By the time I got back outside the building, some older boys were playing keep-away with my little brother’s ball.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Give it back!”
Some kid with a hoodie on caught the ball. He gave me this, so-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it? look, then shrugged and said, “Fine,” and chucked the ball over the fence.
The ball fell down the side of the steep slope, bounced off the rocks, and then landed in the water at the bottom. My brother’s green and white basketball, the one I’d got him for Christmas last year, his favorite thing to play with, there floating on the bay. It wasn’t too far out. I might be able to go get it if I was quick. Then, as it started drifting farther out, I imagined myself hugging my little brother, telling him it was just a ball, and we’d get him another one.
Then I saw my little brother climbing down over the rocks and the dry yellow dead grass, trying to get down to the water.
I’d been staring at the ball, listening to the older boys’ cruel laughs, and hadn’t noticed him climb the fence. I shouted his name, called for him to come back, but he didn’t listen. I jumped the fence and hurried after him, scrambling down the rocks. I slipped and jammed my shoulder trying to stop my fall, but I reached my brother before he got to the water.
He was crying. I put my arms around him and was about to tell him just what I’d imagined saying, that we’d get him another ball, but then I looked up at the row of smirks on the other side of the fence, watching us. Didn’t they look pleased with themselves? Suddenly furious, I said, “Stay here, I’ll go and get the ball.”
I took off my jacket and my shoes, then waded out into the water. The rocks below the surface were slimy, and the cold ripples sucked against my jeans. The bank went down just as steep into the water as it had been on the side of the slope, and I had to push off and start swimming after only two steps.
From up on the pavement, the ball had looked really close to shore, but now down here in the water it seemed pretty far away. It was hard to move my arms and legs with all my clothes on in the cold water. For a while the ball didn’t seem to be getting any closer, but eventually it was bobbing there right in front of my nose. I grabbed it and turned around.
No way. The shore was so far behind me that the school and the fence along the top of the slope were only one tiny thing among a row of buildings and then the empty strip of airfield. My brother was still watching, there near the water, but the other kids were gone.
I started kicking, the ball held tight to my chest. The wind was picking up, so the swells often hid my brother from me, and sometimes even the whole shore. It was hard to tell if I was going in the right direction all the time. It was cold too, and I was feeling stiff and really tired. It took forever before I could tell I was getting closer.
By then there were more people at the fence. Someone had come down the bank and was standing with my brother, an adult. There was a police car at the top of the slope. Great. I was in big trouble now. No one was coming out in the water to help me, though. I guess they could tell I was doing okay.
I finally reached the shore and several pairs of hands pulled me out and someone wrapped me in a blanket. I offered my brother the ball, but he just threw his arms around me and hugged me tight.