We Live, We Die, We Live Again, Ari ReyesIt’s the sound of a basketball against pavement that stirs me from the kitchen table Saturday morning. By the time Alex, my brother, comes downstairs after a night of video gaming and goofing off, I’m on my second cup of coffee, elbow deep in college applications. He glances at me and rolls his eyes. When the noise of the basketball starts up again he gravitates towards the window. He’s fifteen, a freshman. Describe an event that impacted you so greatly it sparked a period of personal growth and new understanding, the application paper reads. “Who’s outside the Martinsons’ house?” The Martinsons’ kids, grown and moved out, haven’t played in the driveway in years. Alex is waiting for a response, standing at the window, all arms and legs and the beginnings of awkward stubble on his chin. His ears are too big for his head, thin limbs hang off his body like green beans. “Why don’t you go out and ask?” The words on the page throb in front of my eyes. I stare at the application as if the right answer might magically appear. Irritated footsteps cross to the entryway, the front door opens, closes with a bang. From my spot at the table I watch Alex zip his coat on the front porch, breath curling white puffs into January air. The dribbling starts back up again and I glance towards the Martinsons’ house next door. It’s not a little kid out there in the driveway at all. Instead, the boy–the one making all the noise–has a head full of thick dark hair, broad shoulders that stretch through the thin material of his jacket. He dribbles the brown leather ball up the driveway, rotates so I catch a flash of jaw and narrowed brow. He pulls up for a shot in front of the old hoop attached to the side of the house. The ball rattles around the rim and falls through. I suddenly realize, even as Alex approaches him, that there’s something lonely about seeing the boy outside the Martinsons’ house in the middle of winter. So much confidence and arrogance juxtaposed against the quiet of the street. My brother reaches him then, and even though Alex is awkward and gangly, the other boy retrieves the ball, hands it over to him. Whatever. I return to my paper as they begin to play. But it’s not whatever. I stand, cross to the entryway, shove my boots onto my feet. From the porch I watch two bodies slip and slide around the driveway. Alex takes a shot and misses. On its way down, the ball hits a particularly icy part of the ground. It shoots off down the street. “That’s a foul,” my brother yells. The other boy doesn’t say anything at first, just watches the ball roll to a stop against the curb a couple houses down. “You’re an idiot.” Anyone else would have ignored his comment, I’m sure, but Alex . . . Well, Alex. By the time I make it down off the porch he has his hands on the other boy’s shoulders, shoving him away. There’s a chaotic moment, as the other kid shoves him back, as Alex loses his footing and goes crashing to the ground, dragging the other boy with him. They’re suddenly a jumble of arms and legs and curse words. I grab Alex by the arm, jerk on him until, grumbling, he stands. The other kid cusses at my brother again as he stands, shaking the slush off one of his sleeves. He looks at me, and his eyes are the same color of the worn leather ball. The color of coffee with the perfect amount of cream. “Does he have a name?” I ask Alex later that night. “Why do you care?” “Did he tell you why he was at the Martinsons?” “No.” Alex just looks at me like he can read my mind, like he knows why I want to know about the boy even though I can’t really figure it out myself. Tuesday morning I answer the front door to find the boy standing on the porch. He’s got a backpack strapped over his shoulders, sleep in his eyes. I suddenly feel self-conscious, move to pull my hair up into a ponytail. “I’m supposed to ask you for a ride to school,” he tells me. Across the yard, Mrs. Martinson is standing on her porch, arms crossed over her chest, watching us. “Why?” I ask, and then before he can reply, “What’d you do to make her so mad?” “My Aunt Lydia?” he turns to look at her too. Across the yard she scowls. “She’s mad I waited for her to leave for work yesterday, then went back to bed. She wants you to take me to school because she says you don’t do things like that.” Behind me, I can hear Alex come down the stairs. “Hey, Danny,” he says. “Hey, Alex.” “You’re not mad at each other anymore?” I ask so as not to be left out. Danny shrugs. Alex collects his backpack from the table. I drive the boys to school for the rest of the week. On Friday, Alex leaves early to make up a math test and Danny sits in the passenger seat beside me, alone. He fiddles with the radio. Jiggles his knee up and down and then finally looks out the window as we cross over the bridge, at the water below rushing past. “It doesn’t freeze in the winter?” he asks. “The river? Not really, I guess.” He glances behind us one last time, like the bridge might mean something to him, and then it’s gone around the corner. “If you pull over right now,” he says as I navigate us through downtown, “I’ll buy you a muffin.” A young couple pushes a stroller down the sidewalk. A couple of underclassmen come out of the coffee shop and climb into a car. The beginning of winter sunrise sneaks in through my window, casts a glow across our bodies. “I don’t want to be late.” “You’ve never been late before, have you?” There’s a smirk on his face and because he’s right, I find a parking space and pull over. “You have to pay for my coffee too,” I tell him as we climb out. We order and Danny pays, make our way back out to the street balancing paper cups and bags of muffins. “You ever skip before?” he asks, closing his door. We go back to the house and sit in the driveway until we’ve finished our food. My mom’s car is gone, and so are the cars in front of the Martinsons’. “You play?” he asks, and I realize he’s looking at the basketball he left on the porch. “Basketball? Sure.” We climb out and cross the yard. He tosses me the ball and his body feels warm and strong through his clothing as I back him down towards the hoop. “Dang,” he says when I score. We play until our fingers are frozen, our lips chapped. He beats me. But not by a lot. “What do we do now?” I ask when we’re done, when all we have left to do is stand there shivering in his aunt’s driveway. “Go inside, I guess.” It’s not until I’ve reached my own porch that I realize he’s still standing there. Holding the ball, pieces of hair stuck to his forehead with sweat. “Do you want to come in?” I ask. When Alex gets home, he’s pissed. He thinks we didn’t wait for him after class, Danny is gone. A couple days after we cut school, Danny gets suspended for telling Mr. Brown, the junior class biology teacher, that he’s an asshole. Alex tells me this on our way home from school and sure enough, Danny’s waiting for us out on the porch when we get home. “You’re a legend!” Alex yells to him before going inside. Danny stands there and looks at me. He doesn’t look arrogant or proud of himself, just . . . embarrassed. “Play?” He nudges the ball at his feet with a sneaker. I set my backpack down on the steps and take the basketball from him. Dribble around a couple of times. He comes down to stand in the driveway with me. His cheeks are pink from the cold, his lips thin and brooding. I’ve never kissed a boy. Never been kissed by a boy. He looks at me, and then he looks away. “I’m sorry you got suspended,” I tell him. “I shouldn’t have done it.” “Call Mr. Brown an asshole? Why did you then?” He takes the ball from me, and even though it’s cold outside, his hands are still warm from his pockets. “I was angry, I guess,” he says, and then we don’t talk about it anymore. The sound of raised voices wakes me in the middle of the night. I put a sweatshirt on, go downstairs, and peer out the kitchen window in the same way Alex did when Danny first moved in with his aunt and uncle. I’ve seen Danny nearly everyday since then. We share the same lunch period, work on homework, play basketball after school. The moon moves over the trees, washes the neighborhood in soft, pale light. He’s on the front porch of his aunt’s house, barefooted, hair stuck up around his head. There’s a woman in the driveway and she’s crying. Danny just stands there. He stands there and looks at the woman and I can’t tell what he’s thinking or feeling because his face is completely blank. “Danny?” I say quietly. The woman is crying so loudly I don’t think he can hear me, but then he glances up, and he sees me, and for the first time since I stepped outside an emotion washes over his face. He’s terrified. Before I can think of something else to say, to ask him if he’s okay, Mrs. Martinson floods down the front steps and coaxes the woman into the car. Mr. Martinson is outside then too and he’s saying something to Danny, something I can’t understand. The car takes off down the street. But it doesn’t matter anyway. All Danny is doing is looking at me, mouth pressed together, eyes wide. Mr. Martinson has his hands on Danny’s shoulders and he turns him around, takes him inside. I don’t see Danny for a couple of days, and then suddenly, he’s there again, knocking on the door. I’m the only one home. “I need to explain,” he tells me. “You don’t have to explain anything.” “Okay,” he says, but he must realize I don’t actually mean it because he rolls his eyes. “Can I come in?” I step aside, moving into the kitchen. He follows, and then suddenly changes his mind and goes to stand on the other side of the island. He eyes my coffee mug, and then the coffee pot, still dripping. I pour him a cup. Pull the milk out. Slide them both over to him. “My mom’s crazy,” he says after a moment. “Crazy how?” “Like she sees things.” “Oh . . .” “She tried to stab me with a kitchen knife a few weeks ago.” He realizes the weight of what he has just said and quickly adds, “But she was confused. She didn’t mean it.” For a moment, I’m not sure what to say. His eyes are wide and his lips pressed together. I’m suddenly reminded of the same boy I had seen standing out on the porch a few nights ago. The one who looked terrified. “I’m glad she didn’t . . . stab you, I mean.” And I mean it. I’m glad that he picked up that basketball that first day he moved in and pounded it around the driveway. I’m glad Alex went outside to bother him. I’m glad Danny is here. In the kitchen with me today. But I don’t say any of those things. Danny traces a line around the rim of his coffee cup with his finger, and then he clears his throat. “Thanks, uh, for the coffee.” Before I can figure out what else to say, before I can convince him to stay, he’s gone. I watch him walk back across the yard. Watch the heaviness in his shoulders as he climbs the front porch. Danny isn’t at school on Monday. When I knock on the front door, Mrs. Martinson answers. “Danny’s upstairs,” she says eagerly, stepping out of the way to let me in. “I . . . you don’t care if I go up?” “Of course not, honey.” I don’t know why it scares me, to be in Danny’s house, but I let Mrs. Martinson direct me towards the stairs. I climb them slowly. He’s just a boy, I tell myself. Like Alex. But he’s not just a boy like Alex. When I get to the end of the hall I knock once, quietly, and then nudge it open. There’s a hoodie draped over the back of a chair, a mess of papers and tennis shoes on the floor. The bed is unmade, a pile of navy blue sheets twisted up like he was there only a moment before. Amongst an assortment of mostly empty coffee cups is a yellow bottle of pills. I pick it up. Roll them over in my hand. “They’re for sleeping,” Danny says from the doorway. The sound of his voice makes me jump. He crosses the space between us and takes the bottle from my hand. His fingers are cold when they touch my own. “I have a prescription.” “You weren’t at school.” “I had a doctor’s appointment.” When neither of us speaks again I move back into the hall. He sits down on the bed. I suddenly realize that he looks so much older. Like over the last week someone’s shaken him until he’s stopped looking like a kid anymore. “Danny?” When I say his name, he raises his head. “Come over, okay? Later, if you’re feeling better.” He nods. But he doesn’t mean it. I dream that night about the river. About a boy standing on the bridge. He holds my hand and his cheeks are flushed from the cold, eyes glistening in the darkness. Below us, the water rushes past, filling our ears with thunder. “I’m sorry,” he tells me. I want to ask what for; want to ask why, but then I am awake and I don’t know where I am at first. A flash of red and blue light seeps in through the window, lighting up the room, working across the walls of the bedroom. I stand. The lights paint my skin. I go downstairs. Step outside. Soft morning light, absent of heat, works over the neighborhood. There’s a stretcher emerging from the house and it’s being carried down the stairs. I catch a flash of brown hair, pale skin. It’s loaded into the back of the ambulance and then the ambulance is gone, disappearing off down the street. I stay home from school. Sit at the counter and drink coffee. Stare out the window, at the basketball sitting on the porch next door. When the sound of ball against pavement stirs me from my thoughts, I jerk towards the door. But it’s only a little kid, moving down the street with his dad, a soccer ball between his hands. When my mom leaves for work, I collect Danny’s basketball from the front porch of the Martinsons’ house and climb into the car. I drive until the tank sneaks down to empty. Until I feel empty. And then I climb out of the car. I wonder if this is how Danny had felt. Empty. The bridge is old and worn, a slab of scuffed concrete held up above the water by metal legs, the guard rail chipping pieces of rust. I approach slowly, pause at the center, peer down into the water. He’s going to be okay, my mom had told us that morning. And then she had looked at Alex and me like we would never really understand what had happened. But I understood. I toss Danny’s ball over the railing, watch it hit the water, caught up by the current, and disappear under the structure.