Coach Taylor gathered them in. ‘All right, listen up. We’re doing fine so far. We’re sitting in fourth place, but don’t be fooled, we’re going to need to fight hard to get into the semis. There’s two games left, Taita and Naenae. Taita are tomorrow, they’re tough but we can take them down. Then Naenae. Naenae is a good team. The only game they lost was to Hutt High who are also at the top of the table.’
‘We can take them down,’ Lio said to the group. ‘No worries.’
‘We need to win at least one of these two games if we want into the finals. Depending on how other teams do, we might need to win both. The season is riding on these games. But be certain of this, we can do it. If we want it enough. Do you want it?’
‘Hell yeah!’ Lio clapped hard, the echo ringing in the high ceiling of the gymnasium. ‘Finals, guys!’
‘That’s right, get it in your heads. All of you get ready for finals. Get ready for getting there. Come on, hands in, everyone. I want to hear that desire right now, I want it to ring the rafters and shake the fucking floorboards, finals on three…’
The team was psyched up. They sprinted through warm-ups and passing drills, slapping hands, calling support. A good win over Viard in the previous week had knocked out that contender for their spot. Their form had come together at just the right time. Scott had never expected the team to do this well. It was a good thing. He took the ball, blazed down the court and dished off to Viane to lay it in. There were encouraging claps and shouts from the others, spirits were high and he couldn’t think of any other group that had made him feel like this. Happy and succeeding. He’d even been getting more game time and thriving in it, pulling down rebounds and putting up good shots. Things were going his way. Going their way.
‘Come on!’ Lio called. ‘Work it, work it!’ Richard sprinted down the court to be fed the ball by James, leaping high and laying in the ball, slapping the backboard on the way down. Lio was hyped. ‘Yeeeah, Rich! Yeah boy!’ Scott watched Richard come back down to earth, remembering how high Viane had jumped just before, and then watched Chris climb a good few steps with his jumping lay-up. There was no simpler proof that morale was high.
Adam was running the floor now. His game had come a long way, to the point where he was pretty much indispensable. He still didn’t score too much or block too much or do anything too much, but he hardly ever made a mistake and other teams feared him. Kelvin brought the ball down centre court to the top of the arc where a precise bounce pass fed the ball right into Adam’s hands. Adam took a single step and leapt. Scott watched. In fact everyone was watching as if they all knew it was coming, as though the look on Adam’s face had warned them. Adam sailed up into the air and brought the ball up two-handed and jammed it through the hoop. He hung there on the rim, above everyone, out of reach, and then he dropped to the floor. The ball bounced away.
Lio called out, ‘Oh bay-bee!’ and Scott was laughing and the drill stepped up a notch, intensity rising, people jumping higher and pushing harder, and Scott got that feeling. They were going to go all the way, Scott knew it, everyone knew it, and there was no point in ever looking back again.
‘I am fucked,’ Scott said as they trudged into the changing rooms. The wood-panelled room stank of sweat and mud and the lights were broken again. Sunlight pushed through from the shower run but not enough to pull the heavy coolness from the dark. Adam collapsed on the seating bench by his bag and Scott paced around, trying to relax his legs. ‘I am absolutely fucked.’
Adam sniffed. ‘That was really hard.’
‘You’re both little wusses,’ Richard said, wiping sweat from his chest with the sodden T-shirt. ‘The first fifteen do worse than that every day.’
‘Yeah, but they get the exciting tours and bus trips and the dinky little bags, so don’t even try to get me guilty about that.’
Richard threw his shirt at Scott’s face. ‘It’s not about guilt. We’re a good team, and we’re on track for the finals. Let it be big if it can be, okay?’
Adam sat and let himself breathe. He clearly needed some time to catch his breath but Scott saw that he was smiling. ‘Nice dunk.’
Adam shrugged. ‘I guess I’m more fit than I was, huh?’ He laughed at his joke.
Scott arched an eyebrow. ‘Looks like it. You on steroids? You’re looking kinda pumped.’
‘I am?’ Adam looked at himself. Richard’s shirt landed in his face.
The rest of the team was departing, the usual chorus of tired farewells. ‘Right. Time for a nice shower and a nice big feed,’ Richard said, stuffing the shirt in his bag. ‘I’ll see you guys tomorrow.’
‘Yeah, get outta here ya bum,’ Scott said, kicking him goodbye. Richard disappeared out the front and now only Scott and Adam remained.
‘I am tired,’ Adam said quietly.
‘So you gonna sit there forever?’
‘Maybe. I feel like I never want to move again.’
‘You got to get home somehow.’
‘I’ll fly home,’ Adam said distantly.
Scott nodded. ‘Uh huh.’
‘You guys the last?’ Taylor asked. He was silhouetted in the doorway.
‘Yeah, we’re almost gone,’ Scott said.
‘All right. Good effort today, guys. That kind of commitment is what we need. See you guys tomorrow, ready for action.’
‘Yeah. Thanks Coach.’
Coach Taylor pulled the door to and locked it while Adam started to get organised. Scott borrowed his deodorant spray, giving it a cautious spurt. He checked the fragrance. ‘Nice.’
There wasn’t going to be a better time, Scott concluded. The plan might as well go ahead, even if Adam was in a weird mood. ‘So, what are you up to now? Maybe we could hang out for a while? Go back to your place?’
Adam looked up. ‘What? Why?’
Scott smiled winningly. ‘Do I need a reason?’
It was raining so they caught the bus. As they were getting off Scott finally asked about Lauren. Apparently she’d started her course and all was well. ‘She’s got someone she knows doing it too, some girl from her school I think. But Lauren thinks she’s a bit of a moron.’
Scott was pleased by this. ‘Oh, that’s no good.’
‘Yeah. She came home last night really drunk… Mum and dad didn’t know what to do! That was pretty funny. She was so embarrassed, though.’
‘Well, she’s being dragged along to church, right? I guess that girl has a serious sin backlog.’ Scott took off his shoes in the Curtis’ foyer, like he’d done innumerable times before, but this time Richard wasn’t doing the same and wasn’t coming to join them later. Just him and Adam. It felt like it gave him a responsibility of some kind.
‘Mum?’ Adam called, going in.
Mrs Curtis called back in her sing-song voice. ‘I’m in the kitchen. Oh, hello, Scott. Why, you both look bedraggled! From the rain and the basketball?’
‘It’s raining a little,’ Scott said politely. ‘How are you, Mrs Curtis?’
‘Oh, I’m fine. Are you staying for dinner, Scott?’
‘I don’t want to be any trouble…’
‘Oh, no trouble at all, we’d love to have you. Isn’t that right, Adam?’
Scott looked sheepish. ‘I just don’t want to be in the way.’
‘Not at all. Dinner will be ready before too long, so you should both go and have a shower and get cleaned up. Adam, show Scott where the towels are, will you?’ Mrs Curtis was razoring apart some cabbage, the blade moving up and down with mesmerising speed.
‘Sure,’ Adam said, pulling a jug from the fridge. ‘Do you want a glass of water?’
This was all a bit too fast for Scott. ‘Shower?’ he heard himself say.
Scott stood alone in Adam’s room, the rush of the shower clearly audible. He looked around for a place to sit. When there were others there watching he’d happily plonk himself on the neatly made bed, but alone it didn’t seem right. The computer desk had a chair but Adam’s schoolbag was on it. Maybe he could turn on the stereo?
He looked around the room. One neat shelf contained everything from Adam’s music collection (sparse, mostly things Richard had recommended) to books (mostly school texts) to tourist ornaments (a Hawaiian carving, a Mexican doll). The bedside table was neat with a lamp and clock-radio, but there was also something else that he hadn’t noticed before, a small stone. It was gently weighted and sea-smooth with an Asian symbol painted on. Curious, Scott pulled open the bedside table drawer. Papers inside, neatly stacked but nothing more interesting than a school newsletter or a bank statement. Around the computer desk were game manuals and disks and printouts. Scott rifled through the papers with a growing sense of disappointment.
Adam reappeared smelling of soap. ‘Here’s a towel for you.’
Scott blanched. ‘I don’t need a shower.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Adam laughed.
‘No, we got rained on coming back.’
‘Come on, Scott. You can’t go to dinner like that.’
Hearing Adam give him instructions was disturbing. The towel he’d been given was larger and thicker than any Scott had used before. It was a very demanding towel. He was almost afraid to use it. Scott held it out at arm’s length, hoping Adam would relent it take it back. ‘I can eat in here! You can bring me my plate.’
‘Mum will already have set an extra place for you.’
‘Well, that’s it then. I’m leaving.’
Adam shook his head. ‘Come on, Mum said to.’
‘It feels really weird,’ Scott protested lamely. ‘Showers scare me! My parents died in a shower when I was little. I’ll have flashbacks.’
Adam laughed. ‘Go on.’
Scott sighed, took the towel and headed for the door. ‘Okay, but if I come wailing out of the bathroom naked with a machete and kill you all, it’ll all be your fault.’ He snatched up his bag and slipped across the hall. He’d been in this bathroom once or twice before, of course, and it was just a bathroom, no toilet. He’d come in to wash his hands, which was not anything like… like this.
There was a basin on one side and a shower on the other, a big frosted-glass draped window to the darkened back lawn, and one wooden door in or out. The shower door was a slider, yellow clear plastic. Linoleum floor. He surveyed the shower, steam still gathered within it. The shower head was higher than the one he had at home but the dial control was familiar. Everything looked in order. He summoned his reserves of will and went to lock the door.
The door had no lock.
‘Adam!’ he hissed, leaning out. Adam’s door was closed. Scott gave up on that and shut himself in, back to the unlockable door. This, he reasoned, was the Curtis household. If the bathroom door was shut they’d knock first. Simple. This kind of home didn’t need locks.
This wasn’t the plan. The plan didn’t involve him getting naked in a room with no lock on the door.
Scott turned on the shower and adjusted the nozzle. Then he pulled out his change of clothes and stripped quickly. Naked, he tested the water with his hand. As expected, too hot. He switched the dial back two notches and tested the water again, and got another shock. The water was exactly two notches cooler.
He jumped in before the temperature changed. The pressure was hard and pleasant and he let the water hose him off. It began to seem slightly cold, so Scott crossed his fingers and bumped the dial up a notch. The water temperature increased by one notch. He almost laughed out loud. He shut his eyes and let the water run through his hair and down his front. Soap and lather and rinse… it was an infinitely more pleasant experience than the showers at home where the stream was weak and the temperature had only two settings, scald and freeze.
She had to be around somewhere. Maybe she hadn’t got home yet? This wasn’t so bad. He would be ready to meet her, smelling like soap, and she’d smile her smile and he’d send it back and then they’d be at the table together and maybe his foot would be touching hers. And maybe later he’d be sitting with her in her room, it all seemed inevitable in a shower like this. Maybe her hands would slide down his belly. Down, gently, gently, taking hold… in Adam’s house! He couldn’t believe he was thinking it… But this was where she lived. She had her own little bedroom in a private corner of the house. Her smile, he could see the pleased look in her eyes, and her fingers –
The door crashed open and someone burst into the room.
Scott’s immediate reaction was to put both of his hands above his head, which he did with a crash of some kind, and it was the shower door he’d hit, and it rattled along its rail in the direction it had been struck, exposing him. Water bounced off Scott’s naked body into the bathroom. He froze. His hands were above his head.
Lauren was in the room. She was close enough he could reach out and touch her. He was naked. Everything seemed to be happening very slowly.
She was at the basin, scrabbling through cupboards, one eye covered by a hand. ‘Sorry, I really need some eyedrops or something, ow ow fuck.’
Scott didn’t know whether to speak or stay silent. He reached over to the door to slide it back closed.
She straightened, suddenly, and the eye that wasn’t covered looked into the mirror and over her own shoulder and right at Scott. And Scott’s naked chest. And maybe more. Scott wasn’t sure how much she saw. He saw her. Their eyes met.
He slammed the door closed.
‘You’re not Adam,’ Lauren said.
Scott squeezed his eyes shut. This was not part of the plan.
‘Uh, well. How... um, how about I go and fix this intense pain I’m suffering somewhere else?’
He heard her move to the door.
‘You just, you know. Carry on. Have fun.’
The door was shut for maybe five seconds before Scott was out of the shower with his underwear back on.
The dining table was polished so well Scott could see himself. The placemats were large and everything matched everything else. Scott felt like one of those people in movies who found themselves faced with a whole bunch of unfamiliar forks. He was at a corner between Adam and Mr Curtis, and Lauren was about as far away as she could be at the corner between Mrs Curtis and Michael. Greg was directly opposite and watching him with an unnerving intensity. The meal was steak, and Mrs Curtis served broccoli to accompany it from a steaming bowl that matched all the plates. Scott looked over at Lauren and caught a full-on glare from Greg. Perhaps, he thought, it would be easier to just gaze at the plate until everyone else started eating. Besides, he really really didn’t want to catch her eye. That would only remind her of the last time their eyes met, which was not something he wanted to get her thinking about ever again if at all possible. He had enough problems.
At least, he supposed, she hadn’t, like, thrown up. Or laughed at him. It could have been worse.
Mr Curtis ahem’d attention. ‘Dear Lord, we thank you for these your gifts which you have placed on our table, help us to truly appreciate them. Thank you for the additional gifts of our guests tonight, Scott and of course Lauren. I hope they also enjoy the meal your bounty has provided. Amen.’
The rest of the family, Lauren included, echoed the amen and then began to eat. Mrs Curtis waited a moment to be polite, then spoke up. ‘Of course, Lauren isn’t really a guest, she’s more part of the household, isn’t she.’
‘I understand that,’ Mr Curtis replied. ‘I just wanted to make sure everyone felt welcome. It can take some effort to adjust to a new place, can’t it Lauren? Everyone needs to adjust to a new arrival.’
Lauren nodded agreeably. ‘Oh, I know. It’s just like when a new baby arrives and all the older children get worried that they won’t be important any more.’
Mrs Curtis smiled, ‘Oh yes! When Adam was little and Michael came along he was none too impressed! You put your hands into little fists and told us to take that baby right back! It was so charming.’
Adam shifted uncomfortably. ‘Please, mum…’
Scott was sure Lauren had prompted that story deliberately. She was the odd one out in this household, that much was clear. He noticed Greg eyeing him suspiciously and returned his attention to his food.
‘So, Scott, you’re in the basketball team too?’ Mr Curtis had timed it perfectly, forcing Scott to make ‘I’m chewing’ gestures for far too long. ‘And how do you think it’s going?’
‘Fine,’ Scott managed at last. ‘We’re doing well.’
‘Adam tells me you might get into the finals.’
Scott forced himself to be an interesting guest. ‘That’s right, if we win one of the next two games we should go through.’
‘Oh, that would be good, wouldn’t it?’ said Mrs Curtis.
‘Good, good,’ Mr Curtis agreed. ‘Setting goals you can achieve.’ Scott couldn’t think of anything to say to that so he just nodded. Mr Curtis continued to ask Michael and then Gregory about their day. They related the latest developments in their junior school lives, an area of St Francis that Scott didn’t miss in the least. Then Mr Curtis moved on to Lauren. She downplayed her first proper day of the course, amusing everyone with some of the anecdotes passed on by the co-ordinator, a Texan who was apparently something of a raconteur. Scott was quietly pleased to note that her supposed friend in the course didn’t figure in her stories at all.
Mrs Curtis had managed to replace the empty plates with dessert without anyone noticing, a steaming lemon pie. Scott tucked in eagerly, surprised to be having dessert at all. As he did so, Mr Curtis moved on to Adam.
‘Nothing much happened,’ Adam shrugged.
‘Why, something must have,’ Mrs Curtis probed. ‘What did you learn in your classes?’
Adam looked at his plate blankly. ‘Nothing interesting.’
‘What, nothing at all?’ Mr Curtis persisted.
‘Do you know,’ Adam said, suddenly looking up, ‘that the school bell rings ten times in a single day? So we hear that school bell about two thousand times every school year?’
Scott and Lauren looked at each other. The moment passed. They both looked down at their food.
Scott suggested a three-hand card game and Adam quite liked that idea. He left his room to find Lauren and while he was gone Scott worked on details. It had been well over a year since the last time they’d done this, played cards on the floor of Adam’s room, and that time Dennis and Richard had been there too so it had been crowded. He’d spent the whole evening trying not to stare at her, her wicked little smile as he lost game after game. They’d been sitting so their legs were touching. Only three people, this time. How could he get that happening again? He’d want to sit over on Adam’s bed, maybe, that way he’d end up right next to her if she wanted the bed. He had to ditch the computer chair, Adam could have that. And then they’d play.
Then he’d need to get rid of Adam somehow. Maybe he could ask her to show him her room? God, why would she do that? Plus it would no doubt break every rule of propriety in the Curtis household. No good. Getting rid of Adam was something he hadn’t thought through in advance. He’d have to wing it. Even though what usually happened when he winged it was a big crash and burn. Without a plan, his chances of getting Lauren alone were somewhere between slim and none.
The door opened and Lauren came in. She was alone. ‘I bet you wish I’d stop doing that,’ she said, sinking down on Adam’s bed.
Scott’s mind went blank. ‘What?’
‘Walking in on you! Where’s Adam?’
He cursed himself for not having moved to the bed when he thought of it before. He couldn’t do it now. He was trapped on the seat! Fuck this seat! Why had he ever sat down here? ‘He went to find you. Haven’t you spoken to him?’
‘He must be looking in the wrong places.’
‘Isn’t that where you usually are?’
Lauren smiled. ‘They’re usually the most fun…’ She threw back her head lazily. ‘God, I wish I was getting drunk tonight. It would help a great deal, you know?’
‘Yeah, I know what you mean,’ Scott said.
‘Today was such a terrible day. It was sooo bad…’
This sounded like something Scott could work with. ‘How come?’
‘Where do I begin! First of all I get completely lost around campus even though we just got the tour yesterday. And then the people I asked for help were no help at all, in fact I think some of them deliberately sent me off on a wild goose chase. And then the big party that’s on tomorrow night, you wouldn’t believe it, I’m two people from the front of the queue when they sell the last ticket.’ Lauren sighed. ‘It’s just one of those days when nothing’s going right.’
‘Well, that at least means you can come to watch the basketball, huh?’
‘Yeah, well I might as well. God, that doesn’t sound encouraging. Sport isn’t really my thing, you know? But why the hell not, see you guys running around. Could be a laugh.’
‘See?’ Scott said, trying to be casual. ‘Silver lining.’
‘Oh, don’t be too hasty, I’ve only just started the story. Then my wallet gets stolen! Luckily, thank God, it gets handed in to lost property two hours later so I didn’t need to replace the cards, but all the cash was gone and I did spend two hours panicking like a fucking kid. All my money gone! I don’t have that much to throw around, so that was a real crash.’ She shook her head. ‘I hope Welly doesn’t stay like this.’
‘It’ll get better,’ Scott said. This would be a perfect moment to put his arm around her, except he was on the chair not the bed, and because she’d probably get angry if he tried. ‘At least you’ve got us around to cheer you up,’ he said instead. He watched her carefully. Things were in a very delicate balance. She smiled and seemed about to speak.
Adam crashed back into the room. ‘Oh, here you are. I couldn’t find you.’
‘Yeah, I was on the phone,’ Lauren said, instead of whatever else it would have been. Scott cursed.
‘You could have called me, you know,’ Adam said to Scott.
‘Hey, I knew you’d work it out. So, are we up for some cards?’
‘Sure, what are we playing?’ Lauren said, brightening up. ‘Because if you like, I know a game or two…’
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ Adam said, bewildered. ‘I can’t seem to get anywhere at all.’
‘Unlucky night,’ Scott said, meaning both of them.
Lauren totted up their points. ‘Luck has nothing to do with it.’
‘Could I have something to drink?’ Scott asked.
‘Sure,’ Adam said. ‘How about a hot chocolate?’
‘Lauren, do you want one?’
‘No, I’m good thanks. Unless you have bourbon.’
‘I’m not getting you bourbon.’ Adam grinned and disappeared out the door. It hung half-open, which Scott realised was not ideal, but it would have to do. It had been good, the cards, they’d had fun, Lauren had kicked their asses, no knee-touching on account of her being on the bed and him on the chair but it was okay. She was great fun to be with. She was even more like he remembered than he remembered her being.
‘Well,’ Lauren said, shuffling the cards absent-mindedly. ‘I’ve pretty much ridden this pony as far as it’ll go. I might mosey on out. Thanks for the game, it was fun.’
‘Okay, see you,’ said Scott.
Lauren went out the door and pulled it closed.
Scott realised what he’d just done and slapped himself in the face. ‘Fuck. Brilliant. Nice one. Quick on your feet as usual.’
The door opened again and Scott slammed his mouth closed. ‘Uh, sorry about that shower thing, by the way,’ said Lauren, peering around. ‘That was pretty rude.’ She smiled sheepishly.
‘Awesome.’ Lauren nodded, and went to leave again, but Scott seized the second chance.
‘Could I have a word with you for a sec?’
She nodded and came back in, shutting the door behind her. ‘What’s up?’
Scott looked her in the eye. He remembered her looking at him in the bathroom. That look on her face, which was sort of, horribly, amused and bemused, and how she’d seen it all before. He’d been – she must have known what he’d been doing, about to do – how much had she seen? She was looking him right in the eye, right now.
‘Uh, I was just wondering, you know, what happened to your eye? And if it’s all right?’
He’d lost his nerve. This was the plan, the moment he’d been building to, and he couldn’t do it. He’d wrecked it now. It was too late. It was all over. God.
He wasn’t even listening as she answered him, and the weird little look on her face, fuck, she had written him off as a dick. He’d given her every reason to. It was a disaster. A complete disaster, and there was no-one to blame but himself.