Coach rings the doorbell and soon a white-haired couple answers.
“Timothy!” The old woman is wearing a black dress. She wraps her arms around Coach’s neck so that he has to bend over. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Pleasure, Ms. Allen.”
Mr. Allen—who’s wearing a gray suit—shakes Coach’s hand very formally and says, “Thank you again for what you said at the funeral. You’re a poet, a good friend, and a kind soul.”
“I only spoke the truth,” Coach says. Everyone’s eyes are suddenly glistening. “This here’s Finley McManus. One of the finest young men on my ball squad. Good people here. I promise you that.”
I’m a little embarrassed by Coach’s introduction, but I’m also a little proud.
Mr. Allen looks at me and says, “Thanks for coming.”
I know Mr. Allen is probably surprised that I’m white, but that doesn’t bother me. I’d probably be surprised if I were him too. Actually, I’m surprised that Coach picked me for this job. I’m not a therapist, nor do I have much in common with the Allen family at all. They’re probably thinking I won’t be able to relate to their grandson, that I might even be a liability for him in the new neighborhood, and I completely agree. Black kids with white best friends are not common in Bellmont. Maybe that’s blunt, but I’ve found that being blunt sometimes makes life easier for everyone.
“Come in,” Mrs. Allen says.
IT’S AIR-CONDITIONED INSIDE.
Pictures of Jesus hang all around the house. Jesus cuddling lambs. Jesus in a garden. Jesus wearing a purple robe. The furniture is very old, but the rooms are the cleanest I’ve ever been in. Everything wooden is polished, the rugs are fluffy and freshly vacuumed, and you couldn’t find a single speck of dust even if you moved around the picture frames. It’s like being in a museum, compared to our messy man-house.
I’m sitting next to Coach on the couch when Mrs. Allen hands me a glass of lemonade.
“So where’s Russ?” Coach says.
“Up in his room,” Mr. Allen says. “I’m afraid I couldn’t get him to come down. I told him you were coming, but, well, you see”—he lowers his voice here—“the social worker told us that we shouldn’t push the boy just yet, but let him acclimate to the new setting, so—”
“Would you go up and talk with him?” Mrs. Allen asks me.
She’s a tiny thin lady, but her eyes are forceful, piercing, so I simply nod because I always do what my elders ask of me. That’s how Pop and Dad raised me.
“Might as well let the boys meet,” Mr. Allen says a little too hopefully, as if he’s trying to hide his true expectations, but maybe I’m just being paranoid.
“You okay with that, Finley?” Coach says, resting his hand on my shoulder again.
A good ball player always listens to his coach, especially when his coach is as smart as mine.
“Upstairs, second door on your left,” Mrs. Allen says.
I place my glass on a coaster and stand.
“Did you tell him about the outer-space fixation?” Mr. Allen says to Coach.
When I give Coach a questioning glance, he says, “Go on upstairs, Finley. Say hello. Okay?”
I wonder what any of this has to do with outer space, but Coach’s eyes beg me not to ask him anything in front of the Allens, so I don’t.
As I walk across the room and make my way to the stairs, I can feel my elders watching me, but once I’m out of sight I go slowly and study the pictures on the wall that leads up to the second floor, trying to figure out just what kind of a mess I’m in.
There are black-and-white pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Allen taken when they were young, and I recognize different corners of Bellmont even though the cars and clothing styles are outdated and the town looks much cleaner and safer.
There’s an old wedding picture and Coach is the best man; he’s rocking a huge Afro, wearing a powder-blue tuxedo, and looking more like my classmates than an adult, which makes me smile.
The photos of Boy21 begin when he was a baby and go all the way to the present day.
It’s obvious his family had money. His clothing looks expensive in all the school photos, and there are pictures of him and his parents taken in foreign places: in front of the Eiffel Tower and also that leaning tower in Italy—even one by those pyramids in Egypt.
I start to feel a little jealous of this kid, because I’ve never been anywhere but Bellmont and he’s been all over the world, which doesn’t really seem fair. Why is it that some people are born into fantastic situations and others wait their whole lives for a break?
Russell’s smiling nicely in all of the shots. He looks like a good kid, which makes it hard for me to hate him.
And then I see his high-school basketball team photo: He’s the only black kid. His squad’s wearing cool brand-new Nike uniforms, like a college team. They even have matching sneakers.
Maybe Coach knew that Boy21 was the only black kid on his team like I’m the only white kid on my team, and that’s why Coach picked me for this job.
But I also see Russ is wearing number 21—my number—and I can’t help but feel threatened.
At the top of the steps there are no more pictures. I walk down the hall, where an entire room’s contents are in boxes. I have to turn sideways as I pass a big chest of drawers and a desk. A mattress and bed frame are leaning against the wall.
Behind the only closed door in the hallway, someone is talking.
I put my ear up to the door and hear a man’s voice say, “Perseus! Perseus the hero! Slayer of Medusa! There you are, my friend! A road map to a new existence. Space is the place! Space is the place!”
Whoever is behind the door sounds absolutely insane.
But for Coach, I do as I was instructed to do.
Good basketball players execute the game plan.
I raise my fist and knock.
THE VOICE STOPS TALKING and after a long few seconds the door opens inward and I’m looking up at a shirtless man-child.
His body is incredible.
The perfect basketball body.
Tall, lean, strong—it looks exactly like Kobe Bryant’s.
He has four-inch braids that are unlike what my teammates wear—those neat Manny Ramirez braids. Boy21’s braids are so nappy, they almost look like Bob Marley’s dreads.
“You are an Earthling?” Boy21 says to me.
I swallow and nod.
“I am programmed to treat all Earthlings with kindness. Greetings. I am Boy21 from the cosmos. I am stranded here on Earth, but I will be leaving soon. Enter into my domestic living pod.”
He turns his back on me and resumes what he was doing.
I step into the empty room and see that the ceiling and walls have recently been painted black.
Books are open all over the floor. They’re all about outer space. Hundreds of constellations and galaxies and universes are spread out at my feet.
When I look up, Boy21 has a book in his hand and is arranging constellations on the wall using those glow-in-the-dark plastic stars—what little kids stick on their bedroom ceilings.
He’s already filled an entire wall with constellations.
“I just finished Perseus. That there is Algol—the demon star. This here is pretend outer space—or fantasy outer space—so we’re not really interested in arranging the constellations the way they usually appear.” His expression is blank—completely alien. “We’re just putting up our favorites so we’ll feel more at home in our domestic pod here on Earth. What’s your favorite constellation? And do you have a name, Earthling?”
This isn’t a game or a joke. He’s crazy.
“Earthling, is your audio intake system damaged? Can you hear me, Earthling?”
“Um…” is all I can manage. What am I supposed to say to this insane kid who thinks he’s from space?
“Is your audio output system damaged? What you English-speaking Earthlings call the tongue—is yours working?”
“So you are just parsimonious with your words?”
“Parsimonious. Yeah. I guess.” I note the proper use of the SAT word. Is this some sort of game? Is Coach playing a practical joke?
“I respect your parsimonious nature,” he says, and then continues arranging constellations his own way as he mumbles facts about outer space.
I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing, like always.
After five minutes or so, Boy21 turns and says, “Is it okay if I call you by your Earthling name—Finley?”
His grandparents probably told him my name, but his using it without my telling him what it is sort of surprises me.
“May I?” he says.
“Sure.” What the hell is with this kid?
“My name is Boy21. I’m a prototype. A test model. I was sent to your planet temporarily to gather scientific information on what you Earthlings know as emotions. But I will only be with you for a few more months. Soon my makers will come for me and take me back into the cosmos, where I will be studied and disassembled and ultimately freed. I realize that these are strange ideas and are therefore probably hard for your brain to process, because you are merely an Earthling. So perhaps we should nourish your system with sustenance at this juncture?”
I just look at him blankly.
“Would you like to consume atoms?” he says. “What you refer to as eating dinner.”
Realizing that this will get me back into the company of sane people, I nod. “I’m starving.”
“Very well,” he says, and then slips into a white undershirt on which he has written with Magic Markers.
The rainbow lettering on his shirt reads:
(Nubians Are Superior Astronauts)
“Do you like my shirt, Earthling known as Finley?” he asks when he sees me looking at it. “Black man and the cosmos. Two great things that go great together.”
He says, “Am I not using your Earthling language effectively?”
Holy crap. What on earth is going on here?
Boy21 smiles knowingly and says something with his eyes that I don’t quite understand.
When he descends the stairs I follow and somehow I find myself eating a delicious meal with Coach, Boy21, and the Allens.
Garlic mashed potatoes.
None of the adults say anything about Boy21’s shirt, and he remains silent through the entire meal.
“How’re you liking Bellmont so far?” Coach asks.
“Russell,” Mr. Allen says. “Coach is talking to you.”
“It’s okay,” Coach says. “You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to. There will be time for talking.”
All the adults exchange glances, and I’m glad that they don’t glance at me.
“You like the food?” Mrs. Allen says.
“Yes. Thank you,” I say, and then it’s just the sounds of knives and forks scraping against the plates, chewing, swallowing, glasses of water being sipped and set down on wood.
Boy21 keeps his eyes on his food until it’s gone, which is when he says, “May I take Finley back up to my room?”