Boys & Girls: “The Room”

(This is one of 10 preview chapters for Boys & Girls: Part I. You can see the rest of the chapters on the official page)

(Start from the beginning)

August 31st, 2016

Kinsky, California, USA

The Room

It was a Saturday. Cole put on his gray hoodie, bringing up the hood over him to cover his face. He was walking down the stairs of his house and was just about out of the door when he heard a voice from behind him.

“Hey, kid.”

Cole turned around. There was a woman over by the kitchen table. She was slightly overweight and had her fading black hair perched into a ponytail. She wore an old black shirt and a pair of sweatpants. She wasn’t related to Cole, but she had been his guardian long enough that she might as well be. 

She continued. “If you’re heading out, could you bring the garbage cans out to the street?”

Cole leaned on the door knob. “Yeah.”

The lady looked back down at the phone in her hand, saying nothing else. Cole left the house.

After taking out both trash cans, Cole stopped for a moment to look around. It was early in the morning, and gray clouds hovered over the neighborhood. He looked down and saw the remnants of the black stain still on his jacket, faintly visible. He sighed and went to his car.

As he went up the steps of the Cortez House, Cole noticed that the front door was opened a tad. He gently pushed it open, entered, then shut it close.

“I’m in here!” A voice called out. It was Maria’s, and came from the living room.

When Cole walked in, Maria was staring down at a wide array of papers and notes scattered on the coffee table. She wore the same purple sweatshirt and black gym shorts she wore on the 25th. 

“So, what’s new?” Cole sat down on the armchair, looking at the papers.

“I’m empty-handed. Teachers say she didn’t have any bullies, and nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. As far as I know she wasn’t talking to anyone outside of school, either.” Maria looked up, an aura of defeat on her face. “I’m out of ideas.”

Cole looked down at one of the papers. He put his finger on one of the corners, and spun it around on the table’s frictionless surface. “Have you… considered family members?”

“You don’t think it could be one of them, could you?”

“No, no. I mean… just to expand the search, to see if anything comes up.”

Maria leaned back on the couch, looking up at the ceiling light. “I mean, there’s just Lorenzo and…” She stopped. A sudden wave of realization hit her. “Oh, God.”

“What is it?”

She looked back at Cole. “My dad. I don’t think he knows yet.”

“Wh-what do you mean? You mean no one’s contacted him about it?”

“He didn’t leave any way to contact him! He just… H-he still doesn’t know.” Maria covered her mouth. She could feel the tears welling in her eyes, and did her best to stop them from falling down. “Shit, Cole…”

Cole looked down to his feet. The paper he had spun, now in his hands, he rubbed together. There were a few moments of silence, punctuated by Maria’s sniffling. Finally, Cole spoke again.

“Maria, I really think you need to tell your mom about all of this.”

Maria shook her head, wiping her eyes on her sleeves. “No, no. She’s… she’s coping in her own way. And, you know… with her, her work… I don’t want to put all this burden on her, you know?”

Cole didn’t respond. He put the paper back onto the table, and got up from the armchair. “Is it okay if I make us something to eat?” He pointed to the kitchen. “I haven’t eaten yet today.”

“Yeah, go ahead. There’s not much in there, though.”

Cole left to the kitchen. Maria went back to staring at the notes in front of her, looking for nothing in particular. 

Maurice was in the Kinsky High locker room. He stared off into the distance, panting and sweating. Occasionally he would take a towel and wipe the sweat off his eyebrows. Practice had finished, but it wasn’t what he was thinking about.

Isaac slapped him on the shoulder, jolting him back into focus. The quarterback sat next to him, smiling. “If you run like that in the real game, we might actually win a few.

Isaac was shirtless, and when he leaned back on the bench it better revealed his chiseled physique. Maurice scoffed and looked the other way.

“I’m serious.” Isaac continued. “You got way better over the summer. I can tell.”

“He’ll run you right out of a job,” Russell interjected as he walked over to the two, his sunglasses back on. He wore a worn KINSKY HIGH FOOTBALL shirt and had a towel hung over his shoulder.

“Alright, alright. Just try to make my job a little easier, alright? Not gonna be any point in us scoring if they score on every drive,” Isaac mocked back.

Russell smiled. “Okay, Cap. Just try not to throw it to me so much.”

The boys all sat in a circle around the locker. From an office in the corner came out a man with gray hair and a stern expression. A scar, starting on his forehead, snaked its way across the top of his head, creating a clear part in his crew cut.

“Alright kids, sit down.” His voice was calm and cold. The kids sat down.

“So we’ve got two away games to start off. One against Greenville, one against San Marcos. Home game is on the 20th. I want a strong start to the year, that means at least two wins. And one of them’s gotta be at home. We’ll be doing regular drills, with practice games the day before matches. Sprints, too. Anyone got any questions?”

The room was quiet.

“Good. Just don’t fag around and you guys’ll be fine.” He took a quick swig of his water bottle, then headed back to the office. “Have a good Sunday.”

Two crumb-filled plates and a couple of candy wrappers were now on the table. Cole and Maria sat together on the couch. 

“Okay, so there’s…” Maria leaned forward, her fingers on her temples. “There’s the kids at her school, but all of them seem harmless. There’s Mama, but she never yelled at any of us. Dad’s been gone for too long. There’s, um, the people who have come by a lot — Lorenzo, you, Sadja, and Rose — but none of them make sense.” Maria took a deep and elongated sigh. “Am I just… overthinking this? Was it just a nightmare she had? Is it completely unrelated?”

Cole had his hands in his lap. He thought about the case. He thought about what he knew about Anita. Everything he knew about her. Her little eyes. Her little smile. Her little laugh.

“Have you…” The words fell off Cole’s mouth. “Have you checked her room? Since it happened?”

Maria froze. 

“N-no. No, we… we haven’t.”

“Do you think… we should check?”

Maria tried to speak, but she couldn’t. Something inside her got stuck, some gear no longer turned. She just gave a soft nod, and slowly got up from the couch.

The room was upstairs. The door was closed, and the light was turned off. Maria stared at it from the hallway. She dared to take one step, and one step more, ever closer until she reached the door. Cole stood beside her, and she looked up at him for guidance.

“Just try. It’s okay.” His words were soothing, but did little to calm her anxiety.

She reached for the doorknob. She could feel her whole body tremble as she did it. With the tips of her fingers she felt the cold metal of the knob. Slowly, her hands wrapped around it. She put the force in her hand, and was just about ready to turn.

But something stopped her. If she turned this knob, she thought, the full weight of reality would hit her. She would realize that the room was empty. She would realize that, now, it would always be empty. She would realize that Anita was gone, and there was no way to bring her back. 

Her hand recoiled. She took a big gasp of air, then fell into hyperventilation. “I can’t do it,” she muttered. “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it.”

“Hey, hey. It’s okay.” Cole tried to console her, but it wasn’t working. She kept gasping, leaning her head against the side of the wall.

“I can’t do it I can’t do it I can’t do it I can’t do it.” Maria repeated the words to herself, over and over again. Her forehead scrunched up in pain, and her fists clenched. Her hands hit the wall, and she tried so hard not to cry again.

“Do you want me to go in?” Cole put a hand on her back, whispering to her. Maria thought about it.

“Yeah, please… J-just, just wait until I get downstairs. I don’t want to be here when you do it.”

“That’s alright. I’ll wait.”

Maria’s heart began to beat a little less rapidly. She crossed her arms, grasping tightly to the opposite elbow. She walked quickly down the stairs, sitting down at a chair in the dining room, and closed her eyes.

“Okay, you can do it!” She called out.

Cole looked back at the door. To be fair, he was scared to know what was behind it himself. But his curiosity was stronger. He turned the knob and went inside.

The room for the most part was normal. The bedsheets had been displaced, and the closet door was open. But everything else was in its proper order.

He looked in the closet first. Her outfits were still hung up, and beyond a few boxes of toys and art supplies nothing was out of the ordinary. His eyes moved over to the bed. Above it hung wall art depicting a heart, a fairy, and a few butterflies. In the side of the room facing a window was a small bookshelf. On the left-hand side of the window, there was a school paper pinned to the wall. It was from that February. Cole read it.

PEOPLE YOU LOVE: One of the things people do for Valentine’s Day is tell others that they love them. In the box below, write down the names of some of the people you love. Then show them this worksheet so they know you care!

MOMMY

DADDY

MARIA

ROSE

SAJJA

COLE

On the other side of the window, there were a few photos hung up. One was of her dressed as a princess for her third birthday. Another was her class photo from kindergarten. The last one was a holiday picture from a few years ago, which had Mama Cortez, Anita, Maria, and a man with dark hair and a moustache all sitting together under a Christmas tree.

Cole’s attention moved down to the bookshelf. On top of it was an antique wind-up carousel. Cole turned its dial. It creaked to life, spinning around slowly and unevenly, its rusted gears sounding out a rendition of Swan Lake.

He kneeled down to see into the bookshelf itself. There were a few kids books, such as Horton Hears A Who and Can You Really Pet A Walrus?. The bottom shelf had two binders, labeled ART and PHOTOS, both written in by Maria. Cole decided to leave them alone for now.

Seeing that there was nothing out of place, Cole got up from the ground, took one last good look at the room, and walked over to turn the doorknob and walk back out.

The doorknob.

Cole stood still. The carousel had stopped. The only sound left in the room was the familiar hum of the air conditioner.

The doorknob.

He took a few steps back. He brought his hand back to his chest and clutched the fabric of his hoodie. The cold air of the A/C hit his face.

The doorknob.

“Fuck,” Cole muttered to himself. He looked away from the door, grabbing a fabric sheet off of the bed. Without looking directly at it Cole covered the doorknob in the sheet, and only then turned the knob and left the room. 

When Cole came into the dining room, Maria still had her eyes closed. It was only after he touched her on the shoulder that they opened. 

“I checked the room. Nothing seemed out of place.”

Maria sighed. “Well, thanks for checking.”

Cole brought up a dining chair and sat next to her. “So, what’s the plan now?”

“I mean… I, um, still have some information I need to get back from the hospital. And a couple of people to call. I guess… I guess I’ll just tell you if anything comes up.”

“Sounds good,” Cole replied. Maria stayed looking at the ground, dejected. He took hold of one of her hands, and grasped it firmly. “Listen, we’ll get closure on this, okay? I promise you.”

Maria looked up at him. A small, subtle smile crossed her face. The sun hung down in the sky and night began to form.

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