Fadeaway – E. B. Vickers, Elaine Vickers

Here’s how I remember that night: At 8:53 p.m., there were thousands of people watching my best friend. Me and Seth and Coach and Daphne and Luke and every other person in that gym. Jake brought the ball down the court for one last shot as the clock ticked down to that row of zeros, and the crowd chanted along: “Three…two…one…” There’s always been something pure about the way Jake plays, like some wild animal doing exactly what it was born to do. A mountain lion, maybe—sturdy and silent, and when it’s coming for you, you might as well piss your pants as try to stop it. In the final seconds, he drove hard to the hoop, then pulled back for a fadeaway with more finesse than Van freaking Gogh. When the shot went up, I was ready to grab the board, even though I knew he wouldn’t need it. Even though the buzzer was already blaring in my ears. You practice something that many times—the shot goes up and you seal your guy off—that you do it without even thinking. That’s probably why even now I look for Jake when I get out of world history. Why I expect it to be him every time my phone vibrates. With one perfect flick of his wrist, the rock’s through the rim, and the state title is ours. Then it’s all cheering and chest bumps, and half the guys are crying, and the whole crowd’s got their phones out, trying to catch this moment so they can put it in their pocket and pull it out anytime, like they’re witnessing their own little moment of world history. There’s more I remember about that night.

The satisfying snip of cutting down the net, the roar of the crowd when we brought the trophy straight over to the student section. But none of it’s as important as this: at 8:53 p.m., there were thousands of people watching my best friend. Hundreds of cameras snapping and shooting his every move. But when the show’s over, we all look away. So nobody saw it happen. Nobody knows how or why or even exactly when he disappeared. All we know is that by the next morning, Jake was gone. It’s dark down here.

Dark and cold. His breathing is slow, his lips are blue. “Sit up,” a voice demands. He hears it faintly, like it’s coming through a thick wall, even though they’re in the same room. “Sit up.” Louder this time, and he feels the hot breath on his ear. His head throbs, but he lifts it a few inches and hopes it’s enough that the voice will stop yelling. “Take this,” the voice says, and something small and round is shoved between his lips. He hopes it’s something for the pain, because every muscle burns and aches. He feels himself choking on the water being poured into his mouth to chase it down.

The pill is still there, swimming against his tongue. He wants to swallow it so badly, but his head is foggy and he’s not sure he should. Is it for the pain? Or is it poison? Poison, he remembers. They’re all poison. He turns toward the sound of the voice and draws air into his nose, ready to spit the poison right back in the person’s face. That’s assuming the voice has a face and a person to go with it. Sometimes, down here, they don’t. “Swallow it,” says the voice, grabbing a handful of his hair and yanking his head backward. And because, really, that’s what he wanted to do all along, he swallows it. “Good,” says the voice, and then Jake lets his head fall back to the pile of rags, already soaked with his sweat and snot and tears.

When was the last time you saw Jake Foster? In the locker room, after the game. Did he do or say anything unusual? He didn’t do or say much, so maybe that was unusual. But he played the entire game. Dude had to be exhausted. And after that? Who did you leave the game with? My whole family. Well, except my brother Kade. You probably remember him, huh? Kade Martin? Goes by Kmart? Don’t worry, he’s the Flagstaff PD’s problem now. So you went home for a while. Did you go to the party at Coach Cooper’s house after that? Yeah. Everybody did.

Everybody except Jake. That’s true. Did Jake party? No. Did he drink at all? No. He never smoked anything, either, if that’s your next question. He’s clean for pretty much the same reason I am, and I already told you mine. Is there anybody else you think we should talk to? Anybody on the team who didn’t like Jake? Seth Cooper, I guess. Why is that? Dude was always weird about Jake. Told him he hated him before the game. We’ll look into that.

So, the last time you saw Jake was back in the Ashland locker room, after the game. Is that the last time you heard from him at all? Yes, sir. And how long have you known him? How long have you two been best friends? Both questions, same answer: since the summer before sixth grade. Even though we were from the same part of town—the wrong part—Jake and I went to different elementary schools. The boundary cut right between our run-down houses like an imaginary line to keep us from being friends. Until we were old enough for Junior Warriors Basketball Camp the summer before sixth grade, anyway. You could already tell how good Jake was going to be, even as a skinny almost-sixthgrader. Watching him back then was like that feeling when a burp’s built up inside you and you know it’s going to be huge. (Jake wouldn’t even mind me saying that. He has sick burping skills.

) But in this case, everybody could tell something big was coming except Jake. He worked harder than anybody—finishing first on conditioning and still running an extra lap, always looking around during drills to make sure he was doing stuff right. Didn’t even notice the rest of us trying not to stare at him because the way he did things was the definition of right. I was already a show-off and a punk by then, but even I was too intimidated to say a word to him. On the last day of camp, Coach Cooper sat us all down in the locker room, and somehow I wound up smashed on that too-small bench right next to Jake himself. “I know this feels like the end, boys,” Coach said, “but this is actually where it begins. Sixth grade for you, first year as head coach for me. It might take some time to build the program up to where I want it to be, but by the time you boys are seniors”—he waved a finger down the line at all of us, stopping on his own kid, Seth—“we’re going to be state champions. I’m making that promise to all of you today, and I will do whatever it takes to keep it.” We’d all seen the trophies in the case outside the gym and the banners hanging from the rafters like flags from some battlefield.

We knew that all the old guys around town asked “When did you play?” and if you said one of those years, you got your soda paid for or an extra token for the car wash. But we were all too young to actually remember the last time the Warriors had won it. We just knew it was back before the last guy, Coach Braithwaite, had lost his edge. Those were his boxes piled in the corner. He was so old he should have been retiring anyway, but the rumor was that the boosters and the school district had pushed him out the door after what happened that season. Which was why Coach Cooper was the one trying to give us the pep talk as we sat there, still sweating from a full day of drills and scrimmages. “Winning isn’t everything,” he said, and this deep, disturbing V wrinkle took over his forehead. “It’s the only thing.” There was so much fire in his eyes and spit at the corners of his mouth I didn’t dare tell him that didn’t really make sense. But Jake, he was drinking it in like Gatorade after suicides.

Then we heard a soft knock on the locker-room door, and there he was. Coach Braithwaite: the man, the legend, the dinosaur. “Sorry to interrupt your speech,” he said. “You always were a fine leader, Seth.” That confused me for a second, until I realized that Coach Cooper and his kid must both be named Seth, and maybe that was why the new head varsity coach was willing to run the sixth-grade camp. I wondered if having the same name as your dad would be annoying (because if somebody says “Seth” in your house, how do you know they’re talking to you and not the other one?) or really nice (because if there’s one last Sprite and somebody wrote “Seth” on the bottle, you could be like, “Well, it has my name on it…”). Coach B smiled at us, all the way down the bench, like we were his grandkids here for a visit or something. “Well, look at you boys,” he said. “Marvelous, every one of you.” Then he gave a little nod like that made it true.

“Mind if I grab these?” he asked, waving a hand at the boxes in the corner. “Sure, sure, of course,” said Coach C. Even he seemed softer around the old man. “Would you like me to take this too?” Coach B asked, pointing to a sign in the corner I hadn’t even noticed. “You shouldn’t be saddled with my old philosophy.” Three words had been spelled out on the sign in bold lettering: HEAD HANDS HEART Coach C reached up and ran his finger along the edge. I think he forgot we were there, to be honest. It was like that sign took him straight back to his own days of sitting on this butt-numbing bench, feeling the sweat dry on his skin. “You can leave it,” he said. “If that’s okay.

I might need a reminder someday.” “Of course, son.” Coach B looked over us boys on the bench. His knees crackled like firewood as he bent to pick up one of the boxes in the corner. “Boys, help Coach B with those. We’re finished here anyway. Good work today.” Jake and me were on the end of the bench, so we got the other two boxes. We followed Coach B out to his car, if you could even call it a car. Really, it was more like one of those Jeeps you see in old war movies.

We slid the boxes in the back and slammed the hatch shut. “Thank you, boys,” Coach B said, and he reached out to shake our hands. It was all so formal. I hoped, hoped, hoped he wouldn’t ask us our full names. Even though I was only a sixth grader, I didn’t want him to recognize me and realize it was my waste of a brother who’d cost him the championship last season—and probably his job. So of course that was when Kmart pulled up. He stumbled out of his truck, high as Everest. “Kade Martin,” Coach B said. “I’ve been hoping I’d see you again.” He stuck out the same hand to Kmart as he had to us—and gave him the same smile too.

My brother spat at his feet. “Get in the truck, Kolt,” he said. “Before he ruins your life too.” He didn’t ruin your life. You did this to yourself. I wanted to scream it, to spit right back at him. And look what you did to him. But instead I froze, like the weak-ass baby I was. Coach B took a step toward Kmart. “Now, son…” “I’m not your son.

I’m the kid whose future you trashed because you expect everybody to be perfect like you.” Kmart’s voice got louder with every word, and he struck the passenger-side door with a hollow bang, bang, bang, right in rhythm. “Get in the truck, Kolt. Get in the damn truck.” People were looking now, watching the show from the safety of their cars. “He can’t,” Jake said, stepping between me and Kmart. “We have to help with the rest of the boxes. My mom is taking him home.” Everybody knew there were no more boxes—except Kmart. He stared Jake down for what felt like forever, but Jake didn’t look away, even though Kmart was twice his size and ten kinds of unpredictable.

“Waste of my time,” Kmart finally muttered. He stumbled back to his truck, brushing past Jake’s shoulder hard enough to knock him off balance. “Maybe you shouldn’t be driving,” somebody said, but Kmart just gave the whole parking lot the one-finger salute before slamming the door and swerving away. “Where’s your mom?” I asked, feeling ready for that ride and too grateful to actually say thanks. Jake looked toward Dollar Depot. “She’s at work,” he said. “Sorry. I don’t usually lie, I just…I think we’re walking.” “Nonsense,” Coach B said. “I’ll take you as far as my place if you’ll help me get these boxes into the house.

” So that’s how we ended up at Coach B’s house the first time. That old Jeep had a motor so loud it was almost impossible to hear anything else, but I knew I had to say what I had to say before I lost the guts to say it. “Thanks,” I told Jake. “My brother’s the worst.” “Your brother reminds me of my dad,” he said. We had to practically shout to hear each other as we rattled down the road, but something about that felt right. Like the words hurt less when you didn’t have to whisper them. “Your dad’s addicted too?” I asked. “Was,” Jake corrected, and I wondered for half a second if he’d gotten clean, until I looked at Jake’s face and realized what he meant by “was.” “Just alcohol,” he said, then corrected himself.

“Well, not just.” After that, there wasn’t anything else we needed to say about either of them. Not even when Kmart got caught selling and had to go to jail, or when he moved away without a word the day he got out. We loved them and we hated them and we were never, ever going to be like them.

.

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