Early Thursday morning, there we were, Gil and I, standing outside the junior high at 5:50 a.m. We’d agreed to be early for our detention, thinking we’d impress Mr. Gisborne with our promptness. I don’t know why we thought we could impress him. We’d done little so far but antagonize him. He seemed to have some kind of magic anger button that our spoken words and our body language pushed—no, punched. All he had to do was look at us a few moments—listen to a few words—and his face flamed, his volume spiked. Strange.
Also strange: We were standing outside the school in a driving thunderstorm. I hadn’t yet learned where Gil lived, but in little Franconia, nowhere was very far from anywhere. We both walked. And when I was about halfway to school, the heavens opened, pouring Niagara on my head and distributing lightning bolts around like deadly Christmas ornaments.
But I was halfway: I was going to get just as wet (and maybe just as dead) by going on as going back. So on I went, mostly because I didn’t really want to talk with my father about the note I’d left on the kitchen table. Father, I’ve got to go to school early to work on my science fair project. Didn’t want to wake you.
Sort of true, actually. Though mostly not.
I could see Gil arriving about the same time. We were like the two sides of an animated letter V moving toward the same knife point. He had his head down—not a bad idea on such a day. But he looked up as he approached the building and saw me hurrying along, too, and we made for the tiny exterior recess by the front door—the only place with any overhead coverage.
He looked miserable. Soaking wet, pale as powder. I could hear his labored breathing.
“A perfect day for it,” I joked.
He didn’t react. He just leaned against the brick wall and tried to control his breath.
“Did you run?” I asked.
He looked at me, his dark eyes glimmering. “Some,” he said.
He started to reach for the door handle. “Don’t bother,” I said. “I already checked.”
He pulled it anyway. Nothing.
“Hope Mr. Gisborne gets here soon,” he said.
On ordinary school mornings, the custodian—an old man whom everyone just called “Leon”—would not unlock the doors until exactly 7:30. I didn’t know if “Leon” was his first name or his last—or both, for that matter. (Some parents are just crazy enough to name a kid Leon Leon.) He didn’t care what was going on outside. Great heat. Rain. Whatever. He would stand there, looking at his watch (the only timepiece that mattered), then unlock at 7:30.
“Maybe Leon will let us in early?” I offered.
Gil finally spoke a full sentence. “I’m not counting on it.” He looked at me. “Maybe he’s not even here yet.”
“Oh, Leon’s always here,” I joked. “He lives here.”
We were both laughing when a flash of lightning whitened the entire sky. I looked back at the doors. And there was Leon, standing there staring at us. How long had he been there?
Then … I saw a bolt of lightning zigzagging down from the darkest cloud I’d seen since the day of the tornado. It was moving so slowly, as if in an animated drawing. I raised my arm for Gil to look. And the bolt blasted an old oak in the school’s front lawn. Bark and branches exploded away in all directions, some flying our way—again, in leisurely, even lazy fashion. A crash of thunder followed almost immediately—a sound so loud I heard the windows rattle all around the building.
I heard the doors swing open behind us.
“Get in here!” commanded Leon.