“Shit!” I mean…Crap! Where was she?
“Looking for this?”
I turned around to see the girl waving it in front of me with a teasing expression.
“Give that back to me!”
“See if you can get it from me.”
I lunged forward to grab it, and she started running away…fast.
She was giggling. “A-ha! You want to play tag all of a sudden, huh?”
I chased after her and yelled, “Give it to me now!”
She taunted me in a sing-songy voice. “Bet you can’t catch me!”
We ran in circles around the park for minutes on end. Her braids were flailing in the air. She was too fast for me, and I couldn’t catch up to her. At one point, I sprinted, tackling her to the ground. “Oof!”
She held the device in a death grip as I tugged at it. “Come on. Give it up!”
She just continued to laugh, enjoying this a little too much. I had to think of something, so I started to tickle her. She became hysterical and begged me to stop. Eventually, I started to laugh, too. Before now, I couldn’t even remember the last time something had truly made me laugh.
After she couldn’t take anymore, she handed me the device out of exasperation. “You win. You win.”
We both lay on the ground, huffing and puffing. “That was fun,” she said. Her smile lit up her whole face, and it was contagious.
“Yeah…actually, it was.”
She smelled like candy, and her tongue was red, probably from a lollipop. “I’m Skylar.”
Then, I heard a woman’s voice. “Skylar! Come on, honey. We have to get home. I have soup simmering on the stove.”
She hopped up from the ground. “Well…bye, Mitch.”
“Hey—” I started to say something, but she ran off before I could. I watched her until she was out of sight.
She had made me forget about my worries, made me feel alive for just a few moments, and then she was gone. I felt a strange sense of loss. Would I ever see her again? Why did it matter so much?
Why was I still smiling?
I stayed on the ground for a while then noticed that the sun was starting to set. I walked back over to Gram’s car where she was looking down at the sweater she was knitting.
“Did you have fun, honey?”
I thought about it before answering. “Yeah.”
“Good. I saw you met Skylar Seymour.”
“Huh? Yeah…what…you…you know her?”
“Of course. She lives right across the street from me.”
What I loved about Mitch Nichols: He had pointy ears like Dr. Spock from Dad’s favorite show, Star Trek. He liked to suck on ketchup packets as a snack. And he called me Skylar, not Sky.
What I hated about Mitch Nichols: At the end of August, he would be gone.
That summer, in two short months, he became the best friend I ever had.
The day after our playground chase, I found a piece of paper that had been slipped under the front door. You can run, but let’s see how you shoot hoops. Meet me out front at three.
His grandmother, Mrs. Mazza, had a basketball hoop in her driveway that used to belong to her son when he was young. At 2:45, I sat by the window waiting for Mitch to walk outside.
He emerged right on time, bouncing the ball on the pavement, and I ran across the street.
Mitch didn’t say anything, just kept dribbling the ball with a smirk on his face as I ran around him. The ball nearly knocked me down as he suddenly passed it to me. I shot, and it missed, much to his amusement. He took the ball, bounced it all the way to the farthest end of the driveway then turned and shot it into the basket.
“Impressive,” I said.
After about twenty minutes of Mitch bouncing the ball while I ran around him, I decided to shake things up a little. “Let’s play a game.”
He approached me with the ball tucked under his arm. His shaggy brown hair blew in the wind. “I thought that’s what we were doing.”
“No. This is you showing off. I get it. You can play basketball better than me. Big whoop.”
He chuckled. “Okay. What do you want to do, then?”
I thought about it for several seconds and came up with the perfect way to find out more about him, specifically what was eating him yesterday. I was willing to bet it had something to do with why he was here for the summer. There was definitely a story there. Many summers had passed without so much as a visit to his grandmother. I would have noticed him.
“We’ll start here close to the hoop and each take turns shooting. If I miss, you can ask me anything you want, and I have to answer truthfully. If you miss, I get to do the same. Then we’ll step back further each time to make it harder.”
“But I’m gonna get it in every time,” he said.
“Well, then you should have no problem with this game, cocky.”
I was banking on him missing the shot at least once. I had nothing to hide, and it was a win-win situation for me, so long as he flubbed up a single time so that I could ask that one question.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Alright.”
I shot first, and the ball went right into the hoop.
Mitch followed suit.
We kept taking turns, successfully hitting the baskets until I became the first one to miss.
“Aha!” Mitch laughed. “Let’s see…what do I want to know?” He scratched his chin and scrunched his lips. “Oh! Yesterday at the park…did you know who I was?”
I nodded. “I knew you were Mrs. Mazza’s grandson from the pictures hanging in her house. That’s why I left like that. I knew I would see you again anyway.”
He nodded in understanding. “Cool.”
I passed the ball to him and backed up a step further away from the hoop, gesturing for him to do the same. “Go.”
Of course, he made it and passed the ball to me.
I missed again.
“Alright, Skylar…hmm. What was your most embarrassing moment?”
I looked up at the cloudless, blue sky. “I once started laughing at my friend Angie in class and accidentally passed gas out loud in front of everyone.”
Mitch’s mouth dropped. “I can’t believe you just admitted that!”
“We told each other we’d be honest! That was honestly the most embarrassing moment of my life.”
“That’s pretty bad.”
“No. What’s bad is that everyone thought it was Angie, and I let them believe it.”
We laughed at my admission until I passed the ball to Mitch who proceeded to shoot…and miss.
I giddily jumped up and down. “Yes!”
“That fart story threw me off track!” Mitch licked his lips and looked down at the ground shaking his head in defeat. “Okay, give it to me.”
I looked into his big, blue eyes and asked, “Why are you really here this summer, and why were you so angry yesterday?”
“That’s two questions.”
“But the answer is the same?”
Mitch didn’t say anything right away, just looked at me.
“Things aren’t going well back home right now. I’m pretty sure my parents are getting a divorce. They didn’t want me around anymore to witness all the fighting. So…yeah.”
“My parents are divorced, too.”
His eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yeah. For two years now.”
Mitch seemed to be thinking hard about something. Then, he turned to me. “Did you ever feel…” He hesitated. “Never mind.”
“What? Did I feel what?”
“When you found out about your parents, did you feel like your world was ending…like you couldn’t picture the future anymore?”
It seemed Mitch and I had a lot more in common than I originally thought. “Yeah. I did feel like that sometimes. It was hard. I’m an only child, and my parents are my only family, you know?”
“I’m an only child, too. I guess that’s why I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep them together. Or worse, I think sometimes maybe if I didn’t exist, they wouldn’t be having these problems.”
The game we had been playing was no longer significant. Now, we were just talking as we made our way to Mitch’s front steps. The basketball rolled away onto the grass.
“You didn’t ask to be born, Mitch. You know this isn’t your fault, right? I used to think like you in the beginning with my parents. But after a while, I figured out that it really had nothing to do with me. And honestly, they both seem happier now.”
“Why did they get divorced?”
I chuckled. “Well, I overheard my Mom telling my Aunt Diane that my dad couldn’t keep it in his pants. But I still haven’t figured out what ‘it’ is. Do you know, Mitch?”
His face turned red. “You’re kidding, right?”
I nudged him. “Yeah.”
We both started cracking up.
“I can’t tell with you.” He sighed, picking mindlessly at the shrubs at the side of the stairs before turning back toward me. “Did I really look that miserable yesterday? It was that obvious?”
“How old are you anyway?” he asked.
“Ten. How old are you?”
“Eleven. You seem way older than ten.”
“My mom says I’m an old soul. I also kind of have this thing. It’s like an ESP. With certain people, it’s as if I can feel their emotions. It’s hard sometimes because I don’t always want to. But when I saw you, I just sensed something was wrong, and I felt your sadness, too.”
“Wow. What am I feeling right now?”
“Right now, you’re not sad.”
He stared at me for a while before his mouth spread into a wide smile. “You’re right. I’m not anymore.”
That night, Mrs. Mazza invited me over for a spaghetti dinner. She let me play in Mitch’s room for a while afterward, and he showed me these comic books he made. He did all of the illustrations and captions himself.
We hung out every day that summer.
Each afternoon at exactly three, we would meet at the hoop and play our game. After hundreds of missed shots, we ended up knowing practically everything about each other: our likes, dislikes, embarrassing truths and fears.
It turned out my biggest fear came true earlier than expected when one day in mid-August, two weeks before Mitch was scheduled to go back to Long Island, there was a knock at the door.
Mitch looked morose when I opened it, his hair stuffed under a Yankees cap.
“Skylar, my Dad’s here. He’s taking me home. He made me pack all my stuff just now. My parents didn’t agree on how long I should be here, and I guess he got his way, so now I have to leave with him.”
It felt like a sucker punch. “Now? We were gonna do that goodbye party thing, and I still haven’t made you your gift and—”
“I know. I’m really sorry. I don’t want to leave. I didn’t want to come here in the beginning. But since I met you, now I wish I could stay…like forever.”
“Can you come in?”
“He’s waiting out in the car.”
The car horn beeped, and Mitch turned around. “Give me a second, Dad. Jeez.”
I was frantic. “I don’t want you to leave, Mitch.”
The tone in his voice broke my heart. “I don’t know how I’m gonna handle everything back home. I wish I had you there with me. You always make me feel better about everything.”
“Will you keep in touch? Let me know what happens with your parents?”
I felt tears forming in my eyes. “What do we do now?”
His voice was low. “I guess we say goodbye.”
“I don’t want to,” I said as the first teardrop fell.
He reached into his jacket and pulled out a large envelope he had tucked under his arm. “Here, I made you something. I was going to give it to you at the end of the summer. Open it later, okay?”
I nodded through tears, “Okay.”
The horn beeped again. “Mitch! I don’t want to hit rush hour.”
Mitch leaned in and pulled me into a hug. Hot tears streamed down my cheek and onto his shoulder.
He sniffled, but I couldn’t tell if he was about to cry. “Thank you, Skylar.”
“For giving me something happy to think about when I need it.”
That was the last thing he said before walking away and getting into the car. His face was barely visible under the cap as he waved goodbye one last time before the car disappeared from sight into the glare of the sun.
My mother’s wind chimes blew in the breeze as I stared out into the empty street and across to our desolate basketball court. I was crushed.
I took the envelope straight to my room. Inside was one of the comic books he made. But this one was different. The characters were…us. It was titled The Adventures of S&M. (The alternate meaning of which would not occur to me until several years later.) S had two long braids, could fly and had other special powers. M was an ordinary boy in a Yankees cap. M kept getting into trouble and S would rescue him from harm in various situations. He had ended the book with To Be Continued.
I never heard from him again after that day.
In the five years that followed, the boy with the Yankees cap and the big, blue eyes became nothing more than a mere fond memory tucked inside my heart.