The first telling sign that he’s alive is when Alex hears birds chirping. There’s no way there are birds in heaven. Are there? I mean, they’d go to bird heaven when they die. I’ve heard of dog heaven, so there must be bird heaven.
Alex doesn’t want to open his eyes. If he opens it up and sees a pristine, white ceiling, with flecks of gold everywhere, then surely he’s in heaven. On the other hand, if I am in heaven, did my first thought after dying had to be something that stupid?
He groans, then slowly opens his eyes.
In front of him, right next to his face, is Thea.
"What kind of messed up afterlife is this?" complains Alex, turning the other direction, and he sees a familiar view out the window– he’s in his room.
"Excuse me?" Thea starts hitting him with a pillow. Nope, I’m definitely alive. He resists her attacks for a moment before springing his own attack on her using his own pillow. After a stalemate is drawn, he gets serious.
"Did we win?" asks Alex. Thea stares.
"Did we win?"
"What makes you think I know?"
"You always know."
Thea stands up and leaves the room as she says, "I’ll let your teammates tell you."
There’s a lump in Alex’s throat. My teammates? The memories come rushing back to him. They took him to an Orthopedic Doctor to check his ankle. Coach thought it looked like a light sprain, but he just wanted to be sure.
Alex sprained his ankle.
Thankfully, he heard that sprains heal, but nevertheless, he still got injured.
Later, his mom comes in and lectures him about not getting hurt. She gives him some food to eat and he manages to finish it.
After a while of thinking to himself, he falls asleep.
. . .
Alex wakes up with a gasp, staring at the ceiling with wide eyes.
He glances at the boot on his foot, which he knows is there to keep his foot still while the sprain heals. He suddenly realizes that he had actually woken up with a gasp, like all the mornings when he dreamed to do so.
"Looks like I got my wish," murmurs Alex. He smirks; on the first day of school, he had wondered why he couldn't wake up dramatically.
"What wish?" asks someone familiar from the other side of Alex. He turns and sees Chris, sitting there with a book.
"Why are you here?" asks Alex.
"What, I’m too distasteful for you?" Chris replies, "Jacob wanted to come to check on you, so he dragged me along."
Alex asks, "Jacob, as in . . . "
"Yeah, Coach Miller," says Chris, "I bet you forgot I was his brother, huh?"
"Yeah," Alex shrugs and says jokingly, "I mean, he’s a pretty nice person, and you’re . . . well . . ."
"I suppose you’ve met so many nice people in your life, I bet," Chris says sarcastically. Chris then returns to his book. Alex doesn't mind Chris being snarky. In fact, if Chris wasn't being snarky, Alex would have been worried.
The window is opened, and Alex takes a deep breath. After waiting a few seconds, he lets that breath out. After repeating this ritual a few times, Alex notices Chris staring at him pensively.
Chris chuckles, "I guess even a light sprain changes a person drastically."
"Did we win?" asks Alex.
Alex breathes a sigh of relief, releasing all the tension that he had since waking up.
"Not that it matters, though."
Alex blinks, "I’ll be fine for the next game, right?"
"The doctor said ten days, Alex."
Alex is horrified.
"Wait, but . . . but we have a game next week."
"But . . . but . . . but this can’t be the only doctor. I’m sure other doctors will let me off faster," Alex mutters, "I can’t just skip this next game!"
"Slow down, man," Chris replies, "You kind of sound like a moron."
"And?" Alex glares at his teammate.
Chris shrugs, "I just didn’t think you were that kind of person."
He flips another page in his book and continues reading. Alex stares, infuriated at Chris's nonchalance.
"I'm perfectly fine," Alex growls, "Get me out of this bed!"
"Nope," Chris grins, "If you can't get out of it by yourself, then you're definitely not in good shape."
Alex somehow drags himself out of the bed, and Chris laughs. Alex doesn't respond, but he does start walking out of the room, after grabbing a pair of crutches.
"You look pretty skilled at those crutches," Chris remarks, "Careless enough to have sprained something before?"
Alex shoots him a dirty look and continues forward.
He moves down the hallway. Chris follows while reading his book.
"You shouldn't walk and read, Chris," says Alex.
"You shouldn't walk.
"Where’s your brother?" Alex asks, telling himself that he'd punch Chris were he not in crutches. Chris has really turned up the annoyance factor today, huh?
"School. There’s practice going on," Chris replies, following Alex on the sidewalk, "Are you really gonna walk all the way to . . . wherever you’re going?"
"Yeah," Alex nods, "It’s good exercise?"
The two of them walk in silence. Their footsteps are accented by the clop-clop sound of Alex’s crutches hitting the concrete sidewalk.
Every once in a while, Alex glances back at Chris, who gives no indication of noticing.
They pass the outdoor courts, and Alex stops, looking at the players who are practicing. Chris stops, too.
At the moment, there are four of them playing against each other. They look quite skilled, and one of them pump-fakes, then takes a euro step to the basket, scoring beautifully over another player.
However, Alex notices a slight mishap in the approach.
"Travel," he says instinctively, and he finds that Chris says the same thing at the same time.
He smiles, but Chris gives him a disgusted look.
On the way, they also pass by a convenience store.
A familiar-looking boy is sitting outside. He's wearing a black hoodie and his head is faced downward, so it's hard for Alex to notice, but he recognizes the light brown hair sticking out and medium stature. There’s a basketball resting under the boy’s elbow. It looks relatively new as if someone had just bought it from a store.
Alex moves closer, and Chris follows.
"What are you doing here?" asks Chris.
Copeland glances up, and after seeing the two of them, he looks back down and says, "I could ask the same of you two."
"We're just . . . uh . . . grabbing a snack," says Alex, trying to figure out a good excuse for stopping at a convenience store.
"What a coincidence. Me and Ethan, are, too. He's just mad that our mom won't make food that tastes good," Copeland replies.
"Ethan as in the big guy?"
"Ah, so you are brothers," Alex says, nodding, "Why the long face?"
"We lost?" Copeland shrugs.
Alex feels a bit confused at Copeland’s attitude in real life– he had totally pegged his ruthless opponent as someone who would be a sort of bully off the court.
"Think we don’t know that, Jeremy?" Chris replies. Copeland glances up but doesn’t keep eye contact.
"So you know my name," Copeland doesn't seem very surprised, but frankly, Alex thinks the name 'Jeremy' is much too normal for a terrifying person like Copeland.
"Why do people call you Copeland?" asks Alex.
"Because I told them to."
"Why did you tell them to?"
"Because I didn’t like my name."
"I sprained my ankle," Alex replies, "I get priorities."
"I’m fine with Jeremy now."
"Really?" Chris cocks his head to the side and has such a condescending look on his face that Alex wonders how Copeland can bear not punching Chris. Maybe he has experience not punching condescending faces.
"Looks like you’ve got a new ball," observes Alex.
Copeland nods, "Yeah, I got it for Ethan, but I don’t want to give it to him."
"I bought it because I lost a bet," Copeland replies, "I want to use it a bit so I can give him a . . . sort-of-used ball."
At that moment, Ethan exits the store. When he sees the three of them, he just stops moving. He stares at Alex and Chris for a moment, then he just shrugs.
"I suppose you’re just ganging up on my brother?" Ethan asks.
Chris replies, "I think it’s more like me and your brother are ganging up on Alex. I mean, he’s the one on crutches."
Ethan laughs, and Alex can barely believe that the four of them were enemies on the court just a day ago.
Copeland gets up, and Alex finally realizes how short the boy is. Of course, he stands next to two giants, one who’s six feet tall, and another who makes six-footers look like children.
"I’m Jeremy," he says.
The three of them stare at Alex, who is fantasizing about how the four of them are sort of like friends.
"Oh, uh, Alex."
They all laugh.
Maybe the Copeland brothers aren’t that bad after all.
"We’ve got to be getting home now," says Ethan, "It was nice talking to you."
"Same here," Chris replies.
"Oh, can I get your numbers?" asks Alex. Ethan and Copeland nod. They all take out their phones and exchange numbers.
The four of them go their separate ways, with Copeland and Ethan going to the left of the store, and Chris and Alex going right.
Eventually, Alex and Chris reach the school.
"I should have known," Chris groans, "You’re not here, to, like, go to the office or something?"
"Nope. Practice," Alex replies, grinning.
"I should have stayed at your house," says Chris.
The two of them navigate around the school to get to the gym.
Chris opens the door for Alex, and he goes in.
As he enters, a rush of emotions strikes him at once. As Alex steps onto the perfectly placed hardwood floors, he remembers running harder than he ever could as he ran suicides with his teammates. As he looks up at the basketball hoop, Alex trembles in fear as he remembers the splash of Fernando’s devastatingly accurate shots. His teammates were terrified, he was terrified, and even Fernando’s teammates were terrified.
Alex inhales, relishing the stale air of the gym. The stinky, uncomfortable air. The broken-AC air. The sweaty, hot air that mostly reminds him of the long, hard hours of running suicides inside the gym, back and forth. If he could stay in this paradise forever, he would.
He listens to the squeak squeak of basketball shoes on the floor, and the thump thump of the ball.
"Did you just die on the spot?" Chris asks, tapping Alex on the back of the head.
Alex uses one of his crutches to hit Chris’s leg, and Chris recoils dramatically, enunciating his "Ow!" as loud as possible.
As he does this, many of the players turn toward the door.
They all drop what they’re doing and run over to Alex, crowding around him.
"Dude, are you okay?"
"That looks serious! How are you gonna play basketball? Are you gonna die?"
"How stupid can you be?"
In the flurry of voices, he amusingly recognizes the last two statements from Dwayne and Chris. Finally, when the talking dies out, Coach Miller clears everyone out.
"Did Chris inform you about your situation?" he asks.
"Yeah," Alex replies, "But I think you guys will be fine."
Coach Miller laughs, "I was actually more worried about you, but whatever you say."
The days of him being on his crutches go by faster than Alex thought they would have. In a blink of an eye, the day for the game that Alex cannot play arrives.
He decides not to go.
"Why not?" Spencer asks when he hears this.
Alex shrugs, "If I go, I know for sure that I’m going to try to force myself to play. I really don’t want to cause trouble for you guys, so I’d be better off staying home and working on my physical therapy. My ankle is already starting to feel better."
"Also," explains Alex, "The less I walk, the faster it’ll heal. I shouldn’t do all this unnecessary stuff."
"But Chris said you walked all the way to the gym," Spencer objects.
Alex says quietly, in a conspiratorial voice, "Let’s not talk about that, all right?"
Marble Creek, thankfully matched up against a weaker team, wins quite easily, and when Alex hears about it, he’s not surprised.
Alex sits on his bed, contemplating.
I can stand up right now and go work out or practice.
Alex shakes his head.
But what if I make my ankle worse?
Alex lays on his bed, hoping with all his might that he can start playing soon. Marble Creek’s third-round opponent is actually quite well-known. Alex isn’t sure if his teammates as they are now will be able to compete with them.
Alex glances at his copy of the tournament bracket. ‘Jackson Wills Middle School’
"Oh!" Alex sits up in his bed, grabbing his phone. He realizes that there’s one thing he can do, even if he can’t practice. He pulls up the messaging app on his phone and opens the contact he saved for Jeremy.
[you played jackson wills yet?]
[we played them a bunch]
[can i ask a few questions? ;) im gathering info]
. . .
Chris used to think that Dwayne was the ultimate idiot. Now . . . he's not so sure.
After getting to know Alex and the rest of the team better, Chris feels like the world has gone completely insane. Spencer had invited the entire team to his house so they could hang out before the game, and Chris seems the one voice of reason within the building.
Chris had never heard of a more terrible idea in his life. The players just crowd inside Spencer’s game room. The fact that Spencer even has a game room surprises Chris– he didn’t label Spencer as a ‘rich kid’. The entire team just plays video games for an hour while shouting and making a ruckus.
In the end, the rowdy team is politely excused from Spencer's house. What was a bunch of idiots inside a house becomes a bunch of idiots in a park.
"What are we even doing here?" Chris asks, "I want to go home already."
"It’s nice outside, so I don’t see why not," Spencer replies.
"It's not that crowded today," Jackson comments.
"How observant of you," Chris replies, and finds a spot at the top of a hill underneath a tree. The sun shines down at them unforgivingly, so they're eager to find shade.
"What do we do now?" asks Dwayne.
"It's not like we were doing anything at my house, anyways," says Spencer dryly, "Except for breaking my stuff."
"Look! Some people are approaching!" says Jonah, attempting to change the topic. He points toward a group of guys coming up the hill.
"They're tall," Malcolm observes. Why does this team just love to point out the obvious? wonders Chris.
"I wonder what they want," Jackson says.
Spencer stands up to greet them when they arrive, "Hi?"
"Hey," says the biggest and tallest of the mysterious group. He has dark brown hair and vaguely empty eyes as if he's disinterested in something. He wears a shirt that says "JW" in huge letters. It must be a uniform of some sort.
"I'm Spencer," says Spencer, "And you are . . . ?"
"Connor," the boy replies, "Marble Creek, right?"
"Wait . . . how do you know who we are?" Chris says, suspicion in his tone.
"You’re wearing your uniforms," Connor says humorlessly and flatly.
"Does that short guy really play basketball?" asks one of the ‘JW’ boys. Clearly, it’s directed at Dwayne. Chris stands up, glaring down at the boy who made the comment, and makes a point by stepping closer.
"Dwayne is bigger than every single one of you," Chris challenges.
Connor quickly steps in between them, "Sorry. He meant nothing of it."
Although he seems sincere, and maybe a little too monotone, Chris still sneers, "Get lost."
Connor then wheels around and walks away. His team follows. Before he leaves, however, he turns his head back, so Chris can see his eyes, and Chris doesn't like what he sees. Those previously empty eyes were not exactly angry, but now, the ones that he can see are staring at him with an intensity that not even Chris could manage.
The boy stands still, staring at Chris for an infuriatingly long time, but Chris refuses to move. He won't back down. The ‘JW’ boys are still walking away, but the boy still stares at him.
They say you don't drown because the water goes into your lungs, but because the water goes into your lungs too fast.
Maybe that's why that boy’s eyes scare Chris the most. Because he can feel himself drowning in those eyes that were just empty a second ago.
Chris looks away, closing his eyes.
When he opens his eyes again, they’re walking off into the distance. Marble Creek stands in silence as the mysterious "JW"s walk away.
"That was crazy brave of you, man!" Jackson says after they're out of earshot, "I wouldn't have been able to do that in front of a guy like that!"
"Yeah!" Spencer chimes in. But not even they can comfort Chris now. He doesn't even know why he feels this way. He feels so . . . overpowered. He feels helpless.
When he crawls into bed that night, ready to be overtaken by nightmares, Chris smiles at the fact that hopefully, he'll never need to see that boy again. A moment later, however, a shiver is sent down his spine, because he remembers there is only one school that could be represented by a "JW" like the one on that group’s shirt.
Our next opponent . . . Jackson Wills Middle School.