The Boy In The Hallway

There was nothing extraordinary about my elementary school except for the lovely courtyard that stood in the direct center of the surrounding classrooms. The courtyard was filled with fruit trees, flowers, and other assorted greenery carefully tended by Mr. Tanaka, the groundskeeper. A kind, soft-spoken man who had the gift of a green thumb, so no matter what he planted, flourished beyond belief.

In the courtyard center stood a large banana tree that was seemingly always filled with low-hanging fruit. Anyone was welcome to take a banana or two as long as we never wasted it and made sure that we left some for others to enjoy. To the front of the tree was a small, unassuming bronze plaque with the name “Robby 1924” embossed on it – something of which no one, myself included, ever really paid any attention to.

My fifth grade school year was almost over when one day, I noticed a boy sitting just outside the doorway to my class. He wore a bright yellow shirt, brown shorts and was barefoot. He popped his head in past the doorframe and looked around at nothing in particular when his eyes met mine. I smiled at him and wondered for a moment why he wasn’t walking in and taking a seat with the rest of us.

There, he remained until the loud ringing of the school bell alerted us that it was time for recess. Then, as we all slammed our books shut and ran out outside, I stopped by the open door to talk to him, but he was gone.  “Where’d the kid go?” I asked a nearby classmate. “What kid?” she asked. “The one that was sitting here while we were in class,” I said, pointing to the area of the floor where the little boy sat a moment ago.  My classmate rolled her eyes at me and said as she hurried off, “You’re so weird.” I shrugged off her statement and ran after her, not saying another word because I knew that trying to make her believe me was absolutely pointless.

***

I remember the morning my grandmother called me over to her and, sitting me down on her knee, told me about a gift that I had and how lucky I was to have it. According to her, it was a “special gift” that I could use to help people, just like she did. At the time, she never elaborated on what exactly this special gift was, so I never thought anything more about it. The funny thing is, talking to the “ghost people” – as I used to call them when relating an event to my grandmother – didn’t seem special at all. It just seemed normal because to my grandmother, it was normal, and looking back, being raised by her was nothing more than that. I wasn’t fawned on or praised, neither was I ever referred to as “gifted” – I was just a kid being a kid like every other kid in the neighborhood.

So, before entering school, I thought that everyone was like me; I had no idea how different I was until one fateful day during lunch at school. My best friend Olivia and I were playing on the swingset in the school playground when a little curly-haired girl came to join us. She sat on the empty swing between my friend and me and, after saying hello, proceeded to tell me about how much she enjoyed playing on the swings. We were talking back and forth for a bit before suddenly being interrupted by Olivia.

“Who’re you talking to?” she asked wide-eyed.

“Betty, of course!” I answered rather matter-of-factly, angry that she interrupted our conversation.

“Pheenee, there’s nobody there,” she said, still swinging back and forth.

“Liar.” I snorted. “She’s sitting right there.”

“I’m not a liar! I don’t see anybody on the swing!” she exclaimed angrily at the name I called her.

“There is too!” I countered. “Betty is looking right at you, so DON’T LIE!” I screamed, irritated that whatever joke she was playing wasn’t funny at all.

“THERE IS NOBODY THERE!” she yelled, getting off her swing.

She walked over to Betty then, taking the swing seat in her hands, violently shook it. “See?! NOBODY!”

Olivia was right. At that point, Betty was gone.

“God, you’re such a retard!” she blurted and ran off to join another group of students.

By the end of the day, the entire school knew what had transpired in the playground, and I was branded a weirdo.

I cried all the way home from school that day, and after telling my grandmother about the incident, she held me in her arms and, while attempting to comfort me, said that from now on, it was best not to tell anyone about what I saw because not everyone had “the gift.”

And that is exactly what I did.

***

One afternoon before walking home from school, I decided to spend just a little time on the new swing set that had been installed earlier in the day. I loved how shiny the red paint was as it sparkled in the sun and how stiff the crisp leather seats were. I was just about to sit down when I happened to see the little boy from the hallway peeking out at me from behind one of the nearby buildings. Forgetting all about the swing, I ran towards him.

“Wait!” I called out as I saw him duck his head back into the long afternoon shadows of the building.

When I finally reached the area he was at; I was relieved to find him sitting on the grass waiting for me.

“Hi!” I greeted, sitting across from him. “I’m Phoenix, but everyone calls me Pheenee.”

“Hi.” he returned, “I’m Robby.”

“The name on the sign.” I thought, then blurted the first thing that came to mind, “How’d you die?”

“A train,” he answered sadly, making me remember the old abandoned railroad track paralleling the back of the school. “I was coming here to school and…” he stopped, not finishing his sentence.

“Oh…I’m sorry.” I said after a brief pause.

Suddenly a bird flew past us, and he quickly turned his head to look at it, revealing the missing back of his head. I closed my eyes from the horror and took a deep breath, and when I opened them again, Robby was staring at me.

“Yeah, it ain’t pretty,” he murmured.

“It’s kinda pukey,” I said, giggling, and we both broke out into a fit of laughter. “So why’re you still here?” I asked after we both recovered.

“I just like it here ‘cuz I get to learn stuff,” he answered.

“I think I can help you leave if you like.” I offered, “I dunno if it’ll work, but I can try.”

“Nah, I’m okay. I really like it here.” he reminded me.

We talked for a little while longer, and when I said that it was time for me to head home, we said our goodbyes, and I watched as he faded away.

Although I saw Robby from time to time throughout my elementary years, we never had another chat.

My old school has long been demolished, and new buildings have taken their place. The once beautiful courtyard has been paved over and now is a basketball court.

Maybe Robby is still there peeking around the classrooms to learn, or maybe he had learned all he wanted and has moved on.

But, wherever he is, I wish him many, many blessings.

 

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