Her words are patches, trying to cover up some of the scrapes and bruises inside me. I need to forget and she’s found a way to give that to me. "Okay." She tosses me the ball and we head downstairs. It’s late, but I don’t care. We leave the front door open, and I plug Sara’s monitor into the outlet on the porch, making sure the volume is all the way up.
"I’m wearing the right shoes this time, Coach." More patches. More band-aides.
This is what I need to forget. With each smack of the ball hitting the pavement, each time I spin around Kira, make a shot, or steal the ball from her, I’m free. Any other time I would go easy on her, but I can’t and I know she doesn’t expect it tonight. She’s here to free me. To let me float away from my life for a little while. Each time the ball soars through the air, it’s really me.
Did Dad use basketball the way I do? Was it his escape from life, if he needed it? Was it always there when nothing else went right? As I jump, shoot and fade backward, as the ball goes forward, I wonder about Travis. He’d be there for me too. Be what basketball is to me, if I ever would have trusted him. Just like I would have been to him if he’d done the same. The way Kira’s here, because I let her in, panting and chasing me around my basketball court because she knows it’s what I need.
I catch the ball and shoot again, but this time it bounces off the rim and goes into the bushes. When she tries to go after it, I stop her, taking her gently by the wrist and pulling her to me. "You’re the girl who took the time to see what I tried to hide from everyone else. The girl who broke into a Jacuzzi with me, to steal my secrets and give me yours. You’re the one who looks gorgeous with purple hair, orange hair, or black hair. You’re just as comfortable in combat boots as heels or my Nikes."
I step closer to her. "You’re the one who helped me with my homework. You’re the straight A student who loves to dance on tables. You love Lana like a mother. You love my little sister like she’s yours and never make her feel weird or different. You’re the one who doesn’t think twice to wipe vomit off my mom’s mouth, or try anything new. You’re the one who wore a jersey with my name on it and made me win the game. When no one else did, you saw me and you drew me. That’s who you are. It doesn’t matter about your mom. Meet her or not, who she is has nothing to do with who you are. There’s no one else like you. I—"
Kira’s finger on my mouth stops me, just like she did the first night we kissed. "Shh. Don’t say it in the heat of the moment. Not tonight when your emotions are wild. You might regret it. I’ll think you only said it because you’re so raw from everything else. Just…don’t."
Nodding, I smile. "I wouldn’t regret it. Never. But I can wait, too."
"Mommy! Help!" Sara’s voice breaks the night.
"Nightmares," I say to Kira before I run inside and up the stairs. I push into Sara’s bedroom and am by her bed. "Shhh, Twig. I’m here."
"Closet. Look, Carter."
I walk over to the closet and look inside, pushing the clothes out of the way. "See? Nothing here."
She looks over the side of the bed. "Down there. Look, Carter."
Bending down, I look under the bed too. "It’s just us. No one’s here. I promise." Promise I’ll take care of her too.
"Where’s Mommy? I want Mommy." Sara starts to cry. Anger threatens me again, but I fight it down.
"She’s sick, Twig. Mommy doesn’t feel good. Can I hang out with you?"
I hand her, her glasses and she puts them on, then shouts, "Kira! Kira!" Sara starts bouncing up and down on the bed.
"Hey, kid. Oh, look you hung my picture up. It looks pretty up there." Kira shrugs at me, unsure of what to do.
"You’re pretty. Oh, can we have a sleepover? Please." The rest of her words are excited mumbles.
"Umm, I don’t know if she can, Twig. I think her mom wants her home." But I don’t want her to leave. It’s like water on the patches, making them peel up on the corners.
"Carter…" I walk over to her. "I can stay. Lana’s not home. I don’t want to leave you."
I exhale. "I don’t want you to go either. I’ll be right back." I run into my room, grab a couple pillows and blankets, and then make a pallet on the floor next to Sara’s bed. She’s mumbling and laughing the whole time, her nightmare forgotten.
Kira kicks off her shoes, and I turn off the light. Sara’s nightlight makes it so we can still see each other. With a shy smile, she bends to climb into our pallet.
"Me. Me. Kira sleep with me!"
"It’s okay," Kira says. "I don’t mind." And then climbs in my sister’s bed. I’m a little jealous, but lay on the floor, trying to push it aside. The room is silent for a few minutes, giving me time to replay the night. Mom bruised. Did she fall? Hit herself somehow. And me. Mom actually tried to hit me.
I jump a little when I feel something in my hair, but relax when I realize it’s Kira’s hand from above me. "She’s out already." Kira keeps her voice low so she doesn’t wake Sara.
"What if I wasn’t here?" The question just hits me. "Sara has a lot of nightmares and she knows. What if I wasn’t here for her? What if she couldn’t wake her up and she was scared and I didn’t protect her?"
"You were here, Carter. That’s what matters. You were here for her. You took care of her. Of them both.
This time. I was here this time.
Her hand is still playing with my hair, but I grab it instead. Like always, our hands fit so well together. It’s uncomfortable with her being higher than me. Probably for her too, but I’ll hold on as long as she does.
"I’m tired of lying. I’m tired of not knowing if I’m doing the right thing. Of pretending. I’m…tired of doing it on my own."
For the next few minutes, the only sound is our breaths: mine, Kira’s and Sara’s, until finally she speaks. "You know what you have to do."
"And I do, too. I need to see her. I mean, I know you’re right. I am who I am, but I think I need to see her. Just so I can make peace with it. So I can be…free of my past. Does that sound stupid?"
Free. "No. It sounds perfect."
I squeeze her hand, holding it until we fall asleep. Even then, we don’t let go.
I’m up with the sun. Neither Kira nor Sara wake up as I fill a bag with some of Sara’s clothes. They’re still out when I leave for my room to pack my stuff too. My heart is hammering. My hands are sweating. I don’t know if I’m abandoning her. If I’m betraying her. But I know I can’t handle it on my own anymore. I need help. Sara deserves better.
I put our stuff in my truck. Check on Mom one last time, plug her phone into the charger and put my note underneath it. "I love you, Mom," I tell her. She doesn’t stir, but I hope she hears. Hope she’ll believe it.
Sneaking back into Sara’s room, I wake Kira first. "I need to get out of here before Mom wakes up." Otherwise, I don’t know if I can do it.
Nodding, Kira climbs out of Sara’s bed, squeezes my shoulder, and waits as I wake up my little sister. "Twig. It’s time to get up, kid."
She moans, rolls over and peeks up at me. I hand her the glasses from the table. "We’re playing a game. Want to pretend we’re going on a trip? We can pretend it’s like that one time we went to see Grandma and Grandpa Shaw. Remember how we got up really early in the morning and had McDonalds for breakfast?"
Excitedly, her head nods up and down.
"We can do that again and after breakfast, we’ll go to your daddy’s house. I haven’t had a sleepover there in a long time. Sound cool?" When she nods again, I playfully tug her hair.
"Grab Barney, okay? You can even go in your pajamas." My body aches. I feel like I’ve been playing basketball for twenty-four hours straight, but I push through it.
When Sara stands up, I grab Kira’s drawing off the wall. Kira grabs my hand as soon as I step into the hallway. With one last look at Mom’s closed bedroom door, we’re gone.
Two days later, I meet Travis at the basketball court. When I didn’t come to school, he texted and I told him to meet me here.
"Okay. You missed school. Kira missed school. Is there something going on I need to know about, ya lucky bastard?" He tosses the ball at me, but doesn’t come too close. Probably because we haven’t really talked much since the night of the dance.
I dribble the ball between my legs, jump and shoot. Travis tosses it back and I start to dribble again. When I pass it back to him, he takes over where I left off, dribbling and shooting. Right about now, this whole talking thing is feeling overrated. It’s a lot easier when, in between confessions, I get to kiss the person I’m confessing to.
Without a word to Travis, I walk over and fall down to sit on the curb. My arms rest on my legs, as I play with a pebble I picked up. But this is it. I’m done being weak. Done lying. Done always trying to do the right thing and never knowing if I am, so when Travis sits next to me, I say, "My mom’s an alcoholic."
Travis mumbles "shit" while bouncing the ball from one hand to another. "Dude, I know."
The rock falls out of my fingers, rolling on the ground. "You know?" How could he know?
Travis shrugs. "I’ve been your best friend for like ten years. I come over to your house all the time. I’ve seen things. Smelled things." He shrugs again. "I’ve just known."
So obviously I’m not as good a liar as I thought. I don’t know if that makes me happy or not. "Why didn’t you say anything?"
"Um, why didn’t you?" He puts the ball on his lap and leans on it. "I just figured you didn’t want to talk about it. If you did, you’d bring it up to me, ya know?"
He’s right. I wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it. I still don’t, but now I kind of have to.
"That’s why…" Travis groans. "That’s why I feel like shit about the dance. You shouldn’t have had to deal with that. I’m just…all screwed up about my parents, but I’m dealing. It’ll be okay."
Picking up the pebble again, I say, "I’m here. If you want to talk. I can’t do the drinking thing though. I’m done with that."
"Me, too. And thanks. So, what happened? If you want to talk about it."
"Ball," I say and he hands it over. It feels good just to hold the leather in my hand. "A lot. I don’t really want to go into it all, but it ended with Kira and I sneaking Sara out of the house at six in the morning and we’ve been at Bill’s ever since. I haven’t talked to Mom. She told Bill she needed a couple days." Saying it makes me feel like I’m cracking apart. That Mom is digging everything out of me that matters, because she needs a couple days, away from me. After everything, she can’t even talk to me. Does she hate me? There’s a piece of me who still hates myself.
"L.A. Just left today. She wanted to wait, but she needed to go."
"That sucks. I’m sorry, about everything."
I hand him back the ball. "Me, too. For your parents and everything else." Pushing off the curb, I stand up, and then hold out my fist. Travis bumps it with his. "Come on. Game on Friday and you need all the practice you can get."
He laughs. "Not me. I’m a kickass center. Beating down anyone who comes into my zone." But he’s standing and following me anyway.
Bill straightens his glasses, making me know he has something big to say. I lean against his kitchen table, waiting for him to tell me what else is going wrong. "What is it? Just tell me." Don’t let her hate me. Let me have done the right thing.