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Heat drips like sticky rain from the sun. Even with school ending and summer getting our hopes up, I'm feeling like the proverbial egg on a rock. I’m sitting on my sidewalk because Mom and that guy are drunk again and forgot to pay the electric bill, thus terminating our air conditioner. This is only the second time in two months that it's been shut off. The first time, Michael and I hopped the fence at The Marriott and cooled off in the pool until the matron came out to clean and noticed she'd never seen us before. We had to go out through the doors talking to some young people and pretending we were with them. Mom cried when Michael's parents called her. She got a second job and told that guy to start looking for work or move out. You could say we've normalized into a family-like structure lately.
It's one of those days when anything could happen, if only it would. I’m thinking about Sean’s moss-colored eyes, which is weird; I can have Michael any day I want. Well, almost any day, except for the day I met Sean. It was a disaster that adults would call a blessing in disguise. And Sean was definitely in a disguise. Here’s how it happened:
I was walking home alone after school, as usual. Michael refuses to walk down Eighth Street, saying it doesn't fit with his image or some such crap. I live on Eighth Street, and my jeans evidently do fit with his image. Anyway, I saw a car parked not to far from my house and I wondered what it was doing there. Like, it was a really tight car, a Corvette, something I’d only seen in magazines and at the Other End of my school parking lot. I didn’t see anybody standing around it, so I walked up and put my hand on the smooth, cold paint. The license plate announced that it was from California, a long way from as far as I’d ever been away from home. The window was down and the smell of leather and perfume floated out to caress me. I looked inside. Three cokes sat in the middle console, unopened and dripping condensation. A set of keys lay there, and a map of the area. I know it was wrong, but I hadn’t had a pop in forever; my mom sent me the leftovers from that guy's lunch if I didn’t get something myself. I reached in and took out one of the cans.
The instant I did, I felt the prickly eyes on my neck thing and heard the door on the other side of the car open. A tall kid unfolded his body out of the seat and smiled at me. In my horrified mind he wore an evil grin and goggles as he reached out to grab me . . . But Sean was introducing himself as he handed me a bag of peanuts, and his hazel eyes focused on me from behind his perfectly normal glasses. I couldn’t say a word, I just dropped the Coke and ran.
The next day I saw him at school. I chewed my lip until it was bloody for fear he would report my theft to the police, or worse, to that guy. Then I was assigned by Mrs. Mena to be Sean’s Spanish partner for the week. When he turned and grinned at me, I ran into the ladies room and threw up. When I came out, he was leaning against the opposite wall. He took a step forward.
“So, may I call you Mece, or is it strictly Mercede?” He asked.
He was holding two Cokes.
But I digress into painful memories. I wonder briefly if I’m sunstroke.
“Mece, this is unbelievable,” says Sean, coming out of the blue, or possibly off the last bus. I pinch myself quickly to see if I’m dreaming, but it results in me yelping like a border collie. I’ve heard you can pinch others in your dream and they won’t feel a thing, but I’m not sure where I could pinch Sean without feeling awkward.
After a minute of Sean looking at me, probably wondering what I had just said, I remember his comment and ask, “What’s unbelievable?”
“I joined a summer basketball team.”
Now I stare at him inquisitively. Sean has been my best friend for two years. I know he joins every music-related program known to high school, but has an allergic reaction to physical activity, especially sports. So I just look at him, wishing I hadn’t noticed how cute his smile is.
“It’s because I’ve been thinking,” Sean says. His teeth are straight and have always been brace-less. “We never know how long we’re gonna live. It’s time I do something with the life I’ve got.”
I have to raise a brow at those clichés. Is he joking? Maybe he just wants to get ripped (which he could do lifting weights).
The entire summer Sean hangs out with me. He's not pestering. He listens to my outbursts as I study algebra, trying to push my grades up for the next SAT. He helps me wash windows in my neighborhood for extra cash. On a Saturday we go to his cool, cement garage to practice guitar and work on a song. I've started to wonder if he likes me, but there are no awkward glances up and down my body. Just Sean. I want to ask and can't.
Tuesday we go to the Jones Center for a writer's/artist's group called "Honor Your Muse." Sean is amazing, as usual. He spreads his hands over the keys of the beautiful Baby Grand and his smile bursts over me like a sunrise. It is so like him to move the intructer to tears with his rendition of Kanon by Pachebel. Writers in the group aren't supposed to talk to each other, but I stretch out on the piano next to Sean and whisper for him to play it again. He does and my notebook fills up with hen-scratches. He keeps glancing up at me, so I finally I lean over and kiss his beautiful mouth just once. He only misses one note kissing me back.
On Monday he plays basketball and I watch him. He's not very good, but he's laughing with his team. Thursday he plays again. When the ball barely bounces toward his ribs, he shrinks back. Then it hits him and he doubles over, trying to choke or breathe. Everyone laughs at him but he doesn't get up. Is he just cracked up about something? Finally I run down to touch him on the shoulder, praying that it doesn't humiliate him in front of the guys. I get there and Sean is really crying. He clutches his side. When we call his mom to come get him, I find out his bones are being made too hard, like peanut brittle, by Multiple Myeloma.
Which is cancer.
Sean spends the weekend in the hospital with broken ribs and chemotherapy. I'm there, asking him why he didn't tell me, what had happened, is he OK, is he coming home?
He just doesn't know, he tells me. He shows me a paper with a number penciled on it. "Wait and I'll explain," he says, "I'm out of breath."
I hug him, aware of my flat chest and static-y braid.
"Mece," he smiles, "be careful."
I lift myself off his ribs. His mom and I watch TV while he sleeps. I call my mom to tell her where I am but she doesn't answer.
On Sunday, Sean dies. His brown hair clings to his face and his eyes are closed when I go to share some peanut M&M's. I hold his hand, knowing he won't care. Then I start to shake and sob, and his mom comes in and holds me. I feel like I'm intruding on the family's private grief, but I can't bring myself to leave.
It's three weeks later and I'm calling the number on the paper.
"Hello?" The voice is somewhat familiar.
"This is Mece . . . do you know a Sean Knight?"
"Yeah, he was faxing me a song he wrote. I have the check here and ready to mail, but I never got the song."
I take a deep breath.
"I think I could find the song and fax it. To this number?"
"Oh, he doesn't want the check anymore."
"OK. . ."
I hang up.
On Sean's 17th birthday, I hear somebody singing his song on the radio, the song I rummaged through his notebooks to find. It was the only one typed. It was the only one addressed to me.