“You want me to do what?” Maya pulled an earbud from her ear to blink at her father.
Thomas Cooper peeked over his reading glasses at Maya. “You heard me.”
“But dad,” she whined. “I’m meeting my friends! I can’t have Bryan tag along, I would die!”
“First of all, you won’t die,” he grinned. “Secondly, your mother has to go to this meeting and Carla has the afternoon off. You’re our only choice.” He paused. “You’re the best choice, obviously. Bryan loves hanging out with you.”
“And I love hanging out with him, but not in front of my friends. It’s not cool, dad.”
Thomas dropped his phone into his suit jacket and gave his daughter his full attention. “Look Gracie,” he stepped forward and gathered her into his arms, placing a kiss on her head. “I remember being fourteen. I know exactly what you’re feeling right now. Remember how I had to stay home with your aunt and uncle so grandma could go to work?”
“Yeah. But you didn’t have a choice. Grandpa had died.”
“True. But you don’t have a choice either. Someone has to watch Bryan, he’s too young to stay home by himself. You don’t want anything to happen to him, do you?”
Maya wrapped her arms around her father’s waist and gave him a loving squeeze. “No.”
“Just act like the cool sister. Show your friends how responsible you are. They’ll be impressed.”
“But he’s so annoying,” she murmured into his suit jacket.
He chuckled. ‘He’s also your little brother. Flesh and blood. We do whatever it takes for flesh and blood, right?”
She sighed and nodded against his chest. She loved the smell of her father. He smelled like sandalwood and gun powder. She lowered her hand and ran her palm over the butt of the revolver in his belt. It brought her a strange sense of comfort knowing her father carried a gun.
“Where’s mom?” Bryan entered the room.
“She at her meeting, bud.” Thomas slipped out of Maya’s embrace and ruffled his son’s hair.
“But … ” he looked from his father to his sister and then back. “Carla is out. Am I going to work with you dad?” He bounced on the ball of his feet, excitement shining in his green eyes.
“Sorry, no. You’re hanging out with Maya,” he said.
“But she’s a girl!” he whined, looking horrified.
“See!” Maya said. “He doesn’t want to hang out with me and my friends either!”
“Look you two,” said Thomas. “We don’t have a choice. Mom is out, Carla is out. There is no one else available. If it’s going to bother you so much, Maya, then stay home. You don’t have to hang out with your friends. Or better yet, invite them here.”
“No. We made plans for the park. We have to go to the park!”
“Oooh, is Damon going to be there?” Bryan sing-songed.
“Who’s Damon?” said Thomas.
“No one!” Maya yelled, reaching out to swat at Bryan but he was too quick for her and dodged her hand.
“Maya, you’re not meeting a boy, are you?”
“No dad. It’s just me and the girls. We need some fresh air. End of discussion.”
Thomas arched a warning brow at her.
Maya crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “Fine. He can come.”
“But I don’t want to hang out with her! Girls are gross!” Bryan whined.
“Enough!” Thomas yelled. Both the kids jumped at his sharp tone. “I need to go. Leave, stay, I don’t care, but you are not to leave Bryan alone, do you hear me, Maya? If I find out you did, you will be grounded.”
She sighed and nodded. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Thomas softened his tone and took a calming breath. “I’ll make a reservation at our favorite Italian restaurant tonight and then we’ll go out for ice cream later, deal?”
Both kids nodded and he smiled. He bent down, pointed to his cheek and smiled when Maya gave him a quick peck. Bryan hugged him tightly around the waist and hung on as Thomas started to walk away. He laughed. “Get off me, you monkey.”
Bryan laughed and let go, stumbling backward.
Maya rolled her eyes.
“See you later, kiddos.”
“Bye dad,” they both chorused.
Maya waited for him to leave then turned to Bryan. “You better not embarrass me.”
“You better not embarrass me! I know you’re going to the park to watch Damon’s soccer team practice. I’m not stupid.”
“Whatever brat. Go grab your jacket.”
“I don’t need a jacket.”
“It’s 50 degrees, Bryan. I don’t want to go to the park and then you start complaining about being cold. In fact, I want you to be invisible. Got it?”
“Fine. I’ll bring my invisible cloak then.”
Maya growled. “Get your jacket!” She lunged for him and he dodged her once again.
“Haha! You’ll never catch me, Maya. I’m much faster than you!”
She made to grab at him again but he once again ducked under her arm and raced toward his room.
Maya scowled after him and sent Ava a text. Dad is making me bring Bryan. She walked over to the mudroom and grabbed her green pea coat from the hook. Her phone dinged as she slipped it on.
No worries. I think your little brother is funny.
You wouldn’t think that if you had to live with him.
“Come on slow poke!” Bryan bumped into her as he rushed past.
“Oh my God! You are so annoying!” She yelled after him. She grabbed her cross over bag, made sure she had the door key, her lip gloss and some cinnamon gum before following her little brother out the door.
“Bryan, wait up!” Maya yelled while skipping down the stairs. He was already half a block ahead of her. She reached in her bag and retrieved her lip gloss. She tried to apply it while speed walking after Bryan. She felt nervous. Even though she told her father she was going to the park to hang out with her girlfriends, which was technically correct, she was largely going because Damon was going to be practicing with his soccer team. She had had a crush on Damon for nearly two years and this was the first year he finally noticed her. It was also the year she developed boobs and bought her first bra so maybe he had finally noticed she was becoming a woman.
She pressed her lips together and looked both ways while crossing the street. One block to the park. She could just make Bryan out in front of her. “Bryan!” She yelled.
He spun around and began to run backward while waving at her.
“Slow down!” She could have run after him, but she didn’t want to arrive at the park all hot and sweaty. Though maybe a little sweat would make her t-shirt cling to her newly developed breasts and that would prompt Damon to finally talk to her.
She thought back to the first time she had seen Damon. They had fifth grade class together. He sat to her right, catty-corner from her desk. She had the perfect spot to watch him without him noticing her stare. He was gorgeous. He had hair the color of swirling milk chocolate and light hazel eyes. He had a dimple in his left cheek whenever he smiled. He didn’t smile a lot, but when he did, it took her breath away. He was very quiet that year and stayed mostly to himself. She thought he was mysterious and broody. He never once looked back at her and he never seemed to sense she was drooling over him every day. The only time he actually looked directly at her was when Mr. Shaw asked her a question and she didn’t know the answer. The other kids snickered and whispered but he simply turned around, grinned and said, “don’t sweat it. We can’t always know the answer.” She had been lost from that point forward.
She always made a point of knowing where he was at all times that year. Then in six grade, she had casually asked her friends to find out from his friends what classes he was taking so she could try and get into the same class. She was never able to take a class at the same time as him but she had English right after he did so they nearly always passed each other in the hall that year. He never said a word to her but she always made a point of walking past him every day.
This year, she had been lucky and had Social Studies with him. She sat directly behind him so she could gaze lovingly at his thick, wavy hair. He seemed to be interested in Social Studies and knew a lot of the answers. Because she didn’t want to appear stupid in front of him, she studied extra hard and often competed with him to answer the teacher’s questions. One time, she was asked a tricky question about September 11th, 2001, and when the teacher told her she had the right answer, he turned around, grinned and said, “nice.” She thought she would melt into a puddle on the spot. She carried that memory with her for weeks.
Then, last week, she heard he had tried out and made the soccer team. She immediately signed up to be part of the pep club so she would have an excuse to attend all of his games and cheer him on. She talked her best friend Ava into joining her. Her phone buzzed in her purse. She reached in to read the text: Where are you? Practice is starting and we saved you a seat.
Nearly there, she typed back.
She put her phone back and gave her full attention to the path before her.
Bryan was no where to be seen.
Maya’s heart quivered. “Bryan!” she yelled. “Bryan!” she yelled louder. She broke into a jog straining her eyes in search of her little brother. “If you get lost, mom and dad will never forgive me,” she muttered under her breath.
She picked up the pace and was nearly running when she made it to the park entrance. She slowed her pace a bit and began to look around. “Bryan! You little shit, where are you?” She was running past a group of trees when Bryan popped out.
She shrieked in surprise and skidded to a stop. “You asshole!” She put a hand to her chest and gasped to even out her breathing.
Bryan was doubled over, holding his stomach, laughing his fool head off. “Oh my God, Gracie, you should have seen your face!”
“Jerk,” she mumbled and walked past him.
Bryan continued to laugh and matched her step to walk beside her.
“Don’t walk with me!” she hissed pushing him away from her. “You’re embarrassing.”
Bryan shrugged and jogged ahead of her. “Fine. Whatever. You’re sweaty and smell like feet.” He raced toward the playground equipment and Maya watched him go while shaking her head.
“Why couldn’t I have been an only child?” she muttered under her breath. She spotted Ava and waved. She looked over her right shoulder and saw Bryan was climbing the ladder on the slide. She quickly dismissed him and ran up to greet Ava.
“Finally!” Ava said while giving her a hug. “We’ve been waiting ages.”
“Yeah. Sorry. Brothers are shitholes …” she shrugged, the rest of her sentence dangling, confident Ava knew what she meant.
“Wouldn’t know myself,” Ava said.
“Yeah. You’re lucky to be an only child. Anyway, how is practice going?” She moved past Ava to climb the bleachers and sit with the rest of the pep club.
“Great. Damon has been on the field nearly the entire time. I think the coach likes him.,” said Ava.
“What’s not to like?” Maya laughed. She settled in, put her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands and stared at number 18. He was sweating and she could see the tips of his hair beginning to curl around his ears. She released a dreamy sigh. The captain of the pep squad stood up and led them in a practice cheer. She yelled at the top of her lungs as she joined in. Ava nudged her as Damon and some of the other guys looked her way and gave them a thumb’s up.
“Oh my God, Maya. I’m pretty sure he saw you,” Ava said.
“No. He doesn’t even know I exist. I’m sure we all look like a blob to him out there …” her voice trailed away as Damon and his best friend ran over to them.
“Hey,” Damon said. His eyes scanned the group and stopped when they landed on Maya. “Thanks for the support. It really means a lot.”
“Any time Damon! But you need to make sure we have something to cheer so kick ass out there, okay?” Ashley, the squad’s leader, said.
“Yeah, kick ass,” Maya mumbled. She could feel her cheeks flaming under Damon’s stare.
“Will do. Thanks Maya,” he responded before turning back and running back out on to the field.
“Oh my God,” Maya whispered. “Can someone my age have a heart attack? Because I feel like I might be having a heart attack.” Her heart slammed into her chest bone and she felt sick to her stomach. She turned to Ava. “Tell me that really happened. I didn’t dream it, right?”
“Nope. You definitely didn’t dream that,” Ava responded.
“I’m so glad you were here. I might have to ask you a million times if that really happened. I feel like I’m in a dream.”
“Only in your dream, he comes up into the bleachers, takes your face into his sweaty palms and French kisses you until you pass out.”
Maya blinked, looked at her friend and began to laugh. “You’re so weird.”
“But am I wrong?” she laughed and put an arm around her shoulders giving her a quick, congratulatory squeeze before dropping her arm. “I do believe you have been officially noticed, Maya.”
Maya’s smile muscles began to ache. She couldn’t stop smiling. Damon not only noticed her, he sought her out and spoke to her! She sent a quick prayer of thanks up to God and sat up a little straighter. “I’m sure it’s because I have boobs now.”
Ava burst out laughing.
They continued to watch practice for another 15 minutes before noticing the park lights clicked on.
“We’re going to have to go,” Maya said. “I told Dad we would be home before dark.” She craned her neck to search for Bryan.
“I think they’re about … yep, looks like coach is calling them into a huddle,” said Ava.
“I still can’t believe …” Maya started to say as she stood up. She searched the playground equipment before moving over to the basketball courts. “Do you see Bryan any where?”
Ava stood up beside her and started to look around. “I’m pretty sure I saw him by the sand pit about … fifteen minutes ago?”
“Okay. I need to go. We’re going out to eat and I don’t want Damon to think I’m fangirling over him so we’re going to take off.” She hopped down from the bleachers and dusted the seat of her pants off. She narrowed her eyes and continued to scan the park. Where was he?
“Yeah. I need to go as well. Mom will be here in a bit to pick me up. I’ll help you look for Bryan while I’m waiting.”
“Thanks,” Maya mumbled while walking toward the playground equipment. “Bryan!” She yelled. A big bug buzzed by her head and she swatted it away. The park lights were starting to attract large moths. “Bryan!” She huffed in irritation and turned to scan the trees bordering the park. “He’s probably hiding again. He scared the shit out of me when we got here.”
“Oh Bryan! If you come out I’ll buy you Pokemon cards!” Ava laughingly yelled. “That will be hard to do considering I’ve already spent my allowance for this week.”
“Bryan – come on! We need to get home!” Maya yelled, the first thread of worry wrapping itself around her throat.
“You think he’s hurt? Why isn’t he answering?”
“Because he’s a shit, that’s why.” Maya answered. “Okay fine!” she yelled. “Stay here in the dark for all I care. I’m going home!” She marched to the entrance of the park and paused.
“This is weird, Maya.” Ava said, her brow furrowing with worry.
“Yeah. That comment about leaving him alone in the dark should have made him come out by now,” Maya said. “I don’t like this. If he’s playing a trick on me I’m going to kill him. Let’s spread out and see if we can find him. I’ll take this section, would you check over by the soccer field? I don’t want Damon to see me freaked out.”
“Sure. Text me if you find him.”
“Will do.” Maya reached the edge of the trees and turned on her flashlight app. “Come on Bryan. Let’s go home. I’m hungry. Quit being a prick.” She brushed aside some tree branches and peered into dark patches. She gave a little shiver, the growing darkness swallowing up the familiar landscape.
“Bryan. Come on. This isn’t funny anymore. You’re scaring me.” Her voice wavered as she continued to search.
After ten minutes, she text Ava. Any sign of him?
No, sorry. Mom is here now and we’re both looking. She thinks we need to call the police.
Maya swallowed and her vision began to blur with unshed tears. “Bryan, please come out. Please.” She begged to the darkness. She stumbled and nearly fell as her feet caught in something. She bent down and scooped up an article of clothing. She aimed her phone flashlight and gasped.
She screamed and scrambled out of the trees and toward the playground equipment.
Ava and her mom ran toward her
“What’s wrong? Did you see anything, Maya?” Ava’s mom asked.
She simply shook her head. She didn’t trust her voice to work as the tears began to flow freely down her face. She held up her brother’s jacket.
Ava gasped and covered her mouth in horror. “Oh my God,” she whispered.
“You need to call your parents right now, Maya,” said Ava’s mom. She turned away from the girls and dialed 911.
Maya nodded and pressed the number 2 on her keypad to quick dial her father. She placed the phone to her ear and looked out over dark park with unseeing eyes. Nearly everyone had left and the lights cast eerie shadows around the lampposts.
Maya opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.
“Hello? Maya?” Her dad repeated. “Why aren’t you two home yet? It’s pitch black out. I can’t even see the moon there are so many clouds.”
“Dad” she whispered, her voice breaking on the lone word.
“Maya?” his voice dropped, instantly concerned. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m so sorry,” her voice cracked and she felt like screaming but her throat was so tight her voice sounded broken, alien, even to her own ears.
“Why? What happened?” She noted the panic in his voice.
“I lost Bryan.”
(Told you I would write a lot this week. I’ll start to peter out soon, mark my words. Get it … mark my words?? HA!)