The screaming of Coach Tilly tore me out my daze.
“Barnett! You’re up!”
I shifted on the bench. Normally, I was cool and collected at a time like this. Now, a mixture of emotions churned within me.
It was loud. People cheering from every corner of the gym. Names, numbers, words of inspiration all crashed together to form an irritating cacophony. Signs were thrashed around, shaken back and forth too fast for anyone to read it and be motivated by whatever was written there. Everything kicked up to a sensory overload. And it was Coach that got through to me.
“Huh?” I responded. Coach caught my attention, but her words barely registered.
“I said you’re up! Eve got injured!”
And as it turned out, she was right. Coach was helping Eve get to the bench, her arm hung around Coach’s shoulder. Even with that much, she still limped on the way.
“Whoa, you okay?” I asked, immediately feeling dumb after doing so. I sometimes wondered why people asked that when it was clearly evident that things were not okay. But at the moment, I couldn’t help it.
Eve grunted as a way of answering my question. She sat at the open seat to my right. Looked like a sprained ankle, possibly from a bad fall.
She had scraped her arm, too, as evident by a bit of floor burn. A miniscule amount of red glistened on her elbow. From even that, I hated how my nose flared, how I swallowed. Stop.
I reached to my side, and swigged the fifth sip of my sixth cup of water.
“Get moving!” Coach barked.
Dang, my number was up, I thought. Forty-eight, to be exact, which was the number on the front and back of my uniform.
“Uh, I,” was all I stammered out. I got up so fast my head rushed. Just anywhere not here was good. I murmured something of a ‘Feel better’ as I hurried to position.
Left corner, close to the net. The fifth and final set, and while we were down one, a few more good plays would give us the fifteen points necessary. That constituted a win.
I concentrated on my breathing, sizing up the team that Saint Augustine High had brought as our opposition. Their blue and white uniforms clashed against our red and black. I could do this. I hoped. Honestly, I had very little confidence in how much I could accomplish without seriously freaking someone out, myself included.
Having scored the previous point, Augustine got to serve again. I kept my eye on the ball.
The whistle blew, and everyone sprang into action.
The ball bounced back and forth between the two sides. I largely stayed unmoving, meticulously focused on every movement of my muscles. I could’ve easily swooped in for the kill, but I didn’t want to be too risky. Something inside me kept me from moving, something I hadn’t felt on the court since middle school.
Finally, the ball was set up perfectly, practically asking me to be aggressively spiked. I could do this. My muscles tensed. With a step forward, I moved in.
The cheering of twenty-something girls echoed into the night sky.
I was standing right outside the school. Not waiting for anyone, or anything in particular, more like I was trying to delay the inevitable. Even though I had worked up a bit of a sweat after the game, the fall air did quick work in cooling me down.
The rest of the team was being celebratory, as expected. Even if we didn’t get any farther than this, at least we won this game. My teammates were either surrounded by their boyfriends, or other friends and family who came to congratulate us on our win. I would normally be mingling among that crowd right about now, but I had other things on my mind that currently distracted me.
I turned at the greeting. Katy, sporting a short red dress, her heels helping her dwarf me even more. A cute outfit, but a little much for a high school volleyball game, I felt like.
“Woof,” I replied.
“Let me be the first to say ‘congrats.’ For the little bit you were out there, you did good.”
“Everything’s in the car already. Backpack, sports bag. Your smelly clothes.”
“You all right? You’ve been off all day.”
That, was true. I skipped school yesterday, and while I did go to school today, I hardly paid any attention during class or whenever I was with my friends. My pencil stayed in my backpack, my eyes were stuck glued to a corner of the classroom, my mind elsewhere whenever someone tried to ask me something. I might as well have been absent.
All of my energy was going to not passing out at a growing ache, enflaming my esophagus.
“Wasn’t feeling good,” I said, dryly.
“You just played a game.”
Katy shrugged, accepting that non-answer. She stepped a little closer, a little too close, ready to change the subject.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked, already wrapping her arms around mine and pulling me one way. “We were all planning on going out for pizza. Oh, Maria can’t make it. Said she had something else to do.”
I looked the other way, avoiding eye contact. “That’s fine. Maybe I should head home this time, too.”
“Ever since I got back from the hospital, things have been awkward between me and my mom. Doesn’t help that I missed curfew on Tuesday, and stayed in my room literally all day yesterday.” I told the truth about Tuesday, partial as it was, and completely lied about yesterday.
“Next time remember to charge your phone,” Katy said. “Or remember to remind me to pick you up. And your mom can’t hold it against if you needed to take another day off. You had just gotten out of a hospital.”
“I guess, I think my mom understood when I told her that. But if I don’t go home now, she might think I’m avoiding her.”
“From what it sounds like, that’s exactly what you want to do.”
I really didn’t have a retort.
Katy took that as an opportunity to tug at my arm again, harder. “Then, isn’t that a good reason to come chill?”
“What awful reasoning,” I told her, “Come on, let go already. Plus, I said I don’t feel good.”
“What are you gonna do then? Walk home?”
“Nuh-uh. I’ll take the blame for not picking you up on Tuesday, so I’m not letting you out of my sights. Especially with your currently weakened constitution, as you said. And plus, I’m your ride.”
“Just tell your mom that I had to run some errands or something, and your place wasn’t on the way. Whatever. We can come up with something.”
I grumbled again, this time louder. She tugged my arm again, this time harder. And, like a light bulb, she brightened up, her face beaming. I never liked that look. That meant she had something up her sleeve.
“You know what? I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I’ve got some clothes in the back of my car. We’re getting you into something better than that, and you are coming with me, Alexis.”
“And why should I?”
“Because, he’s going to be there,” Katy said.
“He? He who?”
“Like I said, he-” A light bulb went up for me, too. “Oh.”
I knew it was against my better judgment, but I gave myself a second to think about it. I really don’t want to go home, though, I thought. Katy gave me her most nefarious grin when I met her eyes.
“Fine, let’s go.”
She led the way, taking me to her car. Her own car, not one of her father’s prized possessions. A red Mercedes. With her only mentioning ‘getting pizza’ to go off of, I assumed that would we were probably going to go the Plaza. While not exactly downtown, it was a pretty sizable outdoor shopping center, enough to even be referred to as the Plaza. Like Braham Manor, it was a good place to chill out with friends.
I sat in the back seat, changing out of my clothes into a deep blue spaghetti strap and a pair of black jeans. My bare shoulders were covered with a leather jacket. Katy didn’t have any shoes in my size, so my not-too-bad fit got knocked down twenty points thanks to my tennis shoes.
“What is with all this stuff?” I asked, fishing through the other clothes she had in the back, “Did you plan for this?”
“What? Did you say something?” Katy asked back.
I playfully smacked the side of her face. She briefly jerked on the road.
“Dammit, Lexi,” Katy said. We laughed.
When we got there, a decent line was already peeking out of the door of the restaurant, an Italian restaurant known as Poggio’s. And here I thought we were early. We recognized some friends from school, so we had no problem sliding somewhere in the middle of the line.
“Stay here,” Katy ordered me, before leaving her spot. She went up and down the line, and I lost sight of her as she turned a corner to go further back. In the meantime, I killed time by talking to other friends that happened to be beside me.
Katy hadn’t returned when I got to the front desk, the waiter asking me for a name and a number of the party, putting me on the spot with no answer.
“Party of four,” I heard Katy say, slapping my lower back as she came up from behind. She winked at me.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. I checked the group Katy brought with her. There were two others. Valerie, another one of my teammates. A tall, lanky brunette whose height made her movements a little awkward. Made for a hell of a volleyball player, though, her reach was amazing.
The other one, was someone I was expecting, but still not ready for. On the drive here, I also spent some time trying to psych myself up. I wanted to be able to talk to him without looking like a complete idiot.
“Alexis, hi,” he said. His perfect white teeth were literally shining when he smiled. Literally. An all-white outfit of a shirt and skinny jeans contrasted his dark skin. Two gold chains clanged together when he walked up to me. He was about a head or two taller than me, and I strained my neck to look up at him. Handsome, muscular, clean-cut. The perfect boy, the type I’d want to take home to my mom. Except she would have a heart attack if she saw a six-foot black guy walk into the apartment.
Okay, he wasn’t that tall, but he might as well be. With Valerie here, and Katy in her heels, I felt like a bug.
“Buh- Uh,” I coughed, and blushed. My gaze went straight to the floor. I murmured, “Hi, Brandon.”
“How are you?” His voice was deep, but had a comforting sooth to it. It only made me feel more jumpy than a trampoline.
“Good,” I lied.
“I watched you guys, by the way. Good job at the game.”
My face was on the verge of melting away. “Thanks.” For now, I could only manage one-word answers. One-syllable answers.
“Come on guys, we’re going,” Katy said, gesturing to the waiter who had our menus. She saved me from any more embarrassment.
The waiter walked us to our seat, a booth in the far corner of the restaurant. The restaurant tried to go for a casual dining style, with walls covered by 1950s era-themed pictures and paraphernalia. Grainy photos of Italian families, posters of the Godfather movies. It only accomplished the opposite effect, making the place seem cluttered instead. Not calm or casual at all.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I whispered into Katy’s ear on the way. The back of my spaghetti strap was sticky and wet, and it wasn’t from the sweat I worked up from the game.
“Stop worrying,” she whispered back, “Or do, doesn’t change the fact you’ll be sitting next to him.”
“Is that a ‘You’re welcome?’”
Didn’t want to entertain her any more. I backed away.
We were led to our booth, and we took our seats, Brandon scooting in before patting the space beside him. I couldn’t meet his eyes as I sat nearer to the edge of the seat, keeping some distance between us. Did he notice? Valerie and Katy sat on the other side, with Katy directly across from me.
“Man, I’m like, so hungry,” Valerie breathed, leaning back. She fixed her hair, and flipped back and forth through the menu, ready to strike at any food item worthy of her appetite. It was only a matter of choice. Katy was less animalistic in her hunt, holding her menu in one hand, and putting her attention to her phone in the other.
I glanced around absentmindedly, unable to settle down.
“You alright?” Brandon asked. My throat went dry. When was the water getting here?
“I’m good, just…”
“I hear you,” he said. “At least tomorrow’s Friday.”
I twitched from a horrible realization. “No, I thought you said… you were also tired.”
Oh my god. I wanted to die already.
He went quiet, not saying anything for what felt like forever. I still couldn’t find it within me to look at his face, resorting to reading the description of the bruschetta crostini one more time.
I had been wondering how he was, since that Friday night, my birthday. Between the two of us, we shared a rather memorable night, but for ultimately different reasons. Was that why he seemingly distanced himself from me for the past week? The girl he spent part of his night… idly chatting with, making the news shortly after. That had a lot of eyes on him, I figured. I was lost on how to interpret that. Was he an asshole for doing that? Or did he intend to give me some space? I’d recently come out of the hospital, after all.
Part of me felt grateful for it. I couldn’t let him learn about what really happened to me, or what I had become. Under any circumstances. His avoiding me turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
So, should I really be here, right now?
I wanted to say more, and save this sinking ship of a conversation, but I was interrupted by the waitress, who came back with cold tap water in a cup. I leaned in to chug a half of it down before she even finished distributing the rest to the others. My thirst didn’t get any better.
We ordered. I only got a salad, really wasn’t up to eating anything. The others agreed on sharing a meatball and mushroom pizza.
“You sure you’re not hungry?” Katy asked, having raised an eyebrow when she heard my order.
I shrugged in response.
“Maybe you can have Brandon give you an extra slice?” she teased.
“No, I can’t do that.”
“I don’t mind,” Brandon interjected. “If it helps, really.”
“No, really,” I said, “It’s cool.”
“Hey,” Valerie said, cutting in, “If anyone’s getting an extra slice, it’s me.”
Brandon laughed, “Oh, it’s on.”
They left it at that. It didn’t feel all that great, having to turn Brandon down like that, but the longer I sat here, the more I regretted being here. An endless loop. Needed to be home, but didn’t want to deal with my mom. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Sitting here – even if a part of me wanted to – wasn’t doing me any favors.
Mercifully, the food came quickly, or my attention to what was going on around me had slipped completely, and the time in between just disappeared. Either way, it temporarily rescued me from my thoughts. A large pizza, and because I had no appetite to speak of, they were free to take what would have been my portion. I didn’t care.
The others tore right into the pizza, like vultures to a carcass. These guys were ruthless. I put a slice on my plate, just to keep up with appearances.
“Oh wow,” Valerie said, with a mouthful of pizza, “Look at that.”
Katy looked to her left, off in the distance. “That’s not real, is it?”
Brandon and I turned at the same time.
Near our table was an old television, bolted to the corner. It played the local news. Dash cam footage from a police car. The scene of a terrible car accident. A truck, more specifically. An EMS officer attempted to restrain a victim, who was critically injured. The victim managed to get out of the officer’s grasp, knocking him back, and the victim made their escape by bounding on to the roof of the truck, and disappearing from the shot.
“Oh… my… god…” I said, flabbergasted.
“Everyone’s been talking about it, but I think it’s fake,” Brandon said, “Look at how that thing moves, too freaky.”
‘Thing,’ ‘freaky.’ The words stung.
“E-excuse me,” I called out to a waiter was passing by our table, “Could you put on subtitles, please?”
The waiter noticed me, and nodded. He went for the TV, and pressed a button on the side.
The image of a middle-aged, overweight white woman appeared on the screen, her son tightly hugging her. His faced buried into her side, and he was hugging her, but he couldn’t fully coil his arms around her. I didn’t need to see the kid’s face, but I could assume.
I read the subtitles.
“-Billy was crying and crying when I got here, talking about a girl who saved him. I’m just glad he’s okay.”
A reporter, off camera, asked a question. “Would you want to thank whoever saved your son?”
The mother smiled, “Sure, I would.”
It cut to the reporter, a man in a suit. “Also, the police have confirmed that the driver of the truck was texting while driving. The driver has sustained serious injuries, but is currently in stable condition.”
The program then cut to other people at the site of the accident, but I stopped reading any more. I got the gist of it.
“You really think it’s fake?” Valerie asked, bringing me back to the table. Back to reality.
“Has to be, you tripping if you think it’s real,” Brandon said, “Look at how the camera is cut at the top of the truck. They say the person jumped above the trees, but we can’t see it. They probably just hopped off, where the camera couldn’t see.”
“But did you see how the truck nudged back a little? Some strength has to be needed to move a truck like that, right?”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s hooked to something?”
“What? Now you’re tripping!”
The two bickered back and forth, casual banter than anything legitimately confrontational. But it was of no matter to me, because I was slowly starting to disassociate from everything. Sounds going distant, faded. I felt lightheaded, nauseated. Wobbly. I drew a long breath, but I heaved instead.
“You okay?” Katy asked. “You’re a touch pale.” Katy was the only one to notice as I stared down at my plate, poking my salad, and sipping water from my straw. Her level of perception could be fearsome, sometimes.
I uttered a guttural noise, less than a non-committal answer.
“Come on, take a bite,” she picked up her pizza, “Here. I’ll feed you.”
The cheese on the pizza smelled awful. I leaned away, faltering. “Stop it.” Barely above a whisper.
“Don’t do that, it’s your favorite!” She pushed it more into my face. I leaned away more.
Any farther, and I’d fall out of the seat.
“Hey, I said stop!”
My upper body was already leaning too far over the edge, and I was about to fall. I brought my hand to the table to stop myself. But from the loud slam and the clatter of ceramic, I had a feeling I didn’t just calmly grip the wooden surface.
Moreover, I didn’t stop myself fast enough. A waiter carrying his order crossed my path, and my back bumped into his arm.
In cartoons or movies, this type of situation would’ve normally resulted in the food in question being thrown high into the air, before inevitably crashing back down. The more ridiculous the height, the funny it would be. Here, it was no laughing matter.
The waiter’s tray slid, the food soon falling after. Two pasta dishes and three drinks. An unbelievable mess, should all that food hit the floor. And I was about to fall into it.
I had leaned too far out, and salvaging my landing was all I could do. As I fell, even that seemed to take some time, everything slowed to a crawl.
But, it was too late. I twisted to face the floor in an effort to find a decent place to crash. I didn’t get the chance.
As soon as I turned, a blunt force struck my chin and neck. Hot and heavy. The waiter backed away, and I collapsed afterwards. I landed on hot plates. A distinct crack. A sting in my palm. A slushy, hot mess.
The whole restaurant fell into a hush.
“Dang it,” I said as I stood, summing it up. I opened and closed my mouth, testing my jaw. It throbbed. I pulled my shirt away from me to inspect the mess. “Dang it,” I repeated.
One of the orders was a plate of fettuccini alfredo, and it went all over my front. The white sauce clumped into globs around my chest, and some dripped from my chin onto the jacket’s collar, from when the plate hit me in the jaw.
Really? In front of Brandon?
“Lexi,” I heard from Katy. She got out of her seat to bring me a wad of napkins and a cup of water. “Let’s get you to the restroom.”
“Don’t.” I took the napkins, balling them up in my hand. “Don’t follow.” I turned away from her, and left in a hurry.
We were sat in the back, the restroom not even twenty steps away. But it was hardly a consolation. Others may not have seen it, but they certainly heard it. I went into the restroom.
It was rush job, trying to get rid of the sauce. When I ran out of the napkins, I used the paper towels from the dispenser beside the sink, soaking them in water, and dabbing it on my top and jacket. I repeated that process until the front was near see-through. After standing around, patting at it again with dry paper towels, it got dry enough until it was the bare minimum of being presentable. There were still dull-white stains streaked across, but it was good enough. The jacket proved easier to clean.
After I finished cleaning off my face, I rubbed the palm of my hand in the running water. One of the plates broke when it crashed onto the floor. It cut into my hand when I landed on it. There was no cut now, but I couldn’t afford to let Katy learn of a cut in the first place.
I looked over myself in the restroom mirror again, eyes red, head thumping. The beginnings of a headache, coming with force of a freight train. How many times was I going to be close to tears, thanks to this fucking week? How many times was this week going to fuck me over? Was this like some kind of divine comedy, a way for the universe to laugh at my expense?
I fought the tears back, both for myself and in case someone else was in here. Two of the stalls were closed. I checked myself one last time, and zipped up my jacket.
When I returned to the table, I had been gone long enough for the mess to be cleaned up, and generic chatter settled back into the restaurant. A ‘wet floor’ sign was placed where the mess used to be. Like a tombstone.
“Hi,” Katy said, giving a frail smile, “I am so sorry, Alexis.”
I shook my head. “It’s nothing. Not your fault.” I quickly glanced at Brandon, and back to Katy. “Could you just take me home? Sorry Val, Brandon.”
“It’s all good,” Valerie said, chewing into her fourth slice.
“Same here,” Brandon said, “Go on ahead. I’ll talk to you later, or something?”
“Yeah, or something,” I said. “See you guys.”
Katy got up from the table, fishing out a twenty out of her purse to leave on the table. Brandon and Valerie waved as we left. We got into Katy’s car, and she took me home.
Unlike the trip here, the whole drive back was dead silent.
We got back to my apartment at around nine-thirty, a quick check from my phone informed me. With my bags in hand, I got out of the car. I had changed back into my old clothes, and a cold draft touched the back of my now exposed neck.
“Thanks again for the ride,” I said to Katy. “Sorry about your clothes.”
Katy called out from the car, responding. “It’s nothing. You gonna be all right?”
I faced forward, unmoving. “No. But whatever.”
“‘Kay, I’ll let you be overdramatic for now. I’ll text you later?”
And with that, she took off. Her car was so quiet, I had to turn back around to check if she even left.
I walked to my apartment building, and had a foot on the first step on the stairs. A light shone through the windows. I knew they would be on, but that didn’t alleviate any concern. My pulse quickened.
The idea to sneak in did cross my mind, via the balcony, but that wouldn’t me any good. I’d have to face the music eventually. Accept that the other shoe was about to drop.
No… this week isn’t even half-over.
Taking my keys out of my bag, I unlocked the door to the apartment, letting myself in.