Written by TriangleDelta
The summer after eleventh grade was one of the best times of my life. I know, I could probably make it sound much more eloquent and nuanced than that, but that's really all there was to it.
Admittedly, the first week or so after exams finished were uncomfortable. Whenever I was around Catherine, I couldn't get the image of her smiling at Garet and I out of my head. Every time I went to her house to practice, I was watching her, trying to figure out what her angle was. It made me play a bit off, but Catherine never commented on it. By early July, though, my nerves had calmed down enough for me to just focus on the practices.
Things with Catherine kind of returned to their normal old routine. The two of us kept pushing each other to improve, and we both had to learn how to handle our increasing muscle mass. Our practices had always been physically demanding, but the increasingly aggressive style of our playing changed it a bit.
Oddly, though, it seemed to improve our relationship. Catherine was still spectacularly gifted at making offensive, offhanded comments, and I know that my continuing growth spurt and improving skill were infuriating to her. The physically demanding and aggressive practices gave us a way to let our anger out, though. By the end of most practices, we were able to speak casually with each other. It made the dinners with her parents less uncomfortable, at least. I was still taking advantage to get heartier food into me. I had to; with my growth spurt showing no sign of stopping, I needed the extra weight to keep from getting skinny.
It was the rest of my free time that helped make that summer so enjoyable, though. Without school or team practices to worry about, I had plenty of free time. Some of this time was eaten up by workouts at the gym with Garet, but the two of us became more flexible in that routine. We didn't work out on the weekends as much, and we tried to go in the morning instead of the evening.
One morning early in July, I think it was a Monday, the two of us were just finishing up our workout. We were getting changed back into our street clothes, and I was trying hard to not look at Garet's locker. Even with the situation out in the open, Garet still went through the motions of trying to cover up that he was dealing. So I had my head down, and I was focused on doing up my shoes when the big crocodile spoke.
"How long have you owned those?"
I blinked, and looked up at the crocodile. He was eying my shoes, and he was doing a bad job trying to conceal the grimace on his face.
"What?" I finally asked.
"Those shoes. I'm pretty sure you've owned those since I met you."
I felt the feathers around my neck puff up a bit, but I tried to hide my self-consciousness as I replied. "What? They're good shoes."
"Yeah, they probably were at some point." There was a hint of a laugh in his voice, and I could feel aggression starting to bubble up in my chest. "But they're falling apart, man. Weren't they white?"
I forced myself to not look down at the greyish brown shoes. Instead, I just cleared my throat and muttered, "They do their job."
"Even with how much you've grown in the past year?"
"You know I don't really have another choice."
Garet snorted, and I almost took a swing at him. He could be an asshole sometimes, but even before I'd met Catherine, Garet and I had established a few unwritten rules. One such rule was that neither of us asked about or made fun of each other because of money.
I was getting ready to yell at him when he spoke. "How much is Catherine paying you?" When I didn't answer, he held up his hands defensively. "Look, I know that you're using that money to buy food and stuff for your family. You can't tell me that that's taking up all of that money, though."
I clenched my beak for a moment, then shrugged. "There's always some left over. I'm saving it, though."
For a few moments, I tried to come up with an answer. At length, I just settled on, "Just in case, I guess."
"Dude, how much time do you spend practicing and playing? You need a good pair of shoes."
I didn't really know how to reply to that. I think I just stared at him for a bit, probably with a dumb look on my face. At length, he sighed and shook his head.
"We're going to buy you new shoes."
"Garet, I can't afford that."
"Yes you can! Come on."
So we went. I can't remember most of what happened after that; we went to an athletics store somewhere or other, and I tried on a bunch of new shoes. I'll admit it: they felt really good. The only reason that my old shoes still fit was because of how much they'd stretched over the years. Trying on shoes that were actually designed to fit my feet, and whose supports were all still intact, was an alien experience.
I finally let Garet convince me into buying a pair. They weren't top of the line or anything; I had been saving money, but not enough to justify anything too expensive. Garet tried to convince me to toss out the old pair, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I've never gotten over that obsession with holding onto old clothes, and especially old shoes. Still, I couldn't contain the small spring in my step as we left the store.
Then, after that, Garet and I just… hung out, I guess. We wandered through downtown Vancouver, mostly just talking, and watching street performers. When it started getting to the late afternoon, Garet convinced me to come to the old court. There was a game going on when we arrived. I saw a few new faces there, but most of the people were familiar. Garet and I joined in for the games, and it was… amazing. There was no pressure to win, no consequences if we lost, no need to prove myself. Garet and I were easily the best players there, but neither of us pushed ourselves. It was the first time I'd felt genuinely happy playing basketball in months.
That became our ritual. It wasn't every time we worked out, but often enough we would just hang out afterwards. There were no expectations, just lazy afternoons spent talking. We would wind up at the court and join in with the games there. Sometimes, if I had the time, I would even go out with some of the others afterwards. It took me a little while to feel relaxed, and to let go of the constant tension of my life, but when I did, well… It was one of the first times in my life that I let myself feel like a 'normal' kid.
I'm pretty sure my mom noticed the new shoes, and she definitely noticed the time I wasn't spending at home. She never commented, though. If anything, she seemed happier knowing that I was spending more time with kids my own age, not stressed out. I'm pretty sure that I was easier to live with, at least. I can't imagine how annoying it must have been living with a son who was constantly either gone, tired, or cranky. The only person that ever mentioned anything was my younger brother. It wasn't anything big; one day at dinner Ken just pointed out that I seemed a lot happier lately, and I couldn't disagree.
It was maybe two weeks after I started hanging out with Garet and the others that I got a surprise phone call. My mom seemed confused when she told me that the call was for me, and I was already tensing up as I picked up the receiver. I don't know what I was expecting; maybe Catherine or Mr DeMille calling to complicate my life even more.
The voice on the other end, though, was too gruff to be Catherine or her father. "Hiro?"
"Good. I'm never sure whether to trust the school paperwork."
My beak hung open for a moment, and then I demanded, "Coach Kimmit?"
"Yes. How's your summer going?"
"Fine?" To say I was confused would be an understatement. I'd never seen Kimmit outside of practices or games. To have him suddenly calling me at home felt very strange. "Did you need me for something?"
"No. Well, not exactly." He cleared his throat over the line, and I got the impression that he wasn't too used to speaking over the phone. "Actually, I had a recommendation for you."
"Yes. That growth spurt you're on doesn't seem like it's going to let up any time soon, and assuming it doesn't, you'll be moving up at least to small forward come September."
His voice was matter-of-fact, but his words sent a cool chill down my spine. I knew how much Catherine prized her position on the team. She loved being a small forward; she loved being in the thick of things, cutting past opponents and making them look like idiots. She might still be able to do some of that if she started playing shooting guard, but I doubted that she would be too happy about it.
Kimmit was still speaking, though, so I didn't have much time to consider the implications of his words. "Now, as you get taller, you're going to find yourself playing close to the net more and more. As an avian, you can't really expect to develop the muscle that comes naturally to somebody like Garet. That said, one thing you might want to consider working on that could help you remain competitive is your flapping."
That was how I wound up at the beach that Tuesday evening. I was standing on the sidewalk with my hands in my pockets, watching a group of avians who were down by the surf. They were all taking turns crouching down and tensing up, then launching themselves into the sky and pumping down with their arms. It didn't take long to see which ones were more experienced. There were those who were relying entirely on their jumps; their flaps weren't giving much lift, if any. Others, though, were getting noticeably more airtime, and still others were managing to rise a bit with each flap.
I just watched for probably about half an hour, keeping out of the way of bikers and walkers on the sidewalk. I'd heard of groups that practiced flapping and flying. There were small clubs and classes in some cities that tried to teach avians how to use their wings, all to varying levels of success. Actual sustained flight was out of the question, but I'd heard rumours of birds that could get a decent amount of height, and some that managed to glide. There were even a few videos circling around of avians that would base jump and land using only their wings to slow their momentum.
All of that, of course, was well beyond me on that day. I was terrified to even approach them. Kimmit had recommended the group to me; they were a casual group that met up twice per week in the summer. No admission, no charge of any kind. All I had to do was show up, and they would get me started.
Eventually I worked up the courage to approach them. The apparent leader of the group, a golden eagle in her mid-20s whose biceps looked bigger than my torso, waved me over. I guess Kimmit had told her that I was coming, because she greeted me by name, introduced herself as Tessa, and started giving me instructions.
It was a casual atmosphere, and I was happy for it. There seemed to be a bit of competitiveness between some members of the group, but for the most part they were all there to have a good time. Most of them were wearing tanktops, like me; anything that would expose as many of the feathers along their arms as possible.
After a short introduction, Tessa took me aside and told me to give it a try. I was surprised; she hadn't really told me much. Basically just jump as high as I could, and try to push down. I would later learn that she placed a lot of faith in the 'baptism by fire' method of teaching. At the time, I just stared back at her, feeling uncomfortable. After some encouragement from some of the others, though, I crouched, then jumped into the air.
I felt like an idiot as I brought my arms down, not sure what I was supposed to be doing. I landed in the soft sand, and Tessa immediately told me to try again. Then again, and again, and again. It didn't take long for me to build up a sweat, but I couldn't feel any difference in my airtime. I'm sure the embarrassed blush was showing through my feathers, but nobody offered me anything but encouragement. After about half an hour of me just trying like that, Tessa came back over and gave me more suggestions on how to hold my arms, how to angle my feathers, how to position my tailfeathers. I soon learned why they practiced on the beach; sometimes I found myself focusing so hard on my arms and my tail that I completely forgot about my legs as I landed. I wound up collapsed in the soft sand more often than I'd like to admit.
I took a few short breaks to catch my breath, and I took those opportunities to watch the others. There were all sorts of people there, mostly highschool or university aged. There were a couple younger kids, though, and even one seagull who looked to be in her middle age.
On one of these occasions, I got the chance to watch Tessa. The golden eagle spent more time giving advice than actually flying. Whenever she took a turn, though, things got quiet while people watched. When she jumped, she got some serious height. Her powerful arms cut enormous, seemingly slow arcs through the air. Each beat down was accompanied by an audible 'whoosh' of displaced air. To my shock, each one of those flaps not only slowed her descent, but gave her a small bit of lift; almost a bounce. She kept flapping, her eyes shut and her beak clenched tightly in concentration. After what felt like an eternity, but was probably only a couple seconds, she touched down lightly onto the ground, her chest heaving. She was immediately surrounded by people complimenting her, and she opened her eyes and joked with a few of them. I just watched from the edges of the group, then prepared myself for another jump.
After another hour or so, I was exhausted and sore. It was getting late anyways, so I left for home. The others bid me goodbye as I left, and more than a few of them offered to pick me up the next time they were planning on meeting. I wasn't sure at first; I'd felt silly the entire time, and I didn't think I'd made any progress. Not to mention, I figured that I already spent enough time practicing and training for basketball.
That said, there was something different about the flight group. It was casual in a way that was completely unlike basketball. There were no winners and no losers. Sure, some people liked to compete with each other, but the focus was more on competing against yourself than against any of the others. Every time somebody jumped, everybody else only had encouragement and occasionally suggestions for them. Not to mention, whenever I closed my eyes for the next few days, all I could see was Tessa flapping those powerful arms and getting those little boosts in height. I knew that in basketball, avians were only allowed a single flap, but if I could channel that kind of power, then a single flap might be all I needed. I wasn't sure whether the practice would ever yield any results, but I found myself down at the beach the next time they met up, and every time after that, too.
That was the way that most of that summer went. I spent most of my time between training at Catherine's, working out and hanging with Garet and the others from the court, and flight practice at the beach. Things remained steady until about a week into August. I had been out practicing flapping, and then spent some time just hanging around with some of the other club members at the beach. When I got home, it was beginning to get dark out. I climbed the stairs up to our apartment slowly, all of my muscles aching painfully from the hours of practice. I was surprised to find my mom sitting at the table when I came in. It was well past the time that she normally went to bed. At first I was nervous; afraid that I'd been out too late or something else.
As she turned to look at me, though, my nerves turned to confusion. She looked exhausted, but there was a smile in her eyes as she looked me up and down. At length, she said, "Hiro. We got a call from your father's clinic while you were out."
I stopped in my tracks and stared at her. There was that grin there, but I couldn't be sure what it meant. It took a long few moments before I was able to croak out, "And?"
"It's gone into remission."
Again, it took a few seconds for me to reply. I wasn't sure what to say at first. I can only imagine how stupid my face looked as I stared at her, trying to figure out what she was saying. "So…"
"All of his symptoms are either gone, or have lessened. He can come home."
To be honest? I don't remember much of the rest of that night. I was already exhausted from my day. I do remember a lot of laughing and crying, though. I remember this feeling deep in the pit of my guts; not the overwhelming anxiety that was normally bubbling away down there, but instead a disbelieving lightness.
I went to bed not too long afterwards, but I didn't sleep much. I kept waking up in the dead of night, then sitting up as my mind panicked, wondering if my exchange with my mom was all a dream. On one of those occasions, I saw that Mai was also awake on her mattress. The two of us just sat in the darkness and whispered for half an hour, trying to not wake our brother.
As a result, I was tired the next morning when I got up to meet Laurence in front of my apartment building. I slept through most of the ride out to Catherine's house, and Laurence had to politely clear his throat to wake me up when we arrived.
I stumbled out into the rising heat of a summer morning. I was yawning and blinking sleep from my eyes as I climbed the steps to her front door, and then made my way through the now-familiar hallways. As always, I could already hear the dribbling of a ball as I reached the door to the court.
I pushed it open and stepped inside. Catherine, of course, was there, dribbling and practicing her shooting. That was normal. She always started before I arrived. Most of the time, she would just keep wordlessly practicing while I got my shoes on. This time, though, as soon as I stepped in, she stopped dribbling and turned to face me. I hesitated, half bent over towards my shoes.
"What's up?" I forced my voice to stay casual.
"I heard about your dad."
Her face was straight, her eyes as unreadable as ever. I held her gaze for a long moment before I replied. "Yeah. I found out last night."
She nodded. "Congratulations."
"Thanks." There was silence. I knew that she was trying to build up to something. I was confused, though, and that, combined with my exhaustion, made me a bit impatient. So at last I just reached up to rub at one of my eyes, and said, "What is it?"
"Well, about our deal…"
She stopped as I laughed. It wasn't a laugh that had any humour. It was more bitter than anything, and I knew she could tell. To her look, I just said, "My dad's cancer has been in remission for less than a day, and you already want to talk about what that means to our 'deal?'"
"I appreciate that you're very happy right now, and that this is important to your family. I need to know if you're still in, though. If not, then I need to start making alternate arrangements."
This time, it was my turn to be surprised. She kept those cool eyes on me, and I didn't bother to try holding in my incredulity. I hadn't had the time to consider the larger implications of my dad's remission. I hadn't thought about what it might mean to our deal until Catherine pointed it out to me. She, of course, would think of it right away. Catherine had that cool, manipulative mind that picked out such things.
For a brief moment, I considered the possibility. I could pull out of the deal. I could go back to my old school, start playing basketball at the court after school with my old friends, and let myself relax. I could even hang out with the group from the flapping practices more often. I could stop worrying about Catherine's aggression and her father and mother's false smiles. I could stop being stressed, and actually get my homework done on time on a regular basis. Or hell, I could just stay at Catherine's high school and stay on the team, but forget about the long weekends of extra practicing and working out.
I considered all of that in the span of a few seconds. That was all the time I afforded myself, though. As I let my mind follow through with the possibility, though, I clenched my beak.
"Look, my dad…" I stopped, then tried again. "I'm not backing down, alright? Not yet. I mean… yeah, his cancer's in remission. He's still not healthy enough to work yet, and my mom doesn't make enough money to support all five of us." I worked my beak a bit, briefly feeling an enormous longing deep in my gut for that life I'd considered for a few seconds. I pushed it away, then added, "Besides, we've got unfinished business. We said we'd get to nationals this year, right? Do you really think I would just walk away?"
Catherine shrugged. "Last year you told me that you couldn't trust me anymore. Why should I trust you?" Her tone was casual, but her words still cut. I knew that they were meant to, as well. She went on, acting as though nothing had happened. "In that case, though, shall we get started?"
The rest of the day passed as it normally did. We played hard, we took a break for lunch, and then we worked all afternoon. We spoke less than usual, and things were a bit more tense. That said, neither of us actually brought up the subject of my dad or our deal again until the end of the day.
After Harriett stepped into the court to announce that dinner was ready, we stopped as we always did to towel off our sweat. As we were about to head out the door and towards the dining room, Catherine spoke.
"You know, my father wanted to call you last night to speak about our arrangement."
I blinked in surprise, then glanced over to her. She wasn't looking at me; she was just running her fingers through her crest feathers to arrange them properly.
"Oh?" I finally asked, unsure how to respond.
"Yes. I told him that I would speak to you today, though. I thought that you and your family might appreciate some time."
"Oh." I considered that for a few moments. She still seemed to be ignoring me, so at length I just said, "Thank you."
With that, she pushed open the door and left the court, not holding the door for me. I followed her a moment after, shaking my head. I was agreeing to keep playing these confusing head games. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to scream from confusion and frustration, or just be surprised that Catherine would actually think of my family's feelings.
My dad returned home a few days later. He was skinny and weak, but he looked better than I'd seen him in years. He spent the first day at home in bed, recovering from his trip. After that, though, he made a point of getting up and walking around a bit every day, and he normally helped with at least a bit of housework. It was strange enough for me to get used to him being in our apartment again, let alone seeing him up and moving around.
The days passed, and he put on weight. Some of his plumage started coming back in, and his visible skin grew less pale. Soon, he was going on short walks outside. My sister, brother, mother and I all watched his progression hesitantly, all of us acutely aware of how delicate he was. Any time that we asked him if he was alright or if he was taking on too much, though, he gave us a curt, stony reply.
By the end of the summer, he was healthy enough to take care of most of the housework while my mother was working. I don't know whether it was the relief of seeing him so healthy, or the unburdening of that bit of extra work, but I could see the noticeable difference in my mom's energy and attitude as time went on. She spoke more, and she had fewer of those periods when she just stared off into space, looking at nothing. She laughed more. I think that was what I noticed most.
It must have been strangest for my siblings. Ken and Mai had been much younger than me when dad got diagnosed. They could probably barely remember a time when he hadn't been sick. At first, the two of them were quiet and cautious around him, unsure how to act. They probably would have stayed like that if it weren't for the sudden lifting of responsibility from them. With my dad home and able to do work around the house, there were fewer chores for the three of us to do. I'll admit it: Ken and Mai took on the lion's share of our chores. With me always away practicing and training, most of the work fell to the two of them. Now that they had more free time, they were out and about more often. Once or twice, the two of them even brought friends over, which was something I couldn't remember them ever doing.
My dad was a severe, serious man. He was more likely to remind you of your responsibilities than he was to tell a joke. That didn't matter, though. Just having him back with us and in such better health was enough to make our entire apartment feel louder. More alive.
I actually brought him to the beach for one of my flapping practices. He didn't participate, of course; he was getting stronger, but intense physical exertion like that was still completely out of the question. I introduced him to Tessa and the others, and he sat back to watch while we all practiced. I got the impression that he thought it was a stupid waste of time until he saw Tessa go for a turn. Afterwards, as we were walking back home, the two of us couldn't stop talking about all the things I could do in a game with that kind of lift. The excitement and fire in his voice solidified my decision to keep practicing my flaps.
September came around, and Garet, Catherine and I went back to school. Basketball practices started up during the second week of September, and just like that we were back into things. Catherine didn't make any comment when I was bumped up to playing small forward, and she was assigned the shooting guard position. If she was jealous or bitter, she did a good job hiding it.
My dad kept getting better. By the end of September, he was healthy enough to start driving his cab again. Between the money that he, my mother, and I were bringing in, things at our house felt… stable. Relaxed. Calm.
If my story was a fairy tale, this is where I would offer a very modest, 'and they all lived happily ever after.' My life is not a fairy tale. Every now and again, life or the universe throws you a bit of good luck. Sometimes it lasts for a few hours; other times it lasts for a few years. It always runs out, though. Those good times are a vacation, and vacations have to end.
My particular good period ended one Friday in November. Coach Kimmit was just moving the team up to our more aggressive training and practicing schedule. The moment I got home from practice, I knew that something was wrong. The apartment was quiet and still again, like it had been before my dad's return.
My mom and dad were sitting at the kitchen table, in an awful parallel of the night that I'd come home to the news of his cancer's remission. My dad didn't speak, and my mom's voice was too delicate. She told me he'd had one of his followup appointments that day, and that the doctor had found a lump.
I don't want to get into too much detail about that night. I called Mr DeMille later and explained the situation. The doctors had to run some tests, but we all knew that those tests would be much faster at the private clinic in Washington. Besides, if the tests showed what we feared, that would mean my dad would already be at the clinic to start his treatment.
I went to Catherine's the next day to practice, but my heart wasn't in it. If Catherine noticed, she didn't say anything. She didn't say much of anything. I skipped dinner that night, and went right to the YMCA afterwards to meet up with Garet.
I've always said that Garet's smarter than people give him credit for. He's observant. He knew right away that something was wrong, and he asked about it. I told him. When he asked him if I wanted to work out that night, I said no.
The two of us just went for a walk instead. We somehow wound up at our old court. There was nobody else there, so we sat on one of the benches just inside the chainlink fence. We didn't talk, didn't do anything. We just sat for hours in the cool, late fall air as the night grew darker around us.
My dad left to go to the clinic that Tuesday. When I got home from school that day, the apartment felt dead.