The next day during our morning recess, I gently chided Bobby for his sick day. Half jokingly, I asked him if the ghost boy had traumatized him into sickness.
But there was a more mundane explanation.
“That math test,” he said. “I wasn’t ready. I was home yesterday cramming.”
We had indeed had a math test yesterday: The subject matter was complex fractions and decimals, standard seventh-grade math. Leah had finished the test twenty minutes before the end of the class. I was a little behind her, but I completed the exam by the period’s end, and was reasonably confident that I had scored a middling B. That was more or less typical for me in math.
“Well, you and Leah are a whole lot smarter than me,” Bobby said. “What do you want me to tell you?”
I didn’t necessarily believe that this was true. Bobby displayed remarkable ingenuity when he wanted to, and a savviness that is called “street smarts” in the adult world. He was no dummy, even though his grades were far below mine—let alone Leah’s.
But Leah’s father was an engineer; and my parents were both certified public accountants. (My mother had taken an extended break from work upon the birth of my little sister. She would reenter the workforce years later, when Carrie started high school.) Leah and I came from educated, upwardly mobile households where education was emphasized, and good grades were expected. At the end of every semester, my parents spent a full hour going over my report card with me, praising me for my As, nodding at my Bs, and relentlessly questioning me over any Cs. A “D” or an “F” would have constituted a major disaster, and a cause for intense parental intervention.
Bobby’s father, meanwhile, was absent from the home; and his mother was just trying to get by, working two jobs. No one cared about Bobby’s grades. Not really.
I abruptly changed the subject, and told Bobby about what had happened yesterday: the old man in the parking lot, Matt Stefano, the vague threat that the ghost boy had shouted at me in the old man’s voice. His reference to “twelve hours of being tested”—or something like that.
Bobby shook his head with a wry smile. “Schaeffer, I think you’ve been seeing things.”
“What? You don’t believe me?”
“Oh I believe the part about Matt Stefano. Absolutely. It’s the other stuff that I’m a little—what’s that word—skeptical about.”
“But Bobby, you saw what that boy turned into the other day. “You even said that you saw it.”
“I never said anything about what I saw,” Bobby asserted. And come to think of it, I couldn’t remember, with absolute certainty, whether Bobby had described the ghost boy’s transformation—or explicitly confirmed that he had observed that horrible, momentary change.
But it had seemed pretty clear to me yesterday that my friends had seen what I’d seen. The shock had been unmistakable, written on their faces.
One of my friends, though, grew angry every time I raised the issue. My other friend was now apparently playing it “cool”. Chafing against the unshielded credulity that we had all embraced in childhood, Bobby didn’t want to admit that he had seen the “monster”.
“What the ghost boy said,” I continued. “It was almost like a curse.”
“What if he isn’t a ghost boy at all?” Bobby challenged. “What if he’s just a boy who likes to yank other people’s chains?”
“Then how could he know so much, about all of us, about your…?” I hesitated.
“How could he know that I have issues with my old man? Come on, Schaeffer: My home situation isn’t exactly a big secret. There probably isn’t a kid at either St. Patrick’s or Youngman who knows me, who doesn’t also know that my old man is basically no good.”
“But what about Leah’s secret?”
“What about it? She said it was a ‘secret’, but you know how girls talk. Maybe she told someone and forgot about it, or heck—anything is possible. When you break it all down, it’s all pretty much Mickey Mouse stuff.”
“Well, what that boy turned into wasn’t Mickey Mouse.”
“Who knows what you saw? What you really saw? I’m telling you man, that kid is just making some lucky guesses and playing with your mind. And as for ‘curses’? The only curse on you is Matt Stefano. And you’d better watch out for him—because there might come a day when you run into him, and there isn’t any Mr. Larbus, or Mr. Malinowski around. Or me, for that matter.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said. I didn’t appreciate the fact that Bobby had so blatantly brought up his intervention in my Matt Stefano troubles, and how badly I had needed his help the other day.
“Anyway, about Leah.”
“What about Leah?” I asked.
“You’re kind of sweet on her, I think.”
“I don’t know. What if I am?”
Bobby shrugged. “What if you are?”
The unspoken question here was: What if Bobby is “sweet on her” too? That was a question that I didn’t want to consider.
And I didn’t have to—at least not at that moment. We both turned around at the familiar sound of the whistle summoning us back into class.
Nevertheless, the conversation had started me thinking along yet another line: I had recently felt pangs of conscience because I believed that I was, on some level, guilty of betraying my friend. But maybe I had been too quick to assume the best of intentions on Bobby’s part. Perhaps he, too, had a self-serving agenda that involved Leah.