Boy21’s instructed to head into Mrs. Joyce’s office, and I’m directed to Mr. Gore’s.
Mr. Gore’s Jheri curl is extra shiny today.
“I had a lunch sent up,” he says when I sit down in front of his desk. “Go ahead and eat.”
I look at the hot turkey sandwich.
It looks good.
I’m hungry, so I eat.
“Have you figured out yet why Coach picked you to help Russ?” Mr. Gore says.
I shake my head no.
Mr. Gore smiles broadly—too broadly, as if every single one of his teeth is calling me a liar.
He touches his fingertips together and keeps tapping the tops of his palms so it looks like a spider is doing push-ups on a mirror.
“Tell me something, Finley.” Mr. Gore looks deeply into my eyes, until I look down at my food. “How did your grandfather lose his legs?”
I hate it when Mr. Gore asks me irrelevant questions—especially this one in particular.
I feel my face burn like it always does whenever I’m in his office. I hate this feeling I get when I’m forced to listen to his pointless, stupid questions.
“Don’t you think it kind of odd—your not knowing the answer to that one? Have you never thought to ask him how he lost his legs? All these years, it’s never crossed your mind to ask?”
My hands are balled into tight fists. He’s trying to make me upset so I’ll talk, and I don’t like it.
“What happened to your mother?” Mr. Gore asks.
I’m starting to get really annoyed with this line of questioning, especially since guidance has a student who says he’s from outer space in the next room.
What is the point of these questions?
I’m sweating now.
Don’t lose it, I tell myself. Do something productive to take your mind off of what’s happening.
I work on consuming my hot turkey sandwich. I take huge bites and enjoy the feeling of swallowing. My stomach begins to feel full. I savor the taste of meat and gravy and doughy bread.
“Finley?” Mr. Gore says. “Are you listening to me?”
I nod without making eye contact.
“So what do you think we should do about Russ?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
How should I know?
“How’re you doing?” he asks.
“Are you upset about losing your starting position?”
“It’s okay to be upset.”
I quickly eat the mashed potatoes and drink the milk.
I want out of here.
“Do you want to know how Mr. and Mrs. Allen were murdered?” Mr. Gore asks, which surprises me.
I don’t want to know that.
Why the hell would I want to know that?
“Can I leave?” I ask.
“It’s okay to feel upset, Finley. This is a lot for you to process. It’s more than most young people could deal with. I just want you to know that I’m here to listen, should you ever feel like talking about Russell—or yourself. I’m a resource for you. A safe ear.”
“Thanks,” I say, but I’m already walking toward the door.
When I exit, Mr. Gore all but yells, “It might help Russell if you told him about your mother.”
I don’t want to think about what he’s implying, so I just leave Mr. Gore’s office and take a seat in the hallway outside the guidance department offices.
I clench my fists and then stretch out my fingers as wide as they will go.
I repeat that process over and over again until I calm down a little.
Boy21 comes out a few minutes later, but he doesn’t say anything to me.
He looks unfazed.
He’s still wearing his brown robe, gold cape, and silver helmet.
I follow him down the hallway to our lockers. The hall monitor hassles us, but Boy21 remembered to get a pass, so we’re okay.
We trade in our morning books for our afternoon books and then Boy21 says, “They don’t want me to wear my outer-space clothes. They say it disrupts the school day. Do you agree?”
“No,” I say, which surprises me and makes Boy21 smile.
I didn’t like my conversation with Mr. Gore, and that makes me apt to disagree with anything guidance has to say.
“Maybe I can get my parents to beam down another outer-space cape for you, Finley,” Boy21 says. “Would you like that?”
“Very much so,” I say and then smile.
We finish our day, and then we attend practice.
Boy21 takes off his space clothes and puts on a practice uniform so that he looks simply terrestrial instead of extraterrestrial.
When no one on the team brings up outer space or anything Russ said last night, I figure Coach must’ve talked to all the other team members and instructed them to stay mum.
Boy21 invites Wes to listen to the CD with us after practice, saying it’s a little like N.E.R.D., because it’s related to outer space, and Wes agrees, although he quickly changes the subject by saying, “I need to work on my free throws.”
So we shoot some free throws until Coach shows up and runs us through a regular practice.
I run with the second team, and that relegation stings a little, although I try to rise to the challenge of playing against our best players and I’m able to lose myself in sweat, aching muscles, and the repetition of the drills.
“Looking good today, Finley,” Coach says more than once, which makes me feel a little better.
After we grab our gear in the locker room, Boy21, Wes, and I hop into Mr. Allen’s Cadillac.
“You want me to drop you boys off at home?” Mr. Allen says.
“They’re coming over to listen to an important CD,” Boy21 says.
“They are?” Mr. Allen looks at us in the rearview mirror. Brown eyes. Gray eyebrows. “What CD?”
“It’s something for school,” Boy21 lies. “Mostly about science.”
“Okay, then,” Mr. Allen says.
When we arrive at the Allens’ home, Mrs. Allen insists that we each shower up, put on our school clothes, and sit down to dinner. “I didn’t know you were coming, but we’ll make do,” she says, which is nice, so we all grab quick showers and then eat a chicken salad dinner.
Wes is very polite and carries the conversation as the Allens ask us about basketball and school.
“We’re reading Le Petit Prince in French class,” Wes says. “You might like that one, Russ, come to think of it, because it’s about a boy from another planet.”
Russ says, “I’d like to read that.”
Mrs. Allen gives Wes a hard look—I guess she doesn’t want us to encourage the space fixation—and Mr. Allen says, “Basketball is going well?”
“Fine,” Wes says. “We have a good team this year. Coach thinks we can go deep into the postseason.”
“That so?” Mr. Allen says. “Any new defenses? A press perhaps?”
Wes tells Mr. Allen all about our playbook—both what we have used already in games and what we haven’t. They talk hoops for a long time while the rest of us listen.
With Wes around, I feel like I can be myself and remain quiet. The Allens never ask me a direct question, and Wes is very talkative by nature, so it’s an easy dinner.
A few times I catch Mr. and Mrs. Allen staring at Russ’s space robe and cape. There’s a sadness in their eyes. Boy21 doesn’t wear the helmet to dinner.
“We will go to my room now,” Boy21 says when we finish dinner, “and listen to that CD for school.”
“Okay,” Mrs. Allen says. “Study hard.”
“Excellent meal, ma’am,” Wes says.
I nod in agreement.
And then we follow Boy21 up into his room, where the walls and ceiling are now entirely covered with glow-in-the-dark stars, which seem to pulse energy. It’s a little bit eerie and disorienting but also kind of beautiful, in an odd way.
“Sit on the bed,” Boy21 says when he closes his bedroom door.
We sit and then Russ begins to pace.
“So,” Wes says, “let’s hear this CD.”
“Can you guys keep a secret?” Boy21 asks.
“Sure,” Wes says.
“You know it,” I say.
“I used to do this thing with my dad,” Boy21 says—he’s still pacing. “And I’ve never told anyone about it before.”
“What thing?” Wes says, and then he glances at me nervously, which makes me wonder if Wes somehow found out that Russ’s parents were murdered.
“Back home in California, he used to drive me out to where there are no houses or lights, so that we could see lots of stars. We used to drive to this place on the coast. A little cliff that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. We’d park and walk along the edge until we couldn’t see the road anymore—so that car lights wouldn’t break the mood.”
Boy21’s pacing slows a little.
“We’d throw down a blanket to lie on and put the CD player between our heads, and while we stargazed Dad would play this music.”
He holds up the CD.
The cover features a black man wearing a crazy pharaoh-looking outer-space outfit and a long cape. Behind him are stars and what looks like Saturn, maybe—a planet with a ring around it.
“It’s called Space Is the Place and it’s the sound track to a movie that my father says is pretty bad, although I’ve never seen it. It’s by the jazz musician Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Solar Arkestra. Sun Ra claimed that his music could transport people to outer space. I was hoping that maybe we could pretend we were looking up at the stars and listen to the CD together. See what happens. Just like Dad and I used to do.”
Wes looks at me sort of funny, and I shrug to let him know that I’m game.
Especially since it might help explain why Russ needs to be Boy21.
Plus I’m really curious to find out what such music might sound like.
“Okay,” Wes says, but he sounds hesitant.
Boy21 smiles and stops pacing. “You’re going to love this. Space Is the Place! Okay, lie down on the floor. Get comfortable. Look up at the stars. And don’t talk until the entire CD has finished playing. That’s the one rule. You’ll know when the experience is over because I’ll turn on the light.”
Wes gives me another doubtful glance, but I’m already lying on the floor, so he follows my example.
Boy21 pulls the blinds and turns off the lights so that his stars glow a weird green, and then he presses Play on his CD player and lies down between us.
The CD opens with strange outer-space noises and a woman chanting, “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?”
Then there are very strange pulsing noises and squealing echoes that sound like a trumpet being tortured to death.
But as I look up at the green constellations, I get the feeling that I’m really in outer space, which is weird, because how would I even know what that feels like?
The rest of the CD features long African drumming sessions.
What sounds like a piano crashing down flights of stairs.
Sun Ra preaching about the “alter destiny” and “the living myth” and powering his spaceship with music—all over strange noises that sound more like a computer malfunctioning than jazz.