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All the Bright Places (Page 35)

All the Bright Places(35)
Author: Jennifer Niven

On Thursday, I find Charlie Donahue in the parking lot after last period. I tell him I’m working with Finch on a class project and that I haven’t heard from him for a few days. I don’t ask if the rumors are true, even though I want to.

Charlie tosses his books into the backseat of his car. “That’s just his thing. He comes and goes when he wants.” He takes off his jacket and throws this on top of the books. “One thing you’ll learn is he is one moody old todger.”

Brenda Shank-Kravitz walks up and past us and opens the passenger door. Before she gets in, she says to me, “I like your glasses.” I can tell she actually means it.

“Thanks. They were my sister’s.”

She looks like she’s thinking this over, and then she nods okay.

The next morning, on my way to third period, I see him in the hallway—Theodore Finch—only he’s different. For one thing, he’s wearing a ratty red knit cap, loose black sweater, jeans, sneakers, and these fingerless black gloves. Homeless Finch, I think. Slacker Finch. He’s leaning against a locker, one knee bent, talking to Chameli Belk-Gupta, one of the junior-year drama girls. He doesn’t seem to notice me as I walk by.

In third period, I hook my bag over my chair and take out my calculus book. Mr. Heaton says, “Let’s start by going over the homework,” but he barely gets the words out before the fire alarm starts blaring. I gather my stuff and follow everyone outside.

A voice behind me says, “Meet me in the student parking lot.” I turn, and Finch is standing there, hands shoved into pockets. He walks away as if he’s invisible and we aren’t surrounded by teachers and faculty, including Principal Wertz, braying into his phone.

I hesitate and then start to run, bag slapping against my hip. I’m scared to death someone will come after me, but it’s too late to go back because I’m already running. I run until I catch up with Finch, and then we run faster, and no one has shouted at us to stop, come back here. I feel terrified but free.

We race across the boulevard that cuts in front of the school, and alongside the trees that separate the main parking lot from the river that splits the town in half. When we come to a break in the trees, Finch takes my hand.

“Where are we going?” I’m breathing hard.

“Down there. But be quiet. First one to make a noise has to streak back to school.” He is talking fast, moving fast.

“Streak how?”

“Streak naked. That’s what ‘streaking’ means. It is, I believe, the very definition of the word.”

I slip and slide down the embankment while Finch leads the way soundlessly, making it look easy. When we get to the edge of the river, he points across it, and at first I can’t see what he’s showing me. Then something moves and catches my eye. The bird is about three feet tall, with a red crown on a white head, and a charcoal-gray body. It splashes in the water and then pecks around the opposite bank, strutting like a man.

“What is it?”

“A hooded crane. The only one in Indiana. Maybe the only one in the United States. They winter in Asia, which means he’s about seven thousand miles from home.”

“How did you know he was here?”

“Sometimes when I can’t stand it over there”—he nods in the direction of the high school—“I come down here. Sometimes I go for a swim, and other times I just sit. This guy’s been hanging around about a week now. I was afraid he was hurt.”

“He’s lost.”

“Uh-uh. Look at him.” The bird stands in the shallows, pecking at the water, then wades deeper and starts splashing around. He reminds me of a kid in a swimming pool. “See, Ultraviolet? He’s wandering.”

Finch steps back, shielding his eyes because the sun is peeking through the branches, and there is a crack as his foot comes down on a twig. “Bollocks,” he whispers.

“Oh my God. Does that mean you have to streak back to school now?” The look on his face is so funny that I can’t help laughing.

He sighs, drops his head in defeat, and then pulls off his sweater, his shoes, his hat, his gloves, and his jeans, even though it’s freezing out. He hands each item to me until he’s wearing only his boxers, and I say, “Off with them, Theodore Finch. You were the one who said ‘streaking,’ and I believe ‘streaking’ implies full-on nakedness. I believe, in fact, it is the very definition of the word.”

He smiles, his eyes never leaving mine, and, just like that, he drops his boxers. I’m surprised because I only half thought he would do it. He stands, the first real-live naked boy I’ve ever seen, and doesn’t seem one bit self-conscious. He is long and lean. My eyes trace the thin, blue veins of his arms and the outline of muscle in his shoulders and stomach and legs. The scar across his middle is a bright-red gash.

He says, “This would be a helluva lot more fun if you were naked too.” And then he dives into the river, so neatly that he barely disturbs the crane. He cuts through the water with broad strokes, like an Olympic swimmer, and I sit on the bank watching him.

He swims so far, he’s just a blur. I pull out our notebook and write about the wandering crane and a boy with a red cap who swims in winter. I lose track of time, and when I look up again, Finch is drifting toward me. He floats on his back, arms folded behind his head. “You should come in.”

“That’s okay. I’d rather not get hypothermia.”

“Come on, Ultraviolet Remarkey-able. The water’s great.”

“What did you call me?”

“Ultraviolet Remarkey-able. Going once, going twice …”

“I’m fine right here.”

“All right.” He swims toward me until he can stand waist-deep.

“Where were you this time?”

“I was doing some remodeling.” He scoops at the water, as if he’s trying to catch something. The crane stands still on the opposite shore, watching us.

“Is your dad back in town?”

Finch seems to catch whatever he’s looking for. He studies his cupped hands before letting it go. “Unfortunately.”

I can’t hear the fire alarm anymore, and I wonder if everyone’s gone inside. If so, I’ll be counted absent. I should be more worried than I am, especially now that I’ve gotten detention, but instead I sit there on the bank.

Finch swims toward shore and comes walking toward me. I try not to stare at him, dripping wet and naked, so I watch the crane, the sky, anything but him. He laughs. “I don’t guess you’ve got a towel in that enormous bag you carry around.”

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