sábado, 21 de abril de 2018

The Raven King




It looked like Halloween outside, only two months too early. Last week Palmetto State University was covered in orange and white streamers to celebrate the start of the school year. Over the weekend someone had replaced all of the white ribbons with black ones. It gave the impression the campus was in mourning. Neil Josten thought it a cheap tribute, but that might have been his cynicism talking.
He forgave himself for being jaded. At eighteen years old, he'd seen more people die than he could comfortably count. Death was unpleasant, but it was a familiar and tolerable ache in his chest. Seth Gordon's unexpected overdose Saturday night should have meant something more to Neil since they'd been teammates and roommates for three months, but Neil felt nothing. Keeping himself alive was hard enough most days; he had no time to linger over others' misfortunes.
Rock music blared to life, temporarily filling the silence in the car, but it vanished as quickly as it'd come. Neil dragged his attention away from the streamers and looked up front. Nicholas "Nicky" Hemmick let his hand fall away from the dashboard with a quiet curse. Across the backseat from Neil, Nicky's cousin Aaron Minyard shoved the back of the driver's seat. Whether it was admonition for trying to pretend things were okay or a silent show of support, Neil wasn't sure. The cousins' relationship was a tangled mess he wouldn't live long enough to figure out.
Nicky reached for the radio again. Kevin Day was sitting shotgun, so he saw Nicky move first. He pushed Nicky's hand away and said, "It's fine. Let it go."
"I don't want to do this," Nicky said, low and miserable.
No one else answered him, but Neil thought they all agreed. None of them were looking forward to today's practice, but they could only take so much time off when the season was already underway. At least Coach David Wymack was calling them back to the court on a Wednesday afternoon. Andrew Minyard, Aaron's twin brother, had his weekly therapy sessions on Wednesdays.
Generally Andrew's wild mood wasn't a problem, but Andrew's cheer didn't make him at all friendly. An excitable Andrew confronted with the death of his least-favorite teammate was a recipe for disaster. The team should have come together Sunday morning to grieve their loss, but Andrew and Matt got into an ugly brawl instead.
Wymack forcibly separated the team after that. The upperclassmen moved in with team nurse Abby Winfield, and the cousins and Kevin were banned to the dorm. Neil would have stayed at the dorm, too, but Wymack didn't want him alone in the room he'd shared with Matt and Seth. Instead Neil spent a couple nights sleeping on Wymack's couch. Neil thought Wymack's concern was misplaced but he knew better than to argue.
Seth died Saturday night and was cremated Monday afternoon. From what Neil heard, Seth's mother signed off on everything but didn't even show up at the crematorium to collect her son's ashes. Allison Reynolds, Seth's on-again off-again girlfriend and the Foxes' defensive dealer, kept his urn instead. Neil didn't know if she planned on burying it or keeping it in her dorm room the rest of the year. He wasn't going to ask. He still didn't know what to think about the role he might have played in Seth's death. Until he sorted that out he'd rather avoid Allison altogether.
Allison wouldn't be at practice today, but the others would. Neil hadn't seen the upperclassmen since Sunday morning and he knew the reunion was going to be rough. They were only two days away from the second game of the season, though, and they had to pull together somehow. The Foxes had never had particularly good odds, but this upcoming year was looking bleak. They were already the smallest team in NCAA Class I Exy. Now they were the smallest a team could be and still qualify to play. They'd lost their only fifth-year senior, and their remaining offense team consisted of an injured national champion and an amateur.
Orange glinted at the edge of his peripheral vision. Palmetto State's Exy stadium was hard to miss, built to seat sixty-five thousand fans and painted with the brightest orange and white paints the school could find. Giant fox paws marked each of the four outer walls. The black ribbons extended all the way here: every lamp post in the parking lots and every one of the twenty-four gates was covered in streamers. The Foxes' locked entrance was covered in silent tribute. Pictures of Seth with friends and scribbled notes from teachers were taped to the door.
Nicky pulled up to the curb but didn't kill the engine. Neil climbed out of the backseat and looked over the hood of the car to count squad cars. Kevin's presence on the team meant the Foxes needed full-time security, but the numbers had doubled over the summer when Kevin's former team transferred to the southeastern district. Neil was getting used to seeing campus police everywhere he went, but he would always hate the sight of them.
Nicky pulled away as soon as Aaron and Kevin got out. There was no point in him changing out for practice yet, since he'd have to get Andrew from Reddin Medical Center in a half-hour. Neil watched his car turn out of the parking lot onto the road, then looked to his teammates.
It was no secret everyone in Andrew's four-man group hated Seth, but Aaron and Nicky were still human enough to be rattled by his sudden death. Kevin's initial reaction to the news had been heartless, but he'd also been completely wasted at the time. Neil didn't know if he'd scrounged up any remorse since sobering up.
Neil was curious which one of them would cop to apathy first, but he was only so patient. When thirty seconds passed and neither had moved, Neil gave up on them and went to the Foxes' entrance. The code was supposed to change every couple months, but with the Ravens in their district Wymack now changed it every week. This week it was the last four digits of Abby's phone number. Neil was starting to think his teammates were right about Wymack and Abby's invisible relationship.
They filed down the hall to the locker room. That door was unlocked, and the lights were on inside, but the lounge was empty. Neil went to investigate while Aaron and Kevin got settled. A hallway connected the lounge to the foyer, the official meet-and-greet room where the Foxes could speak to the press before and after games. The door on the foyer's back wall, which led into the stadium itself, was still locked. Neil backtracked to the hall where the changing rooms and offices were. Wymack's office door was closed, but if Neil listened for a minute he heard Wymack's muffled voice through the wood. Satisfied no one was here who shouldn't be, Neil went back to the others.
Aaron and Kevin were rearranging the furniture when Neil walked in. Neil watched as they pushed the chairs and couches into a V-shape, then asked, "What are you doing?"
"Finding a new way to make us fit," Aaron said, "unless you want to stare an empty chair in the face all season."
"It's the same number of cushions," Neil said.
"Four people barely fit on a couch. Five is out of the question."
"Five?"
Kevin looked at him like he was stupid. Neil was painfully familiar with that look by now, but even after four months working with Kevin he still didn't appreciate it.
"You do know your place, don't you?" Kevin asked.
Until Saturday night, Neil had never been stupid enough to think he had a place. Andrew promised he could change that, but his protection had a price tag. Andrew would protect Neil from his past if Neil helped him keep Kevin at Palmetto State. It sounded easy enough, but Nicky warned him there was more to it. Neil was supposed to do it from the inside of Andrew's dysfunctional group. He couldn't hide on the fringes anymore.
Neil looked at the new arrangement in the lounge again and understood. This summer Andrew's four had all squished onto one couch. Now they could spread out, three on the couch and two to the chairs on either side. The remaining upperclassmen got the couch and chair opposite them.
Neil started for the chair on the end, since he'd always had the outside seat, but Aaron sank into it first. Neil hesitated a second too long, and Aaron finally spelled it out for him. "You're on the couch with Kevin and Andrew. Sit down."
"I don't like being boxed in," Neil said, "and I don't want to sit next to your brother."
"Nicky put up with it for a year," Aaron said. "You can deal with it."
"You're his family," Neil said, not like it meant a thing to them. Wymack only recruited athletes from broken homes. At the Foxhole Court "family" was a fantasy invented to make books and Hollywood movies more interesting. Neil knew it was a lost cause even as he said it, so he took the seat Aaron had assigned him.
Kevin sat after Neil did, leaving space between them for Andrew. Neil looked around the room again and wondered how the upperclassmen would adjust to the new layout. His stare fell on the oversized schedule hanging above the TV and his stomach knotted as he read down the list. Friday, October 13th was the day the last-ranked Foxes went up against the first-ranked Edgar Allan University Ravens. It was bound to be a disaster.
Wymack's door opened down the hall, but a half-second later the phone started ringing. Wymack didn't bother to close his door again before answering. From what Neil could hear, someone was harassing Wymack about the team's tiny line-up. Wymack's obvious irritation made his reassurances less than convincing, but Neil knew he believed every word he was saying. Wymack didn't care if he had nine Foxes or twenty-five. He'd stand behind them until the bitter, bloody end.
Wymack was still going at it when the lounge door opened. Captain Danielle Wilds was the first into the room, but her boyfriend Matt Boyd and best friend Renee Walker were right behind her. They only made it a couple steps into the room before grinding to a halt.
Dan pointed at Neil but stared at Kevin. "What is that about?"
Aaron answered, "You knew what it meant when we took him Saturday night."
Wymack slammed his phone down. Neil wondered if the argument really was over or if he'd used the arrival of more Foxes as an excuse to get off the phone. He strode into the lounge a couple seconds later and followed Dan's finger to Neil. He looked from Neil to Kevin to Aaron, then around the room at the new layout, then back at Neil.
"Last I checked Andrew didn't like you," Wymack said.
"He still doesn't," Neil said, but he didn't bother to explain.
"Interesting." Wymack eyed Neil a moment longer before turning on the upperclassmen. "Sit down, would you? We need to talk."
Wymack leaned against the entertainment center and waited for them to get settled. He folded his arms across his chest and studied each of his Foxes in turn.
"Abby wrote me a speech to give you this afternoon. It sounded nice, had lots of stuff about courage and loss and coming together in everyone's time of need. I tore it up and tossed it in the trash can beside my desk.
"I'm not here to offer you kind words and pats on the back. I'm not here to be a shoulder to cry on. Take that up with Abby or go down to Reddin and talk to Betsy. My job is to be your coach no matter what, to keep you moving and get you back on the court whether you're ready to be there or not. That probably makes me the bad guy here, but we all have to live with it."
Wymack looked at the empty chairs across from him. Palmetto State's Exy team was on its fifth year now. Wymack built the Foxes from the ground up and handpicked Seth for his first starting line. Between the players' personal problems, a faulty original contract that let players walk out, and the option to graduate in four years instead of five, Seth was the only one who'd made it to a fifth year with the team. Seth had been a lot of things, most of them unpleasant, but he'd definitely been a fighter. Now he was gone.
Wymack cleared his throat and scratched a hand through his short hair. "Look. Shit happened. Shit's going to keep happening. You don't need me to tell you life isn't fair. You're here because you know it isn't. Life doesn't care what we want out of it; it's up to us to fight for what we want with everything we've got. Seth wanted us to win. He wanted us to make it past the fourth match. I think we owe it to him to perform. Let's show the world what we've got. Let's make this our year."
"We've lost enough, don't you think?" Dan asked her teammates. "It's time to win."
Matt laced his fingers through hers and squeezed. "Let's take it all the way to finals."
"Words don't mean anything to me," Wymack said. "Prove to me on my court you have what it takes to make it to championships. I want you on the court in light gear in five minutes or I'll sign you all up for a marathon."
Wymack's odd idea of pep talk was missing its usual feigned anger, but his words were familiar enough to get the team moving. The men's locker room was silent as they dressed. Neil carried his things into one of the bathroom stalls to change. A vanity separated the toilets from the shower stalls, and Neil stopped there on his way back to consider his reflection.
Neil had a love-hate relationship with his reflection out of necessity. He was the spitting image of the murderous father he'd run away from eight years ago. Hair dye and contacts were the easiest way to hide his face, but keeping up with it when he lived with the Foxes was exhausting. He checked his roots twice a day every day and slept with his back to the room so he could take his contacts out at night. The case was kept in his pillow case and he had spare lenses in his wallet. It was tricky, but it helped keep him alive and safe. Neil didn't think it was going to be enough anymore.
He didn't realize how long he'd stalled until Matt and Kevin came looking for him. He saw their reflections as they stepped into the doorway behind him but didn't turn around.
"All the way to finals?" Neil asked.
"Miracles happen," Matt said.
"Don't rely on something as insubstantial as a miracle," Kevin said. "You won't win anything by standing around. Finish getting changed and get down to the court."
"One day I want you to look up 'insensitivity' in the dictionary," Matt said, annoyed. "I'm sure it'll do your ego wonders to see your picture printed there beside it."
"No," Neil said before Kevin could respond. "He's right. The chance of Coach finding us another striker when the year's already started is slim. Until he figures something out, Kevin and I are all you've got, and neither one of us is good enough."
"Hear that, Kevin?" Matt said. "Your sub said you're incompetent."
"His opinion doesn't matter to me," Kevin said.
He didn't deny Neil's words, though, and Neil heard that even if Matt didn't. Kevin was raised a left-handed striker, but Riko broke his playing hand last December in a fit of jealous rage. Kevin had been trying to relearn the game right-handed since March, but he was nowhere near as good as he'd once been. Public opinion said he was a genius for managing to play at all these days, but Kevin felt his fall from grace keenly. As brutal as Kevin could be toward the rest of the team, he was hardest on himself. It was the only reason Neil tolerated his condescension.
Neil pushed away from the mirrors and finished getting ready. Dan and Renee were waiting for the men in the foyer, and they went into the stadium for warm-ups. After forty minutes of laps and interval runs they trekked back into the locker room for water. They were stretching out as a group when the front door open.
Neil glanced at the upperclassmen to judge their reactions as Nicky and Andrew joined them in the foyer. Dan went back to her stretches after a split-second glance in their direction, and Matt's expression tightened when he spotted Andrew's smiling face. Only Renee managed a smile, and her voice was friendly, if quiet, when she said hello.
"Hi Renee," Andrew returned. "Are you moving back into the dorm yet?"
"Tonight," Renee said. "We packed Matt's truck this morning."
Andrew accepted that without argument and vanished into the locker room to change. Nicky hung back a minute, looking a little uncertain as he faced his teammates for the first time in days. Dan looked at him again, but her stony face was not encouraging.
"Hey," Nicky said, subdued. "Holding up?"
"Somehow or other," Dan said. She didn't ask how Nicky was. Chances were she didn't want to know.
Nicky said nothing for a bit, then, "How is Allison?"
"Do you care?" Matt asked.
"Matt," Renee said in quiet rebuke. To Nicky, she said, "She's having a hard time right now, as expected, but we make sure she's never alone. She still won't speak to Betsy, but I think she'll open up soon."
"Yeah," Nicky agreed, barely a whisper.
Wymack waited until he was sure they were done and then gestured at Nicky. "You two get down to the court and start doing laps. I don't pay for electricity in this place so you can stand around and gossip. The rest of you finish up here and get some water. As soon as Andrew and Nicky are ready we're suiting up for drills. We've got—" Wymack stopped at the sound of his phone ringing down the hall. "These leeches are going to drive me insane. I should have invested in a secretary."
Nicky went into the changing room while Wymack went in search of the phone. Neil was standing at the back of the foyer, closest to the hall, so he heard when Wymack answered. Despite Wymack's obvious annoyance, he managed a civil tone.
"Coach Wymack, Palmetto State University. Say again? One moment." Wymack stepped into the hall with the portable receiver in his hand. He muted the speaker with the press of his thumb and kicked open the door to the men's changing room. "Andrew Joseph Minyard, what the flying fuck have you done this time?"
"It wasn't me, it was the one-armed man!" Andrew yelled from out of sight.
"Get out here!" Wymack yelled back as the door swung closed. Andrew appeared a couple seconds later, already changed into his uniform. Wymack pointed the phone at him and said, "The police are on the phone for you. You'd better come clean with me before I get the unabridged version from them."
"It wasn't me. Ask my doppelganger?"
Wymack scowled at him, turned the microphone back on, and put the phone at his ear. "What seems to be the problem, Officer… Higgins, you said?"
"Oh," Andrew said, startled. "No, Coach."
Wymack waved at him to be quiet, but Andrew grabbed Wymack's wrist and wrenched the phone out of his grasp. Wymack caught his jersey before Andrew could run off. Andrew didn't try to wiggle free but stared at the phone in his hand like he'd never seen such technology before.
"Don't make him wait all day," Wymack said.
Andrew turned, not enough to break loose but enough he could see his brother. Aaron had stopped mid-stretch to stare at him. Andrew threw his hands up in an exaggerated shrug and finally put the phone at his ear.
"Pig Higgins, is that you?" Andrew asked. "Oh, it is. Yes, I'm surprised. Did you forget I don't like surprises? What? No, don't stall. You wouldn't hunt me down after all this time just to chat, so what do you want?" Andrew went quiet for a few seconds to listen, then said, "No," and hung up.
The phone started ringing again almost immediately. The Foxes were staring openly now, their stretches forgotten. Wymack didn't order them back to business, so Matt sat on one of the benches to watch this odd scene unfold. Andrew yanked at his jersey until Wymack let go, then put space between them as fast as he could. He leaned against the wall, clapped his free hand over his ear, and answered the phone.
"What? No, I didn't hang up on you. I wouldn't do that. I—no. Shut up."
Andrew hung up again, but Higgins was persistent enough to call a third time. Andrew let it ring five times before answering with an explosive sigh.
"Talk to me," Andrew said, and waited as Higgins explained himself all over again.
Higgins went on for a good two minutes. Whatever he was saying couldn't be good; the conversation was visibly cutting through Andrew's drug-induced mania. Andrew's smile was long gone, and he started tapping his foot halfway through Higgins' story. He looked away from Aaron as the last of his cheer bleached out of his expression and pointed his gaze at the ceiling instead.
"Go back," Andrew finally said. "Who complained? Oh, Pig, don't give me the runaround. I know where you work, you see. I know who you work with. That means there's a child in her house. She isn't supposed—what? No. Don't ask me that. I said don't. Leave me alone. Hey," Andrew said, a little louder like he was trying to drown the officer's arguments out. "Call me again and I'll kill you."
He hung up. This time the phone stayed silent. Andrew waited to make sure Higgins got the hint, then put one hand over his eyes and started laughing.
"What's so funny?" Nicky asked as he rejoined them. "What did I miss?"
"Oh, nothing," Andrew said. "No worries."
Wymack looked from Andrew to Aaron and back again. "Now what have you done?"
Andrew spread his fingers and peered between them at Wymack. "What makes you think this is my fault?"
"I hope that's a rhetorical question," Wymack said, not at all fooled by Andrew's innocent act. "Why is the Oakland PD calling you?"
"The pig and I go way back," Andrew said. "He just wanted to catch up."
"You lie to my face one more time and we're going to have a problem."
"It was mostly the truth." Andrew dropped his hand and tossed the phone across the room. It hit the ground so hard the back popped off. The handset slid one direction and the battery went the other. "He worked with the Oakland PAL program. Thought he could save at-risk kids by teaching them sports after school. Kind of like you, yes? Idealistic to the core."
"You left Oakland three years ago."
"Yes, yes, I'm so flattered he remembers me, or something." Andrew waved one hand in a lazy 'what can you do' gesture and started for the door. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Wymack put an arm into his path. "Where are you going?"
"I'm leaving." Andrew pointed past Wymack in the direction of the exit. "Didn't I say I'll see you tomorrow? Maybe I mumbled."
"We've got practice," Dan said. "We have a game on Friday."
"You have Joan of Exy over there. Make do without me."
"Cut the shit, Andrew," Wymack said. "What is really going on here?"
Andrew put a hand to his forehead dramatically. "I think I'm coming down with something. Cough, cough. Best I leave before I infect your team. There's so few of them left. You can't stand to lose anyone else."
Impatience pulled Kevin's mouth into a hard line. "Knock it off. You can't leave."
There was a heartbeat of silence, and then Andrew turned around with a wide, wicked smile on his lips. "I can't, Kevin? I'll show you what I can't do. Try and put me on your court today and I'll take myself off it permanently. Fuck your practice, your line-up, and your stupid fucking game."
"That's enough. We don't have time for your tantrums."
Andrew twisted and punched the wall hard enough to split the skin along his knuckles. Kevin took a quick step forward, hand out like he could stop Andrew from landing a second blow, but Wymack was closer. He caught Andrew's arm and hauled him away from the wall. Andrew didn't look away from Kevin to acknowledge the interference. Only when Kevin finally stepped back did Andrew try to pull free of Wymack's grip.
"Cough, cough, Coach," Andrew said. "I'm leaving now."
"Coach, let him go," Aaron said. "Please."
Wymack flicked a frustrated look between them, but Aaron was staring at his feet and Andrew's smile explained nothing. Finally Wymack dropped his hand and said, "You and I are going to have a very long talk later, Andrew."
"Sure," Andrew said, a bright and blatant lie. He was gone a heartbeat later.
"Seriously," Nicky said when the door slammed behind Andrew, "what did I miss?"
 "Answers now, Aaron," Wymack said.
"I don't know," Aaron said.
"My ass you don't."
"I don't know," Aaron said again, a little louder. "I don't know why Higgins is calling. Call him back or take it up with Andrew if you want answers. He was Andrew's mentor, not mine. I only met the guy once."
"He obviously left an impression if you still remember him."
"Oh," Nicky said in startled realization. "Is he—?"
He didn't finish, but Aaron understood what he was asking.

"Yeah," Aaron said. "He's the one who told me I had a brother."




Aaron's cryptic remark was the only answer they got from him at practice. Wymack stopped pushing the second things got personal. Neil expected the upperclassmen to say something about it when they put court walls between themselves and Wymack, but apparently they shared Wymack's tact. They flicked curious looks at Aaron and Nicky from time to time but no one pushed for an explanation.
Without Seth around to pick fights with Kevin and Nicky, Allison on hand to fuss at anyone within hearing range, or Andrew chattering away in goal, their drills were almost alarmingly quiet. Practice could have been a complete waste of time if not for Kevin and Dan. Kevin was too single-minded about Exy to let anything distract him when he was on the court, and Dan knew her role as their captain. She kept them moving when they slowed and talked through the awkward silences. Even still, Neil thought they were all relieved when Wymack finally called an end to practice.
They left the stadium at the same time, but Nicky's distaste for traffic laws got them to Fox Tower first. Nicky found a spot near the back of the athletes' parking lot and they headed for the dorm as a group. Halfway there they noticed the figure waiting for them on the sidewalk. Andrew sat cross-legged on the curb, hands on his ankles as he watched their approach.
"You shouldn't be outside if you're coming down with something," Kevin said.
"Such concern." Andrew grinned at Kevin's cool tone. "Don't cry, Kevin. It's nothing a nap and some vitamin C can't fix."
Nicky crouched in front of Andrew. "Hey. You good?"
"You ask strange questions, Nicky."
"I'm concerned, is all."
"Sounds like your problem. Oh, there we go, finally."
Neil looked back as Matt turned into the parking lot. Matt circled twice before he found a spot large enough to fit his truck. Andrew batted at Nicky's face in a silent order to get out of the way, so Nicky stood and stepped off to one side. Andrew waited until Dan, Matt, and Renee were close enough to hear him before lifting his hand in greeting and saying,
"Renee, you made it! Welcome back. I'm borrowing you. You don't mind, do you? I knew you wouldn't."
Renee nodded. "Do I need anything?"
 "I've already got it." Andrew hopped to his feet and set off across the parking lot.
Renee did an about-face and followed. She caught up in a couple long strides and fell in alongside him. Neil looked at Dan. Her mouth was a thin, hard line but she didn't look surprised and she didn't call after them. Matt opened his mouth, then took his cue from Dan's silence and decided not to say anything. No one else moved until Andrew and Renee reached the far edge of the parking lot, and then Aaron turned abruptly away. Instead of heading inside, he started down the sidewalk that looped around front of Fox Tower and led back to campus.
"Right," Matt said at last. "Are we going to talk about this?"
Nicky rubbed his arms as if warding off a chill, never mind that it was almost a hundred degrees outside, and jerked his chin at the door. "Not without a drink, we aren't."
The school's Exy team had three suites on the third floor. Andrew's lot had the room closest to the stairs, the girls were in the middle, and Matt and Neil were on the end in the room they'd once shared with Seth. Dan slipped her hand into Matt's as they approached the suite door and squeezed so hard her knuckles went white. Matt didn't seem to take any strength from it. He stared at the key ring in his free hand like he'd forgotten which one would let him in.
"He was such an asshole," Matt said quietly.
"I know," Dan said.
Matt sucked in a slow breath and finally unlocked the door. He pushed the door open, then flinched back from the doorway and clutched harder at Dan's hand. The grim look on Dan's face had Neil edging forward, but it was difficult to see past Matt. Neil didn't have long to wait; Dan steeled up the courage to move first and tugged Matt into the room with her. Neil paused in the doorway to take stock of the changes.
Neil hadn't been in his room since Sunday morning, and then he'd stopped by only long enough to pack a bag for Wymack's place. On Sunday the room looked as it always had. In the few days since then someone had come by and cleared out Seth's things. The third desk was gone, as was the nightstand Seth converted into shelves for his schoolwork. It left a too-obvious gap between Neil's and Matt's things.
Neil left Matt and Dan staring at the new emptiness and went to the bedroom. His and Matt's beds were still lofted one above the other, but Seth's bed had been taken back by resident services. The remaining two dressers that'd once been hidden under Seth's bed were now exposed to the room, their neglected tops covered in a fine layer of dust. It was like Seth had never been here, like he'd never existed at all.
Neil wondered if he would disappear so easily.
He left his duffel on his dresser and went back into the living room. Matt and Dan were sitting pressed together on the couch. Matt was looking at the wall where Seth's desk used to be. Dan studied Neil's face but said nothing. Maybe she knew he didn't need her comfort, or maybe there was just nothing to say.
Kevin and Nicky weren't long in joining them. Nicky brought a handle of rum and an open bottle of cola, so Kevin collected glasses from the kitchen cabinets. Nicky tore his gaze away from the open space in the room with obvious effort. He set the drinks down on the coffee table before kneeling across from Dan and Matt. Kevin set five glasses on the table and sat at Nicky's side.
Neil took his cup off the table before Nicky could serve him anything and sat at one end of the coffee table where he could see everyone. Nicky poured their drinks, passed them out, and raised his glass in silent toast to the room. No one joined him, but Nicky didn't wait. He downed half his drink without coming up for air. Nicky topped it off with more rum and looked across the room again to the gap where Seth's desk once stood.
"So," Nicky started, sounding more than a little uncomfortable. "This is, uh."
Matt didn't give him time to figure it out. The look on his face said he wasn't ready to talk about Seth yet, especially not with Nicky. He dragged Nicky's attention back to a safer topic by saying, "Why didn't Aaron know he had a brother?"
Nicky winced, but Neil didn't know what bothered him more: the question or the rough edge in Matt's voice.
"They're twins," Nicky said. He waited for them to catch on, looked from one blank face to another, and frowned disbelief. "Think about it for a sec, would you? Imagine you're my Aunt Tilda. How eager would you be to tell Aaron you gave up his brother at birth? She hoped that secret would stay buried forever."
"But Aaron found out," Neil said.
Nicky flashed Neil a tight-lipped smile. "Yeah, and that's why I believe in fate. See, Aaron was born and raised in San Jose. Apparently Aunt Tilda got bored of dating locally and started going to online matching sites. Right after Aaron turned thirteen Aunt Tilda hooked up with this new guy up in Oakland. Her boyfriend thought they should meet at a Raiders game, something nice and public and fun, so she stuffed Aaron in the car and off they went.
"Aaron said he was at the concession stand when this cop walked up, calling him Andrew and talking like they knew each other. Aaron thought he was either crazy or confused, but it didn't take the cop long to figure out something was wrong."
"Higgins," Matt guessed.
"Yeah. Soon as Higgins figured out he had the wrong brother he made Aaron take him back to where Aunt Tilda was. See, Higgins thought Aunt Tilda was another foster mother and that Aaron and Andrew had somehow gotten split up in the system. Higgins wanted to reunite them, so Aunt Tilda gave him her phone number to pass along and took Aaron home again.
"I don't know why she bothered. Maybe she was too embarrassed to say no or didn't want to explain to a cop what was going on. Either way, Andrew's foster mother called the next day to set up a meet-and-greet, and Aunt Tilda refused. She told the fosters she didn't want anything to do with Andrew, didn't want to know what he was like or how he was doing, nothing. She even made them promise to not contact her ever again."
Nicky finished his second drink and mixed a third. "But Aaron knew who was calling, and he was too excited to wait on his mom to hang up to find out the details. As soon as she picked up in the kitchen, he ran to her bedroom and listened in on the upstairs phone. That's how he found out the truth." Nicky looked down at his drink. "Aaron said it was the worst day of his life."
"Jesus," Matt said. "I don't blame him. Did he tell her he'd heard her?"
"Oh, yeah. Aaron said they had it out. But Aunt Tilda wouldn't budge, so Aaron went behind her back and called the Oakland PD. He found the PAL coordinators and gave them his information to give to Andrew. Two weeks later he got a letter in the mail that basically said 'Fuck you, go away'."
Matt rubbed at his temples. "Yeah, that sounds like Andrew."
"Some things never change," Nicky said.
"So how'd Aaron change Andrew's mind?" Dan asked.
Nicky gave her an odd look. "He didn't."
"Wait," Dan said. "What do you mean, he didn't?"
"I mean he didn't try again. I don't know who told Andrew's foster parents about Aaron, if it was Andrew or this Phil guy, but Andrew's foster mom wrote Aaron a letter. She wanted Aaron to try again in spring and said something about holidays being rough and there being a lot of changes at the house. So Aaron waited, but he waited too long. In March Andrew went off to juvie, and Aaron started rethinking this brother thing. Two months later Aunt Tilda sold the house in San Jose and moved Aaron to Columbia."
Dan looked bewildered. "Then when did they meet?"
"Dad found out about Andrew five years ago, so…" Nicky counted time on his fingers. "Four and a half years ago, give or take a bit. Dad went to California to interview Andrew's foster family and stop by juvie. A month later he flew Aaron out so Aaron and Andrew could talk, but I don't count that half-hour supervised session as a first meeting. They met for real when Andrew made early parole a year later and Dad bullied Aunt Tilda into bringing Andrew home."
Nicky nursed his drink for a bit. "Weird when you think about it, right? They've only really known each other for three years."
"That's messed up," Matt said.
"Yeah, and that's the nice version of the story," Nicky said. "Anyway, that's how Aaron and Andrew know Higgins. I don't know why he's calling Andrew now, but I'm not going to ask. I kind of view Andrew's foster life as an off-limits topic. I don't bring it up until he does."
"Is that really okay?" Dan asked. "It didn't sound like a 'Long time no see' kind of phone call. What if someone's dug up some past crime of his that could get him taken off our court? Maybe Phil was calling to warn him about an investigation."
"Andrew will take care of it," Nicky said.
"That's not comforting," Dan said, but she let it drop.
Somehow Nicky and Kevin ended up eating dinner with them. It was the first time since the upperclassmen moved to campus in June that Neil had seen any of Andrew's lot socialize with the rest of the team. Neil attributed it to the twins' absence. He'd heard Nicky complain to Aaron about the cousins' isolationist stance, but Aaron hadn't been swayed by Nicky's unhappiness. Now, without Aaron to distract him or Andrew to shepherd him out of the way, Nicky was free to do as he liked.
They ordered delivery so they wouldn't have to leave again, and Dan put in a movie to avoid another unpleasant conversation. The film was over before any of their teammates made it back, but that was as far as Nicky cared to press his luck.
"Good night," he said after he'd helped clear away the dinner trash.
"See you in the morning," Dan said, and closed the door behind him and Kevin. When she let go of the knob, she turned a strange look on Matt. "That was weird."
"Yeah," Matt agreed. "Chances of it happening again?"
"Matt," Dan said, but hesitated. She glanced at the far wall where Seth's desk had been as if she wasn't sure she dared say her next words aloud. "What could this mean for our season?"
Because Wymack purposefully recruited troubled individuals, the Foxes had been a fractured mess from day one. They were a team with no concept of teamwork and they determined their hierarchy through force. But when summer practices started, ninety percent of conflict on the court began with Seth. Seth was always ready for a fight with Kevin and the cousins. He wouldn't work with them on the court and refused to deal with them off it. It constantly forced the Foxes to take sides.
Matt's expression was guarded, like he wasn't sure they could have this conversation so soon after Seth's death, but he answered. "Don't get your hopes up. They don't care about Seth. They won't rally behind him like this."
"But," Dan said, because she and Neil heard it in Matt's tone.
"But," Matt agreed, and looked at Neil. "We finally have an in."
Neil looked from one to the other. "I don't understand."
"We saw this once before, with Kevin," Matt said. "They staked a claim on you. They're going to drag you down their rabbit hole."
Dan put her hands on Neil's shoulders and fixed him with an intent look. "Don't go so deep you forget about us, okay? Put one foot in their hole and keep the other up here with us. You've got to be the piece that finally brings this team together. We can't make it to championships without them. Promise me you'll try."
"I'm not exactly a uniting force," Neil said.
"You've obviously got something Andrew wants," Matt said. "Where Andrew goes, they all go. You just have to pull him harder than he pulls you."
They made it sound easy when Neil knew it wasn't. "I'll try."
"Good," Dan said, squeezing his shoulders once before letting go. "That's all we ask."
Dan sat on the couch and pulled Matt down beside her. Neil sat at his desk and attempted to catch up on his homework. It was only the second week of school and he was already behind. He tried to read his chemistry notes, but a few paragraphs in he started zoning out. He made it three more pages before he gave up and pushed his textbook off his desk.
"Neil?" Dan asked.
"Why is chemistry so awful?" Neil asked, reaching for the next assignment.
"If I figure it out, you'll be the first to know," Dan said. "You could always ask Aaron for help. He's majoring in biological sciences."
Neil would rather fail than spend more time with Aaron. His Spanish homework was easier to get through, but his history was too boring to stand. Neil dropped that book on top of his chemistry one and stared blankly at his English assignment. He gave the paper a half-hearted effort, then dug around in his backpack for his math book. As he did he realized Matt and Dan were watching him.
"How many classes are you taking?" Dan asked, frowning at him.
"Six," Neil said.
"You aren't serious," Dan said. "Why?"
Neil looked from her to Matt. "That's what the catalogue suggested."
Dan grimaced at him, but Matt answered. "That schedule is for people graduating in four years. Your contract's five for a reason. Everyone knows you can't take a full course load and play on a team."
"Four classes," Dan said, holding up her fingers at him. "That's all it takes to be considered a full-time student. That's the most I want you taking this semester, okay? Figure out which two are going to make your life the most difficult and get rid of them. You're not doing us or yourself any favors by burning out this early."
"Can I drop classes?" Neil asked, surprised.
"In your first two weeks, yes," Matt said. "Where's your schedule? Let me see."
Neil dug it out of a binder and brought it over. Dan motioned for Neil to sit on her free side. She held the schedule where they could all see it.
"See this?" she asked, pointing out Neil's Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes. "This can't stay. If you don't leave yourself any breathing room you're going to snap. When I was in high school I worked an overnight job, went to school, and captained my high school Exy team. It made me hate everything about my life. I don't want the same thing happening to you. Matt said you and Kevin have night practices on top of all of this. Tell me: when do you actually sleep?"
"During class," Neil admitted.
She thunked Neil on the forehead. "Wrong answer. You've got a GPA to maintain."
"Dan's had a couple years to perfect this speech," Matt said over Dan's head. "If Court is your end goal, you're never going to need these classes. School is just a means to an end and an excuse to play Exy, so don't kill yourself over it. Here, I'll get my computer so we can log you into the school portal."
Neil stared at his schedule while Matt dug his laptop out of its bag and debated what to cut. It wasn't about which ones were time consuming, like Dan suggested, but ones he didn't need at all. Neil was only going to be at Palmetto State for a year, though he hadn't told his teammates that. Whatever he dropped, he dropped for good.
That made history and chemistry his prime choices, since he hated them. Neil wasn't a fan of his English or Speech classes, but those lessons might come in handy somehow when he had to run away. He needed his Spanish lessons for sure, and math was at least interesting.
Matt passed Neil his laptop when it booted, and Dan and Matt watched as Neil logged into his student profile. Matt reached across Dan to point out the appropriate links to follow.
"Better?" Dan asked when his modified schedule loaded. "Look here. You had a break between history and speech, right? Now you've got two open periods. You can squeeze your tutor hours in there if you want. You have one morning class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so you have all that time until practice for sleeping and homework. Works out perfectly, don't you think?"
Neil was more interested in the sleeping than the homework part. "Yes, thank you."
"Don't thank us, remember us," Dan said. "We're your teammates. We're here to help you with whatever you need, whether it's this or games or general stress. We've all got different experiences, but we're used to needing help. We're just not used to getting it. But you've got us now."
Neil didn't know how to respond. He wasn't sure what bothered him more: that he believed she meant it, or that he could never take her up on that offer regardless. The Foxes couldn't deal with his demons. The only one Neil quasi-trusted with the truth was Andrew, and that was only because he was desperate.
He was saved from answering when someone knocked at the door. Neil started to get up, but he had the computer in his lap still, so Matt beat him to his feet. Neil thought it might be one of the other athletes from their hall who'd known Seth for years, but Renee was waiting in the hallway. Matt stepped out of the way to let her in. Dan cursed quietly at Neil's side. Neil heard her tone but missed her word choice; he was distracted by Renee's new limp.
"I wish you wouldn't do this," Dan said.
"I know," Renee said.
She eased onto the cushion Matt had abandoned while Matt rummaged in the kitchen. Matt returned with a cold pack. Renee smiled as she took it and pressed it to the knuckles on her right hand. Pain pulled at the corner of her mouth, but her expression was otherwise calm as she flexed her fingers. Neil expected Matt and Dan to smother Renee with alarm and concern, but neither one of them asked if she was okay.
"Tell me if this is going to be a problem," Dan said.
Renee shook her head. "Not for us. Whatever it is, it's strictly personal. He'll be back on the court tomorrow."
Neil wondered what alternate universe he'd stumbled into. "Andrew hit you."
"A couple times," Renee said. "I forgot how fast he is when he's high."
Neil looked from Renee's smile to her rainbow-streaked hair to the cross necklace hanging around her throat. He didn't understand. Renee warned him not to overestimate how good she was, but everyone else said Renee was the gentle soul of the team. She'd been nothing but conciliatory since he first met her. Up until now, the only questionable part about her was her friendship with Andrew.
"Renee and Andrew are sparring partners," Matt said.
It obviously didn't sound as ridiculous to them as it did to Neil, but aside from flat-out asking what a sweet Christian girl was doing fighting the unofficial sociopath of the team, Neil didn't know what to say. He looked at Matt for help, but Matt only grinned at his confusion. Neil looked at Dan next, but she was too intent on Renee's hand to notice the attention. Finally Renee glanced up and took pity on him.
"I am a born-again, Neil. Andrew is not interested in my faith; he is interested in the person I was before. He and I have more in common than you think. That is why I make you uncomfortable, isn't it?"
Dan and Matt sent Neil curious looks at that. Apparently they hadn't noticed how hard Neil worked to avoid getting caught alone with Renee. Neil ignored them and said, "You make me uncomfortable because you don't make sense. I don't understand you."
"You could ask," Renee said.
"Is it really that easy?" Neil asked.
"I'm not proud of my past, but I can't heal if I hide it. When you think you are ready to trust me, let me know. I don't want it to be a problem between us. We can get a cup of coffee and talk about anything you like. Right now, though…" Renee braced her good hand against the arm of the couch and got to her feet. "All I want is a hot shower and my bed. I'm exhausted."
Dan looped her arm through Renee's and looked from Matt to Neil. "You guys can spend the night in our room, if you want. If you think…" She didn't finish, but the look she sent around the room said enough. "We've got a futon you can use, Neil."
"I'll sleep here," Neil said, "but I've got practice with Kevin tonight, so you should take Matt with you."
"You sure?" Matt asked.
"I'm sure," Neil said. "I'll be fine."
Matt hesitated, then kissed Dan goodnight. "I'll wait with him until Kevin comes by. See you in a bit."
He walked them to the door and closed it behind them. In their absence the room felt a thousand times larger, and the silence settled between Matt and Neil like a stone.
"He's late," Matt said in an awkward attempt to break the quiet. "Maybe Andrew's too mad to let him come."
"Maybe."
Neil sat at his desk to wait. Kevin usually collected Neil at ten for their night practices, but Andrew had been gone for hours with Renee. It was now a little after eleven. Neil yawned into his hand as he watched the clock. He wondered if he should just go to their room and ask Kevin if they were canceling practice and decided he'd do it at half after. Seven minutes before his self-imposed deadline, Kevin finally showed up.
"At some point you have to let him sleep," Matt said, following them into the hall so he could go next door to Dan.
"He can sleep when we've won finals," Kevin said.
Andrew was waiting for them in the car as usual. Despite the ugly way Kevin and Andrew left each other at practice, there was no obvious tension between them now. Andrew said nothing when Kevin and Neil climbed into his car and took them to the stadium in silence. Maybe his bout with Renee took the energy out of him, or maybe Andrew didn't care enough to hold a grudge. Neil wasn't sure, but he watched Andrew go up the stairs into the stands to wait on them and wondered.
"Now, Neil," Kevin said from the court door.
Neil pushed all thoughts of Andrew aside and followed Kevin onto the Foxhole Court.

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