The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 2 Episode 21: Basketball Partying

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Episode 21: Basketball Partying

I stepped off the school bus and into the warm April sunshine. A breeze rustled through the trees lining the driveway and carried the scents of mowed grass, fresh air, and spring.

“Summer’s almost here.” I spoke to myself, but I wasn’t alone. Chris Clayton, my best friend, and his younger sister, Elizabeth, and my cousins Joseph and Derrick Andrews walked with me down the long driveway to the Claytons’ house.

“You’re excited about summer?” Chris asked. His surprise was genuine. Summer wasn’t usually my favorite time of year.

“Time to play basketball.” I glanced over at the huge stone wall as if I could see the basketball court on the other side. Even as the tallest girl in ninth-grade—and taller than most of the boys—I couldn’t see over the eight-foot wall.

“Time for your mother to come home.” Chris’s words were a gray cloud over my sunshine plans. “Time for parties.”

“Never mind.” My mood crashed for a second then lifted again. “Wait. A party. That sounds fun.”

“Okay, I know we’ve only been out here for two minutes, but I think you may have sunstroke.”

“Let her talk.” Elizabeth waved a hand to shush Chris and anchored herself at my side. “What kind of party?”

“A basketball party.”

“Oh.” Elizabeth drifted a few feet away. “I thought you had something fun planned.”

“I take back the sunstroke, but what’s a basketball party?” Chris sounded interested. “Playoffs haven’t started.”

“Not a watching basketball party. A playing basketball party. We invite our friends over for an epic game on the court.”

“Woo-hoo.” Elizabeth’s voice held more boo than woo. “You sure know how to throw a party.”

“We’ll invite Abby and Lilli too.” I glanced over my shoulder at Joseph. Lilli was his girlfriend. “You three can watch us play. Or play too, if you want.”

“Watching you and all your friends play basketball all afternoon sounds . . .” Elizabeth’s expression shifted from not-in-a-million-years to I-could-like-that. “It sounds fun.”

“You’re using fun and basketball in the same sentence?” Chris leaned around me to look at his sister.

“If we order pizza, it’ll be fun for everyone.” I glanced over my shoulder again at my younger cousin, dressed in all black and so pale from hours in front of a computer that I worried he’d sunburn during the ten minute walk from bus stop to the house. If he did, it would match his Kool-Aid red hair. “Would pizza get you to come, Derrick?”

“Never.” Derrick’s voice sounded emotionless, which meant I might have a chance to convince him.

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Saturday arrived and one o’clock took forever, partly because, as Chris put it, I failed to observe the most sacred of all Saturday rituals—sleeping in. And partly because I was excited about a party for the first time ever.

But not everyone agreed with the party label.

“Is everyone really going to play basketball all afternoon?” Abby Stewart made it sound like I’d invited people over for a math competition. We stood on the Claytons’ porch, waiting for everyone else to arrive.

A math competition sounded like as much fun as basketball, but even I realized the words “math” and “party” didn’t go in the same sentence.

“You didn’t have to come,” I said. Abby and I had been best friends since she moved here almost two years ago, but Lilli James’s arrival in December might’ve demoted me to Abby’s second-best-friend.

“Someone has to keep Lilli company.” Abby glanced at the porch swing. Lilli and Joseph swayed and talked. Lilli was only half the reason Abby came. Maybe not even half. Abby wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hang out with Dean Larkin, her crush.

Another car came around the corner, parked, and two guys from church climbed out of the back—Liam and Kyle. They joined us on the porch.

“You said you had a court. That is a driveway.” Liam pointed, and while I couldn’t see it from here, I knew he meant the basketball goal next to the two-car-wide concrete drive.

“After Dean gets here, I’ll show you the court.” My muscles twitched with nervous energy and I pinched my lower lip. I rarely invited people over, and I never took them through the gate. A whole other world existed on the other side of the stone wall. A world I didn’t want to belong to, my basketball court the only exception. A world of housekeepers and gardeners, private pools and private schools. A world I’d tried to hide when I’d transferred to Taylor Junior High last year.

A world I’d just invited everyone to visit.

My stomach dropped like a basketball pierced with a giant nail.

“You okay?” Chris moved to my side, his voice low.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I twisted my lip one way then the other.

“What’s wrong?”

I couldn’t successfully lie to Chris.

I leaned against the porch railing and stared at the stone wall. Only the roof of the Cameron mansion was visible. “We have to go in there.”

“Yeah. That’s where the court is.”

“But everyone’s going to see.”

Chris stared at me like he had no idea what I was talking about. Then understanding lit his eyes. “People know who you are. They know who your parents are.”

“My mother and stepfather.” I don’t know why I corrected him. Chris was there when I’d found out that Harold Cameron was my stepfather. But saying it felt like honoring my father’s memory.

“You’ve already told them about the basketball court—the weirdest part. No one’s going to be surprised by what’s on the other side of that wall.”

I hoped Chris was right.

Dean’s dad’s truck drove around the corner, and I didn’t have any more time to worry.

“Let’s play basketball.” My voice was too high, but maybe everyone would think I was excited. I led the crowd off the porch, punched the code into the keypad, and opened the gate.

I heard the sharp intakes of air. Chris was wrong; everyone was surprised.

But who wouldn’t be? The grass that stretched from us to the basketball court was enough for two football fields with room for bleachers. On the other side of the court lay a garden better than any public botanical garden. And even from here, a quarter of a mile away, the mansion looked like, well, a mansion.

“Is that your house?” Reilly Anderson’s breath hit the back of my neck.

“I don’t own it.” I tried not to sound annoyed. I glanced at Chris who shrugged and mouthed sorry.

I headed for the basketball court. The sooner we got playing, the sooner my mood would improve.

“I mean, you live there?” Reilly walked next to me, eyes wide as if he couldn’t take in the entire view.

“Right now, no one’s really living there.”

“Where do you live then?”

“Back there.” I pointed my thumb over my shoulder.

“Why would you live there?” Reilly glanced back at the Claytons’ house and then stared at the mansion again. “When you could live there?”

The answers lodged in my throat, choking me. I couldn’t admit to the loneliness or the bad memories, like when Mother had insulted Alexander on the day of his funeral. Not to Reilly. Not to Abby. Not to anyone.

“What are our teams?” Chris changed the subject, his voice tight, like he wanted to say something else to Reilly but was holding it in. He pointed at me. “You, me, Dean, Joseph, and . . . ?”

“I thought we’d split up differently.” Inviting our friends over then playing an us-versus-them basketball game sounded rude. And at a youth group retreat a few weeks ago, Liam had accused the Chris-Dean-me trio as unfair. “Me, Joseph, Reilly, and Liam against the rest of you.”

“You’re going to be on Reilly’s team?” Chris sounded offended, maybe because of the conversation I’d just had with Reilly, but probably because Chris didn’t like Reilly. Which was why I had to be on Reilly’s team instead of Chris being on his team.

“She wants to play with the best.” Reilly’s smirk reestablished the status quo—Reilly annoying Chris about basketball and no one talking about my life.

“If that were true, she’d want to be on Dean’s team,” Chris shot back.

Reilly couldn’t argue with that. Chris, Reilly, and Dean had all tried out for a promotion from the freshman team to JV. Only Dean had made the team.

But it wouldn’t be polite to point out that because Chris thought Reilly and Liam were both jerks, Chris wouldn’t play on their team. And since I’d insisted on inviting both of them, putting them on my team sounded fair.

Hopefully Chris could play nice with Marcus and Kyle.

My stomach hurt. What had I been thinking? Parties were never fun.

We reached the court. I got the ball from the shed and dribbled it onto the asphalt. The rhythmic rrup, rrup sounded crisp and clear in the sunny, but cool, day. Best music in the world.

Elizabeth, Abby, and Lilli sat on one of the wooden benches in the grass. Two cases of water waited underneath the other bench.

“Everyone good with the teams?” I dribbled to center court.

Shrugs and murmurs of agreement passed through the group. Only Chris scowled, but he didn’t say anything.

My team started with possession of the ball. Joseph passed to me, I passed to Liam; Liam took a shot and missed. Dean caught the rebound. And the game was on. Up and down the court from one basket to the opposite. But something wasn’t right. Chris’s team’s score steadily rose, and twelve minutes in, they were leading by twenty-three points.

I’ve been on the losing team before. Last year’s junior high girls’ team and this year’s freshman team hadn’t boasted an unbeaten record. But I’d never been on a team so far behind so quickly. Statistically, Chris, Dean, Marcus, and Kyle made a better team than Joseph, Reilly, Liam, and me, but not that much better.

“Time out.” I held my hands ’T’ and called my team off the court. “Something’s not right.”

“Yeah, we’re losing.” Liam stated the obvious and crossed his arms.

“Because of you.” Reilly jabbed a finger at Liam.

“I’ve scored over half our points.”

“Because you never pass anyone else the ball.”

“He’s right.” I angled myself between the two boys. Reilly had tried to start more than one fight, but not on my court. “No matter who’s open or whether you’ve got a clean shot or not, you don’t even try to pass the ball to anyone else.”

“I’ve scored more than anyone else out there.”

“You’ve missed more shots than anyone else too. Reilly and I have better field goal percentages than you.”

Liam ducked his head and finally looked embarrassed.

“Individually, we’re just as good as them.” I pointed over my shoulder. “But as a team . . .”

“We suck,” Reilly finished.

“Yeah, we do.” And I didn’t know what to do about it. Losing wouldn’t be a problem if we were playing our best, but we weren’t. “We’re not a team. We’re four people adding our points together to see if it’s more than theirs. We shouldn’t be fighting with each other for possession of the ball. Reilly’s an excellent shot; he just needs the ball. And Joseph’s a great point guard. We’ve got to play together.”

“And nobody makes as many three-pointers as Sydnee,” Reilly said.

“Lots of people are better than me.”

Reilly blinked a couple of times. “Nobody here.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t argue against that.

“Hey!” Chris yelled from the other end of the court. “Are we going to play?”

“Just a minute.” I held up my hand and looked back at my teammates. “I don’t care if we win or lose . . . okay, I’d rather win, but really, I just want to play basketball.”

“It’s your court. Your party.” Liam’s voice sounded flat, like he didn’t care.

Had I made everything worse? Because I’d meant what I said. Winning didn’t matter as much as playing basketball.

We walked back onto the court.

“Regretting your team decision?” Chris’s eyes sparkled, lightening the insult.

“Not even a little bit.” I raised my chin and sounded way more confident than I felt. “We’ll come back.”

We didn’t. But the four of us played like a team, and we only lost by five points. Not bad after being behind by twenty-three points.

“Good game.” I slapped Chris’s palm.

“Really good game for us.” He was teasing again.

I shoved his shoulder. “We played better. Another twenty minutes, and we’d beat you.”

“Your strategy is to wear us out?”

“Whatever works.” I walked off the court. The guys were sitting on the benches and in the grass drinking water. I grabbed a water bottle and sucked down half the liquid. “Want to go back to the house, eat pizza, watch a game?”

“Without a tour of your house?” Abby looked up from the bench.

“A tour?” Hadn’t I been clear about the mansion not really being my house? “Why?”

“Because we want to see it.” She sounded like the reason should be obvious. But not to me.

Why did anyone care?

“Show us how the Kardashians live.”

“The Kardashians don’t live here.”

Abby made a big show of rolling her eyes and stood, grabbing my arm. “C’mon. Just show us around.”

I glanced at Chris. He shrugged.

“Fine.” I shook off Abby’s grip. I’d walk them through the gardens, through the first floor, through the life I didn’t want, then maybe they’d stop bothering me. And next time I invited people over the play basketball, we’d only play basketball. “Let’s go.”

I didn’t bother walking to the nearest path; I led them right through the bushes and trees, hoping no one trampled on anything important. I didn’t want to cause David more work.

“These are the gardens.” I swept my hand around and spoke with less emotion than a robot.

“The waterfall. The pool.” I cut my own path—the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, not the winding pathways.

I heard whispers behind me, but no one spoke loud enough for me to hear words. Or maybe I wasn’t listening hard enough. I didn’t care what anyone had to say about the three different levels of the pool or the stone-framed hot tub.

We walked around to the side of the house to the kitchen door with the keyless lock. I punched in the code.

“Kitchen. Butler pantry. Dining room.” My one-word house tour wouldn’t win me any realtor awards. I stopped in the foyer with its double, curved staircases, and pointed. “Upstairs. Living room. Library.”

No one was saying anything now. Not even whispering. Everyone slowly turned, glancing up at the twelve-foot ceilings and into the designer magazine styled rooms. Except Chris and Elizabeth who had been here before. But even they looked a little awed.

“Are we done now?” I crossed my arms, not trying to hide my impatience.

“There’s got to be more than this.” Reilly, who had supported my arguments about playing as a team, now turned against me. “Where’s the fun stuff? The billiard room, the theater, the conservatory?”

We all stared at him.

“My mom watches HGTV,” he explained.

“I thought maybe you really liked to play Clue.” I walked between the dueling staircases to the basement stairs. A guy who knew the words “billiard” and “conservatory” deserved to see the fun stuff.

The basement was as bright as the main floor but way less formal and more open. Couches, chairs, and a couple of tables filled a large space on the left, and built-in white cabinets hid games. On the right was the pool table Reilly had asked about.

“Where’s the TV?” Liam turned, taking in the open areas. “A house this size has to have a TV somewhere.”

Several, actually, but I wasn’t walking up four flights of stairs to show them the TV in my bedroom. Instead, I opened the large doors hiding a room between the game and pool table spaces and revealed the theater.

“Whoa.” The guys walked past the six aisles of theater seats, eyes bigger than basketballs.

“Can you watch TV on there?” Reilly pointed at the screen covering half the wall. “Or just movies?”

“TV. I think.” I added the last words quietly. I hadn’t watched TV down here in years.

“Then why aren’t we watching the game here?” He walked up to the screen and examined the sides. “How do you turn it on anyway?”

“In the cabinet over there.” I waved at the wall.

Reilly found the door and studied the electronic boxes inside. The sound system, TV, DVD, and whatever else was needed were all located in that cabinet.

“Yeah, why don’t we watch the game here?” Liam dropped into one of the ten-times-more-comfortable-than-a-movie-theater seats.

I glanced at Chris, desperate for an ally.

“This would be better than cramming into the living room at my house.” Chris shrugged slowly, his face twisting into a look of apology.

He had a point. The eleven of us would be crowded in the living room, assuming we’d all fit. But here, we wouldn’t even take up half the theater seats.

Reilly figured out the projector power switch and the screen lit up.

“What about the pizza?” I asked.

“Have it delivered here.” Liam walked past me. Guess the blank screen with the word ‘Standby’ in the corner, didn’t hold his attention.

“Yeah,” Chris agreed. “Tell Dad we want to hang out here.”

“Okay.” I was outvoted. But now that everyone had already seen the house, I didn’t care so much. The secret was out and everyone was moving on. Including me.

I hadn’t brought my phone, but Elizabeth or Abby would have theirs. I left the theater to find one of them.

“Is this a weight room?” Dean pressed his nose against a glass pane in a set of French doors. He tried the handle and the door opened.

“Yeah.” I met him inside the room. Mirrors lined the walls, multiplying the weight machines and barbells, the treadmill and elliptical.

“This is better than the high school’s weight room.” Dean sounded impressed for the first time all day.

“You guys work out down here?” Liam checked out the bench and the bar sitting above it.

“No. This is my mother’s.” I’d never been in here.

Liam grabbed plates off the rack and slid them onto the bar. “Kyle, come spot me.”

Music blasted from the theater, followed by the voice-over in a bathroom cleaner commercial. Reilly had figured out the TV.

“Game’s not on yet.” Reilly’s voice faded as he walked into the gym. “This is awesome.”

Everybody had spread throughout the room, trying out different pieces of equipment, even Elizabeth and Abby. Elizabeth stood by Liam, asking for a turn—could she even bench press the bar?—and Abby held a skinny barbell in her hand and watched Dean curl one three-times the size.

“You’ve never been in here?” Chris walked over to a machine with cables and pulleys and a bar. “Why not?”

“Like I said, it’s my mother’s.” But no one had ever said I couldn’t be in here, and metal would be hard to break. I watched him pull the bar from the ground to his chest. Was he doing that right?

“This is pretty sweet.” Chris lowered the bar, then raised it again. “Maybe you should come here when your parents aren’t here.”

“Do you mean me or we?”

“Yeah.” Chris half-shrugged and smiled, not looking too embarrassed.

“Are you sure you live here?” Reilly asked. He did squats next to us, a bar resting across his shoulders.

“Yes.” I didn’t know why I sounded so defensive. Usually, I didn’t want to be here, but it was the Cameron mansion, and before school started this year, I’d chosen to become a Cameron by name. A part of me—a very small part, like my little toe—belonged here.

“If this were mine, if I had a gym like this, a TV setup like that . . .” Reilly paused to breathe through the squat. “I’d want to live here. All the time.”

“Well, I don’t . . .”

A hush fell across the room in a wave, catching up to us. Reilly froze, eyes widening. Chris lowered the bar, letting the cables jerk it onto the tile floor.

I turned around.

David stood in the doorway, arms folded across his chest, staring. His expression was a cross between wanting to know what was going on and unhappily understanding.

“We thought it would be more fun to watch the game here. Or in there.” I pointed at the theater. My voice sounded high and uncertain.

“You did? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” David used his grounded-for-life voice.

I glanced around at all my friends who had said how much better watching TV here would be. Funny, none of them were jumping to my defense or even looking at me.

“I was going to.” I met David’s gaze and squared my shoulders. I’d never have a party again. “I didn’t have my cell, but I was going to borrow someone’s, then I got distracted.”

“You’re not watching the game here. Not today.” David stepped aside and tilted his head toward the open door. “Back to the house.”

Everyone exited the house in a different kind of silence than we’d entered. We walked back to the Claytons’ house, but David didn’t send everyone home or ground us. The pizza was waiting, and we ate and watched the game until parents arrived.

Of course, David hadn’t forgotten about finding us in the mansion.

“Come back here.” David stopped Chris and Joseph from escaping upstairs to their rooms, and Elizabeth from hiding in our room.

Maybe I needed new friends.

“I was really upset and worried when I walked through the gate and found the basketball court empty.” David raised his eyebrows, asking for an explanation.

“I’m sorry. Everyone wanted a tour. I was just going to walk them around the outside, but they wanted to see the inside too. I thought we’d go in and out real quick.”

“You didn’t have permission to go inside.”

“Why does Sydnee need permission?” Chris finally butted in, coming to my defense. Sort of. “It’s her house. She can go in it whenever she wants. And she can invite anyone she wants.”

“Yes and no.” David’s voice took on a strained tone, warning Chris he was pushing his limits. Maybe warning all of us. “You need permission before going to anyone’s house, including Sydnee’s.”

Chris scowled at the floor, but he didn’t argue.

“And Sydnee needs to let me know when and why she’s going over there, because I care about where she is and who she’s with. Understand, Sydnee?”

I nodded, my lips pressed shut, waiting for the next phase—sentencing.

David wrapped me in a hug.

I stiffened. Not what I expected. But I relaxed and hugged him back. Maybe this was one of those learning moments, not punishing.

“If you want to invite people over to your house sometime, you can. Just let me know first. A huge, empty house, a dozen teenagers . . .” David took a deep breath that whistled through his teeth. “That’s not a good situation for any of you.”

I nodded against the scratchy printing on his T-shirt.

He released me. “And you’re all grounded. For two weeks.”

There it was.

Chris and Elizabeth groaned. Joseph and I stayed silent. Like me, Joseph must’ve figured grounding was inevitable.

“Phones, please.” David held out his hand. Chris, Joseph, and I placed our phones in his palm.

“Next time Sydnee has a party, maybe you two”—David drew an invisible circle around Chris and Elizabeth with his finger—“might support Sydnee. Because I know the house tour and watching the game over there wasn’t her idea. If you’d taken her side, maybe no one would be grounded.”

“Sydnee’s going to have another party?” Chris didn’t sound like he believed that.

“You know, maybe I will.” But next time, I’d try not to get grounded.

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