A few days later, as always, I was walking down the long and crowded hall, the sun shining brightly through the opened windows; the cool morning breeze delivering the lovely fragrance of Mother Nature. Greeting everyone with my big, sunny smile, I happily made my way through the student-packed hall to my locker.
“Hey, Jamey.” Paul walked up to me as soon as he saw me enter the locker room. “Meet us after classes, ‘kay?”
I widened my smile and winked at him. “Sure.”
Paul gave me a thumbs-up and rejoined the other guys in an excited yet mysterious chat.
“What’re you guys up to?” I asked, stretching my neck to hear what they were whispering about.
Albert put a finger to his lips and hushed me. Then he placed an arm around my shoulders and whispered into my ear, “We’re playing a practical joke today after classes. You’ll enjoy it!”
I raised an eyebrow and looked at him. “And who’s starring?” I whispered back.
Daichi sneered mischievously and pointed his thumb at someone behind him. I followed his direction and found myself looking straight into two wide, orange eyes.
My jaw dropped.
“You serious?” I demanded in a loud whisper. “We don’t even know if he’s real.”
“Oh, he’s alive, alright.” Paul patted my back as if to comfort me. “Albert and I had a little chat with him today before you got here. We’re positive that he’s solid, not a ghost.”
“Actually, we didn’t really chat with him.” Albert pointed out. “We were doing the talking. He was just, well, staring at us, like he always does.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “But what are you going to do with him?”
“You’ll see.” Paul said. I imagined the Devil’s horns growing out from the top of his head.
Daichi thoughtfully tapped his chin with a finger and said: “We’ve been dismissing him long enough; it’s time that we show him some love.” The three guys snickered like evil scientists.
I shot a quick glance at where Freeman had been sitting, but he was gone. Does he know what they’re up to? I mentally asked. I scanned the room with my eyes, searching for the tall, skinny boy, yet he was nowhere in sight.
“Hey, James.” Albert gazed up at me from where he was sitting. “Don’t ruin the fun, alright?”
I blinked. “Of course I wouldn’t.” I said, waving a hand in front of my face. “I don’t even know that guy.”
“We know.” Paul suddenly looked at me with a pitiful face. “It’s just that you’re so nice, you might wanna help him.”
“Don’t worry, buddy. We won’t hurt him. It’s just a joke.” Daichi assured me.
I let out an awkward laugh and gave them an okay gesture. They were right; they were just playing a practical joke on a classmate, no big deal. And anyways, even if they did do something horrible, why should I care?
Smiling and wishing them good luck, I slowly walked to my class and sat down. The whole day seemed like a total blur. I didn’t pay attention to what the professors were lecturing about, yet I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, either. As if my world had been zoomed forward with a remote control, eight hours swiftly went by, and classes had already ended. As I slowly packed up my bag, I peered around to see that everyone was heading for the same direction –the department cafeteria.
“James, let’s go.” Albert, Paul, and Daichi roughly crammed my things into my bag and dragged me out of the classroom.
“That guy sure disappears fast.” Paul said as we passed by Freeman’s usual seat. The seats at the far corner of every classroom were always left untouched by other students, as if Freeman had made seat reservations before classes. I glanced at this seat. The desk was dusty and empty, as if it hadn’t been used for years. There were even broken spider webs hanging from the wooden chair.
“I didn’t see him all day.” Albert pointed out. “You think he ran away?”
“Who knows?” Paul shrugged. “The guy didn’t really agree with us when we asked him to meet in the cafeteria. He just stared at us, remember?”
“Did you guys invite everyone in the department to come watch?” I asked as I stared in disbelief at the huge crowd of people assembled in the building’s large dining space.
“It’d be pretty awkward if he didn’t come.” Daichi said, scratching his cheek.
“All we can do is wait and hope.” Albert said. “We told him to meet us at five-thirty. That’s five more minutes.”
As the students in the cafeteria slowly settled down, the five-thirty bell rang loudly, covering the humming noises of talking people. When the bell came to an end, everyone had turned as silent as mice. The only sound I could hear was the lingering ring of the bell still echoing in my head.
As if out of nowhere, Freeman appeared in the cafeteria doorway.
He looked around at all the people staring at him, holding their breaths. His expression was unreadable. It didn’t show any sign of emotion, not even confusion. His big, orange eyes explored the room, as if he had never been to this place before. He peered at the students, as if he had never seen human beings in his life.
Eyes still wandering around the area, Freeman walked forward to the crowd. His footsteps were soft and quiet, despite walking on the hard tiled floor. If I didn’t look at his legs, I would have thought he was drifting. Beside me, eyes eagerly locked on Freeman’s feet, Daichi started to silently count down.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One…”
Suddenly, there was a hum from above, then the sound of two metal objects crashing into each other. To everyone’s surprise, a tin bucket full of icy water fell from the ceiling and collided precisely onto Freeman’s head, knocking him forwards and soaking him from head to toe. The whole cafeteria burst into hysterical laughter; some people jumped up and down, while others were laughing too hard for their bodies to support their own weight.
Freeman, shivering a little from the cold of the water, slowly gained balance and stood up. He clutched his chest with one hand and rubbed the liquid out of his eyes with the other. I couldn’t help but think he resembled a helpless kid standing in the pouring rain.
I felt a nag in my ribs. “How did you like it, James?” Daichi said proudly. “We had a remote control car bump over the bucket. I thought up the plan.”
I pretended to laugh. “You’re such a genius, Daichi.”
Albert, who was standing in front of me and laughing his guts out, turned to me with tears in his eyes. “It’s not over.” He said between chuckles. He reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a small plastic dart. Trying his best to aim with a shaky hand, he threw the dart high and watched it soar over Freeman’s head.
“Bull’s-eye!” He cried.
A large cloud of white powder went flying down from above and landed right on top of Freeman’s drenched figure. Before I could make out what had happened, I was staring at a pile of tall, human-shaped dough with orange eyes looking bewildered back at me.
He saw me, I mentally gasped.
“Nice one, Al!” Paul and Albert high-fived each other as everyone in the cafeteria roared with laughter all over again.
“Flour and water. I thought this one up, too.” Daichi said, patting his chest with glory. I faked a small laugh and showed him the thumbs-up. When I turned back to where Freeman was standing, I was met with vacant space. He was gone.
Next thing I knew, I was pushing my way through the mad crowd and heading for the stairs. I didn’t know why I knew where Freeman was, or what I was going to do with him, but I was accelerating the stairs as fast as my legs could go, heading for the sole destination that came to my mind: our secret hiding place.
-羅寗 Michelle Ning Lo