Jan 15

The Salvage | Chapter Seven: Pickup

    A month passed. My condition held. I had no symptoms of my illness. I still wasn’t allowed to participate in most gym classes, but if I was still healthy by senior year, Dr. Martinez said I could start attending and see how it went. We’ll leave an ambulance open, she promised. I groaned in response.
    The semester was beginning to wind down, and the teachers were giving up and in as their students itched for the freedom of summer. I was especially excited for vacation, for my family was traveling to France to see my grandmother. We hadn’t gone in ages; not because of my illness, but because airfare was too expensive. But this year, my parents had saved up enough to make the trip.
    However, I had a month and a half before I could get on the plane. First I had the last four weeks of classes, final exams, and—
    “Hey, Will! Happy birthday!”
    It was May twenty-second, and I’d just turned seventeen.
    Hunter, one of my friends from toddlerhood, caught up to me in the hallway. He’d been with me the day I’d fallen over on the playground as a four-year-old.
    “You remembered,” I noted, pleased.
    “Yeah, dude! I’ve had too much of your mom’s baking to forget.” He grinned, then rubbed his ash-blond hair awkwardly. “Well, I kinda wanted to say… I’m glad. That you’re better. Like, really glad. I was sorta worried there, for a minute.” He smiled sheepishly. “Sorry it took me so long to say anything…”
    I shook my head. “Don’t worry about that. And thank you.” I raised a shoulder and grinned. “Y’know, I was sorta worried, too. But I’m good now.”
    “Pretty great, huh?” Hunter shoved his hands in his pockets. “Anyway. I know you’re not really doing physical stuff yet, but there’s pickup basketball tonight in the gymnasium tonight. If you want to come. And you don’t have birthday stuff to do.”
    I blinked, then grinned. A warm, happy feeling started up under my ribs. It had been so long since he’d been able to ask me to do normal kid things. “I dunno if my parents will be stoked with me running around, but could I come watch?”
    “Oh, yeah, no problem. It starts at six. The doors should all be unlocked.”
    “Okay. I’ll see you then.”
    “Yep!” He started to walk off down the hall, then stopped and turned as he remembered something. “Oh, yeah! If Buck wants to come, too, that’s cool.”
    “I’ll tell him.”
    Hunter waved goodbye. I raised my hand in response, then turned a corner and all but crashed into Buck, who was leaning against the wall and waiting for the conversation to finish.
    “Oh, hello,” I said. “Are you game? Pun intended, by the way.”
    He stretched. “Sounds fun. I haven’t been doing a lot of sports lately— because you’re such a wimp— and it’ll be good to play.”
    “Shut up. I’ll show you. One day I’ll be a professional hockey player. I’ll whack people with a stick.”
    “You know that’s not what you do in hockey, right?”
    He snorted a laugh and grinned. “Happy birthday, by the way.”
    I sighed. “Thanks.”

    The ball was already in play by the time I arrived. Hunter waved at me from the court, but he didn’t have time for anything else. The opposing team missed the shot and he caught the rebound, sprinting the ball to the other end of the gym. He passed it to a teammate— a man I didn’t recognize— who scored two points with his shot.
    I applauded. Hunter gave me a thumbs-up.
    The bleachers were partially extended, so I took a seat on the hard wood behind the scorekeeper. She was a young girl who appeared to be in middle school. On her feet were a pair of dark blue rain boots with a scattering of little white frogs.
    “I like your boots,” I said.
    She turned briefly and gave a mumbled ‘thanks’.
    “Is your brother playing?” I asked.
    “M’dad,” she responded, her accent British. “He’s the one who just scored.”
    “That’s pretty cool. So you know how the point system works? I can’t figure it out…”
    She pointed with her finger. “If they score from behind that curving line, they get three points. Inside the line they get two.”
    “And they can score single points on free throws. Those happen if they get fouled by the other team.”
    “Huh. Thanks for explaining.”
    I smiled. “I’m Will, by the way.”
    She scratched her long brown hair. “I’m Kate.”
    “Nice to meet you, Kate.”
    “Nice to meet you, too.”
    We watched the game. I’d never watched much basketball, but I was actually enjoying it a lot. I liked watching the players move the ball around near the hoop, using the floor and the air to get the ball around defenders. Hunter was good— I’d known he liked basketball, but it had been a while since I’d seen him play. He’d improved a lot.
    I felt bad that we hadn’t done more things together since high school started. I’d begun doing everything with Buck, and Hunter had always wanted to be active more than anything else. I wondered if he hadn’t invited me to any of his games or activities because he hadn’t wanted to shove my inability to do anything physical right in my face. I’d have had the same reservations if I were him.
    Kate kept up with the scoring. She didn’t hesitate over which point value to give— she’d clearly been at it a while. I wondered if she came to every game. As I opened my mouth to ask, a loud buzzing blared through the air. I leapt in frightened surprise, my heart in my throat.
    A loud cackling issued from behind me. I turned to find Buck perched several bleachers up, grinning madly at me. He’d crept in without my noticing.
    “Have you been there the whole time, waiting for that?” I demanded.
    His grin stretched even wider. “Maybe,” he sniggered, and let out another peal of laughter. “You made the funniest squeak!”
    Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kate duck her head. She was fighting mad giggles. I felt brutally betrayed by those I thought were my friends.
    Hunter sprinted over. “Hey, you two! I’m glad you came. How’s it going?”
    “Awful,” I grumbled. “These people are making fun of me.”
    Buck, still sniggering, leapt down the bleachers, landing next to me in one bound. “You should’ve seen him jump!”
    “The buzzer was loud, okay?”
    “Sorry, Will!” Hunter said, trying not to grin. He failed miserably.
    “Oh, whatever,” I grumbled. “Buck, weren’t you going to play or something?”
    “Yeah.” He glanced at Hunter. “If that’s alright. I could run slow.”
    “Meh.” Hunter waved him toward the court. “That’s boring. C’mon, I want you on my team.”
    As they strode on court, talking about ways to split the teams more evenly, I heard Kate gasp softly. “Oh—”
    I followed her gaze. She was staring at Hunter and Buck. Hunter, who took even, normal strides with his long legs, and Buck, who glided over the court like a cat.
    She looked up at me, her eyes wide. “Is he—”
    “A vampire?”
    Kate nodded, a sort of surprised awe on her face.
    “Yeah. He goes to the same school as Hunter and me.”
    Her mouth formed the word ‘wow’ without making any sound.
    “Have you ever seen a vampire play basketball?”
    She shook her head.
    “Me neither. This is gonna be good.”
    It was good. I could tell Buck was holding back; he could’ve flashed across the court in a heartbeat, but he never ran ahead of the others. He also didn’t shoot until he was over center court, though he could’ve dropped the ball cleanly through the hoop from anywhere in the gym. But he still far outshone the other players. He moved breathlessly fast around the defenders. His ears told him the location of his teammates, so he could pass the ball without looking and tipping off his opponents to his target. His shots always made it in, though I noticed that he passed the ball off more than he tried to score.
    Buck changed sides multiple times to make it a little more fair, but that didn’t change the fact that whoever opposed him got absolutely smooshed. Eventually he returned to the bleachers so the others could play without one side being doomed to suffer a hefty defeat.
    “Brutal, brutal,” I called, applauding. “If only they let vampires in the NBA. You’d be a millionaire.”
    He rolled his eyes. “What am I going to do with a million dollars? And I did try to play fair, you know.”
    “Yeah, I do.”
    Buck climbed up next to me and flopped onto the wooden seat. Kate watched him with a curious expression. He gave her a wave and she ducked her head, flushing. “Did you have fun?” I asked.
    “Yeah, I did.” He smiled at his sneakers. “It’ll be more fun when you’re there, though.”
    My stomach gave a twist. Nerves, probably. I hadn’t played since I was seven. “I’m dead terrible.”
    “That’s why it’ll be more fun.”
    “You awful, awful person.”
    “You bet.” Buck gazed out over the court. In the corner stood a metal rack for the basketballs, placed amidst the volleyball poles and one very suspicious mat. There were about seven balls stowed on the metal structure. Buck jerked his thumb towards the corner. “You wanna practice? You can pass a ball, right?”
    I frowned. “Fine. Just don’t nail me in the nose.”
    “I would never.”
    I clambered down the bleachers, Buck bounding along. We headed to the suspicious-mat-corner, where we located a ball that wasn’t too flat from the rack. Buck bounced it against the floor a couple of times. “Do you remember how to catch a ball?”
    “Shut up and pass the damn thing.”
    Buck sent me a bounce pass, and I managed not to fumble the recieve. The ball felt bigger in my hands than it had looked on the rack.
    I sent the ball back to him, bouncing it once on the floor in the process. Buck caught it in one hand and returned it.
    We continued the back and forth for a while, until Buck decided to throw me a chest pass. I squawked in panic and sent the ball rolling under the bleachers.
    Buck burst into laughter. “What was that?”
    “Self defense! You tried to murder me!”
    “I didn’t even throw it that hard—”
    “Just you wait, you degenerate reptile. When I’m a national hockey player, I’m going to embed the puck in your face," I growled, turning to get the ball, only to find Kate standing just behind me with the ball in her hands.
    “Can I play, too?” she asked. “Harvey’s keeping score, now.”
    I took a peek at the bleachers. A kid with sandy hair and the same nose as Kate sat at the control panel for the scoreboard. “Your brother?”
    “Yeah. We’re twins.”
    “You can join,” Buck said. “It’s more fun with more people.”
    We bounce-passed the ball in a three-point circle. Kate was much more adept at the sport than I, and soon she and Buck were throwing each other chest and overhand passes at a surprising speed. They both gave me slow, lazy tosses. I felt the condescension raining down upon me like a dank drizzle.
    After we’d finished with the ball, we climbed back onto the bleachers, where Buck and I met Harvey. He didn’t share his sister’s quiet character and was instead a talkative, goofy kid. I learned that the twins’ family had moved to the area last year, their previous home in England. He and his sister were in sixth grade, and though they thought Frederick Allen was cool, they considered it very weird that middle school was grades five through eight. “The ages are weird, too,” Harvey continued. “We were in our seventh year back in the UK, and in senior school. Now we’re in sixth grade, and back in junior school! I guess you guys call it something different, though. Also, what’s with calling them grades? They’re marks. It’s weird.”
    “Did you wear a uniform?” I inquired.
    “Yeah. Do you guys always go to school in everyday clothes here?”
    “In public schools, normally. In private schools the students usually wear uniforms.”
    “That’s two points for dad’s team, Vee,” Kate pointed out.
    “Oh, whoops. Thanks.”
    Buck suddenly sat up straight. “Oh, yeah! Will, I got something for you.” He scampered up to his backpack and pulled out something rectangular and wrapped in paper. Descending again, he presented it to me with a grin. “Happy birthday.”
    “It’s your birthday?” Harvey asked. “Cool! Happy birthday!”
    “Happy birthday,” Kate echoed.
    “Thanks, guys. Thanks Buck.” The wrapping paper was robin-egg blue with the birds in question printed on the surface. One robin had scored a juicy worm. It looked incredibly pleased with itself, and I couldn’t help grinning at it. “That one’s funny.”
    Harvey giggled.
    I felt the parcel. It was definitely a book. He knew me pretty well…
    I slit the tape carefully, trying to preserve the paper; I wanted to look at all the robins later. The wrapping fell away and I was left with a slim hardcover with a grayscale image on the dust jacket of a hulking, spiky creature turned towards a small house in the distance. The title was printed in a text akin to the font of a typewriter.
    A Monster Calls
    a novel by Patrick Ness
    “I hope you haven’t read it yet,” Buck said.
    “I haven’t.” I let the pages fall open. The story was broken by illustrations of an inky, branching monster and a little boy. It was beautiful.
    “Oh, good,” Buck sighed. “Anyways, I hope you like it. It’s one of my favorite books.”
    “Wow.” I flipped the pages, looking for more images. “It’s wonderful. Really, wonderful. Thank you.”
    I lifted another page to turn it, but Buck slapped his hand down on mine. “Don’t spoil it.”
    I grinned sheepishly and extricated my hand so I could close the book. “Oops. Sorry. I got distracted by the pictures.”
    “I figured you would.”
    I folded my arms around the book so it was pressed to my Elton John T-shirt. The dust jacket had the texture of watercolor paper, and I felt very happy.
    “Oh, hey, didn’t we see the movie version of that?” Harvey asked his sister.
    She nodded. “It was really good. I liked the tree-thing.”
    Buck leaned back, looking a little smug. “The book’s always better, kids.”
    “You sound like my mum,” Harvey groaned.
    “Wise woman.”
    Kate tugged her brother’s sleeve. “Look!”
    Their father had just nabbed the ball as his opponent tried to shoot. He was now sprinting to the other side of the court, “Go, dad!” Harvey shouted. Kate vibrated on her seat. As their dad closed in on the three-point line, a defender with a longer stride edged in between him and the hoop. He bounce-passed the ball to Hunter, who was racing along to his left. Hunter leapt and took a shot. The ball bounced off the backboard and into the hoop.
    Buck and I whooped while Harvey added three points to the scoreboard. We watched the teams go back and forth across the court, sometimes scoring and sometimes losing the ball. “This game looks exhausting,” I said. “They’re running so much.”
    “You get used to it,” Harvey told me. “And it feels good to run.”
    My lips twitched up. “Yeah. I guess it does.”
    Kate tapped on my knee. “Watch out. The clock’s running down. It’ll buzz soon.”
    I glanced up at the scoreboard. There were seven seconds left. “Oh! Thank you!” I pressed my fingers to my ears as the buzzer blared, then shoved Buck for smirking at me.
    Hunter sprinted over. “I gotta help clean up,” he said. “But do you guys want to do something after?”
    “Just a second.” I pulled out my phone and sent my mother a text. When she responded, I announced, “My mother went ape on baking this week and we now have a surplus of pastries and pie. If you want to come over and help my poor family consume it, she would be much obliged.”
    Hunter grinned. “You don’t need to tell me twice.”
    Buck and I helped the others clean the gym. It didn’t take too long; floor swept, bleachers retracted, hoops raised, and scoreboard turned off. The twins’ father, who we learned was named Aaron Eastman, locked the gym and waved to Hunter as his kids followed him to their car.
    The three of us returned to my house. Hunter drove, as my mother had dropped me off and Buck had walked. Hunter stayed long enough for my mom to stuff him with pie. Everyone sang happy birthday, and I was rightly embarrassed.
    That night, I put Buck’s book on my nightstand. I was too tired to read it, but I flipped through the pictures until my head reminded me in Buck’s voice to not spoil it. I flopped back in bed, my body wonderfully healthy and my head clear. I felt like I’d live forever.
    The next day, Hunter gave me a box of macarons from a nearby bakery. He knew me pretty well…