My classmates seem happy about the field trip, mostly because it’s something different and gets us out of school for half a day, but Boy21 doesn’t even crack a smile, which is weird. I thought he’d be really excited to travel through space, even if it’s only an IMAX movie.
In between classes, I say, “You excited about the field trip?”
“Sure,” Russ says, but that’s it.
I figure it’s best not to bring up outer space too much, so I just leave it alone. But whenever Mr. Jefferies talks about the trip, Russ starts opening his mouth really wide and tapping his pen on his desk, which makes everyone stare at him. I wonder if that’s his nervous tic.
On the day of the trip, as we’re lining up outside the high school, I’m disappointed to see that Mr. Gore is chaperoning along with Mr. Jefferies. But I say hello to Mr. Gore when he greets me.
Our class just fills the short bus that takes us to the Franklin Institute, which is in Center City, Philadelphia, only a half-hour drive away. This is only the second time I’ve ever been to Center City, and the first time I’ve been to the Franklin Institute. My dad’s taken me to a few Sixers and Phillies games over the years, but those aren’t in Center City.
Russ and I sit together on the bus. I look out the window the whole time, because I don’t often get a chance to leave Bellmont. Before we get onto the highway, we roll through this one town called Robin Township, where everyone lives in a mansion. There’s no trash on the streets, no graffiti on the trees, and shiny brand-new cars are everywhere. Some of the houses look as big as our school and the front lawns are longer and wider than football fields. It’s like what you see on TV. I wonder what it’s like to live in a town like that and if Boy21 had a big house out in California, but I don’t ask him.
We drive through the city and down a street lined with the flags of many different countries before we get out of the bus, climb a set of concrete stairs that lead to huge old-looking columns, and then into the Franklin Institute. While Mr. Jefferies picks up our tickets, we wait next to a gigantic white statue of Ben Franklin in the biggest chair I have ever seen. There are several high-school physics classes here, and our classmates mingle with kids from other schools, but Boy21 and I just hang silently by Mr. Franklin.
“You boys okay?” Mr. Gore says.
“Yep,” Russ says.
I notice that Russ is opening and closing his hands over and over again, like he’s nervous or something.
Mr. Jefferies huddles up our AP physics class, distributes the tickets, and says, “When I was your age, I never dreamed I’d be able to experience what you are about to. Behold the modern wonders of science! Onward, young minds!” He’s a complete dork. He’s totally geeking out over the IMAX experience.
We follow him into the theater and take our seats.
It’s like being inside a globe, because the round screen looks like the inside of an opened sky-blue parachute—making me feel as though I am somehow falling.
There’s a general announcement about what to do if you feel nauseated. You’re supposed to close your eyes or exit toward the back, but as we are in the middle of a long row, I figure it’s pretty much impossible to escape. I hope the people behind me don’t puke on my head. The movie begins shortly after the announcement ends.
It’s an amazing experience, just like Mr. Jefferies promised. Loud and vivid, and almost three-dimensional. It feels like we’re floating through outer space and like we’re really going to be part of the space mission. The speakers are so loud they make my rib cage vibrate. It looks like I could grab planets and stars as easily as picking leaves off a tree. And they even got Leonardo DiCaprio to narrate.
“This really is pretty amazing,” I whisper to Russ, but he doesn’t answer—he has his hand over his mouth, like he’s trying not to get sick.
When a picture of the space shuttle appears on the screen, Boy21 yells, “I don’t want to see this anymore!”
Several people make the Shhh! noise, and then Russ is out of his seat, climbing over people’s knees, trying to escape the theater.
“Sit down!” someone yells through the darkness, but Russ keeps moving.
I stand and try to follow him, to make sure he’s okay, because it’s dark, the steps are steep, and Boy21 seems really upset, but Mr. Gore says, “Stay here, Finley!” and then he chases after Russ.
I figure Mr. Gore will take care of the situation, so I return to my seat and try to get lost in the movie, but I can’t.
Why did Boy21 get so upset?
The astronauts float around inside the space shuttle’s cramped quarters, where there is no gravity. I watch them put on space suits and fix the Hubble Space Telescope. Some pictures of the cosmos are really truly amazing. It messes with my mind a little, seeing how much there is out there, how big everything is. Leonardo DiCaprio says there are billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. Hard to imagine. From time to time, I wonder where Russ and Mr. Gore might have gone and what they are talking about, but mostly I just watch the movie.
When the film is over, Mr. Jefferies herds us all out of the Franklin Institute and we eat our bagged lunches under the huge columns on the steps, where we watch a fountain shoot into the air between the Philadelphia Free Library and some skyscrapers. When I’m halfway done with my tuna sandwich, I spot Boy21 and Mr. Gore walking toward us. They cross the street and climb the steps. Our classmates are talking and laughing, so I’m really the only person who notices Russ’s return.
“You okay now?” Mr. Gore asks. His hand is on Russ’s shoulder—like they’re old friends.
Russ nods and sits down next to me.
Mr. Gore walks toward Mr. Jefferies, leaving me alone with Boy21, and the silence feels awkward—even to me. So I say, “You missed a good movie. Stars look really different up close than they do from far away. And some of the clusters—it almost looked like some giant stuck his enormous finger into the universe and swirled everything up, or something. Does that sound weird?”
Russ looks at the cars passing by and doesn’t answer me.
“Why did you leave?” I ask.
“I don’t really want to talk about it, okay?”
“Sure.” I understand about wanting to keep quiet—I really do.
LATE SEPTEMBER IS THE FIRST TIME the lunch ladies serve carrots. I wait for the dumping to begin, keeping my eyes on Terrell, but this other kid I don’t know approaches first. He’s looking sort of tiny in an oversize Eagles jersey, but he has this cocky look on his face. When we make eye contact he says, “Time to feed the rabbits.” He tries to scrape a mushy orange mound onto my food, and Russ screams, “WE ARE NOT RABBITS!” He’s not frantic, like he was at the IMAX Theatre. He’s just mad. He’s intimidating, with a fierce look in his eyes and a wild edge to his voice. Not to mention his size.
The kid jumps back and drops his plate on the floor.
Everyone in the lunchroom turns and faces us.
My eyes are wide open, and then I’m smiling. I don’t need to worry about my new friend. He can take care of himself—and maybe me too.
No one tries to dump carrots on Boy21’s or my food ever again.
Through the fall, Boy21’s by my side every second of the day. Even on weekends, he comes to watch Erin and me practice, but he never once touches a basketball and he never really says anything of consequence to either of us.
He’s just always there.
We take him to the mall and to the movies a few times. I wonder if something will set him off again and make him get all angry like he did about the carrot dumper, but his facial expressions never seem to change. He doesn’t laugh when we laugh. He doesn’t smile when we smile. He just sort of hovers around us, and since Erin and I are pretty easygoing people, we don’t really mind, but we start to get curious.
Alone on my roof Erin asks me questions about Boy21, but I only shrug. I don’t tell her what Coach revealed to me, which isn’t much. I promised him I wouldn’t and so I don’t.
“Does he say anything interesting when I’m not around?” Erin asks.
“Not really,” I say. It’s the truth, maybe because I never ask him any questions.
“What’s wrong with him, do you think?”
“Some people are just quiet. Like me.”
She smiles. “Quiet can be sexy.”
Suddenly Erin’s lips are on mine and my mouth is all hot and slippery. Then she pulls away again and says, “I don’t mind quiet, but Russ is always around. We’re hardly ever alone anymore.”
“Does that bother you?”
“Yeah, a little. But at least he doesn’t invade our roof time.”
We’re kissing again. Hot sweetness.
After ten or so minutes of making out, my thoughts drift and I begin to wonder why Boy21 hasn’t mentioned outer space since the first time we met, but I also figure it’s probably best not to bring the subject up, because he’s surviving his Bellmont experience nicely and I don’t want to jinx that. Just surviving around here can be hard enough. Plus I don’t want to trigger another IMAX Theatre–type experience.
I respect privacy.
Also, I like kissing Erin, so I decide to concentrate on the present moment.
ONE NIGHT IN LATE OCTOBER, on my way home from Erin’s, Boy21 pops out from behind a tree and says, “Can we sit on your roof?”
It’s late, but it’s also Friday night, so I nod.
I’m no longer surprised to find Boy21 following me. It’s just what he does. And like I said before, he gives Erin and me space when we need it.
We head to my house. He’s carrying a white box tied with string, plus his over-the-shoulder bag. He looks a little fidgety and keeps opening his mouth extra-wide, as if he’s stretching out his jaw or yawning like a lion, only he doesn’t look tired at all.
My dad’s putting on his jacket, getting ready to leave for work, when we go inside. He’s wearing that resigned miserable face he dons whenever he thinks I’m not looking, or when he’s just too tired to fake it. When he sees us, he says, “Do your grandparents know you’re here, Russ?”
“Yes, sir,” Boy21 says. “My grandfather’s coming to pick me up in an hour.”
“What’s in the box?” Dad asks.
“Cupcakes,” Boy21 says.
“Well, I’m off to work.”
Pop’s passed out in his wheelchair again, dead to the world with a beer can in one hand, Grandmom’s rosary beads wrapped around the other, and the TV remote in his lap. On the TV is an infomercial for some cleaning product endorsed by Magic Johnson, who keeps saying, “This is just like me—magic!” every time the hostess wipes a stain off a couch or rug with the “magic” wand cleaner.
“Wish I could watch the Lakers’ greatest point guard of all time humiliate himself on a cable infomercial station, but somebody has to pay the bills around here, so heigh-ho! Off to work I go!”