying in bed, seeing myself running the Lakers, sinking a three in front of Jack Nicholson. It's not like I don't fall asleep at night thinking of my basketball card, seeing Stuart Hall spelled out in gold foil over a dramatic action pose. But in just as many ways, I don't care. I even wonder sometimes if I actually like basketball. Because I would prefer, I think, that it be played in a vacuum - no scores, no tournaments, no coaches and screaming fans… just the Game - the geometry, the pure flight of the ball and the loss of gravity as you

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sail toward the hoop. Once in a while, when I get tired or depressed, I wonder if I keep playing because of the weight of all the expectations – from the guys on the team, Melanie, kids at school who take way too much of their own identity from a bunch of genetic misfits, the coaches and teachers, who get all puffed up when they see us listed in the state rankings, grocery store clerks and car dealers and little kids on bikes, writers and TV anchors and everyone, it seems, every single person with whom I come in contact every single day. Except, in fairness, for my parents, who, in spite of their relentless refusal to be cool, are the only people I know who put the b-ball thing in perspective. They're proud of me, of course, but they would rather I were this good at English or math or something worthwhile. They make sure my homework and chores get done on time. They even make me baby-sit my little sister, Anne, a.k.a “Chewy”, (a nickname I gave her once for a reason no one remembers. I continue to use it because it drives her crazy) though "make me" is inaccurate because she's almost twelve and cuter than a cartoon mouse. She adores me and vice versa and babysitting her is more fun than just about anything else I do, especially fighting with Melanie Horvath, which brings me, abruptly, out of the pleasant future and back to the present tense (double meaning fully appreciated and intended.) Melanie sits there for a while, staring out the window, silent, before, with little jerking motions, she buttons her blouse and smoothes

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down her skirt and fluffs her hair and sniffs, "I think I would like to go home now." I stick the key in the ignition and crank the ancient accelerator, silently praying for the ten thousandth time that it will catch. From somewhere I can't imagine, a hitherto unknown death wish surfaces and I tell her "I don't think we should see each other anymore." That gets her attention. She snaps around and says "What?" and the look on her face is so comical, as if the universe had suddenly turned itself inside out and good had become bad and eggs had become chickens, that I have to stifle a whoop of laughter. Tucking my head down in my letter jacket, I carefully arrange my features until they reflect the proper degree of concern. "Melanie," I tell her, trying to be gentle, but knowing I'm really, really tired and maybe it isn't coming out that way, "We are not having a good time. We never have a good time. We just fight. So maybe we should stop doing this." If you could see it third hand, like in a movie, you'd probably find it funny, too - Melanie trying on reactions, that is. You can actually see her mind at work as she cycles through tearful, angry, really tearful, very angry, and even heartbroken before settling on ballistically angry. "You absolute pathetic excuse for a human man," she begins, then stops for a moment when she realizes how stupid that sounds. Quickly regaining her sense of enraged entitlement, she launches into a really

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impressive torrent of name-calling. Twenty-five minutes later she's still yelling as I pull up in front of the door to her mansion. "You just wait," she hisses. "In two days even the gay guys won't want a date with you. You are so totally past tense…." There was more, I saw her giving me the double number-one through the rear view mirror as I drove away, but at least I was free. I rolled down the window and let the winter wind freeze my nose hairs as I sped toward home with its comforts - Coke and sandwich, bath, bed, and book were waiting. After all, it was the weekend. Monday would arrive, eventually, but much later.

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TWO

Unfortunately, later arrived sooner than should have been possible. It's not fair, weekends only lasting one day, that is. What with b-ball games and breaking up with girlfriends and all, you're too tired to enjoy Friday night and then you've got Saturday, which is cool, but whose significance is so great that your whole existence sometimes seems to rest on the success of its outcome, and then… well, then there's Sunday, which doesn't amount to much more than a waiting room for Monday. After my spectacularly miserable Friday night, I wasted Saturday laying low, licking my wounds, cruising on-line, posting random garbage on various discussion boards populated by idiots and dozing through bad movies on the Sci-Fi channel until I passed out from sheer boredom at ten. Dragging myself out of bed on Sunday morning, I scarfed some O.J. and went back to my room to pull on the Sunday wool slacks and

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sport coat and knot the stupid tie, preparatory to the seventh day family ritual – being held captive on a hard wooden bench suffering through yet another of the Reverend Dailey's interminable reveries on the nature of sin and the barely forgivable weakness of Man. "Oh Lord," he cries, in what I'm sure he thinks is his Mighty Voice, "Forgive these worthless sinners…" The Reverend first graced our presence about five years ago after his predecessor sort of disappeared. One Sunday he was here… and then he wasn’t anymore… and nobody ever spoke his name again, at least to kids. For the next few weeks the church elders met in secret sessions while guest speakers ruled the pulpit. (I sort of wished I had been a fly on the wall during those meetings, but then I came to my senses and realized they would have been just like the church services, only longer and without the music.) Suddenly one Sunday, without any advance warning, Reverend Dailey emerged as the new potentate. Not like I cared, you understand. I mean, I’m okay with the church thing overall. When I was younger I even used to kind of get into it. The stories were pretty good and sometimes when the music was just right you felt… something. Then I got older. I do understand, though, that the whole thing has real meaning for my Mom and Dad, and they have real meaning to me, so, despite the fact that I’m usually exhausted from the school week and from being out on Saturday night, I paste on a non-grumpy facial expression and

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accompany them to church every Sunday, week after week, year after year. Consoling myself with thoughts of what a good son this makes me, I sit and daydream while the Reverend fulminates, orates, and expectorates. Other than our sins, which trouble him greatly, he mostly talks about money - how much he needs, how much he doesn't have, and how much we're supposed to give - so he can build a bigger church, or buy new furniture for the parsonage, or go to conferences with other Reverends to learn how to raise even more money, or… whatever, just send a check. Once a year we have a special Saturday night service in the high school gym. A giant cardboard box sits on the bare stage while inspirational music wafts from the PA system. Following the hymns, a succession of guest speakers marches out from the wings and stands in front of the box to tell us how badly our contributions are needed. When the speeches are finally done each of the members is supposed to march up and drop his yearly pledge sheet in the big box. Then, while volunteers serve us a bad dinner, the elders count the loot. I watched Reverend Dailey last year as they finished the count. (He and the elders were hidden in a little room next to the cafeteria and didn't notice that someone had left the door open a crack.) Dailey is a big guy, almost as tall as me, with a hedge-sized head of puffy gray hair surrounding a lived-in (badly) kind of face, highlighted by that blotchy red that doesn’t come from spending too much time in the sun. He

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looked at a piece of paper he'd been handed and the skin above his neck turned a deep purple. He threw the paper down and kicked over a wastebasket on his way out to tell his beloved flock how much he appreciates our sacrifices and how he was sure it was going to be our best year yet. While sentiment oozed, he was showing the crimson faceflag and I laughed inside and wondered who cheaped out this year. Not my parents, I know. They faithfully pony up ten percent of Dad’s income every week, even though they're so low on the social totem pole that Dailey barely remembers their names. I know I shouldn’t be cynical. I’m not old enough to be cynical. But I do remember the stories I used to hear in Sunday school and I don’t remember many of them having to do with sinking funds and retreats and “educational development wings.” Church, if it was ever anything else, has become an endurance contest, an early start to the school week in a different venue. So that was fun. Sunday afternoon featured the family dinner, dishes, homework, and bike riding with Chewy. That got me to about seven o'clock. After a big snack and an hour of TV the weekend was effectively shot. I lay in bed and asked God, pleasantly and patiently, to insert another day before I had to go back to school. I'm sure he heard me, but Monday dawned as usual. As I rolled into the parking lot, I saw groups of kids standing around, whispering. Many of them looked at me as I emerged from my car (not unusual - the combination of my size and the diminutive nature

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of the VW does have a circus-like entertainment value) but today most of them quickly glanced away without making eye contact. “Melanie,” I thought. “ Melanie spent the weekend on the phone.” As b-ball hero (and genuinely large person) I'm immune from overt confrontation, but I could see that The Word, whatever that word might be, was definitely out on the street. A stiff wind was blowing little pellets of some weird kind of precipitation in my face which gave me an excuse to tuck my head down into my coat and approach the worn brick steps of the main entrance slowly and semi-surreptitiously. I made it almost to the door before an unwieldy object impeded my path. Said object proved to be a singularly lanky body, which was draped across, and prohibited my passage through, the threshold of Foley High. "Yo, buttwipe," hailed Bug, my dear friend and teammate, "hear you've gone faggot." Bug, you understand, sounds like a foghorn when he's whispering, so I was pretty certain his greeting had been received in Moscow. "Yo, Bug," I replied. "Eat me." He rose from the steps and stretched, grinning. “Wouldn’t wanna be you, today, Captain.” I couldn’t disagree, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be Bug, either. At least I’ve touched a girl this year.

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The bell sounded and I trudged off to English class alone, marching straight ahead, eyes front, head up. Stinkin' Melanie, I thought, but one reaps what one sows, they say, and the seeds of discord I had sowed, (sown?…who uses that word, anyway?) had sprouted over the weekend… or something. I’ll be quoting Jack and the Beanstalk next. I actually like English (relatively speaking, of course) because I occasionally end up reading something I remember the next day. Mr. Lewis is one of the teachers who's least affected by the whole b-ball issue, meaning he treats me like everyone else, as a vaguely formed lump of consciousness sitting in front of him waiting to be animated by the Breath of Literature. He's a funny looking guy, real tall and thin, with a huge pointed Adam’s apple that bounces in and out and up and down in rhythm with his words when he gets excited. Balding and graveyard pale, he could be thirty or fifty or have recently returned from the dead. Rumor has it he emerged from the womb quoting Shakespeare (or maybe that was his mom yelling "Out, out damned spot.") Running the class with a kind of distracted but affectionate way of understanding when we're getting bored with his lectures, he'll sometimes break off in mid-sentence and tell us to write something, anything really, on any topic we care about. (“Care” being the operative word. He’ll give an ‘A’ for a passionately argued but poorly written essay before he’ll award one to a perfectly written piece of crap.) He reads our papers carefully and sends back thoughtful, detailed critiques. Today, however, was the beginning of

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a lengthy section on Hawthorne, a writer whose effect on me has always been exactly equal to the effect of a huge holiday meal - instant theopposite-of-insomnia. Before he plunged into our first assignment, The Scarlet Letter, he introduced us to a new classmate, a transfer student, he said, pointing to a brown girl who sat huddled in the back row, looking like a refugee from one of those tragic ex-Communist countries you always see people trudging out of on the news. She wasn't actually brown, of courseAfrican-Americans are extinct in this part of town. She just kind of exuded brownness, some essence of brown. She wore a baggy brown jacket over a brown turtleneck with a long brown skirt that almost reached the floor. A cascade of brown hair flowed down her back; bangs cut very, very long obscured the parts of her face that weren’t already covered by the biggest, ugliest pair of plastic-rimmed glasses anyone has ever seen. Her lips, the only truly visible part of her body, opened briefly to tell us, for some reason, that she used to live in Cleveland. It’s not, you understand, like I really care. It’s just that my lengthy academic experience tells me that girls who look like her are almost guaranteed to be brains, scholars, study-geeks, meaning the grading curve is raised yet again for the rest of us. "Whatever," I thought, forcing my mind to focus on Hester Prynne and her problems. I could feel her pain, carrying the burden of a big pink "F" on my chest, courtesy of Melanie Horvath.

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I zombied through the morning and risked a mandatory suspension to sneak off to the park for an hour at lunch so I wouldn't have to sit in the cafeteria and watch Melanie and her cohorts pass ugly rumors. I sat in my car, munching an old bag of Doritos I found in the glove box, musing on fate. Or dozing… I forget which. I snuck back unobserved and mused (or dozed) through my afternoon classes until, finally, the three-thirty bell sounded. I levitated from my seat, hit the ground running, and was through the gym door, in and out of the locker room, and deep into shooting practice before my teammates had packed their book bags. As the guys filtered onto the court, we scrimmaged half-heartedly, throwing the usual elbows and insults, until Coach Perkins waddled out of his office. I read once that Eskimos have something like forty-seven different words for snow. If English had forty-seven words for jerk there still wouldn’t be enough to describe Perkins, a fat, alcoholic, red-haired, red-faced, racist, sexist bag of slob. I dislike him intensely. He's a horrible coach and a worse human being. During my freshman year, when I was the only fourteen-year-old starter in the history of Foley High, Perkins, anxious to prove that he still had what it took in the testosterone department, tried to kill me… almost literally. He assigned me every cleanup detail, ragged me mercilessly for every mistake and every missed basket, and overlooked relentless hazing

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from the upperclassmen. I took it and stayed quiet because I was a freshman and because I wanted to play. I think it nearly killed Perkins, but after the first couple of games, when he tried to keep me on the bench until garbage time, it became clear that he didn’t have much choice. Simply put, we won when I played a lot and lost when I didn't. We beat out Central for the regular season title and should have won the conference tournament. Instead of trusting us, though, Perkins told our center and power forward to intentionally foul Central's center to "crap up his rhythm." They crapped up his rhythm so badly that they both fouled out in the middle of the second quarter. I scored forty-three points but we lost by one when their senior captain hit a falling-out-of-bounds three-pointer as time expired. For most of that season, except when I was on the basketball floor, I was an emotional wreck. During the games, the upperclassmen needed me. I controlled the ball and could decide who scored and who didn't. But afterward it was back to the locker room for another helping of hide-the-street-clothes or tape-the-locker-shut. Perkins found it utterly hilarious. My friends, like Bug, didn't see what went on behind the locker room doors and I tried real hard not to let them see how it affected me. My Dad noticed, though. You have to understand my Dad - or not. He doesn’t care one way or the other. He's pretty much an island and there aren't many people outside the family who are willing to swim far enough to get to know him.

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(I know, I know… truly vile imagery, but ever since I caught my Dad sitting alone one night listening to that mopy Simon & Garfunkel “I’m a rock, I’m an island” song, I’ve had the image in my head. Good old Dad, stranded out there with his Simon and Garfunkel and Neil Young records. No wonder he doesn’t get a lot of company.) As the Business Manager for a local car dealership, he makes decent money, but we're never going to summer on the Riviera. He's never mean, but he can go three weeks without saying three words. His idea of a real good Saturday night is a long bath with a good book and an early bedtime. He doesn't try to be my pal. But before my sophomore year, (and I got this straight from Bug, whose mom sits on the School Board and knows everything,) my Dad made an appointment to see Coach Perkins. He told him to make sure I had a happy, productive season or he would sell our house and move us to the other side of town where he would enroll me at Central and I would spend the rest of my high school career kicking Perkins’s butt. Maybe I should have resented him for interfering, but I didn't. Seems to me that's what Dads are for. I've always loved him, but he kicked it up an extra notch that summer. In his world, the parenting world, he can play. And from the first practice last year, it was apparent that Coach and I had arrived at an understanding. I ran the team on the floor, ignored his pep talks and lectures, and he handled substitutions and

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strategy, largely to the detriment of my teammates, but there’s only so much one Dad can do. We won the regular season title and the conference tournament and made it to the state semi-finals where Eastport and their trio of 6'8" forwards dominated the boards and beat us by one in a game with twenty-two lead changes. I made All-State first team and this year we've been unstoppable. We still don't rebound very well, but Eastport lost two of their big guys and even though the sportswriters still rank them number one, I think we’re better. Melanie aside, the year has been a joyride, right from the beginning. Even practice has been fun, most times, and today was no exception. The guys had obviously heard Melanie's line of vicious gossip, but the faggot talk was filtered through the genuine affection and respect we have for each other and emerged as little more than gentle teasing. Any one of those guys would crawl six miles on broken glass to see Melanie naked, but I don't think they like her any more than I do. She's not a likable person. Before scrimmage, Perkins called us over for The Weekly Pep Talk. We play Central, our traditional archrivals, here on Thursday. After we waxed them by thirty-two in their gym two weeks ago this year's rivalry lost a little spark. Nevertheless, Perkins had to play Da Man. "All right, girls," he grunted, "ya gotta pay attention. Dem guys got some kind of transfer kid, I heard, some big guy gonna give them some

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power up the middle so I want ya workin' on the zone this week, workin' on the zone…." Ya know, whatever. Perkins is barely capable of figuring out when somebody has four fouls and needs to come out of the game. After Slobbo finally left the court to pass out in his office we huddled up with his assistant, Bobby Randall, to get the real story. Bobby was an all-state forward here fifteen years ago. He knows his stuff, but all the years of working for Perkins, waiting for him to die, have robbed him of whatever intensity he might have once possessed, so he’s mostly good for scouting reports and the occasional phony tardy excuse. He confirmed the basic facts and told us that Central’s new guy had started one game last week and scored thirty-three as they blew out the fourth place team in the conference. Bobby hasn't seen him play but, given our last game against them, it's hard to figure how one guy is going to make much of a difference. We're a smallish team, though, and big guys tend to give us trouble, so we worked hard on our 2-3 zone, collapsing the middle and forcing the scrubs to shoot from outside. When the other team is bigger we use the zone to clog up the inside passing lanes and force them into a jump shooting contest. No one beats us in a shooting match. Showering afterward, I asked Bug to call me later and tell me why, why, why anyone should be held responsible for The Scarlet Letter.

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“If I can stay awake, dude,” he promised as we dragged our aching bodies out the gym door. Strike Monday, I thought gratefully, opening the front door as sixty-three pounds of shrieking eleven year old pounced on my leg and begged for a ride. Strike Monday.

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THREE

I reached Friday, Game Day, fairly easily. Melanie and the Socials, as those who care enough to apply the label know them, continued to avoid contact. I'm sure she's found someone to console her by now. I feel like I've been breathing fresh air all week, like I never knew how much she weighed on me until she suddenly wasn't there. By Thursday the gay chatter had died down and Bug was following me home from practice to shoot hoops in the driveway. We studied afterward, though that's really pushing the term, and I got a good night's sleep before the big game. Game days pass very slowly, not least because it's double English period and we're working on The Scarlet Letter. Like I said, Mr. Lewis is one of the good guys, but he's not going to consider the year a success until he forces us to understand Hawthorne. I'm not an English scholar, but I think old Nathaniel's time has come and gone, like compact discs

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and network TV. In the sea of tedium, though, an actual Memorable Moment surfaced. Lewis was droning on about symbolism, the red letter and something about red roses and gray walls, yada yada yada, when suddenly, out of nowhere, the brown girl spoke up. Not that I've spent any time scoping her, you understand, but I've had a sense of her all week, huddled back there in her brown jackets and dresses, tenting behind her mass of hair and googly-specs, nearly inanimate except for the few times when I’d see her lips moving silently, as though she were debating Lewis in her mind, and it was weird to hear sounds emerging from the underbrush. "I don't think," she said, and her voice, soft and a little breathy, was, at the same time, perfectly clear. "I don't think that you're really explaining the story." Lewis’s Adam’s apple bobbed twice in shock. I think it may have been the first time in a hundred years that there had been verifiable evidence in a high school classroom that a student had actually read Hawthorne. Mr. Lewis is cool, though. Unlike most teachers, he doesn't take a challenge from one of his students as a personal affront to his ego. He stepped away from the podium and stood at the front of the class, looking at Brown Girl, still trying to process the fact that someone truly cared. For those few seconds, the man looked happy. He basked in it for a few seconds before asking her to explain.

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She raised her head a bit, peered through her tangled hair and enormous lenses, and elaborated. "I think Hawthorne uses the roses and the scarlet letter to link beauty and sin. I think he makes the rest of the book, the rest of the Puritans, with all their rules and laws so gray and drab and colorless to show us why Hester had to break free." She stopped, abruptly, and I think if you'd been able to see her face it would have been the same color as Hester's letter. She ducked back behind her curtain of hair as the bell rang and set us free. I saw Mr. Lewis watching as she gathered her books and scurried out of the room. He caught my eye and shrugged, in a "what the heck was all that about?" gesture. I had no idea, but it was a curious moment and it stuck in my mind afterward. We stayed after school for a pep rally and the special dinner they serve in the cafeteria before home games ("special" being defined as cube steak, baked potato, salad, milk, and pie wedge.) The atmosphere, though, is what makes it special. The team sits together, the band marches through, the cheerleaders flash a little thigh, and by the time we're finished eating adrenaline rushes have begun to turn us from pimply-faced jocks into men of war. As game time approached, the locker room filled with its usual lewdness and lies as we pulled on our uniforms, injuries were doctored, ankles got taped, lineups were posted and the coaches bellowed their pep

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talks. Through it all, the noise and smell, that unmistakable perfume of antiseptic, old sweat, new sweat, chlorine and teenage boy's ideas of sexy cologne that is as common to every locker room as hospital smell is to hospitals, we could hear the crowd gathering in the gym while the band warmed up and the cheerleaders pumped the audience into emotional delirium. We crouched in front of Coach, pretending to listen, while the final adrenaline charge was injected into our nervous systems (playing Central always bumps up the chemical reactions, even when we suspect we're going to kill them.) We crowded around the door, jumping and high-fiving until Perkins gave the word and we exploded onto the court as our home crowd brought the house down. We stoke the fans, under normal circumstances, by bursting out of the locker room and forming into a circular lay-up pattern, driving hard to the basket, soaring above the rim, throwing down an occasional slam (which is supposed to be illegal in warm-ups, but they'll usually let a couple go, especially on the home floor) and ignoring our opponents on the other end. Usually, that is, under normal circumstances. Tonight, as I hit the door, trailing the rest of the guys in my ceremonial position as team captain, I sensed something unusual right away. Guys were circling in for their lay-ups, but their attention was turned elsewhere, to the other end of the floor, specifically toward Central's new transfer student who was the clearly the biggest guy I, or anyone else, had ever seen, even from the far side of a basketball court.

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"Big" doesn't begin to describe him, though. Most basketball players are big, in the absolute sense, but it usually means lanky-big, highly elongated types like Abdul- Jabbar or Kevin Garnett. You get your occasional Karl Malone or even Shaq, guys who are more normally proportioned while still being enormous, but, looking at this guy, I wasn't using basketball as a frame of reference. I was using David and Goliath. He towered over his teammates, and was wide enough to obscure two of them at a time. His hair, midnight-in-a-dungeon black, curled down to his shoulders, which were luminously pale with skin so white it nearly glowed. Miles below, emerging from his crimson shorts, were massive legs, redwood-thick and densely covered with more coal black hair. We watched him warm up, totally distracted from our own drills, blinking our collective eyes in disbelief because, when you saw his size you expected brute strength and instead you got…ballet. He didn't lurch or lumber, he twirled. He leaped and arced jump shots from the top of the key, dropped hook shots from twenty feet, pivoted through the lane to take rebounds two feet above the rim. Obviously someone had dropped a mythical Giant into the middle of suburban America. We stood there with our mouths open. I don’t think I was alone in fearing that we were utterly, totally screwed.

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Bobby Randall finally snapped us out of it by grabbing me and Bug and Warden aside and telling us to concentrate, it's only one guy. "No," I said, "I'm pretty sure it's more than one guy." Randall laughed, without humor, and we huddled up to plan our defense. "Collapse inside and keep da ball away from da Big Guy," Perkins urged. "Gee, Coach, thanks," I whispered to Bug. He gave me a half-grin and said, “Yeah, That’ll do it. For sure.” The buzzer sounded, we hitched up our uniforms and took the court. The crowd, our crowd, densely packed on the old wooden risers, would normally have been screaming their lungs out, but tonight there was more of a muted buzz. The cheerleaders were going through the motions; words were coming out of their mouths, but they seemed to be on autopilot. The Giant stood in the center circle, waiting calmly and reached to shake hands with Warden as he prepared for the jump ball. I glanced up at him expecting to see some kind of Andre the Giant type mutant, but, underneath the mane of hair, he had a regular nose and mouth and you almost forgot about the rest of him until you saw his eyes, which were a shade of gray so light as to be nearly colorless. Set deep in that pale white face, surrounded by the cloud of ebony hair, they seemed to float in space, entirely unaware of the effect they created.

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The ball went up, the Giant went up, and I assume Warden went up, but it hardly mattered as the ball was gently batted back to Central's point guard while Warden watched from far below. They quickly brought the ball up court, set their offense, and the guard tossed a lob high above the rim. The Giant caught it in flight and slammed it down. 2-0. Bug inbounded to me and I trotted toward our basket, waiting for everyone to find his position, still a little shaken. At the beginning of a game, I usually try to get all our guys involved in the offense. If we can get a good inside flow, and if the forwards and center are moving and setting their screens, it draws the defense toward them and eventually we get better shots. Tonight our guys seemed to be glued to the floor. The Giant took up half the defensive area, and as quickly as I whipped it to either side, he moved over and blocked the inside passing lanes. After several futile attempts to work the ball in to Bug or Warden, I ended up way out on the corner with the shot clock running down. A long three-pointer clanged off the rim and into the Giant's hands. He fired it to his breaking guard at half court. 4-0. The next few possessions produced similar results. They lobbed the ball to the Giant for easy baskets on their end. The Giant hoovered every rebound on our end and halfway through the first quarter I called a timeout with the score Giant 17, Foley 5. We huddled on the sideline panting, shell-shocked, while Perkins and Randall tried to think of something to say. Warden had turned a scary shade of crimson and two

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large bruises adorned his upper arms, badges honorably, if futilely, earned in battle with the Giant. With the buzzer about to sound, I told everyone to get the ball to me, collapse inside on defense, and slow the tempo down. As we ran back onto the court I told Bug to head back on defense after every one of our shots to cut off the fast break. I took the inbounds pass and dribbled slowly, watching as our three interior guys fell back and surrounded the big guy. I faked inside a couple times and then drove hard to the middle, going up for a shot right in the face of the Giant. He leaped with me and got a hand cleanly on the ball, but the whistle blew as the ref called a two-shot foul. The Giant looked down at me, not unfriendly, and whispered "It was clean." "Tell it to him," I muttered, nodding toward the zebra. I dropped the two freebies and we headed back to play defense. I stationed Warden in front of the Giant and told him to ignore the ball and just keep waving his arms. Central tried another lob but I batted it out of bounds. We harassed the inbounds pass, stole it and converted a break before they could get set. 17-9. The rest of the half was brutal. We used a tenacious zone defense; triple-teaming the Giant, and an equally desperate offense, featuring three-pointers from outside his defensive range and driving lay-ups which were intended to draw fouls rather than score baskets. By the time we headed for the locker room and a too-short rest they were up 37-34

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and the Giant had three fouls. If Central's other guys had been even minimally competent we'd have been down by fifty and we all knew it. We stumbled into the locker room and collapsed on the floor. Bug and Warden, who had shared most of the inside dirty work, were semicomatose. "Yo, dudes, leave some oxygen for the rest of us," I teased, but, for some reason, they failed to respond to my humor. Perkins paced back and forth, mumbling nonsense. I stared at Bobby Randall and asked, "What in the world was that?" He looked back at me, expressionless, and muttered, “Crack of doom, man…crack of doom." After we had taken all of three minutes to catch a breath, Bobby sat down beside me with the stat sheets. The Central Giant was actually named Krystofer Hunter. Krystofer - not Thor or Hulk or His Huge and Mighty Majesty. Just Krystofer. Just a guy - with 24 points and 17 rebounds in the first half. Just a guy with a sissy name who suddenly threatened all our dreams, because, regardless of what happened tonight, or the rest of the season, or our state ranking, or last year, regardless of all that, we almost certainly were going to have to play these guys again in the District tournament, single-elimination at a neutral sight. We also, Bug reminded me gently, had to finish playing them tonight.

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"You got to foul him out." Coach whispered as we headed for the door, as if I hadn't already figured it out myself. I started the third quarter slowly, dribbling down court, eyeing the defensive set, making sure our guys were moving in their proper patterns. Warden and The Giant, Krystofer, that is, battled silently and motionlessly inside in an isometric balance that could not possibly tilt in our favor. The sound level in the old gym pinnacled as the cheerleaders whooped, the band blared, and the crowd rose and screamed at the top of its collective lungs. I stopped about a foot past the mid-court line and fired up a three-pointer from long range. Dumb shot, dumb luck. It dropped through the hoop and the place exploded. They answered with an alley-oop to the Giant, after which I sandwiched two more three-pointers around a missed jumper by one of their forwards, who had the mistaken impression that he needed to make a contribution to the effort. We finally had the lead. I tried to slow the tempo and work around him, but Krystofer wasn't having any. He denied every inside move and began to post up on occasion, cutting off the outside passing lanes. He was quick enough to front a forward and stop the inside pass and still get out to the free throw line before I could whip it over to Bug. I settled for long jumpers, which continued to fall with some regularity, while, on their end, he worked the inside and fouled out Warden and our third forward, Steve Daniels. With

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three minutes left, he had four fouls, 53 points, about two hundred rebounds, and they led by two. I hit a three; he dunked and was fouled, matching my three with a three-point play of his own. I hit for two; he was fouled again and sank the free throws. I hit another three; he fed their breaking guard with a perfect pass, but I got back in time for a clean block. We had the ball with a one-point lead and forty seconds on the clock. I called a time out and we gathered on the sidelines, desperately trying to find oxygen in a suddenly alien atmosphere. I was exhausted. Bug was beyond exhausted. We were not alone. Central's entire team looked like it had been expelled from the rear end of a horse, except for Krystofer, of course, who stood in their huddle, head raised, oblivious to his coach, casting his strange, pale gaze over the crowd. He might have been waiting for a bus on Sunday afternoon. The crowd had yelled itself silly. Even the band looked whipped. I stood there, bent over, pouring sweat, looking at the playbook clutched in Perkins’s quivering hand. "I'm just going to hold it," I said. "We can run the clock down and take the last shot." The coaches nodded agreement, like it was their idea, and I jogged out to take the inbounds pass. I brought the ball down slowly, concerned less with scoring than with the dwindling ticks on the clock. I was surprised that Central had pulled back into their zone rather than trying to press me into a turnover. Probably just too tired, I figured. I reached

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half court and watched my guys, waiting for them to set up; they stood there, staring back at me. I dribbled in towards the basket, knowing that the rules required me to make an effort to penetrate within five seconds. I saw Krystofer in the second line of defense, jockeying for position with Warden's replacement and I ducked inside their guard quickly, intending to duck right back out again. Krystofer leaped out from behind his man and in one fluid motion knocked the ball out of my hands. He blew past me, scooped up the rolling ball, and sailed high in the air for a vicious dunk before I could make a single move to stop him. In a microsecond, as if a huge blanket had been lowered from the rafters, the gym went from pandemonium to an eerie quiet, broken only by screams from the visitor's bleachers where a small band of enemy spectators was going completely nuts. I had just enough control left to signal for our last timeout with seven seconds on the clock and a one point deficit. I stood in the huddle, bent over, watching drops of sweat splash on the polished wooden floor, stunned. There is no way, I thought, no way on Earth that a human being could make that play. Returning to consciousness, I looked up and saw about fifteen sets of eyes staring at me, expecting something…wisdom, perhaps. I think at that point they would have settled for a simple sign of life. They would have been disappointed. I was frozen in place, still replaying the steal in my head.

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No way, I thought, no way in a million years. The buzzer sounded. Action was required. "Just give me the ball," I said. Bug tossed it in and I streaked down court, counting the seconds in my mind as I drove to the outside and leaped, high as I've ever been, arms fully extended in perfect form as the ball arced upward. An enormous shadow climbed even higher. An impossibly long arm reached up and batted the ball into the second row of seats. Central's fans began to pour onto the court in celebration before they heard the ref blowing his whistle in a loud, constant bray while signaling, repeatedly, "Goaltending." The shot counted. We had won. Except I knew, and Krystofer knew, if no one else had been watching closely enough, that he had blocked it cleanly, had caught the ball squarely and fairly on its upward path. We stood there together at half court, watching the Central fans screaming robbery and our fans screaming victory, engulfed by the band, cheerleaders, parents, coaches, and teammates. I look up into his curiously peaceful eyes and nodded, with a deeper respect than I've ever felt for an opponent. "Nice game," I said. "You, too," he replied, maintaining eye contact silently for an uncomfortable few seconds before he turned and was gone, tunneling through the crowd to the locker room.

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I lay awake for a long time that night, replaying the game in my mind. I've shared the court with some real players; guys who were stars on their college teams, guys who might have made the pros if a break or two had gone in their direction. I've played against guys who can shoot as well as me, who are just as fast. I've played against tall guys, tough guys, guys who suck up all the space in the middle. I've even played against guys who see the court almost as well as I do. But I have never, ever played against a guy with Krystofer Hunter's combination of talents. It is not physically possible, in this universe, to be that fast and that graceful and that big. Therefore, the guy must be a superhero. I believe there is some kind of conference or state regulation against using superheroes in high school basketball games. And on that eminently silly and practical note, I punched my pillow and turned over and went to sleep.

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FOUR

Saturday and Sunday passed in a blur. I was too tired to cruise on Saturday and too bored to remember Sunday, so, as I arrived at school Monday morning, butt dragging after another sleepless night in which white-eyed Giants pillaged my dreams, I found Bug sprawled in his usual position on the front steps, impeding the flow of anxious scholars through the oaken doors of Foley High. I may not have adequately introduced this unique individual and for that oversight I humbly apologize. Bug, as he has been called for as long as I've known him, which is approximately forever, is my best friend, a pretty good basketball player, a brilliant student, son of the City Council President, and heir to the throne of the family auto dealer empire. He also happens to be one of the strangest looking humans you will ever meet. Hence the name. Also, and far from incidentally, Bug owns one of the greatest hearts in the universe. If he’s your friend, or even a marginally casual

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acquaintance and you’re in need of something, he will do anything in his power to get it for you, whether "it" be material, emotional, or spiritual. So, despite the orange fuzz that extends about two feet out from his skull, the ridiculously large ears that attach at right angles to the firestorm that surrounds his head, the inch-thick glasses that, until they're confined by a sissy strap during b-ball games, perch precariously on the end of his nose; despite the six-foot four-inch, one hundred and twenty-pound body with which he's been cursed; despite the fact that there is not a designer in the world who could make clothes to fit him, despite every cosmetic disadvantage God could have intentionally visited on one of his children, Bug is awesomely popular. And, because we're friends and because I can score a whole bunch of points almost every time I pick up a basketball, I bask in Bug's reflected social graces while most of my classmates pass their lives in blissful ignorance of the fact that I am almost entirely lacking in those social skills at which Bug excels. On the other hand, without me, Bug would never have touched a girl. Symbiosis, I think it's called. (Old Loomis, our Science teacher, would be shocked that I could pronounce symbiosis, much less spell it, or have any idea what it means. I am not, however, possessed of any hidden scientific skills. I just like the word ‘symbiosis’.) Today, Bug was worried, and Bug in full worry-mode should be a local tourist attraction. When Bug is concerned, deeply troubled, his skin reddens until it has turned almost the same color as his hair and you

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feel like you're standing next to a giant carrot, having a conversation with one of your least favorite food groups. His problem, of course, was Central and its newly acquired Giant and the necessity of our traveling through said school and Giant to achieve our season goals. I'm afraid we all, team and school and townsfolk alike, will be sharing his anxiety as the season winds down. We should sweep our last four games and start the conference tournament as the number one seed. Central now has to be favored to win their last four games. That would give them the third seed at the start of the single-elimination tournament. If we win our two preliminary games, and Central wins theirs, we will meet in the conference finals, with the winner moving on to Regionals. So our road to the long anticipated state title, a title that after last year we have begun to regard as almost inevitable, is now going to have to run through Krystofer Hunter and Central High. "Whaddaya think, huh?" babbled Bug, "I mean, whaddaya think?" “I dunno,” I ventured. “Maybe a hit man.” This did little to quell his anxiety, so I grabbed him in a headlock and pulled him through the door. He shook his head free and stared at me, eyes swimming behind the specs. “Just go to class, man,” I told him. “Maybe Old Loomis has some kind of secret formula we can use.”

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He gave me a small grin and his skin tone lightened just a touch as he gave me a half-wave and headed for the wing where the guys with brains get taught. I didn't tell him my biggest fear - that, with six more games before we play them again, Central’s team will continue to improve as they get used to having a superhero center to rely on. It’s not like there’s a magic answer. Our inside guys, Bug and Warden and Daniels, are going to have to figure out a way to slow the monster down so we don't have to resort to forty-foot jump shots every time we get the ball. The day moved slowly along in its usual blur until fifth period, Science, when I noticed that the brown girl from English was sitting beside me. I found myself studying her covertly, trying to figure out how she could look exactly the same, from head to toe, as she had looked the first time I saw her. Shouldn’t there be something different, I wondered, some sign that she didn’t just pop up out of the carpet day after day? I spent the early part of the class trying, as a kind of game, to see if I could visually penetrate the cloud of brown, tangled curls and clown glasses to get a glimpse of whatever was under there, but her face remained completely obscured, even when she'd occasionally glance at the board to take notes. The baggy brown dress camouflaged the rest of her and I might as well, I thought, have been sitting beside a bale of hay until, about three quarters of the way through the period when, from the far

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corner of my preternaturally sharp, basketball-honed peripheral vision, I noticed that her seat was softly shaking. I half-turned in my chair and saw that she was sitting with her head slumped down on her desk top, and she was… vibrating. “Oh God,” I thought. “She's having a breakdown. Somebody help me.” Closer observation produced the unmistakable impression that the vibration was being caused by laughter, by a constant soft giggling. “Oh God,” I thought. “She's having a breakdown. Somebody help me.” This perception was made even more acute by the penetration into my consciousness of a faint groaning, a barely noticeable, unsteady pulse of sound that seemed to be emanating, not from the brown girl, I realized, but from somewhere just beyond her. I looked up, past her quivering head, and saw Mr. Torso resting in his usual place on the counter. Mr. Torso is a science demonstration model- a man-sized plastic statue, cut off at the upper thighs, with chest and abdomen exposed to show his internal organs. The organs can be removed, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and replaced, sometimes even in the proper order. Today Mr. Torso seemed to be undergoing some sort of abdominal disturbance, because, as I concentrated, I could clearly tell that the groaning sound was issuing from deep within his bowels. Now, Old Loomis isn’t anyone's idea of a funny guy, and I tried very, very hard to

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refrain from an audible expression of amusement, but when Mr. Torso's intestines suddenly and clearly whispered, "Oh God, I think it was the tacos.” I burst out with a bray of laughter so sudden and unexpected that the entire class jerked to attention and I found myself the wholly unwelcome center of their undivided attention. The brown girl was now shaking with laughter and Mr. Torso's next comment, which ran something along the lines of "Oh crap, I'm going to blow.” put me on the floor, choking, holding my sides. Brown Girl gasped for air, and removed her specs to wipe her streaming eyes. For a second, a fleeting instant, her face emerged from the formerly impenetrable tangle of hair. She's really pretty, I remember thinking, before Old Loomis arrived, standing over my prostrate, mirth-choked body, and commanded me to provide an explanation. To my relief, the explanation quickly proved unnecessary as Mr. Torso let loose with a howl of anguish and a rattling shriek of "I'm dying, I'm dying, they've stolen my pancreas." The class roared as our esteemed science instructor ran to the counter and began to fumble with body parts while the helpless statue redoubled his screams. Finally, from deep within Mr. Torso's chest cavity, Old Loomis extracted a small two-way radio. He stood there with the offending item, which was still emitting squawks and squeals, clutched tightly in a shaking hand. Panting, furious, he shook a finger at us, an old finger, crusted with about eighty

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years of biological grime. We stared at the finger, trying to contain ourselves, failing. He took the finger out of our collective faces and stabbed at the walkie-talkie "SEND" button. He demanded the head of the offending party, on a platter, at once, but those new radios transmit for at least a half-mile and the perp was clearly not in the room with us. As God smiled down, the bell sounded and we streamed out of the room at light speed before our distinguished professor could organize himself enough to assign the rest of the textbook as revenge. Still shaking with silent laughter, I found myself walking down the hall behind the brown girl. I thought about the brief glimpse I'd gotten of a pretty face and hurried to catch up and see if it was still there, but she turned the corner and disappeared into her next classroom, leaving me with just a flash of tangled hair and baggy brown clothes. I was still chuckling when I arrived at practice, but my high spirits were quickly dampened. Coach Perkins, genius that he is, had found the answer to beating Central High… wind sprints, lots and lots of wind sprints. Racing down the floor next to Bug, I asked him if he thought Perkins was trying to get us in shape so we could run to the next state and win their tournament. I had to say it kind of loud to get his attention and Coach overheard. Unamused, abandoning his solemn vow to keep me happy, he decided to vent some spleen (which thought, after the Mr. Torso incident, brought on another giggle attack.) "STOP," he shouted. "JUST STOP!"

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We stopped, midstride. "HALL!" he screamed. I glanced over at Bug and grinned. "HALL!" he repeated. "FRONT AND CENTER!" "SIR, YES, SIR!" I snapped back and stepped forward into an exaggerated military pose, desperately trying to stifle thoughts of Mr. Torso's spleen. Now, understand that I'm neither stupid enough nor arrogant enough to be unaware of the effect that my response was likely to have on my somewhat less than esteemed leader. I stood there, braced, while my face contorted in a frantic giggle-suppressing mask as I considered the old dirt-bag's dilemma. Once upon a time, pre-me, Perkins had been absolute Master of his Domain. Back in the dark ages, at the beginning of his twenty-five year coaching career, he won a couple state titles, the first in Foley High's history. Until last year he'd never made a return trip to the State Tournament but the townsfolk continue to think of him as a local treasure, a throwback to the days when authority reigned unchallenged. Many of our most prominent citizens attained various heights of athletic glory under his tutelage and they still think fondly of him. So when Perkins inherited me as a freshman and realized that he had a chance to return to the glory days of old, he was prepared to roll out the red carpet.

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Unfortunately, it was not to be. Our philosophies, shall we say, failed to mesh. He was running the same plays that had worked for him twenty years earlier. The rest of the b-ball world had caught up. We stank. We ran set plays with no options while the rest of the world ran motion offenses with a multitude of options. Also, I have a small problem with authority. I can deal with teachers, because even the bad ones are merely grumpy. I can handle grumpy. Sadistic and perverted is another story. I took his crap that first year, but I never, ever showed Perkins the deference that he expected. And Coach, bound to me by the resurrection of his reputation, hated me, needed me, and feared me in about equal measure. I just wanted to play basketball. So I stood in front of him, at attention, staring straight over his head while images of Mr. Torso played through my mind and very faint giggle-squeaks leaked from the sides of my mouth. Perkins, beet red, quivering with rage, gazed up at me. “This is it,” I thought. “He’s going to blow.” And maybe if he had, if he’d summoned up the self-respect to risk something, maybe he would have actually gained some stature, at least in my eyes. I do understand how desperately he wants to feel important again and how it has to kill him to have to rely on someone who doesn’t

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particularly care about being important. I just want to play the game right; Perkins just wants to win. Our paths diverge… We held the pose for a minute, and a minute more before he turned and motioned for the wind sprints to continue. I stood in place for another second, watching his back, before trotting out to join the crew. No one mentioned the episode again, then or later. Oddly, after that we had an excellent practice. Bobby Randall perched a middle-schooler on Warden's shoulders to approximate Krystofer Hunter's height, and we worked hard on fronting him/them, arcing our shots higher on offense and triple-teaming on defense. Some of it will pay off, I'm sure, but there's no way in the world, short of resurrecting Goliath, that we can simulate his actual presence. Finally, after two hours of paralyzing intensity, the day was over. As we sluiced away gallons of perspiration, Bug, having missed my magnetic presence the previous weekend while I restored myself with solitude, asked me if I felt like cruising tonight. We have a routine which pretty much boils down to parading our vehicles past the several clubs and drive-ins that provide the social milieu for our crowd of grownup wannabes. Times past, like last week, Melanie and I would have been the center of attention, but I had no desire to see her and was too tired to think about hooking up with anyone else. I shrugged, told him I'd maybe catch him later, and headed home.

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Mom and Dad were watching TV downstairs; my dinner was gently warming in the oven; Chewy was listening to some abominable dance crap in her room. I sat quietly at the dining room table, ingested my standard four thousand calories, browsed a couple of magazines, and gave silent thanks for the end of a very long day. After putting away the dishes, I walked upstairs, banged her door open, and yelled at Chewy to listen to some real music… after which I gave her a big hug, and another, and went downstairs to spend the rest of the evening on the couch next to my Dad, dozing in front of the TV. I can't remember what we didn't watch. Mom jogged us awake at eleven and I trotted upstairs to lay awake and watch Krystofer Hunter kick my butt one more time. The rest of the week passed. We blew out Newton on Friday night in front of our home crowd and I almost slept through the night afterward. Amazing thing, that time and distance stuff.

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FIVE

Oh, blessed weekend, that doth come far too seldom andst stay such a fleeting breath, or something … by the time I get up on Saturday, figure out what I want for breakfast, read the sports page (to see if the yokels said anything nasty about me), and chase Chewy around the yard a few times, it's mid-afternoon. This Saturday was worse than usual, due to my being lately bereft of a romantic life, lame as yon romantic life hath been (enough with the Fakespeare already – I do keep myself amused, though I’ve been told, fairly often, that it’s not an attractive quality.) After sitting on the couch for what seemed like decades, aimlessly clicking through cartoons, I picked up the phone and talked Bug into driving across town for some 2-on-2 with the homeboys. I've been playing street ball with the black guys on the "other" side of the city for the last couple years, having met them during a “socially progressive summer camp lifestyle experience.” (Really, that’s straight

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from the brochure.) We all, meaning us white folks, say “other side” to denote communities which are mostly populated by African-Americans and Hispanics. There is no literal other side, but the concept is pretty clear to those of all races. At the end of camp, after a week of testosterone-soaked scrimmages, the two best players (other than moi, of course) invited/challenged me to bring my game to their ‘hood when I got back home. It's just not done, I thought, but one Saturday when I was bored with beating the crap out of guys on my turf, I asked Dad to drive me crosstown. He, being the One Big Family of Man kind of guy he is, cheerfully agreed and shortly thereafter I found myself standing in the middle of a sea of do-rags being examined as if I had just stepped out of a UFO. Their "court" consisted of a long slab of concrete bordered on each side by a row of poles with backboards and rims attached. There was a fence of sorts on either end, but the mesh was torn and bent enough that errant balls usually bounced through and rolled across the road toward the winos who clustered on the steps of the adjacent apartment buildings. (The lucky derelict would hold the ball and try to coax a couple bucks out of you before he'd give it back. If he gave you too much grief, one of the homeys would come over and cuff the ball away from him and kick it back across the street.)

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Lining both sides of the court was a row of boomboxes, always tuned to Power 93, the local urban station that blasts the top hip-hop and rap tunes in all their unedited glory. The overwhelming bass beat adds a rhythm and punctuation to the action on the court that is different from, but similar to, the adrenaline rush produced by screaming fans in a high school gym. On weekends small crowds would gather to watch a very rough brand of 2-on-2, heavy on the drives and dunks, light on the jump shots and defense. Games ended with the first team to score twenty, one point per basket. The scoring team retained possession and had to win by two. On my first visit, I partnered with one of the guys from camp. Neither of us knew the other's moves, so we lost a lot, but I began to learn how to play aggressive man-to-man defense. It paid off later on the high school courts, because the homeboys were the best b-ballers, on an individual basis, that I'd ever played. Some of them were high school stars who hadn't made it to college; some of them had played some college hoops, and some of them were just knockaround ghetto guys with real good games and real bad habits. Pouring sweat afterward, totally, but pleasantly exhausted, I jumped in Dad’s car and told him we’d be going back. He gave me one of his looks, like “Oh, boy, why didn’t I raise a flutist?” but after a few weeks, when it became clear that I wasn't going to get mugged, I even started dragging Bug along with me. We don't make friends, in the buddy-buddy sense, but we enjoy the b-ball and, now that

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I can drive, my Dad doesn't have to spend the afternoon squatting on the sidewalk, trying to ignore the torrent of street language. Bug and I were pretty hot this week as my rainbow jumpers pulled the guards out so Bug could work his weird little dipsy-doodle moves on the inside. We actually won four straight at one point and then more or less gave up the last game so we could get out of there before dark without having to make a big deal of it. No matter how well we play with those guys, no matter how matter-of-factly we're accepted in the games, nothing is going to keep us on the p-ground after dark. "Yo, Superstar," Heavy D, one of the local stars, (and don’t ask him about the rapper with the same name. He’ll cut you with a glare that will send you screaming for your mama. Trust me.) called after me as we left, "Heard you got your butt waxed by some big pale mountain fellow (translated from the original) last week?" I looked back. D was posed against the setting sun, ball on one hip, grinning. "Dude," I replied (probably a mistake, I don't do dudetalk too well.) "Did you see the final score?" "Doood," he mimicked, with painful accuracy, "Score don't tell all, is what I hear." "Stay tuned," I told him with a grin, "The tale ain't fully told." "The tail be between your legs." D cackled while the rest of the playground crew doubled over laughing. "That's where the tail be."

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I waved them off with another grin and we headed home, via Pizza Hut. The rest of the weekend was painfully normal, normal being homework, a dull movie, and Sunday dinner; painful being another excruciating lesson in better living, courtesy of Reverend Dailey. I'll say one thing for Sundays - they make waking up on Monday a lot easier.

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SIX

The next three weeks passed quickly in a blur of easy wins, boring classes and, mostly and always, apprehension about the tournament. Even as we were blowing past Southside, Paris West, and Union pouring it on, pumping up the score and passing Eastport in the final regular season poll to enter the tournament as the top ranked team in the state - the indelible image of Krystofer Hunter was burned into our brains, an image grown so large that even he could not possibly play up to it - we thought. Until Bobby Randall brought back videotape he had shot at Central's last game. In the locker room after one last set of Perkins’s wind sprints, where the post-practice air was usually filled with water fights, insults, and laughter, we sat quietly, huddled in our towels, watching a horror movie through the steam. Our memories had not played tricks. From the opening tip-off, as the Giant crouched, poised and ready, with a quiet

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assurance that sent shivers down my back, as he leaped and batted the ball to his point guard and streaked down court to intercept the lob pass and smash it through the net, the game belonged to him. It was like there was one real guy and a bunch of cartoon characters on the court. He made hook shots and jump shots, dunks and tip-ins. He rebounded every shot that missed, on both ends. He passed, he ran, all with an economy of motion that normally belongs to someone half his size. After scoring twenty points in the first quarter, he sat out most of the second as Central built a huge lead. He added another twenty-four points in the second half to complement his countless rebounds before exiting with six minutes left as his fans rose in wonder and appreciation, celebrating the miraculous resurrection of their dreams. Randall’s movie panned their bench in the closing minutes as the Giant sat quietly, several feet from his teammates, staring serenely at the action. "Who is that guy?" Bug breathed beside me. "I don’t know," I muttered. "but we're going to have to have him killed." Barring that, the only way we stand a chance is to guard him with our four tallest, toughest guys and let me chase their other four guys all over the floor. Even then, I better count on shooting a hundred and twenty percent from the three-point line. Perkins was quiet, a miracle in its own right, as the tape ran out. I don't think he's sleeping well. Those

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dreams of a final blaze of state championship glory have turned into a big, black-haired, white-eyed nightmare. At least there’s school, which continues, kind of like background scenery, but when the fear begins to overwhelm you, it can provide some kind of relief, or distraction. I run into Melanie and her crowd from time to time and get a minor urge to find someone with whom to hook up, but my post-Melanie sense of freedom has yet to dissipate. Time enough after the b-ball season ends, I think. No more incidents in Science, but the culprit who brought Mr. Torso to life is still on the loose. Someone sacrificed a $150 walkie-talkie, but it seems a small price to pay to write a permanent chapter in Foley High mythology. Old Loomis got his revenge by starting us on a punishing new section that involves a ton of lab work and, by virtue of our back-of-the-room proximity, I ended up with the brown girl as my lab partner. I watched her as Old Loomis read the list and she kind of winced when she heard her name (which turns out to be Amy, Amy Lyons) attached to mine. Since I figured we were kind of laughing buddies after the Mr. Torso incident, and since I think I'm the only person in America who has ever seen her face, even though it was only for a fraction of a second, I was kind of hoping for a little warmer reaction than a wince. (What's a wince mean, anyway? Have you ever winced in a good way?) She did sidle over to our lab bench later in the period and, head down, hair falling all over the place, mumble something

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that sounded like "touch me and you’re dead.” She's probably afraid I'm going to dissect her or set her hair on fire. Given some of my past performances, she probably should be thinking of abandoning science altogether. I spent the last weekend before the tournament tooling around town with Bug, idly shopping for video games, avoiding the subject of bball as best we could. Our lives are about to be consumed by the tournament so we thought it best to take a short mental vacation and clear our heads. I even managed to daydream my way through the Sunday sermon without conjuring up my usual images of sinking three pointers over Kobe Bryant to win the NBA finals. I conjured up images of Amy Lyons instead, imagining that I could pierce her tangled, bespectacled veil and see the girl inside, pasting my memory of her laughing face over a real wardrobe and hairstyle. I like mysteries, I think. Or else I need to get a life. One or the other, for sure.

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SEVEN

Tournament week. Nothing I have yet experienced, in or out of school, surpasses its intensity. The air quivers as you walk through the hall; eyes follow you everywhere. You're excused from concentrating on classes, social interaction, chores, manners… you’re given a free pass, just keep your mind on the game. (I'm not, you understand, saying this is right. It's just the way it is.) We play our first game against Newton and, assuming we win, meet Southside or Union on Thursday night. The finals are on Saturday. Krys Hunter will be there, I’m sure. Murmurings and portents fill the air. I skated through the day on Tuesday, barely keeping my head above water. At one point in Science I was about to hold a paper plate over a Bunsen burner until brown girl nudged me with her elbow. A-ha, I thought, contact. Our initial scientific partnership took place within a narrow range of nods and head shakes signifying her reactions to my

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suggestions as we struggled to determine the composition of some clear, foul-smelling liquid Old Loomis had placed in front of us on Monday. I personally suspected that it came from his toilet, but our carefully planned experiment indicated its origin to be some combination of letters and numbers from the Table of Elements. Brown Girl (Amy, I mean - I really have to stop mentally calling her Brown Girl.) is supposed to be working on the final formula, which is fine by me because it is, after all, tournament time. I asked her if she was coming to the game. She moved her head in a circular motion, leaving the answer open for interpretation. I doubt she would see much through all that hair anyway. We jumped on the bus at six for the half hour ride to Central's gym. All the games are at neutral sites, but I wish we didn’t have to play at Central. We're having a hard enough time keeping them out of our heads without having to stare at Krystofer Hunter's size fifty-three sneakers through the mesh of his locker in their dressing room. Whatever effect it may have had didn't last past the opening whistle, though, as we screamed into a twenty-three-point lead by halftime. We played very crisply, very clean. Bug, in particular, was everywhere, setting screens, dropping off for lobs, hoovering rebounds and even hitting a couple threes. I ran the offense, chipped in with outside shots, penetrated and dished as we ran them off the court and let the scrubs finish up. Job one, over and out.

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But only job one, of course. We have too much experience to get excited about blowing out a lousy team. After we showered and dressed, the post-game calm was somewhat ruffled by Bobby Randall's announcement that Central had won their game by thirty-two, with Krystofer Hunter sitting out the entire fourth quarter - and they had played a tougher team than we had just beaten. Wednesday and Thursday passed in a blur. I asked Amy if she had made it to the game and she gave a muffled shnark of a response that I took to be a "no." "You really ought to come," I told her. "It's a lot of fun." I think I actually made eye contact through the bushes as she looked up and shook her head rapidly from side to side before ducking quickly back to her lab notebook. She tried to ignore me, pretending to scratch away at some incomprehensible marks that I thought might be the formulas we were supposed to be working on. (They might also have been a letter to her controllers on the planet Zantar.) "Okay," I persisted, "so you're not a b-ball fan. What do you do for fun?" She paused, still looking down at her notebook, and then glanced back up, once again almost making eye contact, and said, softly, "I read." "Oh, yeah, I can read, too,” I zipped right back at her. "Really?" she said, as a small smile seemed to creep out from beneath the foliage. "I wasn't sure."

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Game, set, and match to the hairy girl in brown. Thursday night we played Southside. They're a better team than Newton, with a terrific senior guard, Randy Collier, who has spent his entire high school career buried under the weight of a mediocre supporting cast. Despite being several inches shorter than me, he plays a tenacious, annoying man-to-man defense that makes it easier to pass than shoot. Tonight’s game played out in a familiar pattern. Once again he stuck to me like Superglue, but his teammates were completely incapable of covering our other guys so I spent the night penetrating, drawing the double-team, and passing off to an invariably wide-open forward. Southside was fired up for their captain’s swan song and they stayed in the game longer than usual, but, as soon as Randy took a rest midway through the second period, we went on a 12-2 run and you could see their balloon deflate. With four minutes left in the final period, Collier left the game to a well deserved standing ovation from both sides. I walked over and gave him a hug and told him to pick a good college. The horn sounded, we trooped into the dressing room, heard that Central had won again and would, indeed, be our opponent in the finals on Saturday night. Riding home with the family, watching a light snow sift down in the still winter night, letting Chewy babble on about life in Eleven-year-old World, I watched a replay of the game in my head. Mom fixed a late dinner, which I ate in silence. I excused myself, gave the folks

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a hug and Chewy a kiss and climbed the stairs to my bedroom. Dropping my clothes on the floor, I fell into bed, and stared at the ceiling. The mountain awaits.

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EIGHT

Friday was unbearable. I soldiered through, periodically running into Bug in the hall and fielding his searching stares. He and Warden will have to deal with Krystofer Hunter and he’s scared to death. There are no options. The guy cannot be stopped, by legal means, anyway, although that opinion, voiced by one of the scrubs in Friday practice and overheard by an eavesdropping Coach Perkins, resulted in a monumental temper tantrum from the old windbag, an eruption such as I have never witnessed. Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him? "LISTEN," he roared, "JUST SHUT YOUR PIEHOLES (yeah, he actually said ‘pieholes’) AND LISTEN. NO ONE SAY ANYTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE. NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE. WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS AND WE WILL BE THE CHAMPIONS AFTER TOMORROW NIGHT. IT'S ONLY

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ONE GUY…." Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I don't think the tirade had much effect on the team but it sure seemed to make Perkins feel better. Dragging home after practice, I went upstairs and slumped on my bed, staring at the wall, until I was called down for dinner, which mainly consisted of staring at my plate as I toyed with my roast beef. My mother, perceiving a dent in the cosmos, asked if I would like anything else, a sandwich or a burger or a bowl of ice cream. I got up, hugged her and told her I was fine, just a little tired, and she seemed to understand. Little sister, persistent as ever, coaxed me into playing ball outside until it got dark. I finally chased her in and sat on the step by myself. Over the next row of houses a blood-red full moon slowly rose in the night sky, hinting of hidden secrets, dire warnings, and portents of doom. Retreating into a zone of zombified tranquility where I can go sometimes when there's too much to think about, I sat there, emotionally motionless. Interrupting the trance, my Mom brushed through the storm door and sat down beside me. I haven’t said much about her so far and she would probably be okay with that – she isn’t about the pub, as sportswriters always say about unsung players who quietly get the job done under the media radar. Mom runs the house, keeps us organized, tends to two thousand unrelated issues every day and gives the rest of us… freedom. And she does it all with a smile and a generous allotment

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of hugs and reassurance. Sometimes, though, she can be just a teeny bit tunnel-visioned and irritating– like tonight. “Hello, dear,” she chirped. “Did you get your English paper written?” (Through some kind of uncanny maternal osmosis, she is intimately familiar with my homework schedule.) “No, Mom,” I replied. “It’s not due ‘til after the tournament.” “Well, what did you think about Hawthorne?” she asked. “Did you get anything out of it?” I heaved a meant-to-be-heard-and-appreciated-for-the-wearinessit-revealed sigh. “No, Mom. I really didn’t like it too much?” My non-verbal signals failed to stem the tide. “What about science,” she wanted to know, “Aren’t you working on some kind of project?” “My lab partner’s kind of doing the work until after tournament.” “Oh – who’s your lab partner, honey – Bug?” My God, I thought, I’m going to miss the tournament at this rate. “No Mom, it’s some new girl.” “Really?” From the rise in her voice, I could tell I’d made a mistake. Mom is very interested in anything relating to girls and me. (She hated Melanie, but would give up ice cream to see me in a relationship with a “good” girl.)

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So I told her a little bit about Amy and then, with her not so subtle prompting, a little more and ended up relating the whole Mr. Torso episode which sent her off into paroxysms of laughter. Unable to help myself, revisiting the images of Old Loomis steaming toward the offending body cavity, I began to break up again, too, until my dad poked his head out the door and asked what all the ruckus was about; didn’t I have a game to concentrate on? Mom wiped her eyes and apologized for interrupting me, patted me on the shoulder with a sweet “Good-Night, dear,” and went back inside. I tried to refocus on worrying about the game but kept remembering my Mom collapsed in laughter and couldn’t manage to get my game-face back on. Eventually I gave up and went to bed. Just before I fell asleep it struck me that maybe, just maybe, Mom had been aware of what she was doing out there – lulling me out of my panicked trance. “Nah,” I thought. “She couldn’t be that smart.” Saturday passed, sllooowly, second by second, each tick of the clock reminding me that I was that much closer to Doomsday. I've had pregame days like this before, especially last year, when we played Eastport in the State finals. That was a whole different feeling, though, because we were underdogs. We had already accomplished more than anyone expected. Now we're the new-champs-in-waiting. All year there have been...assumptions that have now been shaken, if not shattered, by the untimely arrival of a certain large gentleman from Central.

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I finally got sick of brooding (or maybe I was afraid of a rerun of last night’s maternal intercession) and called Bug and told him to meet me at the park. I knew he was moping around, same as me, and he's a lot more neurotic, so I figured shooting some easy baskets might help. Bounding out of his only slightly used BMW, looking like the large, floppy dog you always wanted, Bug loped up the drive and I couldn’t help but crack a grin. We jogged to the neighborhood park and started a sloppy game of H-O-R-S-E, kidding around, beginning to relax, until we began to attract a totally unwanted crowd. "Hey, you guys going to kick some Central butt?" a dork in the rapidly expanding audience called out. I tried to ignore him and concentrate on the gentle rhythm of the dribble, the shot, the badinage with my buddy, but it was simply not to be. No peace in Mudville today. We gave up and chatted with the onlookers for a few minutes, feeding them the usual just-one-game line, after which we retreated to my bedroom. Flopping on the bed, we started a DVD and ignored it until it was finally time to leave for the game. Normally we scarf huge meals before we play, but barfing is really frowned on in a championship game, and, given the sorry state of our collective nervous system, a digestive reversal was a very real possibility. We drove to Union in my car, shocked at the number of people who were already arriving, two hours before tip-off. The local championship is always big stuff, but this level of anticipation was really unprecedented

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and the sight of all those anxious fans, queuing up for early entry, did nothing to relieve the pregame butterflies. "Oh, crap," Bug muttered as we walked through the locker room doors. "Let's just get this over with." I couldn't disagree with his attitude, but suspected it was less than conducive to peak performance. We suited up quietly, with little of the usual pre-game chatter. Uniforms seemed tighter. Shoes pinched. Aches multiplied. The coaches gathered us for a strategy session and quietly reemphasized the quadruple-down defensive approach. "You're gonna be on your own out there, Stuart." Perkins told me, almost gently. "We'll do what we can inside, but you gotta carry the load." I shrugged. What other response was there? Finally we gathered at the entrance to the gym. We could hear the band inside and the distant rhythm of the cheerleaders. My hand played a restless drumbeat on my thigh as Bobby Randall knelt and said a short prayer, words lost in the sudden buildup of tension and adrenaline. He stood, pushed the door open, and we exploded out onto the court, ripping into our lay-up drill, consciously trying not to look down the floor, but it was about two seconds before Bug grabbed me and whispered, in an unbelieving voice, “He’s not there!” Yanking my head to the left so violently I almost got whiplash, I saw Central's guys going through their own lay-up drill, but the utter

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listlessness of their movements, combined with the absence of the Giant, told us that something had gone seriously haywire. I looked over at our bench and saw Perkins and Randall staring downcourt with their mouths open. The fans were hushed, nearly silent. Even the refs seemed frozen. The coaches and officials convened for their pregame chat while the teams continued to warm up. "Where is he?" Bug asked. I shrugged and headed for the bench, waiting to get the scoop from Perkins. He saw me coming and looked up, his face suddenly twenty years younger than it had been five minutes earlier. "He's sick," Coach said. "The big lug is sick. He missed school yesterday and no one has heard from him today. And it doesn't matter if they do, 'cause Conference rules clearly say if you're sick on game day or on the day before a weekend game, you're out. " He chortled. Bobby Randall chortled. Our whole team chortled. It was unbelievable. I trotted out onto the floor in a daze. “Sick,” I wondered, “who gets sick right before a tournament basketball game, and how sick do you have to be to not even show up?” The Krystofer Hunter of my nightmares makes other people sick. It was impossible, inexplicable, uncanny. It was also true. The sudden release of tension was responsible, I think, for a very sloppy start. We got called for traveling, a lot, committed petty fouls, and

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kept passing the ball to inappropriate members of the audience, but it didn't really matter because the Central guys were so demoralized they might as well have stayed home. The crowd should have asked for their money back. We trotted into the locker room at half-time up by twentythree. As we sat on our benches, sipping water (gulping was unnecessary – no one had worked up enough of a sweat to need serious fluid replacement,) all the talk revolved around the missing giant. It was like we woke up this morning in one world, a world full of threats and danger, and were suddenly transported to another world, full of buttercups and rainbows. The sense of relief was so great that it destroyed our rhythm and concentration, which led to some uncomfortable moments when play resumed. During the half-time break, Central’s mood had changed from dejected to majorly pissed off. They seemed determined to make us pay for their loss. I took a hard elbow to the kidneys on a layup; Bug got undercut and came crashing to the floor during a rebound attempt – in the first minute of the half. The refs blew their whistles but Central didn’t seem to care if they fouled everyone out. They were determined to leave their mark. After a couple more minutes of mayhem, I called time out and grabbed Central’s captain before he could make his way to their huddle.

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“Look,” I said, bearing down on the words, “you don’t want to go out like this. We’re not the ones you’re mad at.” He glared at me, eyes brimming with anger and frustration. I could feel the muscles in his arm tensing. I held the eye contact, which, I hoped, contained some measure of empathy, and he finally dropped his head and wordlessly turned away. Afterward, the cheap fouls stopped and both teams listlessly dragged through the remaining minutes. The horn finally sounded. Our band struck up the Victory March while Central’s players slumped back to their locker room. After the trophy presentation, at which Central failed to appear to receive their second place medals, our fans gathered around us to celebrate. Cheerleaders passed out hugs, including one for yours truly from Melanie Horvath who looked more than willing to renew old ties. Not tonight, I thought, as I pushed through the crowd toward my Mom and Dad and little sister. I gathered them in a family hug as I accepted their congratulations. Not tonight. Tonight was not the night I planned at all. I had prepared for Armageddon. I had my war face on. I was juiced and stoked and pumped. Now I felt sick. I passed on the victory party invitations and drove home alone. Rummaging through the refrigerator, slumping at the kitchen table, I waited for the thrill to sink in, but it just wasn't there.

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"Where was he?" I asked myself, sitting on the back step much later, still feeling drained and empty, but the moon stared back, full and bright and unblinking. I gave up and went to bed and closed my eyes and played the game of my life against Krystofer Hunter while I waited for sleep to come. Many hours later I was still waiting.

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NINE

I was excused from church on Sunday and spent most of the day in my room, killing time, waiting to feel normal again. Waiting in vain. Returning to school on Monday, I watched the lines form at the door, watched the usual social buzz, and felt …removed. I was a champion, of the district, anyway, but I didn’t feel like one. I didn’t feel much of anything other than some kind of weird emotional vacuum where excitement and anticipation should be. Mainly I just wanted it to be over, and that was the saddest thing of all. Joining Bug in the hall, I could feel the same mixture of depression and regret emanating from his even dumpier than usual body language. He left me at the door to his Advanced Placement Calculus class, of which he was the only member, and gave me a feeble wave as I headed for Old Loomis’s torture chamber. I wandered slowly down the hall, considering the immediate future.

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We travel to Regionals on Thursday for games Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights (if we win out.) Last year, we were peaking, emotionally. Our dear alma mater, Foley High, (which was named for a guy who invented a machine that squeezes the juice out of fruit and vegetables, in case you're wondering. Ironically, the school continues to perform that function.) hadn’t made it out of the local tournament for about twenty years, so, traveling to Regionals, we were, from a wider perspective, an unknown quantity. After blasting the competition with three twenty-point wins, we suddenly appeared on the national radar and we’ve stayed there ever since. This year we're heavy favorites to go all the way and the Regionals are supposed to be a mere waypoint, but we’re about to play some really good teams, teams we haven’t seen before. After last week’s emotional seesaw, I think we're all wondering how sharp we'll be when we hit the court on Thursday. With all these feelings ratcheting around in my brain I turned a corner, and ran into my lab buddy, little brown Amy. She was standing at her locker, trying to get her books organized, while a couple of Thuds, as we refer to the members of the deepest ring of high school hell, the truly rejected and unwanted, indulged themselves in the only activity which seems to bring them pleasure – torturing the innocent. "Yo, Cousin It," one of them taunted, "Where's Lurch and Thing?" Both Thuds clearly thought that was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. Amy kept her head down and tried to ignore them, but her lack of

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response only made them braver. They crowded up close and forced her back towards her locker. Wrapped up in their game, reeking of rotting macho, they failed to hear me coming up behind them. They were, in fact, completely unaware of my presence until they felt a hand, a very strong hand, massaging the backs of their necks, a massage that may have grown just a teensy bit painful, given their reaction. I leaned in between them and whispered, gently, "Hey, idiots, a long way from home, huh? I think I heard your Mommy calling." I tightened my grip and walked them slowly down the hall, around the corner and down another long hall, between rows of kids getting their first period act together. With each step I squeezed a bit tighter and kept a nonstop casual monologue rolling, saying nothing of any importance or that even made sense, using my voice to mask what were becoming major squeals of pain. By the time we reached the end of the hall they were making noises that only dogs could hear. I finally stopped in front of the Office and stood there for a minute, holding their necks with a final intensification of effort. Their faces had traveled from pink to red to an interesting shade somewhere between lavender and purple. I leaned in one more time and said, gently, "Have a nice day, fellows. Good to see you."

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Walking back toward class, I realized that my mood had changed. I was actually whistling. Amazing what a little positive aggression can accomplish. I purposefully avoided conversation with Amy during science class. It's almost as embarrassing to be rescued from humiliation as it is to be humiliated in the first place and I didn't want her to feel that I was looking for a reward. I probably would have done the same thing in any situation where I saw a helpless kid getting tormented, (it's one of the fringe benefits of being very large) but it didn't hurt that it was Amy. I've had a soft spot for her ever since Mr. Torso. She stopped me in the hall after class, though, gently tugging at my sleeve as I brushed out the door. I looked down, surprised to see her actually looking back up at me, eyes nearly revealed through the fringe of hair. She seemed to struggle for a moment before speaking, so softly that I had to bend down to hear. “You know, back there, this morning…?” I was pretty sure she meant my gallant defense and removal of her tormentors. I figured she was going to thank me. “Sure, Amy,” I said. “No problem.” Her nose wrinkled and she shook her head. “No, I mean,” she said, in soft but definitive tones, “I can really take care of myself.”

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Taken aback, I hesitated for a minute. You have to admire the pure geek spirit I guess. I grinned down at her. “I’m sure you can, Gandhi,” I said. “But why should you have to?” After which, and I have no idea where this came from, really, it just seemed like proper punctuation to the whole morning, I reached down and gave her a gentle head-noogie before turning and walking away. Looking back from the end of the hall, I saw her staring at me, mouth open, glasses glinting in the light. By Wednesday she had recovered her composure and we were back at the lab table, speaking only in equations. At least she was speaking. I was back to living in B-ball land. There should have been a heightened sense of urgency as we approached the next rung of the ladder, but practices were… average, I guess. We ran our drills and scrimmaged the second string and reviewed the scouting reports, but it felt like we were on autopilot. I have this nagging suspicion that somebody might sneak up on us at the Regionals. We can't seem to summon the proper level of concentration. That feeling quickly proved prophetic when we hit the floor Thursday night against a fired-up team from the sticks as Denby South, ranked tenth in the state, streaked out to a twelve point lead. Our inside guys seemed to be napping on defense and their center scored at will. Perkins called a time out with a minute left in the first quarter and let us have the full force of what is, regardless of what I've said about him

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earlier, a really major personality. We deserved it, but it didn't seem to help much. Retreating into our last-ditch offensive mode, which involves me firing up three pointers from long range and hoping I hit enough of them to keep us in the game, we slowly clawed our way back and were trailing by seven, midway through the second period, when I suddenly entered The Zone. If I’m lucky, I visit this strange psychic land two or three times a year. An Einsteinian flux warps the normal physics of the universe. Time ceases to exist, opposing players move in slow motion, the ball floats into my hands, and away, and up into the basket, time after time after time. For a brief moment, magic touches earth, when the crowd and the band and the cheerleaders become a blur and I only have eyes for the ball and the rim. I hit seven straight shots, five of them three-pointers, before the first half horn sounded. We ran to the locker room with a six point lead and just that fast our emotional spark was back. The coaches didn't need to say anything at halftime; everyone gathered around my stool and raved about the shooting streak. I laughed and told them it was time to share the load and we rocketed out of the dressing room and blew poor Denby off the floor. There are very few feelings better than sitting on the bench with several minutes left in a game, watching the subs get some floor time and letting your muscles unwind. Sitting next to Bug, I appreciated his genius anew. He has these

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things he calls “bench cheers” that he insists on warbling when we’re sitting on the sidelines, like "We're going to fight, all night, with all our might, but if the lights are too bright, or our pants are too tight, we might not fight, with all our might... tonight." He'll chant these things, in a voice pitched so only I can hear, over and over again, cracking himself up after every one, and eventually he'll get to me, in spite of my better judgment, and I'll start laughing and Perkins will give us his killing glare and we'll be quiet for about three seconds until Bug starts up another one and the cycle repeats itself. And that's the way we ran out the Denby game. I was half dozing, half daydreaming, sitting back, checking the crowd, trolling for good looking girls, and saw, way up in the nosebleed seats, as far away from the court as you can get, (although we're talking about a high school gym, here, not Madison Square Garden) the unmistakable profile of our recently missing-in-action nemesis, old Krystofer Hunter himself. I did a double take to make sure, but there couldn't really be two of him, could
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there? He sat on the bleacher bench, taking up nearly an entire section, long black hair tumbling onto his shoulders, dressed in passé grunge flannels, jeans and work boots – eyes glued to the action. I nudged Bug and told him to where to look. “What’s he doing here?” Bug wondered, mirroring my own thoughts. “He doesn’t look sick to me.” Some intangible feeling must have hit him, because he turned and caught us staring at him. He held the gaze for two long seconds and then gave a short, formal nod and, I swear, almost a smile, a hint of a real personality, before returning his attention to the game. I was so busy trying to process the implications that I barely heard the horn sound to end the game. Everyone trooped past me while I sat on the bench pondering. I looked up at the bleachers as Bug came back to pull me into the locker room, but his seat was empty. I shook my head and trotted off the floor. Weird, I thought, just too weird. That was the only scare of the tournament. We settled down and took the final two games with relative ease, emerging on Saturday night as Regional champions for the second straight year. I played two solid games and had fun. And, during each game, sitting in the same place with the same studious glare, I saw Krystofer Hunter observing the action. When we made eye contact he would give me that same formal nod and the same almost smile. I even tried to find him after the final buzzer on Saturday, just to say hello, b-ball warrior to b-ball warrior, but

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the crowd had cleared out by the time we left the locker room and he was nowhere to be found. Driving home slowly (‘cause that’s the only way the VW rolls) enjoying the silence, I sank gratefully into bed after a quick post-mortem with my parents - they'll come to the State tournament but they took a pass on this one due to Chewy's command performance as Cinderella in the sixth grade pageant. I gave the sleeping star a big hug before I went to bed and she woke up long enough to make me promise to watch the videotape Dad had made of her starring role. “Soon,” she said, staring me straight in the eye and making me promise, “real soon.” Thanks to pouring rain on Sunday, she cashed in my promise and I ended the week with my little sister stretched out on my lap, hoping that someday her prince would come as she wobbled across the stage in her pink tutu and glass slippers. A nice ending to a pretty good week.

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TEN

Being a geek, if you are one, you probably resent the extra attention and consideration that accrues to varsity athletes. I can understand the feeling. It must seem horribly unfair that we get our pictures on TV and in the newspaper, we get to go on trips all over the state, with free food and lodging, we generally end up dating the cutest girls, and on top of all that, even though we rarely seem to be awake in class, we also get extra accommodation when it comes to schoolwork. For instance, we were supposed to have a big science exam this week, a semester final, but Old Loomis gave me extra time prepare. Everyone else has to suffer through it on Thursday, but I'll be at the state tournament and won’t have to take it until next Tuesday. Really unfair, huh? Well, maybe, if you're not willing to look at the bigger picture. But if you accept that there's a shred of value in high school athletics, and if you have any feel for the excitement and sense of community and shared

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experience we get from sports, you maybe understand that there is no way, no way whatsoever, that an athlete can concentrate on school during tournament weeks, especially for a sport as widely followed as basketball. From the moment you get up on Monday morning until you see the opening tip-off on Thursday night, you eat, sleep, and breathe basketball. All anyone (anyone, that is, with whom you come in contact) talks about, writes about, or thinks about is basketball. School is a daze, a dream you walk through while fielding an endless stream of questions, comments, and (often less-than-stellar) observations. So maybe it makes some kind of sense to give us a short pass from heavy-duty exams during that week. Even Amy thinks so. She actually whispered good luck on Wednesday, during our last lab session before the game. On the spur of the moment, knowing I'm woefully ill-prepared for the exam and will have, at best, only one day to study, I asked her if we might get together after school on Monday to go over the material. Old Loomis will be giving the b-ball players a different exam than he gives the regular students, so we wouldn't be cheating and I desperately need some assistance. (No one knows this better than Amy. She’s seen my lab reports.) You can't really see her eyes through the tangled bangs and tinted specs, but her body language (okay, that's an inference, too. You can't see her body through the baggy brown smocks, either.) told me she was

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shocked at the suggestion. I don't think anyone ever talks to her, much less asks her for a study date, (Wo… I just said “date” and “Amy” in the same sentence. I’m guessing that’s only ever happened if someone was referring to holiday cookies) and even her hair seemed to blush as she considered my request. Finally she murmured something that sounded like okay and scuttled off toward her locker. This should prove interesting, I thought, and then forgot about it. As we got on the bus after school for the two-hour ride to the state capitol, it looked like the entire student body and most of the town had turned out to send us off. The band was in full swing, cheerleaders danced and twirled, the mayor made a brief speech, scanning the crowd for possible donors to his re-election campaign, the bus doors closed and, finally and blissfully, we were on our way. There was a surprising lack of horseplay, but I think we were just too exhausted from all the commotion - the relative silence seemed like a gift. We checked into our lodging (hotel is much too fancy a word) and walked over to the Civic Center for a short practice before dinner. We've been here before so the intimidation factor isn't quite as gut wrenching as it was last year, but it's still a pretty big arena. Filled with ten times the crowd we normally see, it creates its own set of complications. We ran through a few easy drills before draping ourselves on the bleachers to listen to Perkins, who, for once, stifled the bombast and settled for a few easy platitudes. Mainly he’s just going to let us play; the

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time for new strategies and techniques is long past. We're a basic team; we don't do anything fancy. We play a solid defense, almost purely zone at this level since we’re almost always outmatched inside, and we run a fairly conservative set of plays on offense. We hit the boards hard, a real necessity given our lack of height, and count on our execution to carry us against teams that may be more gifted individually. Last year's game against Eastport was a classic example. Player by player, we had no business being on the court with them. They had three 6'8" forwards, each of whom will star in college, and their two guards were nearly as good. They also had four or five guys on the bench who would have started for us. Our team, present company excluded, wasn't going to send anyone to major college ball, and Warden is probably our only guy who has a chance to play at the small college level. But we're patient. We're very, very patient; we don't turn the ball over much; and we don't make mistakes, not too often, anyway. At the beginning of the game we'd held the ball, worked it around outside, waited for good shots and kept it close. Down five early, we inched our way back and trailed by only one at the half. You could tell the Eastport All-Stars were getting antsy. They wanted to run and gun and bomb and dunk. Our defensive style stifles flashy offenses. We kept our composure in the second half and nearly beat them. It was only very late, with Warden already fouled out, that Bug drew his fifth and had to sit down. Left without an inside game, we couldn’t rotate fast enough to

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stop their junior All-Star from tipping in an offensive rebound for the final difference. The sportswriters are painting about the same picture this year except that two of Eastport's big guys have graduated and we have another year's experience. So, we're not cocky but we feel ready. On Thursday in the quarterfinal match, in a tight game, we built a ten-point lead in the fourth quarter that held up through the inevitable foul-and-free-throw finale. There has to be a better way to end something as beautiful as a basketball game. The endless series of fouls, free throws, and time-outs that characterizes all but the biggest blowouts drives me crazy. At least we were on the right end of this one, but it didn’t make the last five minutes any prettier. We trooped back to the lodge afterward for a late-night snack before retiring. I'd seen my family in the stands; Chewy was so excited I'd swear she was levitating, but we don't have a lot of contact with our families during the tournament. We're supposed to concentrate on basketball. So naturally Bug and I lay on our beds afterward and wondered if either of us would ever have a date again. "Why don't you give old Melanie a call?" Bug teased, "Big star, big game - I'm guessing she'd come running. I'm guessing she'd come running with a friend right behind her. I'm guessing the friend would be aching for some Bug-juice. C'mon, man, what are friends for?” "Shut up, doofus," I said, "and frankly, best friends or not, I don't need to lay here thinking about your juices. Go to sleep."

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He looked mildly hurt for a minute, but Bug can never stay hurt for long. We turned on the TV and fell asleep watching some old movie about metal bugs and Monica's boyfriend from Friends and one of the guys from KISS. Friday passed quickly. We spent most of it at the Civic Center watching the lower division semi-finals. We know a lot of these guys from summer camps so we almost always have a rooting interest in one team or the other. Sometimes we know guys on both teams so we cheer for whoever seems to need it. It was very pleasant to just sit and watch for a change and the afternoon proved very restful, helping us wind down from all the pre-tournament excitement of the week. Eventually evening came and we trooped back to the locker room, got wrapped and dressed, and took the court for our semi-final where we played one of our best games of the season, loose, relaxed and easy. I was on the bench by the fourth quarter and spent most of it waving to Chewy and searching the stands for any sign of Krystofer Hunter. Sure enough, there he was, truly in the nosebleed section this time and too far away to make eye contact, but just as intent on the action as he had been the previous week. The only thing I can figure is that he's scouting for next year, when he fully intends to be the guy in the spotlight.

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ELEVEN

After wasting several hours trying to fall asleep, Bug and I finally gave up and spent most of Friday night talking about our futures. I'm headed for a b-ball scholarship, of course. Next year I will spend more time listening to college coaches telling me why their school is the only place I can achieve personal and athletic fulfillment than I will spend actually achieving personal and athletic fulfillment. Bug will get academic scholarships up the ying-yang- he's probably going to be valedictorian - but what he mostly wants is for us to go to school together. Which is just fine with me. Doofy and droopy as he can be, life without Bug would be like… well, it wouldn’t be like life. (And I do wish I were better at metaphors, like “life without Bug would be like M&M’s without an M, but there’s something really disturbing about metaphors, like, just say what you mean already. So there.)

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We are each other’s perfect counterpart. Academics are the issue, though. Where Bug should be thinking about the MITs, the Stanfords, the Dukes and Harvards - at least that’s what his parents are telling him, I may not be able to handle the coursework at that level. I'm not at the bottom end of the totem pole, I have a solid B average and won't be taking math next year so I should end up around 3.3 on the GPA scale. I could maybe manage, I think, it's not like I really push myself on the academic front, but I don't want to. And, looking myself in the mirror and speaking the truth, I don't have to. I'm going to play b-ball – in college, and well beyond. I could get injured, sure, but there are insurance policies that protect against loss of future income. So my economic status is pretty much assured and I don't see killing myself studying while trying to concentrate on basketball. And I know that attitude makes my parents cringe. And sometimes when I’m looking in the mirror and trying to see past the basketball player, it makes me cringe, too. But not much, and not often. So we lay there and looked up at the ceiling and tried to come up with a satisfactory resolution, a Michigan, perhaps, which would satisfy his parents academically and which has an exceedingly rich athletic tradition. No disrespect intended, I know Michigan has a sterling academic reputation, but I’ve met a couple guys who played ball there and, well, let’s just leave it at that.

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"Michigan it is," I said to Bug, and, with our future firmly secured, we finally drifted off to sleep. Saturday dawned, somewhat later than usual. Perkins, well aware of how hard it is to get any rest on tournament weekend, let us sleep 'til noon and assembled us for a big brunch at 1PM. "I'm not gonna spend a lot of time tellin' you guys what to expect," he said. "I'm just gonna tell you to let the game come to you." I have never known what that means, but it was preferable to a half hour of ancient memories and I tucked into my eggs and sausage with a vengeance. Warriors need fuel. I remembered, while stuffing myself after a third trip to the buffet, how I had been unable to eat before the last game with Central - the one where Krystofer Hunter failed to show. I thought it odd that I was more nervous then than I was now, on the eve of the state championship. There had been something about the prospect of facing Hunter, I thought, something deeply frightening, like the feeling you get in a dream when you show up for class and realize you’re naked. I let a final shiver of remembrance roll down my spine before I shook my head clear and dug back into breakfast. Afterward we wandered back upstairs. Bug and I sat silently on our beds, staring at the walls. I played the whole game in my mind, anticipating problems, reviewing the solutions. Bug, I think, mentally replayed the entire oeuvre of the Three Stooges. When the call came to

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troop down to the lobby we stood and hugged and whispered a quick fierce “Game.” Joining our brother combatants, we stood quietly while Perkins and Randall counted heads after which we shuffled to the bus, the arena, and the locker room. An outside observer would have been surprised at the absence of our usual pregame uproar. He would have seen a group of teenagers sitting quietly on their benches, lost in their visions of the next two hours. Dressing and ankle taping seemed to take place in a kind of halfconscious state where we knew what was happening but had only a passing interest in it. Soon enough it was game time. Perkins gathered us at the door, said a short prayer, and let us go. I always try to gauge our mood from how we take the floor. You can be too high, or too low, before game time. Tonight seemed about right to me, full of energy, but a controlled energy, more determination than exhilaration. We ran through our drills without paying much attention to the guys on the other end. We knew they were there. We weren’t scared. We'd played against Krys Hunter. We lined up for the tip-off and I crouched next to my opponent, a junior guard about four inches shorter than me. I remembered from last year that he was overanxious on defense, always trying to make the steal, meaning you could offer him the ball on one side, crossover, and immediately drive to the other side when he committed. I tested him right away and saw that old habits die hard. On our first two trips down court

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I drove past him for easy jumpers as we built a quick lead before their coach called time. When they came back out they showed us a new wrinkle, a full court press defense that we'd never seen them use and that hadn't showed up on any of the scouting tapes. Sometimes it's a good idea to surprise the opposition; sometimes it isn't. This was one of the latter times. I love to handle the ball against a press. It spreads our offense across the whole floor and gives me an infinite number of opportunities to create plays. Plus, I just love to dribble through the widely spaced defenders. For the next few minutes we repeatedly beat them down the court for easy lay-ups. By the middle of the second quarter we led by fifteen and you could see our fans beginning to measure themselves for championship T-shirts. Coach put the starters on the bench for a brief rest and, as too often happens, Eastport chose that moment to get hot. After they hit three quick three-pointers, Perkins was forced to call a time out. The starters were back on the court after only a ninety-second breather with the lead cut to six. Before we got back in rhythm they had hit two more jumpers and we called another timeout with thirty seconds left in the half and a two point lead. Perkins was not pleased. He was red and sweating.

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"Cut the crap, you guys!" he thundered. "Just cut the crap and play." "Thanks a lot, coach," I whispered to Bug as we took the floor. "That oughta solve the problem." I took the inbounds pass and dribbled slowly up court, watching the clock, my opponent, and my guys, looking for the right formation, the perfect combination of moves. I offered my left side for the steal, twice, but twice-bitten, gun-shy, my guard refused to be lured. As the clock reached seven seconds I broke to the left and Bug stepped up and set a perfect pick. I was open for an instant and fired up a mid-range jumper that broke cleanly through the net as the halftime horn sounded. Up by four, we trotted to the locker room. Perkins had calmed down a bit and limited his comments to the second string, who, he told them, had nearly cost us the game. Horsecrap, I thought, but held my tongue and sipped some juice. I looked at Bug and asked if he was doing okay. “Could live without anymore fouls on Warden,” he said. “Two more and he’s out.” “We’ll keep the ball outside as much as we can,” I said. “Take a little pressure off.” He nodded. I gave him a “let’s go, Big Guy” grin and we gathered round and hit the door for our last two quarters of a very long season.

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Eastport came out for their last two quarters with yet a different approach. They submarined Bug on a breakaway during the first thirty seconds. He lay gasping on the floor while they exchanged high fives. Obviously they had calculated that their bench strength was the key to wearing us down. They nudged and crowded, grabbed and shoved. They gave up some fouls. You would think that by simply staying in our rhythm and playing our game we could make their approach work to our advantage. If we were robots, you would be correct. We're human, though, and we're very competitive and real proud and there is not one of us who is going to let a team knock the crap out of one of our guys without some serious retaliation. The game quickly began to spiral out of control. Every foul started a shoving match. Words were exchanged, threats included, no extra charge. Warden got his fourth foul midway through the third period and had to hit the bench, depriving us of seventy percent of our rebounding strength. A couple minutes later, after swinging an elbow in response to a knee in the groin that the ref missed, Bug picked up his fourth and we were suddenly in a very serious position, up by one with more than a quarter to play. The refs had been calling a fair game, as much as they could while operating in riot control mode, but Eastport had more bodies than we did, especially for the inside game. Late in the third quarter I found myself bringing the ball upcourt with a small, inexperienced team

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around me, a team that had been, to some degree, intimidated by Eastport’s thuggery. This, I figured, is what I get paid for (metaphorically, of course.) I drove inside and took a foul while sinking a twisting lay-up. Three points. I moved inside on defense, since I'm taller than any of our second stringers, and took a charge at their end. Our ball. I brought it up slowly again, letting the clock wind down, faked the inside drive, lost my guy, and drilled a three-pointer. The lead was back to seven and I blocked their 6'8" forward's jumper as the third quarter buzzer sounded. Warden and Bug checked back in to start the final quarter. The battle under the boards escalated in intensity. At the four-minute mark, Warden was whacked on the wrist and swung at the guy who whacked him. The ref stepped in to call fouls on both of them, but it was Warden who went to the bench for good. Shortly afterward Bug fouled out trying to block a tip-in. Steve Daniels, our other starting forward, was whistled for his final foul trying to go over the back on a rebound. We called time and I stood on the sideline, pouring sweat, down by two points with two minutes to go as I began to realize for the first time, I think, that we might actually lose this game. I had played all but the short break we'd had in the second quarter and could barely speak as Perkins looked to me for suggestions.

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"Stay in the zone," I said, looking hard at our second-stringers who had to step up and keep the game alive. "Stay in the zone, don't foul, and crawl on your belly for loose balls." I took a deep, deep breath, looked into the stands, found my Mom and Dad and Chewy, and gave them a half smile. It's basketball; my Dad seemed to be trying to tell me, just basketball. I took the inbounds pass and dribbled up slowly, watching my guys try to get in position. The Eastport players were crowding, using hands and elbows and feet to get inside and push our guys away from the hoop. I gave them the look, like I was going to set up a rotation, and suddenly changed hands on the dribble and darted inside, taking a hard foul and crashing to the floor as the ball went spinning out of bounds. The Eastport player who’d fouled me looked down, taunting, and I looked back up at him and laughed. "That’s it?" I asked him. "That’s all you got?" I jumped up, trotted to the line and sank two free throws. The game was tied. Eastport called time with a minute-forty on the clock. I looked at our guys and saw some renewed determination, a hint of steel. I pounded them on the back, told them to look sharp and stay close, and led them back onto the floor for the finish. Eastport worked the ball on the far outside while their forwards moved around in the paint, trying to exploit their height advantage. I saw their All-Star put an elbow on Danny Fries, our second string forward,

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and I slipped a sneaker casually in front of his ankle as he moved toward the ball. He crashed to the floor and lay there stunned for a microsecond before leaping up, screaming that he’d been fouled. The ref stood silent while Eastport’s point guard held the ball, frozen in place, watching his captain’s tantrum. I sneaked around behind him and swatted the ball away. Scooping it up in full stride, I headed downcourt, all alone. I rarely dunk in a game, but on special occasions I can make exceptions. I slammed it down and stood still under the basket, facing Eastport, waiting for them to catch up. They called time out again, down by two, and I could see the resentment on All-Star's face, in every muscle of his body. I knew he would have to retaliate, knew his manhood could never allow my tripand-strip to go unpunished. I looked for him as they set their play, rotating over to guard him man-to-man, giving him enough space to make sure he got the pass. I waited, until he came right at, and through me, and I slammed myself backward onto the floor hard enough to make the rim shake - except he'd never touched me. Offensive foul, charging, the ref whistled, as All-Star leaped and twirled and cursed and shouted. He muscled up to the official, risking a technical, before he was pushed aside by his coach. I’ve seen Perkins in bull-moose mode, but he’s got nothing on Eastport’s coach. Face blazing red, eyes glaring, he roared his displeasure as the crowd stood on both

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sides and drowned him out. The ref refused to be baited. He simply put his hand on the coach’s sleeve, whispered emphatically into his ear, threatening a technical or even disqualification, I guess, and led him firmly back to the bench. Following the charging call it was our ball again, up two, thirty seconds on the clock - with an All-Star opponent aching to lose control. We called our final timeout and I told Danny to be ready - I was going to penetrate and dish to him and he was going to go straight up with a shot, regardless - and he was going to have to be prepared to get nuked, 'cause All-Star couldn't come out to get me, but he was sure as heck going to get somebody. I worked it down quickly and drove inside, flipping it to Danny. He went up right on cue and was leveled by All-Star, smashed to the floor with a vicious forearm - right in front of the referee. Flagrant foul, technical foul, two shots on the flagrant, two shots on the technical, and our possession after the freebies. Game over. Danny sank one of his two, I hit the technicals and we were up five with the ball and twenty seconds to play. The crowd was ballistic. Noise poured down in torrents. Paper cups flew from the stands, some of them empty. Eastport's All- Star, fouled out, was giving me the finger, in full view of the referee, which should have resulted in further penalties. The ref looked at me and I gave him a small headshake, indicating that my preference was to simply put the ball in play and get it over with. He blew

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the whistle. I took the inbounds pass and dribbled away from Eastport for twelve seconds until one of their forwards cornered me and administered a hard elbow to the kidneys. The ref whistled another flagrant foul and another technical and the crowd began to get scary as Eastport’s student section started an obscene chant and our kids responded in kind. I'm not a diplomat, but I had played a major role in the events that got us to this level and I figured I had some responsibility to try to cool things down. I walked over in front of our section and motioned for everyone to sit down and chill. I waved Bug and Warden up off the bench and got them to help. Our fans gradually began to listen and respond. I walked over to the Eastport bench and offered my hand to All-Star. He looked at me for a few seconds with all the fury and frustration of the final quarter caught in his blazing eyes. I stood there, in front of him and the Eastport bench, hand outstretched, looked directly into his punishing gaze and gave him a grin. Not a happy grin, certainly not a derisive grin, but the type of grin you can imagine two Army bunker buddies sharing after they’ve just lived through a firefight – call it a Survival Grin. Say what you will about sports and its influence, corrupting or otherwise, there's a brotherhood of experience, a bond that adversaries share. You can't possibly understand it unless you've been there. It's why fighters embrace after pounding the crap out of each other.

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All-Star stood and reached out his hand and I took it in both of mine and we hugged and the crowd's mood changed, in an instant, from mob fury to shared celebration. I canned the free throws and handed the ball to an Eastport guy and stood aside. We let their seniors take a free trip down the floor for one last dunk as the game, and their high school careers, ended. We were State Champions.

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TWELVE

Trying to describe the aftermath is like trying to find a mathematical formula for chaos. I have images - Chewy glued to my leg on the court while I answered the usual dumb questions from radio and TV guys (How does it feel to be State Champion? Gee, dude, sore and tired at the moment.); Bug wrapping me in an enormous hug, whispering, almost tearfully, how sorry he was to have fouled out; me grabbing him by the shoulders, giving him my best Tom Cruise, jabbing him in the chest with my finger, grinning maniacally, yelling, “It was you, dude, you and the bench cheers. You helped me, help you.” Bug bursting out laughing, looking me in the eye and saying, “Oh, dude, you totally complete me.” And we both nearly fall down laughing. More chaos, then Perkins, standing in front of me, looking for… absolution, I guess, and me grabbing his hand and giving him a little sock on the chin and his look of relief and then, almost redeeming him, not quite, but almost, the

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look of pure joy that replaced it; crowds and crowds of people, guys from other teams just wanting to be part of the moment, spectators, ditto, cheerleaders, crazy band members blowing their horns randomly in my ear; and then, parting the crowd like Moses, Krystofer Hunter, standing in front of me, the Mount come to Mohammed, holding out his hand and looking at me with that curious calmness in those amazing silver-white eyes. "Game," he said, (meaning, in b-ball speak, "great game") and I grinned and said, "Thanks for being in the stands," and he almost smiled. I held his gaze for a moment or two. There was something there, something outside the game, I thought, just for a second, but then it was gone and he shook my hand again and disappeared, if a building can be said to disappear, into the crowd. The rest of the night is a blur; changing in the locker room, listening to ecstatic replays from my guys, my buddies, my comrades-inarms; sitting quietly in the back seat, playing private game films to myself on the ride home with my family; Mom & Dad silent in the front seat, Chewy, fast asleep, curled up next to me with my arm around her; staggering at last into the house, a good night hug, a "we're proud of you, son" and bed and a dreamless sleep. Waking up on Sunday stiff and sore, with an assortment of deep bruises providing sensory replays of the previous night, I was excused

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from church and spent the morning dozing in a hot bath, mind mostly blank. Later that evening, after dinner, I found myself sitting on the back porch in the cool March air, still tired, still sore, euphoria gone, with a strange sense of melancholy settling in. My Dad came and sat beside me. "How's it going?" he asked, trying to act casual. "Okay," I said. "It's going okay." "Just okay?" "I don't know," I said, "I thought I'd feel better than this." "Why don't you?" he asked. I thought for a minute or two. "It's just… it's just that I always thought, when this moment came, that we'd win when I hit a three-pointer at the buzzer or made a steal and a lay-up or we just dominated somebody and cruised. I never thought it would be because I played…." "Borderline," he asked? He'd hit it on the head. "Yeah," I said. "Borderline. Borderline… that's it exactly. I mean, you can play the game clean and simple, no fouls, make your shots, tough defense; or you can play dirty, hit people and foul on purpose and try to hurt the other guys and we usually play pretty clean, but yesterday…." My voice trailed off as I collected my thoughts again.

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"Yesterday we played hard and we played clean until the end, but we were behind and, if you look at it a certain way, we won because I tripped a guy and faked a charging call, and it's just not the way I thought it would be." Dad was silent for quite a while. He took off his glasses and rubbed them with his shirt, looking down, collecting some thoughts. "It's good," he said, "that it bothers you. You're kicking yourself because you wanted it one way and you got it another way and you don't see yourself as the kind of player who does the things you did to win and it's good," he emphasized, "that it bothers you. "But don't make the mistake of under-thinking it - it's not black and white. Take it a step at a time. "You're trailing by two and you draw a hard foul. The other guy stands over you, taunting. You laugh it off and sink the free throws. Then you come back down on defense and trip a guy. This is the first move you made that bothers you. “Look at it closely. “Suppose the ref saw your move and called a foul? Or suppose he didn't see the foul and the guy you tripped just shook it off and kept playing, the way you did on the other end? Would you still be thinking about it? And suppose the guy with the ball hadn't frozen when the guy you tripped started screaming at the ref? Suppose he'd called time out or

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backed up his dribble and held on to the ball? Would you even remember the sequence this morning? I shrugged, “I don’t know.” “I don't think you would,” Dad said. " I really don’t think you would even give it a thought, because," he went on, (and I was beginning to stare at this point, having never heard this many words from my Dad, collectively, in my life,) "there were three or four separate actions in that sequence, only one of which directly involved you. You tripped a guy. Their guy had just crushed you on the other end. Maybe you were getting a little back, maybe you were frustrated - most likely you didn't even think about it - the guy just went by and you tripped him." I nodded in recognition. “Yeah, maybe. I’m not sure I remember what I was thinking.” "Exactly,” Dad said. “So you committed a foul. You're human. It happens. But everything after that was out of your control. The ref missed the call, the guy you tripped started screaming, and the guy with the ball froze. They are responsible for those actions. Not you." He took a deep breath. I thought maybe he was finished, but he moved on. "The next time down the floor, you fake a charge. Consider that you faked. Don't you fake all the time in basketball? Is there any real difference between looking one way and throwing the ball somewhere

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else, or lunging in one direction and then going the other way? A fake, by definition, is false. You’re trying to delude the opposition. In this case, you faked the referee. He didn't have to buy it. If he'd ignored the fake, or even called you for blocking, you wouldn't be thinking about it today. He didn't. You did your job well, and fairly - at least in my eyes." He stopped and looked at me closely, to see if his words had made an impression. I had, inadvertently, started to smile, and I think he could see that he'd lifted a little of the gloom, but he hadn't yet begun to make his point. He put his hand on my knee and said, "But that's only my opinion. And it doesn't count. Not really. What I saw, from my seat, was a brilliant young basketball player who held his composure and forced his teammates to hold their composure while the other team was playing every card in the deck to make you lose control. And then I saw you outmaneuver them at their own game. But what matters is what you saw.” “I wasn’t really seeing it like that,” I said. “I was just reacting to the game. It happened so fast I didn’t have a chance to think it over. Maybe that’s what bothers me.” "It should bother you,” he said, a new seriousness in his tone. “That’s the only way you’ll learn. But you’re the only one who can find the final answer.

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“You're done with the easy part. You're right on the edge, now, before you step off the cliff and have to start making your own decisions about everything. I can tell you what I think, and your mom can tell you what she thinks, and there will be no end of people, coaches and agents and teachers and friends, telling you what they think. In the end, though, you have to answer to the guy in the mirror, and to God, and they're the only ones whose opinions matter. "There are absolutes," he said, very quietly, "and the Ten Commandments is probably the best place to find them. But outside of that, like in your game yesterday, you're going to find an infinite number of shades of gray. You're going to have to decide for yourself how far up or down the scale you're going to live your life, and you're going to have to learn that there's never a time when you're sure you've done it right. "The important thing," he finished, "is that you keep asking yourself the questions." I think he was embarrassed at the length of his speech, or maybe just exhausted at having used up several years’ worth of words, because he stood abruptly and turned to go in the house. I stood up beside him and gave him big hug and told him thanks. He looked at me with affection and said, "I don't worry about you, son. I think you're going to do just fine." He walked on into the house and I yelled at Chewy to get her little butt outside and play some ball as the weekend, and the basketball year, coasted to a gentle close.

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During

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THIRTEEN

Reentry. Major bummer. I walked in the school door. I got swarmed. Everyone wanted to replay the game, as though reliving it somehow includes them a little more in the victory. Kids and teachers and administrators, aides and cooks and janitors, they were all bouncing off the walls while me and Bug and the other guys tried to get a handle on the day. We already had our catharsis. We actually won the game, but the fans don't have our sense of physical release, so they keep living in that moment, probably because it beats any other moment they can remember. I mean, I don't want to sound rude or insensitive. I think school pride is a good thing, overall, but I think the feeling today went over and above. People were just stoked, and there's nothing wrong with that; I'm

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sure they all had a great day, but we, meaning the guys who actually provided their thrills, had exams and classes to worry about, most of us, after all, having been totally preoccupied with sports for the last few weeks. The floating pandemonium in the halls made it almost impossible to focus on the business at hand. Especially in Science, where I suddenly remembered that I had a deferred exam to take tomorrow and a study date with little brown Amy tonight. What was I thinking? I asked myself as I slumped down in my seat and tried to figure out what Old Loomis was babbling about. (I’m pretty sure he speaking in Latin and those guys have a different word for everything.) Slumping even deeper in my chair, I groaned softly and glanced over at Amy who seemed to be peering at me through her foliage. I swear from the gentle rhythm of her shoulders and a certain attitude to her body language that she was actually giggling at my clinical depression. The bell sounded and I sat there, trying to gather my thoughts, while she approached my desk and asked in her little voice if we were still going to be studying together tonight. Gazing up at her tress-clogged countenance, I uttered a pitiful moan. "I don't think there's any point," I whined. "I'm doomed." She laughed. Out loud. She shook her head and a face almost emerged. "204 Whitecliff Lane (‘Nice, I thought, 'really, really nice

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address'). Seven o'clock. Bring your book." Flashing a big smile, she twirled away. I gathered my weary self together after school, fended off Bug's pizza invitation, and headed home for a quick dinner before I rolled out for my study session. Normally, headed for an evening of book cracking with a female partner, I would make some kind of effort to polish the old image a bit, maybe re-shave, a little fresh cologne, a decent looking outfit, and a sharp guy attitude. This was different, though. This was Amy… Amy-of-the-bushes. Why bother? I wondered. Then the image of her face, during the Mr. Torso episode, and the sound of her laughter this afternoon, and the memory of her sense of humor, her playful jab at my reading ability, resurfaced and I figured what-the-heck and shaved and doused and dressed up just a bit. Thank God, I thought, after I pulled into the driveway of the biggest house I've ever seen, bigger even than Bug's mansion, and rang the doorbell and was greeted by a … Goddess. No, really, the girl who answered the door was, without any doubt, without any close competition, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She was maybe in her early twenties, and it wasn't like she was trying to be hot, (she was, in fact, dressed in a simple pale blue sweater set and faded jeans) but she radiated beauty. Her hair, dark brown with a reddish tint, shoulder length, really thick, her brilliant blue eyes, the body, slim where it was supposed to be, perfectly rounded in the perfect areas, expert

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invisible makeup, the warm, effortless smile… I'm dying, here, remembering. She made Melanie Horvath look like a third grader. I stood there, speechless, trying to block the drool, until she laughed, being obviously way familiar with drooling acolytes camped on her doorstep, and held out her hand and said "Hi, you must be Stuart. I'm Jennifer. Come in." in a perfectly normal, friendly voice, as though all the armies of Greece were not in full sail to rescue her. I stumbled into the… lobby? (foyer? Beats me what you call it. We don't have whole rooms just behind the front door where I live.) Standing there, holding my little school books, wearing my little cologne, I was left frantically trying to think of a proper attitude when, raising the stakes even higher, and sending my blood pressure to truly dangerous levels, another Goddess came walking out of an adjacent hallway. This one was older, though you could mostly tell by the way she carried herself. Same perfect hair, styled simply; brown eyes, though calling them brown is like calling a sunset “pretty”; and even the same figure. "Where am I," my mind croaked, as the second one drew closer and, instead of pulling out her harp and bursting into song, simply said, "Hi. I'm Amy's Mom. You must be Stuart." "I don't think so," I thought. "Because Stuart is capable of actually uttering words and making motions with his legs that carry him from one place to another and this guy is frozen like a Popsicle and may never speak again."

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Somehow, though, through a superhuman effort, instincts trained in the crucible of basketball tournament frenzy came into play and I managed to reassert myself and regain my composure. I straightened and flashed a winning smile and told them "Yes, I'm Amy. I'm here to study with Stuart." I actually heard those words come out of my mouth as the blood rushed to my face. I needed a hole to run into. I needed it real bad. The two Goddesses burst into laughter. I stood there turning red while they giggled. The Mom finally got herself under control and reached out her hand. I looked at it for a minute, trying to figure out why it was pointed at me, before I figured that maybe a handshake was in order. I took her hand gently, making sure not to exert too much pressure, while she told me, "Okay, Amy, I'll call Stuart." The tension broke and I started laughing, too. We all had tears coming out of our eyes as Amy opened a door down the hallway and approached, looking at us suspiciously, in the way that people do when they’re afraid the joke is on them. It didn’t appear that the prospect of a study session with the Foley High b-ball hero had caused her any serious anxiety since she looked exactly the same as she had earlier that day, or any other day I'd ever seen her. I felt a little self-conscious about my cosmetic preparations, which had to be absurdly adolescent for the Goddesses and utterly unnecessary for Amy, but she motioned me to follow her and we climbed

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up the stairs in silence. Walking down a long hall, with maybe a couple hundred doors on either side, I stumbled along behind her, still trying to attain some level of emotional stability, until I nearly ran her over when she finally stopped. She opened a door and motioned me inside, into her… library? Who has their own library? I wondered, letting my gaze wander around the huge room, bordered by maybe two or three million books on ceiling-high shelves. The presence of a bed and nightstand and dresser seemed to indicate that this might also be her bedroom. "Nice place, Amy" I said. "Where's the card catalog?" That earned me a giggle, and a slightly higher level of comfort. We sat down at a study table. I dug my science book out of my backpack while she sat calmly waiting, seemingly unaffected by the presence of a giant visitor in her private quarters. I don’t know what I was expecting – I’m a little ashamed to say it, but I think I was expecting some kind of gratitude for bestowing my presence on a member of the social underworld. Amy wasn’t having any, though, and it irritated, intrigued, and impressed me in about equal measure. The next hour passed peacefully, studiously, as she led me through question after question, patiently explaining the theories and formulas more clearly than Old Loomis ever had. She would write answers out slowly, telling me how each piece of the puzzle fit into the greater whole. She still hid behind the screen of hair, her eyes were still unavailable for examination behind the specs, but her hands, slim and

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beautiful, drew diagrams in the air as she illustrated her points. There was nothing shy about her, here. Explaining science concepts, she spoke in a soft, but perfectly clear, confident voice and by the time we had finished the test chapters, I understood, I actually understood, what we had been doing in class for the last few weeks. And I told her so. She blushed, I think, although you pretty much have to intuit that from body language, and asked me if I'd like a soft drink. She actually said "soft drink." I told her anything without caffeine would be fine and she left the room for a few minutes. I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and scope her library and a slightly clearer picture began to emerge - of Amy, that is. Her books were all about religion - religious philosophy, Bible commentaries, biographies of religious figures, Joan of Arc, St. Augustine, literally hundreds of guys I've never heard of. "She wants to be a Saint." I thought, with brilliant intuition. "Huh." Returning with a tray of drinks and chips, Amy caught me standing at a bookshelf and asked if I saw anything I liked. I smiled and told her my reading habits ran more toward Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. We sat at the table and sipped our drinks and she asked how far I'd gotten in The Scarlet Letter. "I got to the page where it says 'by Nathaniel Hawthorne'," I said, "and I'm really, really into it. The action, the drama… keeps me awake sometimes."

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She laughed again and started to talk about the book. "I don't know why they keep assigning that book," she said. “It’s like there’s a master list that hasn’t changed since one room schoolhouses. No one wants to read it. And I don’t think anyone wants to teach it. I’m not even sure most of the teachers have read it, at least not in the last twenty years.” She started to rev up, not so much in volume, but in emphasis and rhythm, like this stuff really meant something to her. "The teachers, who are supposed to love literature, and understand what makes it important, don't care enough to put the book in context. I mean, on the surface it’s this really dull story about a woman whose life is ruined by doing something that most kids are doing every weekend. How is that supposed to make sense?" "Beats me," I said. "I never spend much time thinking about it. I read enough to answer the exam questions and then you move on to the next one and hope it's not Moby Dick." "But it's important," she said. "It's just as important now as it was when Hawthorne wrote it. You have to remember that it's set in Puritan times. For those people, life was very hard and serious. You weren’t put on earth to enjoy yourself. You were supposed to earn your way to heaven. Pleasure, in the worldly sense, was sinful, because it distracted you from your purpose in life.

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“When Hester slept with a man outside of marriage, she knew, with absolute conviction, that if she were discovered, she would be completely ostracized. In every practical sense she would cease to exist.” Amy stood up and began to walk around the room. It’s almost like she was talking to herself, explaining things out loud that she’d sat there thinking about in silence for several years. She moved and gestured and spoke with precision and passion, as if all the expression she refused to allow her face to show was flowing out through her gestures. "Even worse," she continued, "Hester slept with him knowing that her soul was damned for all eternity anyway, whether or not she was caught, because there was no way to hide her sin from God." "So she was pretty stupid, right?" I conjectured, anxious to show that I was still in the game. "No," Amy said softly, "She wasn't stupid at all. She was helpless. Her soul cried out for beauty. "Hawthorne knew that the Puritans had corrupted their religion. He knew that all the crap in Puritan society," (she actually said crap,) "the iron rules, the repressed anger, - they weren't drawn from anything Jesus ever said. Hawthorne knew that Biblical society was passionate and joyous. The early Christians had feasts; they drank wine; they danced and celebrated. They had rules, and they worshipped seriously and they sinned - and then they repented and were forgiven. They lived life and they understood beauty and joy.

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"The Puritans corrupted the Bible - they didn’t care about love and joy and all the things that really matter – they just wanted to control people’s lives. Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter to show that, ultimately, humanity cries out for beauty. All sins can be forgiven except for the greatest sin of all, which is to refuse to live the life we've been given." She stopped talking then, abruptly, and I could see the animation drain out of her. She was a little embarrassed, I think, at how passionate she had been. I sat there looking at her for a few seconds before telling her that I thought I'd probably just aced my English final. We both laughed, maybe a little too long for such a feeble line, but it released the tension. I told her it was probably getting a little late and thanks for saving my life and stood up to go. I stopped on my way out and said, "Thanks again, Amy… for the help, and for explaining Hawthorne. “Anyway," I asked, pretty much out of nowhere, "you want to study together next week?" There was a long, serious pause. She shook enough of her hair loose for me to actually see her eyes (Ok, cancel, that, to actually see her glasses, I mean) staring into mine, trying to see if I was making a joke. "Because," I continued, "I'm hoping you'll cover Moby Dick… just in case, you know."

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We laughed and she said she'd like to study together again. We headed back to the front door and I walked through the cool spring air to my car with a million questions flooding my brain. I lay in bed that night, thinking of Amy, the Goddesses, Hawthorne and Hester Prynne and somehow they all got mixed up with chemistry formulas until, finally, my poor overloaded brain shut down and I went to sleep.

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FOURTEEN

Gradually, very gradually, life settled onto a more even plane. I took the science exam and got my first 'A', ever, from Old Loomis. Handing the paper back to me with a skeptical look, he asked how many people had actually been involved in its completion. I nodded toward Mr. Torso and winked. Old Loomis was not amused but Amy dissolved in a giggle fit that lasted most of the rest of the period. During the next few weeks, as spring made its fitful arrival, a pattern emerged. I love patterns – they give you something to hang your life on. Weekends, Bug and I would travel cross-town and shoot hoops with the homeboys. Since we’d won the State Championship, they played tougher than ever, anxious to prove themselves to the cross-town champs. (not, you understand, that Bug and me had any doubts.) Epic battles ensued, including one that lasted into early evening where, mainly anxious to get out of there before dark, I finally threw up a

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forty-footer expecting to lose the rebound and the game. The shot fell through cleanly and we were more than surprised to see the b-boys descend on us in a mass of high-fiving, fist-pumping high spirits. These guys may not have been our friends but they loved our game and playing just for themselves, without an audience, or trophies, or cheerleaders, they played harder and with more inspiration than any opponent I've ever faced… except Krystofer Hunter. I wondered about the big guy sometimes and whether he played any spring sports and what kind of a person he must be. One slow Saturday evening Bug and I logged on to the Central High message boards to see what was up. The b-ball chatter was long over, but we asked (using a fictitious name, of course) how Hunter was doing, if anyone was speaking to him. A couple kids answered that they saw him around from time to time, but didn’t really know him. As we were about to log off, someone who said they were on the team responded. He (screen-name BallHERO -as if ) said that Hunter had showed up on the day after the tournament to talk to the guys in the locker room as they were cleaning out their stuff. He told them he had some kind of congenital health problem that recurred periodically without notice and that kept him in bed for two or three days at a time – kind of like a migraine, only different. He apologized for missing the game and told them he would be back next year. The Central coach then stood up and reminded them that, without Hunter, they were a last place team, so

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maybe they ought to thank him for the opportunity to excel and move on. “BallHERO” sounded pretty calm about the whole thing, so I guess they won’t be running Krys Hunter out of town on a rail before next season. Too bad. Sundays were reserved for church and family. On Monday or Tuesday nights I fell into the habit of driving over to Amy's to study and talk. Despite the economic gulf between her family and mine, I was comfortable there. This was odd, because I found myself completely unable to categorize my relationship with Amy. Falling somewhat short of friendship, since it's hard to be friends with someone you've never actually seen, we grew closer with every session we spent in her room, sitting at her table, going over science and math and, occasionally, revisiting her obsessions with various philosophical and moral issues. When she got off on one of her tangents, she would seem to grow a few inches; her voice would take on a new tone; her hands would weave through the air as eloquently as her words emerged from the undergrowth, and I would sit and listen and about thirty percent of the time have a clue what she was talking about. I loved to listen to her, though. She has a serious mind. I don't, but I recognize and admire the concept. Putting those evenings into words, into concrete thoughts, is really hard. I mean, I could have been out on dates, exploring relationships, doing the standard teen stuff, but with Amy, the world just got quiet.

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There was no one pulling on me, expecting things from me, telling me what I needed to do next. I didn't have to be a basketball star, a latent millionaire. I just sat there and listened while the music played softly and Amy's voice provided a kind of mental cushion that left me feeling rested. More rested, actually, than I usually felt after dreaming my way through the night in bed at home. Her sister, Jennifer, goddess number 1, and her mom, goddess number 2, were usually around somewhere. They were unfailingly warm, diligently courteous, and, I suspected, secretly elated that little Amy had actually found a buddy. Her Dad, she said, was some kind of international business hotshot who spent long stretches out of the country, doing whatever it is that international hotshots do. I liked them all and kept coming back, without really analyzing the situation. Until, one Saturday, when Bug and I we were slumped in a booth at Pizza Hut, having slain the homeboys during a long afternoon of roundball wars, and he asked me when I was going to resume my social life. "You are" he said, "my personal chick magnet and my poles have been growing weak of late." (Magnetically speaking, that is.) I sat there for a moment, thinking, and realized that it had been weeks since the thought of dating had seriously occupied any cranial space. "I don't know," I said with a shrug. And I didn't.

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"Well, gee, old buddy," Bug said, "looks like somebody needs oil and a lube. Hel-lo, anybody home? You're an adolescent teenager, dude… the juices got to flow." He sucked furiously on his straw and glared at me, shaken to his roots by the thought that I could possibly have not thought about dating. "I'm cool, you know." I said. "I don't need to date right now. And anyway, I'm kind of seeing someone." I knew immediately that I had made a major blunder, but once cast, the line could not be reeled back in. I braced myself for the aftermath. Bug sat straight up, antennae raised, ears quivering. "Seeing someone?" He squeaked. "Seeing someone? How in the world can you be seeing someone?" (He knew that I had never in my life kept a secret from him.) "Well, it's not like I'm actually seeing someone," I backtracked. "I'm just spending a lot of time with someone." "Who?" He demanded. "No one, really," I stuttered, "Just Amy." "Amy? Amy? Amy who? We don't know any Amy's." Bug was truly perplexed. "Amy from science class.” "Amy from science class," he muttered, thinking. "Amy from science class???"

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It suddenly burst on him. "Amy from science class? AMY? Brownie? Hedgehead Amy? How can you be seeing someone you can't even see?" "We study and talk is all," I said. "That's all we do. “I like her," I added, somewhat more defensively than I would have preferred. Bug studied me the way he looks at one of Old Loomis’s dissection projects. "This is just too weird,” he said. "You are not the type." "I'm not a type," I replied. "I just like spending time with her." Bug stared at me, eyes round and incredulous. "Old buddy," he said. "I'm going to forget we ever had this conversation. I'm going to go home and call Melanie Horvath and tell her you've been pining for her. You are going to go home and wait for her phone call. You're going to answer and you're going to take her out by the lake and you are going to rejoin the living. End of story, end of tale. Got it?" I looked at him fondly. "Bugman," I said, quietly, "If you so much as mention my name within earshot of anyone who even knows Melanie Horvath, I'll tie your ears in a knot and sling you out into the ocean. Got it?"

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We laughed and finished the pizza and headed for home, exchanging small talk. I let him off, we exchanged our usual insults and he headed inside, but I knew he wondered… So do I, I thought. So do I.

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FIFTEEN

The following week was rich and nuanced, whatever that means. (I was waiting to get my hair cut, reading some guy’s fashion magazine that I wouldn’t normally pick up if there was a ten dollar bill attached to it. It described this feeb male model as having a social life that was “rich and nuanced.” I liked the way the words sounded and figured that if I didn’t know what it meant, no one else would either. So henceforth many things about me, not least my social life, will be rich and nuanced.) I passed The Scarlet Letter exam with flying colors, thanks to the wisdom of Amy. As a reward, I guess, my usual study visit turned into family dinner with the hotshot executive international businessman father, heretofore unseen, presiding over what, in my house, would probably be referred to as a banquet, such banquet evolving into an after dinner session, (cognac and cigar (him), Coke and some little thin crunchy things like cookies (me)), in which he questioned, at length, my future

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plans, my basketball experiences, my family, my family's family, my car, my hair, my friends, my pets, all in a genuinely sincere, interested manner, that, polite and flattering though it may have been, left me feeling as if I had been run through an industrial washing machine. I was finally able to escape to the blissful quietude of Amy's library/room where I collapsed in a corner and asked if she thought her Dad was going to turn all that information over to the FBI for a background check. "Probably," she piped back with a big grin. "He's pretty careful about who we associate with." "Nice," I thought, "Really nice. But if he’s such an investigative genius, how does he know if that's really Amy in there?" Which thought, expressed somewhat gingerly, since I'd never really touched on the subject of her rather unusual appearance, elicited a fit of giggles that lasted most of the rest of the evening. Every time we would start a math problem, she'd start thinking again about how exactly did her father know who was in there under all that hair. Her shoulders would start to shake and I'd start to laugh and we'd spend another ten minutes trying to compose ourselves before returning to the books and starting the whole process all over again. Eventually we gave up and put on some kind of New Agey type music. We chatted quietly until something I said about going to church on Sunday caught her attention. “I didn’t know you went to church,” she said. “No offense, but you don’t really act like someone who goes to church.”

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I didn’t know whether I had just been insulted or complimented. I asked for a translation. “It’s just…” for once she was having a problem finding the right words. “It’s just that…” She hesitated again, before the words came in a rush. “It’s just that I know how to talk to you about school and I don’t know how to talk to you about church. You mention it like going to the doctor or something and I can tell it doesn’t mean anything to you and I wish…” she paused. Curious, I prompted her. “You wish what?” “I wish you really knew what it meant to go to church,” she said. I think I was offended, even though I couldn’t disagree with her conclusions about the meaning of church in my life. It was, after all, just a minor nuisance, something I did because I still lived at home and it kind of went with the territory “So your church is a lot better, I guess?” I sort of taunted her, figuring that she and her high-toned family were probably major contributors to one of the renowned downtown cathedrals. “Why don’t you come see for yourself?” she asked, and lacking any real reason for declining (since I’d already admitted that my Sunday mornings were sacrificed to God), I shrugged okay. She smiled and told me to come over about 10AM on Sunday. I gave her an unenthusiastic shrug. Sunday it would be. Oh, boy.

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Exhausted by the battle for my soul, I gathered my books and told her thanks for the evening, that had I enjoyed being mentally excavated by her father. "Good night, Amy… or whoever you are," I said and left her dissolved in laughter. Not a bad exit, as exits go. After the intensity of a banquet and interrogation courtesy Family Lyons, I found myself anxiously waiting for the weekend when I could drain myself on the b-ball courts. Somewhere around noon on Saturday Bug and I headed out for our normal 2-on-2 session. Arriving at the court, we noticed that there seemed to be a larger crowd than usual. The standard group of ten to fifteen players was b-balling, with center court hosting the possession match in progress, but where you would usually see two or three non-participants and a handful of girlfriends, today you had two separate groups of on-lookers. New guys. New guys I’d never seen before. One bunch seemed to be Hispanic, or some derivation thereof. They, all six or seven of them, were sprawled out on the far side of the courts. At their center sat a guy who was obviously their Chieftain, their jefe, or whatever these mooks called their top dog. He was, or would have been, had he been standing, a tall, bronze cartoon hero - or villain. Wearing a ripped white dress shirt over a truly ripped torso, layers of rippling muscles under a thin layer of shining brown skin, tight blue jeans, heavy black boots, and a red bandanna holding back a cascade of

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shoulder length black hair, he gazed at the action through heavy sunglasses with the attitude of one who owned the party. His cohorts lay around him, lighting his smokes, running for drinks, and all but bowing at his feet. The other bunch arranged themselves on the opposite side of the arena. They were Afro - homeboys - but of a much more serious breed than the usual group of b-ball guys. They all stood, centered around a very tall, very heavy potentate who carried much of the same attitude as his Aztec counterpart on the other side. The black guys were dressed in their usual street fashions - saggy pants over designer briefs, bare chests, heavy accents of chains, sunglasses, and tattoos. In the center of the two camps four players battled. I caught Heavy D’s eye, as he stood waiting for the next game, and gave him a thumbs up, letting him know Bug and I were on the charts, ready to take our turn. We sauntered over to one of the side baskets and began to warm up, tossing in lay-ups and easy jumpers, only half aware of the activity on the main court. We had only been playing a few minutes when we saw the Hispanic guys suddenly come to their feet as a fight erupted on the main court. A couple of the lesser known regulars, Nate and Ta-Won, were going at it with two Afro home-boys I’d never seen before. The Hispanic gang seemed to be rooting for the new guys while the Afros were cheering Nate and Ta-Won. Nate and his opponent were circling each other,

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throwing wild punches that occasionally landed. Ta-won was rolling around on the concrete with his guy. They were using fists and knees and feet and assorted rocks and pieces of garbage and were obviously attempting to cause serious damage. The Hispanic guys came out onto the court while the Afro guys faced them in a solid line. Both groups were staring at each other, rather than the fight, which ended quickly as the exhausted combatants crawled off to lick their wounds. King Afro walked over to the head Hispanic honcho and held out his hand. The jefe just stood there, staring into King’s face, until one of his assistants reached into his pocket, extracted what looked like a roll of twenties, peeled off three or four, and dropped them at King’s feet. That caused the Afro gang to crowd closer, with a menacing mutter beginning to grow in strength and intensity from both sides. Jason darted in from the sidelines, quickly bent down, retrieved the money, and pulled away, leaving the two gangs arrayed in approximately equal numbers no more than four or five feet apart. After a long, long staredown, the jefe finally spit on the ground, not too close to the Afro chief, however, spun on his heel and walked off, closely followed by his acolytes. Now Bug and I are not newly emerged from the cabbage patch. We know these guys come from a rough neighborhood and rougher circumstance. But the courts had always seemed like an island of peace, or at least a demilitarized zone. We’d seen our share of scuffles over the

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years, but they were always due to b-ball stuff - a misplaced elbow, a hard charge, and they had come and gone as quickly as the next game. This was something entirely different. We stood around for a while watching the Afro group dematerialize until we realized we were the only ones left on the court. All the other players had somehow slipped away. We looked at each other and shrugged and headed for the car, but before we could get there D and Jason walked around the corner of an adjacent apartment building and motioned us to stay put. We stood on the court in the blazing sun, aware, as never before, how deep we were in a foreign country. D walked over, took my basketball, and began to dribble it slowly back toward the courts. I followed, Bug and Jason trailing behind. D sank a lay-up, grabbed his rebound, stepped back for a short jumper, grabbed the rebound again and fired a chest pass to me. With natural instincts asserting themselves, I took the pass and fired a long jumper that nailed the hoop cleanly. D took the rebound, tossed it to Bug and, without a word, we were back in action, two-on-two. We played hard, very, very fast basketball, with full speed soaring dunks followed by machine-gun jumpers, behind the back passes, no looks, no fouls, no score. D was exorcising something; Bug and I were playing off the shock and two hours later we both, both teams, simultaneously dropped to the court in total exhaustion. We lay there, staring at the late afternoon sky, wordless, until D pulled Jason up and

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stood over me, dark brown African eyes staring into pale blue Caucasian ones. "Walk soft, my man," D whispered, "Walk soft," and they vanished. I looked over at Bug. He was staring at the spot where D and Jason had disappeared and I could see the questions in his eyes. He turned back to me, looking for answers. I could only shrug. We hauled ourselves to our feet and got out of there - quickly, but with dignity.

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SIXTEEN

After the near-death experience on Saturday, Sunday was going to seem like a vacation, even a Sunday spent at a snooty church with Amy, pretending that I was impressed by the grandeur of my surroundings. When God’s day dawned, I told my parents that I was going to church with a friend. They were simultaneously surprised, intrigued, and mystified, but wished me well and waved me on my way as I set out toward the noble side of town dressed in my Sunday finest. Arriving at Amy’s, I was surprised to find that she was the only one at home. I had assumed that the whole family attended as a group, probably occupying the most visible pew in deference to their status. I was doubly surprised to find Amy dressed in a plain brown skirt and blouse instead of some kind of High Protestant Sunday finery. She noted my expression and smiled.

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“Let’s go, Stuart,” she said, climbing into the front seat of my old VW. “Uh, Amy,” I asked. “Are you sure they’ll let my car into the parking lot?” “I don’t think it will be a problem. We’re going to the Salvation Church of God. It’s at Franklin and Fifth.” “But that’s…” “I know it’s not what you expected,” she said. “But trust me.” The intersection of Franklin and Fifth is about three blocks from where I play ball with the homeys. It is a world away from the cathedrals that cater to families in the Lyons’ tax bracket. But she seemed very sure of herself and I set off for the familiar neighborhood, wondering what I had gotten myself into. When we arrived, I could see groups of families, uniformly Afro, gathered in conversation on the front lawn of a small brick church. I parked on the street and Amy led me around the car and up to the front steps. Many of the waiting worshippers nodded respectfully to her as we mounted the stairs. I was simply following in a daze. Inside, the dimly lit auditorium contained twenty or so pews on each side of a central aisle. The walls were plain white plaster, without ornamentation. The pulpit stood on the left; a piano on the right. Behind the piano was another small grouping of pews for, I assumed, the choir.

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It was all very traditional, yet very, very strange, What in the (I censored myself, out of respect) heck am I doing here? I wondered. We sat in the second to last row and watched members of the congregation gradually shuffle in and fill the pews. I tried to keep my head down, attempting, in vain I’m sure, to look inconspicuous. As a white-robed African gentleman of indeterminate years ascended the pulpit, I snuck a look around at the gathered crowd. They seemed mostly middle class, not unlike the members of my normal church, but there was a subtle but unmistakable difference in their attitude. They seemed to want to be here, was the difference, I decided, and that alone got me interested. A smallish choir, maybe ten women and three men filled the pews behind the piano before an elderly black woman sat down at the keyboard. She touched a chord, very, very softly, and her voice, crystal clear and amazingly full to be emanating from such a tiny body, filled the air. “Oh Lord my God,” the words, utterly familiar, but sounding like I was hearing them for the first time, rang out. “When I in awesome wonder,” A low, perfectly tuned harmonic hum issued from the choir. “…consider all, the worlds thy hands have made.” I could feel her considering all those worlds, like she’d never thought of them before this precise moment..

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“I see the stars.” The choir hummed another chord. “I hear the rolling thunder.” The piano was more distinct, now, more emphatic. The choir’s volume began to rise. “Thy power throughout the universe displayed.” She paused and the air in the small room trembled with anticipation. “THEN SINGS MY SOUL, MY SAVIOR GOD TO THEE.” They soared into the chorus in perfect unison, the old lady’s voice rising high above the choir. Then, once again, her solo voice, soft, wondering… “How great thou art. How great though art.” It was magic, absolute magic. The emotion reverberated and fed back on itself. On the second chorus the congregation entered in and I swear God and all his hosts looked down and smiled at the purity of their expression. I glanced over at Amy and caught a tear running down her cheek. It was, without a close second place, the most awesome religious moment, in the true sense of the word ‘awesome’ that I have ever experienced. Nothing else came close to the perfection of that hymn, but the service was still a universe away from what was going on at my church. The minister said a long heartfelt prayer, mentioning members of the congregation by name who had needs, some spiritual, some material. There were a couple more songs, unison numbers that were sung with a great deal more feeling than I was used to, and then a lengthy sermon about – OK, I’m not perfect, I honestly don’t remember what it was about.

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I was too busy trying to avoid looking at the front rows because sitting there, next to a beautifully dressed woman of about my mother’s age, were none other than my fierce homeboy b-ball opponents, Heavy D and his main man Jason. Absent their do-rags and baggy shorts, with their playground tattoos covered by dress shirts and slacks, they looked like high school kids going to church with their Mom. They had to have seen me (a 6’10” white boy is pretty hard to miss under any circumstances) and I knew I would pay a very heavy price down the road if I ever let them know I had seen them in civilian clothes and attitudes. I was truly affected by the service. I’m not sure I really understood what the word “worship” meant before, but I still held out, waiting for the inevitable plea for funds, the wallet attack that had to be forthcoming. I was only surprised that the minister was waiting until after the sermon. Usually they want to catch them before they fall asleep. Sure enough, after he finished his sermon and said a prayer, the minister’s words turned fiscal. “Brothers and Sisters,” he began, “I know times are hard. “I know you’ve suffered. I know you have bills to pay and children to feed.” And a new church to build, my cynical mind finished for him. “I know you need every dime you can save,” he continued. “but pause just a minute, if you can, and hear my words.” I waited for the hard sell.

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“As you know, our brother, Brother Matthews, has come upon tragic times,” the minister said as a hush fell over the crowd. “He has been laid off from his job at a time when his darling daughter lies in bed, in need of a new kidney.” His voice rose, “Now, this very week, a donor has been found…” “Amen, brother,” a strong male voice rang out from the congregation. “A donor has been found,” he repeated. “But the hospital needs a deposit before they will perform the operation. “I know you feel for him,” the minister said, like a prayer, “And I know you feel for his family. I’m asking you this morning, this great beautiful morning that the Lord has made for us, I’m asking you to dig deep and to help Brother Matthews carry his load. I’m asking you to take your weekly offering, to take whatever you can spare, I’m asking you to take that offering and lay it at the feet of Jesus for Brother Matthews.” A young woman rose from the first row and stepped forward. “Sister Matthews is with us this morning,” the minister told us as people began to rise from their pews, “and she will accept your offerings so that little Janiece can live to serve Jesus. In the name of the Lord and all our brothers and sisters in Christ I ask you to step forward and share God’s bounty.” A line formed and people moved along, exchanging hugs with the woman in front, slipping envelopes and folded bills into the basket beside

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her, returning to their seats with a look on their faces. (I thought about that look afterward and decided that I didn’t think I’d ever seen it, or anything like it, on my face. I wished I had.) I glanced at Amy and she shook her head and whispered, “We’re guests here, always. There’s another basket where we can leave an offering on our way out.” When the giving was finished, the pianist played softly while the minister said a prayer of thanks and it was over. He remained at the front of the auditorium afterward while the church members came forward to shake his hand and talk. Amy and I slipped out the back, leaving an envelope, in her case, and a folded five-dollar bill in mine, in the basket. We climbed into my car and drove in silence back to her house. “Thank you, Stuart,” she said when we arrived. “Thank you for coming with me.” I stared at her, at the tangled hair falling down in front of the omnipresent glasses, trying to read her, to figure out what had just happened. She leaned over and gave me a fleeting kiss on the cheek, more of a brush than a kiss, but conveying a world of meaning, if only I could read the emotional language. I watched until the door closed behind her and drove home in a state of utter confusion.

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SEVENTEEN

A few days later, sitting in Amy's room, sipping Cokes and listening to music after an easy study session (The Once and Future King, a story we both loved), we talked about the Sunday service. I asked her how she’d found her way to the Afro side of town. She smiled, remembering, “Three summers ago, when Mom and Dad were sick of trying to figure me out, they let me go to a summer camp I’d read about. It’s sort of a religious camp, but it’s run by a group of people from all kinds of different backgrounds and it’s almost completely unstructured. “I can’t possibly tell you how liberating it felt to be in a place where no one cared how weird I was.” Interesting, I thought. She knows people think she’s weird. (I’d never been really sure.)

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“I met evangelical Baptists there,” she said. “There were charismatics and Catholics and New-Age types and a lot of kids who hadn’t figured out what they were. Mostly the counselors left you alone to attend whatever services or group discussions you wanted, or to just be alone with yourself and God. I called it Camp Quiet, ‘cause that’s how it made me feel.” “OK,” I said, “but what’s that have to do with the Africans on Fifth Street?” “I’m getting there, Stuart,” she said, in the voice she uses when she’s trying to teach me something I’m resistant to learning. “There was a group of black kids who used to walk down to the creek together every night to sing. I overheard them once when I was walking back from one of my quiet sessions and I started wandering down to listen to them as often as I could. We started talking about our churches and they told me I hadn’t been to church until I’d seen the Africans worship. A couple of them attended the Fifth Street Church of God. They asked me to come and worship with them after camp ended. I did, and I’ve been going back ever since. “They feel something there,” she finished, “that I don’t feel anywhere else I go to church. They feel God. When I’m with them, I feel Him, too.” She sat quietly, waiting for me to comment, but there wasn’t anything much to say. I had felt it, too, but, unlike her, I wasn’t all that

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certain I wanted to feel it again. It’s like – I don’t have anything against God, but I’m not sure I have all that much time for Him, either. And there’s so much…well, crap… involved. Like I have any idea what the difference is between a Methodist and a Baptist and an Episcopalian, except that they all feel they have the inside track on salvation and everyone else is below them. I told Amy how I felt. She smiled, (and, really, in spite of the hair and the glasses and the whole don’t look-at-me thing, that smile is like the sun breaking through on a rainy day) and asked, “Why do you worry about it? What difference does it make?” Seeing the total non-comprehension on my face, she motioned at the rows and rows of books in her room and said, “I love to read about these things, to learn how great minds deal with big issues. But it seems to me…” She paused and gathered her thoughts. “It seems to me that if you believe in God and if you believe that there is a way to live your life that acknowledges and honors Him, that His path has to be accessible to everyone, regardless of their station in life or their education or their particular circumstances. “So, after all my reading and more prayer and thought than I can begin to tell you, I went back to the source and found the only two rules that matter. “Love God with all your heart.

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“Love your neighbor as yourself. “Jesus taught a Way that’s easy to learn and really hard to live. Churches tend to turn it around and make it hard to learn, with all their doctrine and rules and regulations, and easy to live, because mostly they just say you’re OK if you come to church and pay lip service to the principles in the Bible.” She stopped and looked up, probably expecting some kind of response. By that time, though, sincere and meaningful as her feelings were, my religion cup had overfloweth. So I changed the subject. I told her about seeing Heavy D and Jason at the church service and that led to the story of last weekend's bball session, the gangs and the fistfight. She gasped when I recounted the battle scene and was quiet for quite awhile after I finished. "You're not going back, of course," she finally said, flatly, as if it were a geometric axiom. "Of course I'm going back," I snapped back, without forethought, even though I hadn't really considered the question before this. "Why?" she asked, softly, without an attitude, just wanting to know, or maybe, wanting to know if I knew. "Because," I started, and paused, “because we belong there, me and Bug."

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"But you don't belong there," she said, reasonably. "You go there to play ball. Those guys sound like they have some whole other agendas going on, and I don't think they have anything to do with you, but those agendas might get end up getting you and Bug in big trouble." It's not like the thought hadn't crossed my mind. I have no idea what the real scene had been, what was actually happening. The two guys Nate and TaWon racked were strangers. I'd never seen either of them before and I had certainly never seen el jefe, unless maybe in a gang movie or a nightmare. But I had been traveling cross town for too many years and played too many games of absolutely brilliant basketball with those guys to let one incident send me scurrying back to Whiteville. Besides, I'm a pretty big guy and figure I can probably handle myself in a fistfight, should it ever come to that. Which I'm pretty sure it won't. I tried to reassure Amy but I think she had that vision, of gangstas banging heads, stuck in a loop and I don't think she was really listening. I finished talking and she stood, as we had passed ten o'clock, our traditional, self-imposed curfew. She put her hand on my shoulder as I turned toward the door and then, against all expectation, stepped closer and gave me a gentle hug and whispered, "Be careful." She stepped back and away and I was out the door and down the sidewalk and in my car before the full impact hit me. "She hugged me," I thought, in a state of severe confusion. "She hugged me."

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Wo, I thought. (No, really. That’s exactly what I thought. Just that and nothing more.) It was only later, lying in bed, that I took the scene out and ran it around in my mind, the vivid, overwhelming sense memory of the hug, which had to have lasted all of three seconds. During that three seconds, though, pressed against me, had been the body and soul of a real person, a girl, an authentically girl girl, from the feel of things. Keeping in mind that I was thinking about Amy; Amy behind the hair and glasses; weird religious Amy with the personal library and a severe case of psychological something-or-other, I would have given every penny in my saving-for-a-better-car account to be back inside that hug and to have a chance to respond. She had, in other words, awakened feelings and that created issues and the spontaneity and sheer suddenness of the awakening kept me up most of the night, staring at the dark ceiling while jumbled thoughts ran through my thoroughly disorganized brain and my memory returned, over and over again, to the hug. This, I figured, could mean real trouble.

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EIGHTEEN

When I saw Amy in school the next day, Friday, she acted the same as always, shy, reserved and a little distant. It kind of nagged at me. Then I thought about it some more and rationalized that, hidden behind her impenetrable smokescreen, how was she going to project any other impression? I mean, she could have been sticking her tongue out and making clown faces, for all I knew. So I let it go and hunted down Bug at lunch to see if we were going to venture into homeboy land again on the weekend. His face scrunched up (even more than usual) and he contorted his eyelids and pushed his glasses up a few times and rotated his shoulders in an annoying warm-up gesture that he uses anytime he's uncomfortable (he uses it a lot) and said, "I dunno. Whaddaya think?" "Dude," I said, (it's okay to use dudespeak around Bug since he's the least dudey character anyone has ever met and even I can sound cool

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in comparison,) "it's b-ball and the possibility of being gangsta’d to death, or no b-ball and sitting around with our thumbs up our butts. You make the call." B-ball it was, so, come Saturday morning as the song goes, I jumped into my car, tooled over to pick him up and we set sail for the wilderness. I was immediately relieved to see that the pick-up group had been reduced to a standard cadre of players with a normal complement of stragglers and hangers-on - no gangs in sight. D and Jason had possession, which they held for three matches until it was our turn. We took them on and won, held the court for four straight wins, lost a close one when D and Jason cycled back around and met them for a third time mid-afternoon. D's game is a lot like mine. He's a couple inches shorter, a little faster, shoots very accurately out to about fifteen feet, and has good court sense. I have a better range, a better rapport with my partner, and enough of a weight advantage to block him out and get six of ten boards. Jason and Bug are also pretty evenly matched as Jason's extra speed offsets Bug's superior shooting. We whaled on each other for a long time, trying to achieve the requisite two-point advantage, but every time one team got the lead, the other guys would do something spectacular to even the score. Finally, at 31-30, our possession, Bug cut right when Jason expected him to go left and I went up for what D thought was a

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jumper and banked a pass off the backboard to a leaping Bug, who laid it neatly into the hoop for the rubber match victory. D stood there for a few seconds, staring at the backboard and shaking his head. "Schoolboy crap," he muttered, but he grinned and tossed me a bottle of Gatorade out of his pack and we all collapsed on the ground and let the late afternoon sun bake the soreness out of our overstretched muscles. We sat there without talking for awhile until, knowing that I was treading on dangerous ground, I looked over at D and asked him what the story was last weekend. He stared at me for a long time, with a flat, cold look that expressed every bit of the hostility I had anticipated. But then, surprisingly, his gaze softened and he glanced at Jason. They shared a mutual, barely perceptible shrug of acceptance, and D gave me the word. "You wanna listen, dog," he said in a soft, intense voice. "You wanna listen good." It seems that Szabo, el jefe, is chieftain of the Davis Park cocaine family, a Hispanic/Columbian/anyone-who-isn't-white gang that emerged in our largest public housing project a few months ago. "They take over for the brothers," D said, "and brothers ain't been strong in Davis since the ‘Spanics started moving in, see, so they didn't have too tough a time.

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"Now listen, dog, ain't me or no boys of mine in the Trade, you know, but we all got blood involved, somehow, someway, and this Szabo dude," a hefty spit on the sidewalk, "this Szabo (pronounced like an obscenity) figures he going to cut himself a piece of the cake in our 'hood now that he got Davis down." The plan, as D spelled it out, was for Szabo to insinuate himself into Southside through the b-ball courts. He had begun to bring teams from Davis, mostly black guys, since “the 'Spanics don't got much of a bball tradition,” to challenge the locals. That was the scene we had witnessed last week, as Szabo and his posse took on Southside with money on the line. “Shoulda been me n’ Jason,” D said, “but Big (the Afro jefe, apparently,) wanted bangers in there. "Don't nobody want the ‘Spanics 'round here," D concluded. "and Big planned on making sure." Message received, it seems. I thanked D, with full gravity. He had shown me a great deal of respect by filling me in on the situation and I made sure he knew I knew it. I pulled Bug to his feet and we straggled back to the car, leaving D and Jason on the court facing another set of wannabes as we headed back to the cold, clear fluorescent reality of Pizza Hut on Saturday night. Hunched in our booth, demolishing a huge everything-butanchovies special, we ended the night on a true high note as Melanie

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Horvath and crew came lurching in from the parking lot, half-bombed, looking for trouble. Melanie, falling out of a tank top, was draped all over Sam Gaines, the graduating quarterback of last year's football team. Gaines, rock star handsome, utterly vacant, seems the perfect choice for good old Melanie. Having glanced up when they entered, I turned back to conversation with Bug but was soon interrupted by a visit from my exsomething-or-other, who tottered over to our booth and leaned down into my face. "So," she sputtered, eighty-proof breath emerging in short gasps while her smeared make-up made a joke of her beautiful face, "so the two little faggots are out on Saturday night. Isn't that just adorable." And she burst into raucous laughter. "Hey, everybody," she called to her crew, who had scattered across several tables in the center of the restaurant, "Look who's here. It's Mr. and Mrs. Hall. Come on over and say hello." To their credit most of them looked away, embarrassed, until Gaines walked over and put his arm around Melanie's shoulder, propelling her back to her table while glancing back at me with a desperate/helpless look that I remembered all too well from my tour of duty as Melanie's keeper. Bug and I settled up and I dropped him off and headed for home where I faded softly into bed with images of the warmth and safety of

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Amy's room and voice (and hug) conveying me peacefully into a welldeserved ten-hour sleep.

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NINETEEN

With the school year drawing to a close, my Dad and I sat down to plan a college strategy. Last spring we made it clear to the recruiters that my junior year was off-limits, that if they wanted any chance to make their pitches, they needed to stay off the phone and deal with us only by mail. We’ve received bushels of literature this year, but the phone has remained silent, except for one jerk from a Big East school who seemed to feel that the rules didn’t apply to him. After a couple registered letters from my Dad landed on the appropriate enforcement agency desks, the phone was silent once again. (Last I heard the Big East guy is hawking used cars in Utica.) By fall and the start of senior year, though, we're going to have coaches and assistant coaches and boosters and alumni camped out in the front yard unless we take some measure of control over the process.

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After innumerable hours of discussion with my parents, with Bug, and even with Amy, whose opinion I value and whose own choice of college is becoming of some interest to me, in spite of the fact that I remain as clueless about the true nature of our relationship as ever, a decision was reached. I will choose a handful, like three or four, colleges and tell everyone else thank you but please go away. NCAA regulations allow campus visits and all manner of recruitment benefits. Typically, colleges will fly a prospective player to town and roll out the red carpet with box seats at games, meetings with key boosters, ex-players, motivational sessions with the coaches, and parties - lots and lots of parties - with hostesses, as they’re euphemistically called. My parents, with my hearty approval, want none of this. We decided that we'll visit each of the selected campuses, at our expense and on our timetable, the same way any graduating senior would, and, with voluminous research on the Internet, make an independent choice. My Dad drafted a letter to send to each of the selected schools and another letter to send to any other college that made contact and we began to whittle the list down. Bug and I are determined to go to college together. After our discussion during the state finals we had jointly selected Michigan as a school that met our individual criteria. Following last week’s discussions we added Virginia, Stanford, and Duke. Each of these schools has a

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world-class academic reputation and a first rate basketball team. None of them interested Amy in the least. Amy is going to a religious college, she told me. She is going to continue her study of religion and philosophy, major in religion, and will almost certainly continue with graduate studies if she doesn't decide to become a missionary somewhere along the line. Amy's path and mine are going to diverge, it seems. Listening to her, especially the assurance with which she spelled out a future that couldn't include me, came as a shock. The fact that I was shocked, along with the intensity of the shock, was even more shocking. For the last few weeks I have continually reminded myself that I have no idea how I really feel about Amy. She's a weird little friend, I figured. She helps me with homework and I give her some connection to the real world. It's cool, and it’s fine except, why was I now feeling… bereft? We sat in her room, much later than usual. The lights were off; we had lit candles as we listened to music and talked softly about a future that doesn't seem so distant anymore. The candlelight brought out dozens of shades of red and gold in her hair and her voice emerged from what looked like a cloud of fire. "It's my life," she told me, softly, but with feeling and a very strong sense of gravity.

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"How do you know that?" I asked her. "How can you possibly know what your life is supposed to be?" "You know," she said. "You know exactly what your life is going to be. You're going to be a big college basketball star and then you're going to be a bigger professional basketball star and you're going to make zillions of dollars and be on magazine covers and then you're going to retire and live happily ever after. "So why can't I know what I'm going to be?" And there was something in the air, something that had to do with the seriousness of the conversation, the lateness of the hour, the intimation that childhood's end waited just around the corner, something that was tied up in our whole weird friendship that led me into an area where I had previously refused to travel. "Because you don't know who you are," I said, the words escaping from my mouth before my brain had a chance to censor them. Once spoken, the words blew coldly across the room, frosting the windows, as Amy sat, suddenly, rigidly straight, and turned her full attention to me. Her eyes, I'm sure, somewhere beneath their protective curtain, were blazing. "What…do…you…mean?" she asked, bearing down hard on each word.

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I stumbled, fumbled, and finally blurted. "I didn't mean you didn't know who you are… in here…. in private…away from everything, but… out there (the world, I meant) you don't even give it a chance." The thoughts I’d locked away in my mind for weeks began to tumble out. "I mean, you walk around in your own little world and no one sees you and you don't talk to anyone and how can you just decide you're going to shut yourself away for the rest of your life when you've never seen what's out there?" She grew even more rigid as my sorry soliloquy drew to a close, or petered out, to be more accurate. She rose and walked across the room to the window, stood there with her back to me and said, in a very small voice, "I never knew you felt that way. I'm sorry you think I'm such a misfit." I walked over and stood behind her. I tried to put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. I stood awkwardly behind her, talking to her back, trying to explain "Amy… you know me, at least a little bit.” I think I was speaking normally, but it may have been pleading. I so wanted her to understand that I wasn’t trying to attack her. “I've been coming over here for months now. Do you really think it's just for the study help? I mean, God knows it's been great. I've never had better grades."

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I was trying to find the right words, but they weren't coming. What was I doing talking about grades? I wanted to tell her… I wanted to tell her so many things but I couldn't get to the images I wanted to convey. I tried again. "Look…I like it here. I like you. I like talking to you. I like listening to you. I like just sitting here listening to music. It's peaceful. It makes me feel quiet inside. But I do not understand why you hide the rest of yourself from me and why you hide all of yourself from everybody else." The last words hit her hard. Her shoulders crumpled and she sank to the floor. I could hear her crying. I sat down beside her, feeling utterly helpless, knowing that I had created an unnecessary crisis. But what value is a friendship that is closed to serious questions? I asked myself as I waited for her tears to subside. I answered myself logically that Amy's reclusiveness should have been a topic for conversation, but this person I have come to …and the word 'love' came to mind, came so naturally that it passed right by before I reached out a giant mental hand and pulled it back. “Love…” I thought. “Love?” But images came back, devastating in their clarity. Amy- laughing at Mr. Torso, being tormented by the idiots; Amy making fun of my reading ability, then patiently explaining science and math problems to me, laughing at my dumb jokes, teasing gently, moving into my heart. I finally, maybe too late, understood that I had indeed come to love this

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strange and wonderful person who was now emerging from her heap on the floor as her sniffles gradually decreased in volume and intensity. She stood and walked to her dresser and used a few tissues to compose herself. She walked back across the room, steadily, and sat down in front of me, with the curtain of hair firmly in place and a new sense of resolution in her body language. "Have you seen my Mom and sister?" she asked. "Of course I've seen them," I said. "I see them every time I come here." "No," she replied. "No, you haven't seen them. You don't see them, not the way I do." "I am confused," I said. "I don't know what you mean." She took a deep breath and continued. "You see them and you see two beautiful, intelligent, friendly women. You see the most desirable women you've probably ever met in your life." I wasn't about to comment on that one. "I look at them and I see two people who have never in their life met someone who gave them an honest reaction. Men cannot encounter Mom and Jennifer as people. Even secure men, men who maybe don't need to be validated, still want to get to know them, to be able to say they know them, to be seen with them. And that's about one man in every ten thousand. The rest just want to see them with their clothes off.

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"Women are even worse. Most of the women they meet are just insanely jealous; some of them are subtle about it, some of them are not. The ones who aren't jealous go to extremes to prove it, slobbering all over them and trying to be best buddies. "But the common denominator is that all these people react the way they do because of the way Mom and Jen look. As it turns out, my Mom and sister are really very nice people. They are generous, kind, forgiving. They are people you're privileged to know. But no one ever gets that far because they're too hung up on the surface. "I've seen it my whole life. And I made up my mind that I wasn't going to be treated that way. I don't want people to see my surface. I want to know that my friends like me." There was a long pause. Amy sat there, right in front of me, hair curling down around her face, head up, and I think - I think if I had chosen that moment to lean forward and give her a hug, demonstrate some reassurance, that maybe her next words might have been left unspoken and our lives might have been permanently altered. But I just sat there, silent. "I thought it was different with you," she said, sadly, turning away from me. "I thought," she continued as she stood up and walked across the room, leaving yards, and miles, and galaxies between us, "maybe I'd found a friend who didn't care that I wasn't beautiful or glamorous or

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amusing or fashionable. I care about you. (If I'd had any doubts, and I didn't, the intensity of feeling in her words would have erased them instantly.) I have had the best time with you and now I find out that you want the surface, too. Just like everybody else. "Just like everybody else." She turned back toward me. The candles, reflected in her glasses, made her eyes look like pinpoints of flame, directed at me with purpose and blame. "I think you better go," she said, quietly, but firmly. I got up and stood there, rooted in place for a second, or an hour, before moving slowly toward the door. I had stuck my hand in a wasp's nest. I got stung. I didn't think it was fair. I stopped, with my hand on the doorknob, and turned back. "I don't think you believe that," I said, just as quietly and firmly as she had last addressed me. "I don't think you believe it for a minute. "I've been coming back here for months," I told her again. "Do you really think it was just on the off-chance I'd get a look at your surfaces? I can get surfaces, Amy. I can get surfaces up the wazoo. I can go out with a surface any night of the week. "I come here because I like you (not the place for the other 'l' word. That was a private revelation, at this point, anyway). I come here because there's no place I'd rather be."

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I had words I'd been trying to put together all night and suddenly they came to me, whether Amy really wanted to hear them or not. "I listen when you talk to me," I said. "And I listened and understood when you explained The Scarlet Letter to me, how the Puritans used religion for control, how they were scared of passion and emotion and how they tried to get rid of them with their rules and customs and laws. And I listened when you told me that the only sin was refusing to live the life God has given us. "I wonder," my voice, emphasizing my intent, softened. "if you aren't doing the same thing to yourself. Aren't you closing yourself off because you're scared? Aren't you, when you deny your face and your whole self to us, to people who care for you and people who might want to care for you if they had a chance to get to know you, aren't you doing what you accused the Puritans of doing? Aren't you refusing to live the life God has given you?" I could see her stiffen as I talked. She drew further and further away from me until, by the time I was finished, I could barely distinguish her from the wallpaper in the corner. "I want you to go now," she told me, with an anger I had never heard in her voice. "I want you to leave me alone." She turned her face to the wall and, with no alternative available, I left the room and the house and drove home and spent another sleepless night staring at the ceiling, wondering where it all came apart.

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TWENTY

Getting up the next morning, dressing for school, all I could think about was seeing Amy again, sitting next to her in class. I rehearsed what I wanted to say and how she might respond and how I would answer and… well, I thought myself into a never-ending circle. Mainly, though, I just wanted to get past this moment and be friends again. I needn't have worried. I didn't see her before we had science class, third period, and when I walked in the door I saw that she had moved across the room, switching seats with a girl I didn’t know. A sealed envelope sat on my desktop. As soon as Old Loomis started his lecture I raised my hand and said I wasn't feeling well and asked to be excused to go to the nurse's office. Outside the classroom I found the nearest restroom, locked myself in a stall and opened the letter.

Dear Stuart (she wrote, longhand, in pencil, with a lot of erasures)

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I wish I knew how to tell you how much I have enjoyed (erased so many times there was a hole in the paper) the times we’ve spent together. I don’t have many friends and this has been (whole following line erased) Obviously this is not coming out right. I care for you. I think you are a genuinely good friend, but I don’t think you understand me at all. My life is not about enjoyment. My life is about service to God. I think I’ve been distracted lately. I think I’ve forgotten a little bit of who I am. I need to (more erasing) get back to being myself and I don’t think I can do that if we keep seeing each other. I’m sorry. I’m sorry if this hurts you. I know your life is going to be very busy and successful. I hope you remember me and some of the things we did and talked about. Please don’t try to see me or talk to me about this. I know this is the best thing for me. Love, (very many erasures) Amy I swear there were dried tearstains on the paper. What is it with this girl? I asked myself as I crouched in the restroom stall and pulled up my feet when anyone entered. What is it and why do I care? I can get dates, for God's sake, and there are a lot of intelligent, sensitive girls out there who are not Melanie Horvath and with whom I can have a perfectly happy and fulfilling relationship. So why does it hurt so much?

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I was unlikely to find an answer in the john, so I folded the letter carefully and went back to class, avoiding any eye contact with Amy. For the rest of the week we managed to keep from bumping into each other until Friday afternoon finally, mercifully arrived. I rocketed out of the building, drove home like a psycho, and took my frustrations out on Chewy, chasing her around the yard and through the house until she begged for mercy. Then I chased her some more. Enough crazy girls, my mind screamed, and I scarfed a huge dinner and fled up to my bedroom with a handful of paperbacks that I’d read a hundred times before. I devoured them mindlessly, thoughtlessly, until I finally fell asleep, fully clothed, bringing the week to a merciful close. Bug and I were scheduled to appear at a basketball "camp" on Saturday. The camp was held in the parking lot of a local grocery chain’s new location. (What a coincidence, I thought.) Bobby Randall's Dad is somebody important in the store's executive ranks and Bobby asked us to show up as a favor, so we spent the morning trying to teach six and seven year olds how to dribble and shoot a ball that was about half as big as they were. Given that the store paid for all our food and beverages, it could have been worse. Near the end of the morning session, I was kneeling on the concrete, helping a little guy tie his Nike's, when a large cloud covered the sun. Looking up I beheld the forbidding countenance of none other then Krystofer Hunter, staring down at me with a strange

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expression on his pale face. After a minute's reflection I decided that the expression must be, in his universe, what passes for a grin. "Finally found someone you can beat?" he asked, continuing to "grin." (I believe this was the first time I ever heard him speak more than three words consecutively.) "Yeah, I heard this guy's going to be starting for Central next year," I responded, and his grin widened. We actually conversed for a few minutes - he said he'd seen an ad in the paper for our camp (he actually used the term without irony, scoring a sportsmanship point) and decided to check it out. I asked him if he'd been playing any ball. He gave me a strange look. "I don’t live near a court." (It didn’t strike me until afterward how peculiar that response really was. Who doesn’t live near a basketball court?) On a whim, I told him about our weekend homeboy sessions and he said he'd maybe look us up. I bent down to detach another six year old from my leg and by the time I straightened up he was gone, as if the ground had swallowed him. I glanced over at Bug, who had witnessed our meeting without being able to hear the conversation. He gave me a raised eyebrow; I gave him back a shrug and we returned to our midgets. Sunday afternoon, after the inevitable, endless church service, after roast chicken and mashed potatoes, after Mom and Dad headed upstairs for their "nap," I had just gotten set in front of the tube for an

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afternoon of baseball when the phone rang. Chewy yelled for me to pick up; my heart beat a little faster, hoping it might be Amy, hoping that a goodly dose of African religious passion had generated memories that would bring me back into her universe. But it was her sister, Jennifer, instead. This is odd, I thought. She wanted to know if we could meet for coffee. This is very odd, I thought redundantly, but I gave her the address of a local fast food joint, told Chewy to tell the old folks I'd be out for a while, and folded myself into the VW to go see what was up. I rolled into the BK parking lot, looking around for any sign of the goddess, unsure of the protocol, unsure of the mission, completely, totally unsure that I wanted to be there at all. But, while I pondered, a forest green BMW convertible pulled up beside me and it was too late to retreat. Climbing out of my battered Bug I watched Jennifer emerge from her Beemer and thought again about what Amy had said. There was a lot of truth there, I realized, as I felt a familiar shortness of breath caused by the sheer unearthly loveliness of her sister. I'm not sure what combination of ingredients have to come together to create a package like Jennifer, but it's like nothing I've ever experienced with anyone else and I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like to grow up in her shadow. Which was, as it turned out, what Jennifer wanted to talk about. As we sat over Cokes and fries I realized that Amy had been exactly right

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when she described her sister as generous and kind. Jennifer was all of that, and more, and she was deeply concerned about her sister and trying to see if she could figure out what had gone wrong and why Amy had suddenly become even more of a hermit. "She was doing so well," Jennifer said, staring hard into my eyes. "She's always been so… different, and we love her and she's a wonderful person, but we always wondered if she was really happy and if she would ever have any friends. Then all of a sudden she not only had a friend but we'd hear her walking around humming, for God's sake, actually humming, and we thought, me and Mom, anyway, that maybe she'd even come out of there, and maybe she'd … maybe she'd…" Her words trailed off and she looked down and I thought I saw her quickly brush away a tear. "We thought maybe she'd come back to us," Jennifer said as her tears began to flow in earnest. I sat there, as awkwardly as was possible, redefining awkward, actually, but Jennifer composed herself pretty quickly, wiped her eyes, and gave me a small smile. "I know it isn't fair," she said, "to lay all this on you, but it kills us to see her coming home from school and scurrying back into her room like she used to. I thought maybe you could tell me what happened, what you did…"

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She caught herself up short and stopped talking. I knew she hadn't meant to accuse me but what else would they think? I must have done something to Amy to make her so unhappy. "I asked her," I told Jennifer, quietly, "why she hid herself from everybody. She chose to take offense." I stated it again "She chose to take offense." "What do you mean?" Jennifer asked, honestly puzzled. "Amy and I were becoming friends," I said, "real friends. I think it scared her." She sat quietly for a few minutes, thinking. "So…" she asked, searching for the right words, "so what do you do now?" "I don't do anything," I said. "It's Amy's choice. She knows how I feel. I didn't ask her to do anything differently, to change anything, to be anybody different. I only asked her why." Jennifer stared out into the parking lot for a minute or two, then looked back at me, a new note in her eyes, maybe a bit of a challenge. "So what did you see in Amy? I mean, ‘friends’ is one thing - we might have expected Amy to have a friend at some point, but Mr. Basketball? With Amy? You gotta admit," and a slightly sarcastic grin followed, with a hint of sexual tension, "it's a little…unlikely." "Maybe. If you're only looking at the surface," I answered, putting her down, just a bit, answering her challenge with one of my own.

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The warmth came back into her eyes and the momentary tension vanished. "Touché," she said, with a smile, and got up to leave. We walked to the parking lot together and she turned to me and told me she hoped they would see me again, at the house. "Me, too," I said. "Me, too. She drove away and I watched her until she disappeared.

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TWENTY-ONE

I guess I half expected my talk with Jennifer to change something, to shake Amy loose a little bit, but whether or not Jennifer ever talked to her, whether she told her anything about our meeting, I do not know because Amy was just as far away from me, geographically and emotionally, as ever the next week. She never looked at me during class, never stole a glance, and, if we did happen to pass in the hall she simply moved forward behind her cloud of hair, refusing to move a follicle in my direction. Bug noticed that I had changed, or that my mood had darkened, or something, but I brushed off his inquiries. Some things are too private for even the best of friends. Best of friends we are, however, and Saturday came, as it almost always does on the weekend, and we rolled across town in anticipation of drowning our preoccupations in a few hours of hoops. Nearing the park, I found my pulse quickening when we saw a big crowd gathered around

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the courts. Crowds are not good, not in this neighborhood, and coming up on the game we saw once again that battle lines had been drawn. Chief Szabo and his acolytes lined one side of the court while Mr. Big and his soldiers patrolled the other. In the middle, D and Jason had everything they could handle against two warriors who were, obviously, carrying Szabo's colors into battle against them. The game was fierce and deadly. D slashed toward the basket and was repeatedly denied access with hard body checks. Jason patrolled the perimeter so D could dish it out to him for long jumpers, which fell often enough to keep the game close. The two opposing factions were glued to the action; once one of Szabo's lieutenants tried to say something to him at a critical juncture and the chieftain lashed out with a backhand to the jaw. The other acolytes closed ranks in front of their wounded cohort and no one said a word to their leader again. They still leaped to light his smokes, of course, but avoided eye contact or any semblance of conversation. Finally, after a number of lead changes, with the score tied, D and Jason combined on a beautiful pick and roll that left the defense open long enough for a master jam by D. On the ensuing possession Jason capitalized on a momentary loss of concentration and whipped a bounce pass through his opponent’s legs. Gathering the rock in his massive right hand, D windmilled the winning slam. As it settled through the hoop the African contingent moved onto the court en masse, shielding their

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champions from retaliation. Big stood in front of Szabo. They were about the same height and exuded almost the exact same sense of menace, but I would have picked Szabo in a fair fight ten times out of ten. He stood there, deep in enemy territory, on the losing end once more, without a trace of fear, as if it were he who owned the neighborhood and not his bulky counterpart. He reached behind him and snapped his fingers. A titanic wad of cash was quickly placed in his hand. He held it in Big's face and laughed. "This, Mr. Maricon, (and, luckily for all of us, no one understood the term until we looked it up, much later) this is…. nothing." He let a few bills fall through his fingers onto the ground. Watching the African troops greedy stares as they followed the fluttering tens and twenties to the ground, I began to understand, for the first time, the power of money in that neighborhood. Money and respect, not necessarily in that order. Szabo whipped around before Big could muster a response and the 'Spanic army marched quickly away. The bills lay scattered on the ground as Big stood and stared after the departing enemy. I thought I could read a great weariness in his face, tough as it was, but he simply motioned for his lieutenants to pick up the cash and they disappeared, leaving me and Bug alone with Jason and D and a few regulars. I looked at D, trying to calculate his attitude, but he seemed fine, upbeat even, as he twirled the ball on the end of his finger and said "Yo,

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schoolboy, you see me dog that unfortunate individual?" We laughed and settled into our usual rhythm. Halfway through the afternoon I paused mid-game when I saw none other than Krys Hunter, Mr. Mountain himself, watching us from behind the chain link barrier. Staring at the court, mentally inserting himself into the action, he leaned into the wire until it came close to snapping. We finished up a close loss and I walked over to say hello. Krystofer nodded and said, “Thought I better take you up on your offer. Wanna take a turn with me?” I glanced at Bug, who was getting a little gassed anyway. Grinning, he slumped to the ground and said, “OK, dude, but don’t be giving away all our secrets.” And, simply as that, Krystofer Hunter and I took the court together…and discovered a New World. My primary strength as a ball player is running the game. I'm a very good shooter and get my share of rebounds, but what I do best is figure out who has the best chance to score and then get the ball to them. That process, the getting the ball to them, involves a pretty serious amount of mental calculation. You don't, you see, throw the ball to a person. You throw the ball to a place. If you imagine someone standing right in front of you, facing you, their delivery zone will extend from the lowest point they could catch a ball, at about knee level, to the widest point on each side they

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could catch a pass, to the highest point of their vertical jump, the maximum extension of their arms. Obviously taller guys have a bigger zone. Now imagine someone trying to guard that person and prevent him from receiving the ball. The defensive guy, of course, has his own reception zone that I have to calculate simultaneously. Now imagine both guys in motion and what that does to their zones. Then superimpose the other seven guys on the court and their patterns of motion and you begin to see the trigonometry that comes into play when you're running the team. When I throw a pass, I aim for a spot in front of the intended recipient in anticipation that the ball is going to arrive in an area in which his reception zone is free of interference. It's kind of tricky. Unless you're playing with Krystofer Hunter. Because Krystofer, as it turned out, is all zone. I couldn't throw a pass he couldn't catch and every catch turned into a basket. Early on I underestimated his speed and threw an alley-oop that went way behind him as he leaped toward the rim. But, in mid-air, one enormous arm reached back, far back behind his head, and intercepted the ball and brought it forward and through the rim in one gigantic motion. D broke down laughing on the sideline and Bug, thinking perhaps of next year's Central games, turned a violent shade of orange. We played two sets together, decimated, absolutely annihilated the competition, before Krystofer tossed me the ball and said he had to be getting home. He

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trotted off into the distance, leaving a stunned group of homeboys and schoolboys behind. "Who be's that masked man?" D whispered, ultra-vernacularly. "A superhero," I shrugged. "Just your average, everyday superhero." We drove home quietly and I lay in a hot bath that evening, praying that Central's other basketball players would develop a sudden interest in wrestling over the summer. Even then, I thought, even then we'd have a tough time.

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TWENTY- TWO

Finally one day, on a Thursday, the school year reached its long overdue conclusion. The year seemed to have stretched out, especially since basketball season ended, into decades, eons. I'm sure loneliness had something to do with it. I know it's not cool to say you're lonely and I know I have no end of family and friends and people to hang out with, but as the weeks wound down and as I failed to see even a glimmer of familiarity from Amy, I found myself, over and over again, sitting in my bedroom late at night, trying to read, stumbling over the same paragraphs while unwanted images played in my mind. I'm still an adolescent, I know, even though the grownup world keeps trying to convince me otherwise, and I can't step away from an emotional issue and deal with it logically. I know there are other girls and I know, by any objective standards, that Amy is different and weird and that she shouldn't have had the effect on me that she did, but none of

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that matters. I miss her and it hurts. And I would like to have her back, as a friend, as whatever, just so I don't look across the classroom and see her huddled there under her hair and know that we're not going to see each other or talk or laugh together again. But, at the same time, I said my piece and I'm sticking to it. I think Amy's scared of the real world and I think she uses her obsession with surfaces to protect herself from life. And I know that she means what she says and that she's totally into her personal religious experience and, hey, maybe Joan-of-Arc had disappointed boyfriends, too. On the other hand, maybe Amy isn’t Joan-of-Arc. Maybe she's just a frightened adolescent trying to find her way, just like me, just like everybody else. So there you have it. The final bell rang and my classmates ran whooping down the hallways. On my way out I made a point of walking past Amy's locker. She was gathering her stuff and cramming it in a backpack, bent down, hair falling all around her shoulders and I stood there for a few seconds, watching, until she became aware of a lurking presence and froze. "I just wanted to say, 'Happy Summer,'" I said, "I hope you have a good summer." She stayed there for a minute or two, silent, and then, briefly, looked up and I think - I've replayed it a hundred times already - I think there was a hint of real emotion in her voice as she quietly said, "You, too, Stuart. You have a good summer, too."

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She looked back down and resumed her locker cleanup and I moved away, down the hall and out the door and it was summer. Whoopde-doo. My parents are, if I haven't given that impression, actually very cool in a number of ways. They don't try to listen to my music or pretend to be my buddy or get involved in my love life. They do try to make things as easy for me as they can, usually. I honestly think they remember that being a teenager deeply sucks in many, many dimensions and they try to limit the pressure. They do not, for instance, require, or even encourage, me to work during the summer. I mow the lawn and help cart Chewy around and every once in a while, in addition to my twenty-buck a week allowance, my Dad will lay a little extra dough on me. Mostly they feel that summer, for kids, is designed for fun and they get out of the way and allow me to have a good time. This summer, fun meant basketball. Non-stop, ten, twelve hours a day. Bug would roll up at eight and we'd jump in my car and head for the neighborhood. (Coach encourages our teammates to enroll in summer basketball camps to improve their basic skills, while Bug and I visit the other side of town to learn to improvise – the classical versus jazz approach, if you will, all coming together when the season rolls around.) D and Jason were there, often as not, with the usual group of players and groupies and we'd go two-on-two until late afternoon. We're not pretenders, homeboy wannabes - neither Bug nor I have any

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illusions about the size of the gap between us and our fellow roundballers, but we play the Game together, very well. And that's all we do - play the Game. Then evening rolls around and we head back to our reality and they stay in theirs. We don't attach a value to it. We just play basketball. I wonder sometimes what the homeboys talk about when we’re gone. I know that there’s a dividing line and that we bump up against it on occasion. But I honestly feel a kind of acceptance from D and his crew that goes beyond mere basketball. I think they know, whether or not they actually spend any time consciously thinking about it, that we value their companionship and the way they live their lives. They know we have respect. It matters – to them, and to us.

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TWENTY- THREE

We travelled cross-town peacefully for two or three summer weeks without any sign of Szabo and the Hispanic gang. I guess we assumed they had been vanquished. Neither of us felt comfortable asking D or Jason, like it's really none of our business, so we just played ball and more or less forgot about the whole issue. Sometimes Krystofer would show up and play a set or two while Bug sat out. He never said much – he’d just show, out of nowhere, play a while, and then disappear. He and I began to develop a rhythm that made us even more deadly. I learned his fakes and his speed while he learned my moves and the timing of my passes. We were untouchable - often unscored upon, but no one seemed to mind. On that playground guys appreciate the purity of skills that great players bring to the table. Even in the 20-0 blowouts we regularly ran up on opposing teams you would see stuff you'd never seen before and guys would learn new elements to their

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games that paid off when the giant had gone on his way. Bug would watch, enraptured, as Krystofer soared above the basket for massive dunks and travelled from midcourt to the hoop at supernatural speeds for blocks. It was magic, and it made the emptiness of my time away from the courts more bearable. One slow Tuesday afternoon, watching Krystofer jog away from the court, Bug posed a question that I had idly considered myself from time to time. “Where does he come from?” Bug wrinkled his nose and pondered, as though the secrets of the universe were at issue. “And where does he go?” I suppose the basic mystery of Krys Hunter had kind of gotten lost in the chaos of the basketball tournament and had slid further down the priority chart once we didn’t have to think of playing him any more. But now, with his occasional presence on our homeboy court, it occurred to all of us how unlikely it was that someone with his talent could have suddenly appeared out of nowhere at Central High. Basketball players on his level are tracked through national sports radar as though they were incoming missiles. A Krys Hunter can put any school on the national bball map. We speculated idly for a few minutes, with D posing the thought that Hunter might indeed be a superhero.

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“Like from Krypton,” he said with enthusiasm. “Like maybe his planet got destroyed and this is where he landed.” “I’m sure that’s it,” I answered, with maybe a little too much sarcasm, because D proceeded to kill me in the next 2-on-2. “Nobody be mistaking you for a superhero,” D taunted as we toweled off. I grinned and grabbed Bug and headed for home. Later that night Bug used his miraculous touch with computers to hack into the Central High administrative database. We wanted to see if we could gather any information about our prospective nemesis, friendly though he might be out of season. Peering over Bug’s shoulder, I watched Krystofer’s file come up on the screen. It listed a home address on the west side of town; a single parent’s name (Thomas Hunter), and very little else. The previous address line was blank. Bug attempted to tap into the grade files, but even his skills were insufficient to the task. The only other information we could gather was in the medical file. It listed the dates and durations of his absences from school. Beginning with his arrival in January, he had missed two or three days of classes each month of the remaining school year. “Look,” Bug said, pointing his finger at the screen, “What do you make of that?” Given that I had no idea what he was referring to, which was not unusual vis a vis me, Bug, and the computer, I made my usual yeah-Iknow-what-you-mean grunt.

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“Here,” Bug, unfooled, tapped on the screen in four different places. “He’s out the same time every month.” Sure enough, all of his absences occurred almost exactly one month apart, give or take a day. “Maybe he’s in the National Guard or something,” Bug pondered. “They don’t take high school kids,” I said, “or if they do, they don’t make them take time off every month. “Maybe he’s on parole…” “Or having his period,” Bug interrupted and the thought, juvenile though it was, convulsed us in laughter as we switched off the computer and settled on the couch to watch an old horror movie. Some things in life are just destined to remain unknown, I figured. So be it. Life rolled on. I returned from b-ball a couple days later to find a letter waiting – from Amy. I had, intentionally, been so busy playing ball, wearing myself out each day and sinking instantly to sleep at night that thoughts of Amy had been pushed down into my subconscious. I stood in the kitchen, gripping the envelope tightly, half tempted to throw it straight in the garbage. I didn’t need this, I figured. Things were okay. I walked to my room and closed the door behind me. Sitting on the bed, holding the letter, my Amy-images came back again, as strong as ever. I looked down and realized that my hands were shaking. This is

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nuts, I thought and ripped the envelope open. On a single page, in her graceful, sloping hand, was written: Dear Stuart, Greetings from Camp Quiet. I wish I could share with you how peaceful it is sitting here in the sunlight next to an old oak tree, with a little stream flowing by. I remember telling you how much I loved the solitude here, how I can sit here for as long as I want and no one will bother me or tell me what I should be doing. I think about you a lot and about our last conversation. I wish I could take it all back, everything you said and everything I said. I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. But you did. I’m not the way I am by accident. I believe in myself. But I don’t think I believed enough in you. We should have been able to talk about things. I shouldn’t have turned away. I hope we can see each other when I get back from camp at the end of the summer.

Love, Amy

Okay, my heart soared. I know exactly how corny that sounds. I don’t care.

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TWENTY- FOUR

Eventually there came a morning when we rolled up on the b-ball court and saw, once again, crowds gathered on either side. The 'Spanic contingent seemed to have grown. In an ominous sign, it now incorporated a few African faces on its outer edges. The opposing army, despite the massive presence of Big and the almost equal size of his top lieutenants, seemed to have diminished, outweighed more by the overt viciousness of Szabo's boys than by actual numbers. For all the time I had been coming here, knowing that there were guys in the neighborhood with a dangerous lifestyle, I had never felt threatened. I had never felt that anyone enjoyed the violence that was woven into the neighborhood. It was there, and they dealt with it, but I never felt that they went looking for it. Maybe I was naïve, maybe stupid, but years of familiarity gave me some right to that opinion.

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Now everything had changed. Now, with the gangs gathered on either side of the courts while four guys in the middle played out a ballet of violence, basketball had become blood sport. You could see the pleasure on Szabo's face when D or Jason went crashing to the concrete. You could see an equal satisfaction in Big's eyes when his guys retaliated. It was not a pleasure to watch and there was no purity to their game. They were at war. It is not a spectator sport. On this day, once again, D and Jason emerged barely victorious and Szabo once again threw some bills on the ground at Big's feet. But this time the 'Spanics didn't drift away. They stayed there, on their side of the court and passed around a bottle and openly fired up their joints. They were, by their presence, taunting Big to try to move them out and Big, at least today, was not going to take the challenge. He and his troops staked out their turf on the other side of the court and broke out their bottles and smokes and there the lines were drawn while Bug and I shrank into the background and prepared to retreat. We had almost reached the street, heading for my car, when a hand fell on my shoulder. I turned and looked directly into my own reflection, bouncing off the metallic coating on the sunglasses of the jefe himself, Chief Szabo. He stood in front of me, almost my height, wider, infinitely tougher, and smiled, though the dictionary definition of smile doesn't come close, within a universe, to describing his version of the facial expression.

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"Yo, white dude," he smirked, "thought you and your little buddy going to show us some hoops (hissed the last word, really). Thought you going to show us how to play (ditto)." Quickly, three or four of his lieutenants materialized behind him. I stood there a minute, paralyzed inside, but if you learn anything in sports, in high-pressure situations, you learn never, ever to let your opponent see your fear. So I stared directly back into his stare, into my own reflection, and said "No one here worth playing today, with D and Jason all tired out from kicking ass." I held the gaze while he let the sunglasses fall down his nose and I found myself staring into his eyes - cold, cold, yellow eyes, cat-eyes, devil-eyes, eyes that bored into me and made me wish, with every fiber of my being, that I could dematerialize and pop up back in my bedroom and never leave my house again. "You got a really big mouth, Maricon, (I knew what it meant, by now)" he hissed. "Maybe we make it a little bigger for you." His lieutenants moved closer and he began to reach into his back pocket as a shadow covered the sun and a familiar voice came from behind me. "I got your back, Stuart," it said, calmly, as Krystofer Hunter moved me aside and stood, towered, in front of Szabo. The 'Spanic chieftain moved back a step, refusing to raise his head to meet

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Krystofer's gaze. He looked over at me, yellow eyes carving his initials in my retinas, said, softly "See you later, puta," and disappeared. Krystofer clapped me on the shoulder and told me, in the future, I might want to be a little more careful how much of a smartass to be around someone who would happily tattoo his calling card on my chest. I wholeheartedly agreed and we walked back to the courts where, having seen the 'Spanics vacate, Big and his gang had chosen to do likewise. There was no sign of D and Jason, either, so Krystofer and Bug and I played some half-hearted two-on-one before deciding, mutually, that maybe we'd had enough excitement for one day. As Krystofer turned to leave I held out my hand and said, simply, "Thank you." He looked at my outstretched hand for a few seconds before extending his own. He stared at me as we shook, with his curious, peaceful gaze, and said, "You sure you really want to keep coming around here?" "I've always come around here” "Times change," he said. "I'm not going to let them scare me away." "Be the smart thing to do," Krystofer said, in his deep, slow voice, a voice that always seemed a little off, somehow, because you expected it to have an accent and it didn't, "be the really smart thing to do, at least for awhile."

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I considered his opinion for a few seconds, showing respect, but stalling while I turned something over in my mind, trying to get at a nagging feeling that I couldn’t quite put into words. "How did you know about this?" I asked him, tentatively, as the feeling coalesced into a clear memory of his tone of voice when he addressed me in front of Szabo, a strange familiarity in his tone that seemed out of place, given his relative lack of time in the ‘hood. "This?" "The whole thing…" I said, "Szabo… the gangs?" "I know," he replied, quietly, but with an absolute certainty. "I know they’re not going to be finished 'til they're finished. I know they won't let anybody stand in their way." "You know Szabo?" I asked. He paused for a long beat before answering. "I know the type." What does that mean? I wondered, but lacking a ready way to ask, decided on a more obvious question. "So what does he want?" I asked. Krystofer was quiet for a long minute before he answered. "He wants everything. “All of it." We stood there, under the lowering sun, as his words echoed in our minds. I looked up at the strange giant who had suddenly, somehow,

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become my protector. Feeling that I may have gotten into something way over my head, baffled more than ever by Krystofer Hunter, I took a mental step back and settled for an affirmative nod. I told him I'd be more careful in the future. "That's good," he said and turned and jogged off. Bug and I rode home in silence, neither of us knowing what to say. We both had too many questions and too few answers. I dropped him off and went home, pulled on my running shoes and did ten miles at a suicidal pace until the endorphins released and I self-tranquilized myself into some sense of composure. The start of another school year suddenly seemed too far away.

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TWENTY- FIVE

After that, summer took on a different feel. Bug and I still played ball, but he started showing up later and later each morning. We would drive slowly across town and approach the courts with caution, looking for signs of gang infestation. Our game deteriorated, as the hovering sense of uncertainty, the latent violence that seemed to permeate the atmosphere, made it impossible to get into a rhythm. After a particularly sloppy loss one day D pulled me aside and asked what was up. "Dunno, man, just maybe getting a little tired, I guess." "Tired…of b-ball? You?" he scoffed. "I don' think so, man, I think maybe you feelin' foreign these days, you think?" D squinted into the sun to catch my reaction. "Foreign?" I let the concept roll around in my mind. "Maybe," I said, "maybe you're right."

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"Well, dog," D answered, "maybe you get some idea how it feels, you know?" Maybe I did. Things improved a bit as two weeks went by without any sign of Szabo and his minions, but it began to seem, though no one took a head count, or called roll, that there were extra bodies around, one or two guys, hanging on, not playing, not socializing, not doing anything but hanging out, only with a purpose. Often, from the corner of my eye, I would catch one of them staring at me. When I’d look at him directly, he would hold the look, hard, until I went back to the game. It kept me on edge and robbed most of the pleasure from the competition. Bug and I missed a few days at the end of July when he invited me up to their summer cottage on the lake for a week. I got back to town feeling rested, relaxed and ready for the last month of summer - until the first day we ventured back across town. Once again there was a crowd, but the explicit division of the gangs had disappeared and Hispanics roamed the courts at will, mingling with the regulars. Szabo sat a few yards away, surrounded by his aides and their women, passing bottles, keeping an eye on the scene. There were quite a few of the regulars around and several guys I recognized as Big's top lieutenants, but of The Man, himself, there was no sign. D lurked on the edges, looking graver, more serious than I'd ever seen him. He noticed us and quickly walked over to warn us off.

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"Best to hang loose," he said. "Maybe peel out, if you can." "What's up?" I queried. "Szabo and his group been on the scene for two days now. No sign of Big. Neighborhood be buzzing that Szabo offed him, somehow. Big's posse been stormin' the projects, tryin' to get the word. But there’s no word, man, no word and nobody talkin’." On center court a furious game was in progress. I asked D whose side the players were on. "They no sides right now, dog, 'cept your own side. Szabo making teams up, placin' bets. Loser gets stomped, most likely." Jason came over, whispered something to D. "Szabo want us up next, dog," D warned me. "Best be makin' tracks before he want you." I grabbed Bug by the arm but before we could hurry back to the car two large brown bodies interposed themselves in front of us. I looked at them, big, strong Szabo-wannabes, losers, criminals most likely and remembered telling D how foreign I felt. Time to go, I thought, once and for all. I started to brush past them but a hand locked onto my forearm in a death grip. I looked at its owner, looked into his hard brown eyes, into a pool of violence, and told him to let go, now. He looked back at me for what seemed like an hour. He let go of my arm and said that Szabo would appreciate the honor of my company.

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Three more 'Spanics formed behind us and we were ushered into the presence of The Man, Chief Szabo. He leaned back on the fender of an old, beautifully maintained lowrider, gazing at us, I think, from behind the mirrored lenses. He was wearing a leather vest, tight blue jeans, his headband, and heavy motorcycle boots. I could see him, somehow, as an ancient barbarian prince, a savage to whom civilized notions of behavior, of manners and laws and rules, were irrelevant. They were neither accepted nor acknowledged. He was his own law, fully in command, it seemed, even though I believe his troops were still outnumbered. I had no idea what I was doing standing in front of him. "Where's your dog?" he asked me abruptly, biting off the words as though they offended him. I stared back in total non-comprehension, utterly clueless. "Your dog, puta!" he spat. "Your big ugly maricon of a dog." "He means me," a voice rumbled behind me and I turned, once again, to find Krystofer Hunter, guarding the flank. How he had arrived, where he had come from and how he managed to materialize from nowhere I never understood, then or later. Szabo stared at me, then turned to look up at Krystofer. "This is not your place," he stated. "This is mine." "And this is mine," Krystofer countered, putting one hand on my shoulder and the other on Bug's. I was completely lost. I glanced at Bug

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and saw a face white with fear. I hoped my own was a little less transparent, but I knew that, in all honesty, I was just as afraid. Szabo lowered his sunglasses slowly and he and Krystofer stared at each other, two forces of nature seeming once again to share some kind of inexplicable familiarity. In a near-hallucinatory state I watched them, seeing Szabo’s yellow eyes spark with electricity while Krystofer’s eyes swirled with streaks of silver and a pinpoint of red seemed to pulse at the center of his pupils. Finally, still maintaining eye contact, Krystofer gently guided us back through the gathered throng and escorted us to my car. "I told you not to come back," he said, quietly. "There is nothing left for you here." "But…” I started to protest. He cut me off by holding a very large finger to his lips. "Shhhh" he said softly. “There is nothing for you here. Let nature take its course. I can't protect you every time. You’re challenging Szabo two white boys encroaching on his turf." "It's not his turf," I said. "Soon…." Krystofer replied, gazing back at the group surrounding Szabo. "very, very soon…" I started to get into the car, but Krystofer took my shoulder and squeezed it until I looked up at him.

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"I know how you feel," he said. "I know how you feel. But promise me one thing…” His hand tightened painfully and his eyes narrowed with intensity. “Promise me you won't come back here next week." "What's next week?” I asked, wondering if he had some foreknowledge of a pending showdown. "I've bailed you twice," he answered, pointedly not answering my question. "I know you have history here. I can’t keep you away. But you have to do this one thing for me. Promise me you won't come here next week." I looked into his eyes, paler than ever but, somehow, glowing with intensity. I shrugged - it was little enough, I thought, and he had been the mighty force that kept us from being reassembled into a loose collection of spare body parts. Whatever his weird reason, I owed him something. "Okay," I said. "It's a deal." He gave me a fractional smile and a nod of acceptance before he turned and melted into the crowd. I fired up the car. Bug and I drove home, as fast as the old VW could manage, almost hoping to be stopped by a cruising cop. A visible demonstration of law enforcement would have been a blessing.

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TWENTY- SIX

So Bug and I stayed home. We lazed around, occasionally shot a few hoops in my backyard, but we're not really compatible, in the oneon-one sense, so we end up playing H-O-R-S-E or Around the World and boring ourselves silly. On Tuesday afternoon we drove over to a park where some of our teammates hung out but the action was slow and tame. We felt out of place and left after a couple of easy wins. We watched DVDs, played videogames, and talked about college. By Friday we were so bored that we drove to the local fishing hole and rented a rowboat. After plowing out to the middle of the lake, we sat there aimlessly, irritating the living crap out of each other and providing an amusing show for the fish. Dateless, b-ball-less, there didn't seem to be any real point to our existence. I picked up the phone one evening and punched the first six numbers of Amy's number, wondering if she was back from camp, rehearsing a casual, "just wanted to see how your

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summer was going speech" but it rang so false in my mind that I dropped the receiver and turned back to my book and my boredom. One more month, I thought, and I can get back to school. On Saturday afternoon I was sitting in the rec room, our fancy family name for a basement with a ping-pong table and an old TV, when I heard the doorbell ring. A few seconds later my mom called down the stairs, (an odd tone in her voice that told me it was something more than just Bug looking for a free lunch,) to tell me I had a visitor. I rolled up the stairs and out to the porch and found D, standing in front of a car loaded with homeboys, serious homeboys, Big-type homeboys, all of them staring at me and looking drastic. D had never, to the best of my knowledge, set foot in our end of town, much less in my neighborhood, and it was obvious from the look in his dark eyes, from the tension pouring out of the car, that an event had occurred. "He got Jason," D blurted as I approached the car. "Szabo…" the word spit out as the foulest obscenity. "He got Jason," he repeated and, while a million thoughts ran through my head, foremost among them, selfishly, was “What does it have to do with me?” I didn't have long to wait. D clutched my arm, moved right up into my face, and whispered, "He got Jason and he don't going to give him back unless you play against his guys… today"

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I stepped back, involuntarily, thinking - thinking nothing much at all except “No way, buddy. No way.” But D gripped my arm harder and pulled me back, still whispering (in case my Mom was eavesdropping, I’m sure), with tears of fury, of pain, of something unspeakable in his voice, "He sent us his finger, man. He sent us his finger." My mind stuttered and came to a stop. I staggered backward down the sidewalk and sat on the porch with my head in my hands, images of Jason pouring through my memory, of our hundreds of duels in the sun, of his skill and spirit, of those marvelous hands that could make a basketball talk. "You got to come, dog," D said. "We got your back, man," he assured me, motioning at the carload of heavy-duty homeboys. "You just got to win." "You may have my back, D, but how do you know Szabo's going to do what he says if we play?" "He has to, man. It's the rules. He the devil, but he pay his dues." I needed Bug, I knew. There was no way I could play with anyone else and have a chance to beat Szabo's guys. He'd been importing progressively tougher players every time he showed. I could imagine what he'd bring tonight. I couldn't imagine why he wanted me. But I also couldn't get the image of Jason out of my head. My Dad talks a lot about

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duty. This pretty much seemed like the dictionary definition. I told D I’d try to get Bug and meet him at the courts in an hour. Bug wasn’t so sure. “We got to call the police, Stuart,” he said, blinking frantically. “And tell them what? Even if they believe us and send someone over there, no one will talk to them and Jason will be screwed.” “So it’s better that we get screwed instead?” Bug wanted to know. It was hard to argue, but I dug in and told him we owed it to D and Jason. After a lengthy silence Bug broke the logjam. “We got to get Krystofer Hunter,” he said. “If we bring him, at least we’ll have somebody on our side.” I thought it was a brilliant idea, but reminded Bug that Krys had made us promise not to go across town to play ball this weekend. “He’ll understand when we tell him what happened,” Bug said. I wasn’t so sure, but didn’t see that we had another option. We’d made a note of Krys’s address when we’d hacked his student file. Rummaging through my desk, I found where we’d jotted it down. After a quick stop on Mapquest, we jumped into the VW and headed west, out of our peaceful middle-class neighborhood and into the industrial side of town. Out of our element, trying to follow the Mapquest directions, we passed warehouses and boarded–up factories, empty car lots and burned-out houses.

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“You sure we’re going in the right direction?” I asked. Bug rechecked the route and gave me a grim nod. After a couple more wrong turns, we found the right street and drove slowly along, past a row of sagging old houses, yards littered with toys and empty beer cans, looking for the right number. At the end of the last block, sitting well back from the sidewalk on a large lot, was what looked like the oldest, most decrepit church in the history of organized religion. We backtracked to the previous house and checked its number – 1421. Krys had listed 1423 as his home address and the church was the last building on the street. Bug stared at me, mystified. We stood in the front yard of the church, trying to detect a sign of life inside. The sidewalk leading up to the front door was cracked in a thousand places. The lawn was covered in dandelions and fast food wrappers. Lacking an alternative, I walked up to the front door and banged on it a couple times. When no response was forthcoming, I put my ear to the door. I seemed to hear a faint, rhythmic banging coming from somewhere deep inside the old building. I wondered if maybe someone was working and was unable to hear our knock. “C’mon,” I told Bug, “Let’s see if there’s another door.” He followed me around the front and we tried to work our way through the tangled weeds, vines, and scrub trees that crowded right up to the sides of the building. We came to what looked like an old stained glass window and I reached up and pounded on it as hard as I dared.

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“What do you want?” a sudden, angry voice demanded from just behind us. I whipped around, heart racing. My eyes traveled first to a priest’s collar, and then up to a pair of eyes that shocked me with their familiarity. They were Krys Hunter’s eyes, just as pale, only set in a middle aged face and surrounded by a fringe of hair that might once have been as black as Krys’s but was now snow white. These eyes lacked Krys’s habitual calmness, however. They were hard and pitiless. “What…do…you…want?” he asked again. I stood there like an idiot, speechless, wondering how Krys Hunter’s father could be a priest. He looked back at me, waiting. “Do you know a guy named Krystofer Hunter?” I finally stammered. “We really need to talk to him.” The priest stood there without answering for a long minute. “I can’t help you.” Bug and I stood frozen. “But… this is where he’s supposed to live,” Bug said, anxiety adding an emphasis that had to have connected with the priest. It had to have connected, but he continued to stand there silently. After a few seconds of stalemate he began to turn away. I put out a hand and touched his shoulder, maybe a little more firmly than I had intended. He swung back around.

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“I told you I couldn’t help you,” he repeated, with steel in his voice. “But you don’t understand…” I was pleading now. “Someone has been kidnapped, someone Krys knows. We need his help.” The priest looked back at me without expression, or else concealing his expression – who knew at this point? “I’m very sorry,” he said, without a trace of compassion. “I cannot help you. You have made a mistake.” He turned before I could respond and walked back toward the front of the church. We followed, pushing our way through the underbrush in time to see the front door swing shut behind him. I heard the firm click of a lock immediately afterward. “He has to know who we were talking about,” Bug sputtered. “He looks just like him.” I was in total agreement, but we were helpless in the face of the priest’s rejection. I pounded on the door again, but there was no response. I turned back to Bug. “We’re on our own, dude.” I said. He shrugged. “Then let’s do it.”

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TWENTY- SEVEN

We were close to the playground, but the drive seemed to take forever. Sitting quietly in the seat next to me, Bug’s facial expression had to have mirrored my own. We were scared to death, no use putting any other face on it. This wasn't about foreign gangs duking it out on foreign turf; it was about a guy we knew - a guy without a finger and a drug lord who commanded our presence for his amusement. I prayed then, for deliverance, for mercy, or, at the very least, for Krystofer Hunter to be in his usual spot on the fence, but I also remembered his final words from last week and my promise to stay away and I knew that, whatever he'd meant, it wasn't good. The whole church scene we’d just witnessed mystified me, but, in the short term, it didn’t matter. Either Krys was going to be there, or he wasn’t. Either way we had some work to do. As we approached, we saw crowds of ‘Spanics and Afros streaming toward the court. D saw us arrive and motioned us to a parking spot he

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had saved. He shook our hands, holding the grip an extra beat, giving us a moment of respect and, I think, hope. His posse gathered round and escorted us to center court. Once again, the scene appeared to lack any visible sense of social organization. Every man in attendance, every Afro, every 'Spanic, looked packed, ready for war, but it was impossible to tell who belonged to whom. The one thing I was sure of, scanning the faces and looking high above the assembled heads, was that Krystofer Hunter was nowhere to be seen and that, therefore, we belonged to no one but ourselves. I thought about our last conversation, the intensity in his voice when he made me promise not to come back here this week. I realized he had known that something bad might happen and that he couldn't be here to stop it. I thought about the priest we had just met and I remembered a microscopic flicker in his eye when I’d asked for Krys. There was something going on, I knew, something above and beyond my comprehension, but I also knew that nothing could change the moment. The river was flooding and Bug and I were caught in the current, tumbled along by the flow of events. Szabo stood at mid-court flanked by two tall Afro guys - our prospective opponents, I figured. They reminded me of the Eastport AllStars grown twenty pounds heavier and a hundred times tougher. They each stood about six-eight - Jordan-clones, I figured, full of mad dash. We approached them, with D trailing a couple steps behind, and stood in front of Szabo. I made eye contact. He was smiling.

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"So, putas," he said, softly, with the knife-edge of menace we knew too well, "so our little putas have crawled out of momma's belly to play ball, eh?" Enough of this crap was enough. I pulled the ball he'd been holding out of his grasp and said, "If we're gonna play let's play. But I wanna see Jason first." Szabo drew himself up to his full height, expanding the rippling muscles in his chest, (classic male territorial behavior, I knew Old Loomis would say), but he still had to look up to meet my eyes. He spat, "You don't got to see nothing, man." "Wrong," I told him, quietly, tossing the ball back at him, where it bounced off his chest and had to be retrieved by one of his Jordans. "Show me Jason." We had a staredown, for, I don't know, ten seconds, or minutes, until he gave a bare shrug of his shoulder and the crowd behind him parted to reveal Jason, bare-chested, wearing only a pair of torn gym shorts. Two soldiers held his arms. A bloody bandage covered most of his left hand. He stood tall, shaking with pain and anger, but refusing to let his face give in to the terror he had to be feeling. He looked into my eyes and gave me a short, formal nod of respect. I turned back to Szabo and said, "Let's go."

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TWENTY- EIGHT

Jordan 1 inbounded the ball and threw a quick lob pass to Jordan 2 who was streaking toward the net. He sailed up for a slam and I met him at the apex and threw it back in his face. Bug grabbed the rebound and whipped a pass back to me. I threw up a long jumper that never touched the rim. One-oh and a message had been sent. We retained possession and I dribbled down slowly, aware of what Bug was doing without having to look at him. At the moment I picked up my dribble, he stopped moving, stepped back, and took my pass at his maximum arm extension and immediately pushed a touch pass back in my direction. I'd motored around my guy and took the pass in the air for an easy lay-up, which I never saw land as I was crushed by a flying body block from Jordan number 1. I skidded across the concrete as it sank in that we were playing a death sport here that bore only the most superficial resemblance to basketball. I jumped up and went back to war.

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We couldn't stay with these guys in a running game. If we had been playing full-court, they would have killed us, but half-court offense relies as much on quickness as speed and a really good jump shot counts for a lot more than it does in a regular game. Bug and I could jump shoot with anyone so, despite the fact that these guys racked us at every opportunity, despite the fact that they were infinitely better players than Bug and almost my equal, the game stayed close. Bug and I could play; we knew each other's moves in the middle of the night with our eyes closed; and we were motivated… by fear, by pride, and by the weird sense of tribal bonding that made Jason a brother-in-arms. We played our butts off. The game seesawed for a long time, with every advantage quickly extinguished. They had a brief two-point lead at 18-16, but we stole and hit three quick jumpers and were up 19-18 needing one basket to win and, theoretically at least, bring Jason back home. I stood on the halfcourt line, dribbling slowly, watching Jordan 2 guard Bug closely while Jordan 1 played off me, staying close enough to guard a jumper while half-fronting Bug to prevent a lob pass. I faked a drive left and headed right as hard and fast as I could. Jordan2 blocked Bug into my path with a shove that sent him to his knees and propelled me into the air over him while the ball sailed uselessly into the crowd.

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I glanced at Szabo and saw a broad smile on his face. It was the fear he enjoyed, I realized, not the sport. He fed on it. He didn’t really care who won or lost. He just ate up the fear. He looked over at me, caught me staring, and a new expression came on his face, a hunger. It struck me that we were here, tonight, for one reason. We hadn't shown enough fear. With that realization came the knowledge that it wasn't going to be enough to win, Szabo didn't care if we won and didn't care if he gave Jason back to the homeboys. Szabo was there to make us afraid. I turned back to the game and caught Jordan 2 with a hard kidney shot as he skied for a lay-up. He crouched on the ground, groaning, while I bent down and extended a hand. He took it and let me boost him up. We stood next to each other for another second or two and some silent communication must have passed between us. From that point to the end we just played ball, man-on-man, twoon-two, skill on parade, without the vicious fouling. They began to meld better, as a team, and only an unconscious shooting spell on my part kept them from the two-point lead they needed to take us down. The game stretched out - 23-22 them, 24-23 us, 27-26 them, 27 all, 28-27 them, 28 all, 29-28 us . Each time one team would gain a slight advantage, someone on the other team would pull a miracle out of his guts and catch back up. Bug hit inside, backward lay-ups,

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twisting his thin body like a contortionist, while I shot and blocked and dribbled and made sure we kept the Jordans guarded. At 30-30, with the light beginning to fade, we took a short break and D handed me a water bottle and said, "Just keep going, man." I looked up at him, grinned, and said "Thanks, man. I never thought of that." We went back to work. Unused to playing in the twilight, we found that it changed the visual angles and we suddenly had trouble getting our shots to fall. The Jordans pulled ahead by one and I saved the game with an impossible block from behind that flicked the ball off its intended path and into the crowd. They retained possession and started downcourt, juking and jiving, full of themselves, sensing our discomfort. As Jordan 1, without the ball, faked left and drove towards the basket, a foot slipped out of the crowd and caught Bug as he started to pursue. He skidded to the ground while I watched helplessly as Jordan 2 lofted a perfect lob pass. Jordan 1, unguarded, leaped high, in perfect form, and gathered the pass in both outstretched hands. With an expression of unholy glee on his face he brought the ball back behind his head and propelled it toward the rim for the winning slam.

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TWENTY- NINE

The Bible talks a lot about vanity. All is vanity, says someone named The Preacher, in a verse that has stuck in my mind for years because I never really knew what it meant. Until tonight. As Szabo’s main man sailed toward the win, in perfect Nike form, he couldn’t resist a quick peek over at the crowd to make sure they appreciated his perfection. The sideways glance disturbed his rhythm, by a millimeter or so. As the ball traveled down toward the basket, it came up that much short, catching on the edge of the rim and rebounding high and wide back into the field of play. I elbowed my Jordan aside and grabbed it, cradling it in both arms while a rush of adrenaline pulsed through my body. We had lost. It was over, with all the associated consequences, until this momentary miracle. But, looking up at Bug and seeing the terror in his eyes, I wasn’t sure that we were worth saving.

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I dribbled back slowly, trying to pull him toward me by sheer mental will, but as he stumbled downcourt, Szabo suddenly appeared from the crowd. He stepped across the line and stood in front of Bug, leering at him while he slowly drew his thumb across his throat in the classic street corner throat-cutting gesture. Bug staggered and nearly fell before I got to him. I motioned for a time out (street ball is fairly flexible in this regard) and pulled him away from the crowd. I grabbed his shoulders and demanded, “Look at me. LOOK AT ME.” Lost in terror, Bug was unable to meet my gaze. I held his shoulders with a painful pressure and shook him gently. “Bug,” I told him, in as fierce a tone as I could muster, “it isn’t over. They screwed up. They can’t beat us if we play our game. This is our game, Buddy. They can’t beat us.” I continued this litany for a few seconds until I could sense some animation returning. I grabbed a handful of Bug’s hair and forced him to look me in the eye. “Give me a bench cheer,” I said calmly. He stared at me with dazed incomprehension. “Give…me…a…bench…cheer,” I repeated. He stuttered, “Which one?” “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’ll start…

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“We’re going to fight, all night… “Come ON, Bug,” I prompted, and he began to chant along, in a shaky whisper that gathered strength as we repeated the refrain. ”…all night, with all our might but if our pants, are too tight, or the lights are too bright, we might, not fight, with all our might.” I held him close to me, looking him right in the eye as we chanted it again, and again, louder each time. I have no idea what the assembled crew of fearsome street people must have thought, watching these two crazy white guys screaming nonsense at each other, but I didn’t care. By the time we finished the verse a fourth time I had him back again. I took the ball and motioned Bug to the far side of the court. Nodding that we were ready, I streaked straight toward the basket while Bug ran full speed down the sideline. Half way to the basket I whipped a behind-the-back pass that caught Bug in full stride. He lifted off for the hoop while I dodged past my guy and laid a clean block on Jordan 1. Bug laid the ball gently into the basket and we were tied. At 37-36 them, full dark, the court illuminated now by streetlights, with a blood-red full moon beginning to appear on the horizon, I called Bug over and told him to leave Jordan 2 alone and glue himself to the other guy. I had been watching them play for a couple hours now and fifteen years of basketball experience told me that 2 was beginning to fade. I wanted him to myself because I thought I could break him down.

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I faced up as he began his dribble, looking to pass off. I spidered all over his approach while Bug fronted 1 and kept him from even a glimpse of the ball. 2 faked left, badly, and I stole the ball cleanly, backed up the dribble, and then cut straight by him, pulled up in front of 1 for what he thought was a jumper and passed underneath to Bug, who had already started to leap. The move caught 2 a step behind and we were tied, with the ball. Somewhere in the halls of academia, some geek with too much time on his hands needs to do a study of crowd noise. I swear that a blind man could follow an athletic event by listening to the crowd, the changes in their tone and pitch as events change in the game. In the early stages of the night’s contest the crowd had taken turns reacting to events on the court. Each play would elicit contradictory cries of triumph and insult. As we played on into the night, the sound began to build in a constant wave. Now, as the perception began to grow that the tide had shifted, that momentum had begun to sway, one could hear the ‘Spanic’s tone begin to reflect their anxiety. Shouts of confidence changed to screams of anxiety. Conversely, the Afro crowd began to chant in rhythm, building a deep bass undertone that fueled our confidence. I held the ball while Jordan 1 moved up close, trying to bury me with his long arms the way I'd handled 2. I wasn't trying to move up court, though. I was watching Bug run 2 back and forth across the court, turning, pivoting, racing in and out, calling for the ball, faking

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alley-oops, wearing him down. They reached the far side of the court and Bug suddenly raced back toward me and set a solid pick behind 1. I crossed over on the dribble and powered straight down 2's alley and left him scooping air as I sank a reverse lay-up, grabbed the rebound before it hit the ground, and fired the ball all the way back to Bug, behind the line. Before either Jordan could gather his senses, Bug had launched a half court lob straight toward the basket and I leaped, up into the scarlet moon, caught the ball at full extension, and slammed it down behind me for the winning basket.

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THIRTY

I grabbed Bug and wrapped him in a ferocious bear hug as chaos broke loose around us. My friend, my best friend, I couldn't have loved a brother more - we were spent, exhausted, and we slumped toward the edge of the park as homeboys surrounded us and gave us their promised protection from the gangs that filled the courts. As we moved through the crowd, Jason suddenly appeared in front of us, supported by D. His eyes were a million years old, but he shook himself loose and came up to us and extended a hand, the one without the bandage, and said, simply, "Thank you. I am in your debt." There wasn't much to say in return. We nodded and continued toward the car. I looked back into the melee and somehow, through the skirmishing mob, caught Szabo’s eye. He was looking back over his shoulder as he led his troops away, saving them to fight another day. His eyes, fierce and predatory as ever as he caught me watching him, told me

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more clearly than words that he would never give up until he had seen us crawling at his feet in surrender. By the time we reached the street, the neighborhood had grown suddenly quiet. The battles had ended quickly as the 'Spanics slunk away and just as quickly the homeboy’s mood turned celebratory. They hugged us and slapped us on the back, relived the game as they pressed drinks on us, sodas, actually, though they would have been happy to share their stronger libations, and gave us the full conquering-hero treatment. We were finally able, as our adrenaline levels began to fall, to appreciate the athletic elements of the night, the drama and accomplishment of the game. I didn't think we'd be back, but I had a lot of shared memories with these guys and was in no hurry, with danger past, to head back to Whiteville. So we stayed, and laughed, and wound the night down as the full moon turned golden and ascended toward the top of the sky. Finally, much later, the last of the homeboys drifted away. I pulled Bug to his feet and we made our way, sore muscles aching in protest, to my car. I reached to open the door and found a hard brown hand gripping my wrist, turning me back away from safety. Szabo stood in front of me with a look of unholy triumph in his yellow eyes as four of his lieutenants emerged from the shadows to surround us while he hissed "Nice to see you, putas. It's been a long time."

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Bug turned stark white. His lips trembled and I had to reach out to support him. I tried to gain some space, move away, but Szabo pressed closer, the lieutenants moved with him and we were trapped in their circle as the night turned cold. I looked frantically around for D or Jason, for anyone, but were we all alone. I tried to speak, but words refused to come. Szabo hissed a command. I heard a noise, far in the distance, a strange noise, half scream and half roar. It seemed to be building, growing closer, and I saw Szabo look back over his shoulder, trying to see where it was coming from. He reached into his vest and I saw a thin blade emerge and I saw his eyes staring into mine with the depths of hell at their center. The noise built and took over the sky and ground around us. I saw the blade begin to move and I saw and felt Bug move toward me on my left. From the far recess of my peripheral vision a blinding streak of light appeared, aimed toward Bug’s head. Trying to protect him, I reached across my body and grabbed Bug’s left arm and pulled him toward me, facing me, away from the streak of light - into Szabo’s blade - and I saw the blade - I actually saw the blade enter Bug’s back, before a tremendous explosion hit my skull. I fell to the ground, in slow motion, it seemed, pulling Bug down on top of me. Red specks floated in front of my eyes and then blackness, for just a moment and then there were images, only images…

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My head - expanding, filling with all the pain in the universe as Bug lies on top of me… his eyes, I see his eyes fill with wonder and pain. I feel warmth on my stomach, liquid warmth and the noise, the noise is so loud I can't distinguish it from the pain in my head. Szabo looms over me, knife extended. The knife begins to fall – it is traveling toward my face and I see my life begin to unravel, to shrivel and disappear, but the knife halts, inches in front of my face, as a hand wraps itself around Szabo’s wrist. I see Szabo turn to look over his shoulder and I see a look of fear and horror suddenly appear on his face. I get a brief glimpse of his lieutenants, backs turned, running away. Szabo is yanked backward toward something that rears up out of the shadows. Head exploding with pain, I try to focus and I see Szabo being lifted off the ground, held in a death grip by a giant shadow. I push Bug’s limp body aside and see the shadow move into the light cast by a streetlamp, see it holding Szabo high above its head. I muster every ounce of my remaining strength and stare into the light and I see something that is, and is not, Krystofer Hunter. Long black hair plastered to its skull, mouth wide open, teeth bared, mind-altering roar emitting from its throat, corded muscles standing out like ropes from its enormous body, the Krys Hunter thing holds Szabo high above its head and then hurls it to the pavement, where it bounces once and lies still. The Hunterbeast picks up the body and flings it down again roaring in savage triumph. I sink back to the pavement next to Bug, senses overwhelmed by pain. The Hunterbeast’s face suddenly looms in front of me and I see its
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eyes, red centers surrounded by swirling clouds of silver, staring down at me. He comes closer and I can see the sharp teeth extended and his roar fills my mind as everything turns black once again. I feel Bug on top of me and I feel us being lifted and then we’re… running? I open my eyes and see the moon, jolting along above us and I see the Hunterbeast’s face and I feel his arms around us. I look behind me and see Szabo, sprawled on the ground, and I see the yellow eyes open and stare back at me, full of hate, but filled with pain and fear as well. I fade back into blackness until the motion suddenly stops and I feel us being placed down on the ground. I look up and see the silver eyes again, staring down at me, and I see an enormous rock held in one massive hand and I feel fear, but the rock is thrown, propelled away from us and I hear the sound of breaking glass and then the Hunterbeast is gone and I hear alarms and cries and see lights and then faces surround me and then there is nothing – nothing at all.

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THIRTY- ONE

For a long time after that, days maybe, I have images instead of memories, disjointed images that run together without making sense. There's white, a lot of white, and bright lights and I sense “hospital” without being able to visualize the word. There are people bending over me, small, occasional pricks of pain, and a constant roaring in my head that’s accompanied by a different pain, one that’s constant, that’s so deep and all encompassing I lose the ability to localize it, to figure out where it's coming from. Later, as the pain subsides just a bit, I have clearer images - my Dad, sitting beside me, with the lights dim, holding my hand; Chewy, lying on the bed next to me, arm draped across my chest, Amy… Amy? but it has to be Amy, even though all I see is a spray of hair across my bed and a head bowed in prayer.

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Sometime later I see my Mom and Dad and Chewy and they’re sad, so very sad as Chewy sobs on my Mom's arm and I understand, somehow, through the pain, that it has something to do with Bug. Then the pain…recedes… I’m not sure if it actually recedes or if I’m just getting used to it, but it’s a presence, it's no longer my sole reality, and the dream images become more vivid. I can't move or speak and the dreams play across and through my mind like the worst movie ever made. I see Bug. I see the terrible pain in his eyes and I hear the noise, the screaming, roaring noise as we go down. I see, over and over, the depths of Szabo's yellow eyes. I see Krys Hunter and then he changes into something else and I am afraid and then my mind blocks it out and I see Bug and he’s dying, over and over again. I see two men, serious, middle-aged men, standing over my bed with my Dad, telling him they need to try to talk to me. I see my Dad shake his head firmly, and they leave. I see Amy again, kneeling by my bed as I slowly wake from a nap/nightmare, sweating and shaking, and I see her holding my hand and I can see her lips moving behind the gentle fall of her hair. Later, much later, I begin to see the images even more clearly. The constant pounding ache accompanies me as I torture myself with images of Bug, from when we were little boys, sneaking off to do something silly, riding our bikes, playing, always playing, laughing. I killed him, I know,

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somehow I know, and so I lie there and torture myself and I don't move or speak. Somehow I'm home, in my bed, and there is another serious middle-aged man and he's standing in my bedroom, talking to my Mom and Dad, saying something about "hairline fracture and …major concussion and…time and… mysterious ways of the brain" and I turn back to my images of Bug. One night I wake and find an enormous shadow covering the bed. Krystofer Hunter stands, or towers, over my prone, seemingly comatose form, and looks down with a (tormented?) bundle of emotions struggling to be acknowledged behind his normally passive stare. I feel a great fear and I try to move away, but then I focus and it’s just Krys, eyes filled with guilt, sorrow and (shame?). The depth of his feeling flows silently toward me, threatening to pull me under, to a place I’m afraid to go. “Who are you?” I ask myself, silently, but he doesn’t answer and when I open my eyes again I see Chewy lying beside me. I see the tears in her eyes and I want to reach out and hold her and put my arms around her and tell her I love her and that I'll take care of her but I killed Bug and I can't. Nights and days merge and I grow thinner. There’s always an IV and there’s always someone sitting in my room, waiting, I think, but I have my life to live and my movies to play and Bug and I go down to the lake again, and sink some buckets again and then I’m dragging him

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away and he’s pulling back, telling me he doesn’t want to go and then I kill him and we start over. One - night, I think, because it was dark, I woke up a bit and there was someone kneeling by my bed. I heard a voice, a soft, sad voice that I recognized from many, many nights I spent listening to it, and I felt a hand holding mine, and I heard, "Stuart. Stuart… I don't know if you can hear me, and I don't know if you want to hear… I don't know if you want to hear anything and I know you're dying inside but you have to listen…" There were tears in her voice. I listened. "This is a terrible, terrible thing and you have to be so angry and so full of pain and the last thing you want is to hear about God and God's plan, you have to be so angry at God… "But Stuart, if you believe in God at all… and I know you do. I know you do, so you have to give Him credit for knowing what He's doing. You have to give Him credit for being smarter than we are. "You saved a life that night, Stuart, you saved Jason, you and Bug, and the Bible says ‘greater love has no man than to give up his life for his friend’ and you both offered up your lives that night, for a friend, and you saved him. "You have to believe, Stuart, you have to believe," and her voice was filled with power, though you couldn't have heard it from two feet

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away, "you have to believe that somewhere, in the only world you'd want to live in, God rewards that act of love." I went back to sleep then, but, for once, I dreamed not at all. I was lying there, one day, a day or two later, I don't know exactly, and I realized that there was no one in my room and I was surprised because there was always someone there and I began to look for something that was missing when it struck me that what was missing was the movie, the endless reel of pictures of me and Bug and I opened my eyes, and breathed and then I heard a rhythm. A rhythm, soft but insistent, like the beat of a distant drum, regular, sustained. I listened and I heard it start to grow and it seemed close, but far away, and my mind began to come to attention, for the first time in I don't know how long, as though, in sleep, it had been awakened by the rhythm before I consciously knew it was there. I listened as it grew and pulsed and it seemed so close that I could touch it. I reached out, to a pair of crutches that someone had, in vain hope, placed in my room against the day I rose, and I struggled to prop them under my arms. I staggered to my feet, head pounding in time with the rhythm, and hobbled toward the open door as the rhythm grew louder and closer and I crutched slowly through the empty living room to the front door, hearing the rhythm just outside my grasp, so close I thought I could touch it and I turned the knob and swung the door open and

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outside on our lawn I saw my Mom and Dad and Chewy, clapping, softly but steadily, in the rhythm that had brought me to the door, and I saw a girl a girl with golden hair pulled back into a loose knot - a girl with a shining face and the deepest, kindest brown eyes I'd ever seen, eyes untouched by anger or cruelty, filled with joy I saw Amy and she looked…. She looked like an angel is what she looked like. I saw Bug's parents, standing beside a wheelchair, in which huddled, ten shades of white, weighing no more than fifty pounds, wrapped in blankets, pale and suffering, but alive, beautifully, wonderfully alive, my oldest dearest friend, eyes brimming with tears, and then, behind the Bugster, my teammates and neighbors and Coach Perkins and Coach Randall and looking past them I saw D and Jason and their crew. I saw a guy from the bank and guys from the pizza place. I saw people from church and people I'd never seen before and way, way back in the back I saw, towering high above the rest, with that same look of infinite sorrow in his silver eyes, I saw Krystofer Hunter, and they were all clapping in rhythm, waking the dead, so to speak, and I saw them and felt their emotions and then my breath caught and I staggered and just managed to keep my balance because I saw that every one of them, every last one of them was wearing a jersey or T-shirt with the number 32 on it.

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My number. I stepped out into the light and let the healing begin.

Author’s Note:

This is where the first book originally ended. Wiser minds than mine convinced me that the mystery needed to be solved instead of leaving the reader hanging, waiting for the next volume. The paid version of By the Light is available for $2.00 on Scribd and includes the full 295 page story. Please feel free to send comments, criticism or questions to [email protected]

Many thanks Tom Best

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