I’m halfway through reading the directions when I realize I’m smiling too.
Trina is crying when I get to school. Mel’s got her arm around her, shushing her and going on and on about how big a jerk Travis is. It makes me feel like shit. Girls and crying are two things I don’t like together. It makes me want to make things better and really makes me not want to be the guy who does this to someone else.
"You don’t need him, Trin. Plus, you didn’t even know if you wanted to be with him anymore, either. Don’t let him win."
Wow…that’s news to me. Trina didn’t want to be with Travis? It makes me wonder if he was right. If there’s more going on than I know about.
Trina looks up at Mel and notices me standing behind her. Awkwardly, I wave at her. "Hey, Trin. Sorry about…you know."
Trina shrugs and starts crying more. So my cue to leave only I don’t get the chance. Mel says, "Can you give us a minute, Carter? This is a girl thing."
Thank God! "Sure. I’ll see you guys later."
By the time lunch comes around, I realize I’m screwed. There’s no way the four of us are sitting together. Who do I have lunch with? My best friend or my girlfriend?
"We’re not sitting with him at lunch," Mel says when she walks up to me, reading my mind. She’s flanked by Trina and Sam, her new BFF.
"I can’t just ditch him." They’re sticking together so it makes sense I should hang out with Travis. I think. Or I did until Mel gets that look on her face like she’s been taken over by an alien. A very pissed off alien.
"He dumped her for no reason, on the phone, Carter. How is that okay? Would you break up with me like that?"
Okay, so maybe he should have done it in person, but that’s their deal, not mine. I hold up my hands. "Umm, how did this turn into something about us? I’m not Travis, but I am his friend. You guys are here with Trina. What’s wrong with me wanting to be there for him?"
"Whatever, Carter. Take his side."
She tries to walk away, but I grab her hand. "Hey, did I wake in in some parallel universe or something? Why are you mad at me? I’m sorry they broke up, but I don’t get why we’re fighting about it." I guess it’s because all we do is fight lately, but still.
Mel sighs. "I’m not mad. It’s just…I don’t know. Hard day? Just go. I’ll talk to you later."
Letting go of her hand, I do just that.
The next two weeks fly by. I’m too busy with basketball and getting ready for our first game—a home game–to worry about much else. Mel and I don’t spend much time together, but it’s not like we’re fighting, we’re just busy. She’s got cheer and girl stuff. I have basketball and homework. Some days go by where we don’t really talk at all.
Mom’s been perfect. No sharp, alcoholic scent, no stumbling nights or accidentally walking into my room instead of hers, even when Sara’s been with Bill. I hate that it took her drinking with Sara home to make her see she has to quit, but I’m thankful for it, too. Glad that Mom loves my little sister enough to pick her over the bottle.
My life is finally coming together. I don’t have to lie. I’m not pulled in a million different directions, treading that line of right and wrong, always afraid I’m on the wrong side of it. I don’t have Mel on my case or Mom to worry about. I’m just Carter and it feels good.
"Carter, can you stay after class for a minute?" Mrs. Z asks when the bell rings. Travis pats me on the back and walks out. Kira wasn’t at school today, which makes me wonder if she’ll to be at the store tonight. We’ve done homework together a few times over the last two weeks, but even that’s slowed down because of basketball.
"Sure." My shoulders rise and fall in a shrug, like I really have a choice.
She’s sitting behind her desk and I stand in front of it. "I just wanted to let you know I’m proud of you. You’re doing a good job catching up. You’re almost there. The lure of basketball must be really strong."
Yeah, it is. That and a clear head too. "For sure."
"That’s all I wanted to tell you. Keep up the good work, Carter." Mrs. Z holds out her hand and I shake it. "Good luck at your game tomorrow."
Practice is over. All the guys are just as pumped as I am knowing this is the last practice before our first game. We’re shoving each other around the locker room celebrating the awesomeness that is the Jacksonville Lancers.
"Whose house?" I yell one last time.
"Our house!" They all chant around me and then go their separate ways. I’m waiting for Travis to finish tying his shoes when Jackson comes up to me.
"What’s up, Shaw?"
I nod my head at him.
"Hey… I didn’t know you and Melanie broke up. Sucks."
"Dun, dun, duuun." Travis sings from the bench.
"What? We didn’t break up. What makes you say that?"
Jackson looks like he might swallow his tongue. "Nothing…nothing. I just haven’t seen you guys together much. That’s all."
Yeah, and he wanted to make sure before he could go for her. I’m not stupid. "Back off, J. We’re still together."
Jackson nods. By then Travis is ready and we head for the hallway and out to the parking lot. It’s always awkward. Will we see the girls or not? Luckily I haven’t had to choose between whom to hang out with lately, but we still have these exchanges where Trav waits in the wings while Trina and Mel look at him like he’s a murderer.
I’m still kind of thinking about Jackson. Yeah, he likes Mel. Everyone does so I know where his question came from, but still, it rubs me the wrong way.
"God, I’m so glad school’s over. I can’t wait to go out tonight," Travis says.
"You’re going out?" I ask. There’s a really screwed up part of me who wants to tell him not to go out before a game day. I mean, this is our first home game, and we all need our heads in it, but I realize that sounds…well, like I’m a parent…or a girl…or like I don’t have a social life.
"Yep." I don’t have time to ask him what he’s doing because he says, "Holee shit," the second we step outside.
I automatically groan, figuring his words mean we’re in for it, but then I see something bright orange behind my truck. It bobs and weaves around the back until it’s more in view and that’s when I realize it’s a head. A bright, blind your eyes orange head. "No way…"
"Kira has orange hair," Trav says. "Why does she have orange hair?"
For a second, he sidetracks me. "Why do you repeat things like that?"
"Some things need to be repeated, man. Kira has orange hair."
She does. I look over at her and smile. She’s leaning against my truck all normal-like. I mean, not like a chick with orange hair. "Yeah. Sara told her she wanted her to add some orange and I tried to give her shit by making her do the whole thing like that." Then more to myself I add, "I can’t believe she really did it."
By now the guys are all coming out of the hallway, mixed in with the girls from cheer. Laughs and comments about Kira’s hair start popping up around us. I ignore them and keep walking toward her. I take in her black stretch pants. The long shirt with little tears in it, little flashes of orange showing through each rip. It’s not an old shirt, you can tell, but purposely like that. It’s like some strange retro-rockstar look but somehow it works on her.
"Who are you?" jumps out of my mouth when I reach her.
"Hmm, I know the hair is a big change, but I didn’t realize I wasn’t recognizable."
"That’s not what I mean," but that’s all I say. I don’t even know if I understand what I meant.
"Then I can’t help you."
I can’t stop thinking this girl dyed her freaking hair orange. For my sister. That she’s walking around in public like this and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. I don’t know any other girl who would do this. I wouldn’t do it.
"Sara’s going to freak. I hope you don’t mind if she tackles you. She gets a little over excited and this is…"
"Orange hair?" she supplies for me.
"It won’t last long. It’s the spray stuff, but I promised your sister so I wanted to do it."
For the first time, I notice she took her braid out. Her hair is now free, hanging in curls that go down a little past her shoulders. It would look good if it wasn’t orange.
"Is she at the store tonight? I wasn’t sure if she’s there or with Bill."
Hearing her say Bill’s name shocks me a little. I can’t remember if Mel even knows Sara’s dad’s name. "She should be there. She goes to her dad’s tomorrow."
"So you did this for his sister? Did she pay you?" Travis laughs, reminding me he’s still here.
"Nope. She’s got style though. I might let her pick my next look." She turns to me. "Hope you had a good practice. I’m going to see Sara now." All I get is a little wave over her shoulder while she’s walking away.
"Hey!" I call after her. "I’m going that way. Do you want a ride?"
Without turning around, she shakes her head. "Nope! It’s a gorgeous evening to see how many cars I can get to stop and check out my hair!"
Chuckling, I stand there watching her walk away, in her black and orange clothes. Orange hair, head held high as people laugh and point. Me? I just keep staring.
Travis elbows me. "Dude, when it comes to that girl, you are so screwed."
He doesn’t have to say it twice.
"Are we riding to the party together?" Mel and I are standing in the hallway, outside the locker room. I’m already in my uniform, but have a few minutes before the team has to get together pre-game.
"I don’t know…I was thinking I’d ride with Trina. It’s her first party since she and Travis broke up."
I exhale, excited at the idea of a night just to relax. To not have to worry about my hair being messy or getting ketchup in her car. But then there’s the other part who’s a little annoyed. What’s the point of us being together if we’re never together? Do I even want us to still be a couple or am I just too big a p**sy to do anything about it? "Mel…did you know Jackson came up to me and asked when we broke up? You should have seen the look on his face when I told him we were still together."
Her face pales. "I…"
"Come on." I step closer to her. "We’ve all gone together before." I touch her hair to see how it feels. It’s still soft, so soft that I want to bury my hand in it, but that’s all I feel. I don’t get that electric, I-have-to-touch-you-now feeling I used to get when I touched her.
Testing the waters, I step closer again. This is my girlfriend. I should be feeling something right now. That’s when I realize what I’m doing—it’s a test. I need to know how things are with us. Need to know which is more powerful, that part of me who got happy at the thought of another free night or the one who used to be into this girl. The one who could forget about all his demons when he was with her.
Mel steps away from me. "Yeah…yeah, okay. I gotta run though. I’ll see you after the game." She jogs away without another word.
"Shaw! Get your ass in here. Coach wants us." Travis ducks in the locker room, but then his head pokes out again. "I almost forgot. I saw Kira and she said to tell you good luck. She said something else about her whole future of watching our games hinges on this game or something. Whatever that means."