White men in suits started showing up in the living room. Mom finally took the plastic off the couch after a Big East coach slid off it onto the floor. Coach was drawing up a play mid-air for Jaylen in his up-tempo offense when his silk suit landed on the cream colored rug. Coach acted like nothing happened and kept on going from one knee like they were huddled in a late-game timeout. Jaylen’s little sister Jadine couldn’t stop laughing. She was kindly asked to leave the room.
Jaylen started receiving scholarship offers his freshman year in high school, after he’d grown to 6'11.” Colleges practically begged him to play for their program before cashing his lottery ticket in the NBA draft. Jaylen could score almost at will near the basket. He made three pointers. He handled the ball naturally with either hand. He rebounded balls still above the rim. He played defense and blocked shots. Jaylen even made over 80% of his free throws. Possessing the wingspan of an adult condor, Jaylen was the consensus top high school prospect in the nation the past two years. Mid-way through his senior high school season, Sports Illustrated pronounced Jaylen basketball’s future on its cover.
Ultimately, Jaylen chose the University of Arizona’s scholarship offer. The school’s location gave him the distance to experience actual college freedom, but was close enough for his mom to still see games in person. And he’d come back home to play against USC and UCLA. The Arizona Wildcats were highly ranked and poised to make a deep run in the March tournament even if Jaylen never left the bench. Half the team was recruits from Long Beach or Inglewood he’d played against since grade school. Jaylen even liked Tucson during his campus visit.
At Christmas break the Arizona Wildcats were 12-1, having only lost an early season road game at Stanford. When coach rewarded the team with a week off from practice, Jaylen led the Wildcats in points and rebounds. He was making 85% of his free throws. Opposing coaches sounded jealous when answering questions about Jaylen's performances in post-game press conferences. ESPN featured Wildcats game clips before the first commercial break in their nightly highlight shows. Sports talk radio hosts complained that teams tanking games to position themselves for a better position in the draft lottery were ruining the spirit of the game of basketball.
“Stupid basketball. I hate basketball,” Jadine complained. “That’s all people ever wanna talk about. They wanna talk to me about basketball. Why? I’m not the one playing.”
“I know. I’m sorry,” LaShaun sighed.
“It’s like basketball is all there is in the world. I hate it,” Jadine said. “You know what? I don’t remember, like, talking to my brother.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I don’t know when the last time my brother talked to me," Jadine said looking LaShaun in the eyes. "Just me. With no one else there.”
“That’s too bad,” LaShaun said.
Jadine pecked at a pebble out of the baked dirt in her friend’s balding yard with the toe of her scuffed black shoe. She pried it loose and kicked the rock away before choosing another. LaShaun put his paperback down on his lap and folded his fingers into a flaccid knot he laid on the cover. He watched her kick another pebble across the yellow grass.
“I don’t like basketball either,” he shared.
Jadine’s mother called out from their house. The two kids ran across the street, LaShaun a few steps behind.
“Can LaShaun come to dinner?”
“Yes, as long as it’s okay with your mama,” Mom answered.
“Thanks, ma’am,” LaShaun said.
“Thanks, Mama,” Jadine said jumping up and down.
“Mmm-mm,” Mom nodded before going back inside.
“You gonna call her?” Jadine turned to her friend to ask.
Jadine and LaShaun sat on the porch’s wicker couch with space for another person to sit between them. He read and she sang Beyoncé in a heavy whisper while aimlessly kicking her feet inches above the concrete. Her eyes picked out one of the Christmas light bulbs on the porch railing and stared until she could see the hair-slim filament arch inside the glass. Jadine’s gaze moved toward the next unlit bulb in the string woven between the porch railing pillars, up the trellis and across the beams supporting her house’s frame. During the day, Christmas lights looked like a spider web and the unlit bulbs were trapped bugs saved to eat later.
A charcoal black SUV rolled up the street. The windows were rolled up, so the car rattled from the rap music testing the custom installed subwoofer’s bass. The motor snarled bounding into the driveway.
“Who is this?” LaShaun asked.
“Don’t know,” Jadine answered while hopping off the wicker couch.
“What’s up, baby girl?” Jaylen greeted her stepping out of the driver’s side. “Hey there, little man,” he tipped his chin at LaShaun.
“Where did you get—” Jadine began to ask when she fell in love mid-sentence.
DeAndre Coleman, the Arizona Wildcats freshman starting point guard, stepped out of the SUV’s passenger side. He greeted the universe with a piano keyboard worth of teeth in his smile. Standing 6’2” with a blemish-free shaved mocha head, DeAndre looked prepped and ready to step onto the set of a clever commercial for his signature model of shoe. For the first time in her life, Jadine thought a boy was beautiful.
“What in the Lord’s name is all that noise?” Mom burst through the metal front door asking. “Whose car is this? Jaylen!” she shouted when she saw her son.
“Hey mama, good to see you, too.”
“Look at this surprise," she said.
"Got a week off practice. Had to come home for Christmas," Jaylen said.
"Come here, baby,” Mom met Jaylen on the steps and gave him a hug. “Now, tell me, whose car is this?”
“Don’t worry, it belongs to a friend. He lent it to me.”
“Mmm-mmm,” Mom nodded. “And who is our guest?”
“This is my boy, D. My roommate. Best point guard in the nation.”
“Hello. DeAndre, ma’am. DeAndre Coleman,” he introduced himself.
“Pleasure to meet you, DeAndre. Merry Christmas," Mom smiled shaking his hand.
“Thanks, ma’am,” DeAndre answered.
“Glad you’re making so many friends at school, Jaylen. You boys come inside and get ready for dinner,” Mom said. “Jadine, go inside and set another place at the table. Don’t just stand there being useless. Jadine. Jadine. You hear me, Jadine? Jadine."
“Mama, when you gonna let me get you a new couch?” Jaylen said, looking away from the dinner table into the living room.
“Where would you get the money? Same friend that lent you the car?”
“Don’t be like that, mama,” Jaylen pleaded.
“Fine. Let's change the subject." Mom erected a smile and said, "DeAndre, tell us a little about yourself,” without looking away from Jaylen.
“Not much to tell, ma’am,” DeAndre started. “Like to play ball, hang with my boys. You know, usual stuff,” he said, moving meatloaf around his plate with a fork from the guest silverware set.
“No, no. Where you from?” Mom asked. “Tell us about your family.”
“Told you there’d be an interview,” Jaylen nudged his friend.
“Still not a lot to tell,” DeAndre started, putting down his fork. “Grew up in Pittsburgh. Um, got a single mom. It was just us. The two of us. Got a scholarship to go to prep school. Then, the Wildcats came callin’ and here I am.”
“No, ma’am,” DeAndre answered, laughing. “No girlfriend right now. Not at the moment.”
“Well, you seem like a very nice young man. I’m sure you’ll meet a nice girl at college. I’m hoping this one will,” Mom said pointing her butter knife at her son. “Jadine, get your elbows off the table. And you know it’s not polite to stare."
"Damn, Mama, you got crazy peripheral vision," Jaylen marveled. "You see the whole court like some kinda hawk."
"Getting along with your teammates, DeAndre?" Mom asked, ignoring Jaylen's comment.
"Yeah, I am. Things are great," DeAndre answered, laughing.
"Man, tell them about the snake," Jaylen said.
"Snake?" Jadine blurted out. She deflated in her chair when DeAndre looked in her direction.
"Yeah," he smiled. "Guess I'm not supposed to call it hazing, but some of the guys were having some fun."
"Tell the story," Jaylen said.
"Yeah, tell it," LaShaun chimed in.
"Alright," DeAndre smiled. "So, campus is in the desert. I mean, you know, Tucson is a nice little town, but you go a few miles in any direction and you're out in the desert. Like cactus and coyotes desert. Guys on the team like to go hiking and running out there. I guess one day some guys were out there and they found this snake out in the desert—"
"A dead snake," Jaylen said, scooping sweet corn into his mouth. "Big one."
"Oh, no, no, no," Mom put down her fork and held her hands up. "Snakes are little devils. I do not like them at all."
"Tell 'em what happened next," Jaylen prodded.
"Alright. So, one day, I go back to my room after class and I was going to take a nap before practice. I pull back my covers and there's this snake in bed, straight as a stick. It's like six feet long. And, it got an AU cheerleading uniform. Pom-poms on both sides and everything," DeAndre said.
"Only girl in his room all semester," Jaylen laughed.
"Did you get mad?" LaShaun asked.
"Nah, little man," DeAndre said. "Those are my boys and I love them. They love me. We're a team. Stuff like that is just how we show each other some love."
"That's right," Jaylen nodded. "Wildcats, baby," he said reaching for his friend's hand.
"Wildcats," DeAndre repeated back while they pounded fists.
"You boys need to find better ways of sharing emotions," Mom said. She turned and snapped, "Jadine, for the last time, get your elbows off the table."
"First, we're gonna kiss like two million times. Then, we'll get married, and live wherever DeAndre gets drafted," Jadine announced. "Probably some place I don't wanna go to, like Milwaukee, but I'll make the best of it. I mean, we'll make it work."
"And then what?" LaShaun asked.
"Probably stay there a few years until we come back home here to play for Clippers or the Lakers," Jadine beamed. "We'll live at the beach. A private beach. You can come, though."
They sat on the curb in front of Jadine's house after dinner. "How you gonna tell him how you feel?" LaShaun asked, pawing at the paint flaking on the curb. Jadine turned toward him and put a hand up to cover the sunset flaming in her face. "You have to do something romantic," he said.
"You're no help," Jadine sighed. She looked down at her feet and tapped her toe on the oil stain seared into the street. "What would you do to show a girl you like her?"
LaShaun shrugged. "What would Jaylen do?"
"I don't wanna know," Jadine answered.
A red car drove past, and they watched it turn the corner and disappear. Jadine started murmuring another Beyoncé song to fill the quiet. LaShaun noticed a sleeping tabby cat curled up on the hood of an ancient Lincoln Town Car in the driveway across the street.
"Think I might have an idea," he said.
"What is it?"
"Okay, we used to have a cat—"
"I know," Jadine interrupted.
"Our cat used to bring little birds and leave them in front of the door," LaShaun said. "The cat did it all the time. I thought it was gross, but my mom said it was her way of showing that she loved us."
"Like the snake in DeAndre's bed!" Jadine gasped animatedly.
"Kinda, yeah. That's what I thought," LaShaun said to his shoes.
"DeAndre even said it showed love. He liked the snake," Jadine realized.
"Yeah, guess he did."
"Can you help me?" Jadine asked.
"Help you what?"
"Find birds to give to DeAndre, dummy," Jadine said.
"Yeah," Jadine said.
"How you gonna find dead birds?"
"I don't know. Go looking for them at the park. I seen them there before. Will you help me?" Jadine asked again.
"How would you give him the birds?"
"In the mail. He's Jaylen's roommate. I have his address, dummy," Jadine said. "And I got money. I keep most of the money my uncle gives me when he comes around. And I still got all my birthday money. And tomorrow, I'll get Christmas card money," Jadine said, dragging out each time she said "and."
"Okay," LaShaun said.
"'Okay' what? Come on, are you gonna help me, or not?"
Jadine lunged at LaShaun and hugged him tight around the neck. He held her back and didn't let go, even after Jadine's mom called her inside.
Two hours into watching the Rose Parade on New Year's morning, Jadine asked her mom if she could go to the park two blocks from their house.
"Yes, but only if LaShaun goes with you," Mom said, taking her eyes away from an equestrian team trotting up Colorado Blvd.
Across the street, LaShaun was sitting on his front steps reading. When Jadine pushed open the gate, he put the book down and smiled at her.
"What are you reading?" Jadine asked crossing the yard.
"Of Mice and Men."
Jadine scrunched up her face at his answer. "Never heard of that book. It good?"
"Yeah, but I don't think you'd like it," LaShaun said.
"Whatever. Let's go to the park," Jadine said, pulling him by the arm. "It's time to hunt."
"Hunt? Now?" LaShaun asked.
"Yeah, now. Let's go," Jadine ordered. "I haven't been able to get away from anyone since Christmas. Come on."
At the park, they searched the ground around trees for dead birds. They took turns using a stick to hold up bushes while the other got down on hands and knees to look for bodies. After scouring the park, they went home empty-handed. Jadine and LaShaun watched a re-run of the Rose Parade while Jadine's mother finished getting ready for a holiday shift at her part-time second job.
The next day, LaShaun came to the door just before noon. When Jadine answered, he was holding a shoebox in front of his body like a cake.
"You bring me something?" Jadine asked, very interested in the box.
"Yeah, I did," LaShaun beamed, giving her the box.
"What is it?" Jadine asked.
"It's a surprise. Merry Christmas."
Jadine opened the box wide enough to see a pigeon wing and a clump of loose, concrete-colored feathers.
"Oh, my god," Jadine said in a hush near awe. "Where'd you find this?"
"You're welcome," LaShaun said. Then, he turned around and ran back to his house across the street.
Three weeks later, Jadine and LaShaun got off the bus after school and walked home side-by-side. Passing an abandoned lot, they saw a tall clump of weeds shaking. A black cat with matted fur bolted away from the two children approaching, scratching the sidewalk with its wild claws. Jadine clasped LaShaun's hand. The weeds rustled again, drawing their attention to a sparrow with a broken wing jerking its body in a semi-circle on the cement.
"Oh, fuck," Jadine whispered.
"I never heard you swear," LaShaun said.
"Shut up," she said, pulling her hand away.
Jadine knelt down and pushed aside the overgrown weed thatch to give the bird more space. "Guess we don't have to hunt today," LaShaun said, crouching beside her.
"What do we do?" Jadine asked.
"What you mean?" LaShaun asked.
"Do I just take it home and wait for it to die?"
"Hold on," LaShaun said, reaching into his backpack. He pulled out his Of Mice and Men paperback and slapped it down on the bird's body. LaShaun examined the bloodless cover for a moment before slamming it down on the bird again.
Jadine was in her room smoothing out the feathers of a hummingbird ceremonially laid between the numbers of a Blake Griffin jersey she stole from her uncle's closet. The jersey was folded in a shoebox that Jadine had wrapped in construction paper she drew flowers and hearts on. She stuffed the box under her bed when she heard her brother's voice calling.
"Hey," Jadine said when she walked into the living room.
"Hey girl, meet Hannah," Jaylen introduced the petite blonde girl he held hands with.
"Mom's asleep, be quiet," Jadine said.
"Not anymore," Mom said behind Jadine, tying up her robe. "Hey, baby," Mom greeted her son with a hug.
"Sorry, Ma," Jaylen apologized.
"It's okay," Mom sighed. "I gotta get up for work anyway. And who is this?"
"Mom, this is Hannah," Jaylen said reaching for her hand.
"Hello, ma'am," Hannah smiled.
"Hello, Hannah. Very nice to meet you. Jaylen," she said, turning to her son. "I thought you were coming in tomorrow with the team."
"Coach let me drive over a day early."
"You're not missing class, are you?" Mom asked.
"No, don't worry, I'm not missing class."
"He's not," Hannah chimed in.
"Well, that's good," Mom said. "You drive that big black car here?"
"Nah, ma. Hannah's got a car. She drove," Jaylen answered.
"Oh, that's nice. Where are you from, Hannah?" Mom asked.
"Well, that's a very nice place," Mom said. "Okay, you make yourself at home. I need to get ready for work," she said before leaving the room.
"And who is this?" Hannah stooped a little to ask.
"Introduce yourself," Jaylen said.
"I'm Jadine. I'm the sister," Jadine said. "When is DeAndre comin' over?" she asked.
"He's probably not gonna come over," Jaylen answered, landing on the couch. He pulled Hannah down onto his lap. "My man got some crazy ass stalker. Keeps sending him dead birds in the mail. He's all freaked out. Won't leave the dorm, stays at the hotel on the road."
"Yeah, he's really scared," Hannah said. "I keep telling him that he should go to the police."
Jadine stood paralyzed. "The police," she said to herself. Jadine ignored her brother asking what was wrong and floated back into her room and closed the door.
Jadine fell asleep in the car on the way home after watching the Wildcats beat UCLA by twenty points. She kept her eyes on DeAndre the entire game, even when he was on the bench. As soon as they arrived home, Mom turned on the television and switched it over to ESPN.
"I'm gonna go to bed," Jadine yawned.
"Alright. Goodnight, baby girl," Mom said, turning up the volume.
In her bedroom, Jadine noticed her window was slid open and the curtains pushed aside. The room was cold and she could smell the next door neighbor's cigarette smoke. She closed the window but left the curtains where they were.
Jadine changed into her pajamas while thinking about what DeAndre was doing that shared moment in time. Jadine picked up her pillow to pull back the covers on the bed. A dead sparrow lay on the pristine hospital-white sheet. Its feathers were stretched out to their fullest like it was gliding through a cloud. Black, accusing eyes made Jadine feel sick.
about the writer
Anthony Parker is a Los Angeles based fiction writer. His stories have appeared or are due to appear in Work Literary Magazine, Counterclock, Statement, Tenth Street Miscellany, Noctua Review, West Trade Review, and The Broadkill Review.