Two weeks later
Friday evening found Sydney back in her spot, sitting in the front porch swing, feet up in the chair, legs stretched out in front of her. She was relaxing this evening, had the entire house to herself, alone and free to do whatever she wanted, which for now was watching the cars drive past in front of their house.
Her cousin, Crystal, Nico’s mother, had taken him to visit his father in Hillsborough, an hour and a half up Interstate 35, on the north side of Waco. It was Crystal’s hometown, complete with grandparents, Nico’s father, and high school girlfriends. Crystal loved her Friday nights away from here about as much as Sydney did. It was drop off Nico with his dad, then party time for Crystal and the old girlfriends.
All of that was fine with Sydney and Shelby. Friday evening, Friday night until Saturday afternoon, the house belonged to them alone, without anyone demanding anything from them. That’s not to say they weren’t supervised or slightly supervised. A friend of Crystal’s in the same governmental housing, a few doors down, played I Spy, or she tried to. She’d started out strong the first couple of weeks. She stopped by before nightfall to make sure at least Sydney was home, but that soon gave way to whatever, and a deal was struck. Don’t screw up and she wouldn’t tell. She had better things to do with her time than watch almost-grown folk she’d said in the end, and hence the slightly description.
A small inconvenience was the way Sydney viewed it. It in no way put a damper on her time spent alone. Nothing could. No babysitting, no cleaning, no nothing, a break from Niko’s car chasing, and the other things required to care for him.
School started up bright and early Monday morning. Thank you, Jesus, as her grandmother was so fond of saying, for the much-needed break from the boredom that was her life in the summer. Talk about looking forward to the future. Here’s to a new school, and back to nerd heaven. Here’s to days filled up with learning, to reading, writing, and her favorite subject of them all, math. Goodbye summer days of babysitting and tedium.
She had a book in her lap open to read when she wasn’t watching the street. It was one of her cousin’s romance novels. Crystal loved her romance novels. She could count on the men within their pages to do the right thing, she said. Sydney wasn’t a fan. Her taste ran to mysteries or sci-fi, but as her cousin so often said, oatmeal was better than no meal, which meant she was very quickly making her way through her cousin’s very large stash.
When she grew tired of reading, she sketched pictures of whatever took her fancy. Her cousin had purchased several notebooks for her filled with blank paper—not a sketch pad, more like a diary—but she used it for a little bit of everything, a home for most of her thoughts, ideas, and drawings.
She heard music, loudly played, which usually meant a dude driving past. Today it was Brian, driving his dangerous-looking, teeth-baring front grill red Mustang. Her sister sat looking lovely in the passenger seat. Nothing special in their arrival. Brian was here at least three or four times a week, either dropping off or picking up Shelby or whatever else they did when they lingered inside. Brian’s buddy, Graham, was the unexpected addition. He was seated in the back seat today. Not wanting to get caught staring, Sydney returned her gaze to the book in her lap.
* * *
A quick stop to drop Shelby off, Graham thought. He and B, along with Shelby, had been at the pool most of the day, hanging out, doing nothing slowly. They had a football meeting at the school after they dropped Shelby home.
“It looks like her cousin’s gone,” Brian said, smiling back at him. Crystal’s car wasn’t parked out front in its usual parking spot. “Shelby’s cousins are in Hillsborough. Every Friday evening and night. They aren’t expected until Saturday afternoon, right, Shelby?”
“You know what that means,” Brian said, grinning.
“I have an idea,” Graham said, grinning too, happy for his boy. Brian and Shelby seemed to have hit it off quick. They were well past the initial stage of their relationship, and squarely into the “I’ll take fries to go with my shake stage.” Which meant he was going to be here for a bit. He picked up a test prep book lying on floor of Brian’s car, something to keep himself occupied while he waited. He was done with his SATs, and his score was sufficient to get him in just about anywhere he wanted. He could take it once more if he wanted, just for grins, or not, but the book was something to read, or not. He might just close his eyes and sleep.
It was the last of those kinds of days—easy and his own, the tail end of summer, not much different from the beginning of it in their world, except that football practices had started. Otherwise it was basically hanging out and partying with their friends, most often at his home since his house was always free of parents.
“You good here?” Brian asked.
“I am,” Graham said. Brian had waited for him before plenty of times. So yeah, he could return the favor.
“Her sister is always home though,” Brian said, checking out Sydney seated in the front porch swing, alone. “You can sit with her on the porch swing. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind at all. I think she likes you. Last time we were here . . .” he said, chuckling.
“I’m good here, for real,” Graham said.
“Be back in a sec then,” Brian said.
* * *
Sydney looked up at the sound of the car door closing. Shelby and Brian were moving towards the house. She pretended to ignore them outwardly, but watched, sidelong of course, as they approached.
Shelby was pretty in her swimsuit and t-shirt cover, was pretty in anything really. Boyfriend Brian, wearing a t-shirt and swim trunks, was a handsome complement, Sydney thought. If the world wasn’t their oyster, then she didn’t know to whom it belonged. She turned her attention back to the book she was reading.
Brian’s arms were around her sister’s waist when she looked up again and they stood at the front door. They couldn’t seem to keep their hands of each other, she noted, and not for the first time.
“Crystal out?” Shelby asked, more confirmation than question.
“Yep,” Sydney said, moving her gaze to Brian.
“Hi Sydney,” Brian said, smiling, pulling her sister further back into his chest, if that were possible. His head rested on Shelby’s left shoulder as he smiled back at her.
“Brian’s going inside with me. There’s something I want to show him,” Shelby said, opening the front door, with Brian’s arms still holding her in front of his body. “It might take a bit,” Shelby added.
“Okay . . .” Sydney said, fighting to keep from rolling her eyes. Yeah, she’d been here with them, doing this before.
“Would you mind keeping my buddy company?” Brian asked. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Something about the way she’d stared back at him, like she had his number.
“What? No. I was about to go inside and watch TV,” Sydney said.
“No, stay outside and hang with Graham,” Shelby said.
“Graham! Come and keep Shelby’s little sister company,” Brian shouted over his shoulder before he and Shelby disappeared inside, leaving her behind, an unhappy camper, without a say in this. Okay, not really that unhappy. She had a small crush on this dude from two weeks ago, the first time she’d seen him, so she could live with this change in plans.
“The one that likes playing with trucks. Sydney, right?” Graham asked, not even a minute later. He was standing at the edge of the porch, dressed the same as Brian, swim trunks and t-shirt, baseball cap on his head, skin darkened by the sun to a dull gold.
“Yep,” she said, suddenly nervous, but determined not to let it show. She set her feet on the porch, making room for him to sit on the swing beside her. “Hi,” she added.
“Nothing,” she said, watching as he moved past her and took the seat to her right. Make yourself at home she thought watching him place his flip-flop-covered feet on the railing in front of him. It was quiet between them as he moved the swing up and back with his feet. He looked over at her again, found her head facing downward, staring into her lap. There was nothing there that he could see, nothing but her shorts and legs.
It was the same outfit as the last time he’d seen her—a yellow, slightly worn t-shirt; blue jean mid-thigh shorts, and bare feet with pink polished toes. Now that he was up close, he could see a little bit of a resemblance between the two sisters; small nose, medium sized lips, and brown eyes. Baby sister Sydney wore her hair in braids again, lots and lots of braids, all starting at her forehead and traveling backwards, where it was pulled back into a ponytail.
He fought back his sigh, and hoped Brian would be quick. Keeping a young girl entertained had not been in today’s plans, and this one read romance novels. There were three of them lying atop the porch railing, covered in pictures of couples gazing into each other’s eyes. If that wasn’t enough, a spiral notebook, covered in pink and purple hearts, lay on the porch swing in-between them. He imagined there were lots of pink and purple hearts doodling going on, all young-girl daydreaming. He turned his gaze toward the street to survey the surroundings. It was a clean, neat, well-maintained little neighborhood, and quiet, he thought. Very quiet.
“You’ve been swimming?” she asked, breaking into the silence. Otherwise this would feel like forever, she thought, not that she minded sitting alone with him. But still, she might as well talk to him, crush or not, she decided.
“Yep, Hamilton Pool. Have you been there?”
“That’s too bad. Maybe Shelby will let you come with us sometimes.”
“Maybe,” she said. Not in this life time would Shelby agree to that, is what she thought. It returned to quiet.
“This is my second time in this neighborhood,” he said after a while, looking around at the cookie-cutter homes here and across the street. “It’s nice, not at all what I thought.”
“Pfft . . . I know. Me too. I assumed there’d be drunks on every corner, stuff boarded up, trash everywhere, better hold on to my purse. Life in the ghetto is hard. Was that what you expected?” she asked. Her smile was huge on her face.
“Exactly,” he said, smiling before he laughed. “Someone has a chip.”
“Someone needs to get out more,” she said.
He laughed again, surprised at her spunk, but maybe not. She did run down the street shoeless, pulling a truck by a rope, which meant she was either spunky or clueless. It was silent again. He checked his watch. Only ten minutes had passed. “How old are you?” he asked.
“I’ll be fifteen in March and you don’t have to keep checking your watch. He should be done any minute now.”
“Is that right,” he said, chuckling, deciding it was pure cheek that was smiling back at him. He laughed again.
“So, you’re fourteen then,” he said, meeting her gaze, chuckling still.
“Freshman next year?”
“I’ll be a senior, the same as your sister and Brian.”
It went back to being quiet, nothing beyond the swing squeaking as it moved back and forth. He looked over at her again, found her head turned away from him, staring at something down the street.
“Where’s your cousin Nico? That’s his name, right?”
“Yes. He and his mother went to visit his father. Friday is Visiting Father’s Day,” she said.
“Oh yeah, up to Hillsborough,” he said, swinging his gaze back round to her. “Shelby told Brian. He told me.”
“Oh,” she said, surprised that Shelby had shared that. Brian must be important to get past Shelby’s my-business-is-nobody’s-business rule.
It went back to quiet for a while as he scanned the streets again, searching around for another subject. “So, you’ll be a freshman next year?” he asked.
She laughed, and he turned to face her. He laughed too. “I asked that already, didn’t I?” he said, squinting his gaze, smiling. Very, very cute, she thought.
“Yep. I’ll be in the ninth grade next year, so yes, that would make me a freshman.”
“I’m ready to be done with school,” he said, leaning back into the swing, chuckling still. He placed his arms on the back of it. “I’m ready for college,” he said.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked.
“I’m considering A&M, the University of Texas, Rice in Houston, SMU, Washington University, and Georgia Tech.”
“In Missouri, that Washington University?”
“Yep,” he said, his head snapping around, surprised that she knew it. “The University is an excellent choice, but way too close to home, you know what I mean. A&M is further away, but I don’t know. There is also Rice and SMU for my Texas school choices. Both are good, and far enough away, I think. For the times where I’d rather be anywhere other than here, it’s Georgia Tech or Washington University,” he said, having his internal which-college-to-go-to debate aloud.
“You want to be an engineer?” she asked.
“You’re full of surprises, Sydney. What makes you think I want to be an engineer?”
“What kind?” she said, dismissing his question.
“That’s cool,” she said, shaking her head. “I’d choose Rice if I were you and I could afford it. SMU would be my second choice, but I can see the appeal to Georgia Tech. Washington seems too far away, plus it’s too cold in the winter.”
“It’s cold in Dallas, too.”
“Not snowing-all-the-time kind of cold,” she said, smiling more fully now.
“True,” he said, chuckling. “So how do you know this?”
“There are books in the library. I can read,” she said, smart-mouthed in the face of wealth, popularity or handsome. It was her fallback position when she was feeling unsure. “I want to be an engineer too. Mechanical, and I want to an artist,” she said, meeting his eyes. She was daring him to say something smart, he thought. He smiled instead.
“What kind of artist?”
“I don’t know yet, portraits maybe.”
“So, an artist and an engineer,” he said, surprised and a little bit impressed.
“Yes,” she said, determination shining though her gaze. He heard it in her voice, too.
“Engineering to pay the bills, but an artist because it’s what I love.”
“I wouldn’t have thought that,” he said, smiling, and regretting his words immediately. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It’s just that you were running down the sidewalk pulling a truck, about to be a freshman in high school.”
“It must be okay, ‘cause you were doing the same thing.”
“I had on shoes though, so . . .” he said, chuckling. She made a face.
He laughed. “So, you’re a good student then. You’d have to be if you’re serious about engineering. Did you know that?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said.
“Of course,” he said, laughing again. “Good for you, then. So, you know the requirements for getting into the colleges you’ve picked for yourself?”
“Most of it,” she said.
“You are attending the Hills I assume,” he asked.
“The Woodlands High School, you mean?”
“The Hills is its nickname, but yes, The Woodlands High School.”
“Good. It’s a great school. It should set you up nicely for college. Where did you go to middle school?”
“Good old Booker T. We beat them in football last year. The high school, anyway.”
“Everybody beat them in football last year,” she said, chuckling.
“What math class are you taking?” he asked, assigning himself the big brother role and her the little sister, ‘cause he liked her mouth and spunk. If he had a sister, that’s how he’d imagined she’d behave. Plus, she was too young for anything else. He stuck to his age group for that.
“Good,” he said, waiting until her gaze met his. “I’m pretty good at math, or probably whatever subject you take. The Hills can be a tough school academically, so if you need help, just ask,” he said.
“Okay, thank you.”
It was quiet for a bit, while Sydney worked to process his offer of help. Who knew what he thought, or why he’d made it. It was a surprise for sure. She didn’t think she’d need it. She didn’t tell him, but she was considered one of the smartest in her old school. She glanced over and he was staring out toward the street again.
“How long have you and Brian been friends?” she asked, growing more comfortable with him.
“Since middle school. We live in the same neighborhood.”
“You have any brothers and sisters?”
“Nope, it’s just me,” he said, continuing to push the swing to and fro.
“Does Brian have siblings?”
“An older brother that died recently. Shelby says you and she are half sisters?” he said, not ready to talk about B’s brother.
“I’m sorry about Brian’s brother. Yes, Shelby and I are half sisters.”
“Your mother is where?”
“I don’t know. We lived with our grandmother until she passed, and now we live with our cousin.”
“Your fathers? Where are they?”
“They’re the guest speakers at some missing father’s convention. My father is giving the lecture on how to get out of paying child support, and Shelby’s dad is covering the ‘that child ain’t mine bitch’ speech.’”
“Taking it all in stride, I see, huh,” he said, chuckling. She surprised him again by her cheekiness, and a hint that there was something more underneath. Plus, he totally got the throwing-shade-at-the-father part.
She laughed. “What else can I do?”
“Nothing,” he said, and it was quiet for a while after that. She looked over at him, moving the swing to and from with his feet. He was cute from a distance, and even more so up close. She didn’t usually get up close to boys, one’s she’d liked anyway. He was slim, taller than her, thick haired, and handsome in his Waterloo Records t-shirt.
“You have a cute girlfriend,” she said, voicing that thought aloud, regretting it almost immediately. He chuckled and looked over at her. She was embarrassed, but she didn’t look away.
Loads of chutzpah with this one, he thought. “So, can I see some of your artwork, or is that too personal?”
She shrugged. “If you want,” she said, handing him her spiral notebook.
He turned to the first page, laughed at a picture of Nico with a big smile on his face. “Nico, and you’re good,” he said, flipping through a few more pages filled with pictures of Shelby, who he always thought of as beautiful. There were pictures of other women, mixed in with a bevy of quotes, the encouraging kind. “Persistence above all things. Keep your head up. If at first you don’t succeed. . .”
“This was your grandmother?” he asked, pointing to the picture of an older woman found on quite a few pages.
“And Nico’s mother is your cousin?”
“Good that you have someone in your corner,” he said, continuing to flip through pages of her book. He didn’t say one word about the picture of him, and it was him sitting in his car, from the first time he’d met her. She must have forgotten it was there, or she didn’t care. And yeah, he thought he’d detected interest from her the first time, as he picked up on it today. There were a few more pictures of her cousin.
“These are very good. It’s smart to search for a college that offers both degree programs,” he said, handing the book back to her.
It went back to quiet, with him just moving the swing back and forth, and her staring out into the street. Not long after the door opened and out stepped Brian, wearing a sly smile.
“Ready to go, bro?” he asked.
“Yep,” Graham said, standing up.
“See you, Sydney,” Brian said.
“Yep, see you, kid,” Graham said, smiling back at her, deciding at that moment to call her that, the little sister of his boy’s girl, a spot that allowed for friendship.
“See you,” Sydney said, watching them walk down the drive to Brian’s car. He slid behind the wheel, and Graham folded his self into the passenger seat. A few seconds and the car came to life along with the loud music from earlier. They waved one more time before they rolled away.
Sydney reached for her notebook and pencil, and placed her legs back on the entire swing again, mind still on Graham, sitting in the swing beside her. She turned it to a clean page and began to sketch him again, smiling at the first sketch she’d done of him. The one he’d seen, but hadn’t mentioned. She started into her sketching, her crush growing with each stroke of her pencil.
* * *
Eventually Shelby made her way outside. She stood looking out at the street for a while before moving over to stand beside Sydney, who was still seated on the swing, feet and legs up, taking up the entire thing. Shelby cleared her throat to pull her sister from the head-space she got lost in when she sketched.
“Oh sorry,” Sydney said, moving her feet to make room for Shelby to sit.
“What were you and Graham talking about?” Shelby asked.
“Nothing much. Colleges he’s applied to, stuff like that. He wants to be an engineer, like me,” Sydney said.
“He has a girlfriend,” Shelby said, watching her sister’s open expression fade. It’s what she did, squashed her sister’s hopes and dreams, she thought, turning her gaze back to the street. Little Miss Naive and pleased with life and the world, in the face of all its shortcomings, was Shelby’s problem with her sister.
The world was a hard place. She had learned that the hard way. And in a twisted way, maybe she was preparing her sister for that truth or not. Maybe she was just mean. Who knew. She wasn’t really sure why she felt such animosity toward her half sister, but she did. Yes, a Sydney chip on her shoulder was what she had and unwarranted too. Sydney never did anything to provoke her ire.
“What are you telling me that for? I know,” Sydney said, mentally girding herself against the moodiness that was Shelby all the dang time. She was surprised to see her sister out here. Usually her time spent at home was inside her room alone, with her moodiness.
“Just making sure you don’t think he’d be interested in you.”
“I’m young. Not dumb,” Sydney said, closing up her sketchbook with its newly drawn sketches of Graham. She sat it beside her, and piled the books on top of it.
“I know what I know. And I know you like him. I’m sure he knows it too.”
“I don’t like him, so there’s nothing for him to know.”
“Whatever,” Shelby said.
“He is cute, though.”
“If you like that type, I guess.”
“Brian likes you,” Sydney said, changing the subject to what she hoped was a safer topic, tired of arguing. “Where did you meet him?”
Shelby worked at the mall, at this store named Flanagan, a trendy clothing store, heavy on the perfume and low on the lighting, for people their age.
“He’s different,” Sydney said.
“I hope so.”
“Where do they live?”
“The Hills neighborhood.”
“He is different then. Wow. Rich.”
“Neither of them are rich. Their parents are.”
“But that’s like the same thing.”
“Brian’s parents are the Walkers,” Shelby said, turning to face her sister. Shelby seemed happy and proud at the change in her love life, Sydney thought.
“The preacher on TV, that Walker?” Sydney asked.
“They are rich then. Have you met them?”
“Not yet,” Shelby said.
“It must be nice to have so much money. What does it look like up there?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Shelby said, tired of talking.
“Sure,” Sydney said, not at all surprised by the unpredictable temperament of her sister, amazed Shelby had talked as long as she had. “Don’t get pregnant,” Sydney added, not sure why she said it, except that life seemed harder with kids.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Shelby said, looking off down the street. “That’s not in my plans,” she added. At least not in her immediate ones. But no way did little-miss-by-the-book need to know that. “I’m hungry. I’m going to go cook something for dinner. I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
“Do you want help?” Sydney said.
“Nah, I’m good. It’s nice to be alone in this house. I miss being alone the most,” Shelby said.
“I know. Me too,” Sydney said, thinking back to the time when they’d lived with her grandmother. Their very active grandmother—going here and there, for church, senior citizens, you name it—left them alone a lot.
Shelby disappeared through the front door and Sydney went back to sketching, her sister this time.