Mark retched a second time over the edge of the roof.  Rolling over onto his back, making an effort to keep planted on the asphalt shingles, he felt his thoughts go helium-light; he’d just float up towards the humming night sky if he fell off.

Becky, hugging her knees to her chest, turned towards him.  The fuzzy orange streetlight cloaked her features, the glimmer of tooth and eyeball piercing through.  “Easy, little brother.  Don’t hit it like a joint.”  The cigarette sagged loosely from her mouth, almost falling out.  “You’ll wake Dad up.”

He’d never hit a joint, either, but nodded as he took another hit, pulling lightly.  A tickle crawled up his throat.  He held it as every cilia in his lungs squirmed, then he released slowly, the cloudy stream ribboning over him.

“There you go.  Totally pro.”  She blew a jet of smoke through her nostrils.  “Can’t believe you’ve never had a cigarette before.  You’ll be what, a sophomore?”

He stretched wide across the roof, feeling the grit bite into his bare legs, swimming through the buzz.  “Junior.”

A few yards away, the synthetic strains of a pop station wafted out her bedroom window.  “Doesn’t football start soon?”

“Passing camp started last week.  Tomorrow, officially.”  Two-a-days.  Cigarettes wouldn’t help his forty time, but she’d never invited him out to smoke before.  She’d never invited him to anything.  They were six years apart, just out of each other’s cultural context.  He learned to ride a tricycle the same Christmas morning she did a bike, and the distance stayed like that: trike/bike, Nintendo/boyfriends, junior high/college.  She always seemed to him constantly entangled in adult problems, the heavy, knotty type like in soap operas or daytime talk shows.

A lazy yellow light slid over the street as a pickup turned the corner.  Mark jumped, ready to bolt out of sight over the roof.
She shook her head and laughed.  “No one can see up here, dumbass.”  A deep pull for emphasis.  “Not like they’d care anyway.”

He slid back down and crushed out the cigarette, pocketing the butt.  “Dad would care.”

“Didn’t when I started.”  She turned towards the opposite side of the roof, voice trailing away from him.  “But I guess we can’t all be Johnny America, football star.”

“I’m not a star.”
“First draft pick tomorrow, according to Dad.”
She was right.  Dad’s excitement was embarrassing.  Mark would come home from passing camp and be bombarded, forced to detail each new offensive scheme and then lie and say yes, he was using the new grip or drop-step or release his dad showed him, and yes, he was excited for September.

The automatic sprinklers shushed on in the front yard.  “Haven’t told Dad.  This new kid from San Diego, a freshman, transferred in this summer.  He plays quarterback too.”
She picked at a toenail, flicking invisible specks onto the driveway twenty feet below.  “Yeah, but you’ll beat him out.”
Another cough crept up his throat and he swallowed it back down.  The new kid had two inches, twenty-five pounds, three-tenths of a second in the forty on him.  But Mark kept quiet; his sister owned the larger share of sports-related anguish, and he didn’t want to invite the comparison.  Earlier in the week, a few days into her senior year at Sonoma State—fifth year, because of the medical redshirt—she’d been cut from the gymnastics team, lost her scholarship, and dropped out of school. 
And so the gap continued: lose starting spot/lose everything.
“Is Dad pissed?” Mark asked.  Their father had looked pissed earlier that evening when she showed up at the doorstep with a few boxes of stuff.  Mark helped move everything into the garage, and then Dad asked him to leave while he and Becky talked. 
She scoffed.  “More pissed that I got cut than anything else.  Didn’t even talk about dropping out.  Told me I must’ve been drinking too much.”  She held her cigarette in front of her and looked into the cherry.  “Whatever.  Gymnastics was all we had after Mom left.”
“That’s not true.”  Mark breathed in the thick summer air, trying to clear out the black-toothed carcinogens eating away his lung tissue like from the movie in health class.
“Yeah?  You two talk about anything besides football lately?”
Of course they had.  Hadn’t they?  This was heavy, the conversation and the buzz and the whole thing was too heavy and he could feel its weight pushing him back against the roof.  He didn’t know what to say.  “Sorry?”
She gave an apologetic smile and ran a hand along his bare arm, leaving a tingly trail.  “Like it’s your fault.”  The whites of her eyes punctured the darkness.  A balmy breeze swept over them, wisping the smoke out into the street.  Mark shifted as the buzz settled in, deeper, the passing headlights of a car trailing across his vision like tracer fire.
Reaching into her sweatpants, she removed another cigarette, lit it with the tip of her own, and offered it wordlessly.  Snaky residual tendrils burned down his throat, but he took it.  “It’s so stupid,” she said.  “Who hits a growth spurt when they’re twenty-three?”  The sprinklers in front clicked stop and the ones in back started.  “One fucking inch.  Seven fucking pounds.  And suddenly Coach Edmonds thinks I’m some fatass monster who can’t tumble.”
Mark remembered watching a few of Becky’s meets before Mom left, Becky twisting her body in impossible directions as she hurled herself across sinister-looking apparatuses.  She was petite then but seemed even smaller now, draped in a baggy gray sweatshirt, a tiny dot of light lost in the black expanse of the roof like the stars in the yawning night above.
“You going back?”  Mark took a drag and held it in his mouth.  He let it sit for what he hoped was a convincing length of time, then exhaled.  “Dad’ll probably pay if they really drop your scholarship.”
“They already did.”  She ground her cigarette against the roof and threw it over the side into the neighbor’s yard.  “Remember Aunt Stacy?”
A nod.  Their mother’s stepsister, a twitchy specter of a woman who’d been snatched up and shat out of institutions most of her life.  They’d eyed her warily from across the table at family gatherings, the few to which she was invited, as she held discourse on any number of provocative topics: instantaneous teleportation, airborne microwave rays that disrupt our biorhythms, the government’s planned genocide on people under five feet tall.
“She was convinced the stars could tell us things.  Not that house of Aquarius voodoo bullshit, but like they could spell things out, literally give you signs and stuff.”
He fake-inhaled again.  “How?”
Sudden flash, her arm, grabbing his cigarette.  “Don’t waste it.”  She took a long draw, letting the smoke crawl up her face and inhaling it back through her nostrils.  “She said the stars’ blinking is code, they can move around and form pictures and words.  You just have to look for it.” 
They both stared upwards, silent for a few minutes.  “I know she was batshit.  Still, I don’t know, I try to watch sometimes,” Becky said.  “Think maybe I see things.”
Hot, shaky waves shuddered through Mark’s body.  Couldn’t even fake-inhale correctly.  “What are the stars saying now?”
A sliver of white from Becky’s grin as she leaned back to examine.  She puffed slowly, letting her mouth droop as the smoke seeped out.  “Saying that Coach Edmonds is a dick and he’ll die a painful death.  Groinally painful.”  Stretching her arms over her head, she extended her fingertips towards the sky, then clenched her fists and cracked her knuckles with a sickening pop.  “What are they telling you?”
He gazed up at the intertwined ribbons of stars.  “Not much.”  The sky looked vaguely familiar but jumbled, just out of comprehension, an unpenciled connect-the-dots.  “Wait, they are saying something.  Wait, oh my God!”  He rolled over, facing his ass towards her, and farted.  “Isn’t it glorious?”
Becky cursed, throwing a few stiff punches into his shoulder.  “That’s the cigarette talking, not the stars.”  Disgusted, she reared back and stood up.  “Okay Mr. Quarterback, you’ve demonstrated your greatest skill.  My turn.”  Big strides up the roof.  Dizziness flashed over Mark as he turned to follow, but he flattened both palms against the coarse surface and steadied himself.
Balancing on the ridge where the two slopes of roof met, Becky stood with chest puffed and feet apart, cigarette in mouth, arms floating out from her sides.  Her sweat suit gave her a ghostly, indistinct form.  A few precise backward toe-steps, then she pirouetted with her right leg extended.  She snapped off a quick forward cartwheel, then extended her arms above her head theatrically.  Her chest trembled from the effort.  “I’m moving to Portland.  With Derrick.”
“Huh.”  Derrick was five years older than Becky, drove a lowered Isuzu pickup, and referred to Mark only as ‘brah’.  The last time Mark had seen him, Derrick challenged him to an arm-wrestling contest.  “With Derrick?  You guys getting married?”
Laughter.  “Jesus, no.  His sister has an extra room in her apartment, and she’s letting us stay until we get settled.  Leaving as soon as he gets his last paycheck from the shop.”
“Why?”  A stupid question.  He’d known why as soon as she told him, before that even, as soon as she showed up that afternoon.
She shook her head, ponytail swaying, then tightened her mouth around the cigarette.  “Watch this.”  Coiling herself for one breathless instant, she launched backwards into a handspring.  The glowing cherry slashed through the dark as she caught the ridge and whipped her legs over, planting them with a thud.  She pulled the cigarette out of her mouth and exhaled a curl of milk-white smoke.  “Not bad for a fatass, right?”
Mark raised his hands carefully and clapped as she brought her feet together for a bow.  Smiling, lost in the applause of a crowd hiding somewhere in the sooty folds of darkness below, Becky caught her toes on a shingle and lost balance.  She shot a hand out for support, catching herself but losing the cigarette.  It cut wide down the roof, rolling off the side and landing in the clumped leaves of an elm right below the edge, orange insect glow eating its way slowly down the shaft.
“It might catch fire.”  Mark shifted around to reach towards the leaves.
Becky crawled backwards down the roof.  “It won’t, just leave it.”
He lay on his stomach and crept up to the edge.  The cigarette smoldered a few tantalizing feet away, its bright unblinking eye staring back at him.  “Dad might see it.”
“Who cares?”
Mark gripped the edge with one hand as he reached out, straining to extend his arm with the go-go-gadget powers he’d always wanted.  He fingered the tip of a leaf while it swayed alluringly, teasing him.
Becky clomped towards him.  “Just stop, it’s not worth the effort.”
Then his stomach lurched and the roof shifted and he was drifting, unencumbered, free; it was the same floating sensation that engulfed him while falling asleep.  He twisted over and looked at the stars as they struggled to spell something out, so close, so close to understanding when the blackness swallowed him.

Shoulder sprain and mild concussion.  Missed impaling himself on the wooden fence by eight inches.
Mark and his father left the hospital at noon, right when morning practice would’ve been wrapping up.  The heat oppressed and the band from the shoulder sling bit into his neck.  “I called your coach,” his father said as they got into the truck.  “Said to take all the time you need to recover.”  Doctor said a week, maybe more.  Enough time for the freshman to get comfortable with the offense. 
His father started the engine and began to fiddle with the radio, punching from one preset station to the next without hearing more than a note.  “I can drive you over for afternoon practice.  Team would want you there.”
Standing forgotten and useless next to the water boy.  Crowding at the outskirts of the team huddle, unable to jump into the practice-ending pile.  “Where’s Becky?”
He kept flipping through the stations as Mark stared at him.  His father: lineman’s neck and square jaw softened by a coating of fat, gray eyes set deep underneath his brow, web of wrinkles just beginning to set on his forehead, teeth browning at the edges, gently receding hairline, sad heft to his shoulders and a look of dogged determination as he worked the radio, as though everything hinged on his selection. 
He finally settled on a sports talk station and glanced up at Mark.  “She’s gone.”  He shifted into reverse and almost stalled as the truck began chugging backwards.

There was a half-empty pack of cigarettes in Mark’s desk when he got home.  No note.  He went back up to the roof that night and used a pair of kitchen tongs to pluck the cigarette butt from its leafy nest.  He tried to light it, not so much to get buzzed as to watch the last few desperate strings of smoke escape from his mouth and wilt into the air, dying.  But there was no tobacco left, and after a few useless attempts he crushed it in his palm and tossed it into the neighbor’s yard. 
He leaned back against the roof and examined the pane of stars that flattened out above him, the steady pulses and scattered flickers, the lights gasping for breath among the suffocating night.  He watched for anything, any kind of communication.  The pain is not in losing, but in having lost, he wanted them to tell him, or something equally loaded and cryptic. 
But the stars remained silent: no splashes of color melting into images, no rhythmic blinking of Morse-code messages, no gentle celestial whispers telling him that he was happy, he was loved, he was missed.  What did he expect?  Things like that only happen when you aren’t paying attention.

Andy Bailey is an English teacher in Los Angeles, and his work has been published in Underground Voices, Amor Fati, and Pindeldyboz, among others. Check out his website at