By Heather Dileepan
I can’t help but remember the time Sawyer helped me when I was hurt. It was around this time last summer before I started at the same school as him but after I first noticed him. I think of it red-faced with embarrassment as I watch him from my bedroom window. He’s in the driveway washing his new car. Sara’s older sister heard from her friend Laura that his parents brought him to the dealership three towns over for his 16th birthday. The car is deep indigo, which I think suits him.
He found me one morning on the trail behind my house. I was there with my favorite horse when I got hurt. We didn’t exactly live in the middle of nowhere but lots of people still had horses in my neighborhood, and I liked this horse in particular. She was always at the fence when I walked to the store for a Milky Way and my favorite green fizzy drink. Sometimes, I’d stop to talk to her and tell her what Sawyer was up to that day. I guess you might think that’s a weird thing to do. My dad always says I should spend less time watching from the sidelines and more time in the game. He’s always talking like that and I think he probably wishes I were a boy. I sometimes wonder if he’d be prouder of me if i were, bragging to the neighbor the way he did Sawyer.
“Did you see that buzzer beater the other night? That kid is unstoppable,” he’d stand at our fence, elbow resting against wood, gardening shears in his gloved hands.
That morning, I stopped to run my hand along the horse’s soft muzzle when the older boys saw me. They thought it was funny that I was alone, like it was just what they were looking for, but one of them got angry for some reason and told me I was too ugly to bother with and pushed me to the ground. That was after they tore my shirt, and some other things I didn’t like.
That’s how Sawyer found me, tears and snot running down my face, pine needles in my hair. I was lying in the ditch just past the trail, against a fallen tree branch with a lone pinecone still attached. He was standing over me blocking out the sun, a halo blazing around his shining, dark hair. Up close, he looked like I had always imagined him from my window--tall, dark lashes and dark eyes, perfectly unruly hair brushing against his face.
Later I was pretty banged up and my face had a scrape big enough to make my mom cry when she saw it, but at the time all I could think was how embarrassed I’d be if that pinecone left some kind of permanent imprint on my back and someone saw it. I definitely had a pinecone-shaped bruise for a while.
“Are you OK?” he asked. Even as I was hurt and crying, I still felt tongue-tied, so instead of answering I stood and brushed the dust from my arms. We walked home, him tall just ahead, me trailing along like his shadow.
I remember feeling as though a spotlight was directly over me that whole way home, the heat from the bulb causing sweat to form over my brows, blending with the blood and dirt into a mixture of shame and embarrassment that dripped off me with each step. We didn’t speak much.
But the worst part was when we reached my doorstep, he stooped toward me and looked intently at my face. That wasn’t the bit that was bad. The bad part was that I thought maybe, just maybe he was coming in to kiss me right there on my doorstep and I leaned right back, smiling and waiting for him to get closer. Instead, he furrowed his brows and said,
"You’re bleeding. You should get those cuts looked at."
I check on Sawyer from my window after breakfast and see the other neighborhood kids gathering at his house for a game. He does that sometimes, calls all us kids to come out when he’s bored on summer mornings. Mostly we just watch him play.
I go outside and join them, leaving my window and crossing the street to stand at the edge of his driveway. He weaves among us, imagining some other, more worthy opponent as we watch in awe. The wind catches and lifts his hair as he leaps toward the net and for a moment I see myself through his eyes.
I think about how I’m always hoping for their attention, too young for boys to notice me but old enough to know that I should want them to because all the best girls get noticed. I remember the boys on the trail and their taunts and their hands on me and bile rises in my throat and my cheeks burn.
The ball is rolling now, down the driveway and toward my feet. I stoop to grab it and begin to dribble, slow and clumsy and then faster as I make my way toward the basket. As my pace quickens everything else fades away, my focus on the hoop ahead and above me. I move abruptly left, imitating a move I’d seen somewhere before, and the ball escapes my grasp, veering dangerously out of reach as I lunge to grasp it more firmly, and I start again. I look up at the net and plant my feet, launching it with both arms over my head as hard as I can skyward. It lands on the metal rim with a twanging sound and pauses there as if hesitating before spinning slowly down and through the hoop. I think I catch Sawyer smiling from the edge of my vision, looking my way. But I’ve already turned to go.