I consider long and hard whether to go back to school the next day. But even though Bud and Estelle beg me not to, I go anyway. I’m still seventeen years old and for the first time I have some hint of a life. Friends, even. Or at least a friend. I need that now more than ever.
But maybe it’s a bad decision to go because I start to feel sick the instant I leave the house. I have to literally drag myself through the halls all day. My nose is stuffy and my forehead feels like it’s throbbing with fever.
I skip lunch and spend the hour trying to fit in a nap out near the track. I find a tall willow oak tree at the far end of the athletic field and lie down comfortably in its shade. Moments later, I doze off into disjointed dreams about Elizabeth and my parents, but mostly, for some reason, about Martin—his innocence, his lost brown eyes, his tiny, frigid fingers. Maybe he reminds me of myself, that we’ve both been victims of a terrible life. I feel so guilty for having left him behind, but there was no other option. If I was going to follow the rules, anyway. At least he ended up back with his parents, so maybe he is better off than I was at that age.
I dream different heroic scenarios, like passing out bags of cash to the people waiting in block-long lines for food and jobs. Or actually bringing Martin back with me. I can’t help but wonder what sort of dad I’d be. Maybe that’s why Martin struck such a chord with me. Could it be that I want the chance to show a child of my own what a family can really be? I can’t imagine what it would be like, but something in me seems to want it.
I’m awakened by the annoying squawking of birds in the branches above me and by a ray of sunlight that has fanned out over my eyes. I test my forehead—I’m still feeling feverish—and pull out a crumpled sack from my book bag. I chomp into the salami-and-turkey sandwich Estelle made for me and watch the other students playing basketball in the distant courts. I actually like playing basketball. Maybe I should join in on a game, make some new friends. But not today. My body’s just not up for any unnecessary physical activity. So I sit out the fifteen minutes left until the bell rings, then head off to Mr. Perry’s class.
We spend the session with our partners discussing our projects. Mario and I decide to stick with his initial idea of linking all the photos we’ve taken of the minerals and gems into a huge necklace. We agree that the idea is genius, high-five each other, and agree to work on it after class over at his house.
When we meet up at the parking lot at the end of the day, I follow him to a brand-new blue Ford Mustang.
“Not bad, huh?” He grins. “I bought it a few months back.” He slides his hand over the hood, then hurdles over the door and into the driver’s seat.
“Wait… you bought this yourself? How? You run a prostitution ring or something I don’t know about?” I ask jokingly.
“Ha-ha, funny guy.” He chuckles, goes silent for a few moments and adds, “I don’t talk about it too much, but my parents were killed by a drunk driver the New Year’s Eve before I moved up here. They left me behind some money to take care of myself… and…well, I decided to buy this car.”
“Man, I’ am so sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“Hey, don’t worry about it. It’s cool. Really.” He interrupts me. “It’s done, you know? There are some things you just can’t control.”
He shrugs as he lowers the window and blasts the radio. We drive in style to his home. I guess this is what the cool kids feel like. I don’t press the topic. I just let my arm dangle over the rolled-down window and enjoy the feeling of the fast beating wind. I close my eyes and listen to the lyrics of the blaring music.
After about a fifteen-minute drive, I’m astonished when he pulls up in front of a massive, two-story light-gray Colonial home with a three car garage. It’s got to sit on at least an acre and a half, and is bordered by perfectly manicured hedges and blossoming flowers.
“Dude, you live here?”
“Yep. Bought the house, too. What d’you think?” He pauses and gives me a sly grin. I stare are him, deer-in-headlights sort of look.
He gives me a playful shove. “Come on, man.” He snickers obnoxiously. “It’s not mine. It’s my aunt and uncle’s.”
I pretend to punch his arm. “Asshole.”
We’re still laughing when we reach the gigantic glass French front doors. He opens the right side, exposing a marble-floored foyer that shines as if it’s been mopped in oil and three independent half-oval shaped hallways covered with white bricks.
He walks me through the house pointing things out. “That hall on the left leads to the entertainment room and office. And that one on the right has a guest room and bathroom.” He stops in the center and waves me forward. “The middle one’s where we’re going. To the kitchen. I’m starving.”
The hall we walk through is a cavernous gallery decorated with black-and-white family photos, and leads into an open, state-of-the-art kitchen that looks like something out of a one of those cooking shows on TV. Beyond it is a dining room and living area that would swallow Bud and Estelle’s whole downstairs. In one corner of the kitchen is an industrial-style glass-and-steel staircase.
Mario points. “My room’s up there, along with the rest of the bedrooms.” He pulls a frozen pizza out of the freezer next to the refrigerator, and pops it into the triple oven.
I’m in awe. “Dude, this is ridiculous!”
“Hey, bro, it’s just a house.” He shrugs. “You get over it after a while.” He leads me into the living area, where we sink down on a sleek leather couch and chat and joke about nothing in particular until we’re interrupted by a female electronic voice from the kitchen. “Your pizza is now ready, Beefcake.”
“You’re kidding me.” I say. “Did your stove just call you ‘Beefcake’?”
Mario laughs his way to the oven, where he retrieves the bubbling triple-cheese-and-sausage pizza. “It’s my favorite option on this thing. Last month she called me ‘Stud.’ I love Shelly – that’s what I named her. Ain’t no other girl going to make food like she does.” He closes the oven door and pats it gently. “That’s mah baby. Atta girl.”
After the three gulps it takes to swallow the pizza, we decide it’s time to get to work. I follow him up the staircase to the second floor and along a hallway with a series of doors. Halfway along the hall, I stop in front of an acrylic console table set against the wall that’s adorned with more family photos.
One in particular catches my full attention—a hot girl, smiling mischievously. Eyes the color of honey... wavy, shoulder-length dark-brown hair... perfect heart-shaped lips... Her eyes seem to be gazing right at me. For an instant, I could swear she winks at me.
I’m so captivated that I jump when Mario says, “That’s my cousin. Alanna. She died like twelve years back, in 1999. Nasty car accident.” He points to a door at the far end of the hallway. “That’s her room. My aunt and uncle haven’t changed a thing in it ever since. I don’t know why. It’s not like anyone even goes in there.”
I can’t take my eyes from her photo. “She was gorgeous. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Hey man, like I said before, there are just some things you can’t control. I miss her, though... She was like the older sister I never had.”
“How old was she?”
“She was 18 there. I was just, uh, six, I think, when she died.” He too stares at the photo with longing eyes, as if he hasn’t actually acknowledged her in a while. “We better get started,” he says, walking with his head down towards his room.
His room is everything sports. A large beanbag football in the corner, framed jerseys hanging from the walls. No dolphins here. We upload the photos from each of our cameras onto his computer and print out our favorites, then scatter the 20 we’ve selected on the carpet.
“Well, that’s a start,” I say, hovering over the photos and scanning each one.
“Yeah,” Mario agrees. “Think this is enough for the day?”
I chuckle. “We barely did anything.”
“I’m tired as hell.” He grins.
“All good. How about we get a fresh start tomorrow?”
As we’re picking up our stuff from the floor, I glimpse a framed photo on his nightstand that I missed earlier—Mario, about 9 years old, riding on a man’s shoulders as a lady tickles him from behind the man. Mario’s smile is wild and free, teeth barred with carefree joy.
I pick it up and glide my finger over the glass, but barely touching it. Not a speckle of dust. Most people’s framed photos always have some dust on them.
“This is them, huh? Your parents?” I ask hesitantly.
He looks up and a big smile comes over his face. “Yeah, that’s them. It’s my favorite photo of us.”
“You’ve lost a lot of people who mattered to you. I know what that’s like.” I pause. “I know I said it already, but I’m sorry.”
“It’s cool, man. I keep it there because that’s how I want to always remember them.”
It’s perfect. The image makes me feel as good as it makes me feel bad. I wish I could share my abilities with him. Tell him it didn’t have to be the last time he saw them. I think I could trust him. He’s a lot like me…in a way. Just a lot cooler.
Not now. But maybe one day.
Mario drops me off at the Metro station with a booming “See you tomorrow!” and peels out with a screech of burning rubber. I smile, realizing we share even more than I thought—both lost our parents, both new kids in school, both lovers of photography. It’s probably natural that we just click, but it’s odd because he’s the type of guy that I’d take one look at and think he’d never consider talking to me. That’s how it was at my last school. It wasn’t so easy to make friends, but maybe that was my fault because was always afraid to make a friend and have them discover what I faced at home.
Besides, I figured that at some point, any friend I managed to make would up and leave, just like everything good in my life always had before. So why bother?
But now I’m thinking I was wrong. That there’s a tremendous reason to open up—the love you never experience until you do.
Mario’s cousin, Alanna, sticks in my brain. I can’t stop thinking of her and the life that poured from her photo. Even if it was only a photo, something about it, or about her, drew me in. Some energy... something telling me that she was calling out to me.
When I hit my sheets, I stare up at my ceiling. I want to see her. I know that’s crazy but I can’t help it. It’s not just that she’s pretty, there’s something else. Maybe I can borrow a few photos without Mario catching me. I won’t change anything, I tell myself. I just want to see. My mind drifts off, my thoughts skitter from one plan to another, but eventually I fall into a deep sleep that takes me peacefully through a night filled with images of Alanna.