Author: Sarah Cook-Raymond
Genre: YA urban fantasy
Title: THE DEFENDERS
Irony: the opposite of what you’d expect—with a twist.
Before today the only irony I knew was being tall but sucking at basketball. But that’s the twist. The day your life changes forever begins like all the others. It’s just the ending that’s changed.
Chapter Two: Before
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. I swat the alarm clock into submission but don’t move out from under the warm folds of down comforter. It’s not time to get up. Not really. Not yet.
I hear the wood stairs creek and croak under Shelly’s shoes. “Toby!” she says, with a knock on my door. “It’s time to get up!” Shelly’s two years younger than me but you’d never know it.
I let out a sigh and then grudgingly throw the covers off. At once I feel the sharp bite of cold air as it hits my body. I let a Guinness Book of World Record-setting yawns and make my way to the closet. “Mom!” I holler, staring at the very few items still hanging there. “I thought you said you were going to do some laundry!”
“I will dear. I will,” says the zombie in pearls walking by my room. She disappears around the corner offering no further details. Despite my mother’s grand appearances, mornings are her downfall. Apparently it’s genetic.
I let out an audible sigh then grab what used to be my favorite shirt and look in the mirror. I’m met by gray eyes and side-swept, shaggy, brown hair. But then I look down. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say to the reflection of a lanky boy in a midriff flannel.
I’ve grown so much in the last year that barely anything fits which means doing laundry is essential. Every time puberty rears its awful head, Mom insists appearances aren’t everything. She’s clearly a liar who never went to high school.
I turn my boxers inside out, grab a hoodie, the same jeans I wore yesterday, and hurry downstairs to the kitchen for breakfast.
“Hey Big Shot,” says Dad, looking up from the Washington Post. There’s a stack of five other papers beside him, all already read.
“Hey,” I echo. I don’t contest the nickname. He’s spent my entire life trying to get it to catch on. No need to stop now. Still, I love him for that. I can’t explain why.
The coffee pot dings. Dad smiles and stands up from the table. His massive frame is draped in his uniform: dark suit, shiny shoes, crisp shirt. I see a small splash of coffee still in his cup as he goes over for a refill—meaning this is the second pot of the day.
I look over and see Mom leaning against the counter typing away feverishly on her Blackberry, a half-eaten piece of toast balanced between two fingers. “Here,” Dad says, moving across the kitchen and sliding a steaming mug of coffee in her direction. She looks up and their eyes meet. “Thanks,” she says with a crescent smile as she puts the Blackberry down. She takes a sip and I watch her shoulders rise and fall into a relaxed soft sigh.
“Alright, Alright.” Shelly bursts into the room wearing a backpack so full it’s amazing she doesn’t buckle under the weight. “Let’s go. We don’t want to be late for school.”
“Speak for yourself,” I say, grabbing one of the strawberry Pop-Tarts in her outstretched hand. I take a satisfying bite. “I swear if it wasn’t for you, I’d never eat,” I admit.
“I heard that,” says Mom, though she doesn’t contest it. “I have an open house to prep for,” she says, turning to Dad.
“I wanted to take them to school anyway.”
I climb into his black Range Rover. “So you excited about that English test today?” Dad asks, starting the engine.
“Excited? I don’t think it’s possible to ever be excited about a test.”
“Toby,” he says, pausing. “Life is a test.”
“Can we please turn the radio non?” begs Shelly from the back seat. The rest of the way to school it’s a Shelly and Dad duet of some Taylor Swift song. Awesome.
Dad drops Shelly off at the middle school first. “You have a great day now,” he says. Shelly reaches from the back seat and gives him as big a bear hug as her scrawny little arms can handle.
“You too,” she singsongs.
When we get to the high school I quickly jump out but not before Dad calls my attention back. “So Big Shot, we still on for tonight?”
Tonight is fantasy football draft night. I’m the defending champ.
“You bet. But be ready, old man!” I holler back to him, my body still moving towards the school’s double doors. “You’re gonna need some luck!”
I bound off the bus thankful the school day is over and that’s when I see it—the sight that stops me in my tracks—Mom’s car in the driveway uncharacteristically early. It’s strange how something so trivial can feel so terrifyingly serious.
Cautiously I opened the front door, all the hairs on my body standing on end. Something’s not right; I can feel it in my entire body, right down to my bones. And then, on the kitchen floor, is my sobbing mother flopping around like a helpless fish out of water. It unnerves me in the same way horror movies do. It’s that sensation where I want to cover my eyes but can’t because something—compulsion or curiosity—stops me.
As a realtor, Mom’s all about fake smiles and pretty façades so to see this, not a stifled, Hollywood-type cry but a mess of tears and snot streaming together down her cheeks, unnerves me.
“Mom?” I ask cautiously as I approach her. I don’t see Shelly walk into the room but hear the squeak of her sneakers on the freshly-waxed floor as she stops abruptly at the sight I’ve only just begun to digest. Mom looks up at us from under red-rimmed eyes, her whole demeanor as fragile and breakable as ever. “Your father—” she eventually chokes out but breaks off. All that follows are blubbered incoherent words coupled with bouts of hyperventilation.
Precipice (n). I couldn’t remember the definition in class today. But I remember it now.
“Mom?” I repeat.
“He’s dead,” she says at last. My knees buckle and I collapse next to her. Shelly does the same. We’re just one big pile of bodies like football players in a heap only no one attempts to move and we don’t have any padding to cushion the blow.
At that moment tectonic plates begin to shift. We don’t feel them but we know they’re there, moving, cracking under the surface. The earth breaking in two, the before and the after, an ocean’s divide between them.