September, two weeks later
Woodland Hills High School, known unofficially as The Hills, neighborhood school to the kids of the super affluent, filled to the gills with Asians and Indians from India—not the Native American kind that’d gotten stuck on those reservations; no, this was the escuela for parents who knew the American dream came via education and wanted the best of it for their kids.
Twenty-five hundred students, the best and the brightest in the city, attended one of the choicest public schools in the free realm of public education, just as Graham had said. It was tough here, he’d said, or maybe he’d been trying to warn her now that she’d been here for a while. Whatever the reason, Sydney was now among their ranks for the first time in her life, duking it out, and failing miserably. The Hills was kicking her ass.
She had imagined tough, demanding, and challenging, and it was all of those, and it was also eye-opening and overwhelming and she was struggling, for the first time in her life. Wow, and how had she thought herself smart, even considered one of the smartest in her old school? Even her favorite subject, math, had deserted her. Two weeks in and she was sinking under the weight of it all the stuff she hadn’t learned and if she didn’t know what she was supposed to know, what did that mean for the rest of her dreams of getting into the top school, and becoming and engineer and artist? If she didn’t get help fast, she would fail.
Graham had offered to help her that one day, which was why she sat waiting in her usual place on the porch swing, with Nico dutifully playing on the ground beside her. She was waiting for Shelby to show, hoping to tag along with her to Graham’s house that evening. It was where he and his buddies, a.k.a. the popular ones, congregated since school had started, she’d learned, partying, swimming in his pool out back, and she hoped it included studying, which was all she was interested in. She was prepared to beg and indenture herself or do whatever Shelby would require of her for a chance to get help.
Aster, Graham’s girlfriend, who was driving her car, pulled up to the curb. She was Shelby’s new buddy and ride. The popular girlfriends stuck together and all that, she guessed. Aster brought Shelby home the days she didn’t have to work. A quick change and Shelby would disappear again, over to hang out with the fabulous friends. Friends more tolerable than her sister, apparently, Sydney thought, fighting to keep her anger and disappointment with the lack of any sisterly bond from showing. She needed Shelby too much right now.
“Hi Shelby,” Nico said, breaking away from his truck playing. He’d placed six of them in a semi-circle around the cop’s car in preparation for the upcoming shoot-out, he’d said.
“Hi Shelby, are you headed over to Graham’s?” Sydney asked, hoping she sounded chipper.
“Whoa, keep your voice down,” Shelby said, looking around for Crystal.
“She’s not here. She’s out running a quick errand. She said she’d be back in fifteen,” Sydney said, watching Shelby start towards the front door again, apparently not going to answer her question.
“Wait,” Sydney said, standing quickly. “I want to ask you something.”
“Ask then, I don’t have all day,” Shelby said, disappearing inside.
“Come inside for a minute, Nico,” Sydney said.
“Why?” Nico asked.
“I need to use the bathroom,” she said, her one excuse that limited the arguing time with Nico, the one rule he had to absolutely follow without question. She let him enter first. “I’ll be back in a second, stay put. Okay?”
“Can I watch TV?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, and headed upstairs to their room. Shelby was kicking off her jeans when Sydney entered the bedroom they shared, the one overlooking the front, right-side yard of the house. There were two bedrooms upstairs a view to the side yard and Crystal’s and Nico’s, which was located at the other end had a view to the back.
A new room meant new fixings to cover the bed and curtains for the window. Yellow, a sunny, uplifting color, which Shelby had suggested, Sydney had agreed to, and Crystal had purchased. Twin headboard side by side, beds covered in yellow comforters opposite of the door. To the left of the door was the lone dresser. The one closet, located beside the dresser, kind of big to split between them, mostly held Shelby’s clothing. Shelby juggled part-time jobs and school to make sure she kept up with the latest fashions. She was a senior, and Brian’s girlfriend, so it was imperative that she look her best.
“I want to go with you to Graham’s house today,” Sydney said.
“I need help with school, with math to be exact. It’s harder than I thought it would be.”
“But you’re super smart, right?” Shelby said, riffling through one of the dresser drawers.
“I’m not as smart as I thought. I’m going to flunk if I don’t get help.”
“And you think Graham’s the one to help you?” Shelby said, as if the question foretold the state of Sydney’s sanity.
“When?” Shelby said, pausing in her clothing search to stare at her sister.
“The last time he was here?”
“I thought you said you two talked about colleges.”
“It was college and things college-related. He said he’d be willing to help me if I needed it.” She watched as Shelby stood in front of her closet now, running her eyes over her selections. She pulled out two shirts, one red and the other multicolored.
“What about your teacher? Have you asked them? They have to help you, you know.”
“Been there, and Mr. Patel, my geometry teacher, only makes it’ worse. I need a tutor, and you and I know we can’t afford one. I don’t have a job like you do and even if I looked for one, it would take time. I need help now if I don’t want to fall further behind.”
Shelby laid the two shirts on her bed, moving her gaze between them. Sydney pressed on. “I thought I could go with you today to G’s house, maybe ask him myself?”
“G’s house, is it now?”
“Graham’s house,” Sydney said, fighting with herself to keep from saying something smart. “You’re there all evening. I imagine some of that time is spent studying. You do study; you have to, right, or Brian and Graham have to. I could study in another room, away from you, while you guys study or do whatever it is that you do.”
“Most days they don’t study until after we leave. It’s a no for today,” Shelby said from underneath a shirt that she was pulling over her head.
“Tomorrow then?” Sydney asked, nowhere near ready to give up.
“I don’t know. I’ll ask him and let you know.”
“Shelby . . .” Sydney said, a plea in her voice.
“Don’t beg. I said I’d ask, and I will.”
Sydney stood a while longer watching Shelby pull her hair back into one long braid.
“You’d better get back to Nico,” Shelby added.
“Let me know what he says.”
“Yeah, okay,” Shelby said, distracted with her appearance and getting it into shape.
“Thanks,” Sydney said, pushing herself away from door’s frame, leaving her sister behind. Why was this her life, she wondered, taking the stairs two at a time. Her anger had her hitting the steps hard. Nico smiled, standing where she had left him.
“You’re mad at me?”
“What? No,” she scoffed. “You’re my favorite cousin. How could I be angry with you?” she said, following him back outside. It was where Shelby found her a few minutes later, sitting beside Nico and his trucks.
“Bye Shelby,” he said, smiling.
“G’bye Nico,” Shelby said. She didn’t say a word to Sydney, just moved over to Aster and her car, off to her fabulous life. Shelby might could have a future, if she stuck with Brian, but without help Sydney wasn’t sure she could say the same for herself.
* * *
Sydney stuffed her books into her backpack. She was done with her tutoring session with her geometry teacher, the free after-school option that left her grateful, and none the more knowledgeable for having attended. He was a nice and competent man, Mr. Patel. It wasn’t his fault that she had trouble understanding his Indian accent or that his way of explaining things sounded like gobbledygook to her ears.
“Good luck, although I don’t think you’ll need it. I have a good feeling about this,” Avery, her new friend, said, smiling from her desk. “It’ll work out for the both of us. You go in, get tutored, make him your boyfriend, and then bring me in for Brian,” she added, before they both started laughing at their crazy wishful thinking. “Can’t you picture it? You and me sitting at the football games, in a section all by ourselves, watching our boyfriends play,” Avery said.
“I can totally see it,” Sydney said, chuckling. “Hey, and thanks for sticking it out in here with me,” she added.
“It’s not just you. I need help too.”
“Not really, but thanks anyway,” Sydney said, standing up. She liked Avery. She’d stayed behind too, for help she’d said, and maybe that was true. What was also was true was that Sydney’s struggle looked very different from Avery’s, who had grown up in the schools in the neighborhood, plus she had parents that were on top of things, knew what type of things to be on top of. Sydney would have given anything to have that.
“Thank you, Mr. Patel,” she said, waving on her way out of his classroom.
She was through the classroom door, headed for the east entrance, the section where the athletes hung out, and taking matters like finding herself a tutor she could understand into her own hands. She was done waiting for Shelby’s assistance.
Graham’s tutoring would be better, she thought, hoped. His youthful charm and swagger would be enough. Whatever he had to say had to be easier to understand, and how crazy did that sound? She’d have to do a better job of hiding the in-love look, she decided if he agreed to help.
The hall was empty. Yeah, she hadn’t missed him. She found a spot against the wall to wait and tried to calm her nerves, the name she attached to all the fluttering, loops, and swirls that overtaken her stomach. She took a deep breath and settled into wait. Yeah again, as he was one of the first ones out of the locker room. He smiled when he saw her, which went a long way toward both soothing her nerves and increasing the movements in her stomach.
“Sydney,” Graham said, coming to a stop in front of her. “What are you doing here?”
“Uh, waiting for you?” she said, suddenly shy. He was cute, cute, cute in his football gear, holding his helmet in his hand. She had to look up to him; the top her head just about reached his mouth.
“I thought we were meeting Saturday morning?” He said,
“Oh . . . what?”
“Shelby said you needed some help with geometry, and I did offer.”
“Oh yeah, right. Saturday,” she said, smiling now, surprised, glad, and tongued tied all at the same time. And when was Shelby going to pass that information along to her, she wondered.
“Nine thirty, right?
“Yep, nine thirty in the morning.”
He laughed at her answer and why that was funny, she had no idea.
“At my house.”
“Yep, at your house. Which is where, exactly?”
“Shelby knows. Catch a ride with her and Brian,” he said before his gaze shifted to the rest of the boys moving towards them now, all headed out to football practice. Brian was among them.
“Hey kid,” Brian said, stopping beside them.
“Hi Brian,” she said.
“Sydney can ride over to my house with you and Shelby, right? Saturday morning?” Graham said.
“Maybe, sometimes. Not this Saturday though. I have SATs,” Brian said.
“It’s okay,” Sydney said, dropping her backpack to the floor. She pulled out her notebook and a pencil, opened the notebook to a clean page, and handed it to Graham. “I’ll take the bus. Just give me your address,” she said. No way was she letting anything get in her way.
“Dang, that was fast,” Brian said, watching.
“Does the bus even come out to us?” Graham asked, turning his gaze to Brian.
“Hell if I know,” Brian said.
“I’m sure there’s one that will get me close. I can walk the rest of the way,” she said.
“You sure?” Graham asked, smiling internally. Apparently, her desire to excel was the one thing that pushed all else aside. He wrote his address on the sheet of paper and handed it back to her.
“I’m sure. I’ll have to be home by twelve thirty, but I can make it work,” she said.
“I just bet you can,” Graham said, watching her put her binder and pencil away.
“Saturday?” she asked.
“Yep, Saturday,” he said.
“Cool, thanks. See you then. Bye Brian,” she said, her eyes moving between them both.
“Yep, see you kid,” Brian said.
Both boys stood watching as she walked away. Tall, hair braided and loose today, softly falling against her shoulders, simple, as was the jeans and t-shirt she wore.
“Someone has a crush,” Brian said, laughing, punching him the arm.
“Yep, but the nerd is in charge; everything else is secondary, I think,” Graham said, laughing too.
“I think so too. It’s nice, dawg, you’re doing this for her. Helping the disadvantaged have a better life.”
“That kind of makes me a hero, doesn’t it?”
“Yep, a hero,” Brian said, grinning.
“Nah, it’s not that. I like her, she wants better.”
“What’s not to like about that,” B said, grinning still, as he pushed open the door leading to the outside practice fields.
* * *
Under the Friday night lights of Hector/Ashford Stadium, Sydney sat on the metal bleachers that was stadium seating. She was there alone, as Avery had dropped out at the last minute. Her other friend worked the sidelines for the team, handing out water or whatever. There were other’s she could have gone with, but she decided not to. She was too okay with herself and being alone as it meant she didn’t have put up with useless chatter. Growing up fast sort of help you with figuring out the bullshit of stuff.
She was seated just behind the parents’ section, and brimming with excitement at all of life’s possibilities, all because she had herself a new tutor, and not just any old tutor, but her crush tutor and tonight alone, she was in full-out crush mode now, didn’t have to hide it. She would stare unabashedly at her favorite male and dream of them and no one would be the wiser.
Crystal and Nico had taken off, up to Hillsborough again so the evening and night was hers to do with as she wanted. And here was where she wanted to be, watching Graham.
She’d learned quite a bit about him since school had started. He was a white boy with the world-on-a-string-quarterback. He came from money and he was super smart, in the top fifth percentile of his class. Rich and living large in his parent’s palatial home, nice new car to drive, with a pretty, slim girlfriend, Aster of the long-hair-don’t-care variety, by his side.
“I can move faster than that kid,” the man in front of her said at the unfolding of play. Graham lay on the ground, tackled before he could get rid of the ball. Sydney watched Graham stand, unhurt and back up to do it all over again.
“I guess he’s better than the dude we had last year,” the man said, continuing with his commentary, which she was doing her best to ignore. “I hope he’s smart. There’s no way anyone’s picking him to play on their college team and he sure ain’t NFL material,” he added, shaking his head sadly.
Sydney watched as Graham, on the next play, handed the ball off to Brian, who tucked the ball under his arms and off he went. He swung around left, passing two boys. One had tripped over his feet, and the other might as well have, for all the good he did trying to tackle Brian. He was halfway to the end zone, to the approving roar of the crowd.
“Now that kid . . . has pro career written all over him. You mark my words,” the man said, after Brian had crossed into the end zone. “If we get to state this year it will because of him.”
Sydney had heard this too; heard it all the time really, from everybody at school. This was the year they could end up state champions, and all because of Brian. He was the reason for the season, as far as Sydney could tell. She liked him as much as she did Graham, but without the crush. He was always nice to her when he stopped by to pick up Shelby or waited for her to change clothes.
She’d learned something about him too, this best friend of Graham’s. The son of Bishop Walker, evangelist preacher extraordinaire, privy to the ears of presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs and the pastor of mega-church that brought in boo-coo Benjamins. Brian was a student athlete, emphasis on the athletic part, with an ability to run the ball in ways unimaginable. The smarts didn’t matter as much, he’d said, sitting on her porch swing, while Shelby changed clothes. Shelby was forever changing clothes.
The man in front of her was correct in his Brian assessment. A big-league college football playing program was B’s future if he didn’t get hurt.
Sydney looked over at her sister, Brian’s long-hair-don’t-care girlfriend, sitting beside Aster in the four or five rows in front of the cheerleaders, reserved for the non-cheerleading yet cool girls who were also girlfriends of the football players. Shelby was at the top of the pecking order, and Sydney hoped it worked out the way her sister wanted it to, attached to Brian and his potential forever. Shelby didn’t have to spell it out for Sydney to know that was her goal. She knew her sister. It was another way to get ahead.
The kick after Brian’s touchdown was successful. She checked the scoreboard. Three minutes remaining and then it was home for her. Home to wait for Shelby and then tomorrow, her first day with G. She couldn’t wait.
Shelby loved Friday nights, especially now that football season had begun. Hanging with the best of the best, watching her boyfriend crush his opponents on the football field, where she listened to all the accolades from just about everyone. The perfect ending to this day was hanging out afterward at Graham’s house, surrounded by friends. Life did not get any better than this, as least in her seventeen-year-old view.
She loved being here, loved the pool, loved the freedom they all had, the sense that life was safe and for the taking. Moving around Graham’s huge-ass home felt like another world and one she very much wanted to be a part of. Permanently. He and Brian had so much going for them.
She was sitting in the pool on the steps, scanning the group in various states of getting wasted, waiting for Brian to return from his beer run, leaving her alone with Graham. Aster wasn’t stopping by until later, so G was partnerless until then.
“So how is tutoring my sister?” she asked, before taking a sip from the flask B left behind.
“We haven’t started yet. Tomorrow will be the first time,” Graham said, swimming closer to her.
“So, tell me why you volunteered for this?”
“I know how hard The Hills can be, especially if you’re not used to it. Plus, we both want to be engineers. I know you knew that. Your sister wants to become an engineer and an artist.”
“Kids and their dreams, huh,” she said, chuckling.
He laughed. “You didn’t tell her you’d asked me. Did you?” he asked, settling his back against the wall of the pool.
“Nope,” she said, smiling.
“You should have seen her,” G said, smiling, remembering. “She was seriously anxious, worried, waiting in the hall to ask me for help.”
“Sydney is nothing if not serious.”
“You’re hard on her?” He’d noticed it the first day, her behavior when they rolled up on Sydney running down the street, and in small ways since. It was a surprise that Sydney and Shelby weren’t close. He didn’t understand siblings that didn’t get along. Brandon and Brian were the closest he had to brothers. He was closer to B than anyone and they’d both worshipped Brandon, B’s older brother before his death.
“Someone has to be,” she said, watching him smile, dark haired, eyes twinkling, a gorgeous male, full of confidence. It was in that moment that she could see his appeal. Not for her, of course—she liked her men darker in skin tone—but for others, like Sydney, she could see how they might find him attractive.
“We agreed to Tuesday and Thursday after school and Saturday mornings.”
“That’s good,” she said.
“She could ride over with you and B . . . or not,” he said, chuckling at the face she made at his suggestion.
“Nope. She can find her own way, if she wants it bad enough, she will.”
“Hard much,” he said, chuckling.
“Someone has to be,” she said again.
“And why is that?”
“Because life is hard,” she said.
“For everybody. For you and B. It looks easy, but it’s not and she might as well learn that now.”
“I’m sure she knows.”
“But you like her, right?” Graham asked.
“Of course, as much as one can a little sister.” She said, before turning her attention to Brian. He’d returned. He stood at the edge of the pool, a twelve-pack of beer in his hand.
“What are you two taking about?” Brian asked, moving his gaze between them.
“Graham’s tutoring my sister,” Shelby said.
“I know. I was there when she asked. Graham, the helper of the underprivileged.”
“It’s not like that,” Graham said, mostly to Shelby’s look of alarm. “Don’t listen to B. I want to help for all the reasons I told you. She seems like a good kid.
“No problem,” she said, back to smiling at Brian, seated beside her now. She held out her hand for a beer, well on her way to being lit, like her boyfriend and everyone else that was here. It’s what they did.
“She likes you, so you need to be careful with that,” Shelby said, turning her gaze back to Graham.
“I will,” he said.
“You can trust him with your little nerd,” Brian said, chuckling, and the conversation shifted to things less serious.
Darius sat in his truck outside the gate of the entry point to his employer’s home later on that night, waiting for the guard to open the gate and allow him inside the fortress that kept the rich and famous safe. He was here to give Bishop’s baby boy a ride home.
It was late; not as late as he used to hang, back in his younger days, but late for his old-man feeling self. Twenty-five years old was too young to be this damn tired. His head filled was with nothing more than dreams of going home, falling into bed to sleep for a day or three or four.
Usually he didn’t bother with Bishop’s boys—or boy, as there was only one remaining. Finding Brandon dead by suicide still plagued him, nagged at him for reasons he’d yet to figure out.
Usually that task of picking up the last remaining kid fell to JC, a low-level assistant of the bishop. Unfortunately, tonight the low-level assistant was he. Picking up the loose ends in the calendar of daily coverage for the bishop and his family was a part of his job description, so here he was.
He spotted Brian, standing beside the front door, his hand in what must be his girlfriend’s. He wondered if the bishop knew of her. Probably not. She was a thing of beauty, he thought. Too young for him, but petite, short like he preferred, with lots of hair flowing down her back. Were he in Baby Boy’s shoes, he might go against Daddy’s wishes, too.
He honked his horn and caught Brian’s gaze. A quick sharp look of anger in the boy’s gaze connected with his. The anger wasn’t new. It had been that way from the start. For some reason, Bishop’s boys had taken one look at him and it was immediate dislike. Dogs and territory, was the only thing he could attribute it to.
Young one here had been drinking. His slow, too-loose gait gave him away. Another thing he knew Bishop didn’t approve of. Not his kid, not his problem was his final thought on that subject.
“What happened to JC?” The kid asked, sliding into the back seat, behind the girlfriend.
“Got tied up,” Darius said.
“He usually drops off Shelby home first,” Brian said.
“Where does she live?” Darius asked, irritated at being a chauffeur for real. He drove out of the drive, listening as Brian gave him the directions to Shelby’s home. It was a quick twenty-minute ride to the girlfriend’s in the new government housing, still fresh and so clean, he thought, scanning the area as he waited for the girlfriend to stumble herself to the front door. He hadn’t minded half-drunk or all the way drunk women in his youth, but not anymore.
Another twenty and he was pulling into the bishop’s drive. “You need help getting in?” he asked.
“Not from you, no,” Brian said, sliding out of the car.
“Right,” Darius said, watching the kid make his way inside. He waved but the kid didn’t look back. “Thank you,” Darius said aloud into the empty car, and headed home.
Dang, Shelby was noisy, Sydney thought, from her spot on the living room couch. It was her go to sleeping spot when she was home alone. She liked to crank up the air conditioner to freezing, and huddle underneath her blanket.
She’d heard Shelby at the door, and thought she could pretend sleep through her entrance, and no she couldn’t. Nobody could. Shelby was loud as she stumbled past her, and over to the stairs, where she’d sat with a plop on the bottom step. “It’s fucking freezing in here,” Shelby said.
“Hey Shelby,” Sydney said, peeking from the small space under her blanket she reserved for her eyes.
“Mmm,” Shelby said.
“You want some help up to bed?” Sydney asked, feeling charitable toward her sister for talking to Graham on her behalf.
“The couch,” Shelby mumbled, pointing in Sydney’s direction.
“I got dibs, since I’m already here.”
“The couch,” Shelby mumbled again, pointing to it again.
“Please,” Sydney said, under her breath. She sat up, threw her blanket aside and went to her sister, not going to get angry at anything Shelby said. She could have whatever she wanted. The loads of appreciation she felt toward her sister would wear off soon enough.
She bent over at the waist and placed her sister’s arms around her head, the easiest way she’d found to maneuver those with diminished faculties caused by too much drink. It wasn’t the first time. It was her sister’s normal state home from hanging out with Brian and their gang, particularly on Friday nights.
“Up we go,” Sydney said, slowly helping her sister to stand, followed by a slow trek to the couch. “Did Brian bring you home?”
“Yep,” Shelby mumbled.
“Lie down with me,” Shelby said, after they returned to the couch.
“In front,” Shelby added, patting the front portion of the couch as she scooted back. “It’s safer this way,” she said.
“Safe from what?” She asked, hoping Shelby would tell her this time. Nope
“Safe . . . We’re safer together. It’s cold in here,” she said, through closed eyelids.
“I’ll turn the air down. I’m not sleepy any more. I’ll keep watch.”
Shelby closed her eyes, apparently at peace with this arrangement. Sydney sat for a second, watching her sister sleep, dead to the world in seconds and softly snoring. Sydney pulled her sketch pad from underneath the couch, turned on the light on the side table at the feet of Shelby and began to sketch the enigma that was her sister most of the time. Hurt by something and someone she never wanted to talk about.