The chartered bus was scheduled to leave from the school parking lot early on Friday morning, May 17. That week had been kind of tough for me. The Sunday before—May 12—was Mother’s Day, which in some ways was the hardest holiday of the entire year for me. It was the day that reminded me, for twenty-four hours—and for days before that, actually, with all the advertising from florists and others—that I had no mother now. And that I’d never known the mother I did have—at all—because she’d died immediately after childbirth. I lived. Mother died. Simple. Horrible.
That Sunday afternoon, Harriet had called. After our usual greetings and silliness came this …
“This is always a rough day for you, Vickie.”
It was not a question. She knew.
“And next month is a rough one for you,” I said.
Vickie’s father—as you know—had left the family the year before, had conducted awful experiments on living creatures—including humans—and was now a fugitive. Every now and then we would see a story about him on the local news. About how the FBI and others were still searching for him. The previous summer he had nearly killed Harriet and me—more than once.[i] And she and I talked now and then about our worries. Will he come back?
“Yeah,” said Harriet, “I don’t really enjoy Father’s Day too much.”
“So you guys are coming over later?” she asked.
“After four, right?”
That was right. It had been our recent custom—going to each other’s house on Mother’s and Father’s Day. I had a great father; she had a great mother. Both Harriet and I had thought for a while that they might … get together. But something had changed their relationship. They still seemed friendly—very friendly—and our families still got together, all the time, but when we did, the skies were clear. None of the electricity that used to crackle in the air … before last summer.
Gil was absent every day the week of the trip—every day but Thursday, the day before. He knew the school rule: You couldn’t participate in an after-school event if you weren’t in school. And in this case, that meant the day before. When I saw Gil in the cafeteria before Mr. Leon, the custodian, unlocked the doors to the academic area, I could hardly believe he was still on his feet. He looked terrible. He almost glowed white, and his clothes hung so loosely on him that he resembled some sort of little kid dressing up in his big brother’s clothes.
I worked my way through the crowd to be with him.
“I’m glad to see you,” I said. “I was starting to wonder if—”
“I would never miss this trip,” he said. “How could I?” He coughed deeply.
“You sound good.” A pale ironic joke.
“About as good as I look,” he said.
“I’ve always liked the way you look.” And I meant it.
He stared at me. “Oh, now you tell me,” he said.
“Some things are never too late to learn.”
Just then I felt the crowd surge toward the doors. Gil and I joined the flow. As we slowed near the entrance (a human traffic jam), Mr. Leon, holding one of the doors open, touched Gil on the shoulder as we passed. I looked over at the custodian. His eyes were red and wet. “Help him,” he muttered as I passed him.
“I will,” I whispered. And I realized how a whisper could be a promise.